Robert Steele

Jesus College, Oxford, 2015

Robert Steele

Jesus College, Oxford, 2015

From August to December 2015, Robert Steele embarked on a trip around South America; travelling through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Columbia and Brazil. After two weeks of intensive language lessons in Buenos Aires, he took the 22-hour bus ride north to Iguazu Falls, located on the Argentina/Brazil/Paraguay tri-border. The constant rainbows, flocks of birds and cascading water combine to form some of the most amazing views of his trip.

Further long bus rides followed, travelling through Cordoba and then arriving in Mendoza. In Mendoza, he spent a few days cycling from vineyard to vineyard, tasting wine and attempting to learn about the processes in his growing Spanish. Though he had planned to cross the Andes to Santiago (the capital of Chile), storms in the area made the route impassable and he instead travelled north to Salta, where he was able to cross into Chile.

Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama – in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert in the world – was a real culture shock and his first move away from the continent’s more developed areas. Though incredibly isolated, the area offers countless activities so Robert ended up staying almost a week, sand boarding, stargazing (with an astrophysicist who believes the Moon and the Egyptian Pyramids work together as a form of extra-terrestrial terraforming), a day long horse ride through Valle de la Muerte and a morning visit to El Tatio (the highest geyser field in the world, where it reached -9°C).

After a brief stop in Chile, Robert crossed the border to Bolivia via Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582km2. After this, he travelled higher to Potosí, the highest city in the world at 4,090m above sea level. Following a week of further Spanish lessons in Bolivia’s constitutional capital, Sucre, he then travelled to Cochabamba, where he volunteered for 6 weeks. Robert worked at Iquazu Falls Bolivia Digna, with a primary focus on two schools in impoverished areas of the city and a wider vision of economic stability for their families, was a huge challenge. The charity was largely in its infancy, with a small body of permanent staff members and a plethora of tasks necessary for the support of the children.

“Spending the mornings in language lessons and the afternoons with the children was an intensive, though highly rewarding, period of time. My role was to to create and teach an English syllabus. Too often, English-speaking volunteers would come to the charity, begin teaching English, and then leave. The creation of a syllabus meant a structured approach, making it clear what they had and had not studied, as well as providing the resources for further teaching.“

“I was able to go from desert to rainforest; the cold of northern Chile to the scorching beaches of Rio de Janiero.”

                                                                      — Robert Steele

Sustainability was a key theme of his stay. Along with the other volunteers, he was very concerned about the dynamic of the charity – it seemed overly dependent on volunteers and they felt it was essential, for the long-term education of the children, that the emphasis be moved to the permanent staff members. Through initiatives such as Robert's syllabus, they were able to put the change in affect.

“What role charities and, particularly, international volunteers should play in these communities was something I thought about a great deal. The delicate balances between helping without controlling, contributing without creating dependency and respecting local culture without being paternalistic are difficult to implement in practice. I left exhausted and with a healthy respect for teachers. I shall continue to work on projects for the charity in the future and have been asked to be an Ambassador.”

After Cochabamba, he headed to La Paz, the highest (administrative) capital in the world at 3,650m. Spending the first day exploring the city, the next day he headed off to mountain bike the Yungas Road, previously awarded the title of ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ and central to Top Gear’s Bolivia Special.

“It was a real thrill ride and the views were spectacular and, on that day at least, fortunately did not live up to its name. From La Paz, I moved on to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, and spent a night on the Isla del Sol.“

Next he moved on to Arequipa. From here, he was able to hike the Colca Canyon (the third deepest in the world) and see a number of condors. Unfortunately, on the return journey, the bus taking them back to Arequipa lost braking on the descent. Robert was incredibly fortunate to escape with only cuts and bruises, though two people lost their lives and remain his my thoughts. Though he considered returning home, Robert decided stay and to meet his Dad in Cusco for the Inca Trail in an attempt to feel better.

They spent a few days exploring the ancient capital of the Incas and embarked on a number of hikes in the local Sacred Valley. They felt Saqsaywaman was particularly impressive, as was Pisac. They then embarked on the Inca Trail – a four day hike on the ancient path that the Inca’s constructed as a pilgrimage.

“The journey itself was spectacular with numerous ruins on the way, before reaching Sun Gate on the fourth morning. Unfortunately, a wall of fog, rather than the classic view of the Lost City of the Incas, greeted us. Luckily, as we descended, the clouds lifted and it more than lived up to expectation.“

After a rest in Lima, where his Dad returned home, Robert flew to Iquitos. Located deep in the Peruvian Amazon, Iquitos is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, making for an interesting, rickshaw-dominated dynamic to the city. From here, he went on a jungle tour, which turned out to be the high- light of his trip. Based at a jungle lodge far down one of the countless tributaries, his days were filled with activities such as a medicine day walk, a night walk and countless boat trips.

Continuing his time in the Amazon, he arrived in Manaus (Brazil) after a brief stop in Leticia (Colombia) at the tri-border. The sight of a genuine metropolis in the middle of the rainforest was a spectacle in its own right. A highlight of his time there was a visit to the ‘Meeting of Water’: the confluence between the dark Rio Negro and the sandy coloured Amazon River. For 6km, the rivers run side by side without mixing with a clarity of the separation.

From Manaus, he flew to Rio de Janeiro to finish the trip. Rio is a truly remarkable urban area – a capital city resting on beautiful sandy beaches, surrounded by mountains that drift into the lurching rainforest. Hiking up to Christ the Redeemer and enjoying a sunset from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain were fantastic ways to end the trip.

“I was incredibly fortunate to enjoy such a brilliant trip around South America, meet countless people from around the world and experience so much in such a short period of time. My sincere thanks to Richard and Adriana Paice – their support and advice through the Traverse Trust made the trip possible.“

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