Quick note: I finished this in Early April; about a month after we got back. I’ve since changed jobs, computers and all kinds of stuff, hence the delay getting this out. My bad. Enjoy! -Nick
I recently took a vacation with my wife to visit her family in Uruguay. This was my first trip outside the U.S. (we never had much money to travel when I was a kid, and I’m not one for taking vacation time away from work) so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. More than anything else I was simply hoping to relax and get away from my life here in the DC area for a while. What I got was that and so much more. While we were there I started keeping a ‘journal’ of Facebook notes for our friends to read, chronicling the events of our days thousands of miles from home. Here is an essay, for lack of a better word, cobbled together from those notes.
Day 1 involved getting into Montevideo and settled in at my wife’s aunt’s apartment, where we were going to crash as she was out of town. The flight from DC (well, Dulles if you know the area) left very early in the morning. Our trip took us nearly 6,000 miles: From DC to Panama to Lima to Montevideo. The airport in Panama City seems to be very well planned-out in anticipation of the anarchy its people would loose upon it. The highlight of that stop was being given a sample of some kind of Panamanian liquor at the duty-free by an extremely tall, very attractive shop girl whose English was at about the same level as my Spanish. If you put $100 in front of me right now I couldn’t tell you what kind of booze that was supposed to be; it seemed to be some kind of upscale version of Tuaca, but really it just seemed like a cloying brown syrup. But I at least got my first drink in me and that would have to be enough until we got to Peru.
Now, Lima. Lima is a hell of an airport. The duty-free shops aren’t the best, I’ll say that. But what they lack in crap to shamelessly markup they make up for in abundant seating at the gates and some cool places to eat and drink while you wait. My personal favorite was the smoking lounge/bar we found. Before anyone out there gives me hell over this: Yes, it’s a filthy habit. I’m not a pack a day guy, I’m not a 1 or 2 a day guy. I smoke as much or as little as I feel like. I completely understand the aversion to smoking and the people who smoke, I really do. But when I get to an airport with a smoking lounge, a bus station with an area by the platforms, even a smoking car on a train–it feels like finding civilization to me. Even if I don’t feel like having a smoke, it’s just nice to see a place realistic enough to know that people smoke and gives those people a place to go.
So about the smoking lounge. I can’t recommend it enough. Cleverly, they attached the smoking lounge itself to a bar, so you can kick back with a beer and some food and kill the time you have to kill. We got some little fried appetizers stuffed with beef, a couple beers and enjoyed the mountain view (another nice touch).
By this point, we’d been in the air for a while and still had a few hours layover and one more flight to Uruguay. We were in that place where you just need a beer. The selection wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter. That’s how it came to pass that on that day, February 24th of the year 2011, I finally came to name the ‘any beer is a good beer right now’ phenomenon. Henceforth I shall refer anyone who brings this state up to the Brahma Law of Beer Truth: That even bad beer, during or after a long day, can touch greatness and refresh like no other beverage on planet Earth.
With plenty of time to kill before the next flight, my wife promptly fell asleep by the gate while I worked on reading the excellent World War Z (highly recommended, by the way). After her 2-3 hour nap, my wife felt hungry again (as did I) so we went back to the lounge. This time we decided to go for sandwiches. Actually, looking back on it now, the theme for Day 1 was ‘sandwiches’ (more on that later). My wife got something with like 3 different types of ham on it; I had a sandwich with turkey, ham, bacon, mayo and bleu cheese on it. Now, I’ve known about pollo a la brasa for years being from the DC area, but this was the work of a truly great culture indeed. Finally it was time for the last flight to Montevideo.
Upon landing, I quickly discovered a couple things about Uruguay–1: Our taxi ride from the airport basically let it be known that if it’s not impossible to get pulled over in Uruguay, it’s at least extremely rare and exceedingly difficult. 2: Every building had those cool old-school elevators where you opened the door, pulled the gate open and shut, etc. It was fantastic. I felt like I was in an old-school detective flick everywhere I went.
After spending that first day in Montevideo among the Uruguayans and in particular my wife’s relatives, my wife made much more sense to me. The people (especially my wife’s family) and the city itself are very Italian. Hanging out with my wife’s cousins, having beers, busting balls; the conversation went by at a great pace and volume. My Spanish is choppy at best but I could pick up enough of the conversation to pretty well follow what people were saying, and whatever I missed my wife would fill me in on. Everyone was really warm and welcoming, taking me in almost immediately and going out of their way to include me. I’m not sure if I ever really found the words to let them know how much that meant to me. It would have been very easy to just let me sit there while they caught up with my wife. It’s something about this place that I can’t quite put my finger on. At once it’s a place that moves at a breakneck pace where you feel you could get lost at any moment but seems to lightly grab you and pull you in. Montevideo wants you to step in and go on the ride with it. It’s a great vibe; people were laid back, casually friendly. No one asked anyone what they did for a living. No one would for the duration of my stay; at least not until getting to a natural part of conversation where you’d ask someone such a thing. It’s obvious I’m not home and that, friends, is a very good thing for Uruguay to be.
The food to that point had been great but I could only speak for the pizza and an outrageously large milaneses sandwich I ended up with at the mall we’d walked through earlier that day. The place we ate at was one of a chain of restaurants down there called La Pasiva. My wife told me they got famous offering good cheap hot dogs and have since expanded their menu. Now you can easily find a La Pasiva when you’re out and about and stop in for some grub and a beer, or wine, or whiskey or Coke out of a glass bottle. So about that sandwich: This thing had a breaded and fried steak, peppers, cheese, lettuce, mayo and probably about 2-3 eggs on it. I finished half and grudgingly took the rest back to the apartment, waiting for my first drunken-night-munchie craving of the trip to polish off the rest. I’m shocked at how late I stayed up that first night considering the travel we’d just did, but all the same I laid down and read myself to sleep after a great day feeling like I already belonged here somehow.
The beginning of Day 2 was dedicated to the ‘Vacation’ portion of our stay, involving a lot of catching up on sleep and doing little while awake. I was still not 100% with it sleep-wise (in fact, I’ve been home three weeks at this point and am still not all the way back–springing forward helped a bit as we were three hours ahead of DC), but I’m getting there.
As a bit of a car dork, I had an eye on what people drove there and fell even more in love. Uruguay is the Land of the Hatchback, specifically the VW Golf. Seriously, if a Golf was made between the late 80’s-early 00’s and you don’t know where it is, it ended up there, still running and still kicking ass. This country loves a handful of cars in particular, all of which endear it to me more:
1. The aforementioned VW Golf. Specifically the late 80’s-early 90’s 1.6 2-door hatch.
2. Hatchbacks of all makes and number of doors. Citroens, Renaults, Peugeots…
3. The VW Bus. Not the crappy, blocky 80’s one, either; I mean the full-on Dharma Initiative-style hippie bus. I must have seen at least a couple dozen during our stay.
4. Old VW Beetles and Fiat 500’s (!!!!) everywhere. Plus one SWEET old Mini in racing red with rally lamps I saw driving by our apartment on Day 1.
5. There was an Alfa dealership two blocks from where we were staying. I wanted to kick the door down, test drive a Giulietta and beg them to come back to the States (turns out they just may be–joy).
(You can look at some of the cooler cars I found here.)
Night 2 started with dinner at a neighborhood restaurant with many of my wife’s relatives (and there are many). We all shared various meats, including the best blood sausage I’d ever had (there would be a new ‘best ever’ before the trip was done). There was great steak, chorizo and sweetbreads going around the table as well. After dinner we headed out with a couple of the cousins and their friends in search of a bar. We found one called Utopia a few blocks from our place. Not much by way of beer selection (while what they did have worked like a charm) but a very cool whiskey list, which apparently is very common here. It turns out the beverage of choice for most men in Uruguay at the end of the day isn’t necessarily beer, but whiskey or scotch.
I know, I thought it too: These were my people, and I had at long last found them.
The bar was decorated like it didn’t know if it wanted to be an upscale club or a cocktail bar. The big screen playing a mix of crappy late-90’s/early 00’s pop (with some Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure) didn’t help anything, but like I said the beers were enjoyed in good spirits and to their credit they sent out a plate of the most interesting looking potato skins I’ve ever seen. It looked like a Top Chef Challenge. Overall, a good experience.
For the first time since arriving we woke up at a human hour and caught a ride just outside town to visit cousins on the dad’s side of my wife’s family (like I said, a lot of relatives). They were a beautiful, charming family who really could not have been more kind or generous to us. Most of the day was spent eating BBQ pizza (a full 10/10) and drinking whiskey. My first confrontation with the Uruguayan sun left my neck a bit red (make your own jokes here) but the rest of me unscathed. We passed around some mate and got an eyeful of the southern stars as the sun set. They dropped us back at the apartment in time to catch some of the Oscar pre-shows. It seemed odd to see the show starting around 11PM local time, but I hit the fridge for a soda and my leftover sandwich and settled in to watch. The broadcast was in English with a live translator who apparently was providing something like color-commentary on the nominees and winners when they were announced. I’m not sure if there was a moment where I wished my Spanish was better more the whole trip than during that broadcast.
Not much to report from Day 4 of our trip. We walked around Pocitos, the neighborhood in Montevideo we were staying in. The ‘highlight’ of our day was the arrival of our ‘roommates’–a pair of curly white-haired dogs of indeterminate pedigree belonging to the Aunt whose place we’re staying in. Their names went right through my head, so I took to calling them Thing 1 and Thing 2. My wife thought Thing 2 was cuter; this is probably true but that’s grading on such a sad curve it’s almost not worth mentioning.
The morning of Day 5 saw us setting off for Punta del Este. For those unfamiliar, Punta del Este is the big getaway in Uruguay. Relatively unknown in America, it’s a haven for tourists from Argentina, Brazil and all over Europe. My wife says it’s very much like being in the south of France. I’m taking her word for that, but there was what I could only imagine was a very Euro vibe about the place.
After being there about 3 days there were some things I could report about Punta del Este, the foremost being:
1. It’s an obscenely beautiful place. Everything is achingly perfect and everyone just walks around like it’s no big deal.
2. The sun is INTENSE. I got really sick of repeatedly re-applying sunscreen.
Everything else is happenings and occurrences. It seems odd that it’s so hot near the bottom of the world. The sky during the day is a burst of all shades of blue from the brightest softest Baby to a rich Navy so dark you find yourself searching for stars while lying on the beach. Oh, and when the stars do come out–incredible. Like I said, everything just seems to be effortlessly perfect there.
It’s a port town, a beach town and a resort city all in one. We were eating like royalty thanks to my wife’s Aunt who we stayed with. Being able to walk down to the Marina to do your seafood shopping just puts it all over the top when you get to have homemade mussels Provencal, or the unbelievable-smelling paella we were getting ready to sit down to as I originally wrote this.
Nightlife is just that: Folks don’t seem to sit down to dinner until about 10PM before heading out for the night. One night, for example, my wife and I went out to grab hot dogs at La Pasiva (where we got the epic milanesas sandwiches from Day 1) around 10 and found the place empty. Afterward we walked until we hit the street where most of the bars and clubs are, stopping at the Moby Dick Pub for beers (I picked the Moby Dick because it had the word ‘Pub’ in its name and they were playing George Harrison at the time). We stayed until about 1AM when the night’s band started playing, leading off with an energetic and inspired ‘Message in a Bottle’; as we left the place had just about filled up. It’s all very cool, but there is something that can get in the way of your enjoyment: There’s something about Punta del Este that just makes you want to sleep all the damn time. I swear, I could fall asleep just about any time of day there, for god knows how long, on cue.
We half-joked about staying. I know exactly how much I wasn’t joking. Somewhere between beer 4 and 5 at the Moby Dick that night, my wife tells me I look as happy and relaxed as she’s seen me in years and she’s absolutely right. I was really happy in this country. Then again, I’m happy to be almost anywhere that isn’t home. It’s no secret I hate living in the DC area (well, ‘hate’ is a strong word, but…) and would love to find anywhere else in this world to live. I’m trying not to let myself romanticize Uruguay too much like I do everywhere else I visit. Of course, like everywhere else I visit, I fail miserably.
Day 7’s big happening was bike riding around the town as we picked up ingredients for that paella I mentioned earlier. I hadn’t been on a bike in a VERY long time, but I heard it’s like…well, you know. Anyway, after I’d gotten just a bit used to my huevos bouncing off a very tough bike seat I started seeing the town differently. There’s a difference between walking a place and exploring it with a car, motorcycle or a bike like we did that day. When you walk a place, you get a lay of the land–a sense of what’s where. You browse storefronts and notice flower beds. When you drive or ride a place you become part of it for those moments; you get to be a cell in that city’s bloodstream, careening through arteries and veins and the odd capillary or two. You get inside that place the same way it gets in you. It’s something unique to being in the traffic of a city or town; the confrontation and acceptance, like two dogs passing on the sidewalk. I got to experience it that day in Punta del Este: Riding around the ‘boardwalk’, seeing the different beaches and the different people who frequent them, stopping at the Marina for mussels, shrimp and all kinds of seafood (all of it STUNNING); hitting the grocery store for a couple bottles of wine and just marveling at their meat counters. It all makes you feel like the city’s taken you in, that you’re ok, that you belong in your own weird little way. You can have all of those experiences walking, but they take a hell of a lot longer and don’t give you the same sense of communion that I had riding around town that day. Just something to think about that next time you ‘get lost’ driving around an unfamiliar city or town. Use it as an excuse to explore. You never know when you’ll fall in love with a place, or maybe it with you.
Day 8-12, Coming home, Being home:
We hopped the bus back to Montevideo late in the afternoon of Day 8. Arriving back in the city, we couldn’t help but notice how many more buses were in the station than there were when we’d left. We had arrived in the city just in time for the rush of people coming and going to Carnival. My wife and I celebrated by making an effort to have the most quiet, boring Friday night out of anyone in the city. I believe we succeeded. Saturday was all about the evening BBQ with a couple of the cousins. We hit the supermarket (imagine a Target with an ungodly meat counter) and picked out some cuts we wanted and stuff the guys thought I needed to try while I was there. You see, Uruguay is a country of around three million people with about ten million cows. They’ve had time to get creative with the product and find out what really works in a way you don’t see all that often in most parts of the States. Sweetbreads I was familiar with and all too happy to see hitting the grill. What was new to me, however, was chinchulines. If you’ve ever had chitlins, you’re in the ballpark. The difference is that where chitlins are pork intestine, chinchulines are cut from a cow’s small intestine. Also different is that here in the U.S., chitlins in the Soul Food context are usually stewed for many hours with onion and then occasionally (but not always) battered and fried with vinegar and hot sauce on the side. Chinchulines go straight to the grill then to the plate. The only real prep work done is to marinate them in a healthy amount of fresh lemon juice; an occasional squeeze of lemon while grilling is as intense as the cooking gets. They were fantastic, firm, slightly gamey hunks of ‘you don’t know this is fantastic but it is’ goodness. Overall, it was a beautiful, breezy, boozy night and when I finally laid down to sleep, above the whir of the a/c and the music and revelry on the streets below, one thing and one thing alone cut through and kept me staring at the ceiling long past any reasonable hour: The dread in the pit of my gut of going home.
I may be speaking for my wife a bit here, but I think I’m not inaccurate in saying that the last few days in Uruguay were a heady mix of reluctantly preparing for the trip home, finding time to visit family while we could and enjoying what was left of our vacation. Alas, all of these things pulled at each other in a way that was inevitable. That’s not to say those last days weren’t enjoyable: We got to walk the suburb where my wife’s grandmother lived (she passed just after our wedding a couple of years ago) where eucalyptus grew everywhere and stopped for some fantastic ice cream. We got to experience the Uruguayan idea of Mexican cuisine, which while tasty lacked a certain…well, I’ll just say if it says ‘spicy’ on the menu it should make an effort to back that up. We also got to do the ONE thing I knew I wanted to do before we even got to Uruguay.
If you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, you may have seen the episode where he goes to Uruguay. When I saw it, I was blown away by his visit to the Mercado del Puerto, at the port area of Montevideo’s Old City. What he finds there is, well, I’ll let you check it out:
I had to experience it. And so we did. After a fantastic walk through the markets and historic buildings of the Old City with my wife’s cousin and her adorable little girl (who was freaked out by my beard in that cute little-girl way where you’re not insulted) we found our way to a counter at the Mercado. If we’d been there at the same time, you’d have caught me behind Bourdain in those front-on shots in that video. His description is right on: Everything that gets set out in front of you is amazing, the blood sausage took the ‘best ever’ crown and by the end I was certainly sated, but not stuffed. It all just felt right and not like some kind of gluttonous gorging, because it’s not. It’s a lot of meat to be sure, unlike anything you can order at a restaurant here in the U.S. (although if there’s a place you can, please let me know), but everything is of the highest quality and when shared feels like a reasonable if extremely smile-inducing meal.
Here’s a couple notes, should you find yourself at the Mercado del Puerto:
1. It’s not as much meat as it appears. The bulk of the metal ‘bucket’ you see there is for coals off the grill to keep the meat warm during the meal. It’s not a bucket of grilled meat so much as a very deep plate of grilled meat. Don’t let it intimidate you.
2. I can’t stress Bourdain’s rules enough here–no potatoes, no veggies. Not that it’ll come with many; our dish for ‘two’ had a potato sliced in half and some strips of green pepper as a conceit to foods that did not at one time breathe or move of their own accord. Sip your beer, too. A Coke isn’t the worst idea but go with whatever you feel like.
3. They’ll ask if you want sweet or salty blood sausage. The correct answer, of course, is both. This is the one mistake I made at our counter–I thought I had to choose. Don’t listen to those American instincts–get both. It’s not as if they’re running out of cows.
Our last night was spent with one last hang with the cousins, where I got to try my first chivito. I’ll give you a second to let that sink in. Anyway, we got to bed around 2AM and woke up at 5 to head to the airport. The trip back was less than ideal in just about every way. The highlights involved our luggage getting left behind in Peru and a particularly sketchy rain-landing in Dulles. The second we touched down I turned to my wife and said “We should have never left”.
It’s been three weeks now since we returned and my feelings have mellowed a bit. I’d certainly consider going ex-pat someday, but it’s not feasible for us anytime soon. For now I’m trying to hold onto that feeling of happiness and relaxation I had while I was there.
In the final analysis, I think a lot of the reason there are so many interests that I’ve delved so deeply into is a need of mine to find where things fit. From beer to wine to cars and more (music, comics…) I always look at things with a mindset of where its place in the universe is. If I’m having a moment of introspection here (and let’s be honest–this is a blog, everything here is navel-gazing of one form or another) I see everything as a fellow traveler hurtling through space hoping to find a place to fit in. I’m not leaving the DC area anytime soon: My wife’s job has too many potential benefits for ourselves and the child we may decide to have someday. I see everywhere we go as a test of how I feel in a place, if I could see us escaping and setting down roots there. San Francisco/East Bay almost got me, but in the end I just couldn’t see myself staying. We spent a few days in Asheville, NC back in October and that was a winner for sure. Great food, great beer culture, still Mid-Atlantic but in the mountains. I really felt like I could make a home there. Like I could fit in there.
I think what I’m trying to say is that our trip to Uruguay opened my eyes not just to a different country or culture or even a way of life; it made me reconsider and refine what look for in a place. It made me stop and relax without having to slow down or isolate myself. From my American perspective it’s such a beautiful, simple, reasonable place that allows you to live the way you think people should be able to. I found a part of myself I usually only find on drives out to the countryside where my first memories were formed. I also found something new–an adult version of the childhood feeling of home.
I don’t know if I could live so far from everyone I’ve ever known. I don’t know if my Spanish will ever get to the point where I wouldn’t sound like a dumbass to anyone I spoke to. I don’t know if we could make the move work or how we’d get by. All I’m saying is that I would definitely consider trying.
Next time: Something novel like, say, a beer review! ‘Til then.