The old saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Most backpackers want to experience the life of locals and learn about different people and cultures. But that age-old idiom should come with a caveat. It’s simple enough to tell us to be like the Romans, but when you’ve got Nero there with his fiddle among the flames, it can be difficult to behave exactly like the locals, particularly if their behaviour seems strange to us. Today’s post is about some of the more peculiar things I noticed in South America and my experiences with them.
1. The Toilet Paper
Ah, my fellow backpackers are already sagely nodding their heads. Its name suggests its use. Toilet paper: paper one uses and discards in the toilet. All too true in some of the world. However, the infrastructure of South American plumbing and sanitation is not the same as in Western Europe or North America. Not once, in any of the countries I visited, was I permitted to discard toilet paper in the toilet. Used paper must be tossed in a rubbish bin (or, in the disgusting case of the stadium toilets in La Paz, anywhere on the floor of the cubicle is fair game).
Miraculously, bathrooms in South America don’t smell much worse because of this, and you generally don’t have to worry about toilets being clogged, at least not with paper. Dropping paper in a rubbish bin becomes second nature after a while, so much so that by the time I got to Iceland, this sign was a handy reminder of the way things used to be.
Again, not a thing. This shouldn’t really be surprising since there are many cities even in Canada that don’t have the financial resources in place to support recycling projects. However, I still felt this gnawing, twisting, guilty feeling every time I saw a garbage bag with banana peels (compost), plastic water bottles (recycling) and old batteries (waste that should be disposed of safely) all bumping along together in someone’s hand. But when some South American towns don’t even have regular garbage pickup, it’s a little absurd to be judging them for their recycling habits.
3. Unusual forms of caffeine
In the south they favour mate, in the north they favour coca. Both are natural forms of caffeine, the former consumed as a beverage and the latter simply chewed. There are rituals involved with each. Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is drunk from a traditional cup called a calabash gourd (usually not a green plastic one) that is round with a flattened base. The typical straw is a metal tube fitted with a filter to prevent you from sucking up the residue. Mate is traditionally drunk in social situations. One person adopts the role of the leader, packing the gourd with dried mate leaves, filling it with hot water and drinking it completely. If the leader decides the mate is strong, tasty and hot enough, he or she will then pass the cup to the person on the right who drains and returns it. The leader refills the gourd again and passes it along to someone new. The process repeats until everyone has had their fill from the same cup, through the same straw. Thanking the leader implies that you are finished drinking; saying gracias too soon means that the mate will skip over you when it makes its second round. In Chile and Argentina it’s quite common to see people walking around with a mate cup in one hand and a thermos in the other. In Uruguay, a woman I had never met offered me some mate one morning when she saw that I had none for myself.
Coca is more popular in Bolivia and Peru. The leaves are collected and the stems painstakingly removed before each one is individually balled up and placed in one’s cheek. The wad of leaves should be big enough that talking is slightly challenging and your mouth is full of saliva. A reactant is then mixed in with the coca cud ball you’ve been playing with. This reactant causes your mouth and throat to go numb while simultaneously releasing the magical powers of the coca plant (powers those of you who have tried cocaine may already be familiar with) to stimulate the senses. The entire mess is spat out and your energy is restored.
But wait, you’re probably thinking. I thought South America was renowned for its coffee! Why have these alternative forms of caffeine? Most of the delicious beans we associate with this continent are exported to us Northerners who can afford to pay far more than the actual growers themselves. Many Latin Americans actually drink fairly terrible (and often sickeningly sweetened) instant coffee. The coffee is so bad in Chile that some cafes intentionally hire good-looking waitresses whose uniform is often a very tight, very short dress and heels. These cafes are known as “Coffee with Legs.”
No one walks around with a Starbucks takeaway cup. No one. Not ever.
4. Cell bars and mysterious prices
It’s sometimes hard to spot convenience stores in South America (particularly in Bolivia) because much of the time they are not only unsigned, but will look as though they’re closed. It’s quite common for there to be bars on shop windows or down the entire length of a doorway. You take a key or some other metal object and rap on the bars. The shopkeeper emerges from some secret hovel in the back. You tell them what you want, they get it for you, you hand them money, they bag your purchases and pass them out between the bars. A natural consequence is that many places don’t have prices advertised for their goods. Half of this is because rapid inflation can make consistent pricing impossible. The other half is to make it easier to take advantage of tourists. When I first arrived in Bolivia, my friends and I ordered a large beer at an outdoor cafe. The handwritten price of the beer in the menu was 18 bolivianos. When it came time to pay, the shopkeeper charged us 30 bolivianos. I told her that the price we had read was 18, so she brought out the menus she had removed from our table and showed me a large black 30 drawn firmly over the 18 we had seen when we ordered. Ultimately, this amounted to a difference of a couple dollars and was a battle we were never going to win, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: if you see handwritten prices, keep the menu on the table until the end of the meal.
Like most things, there is also a bright side to mystery pricing: it helps to facilitate a casera relationship. When you’re in South America for a long time, you will likely start to frequent the same shops or fruit and vegetable stands. If the proprietors begin to recognize you, they can become your casera, meaning that they will remember your order, save you some of the best produce and even give you discounts. I was only in Sucre for about a week, but the slight mango addiction I developed meant that I often visited the same fruit vendor. By the end of the week, she was already offering me an extra small fruit with each mango purchase. Be careful though, casera are very territorial. If they spot you doing business with someone else, the relationship you’ve so carefully built will collapse and you will have to try again with someone new.
I could go on about all of the things that struck me as strange in South America – the competitiveness between countries (particularly regarding the origin of chicha and empanadas), the strong presence of sugar, infrequent toilet seats, the curious physical similarity of Bolivian women, an incredibly relaxed sense of safety and cleanliness, the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the list goes on. But part of the fun of travel is discovering these things for yourself. When you’re out and among those you could otherwise only learn about through books or film, there are dozens of little things you notice that you likely never stopped to think about before. The more I see the world, the more my home is reflected back to me, and not always in the most positive light (although I remain thankful for North America’s cafe culture). Embrace the bizarre and who knows? You may even pick up a set of drums and play along with Nero as you dance in Rome’s flames.