I love Europe: what am I doing in SA?

I recently took a little over a month out in my South America trip to visit Europe over late Oct to early Dec 2015, spending most of my time in a 1000km hitchhiking tour of France with a smattering of the 9th UNESCO Youth Forum, COY11 and a visit to Netherlands to see my sister at the United World College there thrown in. Here were some reflections on the differences between the two places that felt really important for me.

I write this mainly because I love both places but it’s so easy for me to arrive, adjust, adapt and mold myself to the ‘way things are’ without questioning how or why they came to be:

  1. People in Europe love cycling! No shame, no fear, no laziness, no sense of inferiority being on a bike, unlike in SA.
  2. Girls can do anything mentality in Europe – you see old ladies riding bikes to work, women travel, have adventures, run, women go for hikes, women have full-time jobs, women are respected much more than in SA – I felt a lot less leered at in France, Belgium, Netherlands than in Bolivia and Peru. No, it’s not perfect anywhere for females, but it’s great to see from the outset that women themselves do not put themselves down in Europe in the sense of, “I can’t do xyz because I’m a woman,’ like they do in SA.
  3. Consciousness – people care about cleanliness and health of environment. People in Europe take their own cloth bags to the markets, re-use plastic a million times, are aware of impacts of biking/walking versus driving. By contrast, the vast majority of folk in South America toss their rubbish straight out of their car window onto the highway or the street, have no idea how long plastic takes to degrade (and if it takes to long, it’s the well, we’ll just burn it mentality, not knowing impacts of toxic fumes), and think walking/biking is for ‘poor’ people and more ‘civilised’ people go on fossil-fuel-propelled-wheels. And in general it’s cleaner on the streets in Europe also so I feel comfortable popping my bag down anywhere; conversely in SA you always think twice and need to wash clothes a lot more often too.
  4. Shop-sellers are SO NICE in Europe – they always greet you, they ask you if they can help, they smile and really mean it; there is always a personal touch, at least in France, Italy and Netherlands anyway compared to the complete lack of eye contact and extreme shyness by Andina women in SA. In general customer service is at a whole new level in Europe – I wouldn’t even call it customer service: it’s just basic human decency and personal connection. In SA, you ask someone about their service and they don’t even look up from the computer or TV screen to answer, speak in mumble Spanish as if they just want you to get out of there and leave them alone as fast as possible.
  5. For me, it feels very safe in Europe – perhaps because a foreigner isn’t an uncommon sight and because Europe is so small that there are always ‘foreigners’ in the towns compared to walking around with fear and giant antennae all the time in Sth America. Also, people are very trusting in Europe – I need a passport number to get a simple bus ticket in South America versus just name will do in Europe and can do things like leave my bag on the bus seat and go to loo easily, whereas I wouldn’t dream of doing that on a bus in Peru or Bolivia. BUT then again, there is a lot more security in other parts e.g. museums in Europe, and in the smaller towns and villages of SA, it’s very safe also – there’s a sense of ‘common property,’ and a high level of trust in the villages. Hitchhiking: it’s safe enough to do hitchhiking in Europe; I don’t really feel like I need to think twice about it, especially if I speak the language of every country I’m passing through. Lastly, in South America, lots of little things can and will go wrong. In Europe, when things go wrong, they’re huge (the Paris attacks, for example).
  6. Lots more politeness in Europe but more warmth in SA – when they express love, they really express it! Trust – In Europe, for the most part, it’s a culture and people I can connect with deeply and fall in love with; can have male friends and female friends whereas in South America, you never really quite know when things will go horribly wrong, never quite know if you’re really getting their culture.
  7. Couchsurfing works better in Europe and I almost always get responses. Conversely, in South America, you send ten requests and maybe one person will get back – it’s the hora boliviana or hora peruana; there is no concept of ‘honouring people’s time.’
  8. Order – buses stop only at particular places in Europe versus being able to flag down ANYTHING that moves in South America (I kind of miss this!) and being able to find prepaid phone cards on any road side seller stall (miss this convenience too).
  9. Basic necessities – easier to find things like honey and coconut oil in Europe; easier to find local organic food and super foods in SA.
  10. Life dreams – people in SA often don’t necessarily want to travel or if they do it’s just a dream and not even a possibility (financially, in terms of visa, family etc) whereas here it’s almost completely ordinary to go into other countries all the time. The poor or house helpers (servants) basically toss behind their dreams of ‘going to college, becoming a professional and having kids brought up in nice home’ soon after they marry. This is a typical conversation I would have with the servant-lady, a beautiful forty-year old woman with brown skin and a big heart, at Lorena’s house in Lima:

“What would you do if money were no object?”

“I don’t know.”

“But like, if you didn’t have to work?”

“I’d bring up my kids then I’d work.”

“ But, like, if you had the money you needed?”

“ I don’t know. I’d bring up my kids. [Pause.] Before, I had dreams. I wanted to go to college, get a professional job, have a career. But yeah, I’m old now, I don’t have dreams anymore.”

  1. History is beautifully preserved in Europe vs the haphazard development in Sth America – it just feels like ‘wannabe USA’ sometimes with concrete everything.
  2. Vegetarianism – so much easier to find vegans and vegetarians here than in South America – there they really don’t get it, meat is so embedded in their culture, it’s like ‘life without meat’ is unfathomable. But at the same time, actually being vegan/vegetarian is surprisingly easy in SA if one manages their own food – vegetables are so much cheaper!
  3. Cost of living is basically same everywhere given salaries. BUT there is a huge difference in safety / security and equality. Europe feels more equal.
  4. Respect – lots more respect in European countries whereas in SA you can get the most unexpected generosity and kindness and friendships (sometimes) but at the same time, people are loud, don’t care for others’ wellbeing.
  5. Youth and young adults – young people live with their parents until 21, 25 years old in SA! So they sometimes come across as a bit less mature and independent as a result. They seem shy and afraid of following their dreams, taking off on their own. And are also inept at cooking and doing basic housework if they’ve lived with parents and servants all their life.
  6. Music – listening to popular SA songs and their lyrics makes me cringe. It’s all the same beat, little variety, and cliché things like, I loved you, now you left me, now I have another lover. It’s a very possessive concept of love. In Europe, even well-known music has so much more variety, sophistication and attention to detail. What’s more is that in SA, as soon as one person, organisation or place gets a hold of a giant speaker/stereo system, they have no respect or concern whatsoever for their neighbours and take every opportunity to blast out the music at top volume so one can hear it at least 5 km away. And the sad thing is – nobody complains, even if they are genuinely disturbed. That’s not the culture here, to stand up for your rights.
  7. Suburbia – I felt a lot more of ‘suburbia’ being in SA: for example, people in Lima live in gated communities, and often also have high-voltage electric fences above their giant front walls or bit metal posts with spikes. It’s all very modular, isolated. Conversely, there’s something much more like ‘collaborative-consumption’ in Europe with the shared living spaces, the four to five story apartment buildings in Paris and Amsterdam, the conviviality, the doorway that spills right onto the street and the mixed use urban environments where work-play-live are fairly close together. By contrast, in South American cities, it takes an age to travel just to meet a friend, the traffic is a spaghetti sprawl mess and it’s stressful. The SA villages are different, of course, and there – coupled with the remnants of the Incan farming system – ideas like collaborative consumption are long-embedded in the culture: four families get together to buy a tractor, for example.

So…what am I still doing here in South America?

What brings me here?

The reason, perhaps, is about as simple as it is selfish: food and nature.

Nature-scapes are totally different in SA to what we find in Europe and many places are totally wild and untouched. Europe doesn’t have a lot of that left anymore. And also, the friendships I have here in SA are powerful – no more and no less powerful are my friends in Netherlands or France, but here, too there is a lot of love. South America is more of a challenge, because of all these hardships. It’s cheaper. It surprises me more. And I also have more of a sense that I could disappear here. And I like speaking Spanish.

That’s about it. I still have a terrible deep urge to cycle tour Europe one day! Perhaps when I get the hang of this sailing thing.

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