Quaint Colonia, but not enough lure

Traveling to Uruguay over the weekend, it occurred to me that judging a new place after a one or two day visit is just like how a job interviewer forms their opinion of a candidate.  It´s a snap judgment that is all too often a big generalization or misperception.  I´ve been on far too many interviews to know that it´s true that an interviewer forms their opinion of you within the first five minutes, often even before you have had a chance to show your stuff.  But think about how many times we thought an interviewer has been completely wrong about us?  Spending mere hours in a new city can cause this same kind of judgement error.

Ambitious and what I would dare say inexperienced travelers do this all the time, with trips around Europe that pack in six countries in just 10 days. But I can’t help but think that this is an unfair way to travel.  To me it’s like traveling the world in five-star hotels.  You can’t possibly think that you have had any sort of authentic experience and in both cases you really haven´t even begun to scratch the surface on the true character of a place and what defines it. Yet people form their opinions and report back to friends back home, and so the rumors fly.  This is one of the big reasons why I will listen to what people have to say about a travel destination, but in no way will I let it affect my decision or impression of a place before I actually go there myself.  The saying ¨to each their own¨ especially applies when talking about travel.

The week before my trip I hadn´t been able to make up my mind about my plan, last minute indecisiveness being a bad habit of mine. The real underlying reason for the trip was my need to leave Argentina to renew my 90-day tourist visa, which gave me a tiny taste of what it must be like to have immigration issues in a foreign country.  So it wasn’t exactly a trip of choice.  Regardless, I always look for unique opportunities to photograph and it’s much easier to do it alone, so I decided I would make it an adventure of my camera and me.

I started out thinking I would ask my Argentine coworkers call the ferry company to book my ticket.  Then I realized how silly that was given my level of Spanish and decided to do it myself, despite the long list of questions I had.  I felt a great sense of satisfaction when I hung up the phone, the agent never even asking me once to repeat anything or switching into English once they heard my accent.  So what if she misheard my pronunciation, and booked my ticket under “FWITZER.”  I had understood all the details for my voyage in Spanish, with the added embarrassment and pressure of my listening coworkers, and that was enough for me to feel good. Traveling alone can fulfill you and give you a sense of pleasure that traveling with even one other person can’t.  And unless you have tried it, you won’t understand what I mean.

The boat ride to Colonia was not the best way to start a trip, especially at 7am.  I have never been sea, car, airplane sick in my life but was ready to lose my breakfast within the first 15 minutes of some really choppy waters. Colonia was much how I expected it to be.  Small and very touristy, there wasn´t a lot that interested me.  I had decided that all the photographing I wanted to do would probably only take half a day, if that.  Despite being a Manhattanite, I honestly do enjoy getting away to a tranquil slower-paced places, like the amazing trip I took to Perugia while studying abroad in Milan.  But Colonia didn´t seem to have enough of any one thing for me.  I realize now had I rented a moped it might have made things a bit more fun, but for my interests it wouldn´t have changed how photographic it was.  So I tacked on Montevideo to my journey hoping to make the trip worth my while.  It ended up being a lot of traveling for not a lot of shots on my memory card and I grew tired from the heat and lugging around my backpack.

Uruguay is one of the most expensive countries in South America.  I learned this first hand from the more than double price of my accomodations vs. Buenos Aires, the three short phone calls in Colonia that cost me 20 pesos (US$5), and the 40 pesos (US$10) I spent on four sodas throughout the day.  How countries where income can be as low as $200 per month can charge more than US$2 for a can of Coke in a restaurantA, baffles me.

It also occurred to me this past weekend how many of the skills needed when traveling alone that I had forgotten.

All the details you can’t rely on anyone else for, the extra common sense you need. It became obvious I had become a bit rusty despite all the solo traveling I have done in my life. Basic things like knowing the exchange rate ahead of time, the right combination of numbers to dial both a landline and cell phone from another country, leaving enough credit on your cell phone for calls, the right amount of cash to take out from the ATM in the local currency, making sure you have a place to stay especially during high season, not wandering in areas that seem even a bit sketchy when you are alone, looking at the map before you set foot out the door so that you don’t scream out tourist. While the language part was, to my delight, never an issue once on the trip (knowing hello, yes, no, thank you, please, help, etc. in the local language being other alone-travel requirements), I had forgotten some of these other important things and it was fun being reminded of the empowering feeling of self-dependence you get from traveling alone.

As soon as I arrived in Montevideo I decided to take a quick walk through the Ciudad Vieja in an effort to maximize the little time I had.  As I got deeper into this section of the city, just as the sun was beginning to go down, I ended up in some really empty and sketchy streets that made me start to feel a bit panicked.  I started to wonder if I had somehow missed a warning in my travel guide (I hadn’t).  One of the pitfalls of traveling alone as a photographer, but also good practice to be able to judge your gut feelings, is when you have to quickly make a personal safety decision.  Is what you’re exploring worth getting robbed or worse?  I decided things didn’t feel right as I got closer to the shore, and while a bit defeated I stopped taking pictures, put my camera safely away, and hurriedly navigated my way towards more life. I was awed when on my way I stumbled upon a girl using one of those “One Laptop Per Child” computers in the street.  I couldn’t stop staring in amazement as I thought about where we were at that moment as she surfed the web in these empty streets.  The beach I visited the next day, Playa Portino, was nice and I enjoyed the people watching and had a relaxing lunch overlooking the water before rushing to catch the bus back to the ferry back to Puerto Madero and then home in a taxi.

When I got back to Buenos Aires people asked me what I thought of Uruguay and I felt guilty saying it was fine, but that I didn’t love it. I really wanted not to say anything, because after five hours in Colonia and roughly 19 hours in Montevideo there was no way my opinion of an entire country could be a valid one.  I felt like it was disrespectful to Uruguayans or something and wondered how I would feel if someone visited my city for 24 hours and then commented only about the noise, garbage, chaos, and bumpy subway ride to their friends when I know that if they had stayed just a bit longer they would have be able to see past these pitfalls.

I can’t say exactly what it is that I didn’t love about the two cities I visited in Uruguay, and I don’t think I will be going back to either one.  Surely my lack of time and interaction with locals could be at fault.  During my last few hours in Montevideo at a café I started chatting with my waiter.  He was so friendly and nice that it made me wish I had more time there to get to know some locals.  I realized that besides the bigger mate obsession, I hadn’t identified one major way that Uruguay was different than Argentina.  The food seemed similar, the “shsh” sound they used speaking Spanish was the same, but surely there was something that made this country more unique to its neighbor.  Punta del Este, a Hamptons-type vacation destination of South America, is still on my list so I figure I have one more shot to figure it out.