I landed here on February 25th, and my plan was to stay with you for one month.
My return flight home to New York City was booked for March 25th. That flight was canceled. Your airport was closed, and as I write this 7 months later, we are still together.
During these last 7 months, I have fallen in love with you.
At first glance, I seem like an unlikely candidate to be writing you a love letter.
I am vegan, so can’t rave about your assorted meat selection at the local parrilladas.
I drink very little alcohol, so I haven’t tasted much of your wine.
After a few sips of coffee, my heart feels like it is going to explode, so I have only admired your Mate culture as a spectator.
But I have seen other sides that most tourists don’t mention when praising you.
So much has happened in my life over the past 6 months while I have been in your hands.
Like almost every small business in the world, mine has been flipped upside down because of COVID. All of my conferences have been postponed or canceled. The clients that hired us to shoot videos had to make massive budget cuts. That’s a gentle way of saying we lost a lot of our clients. My Latin America tour for Uniendo Las Americas was impossible to realize. You were supposed to be my first stop of several Latin American countries. That was my plan. This year had other things in mind.
I am a 15-hour flight away from my family, my closest friends, my teams, and New York City. I felt anxious about the gravity of COVID and the health of those I care about. I felt stressed about my business. I felt guilty to have to let go of the people that worked so hard for me. I felt heartbroken for the violence and abuse of power happening in my city and country. My ancestral land of Lebanon recently blew up, again. So many feelings. I have felt so many uncomfortable feelings.
But then, other feelings started to present themselves. The more time I spent with you, the more I replaced a desire to control the unknown with a promise to enjoy the present moment. The more I was here, the less I was there. And the more I was here, the more I realized that you Uruguay, have been one of my life’s greatest gifts.
I met you because of someone I love, someone important to me, someone who carries tremendous pride for you in her heart.
She once told me that you literally mean, “River of the Painted Birds.”
The first thing I thought when I heard her say that was,
And you are just that…
I didn’t quite understand you at first. Literally. I didn’t understand your spanish.
“Sh” here “shhhh” there, “shhh” everywhere! It was like hearing another language. Even though my father is Lebanese and my mother Irish, I am a confident Spanish speaker. I learned as an adult living and working in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. The 125 children I lived with in this Caribbean island were patient with me as I learned their language. And you have been patient with me as I learn yours. I even find myself thinking of how many shhhh sounds can be strung together in one sentence.
“SHa probaste la parriSHa UruguaSHa?” for example.
No, I don’t eat meat.
“You don’t eat meat? You are in Uruguay and don’t eat meat?” People ask me in disbelief.
I love to eat. You can’t imagine how much I love food. More than two years ago, I decided to become vegan for animal welfare. One of the biggest fears I had, when I went vegan, was “missing out” on the cultural experience of eating with locals. Uruguay is known around the world for their “Parrillas,” or barbecues. People eat meat here. And lots of it.
But something special is happening in your food scene. Plant based companies, restaurants, and brands are popping up everywhere. I can eat plant-based versions of all the cultural favorites; hamburgers, chorizos, milanesas, pizzas, and chivitos thanks to businesses like Etosha and Baidewey. Local stores, farmers’ markets, and bulk shopping options allow me to avoid single-use plastic and get to know the owners on a personal level. I have heard their stories. I have met their families. I am proud to support them, as thanks to them, I am missing nothing. I am connecting to a new wave of your culture.
In addition to a connection to food, thank you for offering me an array of rich nature experiences to enjoy. I’ve explored everything from your small waterfalls and wooded paradises of Villa Serrana, to your beaches of Punta del Este, and your vehicle free, electricity-free oasis of Cabo Polonio. You may be a small country, but your unique opportunities to connect with mother nature are grandiose. Even your urban Montevideo offers a breath of fresh air thanks to its sprawling Rambla, sunsets, and beaches amidst an urban backdrop.
Speaking of beaches in Montevideo, a few months ago, I joined NAF (nadadores de aguas frias), a cold open ocean water swimming group. It was formed by a few passionate swimmers who wanted to keep moving their bodies despite all of the pools and gyms closing due to Corona. What started as a handful of us in Whatsapp is now over 100 people. It is one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve ever participated in. Swimming in the freezing cold ocean water in your winter has been a thrill.
But it’s not just connecting with nature under the South American sun that makes this experience special.
As we swim, we stop our strokes to look at the other members of the group. We make sure the first-time swimmers are safe. We make sure everyone is taken care of. I’ve always enjoyed swimming because it is a “solo” activity, one where I can get lost in my own thoughts, just the water and me. NAF changed that.
I’ve always found that if you want to find the culture of a new place, spend time with its people. It’s people, not places, and NAF is a perfect representation of a broader observation that’s become clear about you, Uruguay. A culture of subtle, yet deep care for those that live here is at the heart of you as a country. You are one of, if not the only, Latin American country that did not have a mandatory quarantine. Yet, you have one of the lowest rates of COVID anywhere in the world. You didn’t have to collapse your economy, impose fines or threaten punishments for people to do the right thing. They simply did the right thing.
I have felt this care personally, but it’s beyond just me.
It’s a nation-wide system of high quality, free health care for the sick. You are a country that ensures an elderly Venezuelan woman gets the same treatment as a teenage Uruguayan boy. You don’t just close a school and wish the students luck, you provide kids with a laptop and resources. You don’t decide what love looks like, as you are one of the only Latin America countries to celebrate same-sex marriage and partnership.
A few years ago, I started an entrepreneurship competition called Uniendo Las Americas. My goal is to connect entrepreneurs with social impact projects to the global connections and resources they needed to continue to make a difference in our world. Your small country of three million people has shown me the truest form of “Uniendo Las Americas.” I have seen you open your doors to immigrants from around the world. I have seen you welcome them to start their businesses, or their families, or their lives over. Whatever peace or passion they are trying to find, or whatever struggle or conflict they have left behind, you have embraced them exactly as they are.
On March 16th, your airport closed, but your compassionate heart did not. On April 8th, I saw that heart open your port to those that were going to die at sea on a cruise ship, as more than 60% of the passengers had COVID. Then you opened your hotels for them. Then you opened your hospitals to them. You just kept opening. Giving. Offering. Everyone else said no. You said yes.
So whether it’s an Australian on a cruise ship with COVID, a Venezuelan with a 50 square foot restaurant starting their life over, or an American who writes this letter. We all have something in common, a bond that unites us to this “River of painted birds.”
No matter where we are from, what we lived before coming here, or what we have experienced with our feet on your shores…
You have cleansed us.
You have renewed us.
You have surprised us.
But most of all, you have given us something we are all looking for.
A safe place to land.
And in a moment where all the souls on this planet were encouraged to distance ourselves from each other, you united us, cared for us, protected us, loved us.
You showed me what it looks like to be different.
You restored my faith that different is good.
And for that, I say,
May we continue on just as we started.