If you were to believe my worried parents and the vast majority of my friends, South America is a horribly dangerous place. In their concerned eyes it would be only a matter of minutes before someone had drugged my Malbec and robbed me of my vital organs. However, the experiences I have had do little to support this notion.
It seems that as a 5 foot 10 she-giant I am rather a novelty in this land where no woman seems to reach a height above 5 foot 6. In fact, my entrance has been known to result in staring, pointing and uncontrollable laughter but its possible I just walk funny. Despite this, when the barely concealed laughter has petered out, they are are guaranteed to wipe away their tears of mirth and do all that they can to help me on my way.
It's as though the culture has a sixth sense that I am fairly clueless when it comes to navigating this foreign land. And when they discover I am a lone traveller, it is not uncommon for them to raise their eyes to the heavens and make the sign of the cross. Whilst tackling a particularly confusing border crossing between Chile and Peru, a fellow collectivo passenger was so taken aback to hear that I was going it alone that she held my hand and stroked it reassuringly the whole way. Once we had reached our destination safe and sound she proceeded to envelope me in a bear hug, kiss both my cheeks and stroke my hair before sending me on my way much like a parent would do when leaving their child at university for the first time. I was so touched, I almost cried.
At another time, I rather worryingly found that I was the only passenger heading to Ecuador on a Lima-bound bus. Being fairly concerned that I would fall asleep and wake up in a city 24 hours in the wrong direction I spent the journey fighting waves of tiredness in an attempt not to fall asleep. Between trying to focus my attentions on some appalling Damon Wayans monstrosity of a film and frantically looking out of the window for anything that vaguely resembled a bus terminal i was going mad. every time the bus stopped to let off passengers I would leap forward and ask the driver if this was my stop. My fellow ground floor passengers quickly caught on to my plight and enquired as to where I was going. When I told them that I was heading for Ecuador, the whole group erupted into a discussion about what I needed to do, none of which I understood. One lady took my hand, another went forward to speak to the driver on my behalf and I was soon safely at my destination. As the bus drove away all of the helpful Peruvians were waving and smiling at me, the whole experience was incredibly heart warming.
My favourite display of this kindness happened just a couple of days ago. After jamming my sizable bulk onto the most crowded local bus imaginable, I was in seconds offered seats by at least four different gentlemen. When I declined because it would have been far too difficult to take off my backpack, the man behind me held the bottom of my backpack up for the duration of the journey so as to lighten my load. Now that's chivalry. As it was impossible to see out of the windows because passengers took up every inch of air space, I was concerned that I would miss the landmarks that indicated it was time to battle my way to the front and get off. Evidently, my frantic head bobbing attracted the attention of a teenage boy who until that point had been conducting a deep conversation with his friend about zombies. I presented him with the detailed hand drawn map that a hostel owner had given me and he looked at me with a smile and said "I am Tony, Do not worry señorita, I will take you there". When the time came to disembark he cleared the aisle with a call of “gringita" and as the crowds parted, he took my hand and helped me down from the bus and personally escorted me to the terminal. We had a conversation in broken English in which I discovered that he had gotten off the bus four stops early in order to assist this sappy damsel in distress and in between the usual pleasantries he repeatedly asked if I needed him to carry my bag. When saying our goodbyes I thanked him and called him "my hero". Without missing a beat he answered "No Amy, you are my Princess", causing me to blush a little.
The encounters that I have had with these kindly locals have not only dispelled the rumours that you hear about this continent, but are also a wonderful reminder that the majority of people in the world just want to help you out. London would do well to remember this when tutting at tourists on escalators or shoulder barging them out of the way when they are consulting their maps in the middle of a crowded street. Trust in strangers, you might just be pleasantly surprised.