Even though airline food is made for a small eater, in a miniature container with a small spoon, it is appreciated.
The man next to me feels like talking and listening costs me nothing.
One pleasure of travel is meeting other people who are travelling too. Some people travel for business and have little choice. Others travel because they like thrills. Some combine both business and thrills.
Luis confides to me, softly, that he immigrated to the U.S. from Uruguay thirty years ago and became an American. He self finances his own trips to Central and South America where he takes medical supplies to small towns and country folks who don’t have access to medical care. He organizes medical training sessions for leaders in little villages so they have skills to take care of their people’s health crisis for themselves.
Luis tells me about villages he has consulted in Guatemala and Chili, Peru and Nicaragua – all places I haven’t been yet.
When our plane gets to Lima and lands to pick up more travelers, Luis transfers planes to make his connections to San Salvador and New York. His wife doesn’t like to travel but doesn’t mind him doing what he loves as long as she gets some love too. Tolerant women are a blessing to their husbands.
I close my travel book on Uruguay and open the next chapter on Costa Rica.
Why, i ask myself, softly ,do I sometimes consider giving up a perfectly good life in my own country to be an outsider living in someone else’s country? Is there really a country better than the one I still call home?
Some questions have to be wrestled with,and, sometimes, it takes a big trip like this to get the wrestling match started.
Done with lunch, I wave good by to the Andes Mountains and wait for jungles and rain forests.
There are easy answers for most of my questions, but finding those easy answers doesn’t always come easy.
Being in transition is being a traveler.
You have one suitcase with clothes and an extra pair of walking shoes. You have a carry on bag with computer stuff, headphones, extra pens and paper, schedules, an umbrella, toothbrush, personal items. Your wallet and passport are in your levi’s left front pocket for safety. You hate to carry items you don’t need. Odds and ends make the trek heavier and clumsy.
Leaving Uruguay, en route to Costa Rica, our plane is thirty thousand feet up. We go west out of Uruguay, then up the coast of Chili with the Pacific in view, then cut back towards the Andes for a stop in Peru. There is no such thing these days as “straight as the crow flies.” We are going from Montevideo to Lima to San Jose.
Transit time is thinking time, sleeping time, re-charging time.
The best thing about transition is you are going to new places. The worst thing is you have to find a new bunkhouse, get unpacked, and invent yourself all over again.
Uruguay is in the rear view mirror and Costa Rica is dead ahead.
Costa Rica is an old friend.
All I remember of Uruguay is what went on between my left and right ears and what I got down on paper.
Wondering what this life all means is what other people do on the psychiatrist’s couch.
Lingering on the past, while barreling into the future, is a prescription for trouble.
Tourist days come in all kinds of packages.
You are sleeping in strange rooms, surrounded by people you don’t know, eating food on the go that your stomach doesn’t recognize. There is television in a different language, obsessing with schedules, making connections, keeping up a big river ride on a little inner tube.
Your tourist day is as free as you want to make it, but limited. You don’t have friends here.You don’t work or have responsibilities. You are passing through. How involved you want to get depends on your mindset.
Standing at the hotel desk listening to three hotel employees talk about Uruguay is an education.They know enough English to want to practice and I want to hear what they have to say.
Patricia is a hotel maid who lived in the U.S. but came back home to be with family. Veronica is one step away from becoming a Doctor and is studying to re-take a final board oral exam that has to be passed before she can practice. Virginia speaks very little English. As a tourist, you don’t always have a chance to know people in a country you visit. People in the tourist industry are unpaid and unappreciated Ambassadors for their country.
” It is hard, ” all agree. ” My paycheck, ” Patricia says, doesn’t even pay my rent. ” ” Without family here, it is really difficult. ”
Glowing reports about other countries often fall short. For people who hold Uruguay together by their daily work, economics is a daily rope climb in a daily obstacle course.
Even in Socialist countries, you still see people sleeping in the streets.
Their is a security blanket here for citizens, but it has holes.
With socialism, everyone gets a blanket, but there is only one size.
This coffee is cheap, but not the best.
You buy a dollar token at the hotel reception desk, drop it in a slot, slide a cup in position, choose your poison, push a button, and wait as a small drizzle of coffee fills your small paper cup. The machine knows when to cut off so coffee doesn’t go on the floor.
Things introduce themselves. You go about your business, not thinking about much, or looking for anything, and then something comes up like a present arranged by a benevolent cosmic force that knows you will be delighted. A bold colored sign on the coffee machine is such a present.
” Drink Coffee,” the sign exclaims, “you can sleep when you’re dead.”
While we are waiting for our expiration date, coffee makes waiting tolerable.
The sign takes me back to the fifties when even the thought of traveling to Uruguay was no where in my mind. Uruguay was just a country on old stamps in my dad’s collection in a box in the garage.
When you sleep in your childhood crib, you don’t have a clue where fate and your feet will take you.
Ciudad Vieja was not the very beginning of this Uruguay trip, but it was close.
It feels right to return to familiar landmarks, talk to some of the people I first met when I landed in Montevideo. This day I revisit Jesper and Olenthe, Maria, and Gabrielle at the Urban Heritage offices, and the girls at Punta Ballena Coffee Cup who have fixed me coffee every morning and tolerated my mangled Spanish.
The shutters to my former upstairs studio apartment are open and new tenants have moved in. Fires are stoked at the Mercado.There is a tango lesson in progress and people, some off cruise ships, some not, are grouped in the square. Rain has stopped and it is sunny.
This trip is like living in a big house with a lot of rooms. You move from one room to the next, but you never get out of the house.
From Montevideo to Punta Del Este, to Rocha, La Paloma, Piriapolis, Colonia De Sacramento, Colonia Swiss and Salto, Uruguay has shown me many faces.
I would never tell anyone to pass Uruguay up.
This trip is like trips most of us have taken, long days in transit with scattered, small, personal moments that bring truths when you polish them enough.
As one of my brothers likes to say, ” going on a trip makes coming home all the better. ”
Another brother’s favorite is, ” don’t let the door hit you when you leave. ”
Another brother likes to say, ” did you have fun? ”
If I had a sister, she would most likely, give me a sister kiss and hug and say, ” Welcome Home. ”
It would have been nice to have a little sister.
On a Montevideo city bus headed back to Ciudad Vieja, Christmas decorations catch my eye. I get off the bus to look at them closer.
This Plaza is not far from Independence Plaza. Today, there are spectators lounging on benches, not in any hurry to move down to Independence Plaza and face the huge imposing statue of General Artigas surrounded by government offices and fancy hotels.
This little intimate plaza belongs in Alice in Wonderland.
There is a funny looking Christmas tree that is so perfect it is not perfect. There are three pink flamingos in a pond that has nothing to do with Christmas but adds the right color. There is a balloon astronaut five feet above the ground. There is an airplane and little butterflies. A fountain that was dormant has been filled with water for the Holiday Season.
The most satisfying Christmas depiction I witness is three wise men on camels. There are some who doubt their is even one wise man in this world, but, that is too harsh. There may be as many as ten.
I sit on a bench and wait patiently for the wise men to say something profound. They don’t say a word, and that, to me, is as profound a statement as you can not make.
The Theatro Solis is a renovated landmark in Montevideo dedicated to performing arts, fine arts, and community awareness of the arts.
It was restored completely in the 1950s and looks now like it did in the 1800s. When you walk inside you are greeted by ushers and today is good because an English speaking tour is beginning and I am hustled along to join it. There is no charge and the two young ladies who take myself and a young man from New Zealand under their wings answer our most boring questions.
This theater, in its heyday, was where folks went who had reached the upper crust of society, or had aspirations to be there. The decision to be wealthy causes one to do things that bring wealth. Building museums or palaces becomes the thing one does when he or she has more than enough and wants to show the world he or she is a man or woman or man/woman of importance.
Located near Independence Square in Montevideo, in the shadow of the Artigas statue and mausoleum, this theater is not majestic. It looks like a Roman 7-11.
Our tour begins in a reception area just outside the theatre’s Presidential boxes reserved for the President, his wife, and important guests. Uruguay has never had a King or Queen.
From the reception room, we are shown into the theater itself. It has three different floors with individual boxes designed to give wealthy patrons a good view of the stage. The floor area facing the stage has seats like those in modern movie theaters.In the 1800’s this would have been the place to be for this cities well to do to be seen and heard.
From the main theater we move downstairs to another performing space suited to different kinds of performances. A trio comes on stage and sings, dances, and acts out a skit specially for us. Alana reminds us that Carnival is coming to Uruguay in January and it lasts a month with barrios competing for prizes. Festivities explode all over the city.
Culture never hurts anyone. Even the old pioneer American West had Shakespeare mixed with opera and can can girls.
You can’t say you have been anywhere unless you go a few places guide books say are indispensable. This cultural icon is one of the places favorably mentioned in all the guide books I have researched,
After my little tour today , know I have arrived in Uruguay.
One might think getting peanut butter in Uruguay is easy.
When your taste buds get the best of you, it becomes a scavenger hunt to satisfy your suddenly nostalgic taste buds.
The only place I have found peanut butter in Montevideo has been at the Frog, a small mini-grocery you find in small Montevideo neighborhoods where Americans hang out.You guess the Frog carries peanut butter because tourists want it, but I want to shake the purchasing agent’s hand, or give her a kiss anyway for having it on the shelf.
Uruguay is one of the most kissing places on the planet. Men kiss women, men kiss men, women kiss men, women kiss women. It is natural as breathing to see citizens place a big smooch on an open cheek, like a mosquito coming in for a landing. There is little sexual about it. It is sweet but disconcerting to an American who doesn’t see much public affection in the states, where everyone tends to look straight ahead and walk like they are models.
I know I am ready to go home when I am thinking of a salad bar, a great American hamburger, some barbecue ribs, a plate of green enchiladas with salsa and chips, a Chinese buffet with General Tao’s chicken and great green beans.
The peanut butter jar goes into my suitcase to go to Costa Rica tomorrow.
I am especially looking forward to the fantastic breakfast buffet at the Hotel Aranjuez in San Jose.
Waking up to a fresh cup of Costa Rican coffee, a made to order omelet, fresh fruit and pastries you cannot not like, is long overdue.
I can’t move to a country that doesn’t feed me right.
Pocitos doesn’t awake until ten in the morning.
My first time past the little diner on the corner, a block from the beach, the sign in the window says Cerrado. Doubling back, Albierto is now in its place.
A plaque on the exterior says this establishment, in one form or another, has been open since 1910. A lot can go wrong in a century and surviving progress is not for sissies.
Seated, I do a leisurely check of my E-mails, send a couple of text messages.
My bill for a coffee and a small glass of water is seventy eight pesos. With a tip, the total is a hundred pesos, or somewhere south of five U.S. dollars. My bill is speared on a little nail, and, for a moment, seems to nail down Uruguay accurately.
What we all want is 1950’s prices to come back.
Many accommodations I have stayed in here have had a bidet. You see them in other countries, but I never remember seeing as many as there are in Uruguay.
There have been issues.
In bathrooms, bidets occupy the spot closest to the shower. The toilet is shoved in a corner so when you open the door to enter or leave the bathroom the door gets in the way of you getting to the toilet. The bidet is not something I use so its position of authority in the bathroom is questionable.
In the Ramon Massini Suites in Pocitos, I take a minute to see how one of these contraptions works. Unthinking, I pull up a little handle and get a geyser shot of water spray into my chest.
Subsequently, I go to YouTube and get a first hand explanation of bidets, how they work and proper bidet procedures. There are also units of instruction on using Indian toilets and other methods of taking care of dirty business. It brings back memories of Thomas Crapper, an Englishman, who designed the first toilet in England.
After my experience with the bidet, I resolve to leave them alone.
.Now, I enter the bathroom, close the door, sit on my throne with as much dignity as I can compose.
When you see bidets and realize that half the humans in the world are significantly different from you, it gives a new meaning to the words ” foreign relations.”