Do you recall how I said, way back at the beginning of this sojourn of mine, that I was going to get myself admitted to the Travelers’ Century Club, if it is the last thing I do? No? Well, click here for a reminder. Anyhoo, I know I haven’t updated you in a while, but since we last chatted, I racked up some serious Century Club points. I need 100 points, based on their approved list of countries/territories, to be eligible to join the Centurions. According to my calculations, when I landed in Montevideo, Uruguay last month, that made Point No. 100. Woo-Hoo!
To mark this momentous occasion, I went on my old favorite, Fiverr.com, and paid a Ukrainian exotic dancer to write a celebratory message on her legs, and dance to tango music (which, according to the Uruguashos I met, is as much theirs as it is Argentinian).
(For my email followers, click here for video.)
She did such a nice job, I didn’t have the heart to ask her to re-do my Uruguay commemoration video with a song that wasn’t expressly about Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is just across the river, anyway. And, I do love the Gotan Project, especially, that song. So, we’ll just let that slide. Don’t want another Crazzy Man situation on our hands.
I was super happy to have an admirable place like Uruguay be my Century Club Point No. 100. How do I love Uruguay? Let me count the ways. Named Country of the Year in 2013 by The Economist, this diminutive sovereignty, tucked into a lovely coastal nook south of Brazil and east of Argentina, has had its political troubles in the past, just like its neighbors. But, today, Uruguay is one of the most forward thinking, pragmatic, laid back, and downright grooviest places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
Uruguay is just flat out beautiful. Beaches that rival California’s, wine regions and countryside that rival Tuscany. Who, aside from an alpine skier, could ask for more? You need a city? Montevideo is a mix of modern and classical, charming and cosmopolitan. There’s a renowned ballet, a vibrant theater scene, chic restaurants, and open-air tango in the park in the evenings. If it isn’t big enough for your shopping needs, Buenos Aires is just a short hop away by plane or ferry. And don’t forget about the chic, party central resort town that is Punta del Este, if you feel the need to see and be seen while you sun.
When you think of rural, agrarian South America, you are probably picturing Catholic and conservative, right? But, Uruguay is the least religious, most LGBT-friendly country in South America, and gay marriage, gambling, prostitution (but, not pimping or brothel ownership), abortion, and recreational marijuana use—ALL legal. Some call Uruguay the Amsterdam of South America.
José Mujica, president of Uruguay from 2010-2015, when many of the laws were passed, explained that he and a lot of other Uruguayans didn’t necessarily personally approve of these things, but it was just stupid to deny reality and human nature. In an interview with the Brazilian news agency O Globo, he said:
We applied a very simple principle: Recognize the facts. Abortion is old as the world. Gay marriage, please—it’s older than the world. We had Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, please. To say it’s modern, come on, it’s older than we are. It’s an objective reality that exists. For us, not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly.
As for legalizing marijuana, he said it was not to encourage marijuana usage as much as it was to pull the rug out from under the drug traffickers who were profiting from illegal sales of substandard weed imported mainly from Paraguay and Brazil.
Worse than drugs is drug trafficking. Much worse. Drugs are a disease, and I don’t think that there are good drugs or that marijuana is good. Nor cigarettes. No addiction is good. I should include alcohol. The only good addiction is love. Forget everything else.
Now, that’s a president I can get on board with. (See, here and here for some more pearls of wisdom from, and facts about, this wonderful, most groovy statesman.) Under Mujica’s leadership, according to the New York Times, “Uruguay scores perfect 10s on the indexes of civil liberties and electoral process, a feat equaled only by Norway and New Zealand.”
Let’s see, what else? Uruguay’s entire coastline and territorial waters are designated by law as a sanctuary zone for whales and dolphins. Very cool. You can watch whales right from the beach on the east coast during calving season.
Uruguay is also at the vanguard of fighting climate change. In less than 10 years, they drastically reduced their carbon footprint, and shifted from predominantly fossil fuel energy sources to 95 percent clean, renewable energy, such as wind, solar and hydropower. Just for perspective, the world average for clean energy reliance is between 12 and 22 percent. Uruguay did all this without government subsidies or higher consumer costs. Go Uruguay!
Uruguay has great, affordable education and healthcare, and a comparatively well educated population. Primary education is compulsory and free, and public universities are free. It is the first country in the world to provide laptop computers to all school children in the state-run primary and secondary schools, through its 2006 One Laptop Per Child initiative. As to healthcare, the modern mammogram was invented in Uruguay, and Uruguay also produced Alejandro Zaffaroni, the man The Scientist called a “biotech superstar,” who contributed to the invention of the birth control pill, the nicotine patch, the DNA chip, and corticosteroids. Health care is good, and affordable. If you want, you can join a private hospital like you would a gym, pay a low monthly fee, and get all your care from that hospital.
On the practical side, the water is safe to drink (although, I think it tastes terrible), and there is good, fast, free wifi almost everywhere–even on city and long distance buses.
Finally, and perhaps I save the best for last, there’s the wine. Uruguay, pragmatic as always, knows it can’t compete by volume with the bigger wine producing countries, so it goes straight for the quality market. Uruguayan wines may not be the least expensive—though they are darned cheap compared to California wines—but, they are so reliably good, you could throw a dart at the wine list, blindfolded, and be sure of hitting a winner.
It stands to reason, then, that when deciding how to celebrate finally reaching Century Club eligibility, I thought about maybe taking a nice wine tour. You know, go out and wander the vineyards, tour some wineries, and toast to reaching this long sought after goal with a glass of good, Uruguayan Tannat. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Alas, while it is perfectly legal, as long as you’re over 18, to blaze up a doob in public, anywhere that it would be legal to smoke a regular cigarette, Uruguay’s marijuana law does not allow for sales to non-residents. There are no “brown cafes” like in Amsterdam, and only Uruguayans and legal residents can register to purchase pot at a pharmacy, or to grow their own. However, if a Uruguayan offers to share theirs with you, or gives you some as a gift, no problem. But, where’s a solo traveler with no friends or relations in the country to find someone willing to share? There are some “Bud & Breakfasts” out there, but what if you stay in a regular hotel or apartment? Enter MvD High.
MvD High is a tour company that works with one of Montevideo’s grower cooperatives to offer “Cannabis Culture” tours. Each tour includes “tastings” of the coop’s products as a gift from the hosts for learning more about Uruguay’s pot history and industry.
My guide, Marco, a literature professor and one of the managers of the coop, was incredibly well informed about marijuana laws all around the world. He was also one of the advocates who worked directly with Mujica’s government to draft Uruguay’s current legislation. He shepherded me and a very excited Brazilian accountant around the grow house, showed us the plants in various stages of development, and explained how the coop system worked.
Honestly, I would love to be able to tell you all about that, but, right afterwards, he took us to a lounge and let us try three different varieties of product, and after that, I just can’t remember much of the preceding details anymore. Incidentally, may I just say, to all those naysayers out there on the Internet saying, “yeah, Uruguay may have legalized pot, but their weed isn’t any good,” I say, poppycock! Sour grapes. That stuff knocked me on my ass. There’s a testimonial on MvD High’s website from a satisfied customer saying, “I will never forget this experience!” I wish I could say the same. I can’t remember half of what Marco told me about the different, cleverly named strains of marijuana plants, the new regulations, and the growth of the industry.
I do remember vividly, though, that this was about two weeks after the U.S. presidential election, and the first time since that night that the musculoskeletal knots, kinks and clenches that had become the seemingly permanent manifestation of my shock and horror over the election result had turned loose. Ooh, it feels so good when it stops!
After touring the grow house, Marco took us to have a symbolic toke on the steps of the Legislative Assembly building, where the law allowing marijuana usage was argued and eventually signed. “Taste the freedom,” Marco said as he passed the joint.
A pair of police officers on the beat walked past us as we sat on the steps puffing pungent pot smoke into the atmosphere, and my instinct was to tense up, hide the joint, and avoid their gaze. But, Marco just waved at them, and said, “don’t worry, we aren’t doing anything wrong.” It was an odd, but, nice sensation.
We then made one final stop, at Plaza Independencia, to sit in the park in front of the president’s office and have one last bit of ganja. Marco saved the best for last: a variety he called “Dark Star,” because, he said, after that, everything would go dark. He. Was. Not. Kidding. It’s good that MvD High provides transportation back to your lodgings after the tour.
Left to my own devices, I probably would have just curled up under a tree in the park and succumbed to that sweet, beckoning, purple-tinged slumber that consumed the remainder of my afternoon. Thanks to Marco and crew—who also, very thoughtfully, provide an endless supply of bottled water and cookies to their herbally impaired tour charges—I made it safely back to my bed at the hotel before Dark Star took me deep into outer space.
It was dark when I woke up, still high as a kite, and famished. And maybe paranoid, too, because, I went to brush my teeth, and became convinced that the cleaning lady had stolen all of my dental floss picks. Because, you know, that’s something people do. The street value of an open bag of dental flossers is through the roof, I hear. Of course, I felt like a proper idiot when I realized I had just upended the open sack of flossers in the larger bag that I carry my toiletries in, and they were all loose there in the bottom.
I made a mental apology to the cleaning lady, and went out to forage for some food. Maybe it was just my state of mind at the time, but, I could swear, even the graffiti characters in the old city looked baked.
I was still hungry after dinner—or, more precisely, munchy—so I stopped and bought some potato chips and, for reasons that shall remain a mystery, FOUR boxes of Twinings Lemon & Ginger teabags. I don’t know why, they weren’t even on sale. When I opened my purse to pay, I found a plastic bag with two big buds of fragrant weed in there—a present from Marco. I didn’t have anything to roll it with, though, so, on the way home, I bought the tiniest, adorable water pipe from a kid in a Bob Marley t-shirt, who was selling incense and pipes on a blanket in the pedestrian street. Look, it’s barely bigger than a cherry! I don’t know why I bought that, either. It’s not like I was going to be able to take any of this stuff with me when I left the country. Apparently, I buy stuff when I’m under the influence.
Back in my hotel room, due to that delicious Dark Star nap I had taken in the afternoon, I was wide awake most of the night, munching on Serrano Ham flavored chips, and watching a marathon of “Acumuladores Compulsivos” (“Hoarders”) on cable. I have never watched, and would never watch, that show back home. But, something about it being dubbed, badly, in Spanish, and the fact that I was still stoned off my caboose, made it strangely entertaining in a tawdry, escapist way that truly suited the day.
The next day, I awoke horrified to realize my whole room was powerfully skunky from that small bag of weed in my purse. Mindful of the hotel’s warning of a $200 fine for smoking in the rooms, I was frantic to get rid of the smell. I hadn’t smoked any in the room, but, I wasn’t sure that would matter to them. I stashed my stash in the minifridge, opened all the windows, turned on the exhaust fan in the bathroom, and hoped for the best. As long as the door to the minifridge remained closed, it was okay. But, open the door even a crack, and a great nimbus of pot odor immediately billowed out. This would keep me paranoid for the remainder of my time there, even though I rationally knew it was not contraband. That’s conditioning for you.
I went down to breakfast, and pulled up the Travelers’ Century Club membership application on my laptop, so I could fill it out over coffee and post it right away. Much to my dismay, when I got to the part where you are supposed to check off your 100 places on their list of approved countries/territories, I discovered that they had decommissioned two of my points! The former East Germany (DDR) and Berlin used to count as a point each, but, with the reunification of Germany in 1990, those two places were merged with the former West Germany (BRD) into one big Germany entry, and retired from the list.
Not willing to go down without a fight, I emailed the organization and asked if I could still count them, as they were validly on the list when I was there in the mid-1980s. Seems only fair, right? They didn’t respond, though, and I’ve learned that in life, love, and the law, the lack of a “yes,” is a “no.” So, dang it, there I was, partying my buns off for finally reaching Century Club eligibility status, and it turns out I only had 98 points!
My disappointment is best expressed by these Christmas elves:
(For my email followers, click here for video.)
I don’t know why they are singing Happy Birthday. Maybe they thought, from my directions as to what to write on the sign, that this was to commemorate what would have been the birthday of someone who died at age 98? Who knows. Gotta love Fiverr.com.
In any event, there you have it. Two more countries to go before the Century Club will have me. Still, I’ll always be grateful to Uruguay for showing me a heck of a good time in honor of what turned out to be the dress rehearsal. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top it when I finally hit 100 points for real. Either way, at least, we know I’ll have plenty of Twinings Lemon & Ginger tea for the celebration!