“Did you ever think when you grew up you’d be working with people’s shit”
I’ve been speaking three different languages for the past three days. My head’s about to explode. I don’t know how Europeans do it. How anybody does it. I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to meet another American. I’m going to verbally vomit all the American slang I know….tell sarcastic jokes…and laugh about it all. But this isn’t what the story’s about, just kinda how it starts.
When I travel I don’t make firm itineraries. I get on the road and listen. Locals and fellow travelers are often your best resource. Guidebooks are great, but they’re a rigid, surface level authority meant to appeal to broad swaths of society. I wanna see the guy from Toronto come alive when he talks about this beach in Uruguay, I want to ask the girl on the bus with the smart outfit and blue streak in her hair what she does on a Friday, or hear the old man “tell it” about his neighborhood. I don’t want to get the pulse of city, I wanna be injected into the vein.
So that’s how I’m on 26 hour bus trip to Montevideo, Uruguay, cause a dude one night in a hostel in Panama, got all big eyed and passionate about some beach town in Uruguay called Punta del Diablo. And who turns down a beach called “Devil’s Point”.
The bus pulled into Montevideo around 7pm, sorry it was a 27 hour trip. Seeing as I don’t make plans, and do minimal research, I’ve found myself at a different bus station than anticipated, miles not blocks from the hostel I noted in my iPhone. When I get there and unload my stuff, a sense of regret creeps in. I blew it. I ended up at some sleepy ass hostel on a Saturday night in a capital city where I know nobody. Prepared to fly solo and talk to randoms in a bar by myself the entire evening, I do what one must do in these circumstances, I start to drink.
How does that saying go, “The universe conspires to support you…yada yada”. The Law of Attraction or The Secret or some other new age spiritual thing. My man Eckart Tolle vibes about it, and presence. I like how Paolo Coelho presented it in The Alchemist when using the Arabic word and concept, “maktub”, which roughly translates to “It was written”. Whatever it is, and whatever you believe, there’s been quite a few moments on the road, and in life, where I truly feel like fate or synchronicity is at work. Funny enough, it seems to come when I’ve thought I’ve made the wrong decisions, while following my dreams.
Speaking of wrong decisions, some Brazilians from the hostel and I are now out, and eating terrible pizza at this unremarkable craft beer bar (yes, the phenomena has spread to Latin America). To be honest, I’m regretting my decision to join them, more so with every bite of overpriced pizza and butchered word of Portuguese. I should have befriended the Argentinian girls at the hostel. There’s no other option now but to drink more. Continued honesty, this is all very judgmental and closed minded of me, it wasn’t one of my finer nights. This is exactly how synchronicity doesn’t work, by you shutting down everything around you. And then it happened.
She was a vision, with that European/Argentinian cool….that’s kinda weird if you’re from the US, with the crazy hair and funny clothes. I don’t even remember what she was wearing, I didn’t see her, I felt her. High cheek bones, and a narrow jaw. I’d say she kinda looked like Sideshow Bob, but that’s a fucked up image. She was like Sideshow Bob’s really hot, non-yellow sister, with her hair cropped tight above her ears and then wild dirty blonde curls on top. I’m sorry, none of that helps. Just ride with me for second. There were eight or nine of them. A band composed of Argentinians from Rosario who were in Montevideo for a gig, but it got canceled so they were here, in this humdrum bar playing for themselves. I was mesmerized, and would soon begin to ignore my company to listen to them play. They freestyled off an acoustic guitar…a mix of prose, song, and hand claps. Tango, call and response. She sang soul to my Soul. I would’ve gone anywhere for them, for her, I wanted to be a string on their guitar, a note from her lips. If you wanna Facebook stalk them try Kunyaza Funk. I was in heaven, beaming with my semi-drunk smile, when it stopped, and the must-have-been-deaf bartender decided to turn up his shitty playlist nobody wanted to hear.
Believe it or not, that’s where that ended. It felt blue ball-ish. And while I’d see her, and the band later at a bar, it didn’t feel the same. I mean I still was in lust with her, but the energy was different. It was the necessary connection, node, in this web of a journey though, that brought me back to why I’m out here writing and exploring. I was back in the vein.
Amongst all my judgements and discontent, I was blind to what my Brazilians guys were all about. There were signposts….agreeing on the beautiful juxtaposition of Rio de Janeiro and the democracy that is their beach, a mention of non-profit work in Africa, and their genuine openness to include me when the conversation surpassed my elementary level of Portuguese. They sealed my fate, and ours, when before I took my drunk ass home they offered to give me a ride to Punta del Diablo the next day on their way back to Brazil.
11am came early, and I almost discarded fate again. Thoughts emerged through the fog of chained smoked cigarettes and whiskey that I would just find my own bus to Punta del Diablo, or stay another night in Montevideo and write off the trip up the coast entirely. 4 hours in a car with strangers and a splitting headache wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to sign up for. I even dragged ass to get going, giving them an out if they wanted, but they held true and patient, and when I looked like less of a zombie, Samuel asked if I was ready to go.
There’s something so comfortable about something so strange. Perhaps strange is my new comfort. It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to jump into a random persons car for 4 hours, and navigate a language barrier. Fumble your way through jokes, and topics. It takes quite a bit of patience, and care. You’re almost building a friendship minute by minute. Layering those minutes with respect, and hopefully authenticity, so you may build the platform for a true discourse. Or, sometimes it just takes a well appointed joke to break the ice, everyone laughs, and the next 4 hours is a breeze. For us, it was a bit of both.
These guys were the real deal. Open spirits and minds. Givers. They reveled in the human experience much like me, and knew, like I, it was best shared. For about three and half hours, the three of us talked about death, politics, failed sexual encounters, having kids, girlfriends, LSD, and dreams. We brainstormed about my idea to get Volkswagen buses to the States and to create a different kind of travel TV show or web series. I shared in their dream about bringing dry sanitation to the world. They’re actually living that dream.
While trying to figure out the most effective way to grow weed, Samuel’s inquisitive mind dropped him in the world of composting and permaculture. What the quest to get high will lead people to! That research would steer him to dry composting and the work of Joe Jenkins. Following in Jenkins’ work, Sam began to mimic and then develop his own research, resulting in a conference in Norway and projects in Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Literally, working with peoples shit. The principal aim is to provide safe and effective sanitation to these communities, and when possible, use the waste as compost for agricultural work, as Samuel once imagined when he was stoned. His efforts would develop into a partnership with Patricia Arquette and her non-profit, Give Love. Samuel, and best friend-travel companion-fellow fecal crusader Lucas, were now in Uruguay to finalize a conference in the region for next April to provide education and training in EcoSanitation and "Humanure".
The numbers reveal the gravity of their work, and the massive obstacle facing much of the world. 2.6 billion people live without proper access to a toilet, and some 1.7 million people die each year from diarrheal disease caused by fecal contaminated water. Sit on that, for a minute.
It’s not everyday you meet people so aligned with your vision of the world, and spirit for life and laughter. Global citizens who consider it a dream to contribute to the betterment of humanity, and the environment. I began this trip hoping to uncover such projects and individuals, to highlight through travel, people and projects who were striving to innovate and revolutionize. And so I have.
We pulled up to Sam’s favorite hostel in Punta del Diablo, “Las Boyas”, just as night blanketed the rustic beach town. There’s some hurried hugs, a quick selfie, and an agreement to stay in touch and see where “it all flows”. After I check in, it all starts to hit me. The web of events, the timing, the decisions. It all started on the patio of a hostel in Casco Viejo, Panama, with a random Canadian. Maybe you don’t see it that way, and I don’t blame you. I could be reaching, or creating my own meaning. I get it. But I can’t help but think there was some kind of serendipity. “There no such thing as coincidence”, I once read. While I also believe that you create your own destiny, you also need a bit of luck along the way. So to put a knot at the end of this string of cliches, mercifully, let’s call it luck.
As for Punta del Diablo, unfortunately, I arrived just after the season ended. Like going to the beach the week after Labor Day. The place is empty, I can barely find a coffee. But it’s beauty and potential are unavoidable. It’s what Costa Rica was in the early 2000’s before it got gringo-fied. Great waves, ramshackle restaurants, dirt roads, battered fishing boats and opaque nights. Get here quick, according to locals it’s already changed dramatically. Just bring cash (there’s no bank in town), and as this place is wildly popular with Brazilians and Argentinians, be prepared to speak some kind of jumbled mix of Spanish-Portuguese-English. It all might just make your head explode.