It was my parents’ eighth day in South America, and we were all used to me taking care of food orders given the language barrier.
“Yo quisiera una botella de agua sin gas, una limonada, dos empanadas de carne y dos de jamón y queso. Todo para llevar, por favor.”
This time around they decided just to wait for me by the car. I paid for our snacks and made my way back across the parking lot, the gravel crunched underneath my feet as I walked. It was a gorgeous afternoon, not a cloud in the sky and about 22° C (72° F) with a nice breeze.
My mom was beside our rental car, stretching her legs following what was a very strenuous hike. I spotted my dad, which prompted a double take. I felt my eyes open wide and a smug grin come across my face.
“Huh. I take it you didn’t look at the signs too carefully, eh dad?”
My dad stopped dead in his tracks. He had just walked out of the bathroom labeled damas. I continued, “You’re probably gonna wanna go ahead and use the caballeros bathroom from here on out.”
My mom burst out laughing. Not to be humiliated without a fight, my dad contested, “You mean I wanted caballeros? I thought those were horses!”
Now, you might know that the Spanish word for “horse” is caballo, which does bare resemblance to caballeros (gentlemen). BUT, look at the picture… Horses? In that building on the left with a tile floor… Really?? Come on, dad! 😂
Safe to say the folks kept me on my toes during their eleven day-stay in South America. To say the least it was a stretch of adventures I will cherish for the rest of my life. In Spanish, one might say le sacamos todo el jugo al viaje: we “squeezed the juice” out of each and every day of their trip.
Our “base” was Montevideo but we were all over the place. We enjoyed a quick trip to Colonia (🇺🇾) and Buenos Aires (🇦🇷) before returning to Uruguay to spend the weekend in Rivera (🇺🇾). We we’re even able to see a bit of Tacuarembó (🇺🇾) and Santana do Livramento (🇧🇷) thanks to some fine driving by 👨🏻 in our manual transmission rental car.
But, really, the guy was a warrior behind the wheel, driving the length of Uruguay twice in a single weekend – roughly six hours one way. Side note, he turned 60 a couple days ago, so wish the guy a feliz cumpleaños if you haven’t already!
The last four days of their stay were a bit more relaxed, as we stayed around Montevideo, with the exception of a day trip to Maldonado, where we visited the famous beaches of Punta del Este (🇺🇾). We were even able to sneak in a trip to a vineyard in Canelones (🇺🇾).
It was a pretty incredible way for me to spend my spring break, and my parents got to see a part of the world they never thought they would even in their wildest dreams. Yet there we were.
Slurping mate in Montevideo. Walking the cobblestone streets of the charming, colonial town of Colonia. Taking in a tango show in Buenos Aires. Traversing the rolling hills of the Uruguayan interior. Hopping across the border into Brazil. Sipping tannat at a world-class winery. I’m sure my folks are still shaking their heads, but we did those things.
Nevertheless, if you’ve read my blog before I hope I’ve been able to convey that often times traveling is as much about people as it is about places.
In the coming days I will post another blog with the details of our excursion to Colonia and Buenos Aires for those who want to get a better idea of what those destinations have to offer. But, truly, I have come to believe that the best treasure South America has to offer is her people, and for now that’s what I’ll showcase.
As an example, I can tell you about a man who stopped us one afternoon as we were strolling through the streets of Rivera. He had clearly taken note that we were foreigners: a pale-skinned dude with curly blonde hair and a middle-aged (😉) couple wielding cameras and rocking the sweater-tied-around-the-waist look. I mean it didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize we weren’t locals.
Anyways, the guy approached us, offered a greeting and asked where we were visiting from. United States. His eyes widened and he smiled approvingly. We chatted. He was curious, genuinely interested to everything we had to say.
You’re from Minnesota? Wow! Que bien!
You’re teaching English here in Uruguay? Buenazo!
You’ve spent six months here already? Tremendo! Que demás!
And now your parents are visiting? Espectacular!
With each question and answer he was more enthusiastic. He was overjoyed to hear we were having a delightful time in Uruguay.
He bid us a final welcome and wished us a pleasant stay en este paísito: in his little country.
On its’ own, this four minute conversation isn’t all that noteworthy, but these types interactions happened day after day after day.
I very easily could have talked about the taxi driver who drove my parents across Montevideo trusting that I would be there to pay him. Or the security guard who opened up a school on Saturday I could give my parents a tour. Or the former students who greeted us and treated me like a rockstar.
Or the car rental guy who gave me his personal cell phone number. Or the churro guy who gave us free sweets just because. Not to mention the many waiters and waitresses who did their best to help me translate elaborate menu items.
My parents were even invited as guests to Liceo Providencia, where they had the chance to help my students interpret the letters they had received from their Minnesotan pen-pals (a group of Lisa Toivonen’s Red Wing High School students).
The reception was overwhelming, as Uruguayans went above and beyond not only to accommodate us as travelers, but to make us feel at home. My host family (Sandra, Daniel, Diego and Guillermo) became OUR host family, opening the doors to their home, rearranging weekend plans and reorganizing every room in the house in order to take us in during our weekend in Rivera.
It’s hard to describe what it meant to have everyone together in Rivera. It’s one thing for me to tell stories about the kindheartedness and generosity of my beloved Uruguayans, but to have my parents experience it and share it with me was special.
I think my dad said it best, “If these people only knew just how great of an impression they were leaving us with of their country… It’s unbelievable.”
It was a unique opportunity for my parents to experience what my life has been like here in Uruguay, and enabled me to show them why I’ve come to treasure this country so much.
But more than simply giving them a glimpse of my experience, however, it was an opportunity for the three of us to create our experience, and I’d say we did pretty dang well.
We reached the top of the lighthouse in Colonia, endured a blazing hot ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata, moseyed our way through the plaza after plaza, and gawked at the bright lights and hustle and bustle of downtown Buenos Aires.
The rain didn’t stop us from strolling through the strikingly colorful Boca neighborhood, and gale-force winds weren’t enough to keep us from checking out Montevideo’s Fortaleza General Artigas. We enjoyed delicious meals, superb wines, and the best company. We savored dazzling sunsets.
We summited the third highest peak in Uruguay, a feat that will stick out to me among my favorite memories in South America. The hill, known as Pan de Azúcar, is not really all that tall (420 meters, 1380 feet), yet the trek is anything but easy.
There really isn’t much of a trail. Actually, there isn’t a trail at all. It’s rocky. It’s steep. The expedition is better described as a climb rather an a hike. It would be physically demanding, and I knew that going in, my folks did not.
It’s considered medium-to-high in difficulty, especially dangerous after a recent rainfall. Plus, visitors are required to sign a waiver prior to ascending. Again, I knew that going in, but thanks to the language barrier my folks were clueless, so off we went.
Over an hour later we reached the top, and the view was worth every step.
It was an accomplishment and I was proud of my parents! Not only for having the physical stamina to complete such an arduous task, but for even embarking in the first place despite not having any clue what they might be up against.
There was no planning. No stressing over details. No worrying about where we might find a bathroom or when we would eat lunch. It was a spontaneous decision to just go. There was a mountain and we were going to climb it.
And that is the feeling I most wanted to share with my folks, because it’s how I try to approach each and every day here in Uruguay, by saying “yes” to whatever invitation or opportunity comes my way. To date, nearly all my favorite memories in South America started by simply being up for an adventure.
And this time around I was especially fortunate to be able to make a memory with two of my favorite people on the planet. Thanks mom and dad!
A las ordenes.