We arrive at breakfast promptly at 7:30. We are served white bread rolls, cheese, jams and tea. No protein, no fruit, just bread. We have 5 hours of work ahead of us, let’s see how it goes. Our first job is to skin Eucalyptus logs of their multiple layers of bark. There is a certain amount of skill to it. Our other jobs included picking up fallen branches in the Eucalyptus forest surrounding the tree climbing park Mr F is building, raking leaves, painting, sanding and digging out tree stumps with shovels, axes and machetes. It is damn hard physical labour and bread and tea is just not going to do. At about 10:30 every morning, halfway, Irene brings coffee and cake/biscuits/crackers but not much with any nutritional value. I was dying for a banana! Lunch is immediately after our morning session of work at about 13:30. Our first lunch was a vegetable stew. I’m loving the veggies but I could do with some meat. For the duration of the afternoon we are exhausted. I swim in the river and enjoy a refreshing cold shower – refreshing a.k.a. freezing – and watch the magnificent view where sky meets land and water.
Dinner is promptly at 9pm, the sun is still shining. I really hope we have something substantial. Irene’s attitude is quite different from before, she may even be friendly, although I still feel treated like a child when she dishes up for me – something with vegetables and possibly cheese. My mind is hazy as I am suffering from protein withdrawals. I would kill for some chickpeas! I feel deprived!
Tuesday, after hard labour and another attitude adjustment by the lady of the house to loathing us again, we decide to leave the property and see what the town has to offer. We catch a ride with Mr F and he drops us in front of the ice cream store. Best! We treat ourselves to a generous serving of helado and instantly feel better about our situation. I think a dire need for calcium was satisfied as well.
Fray Bentos is a beautiful little town on the Rio Uruguay. Old buildings with modern finishes, laid back people and lots of open space. I like it! We decide to take control and buy our own fruit and biscuits so we don’t feel so deprived. It’s a 5km walk from town to the property and as soon as it’s cool enough we set out towards the open fields around town. It’s not long before we catch a ride with Martin and his young son. He speaks English and works for the paper plant that caused such an uproar a while back. He is so kind to drop us right in front of the gate and I struggle to leave his air-conditioned SUV with leather seats to go back to the borderline personality disorder of Irene!
I don’t know for how long I will be able to handle it. But then I try to justify it by thinking we just have to get used to the situation – we just need to settle in.
The work carries on every morning, 5 hours, snack lunch (maybe she’s angry, maybe she’s super happy), cold shower, relax, dinner, relax, sleep. Breakfast. And it becomes a routine. The relax part is amazing! We have a beautiful view and if we manage to catch a sunset it truly is the most extraordinary sight imaginable. The ball of fire fading away behind a far off land.. In the late afternoon the wild horses on the property come to our beach and literally play on our doorstep. Swimming, jumping, running and rolling in the sand.
We had to be very still to watch them as they were wary of us two legged creatures. It doesn’t take too long for them to get comfortable with our presence and they even start to visit us in the mornings in the forest. In the evening, the cows graze where we brush our teeth before bed and the fireflies buzz all around us creating a magical effect. Little moving miracles. There are more stars shining brightly every night, and our presence in the universe leaves me humbled and happy – yet being with our hosts caused us to be unhappy. We feel a bit like we are at a work camp with a beautiful view.
On the 5th of December, Nelson Mandela passed away. As South African’s this is a deeply personal and emotional event for us. We walk up for dinner and as we pick up the wifi signal we read the latest news (aka Facebook newsfeed) to see what’s happening in our world and spot status’s all over the place announcing Madiba’s departure. I was sad man! I was heartbroken! We mention this to our host who replies, “Oh well, he was old.” No compassion or empathy, nothing. We then ask if we could watch a news channel on his TV (we’re not allowed in his house, you see…) and he says, “All channels are in Spanish, you won’t understand”. Geez man, we just want to get some visuals of what is happening in our country at a historic moment in time. What a negative, cynical doosh!
I want to get out of here!
The days wear on with a few visits into town for much needed ice-cream and we have some interesting rides along the way… Once with Irene’s brother in the oldest, most broken little bakkie I’ve ever been in; once with an old delivery man on the back of his brand new little truck along with his dirty little maltese poodle running around frantically from side to side while in transit; a very entertaining ride with a young couple who could not believe that we are from South Africa, because AFRICA is one place in their minds and everybody must be pitch black. And by far my favourite was our last ride in Fray Bentos with a sweet old man named Juan, who speaks no English, in his little blue car that is literally held together by various strips of industrial elastic.
During our time in the beach cabin we survived two massive storms. I do not use the term “survive” lightly.. Our cabin is built on stilts, half on concrete and half in the sand, not entirely apt to be very stable during a storm involving gale force winds. The floor of the cabin is made only of wooden planks, no reinforcement above or below so the openings in between the planks lead directly to the sand below. In the late of afternoon clouds start to gather over the river and we know something terrifying is on its way. While walking back to the cabin after dinner, the wind howling around us, I really hope that this storm is not as bad as the previous one. My hopes were futile.. It was worse, waaaayyyy worse. By the time darkness set in and we get into bed the cabin is swaying from side to side. The waves of the river that used to be calming little bumps sound like a raging ocean and the trees above rustle violently as if angry at us about something. The wind is so strong that it spits massive raindrops horizontally into the windows, we can feel the spray hitting us, and the lightning dances like a violent strobe light across the sky. As the minutes pass the storm grows and grows, and I am 1) terrified the wind will rip a branch from a tree and it will come crashing through the roof and crush us, 2) terrified that the stilts of the cabin won’t hold and the whole structure will just collapse and crush us, and 3) terrified that we may just die here at a place where we aren’t even all that happy. T does a very good job of keeping me calm and soothing my fears with logical explanations, holding me tight even as I tense up every time lightning strikes. Somehow I finally drift off to sleep while pleading to the Universe to not let us die in this storm.
The next morning we awake to a cabin floor strewn with beach sand, books and clothes soaked with rainwater that seeped through the openings in the cabin walls and a beach littered with branches and leaves thanks to the crazy wind. I’m just extremely glad the cabin held.
After much deliberation and realising that we are becoming super negative people here and that 70% of our conversations are littered with mentions of how badly we want to get away from these negative, soul destroying people we make a decision that we will leave on Monday the 16th and no later. I have adopted the mantra “What Would Madiba Do” and know that he would not want to be practically imprisoned, even with a beautiful view.. (it all seems a little bit too familiar.)
The last straw comes that Saturday. Irene asked us on Friday to bring washing, Saturday morning I give her the washing and she refuses to wash it. Then she starts screaming at me like a mad woman in Spanish something about “no washing on a Saturday!” I try to calmly explain to her that I don’t understand what she is saying to which she replies in a high pitched rant something along the lines of “you are in Uruguay and you need to speak Spanish! I don’t need to speak your *expletive* English because we are in *expletive* Uruguay where everything is Spanish!” After that, we decide to leave the following morning! We just decide that we will go to Colonia del Sacramento. We don’t know much about it, but I don’t care! Uruguay was never in our original travel plans so we never really did much research on it.
We tell Mr F that we will leave and he is not surprised at all. Apparently many other volunteers have also left earlier than expected. Some without even letting him know and just slipping away during the night. I understand why..
I am sooo happy we’re getting out of here!!!
Off to (much) better adventures!