Food, Politics and Peril: En Route to Antarctica

Food, Politics and Peril: En Route to Antarctica

In contrast to the stark, white world of Antarctica ahead, I spend a few weeks travelling on my own to four South American countries that are new to me, in a tidy arc from west to east. Months of online tuition helps revive my Spanish.

First, to Chile. The flight follows the long, snowy spine of the Andes. We land in a hot bath of 32 degrees shared with 8 million Santiago-ans.

I book a taxi at the airport and have difficulty finding it. A female police officer comes over to help. She says I am speaking to too many strangers and this is dangerous. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

This crazily thin country runs from the waist of the continent to its toes – almost 3 times the length of New Zealand. Home to ancient forests, volcanoes, fjords, ski resorts, sand dunes, an abundance of seafood and wine – and the world’s most extreme 9.6 earthquake ever recorded.

I do a day tour of Valparaiso. This foggy, hilly, San Francisco-like city is on the coast and filled with poets and painters, sailors and sex workers. Its street art is considered the best in the continent. There is a maze of steep streets, crumbling mansions and eccentric charm. Stores feature local lapis lazuli and our jolly eleven global travellers share food, sites, D&M conversations, and wine tastings.

Our guide, Diego, is a school teacher who must work two jobs to merely get by. Locals often speak of this and politics too are frequently discussed. Natalie, a smart, young Melbourne lawyer on our tour, comments on the contrast of how apolitical she and most of her peers are. This can be an unquestioned luxury when times are comfortable. Illustratively, on the bus ride back, large trucks start to block the motorway as a government protest. We just manage to squeeze past before gridlock.

In Santiago I stay in the old, cosmopolitan area. Filled with gracious plazas, museums with Mayan columns, innovative art galleries, and a central station designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is especially poignant. The exhibits tell the story of the abuses and ‘disappearances’ during the military government’s brutal control from the 1970s to the 1990s. Paving stones on some streets have the names of those known to be tortured and executed. Many have their ages inscribed as just 16 or 20. Some Westerners accuse their governments of being totalitarian. Criticise sure, but consider such stories as these to clarify your definitions.

On the street and in cafes there is eel soup; the largest cherries I’ve ever seen; chicken stew with walnut sauce; potato bread fried in pork lard; dried horsemeat; stuffed and braided intestines; desserts and beverages made with corn kernels; corn husks filled with vegetables and basil; shrimp, mullet, crab, oyster, octopus and abalone dishes. Food is history and culture on a plate.

Before any overseas travel, I check out the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. This year there are two in South America. When visiting Peru in 2017 I went to one, Central, which is currently ranked #2 in the world. Borago is now also on the list. This biodynamic farm is at the foot of one of the country’s highest mountains and achieves zero-kilometre cooking. Many courses are served on hot or cold rocks. One savoury starter looks convincingly like a slice of garnished chocolate cake. The shiny, uniform, dark exterior is actually moulded, aged venison. Inside is a vertical, heavily seeded cracker to provide upright structure and gateau-like crunch. Earthy, yet elegant and deft with surprise.

This year’s MasterChef New Zealand TV show had the local chef, Vaughan Mabee, as a host and judge. He is also the nephew of a yoga friend. I contacted him via Facebook and said how impressed I was to hear that he used to work at Noma in Copenhagen (world’s #1 restaurant for several years). I mentioned being booked for Borago. Vaughan said he is good friends with chef and owner Rudolfo. Small world!

Bolivia has the world’s most dangerous road. Rough, lined with rocks, the narrow passage crumbles toward a dizzying precipice. I leave Santa Cruz airport in a taxi and have a much scarier experience.

It is a mood challenging 41 degrees. Everywhere there is dirt, dust and neglect. Soon comes menace. Milling crowds are angry and despairing. Many are in the middle of the road and wave homemade weapons at us and other cars. At first, there seems to be no logic to this. Their argument is with the government and a proposed two year delay to the census. This might sound perplexingly trivial, but the census results are used to direct social spending. For related, politically fraudulent reasons, almost no one in Bolivia knows what the actual population is. Crazy. Today, passing drivers just happen to be more accessible for wrath than politicians. Also, throughout all these countries, what stirs general turmoil, eventually gets government attention.

I crouch low so I’m not mistaken as some symbol of foreign oppression. The driver manoeuvres like he’s doing Formula One, ploughing through several red lights and makeshift road blockades of rubbish bags and tree stumps. Buildings are set afire. Never before have I landed in a country and seriously considered immediate escape. There is no safe option though but to move forward fast.

My boutique hotel is a sanctuary in the city centre. I am not keen to leave until I am too hungry not to. Downtown is quiet. There is the poise of its Baroque architecture, though many buildings are in chronic disrepair and slough ruinously over the pavement. I stuff money in my bra and leave a little in my pocket as a decoy, in case I get stopped. Two fellow tourists I speak to, had their phones taken off them. Writing this, I feel more like a war correspondent than a tourist. It’s a dramatic travel story, as long as you get home to recount it.

Over 60% of the population is of indigenous descent. Music, dance, weaving with vicuna wool, and other textile arts and crafts are radiantly diverse. There are vast natural resources and a sparse population. Yet political crisis, social stratification, and electoral fraud make poverty and protests a way of life.

When dining, tripe is popular; lamb intestines; anticucho snacks of grilled beef heart; and soup made with vegetables, rice, and bull’s penis (the national hangover cure). Or you might prefer the regional pancakes with cloves; or bunuelo – a fritter-doughnut cross, sticky with aniseed syrup.

A patient contacts me. I urge her to await my return, but she is very concerned about her son. Despite wifi flickering like candlelight, we manage a video chat consultation. The modern world.

Bolivia can bring to mind images of bright garb, bowler hats and deserts with salt mines. Strikingly different is the relaxed and tropical east. Seated along cobbled streets, people listen to the music of the lowlands and drink chicha – a fermented corn drink. 500 acres of botanical gardens are filled with a sea of fragrances, towering orchids (Bolivia has about 3,000 species), swarms of butterflies, wandering sloths and large tortoises. Not far away in rugged, wild terrain – where Che Guevara once hiked – are pumas and bears. Beauty and danger mingle.

At the heart of the continent and beyond the usual gringo trail is steamy Paraguay. After the turmoil and rubble of Santa Cruz, I want to kiss the tarmac of capital city, Asuncion.

My hotel has a glorious pool, dependable aircon and wifi, and other worthy markers of civilisation. There are craft workshops and stalls, vibrancy and squalor, and, thanks to early British engineers, South America’s first railway. The country is resoundingly Catholic. Military service is mandatory. History is told through a succession of dictators with sprinkles of democracy. The Irish harp (originally an Egyptian invention) became the national instrument and is used to passionately play what they call polka. All culture is fusion.

I stroll through the city centre and get asked by police where I am going and why, as – guess what – there is a street protest nearby. About 65% of the population is under 30, which the teeming night life confirms. In rural areas there are Jesuit ruins; stealthy jaguar; isolated Mennonite communities; toucans and other bright, squawky look-at-me birds. I travel by taxi rather than bus, as armed robberies can occur on public transport. Not just the wildlife prowls with potential peril.

I delight in manioc bread; hot maize pudding with onion; yuca empanada; cassava patties; hot chipa rolls made with corn and peanuts; banana leaves filled with cheese and egg pie; and refreshing, cold yerba mate tea. For dinner, I eat at Bolsi, a popular restaurant since the 60s, and have two small, though filling courses and a glass of local wine for NZ$13.

In each country I book a 2 to 4 hour walking, history tour. Guru Walks offers thousands of these in over 100 countries. There is no fee and payments are based on tips. Great entrepreneurialism. It is lovely to meet many well informed and passionate guides, plus engaging fellow travellers. Here, as elsewhere, some of the young women participants say they are inspired by my solo travels. Nice for an old gal to get the nod. The world has dangers, but far more fellowship.

Finally, to South America’s smallest country. Uruguay is wedged like a round, seaside ball between the vastness of Brazil and Argentina. The population is only 3.5 million.

Before I travel, I register with the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Safe Travel site. They keep track of citizens abroad and send notice of political and natural dangers. Everywhere else on this itinerary (and previous ones in Africa and the Middle East) comes accompanied with strong warnings about crime and political instability.  In contrast, Uruguay is progressive, stable and sophisticated. The life expectancy and literacy rates are among the highest in Latin America.

The temperature drops 10 degrees to a more comfortable 23. I leave the airport in the first clean – and most expensive – cab of this trip (as soon as I get free wifi then I use Uber).  Montevideo, the capital, looks prosperous and well tended. Prices are commensurate. What buys a glamorous hotel stay in Asuncion is more like youth hostel territory here. There are occasional homeless men, but no strings of families living on the pavement, nursing infants under sheets of plastic called home.

It is a ferry ride next door to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Uruguay is like a humbler ‘Canada’ to its brasher neighbour. I join a walking tour of the old port, glorious beaches, artisan markets, antiques, museum, plaza, and a food market with over 100 stalls and eateries. You can walk for hours along the stunning Rambla walkway that hugs the sea. The arts – both traditional and innovative – are a strong part of their culture and pride. In 2013 it was the first country to fully legalise cannabis.

Our fun, young, local guide (who worked in Queenstown for 4 years) tell us that Uruguay is the least corrupt country in South America – though he adds with a chuckle, that is a low bar achievement. There is a strong feminist and LGBTQ+ community. Most people describe themselves as secular and it is illegal for government institutions to promote religion. Officially and amusingly, Christmas is thus “Family Day”, while Easter is “Tourism Week”. Meanwhile stores look as traditionally festive as ours.

There is a museum dedicated to the famous Andean plane crash of 1972. It was immortalised by the book and later movie, Alive, with its tales of heroism, desperate cannibalism, and – after 72 sub-zero days – the unexpected return of 16 survivors. I well remember the news and global, water-cooler, moral discussions that ensued.

Later there is an evening tour that includes dinner and Tango dancing. Good thing I’ve been taking Tango lessons most of the year. Ole! It’s how today’s seniors roll, baby.

Outside the main centres there are hot springs, horseback riding and gauchos. I enjoy seaweed fritters; chickpea flatbread; and steak sandwich piled high with toppings.

All these countries are soccer-mad (games are broadcast at almost every café) and meat-mad, especially for beef. Their papaya is so deeply orange that it looks caramelised. Coffee and wine are dependably good. Some type of barbeque, empanada and chili sauce are everywhere. As well as creamy, caramel dulche de leche perhaps served as a pudding; slice; or a filling for cakes, meringues, churros or cookies, or a spread for toast. I take some home for the grandchildren to try. Here in Uruguay, it is also served with quince tart for breakfast. I manage to cope.

These lands are warm and boisterous with Latino life and centuries of culture. They are a staggering contrast to my journey’s next phase and the white temple of sacred silence that is Antarctica. Even in temperature, I must pack for the extremes of 41 degrees above to 38 degrees below.

Or so I think.

Three days before the Viking cruise is due to assemble and depart, a giant rogue wave damages the ship on the previous sailing as it nears port. The Drake Passage is listed as one of the world’s worst 5 bodies of water for dangerous seas. Broken windows kill one passenger and injure four more. Unusually, a few weeks previous, another company had two people die when a wave overturned their Zodiac landing craft. My cruise is cancelled with a full refund. Tragic for some and so disappointing for me.

I’ve been a wasteful, slow developer in this regard, but in the last few years I finally learned not to catastrophise. Ah, the more pleasant sanity of acceptance followed by action. I manage to book earlier flights home – at a cost. This will be an interesting test of my travel insurance. I have a few days in the graceful elegance of Buenos Aires. I, and life’s opportunities, move on.

Humans are notoriously poor at risk perception. Cruises and air travel have a death rate of 1 in 11 million. Our most likely form of accident of any type is being near a moving car, with a rate of 1 in 5 thousand. Hmm.

Onward huskies to another day, another year, when I will visit the seventh continent.

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