Then the armed border guard took all our stuff…

[I wrote this story and published it on Medium in 2017. Later, I found this header on the story: “Only you can see this message. This story’s distribution setting is off.” I cannot update the setting so I had to republish.]

In February of 2011, I spent three weeks in South America, starting in Buenos Aires, traveling to Asuncion, Paraguay to build homes with Habitat for Humanity and finally a week in Uruguay to vacation with my foreign exchange student sister. She’s the closest thing to a sister this only child ever had and I had waited 17 years to visit her in her home country.

Getting off the boat in Montevideo, I was so excited I had to hold myself from jumping up and down. I saw her through some glass that separated those waiting for luggage from the general public. I ran over to the glass and we touched hands and smiles, laughing. I waited for luggage that their border folks never inspected, not even with a metal detector. When I inquired to the Uruguayan embassy about a travel VISA they replied with the information that it there was no entry VISA or charge to enter the country but there would be one to leave.

Finally, I ran through the doorway and embraced my sister, Carolina, “Carola.” With the advent of Skype, we were not quite strangers anymore. Ironically, as we grew older, we grew closer with more in common instead of less. Politics, spirituality, relationships and work — with our many hour long Skype conversations, we saw eye to eye on many things. Approaching 40, like me, she had never married with no children. This solidifies many a friendship as those adventures are so unlike the single life that we had found.

Quickly, we were at her house and I was walking in the front door that I had memorized from the one picture of home that she had brought with her to high school in rural Illinois. She still lived on her parent’s property — in apartment in the back. But we entered through the front and I met her parents and we all had dinner together.

Carola’s mom immediately started taking care of me — insisting on doing my laundry, cooking for me, gasping at the bug bites I had received up and down my legs working in Paraguay and asking me questions which challenged my limited Spanish. I told Carola that I can do my own laundry and cook for myself. Spinster that I am — I have been taking care of myself for a long time. But she said no, she’s been looking forward to this. Your mother took care of me for a year. It’s the least she can do to take care of you for a few days. So we stayed and I met her sister and sister’s family. Became an auntie to her niece, letting her do my hair and practice her English. It was lovely.

But after two days, we packed up small bags and went to sleep early. Carola woke me at 2 am and we trudged off to a bus station.

There at the bus station in the middle of the night was the start of the most surreal day of my life.

At the bus station, we met Carola’s cousin’s boyfriend whose restaurant we were going to stay at in Punta del Diablo many hours away. Alejandro or “Ale” was spirited and happy to meet me even at 2 am. I remember him being tall, thin with curly dark hair as well as filled with energy and ready to go to the beach. I can’t say that his enthusiasm spread to me at 3 am. But he would be part of a profound experience by the end of a few days. (And feed me the best meal I had in South America). At 3:30 am, the bus came, we boarded and I promptly fell back asleep.

5 hours later, Carola nudged me awake. We are here, she said. I grabbed my backpack, got off the bus, took a look around and thought, we are where? Looking around, there was just dirt roads and tall grasses, a few trees in the distance, nothing that resembled any town. Carola and Ale immediately started walking down one of the dirt paths, excitedly talking in Spanish. I followed them — groggy and a little confused.

After walking for a half an hour, we still hadn’t seen anything that looked like an ocean town. I had started to hear the sound of waves but couldn’t figure out which direction the beach was located. I was completely disoriented. Then suddenly, we were at the restaurant — a small building in the middle of a field. The restaurant had one room with about 15 tables, a small kitchen, and a tiny bathroom with a toilet. That was it. The restaurant sign said, “Como Pez en La Agua” — Like a Fish in Water.

I had incorrectly assumed that since we were staying at a restaurant it would be in a town. And that the restaurant would be open and at the very least, we could eat there. But all those assumptions were wrong. As was my thoughts on what this town would include — paved roads, curbs, signs or buildings that I would know as grocery stores, restaurants or bus stations.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, here I learned an important rule of remote travel: What you expect is unlikely to be what you find.

There was a shack (that is really the only word for it) behind the restaurant and Carola says, we will sleep here. And isn’t it great that they are letting us stay here for free. And I think, I would not pay to sleep here. The building had two twin “beds” — a pile of pads with a series of bug infested blankets — a large open window with no screen or glass and a doorway without a door.

Inside the shack was Pablo, a friend of Ale’s. Turns out Ale owns the restaurant and Pablo cooks for him during the busy season — of which we are near the end. February is the end of summer and they are here to make some money before winter. I will experience their incredible cooking abilities later in the trip. But in this moment, I could only think that Pablo would make a lot more money as a model for surfing magazines. He was tall and very muscular (he never wore a shirt the entire time we were there as he shouldn’t with that physique), with a mane of golden long hair and an endearing lisp to his Spanish. He and Ale took off to run some errands and I immediately turned to Carola, my stomach growling and said, what will we eat?

I was actually concerned. I hadn’t signed up for camping and months before, when we had discussed our seemingly similar limited financial situations, I guess I should have been more clear about what I deemed as roughing it.

She reassured me and said we would walk to the grocery store. We took off down a different dirt road, more like a path, and after a few minutes came to another shack. This was the grocery store? No signs, no parking lot, no grocery carts. None were needed. I walked inside and gazed around at the 12 shelves with 76 items found in this “grocery store.” Anyone who has been to the 3rd world will tell you — our grocery stores are the most stupid luxury you have ever seen with fluorescent lights and aisles and aisles of crap. My mind spun as I looked around, trying to figure what we could make of this stuff. But Carola was already piling things up on the counter — bread, cheese, tomatoes, fish, milk, yogurt, crackers, bananas, Coke.

Back at the restaurant, we ate a sandwich and I started to feel reassured. The boys came back and suddenly we were going to the beach. Keep in mind, all plans were rapidly made in Spanish — a language I studied for four years in high school and college but whose slang and pronunciation are so different here. For days, I heard the word “plah-sha” over and over until I finally realized they were saying playa or beach. I decided to just follow Carola and do whatever she does. I quickly threw on a swimsuit, found a towel and the small bottle of sunscreen I had packed and we jumped in to the back of a pick-up truck to drive to the beach.

That afternoon, we swam in the ocean off the coast of Punta del Diablo. But this remote beach village was not used to pasty white Americans and I got open stares throughout the afternoon. I tried to cover myself up to avoid sunburn but failed quite badly. I had about two thousand bug bites from Paraguay plus now a sunburn. But mostly Carola and I hung out in the waves, swimming and talking.

I asked her, what is over there — pointing east (or what I think is east). She said, Africa I guess — really far over there. Africa!

Back at the beach, the boys packed up and were talking rapidly to Carola. She asked me, do you have your passport? I said, no, I left it at your parent’s house. She said, do you have your driver’s license. Yes, I think I do, I replied. Okay then, it’s settled. We’re going to Brazil. Right then, um, what? Carola said, it’ll be great — it’s only a little ways from here and we can go shopping. It’s really nice.

How are we going to get there? Can I go and change first (I’m still wet in my suit)? Who is going? Do I have to go? My questions were quickly waved away. Don’t worry about it. Before I knew it, we were in the back of the pick-up truck, headed down the road… to Brazil, an hour away. The sun dial was set on scorching and I had used up all my sunscreen.

I couldn’t talk to Carola with the wind blowing so I had an hour to consider my situation. I thought, I’m on vacation so just go with the flow. But going to Brazil? It’ll be an adventure, I told myself. But I am a little type A if you haven’t already guessed. I generally have a plan and this was not the plan. But mostly I was peeved not to get a Brazil stamp in my passport.

Oh how little I understood South American borders.

We drove into another country with a wave of a border guard who stood next to a pretty basic looking fence and what I thought was an outhouse. On the other side was a town, I guess, with stores and mostly dirt roads, shoe-less children and broken down cars. It looked a lot like what I saw in Paraguay.

However, juxtaposed against this grimness outside, there were these immaculate, pristine, air conditioned, duty free shops — a lot like U.S. mall in the middle.

We walked inside a few but they were all the same. I bought some sunscreen. I looked at the perfumes and name brand alcohol, the sports paraphernalia and specialty chocolates. The prices were high I thought. All “American” items on sale for twice the price as it is at home. Maybe they thought I would want to shop (or I’d feel at home here) but I didn’t see the point of buying this crap only to have to haul it home in a backpack to where it’s half the price. And I rarely bought stuff like this at home anyway. On the other hand, they were thrilled. And I thought oh this stuff must be cheaper here than in Uruguay.

I was bored but happy to be out of the sun and inside the cool AC. Then Pablo came up to me with a small pair of soccer shoes and 1,000 pesos (about $50). I asked him what he wanted and he just pointed to the cashier. I was confused. Carola said, he’d like you to go pay for it. Okay, I thought, whatever. I went up to the counter and they asked for my driver’s license. I gave it to them and briefly wondered if this was going to get me on some kind of list, buying children’s soccer shoes in a poor, tiny border town in Brazil.

We went to the next place. Ale came up to me with a large men’s leather jacket (which I absolutely could not imagine ever wearing wanting here in sweltering heat) and a soccer ball and some pesos, just like Pablo. I paid for the items and met the group on the street. This happened a few more times before I asked Carola what was going on. For a while, she tried to put me off — it’s just easier, she said.

But I pushed and after we left the last store, she said, we can’t buy stuff here. Uruguayans cannot shop outside of Uruguay.

After this experience, with a clearer understanding of why we went there, we stopped at a grocery stand and bought 5 or 6 bags of food — Coke, fruit, chips and other things — before we got back in the truck, back in the sun, to head home. I was exhausted. My day started 12 hours before with one set of expectations and I felt changed.

At the border (the experience of which I don’t have any photos), I thought I would need to show my license to get back into Uruguay but no — unlike going into Brazil, going out doesn’t prompt a ID check, but an inspection of the truck. The guys got out of the truck and a border guard with an automatic weapon looked through everything we had purchased.

I whispered to Carola, what are they doing? And she shushed me in a way that made me very nervous. Are we in danger, I thought? They took the soccer ball, some clothes, most of the groceries. The guys didn’t say anything and the guards took what they want and we left. Down the road, I asked Carola why the guard took that stuff and without looking at me, she said, because he wanted it. And it dawned on me, there was nothing they could do about it. And they probably knew there was a chance of this when we started. I might be an American but in this case, I was just an extra random sunburned blond girl sitting in the back of the truck which had Uruguay plates and Uruguay passengers. Now if I had been in a high class rental car filled with other white folk, I don’t think they would have stopped us.

Later, I realized I should have expected this. If they couldn’t purchase the items, it is reasonable that they wouldn’t be able to take them across the border. But in that moment, I was so out of comfort zone nothing was really registering in my mind. The comfort zone was obliterated. My comfort zone was road kill left on the side of a dirt road after a bus flew by it at 9 am that morning. I was forced very far into living in the moment.

But also I was also burning up in the late afternoon heat. Carola knocked on the window and asked if I could sit in the cab. Ale switched with me and got in the back. Pablo drove, silent, without speaking. Inside the car, I was somewhat shaded from the sun, but we heading west the light shined right through the dash. After a few minutes, Pablo reached under the seat and pulled out a t-shirt that he never wore. He draped it over my legs to further shade them from the sun. I was unreasonably grateful for this small act of care.

A few miles down the road, Pablo slowed down onto the shoulder where there were two females with dreadlocks, dirty clothes, overstuffed backpacks — the kind you “sister” would see at a Rainbow Gathering. They jumped in the back of the truck with Carola and Ale. And now, dear reader, we had just picked up hitchhikers. I had never done that before. I kept thinking this can’t get any more surreal.

My life was like a GPS set to normal, with my own personal set o expectations for how things will go as planned and all day, careening so far off the route, it’s constantly saying “recalculating.”

I don’t ride buses to empty dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. I don’t swim in the Atlantic and get sunburned in South America. I don’t ride in the back of pick-up trucks to Brazil with two guys I have never met. I have never been a mule — used for my citizenship to buy expensive crap at duty free shops. I have never had armed guards take all my stuff. I don’t pick up hitchhikers — even if they are two nice looking women.

Later that night, we walked into town to get something to eat. We went to a restaurant that looks nice enough and reminded me of a corner bar my friends and I frequent at home. We sat at the bar and the bartender knew Ale so we got some cheap drinks. Just as I started to feel a semblance of normal, we left. Come to find out, eating in town meant buying fish empanadas from a cart by the beach along with local beer under the stars. Nice enough but not what I had expected, again.

By this time, I had stopped listening. I was just staring at the ocean, drinking beer by the guzzles and ceasing to care. I would have seethed from my discomfort but I had given in to it. I was mad but also plain spent, drained, expended. I was done. At this point, friends asked Carola if I was alright. She just laughed, threw her arm around me and said, she’ll be better tomorrow.

And I was. In the following days, the boys prepped and cooked a thousand ravioli’s from scratch to sell to the nice restaurant where they knew the bartender. Later that week, they made us the best meal I had in South America and Ale, knowing I am a vegetarian, made me a special plate of raviolis with mushrooms instead of meat and the most beautiful and delicious custard dessert of my life. Through the week, Carola and I found the flow of breakfast, beach, nap, snack, beach, dinner and sleep. We took long talks and long naps and finally my GPS reset.

And this would be a good place to stop but I have to share one more story of how I recalculated Ale’s GPS.

The night before we left Punta del Diablo, we went to town and stopped by the hostel. I realized they had Wi-Fi and started tapping out an email to my mom on my iPhone. But then we had to leave and I couldn’t complete it. I asked Carola if we could go there tomorrow and she said yes. So back at the shack, I kept working on the message and thought I would save it and send it tomorrow. Ale saw me and asked Carola, what is she doing and Carola responded that I want to send an email. Ale left and came back with a laptop and said to Carola that I can use the Wi-Fi.

WAIT — THEY HAVE WI-FI? In this place, where the shower is a spigot on the outside wall of the restaurant? In this place, where horses roam free and where one stuck its head into the open windows of the shack to wake me up from my afternoon siesta? In this place, where electricity seems completely optional?

I started laughing — yes, can I please use the Wi-Fi? Sure, he said and tried to hand me the laptop. I shook my head and said, I don’t need it. But he didn’t understand my English. Carola, who has seen an iPhone before, told him in Spanish, it’s okay, she doesn’t need it. But thinking we are being polite and he insisted, no really, it’s okay. After this repeated a few times, Carola finally grabbed my phone and showed him — Yahoo, Facebook, Google — all right there in the palm of your hand.

And just as my mind was blown that day we went to Brazil — his blows so bad, I swore I could see the brain cells growing, the smoke coming out of his ears, the gears churning, the light bulb going off and all the rest. He looked at me and then back at the devise, mouth agape. He declares something to Carola in Spanish that sounds a lot like “what the?” Yes, that’s right.

New experiences. Worlds colliding. Culture expanded. Travel is the best education.

Always an English major, I write short non-fiction about my experiences. Talk to me.