What’s the travel highlight of the country you’re in now? Which parts of the national culture does it represent? Would your experience of the country be complete without seeing it?
When I ask him if he’s ever travelled outside his home country, he proudly tells me about the six months he spent teaching music in the Galápagos. I try to point out that the Galápagos Islands actually do belong to Ecuador, and that while far away, they technically don’t constitute a foreign country. He argues me down until I give in, and tell him I must have made a mistake.
He is, however, the only person in his family to have been all that way. He may in fact be the only person in the entire neighbourhood to have seen what is internationally considered the highlight of travelling to his country. Despite the significantly lower entrance fee for nationals, he is one of only a handful of Ecuadorians I speak to who have actually seen the destination most tourists dedicate their entire trip to.
He asks me if I want to go; I tell him I’m dying to. He asks me when I’m going; I tell him not this year, and probably not the next either. He’s not surprised – a one-week holiday there costs upwards of what many Ecuadorians will earn in three months.
In contrast, when I meet an Australian couple a few months later in Peru, they’re horrified that I’ve spent three months in Guayaquil without booking any flights westbound. I tell them about slurping encebollado on the Pacific Coast, about Spanish dialects peppered with Quechua slang, about the fierce national pride of the Guayaquil Foundation Day celebrations. They’re still in shock. To them, I’m the person who goes all the way to France without seeing the Eiffel Tower.
What a waste, they tell me.
“What’s the full moon party like there? I hear it’s awesome.”
I look at her blankly. After an awkward silence, I finally tell her the truth: that I didn’t know there was a full moon party in Goa. And, if I’m being totally honest, that I’m not really sure what a full moon party is.
“What are you talking about?! It’s MASSIVE! I guess you don’t go back to Goa very often then?”
I shrug. She tells me about wild parties on the beach until 2am, about sleeping on the sand under the stars, about rainbow cocktails chock-full of mango and papaya, about the drink and the drugs and the trance music.
I think about the local weddings where dinner isn’t even served until 2am, and how you have to invite everyone in the village so the music until 7am the next day doesn’t disturb them. I think about the 5% of the Goan population living below the poverty line, for whom sleeping beneath the stars on the beach is just a fact of life, and not a glimpse into some other, more exotic reality. I think about how mangoes have been out of season for two months now, and besides they’re better when you poke them off the tree with the biggest stick you can find in the garden, raw, rubbed with fiery chilli powder and rock salt, scraping the sour flesh out with your teeth, eyes bunched up and grinning like an idiot. I think about the Goan music charts, full to the brim with the soundtrack from that Bollywood film we saw last week and a few covers of classic Portuguese folk tunes. I think about cultures being imported and exported across the world.
I’m missing out, apparently.
I’d spent a couple of weeks in Sucre, and then half a week in Potosí, and then Holy Week in La Paz. Truth be told, I’d have liked to see the world’s biggest salt flats at Uyuni, but there just wasn’t time. After two weeks of illness holding me to the south of Bolivia, I knew I needed to move on if I wanted to see any of Peru. I rationalised it by telling myself that I’d already seen salt flats in the Jujuy province of Argentina, and what a great adventure that had been, and not to spoil it by beating myself up for making a difficult decision.
The guy sitting next to me on the bus to Tarabuco told me he’d been for the first time that Christmas, after 26 years of living in Bolivia. It was spectacular, he said. Everything people told you, and more. More like Mars than Earth. Really shouldn’t miss it.
When I finally reached the border crossing to Peru, I was only too happy to get my exit stamp and leave Bolivia. Not every place is for everyone, and I knew in my heart I wouldn’t be paying for a flight back any time soon. But I still I wondered – would I have changed my mind after seeing the glaring white mirrors of salt in Uyuni, or the wildlife-rich jungle near Rurrenabaque?
Maybe it would have changed everything. Maybe my experience of living with three Bolivian families over an entire month would have been completely turned around after three days in a jeep, seeing the volcanoes and flamingoes and of course, the salt.
But somehow, I doubted it. Not every place is for everyone.