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Five days in a canoe, 29 notebooks, 11 trips by rickshaw, 105 hotel beds and one palate-stimulating dinner of boiled sheep’s head. That’s only a fraction of what Oliver Balch faced in order to complete his first book, “Viva South America! A Journey Through a Restless Continent,” out now. The result — a story of his epic year-long trek — is part travelogue, part sociological study, part political analysis.
“If you’re after descriptions of sequined samba dancers during Rio carnival, or accounts of Machu Picchu appearing out of the morning mist in the Peruvian Andes, then this isn’t for you,” the Buenos Aires-based Balch, a freelance foreign correspondent, says of his gritty accounts. Spending a month in each of the 10 countries he visited, he passed through prisons and shantytowns, where he documented such characters as Jimena, a Chilean transvestite prostitute, and Rosali, one of the first in her Rio slum to become a university graduate. Along the way, Balch also sought to examine how and why South American governments are drifting toward Socialist quasi dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, as he observed during the elections in 2005 and 2006.
“People were voting, but they were voting Left,” he says. “Every month, the BBC’s political map would grow a little redder.” He decided to contrast the so-called “21st-Century Socialism” of Chavez with the legacy of Simón Bolivar, the 19th-century South American general who helped liberate South America from Spain.
Looking to Bolivar’s own travelogues as a sort of archaic Guide Michelin, Balch made his way by bus, train and cable car. “I’m suspicious of travel writers who fly in and fly out of places,” he explains. “True travel is about engaging with the culture in which you find yourself and thereby understanding other people’s realities better.” He interviewed countless sources, aided in part by his British accent. “Thinking I’d traveled from England to hear their story invariably loosened [peoples’] tongues,” he says, though he was delving into such difficult topics as the exploitation of workers in the coca fields of Bolivia, female trafficking in Paraguay and the power of religion in Peru.
Despite the heavy going, Balch came to an uplifting conclusion. “I discovered a common thread of the spirit of revolution and the struggle to move onwards and upwards,” he says. As for Bolivar’s legacy of freedom, that might be another story. “I wonder how much he’d recognize the political movements that carry his name — not much,” says Balch. “But he’d be proud of how everyday South Americans continue to carry the torch of freedom that he lit almost two centuries ago.”
Now that his journey is over, the writer is brainstorming ideas for his next piece — including possibly something about Central America and the Caribbean. But that provides an even greater challenge, he says. “It requires me persuading my wife to leave Buenos Aires first.”