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Published: February 5th 2011
Im sitting in a dingy, dark, windowless room with an overhead fan whirring and clunking above me in the town of Carmelo in Uruguay. I have left the security of Pepe in Buenos Aires and ventured across the muddy waters of the Rio Plata to yet another South American country. The place I am in, the Hotel Orientale is a dive…the cobwebs in the corner of the room are fluttering in the fan’s paltry breeze and I am unaware of any other guests. This hotel could be in The Shining! In fact, Hotel is an overly ambitious term for this establishment but the sheets are clean, there is nothing crawling (that I can make out) and having arrived in Carmelo from Tigre at dusk, I didn’t want to travel onwards into the night alone with no bed booked. I only chanced upon this place on arrival but I feel safe and am looking forward to a week travelling solo.
Having showered and checked the door of my room locked, I ventured across the road for an Uruguayan signature dish…a chevito. My god, we should start selling these in the UK…. Its basically a monster sandwich containing enough protein to feed the entire Sudan…It is layers of steak, bacon, an egg, ham, mozzarella cheese, tomato, onion, lettuce, fried potatoes all slathered in mayonnaise surrounded by a sea of chips. Not exactly kind to one’s waistline but for $90 pesos – that’s £3, I gobbled it down and then retreated back to the Hotel Orientale (oh so exotic, oh so not…!)….
22/1 I managed to find the bus station this morning but like the somewhat lax use of the word hotel, station was also a wee bit optimistic. No wonder I couldn’t find it in the dark last night…merely a freestanding sign saying Parada, means stop in Spanish.
Got onto an 11am bus heading east to Montevideo – the crumbling capital of Uruguay. After 4 hours of blissful airconditioning, I arrived to a deathly quiet city. Here the weekend is actually a weekend…like it used to be in Britain (bah!). Shops close and people vanish (not in the kidnapped sense). The days have a sense of tranquility and rest about them as people recover from the ardors of a tough week. It’s not a 24 7 culture by any means.
Its currently peak holiday season here and of course the bus station was heaving and doing what they do best here…queuing. My god, the Argentineans love to queue. Looks like the Uruguayans do as well. I actually think that if you added up all the time one spends in a queue here (in the bank, at the bustop, in the supermarket) you would find that much of one’s life is wasted just queuing. Call me hyperactive but I struggle with standing still and doing nothing. Sleeping, relaxing…no problem. But just standing and waiting eternally because of inefficiency and bureaucracy drives me mad. People here seem to diligently embrace queuing. Its part of the psyche. Part of the culture. Of course, the bus ticket kiosks were backed up with people standing and waiting in line, accepting the fact that it was going to take a very long time to get to the front and buy that bus ticket to wherever they wanted to go.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I realised my ‘kiosk’ had no snaking line of people curling round the barriers….so I marched up, bought my onwards ticket for 2 days hence to Cabo Polonio and then caught a local bus into the centre of town. I did momentarily wonder why my kiosk had no line of people but was then too overcome with joy at not having to lose more of my life to a queue.
My initial response to Montevideo was that it seems a fairly unspectacular city architecturally speaking, with faded colonial grandeur juxtaposed to brutalist monstrosities. Kind of Havana meets the Eastern Bloc….. The Ciudad Vieja was devoid of people…that slight echoey sense one gets when in the City (in London) early on a Sunday morning. But here in Montevideo, it was kind of slightly eerie and reminiscent of a ghost town. There was literally not a soul about so I made straight for the Port where the Saturday afternoon Parillas in the Punta del Mercado cook up entire herds of cattle on their grills and Montevideans gorge themselves on meat (“carne”).
Even after all the time I have spent in argentina, I still don’t understand all the different meat options and im pretty sure what I asked for , wasn’t what arrived in front of me….the largest piece of meat I have ever faced in one sitting for one person. Seriously, this slice of cow could have fed about 4 people so I discretely cut a huge chunk off and slipped it into my bag for a later meal…. Even after halving the portion I was still left with a monstrous portion which I set about demolishing washed down by only a beer. It felt like Death by Meat……Dr Atkins would love it here!
I slowly wandered back to the hostal via the even more deserted waterfront, all my senses telling me to get back into an area where other people were. I wasn’t mistaken… subsequently discovered that area is a seriously no-go place and one of the girls working in the hostal had been mugged 3 times there ! Aimed back along the main artery street of the capital through its shady, leafy plazas, past the giant mausoleum in the central Plaza Independencia. Here a cornucopia of buildings flank the square including the beehive shaped Palacio Salvo, which was once the tallest building in South America and still dominates the square today.
23/1 For my second day in Montevideo, I went off in search of the Sunday markets…. Portobello meets a truly bad carboot sale! Vege stall holders hustling huge watermelons jostled alongside pet stalls with live animals being traded…snakes, rabbits and axolotl…otherwise known as the Mexican walking fish. It was one of the strangest looking creatures ive ever seen…bobbing around in its tiny tank. Grown men proffered puppies and kittens adjacent to stalls selling the most almighty range of junk. One guy had simply wheels on offer…so beautifully arranged I asked if I could take a photo.
From the markets, the beach beckoned and I jumped on a bus to the waterfront to spend the afternoon lying in glorious sunshine. As the sun set, I made my way along the Ramblas… the Montevidean equivalent to the Malecon in Havana or the Parade in Brighton. The Ramblas are a typical Sunday afternoon destination stroll for inhabitants of the city and they walk or jog its length all carrying the obligatory thermos of hot water and filled mate gourds. Mate is the lifeblood of many South American countries…..Yerba mate is the chopped dried leaf of the ilex paraguayensis. The leaves are packed into a gourd and hot water poured over the top. You then sip the infused (extremely bitter) liquid through a bombilla (metal straw) with a filter at one end to prevent inhalation of the leaves. The mate is incredibly absorbent and so the gourd is continually replenished with additional water from a thermos. Where ever you go you see people clutching their gourds and thermos flasks sipping on this elixir for life - on the streets, in shops, in train stations.... and on the Ramblas in Montevideo…..
I didn’t have to search too hard for the famous Sunday evening samba drumming session as the crowds of people and noise from the park drew me to the erupting furore of leaping, jumping, grinding girls with sweat flying off their bodies as the drummers pounded their instruments. The atmosphere was passionate, intense and joyous as both the dancers and the audience lost themselves in the beats and rhythm….. this is just a taste of the party that awaits me in Rio when carnival comes to town…..woop woop.
24/1 Departed Montevideo today taking a bus for 4hours or so along the coast to the tiny settlement of Cabo Polonio …a beachside fishing village accessible only by 4WD trucks which receive visitors at the roadside and then crawl over the sandunes ferrying you to the ocean.
I had not managed to book a bed for the night and nor had Vicky and Francisco, a lovely Chilean couple I met on the truck but with their fluent Spanish we decided to wing it. The trucks bumped their way across the dunes through the thick blurry heat haze. The air was filled with the sounds of crickets humming in the bush and the smell of the salty ocean came in waves across the land.
Arriving in the centre of ‘town’ (note deliberate use of speech marks), we found an escapists paradise. Quirky little shacks were dotted across the dunes and the smell of the sealion colony beneath the shadow of the lighthouse hung heavy in the hot air. Offshore, a solitary small island of rocks peaked above the waves and the sounds of thousands of sealions filled the air. Their wailing territorial and mating calls sounded plaintive…as though a nunnery was being raped and pillaged. Having obtained quasi-directions to possible shacks, overindulgently calling themselves ‘hostals’, the 3 of us waded in the scorching sun over the fiery sands to find each one full. It is peak holiday season and beds are hard to come by…. Suddenly, a scrawny man with a deep tan borne from months of hard grafting under the elements scampered towards us offering his cabinas.
For some reason prices in Uruguay are astronomical….. here in Cabo Polonio, the visitors are wealthy south Americans looking to opt in to the opted out pseudo-hippie lifestyle here. Marcelo, our new ‘friend’ was asking $105 US for the 3 of us to rent his beach cabin for the night. I wasn’t too surprised as the hostals here are charging 20 gbp a night for a bed in a dorm room…..
The cabinas was charming – brightly painted in primary colours of red, yellow and blue it sat on the fringe of the beach facing directly east out to dawn over the Atlantic. However, it was also filthy, with the remnants of previous incumbents spread around and devoid of electricity and running water. The bathroom reeked of urine and the shower was a mere bucket connected to an outside drainpipe which collected rainwater. Dripped candlewax and sand adhered to every surface and the room at the top of the a-frame contained 2 sheetless beds…a double and a single. With limited options on offer we managed to negotiate mad Marcelo down to $90 and grimly accepted our fate…..
Not wanting to lie on the beach as the sun was way too strong, I went for a wander around this strange secluded place full of dread-locked rasta hippies smoking weed and making jewellery. I climbed the lighthouse for views of the small bays and lungfuls of the putrid, decaying smell of sealion shit…somewhat reminiscent of the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Walking around Cabo was an olfactory challenge - the putrid, fetid reek of these creatures - their shit, sweat and decaying food remains wafted into my open nostrils, causing an intense and sudden gag reflex. It was truly vile. The stink seemed to permeate my clothes, hair and the back of my throat making breathing an endurance test.
Occasionally, the winds of the Atlantic blew the malodorous odour in an alternative direction so it was possible to gulp some marginally fresher air. The Chileans agreed with me that unless you were extremely rich, not bothered by personal hygiene and had the nasal capacity of a live-sewage treatment works cleaner, Cabo was not a place to linger.... so we decided to stay just the one night and make tracks further east the following day.
Apart from the smell and bizarreness of Cabo, my enduring memory will be the night sky….with no power in the settlement and only a few dwellings having generators, the place was plunged into darkness after sunset. With only candles to light the shacks, the night sky , stars and moon took centre stage and I lay on the cool sands of the beach gazing upwards at the dazzling views. Satellites traversed the mélange of stars and occasionally, a shooting star plummeted through my peripheral field of vision, vanishing into the darkness.
25/1 With no curtains shielding the early morning sunshine, I woke to watch dawn breaking over the sea. All around a mist had cloaked the shacks of Cabo in a shawl of soft fog which slowly burned away as the sun rose. It was peaceful and far removed from the crowded beach later in the day when the 4WDrived day-trippers were marched in. After a morning of beach wandering and negotiating our departure with a heavily stoned Marcelo who bounded up to collect monies due, we bought onward tickets from the bus ticket office-shack to Punto Del Diablo. On a packed un-airconditioned bus I stood for 2 hours as we collected and dropped off the hoards of holiday makers at other Uruguayan beach settlements.
At Punta we found a delightful hostal called Elida Elena with a seaside deck and hammocks overlooking the Playa de los Pescadores. It was still a whopping $30 US a night but we gratefully removed our rucksacks from our moist backs and checked in.
Punta at night was an explosion of street activity. Stalls selling empanadas to hair wraps lined the sandy roads whilst rustic cafes filled the night air with yummy smells. Still with the Chileans and now accompanied by a barking mad English nymphomaniac ex-Biology teacher called lucy who looked like she had a nasty case of scabies having suffered at the mercy of bedbugs in a place in punta del este, we tucked into , you guessed it….Chivitos!
27/1 My bus to Valizas and the forest of Ombues trees (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ombu) was an hour late arriving and was packed like a Pakistani flying coach when it did show up…the driver let on so many passengers, he couldn’t even shut the doors…. The Uruguayan transport system has scant disregard for seat numbers…it is more a question of how many bronzed holiday makers can be squeezed on. However, a great bonhomie atmosphere as the route is taking people from beach to beach so there is little grumpiness that arises from normally being jammed in so tight. Thankfully, I had a seat this time and it got shouted down to the driver that ‘the english girl’ (im a bit of an oddity in these parts. In fact loony Lucy was the only other English I met in the whole of Uruguay) wanted to ‘see the trees’. Somehow, I weaved my way to the front and was deposited in the middle of bloody nowhere……
The woods are on the shore of the Laguna de Castillos and the only access is by boat. Kingfishers and egrets swooped across the mocha coloured waters. Up the Arroyo Valizas, this ride took me past flat pastures dotted with palms and grazed by cows, many of whom were knee deep in the cool salty waters which are fed directly from the Atlantic coming up the creek, giving succour to the surrounding land.
The land of this area was returned by the Portuguese Crown to two Uruguayan brothers who now take visitors to view these delightful plants. The ombues trees are a visual delight…graceful merging branches surge upwards from the base reaching for the light splintering and parting to create solid, astral bound multiple trunks. They are closely associated with gaucho culture and Uruguay's history and here in Valizas the Monte de Ombúes is something rare-- a forest of these unusual trees. Normally they are solitary plants so the sheer concentration of them here is both unusual and spectacular. It was a very tranquil place, evidently dearly loved by the Brothers and im so glad I managed to stop off en route back to Montevideo to see it.
Remarkably, my later bus connection turned up on time and I flagged it down from the side of the road. I had planned to travel all the way to Colonio del Sacramento but arriving in Montivideo at 10.02pm, I had missed the further connection by a mere 2 minutes. Resolute, I made for town and the Red Hostal for a further night. Getting into the city, I discovered that Carnival had come to town and the main thoroughfare was a heaving mass of gyrating revellers. Processional floats bearing costume clad party people were holding up the avenue and the roads all around were closed.
After 6.5hrs of bus travel and still carrying my rucksack I was not in the party spirit. I didn’t want to join in the parade. I just wanted to get to the hostal, take a shower and sleep. It took me nearly two hours to negotiate the thronging masses and cross the road and the policemen keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings were not going to let me sneak through. Instead, I plodded on a circuitous detour around the crowds and eventually got to the hostal at midnight.
28/1 I left Montevideo early to catch the bus on to the picturesque Colonio del Sacramento, one of the main arrival and departure points to/from Argentina. Dumping my bag at the bus station I took advantage of the shade cast by the rows of plane trees which lined the cobbled streets. Colonio is an impossibly pretty town, worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status and I had a tranquil day wandering its walled Bario Historico, stopping for fresh calamari in the main plaza. The temperature was infernal though and it was only at the top of the lighthouse did I feel any hint of a breeze coming off the Rio Plata. Although it would have been preferential to spend the night there I wanted to ensure I was back in Carmelo for my 130pm catamaran crossing back to Tigre so spent my final night back in the prison cell room of the Hotel Orientale….im sure I was still the only customer in its darkened interior.
29/1 It was a laborious return back to Buenos Aires with guess what…plenty of queuing. On arrival at the Tigre port I was questioned by customs for having so many entry and exit stamps in my passport for Argentina. My 2008 issued passport now only has 4 blank pages left and my comings and goings across Argentine borders over the past 18 months raised suspicion that I was trying to live illegally here. What dumbfucks…. Could they not see all the African stamps for the first part of 2010? Try explaining that in Spanish though…..i managed to get through without having to bribe anyone.
Rest assured that much as I love the country I don’t think I could live in Argentina. It is far too frustrating a place for someone of my ‘British’ extraction…..that said the food and drink, the sunshine, the music, the subsidised transport network, the airconditioned coaches are just some of the great wonders of this country. For example…Carrots taste sweet and nutty and how you remember they used to taste in the UK before we started to mass produce genetically modified F1 hybrids… our food, even the organic stuff, tastes of nothing compared with the food here. Then of course there is the wine…. Liquid nectar, even the cheaper bottles. I also have to mention the steak, dulce de leche, and icecream which are gastronomic trademarks here.
However, their lack of decent beer, the fact that only Hollywood blockbusters make it to the cinemas, their badly kept pavements, relentless bureaucracy and fairly atrocious history of human rights, as well as the inherent poverty and gap between the rich and the poor …which is worsening makes this a very complicated country.
My last few days in Buenos Aires was a whirl of social engagements! A wonderful all-day asado in Platanos, Pepe’s hometown, where I made salads for 11 and Jorge cooked chorizo, morcilla, costilla, intestines and lots of beef on the open paradilla.
I finally managed to see the drumming evening of La Bomba and took Pepe to eat steaks with Jorge and Monica to La Cabrera. Emma who I met in Africa, and now working for Aurora Expeditions, jetted into town en route to her own Antarctic trip and we squeezed lunch in on my last day.
I have had a remarkable time and met some fabulous people but now the next adventure of this South American odyssey is due to start. I am bound for Rio de Janeiro ….. every Argentine who has asked me where I am due next has shuddered, tutted and uttered the words ‘muy pelligrosa’ (very dangerous) on hearing that next up is Brazil. My only words of Portuguese are ‘obrigado’ which means thank you…. I guess this could come in useful if im robbed! Actually, I think this is because overall Argentines are very snobbish about their fellow countries. We shall see…..;-0
Next blog update will be from Brazil so until then, hope you have enjoyed and if you want to click through to the Uruguayan photos, here is the link…. http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=326617&id=691995235&l=d1bb91aa4e
Adios for now
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