Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vacación Uruguay

For a country I’ve heard very little about and a vacation I’d planned last minute, Uruguay is everything and more than I could have imagined. In fact, my vacation to Uruguay was so wonderful that I can see myself actually living in Montevideo sometime in the future. Note: I do NOT say that about many places.

My vacation started with a 15-hour bus ride from Encarnacion, Paraguay to Montevideo, Uruguay. A large tour bus with seats that sprawled into beds, in transit movies, and a mere five passengers… the minute I started my journey I was already smiling. I got to know everyone on the bus during our first stopover dinner just outside of Posadas, Argentina. Two Uruguayans, one Paraguayan, and an Australian globetrotter were to be the first of my new friends on this trip. We told stories and jokes, shared snacks, and admired the scenery as the sun rose over the grassy plains that comprise the countryside of northern Argentina and Uruguay. By the time we had arrived, Ramon from Punta del Este was taking us out for authentic Uruguayan lager and traditional desserts. Such is the hospitality of these lovely people. My first local bus ride revealed an immediately striking difference between this Latin American country and the one I currently reside in. Development does some amazing things. For one, I actually had a seat on the bus, the ride was smooth over paved roads and with proper suspension, there were real bus tickets printed out after you paid, and there was even a scanner for bus passes! Wow! In Ciudad Vieja, things just got better and better with pedestrian zones cobblestoned with tiny booths and shops scattered about, tree lined boulevards, people of all races and multiple languages going to and fro, traffic laws actually obeyed so that a pedestrian need not race across the street to avoid being run over, trashcans on every street corner…. peaceful, tranquil.

That afternoon I took a nap at my hostel (I highly recommend the El Viajero hostels along the coast- clean, friendly, fun, chill) and upon waking immediately entered into conversation with people from around the world in English, Spanish, and even Portuguese (so similar to Spanish I can actually understand some of it- if it is Brazilian mind you). I’d like to shout-out to some of these truly outstanding people, as they helped me to remember that the world is so very much bigger than my small Paraguayan pueblo. Thank you Colin, Pierre, Cybil, Rui, Andre, Daniel, Manuel, Amy, Rodrigo, and those whose names I don’t remember but were equally awesome!!! After a round of beers, I headed off with a new French friend to dinner and a walk on the rambla (boardwalk) to watch the ocean waves. It was then that an unexpected twist came into my lovely first day. Sitting on the rocks of the shore watching the tide come in and engaged in friendly banter there suddenly came some commotion down the street; ambulances and flashlights appeared along the beach. Not wanting to get in the way, we continued to mind our own business until probably an hour later a body was being carried by. Apparently someone had fallen from the rambla to his death. Now a bit ill at the thought, my new friend and I stood up to leave and were shortly afterward approached by two suspicious-looking fellows on the rambla wall. At first they asked what had happened, kindly advised us that we were in drug-dealing territory, proceeded to offer us a sale (which we refused), and then pointed out the many many large rats indeed scrambling along the beach. Safely back on track to the hostel, I laughed… Welcome to Uruguay!

Luckily, my first evening was the most adventurous of all of my remaining days in Uruguay. From there on in, it was some of the smoothest sailing ever. I met up with a new friend every day in Montevideo to bike the rambla in search of the best seafood and relaxing beaches. We explored a bit of the city and nightlife, had great debates with fellow travelers on everything from the famous fútbol stars to international politics, and slept in every morning. Ahhh… what a vacation should be. Mixed in to it all, I also met up with an old friend from the UK for dinner and to admire/poke fun at the quincinera dresses sported in photo shoots in front of the gorgeous Teatro Solis. As I packed my bags after my five days in the capital, I felt a little remorse leaving what now oddly felt like home. I knew the staff and the guests like old friends and could hardly bear starting over again in a new city.

It was off, however, to Punta del Este to hang out in Uruguay’s largest beach resort town. Tall buildings brightly colored by the night, “Los Dedos” sticking out of the sand into the Atlantic air, and packed beaches was the theme. Once again, I immediately came to meet a bunch of amazing travelers- this time virtually all from Brazil. I got to work on my Portuguese a bit more intensely these days and also learned a lot about Brazilian lifestyle. My roommates, for example, were self-proclaimed Brazilian male strippers (I struggle to believe they were not a little tipsy during our first encounter). Goodness, I just don’t know how they can keep partying without ever seeming to sleep! The first evening, we went to an outdoor Shakira concert and danced in the streets with thousands of fans. The next day it was beach hoping and napping. I even managed to get a swimsuit tan! That night we chilled at the hostel with the southern wind blowing by. This was to be my last night in Uruguay; I slept a bit anxious with thoughts of a long return ahead of me.

As I said, that WAS to be my last night in Uruguay. However, the next day I trudged to Montevideo to find that the only bus back to Paraguay had been canceled due to Carnaval. “Great… so typical,” I thought bitterly. And then after a few emails and an hour of problem-solving I thought… “Great! Now I can go see something new!” So it was off to Colonia that afternoon for an extra and unexpected treat. Colonia is the only Portuguese-founded settlement in Uruguay and was setup as a smuggling town for goods into Buenos Aires just across the river. The old town has been mostly preserved from its former days including the cobblestoned roads, lighthouse, city wall with drawbridge, and the oldest church in the country. A city full of history and beauty. It was here that I spent my real last night in Uruguay watching the sun set over Buenos Aires, drinking a glass of Uruguay’s unique tannat wine, eating the final fresh fish I will likely see in a long while, and enjoying the colonial atmosphere of my hostel. What a perfect way to end a vacation.

My bus ride home the next day was longer than the first at 21 hours, having to go all the way to Asuncion, but was equally enjoyable in many ways. More passengers this round from Israel, Switzerland, Uruguay, Paraguay, and more- I had plenty to talk about and learn. Now, too, I had become good at managing and translating multiple languages and was soon a link for many friendships made that ride. Back at the all-too-familiar terminal in Asuncion, we exchanged numbers and departed.

The lingering impact of my first South American travel adventure: a smile and a global connection. Uruguay- you will be dearly missed, but I will not forget you!

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