I should have gotten the clue. I mean, when the local gas station has a 1.5 litre of Coke and 1 litre bottle of Whisky on special, you can gather that the town doesn’t run on mate alone. Yet, somehow, I missed it at first. I was convinced we were in a small, quiet town where everyone was in bed by 7 p.m. and where fishermen were up at dawn.
I’m sure there were people up at dawn—probably because they had yet to go to bed and had a last can of beer to finish.
When we first arrived in La Paloma, the weather still wasn’t great. A bit stormy, a bit cloudy, a bit rainy. The hotel was run by an aging hippie from Argentina and it had seen better days. The owner slept in a school bus parked in front of the hotel so I guess to his standards, the rooms were just fine.
In La Paloma, standards aren’t super high anyway. If you want fancy, you go to Punta.
I remembered the place as a small town with a lighthouse and a dirt road to the beach. The lighthouse and the dirt road were still here but the main street was busier with many more businesses catering to tourists. There were even two supermarkets on both ends. Convenient, especially when restaurants all seem to serve the same bland and expensive usual fare—pizza, pasta, fish.
It was already almost 5 p.m. when we arrived. While the guys were at the beach, I walked around town to check when businesses closed. Supermarket? 11 p.m. Empanada place? 3 a.m. Bouncy castle Mark was dying to try? Midnight. Ah ah. Alright, we’d be just fine. This was early evening, if restaurants were empty it was because it was too early, not because they were about to close.
In this Uruguayan town, Argentina meets Brazil. You eat and party late like in Buenos Aires and you get some energy from a giant bauru sandwich, a culinary import from Brazil.
The following day, the storm was a distant memory. Business time, then beach time—what else would you want to do with a blue sky like this?
We withdrew money from a nameless ATM—how can an ATM in a small town ATM in Uruguay process foreign debit cards while you have to try twenty banks to find one that dispense cash in Argentina?—, picked up the bus schedule for our next destination and bought Mark the must-have accessory of the season, i.e. a plastic bucket with a small shovel.
While Mark was burying Feng in the sand and Feng buying Mark in the sand, I walked on the beach for several kilometres. Some were surfing beaches with huge waves, in others the water was shallow. The sand went from coarse to fine to beaches covered with seashells.
After an hour, I turned around and walked back. Predictably, the guys had built the Great Wall of China and were waiting for the tide to go up.
We walked to El Faro del Cabo Santa María, the local landmark.
“No kids under eight,” the employee said. Mark was offended because he was still four, how come, his birthday had been ages ago!
“Why?” I asked, ready to swear that sweet child of mine was super well-behaved and wouldn’t play with the lamp (which would have been a blatant lie, Mark could totally send boats crashing into shore).
I couldn’t argue with that so I climbed alone. The first flights of stairs were easy, then they became narrower. Damn, this lighthouse was high. Finally, I reached a tall 90º metal ladder.
“Wow! No wonder kids can’t climb!”
I could barely fit through the opening at the top of the ladder but it was worth the effort. The view was nice.
Both nights, none of us wanted to go to sleep. Why would we? First, the town was loud. Then there were plenty of people in the main street walking from one end to the other, from the gas station to the roundabout, then in the few side streets with the craft markets. Yes, Mark, alright, go on the damn bouncy castle, it’s only 11 p.m. after all!
People were munching on buñuelos de algas (seaweed fried dough), fried empanadas and tortas. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, with many families from Argentina and Brazil. There were bands here and there offering free concerts, i.e. awful covers of beach town classics like Bob Marley or Alpha Blondie—although the one playing downstairs the hotel liked Pink Floyd best.
“Can I sing a song? What music do you like, mommy?”
“Nirvana, Pink Floyd, The Offspring…”
“Can I sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”
“Go for it, Mark! You’ll sing better than them.”
“When you’re drunk, the tune doesn’t matter, Juliette.”
“I wouldn’t know. But when you’re high, it does.”
(Just kidding. None of us was under the influence, although Mark was probably high on sugary alfajores).
The hours ticked by. Eventually, Mark fell asleep, then Feng. I knew I was going to pay for this late-night bedtime in the morning but hey, after all, all I had to do was pack and sit in yet another bus. Okay, it was only a two-hour ride, but still.
Who was I kidding, I wouldn’t sleep in the bus.