chamanThe sun is setting over Lake Titicaca, turning the sky several spectacular hues of crimson and gold. Perched high above the bay amidst some bizarrely hewn rocks-the ruins of an Inca astrological site-I’m taking part in an Andean Pachamama ceremony, offering gifts of coca leaves to the omniscient Earth Mother and protector.

The typical traveler who’s been seduced by the cosmic vibe of the place where-according to Inca legend-the sun and the moon were born, I’m hoping for some kind of meaningful, spiritual experience.

My friendly local guide, Ramón, is missing a few teeth but full of engaging facts about traditional practices. As we meditate over an assortment of symbolically shaped sugar tablets, then set them alight, I do my best to feel connected to the energies of the awe-inspiring surroundings.

Unfortunately, I’m struggling to calm my anxiously whirring mind, which is wondering what the hell I’m doing up a Bolivian mountain at night, alone with a strange man. Earlier, I mentioned my plans to the owners of my hostel, who said they knew Ramón, but now the paranoia is fighting for space with the desire to be profoundly moved.

When it comes to sipping from a flask of red wine- representing blood-drugged drink alarm bells start clanging. My receptivity to new sensations is further hampered by the cynical inner commentary that scoffs at all this as a load of hippy nonsense. After a star-shaped sugar tablet “just happens” to fall to the ground under the first star of the night, it all starts to feel a bit fake, and by the time the spirits christen me Rumi-meaning precious stone-and Ramón presents me with a plastic bead (supposedly from India, worth $100) I’m finding it hard not to snicker.

Despite increasingly resenting the stage-managed aspect of the ceremony, I see it through to the end, then tip Ramón. (Well, I didn’t want to be rude.) Since then, my contact with spirits has been mainly limited to a chilled glass of Bombay Sapphire, but I’m still open to experiencing something extraordinary, still seeking. . . .

Saucepan Socialism

Avenida de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires is a beautiful, wide, tree-lined boulevard linking the main government building with the presidential palace. I used to work at No. 1370, and almost every afternoon the office hum would be drowned out by the sounds of a rowdy demonstration slowly making its collective way up the street, horns trumpeting and megaphones blaring.

Some were hugely impressive, with hundreds of thousands of people mobilized to protest against a miscarriage of justice, such as the annual teacher’s march commemorating the death of chemistry teacher Carlos Fuentealba, an innocent victim of police brutality killed during a pay dispute in 2007.

However, much of the time the point behind the march is lost amid the general disruption, and the high volume of demonstrations can be seen to diminish their effectiveness as a political weapon. For many frustrated locals, stuck in a traffic jam behind a straggling procession of banner-waving marchers, any potential sympathy for the cause wanes when it’s the third time that week they’ve been held up on their journey home.

Cynics claim that the majority of the so-called protesters are in fact bussed in from the slums by interested trade unions, who give them a free meal and a few pesos before handing out placards to brandish and teaching slogans to chant. While there is probably some truth in this, it should also be noted that the protest culture is strong here.

Argentines enjoy a heated argument-perhaps due to their fiery Italian and Spanish origins- unafraid to loudly defend their place in the post office queue or to flare up over another driver’s irresponsible maneuvers. And protests did bring down a government in 2001, when citizens of all classes and ages, furious about the devaluation of the peso and the crisis of their economy, headed out into the streets banging saucepans, forcing the president to flee by helicopter from the roof of his palace. The power of the people should never be underestimated.