San Carlos, Uruguay
“Those,” said Eduardo with a smile, “are the only three airplanes in Uruguay.”
Post World War Two relics, I seriously doubted that was so, but his point was made. Uruguay was a small country. With few airplanes.
“But it’s better that way,” said the trucker with a shrug as we rolled south towards Montevideo. “Small country, small problems.”
Indeed, so far we had come across few problems in this tiny nation in southeastern South America (with the exception of an impressive population of child-pickpockets back in Rivera). Once I came to Santana and met up with Tony, I was off to meet the group of friends that my Padawan learner had made in the three extra days he had spent in the city.
Santana do Livramento is an interesting city, namely because it is an international city. Unlike all other border towns I had came across in my travels, Santana is truly located in two countries at once – though once you walk across the imaginary line in the plaza the name changes to Rivera and some things are written in Spanish. This makes it one of the only places in the world where one can wander around, get lost, and legitimately think to himself “What country am I in?”
The city had been recommended to us by Bicchi, the Uruguayan artesano we had met in the Terminal in Posadas, and as it turned out his advice was good. The Brazilian side is marked by the traditional large buildings and high-rise apartment complexes, while the Uruguayan side retains the typical southern Spanish look found almost everywhere in the neighboring Argentina and Chile. In fact, a few times while wandering around in Rivera, I would sometimes turn a corner and swear I had teleported back to San Felipe in Chile – minus the Andean backdrop, of course. But it was the atmosphere that got to me. The city’s official language seemed to be Portuñol – Brazilians would speak Portuguese with a Uruguayan accent, and Uruguayans spoke Spanish with a Brazilian accent. Words in the opposing language were casually thrown into conversation by habit. The duty-free zone in Uruguay, while crowded with Brazilians getting some discount shopping in, was full of street vendors and food stands, and just generally alive – all the things I liked most about the most vibrant of Latin American cities.
Our principal endeavor in Santana-Rivera was to play music. Tony, in his extra time spent waiting for me, had made a group of musical friends.
“The place I’m staying at now, and where you will be staying as well,” said my Padawan as he sipped his beer, “is with a very whiney old gay man.”
“Don’t worry, he’s not intrusive. He’s a classical pianist, too.”
I chuckled, finishing my beer with a slurp. “Well, I have to say I am impressed,” I said, tossing to can into a nearby trash bin. “You’ve managed to not only beat me to Santana by a good three days, but you’ve even pulled together lodgings for us.”
“Not bad for a Padawan,” said Tony.
“Not bad for a Master,” I said with a grin, patting him on the back.
The old man’s name was Pedro, and he had a nice house in Rivera.
“But…it’s not my house,” said Pedro sadly (he tended to say most things sadly). “It’s my parents’. I was going to sell it after they died, but then all the money went away.”
“Well, at least you’ve got a nice spot to stay,” I said, tapping a glass chandelier. “I slept in the international plaza last night.”
Pedro gasped dramatically and placed a hand over his heart. “You didn’t! How awful!”
“Not really,” I shrugged. “I had my head in Brazil and my feet in Uruguay. It’s not every day you get to sleep in two countries at once.”
“But the thieves!” said Pedro with a worried look on his face, as if they were listening in on us. “That plaza has such a reputation!”
I waved my hand dismissively. “Let’s have a coffee, shall we?”
“All right,” said Pedro as he hovered over to the kitchen cabinet. “I have some biscuits, but,” he sighed despairingly, “most of them are stale.”
“Stale is all right,” I said, opening my coffee tin.
We lunched out on the patio while relaxing in the sun and sipping coffee and mate. Pedro was a sad old man who had once been happy. I felt quite sorry for him – he appreciated nothing in life anymore, not even the classical music that was his profession.
“It’s such a hard life, the life of a pianist,” he moaned into a cup of coffee. “So difficult.”
“But at least you have the privilege to be the interpreter of beautiful music,” I said, trying to cheer him up.
“Yes…but sometimes it seems like more of a burden…”
The only thing that seemed to cheer Pedro up was my harmonica. “It’s very different, I like it!” he said, with a ghost of a smile on his face. “I never knew such a small, simple instrument was capable of so many different sounds! You don’t just inhale and blow – you twist the notes! How interesting!” He even made what sounded like a small chuckle.
We spent the next two hours talking about music and Europe – the latter which seemed to take the old fellow back to the time when he lived in France and smiled every day. I enjoyed it and liked Pedro, despite his woeful outlook on life. The rigors of old age can be a huge weight on the youthful soul.
Fabio was rocking the bongos as the ragtag group of folk musicians scraped out another tune for the poor old woman’s seventy-something birthday. I tap-tapped along on the tambourine, for lack of anything better to do or whiskey to drink.
“Play along with your harmonica!” the guitar player had insisted – then stopped insisting when he realized that the gritty blues on a G harp doesn’t really fit in with Uruguayan folk music.
“This is the friend,” Fabio had told him upon my and Tony’s arrival, “the friend of the chileno that I met the other day!”
“Ah, yes, friend of the chileno,” the guitar player had said, shaking my hand and nodding knowledgably. “Welcome to Rivera.”
Fabio had been Tony’s first friend in Rivera, and it was he who had suggested we stay with Pedro. “He’s a very special man,” Fabio had warned Tony, “but he is a musician like yourself – perhaps you two will get along.”
Fabio, it turned out, was a lot of fun. Green eyes framed with curly hair, dark skin, and an incorrigible smile made anyone who spent time with the man cheer up instantly (with the exception of Pedro, of course). He never talked loudly – and in fact, the more excited he got the quieter he talked, mumbling along to you in an enthusiastic whisper, as if the two of you were sharing a coveted and exciting secret.
Fabio had invited Tony and myself to the little birthday bash – which turned out to be rather an uncomfortable get-together, since neither Tony nor myself, nor indeed Fabio knew the old woman, and the fact that that the guitar player (after a few half-hearted happy birthday tunes) largely ignored the birthday girl and instead played loud, drunken songs with the accordion player almost without pause for most of the evening.
Fabio admitted it had been bad. “Off night,” he muttered. “Better luck next time.” He drove me back to Pedro’s house on his little two-stroke motorcycle while Tony rode home with the guitar player. “We will do something tomorrow night, perhaps,” said Fabio as he left. “It will be much better!”
“Sounds like a plan, man.” I said yawning. “See you tomorrow.”
“I just wish you would spend more time with me!” said Pedro in a high-pitched voice as Tony packed up his things the next day. “You always go off with Fabio, and I’m lonely in this old house, no-one ever – ”
“We invited you,” said Tony. “You didn’t want to come.”
“That music is awful,” said Pedro, making a face.
“If you don’t want to be alone, then come to the places people invite you.”
“I just want people here, in my house! I want to have conversations!” Pedro looked as if he were on the verge of tears.
Tony looked up, exasperated. “We had plenty of conversations when I first came here. You can’t expect me to stay inside all day long.”
“But I was lonely,” repeated the old pianist mournfully.
“Well, you’re the one that’s kicking us out,” said my friend with a scowl.
“Because you don’t spend time with me!” Pedro shuffled nervously around by the wall. “And anyways, Fabio told me that you would be staying just a few days, and now he tells me you want to stay until Sunday, which is more than a week, and I am old and lonely, and all of this is just making me very nervous, and – ” he stopped and heaved another desolate sigh.
“Don’t worry,” I said, patting him on the back. “We understand, and are very thankful for the time we’ve spent with you. We’ll stay with Fabio, don’t worry.”
“We had a very nice conversation yesterday, you and me – I enjoyed that,” said Pedro to me. “But Tony, he just comes and goes, like I’m invisible, (sniffle), going out all day playing his violin and then heading off to do something with Fabio – ”
“You’ve got to understand he needs to make money. He needs to buy a passport,” I said.
“But in the evenings, he could stay…”
“I did stay with you,” said Tony, zipping up his backpack. “I can’t stay with you every night.”
“Lonely…” mumbled Pedro pathetically.
And so we left Pedro’s house – I felt sorry for the old man, though I could understand Tony’s frustration. He had been with Pedro for three extra days, after all, and the pianists’ constant worrying and hovering was enough to rattle anybody’s nerves.
“I wanted to tell him, ‘I’ll be back to Rivera – just not to see you.’” said Tony with a huff as we walked to the international plaza.
“Don’t take it personally, man,” I said. “Best not to harbor bad feelings. Old people can be more difficult than infants sometimes.”
“He is just such a whiney bitch,” said my Padawan.
“We all can be whiney bitches sometimes. Let it go,” I advised.
After an afternoon of music in the international plaza, we headed over the Fabio’s place, where we were welcomed. Fabio seemed downright overjoyed that we were going to be staying with him now, and wasted no time making us feel at home.
“Well, we wanted to cook some of our pasta,” I said when he asked if we needed anything.
“Don’t waste your pasta,” insisted our host. “Use mine. I have meat too.”
“But we bought it expressly to cook at your house,” protested Tony, but Fabio wouldn’t hear of it and plopped a quarter-kilo of expensive pasta on the table.
“I have to go work,” he said as he left. “Eat well, my friends!”
We spent a good five or six days having a really luxurious rest and relaxation session; we lay around, slept, cooked, watched HBO, and oftentimes went out to play music or watch Fabio work next door (he was a tango professor).
Perhaps the most enjoyable of the above activities was watching Fabio dance. He danced the best with his landlord – an old woman named Teresita in her early seventies who nonetheless was one of the most graceful tango dancers I had ever seen. Tango music has a certain feeling to it – a vibe if you will – and when you see the soul of the music expressed in human movement…well, it’s truly a sight to behold.
Fabio would randomly appear at the house without warning. Since the place he worked was right next door, little trips to the house were easily managed. Even if he was in a hurry (which he often was) he would stop for at least ten minutes to whisper excitedly to us about some event that had taken place and was just begging to be talked about. Sometimes he would even whisper from the shower, managing somehow to whisper loud enough for us to hear him – yet still be whispering.
We left on Monday, after Fabio had insisted on one last Bar-B-Q for the two of us.
“Five more kilometres, and you’re there,” he said as he hugged us goodbye and warmly shook out hands. “It was truly a pleasure to meet the both of you.”
“The pleasure was all ours,” I said.
“We’ll stay in touch, all right?” said Tony.
“Of course,” said Fabio, and waved as we walked south towards Montevideo. Fabio drove off on his motorcycle and into memory – the sad yet inevitable conclusion of every town we passed.
Our first ride had shared a joint with us, and since we hadn’t smoked for a good week or two the pot left us very stoned after we were dropped off about sixty kilometres down the road. We sat on the shoulder and lazily hitchhiked while feeding on cold leftover Bar-B-Q, until walking a good ten clicks down the road to clear our heads and make camp for the night in a forest of planted pine.
This part of Uruguay was full of pine trees, and I was very strongly reminded of back home in East Texas – minus a bit of the humidity. We made a small fire and roasted what was left of the previous night’s Bar-B-Q on green sticks, falling asleep later in a peaceful daze.
The next day Eduardo came rolling along, stopping much to our utter delight. The sound of big rig brakes on an empty road has become easily my favourite non-musical resonance. He would take us to Libertad – just fifty kilometres from Montevideo. For the first time since I was in Central America, I would be crossing an entire country in just one ride.
Eduardo liked to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes – and indeed, many Uruguayans seemed to share this particular fancy.
“It’s the taxes,” said the trucker with a scowl. It was always the taxes that made that particular type of scowl, it seemed – one I had seen from the majority of my rides in Chile and Argentina. “The government taxes the cigarettes so much – sixty pesos for a pack! Rolling your own is just good financial sense.” He licked the paper and rolled the rest of the cigarette up, popped it into his mouth, and lit it. “Got to be smart, boys,” said the grinning sweaty mouth as it suckled on the freshly lit rollie. “No such thing as a stupid man with savings!”
I rolled one up as well, and was taken immediately back to my high school days when I had been infatuated with rolling my own cigarettes using Zig-Zag tobacco mixed with orange peels – no doubt influenced by some movie I’d seen. It was so manly wasn’t it? I felt like Clint Eastwood, sitting there at the bar and pretending I was 21 as I cooly rolled up a smoke with one hand and talked to the drunk redneck next to me about beer and terrorists. Until I realized Clint Eastwood would never put sissy orange peels in his tobacco.
Tony had little experience with rolling his own smokes – and by little I mean absolutely zilch. After a few hilarious fiascos in which he basically attempted to smoke a ball of paper and tobacco, I put him out of his misery and taught him how to roll. Eduardo, who apparently had been born while in the act of rolling a cigarette, couldn’t seem to understand how Tony could fail at such a simple task.
“You just…ummm…” he rubbed his fingers together vaguely, “roll it!”
“Roll it…” repeated Tony as all the tobacco flew out the window of the truck. “Damnit,” he muttered. “I can play some mean jazz piano, but I can’t roll a stupid cigarette.” He grabbed another ball of tobacco for a fresh attempt. “Sometimes it seems like music is the only thing these hands are good for.”
Around dusk we made it to Libertad. Eduardo gave Tony a handful of tobacco and some papers. “Practice,” he said sternly, before laughing and driving off.
Since we were only fifty clicks from Montevideo, we decided to give night hitchhiking a shot to save time the next day.
“Finally – we’re almost to Montevideo,” said Tony with a smile as he worked at another rollie.
“Our big stopover,” I agreed. “It’ll be nice to finally meet my poet friend.”
More than a year ago, an American poet living in Montevideo had somehow found out about my wandering, and had invited me to come to Montevideo whenever I pleased. I sent John DeWitt (for that was his name) an email before leaving Santiago, telling him I was finally headed in his direction; he seemed excited and told us to come on over – the doors were open.
Night hitchhiking brought good luck, and we found ourselves rolling up into the capital city of Uruguay in the back of a covered pickup at ten o’clock at night. Montevideo – our halfway point to the Guineas. After 43 days, we had arrived.
We arrived to our would-be lodgings around twelve-thirty in the evening. After quite a long walk, in which I made myself trot along at a very good pace so as not to lose any more time, we came to a grand three-story home situated in the very classiest sector of Montevideo. Upon my knocking we were greeted by one of the other fellows living there at the time, who bade us sit and await the owner, who it was said would be arriving home shortly from an evening on the town.
Indeed it was quite a short time before Juan, the owner and founder of La Licorne, came in through the heavy oak door in very much a merry mood, and with his girlfriend Carmela in tow. I immediately took a liking to the both of them, whom wasted no time in being the most gracious of hosts to our travel-weary duo. Wine was passed around freely, as were several joints of very fine marijuana, while Juan told us the story of the place where we now sat.
Founded as a “Liberaría Viva,” or “Living Library,” La Licorne was the brainchild of Juan himself and was his attempt to both run a business and partake in an activity he loved, which was the indulgence in literature of all sorts – in particular, poetry.
I myself being a fellow admirer of the literary arts (though not so much, I’ll admit, of poetry), was quite pleased we had arrived at such an appropriate place to pass our time of rest in Montevideo, and was thankful for the message that John DeWitt had sent me all more than a year before; and so we drank a little and smoked a little until quite a late hour, until Juan showed us to our beds, which were two small mattresses lain out on the floor of one of the drawing rooms – which to us may as well been feather beds furnished in an expensive hotel, we were so weary.
The next day I received a message from John DeWitt himself, inviting Tony and I for an artsy night on the town to see a modern interpretation of Motzart’s classic opera The Magic Flute. I found myself quite disposed to go with him, as did Tony, and I assured John that we would accompany him for the evening’s entertainment.
The day, however, was spent by the two of us earning money in the historical downtown sector of the city with our respective instruments – though I found, to my dismay, that earning money in the nation of Uruguay with a harmonica was not quite as easy as I had found it to be in Brazil. In all a day’s work I managed to make for myself no more than two hundred Uruguayan pesos, a small sum considering the hours I had played. Still I fared better than Tony, who made less than sixty. Thus I realized that perhaps our stay in Montevideo would not be so comfortable as we had hoped, if the busking would not be decent.
And so with the two hundred Uruguayan pesos in my pocket I set out upon the town with Tony and John, the latter whom I had met earlier that evening in La Licorne. Rather a soft-spoken fellow, with a short beard and very curly hair, I found him to be very pleasing company; and indeed it was a welcome change to hear another American voice apart from that of my own for awhile.
The interpretation of The Magic Flute turned out to be quite a comical one indeed – and with a good part of it being sung opera-style and in German, as per to the original. The rest, it seemed, would be in French; I enjoyed the show and left satisfied, despite the fact that we had rather the worst seats in the house, having arrived late to the theater.
After this night out enjoying ourselves, I myself kept to the library for quite the rest of my stay at La Licorne, being unwilling to subject myself to the subpar work opportunities available to me in the streets of Montevideo. Tony, it seemed, felt the same way – though he did go out once or twice more while I was there, for want of more money.
La Licorne, while at first seeming a very lovely place indeed, after a couple of days began to stick at me; that is to say, I felt the familiar lethargy that having a safe place to sleep and an abundance of comforts at my disposal invited – those comforts being mostly alcohol, tobacco, and copious amounts of marijuana. Food, however, was not so abundant, and despite the fact that most (if not all) of the library’s inhabitants either had great sums of money for themselves or had wealthy parents who were well-disposed to provide for their offspring, what little food that stayed in the small narrow kitchen was carefully accounted for – though oftentimes in the evening a Chilean who lived there would cook great heaps of fare for most everyone who cared to taste it. And my two hundred Uruguayan pesos went very quickly, as I found Montevideo to be an extremely expensive place to live, and soon was without money, nor indeed the desire to go out and make more – or very much food, except for what Tony and I had managed to purchase by pooling our earnings at the supermarket.
Indeed, my lethargy was likely due to the fact that I had begun smoking marijuana quite all day long, there being such a reliable supply of it in the house – and this coupled with the aforementioned poor work opportunities on the streets caused me to become very un-active after four days at the library. Fortunately, the place being a library, there was a great stock of books available to me for reading – though these were mostly in Spanish. I managed to finish an old favourite, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, written in this way, though found its cutting wit and social commentary to have been very much dulled in translation. After this I resigned myself to reading only books in English, of which there were a few around, though they were mostly long, arduous works of poetry from the sixteenth century, which I had neither the time nor the desire to occupy myself with. I managed to find a few old science-fiction novels from the early-to-mid twentieth century, and while science-fiction has never been my favourite genre of writing I will admit that I heartily enjoyed reading them, having not read a book in English for many months at the time.
One of my principal endeavors in Montevideo was to acquire additional visa pages to put into my Passport – for I was nearly out of space, there being just one-half a page remaining on the original set to place more visas. However, upon making a trip to the U.S. Embassy, I learned that I would have to make an appointment online if I were to be granted audience within the confines of my own consulate. This seemed very typical to me, especially drawing upon the experience of my past dealings with American consulates overseas, so I quelled the anger and frustration I felt at yet another fruitless visit to the Embassy in my lifetime and was obliged to return to La Licorne, connect to the Internet, and make the bloody appointment. Upon doing so, however, I found to my infinite irritation that the next available time for an appointment was still six day’s distant – which meant I would have to wait, quite without anything to do and with a growing desire to return to the Road, in La Licorne.
Meanwhile, things at the library were going about as usual, with long, lazy days spent doing nothing much more than reading, smoking pot, and passing long, pointless hours in front of the computer. I had planned on doing some writing in the library, and indeed I was in dire need of updating this site – but I simply could not bring myself to write down a single word, the lethargy was so profound. Indeed, what should I have expected, with so much Mary-Jane being consumed on such a regular basis – though I thought nothing of it at the time. The day of my appointment crept slowly up on the calendar, and perhaps because I waited so eagerly for it, seemed nonetheless further off than ever at the close of each evening.
Having grown tired of the confines of my mattress in the drawing room, I set out to hang my hammock in some of the ample roof-space that I had found the library to be outfitted with. Indeed this proved to be a good idea, for many people would come walking through the drawing room at all hours of the night, and sometimes waking me up quite suddenly and effectively; so on the roof I found a much quieter and relaxing slumber, though it was considerably cooler and with sometimes a strong wind blowing in from the sea. These things, however, I found comforting, as they reminded me of the Road and the life I loved, the open air rather cleaning out my head and removing at least a little of the stupor I felt while sleeping indoors.
One day, about three days before I was to have my audience with the American Embassy, a large party was thrown at La Licorne. This was, I was told, to be the library’s final event; Juan’s business endeavor had apparently failed, and the place would be closing down in a few weeks’ time. As per to the tradition of young minds, it was saw fit for a huge, final celebration to be held before the doors of La Licorne were shut for good, a thing which I, having a young mind myself, had figured to be a fine idea.
As the people began to arrive towards the middle of the night, a particular person, whom I had never seen before, came in and seemed to quite take charge of the whole house. He was tall, thin, and with the typical beard, moustache, tattoos, and longish hair that most of the folk who frequented the household sported. He introduced himself as Rodrigo, and was quite the one for barking orders – though he did prepare some tasty cheese tortillas, which he shared with many of the guests, myself included. Despite the peace offering, I took an immediate dislike to Rodrigo and his commanding demeanor, and after playing a match of chess with him that I had been unable to finish for the man’s constant “move, move now, go quickly,” chatter in my ear, I resigned myself to ignore the newcomer and attempt to enjoy the festivities.
This, however, I found rather impossible, for the experience with Rodrigo had left a bad taste in my mouth and, since the party had deteriorated to mostly loud music and shouting, I was obliged to go to my hammock on the roof for the evening for want of a little peace and quiet, and perhaps a sea breeze.
When I awoke the next morning I went downstairs to find my original friends in La Licorne quite absent – and Rodrigo still there, and having done a complete re-arrangement of the house. The cursed man was in the act of fastidiously taping down computer cables to the floor as I descended the creaking wooden stairs to the ground level. Rodrigo wasted no time in asking me when I was to go to the downtown to play my harmonica, to which I responded: I would not go, I would only wait for my appointment and read on the roof. The brazen newcomer, however, did not find this to his liking, and began asking me about rent. I presently informed him that I had been invited to this house more than a year ago, and who was he to ask me for rent, anyhow, him being only a vague friend of the household? In order to avoid any further conflict with Rodrigo, I retired with a book back to my hammock on the roof, where Tony came up a few minutes later.
“There’s something you should know,” said my Padawan to me from above the pages of the Rudyard Kipling novel I was working at. “This guy, Rodrigo, has bought the place. He’s the new owner.”
I looked up from Mowgli’s adventures in India with a start. “What happened to Juan and the others?”
“I don’t know. He’s not here.”
I frowned. “All right. Thanks for telling me.”
Tony left, and I continued to frown into my book. This was most displeasing news, since if Rodrigo was now indeed the new owner of the house, he had every right to ask me for rent, of which I had no intention of going out in search of, as I only had two more days until my appointment – and anyhow, I would not waste any money I might earn on paying rent to such an disagreeable character, and for lodging at a place to which I had been invited such a long time ago. At that point I made the sudden decision (as per to most of my decisions) to leave La Licorne right then and there, to avoid any further conflict with Rodrigo and indeed, for the sake of my own sanity and psychological well-being.
It had been decided some time before reaching Montevideo that Tony and I would separate after reaching the city; our plans to reach the Guineas had changed somewhat since departing Santiago de Chile, mostly due to the fact that my dear father, whom I have not seen for more than two and a half years (nor, for that matter, the rest of my immediate family) implored me to return to the United States, if not for just one holiday season, for the sake of him, my poor mother, and my aging grandparents. He even offered to purchase the airplane ticket, which would serve as my Christmas gift from him, and which would be round trip and take me back to the same city I would depart from approximately three weeks after arriving back home to the States. After some hesitation (for sometimes I get a horrible fear that if I ever return home, some dreadful tragedy will befall me and leave me unable to continue my adventuring), I agreed; so my father purchased the ticket for me, which left from Belém, at the mouth of the mighty River Amazon in Brazil, on the fourteenth of December 2011, and which returned to her on the tenth of January of the following year.
This being sometime in late October in Montevideo, and me having a further seven thousand kilometres to travel before reaching the River Amazon, I felt myself all at once very pressed for time. With the added problem of La Licorne’s new owner, I felt it very appropriate that I should leave that very same day. And so I took down my hammock, which had hung on the roof at La Licorne for no less than five days, and swiftly packed my bags in preparation for my departure. The appointment with my consulate, I feared, I would not make. Fortunately I had room still on my Passport for two more visa stamps, after which I would be completely out of room and very much obliged to pass through some American consulate in Brazil to renew my stock of pages.
And so on that day I left, not without a great deal of relief, the three-story house that was La Licorne. I bid farewell to Carmela, who by chance happened by just as I was leaving, since I had taken very much a liking to her especially, mostly for her wild mind so similar to mine. Tony and I resolved to meet once more on the Caribbean coast of either Colombia of Venezuela, whichever happened to be more convenient for the two of us once we had reached that side of the continent – for my Padawan (I can scarce call him that anymore, for he has learned so much) was as well headed home for the holidays, back to Santiago de Chile to pass Christmas with his only brother who lived there. I waved one last goodbye to my friends, shot a scowl at Rodrigo, and was gone down the narrow streets of Montevideo, bound for the tropical north.
I found myself a full four days later only about a hundred and fifty kilometres east of Montevideo, after having walked more than twenty kilometres to get out of the city, and subsequently being met with several days of very poor hitchhiking. The town was a medium-sized one by Uruguayan standards, and was called San Carlos; it lay about thirty kilometres north of Punta del Este, the large tourist hotspot which I had passed the day before while travelling along the cape-ridden Uruguayan coastline. I arrived to the city just after dark, having had at last a bit of luck hitching a ride out of Punta del Este to this next destination on my way back to Brazil. Not finding myself much inspired to do any busking (nor where there any people walking about that would have made this possible), I resigned myself to go to sleep for the evening and hopefully make the next two hundred kilometres to the Brazilian border in Chuy in short notice.
Before retiring I found a service station that was equipped with a WiFi signal, where I connected to the Internet and learned, vía email and from John, that a large sum of money had gone missing from one of the boarders in La Licorne just before I had vacated the premises, and that I myself was a prime suspect in the robbery. This I took in deep offense, as I took no money from anyone there and abhorred the very notion of doing so. I have since thought rather less of La Licorne and my experience there, though I am still grateful to John and Juan and Carmela for their inviting and welcoming me in.
After finishing up on my computer I went out in search of a place to spin my web; that is, to hang up my old Bolivian hammock. I found one in a small plaza nearby, though it was not quite as concealed as I would have liked. As I was hanging the ropes and preparing to hoist my bedding, there suddenly appeared before me a small group of young deviants, whom were apparently passing by and noticed my hammock-oriented activities in the corner of the mini-plaza. There were among them a boy around seventeen years of age; a girl around something like the same; and four younger boys whom looked to be between eleven and fourteen. They came up, and presently started into conversation with me in what I noticed was quite apparently “street Spanish.”
“We were watchin’ you,” said the girl, laughing. “I thought you was gonna hang yissself with that rope, I said, ‘watch, you guys, that guy’s gonna hang hisself up like a catfish, just you wait and see!’” She gave another uneven chuckle, which sounded a lot older than the body it issued from.
“This inna real good camping spot,” said the older boy, looking around and licking his teeth, which were quite rotten. “The cops, they’ll come and kick you out quicker’n anything, I seen it before.” He clapped his hands together and made a swssshing sound with his lips, illustrating to me the apparently lightning-fast manner in which I would be forced to move by the police.
“Well,” I said, still tying my knots, and with a heightened sense of alertness about me, “I’ve camped in a lot of places like this before. I’ve never had any trouble with the police.”
The boy shook his head. “Naw, naw, this place is different. The police, they’ll come right at you, before you can even fall asleep, and that’s the truth!”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, still tying my knots, and hoping that my laptop was quite out of sight within the confines of my pack. I had been warned, it was true, of mauraurdering groups of young street people in Uruguay – though this was the first particular one that I had come across myself. Indeed they were of the most fearsome reputation – particularly the younger ones, who it was said, would rob you as soon as look at you and, if you had nothing, would simply kill you – for as they were underage, they were protected by the law and would suffer no serious consequences for the deed.
It was with these thoughts in my mind I conversed with a group of people fitting exactly the description of the merciless child-murderers I had been told of. However, after conversing with the group for about fifteen minutes, I believe I managed to successfully convince the band that I was quite without money or valuables – and indeed they needed little convincing, as I was sleeping in the plaza and my clothing was quite dirty – and the group began to take what I perceived was a genuinely friendly tone with me, as opposed to the similar yet distinctly different “friendly just before robbing you” tone. I even hazarded to reveal to them my true nationality, rather than posing as a vagabond from a neighboring country (as I often do when faced with a character I fear may rob me). The band seemed delighted to have met a vagabond from not Brazil, but North America, setting up his hammock in the plaza of their city.
“This spot, it’s just not good, man!” said the seventeen-ish fellow to me once more. “We got a spot, a very nice spot, where we go sometimes to sleep an’ fuck around, it’s real quiet, no police’ll throw you outta there.” He gave a horrible smiled and said, “Come on man, we’ll take ya there, it ain’t too far from here, just seven blocks, about.”
Now, despite the fact that all the alarm bells in my head had not yet stopped ringing, and that my better judgment told me to stay in the plaza where there was plenty of lighting and, apparently, regular police patrols – I felt inclined to go with them; not for fear of being kicked out by these police, (for once I had set up my hammock someplace there had not been one single occasion during when someone had the gall to tell me I must take it down again), but mainly out of curiosity over how young children of the street such as these might behave amongst themselves. So, after a great deal of internal dilemma on my part, I agreed to go with the band to their spot, so that I might sleep amongst them and perhaps learn a thing or two about these infamous child delinquents of Uruguay.
Off we walked; I was still not without fear of being suddenly fallen upon and robbed at any moment (especially by the four younger ones, who while said nothing, stared rather disconcertingly at me for a great deal of time), though I was at this point reasonably sure that this particular band of young hoodlums meant me no harm. We continued our walk down the principal street of the town, before several kilometres later coming to a large, outdoor amphitheater, which it seemed, was used for summertime plays and shows. We went inside and doubled around back and into a very dark and shaded area – whereupon my fear of being robbed and murdered suddenly returned to me in a great wave, and I felt all at once very frightened and uncomfortable; I was sure to keep the entire group in front of me, least one of them grab me from behind and slip a knife between my ribs. Despite these discomforts, however, I continued walking with them, resolved to follow the road I had taken, and hoping feverently that their intentions were good and these deviants meant only to help me.
I had somewhat less of a concern for me myself than I did for my pack and equipment; and so when we arrived to the spot and the street children spread out in search of wood with which to make a fire, (leaving me quite alone for a moment or two), I took the opportunity to stow my pack away in the hollow of a nearby tree, taking care to make sure it was well-concealed in the dark space. When the young vagrants returned it was with great bundles of wood, large crumpled-up newspapers, and numerous plastic bottles; in no time they had a roaring bonfire going before us in the concrete pit of an old abandoned picnic area.
As the fire burned on the girl let it be known that she had some coffee, but was want of a kettle with which to boil the water; so I set about teaching the group how to boil water over a fire with naught but a plastic bottle. The band, it seemed, were not familiar with this technique, and were delighted to find that the water boiled quite readily in mere plastic; I explained to them that if you made sure that the flames touched only the parts of the bottle that contained water, the plastic would not melt and the water would soon come to a boil.
Now with a good supply of hot water about us, we made coffee with what the girl had and drank it out of cups one of the boys had cut from several bottles with his knife. At this point I found myself quite relaxed, having sat with the delinquents for more than an hour, and not felt the slightest inkling of hostility from them.
Later in the evening, the seventeen-ish boy brought out a bag of crack-cocaine, which confirmed my suspicions of the sorts of children this lot was – yet I still did not feel threatened. The crack was offered to me, which I declined and instead rolled some tobacco from my store (which I had shared with everyone present, much to my esteem) and drank another coffee as I watched the events unfold before me.
The older boy shared his crack with two of the younger boys, with the other two abstaining and, like me, rolling a cigarette instead. What seemed was the absolute youngest of the group, who appeared no more than eleven or twelve, was the first to have a go at the crack – and it was a surreal experience indeed to see such a young face perform such a dirty, adult activity. As the children drugged themselves right there before my eyes I remember wondering if perhaps I should intervene, least one of them over-dose and I, being the only legal adult present, might be held responsible for his predicament. At the same time I realized I couldn’t well take the crack away from them, for this could provoke hostilities and get me into a much worse situation. And so I was forced to merely watch with masked horror at this most un-natural situation which lay before my stunned and revolted eyes.
Within a few minutes those who enjoyed the consumption of crack-cocaine had had their dose of it – and the effects were quickly apparent. The boys began the ceaseless chatter that the consumption of this substance inevitably brings, and I was told story after story of the gang’s conquests on the street, which included, as I had initially suspected, many robberies and muggings. I tried hard to look into the wild eyes of these young bandits to find the child that I knew lay within, but could not find him. The rage of the crack had but completely converted these children into the hardened criminals that they were – and indeed, how could I have expected anything else?
After a good thirty minutes those who smoked the crack went off in search for more, leaving me alone with the girl and the other two boys. Now at least I was free of the uncomfortable shadow of the hard drugs, and took it upon myself to try and learn more about these other non-crack smoking street children. I began talking to one of them, who seemed about thirteen and indeed with most of his wits about him, and found I could readily distinguish the youth in his eyes – whereas in the crack-smokers I could see naught but the erratic wild energy of drugs. As I talked with the boy he suddenly produced a small bag of marijuana, rolled a joint out of it, and offered it to me. Never having smoked marijuana with a thirteen-year-old, and with no great desires to try it, I declined.
Conversation turned to my travel, and how I went about supporting myself while on the road; I felt safe enough to get out my harmonica and play for them, which they enjoyed greatly – particularly the young weed-smoker, who was all but transfixed. He begged me to let him try, and I saw no reason not to. For the next hour he sat alone in the corner and blew random notes and chords on my E harp, and was loath to give it back once the girl announced she was quite tired of hearing his compositions and ordered him to return my harmonica to me.
The girl, it seemed, acted rather as the mother of the group – for when she gave an order to one of the boys he would eventually follow it, if not on occasion with some reluctance. She even said to me, noticing my watching her order the boys around “I’m the only mother they got. They listen to me, or I smack them right in the head.” And indeed she did so on several occasions, though it was not with so much malice.
Around four am I announced that I was tired, and that I would be going to bed. The girl agreed, and consequently so did the two boys. After setting up my hammock between a few nearby trees (having now felt comfortable enough to reveal the hidden spot of my pack to the group), I called the boy who had loved my harmonica so over to me.
“This,” I said, handing him my old C harp, which had dropped out of tune on the fourth hole some weeks ago and was quite useless to me, “is my harmonica. But I’m going to give it to you.”
His eyes widened to the size of plates, and he reached out for it.
“But,” I said, pulling it away from him, “You must promise me to practice it every day, and that you will not try to sell it.”
The boy nodded eagerly. “Oh, I won’ I wunn’ dream of it! I’m a-gonna sit every day in the plaza and play it!”
I handed the harmonica to him. “All right. Then it’s yours.”
He took it reverently in his hands, looking upon it as if it were some sort of sacred object. I could hear the girl groan from some distance away. “Now he’ll be makin’ noise all day…”
The boy pocketed the harmonica, then began walking away. Suddenly he turned round to face me, reached his hands about the back of his neck, and unfastened a small black and yellow necklace he had ‘round there, and presently handed it to me.
“Peñarol,” he said, referring to the most popular Uruguayan soccer team. “I wanna give it to you. For thanks,” he said.
I accepted the necklace, fastening it around my own neck. “Peñarol,” I repeated, nodding.
The group went off a little ways away to bed down; I lent them my tarp to lay upon, as it did not look like rain that evening. When I awoke the next morning, the children had gone and my tarp was folded neatly next to my pack – which had not one single thing missing.
Though it had been a long and at times appalling evening, I was glad I had gone with the young hoodlums into the dark wood; for perhaps, by giving that gift of music to one, I might have changed the course of his life for the better. Or so I hoped.
I fingered the Peñarol necklace I now wore around my neck, walked out to the highway, and began hitchhiking to Chuy.