The Land That I'll Forget
For instance, the first thing that met me coming off the boat was a woman named Rosita, who looked just like Carla from the TV series "Cheers". She came up to me, very enthusiastically at that, and although I had not picked up much Spanish at the time being, I gathered as much that she had a daughter at home who spoke English fluently, and I was very welcome to come meet her, as long as I also rented a room in Rosita's house. Now, "Carla" had a very uhm... interesting appearance, so I was very eager to see what a younger genetical offspring of the species might look like, and agreed to follow her the three blocks to her house.
It turned out that the cited three blocks were in fact the distance we had to walk in order to get to Rosita's car. After finding and pushing the car so that the engine would start, we drove for about ten minutes to get to the actual house. Also, by the time we reached the house, Rosita's daughter had turned into a Carlos, a bearded being with few functional teeth. Carlos was in deed able to reproduce numerous English sentences that each on it own made perfect sense, although I guess/presume they all were gathered from the X Files TV series. Most of them would be more suitable if I had been an actual alien from outer space, and not just a plain Norwegian one. Nevertheless, the house was quite close to the beaches and at US$15 per night I was perfectly happy to stay there, as I had not yet learned how much sharing a room equipped with a table fan and numerous spiders SHOULD cost in rural regions of Uruguay.
Never mind the room rate, I was thrilled to be in a small town again. The general advice on how to cross a road in Buenos Aires should be "Don't! Just spend your holiday on whichever side of the road you arrived". In Colonia, on the other hand, you can roam about even in the middle of the road if you like, any time of the day, as most of the locals spend their days sitting in chairs in the water just off the beach, cooling off while playing chess or just chatting idly. The town is used as a weekend party getaway for the rich people of Buenos Aires, but it certainly manages to stay small and intimate throughout nevertheless. The old part of the town, Barrio Historico, contains many old houses dating from a time when the Portuguese tried to maintain a colony inside the Spanish sphere of interests. The houses are more well-kept here than in most other places on the Atlantic side of South America, and because of this, Colonia del Sacramento has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
I was lucky enough to arrive just in time for the Colonia Week, Semana de la Colonia, which is an annual event with interesting local stuff going on in the City Square every evening. Although the City Square, Plaza de Armas, is about the size of an average bowling alley, they still managed to create a great atmosphere there when all the town people came, each bringing one garden chair and lots of smiles and laughter. Most of the people seemed to be members of one or more of the choirs that were performing. Every performance started with everyone mingling for an hour or two while appearing rather nervous, assuring each other everything would turn out just fine. And everything was fine, except nobody sang very well.
My first serious Latin American Beef Experience took place in Colonia. It happened at a small family-run parilla (steak house), where I put a decent amount of money on the table, demanding to be fed. About one sheep, two cows and a pig later I wobbled home, a very happy man. As an appetizer I had sausages; chorizos (which is some kind of beef sausage) and morcillas (a blood sausage with a very uhm... intense taste), with a very thick cheese sauce sprinkled over them. Closely following this, a heap of asados, ribs, were put on my plate. From there they quickly disappeared into the mouths of myself and the restaurant dog, which very quickly became my very best friend in Colonia.
My efforts, assisted by the very hard-working dog, seemed to qualify me as a beef consumer, and the waiter finally decided to bring in the real meat; bife ancho (entrecotes), bife de lomo (fillet steak) and bife lomito (sirloin), bordered with a veeery thick, yellow layer of fat. My internal cholesterol control immediately blacked out major parts of my brain, so I don't remember anything more from this meal until the part where I paid my bill and very strenuously got up on my feet, groaned and got on my way back to my bed. I probably gained more than a kilogram of bodyweight throughout that 2.5 hours meal. It took me more than 24 hours to regain any eating capabilities whatsoever.
I think I somehow needed this feast, as my digestive system had turned a little bit dysfunctional during my stay in Buenos Aires. I found heaps of cheap and tempting fruits and vegetables in the Argentinian capital, and although the animals in Argentina seem to be happy ones, walking around freely on the pampas, I'm pretty sure the things they grow in Argentina are subject to massive amounts of various poisons supposed to protect them against insects, illness, Chileans and whatnot. Anyway, after my meat orgy in Colonia, my internal systems really pulled themselves together and did not let anything out until all parts of me behaved properly again.
First and foremost, Colonia is a beach town. You rarely see anyone actually swimming or enjoying the sea the way at least I am used to see it done elsewhere. In Colonia most people just drag their chairs into the water, to a place where the depth is suitable, and just sit down and have their herbal tea, "mate", while being cooled off by the sea water. The water keeps a very comfortable temperature, so people can sit out there for quite long periods of time. Technically, this is the South Atlantic, but most of the water is actually river water, from the Parana, which has gone through a long, warm journey from somewhere in Brazil, only to exit here at the Argentinian/Uruguayan border. This gives the water a rather unattractive, brownish look, but it is well worth going in on warm days, of which there seems to be plenty around.
An intense, tropical storm broke the slow-moving idyl of Colonia, so after a couple of lazy days reading Spanish on the beach I decided to move on to Montevideo. (Bus ride, 88.50 pesos, YHA bed in Montevideo, US$10.50.) Now, Montevideo was really my sole reason for wanting to go to Uruguay in the first place. I knew practically nothing about the country, but "Montevideo" had for a while been on my ever-growing list of places with strange names that I need to visit.
Not all the names on the list are that strange, really, but in my head they are strange in a magical way; they are all names of faraway places I somehow heard or read about when I was much younger, when I thought of the places in much the same manner I thought about Mars, Jupiter and Pluto, as faraway, unreachable places. Now, suddenly, I can actually go to these places, and the feeling inside when I see even just a road sign saying "Kuala Lumpur 215 kilometres" is just incredible. To me. Other examples of such names/places are Kathmandu, Calcutta, Timbouctou, Saragosa, Bandung, Machu Picchu, Vestmannaeyjar, the Knockmealdown mountains, Addis Abeba, Oodnadatta, Ulan Bator and so on. Don't ask me why they are special places to me, but there's no doubt that most often the most special thing about them are their names. And this certainly turned out to be the case for Montevideo.
Montevideo. I had great expectations for you. How could you disappoint me so completely? First of all; Where did they get the "Monte" part from? The whole city and its surrounding area seems to be as flat as any pancake you've ever eaten. I did get the "video" part, though, as it is possible to watch uhm... movies with very errr... predictable action and storylines 24 hours a day in small video theatres in just about any street in the city.
Further on, practically the entire building mass of the city is falling down in slow motion. Even without any tourism to speak of, or possibly because of the lack of tourism, the city has managed to deteriorate completely. It is probably just as well that the city in spite of its name does not offer any "Monte" from which to view this sad excuse for a city, as it certainly does not possess much beauty to behold. It took me a full day of walking, desperately seeking something interesting to see, to realize that the most interesting part of this pile of buildings can be experienced through any map of the world that prints all capital cities of the planet. Consider yourself warned.
While the city itself provides little entertainment or education, the people in it is definitely worth observing closely. For a capital, people seem very relaxed. While the population in Buenos Aires is almost consistently descendants of Europeans, it is obvious that after the liberation, the slaves of African extraction chose to go to Uruguay. Because of this, the people of Montevideo on average have a significantly darker skin color, while at the same time act very much like "proper" South Americans. In the afternoon they take a chair outside to the sidewalk and sit there nipping/sucking on their mate, while observing any passers-by with great interest and fascination. Judging by the size of their national football stadium, they must all be football fanatics. I found this understandable, not seeing anything else that could possibly attract any enthusiasm or patriotism whatsoever.
I never felt threatened by criminals in Montevideo, but I certainly feared, while walking around, that I could be assaulted by any of the buildings around. They all seemed likely to drop off parts of themselves onto the heads of innocent pedestrians, so I walked very quickly through the dock area around the city centre. This took me past many shops containing impressive amounts of old books and antiques in general. In fact, apart from the danger of being attacked by murderous houses, walking around in Montevideo is a bit like walking around in a giant version of the San Telmo area of Buenos Aires.
Hence, if you need cheap, well-kept old things you can probably sell for a lot more money back home, Montevideo is definitely the place to go. It also seems to be a good place to go if you're desperate for a job, as they are plentiful around here. I saw no unemployed people at all! There were hard-working people standing on every city corner, handing out small notes informing you of available ladies for all kinds of services. I shall think they must all be very industrious and efficient carreer women, being able to afford such extensive marketing departments. In large parts of the city centre, the ground is positively covered with these small notes, so that the large armadas of street sweepers, who continuously patrol the city streets with their horses and carriages, have to work really, really hard to be able to successfully ignore the mess.
As is my habit, I located and entered the National Library, and this was a truly amazing experience in an otherwise featureless city. Not only was the toilet there perfectly clean and in working order; The archive system is still based on small paper notes in big drawers, so that anyone who wants to can rearrange the whole library index in a few hours, should they choose to. I did not, but I did write a small note on my own, describing a future book I have decided to write, and put it in the proper place in the archives. Unfortunately, the only piece of paper I had available was the backside of a description on how to get in touch with a certain Maria Amore y hermanas, so I fear that my little publicity stunt will be revealed well in advance of my book actually coming to existence.
Oh, and while the beaches very close to the cities are very tiny and rocky, try going a few kilometres east of the city. Great beaches with great sunsets. Just make sure you don't end up under a falling building on your way there.
While the YHA-HI hostel was great, I found that two nights in Montevideo was enough. Even though I had a look on a map and discovered that I could be in Brazil on a white sand beach in about four hours, I decided to stick to my initial plan and got onto a night bus back to Buenos Aires. I had spent my last Uruguayan money on a big bag of fruit, but luckily remembered just in time that I was going to cross a border, and ate like a mad-man, sharing generously with my fellow passengers.
The plan was to sleep through the night, but outside the bus windows, in surroundings of almost total darkness, there was this most incredible intense thunderstorm, so I just stayed awake, watching the lightnings and the fires resulting from the lightnings. That was okay, because when I got to Buenos Aires, I transferred to a 20 hour bus ride to Puerto Madryn, a loooong way down the coast.