A pair of neon lights advertising Patricia beer flickered on the concrete walls, a faint, skunky aroma wafted through the air – this is Uruguay, remember. It was a bit damp and dark, and a long slab of well-loved wood served as the bar top. The restaurant, El Farolito, had all the makings of a college basement.
Sketchy, maybe, but I felt at ease. The five of us were just falling into conversation when the door of the restaurant flew open. A somewhat eccentric looking man rushed his way through and threw himself down in the vacant chair at our table. Eyes wide and darting from person to person, he didn’t say a word.
Attentively, he reached into his pocket and removed it slowly, making an effort to conceal what was in his hand. Oh no… I snatched my iPhone, but before I could make another move the man slammed an open palm down on the table. While the sound made me jump, I soon realized I had no reason to worry. He slid his hand away, revealing a deck of playing cards.
While I’ve observed many a street performer try to earn a quick buck my singing, juggling or washing cars, this was the first magician I had encountered, and he did not disappoint. He had all five of us shaking our heads trick after trick as he identified our cards with ease.
He read our minds and even managed to make some of our beer disappear… which I guess was fair compensation for the entertainment. We threw some pesos his way and just like that he was out the door. I was left speechless, perplexed not only by the quality of his tricks, but by the sheer peculiarity of what had just transpired. Uruguay, I guess.
Having established magic as the theme for this post I would be remiss not to mention my trips to Salinas and Solymar (Liceo Médanos), where I taught a dozen of English lessons regarding the magic of Halloween. Much to my own surprise, a fair amount of Uruguayans seem to take part in Halloween-related festivities, although not nearly to the extent as in the United States.
Halloween sparks controversy among some folks in Uruguay for various reasons. Many oppose the vandalism (egging) it entices, others claim it’s a symbol of cultural imperialism, and others yet are turned off by the gore and sinister nature of the holiday. To me the holiday here takes a slightly more dark sentiment.
Only a handful of students wore costumes to school, but the students were both knowledgeable and energetic about the traditions: witches and werewolves, ghosts, vampires, zombies, jack-o-lanterns, you name it! Many thanks to Mariana, Alina, and María for having me last week!
I was also able to provide a Guillermo a hands-on Halloween lesson, by demonstrating how to carve pumpkins. 😂 While we don’t have the traditional, round, orange pumpkins in Montevideo, I made the best of it by carving a butternut squash. Judge for yourself!
The past couple of weeks not only involved magic tricks and the magic of Halloween, but also a trip to Uruguay’s single most magical destination: the primitive, backwoods, beach settlement of Cabo Polonio, located about 5 hours east of Montevideo in the Rocha department.
I had traveled to Rocha to present and participate in a professional development seminar with fellow Fulbrighters (Justin and Connor) and a group of elementary English teachers. Following a successful workshop, I hopped on a bus and continued east to Cabo Polonio.
So, what makes Cabo Polonio so magical? Well… Nothing.
There are no roads. There are no cars. There is no electricity. No running water. No ATMs. Nothing. It is, in, fact through the absence of all these luxuries, that one experiences the mystique and allurement of this gem.
As you might expect Cabo Polonio is quite isolated; from the bus stop, it’s 7 km (4.5 mile) to the village and while it’s walk-able, I opted to hitch a ride in the back of one of the massive four-wheel drive trucks. We wove our way through dense shrubbery, which little by little transformed into a beautiful beach until we arrived about a half hour later.
The waves crashed against the base of the truck, but my eyes were transfixed on the curious hamlet sitting before me. The peninsula appeared to be elevated just slightly, with the precarious dwellings dotting the grassy hillsides. From a distance, my eyes were drawn to lighthouse, a striking yet humble structure. Horses and cattle grazed intermittently among the shacks.
The feet of the passengers riding on the roof of the truck swayed from side to side as we trudged our way through the beach. As we drew closer to town the eclectic neighborhood of colorful hostels became more apparent. The handful of restaurants – barely distinguishable from the homes – all seemed to be promoting the same menu: pizza and seafood.
As we passed the store, we were informed it would likely open for a bit this afternoon. It would be in this store just a couple of hours later I would first experience the cooperative nature of Cabo Polonio. The notion that one liter bottle of water costs $60 UYU (roughly $2 USD), while a six liter jug of water costs $90 UYU ($3 USD) demonstrates plainly the value placed on communitarianism.
The locals (some 75 individuals reside there year-round) recognize that a stay in Cabo Polonio is an experience most enjoyed when shared with others. I was alone when I first left the hostel to explore the coast, my only company was the hundred-some sea lions lazily basking on the rocks.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take long to get connected with fellow travelers. A windy, rainy evening resulted in a somewhat crowded hostel living room. With no phones, no TV and just a handful of candles illuminating the room, we just sat, talked, and listened.
We were about twelve staying in the Lobo Hostel, but as it doubled as a bar and restaurant there had to have been twenty in the room: a couple from México City (🇲🇽), a group from Maceió (🇧🇷), a Londoner (🇬🇧), a German (🇩🇪), a Frenchman who grew up in Cameroon (🇨🇲, 🇫🇷), a pair of gals from the Basque Country (🇪🇸), a trio from Durazno (🇺🇾), etc.
I got to chatting with a couple from Bahia Blanca, Argentina (🇦🇷) and through the madness (as many as six languages being spoken at any moment) we discovered we had a mutual friend: Joey Warren, Fulbright ETA in Argentina. What are the chances, right? I was as isolated and disconnected as I had been in months.
Just when I thought I couldn’t get any further from the rest of the world, I stumbled upon this connection. Just minutes later I encountered another, when Jarrod from Melbourne (🇦🇺) sat down next to me and introduced himself. I responded with the usual: Hola! Soy Joel. Vivo en Montevideo pero soy de Estados Unidos, del estado de Minnesota.
“Minnesota!”, his eyes lit up when I told him where I was from. In his best US American accent he proudly proclaimed, “Charlie Conway, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” My jaw dropped. A Mighty Ducks reference. How strange it felt to encounter something so familiar in an environment so unfamiliar.
Shaking my head, unable to wipe the smirk of my face, it dawned on my that I was beginning to understand the magic of Cabo Polonio. Its’ primitive, antiquated nature attracts a particular crowd. People who visit Cabo Polonio are people who have stories to tell, and as we sat together in the hostel it was a treat to listen, laugh and learn from the rag-tag bunch of friends I had made – and without distractions.
A room full of strangers, all twenty-something years old, and no one seemed to have any clue of where their cell phone was. Magic might not be the right word to describe it, but nowadays this happening certainly seems like something of a fantasy.
It almost didn’t even seem like Uruguay, but rather a type of Neverland. The ambience was unlike any other I’ve ever seen: gorgeous beaches, sporadic patches of grassland, and towering sand dunes. It was somewhat of a wasteland, sandwiched between forest, farmland and the vast Atlantic Ocean.
The final morning I got up early. Sunny and and 25° C (77°F) by 9:00 AM, I could not have asked for a more beautiful day and man, did I soak it up.
Rocking just my suit and my alpargatas (like Uruguayan TOMS) I set out on my own, wandering first along the coast, before passing through the tall grasses and into the desolation.
Towering sand dunes, beach as far as I could see, endless views of the ocean, and I had it all to myself. Only my shadow danced along with my as I made my way through the sand.
The serenity was unlike any other, heightening my senses and brought on feelings of genuine joy. I couldn’t help but smile and hold my arms up in the air.
It proved to be a great time for reflection, enabling me to think about all the things that have enabled me to have such an incredible experience in this country. For now, the magic continues!
A las ordenes.
Algo bueno: I attended and participated in the Festival of Nations in Liceo Médanos, a fantastic event involving the entire school and community. Hats off to Solymar!
Algo malo: I’m down to single-digit days in Uruguay.
Algo curioso: The next time I post I will be an uncle!