There's a story everywhere you look, and Kim MacQuarrie has spent the better part of his life trying to find them.
The Las Vegas-based filmmaker and author has – among other things – lived with a hitherto uncontacted Amazon tribe, won Emmy awards for documentaries he's filmed, and – in his most recent effort – traveled the length of South America to find stories along the Andes mountains.
His latest book, "Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes and Revolutionaries," details his trek through the Andes of South America, traveling from northern Colombia to Tierra del Fuego.
This trip -- it's everyone's idea of a vacation?
"It was always in the back of my mind to do a big epic trip from north to south. You know, kind of link it all together and look for stories along the way. It was a dream I had and got put off for a bunch of years. Finally, I was looking for a book to do and I pitched the idea to my agent. He said, 'let's run with it.' One thing led to another -- signed a contract and took off."
What kind of transportation did you use for this trip?
"I used whatever was available -- from foot, from hiking to boats, to trains, trucks, in the back of trucks, cars, taxis, reed rafts, canoes, ferries -- you name it. Whatever I could find."
What are some of the interesting things about South America that people in North America don't know?
"Well, I think South America is kind of the little known continent, especially here in North America, for a variety of reasons. A lot of people's ancestry come from Europe, Asia, that kind of thing. So there are more links there, but now with the big influx of Hispanics, there is more and more interest in things south. It's a country of superlatives. It has the longest mountain chain in the world, largest river, largest rain forest, highest navigable lake, highest waterfalls, some of the highest biodiversity, had the largest native empire -- the Inca Empire -- that the world has ever known. It's a country of superlatives and so it's surprising that so little is known about it up north."
You met the last person to see Che Guevara alive while traveling in Bolivia. What was that experience like?
"She wasn't the last person to see him alive -- she was the last person to feed him, to cook him a meal and she conversed with him in the last 24 hours of his life. And that really impacted her life quite a bit. I heard about her down in Bolivia that, when Che Guevara was captured, he was taken to a little tiny village called La Higuera in Bolivia, in the Bolivian Andes. And he was thrown into a one-room schoolroom -- a little adobe schoolroom -- and there was a single teacher in there. A 19-year-old teacher who was there at the time. So she goes in there and here's this famous guerrilla, bound and wounded in her school room. So obviously, she started to chat with him and one thing lead to another. She brought him food. They had quite a lot of conversations. She was probably the only friendly person he met there."
What was it like to live in Peru during the insurgency of the Shining Path?
"It was quite a shock. It was like walking into a different world. It was like walking into a movie set -- especially at night when I first got in at the airport it was after midnight. So we drove -- the airport is outside of Lima. So I remember driving from the airport to downtown. All you saw were army trucks -- these troops with masks over their faces and these rifles. The taxi had to carry a little white flag on its antenna to show that it had a safe conduct pass. It was quite impressive."
You met with the last living member of the Yamana Indians?
"I realized that only one woman who spoke this language on the very southernmost village, at the southernmost part of the world on a little island on the tip of Chile. And I went and searched for her. She is about 80 years old now. She's the last speaker of the Yamani language now."
Are there natural parallels between modern stories and the myths of South America?
"Well, my background is both anthropology and biology, as well as writing and filmmaking. So, I kind of have a different look at it than some people. So evolution was discovered in some sense by the information Darwin found down there. That gives you a different paradigm. So, yes -- Pablo Escobar was a notorious thug and from rags to riches & became one of the richest billionaires in the world, but what background did he come from? Was he just one-off? Or what was the background of Colombia that could create the Medellin Cartel and that kind of thing? And if you really trace it back down, it was the introduction of the monetary economy by the first Europeans."
What was the most intriguing part of your trip?
"I grew up in Las Vegas and the frontier disappeared from here a long time ago. But I knew in South America, there was frontier down there. I knew there were uncontacted tribes and I was fascinated by that. So, I would say one of the things that fascinated me the most was not just that there was so many civilizations that come from South America -- some thousands of years of civilizations -- but there is in a very real sense a frontier there. The last frontier on earth is in the upper Amazon jungle."
He'll be speaking at the Flamingo Library on January 21 about his work.
Kim MacQuarrie, author
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