By Paul McGuire © 2010
The last time I was in South America, I had gotten involved in a bar fight in Argentina and a cab driver accused me of being a CIA agent. I left with mixed feelings and wasn't that excited to return to South America for another assignment.
I groggily wandered through Montevideo airport behind a gleeful group of Uruguayan high school girls who shared the same flight from Miami. They were ending their summer vacation after a trip to Disney World and dragged souvenir bags of Disney schwag with them into the brightly lit immigration hall.
My vacation had also come to an end. Vacation is just another term for the luxury time in between my freelance writing assignments. I had not collected a paycheck in months and sunk into my couch, weighed down by a minor depressive funk without a creative project to get me out of bed in the mornings. I was marinating in my own malaise and numbed the pain by self-medicating with California's finest medicinal marijuana. After seven weeks of world class weed smoking, I had one foot stuck in a bong and the other one was trying to keep up with my girlfriend as I followed her through the immigration hall in a Xanax-induced haze.
I'm always confronted with slow people in front of me whenever I get into a line. The immigration line at Montevideo airport was no exception. I waited...and waited...and waited. Two immigration agents methodically quizzed all of the new arrivals as everyone who disembarked my flight waited for one of two booths to open up. I wondered if the Uruguayans gatekeepers were going to give me guff? Or if they were going to make things simple and just open up my passport to a random page and stamp it?
I sprinted to an open booth and barely said, "Hola" before the girl behind the glass window punched down on her stamp on my tattered passport.
I cleared immigration and walked over to the money exchange window for the customary raping of the gringos. I only changed $200, a hundred bucks each for my girlfriend and myself. I knew better than to get a few grand in the local currency, because after all, greenbacks were still royally accepted in South America. Uruguay was one of the few places were the U.S. dollar had totally bottomed out.
For a couple of months a year, Punta del Este is a resort town packed with wealthy Argentinians and Brazilians vacationing at their palatial summer homes. We arrived at end of the holiday season, and almost everyone had gone home. The entire town of Punta del Este was in the process of shutting down. Our hotel, located next to a church in a tiny beach-side resort of Punta del Este, had two swinging front doors that opened up into a large foyer with a couple of couches. A small bar with four empty stools flanked the left side of the lobby with the front desk in the back. The counter top was peppered with a hundred old photographs underneath a top layer of glass. Almost 90% of the photos contained the same person -- a portly gentleman with a wide warm smile and a cartoon-like mustache.
"The owner," said the clerk, who noticed that I was intrigued by the collection of photos.
The funny-mustached hotel owner posed with a variety of people, presumably other guests and travelers who visited his establishment. The oldest photos, with the corners curled back, turned different shades of orange. The owner sported significantly much darker and fuller hair in the orange-tinted photos. The most recent photos featured the owner as a balding guy, thirty pounds heavier, with a subtle grey mustache. Over the decades, the mustache lost it's bold color and its panache. It also lacked the vibrant character of the 1970s version. That was a perfect metaphor for the hotel.
Thirty years earlier, the hotel might have been a cool place to party, but in 2010, it was an overpriced dump. Our room cost $140 USD a night, rather expensive even for Punta del Este considering it was the end of the summer season. I was not paying the tab for our room, but my client handled that, and for the price I expected something a notch better than Uruguay's version of a Super 8. The moment I opened the door to our room, we were greeted by pungent smell -- a combination of industrial cleaning flowery that unsuccessfully masked the predominant odor of vomit. I walked into the bathroom to an unwelcoming sight: crack on the walls, mildew stains on the ceiling of the shower, and only one towel for the two of us. But hey, at least it had a bidet. We'd have to share a towel, but our assholes would be clean just in case we ran out of toilet paper.
My girlfriend inspected the minibar that contained a couple of warm local beers, a bottle of water, and two Sprites. I turned on the TV and the reception was below average, but the hotel's dish captured over 70 channels including random U.S. stations. I searched for sports channels on the rare chance that I'd catch the Olympics. It was technically the end of summer in South America, but the Winter Olympics were in full swing in Vancouver, Canada. After flipping through forty channels, I came across the local ESPN channel that aired the Olympics with commentators discussing the intricacies about the biathlon in Spanish. Then again, my Spanish was horrible and they could have been making fun of the retarded Scandis who came up with a sport that incorporated long-distance skiing and lying in the snow on your stomach to shoot things.
I drank too much my first night in Uruguay. That always happens no matter what country I visit, when I'm unable to find weed in the first 24 hours. I woke up hungover, ate a Tylenol with codeine to reduce the throbbing headache, and downed a bottle of water from the minibar. The hotel served a free breakfast in a small dining room adjacent to the lobby. I stumbled in the room in search of something to soak up the booze before my first day back to work. A couple of my South American colleagues were slumped over one table in the corner and sipping coffee while nursing their hangovers. Both were family men and took advantage of the time away from the wife and kids, and they also got snookered with me until the wee hours. It's never easy to stop binge drinking when you're doing it on the company dime.
I grabbed two croissants from a banquet table filled with breads, cheese, and cereal. I scooped up three spoons worth of scrambled eggs with bacon bits. The glasses at the buffet were tiny, like the size of double shot glasses, which posed a huge burden to someone like me who was dehydrated. All I wanted to do was chug a couple of gallons of water, but had to hold the pitcher in one hand and fill the minuscule glass, shoot the water like it was tequila, then refill the glass and repeat the process. An elderly French couple stood behind me in astonishment and scorned my gauche buffet habits. They must have thought that I was an insane and boorish American -- which to their credit, is highly accurate.
"Je suis le junkie," I wanted to tell them.
Every morning for week, my colleagues and I ate the breakfast buffet with horrible hangovers before we impatiently waited for our shuttle driver. He was always thirty minutes late and never offered up an apology for his tardiness, yet happily pointed out the lavish summer homes of famous people like Eva Peron, Julio Iglesias, Diego Maradona, and George Bush. Even though he drove us the same route every morning, he always slowed down to point out the exact location of the mansion where "George Bush conducted bi-annual secret meetings that outlined the New World Order."
I didn't like the shuttle driver because he had been promising me a marijuana connection, which never came through. Trying to score weed in South America proved harder than you would think. Everyone has cocaine, even the nuns at the church next door to us had oodles of it to sell, but that's not my drug of choice. I was desperately seeking out the local produce -- which in Uruguay is ditch weed grown outdoors and nothing remotely similar to the genetically engineered potent crops that I was used to smoking in California. Marijuana is not a cash crop with very little demand for marijuana when compared to the high-octane buzz of cocaine. Plus, it didn't help my cause that it the end of the summer and all the local dealers were out of weed supplies. Meanwhile, in a cruel and twist bit of irony, I had to constantly pass up on the frantic fire sale of cocaine. End of the summer. All supplies must go.
I was about to give up when one of my herb-friendly colleagues found a source -- a bartender at a local Italian restaurant. He had a couple of chunks of ditch weed that looked like little black bars of soap. It was the best that we could find after three desperate days of asking everyone in town if they had weed. The bartender handed over the rest of his stash, but he felt bad about the quality so he didn't charge us. We thanked him because we were potheads and happy to get anything.
Our collective happiness disappeared after it took us over an hour to pry open the chunk that was several inches thick. We barely procured enough shake for two party joints after an excruciating process that entailed removing stems and seeds that made up 90% of the condensed chunk. We were better off smoking actual dirt, but smoked both joints even though we knew it would probably make us sick. Within minutes, we all got pulsating headaches from the ditch weed. I hadn't smoked weed that bad since an assignment in Bahamas, mainly because I foolishly allowed a Swedish cokehead do a pot deal for me with a sketchy cabbie on Paradise Island. Rookie mistake in the Bahamas. I made another big rookie mistake in Uruguay. The pursuit of herbal pleasure led us down the wrong path. I angrily flushed the leftover chunk.
I gave up and cracked open a warm beer. I took a long sip and nervously counted the hours until my next fix -- only 65 more hours to go until my flight touched down at LAX. It was going to be a long three days.
Paul McGuire is the author of Lost Vegas. He is originally from New York City and currently resides in Los Angeles.