FOREWORD: This is a long, semi-rambling post—I guess entering a new country, adjusting to a new Spanish dialect (e.g. not Portuguese), and nearing the end of this journey has my fingers a’twitching. Hope something in the following brings Uruguay to you.
SPLIT PERSONALITIES (Brazilian-Uruguayan border)
Brazilians call the town ‘Chui’; Uruguayans call it ‘Chuy.’ Different spellings for the same duty-free whisky and DVD players. Like some old world boundry, when pirates and precious metals were the unofficial tools of diplomacy, the city is middle split by a pedestrian boulevard with a two-way road on each side. The fence and checkpoint barriers, far from real in the concrete and barbwire sense, are cultural, and probably more effective, whatever that means. Uruguayan Spanish to the south; Brazilian Portuguese to the north. Out of pride, or habit perhaps, each nationality sticks to their respective no-man-land as if controlled by an invisible electric fence, the same which yelp stuns dogs from using the neighbor’s lawn as an outhouse. Like amplified buzzing locusts a swarm of scooters along the roads, some with heavy cargo, tightly packed cardboard boxes stacked twice as high as the driver. Horse-drawn carriages abound too. Curiously, not once did I notice a minor exodus, no pioneer-style crossbreeding or liquorstore homesteading, not one license plate migration a degree north or south of this Latinized 38th parellel.
So open, free, and—gasp—non-exisistent was the border that I had to ask where to stamp my passport with Uruguayan officialdom. During these conversations with strangers, in Spanish and Portuguese and even English with a drunk that interupted and insisted on impressing me with his crisp ‘Hello sir’s, I learned the Brazilian side was significantly cheaper, so I ate and drank in Portuguese while interneting and sleeping for free in Spanish thanks to the generosity of the quiet yet accomodating Uruguayan firemen.
LOW SEASON, GHOST TOWN SEASON (Punta del Diablo, Uruguay)
This quaint beach town was my first real taste of Uruguay, an easy 58 kilometers slightly inland down a coastline that looks like the edge of a distant lake behind wheat-colored fields. Not since Colombia have I seen such a perfectly lonely, asphalted highway; not a single transport truck smogging the horizon, and the seven or eight cars that did pass all verred to the opposite lane with slow-motion waves from open windows, leaving me to shout invented lyrics into the headwind, above the concentrated decibels of my headphone’s instrumental music.
A Brazilian friend recommended Punta del Diablo. Exiting the highway onto the gravel road that unwinds from the home-dotted hillside down to sea level, it was easy to see why. (The 50,000+ people that flood the community of 1,500 permanent residents during the high season also see why). The entire area of forest and sandy soil had the welcoming aire of a spontaneously built treehouse; a triangle bungalow alongside a stilted two-story minimalist design; a traditional wood-and-shingle cabin next to a barn-red ranchhouse with double garage. Like the bordertown Chuy, the property lines seemed to be undefined and unofficial, or maybe non-existent, just neighborly pacts, rock-paper-scissor winners and losers. Throughout my travels through tiny Uruguay—a country the size of an average Brazilian state, through which I’ve pedaled seven—I was inspired by the simplicity of the coastal architecture and hope to incorporate elements into a future project, my shipping container home.
When asking around Punta del Diablo for a place to pitch a tent a well-connected, 30ish man offered me his front yard for free, then, after a mate and some crackers, a mattress in his home’s studio bedroom for 100 pesos per night, about US$5. I accepted and moved in within an hour of arriving to town. After pure Portuguese for almost a year, suddenly I found myself in the constant company of he and his friends practicing once again the abrupt, cutting pronunciation so peculiar to Spanish, as well as Uruguayan slang, most of which I had never heard. Apparently, we became such good friends during these 48 hours of mate sessions and drum circles that he thought it ok on Saturday night to bring his girlfriend into our shared bedroom—with me half-dreaming next to their king-size. I tried to sleep off the sounds but, as you can imagine, the love was hard to ignore. Money on the table, I left the next morning after an act-as-if-it-didn’t-happen coffee.
SURLY SPEAKS, SURLY ZENS (Castillos, Uruguay)
Thirty measily kilometers after escaping the thumps of a Sunday night sequel, it dawned on Surly that Buenos Aires, our final destination, was just a four-day pedal and boat ride away. When we stopped to browse a roadside jelly and dairy stand (pictured above), he refused to continue, protesting that “We have cheese and fresh air, why all this city talk?” He wanted to build, right there, a nudist ecovillage based on the principles outlined in the Book of Tea. In short, he busted his proverbial ball bearing. (Technical talk: the rear free hub imploded).
It was a serious affair. Surly wouldn’t budge, his back wheel locked up the way a toddler sits-in a candystore until knighted with a Snickers—only this furious toddler was made of CroMoly steel and anodized aluminum. Vaccum-sealed. Like cracking a vault with a toothpick, nothing doing. Since Surly was stubborn in his stayness, and Bob and I wanted to see La Boca, I was forced to act drastically.
En route to the closest smalltown on the rumored prayer that a bike mechanic existed there, a flash of spandex appeared on the horizon. Cyclists! Lycra! I stopped them, hand extended, like Superman detaining a train. In a remarkable twist of coincidence, the only knowledgeable mechanic in a 60 kilometer radius was in this group of Sunday morning cyclists.
During the next five hours Juan Carlos and I borrowed tools from neighbors, welded, hammered, twisted, swore, motorcycled to town to buy a new rear hub (pictured above), lunched with wife, got distracted by maps, plucked spokes from rim, threaded them painstakingly back, once, twice, thrice, tightened, greased, and bam, like magic, Surly wanted to roll south again—a lobatomy would have been easier.
BURNING BUSHES & CALL IN THE CALVARY! (Cabo Polonio, Uruguay)
The remote outpost of Cabo Polonio is accessible by jeeps the size of small monster trucks, each with double-decker seating to maximize profits and exaggerate the deeply rutted potholes into the very real feeling of capsizing, which, locals have discovered, makes travelers feel as though their money was well spent. Or, you can arrive via a pleasant three-hour hike across a mini Sahara. Leaving Bob and Surly behind, I took to the sand in a general diagonal direction toward a lighthouse that would appear “later, after the dunes.” The fisherman was impatient with my insistence for details, probably from conversations with previous tourists who also made a production out of what for him was a routine walk to the beach, a straight line through a sandbox.
On my back: two liters of water and everything needed to camp under the stars. (In Cabo Polonio there is no electricity, only the odd generator, and I was excited to observe a light pollution-free sky). In my mind, after an hour hike over dune ridges with views of the flat oil slick that is the Atlantic: the acceptance that illuminated by that five p.m. sun and in those wind-blown sands that nothing was real; oppositely, that anything was possible. A burning bush would not have filled me with the fear of God, though I kept my eyes peeled. The way the wind etched and faded lines behind from elevated pebbles and shells made the floor look like warp drive, alive with frozen fire and shooting movements; small spiders floated atop the desert like algae on ocean before my shadow scared them to the cool unstableness of their shifting tunnels below; and ants, if you squinted downward, were everywhere: how do they survive? What do they eat? From how far can they hear the squish of my footsteps approaching?
Most strange, however, was the mirage of a man in a boulder patch just three or four hundred meters away. His profile was clean, clear-cut, with human curves and a jutting jawbone—like the Neanderthal in the famous sequence which simplifies the monkey to man evolution as an increasingly vertical vertebrae. I stopped; the shock of another person in the desolation of the moment was surreal. Neither of us moved. The stillness was such that I wished for a rifle scope to verify what my eyes claimed to see, and my mind, tumbling over itself and not for lack of water, created a British Calvary in red uniforms to charge the enclave and weed out the Arab sentinel into the vulnerability of openness. I kept walking. The man still didn’t move; it was a rock afterall. Later, with the Cabo Polonio lighthouse in view, I looked back to see the undeniable outline of a naked human walking across the sand, his footprints like tear drops trailing behind him.
In Cabo Polonio I spent most of my time with international travelers at the cheapest hostel in town, a triangular beach house on the peninsula’s main sandy drag, the word “HOSTEL” painted boldly on the rooftop. The intrigue of so many life stories together and the hum of liberation when nobody knows you and you’ll leave tomorrow anyway hung about the bonfire in which eight nationalities talked and sang—terribly, then drunkenly—as a liter of rum in a two-liter Coke bottle circled the fire pit. It was great fun, educational even, because the type of person that visits such an offbeat patch of nothing is, by definition, a little offbeat themselves.
When I returned to the bike though, after once again crossing the silent mini Sahara, I realized, perhaps for the first time truly, that the ups and downs of long-distance touring, the days of content solitary stare that are punctuated with images of strangers in my mind and in my camera, the maneuvering through the always attacking distractions in order to arrive, eventually, to a goal whose original meaning shattered into a hundred lesser but no less important ones, all this and all the joy and indescribable knowing too that the silence entrusted to me, was preferable to a thousand such campfires and reckless carpe diem soaked in the easy grease of alcohol—basically, a mouthful of grapes to say: I heart Bob & Surly, that bike travel has become me.
TEACH A MAN TO FISH, KICK HIM OFF THE LAND (Laguna de Rocha, Uruguay)
And so it was that I pedaled confidently through the countryside having my cake and eating it too. I partied and repented with two flats and a tentless night; I took my lesson then stood back and shook my finger sternly at the teacher. Why, if the backpacker lifestyle is so enjoyable (which it is), would I turn-coat so easily on the fun? In a word, guilt. The backpacker lifestyle is not real; it’s sheltered from the very thing with which it wants to cuddle.
Uruguay is a poor country, I see that now. Where I once associated it with images of wealth and well-being in an against-all-odds continent, just as economists omit the favelas from their cheery Brazilian forecasts, I have since met Uruguayans, at least in the coastal region north of Punta del Este, who cannot bridge the widening gap between prices and salaries, who are struggling to make ends meet, not to pay for cable or buy a Kindle, but to feed their families. My gadgets, my still strong U.S. dollars, and Bob & Surly themselves remind me constantly of my priviledge, some of which I earned, most into which I was cosmically deposited. Life is not fair, I understand this all too well, but it has been fairer for me than for most, and sometimes the realities I’ve known and the realities I visit don’t mesh well in my stubborn head that won’t let things just be.
A family (pictured above) housed me for a night when I passed through the protected wilderness area, Laguna de Rocha. Welcoming me to their home, I was given a seat to fix a flat on their front porch area, kids and dogs and chickens at my feet. Under the wife’s watchful eye, I dissected the wheel while she talked about her life: she had never driven a car, bikes fish to market with a wooden crate balanced on the rear rack, and is no stranger to the danger of thorns and wild flowers. “He was born here,” she said, pointing to her proud husband who responded with a smile. “But a man has since bought this land, we don’t own it. He wants us gone but for the moment we keep fishing.” The next morning, when I pushed, literally, through the mile stretch of sandy marsh between the ocean and the lake, I kept looking at the water encroaching on both sides, amazed at my inability to find right or wrong in this duality of interests.
SOUTH AMERICA’S SOUTH BEACH (Punta del Este, Uruguay)
What can I say? Punta del Este is practically Miami Beach, only it’s raining and slightly more Spanish is spoken here. When I arrived yesterday the main highway leading downtown was ghostly empty due to the low season, and only slow, trolling BMWs and Lexus cars dotted the road, shopping the ‘For Sale’ signs in the luxury apartment building windows, also empty, that lined the desolate shoreline that stretched on in prickled, white-washed towers around the bend.
In the name of transparency, this is not a fair description of the city—less than twelve hours is not enough time to judge the backside of a penny; however, there are inklings of unhappiness beneath the Gucci and Tiffany & Co. facade (the two most predominate billboards): the streets are empty, even the residential neighborhoods that house year-round citizens; the elderly ladies walk with a stiff resentment of their old age, grasping for youth instead of embracing their life experience; and a tiered class system is notable in the dark-skinned wait staff and well-dressed, European-looking clientel. Perhaps Punta del Este is not that different from anywhere else, come to think of it. One thing is certain: I’m a far cry from the humble fisherman’s welcome of yesterday morning.
And since I hate to cut this blog with negative tones I’d like to end on a positive note. The truth is, despite my tendency to dip into the darkside of my observations, I’m happy, perhaps happier than I’ve ever been. With respect to the Uruguay that I’ve painted so unfairly black and white in such a short time period, I’m fascinated with how the country can be so visibly similar to the southern section of its northern neighbor, Brazil, while being so opposite in every way. This post, if you made it this far, was the release of my culture shock into the ocean breeze that blows just blocks from where I write. I’m going there now, with a smile, to breathe it all in.