If Brazil has the Amazon River and Amazon jungle, which has been called the lung of the world, Argentina has the lofty Andes, including the highest peak in South America, and the rugged Patagonia, which some regard as the most amazing place on earth. If Chile boasts about the variety of landscapes packed into its length, including the world’s driest desert (Atacama), Peru about its amazing Inca sites, then Bolivia has elevation, Lake Titicaca and the uniquely spectacular Salar de Uyuni salt flats.
(Daily Times, 19 June 2013)
South America is simply amazing. Although predominantly Catholic and Spanish-speaking, it is full of cultural and natural diversity. Some of the world’s most awesome man-made and natural wonders are found here, from Machu Picchu in Peru to Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. South America has the world’s largest (Iguazu) and highest (Angels) waterfalls, highest capital city (La Paz), driest desert (Atacama), highest major lake (Lake Titicaca), southern-most town (Ushuaia) and, of course, longest river (Amazon), besides the largest forest of the same name.
Yet, it is a continent that South Asians barely know, mainly because it is so remote – at the end of the earth, so to speak. As far as most of us are concerned, it might as well not exist. Most South Asians live out their entire lives without ever seeing a South American.
It will take many visits to see this amazing continent. Or, as many young backpackers do, spend months going around. I met a German woman in Brazil who was returning to her country the following day after a whole year travelling through Nepal, India, Southeast Asia, New Zealand and South America.
But with limited time, I had to choose. I began my trip in Brazil, not just the largest country in South America, but also the 5th largest in the world, larger than Australia. It also happens to be the only country in the continent whose official language is not Spanish, but Portuguese. My trip also took me to Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay (in that order).
South Americans have a problem. Living in a land of superlatives, yet sharing the same language and religion, and many common frontiers, they are very competitive and boastful. The big two, Brazil and Argentina treat the rest with contempt and each other with derision. Among other things, citizens of both countries argue about who has the best soccer players and the best team. Brazil has been a finalist in the Soccer World Cup seven times and won five of them, while Argentina has gone to the very end four times and won twice. If Brazil produced the legendary Pele, Argentina can boast Maradona and Messi.
If Brazil has the Amazon River and Amazon jungle, which has been called the lung of the world, Argentina has the lofty Andes, including the highest peak in South America, and the rugged Patagonia, which some regard as the most amazing place on earth. And, no doubt, Argentina produces the world’s best beef. I can vouch for it – steak so soft that you can chop it with a spoon! They say that it is thanks to the cattle grazing on the vast pampas of Argentina. But whereas Brazilians can take pride in their country’s recent economic success, Argentinians argue over their perpetual economic mess.
If Chile boasts about the variety of landscapes packed into its length (there is not much width to Chile), including the world’s driest desert (Atacama), then Peru prides itself on its amazing Inca sites and Bolivia about its elevation, Lake Titicaca and the uniquely spectacular Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Venezuela has the oil and Angel Falls (nearly a kilometre of uninterrupted fall).
“Little” Uruguay, nestled between Brazil and Argentina, won the first-ever soccer world cup (1930), which it hosted, and once yet again (1950), while Colombians pride themselves on their coffee and natural beauty. To Ecuador belongs the Galapagos Island, whence Darwin developed his earth-shaking theory of evolution, a theory which jolted the heavens as well!
South America is the world’s third largest continent, after Asia and Africa. But, unlike Africa, which has 55 countries (including 8 offshore island-states), many of them very small, South America comprises of only 13, most of them relatively large countries. By far the largest of them, Brazil has the distinction of sharing borders with all but two (Ecuador and Chile).
Three relatively small South American countries are exceptions. They are in South America but not of it, they are South American but not Latin American. Located on the north-eastern coast of the continent, separated from the rest of South America by the vast Amazon forest, are Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana.
French Guyana is what its name indicates, a French colony. Suriname is a former Dutch colony, now independent and Dutch-speaking. Guyana (formerly British) is English-speaking, with a very large Indian population (nearly half of the total), descendants of bonded labour transported here from India by the British in the 19th century.
Guyana is home to many famous West Indian cricket players of Indian origin, such as Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan. Two Guyanese of Indian descent have served as president or prime minister of the country (Cheddi Jagan, Bharrat Jagdeo).
It is also typical of Latin American inclusiveness that Peru has had a prime minister of Japanese origin (Alberto Fujimori), Argentina a president of Syrian ancestry (Carlos Menem) and Paraguay a dictator whose father was an immigrant from Germany (Alfredo Stroessner). Ecuador had two presidents of Lebanese origin (Abdala Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad) while Colombia had one (Julio Cesar Turbay). The current mayor of the largest Brazilian city of Sao Paulo is of Lebanese origin (Gilberto Kassab), as was one of his predecessors (Paulo Maluf).
Latin Americans are as outgoing and fun-loving as South Asians appear to be brooding and withdrawn. The difference is especially visible in relation to women. Latin American women join their menfolk in singing, dancing and generally making merry. Both men and women there have a flair for music, dance and romance, though their history, down to the present, is full of invasions, wars, revolutions, coups, violence, state brutality, government thuggery and poverty. Latin Americans have produced Tango and Samba, carnival and Salsa, but also Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Alfredo Stroessner and Augusto Pinochet, many civil wars and a few “dirty wars”.
By Razi Azmi