“Let me get this straight.” I asked Lisa. “We’re getting dropped off on the side of the road at kilometer marker number 145 on route 8 and from there, we’ll just………..walk to Villa Serrana?”
“Well, hopefully, there will be a taxi. The owners of the next place we’re staying at told us there should be a taxi or just some local that can give us a ride.”
“We’re going to the middle of nowhere. Aren’t we?” I said with a wry smile.
Into the Campo
The onus for us wanting to visit Uruguay started with the late Anthony Bourdain and his series ‘No Reservations‘ which visited this tiny South American country and featured its amazing people, food and culture. Anthony gorged on meat, drank local 70-30 (a ratio of 70% cheap red wine and 30% coca cola which tastes better than it sounds) and visited tiny beach communities up and down the coast. We hoped to retrace parts of his voyage, meet a real ‘gaucho’ or cowboy, and see some spots he missed for ourselves.
Getting to Villa Serrana in the ‘campo’ or countryside as they say locally, was going to be the most challenging. We purchased a ticket to take us on route 8 northeast of ‘Minas’ and simply told the driver to let us off on the side of the road at a specific mile marker. “No problemo” he responded. In east Africa, our bus from Arusha to Nairobi routinely dropped people off at non-descript points and walked from the road to their nearby village. This wasn’t much different.
We met our host ‘Robert’ and his pickup truck on the side of the road and threw our bags in the bed and a 10 minute drive later, we arrived at the ‘Octagon Om Shianti‘ which is a hippy enclave that specializes in vegan dishes, yoga and the mystic arts. Finding a place serving exclusively vegan and vegetarian food in meat heavy Uruguay was a challenge, but we were rewarded with goat cheese, peach and rocket pizza, pumpkin raviolis, and homemade banana bread. Eat your heart out Bourdain.
We spent the days at the local lake and feeding its small population of geese followed by trips to the almacen in the afternoon and nights soaking in the wood fired, homemade hot tub under the night stars- only in rural Namibia have we seen more brilliant nights. The almacen was fun as there was a resident horse (only in Uruguay) that lapped up Ava’s discarded apple cores while neighing in delight.
The husband of the cook managed a horse sanctuary that he took us to visit one afternoon. Apparently when horses get sick, become too old, or break a leg, they are often euthanized to lighten the financial strain on the owners, cutting short their potentially long lives. The husband, who introduced himself to us as ‘Libre‘ or free, started a facebook page that advertised a place for horse owners to ‘retire’ their unwanted horses (or as a cheaper, seasonal alternative for barnyard stabling) and has grown to take care of 54 horses in total which reside in a 1000 acre paradise of hilly rocks, trees and scrub where they can roam free, graze, get lost in the woods, receive health care as needed and socialize for the first time in most of their lives. Libre told us of all the projects he had going on in the reserve such as a new infirmary pen he was building, and the sordid tales of horses that were abused, neglected and how he nursed them back to health with time, love and a little determination. Of all the humans we’ve met on our trip, Libre might just be the most humane. Turns out we met a real gaucho after all.
Punto Del Este
When we arrived at Punta Del Este, Ava used Christmas money from her aunt Dorthy to buy a boogie board and her money from Grandma Shirley to buy a rash guard so we went surfing every day. Being in the water reminded me of how much I missed surfing in California just before Lisa and I moved overseas in 02 and the water felt like SoCal in August, refreshing, not too chilly.
Surfing is just as much about patience as it is physical strength. I told Ava that 80% of the time is watching the waves come in, trying to position yourself just right to drop in the middle of set and the other 20% is riding and paddling back out. By noon each day, the winds picked up and the water got choppy which thinned the surfers and allowed us to get in the lineup with few people around us. When Ava tired and went to shore for a rest, I braved the largest swells, even mustering some barrel rolls and hand drag spins. Not bad for a 43 year old.
“Snowboarders can strap in and ride kilometer runs for minutes. Surfers have to work for 5 seconds of Nirvana.”
Building the Perfect Community in Minecraft
It’s a beautiful thing to be young and unchained by the responsibilities of a job, mortgage or life elsewhere when you can visit a place and say: “Let’s live here for a while.” Everyplace felt like this in Uruguay. From its safety, low cost of living, surf that pumps and gentle people, we were often caught saying to ourselves: “Fuck it. Let’s retire here.”
Turns out that our daughter was well ahead of us on building the idyllic community of her dreams in the world of ‘Minecraft’. At the end of grade 3, her teacher Ms. Sally assigned a project on ‘Communities and Societies’ combining the math skills of surface area and perimeter. Many of her peers abandoned the project over the summer but Ava has been going strong, watching ‘how to’ youtube videos and completing many of her buildings over the last 8 months. Minecraft has some great applications for creativity, collaboration and I’ve used it myself when modeling human body systems in the science classroom.
La Pedrera is a small community of surfers who showed up for the powerful lefts and rights off the coast and then never bothered to leave. Most people walked around town shirtless, barefoot and sporting a minimum of 5 tattoos. Our hostel, ‘Piedra Alta‘ was a block from the beach and had a row of surfboards in the entry way and a broken down, volkswagen bus out front in which one of the hostel managers slept every night. Piedra Alta had amazing coffee at breakfast and plentiful servings of ‘Dulce Del Leche‘ as one of its breakfast spreads. Dulce Del Leche is a local favorite and is the result of heating condensed sweet milk until it caramelizes into a sweet spread that tastes like a combination of peanut butter and honey. Everything you put it on becomes instantly better. It puts the crack in crackers and instantly turns stale bread rolls stellar. I imagine this product was discovered by accident when someone left the stove top on long ago and was hard pressed for a late night snack.
At night, the main strip in La Pedrera shuts down at 8:00 pm and turns into a walking street where hipsters emerge from afternoon siesta to sell their wares ranging from paintings, hand woven bracelets and necklaces sporting minerals and feathers with curative properties. Local bands come out to fill the air, stray dogs look for handouts and residents swap surf riding sessions and look to fill their basic necessities; namely a place to sleep, enough food to fill their reserves and maybe enough money for a ticket home at season’s end.
Every day was spent at the beach and was a sun stoked paradise. While there, we met ‘Costa’, a beach vendor that sold 5 tacos for $15 so we could surf from 10 to 4 followed by an ice cream back in town before our afternoon siesta and night out with live music back at the hostel. Just when I thought we were too sunburned or rashed up from the day before to go out again, we woke up renewed and healed, determined to brave a new day.
“Just one more wave!” was Ava’s response to everything while at the beach in La Pedrera. Asking her come in and reapply sunscreen, drink water, call it day or just eat, was met with ‘one more’, ‘one more’, ‘one more’. It’s the best thing a parent can hear, and when you hear it, you know then you’ve instilled a love of something in your child that might someday blossom into a passion, hobby or career. Bobbing out there in the lineup, we sat affixed, eagle-eyed on the horizon, counting the minutes between sets, and trying to wait for for the smoothest, cleanest wave before committing. “The sets come in every 4 minutes.” I said. “The third wave is the best. This is a beach break, so look over your shoulder to see which way it breaks and turn away from its break to ride it as long as you can.”
Our new home of Lima, Peru has waves and surf schools all within an easy reach so I’m looking forward to seeing Ava graduate from foam boards to her very own fiberglass model one day. I imagine her and her old man floating out there past the breakers on the weekend, having daddy-daughter moments that give respite to the hullabaloo of teenage drama and midlife back pain, all the while our eyes looking west, waiting and watching to see whatever the tide brings each of us.