Walter Ng, NZTC Administration and Finance Manager, tells us about his recent adventures in Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina.
For many New Zealanders, South America is a fascinating but remote region, hard to get to and perhaps even dangerous – a destination that calls for a fair dose of intrepid spirit.
For Walter Ng, NZTC Finance Manager for more than 23 years, South America represented the perfect opportunity to reconnect with a language that he had studied in his youth while living in a shared flat and dreaming of travelling abroad and learning about foreign cultures.
“A few years ago I had a flatmate who was interested in travelling and learning about other cultures. We decided to study Spanish together and so we learned a few basic words, how to pronounce the language and read a little. I’ve been to Europe and found that one of my favourite places was Barcelona – I thought knowing Spanish would be a great help,” he recalls.
Keen to make a trip, Walter got together a group of six friends and relatives who decided to plan a journey that would take them to various remote and fascinating parts of South America over three weeks.
It was to be a trip that he describes as unique, magical and special, in which the group travelled to four countries – Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina – as well as making a stop in Santiago de Chile, where “we could take in the majesty of the Andes”.
Why did they opt for South America, when there are so many other places to choose from? “To begin with we hadn't included South America in our plans. We had intended to go somewhere in Asia, but then we remembered that we had been to Europe a couple of times, to America twice and to South-East Asia too - and it was when we were looking at prices that someone mentioned that there were some good deals going on flights to South America.”
That's how a trip that Walter had only ever dreamt of became a reality. The thing that really got him in the mood was the idea that he could get back into his Spanish studies from years ago. “I knew that of the seven of us I was the only one who spoke any Spanish, and although we had already come up with a good itinerary, I thought that I could help out with communication. As a matter of fact, this was one of the high points of the trip as far as I’m concerned. Being able to communicate with local people; helping resolve problems; organising our daily itinerary; talking with taxi-drivers and receptionists, in local markets, in restaurants when we ate out at night ... people were surprised to meet someone like me – an ethnic Asian, but a New Zealander – who could speak a little Spanish. It was a real treat, and I got a lot of compliments,” he recalls with a big smile.
When asked which were the most fascinating places that he visited, Walter answered without hesitation: Machu Picchu: “I was really excited to be able to do the famous Inca Trail. Making the climb and getting to know the history and the culture was really spectacular! We were very lucky to be able to do it. We could see the Inca structures and the famous terraces where the farmers built their houses. I had always imagined that it would be a difficult and demanding hike but it turned out to be very pleasant – something that anyone could do. I had also heard that the altitude could make it hard for us to make a lot of progress in each day's hiking, but it had no effect on me. There was only one night when we woke up with headaches and nausea, and we realised that it was because of the altitude.”
Arriving at the lost city of Machu Picchu, Walter was astonished to see what a vast area it occupied. He recalls making some fascinating discoveries, such as the fact that the quality of a person's house and the type of construction employed depended on that person's position in society; and that in order to reinforce the houses and make them more earthquake-resistant, doors and windows were built in trapezoidal walls – which had enabled them to survive for many years in an area of constant seismic risk. “I can't help but wonder why we don't adopt these trapezoid structures in Wellington” – Walter was amazed by how Inca civilisation was so much ahead of its time.
Another incredible experience was climbing Huayna Picchu, a large mountain located behind Machu Picchu, considered one of the five most dangerous in the world. “My sister counted her footsteps... there were more than 1000 steps! There was no railing or anything to protect us – but we did it and survived," Walter laughs. "Still, there were moments when the steps were so steep and narrow that we had to crawl. I can clearly recall seeing the steps winding down behind us and the clouds below; without a doubt the best thing was the incredible view.”
What was the most memorable thing about Ecuador? “The most famous part is the flora and fauna, which you can see only there. I was also pretty excited about seeing the giant tortoises. We went to the Charles Darwin Centre - Darwin based his theory of evolution on his studies in the Galapagos Islands. We were also able to dive and swim with the iguanas – it was all spectacular.”
Walter confesses that he would like to have spent more time in Brazil and Argentina, but only spent a few days in one city in each country. “But we were still able to appreciate the two cities. In Brazil we went to Rio de Janeiro, where we able to take in the view from the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Hill. While there we met with Fraser Robinson – a linguist and part of the NZTC team in Brazil – who was a great guide: very informative, friendly and helpful. Without question he made our time in Rio all the better. We saw the famous aqueduct and visited the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. In the distance we could see the favelas, the poorest parts of the city,” he recalls.
In Argentina, the food and the beauty of Buenos Aires did not disappoint. “I loved San Telmo, a very special neighbourhood of Buenos Aires and very lively on Sundays, with a little square where you can watch people dancing the tango. We also visited an antiques market and, of course, we bought some of the leather products, which are so reasonably priced and of such good quality. We had been advised to try the beef, and it turned out not only to be succulent and delicious but also served in huge portions. We also made it to La Boca, a neighbourhood famous for its colourful buildings, houses and restaurants, and even caught the end of a football match and saw the fans with their flags filling the streets, shouting and singing.”
After Walter had recounted each of the stories from his big family adventure, I asked him if he'd like to go back to South America. “Most definitely! South America is a great place to go because so much of its beauty is unspoilt. That's why three and a half weeks were only enough to get a first impression. I would love to have more time to spend in Brazil and Argentina, and – why not? – to other places too, like Bolivia, which we heard a lot of good things about during our trip, and Chile and Patagonia.”