On the overnight bus to Montevideo, Uruguay, I reach a new low. Literally. I have tasted the sweetness of sleeping despite being on a bus, and I need more. I wrap a large book in my sweatshirt, then lay on my side with my head propped in my paperback pillow. Sleeping proves impossible on the first leg, and the bus passengers unload, sans luggage, to check into Uruguay. Despite the extensive searches entering Chile and Argentina, neither me nor my baggage was searched entering the small country. Furthermore, I was not even officially checked out of Argentina. I received a quick stamp upon checking into Uruguay, and I jogged along with the rest of the passengers onto the bus, across the chilly midnight border crossing.
For the next three-and-a-half hours, my assumed crash position amid the dust and cobwebs bears no fruit, but does make me sneeze several times. The air is still bitterly cold when we pull into Tres Cruces bus terminal in Montevideo, and I shiver through frozen grogginess as I pace along the bus counters looking for a company that sells tickets to my next stop. I find it with ease, as there are only about a dozen companies operating in the terminal. After purchasing my ticket for the following morning, I step outside, only to duck into a bakery a block away to get out of the cold and into some authentic Uruguayan baked goods.
Some proper food blog tells me to try a light sort of coffee cake, called chaja, so I get that along with dulce de leche wrapped in croissant dough, and something that my practical French Canadian-Connecticut culinary upbringing would lead me to simply call “jam cookies.” I also order a coffee. After eating my breakfast in front of a TV screen playing Latin MTV, I step into the twilight outside and make it to my first Uruguayan tourist site: an obelisk commemorated in 1930 to celebrate the centennial of Uruguay’s Constitution. I catch the monument just as the fluorescent sunrise seeps into the sky behind the obelisk.
The perfect light of the Constitution monument encourages me to continue onward to some of the city’s other parks, which I hope to catch in their untouched dawn beauty. The next park I arrive at is the Plaza Independencia, where I decide to set my bags down for a few minutes and update my expense spreadsheet with my three-pastry breakfast. While I am doing so, I start humming and babbling English nonsense to myself, as I haven’t spoken that language to another human being in a couple of days. I don’t notice that a Nigerian man, named Tommy, is walking by, and when he calls out “you speak English?” I am taken aback with the strange shame one feels when they are caught talking to themselves.
“Yeah, yeah I do” I respond.
“Me too. I’ve been learning Spanish though since I came here.”
We talk for a little bit, and when I start to subtly suggest I don’t want to talk anymore, he asks if I smoke weed. There it is: the pitch. I hate to be a cynic, but the chances of someone knowing your language abroad, and using it for any reason other than to make money, are fairly slim when the person approaches you out of the blue. If this seems like a generalization, you are right. To qualify my cynicism let me say this: there are plenty of places in the world where English is so foreign, that locals who are learning the language will jump at the chance to talk with an English speaker. However, I have not been to any such place so far, though I will happily let you know when I do. Tommy, though happy to chat a little bit about his homeland, was strictly reacting to my Americanity as a business opportunity.
And why shouldn’t he? I hold a degree in business, and was an entrepreneur for a number of years. I get it. Money makes the world go ‘round. And, as it turns out, cannabis is actually legal in Uruguay and has become a thriving industry in the small country since its legalization in 2014. Interestingly, this is not the only radical reform introduced in the last few years in Uruguay, making it a small progressive island in the largely conservative South American region. For instance, abortion was legalized in 2012 and same-sex marriage became legal in 2013, both of which are rarity in generally conservative Latin America. The progressiveness of the nation, I learned later on a walking tour of Montevideo, is partially attributed to their history of discouraging a state-mandated religion. However, recent political movements have perhaps had the biggest influence on how the nation governs itself. But more on that later.
I tell Tommy that I would prefer to see Montevideo sober the first time around, but thank you for asking. Though I don't know it then, I will be intoxicated by many other Uruguayan offerings, namely the sun, sea, and open-faced cow-gizzard sandwiches. The sun rises and I want to sit and stare at the cold Atlantic water, just like I enjoy doing at home. Strolling through Montevideo, I realize it is more than an ocean that the city shares with my native New England. Broad, fallen leaves scrape the sidewalk as I walk, and the artsy, gentrifying neighborhood where I am staying reminds me of Boston’s Newbury Street from my youth. The climate, the sea, and the politics make Uruguay a strange home that I’ve never been to before. In Brazilian Portuguese, what I am feeling is given the name saudade, a feeling of nostalgia, a longing for something that may not return, and the melancholy that results. I am not sad. If anything there is a cool warmth that forms in my chest like love as I remember visiting family in Boston as a child, hunting for comic books at Boomerang’s, and smelling autumn start there first as the cool weather slowly made its way down the coast. That Boston doesn’t exist anymore. That me doesn’t exist anymore. I haven't read comic books in a decade and, while Boomerang’s is still open, whenever I’m in town I usually just pop in to look at dress shirts or ties or some other adult costumery.
The saudade doubles when I come to the beach in Montevideo, and consider the summer on the Long Island Sound I will miss. That I am missing. Montevideo is gorgeous, charming, and I am loving every moment of this golden contemporary cowboy life I’ve spun from mere straw in a matter of weeks. Before long, the warm coolness, or cool warmth, who knows which, starts raging like a furnace and I am ready to join the city’s free walking tour, and to create some new nostalgia.
We meet at the Plaza Independencia, where a large inflatable bounce castle has fake smoke pouring out of it. The bomberos are teaching the local school children how to get out of a burning building and everyone, it seems, is having a great time jumping and playing as they crawl out from under the fog. Fifteen minutes prior to the tour’s official start time, two male guides with short beards and blue rain jackets appear by the arch at the park’s western end. I join them, introduce myself, and am surprised for some reason when all the guests that arrive over the next fifteen minutes are speaking in Spanish. I get some more much-appreciated practice, as I shower an older Argentine couple with praises of their home city of Buenos Aires, and they are happy to hear someone eager to learn their language and appreciate the town they also love. When the guides quiet everyone down and split into English and Spanish tours, I am the only English-speaking tourist until a young couple, one from Portugal and the other from Greece, runs in from the street at the last minute and joins us.
Though I want to try the guide’s favorite dish “molleja,” or cow gizzard, I am not ready to attempt hunting down the restaurant he recommends as it is near my hostel on the other side of town. Instead, I find a comida por peso establishment, though one that was much more expensive than those in Argentina, and eat my smörgåsbord lunch by the ocean.
After lunch, I return to my hostel, and to my tastefully prison-themed bunk to have a nap. Four hours later, the sun has long set and like Rip van Winkle I groggily sit wondering where the time went. I have the option to go back to bed immediately, or step outside to scrounge up a small dinner before going back to bed. Bar-hopping is not an option since I feel, as I often do after a long nap, more tired than I was before. Besides, I have an early bus the following morning that I have to be on. So, too tired to find real shoes and socks, I throw on my shower sandals and walk out into the chilly autumn wind to try beef gizzards.
The restaurant I am meant to visit isn’t a restaurant at all, but a food hall with a few restaurants, coffeeshops, and cervecerias. At the charming upmarket oak-and-wrought-iron picnic tables, couples and friends sip IPAs and chat over a mix of American soul, funk, and Eminem. The whole experience is so overwhelmingly American, and yet something that can only happen outside of America. No DJ born in Brooklyn would put Eminem after Earth, Wind, and Fire. Here is the urban American experience recreated the way a diner will sometimes be designed, with period counters, uniforms, and swiveling stools, to look like the 1950s. I ordered the mollejas, tender beef gizzard atop toasted French bread, and wondered why it had not caught on in the US.
Well, I know why. I just think it’s a shame.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.