We were looking for a sense of community. We found it in a pandemic in Uruguay

Kris and Ryan from Oakland, California's round-the-world trip came to an abrupt stop as they found themselves stuck in Uruguay. But they have no regrets.
By Karen A Higgs
Last updated on July 7, 2020

Kris came onto my radar after she’d been stuck in Uruguay for two months. Her round the world trip had come to an unexpected halt — a day after she and her husband Ryan landed in Montevideo.

Kris and her husband Ryan are late 30-somethings from Oakland, California. They had saved up for two years, quit their jobs and were taking a year to travel the world to see where they wanted to live and what they wanted to do next with their lives.

They landed March 17. Next day everything shut down

Their round-the-world itinerary included six Latin American countries, Canada and Southeast Asia. Uruguay was country number 3. They landed in Montevideo on March 17 and, recounts Kris, “after a very long flight, we went out for dinner and the very next day everything shut down”.

By mid April they realized it just wasn’t going to be possible to travel how they had planned. I asked them if they’d thought about going back home. “We could have gone back,” said Ryan “but we weren’t ready for this trip we’ve been planning for and saving for for so long to end. And we started to see the way Montevideo responded was so positive.” In fact at the bar that first night, the chef came out to chat and informed them that restaurants were getting ready to close down. Despite there not being an official lockdown. “So that really jumped out at us,” said Ryan. “We thought, wow, everyone is kind of bending together and riding this out together. That’s a really cool thing.” And then they saw that in practice. Suddenly all the restaurants were closed and they spent the next 6 weeks cooking meals in their apartment rental and sheltering in place.

As they looked at what was happening in the USA and talked to their relatives about the hundreds of thousands of cases of COVID-19 at home, Kris and Ryan decided that Uruguay felt like “a very safe place to ride out the storm”. So they canceled the rest of their trip and decided to reinvent it–by traveling around Uruguay.

Why they chose Uruguay originally

I asked them why they chose Uruguay in the first place. Ryan explained that during “the Great Recession of 2008” in the US, he had read an article about Uruguay. He was intrigued by this country that seemed “kind of disconnected from everything that’s happening in the world, and very self-sufficient”. He recalled the article talked about Uruguay’s low population density, open fields and beautiful beaches. Over the next decade, he read whatever he could get his hands on about Uruguay and was determined to visit.

We feel taken care of, even so far from home

I asked them what had surprised them about Uruguay and how they were being treated in the pandemic as foreigners who don’t speak the language. From their Airbnb host in Montevideo who reached out to them all the time, recommending ferias to go to and keeping them up to date with what was happening in the news to the staff in the few restaurants they’ve found open, “we’ve really felt like we were taken care of, even though we were so far from home, which has endeared us [to Uruguay] for sure.” Kris called the contact “neighbourly” and marvelled when I pointed out that in Uruguay when people greet each other in the street, if they don’t know the other person’s name, they’ll say ‘Hi neighbour’, ‘hola vecina”.

When restrictions lifted a little, the couple hired a car and travelled the coast, avoiding city centres. Now in Colonia, they are enjoying being able to finally go to restaurants and already have a favourite cafe. At the cafe everyone knows their story, with the owner translating for them. Kris says that the best thing is feeling like they are part of the community. She said “I feel that we are ‘Ryan and Kris from California’. People on the street will say, ‘oh my friend told me you were here!’” They attribute the opportunity to talk to the owners of restaurants who otherwise would have been too busy to converse with them because of the pandemic. But almost every English-speaking tourist I have interviewed in the last 10 years tells me that they feel “looked after” by the locals in Uruguay. Pandemic or not.

A generation has learned English watching ‘Friends’

If there has been a negative for the couple, it has been their lack of Spanish–for which they feel embarrassed. However they’ve found plenty of people to converse with in English. When I started working in tourism, very few Uruguayans spoke English–even in the industry. Nowadays it is easy to find people who speak English in Uruguay, especially near the coast. I told Kris and Ryan that I have a theory that the improvement is in part due to the younger generation that grew up watching Friends without subtitles. They laughed: “That’s so funny. Someone literally yesterday told us about how everyone learns English here through Friends.”

When the borders open they hope both sets of parents come to Uruguay

So for now Kris and Ryan are in Uruguay. They are loving the beef and apparently Uruguay wine is very well-priced compared to California counterparts. Kris says her mom misses her but that she’s glad she’s “somewhere very safe”. In fact when the borders open up and travel is permitted, instead of leaving, they hope both sets of parents come to Uruguay. And they will be their tour guides.

I asked them what they think they’ll tell people in the future, about the time they spent in a small South American country in a pandemic. Kris takes me by surprise. “Hopefully’” she says, “maybe we’ll be living here.” Ryan agrees. “It’s serendipitous,” he says. “I had this idea long ago when I read that article about Uruguay, and now to live in the country, affirms the thoughts that I had in my head.” “We went on this trip looking for a sense of community,” says Kris. “We found it during a pandemic in Uruguay. That’s what I’ll remember most. The open fields and the people.”

Follow Kris and Ryan on Instagram and YouTube.

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.




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