The alternative universe of Latin America had been on my radar for some time. My research was drawn mainly from Tintin, outdated history books, and smug friends who got there first.
Seeking journalistic work far from my Western life was my excuse to travel far and wide for three years in the region over four journeys. In cities such as Buenos Aires, Quito and Bogotá, I often lived off the grid of the Gringo Trail, but also crossed the paths of chancers, exiles and self-styled travellers along with drug-traffickers, convicts, shamans, peace activists, gun-runners, and ladies of the night. The cast of displaced characters ran the gamut from lost souls to evangelical converts to the Latin world.
The modern natives of South and Central America I met have distilled into a heady cocktail of humanity. The mestizos who emerged from the brutal Spanish and Portuguese invasions are the synthesis of these clashes of contrasting civilisations – the blood of the conquered natives and their invaders melding together along with the Africans who were transported in their millions as slaves. One continent built on the bones of three.
The audible echoes of the past proved equally enticing. The world of the Maya, the Inca and the Aztec – frozen in time by such spell-binding monuments as Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan and Tikal are magically fleshed out by their enduring and ghostly presence in deep jungles and far-off mountains inhabited by exotic menageries of creatures.
Within this slow-burning melting pot, I slowly became accustomed to the multiple rhythms of the daily lives of its indigenous peoples – old and new – and gained a better understanding of the nuances that divided and enriched them. I warmed to its contrasts – where people seemed less obviously ruled by Western concepts of materialism or personal ambition, and was often stupefied by the stoical acceptance of its faults.
The contrasting fortunes of its people were the grist to the mill of many of my professional stories as was the recent history of precarious democracies struggling against the competing claims of hostile foreigners, brutal dictators and murderous drug cartels.
This book embraces the untold, unsold stories I stumbled upon from Mexico and Argentina to Cuba, Colombia and the Galapagos Islands and beyond as I struggled to negotiate the obstacles of language and dance, rituals and customs with enough enthusiasm to mask my foolishness, while experiencing the joys and terrors of leaving my familiar world behind. This is my attempt to make sense of it, but being Latin America, it makes no promises to do so.