South America


Dear Readers,

Here I am again, in an airport, on the floor, my legs stretched out in front of me, my back leaning against the back of someone else’s seat. Not the most comfortable setup, but the only one with a power outlet close to the gate. I’m not sure whether my flight is delayed or not. I heard some announcement about my destination area experiencing air traffic complications. I don’t know what that means. Or rather, I know that it means that I should be close to the gate in case any more information is announced. I hope no one bumps my power cord out of the metal column from which it’s precariously dangling. It’s already fallen out twice on its own.

How do I sum up my trip to South America? I’m not sure I can. It is all a bit mysterious to me, since I touched down in the Northern Hemisphere only an hour ago.

Here’s what I remember at this moment:

We – Valentina and I – started the tour in Brazil. I loved Brazil. The first concert was in São Paulo, a sprawling, immense city that looked at least the size of five Manhattans. I have never seen so many tall buildings stretch so far. That being my first ever South American city, it took me a couple of days – the amount of time we spent there – to get my bearings. It felt different from what I’m used to but not shocking. The diversity of the population made an impression almost immediately. São Paulo also had terrific architecture mixed in among the more typical structures one would expect of a modern city. The contemporary art museum was particularly noteworthy.

Next, we proceeded to Rio de Janeiro. Out of all of the cities that we visited on this tour, I probably went around Rio the most extensively. I saw the magnificent, sweeping, panoramic views from the famous Christ statue, checked out the local dance scene, and took a sunny walk on the beach. There, I saw lots of skimpy bathing suits. It’s funny, from what I had heard of the beach culture there, I had expected everyone in Rio to have perfect bodies, but despite their revealing suits, most did not. I hadn’t brought a swimsuit, and I wasn’t about to buy a Rio one, so I kept my sundress on.

A quick note about packing: I was very tired when I packed for this tour and wanted to keep my luggage down to one suitcase. So, I packed for summer and left out my swim gear (no logic there). As it turned out, South America was in the middle of winter, and there were wonderful pools in every hotel.

Next, we hit Uruguay. Rather, we crept in and crept out. We were in Montevideo for a very short period of time. It looked like a pretty city, but the timing of our activities was such that we stayed indoors. I do remember an excellent meal with a great night view out the window. I also recall a driver who took to trying to flatter us on the long drive from the airport to the hotel; Valentina told me stories the whole way so that he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Then we went to Buenos Aires. That was such a European-style place; while sitting in a lobby and gazing out at the street, I noticed that, at least in that neighborhood, I could not tell that I was in South America. Not from the people, not from the buildings, not from the dogs running around in the park – believe it or not, on this trip, some dogs looked more South American to me than others, but that probably had more to do with my perspective than with the canines’ characteristics. In fact, all through the city on our concert day, with its pleasant fall weather and clean air, I noticed an uncanny similarity to Madison, Wisconsin. The city looked nothing like Madison, and no one was walking around in school-spirit sweatshirts, but the light seemed to come from exactly the same direction and the air smelled identical to Madison’s.

In general, Buenos Aires reminded me of a combination of cities from other continents. The wide streets put me in mind of D.C., the buildings looked Parisian, the people seemed rather Spanish, and tourists from all countries walked up and down the main avenue, which is apparently the widest in the world. (The median strip was nearly as wide as a park, which might or might not count as a bit of a cheat towards the avenue’s claim to fame.)

In Buenos Aires, we performed in a synagogue. The compound was walled with metal gates and fronted with a guard’s booth. Another guard operated the door. It was sad that such precautions were necessary. The garden was beautiful and peaceful, and the walls of the hall had windows that looked out on slivers of foliage, which were illuminated at night.

A note about the venues: we played in many different types of halls in South America. An Italian-style opera house. The synagogue. Big halls and small halls. Acoustically dead halls and live halls. A round hall. A wide hall. A deep hall. Modern. Old. It seems that the main halls in many of the cities we were visiting were under construction, all of them conspicuously closed during important anniversary years.

Next came Lima. I clearly remember a market, the hotel, a metal crafts exhibit, the delicious local food, and the people – they look distinctive. After the European appearance of Buenos Aires, this was a change. After the concert we did a signing, as always, and the younger audience members were so anxious for us to appear that they started chanting our names.

Finally, we flew to Bogota. I was immediately swept away by that city. Maybe it helped that I felt special right off the bat, with a dual motorcycle-police escort complete with blue lights and occasional toots of the motorcycles’ siren-horns when traffic would slow. But I think I was most struck by the natural beauty of the surroundings. The mountains framing the city were low, lush, dark, and rugged, with misty clouds drifting amongst the trees. The buildings in the old part of town had architecture as if from another time – some Spanish colonial, some Classical, some colorful but aged with character. The central square was paved like something from the middle of an Italian village, anchored by a fountain. This city didn’t look like any other place; it looked like it belonged right where it was. Men in crisp forest-green uniforms with thick white ropes around their shoulders patrolled the streets. Vendors peddled fresh fruit and juice, waffles, and other snacks, from umbrella-shaded carts. A leashed llama wearing a saddle paused at a corner.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave South America this morning, but I had a plane to catch. Now I’m back on home turf, for a few days at least, determined to learn both Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish as linguistic souvenirs. That follows close on the heels of decisions to learn Hungarian, Korean, Russian, Arabic, and written Chinese, in addition to brushing up on my Japanese and French. I may be dreaming. It’s strange to be back. I really took to the culture in South America, and I enjoyed working there. The people were, in every country, very nice and very respectful. I hope to return for another tour someday. I will need an excuse to practice my Portuguese and Spanish, after all.

Yours from the road,
Hilary