Ekaterina ‘Kate’ Chernysheva and Jao Andreu flew into Buenos Aires in early March for a six-month biking and camping holiday in South America.
The couple had met two years earlier in the United Arab Emirates. Jao, 31, is a French engineer who was contracted to work on the electrical grid. Kate, 28, who is Russian had arrived in her early twenties. She was building a glittering career in hospitality management at a luxury Marriott-owned hotel. They were happy together but felt unfulfilled by corporate life in Emirates. So when Jao’s contract ended they decided a radical detox was in order. An off-line off-the-beaten-track cycling trip through South America was the farthest from their lives in UAE as they could imagine.
A cycling adventure gets started
In Buenos Aires they purchased bikes. It took longer than they had planned. Besides, they realised that they would need a bit of time to get used to biking long distances. Looking at the map, east of the River Uruguay, the countryside looked flat and Uruguay is a country “famous for its safety” said Jao. So they made a last minute decision to start the trip riding along the Uruguayan litoral and cross back into Uruguay at Fray Bentos. They rode off the ferry in Colonia on March 13.
Each day they rode and camped and a week later arrived in Fray Bentos. As they drove up to the international bridge it was evident that something was wrong. Only cargo trucks were entering. The few cars that had passed them by were being turned back. At the border they were told: the crossing is closed for the next two weeks, come back then.
Facing lockdown in Uruguay
On the airplane to Argentina Jao recalled a fellow passenger talking about the very first case of coronavirus in the whole of South America just being announced. But in Fray Bentos, they had no idea the bridge closure was related. They had been so overwhelmed by modern life in UAE that they had resolved to travel with zero internet connectivity for days at a time. So, they resolved to ride to the next bridge in Paysandu and try their luck there. In preparation, they stopped at a petrol station for something to eat and drink.
As they were sitting, a customer approached them. “You need to know,” he warned, “you’re in a war right now. A war with an invisible enemy.” At which point Jao and Kate decided to make use of the free Wi-Fi and check the news. It was March 23 and they discovered that Uruguay was in lockdown.
Hastily looking for a less-populated town, Jao checked their downloaded maps. If there was a virus out there, better to be with fewer people. There appeared to be a small town that fitted the bill and it was 20 km away.
Getting to San Javier, Uruguay
Darkness was falling as Kate and Jao cycled in to a deserted San Javier. They were tired and stressed by the recent news. Jao felt depressed by the empty leaf-strewn streets, more so after they were attacked by “mutant mosquitoes” as they set up a make-shift camp by the side of the river. They would definitely be leaving in the morning.
But Kate’s mind was in overdrive. As she cycled through San Javier, she couldn’t believe her eyes. On the sides of buildings, there were murals of people in traditional Russian dress and phrases written in Cyrillic. Russian dolls (matryoshka) adorned the street signs.
“How can this be?” she asked herself, “I’m all the way across the world and I feel like I’m home.”
A bit of Russia in Uruguay
They went to bed that night with very different feelings. Next morning as they were discussing their situation, a man with a huge moustache walking his dog came up to the tent. He tried to start a conversation. “He looked so Russian,” said Kate “but he was speaking in Spanish”. Despite the language barrier, Rodolfo Golovchenko introduced himself. After finding that Kate was from Russia, within half an hour he told them everything about his family, his history and the history of the village.
Incredibly, San Javier, the town that Kate and Jao had randomly chosen to shelter in, had been founded over 100 years ago by 300 Russian families seeking religious freedom that they had been denied under the Czar. Today it’s a town of 2000 inhabitants incredibly proud of their heritage.
Rodolfo was so excited with the newcomers. “He was ready to invite us that the first day for an asado,” remembers Kate “although because of the circumstances of course that was impossible. When he realised I was Russian, he went in for a welcome kiss (of greeting)–which he hastily changed to an elbow bump.”
The rest of the town was not quite so excited about the arrival of strangers on bikes in the middle of a pandemic. The only other foreigner, a German who has since returned to Europe, told them that their picture was posted on a community Facebook group. “I can understand that people were alarmed,” said Kate.
Getting along with new neighbors
In response the couple acted as carefully and respectfully as they could–social distancing and wearing masks at all times. They can’t recall the exact sequence of events but the police came by to check their identification and register them. An official from the municipality, Heber Rakovski, visited to explain the social distancing measures and rules for buying groceries.
In the meantime, months passed. Rodolfo and his dog passed by every day. Even if they’d wanted to, the travellers couldn’t move on as the borders were closed. They became a regular feature in the town as they stayed in contact with their families and the news using the free Ceibal wifi connection near the school.
Incorporated by San Javier community
As the town learned that Kate was Russian, people would start to seek them out at the Wi-Fi spot to talk, try out their Russian and oftentimes just to find out how they were doing and if they needed help.
Bit by bit they were accepted as part of the community. And winter was coming. A generous local brought them a heater for their tent. But the townsfolk were still worried for the couple. Eventually the kindly municipality official who had been looking after their case offered them a small place to stay where they could sleep indoors. It turned out to be the ice cream stand in the local park.
After Rodolfo–Kate and Jao call him their Uruguayan ‘tio’–and his wife Lourdes invited them for the first Uruguayan asado they really became part of the community. Jao says:
“people are so welcoming and I love the family culture here. Families gather every Sunday in the camping ground and now we’re part of it. It’s a totally different world from where we were before.”
Proud Russian ancestry
Kate loves how eager their neighbors are to show off their Russian history and ancestry and she was fascinated to visit a nearby village called Colonia Ofir which is a colony a religious colony keeping very old Russian traditions, comparable to the Amish in the US. In Russian Colonia Ofir means “the Promised Land”.
And the coincidences just keep piling up. The city Kate comes from in Russia is Krasnodar. The immigrants who founded San Javier were from Voronezh–the closest city to Krasnodar. As Kate says, “we’re neighbours”.
Kate and Jao found me through my Guru’Guay website in June and by July when I interviewed them, they had already accepted that their original trip was over. But they have fallen in love with the lifestyle they have discovered here in Uruguay. They want to apply for residency and are looking for opportunities. With such an excellent curriculum in the hospitality industry, I introduced Kate to the owner of a four-star hotel in Punta Del Diablo. They left San Javier five days ago–on their bikes of course–and plan to arrive at the beachtown on October 4.
Cheers for the amazing coincidences
Kate and Jao’s story is so full of fateful coincidences. They could have so easily stayed one more day in Buenos Aires and then would never have been able to take that fateful ferry to Uruguay on March 13. Regarding the remarkable fact that Kate, a Russian, ended up in a tiny Russian community in South America, they have nothing but gratitude.
“The people of San Javier have really taken care of us. We are so very grateful for everything,” says Kate.
When I ask them what they will tell people in the future who ask what they did during the pandemic. “I’ll say, you’ll never guess. I was living in an ice cream shop in Uruguay,” laughs Jao. “Next to the Promised Land” adds Kate.
The Guru in El País newspaper
This article was originally published in Spanish in El País, one of the most important newspapers in Uruguay. We recently partnered for creating original content about foreigners traveling or living in Uruguay to inspire the expat community and Uruguayans themselves to explore their country. You can follow Karen’s column in El País on Wednesdays, both the digital and printed version. We are also publishing the translated English version of these articles here in guruguay.com.
Photos: Ekaterina ‘Kate’ Chernysheva and Jao Andreu