January 23, 2013 by southerninversion
Waking up early, with a clear head, has never been a strong suit of mine. I have never been described as a morning person. More often, I wake in a dense fog, and I must allow several hours and a cup of coffee to be coherent. A week ago Thursday was a similar story. The night before I had decided to join my friend Daniel Chuquín, to escape the chaos of the city of Buenos Aires, and the stress of a relationship gone awry, that I had endured the week prior. So I bought a ticket through Colonia Express, a simplified version of the Buquebus tour boat company, to Montevideo, Uruguay. I left sort of expediently that morning with a brief, yet solemn goodbye to Ana, for what I thought at the time could’ve been the last. After I took the collectivo bus to the wrong location first, I then scrambled to grab a taxi to the correct terminal. I jumped in another one of the long, endless filas or colas that are typical in South America, (waiting lines), to board the next catamaran ready for departure.
While en route on the bus to Montevideo, after landing at the port in Colonia, I sent Daniel an email to confirm if he was still in town. He responded stating that he was staying at a hostel in the Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo, near the beach, and that he would reserve a room for me. Daniel and I met in mid November at a hostel in El Bolson, prior to randomly reuniting a few weeks later on the strawberry farm in Lago Puelo, that we both worked at. He is 30, a native spanish speaking Colombian, yet has spent, roughly, the past 17 years growing up in the United States. He had spent the past month hanging around the beaches throughout Uruguay and had sent me an email a few weeks back, encouraging me to spend some time with him, exploring the Uruguayan national parks that dot the picturesque coastline. Additionally, he was awaiting the arrival of his close friend, Devin and his longtime girlfriend Courtney, who were coming to visit from Virginia with the same agenda. Devin and Daniel are fellow students in a biological engineering masters program at Virginia Tech University, each respectively wrapping up their final thesis projects, and ready to graduate.
When I arrived in Montevideo, the bus terminal was also part of a large mall complex, with shopping encompassing the entire upper floor. I passed through the mall to the other side and exited towards the bus stop to catch the bus to Los Pocitos. A few minutes later, I realized I had missed my stop after looking at my GPS map on my cell phone. The blinking dot of my current location was far adrift from where I had originally intended. Therefore, I got off at the next stop. I was really hungry because I hadn’t eaten all day due to the exorbitant prices of everything on board the boat/bus trip. I bought a small bottle of water in the terminal and it cost $25 Argentinian pesos, or $5 dollars U.S. Leaving the bus stop, I ended up at this small cafeteria, where I found the first really healthy meal I had eaten in a while; spinach torta with a small salad including beets, carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I left feeling pleased and grateful for the misdirection. I then asked for directions and talked with a pregnant lady for a while at another bus stop about Uruguay and places to visit, (she was emphatic about the coast near the province of Rocha, farther to the northeast).
My healthy meal from the random cafeteria in Montevideo.
Finally, I ended up at the hostel and was greeted by a cheerful Daniel, who was more than ready to head down to the beach, just a few blocks away, and drink a few liters of beer, with a crew from the hostel. The beach in Montevideo is nothing special. The water is the color of turbid mud and doesn’t yield much desire for swimming. I spent three days on the beach before relenting to the sun’s heat and swimming in the dirty looking water. We sat on a blanket, actually mire of a poncho type, woven garment Daniel had bought in Ecuador and we soaked up the powerful Uruguayan sun. The beach scene there is tranquil but slightly compact and crowded. Most beach goers can be seen with a mate cup in hand, sipping away peacefully. Otherwise, they’ll be carrying the thermos that goes along with it for the instant hot water refills. Mate, (green herbal tea) here is out of control, and many people here debate the consumption as being greater than that of Argentina, which is hard to fathom. Additionally, the Uruguayans savor their mate and regard it for personal consumption, often reluctant to share with others. Whereas, the Argentinians view it as a communal ritual, and offer it to others generously.
The people at the hostel were all pretty cool, apart from this conspiracy theorist Canadian guy, who kept elaborating on various plots by the American government to bring about the apocalypse. This older, balding/long haired gentlemen, kept searching relentlessly on his laptop computer for new, sketchy information on global events. All the while, unfortunately without his shirt on, effectively emanating his outrageously rank body odor to any poor soul that passed his way. Outside of this guy, there was the typical display of hostel types: a young German guy, a few French people, some Brazilians, several Argentinians from Buenos Aires and Cordoba, and two really cool Chilean girls, Nacha and Caro, who later became buenas amigas during the next several days.
On Friday, I went with Nacha and Caro down to the local beach at playa grande, and somehow I failed to put sunscreen on my legs, or back, thinking it was no big deal. In less than two hours, I was thoroughly fried, but I didn’t quite realize it until we got back to the hostel, to meet up with everyone for our ‘city tour’. The impromptu tour was guided by this middle aged Argentinian guy, Manolo, who had spent many years conducting tours in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. We all caught a bus to the center of downtown to begin the tour, to see the main plaza, the various warhorse/soldier statues, and traverse through the cobblestone streets of the historic colonial district. Manolo provided the soundtrack, in Spanish, to give relevance to the various buildings, statues, or plazas we came across. Any time we came in contact with direct sun rays, I was hiding in order to avoid any further sunburn. After a fair amount of walking and a few shared liters of cerveza, we continued down to the shipping port, before catching the bus back to the hostel. We were trying to get back in time to attend one of the numerous free outdoor concerts happening that night for some particular reason, but we were a little late. Instead, we spent another night hanging out under the stars on the rooftop terrace, as this Argentinian guy sang songs and played the guitar late into the night.
The next morning I slept in as late as possible and then went to the feria (open air street market), with Daniel, Devin, and Courtney. I bought a couple of random artisan crafts from the vendors; an wooden frog noise maker/instrument, and a green leather encased mate cup made from calabaza (squash gourd). We also bought some fresh vegetables from the farmers market and some merluza (mackerel) filets to cook for lunch. After eating a late lunch, we all had aspired to visit another beach farther north just outside the city, in search of a more picturesque locale and cleaner, clearer water. But because it was the late afternoon, everyone apart from Nacha and Caro, and I, decided to return to the playa grande for a few hours. So the three of us took the bus headed north. I was sitting alone, across the aisle from the two Chilean girls, messing with my iphone, probably working on my blog about the last week in Argentina.
It took us approximately 20 minutes to get to our destination, and when we got up to exit the bus, I reached down to grab the bag of beach items I brought; towel, sunscreen, and food for the journey. In the process of leaving, I had put my iphone in my shorts pocket, that was both shallow and made of a synthetic rayon type material, where it apparently slipped out and eventually ended up on the floor of the bus. However, it wasn’t until we had walked from the bus stop, all the way to the beach, that I realized I had lost my iphone. I was going to take a picture of Caro and Nacha standing on this ledge overlooking the dunes. I felt my shorts pockets, looked in my bag, and then I started to panic. It’s weird being so reliant on cellular phone. In fact, I don’t even realize how much I use it sometimes, and in general how much cell phones, and smart phones are a part of our society. Additionally, it’s not only isolated to the U.S. In Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay people are constantly walking around or sitting at restaurants alone or with friends, with their heads down, engrossed their phones. The concept ‘screen time’ wasn’t even relevant 10 years ago and now its a household term.
As the panic began to sink in, I wanted to retrace my steps from the bus stop down to the beach, to determine if it had fallen out of my pocket or my bag, or if I set it down, assuming we had stopped. At this point, Nacha and Caro were so kind and responsive. They helped me figure out the best plan of action, being that the most obvious choice, to just simply call the number was not possible, because Nacha didn’t bring her cell, and Caro’s cell plan was out of usable minutes to make the international call. Plan B, was to ring some doorbells and knock on doors of the surrounding apartments and houses until someone could help us. Finally, after a few failed attempts, Nacha was smart enough to ring the doorbell of the nicest house on the block. A middle aged lady opened the door and walked to her wrought iron gate. She offered to let us use her ipad, as I thought I could track my iphone with one of the digital tracking device applications installed into the software. This was not working however because she needed to download the applications to her device and she didn’t know the passcode. Eventually, she let us make the international call to my cell phone and a man answered on the other end. He stated that he simply found the phone on the bus and picked it up with the intention to return it, when the owner was able to contact it. We notated his address and planned on taking a taxi to his address, but the lady insisted on driving us in her new red Volvo.
After getting the phone back, I was both incredibly overjoyed at the beauty of the human compassion from everyone involved in my mishap, and overwhelmed, feeling like an idiot for not only losing my phone, but for putting my new friends, this poor lady, and my family through the hassle and turmoil of the situation. My sister Heather had tried to call me during this hour or so when my phone was in the hands of a stranger. When he answered the ‘facetime’ call (video phone call), she thought the worst, that maybe I had been kidnapped or something worse had happned to me. So she immediately contacted my parents, and my siblings, who were extremely worried, but finally able to have my brother-in-law’s friend, Joe, a fluent Spanish speaker,call the guy to straighten out the situation. All in all, it was a valuable lesson in a few respects; to keep safeguard of all valuable items when traveling (which I had done, up to that point), to keep in touch with my family more often, so that they know my whereabouts, and to relish the fact that there are still so many good, honest, valiant people in this world.
After another late night in Montevideo, Daniel, Devin, Courtney, and I set out for the exploration of northeastern coastal paradise of Uruguay on Sunday. We got a late start as usual, intending to leave in the morning, then at 2pm, and finally purchasing tickets for the 4pm bus to La Pedrera, just south of Cabo Polonia and some of the most famous stretch of beaches in the country. We left from the mall/bus terminal and arrived just after dark to this small beach town, crowded with college age kids on summer break, filling the unpaved, sandy dirt roads of the main town centre. We then had to hike about 30 or 45 minutes to the beach campground where we planned on camping. We paid our dues and collected the necessary permits and headed through a dense jungle cannopy, along a small creek, over rickety wooden bridges, to our campsite; all while being seranaded to the sounds of the strangest cricket or frogs I’ve ever heard. This became the ongoing joke over the next several days as the collective voices of the frogs had the feeling that they were all laughing at you. The sound being a symphony of ‘wah wah wah’s’.
The beach at La Pedrera was beautiful and far less crowded than the city beach. Additionally, the water was actually clean and clear. You couldn’t see all the way to the bottom, but that was more due to the ferocity of the waves crashing down, the undercurrent, and the strong riptides that threated to suck you out, if you went in too deep. Adjacent to the beach, were outcroppings of vertically laden rock sediments, with the appearance of millions of years of weathering and erosion. We all went to lay on the beach for several hours, but not before I lathered and double coated my body in sunscreen, to avoid the persistently harsh, incredibly powerful rays of the sun beating down. Despite enduring some teasing and ridicule from the others, I was definitely not trying to get burnt a second time. This was almost ironic because Daniel, being Colombian, and Courtney, 1/4 Cherokee Indian, neither had to apply sunscreen, and if they did it was only on their face and shoulders. After three days of this, I maintained my medium shade of whiteness, with splashes of burnt red skin patches, while they turned a ridiculous shade of reddish brown.
Most of our days on the beaches in Uruguay were spent with a liter or two of beer in hand, never enough to actually catch a buzz, but just enough to have something relatively cold to sip on. Either due to boredom, or the desire to play beach games without any proper equipment, we created our own game similar to ‘horseshoes’. Except instead of horseshoes and metal stakes, we used flip flops and liter size beer bottles respectively. The name of this new game we aptly entitled ‘flop shot’. The basic rules were that of horseshoes, except with a few differences in scoring. For example, if the slicing flip flop toppled the bottle to the sand, that was an impressive three point score, and surprisingly difficult to achieve, given the minimal weight of the sandals, and the power of the wind. If it was solely touching the bottle, it was a two point score, and within a flip flop’s distance to the bottle, merely one point. Flop shot proved to be a winner. We each developed our own style of throwing and even tactical strategy to knock your opponents flop from scoring position. Needless to say we had alot of time on our hands.
The final stop on the grand coastal tour of Uruguay, was the Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, which lies a few kilometers north of the resort/party town of Punta del Diablo. We were again staying in a beach camping setting, except this time it was much more remote, and easily 20 to 30 times the size and scale of the last campground. We opted for the sites closest to the beach, yet still under the protection of the forest cannopy. Each night during our camping stay, I acted as chef extraordinaire, and whipped up a few tasty meals with only meager provisions. The meals consisted of steak and potatoes with peppers and onions the first night, a cabbage and squash curry served over rice the second night, then a spicy speghetti dinner with vegetables and tomato sauce. The final night I had run out of food to prepare so I bought bread and chorizo from the small market on site and proceeded to grill choripan over the fire, a simple Argentinian parilla type feast. The final day I was with the crew in Santa Teresa, we went for an extremely long beach walk, probably the longest of my entire life, possibly encompassing 15 to 20 kilometers. When we arrived at the third or fourth stretch of coastline, we came upon another camping settlement, complete with a larger market and a restaurant, so we decided to hang out for a while. They were renting surfboards on the beach, so Daniel and I decided to try our luck in the monstrous surf. I spent most of my time just trying to get out to where the waves were breaking, and in the process, probably swallowed at least a gallon of salt water. I somehow managed to catch about 3 waves and actually surfed for all of about 10 seconds collectively. I forgot how extremely hard this sport is, and was proud of myself for achieving this feat.
After surfing we took the long walk back, along the inland road that winds through the abandoned villages of ancient Santa Teresa. We passed the magnificent Fortaleza, built by the Spanish in 1762, and still immaculately preserved. We then passed by the old ruins of another establishment, built after the time of the fort in the 1800’s, that had burnt down many years ago. A few kilometers later,we passed through the pajarera, or a makeshift zoo, complete with chimpanzees, various farm animals, exotic birds of all types, and of course talking parrots (pájaros). Once we finally turned down ‘the long and winding road’ to get back to the campsite, I was relieved to be so close, even as nightfall set upon us. Additionally, I was extremely grateful for all the good company that I was fortunate to spend my week with, and happy that I chose to come to Uruguay in the first place.