South American Shenanigans

Traveling solo is such a different experience than traveling with a group. I love both of them but one certainly allows for more alone time. Instead of blogging, I was getting to know my new friends and forming connections. Now, back home, I can relay some of the experiences from our journey. I hope you enjoy.

(March 3rd)

This trip would be memorable no matter what but it’s impossible not to comment on the fact that we are traveling internationally during a unique moment in time with the coronavirus. On the plane, I joined in with others wiping down their tray tables and seatbelts. The prevailing counsel was that surgical masks were not an effective means of preventing the virus but there were certainly plenty of people wearing them. Ironically, I spotted several people wearing masks but only covering their mouths, not their noses. Interesting strategy.

The first meet-up point along our journey was the Miami airport. From there, four of us headed to Montevideo, Uruguay. As I got on the flight I realized I was going to be seated behind a family with two small kids. Always a risky way to spend an international flight. Especially since the parents both were sporting face masks. However, the masks didn’t last very long so I figured I probably wasn’t in danger of virus spread. Instead, they did a different kind of spreading. Namely, taking over the entire bulkhead row — with an inflatable air mattress. For real.

The dad had a hand pump and filled the whole thing only to realize that the width of the bulkhead wouldn’t allow it to fit. You can imagine how the flight attendants reacted to this inventive but flawed plan. However, this display caused the guy to catch our eye and he received the moniker, “Buff Daddy.” In a small-world twist, days later we would see the family again. Had “BD” not made such a scene we probably never would have realized the Universe was once again putting us along each other’s path.

That evening we went to a bar hosting a karaoke competition. It consisted of tables singing together as a group against other tables. The microphones were hooked up to a game that assessed the accuracy of the group. We chose the apt name “Shenanigans” for our team. However, that’s not a word that is familiar in the Spanish language so it was pronounced “She-nan-NI-gans” which is really a much more fun way to say it. We were less than a day into the trip and were already developing our own codes and inside jokes. There’s no better indicator of good times ahead.

The next day the remainder of our crew joined us and we quickly got to the business of acquainting ourselves with one another and Montevideo. We meandered around town with a tour guide that explained how Uruguay was like the attractive woman constantly being fought over by Spain and Portugal and then Argentina and Brazil. That wasn’t his analogy but I think it’s pretty spot-on. We’d spend the next week admiring her beauty in Montevideo, Punta del Este, Jose Ignacio, Pueblo Eden, and Colonia del Sacramento.

There are some interesting dynamics at play on this trip with the six of us. Three are fluent Spanish speakers. Three are mothers. Three are married. Three are single. Two live on the West Coast. Two live on the East Coast. All have worked at advertising agencies. Two are pescatarian. One is vegetarian. One is Cuban, one is Brazilian, one is Uruguayan. The Americans hail originally from West Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri. Such an interesting crew.

As a person who loves language, I’ve been enjoying practicing my Spanish. I have also realized that my fluent friends were not as omnipotent as I assumed. I knew that accents were distinct and that Castilian Spanish words sometimes had different meanings but it was interesting to watch the fluent speakers ask each other what certain words meant. “We don’t have that in Cuba.” “That’s just something we say here.”

The most fascinating was learning that in Argentina and Uruguay, words with “l”s are pronounced differently. It will be difficult to express this in written form but I’ll do my best.

K-sa-dee-yah (In Mexico)
K-sa-di-zjah (In Uruguay)
K-tha-dee-yah (In Spain)
K-sa-dill-uh (In America, lol)

Ply-yah (In Mexico)
Pla-zjah (In Uruguay)

See? Isn’t that tremendously fascinating? I found such enjoyment of practicing my Spanish that at one point while translating statements on tiles at a tourist shop, the salesperson asked if we were part of a class and if my friend was my Spanish teacher. She wasn’t completely wrong.

After a few days in Montevideo, we were off to the ritzy beachside town of Punta del Este. Apparently, this paradise is home to global celebrities and is pretty hopping during high season. We were there during the second week of the off-season so our hotel was filled with a lawyer’s convention. Slightly less glitz and glamour but that’s okay because we had some sophistication awaiting us in the nearby village of Garzon.

(March 7)

Francis Mallmann is a world-renowned chef. You may know him from the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Uruguay episode or from Chef’s Table on Netflix. He is a master of grilling and for someone known to cook meat incredibly well, he also brings vegetable dishes to life in vibrant ways. As we were researching activities for the trip we knew we’d want to stop by his restaurant. What we didn’t realize was that our stay overlapped perfectly with the start of harvest at the associated winery, Bodega Garzon. We splurged for what became one of the absolute highlights of the trip. Many of the ladies even said it was one of the best experiences in their life. However, the evening had a pretty inauspicious start.

The event started at 6pm and we were already running late. Then we realized that we had miscalculated the distance and it was going to take us longer to get there than we thought. Packed sardine-style into our mini SUV we ventured out for the 75-minute drive. About halfway there the GPS turned us onto a dirt road. And then it got less and less maintained. At several points, we questioned if this pot-holed, winding, dirt road was really going to lead us to the 2019 New World Winery Winner. As they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn. About 5 kilometers before we eventually reached the glistening building there was literally grass growing between the ruts of the road (trail?) and we spotted a cow carcass decomposing. No joke.

But then, we got to Bodega. It was comforting to see a row of tour buses in the parking lot. Clearly, we had taken a different route than them! We were invited into the vineyards and allowed to help pick some of the grapes. Talk about Instagram photo opportunities. Next was a tour of the winery. Then, they told us to meet them in the town square for dinner. We were excited to see the real road that the buses had used. However, we instead were greeted with yet another dirt road. People here must have great tires.

Once we arrived in the town square a different greeting was awaiting us. Imagine the most stunning Pinterest-level outdoor wedding reception. Now triple it. There was a fountain filled with ice and bottles of wine. There were grapevines threaded through pergolas covering the family-style tables. Every chair had a deep burgundy throw blanket mirroring the color of Bodega Garzon’s award-winning Tannat wine. As we were wandering I noticed a few people taking photos with a man in a chef’s coat. Now, truth be told, I’ve never watched the Mallmann episode on Chef’s Table or Parts Unknown. But, when I know something in my gut, I know it. That had to be Francis Mallmann and so it was. We slyly followed him until the moment presented itself for me to ask if I could have a photo with him without interrupting his work. The connection was made and served us well when we later had the opportunity for a group photo.

Although my clothes and hair will never not smell like smoky campfire ever again and while I had to see lamb and cows pinned up on the “iron cross” — it was a once-in-a-lifteime experience.

You might wonder how one spends the day after an incredible outing like Garzon. Well, for us, we go riding horses at the beach. WHAT?!?!? Who am I?

(March 10)

Long-time readers may remember my previous visit to Uruguay. It only involved a single stop but it absolutely captured my heart. Colonia del Sacramento (CdS) is an incredibly charming small town (a UNESCO world heritage site) and was up next on our itinerary. However, there were 3 hours of road-tripping to make it happen. That turned into a 9-hour trip when you included the visit to Casapueblo, the Chocolateria in Pueblo Eden, the Lataia factory (that had closed for the off-season only a week prior), the wrong turns at various roundabouts, a police blockade in progress, and dinner with 3 enormous beer bottles and a mosquito-infested bathroom. The she-nan-NI-gans continue.

CdS was every bit as endearing as I remembered from my visit in February 2016. As we meandered I had several moments of introspection about how my life had changed in those four years and how the town had stayed the same. Even without looking at a map I found that I had muscle memory of where to turn to navigate the small town. One thing that had changed though was the number of restaurants advertising vegan and vegetarian options. When I saw the first one I remembered back to how difficult it had been to find veggie options in meat-centric Uruguay on my first visit. Then we passed another sign. And then another. I created a narrative in my head that after my previous visit the restauranteurs gathered and talked about the growing trend of Americans visiting the town looking for vegetarian options. The butterfly effect in full effect (in my head).

We drove back to Montevideo for our last night in Uruguay. The next day meant saying farewell to two of our companieros that were returning home. Four of us were to continue on to Buenos Aires via the ferry. There were tears but also excitement about the next chapter of our adventure. Patagonia has been high on my travel bucket list.

As we boarded the ferry we were handed white cloth items, I assumed they were masks. Nope, they were shoe booties. Everybody was handed them and wearing them but there was no obvious reason why. We went with the flow and put them on. While sitting on the boat (still docked before departing) I received an email from the US State Department — I had signed up for alerts in advance of the trip. The email essentially said that the Argentinian government was about to release a Presidential decree about coronavirus specifically for travelers arriving at the Buenos Aires airport from countries including the United States. Well, this could get interesting.

(March 11)

The ferry ride lasted about 2.5 hours and when we docked and departed there was no mention of the Presidential decree. I guess because we were arriving at a ferry port from Uruguay, we were in the clear. However, during the ride, we had learned of our own President’s decree — that all travel from Europe would be suspended. It wasn’t stated whether that included American citizens so we started researching online to see if there were any implications for us in South America. It was about 9:30pm at night and we planned on just heading straight to the hotel since we had a 7am flight to catch for Patagonia.

Before the trip, I was able to secure foreign currency for Uruguay and Chile from Bank of America. However, for some reason, they didn’t offer Argentinean currency. None of my girlfriends had withdrawn any either. Given our lack of local funds, we decided to take an Uber from the ferry port to the hotel. However, the wait time prompted us to ask a taxi driver if they would accept cards. Because they did we canceled our Uber and hopped in with a nice guy that immediately recognized my friend’s accent as Uruguayan. He was also from Uruguay and the two started chatting immediately. By the end of the ride he had shared his WhatsApp information should we want to have him give us a tour when we returned to Buenos Aires after our Patagonia adventures.

Upon checking in at the hotel we noticed a hastily printed sign that referenced what I’d read in the State Department email. Very casually the front-desk clerk said, “Oh yes, you know that you won’t be able to leave your room or come down for the breakfast buffet, yes?” It was so emotionless that I almost thought he was joking. We pushed for more details and they explained that the Argentine President had just announced that all travelers from COVID infected countries must self-quarantine for 14 days. We asked if this meant we weren’t allowed to even go across the street for dinner. He told us that in the original decree (which supposedly didn’t include the US) there was the threat of a 15-year prison sentence for any traveler breaking the quarantine. But he told us that the language had been changed so now it was self-imposed and that he wasn’t policing us.

I have watched and read my fair share of dystopian stories. For a while, I’d been melodramatically saying that the current climate (even before COVID) had parallels with the demise seen in Handmaid’s Tale and Atlas Shrugged. Now, here we were in a politically-unstable foreign country, with no local currency, with an unclear European travel ban into our country, and as recently as a couple hours ago a 15-year prison threat for us being outside our hotel room in Buenos Aires. Shiz just got real.

We decided to proceed with checking in. Room service was closed and we were all hungry (though frankly my appetite was pretty quickly disappearing) so we walked across the street to an empty Italian restaurant. The worker looked shocked to see us which made me feel even more unsettled. I asked if we could order food and take it to go if need be. He quickly recovered and motioned for us to sit down. As we looked over the menu the silent TV in the background was broadcasting a scroll: “URGENTE” with news updates including that Tom Hanks had the virus. As we waited for our meal and ate, we went around the table discussing each of our perspectives on the situation and weighing various pros and cons.

We felt we had four options: 1) Continue on to Patagonia and just see what happens. 2) Stay in Buenos Aires at this hotel until our flight departure on the 18th. 3) Return to Uruguay and ride things out with my friend’s family. 4) Cut bait and bail, going back to the US asap.

At different points in the conversation, each option seemed like the most likely path to pursue. But, as disappointing as it was to lose out on Patagonia we were mostly leaning toward the 4th option. We considered that while we might be able to get to Patagonia the tours might be canceled. Or, we might get stuck there for 14 days. Or, our access to US dollars might get cut off. Or, or, or…

We decided to head back to the hotel, see what flights would be available, and try calling the US embassy for any additional advice. We settled up our tab and walked across the street. It’s worth noting that the street was almost completely bare. It was so creepy. The valet attendant stared openly at us and I broke the intensity by warmly smiling and saying, “Hola.” He responded in kind. Then, I noticed a young woman walking our direction. She and I made eye contact and I watched as her aperture widened and she saw four Americans in front of her. I kid you not, she slowly pulled her t-shirt up over her nose. I jabbed my friend and said, “Holy crap, that woman is covering herself because of us!” she looked back and confirmed it was still happening. Yep. It was time to get the fudge out.

We got up to the room and started making calls to book new flights and cancel upcoming reservations. At one point we had hold music going on four different devices. Thankfully, we were all able to get on flights for the next evening. We finally went to sleep around 3am. The next morning, the sun was shining and we could see life continuing on from our balcony perch above the city. However, we weren’t allowed to attend the breakfast buffet so they delivered it to us. After several hours of the “Urgente” news broadcasts my friend said she needed to watch something else but every station was blasting the same content.

Thankfully, our Uruguayan friend from the previous evening was more than willing to pick us up and take us to the airport. There we saw many other Americans in the same situation. In waiting lines people would share their stories. “We were in Mendoza when the news came out.” “We were able to get flights back to the US but we had to separate onto two different planes.” While we were going through duty-free the checkout clerk said, “It’s good you decided to go home. I’ve been hearing that our President is going to shut down all travel with the US, tomorrow.” While that turned out to be only partially true — he banned US travel into the country so assumedly we would have still been able to get out, at the moment it validated our decision like cement.

I should playback my mental state during all of this. During the whole trip, I had been aware of COVID and had heightened my senses to how we were being perceived roaming through Uruguay. I had brought a spray hand sanitizer and was using it liberally. Although I didn’t want to contract the virus, I especially wanted to show the locals that we were being considerate. As my friend put it when I questioned the healthiness of people sharing microphones at the karaoke bar, “Josie, these people are all locals. They’re not traveling. WE are their threat.” That stuck with me when we would stop at small little towns in the country and I’d see the locals watching us out of their periphery. Throughout the week we had all been getting emails from our employers about working from home. Emails from companies about how they were adjusting policies. News alerts from Italy and China. Then, on the ferry, I got that email and I started getting nauseous. I chalked it up to motion sickness and took some ginger pills. But my hands were shaking, too. In hindsight, I’m fairly certain it had been a panic attack. See, I had just read a post on Facebook by a friend of mine whose parents happened to be part of the Princess Cruiselines evacuation. The experience they shared was horrible. It was at the forefront of my mind as I considered what might happen when we got off the ferry. At the hotel, I questioned whether we should even bring our bags upstairs or whether we should just immediately go to the airport. What if our checking into the hotel signaled our agreement to stay there for 14 days. (I mean it did, didn’t it?) What if when we walked across the street to the restaurant we would be stopped by armed police? What if we were stopped at the airport and quarantined there? What if we were stopped in Miami and quarantined there? Although I was checking my luggage I pulled out the necessary items for being stuck in isolation for 2 weeks. Suffice it to say, I was a wreck. But I’m not sure my friends knew it. Fear and anxiety snowball and I was doing my best to remain calm and breathe deeply, which I also wasn’t doing because, hello, COVID is a respiratory infection.

At no point was I worried about my own health of contracting the virus. I was primarily worried that if I caught it I might spread it to others whose immune systems couldn’t handle it or add to scale that would hinder the health system’s ability to manage it. I felt irresponsible for being on the trip in the first place. I felt irresponsible for leaving Argentina. I felt like a monster of bad decisions. But then, they let us off the boat, and they let us cross the street, and they let us eat, and they let us check out, and they let us ride to the airport, and they let us on the plane, and they let us in the country. Then, at home, I called our state COVID hotline and asked if I should self-quarantine. I was told that I posed no risk based on my situation and should simply practice healthy hygiene and employ social distancing but had no need to be in isolation. Huh. Maybe not a monster after all? I’m still not convinced but at least I was breathing more easily.

(March 14)

So now, I’m home. Thank God. The U.S. is in a national state of emergency. Yikes. It’s hard to believe that I was supposed to be on day two of hiking a glacier today. While I don’t need to self-quarantine I am appreciating my solitude to reflect back on this last week and soothe myself so I can be ready to support my family, friends, and community for whatever is ahead of us. These stories I’m sharing and the photos I’m posting have given me a reason to smile and that’s no small thing these days. I hope that they may spread a little joy to you, too.

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