South America is a beautiful continent. It has some spectacular cities, fascinating history, colourful culture and gorgeous nature. It would be easy to breeze through this trip, seeing only South America’s beauty and turning a blind eye to the poverty outside the city centres, or hidden away in the cities themselves. But while I can get annoyed at the locals accosting me in the street to sell me things because of the colour of my skin, or wonder about the real financial independence of the women in traditional dress minding shops or markets, it’s the children that I want to write about today.
As a child, I was incredibly sheltered. Sure, I could walk down the street to visit my friends or go around the block on Halloween without my parents’ supervision, but I knew they would worry if I wandered out of a safe neighbourhood or failed to call home when I was supposed to. We never watched or talked about the news as a family; the world I grew up in was secure, stable, happy and filled with well-intentioned people who wanted only what was best for me. I went to school and camp, I played with Barbie dolls, I went orienteering with my uncle and climbed the trees in my backyard. I’d watch TV and read books for fun, go skating at the local rink and skiing sometimes on field trips or weekends. I got a small allowance from my parents that I would save to spend on stuffed animals, books or candy. I tried to run away from home once but was foiled when I couldn’t figure out how to bring my dollhouse with me.
I think even by North American standards, my childhood was shockingly peaceful. Compared to children in South America, it’s just shocking.
In every country I’ve visited, I’ve seen children unsupervised on the streets playing with stray dogs, begging for change or wrapped up and sleeping in blankets. In Buenos Aires, I saw a group of children rooting around in dumpsters for pens. In Iguazu and Sucre, children went around to restaurant tables trying to sell socks and other small items. Children will juggle or do acrobatics in front of cars stopped at red lights, walk through buses selling food or water. During the salt flat tour in Bolivia, a few of the local children invited us to play a game with them. At sunset they took us out to a field behind the hostel we were staying at and had us walk across some cords suspended over a small hole (what they happily called The Devil’s Bridge).
They then skipped us through the field filled with broken glass before taking us to some small walls they dared us to climb and walk around. In the centre of one of the walled areas the broken glass was piled so high it was almost taller than I am. At this point, us gringo backpackers told them the game was over and shepherded them back inside. One of them tripped in the darkness on the way back and luckily missed the glass littered on the ground as she fell.
Very few activities I’ve done on this trip have required waivers, and very little seems to be forbidden. The general vibe is one where you can do whatever you want but if you injure yourself, it’s your own fault. Every cemetery I’ve visited has a section reserved specifically for children. In Santiago, one of the children is even considered a local saint because of the tragic way he died (Google the story of Romualdito if you’re curious to learn more).
The importance of honouring children in death has roots in Incan time. During the Capacocha ritual, children gifted with exceptional beauty – who were the sons and daughters of local rulers – were sent to Cusco from the four regions of Incan civilization. These children were dressed up and symbolically married to each other to strengthen the social bonds between the nations. The children were then given chicha (a strong maize-based alcoholic drink) and buried alive. According to the Inca, these children didn’t die, but were taken by Mother Earth (the pachamama) and reunited with their ancestors in order to bring health and prosperity to the people. You can actually see the perfectly preserved bodies of some of these children at the MAAM museum in Salta, Argentina.
I’m not trying to argue that South Americans encourage their children to do dangerous activities in the hopes that they’ll die tragically and become a saint, or that their passing will somehow support an ancient Inca ritual. While there is poverty, I’ve also seen many kids laughing together on a walk home from school, helping younger siblings across the street, sitting in parks or scampering around with friends. But for those whose childhood more closely resembles a Charles Dickens novel, I don’t know what to think. Do I pity these kids for growing up so differently than me? Can I even presume that my experiences were better than theirs? Do I judge their parents for letting them roam or do I wonder how I would have turned out if I had more independence earlier in life? Despite all my parent’s caution, I could have been hit by a car running after a ball or stolen away on a Halloween walk. Maybe these children just live a little more in the real world and if they had the resources I do, they could accomplish far more than I.