My shoulders brushed up against people around me; the driving rhythm made it impossible NOT to dance. The beat was samba, but at times it felt more like rock. There must have been hundreds of us in the crowd, but the strobe lights and flashing colors made it impossible to tell.

While the act was called Francisco El Hombre (Francisco the Man), it was far from a solo act, as there were nearly least dozen band members on stage. Dueling guitarists battled for our attention over a stead baseline.

The rhythm section was numerous, comprised of a standard trap set and several percussionists romping around the stage. They struck, shook and scraped a handful of other instruments. A saxophone blared, symbols crashed and the blasts of a trumpet brought the act to a close. Thunderous cheers drowning out the vocalist’s message of thank you.

It was an unbelievable performance. When things finally calmed down, I pulled out my phone and glanced at the time; The opening act had just finished, and it was 1:30 AM.

The featured performance (Cuatro Pesos de Propina) didn’t end up starting until closer to 3:00 AM, and it was around 5:00 AM when I made it back to my apartment.

Now, if you’re reading this in the US, you’re probably shocked to hear I was out so late. If you’re Uruguayan, however, you probably want to know why we left the baile so quickly after the concert ended.

I’ve been here over 4 months, and this concert experience serves as solid evidence that what used to shock me I now perceive as normal. I’m used to it, and nothing really surprises me anymore!

For example, it no longer surprises me to see horse-drawn wagons roaming around the busy streets of Montevideo.

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It no longer surprises me to see street entertainers performing in busy intersections in hopes of collecting a few coins from the drivers. Musicians, clowns, jugglers, people on unicycles, people juggling on unicycles, people juggling flaming torches on unicycles…

At some intersections, there are vendors in the street selling candy bars, and others, still, even offer a quick carwash as you wait for the light to turn green. I can’t claim to have seen everything, but I stopped being surprised a long time ago.

The desperation / desire for a few quick pesos extends into public transportation, as well. Just in the past week I’ve had fellow passengers try to sell me calendars, pens, birthday cards, candy, incense sticks, etc. I’ve heard beatboxers, freestyle rappers, singers strumming guitars, and even a solo recorder player (yes, like the one you played in elementary school).

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A little bus-line melody

When there isn’t live musical entertainment on the bus, the radio steals the show, and the most commonly-played genre is 80’s and 90’s classics from the US. Madonna, The Police, Journey, Men at Work, Simple Minds, Phil Collins, etc.

But there is one song in particular (below) that is far and away the most commonly played song on the bus radio.

Yes, I get rick-rolled by MVD Public Transportation on the daily.


Now, I just chuckle. The reality is that I see and hear strange things sometimes. Locals have always just told me, “That’s just Uruguay for you”, and as a result, I’ve really learned to simply expect the unexpected.

For example, due to the fact that I’m living in a city of 1.5 million people, nearly 10,000 kilometers away from home, one might assume it would be unlikely I would ever run into people with connections to the Midwest. Wrong.

Just last week I stopped by La Manola churro stand in Parque Rodó. I placed my order – two dulce de leche-filled churros (standard) – and got to talking with the man behind the counter. Likely in his fifties, he was very conversational, and he asked me, “¿De dónde sos? ¿De onde você é? Where are you from?”

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La Manola – Parque Rodó

Three languages? Pretty impressive, I thought. Upon telling him I was from Minnesota, he replied in English, “Oh, yes, I know Minnesota. St. Paul. Minneapolis. The river. Beautiful.” Turns out he (Eduardo) had lived in Minnesota a few years during college. He gave me a few extra churros for free!

Encounters like that happen so often that it no longer phases me. I’ve run into people with all kinds of ties to the Midwest: Madison, Duluth, Sheboygan, DeKalb, Cedar Rapids, Rapid City, etc. It’s comical, really, and for this reason I just chuckled to myself when I met Eduardo. Of course, you lived in Minnesota. 

That’s no surprise. That’s just Uruguay for ya.

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Of course they play hockey in Uruguay 

The theme should be clear: I’ve experienced so much surprise through the clash of cultures, that nothing really surprises me anymore!

I’ve made a habit of going to the ferias on Sunday mornings, but they’re not your typical farmer’s markets. In addition to fresh produce, meats and dairy products, these ferias sell all kinds of other things.

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Feria de Parque Rodó

It’s like a giant, open air dollar-store or Salvation Army where you can find just about anything. Clothing, jewelry, antiques, furniture, books, toys, tools, books, etc.  I even passed by a few tables selling brownies mágicos, or “magic brownies”. I’ll let you guess what makes them supernatural.

You mean they sell cannabis-laced brownies right on the city streets? Even with families and little kids walking all over the place?

Yep. No surprise here: that’s just Uruguay for you. 

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Found: A basketball-style onesie labeled B*tches… I mean, what?
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Feria de Tristán Nirvana

By now, you should understand where I’m coming from. An Uruguayan could tell me that it’s tradition to wear pink every August 16th, and I would expect to see everyone wearing pink tomorrow just because. It would not surprise me to hear something that bizarre. At this point, I just don’t think anything really surprises me anymore.

At least that’s what I thought, until I heard a knock at the door.

It was just a few minutes after midnight. Guille and I were just hanging out, sipping on drinks, listening to music and playing cards. I figured maybe the knock at the door was one of Guille’s friends, as in Uruguay it’s no problem to just show up someplace unannounced.

But as I got up and made my way over, I heard a key jiggling around in the door. What? The only people with keys are me, Guille, and… The door flew open.

Before I knew it, Sandra, Daniel, Diego and Guille were singing Happy Birthday.

It was officially August 5th, I had just turned 24, and my Uruguayan host family had just driven seven hours from Rivera to celebrate with me. Now, that was a surprise.

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¡Postre Riveli! Arguably the best birthday cake ever!

As I reflect upon my birthday, it really doesn’t surprise me that they drove across the country (a small country, but a country nevertheless!) to spend the weekend with me.

During my four months here, many people have shown me love, making me feel welcome, comfortable, and at home – none more so than my host family.

And there’s nothing like a birthday to remind you that you are loved. Family, friends: thank you to each and every one of you for the birthday wishes. The texts, Snaps, Posts and WhatsApp messages were truly overwhelming and serve as a reminder that I’ll never really be that far away.

Celebrating my birthday here revealed just how well I’m taken care of in Uruguay. I have people who look out for me, who wish me well, who invite me to things. They have taken me in as one of their own. Why?

That’s just Uruguay for ya.

A las ordenes.


Tres Cosas
Algo bueno: I received 2 kilos of dulce de leche for my birthday!
Algo malo: Protests at the local teacher-training facility has inhibited my schedule.
Algo curioso: In Uruguay, it’s customary to eat gnocchi on the 29th day of every month. (That’s just Uruguay for ya.)
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One thought on “No Surprises

  1. Joel, I think this is one of the most emotional posts in your blog. I loved it and it reminded my of my time living in the US. It was so important for me to receive that love that I understand you well. I also understood that love is not a one-way feeling, it’s the result of a give and take relationship. You really deserve what you are getting here. AS we say, “estas cosechando lo que has cultivado”. And you spoke the truth Sandra, Daniel, Guille and Diego son lo mas! See you on Friday, take care!

    Liked by 1 person

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