“That’s when I ate insects for the first time.”
With that line, globetrotter Meher Moos made sure she had the undivided attention of everyone in the room. Moos, who has stamps from 183 different countries sprinkled across her 18 passports, was speaking at the Itch List’s meet-up ‘Itchy Tales of South America‘ held at the Thadomal Shahani Centre for Management in Mumbai on 11th June.
The Itch List picked South America because it’s a continent that Indians don’t know much about and hesitate to visit. But South America offers a willing traveller a multitude of rich experiences ranging from exposure to the myriad cultures scattered across the 12 different countries to the glorious natural beauty that encompasses the plains of Patagonia, the majesty of the Andes and the power and beauty of the Amazon River and rainforest.
A fearless and intrepid traveller, Moos has never been shy about roughing it out and told a packed house how she travelled down the Amazon “in the same way you see in the movies”, which is to say by canoe. When they needed to travel overland, they simply hauled the canoe out, flipped it over and carried it over their heads (just like they do in the movies) until they reached the next part of the river.
Moos has been to practically every country in South America and always does her best to soak up as much local culture as she can. She advised the eagerly listening crowd to keep an open mind and be willing to try anything, including the aforementioned insects, which Moos said were the best thing she ate on her trip. “If your mind can accept it, your body won’t reject it,” she said.
Being such a vast continent – Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world and Argentina is the eighth largest – and so far away, South America isn’t the place to go for a quick getaway from India. You need time to sink into its rhythms, which is something each of the next three speakers not only did, but loved their time in South America so much they have kept going back.
Shirin Johari, a former advertising professional, moved to Chile to work on her start-up Clapglobal, which aims to invite international travellers to local schools all around the world so the children learn about different cultures and people first hand. Johari lived in her own apartment in Chile and learned to cook Chilean food. Among her more surprising observations was how despite being a relatively conservative country, public displays of affection were rampant in Chile and nobody looked twice. She also explained how different countries speak different versions of Spanish, so you are always on your toes and learning new things.
On one occasion, Johari took a road trip across the border to Bolivia with her friends to visit the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth and was greeted by the rare sight of a desert in bloom. Sudden showers had brought forth gorgeous pink flowers as far as the eye could see, something that happens only every five to seven years. “It was an amazingly beautiful sight,” Johari said.
She was joined on stage by Sachin Bhandary, the founder of Eccentrips, a platform for narrating uncommon travel stories and of travellers who go where most do not, and Kaushal Karkhani, who blogs about his travellers as Exotic Gringo. Both Sachin and Kaushal quit their respective jobs to travel and both fell in love with South America and have spent many months learning its secrets.
For Kaushal, what started out as a 40-day trip with a friend turned into a four and a half month life-changing experience living with locals in Brazil and Colombia and learning Portuguese and Spanish. Of course, if you are going to travel for that long, you need to make your money last as long as possible. Kaushal recommended staying in hostels for Rs 500 to Rs 1000 a night. “I prefer hostels because they are a great way to meet people,” Kaushal said.
Sachin’s journey, literally and metaphorically, began with his creation of the 12 project, which stands for 12 months, 12 countries and 12 challenges. His attempt at the project led him to learning Afro – Brazilian music, train in capoeira, the Brazilian martial art form and learn Salsa in Colombia. While some countries in South America have violent reputations (Brazil, Colombia), he was the only one to have had a couple of scary moments while in Brazil, twice coming close to being mugged, saving himself only by running to his accommodation at full speed before his would-be mugger could catch up to him.
In general though, all three said South America was relatively safe for tourists because tourists were important for the economy and therefore more carefully protected.
To sweeten the attraction, Contiki Tours offered everyone who attended the meetup $200 off on their tours.
The evening ended with Sachin leading a class in Salsa Choke, a sort of hybrid dance form that mixes afro-based rhythms and traditional salsa with regaetton. Everyone in the room ended up on their feet, laughing and grooving. It was the perfect way to bring the curtain down on an entertaining and intriguing evening that started more than a few itches for South America.
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