3 April 2019
¡Hola! Cómo estás? Muy bien, I hope! Cause I am too.
As I write to you now, I am lying on the bottom bunk of a squeaky double-decker bed, in a dorm of a hostel by the beach. I just had breakfast, where I stuffed my face with over 10 slices of bread. You see, usually, we get margarine. Today, what a glorious day, it was real butter on the table. I didn’t even spread it. I sliced my butter like it were chunks of cheese, placed it on my toast, piled on the gooey goodness that is dulce de leche, and crunch, crunch, crunched away. I didn’t even mind that it’s a gloomy, rainy day. I didn’t get annoyed when someone was blasting “Mambo No.5” unnecessarily loud at 9AM. I’m not too bothered by anything at the moment actually. Which catches me by surprise because up until recently, I was bothered by everything.
I took up a month-long Workaway job at a hostel in Punta del Diablo, a tiny fishing village that got touristy after getting a shoutout on the Lonely Planet. Apparently, it has less than 1,000 inhabitants, but during the summer, over 20,000 visitors flood the place. Thankfully I only arrived mid-March, just missing the peak season and its party people. (Oh, I should probably mention that Summer here is between November to February. Like Australia.) Even when I was in Valizas during Carnaval, where pretty much the entire continent celebrated for four days straight, I simply hid in my tent and fell asleep by 9PM every night.
At first, I attributed my reclusiveness to the language barrier, thinking I’d open up more once I was surrounded by others who spoke English. But nope. I felt even more awkward because then I had no excuse for my silence. And the Latin Americans are a real friendly, merry, social bunch. With their rapid-fire conversations and a closer range of personal space, it’s hard to tell who have been friends for years and who just met five minutes ago. So all the more I felt like an outsider who only showed up for work and (very enthusiastically) for food, then buried in a book the rest of the time. The same questions played on loop in my head… Did I lose my ability to socialise? Am I was getting too old for this lifestyle? Why am I so disinterested? Have I gotten too jaded? Would I be happier at home? I felt so, so guilty for these thoughts. If I wasn’t feeling grateful, maybe I don’t deserve to be here.
This dark cloud of discontentment made no tangible sense, yet it loomed above me for days on end. At the same time, I felt this nagging feeling to start meditating. In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not into meditation. I did Vipassana once just for the experience, that’s it. But this tiny voice was so persistent, I could not ignore it. I imagine it now to be like a ray of sunlight trying to burst through the clouds, but it needed my permission first. I can’t entirely be sure if it was actually thanks to the meditation, or the moon cycle, or maybe even my menstruation cycle, but the blues finally left my brains. I began to recognise these thoughts as self-imposed expectations. No one else is saying I should be sociable, or should be liking everything, or should be happy. It was all in my head, pressuring myself. Instead of putting up a resistance, I allowed myself to feel all feelings, acknowledge them, and be unapologetic about it. Ironically, this allowed the negativity to just flow in and through, and now it has passed. In fact, it was only a few days ago when I was waddling in the sea against massive waves, when it finally sunk in and hit me… Hey, Petrina. You’re in South America. You wanted to go, so you did. You wanted to go for Burning Man, Coachella, Roskilde, hitchhike around with no money, fly to Sweden for a boy you just met; whatever idea you had, you just went for it. Kind of reckless, but also kind of cool. And now you’re here! I think you can be proud of yourself for a moment.
So I allowed myself that moment. And it felt good.
As for what job I’m actually doing, well, it’s housekeeping. My mum laughed at the irony. My room, and car, is uncontestedly one of the messiest spaces you will ever encounter. Yet here I am, sweeping, mopping, changing the sheets, the works. The only task which took quite a bit of getting used to, took place in the toilets.
Always wanted to travel along but scared the loneliness will creep in? Just follow these tips:
When travelling to many, or most countries — I know you can relate with me on this — the first thing I miss instantly is the absence of a bidet spray. On top of that, in South America, their sewage piping systems were not built to handle the flushing of toilet paper. After wiping, you’re meant to throw them in the bin. Those bins, I have to clean. How pleasant. Not only that, it’s convenient for me to poop as well. Cause I’m not participating in the wipe and toss. So I’ll always have to carry a bucket in with me or take a shower right after. Anyway, the million dollar question is… Why didn’t the rest of the world pick up the bum gun habit? If they just used water, there will be no need to clean the browns from the bins.
The first day on the job got me questioning my life decisions. Is this the best use of my time? I’m a working woman in my thirties, is this how I want to travel? Fly off to a faraway land just to scrub toilets in exchange for a bed and some food? Is there a lesson on humility waiting for me? It took me a few days to get over my ego and get used to it. Now as long as I had a full breakfast, got my podcasts in my ears, I was happy to housekeep.
Time is passing by quite fast with a daily routine, and I haven’t done much exploring. Besides lounging on the beach and getting burnt (my skin is literally peeling everywhere), I only ventured out once — to the Santa Teresa National Park. Most people bike over as it’s about 10 kilometres away. Yours truly, if you remember, only learned how to ride a bicycle three years ago, and have hardly practiced since. As I do not wish to be a safety hazard to myself and anyone else who comes in close proximity, I went by foot. Unfortunately, the other life skill I do not possess is having a good sense of direction. Or reading maps. It’s no fun to be constantly doubting if I’m going in the right direction.
After two hours of a desolate walk later, I hear a vehicle behind me. Followed by a man yelling, “Afuera! Afuera!” It took me a second because that simply means “outside,” and obviously I am already outdoors. Although I didn’t even have my thumb out, he was inviting me to get in the back of their car. I didn’t ask where they were going or anything, but it’s Uruguay, and they were a family, so I felt safe and jumped right in. The further they drove, passing the Santa Teresa signage, the more I thought of how lost I would have gotten simply wandering around.
Once we all got out of the car, I think I was behaving rather awkwardly. They were a mother, father, two sons, two daughters, and about to barbecue some slabs of meat. I wanted to thank them for the lift then walk around, but every time I tried to say, “¡Muchas gracias, chao!” the father and daughter kept saying something else that wasn’t “¡Chao!” In the end, although I didn’t know what they were saying since I didn’t know how to excuse myself, I sat down and joined them for lunch. Then to the beach. Then to a mini zoo. By sheer miscommunication, I tagged along for a full family day’s affair. When evening rolled around, I hopped back into their car and they dropped me off along the road leading into Punta del Diablo. Then I got another ride into the centre of the town. Ridiculously enough, here is where I got lost for an hour, trying to find my way back. (Later on, I would come to learn that I was actually only a 10-minute walk away from the hostel. I went in the opposing direction and made a huge round. My bad sense of direction is truly not an exaggeration.)
Want to read or hear more from Petrina? Check out her first ZafigoX talk right here:
Speaking of which, I want to go into town again later to get a gelato. I have been told the scoops here are massive. Oh, I have one more thing to tell you before I go. So, sometime last week, I mentioned in passing to the hostel’s chef that I would like to cook for a small group of us because I’ve been craving Asian food. Then somehow, for some reason, she put in charge of having to prepare dinner for the entire hostel staff and guests too. I have never cooked for more than 6 people before, now I suddenly had 30 mouths to feed. How do I even gauge the amount of condiments and ingredients? Also, I really felt the pressure, because on the menu it was written, “Malaysian Curry.” I laughed because there’s no such thing. I tried to explain there’s no such thing. To me, cooking simply means experimenting. They insisted on promoting it as such anyway because it sounded exotic. This happened twice. For my second dish on another night, they wrote, “Comida de Malasia: Pollo a ala miel y salsa de soja.” (Food from Malaysia: Honey and Soy Sauce Chicken.) With that said, although I misrepresented my country’s cuisine, rest assured it wasn’t in a bad light. Miraculously, people returned for seconds. Some asked for the recipe. And I’ve been entrusted to be on kitchen duty again tomorrow. I’m thinking sweet and sour shrimp, maybe?
I guess being in one spot for an extended period was necessary for me to feel normal again. Although I scare myself sometimes being in this positive state of mind. Because here is where I start getting ideas while feeling like I can do anything. Just a couple of weeks back, I intended on heading north to run away from the approaching winter. My body does not deal well with the cold. But now that my mood is good, I am toying with the notion of going the complete opposite direction towards Ushuaia, Argentina. The End of the World. It’s the southernmost city before you reach Antarctica. My main concerns are not the typical “potential dangers” of being picked up by strangers. Humans, I may still have some control over. The weather, I have none. Going through with this would mean hitchhiking in the snow, or worse still if it’s rainy and windy. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I don’t reach whichever destination and would have to camp outside. So, we’ll see…
For now, I shall get back to sending out a hundred and one Workaway requests. I’ve already messaged more than ten hosts over a week ago, but no responses yet. And I need to secure a new place before I cross over into Argentina. Planning stresses me out. Anyway, hope all is well on your end! I’ll keep you posted on how everything goes.
P.S. If you find yourself in Uruguay:
1. Put on the highest SPF you got. There is a huge hole in the ozone layer here. So the sunburns you get can really be quite harsh.
2. No matter what the topic of conversation is, you can express any positive exclamation with these two words, “Que lindo!” (How pretty!) I’ve heard it said when talking about the weather, clothes, a baby, the dog that just walked by, travel decisions, anything really.
3. You will hear the word “vos” a lot. It simply means “you,” replacing the more commonly known “tú.” (I noticed it when conversing with Uruguayans and Argentinians.)
4. Beef is everywhere. Cows outnumber people three to one, which may or may not be the reason why Uruguay consumes the most meat per capita in the world.
5. Dulce de leche is in everything. It’s a spread made out milk and sugar, like caramel, which you put on toast. But you’ll also find it in ice creams, cookies, chocolates, cakes, pies, etc.
6. Read up on their laws. Only because they’re so progressive it’s impressive.
7. Feel free to drink straight from the tap. 🙂
*All photos by the author.