The other America

Trusha Naidoo explores South America.

First Published in


CULTURA: Jungle Fervour

There are many ways to see the mighty Amazon Basin, ranging from the pricey to the downright dangerous. A down- to-earth way to do it would be to set off from Iquitos in Peru to Leticia in Colombia, then go onto Manuas, Santarem and finally Belem in Brazil. This way you get to see the entire Amazon river, and the communities and biodiversity it sustains, by boat.

You can only get to Iquitos by air or river. This steamy former Jesuit mission is teeming with motocarros (motorcycle taxis), whizzing about in every direction. The adventure begins at the river's edge where you can hitch a ride with a local supply boat heading to the border with Colombia and Brazil. As long as you travel light, have a hammock and a bit of courage - you'll survive. A strong stomach will come in handy as well. Picking a hammock in the local market requires some suss. Rope ones may look compact but they aren't very comfortable to sleep in. Peruvian hammocks tend to be a bit short and narrow, even if it's a double - they are simple, woven cotton with stripy patterns. If you're taller and want a softer wider fabric with tassels, a Brazilian hammock would be more your style. Just remember to get hooks and rope to put it up with on the boats.

The supply boats have two decks with villagers crammed into hammocks on the lower deck and large supplies (like live pigs, chainsaws and bunches of bananas) out front or on the top deck. The helmsman sits behind all the hammocks, crisscrossing the lower deck, unable to see a thing! Up front is a sturdy youth who gives expert handsignals behind his back as the boat motors along from one village to the next. It's not the fastest way to travel, but you do get to eat, sleep and fight for hammock swinging room with real Peruvians, Colombians and Brazilians.

There's a strong spirit of co-existence out here in the middle of nowhere. These people are pretty hardened to the precarious existence they lead. Most of them can paddle a dugout made out of a single tree trunk laden with their supplies, single-handedly, sitting Buddha-like up front using just one leaf shaped oar! A zillion things could get you in the jungle, no wonder Amazonians have such well developed senses. Although small in stature, the indigenous people are very physically resilient men and women, fending off the constant threat of malaria,yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis, and whatever else the river and the jungle come up with.

Their constant struggle for survival and impoverishment doesn't dampen their enthusiasm for football (there's a field of some sort in every village), fiery food like cerviche or dancing to the likes of the cumbia, a poppy, salsified rhythm from Colombia.The ever present salsa, cumbia and chicha can be heard blaring from anywhere that sells the local cerveza (beer) on a Saturday night while the locals dance away their cares.


MODA: Pret a Porteno

Buenos Aires is innately Italo-Spanish. There's invariably a Plaza Espana and a Plaza Italia in every corner of the vast expanse of Argentina. It's quite possible to encounter the Moorish blue painted tiles of Spain intermingling with fragrant wafts of noquis (gnocchi) on a humid afternoon. Palermo Viejo is a bohemian labyrinth of central Buenos Aires, crowded with exquisite boutiques with the emphasis on sexy, sultry, steamy estilo (style). Think Milano con Latino. Clothes are curvily cut, cleverly tailored and subtly detailed. Stillettos, slip-ons, lace-ups, Mary Janes and trainers can all be found in hand-tooled leather, a la Jimmy Choo. Just about every block has a zapateria (shoe shop). A definite case of foot fetishism you may ask? Nothing wrong with that.

BA is a slice of worldly sophistication in a key transport hub of South America, much like Rio de Janeiro and Caracas, further up north. Portenos (natives of Buenos Aires), like their Italian cousins, are never to be seen out doors without designer shades, immaculate make-up and a perfectly styled mane. Not a nation of morning people, everything really starts up just before noon. People go out really late too. After their siesta and primping and preening, the social animals are ready to dance all night. Which is why the streets are heaving at 3am and dead quiet at 7am. It's a bit of a shock if you're a seasoned nine-to-fiver.

MUSICA: Capital Beats

Funky flyers straight out of design annuals send you to neon lit clubs called Voodoo, Pasha and Hippopotamus. The type is slick, clean and cheeky, promising everything from deep house, funk, retro and electro to rock. Global Underground to Carlo Gardel-style tango, it's all possible on a late, late Thursday night. Mixed into the electro-throb are live offerings like the rock legend Charly Garcia, alternative stars Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and the satirical, Les Luthiers. All native to this impressive country, birthplace of Ernesto "Ché" Guevara , Diego Maradona and Evita Peron. Argentinos love to dance all night, sleep all morning and watch football all afternoon. What could be better?


DISENO: Hats off

By far the most picturesque city in Ecuador is Cuenca. This colonial town was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and retains its small town charm. The town has a profusion of churches. The overall effect of the architecture is overwhelmingly ornate. The town is bisected by the Rio Tomebamba. Parque Calderon is the town's central plaza which is overshadowed by the striking blue domes of the new cathedral. Not surprisingly, Cuenca is home to many religious and pagan rituals, especially over Semana Santa (Easter), Corpus Christi, Carnaval and it's Independence Day (3 November).

An abundance of crafts can be found in Cuenca and the surrounding countryside. The markets of nearby Gaulaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig are good places to see Panama hats being made, sample pure cocoa, and choose hand woven straw baskets. Panama hats come in every shape, size and colour with many types of brim. Apparently, they can be rolled up to fit in a day pack. Millinery is something of an art form here. Labourers wearing these very same hats built the Panama Canal, hence the somewhat misplaced name.

Though Panama hats are made in many parts of Ecuador, Montecristi is the capital of the industry. For 150 years the superfinos have been woven in this sleepy town. They are made from straw fronds of the Carludovica Palmatas. Much beloved by the legendary Chicago mob, the wide-brimmed variety are often called 'El Capone'.


ARQUITECTURA: Pacific Walkways

Northwest of the hustle and bustle of Santiago de Chile, lies the historic town of Valparaiso, beside the Pacific. Navigating the sinewy, cobbled streets along the waterfront requires a sound sense of direction. Since there's none of that grid-like Spanish town planning in evidence here. Riding the ascensors (lifts) overlooking the old neighbourhoods is a low impact, visually satisfying way to spend an afternoon. It's kind of fitting that Pablo Neruda, that fine Chilean love poet had a home here called La Sebastiana. The colonial facades of the harbour front houses give Valparaiso an English colonial feel. As with any harbour, there's much cultural intermingling over Pisco Sours.



En route to majestic Machu Picchu (the only reason most people visit Peru) is another famed Inca city. Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire. The beautiful Inca stone walls, and the stepped and cobbled streets are constant reminders of its legendary place in the continent's history. Though overrun by tourists, Cuzco still retains much of its mystique. The central hub of the town is the Plaza de Armas, where the red and white Peruvian flag flies proudly alongside the rainbow flag of Tahuantinsuyo, representing the Inca Empire.

To reach the famed Machu Picchu, you can hike for days on the Inca Trails or zigzag to Aguas Calientes (hot waters) by train and stroll up to it. Either way you will find yourself marvelling at the mighty Rio Urubamba at some point. Hiram Bingham happened to stumble upon "The Lost City" in 1911. Back then it was hidden by undergrowth, today it has been laid bare to hordes of tourists. One can't help wondering if it wouldn't have been preferable to have kept it under wraps.

The grand edifices of Machu Picchu expand out from a central plaza. There's a lengthy staircase to the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock, from where you can appreciate the whole design, including Intihuatang, the major shrine of the city. Though there's a sundial at the summit, it was used to discern the seasons rather than the hours. Behind the ruins is a steep peak called Huayna Picchu, which is worth scaling to get an alternative view of the ruins. The geometrical intricacy of Machu Picchu is overwhelming, as is the sheer scale of it. Just looking all the way down into the forest, one wonders how on earth the Incas managed to get all that rock up to there and construct a city out of it that fits together so precisely.


FOTOGRAFIA: 26hr photo

From the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, the driest place on earth, it's possible to travel through a rather "lateral" landscape all the way to the Salar de Uyuni (salt desert) in Bolivia. It takes around 26 hours by rail but the spectacular moon-like scenery makes the mission worth it. The terrain goes from amazing striated rock formations in Chile to the barren salt deserts of Bolivia. Sliding along at a snail's pace to the high altitude beauty of Bolivia, it's hard to keep all this unspoilt wonder in focus when your head is beginning to spin from lack of oxygen. Once you arrive in Uyuni, Bolivia, a traditional indigenous village, the only way is up. Up to Potosi (4070m),the highest city in the world. You'll need a strong cup of mate de hojas (coca tea) to clear your head enough to take in the balconied mansions and ornate churches of this former silver mining city.

DISENO: Social fabric

The Spanish colonial architecture of Sucre is something to behold. Sucre came into existence in 1538. Ever since then it has been considered Bolivia's cultural capital. It was here that independence was declared in 1825. Named after its liberator, Simon Bolivar, Bolivia is home to an impressive array of traditional weaving. The Museo Textil Etnografico contains definitive examples of traditional weaving. At present,the Museum is reviving the art of weaving in the surrounding villages. The weaving is done on a drop spindle or a heddle loom. Initially llama and alpaca wools were used, now sheep's wool is commonplace. Detailed zoomorphic patterns are traditional - fanciful animal forms, of birds and horses in particular are popular. The rare red and black designs from Potolo are especially sought after. The finest work combines expert spinning and a tight weave. In the past only women did the weaving, now men are being encouraged to take up the hand looms resulting in a whole new style and set of imagery evolving. The colours are stronger and motifs are more angular and energetic. The Museum has fine examples of bags, ponchos and mantas (blankets) from Tarabuco, Candelaria and Potolo.

About the author

After working in brand imagery, Trusha Naidoo, a copywriter, decided to study journalism and go into freelance writing. A great believer in writing from experience she set off to see the world. From Eastern Europe to Latin America, travelling hasn't gone to this homing pigeon's head - she keeps returning to Cape Town travel after travel.