First Among Equals

Day one

A YEAR ago today, wandered off a plane and stepped foot on South American soil for the first time.

Hanging gingerly from my shoulder was a bag which had chosen heading through security at Heathrow as the perfect moment for the seam alongside the zip to tear.

The chances of it lasting as far as our starting point in Quito (particularly given the taxi ride to get there), let alone reaching the return of the Ecuadorian capital seven months later, seemed remote.

It did make it as far as the centre of Quito, it made it as far as our rendezvous with the truck and, courtesy of taking up residence in the bottom of my locker, outlasted its initial replacement (ditched in a hostel dorm in Manaus).

Holed up in Brazil

But it never made it back to Quito. None of us did.

It has, however, completed a year in South America.

While those of us left were forced home from Cartagena as coronavirus made onward travel in Colombia impossible – five weeks short of that complete continental circuit – the truck we had waved farewell to after it failed to fit onto a replacement ferry from Suriname to Guyana had made it as far as Brazil on its long trek to rejoin us somewhere en route.

And six months on, there it – and driver Will – remains holed up.

The now well-ventilated bag, its dwindling contents and what was deemed surplus to requirements for what we thought was just a few weeks apart – walking boots, dirty laundry, sleeping bag, alpaca rug, boxes of contact lenses, assorted cables, my growing collection of discarded sleep mats, a squirt gun and the essential moose/reindeer hybrid onesie among other things – has been boxed up ready to send home.

That is not supposed to be an opening

Once they can get it to a delivery company office that is open.

A litre bottle of rum (and, probably, the pile of bags of nuts which came with it at duty free) and several bottles of very nice Argentinian red have been donated to the helping Will make it through six months in one place fund.

There is nothing there which is urgently needed – although that wine, those boots and a decent rain jacket would be nice – but it is symbolic of the feeling about the end of the trip.

A feeling of unfinished business.

Things have been a bit odd everywhere since we beat that hasty retreat six months ago – you may have noticed, there has been a lot on the news about it.

Who needs a truck?

A feeling of disconnect, of everything being a bit out of focus while my working from home world has been condensed to one room for much of the day – the move from desk to adjoining sofa differentiating day and evening with the 10-minute walk along the canal bank to Sainsbury’s providing the outer limit of my world.

The newly reopened gym is positively exotic

All a far cry from when the world encompassed whatever South America could provide to keep the cameras clicking and memories layering up.

With face masks replacing passports, my world has shrunk as borders, opportunities to travel and even the office door slammed shut.

Amid all that, been trying to come up with a coherent enough judgement on six months in South America to write this reflective piece – started more than once, but…

That feeling of unfinished business made it hard. Without a natural finale, it was hard to draw a line under it all.

Sun sets on our trip in Cartagena

Speaking with people about the trip, while socially distanced, of course, three questions have repeatedly popped up – coronavirus cutting short the trip, my favourite bits (we will get to that in another post very soon, promise) and how South America compared with Africa on my last big adventure.

The simple answer to the last one is that it doesn’t.

There are obvious similarities – clocking up the miles on a big yellow truck which became home for months on end, living with a group of disparate people from around the globe (some of whom are easier to deal with than others), bush camping, cooking in the wild and cramming in one amazing experience after another.

But there are more differences.

While large chunks of Africa involved travelling for days between destinations – when there may not be much to see or do bar explore the unfamiliar – in South America you are joining the dots between attractions, excursions and things to do.

Leaving the truck behind for the first time

Usually on better roads.

In Africa, food was dependent on what we could find – often not very much on the road – while in South America food was plentiful and often an attraction. And drink. Plenty of it (not that we were abstinent in Africa).

Camping, mainly with no facilities, was the norm in Africa but we saw far more beds in South America and creature comforts were far more common when we did camp.

And while we rarely left Nala – barring three nights in Zanzibar, even when we did move into alternative accommodation, we had access to our stuff on the truck – packing an overnight bag for a period away from Spongebob became a regular feature.

Never did get that right.

City break

Large cities were few and far between in Africa when we largely, Bamako, Cape Town and Addis Ababa apart, were away from the centre while the likes of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, riot-torn Santiago, that unexpected finishing destination in Cartagena and so many more were South American highlights in their own right.

Lima not so much.

Trans Africa: The Best and The Worst

Those highlights, amazing in both, are many and varied but while extraordinary animals dominate much of the Africa list – particularly in the south and east of the continent – natural wonders feature heavily in any list of the greatest hits of South America (coming soon, honest).

Not to be left out

With apologies to Victoria Falls, Table Mountain, empanada-chasing monkeys and toucans, to name just a few.

To cut a very long answer short (and far too simple), you experience Africa, you experience things in South America.

Lessons learned from those 10 months in Africa helped a fresh approach to dealing with the length of the trip, spending hours on the truck and days with the same people – and the inevitable irritations.

Put it simple, don’t sweat the small stuff (although the small stuff can be more than worth spending your time on) – and try not to compare everything to life in Africa.

Hard to compare

And a personal promise to do more stuff out of my comfort zone provided many entries on that greatest hits list – not exactly a spoiler to mention that walking the Inca Trail will feature highly – helped by doing more than writing get fit on the to-do list and actually doing it, however much my knee is still complaining about it.

But which was better, somebody will inevitably ask regardless of the explanation.

Impossible to answer, both were extraordinary and looking back over my daily notes from both – only taken five years to turn a shorthand diary into a lasting chronicle of Africa – has produced a string of wonderful memories, forgotten moments (the hidden highlights which only those who were there can fully appreciate) and smiles.

Have one very good reason to be slightly biased towards South America but probably need to do them both again to come up with a definitive answer (if anyone fancies funding it).

Worth the effort

And so what of future travels?

It is hard, nay impossible, to plan anything in the current situation – who knows when it will even become an option with travel all but wiped out?

Among a long, unwritten list, those remaining few weeks in Colombia and back to the starting point of Quito are pencilled in by some of us, albeit with no hint of a potential date.

Then there is the remaining 10 US states to tick off, Route 66 to drive down and the Silk Road trip which was the initial plan before South America took over.

Not to mention the idea of a repeat overland jaunt around Africa, floated somewhere in a bar and one which is seriously on the cards somewhere down the line.

And then there is Australia.

But that is a whole other tale.

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