EVER woken up suddenly in a dark room and, for a moment, been unsure which continent you were on?
It happened to me a few times over the last month and during one of those occasions, I flicked the clock radio on to see what language people were speaking in. It was all Spanish, so I figured I must still be Buenos Aires.
South America was a hoot. I was there for three weeks and I loved it. I was pleasantly surprised by the way that Australians are perceived in Colombia and Argentina. At 188 centimetres, with almost platinum blond hair, it was very clear to all in South America that I was a long way from home. Most of the locals thought I must have been “Americano”, but when I responded with the words “soy Australiano” I was greeted with wide smiles.
In Spanglish, the people on the streets told me that they love Australia… and I was surprised by their grasp on our geography. On many occasions, when I offered the information that I lived in the Australian capital, they responded with “Can-Berrr- A”.
Latinos were somewhat unclear as to who the Prime Minister was. Gustavo, in Buenos Aires, told me that he was certain John Howard was our current el Presidente. I just let him roll with that.
I gave many lessons on the correct pronunciation of this town and gave away a helluva lot of 50-cent pieces. People seemed fascinated by our 50-cent piece and if given one they treat it like a nugget of gold.
One of the great differences between here and there was the traffic. Bogota, Colombia is crazy… “trafico es loco!”
Driving in this eight-million strong city is just a massive free for all. Even the painted road lanes do not apply. If Northbourne Avenue was in Bogota there would be six-lanes of traffic – each way! You don’t give way to anyone and, unless you are prepared to push your car in front of oncoming cars, you will never be able to turn against the traffic.
Bogota is the classic of example what happens when you don’t plan for the growth of a city. There is a bus service, some of it in designated bus lanes, but it doesn’t help much.
Traffic in Buenos Aires is much more manageable, mainly because it’s supported by an extensive subway network and massive freeways. The population of the greater metro area of Buenos Aires is 12 million, but it was much smaller when the decision was made before World War I to start building the subway.
If there is a lesson to learn from my traffic experience in South America it is that the best time to build a public-transport network is well and truly before you need it. Maybe it’s time to talk light rail in Canberra again.