Latin America – A Big Fat Blank in My Knowledge and Experience

When it comes to Latin America I’m completely lacking in knowledge and experience. I need to rectify this.

I like to feel worldly. I’ve travelled a lot, read a lot about different countries, watched a lot of films about different countries, tried the food from many different countries, even studied many different countries. Basically what I’m trying to say (in case you haven’t figured it out) is that I’m knowledgeable about a lot of countries and have direct experience of a lot of countries.

But then there’s Latin America.

A great big fat gap in my knowledge and experience.

Of course I’ve heard of some of the big attractions like Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands and I know Panama has a canal, but that’s really about it. Give me a blank map of the world and I could point out most of the countries; South and Central America – not a chance. I know Brazil’s the great big one and Chile’s the long thin one, but Uruguay? Guatemala? Honduras? No idea.

I don’t really know why this is, but I’m wondering if it has something to do with colonialism. Immigration to the UK has traditionally been from our former colonies – Africa, South Asia, Hong Kong, not from Latin America (unless I’m supposed to count the West Indies as Latin America – see, I don’t even know that!)

So growing up (and as an adult) my ‘foreign’ influences have been from these places whether it’s the people I meet, the food that is commonly available and even my childhood books (Rudyard Kipling wrote about India for example). Latin America didn’t make it on to my radar.

Once I started travelling I was interested in going to the places I’d grown up hearing about and learning about and most travellers I met were going to those places too. So although Latin America may have shown up on my radar it was as a faint blip in the way off distance.

What I knew (thought I knew?) about Latin America didn’t send the place racing to the top of my wishlist either: expensive to get to; high crime rates, even dangerous; drug fuelled civil wars and anarchy; everyone speaking Spanish and little or no English; the need for visas …

Yesterday I spent the day at a conference called Latin America Day School. Speakers spoke about a range of countries, particularly Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia. The focus of the conference was political and the speakers referred to the political history and the current state of affairs, both good and bad, of their chosen countries.

I learnt quite a lot, but realise that what I learnt is just the tiny tip of the iceberg and I need to do a lot more reading and research (and yes, even visiting) to start rectifying this embarrassing hole in my knowledge of the world.

Of the countries that were discussed I think the one that I was most surprised about is Nicaragua. I vaguely remembered Nicaragua being on the news years ago when the US ‘intervened’, but didn’t know anything about why or what the impact was. As America doesn’t have a particularly good track record for its ‘interventions’ I wasn’t surprised that the impact their intervention had in Nicaragua wasn’t good and has taken a long time to recover from.

But now, the future for Nicaragua seems positive. Here are some examples:

  • Illiteracy rates averaged 50% across the country and were as high as 90% in some of the more rural areas. Starting in 1980, the country has had a series of literacy campaigns, many of which have received UNESCO awards. In the last census literacy rates had increased and were averaging 78% with youth rates closer to 90%.
  • Over the same timescale life expectancy has risen from around 48 to 75.
  • Infant mortality has dropped from 86 (per 1000 from birth to first birthday) to 18.
  • Women make up 42% of Parliament, 44% of magistrates in the Supreme Court of Justice, 39% of magistrates in the appellate tribunal courts, 61% of local district court judges, 65% of public defenders, and the Supreme Court justice president is a woman.

It’s not all good news as rates of violence against women are still high, the head of the household is usually deemed to be male meaning single mother households lose out on benefits and the country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the region (28% of women give birth before they are 18), not helped by the country’s strict abortion laws.

So it’s far from perfect and on many issues still has a long way to go, but it’s going in the right direction.

I may not get to visit Nicaragua or anywhere else in Latin America this year, but the region is flashing and beeping more prominently on my radar now and demanding more attention from me. I’ve challenged myself to know a lot more about it by the end of year.

I’m going to start with this free course which we were shown the trailer for at the conference. The course is supposed to take about 4 hours to work through.

This free Introduction to Latin America course from MIT might be worth a look as well.

Do you know more about Latin America than I do? Are there any resources you can recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time.
Author of the forthcoming book ‘Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman’s Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic’.

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