Leaving LATAM… In one piece!

For those of you who have been following along, my South American tour (more accurately my Latin American Tour, I suppose) is over.  I am at the Red Carpet Lounge in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport, waiting to board Air Canada flight 990 direct to Toronto.It will be wonderful to be home.

Please do not misunderstand me… I loved the trip, and despite a few hiccups I believe (as I hope do Hewlett Packard and Microsoft) that it was a hugely successful tour.  While I have visited fifty different cities this year, there are few cities that I I look forward to visiting… International cities usually entice me more than Canadian or US cities (with a number of exceptions of course).  That is why I was thrilled when HP asked me to visit Buenos Aires, Bogota, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City.

Of the four cities I visited, I had only been to Buenos Aires – and had absolutely loved it (if not the reason I was there).  My return visit did not disappoint.

I am not going to tell you that the tour was without problems (there were several), nor that I enjoyed every city (I did not).  However I can say without hesitation that there was something in each city that I did enjoy, and I certainly learned a lot.

If my first trip to South America taught me anything it is that they have a lackadaisical relationship with traffic laws.  In Argentina I found that they drive like they don’t care if there is a tomorrow.  There is a thoroughfare there called Avenida 9 de Julio, which I am told is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the distinction of being the widest avenue in the world, with nine lanes of traffic going in each direction.  I have a vivid memory from 2004, riding in a taxi with my parents and my sister.  We were on this famous (and beautiful!) avenue, in the third lane from the left.  Traffic was moving along at a good pace (something I would later learn was an oddity), and we were trundling along at a steady 55km/h, when the driver decided (seemingly on a whim) to turn left… hard left.  There were, of course, cars in the two lanes to the left of us, not to mention nine lanes of traffic coming the other way.  This maneuver would have been terrifying absent aggravating factors, but to make matters worse the bus that was traveling in the lane to our right also decided to make the turn.  I had never realized the strength my sister could muster, but the firm grip of terror that she had on on my knee left five distinct bruises that were visible for weeks.

With this memory (and several others) in mind I asked my Travel Coordinator for the tour, a wonderful and helpful lady named To’mey Chandler, to not book rental cars for me, but rather I would take taxis and submit my receipts.  It did not take me more than 20 minutes on the road in Argentina to praise that decision when I noticed, on the road from the airport to my hotel in Buenos Aires, nine lanes of cars occupying a space meant for five lanes of traffic.

In North America we have a familiar traffic sign that is octagonal in shape, red in colour, and has the word STOP written in white writing (with the exception of the province of Quebec, where it says ARRET).  In several Latin American countries they have a nearly identical sign with the word PARE on it.  I have come to understand that PARE does not mean STOP, but rather ‘Try not to kill yourself or anyone else as you zoom through the coming intersection.’ 

In Mexico City, the 3rd most populated city in the world, I discovered that red lights are more like suggestions than actual laws, and that traffic cops – there are armed policemen at many intersections – are as authoritative as the bellhop in a hotel.  They have whistles and when the signals change from green to yellow to red, they whistle and signal for cars to stop… and if there is room, four or five more cars will zoom by, honking at him to get out of the way.  This must be a semi-regular occurrence, as the officers that I witnessed were not phased at all by it.  Fortunately this is actually a semi-rare occurrence, as traffic moving at a pace that allows this to happen is relatively rare.

It is hard for most North Americans who have not been to Times Square on Memorial Day Week-end to fathom what it is like for five hundred pedestrians to be waiting on each side of a crosswalk waiting for the light to change.  However it would be impossible for them to imagine that if there was even the slightest break in the traffic – say, a 20 metre gap between the last car and the next car – that all thousand of them would begin to cross the street against the signals, forcing the trailing car to screech to a halt; yet this is something I experienced not only in Mexico (most notably at the intersection across from the Plaza del Cathedral where the pedestrian street ends) but also in Buenos Aires, at several intersections along Avenida de Florida – most notably at Tucuman.  The same may have happened in Bogota and Sao Paulo, but I did not spend enough time walking around either of those cities to confirm it.

I remember as a teenager seeing a comedy show at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, where a comic described the relationship between Montreal pedestrians, whose attitude was ‘Hey, you can’t kill all of us!’ and the drivers, whose attitude was ‘Oh yes we can!’  Both the drivers and the pedestrians in Montreal are rank amateurs at being reckless compared with those in South America… and while I know I will have a hard time convincing my wife of that, I know it to be so.

At each city’s airport, with the lucky exception of Bogota, I got through Aduanes (Customs) with my luggage and hired an airport taxi.  In Bogota I was lucky insofar as my hotel had an airport shuttle, so after a short delay I was on my way.  The only other passenger on the shuttle, from what I could tell, was a very emotional hitchhiker whose boyfriend (fiancé?) was supposed to fly in from somewhere but was nowhere to be found.  She was let off somewhere in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and the rest of the journey went off without a hitch.  My hotel in Sao Paulo had a similar service, but as I arrived at 3:30am, it was not operating, and I took a taxi without a problem.  I was able to do the same in Buenos Aires, but not until I had waited over an hour for my luggage, and then spent two hours in line trying to get out of the airport.  The airport in Buenos Aires could be equated to a football riot… without any of the order and discipline that you might associate with football hooligans.  At the airport in Mexico City I thought I was on my way – right outside Aduanes there was a taxi service where I hired a car, and was told to go to Door 10.  Their representative at Door 10 told me that they didn’t have a car, and refunded my money.  There were plenty of other car services though – and despite the fact that the wait was over an hour, they assured me both up front and as we waited that it would only be 10-15 minutes.  I didn’t punch the guy in the face, but I was sorely tempted.

Having been to Argentina already my mouth was salivating at the prospect of Argentinian beef… and I was not disappointed.  Every meal was a culinary experience for this meatatarian.  I could not recall any mention of Columbian cuisine, and I was not disappointed on that – the food in Bogota stood out as unremarkable, but with my next stop being Sao Paulo, I knew my appetite would be quickly sated. 

I set out the first night looking for a Brazilian steakhouse; my intention was to go to Fogo de Chao the first night, but when I discovered that my hotel was not in Sao Paulo but rather in Guarulhios (I still have trouble pronouncing it) which was an hour plus by car from SP, I decided to stay close.  The first night I went into downtown (Centro) Guarulhios, and at 6:45 walked into an empty restaurant.  I had been told that Brazilians do not eat dinner until after 9:00, but forgot and besides, I was jetlagged.  I decided to go for a walk before dinner, and found a Martial Arts school that had a Tae Kwon Do class going on.  The instructor asked me to stay and help with the class, even finding me a pair of training pants to wear (I went without a belt and wore my golf shirt).  I had a lot of fun, and after class, without thinking, I accepted a ride back to the hotel from one of my students.  By the time I realized my mistake it was too late, and I ate at the hotel that night.

The wait was worthwhile, as Thursday night after work I stayed in SP and had an exceptional meal at Fogo de Chao.  They may replicate the experience and the menu in its North America locations, but they cannot replicate how the cattle is raised.  The meal was fabulous.  Before I grabbed a taxi to take me back to the hotel, I lit up a cigar (care of the duty free store at the airport in Bogota) and walked around for about an hour.  There wasn’t much to see, but I am making a concerted effort to walk a lot more these days – I am competing with my FitBit Smile.

Friday after work I went right back to the hotel.  The concierge at the hotel had assured me that there was a Brazilian steakhouse in Guarulhios that was as good as Fogo de Chao, which coincidentally was the same one I had walked into the first night.  While it was certainly less expensive (by half), the meat was nowhere near as good… but what the heck. 

After dinner I lit another cigar and started walking around, then decided that it was a nice night and that I could walk back to the hotel.  Let me be clear, I do not recommend you ever try this.  I knew the general direction, so I was not worried about getting lost.  Somewhere outside the Centro I was propositioned by a transvestite (or just really ugly) hooker, but that was fine too.  Shortly thereafter I realized I was in a shanty-town made of lean-tos  and various makeshift dwellings.  Hailing a taxi was out of the question – there weren’t any – so I just stayed as alert as I could.  I saw the man who confronted me with a loaded pistol from fifty feet away, but there was no way for me to avoid him.  I was out of my element and did not know what the protocol or expectations for such an encounter were, and not speaking any Portuguese I decided to borrow his weapon and then with body language explain that it was a bad idea to try to mug people in the streets, and that he should go home because it was not safe around there.  I was disappointed because I dropped my cigar, but relieved (in so many ways) that my military and martial arts training prepared me for such situations.  I thought about keeping the handgun, but did not know how I would explain it to Mexican or Canadian authorities.  I have, however, not stopped thinking about my would-be accoster.  I saw the conditions that he and his live in, and while I certainly do not condone it, I understand why a life of crime may seem like his only alternative.  Had I been able to speak his language I might have suggested he head to the Tae Kwon Do school to better prepare himself for the next time he tried to mug the wrong person.

The next day I flew to Mexico, and of course Mexican food is popular all over the world!  I have never been fond of it, but Theresa has exposed me to some dishes I like, and I vowed to only eat local while I was there.  Sunday mid-morning I ventured out and ended up eating at a makeshift taco stand that advertised five tacos for 20pesos (about $1.50).  Somehow with a Pepsi (that was all they had) it came to 50 pesos, but it is hard to feel ripped off when the total comes out to less than $4.  Every other meal in Mexico – whether at the hotel or outside – was wonderful, with the exception of the last restaurant I ate at.  The food was so-so, and the service was good while there were only 5 people on the terrace, but when a large party came in as I was finishing my main course, I realized that my days of being served were done… 25 minutes later, my empty dinner plate still on the table, I got up and asked for the bill.  I skipped dessert and coffee, opting to stop at a fruit stand on the way back to the hotel.  The restaurant did, however, have the added benefit of being right across the street from the Templo Mayor, the archaeological excavation and museum off the great Mayan temple that the Spaniards destroyed and built their Cathedral on/next to.  I had taken the tour earlier in the day and had taken hundreds of pictures… I snapped a few more shots from the terrace, and was absolutely thrilled at how well they came out… my new Nikkon camera has incredible low-light features, and fortunately did not require any understanding of them in order to work Smile

We do not learn a lot of South American history in Canada, and my first real exposure to that subject was when Theresa and I visited Tulum off our cruise last year.  The tour we took with our Mayan guide opened my eyes to Mesoamerican culture.  There were two museums on this trip that added a great deal to that knowledge – El Museo d’Oro in Bogota, and El Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City.  If Bogota was once considered El Dorado (the City of Gold) it was for good reason… the natives who populated the area used gold for absolutely everything, even though it had no monetary value.  Mexico, by contrast, used a lot of Pyrite – Fool’s Gold – but the cultures that built the temples were absolutely amazing… with architecture and an understanding of the solar system that is amazing even today. 

As I wandered the streets of Bogota I happened upon the presidential palace, and then the barracks of the Infantry division tasked with the protection of it.  I had seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and then in Stockholm, and was honoured to be able to see it now in Bogota.  It was amazing!

The main lesson that I learned though is that the Spaniards who conquered the Mayans were a ruthless people who destroyed civilizations and entire cultures in the name to further their own.  The Grand Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City is a magnificent masterpiece – probably the grandest that I have seen – but it was built on the ruins of a destroyed Grand Temple, the centre of an entire culture’s universe.  They destroyed a beautiful culture (not that the Mayans in the area did not have some savage practices including human sacrifice) whose grand temple was as high as the new cathedral.  They spent what must have been the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars building their monument to their G-d and saints … probably not that unlike the much more modest yet equally magnificent monument to the Mayan gods that they destroyed.

The people that I met in Latin America were, for the most part, friendly and nice.  There were exceptions, but all in all I liked them.  They seemed to like me too, although moreso when they found out that no soy gringo!  In parts of Latin America there is a real anti-American sentiment, and knowing that I was Canadian put a lot of their minds to rest.

The food, the cultures, the experiences that I encountered and lived made for an unforgettable experience that I will never forget.  I am looking forward to getting home – three weeks is too long to be away from my family – but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  I am going home a slightly changed person, and hope that my travels will give me a better understanding of the people that I meet going forward.


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