Even though airline food is made for a small eater, in a miniature container with small utensils,it is appreciated.
The passenger seated next to me feels like talking as he eats, listening costs me nothing, and, at 30,000 feet up,I’m not going anywhere except where this plane goes.
One pleasure of travel is meeting other people who are travelling too. Some people travel for business and have little choice about their trips. Other people travel because they like thrills and can pick their destinations. Some lucky people manage to combine both business and thrills.
Luis confides to me, softly, as I peel back my lunch container’s cover, 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 and runs medical training sessions for leaders in little villages in remote areas so they can take care of their health crisis themselves when they inevitably happen.
Luis tells me about secret hidden villages he has consulted in Guatemala and Chili, Peru and Nicaragua – all places I haven’t been yet but probably won’t ever see because I don’t have a reason to be there.
When our plane reaches Lima and lands to pick up more travelers,he transfers planes to make his connections to San Salvador and New York. His wife doesn’t like to travel and didn’t want to come with him but she, he says, doesn’t mind him doing what he loves as long as she gets his love and attention too. Tolerant women, I believe, are a big blessing to their husbands.
On the runway waiting for passengers to leave and others to board, I close my travel book on Uruguay and open the next chapter which will soon be Costa Rica.
Why, I ask myself, in rational moments like this, still stuck in the plane’s belly, 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 always return to?
There are easy answers for most of my questions, but finding those answers doesn’t always come easy for me.
After talking with Luis, an easy question to ask is why do some people feel a need to give back while others just focus on taking?
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 pants left front pocket for safety. You hate to carry items you don’t need because odds and ends make your trek heavier and less simple.
Leaving Uruguay, en route to Costa Rica, our plane is thirty thousand feet up. We fly 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 as a flight,these days, that goes “straight as the crow flies.”
Transit time is thinking time, sleeping time, re-charging time.
The best thing about transition is that I’m going to new places. The worst thing is that I have to find a new bunkhouse, get unpacked, and invent myself all over again.
Uruguay is in the rear view mirror and Costa Rica is dead ahead.
All I have left of Uruguay is what went on between my left and right ears and what I got down on paper or on my camera.
Lingering on the past, while barreling into the future, is behavior I don’t want to be guilty of.
I don’t ever want old places to spoil new places.
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 for me to understand what they are saying and I want to hear what they have to say.
Patricia is a hotel maid who lived in the U.S. but came back to Montevideo 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 her passion. Virginia, another maid, speaks very little English but nods her head when she agrees with what another in the conversation has said. 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.
There is a security blanket here, but it has some holes.
To achieve what they want, people, around the world, still have to work hard, no matter what kind of government they have.
This coffee is cheap, but not the best.
You buy a dollar token at the hotel reception desk, drop the token in the coffee machine’s slot, slide your cup in position, choose your poison, push a button, and wait as a small drizzle of coffee fills your paper cup almost to the top. The machine knows when to cut off so coffee doesn’t go on the floor.
Things introduce themselves all the time. You go about your business, not thinking about much, or looking for anything, and then something comes your way like a present arranged by a benevolent cosmic force that knows you will be delighted. This bold colored sign by 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 the waiting tolerable.
This 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.
If i had known where I was going, when i was in school, I would have paid more attention.
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.
Hugs and kisses cure a lot of aches and pains.
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 there 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 the 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 to visit 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 Uruguay society, or had aspirations to be there. 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 person of importance.
Located near Independence Square in Montevideo, in the shadow of the Artigas statue and mausoleum, this theater is not majestic for me. It looks to me like like a Roman 7-11.
My tour begins in a reception area just outside the theater’s Presidential boxes that are reserved for the President, his wife, and important guests.
From the reception room, we are taken into the theater itself. This performing space is three floors high with individual boxes designed to give wealthy patrons a good view of the performance from any spot in the large room.
From the main theater we are ushered downstairs to a much smaller performing space suited to smaller kinds of performances. A trio comes on stage and sings for us, dances, and acts out a specialty skit. Alana reminds us that the Montevideo Carnival is coming to Uruguay in January and it lasts a month with barrios competing for prizes. Carnival festivities will explode all over the city and there will be extravagant goings on throughout the city.
I’m glad ,when we are done, to have had a chance to see a piece of Uruguay’s culture. Even the old rough pioneer American West had Shakespeare mixed with opera and can can girls. I can’t say I have arrived in Montevideo without seeing a few guide book places. Going to the Big Apple without going up in the Empire State building, for instance, would be a major faux pas.
After my little tour today, my name has been recorded in an official visitor’s notebook signed when I first entered the building.
Next time down to Montevideo, I’ll come back and take in a real play here.
I bet there is gum stuck under the theater seats, and my guess is that it wasn’t put there only by kids.
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, or have peanut butter in more than one grocery store..
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.
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.”