Seals and Patterns

Trip Start Aug 19, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Thursday, October 21, 2010

I am still in Uruguay. But, sadly, this is my last entry from here.  I've marked the pin on the TravelPod map as Cabo Polonio because it relates to my time there and I have dated this post as of October 21, which was the day I left Cabo Polonio.  I am, however, writing this in Punta del Diablo on October 24.

Last Monday, October 18, I set out for Cabo Polonio and Barra de Valizas, which are a couple of small (tiny) towns south of Punta del Diablo.  I wanted to stay there for a few days or even a week, but the Punta del Diablo hostel owners told me that they usually see those towns on daytrips.  So, when I woke up on Monday morning, I was unsure about how long I would be there.  Given the uncertainty, (1) I asked the hostel at Punta del Diablo if I could leave my stuff there; and (2) I brought with me very little - i.e., a toothbrush and a change of clothes - in case I decided to stay overnight.

I went to Cabo Polonio first because I wanted to go on the off-road trucks through the sand dunes.  As I mentioned on the previous post, I heard that there were no direct roads into the town and the last bit of the journey would involve 4x4s.  I was told that it might be easier, and cheaper, to go to Valizas first (since the bus stops inside the town) and then walk along the beach to Cabo Polonio (because even though the walk is 2+ hours it is a beautiful worthwhile walk).  But I really wanted to ride those trucks - so I did.

When I arrived at the place to catch the trucks, I was a little surprised that the whole thing was very organized.  Next to the highway, where the bus dropped me off, there was a little kiosk/tourist info booth where I got a ticket for a truck.  The truck, anticipating the arrival of the bus, was prepped and ready to go.  Even though it wasn't as rustic as I thought it would be, it was still pretty damn cool (there are some visual aids in the pictures section).  I'd hate to think that only a couple of months after leaving 'Merrica, I'd already become that annoyingly-jaded-traveler-guy who thinks that anything more than a hitchhiked ride on a horse & buggy is way too developed/touristy; I'm pretty sure that I haven't reached that point yet because I was reeling a little during the 20-minute truck ride into Cabo Polonio.

I got off the truck in what looked like the center of town and everything was a little surreal.  I think I mentioned in the last post that when I got to Punta del Diablo I felt like I was at the figurative edge of South America, but the moment I arrived in Cabo Polonio, it seemed to me that Punta del Diablo, with its one paved road and its make-shift beach shacks, was the height of civilization.  I don't know how else to describe Cabo Polonio other than it looked like what I think a settlement might have looked like in the age when Vikings were occupying Greenland.  The town didn't seem to be planned in any way; all of the structures seemed like they were erected randomly around the land jutting out into the sea - wherever the owners decided was a good spot.  

After my initial first-five-minutes-of-taking-in of the town, I walked a few yards onward to the beach.  When I reached the shore, I planted my feet where the sea intermittently faded into the sand. I looked out into the vast sea and the cloudless sky ahead.  It might have been the stark coldness of the water running up from my feet to my neck, but as I stood there I suddenly got a rush of good feeling - like something felt right about that place (Cabo Polonio felt more right to me than any other place I've been to so far, except maybe the mountains of Idaho). I looked to my right (southward) and saw a lighthouse, which, although huge, was charming with its candy-striped cupola. And then I looked to my left (northward) and saw a seemingly-neverending and peaceful-looking beach.  

I couldn't really make sense of this new feeling I was getting, except that it was sort of the opposite of "The Feeling" I described when I felt ready to leave BsAs (go back a few entries if you didn't get this reference) - this time, the feeling was one where I thought I could stay for a while.  

I have to mention, though, that I say all these things about how I felt in hindsight. That is, this all happened a week ago and I've had some days to consider the time I'd spent there. In truth, at that particular moment, even though I knew Cabo Polonio stirred something up inside me, I was still unsure about whether I would stay more than a few hours.  I didn't do any advance planning (ech even the sound of that term sickens me, but I still try to do it nonetheless) so I didn't even know if there would be a place for me to sleep if I did want to stay.

Back to the story: The water was getting too cold under my feet, so I turned around, back towards the beach, and ventured into the town. I wanted to walk around it to see what was there.  It took me all of twelve minutes to see the whole town.  Those twelve minutes included several stops at various B&Bs or Posadas in order to inquire about nightly rates.  To my dismay, the lodging situation was similar to Punta del Diablo where many of the B&Bs/rentals were closed during the off-season and the ones that were open were quite expensive.  

I was a bit sad about not finding a suitable place to stay, but I wasn't going to let it get me down.  There were still remnants of the good feelings that electrified me just twelve minutes earlier and I intended on building that up again.  

I headed towards the lighthouse (closer to the southern edge of the main town) and I was surprised to see a large colony(?) of seals and sea lions hanging out at the rocks below.  It was amazing.  I must have sat there on the rocks, less than 30 yards away from the sea-dogs, for over an hour. Just staring.  Watching their awkward climbs up the rocks and their graceful swims out to sea.  Wondering if they were really fighting each other or whether it was all play. Etc.

Later in the afternoon, realizing that my trip to Cabo Polonio might end up just being of the 'day' variety, I proceeded to the northern end of the town towards the rather large beach that stretched northward to Barra de Valizas. I wanted to see if I could make it there; if I did, I would just catch the latest bus back to Punta del Diablo from there.

On my walk up the beach, I happened upon a hostel right on the beach (by happened upon, I mean I went towards a brightly-colored structure that had huge letters painted on its steep-sloping roof spelling out "HOSTEL").   There were a few folks milling about in front of it and I actually stopped in my tracks, just steps away from the hostel, negotiating with myself the pros and cons of staying at what looked like the ultimate backpacker's dream (i.e., my nightmare) hostel.   

But I couldn't let something like mild personal discomfort and communal-everything stop me from staying in this town.  The vibe I got from the town was so amazing that at that point, I continued my walk up to the hostel to inquire about any unoccupied beds for that evening.

I started to ask around to see if there was space that evening.  One of the hostelers said there were beds available but I'd have to go out back to find the owner or his assistant.  It took a while to find the assistant and he said that they had beds open.  They didn't have any singles or doubles. The open bed was in a six-person dorm.  I grudgingly said OK.  I consoled myself with the fact that I was getting to stay at this awesome town for another day.  I asked the assistant dude if I should pay him up front, but he said not to worry about it, that I should pay when I leave.  Weird, I thought. Most places make you pay the second you say OK.  He didn't even take my name.  

Feeling good about finding a place to stay, I continued northward to see if I could still make it up to see Valizas before the sun went down - maybe just to see it a little.  Two hours of walking (and picture-taking) later, I realized that I was still quite far from Valizas. But I did reach a couple of rocky points similar to those in Punta del Diablo except the ones in Cabo Polonio were far better - there were seals there!  Plus. there was a giant sand dune/hill that I then proceeded to climb. It was kind of like I was back in the wilderness hiking again (oh how I miss hiking).  When I got to the top of the sand hill, I saw Valizas from afar and seeing it from atop that hill was good enough for me: I headed back to Cabo Polonio and that hostel.

On the two-hour trek back to the main Cabo Polonio town, I kept thinking and re-thinking about whether I wanted to really stay at the hostel.  Then it occurred to me that given where the sun was at that particular time, it was probably too late to take the last bus back to Punta del Diablo and I had no other choice but to stay at the hostel.

When I got back to the hostel, it was a little weird at first. It looked like the folks who were there had already been there several days and they had all gotten into some kind of rhythm - I was the new guy, I hate being that guy.  Plus, even though the other hostelers were from non-Spanish-speaking places, they all spoke it perfectly and I got a little self-conscious about my own Spanish-speaking abilities.

I could go on about the next couple of hours and how I had annoying thoughts about having to share a very small space with people I didn't know (and perhaps people I didn't even care to know) and how I kept consoling myself with the fact that my decision to stay was totally worth it just because the town itself felt so magical - but I'll fast forward.  It turned out that the hostel itself had a great feel (just like the town) and everyone who was staying there was pretty awesome.

I'll go on a little tangent here.  I am generally opposed to staying in hostels solely because I hate sharing space with people.  This is because (1) most people, even though they think they are, aren't considerate or polite - I think I'm overly considerate and polite (please tell me if I'm not) and I get annoyed when other people aren't; and (2) I think there aren't as many lone-travelers like myself (this is probably not true, but it's sort of been my impression) and when there are folks traveling as couples or groups, it makes me feel left out and I hate feeling left out - I'd rather be by myself than feel left out.  Yes, I realize that point #2 is one of my neurotic and unsociable-like qualities, but I what can I do? It's there.

Back to the story.  Surprisingly, I ended up getting along with most everyone that was there.  Most of us were traveling alone and everyone was super easy to get along with. Plus, everyone was truly interesting (and not just interesting in the hostel sense - I hope at least some of you understand it when I say that).  It seems rare to me that everything lines up the way it did there.  The town was amazing and the people at the hostel were cool enough that I didn't mind sharing space with them.  Plus, I saved a bunch of money by not having to stay in a B&B.  It all worked out.  We all chatted for quite a while before turning in.  Everyone was very considerate and I actually slept pretty well.

The next day, I woke up kind of early to the sound of the waves.  I stepped outside and looked out onto another perfect day.  I figured I'd enjoy the quiet morning because I was going to try to catch the 11 o'clock truck out.  I packed up what little stuff I had, got some coffee, and sat on the deck.  Over the next couple of hours, everyone else got up and did pretty much what I did.  I think a couple of us planned on leaving on that day.  Eventually everyone was out on the deck, under the warm sun.  As the time came close to 11, I still didn't feel like it was time to leave.  I only had to think about it for a second - I told myself at the beginning of the trip that I would not leave any place for any reason other than my not wanting to be there anymore.  I didn't feel like leaving so I decided to stay.  A few minutes later, the hostel owner guy (a truly awesome dude named Pancho) came over to where we were sitting and just as I was going to yell at him that I was going to stay another day, one of the other guys yelled to him "I think I'll not be leaving today".  Everyone decided to stay.  Everyone must have had a similar feeling that we were all onto something pretty cool and that none of us wanted to leave it.  No one said anything about it, we just kind of knew.

It was at this point that I realized why Pancho doesn't accept payment upfront.  Later he told us that most people who come through there intend on staying just one night, but very few people actually do.  I knew I felt some kind of magic about that place.

So anyway, what did we do the rest of the day? Nothing. We just continued sitting out on the deck. Talking. Not talking. Looking out to the sea. Talking some more. Not talking some more.  It seemed like it was all too easy and at no point did it feel awkward. It kind of felt like being around some of my friends back home - yeah, you know which ones you are.  (It didn't hurt, by the way, that beer time came early that day and we had other sorts of refreshments - I'd elaborate but my parents read this blog - hi mom and dad). So that was day number 2 at Cabo Polonio. Just hanging out.

The next day (Wednesday), I got up early and did exactly the same thing as I did the day before. I packed my stuff, made some coffee, and sat on the deck.  It was another warm, cloudless day.  I made up my mind the night before to leave on Wednesday because I felt like Tuesday had been such a perfect day that staying another day would possibly ruin it all.  I wanted to walk away from Cabo Polonio thinking that it was a magical place and not one where I overstayed a day (terrible rationale, by the way).  As 11 o'clock rolled around, I was stunned to find myself waffling on staying or going.  Most of the other guys already planned on staying through the week; it was just me and another guy who insisted on leaving that day.  It turned out that nobody was ready to for it to end. So yep - I decided to stay another day.

We did go on a hike that day, so it wasn't just sitting around doing nothing.  It was great.  Another perfect day.

So then came Thursday.  I woke up and did exactly the same thing I did the previous two days.  The air was crisp and the sky only had a few clouds. But something was different.  I thought to myself that I am really getting good at recognizing when I got The Feeling (to leave).  Even though the day was shaping up to be another beautiful one, I was ready to leave - for no other reason than it felt right to leave that day.  Plus, wearing the same clothes for almost 4 days and having very limited facilities (did I mention that there's no electricity in Cabo Polonio?) was taking its toll on me (read: I was dirty and gross).  A little before 11, I walked over to the truck stop.  A few minutes later, I found myself in the company of one of the other guys (one who'd planned to stay another day). He then tells me that everyone else (except for a couple of people) also left on foot headed towards Valizas.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one to get The Feeling.  So that was it for Cabo Polonio.

On the suddenly-quiet bus ride back to Punta del Diablo, when I was by myself again, it occurred to me that it also seemed right to leave Uruguay altogether.

I got back to Punta del Diablo on Thursday afternoon.  I'd intended on going straight up to Brazil on Friday, but I still don't have a visa for Brazil and would need to get one at the border town of Chuy, which is 20 something miles up the highway.  Apparently Chuy is a horrible place so I didn't want to get stuck there over the weekend - that is, if it took more than a few hours to get the visa processed (otherwise, I would have had to wait until Monday to get it).  So I decided to head up to Chuy on Monday instead.

I'm glad I stayed the weekend in Punta del Diablo. For so many reasons.  I have been in Punta del Diablo for 2 weeks and I've started to feel very comfortable here.  When I returned to town from Cabo Polonio, it felt like I was returning to someplace very familiar to me - I wouldn't exactly call it home, but it kind of was, in a surrogate kind of way. Plus, I'd really started to enjoy spending time with the couple that owns the hostel I am staying at.  They are such great people.  They really made me feel like I was part of their family.  Speaking of family: I wrote in the last post, there was a bit of a family reunion last weekend with the male half of the couple who owns the hostel. Well, this weekend, there was another family reunion - with the female half of the couple.  On my last full day here (i.e., Sunday), I was invited to yet another asado.  The family was so great: they treated me like a welcome guest at their asado.  Seems like a great Uruguayan send-off to me, no?

So this post is getting a little long.  But I do have one final thought.  As I was writing this out, I recognized a very interesting pattern in my travels: that I'll know it's time to leave someplace whenever I have an asado.  

No, that's not it.  Unfortunately, it's more difficult to explain.

One of the things I told myself at the beginning of this trip was that whenever I found an interesting place, I would stay there long enough to get an idea of how it's like to live there; if I thought a place was interesting, I would stop myself from doing a quick, pre-packaged, tourist-oriented stay in that place.  I would take my time and really get to know it and possibly even feel at home in it.  I think I've done a pretty good job doing this so far. 

The thing that's really thrown me off, though, is the role that other people play in the whole thing.  The subject of people seems to come up a lot in these blog entries, which is weird because I hate them, remember?  I think I joked about it in one of the early posts, but it doesn't seem so funny anymore: I can't really feel at home anywhere without having friends around.  I can achieve the "feeling-at-home" thing so very easily with all other aspects.  But it turns out that the interesting pattern I'm seeing is that once I make friends someplace, very soon, it will be time to leave that place.  Why? Since I am so reluctant to make friends with new people, they're always the things that come last (I suppose I can't help but make friends along the way, which to me is kind of weird because I always see myself as a very solitary person). By the time I make friends in a new place, I would have already felt at home at that place in all other respects, so once the friends are in place, all the other pieces would have come together in order for me to feel at home there. And it is at that time that I am ready to move on.

So, what does all this mean?  I think it means that in my world, friends always come last.  

To my friends out there: sucks to be you.

And on that note, I am making an appeal to all of you friends out there to send me emails with news from wherever you are.  You guys were so good about emailing me the first few weeks after I left, but it's dwindled a little and I feel like I don't know what's happening with you.  So if you made it all the way down to here on this post, you have no excuses. You must email me. Now.


Reading material: Finally finished Then We Came to the End.  It was good. Not as great as I initially thought. But good.

Soundtrack: I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith the past few days.  Particularly this and this.  My mood cycle has gone back to melancholy. It should move on to introspective/contemplative in a few days and then just to plain happy a few days after that.


Until next time. I hope it will be from Brazil(!)

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