The man in front of us eyed our bags suspiciously. His Spanish came at too rapid a pace, and I was at a loss for what he was saying. He had already grabbed one of our bags and held it in his hands, a sturdy plastic one we used on travel days. Was he trying to take our backpacks too?
There were people all around us, going about their business without any problems. The world seemed oblivious to our predicament. I looked to Tim for reassurance. Did Tim know what the man was saying? Did he know what we were supposed to do?
Tim met my eyes and shook his head slightly to indicate he too had no idea what happens next. We both felt nervous. We weren't prepared for something like this to happen so early in our trip.
We looked back at the man in front of us, now rifling through our possessions, tossing our things carelessly out of the bag. He met our gaze and repeated what he had said before, this time much more forcefully. I panicked and started to give him my other bag. I just wanted this to be over. I didn't know what else to do. He shook his head no. And from his pocket he pulled a canister.
It all happened so quick. There was nothing we could do. This was it.
Tim and I watched helplessly as the man held up the ham sandwiches he found in our plastic bag and sprayed red paint all over them.
Tossing them into the trash can next to him, he stopped to straighten his border guard uniform before smiling and saying, "Bienvenidos a Uruguay." Welcome to Uruguay.
There's a romanticism about backpacking that people seem to imagine. Riding the rail lines in Europe, you disembark at a tiny village located on the Mediterranean sea. Wandering through the streets, you see an older couple walking towards you hand in hand. The gentleman nods in your direction, the woman's eyes sparkle. They stop and ask you in a foreign language what you are searching for in their town. Love and life, you answer in their native language with an accent you've perfected thanks to your trusty guide book's pronunciation guide. They nod knowingly and point you in the right direction, towards the center of town where there promises to be adventure in store for a foreign face. They wish you luck and health in your journey, but not before they give you their home address and implore that you are welcome to stay whenever and for however long you wish.
While that scene may have happened for a few backpackers, it's atypical. Yes, seeing the world with a pack on your back is a glorious way to travel. It's the ultimate freedom to have everything you own in a ten kilo bag. Choosing which city or village or country to visit next can be as easy as flipping a coin. And there are undoubtedly several adventures and genuinely moving moments in store for you along the way.
But there's also a loneliness that can feel overwhelming at times. Culture shock, sickness, exhaustion all take their turns, sometimes hitting you all at once. You grow weary not understanding a language despite trying your very best. Ordering food from menus can become a chore. Finding a clean place to sleep sometimes turns into an impossible mission. And feeling exhilarated by new experiences can be swiftly replaced with disorientation at the drop of a hat.
It was our first land border crossing and we were traveling from Argentina to Uruguay in search of beaches and tranquility. We had left Buenos Aires behind early in the morning to board the slow boat to Colonia, Uruguay. From there, we grabbed a bus and headed two hours east to Uruguay's capital city.
Montevideo: To English speaking ears it sounds gorgeous. The "vah-dayo" part in particular has a lovely ring and it rolls off the tongue with ease. The entire name echoes notions of cobblestone streets and grand palaces.
As our bus pulled into Montevideo, the sky grew a bit darker. The buildings looked dreary. Trash was littered along the street. Tired people shuffled down the sidewalks. We didn't see any cobblestone streets or grand palaces.
We negotiated our way through the hectic bus station in search of the bathroom. My bladder was about to burst when I was confronted by an older woman with a wrinkled face demanding payment before I could use the toilets. I explained in halting Spanish that I didn't have any Uruguayan pesos yet, we had only just arrived from Buenos Aires. Unimpressed with my story and immune to the possibility that a gringo might wet the floor in front of her, she turned me away.
Locating Tim again among the throngs of people, we searched for an ATM. The first one wouldn't work with our card. The second one had a long line behind it. Hopping from one foot to another while we waited, we worked out the currency conversion in our head and determined how much money we should withdraw.
Five minutes later I passed the required sum to the restroom gatekeeper and rushed to find a stall. Tim meanwhile studied some maps posted in the station showing where Montevideo was in comparison to our intended destination in Uruguay, the village of La Paloma. He glanced at the bus schedules posted behind him and realized we had just missed a bus to La Paloma. The next one didn't leave for several more hours and would have us arrive well after midnight.
We had two choices before us. We could spend several hours in the crowded bus station waiting for the later bus to La Paloma and then risk finding some place to stay in a strange town after midnight. Or we could stay in Montevideo overnight and catch a bus early in the morning instead. Having a hard and fast travel rule about not arriving in a new place at night without lodging, we realized Montevideo was our only choice.
Flipping quickly through our guidebook, we decided to chat with the tourism officer in the station about Montevideo. We asked if he could call one of the hostels we thought sounded okay to see if they had a vacancy. He did, but they didn't. It seemed luck was completely against us.
Crestfallen, tired, and hungry we spied a McDonald's in the bus station. Would it be a failure to order McDonald's so early in our trip? We quickly decided we didn't care. And while chomping away on french fries we made plans to grab a bus into the city center to look for a place to stay.
Three hours later after difficulty finding the bus line, feeling incredibly weighed down by our packs, and having tried to check in at several places without success, we finally settled on an overpriced room in the Hotel Los Angeles. Like something out of a horror movie, the building was grim, the paneling was dark, the fabrics on the wall musty with age. Although there were around twenty floors in the building, there were only a handful of guests. Each floor the elevator door opened onto was dark. Finally, we exited onto the thirteenth floor, the hotel staff person walking briskly in front of us, turning on the lights as he went. Showing us our room, he wished us good evening, and suddenly we were alone.
The room was decent enough, although worn and dark. A window without shades looked out into an alley below and the empty hotel rooms across the way. The bathroom had an unidentifiable smell and a bar of purple soap with a reindeer carved in it. The television only showed one channel which seemed to be running a marathon of Vietnamese war movies in Spanish.
Curling up beside one another in the dark, we fell into a light asleep with the sounds of the elevator squeaking its way up and down, up and down, up and down all night long. Montevideo, we feared, might be a warning of what was to come.
Home is where the heart is, the old sentiment goes. And it is, that much is true. But it's also when you know where to buy a soda and grab a quick bite to eat without getting lost. Or sleeping in a hotel where you don't have to double check the lock or throw a sheet over the window for privacy.
Home is the place where things feel familiar. When you're not traveling, it might be found in your favorite book or a homemade meal. It could be watching the game with friends on a Sunday afternoon or walking to the post office and saying hello to your neighbors along the way. It's the place where you feel comfortable and at ease no matter what else the world might be throwing your way.
Finding something familiar on the road is not always easy. Depending on your route and your travel schedule, you often won't pass through the same city twice or be lucky to stay long enough in a new place for it to start to feel familiar. When you do find that familiarity, you relish it. Feeling at home is like being back home, back before you put a pack on your back, before you took for granted the entire notion of home.
Luckily Montevideo was an inaccurate litmus test for the rest of Uruguay. Over the following days, we fell in love with Argentina's tiny neighbor to the east. The people were incredibly friendly, the language a fascinating mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. We marveled at the countryside where cows grazed next to palm trees with the ocean as a backdrop. We appreciated the slow pace of life.
We had only been in Uruguay for a little over a week, but it was time to return to Buenos Aires and continue with the rest of our trip. Doing so, though, meant leaving the peaceful countryside and returning to Montevideo. I looked up and noticed a dark cloud had descended above us.
Boarding the bus to the capital city, we hunkered down for the next seven hours, breathing in as much of the picturesque countryside as we could, almost as if it would shield us from the slime and grime which awaited us in Montevideo.
But as the bus pulled into the city, we noticed something was different. The strip malls we passed didn't look nearly as seedy. There were folks chatting happily away at a bus stop. Music wafted out from a nearby restaurant. The sun was shining.
Stepping off the bus, we expertly weaved our way into the bus station. Tim wrote down the bus schedule that we would need to reference the next day. I deftly passed coins to the bathroom caretaker. We watched as other gringos tried to use the first ATM that didn't work after we had already quickly withdrawn money from the second ATM. Passing by the McDonald's, we purchased some empanadas from a local food stall. Outside the bus station we turned right instead of left and arrived at the city bus stop just as the bus pulled in. Hopping on, we chatted with the driver and the ticket taker, and told them our destination. And with our packs feeling light and a spring in our steps, we walked to the hostel which had been fully booked the week before and scored ourselves a lovely room at a discounted price, complete with a new TV.
Walking along a quiet street later that evening, we realized Montevideo was feeling familiar to us. This city that had been so unwelcoming just a few days prior suddenly felt like it had opened its doors to two weary travelers. More importantly, we felt like we knew where those doors led this time around. Looking around at the city, I noticed how pretty it actually was. The architecture, though faded, had a certain nobility about it. And there were even a few cobblestone streets we had failed to notice our first time through the city.
Maybe Montevideo wasn't that bad after all.
Taking Tim's hand as we walked back to our hostel, I said, "Bienvenidos a Montevideo," Welcome to Montevideo.
"Bienvenidos a casa," he replied squeezing my hand. Welcome home.
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