1. Understand the significance of community.
It’s one of the first things I noticed in South America — community is everything. While in Ecuador, I joined a Hari Krishna community for the week. In Peru I sat in on five course meals with locals that spanned all the way from lunch to dinner, and in Colombia I joined a street party that lasted over 15 hours. The result of this emphasis on social interaction is that people are grounded in a foundation of love, and support something that makes the everyday much more manageable. From quickly-formed friendships to family meals lasting six hours, there is an emphasis on all things social.
2. Embrace all parts of yourself.
There is a library in Medellin, designed by the world-renowned architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, located in what was once one of the cities most dangerous barrios. A long forgotten part of the city, a place where visitors were afraid to go (and told to avoid), holds one of the city’s most important structures.
Instead of hiding or glossing over what might not be the most beautiful part of Medellin, the community instead decided to embrace it (and even more, so highlight it within their community and to outsiders), just as we must learn to do with all parts of ourselves. Visiting the site was a reminder that there is potential in even the dustiest of corners; it is up to us to change our perspective.
3. Leave room for expansion.
It’s not pretty, but most homes in South America (from Peru to Bolivia, Ecuador to Colombia) are adorned with exposed metal rods sticking out of their first floor. There is no second story constructed, just the raw and visible evidence of what could be built at any moment. The idea is simple — just because something might not be possible in the moment doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start creating the foundation for its existence.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for the type of support that you need.
There is an island in Peru called Taquile that’s separated from the mainland. The people there still wear traditional dress adorned with colorful belts. Each belt has three ties; one means ‘I am happy’, one means ‘I am not well but would prefer not to talk about it’, and the last one means ‘I am not doing great and would be happy if you asked me about it’. It’s a simple way to communicate our personal needs, something I often struggle with in the Western world.
5. Perceive no limitations.
The Incas built Machu Picchu atop a 2,430m mountain, and without the use of mortar they fit together impressively large boulders to build magnificent structures. It’s a feat that remains unexplained. If engineers today were asked to recreate the structure without the use of modern day machinery, a list of doubts would quickly emerge. We need to think like the Incas — to take on challenges that seem impossible, and recognize it was only our own doubts holding us back.
6. Don’t let the past define you.
South America has had its share of tumultuous past experiences, from guerrilla warfare in Peru to genocide in Brazil. However, traveling through the continent I found that everything was open for discussion, from the brutal murders in Colombia, to the enslavement and prosecution of indigenous cultures around the continent. During a walking tour in Medellin, I was confronted with this open honesty firsthand — seemingly taboo subjects (such as drug trafficker Pablo Escobar) were talked about with fervor. The idea behind the dialogue was simple, the past was seen as a means to change, an avenue for discussion, and in no way an indication of the present.
7. Remember that the world is run by humans.
I sat at the Cusco airport for several hours because the plane was late. Yet I didn’t hear anyone around me complaining. Why? Because everyone else was able to recognize that the staff is hard at work to make everything as pleasant as possible. You can see people fighting fires to get things going. We can become disgruntled when we forget that delays and mishaps often are the result of people who are trying their best to get the job done.
8. Help others simply because you want to.
Arriving in Quito, with my only means of contact a single residential address, I found my way far out in the barrios of the city searching for the location of my Couchsurfing host. Late at night, walking through empty streets, and with the obvious look of a lost backpacker, I began to panic. Luckily I was in an area of extreme warmth and hospitality. Three different groups of people stopped to help me and pointed me in the right direction after basically escorting me to the apartment I was searching for. I was struck by their generosity, their desire to help, and their selflessness.
9. Look past the facade.
In Iquitos, a building stands along the city’s central plaza named the ‘Iron House.’ The building won’t do much to impress the average visitor upon first glance, but with a little digging one can uncover that the building was designed by Gustav Eiffel. Yes, that’s the same man who designed the Eiffel tower in Paris. When we forget to ask questions, to be curious, and to dig below the surface of what we can see, we often miss out on the majority of the story.
10. Tranquila (embrace uncertainty).
While in Argentina, I hit a crossroads for some personal issues that had surfaced. Unsure of what to do, I quickly turned to the locals I had met for advice. They told me to stop thinking so hard and to let things unravel as they should. Without a sense of urgency, they listened to my dilemma, smiled, and told me that the right answer would come along when I stopped working so hard to find it. They were right.
11. Be passionate.
Go to any futbol game in South America and you will instantly see the heart of the continent. Frenzied fans scream their hearts out for their favorite team; my personal favorite team to yell for is Medellin’s Deportivo Independiente. It’s infectious, it’s fun, it’s human emotion at it’s best — pure, raw, and honest. We can all be more passionate, more authentic, and more enthusiastic in our daily lives.
12. Learn to laugh at yourself.
Traveling on bumpy mountain roads can prove precarious at times. On the back roads of Bolivia, my friend had to use the bus bathroom, but she forgot to lock the door. As the bus sped up over a bump, she got catapulted, pants around her ankles, through the door, landed in a heap on the aisle floor, and laughed. Everyone else laughed too, a much needed reprieve in the long journey.