It’s been about four months since leaving home. Life as a CEO in the Southern Cone of South America has been moving pretty fast but at the same time, has felt like I have been down here forever. I think back to just a few months ago when I arrived in Buenos Aires. I had zero knowledge of getting around the city and was a little worried how I was going to navigate this place on my own let alone have to lead groups of other travelers here. I now shred around the city on a skateboard, j-walk like no other, and take the subway (or subte) as if I were anywhere in the states. And it’s not just Buenos Aires that I have to get used to; it’s Rio, La Paz, Santiago, Montevideo, and every little stop we make in between. There are many things that I have learned and seen in my short time being a guide down here. Here are just a few I have put down:
1 Adapt quickly
To say you have to be highly adaptable is a severe understatement. Life as a guide calls for constant change. You are always on the move. I have found that just being anywhere for longer than two nights feels like being a permanent resident of the city I’m in. That hotel room becomes your apartment. You spread all of your clothes all over the place. You even buy groceries and put them in your mini-fridge. Groceries! Then it’s packing everything up, tossing your backpack it in the back of the car, van, plane, overnight bus, or pickup truck, or ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay (current location at time of writing), counting the heads of everyone in your group, giving the driver a thumbs up, and moving to the next place. Your wardrobe is always changing. It’s pea-coats, jeans, sneakers, on a crisp day in Buenos Aires or Montevideo, board shorts, flip-flops and coconut water in Brazil the next.
It’s chilling on the beach in Rio and going out to a club in Buenos Aires that night with sand still on your feet. And it is not just physical change though; it’s culture, language, and lifestyle you are constantly passing through.
It’s arriving to Buenos Aires, learning how to speak and understand castellano, the name for the quasi-Italian sounding Spanish they speak, then moving to Bolivia, where they don’t speak that way, then moving to Brazil, where they speak Portuguese with different accents depending on where you are. (This gets extremely disorienting.)
It’s hopping off the plane, walking straight past all the confused travelers to the immigration line, knowing the guys who inspect your visa and stamp your passport, then talking Argentine politics with Esteban, the guys who brings you from the airport to your hotel.
People around you are constantly changing. Not just the locals, but the travelers in and out of your groups. Each group I have had feels like a different experience because they all see and perceive things differently. It is strange being with the same dozen or more people everyday for two to three weeks, having an amazing time, then they all leave and you’re suddenly all by yourself. Then, just a few days later, you start the whole process over again and the cycle repeats. The only people who are constants in your life are the other CEOs you see when your tours cross. Crossing with another CEO is like seeing your long lost friend, over and over again. Your social life is your work life and vice versa.
2 I would prefer a solid internet connection over just about anything
All this constant change can throw you off balance. It’s hard to find your bearings in a place where nothing is what you are used to. It is important when traveling to have a few things that anchor you to something familiar. Like that spinning top Leonardo DiCaprio uses in Inception. For example, I consider my white 13’’ screen Macbook my portal to the universe. But it needs more than just that. This baby can only do a few things on its own like play music, movies, and teach me beginner Portuguese. It needs the internet to be complete. There’s many things we Americans take for granted. You want me to say things like running water, democracy, access to Chipotle burritos blah, blah. No, what we take for granted is great internet. Internet is available everywhere here in South America, but great truly great internet is hard to come by. Take a moment to watch this video now. How long did that take? 3 seconds? Enjoy it. I finally found a decent enough connection to watched a full episode of Mad Men without any stopping. I felt like I had won the lottery.
Fly Emirates makes you feel like the king of Dubai
Working in multiple countries requires a lot of flying. If you finish a tour in Rio and your next tour starts in Buenos Aires a few days later for example, you have to send a flight request to your manager, who later sends you a confirmation with your flight details. Many flights are famous (or infamous) among the CEO’s. There’s the three flights needed to go from Rio to Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Bolivia’s airline, BOA, which accounts for a long travel day and the questioning of the plane’s flying ability after it shuts off on the runway. There’s the 6am Aerolinas Argentinas flight from Rio to Buenos Aires, which means you say goodbye to your group in a club in a Rio favela at 4am and take a taxi straight to the airport. This is rather tiring. The flight that makes it all worthwhile is Emirates flight 247. This three-hour dream ride from Rio to Buenos Aires departs daily at 4:15pm and is pure bliss. Upon boarding, you receive a greeting. “Welcome Mr. Thomas! Your seat is just a few rows down on the left.” You get a hot towel before take off. Your seat has plenty of legroom and an iPad sized touchscreen in front of you with thousands of movies, old and new, music, podcasts, news radio, and duty free shopping. There are also two cameras attached to the plane that let you see what you are flying over whilst watching a movie! If you like, you may grab todays newspaper from Brazil, Argentina, the US, and even the United Arab Emirates. The crew speak like 20 different languages and always boast it after take off…in like 20 languages. “Ze crew on the plane can address you in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Swedish, Danish, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi….”
You receive a menu for dinner that is in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and then you may read it from right to left, in Arabic. The food is delicious and can be eaten with metal forks and knives. When it gets dark, the ceiling has hundreds of little lights that are supposed to be a starry sky. This is the only flight that I legitimately did not want to get off the plane when we landed.
Learning how to manage expectations/control perceptions
When dealing with groups of people traveling down here, managing expectations is everything. For starters, time management is absolutely crucial. I originally thought that it was only Americans who live life based on the clock and were very time addicted. It turns out that this applies to all Westerners. Managing time on a continent that treats it much differently than those who travel here do can be a tricky balance. On travel days, I always add an hour or sometimes more to the actual time it is supposed to take to get anywhere. Overestimating is your best friend. That 16 hour bus ride really takes 14. You arrive 14 hours later as you expected, but everyone thinks you got there “early”. “Guys, good news. We made great time!” Happy group. If/when your 16 hour bus ride does indeed take 16 hours, you are simply on time or a little late. The group is still happy although you know you are actually late. If you are unsure of a price for a certain activity, it is always better to tell someone they actually owe less money than more, so it’s always best to do that.
You never go to a sit-down restaurant if you are in a hurry. The service industry in every country we travel in takes time, especially with a group of up to 16 people. Drinks take awhile to make and will sometimes arrive before your food. Food often comes out staggeredly, so it’s best not to wait for everyone to be served before eating. The bill will never be brought out unless it is asked for. We Westerners love our drinks out right away, our food short after, and the bill about 20 minutes later.
What I try to stress with groups is to consider dinner as a part of the whole experience rather than just something to be done before moving onto something else. This goes for the travel days as well. For me, the 18hour Bolivian train ride is just as much a part of the tour as going to see Iguazu Falls for example. The apocalyptic quantity of mosquitos found in the Brazilian wetlands of the Pantanal and the uncountable amount of bites they inflict on your legs can be more memorable than seeing the Christ Statue in Rio. People expect to love the big sights on the tour, but it’s the role of the guide to make sure they enjoy everything else along the way. (insert journey not the destination cliché)
Another big expectation, and the one that probably bothers us CEO’s the most, is the weather and animals. Discovery Channel shows and guidebook literature have permanently warped our perception of South America. As it turns out, wintertime is indeed possible to occur south of the equator, and it occurs during the months opposite that of ours in the Northern Hemisphere. In Buenos Aires or in Uruguay, this will surprise some, but the parts of Brazil our tours cover get it the worst.
People view Brazil as a perfectly sunny place, where it never rains, is teaming with packs of jaguars, flocks of toucans, herds of chimpanzees, and rivers of clown fish. Although this is slightly exaggerated (none of these things actually exist), you would be surprised as to how many view the country in this way. This is more so with the weather. It doesn’t matter how many sunny days you have had on a tour, more than two days of rain will always bring the “wow, I didn’t know how rainy Brazil is” or the “I can’t believe I’m wearing a coat in Brazil” or the “is this normal?” line from someone. Rain is indeed required to provide such lush and tropical (rain)forests, and lots of it. There is no rainy or dry season in Southern Brazil, just a more and less rainy time of year.
Brazil can be such a wildcard with the weather, that any attempt to foresee it leads to sure frustration. Partly cloudy means mostly cloudy, mostly cloudy means rain, a percentage less than 50% rain always means 100% and more than a 60% chance means sunny a beautiful day.
All of this for me, is an absolutely incredible experience down here that I wouldn’t trade for anything else at the moment. Four months in and I am still loving it.