In 2005 I was working in Washington, D.C. in my first post-graduate school job. I had only been working for a few months and really wanted a holiday, but had not banked a lot of money or time off. I also love me a random, new, out of the way destination, but somewhere I could cover a fair amount within a short period of time. And for some reason, I honed in on Uruguay. I do not remember why only I had not been there before, I had found a flight, and there was enough, but not too much, for me to see in a week. This trip was most certainly something out of the ordinary. Yet this was 15 years ago and I am surprised by how little I recall of the trip, not the beauty of Colonia del Sacramento or the travel challenges I ran into that led me to originally call this email story “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Why would I want to go to Uruguay? This was the question posed to me by just about everyone to whom I mentioned my trip. Why not go to Argentina? they asked. Well as just about everyone knows I like to take holidays that are a little different. I do not necessarily want to go to someplace that everyone else is going. However, looking up some statistics, I came across a website that said that Uruguay receives more international tourists than Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. This actually left me rather puzzled. Really? Where were they hiding? But I think I may know how this happens, if you count every Argentine that goes over for a weekend of shopping, then Uruguay may indeed have more “tourists.” I’d be willing to bet that 80-90% of tourists to Uruguay are Argentine or Brazilian, another 10% are the international jet set and celebrities a la Naomi Campbell, Leonardo di Caprio, and Claudia Schiffer that descend on glitzy Punta del Este in the summer.
But those realizations came later.
On a Friday afternoon, I began my unexpected holiday to Uruguay. I had little expectations really, I just wanted to get away, but the excitement was building. And quickly it was dashed. Despite the existence of a direct flight, I had found a cheaper option through Chicago. Unfortunately, this did not work out in my favor. The flight was delayed out of Reagan National and, due to storms, also delayed landing in Chicago. As we circled Chicago O’Hare, my overnight flight to Buenos Aires took off. There was chaos in Chicago, many stranded passengers, and it took time to finally speak with customer service only to learn the next flight was 24 hours later. I spent the first day of my vacation holed up in an airport voucher hotel dining at various O’Hare airport restaurants.
I have to revise my plan. I am dejected. I think maybe I do not even bother going to Uruguay, because I am flying into Buenos Aires my plan is to take the boat to Montevideo. I have no idea when the boats to Montevideo depart. We touch down a little early at 10 am. I think noon would be a good time to have a boat and I figure I might be able to race across town on a bus and get to the boat in time. But I figured wrong. The boat leaves at 11:30 in the morning. I find this out around 10:45 in the morning when airport information informs me they tell me it will take 40 minutes to get into the city… The next boat is at 3:30 pm. I am momentarily stunned that my “plan” ( i.e. that was to have no plan) is not working. Usually, I am very lucky when I travel. This does not feel particularly lucky. I concede defeat and book the bus. I arrive at the port around noon.
My “plan” also included not acquiring any Argentine money; I figured I would just purchase the bus and boat tickets with a credit card and speed ahead to Uruguay. But unfortunately, now I had three hours to kill in Buenos Aires. In the boat terminal, there were neither open money changers nor left luggage facilities. Very traveler-unfriendly. I buy my ticket and ask if I can leave my bag at the travel office. They say no but tell me to try at the information desk. They also say no and tell me to try at the check-in counter. He also says no. But I am tired of hearing no, so I go back to the travel office and put on my sad traveler face and one of the guys goes over and bullies the check-in guy to let me leave my bag. One little triumph. A minor fortunate event. I have two hours before I have to come back for boarding. It is overcast and a Sunday. It was as if I had flown into a Stalinist state during the Cold War. There are not many people out and they are huddled in their coats, the shops seem half-empty on Avenida Florida, supposedly Buenos Aires’ main shopping street. I change US$10 so I can pay for lunch. I sit reading my book until it is almost time to return to the boat. It has started to rain. I am not in a particularly good mood, but then I think I am in for some adventure with the 2 1/2 hour boat ride ahead of me.
Instead, the boat journey takes 3 1/2 hours and it is completely uneventful. It is so overcast outside all we see is white from the windows. No view. It grows dark while the boat putters on. I fall asleep for two hours. When we finally arrive in Montevideo it is dark, around 7 pm, and it is raining. I am one of the first ones off the boat only to have to wait for what seems a ridiculous amount of time for the luggage to come out and for everyone to file through the bottleneck through the x-ray machine. There is no money changing places. I am puzzled by this seemingly key tourist service lacking. If it had been daylight – when I thought I would arrive – I would have walked some way from the port, but the guidebook says to definitely NOT walk in the port area after dark. Suddenly, I am standing with two German guys who are going to a hostel. I become one of their group. I don’t know how it happened, I think a woman offering tourist information lumps us together. That is fine because they seem to know where they are going. There is a huge line waiting for taxis and no taxis to be seen. The German guys suggest we walk away from the crowd and we hail a taxi just entering the port. We pile in together and our driver proclaims we are lucky to hail his taxi because he says not so many Uruguayans speak English. The Germans have an address. We arrive at a building with no sign and buzz the doorbell. It turns out to be a little retro hostel called Red Hostel. Walls painted red, a small living room of sorts in front of the service counter. Sofas, bean bags, a lit fireplace, low lights, and three computer terminals. I get a dorm bed; there are only two other girls in the room and they are not there at the moment. I never do meet them.
The next day I decide to head out into Montevideo, heading first for the Ciudad Viejo or Old Town. I’m looking forward to the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. I decide to walk the whole way, a few dozen blocks is not too much for marathon-walking me! But first I must finally get some money and pay for the hostel. Walking down the main street, I think Avenida 7 Julio, I notice that nothing particularly stands out. The stores are nondescript and actually many are not even open although it is by now 9 or 10 am on a Monday morning. This is the capital of the country, where at least half of the 3.5 million Uruguayans reside, and yet there is very little bustle. There are people on the sidewalks, there are cars and buses, but it just does not feel right to me. I come across the main square, Plaza de Independencia. There is a large statue of Artigas, the Uruguayan independence hero, upon a horse. The Plaza is almost empty. A line of colorfully dressed school children is having a tour. Two other tourists stop to take a picture. I decide to follow the kids. We pass through the old gate to the city. I take a picture. We are then on the main pedestrian shopping street but again it seems oddly deserted. I feel as if I am transported back to Tallin in Estonia where years ago I also stepped off a boat from Helsinki to arrive in a town with a pretty central old town but surrounded by depressing Soviet-era buildings and boulevards and although the weather is nice, the people seem braced, huddled, unfriendly. Except, this time I am in the Old Town of Montevideo and this one is not nearly as nice at Tallin. There is a lot of construction, but it does not feel industrious. Does this make sense? I have the feeling that I am in a town that was long ago abandoned and people are now only beginning to return and rebuild their lives.
At the port, I decided that although it is just before noon, I might as well have lunch to give myself something to do. And this is supposed to be the place to have lunch and not dinner because it is not safe here after dark. It is not particularly cold, but the warm fire in the restaurant feels nice. [From my diary:] So far my impression of Montevideo is not too favorable. Thre are plenty of people living on the street, in doorways, in parks. There is a dejected feel here. Actually, the restaurant where I am eating is quite nice – a roaring fire to grill meats and vegetables. Lots of wood and brick, warm, dark colors. It feels very nice in here. If only the music were not U.S. eighties hits. That seems off, but again hardly surprising that the soundtrack to this trip (in the taxi, in the hostel, in the restaurant, in the shops) is American music. I order Lomo or filet mignon. I am in Uruguay after all and beef is the national dish. Both Uruguay and Argentina are known for their beef, the ranches, and gaucho (cowboy) culture. The steak is wonderful and I begin to cheer up. This was all I needed, a good meal and now I can sightsee happily. I go into the old market which is full of small restaurants with bar stools around large grills. Meat, meat, meat hanging everywhere, cooking. It smells wonderful. I imagine the heat from the grills might be too much in summer, but it is just right now. I head out and decide to go to the National Museum.
After a few confusing turns, I find one of the four buildings of the National Museum and go inside. It seems nice enough but seems a strange collection. There are no English explanations, but really there seem to be few explanations at all, even in Spanish. There is a room of what I guess is of early man in South America. Maps of the migration across the Bering Strait and through North and Central and South American. A life-size version of an early indigenous man. Some pottery and bones. Another set of rooms have paintings from the colonial periods and early independence. One room is dedicated to Artigas the hero. But a “room” might be misleading as it was really a small alcove with a bust, a painting, and a mural with his words. And strangely there was also another room with modern black and white photographs pasted onto three-sided cards on a table in the center of the room with a CD of new age music which seemed to alternate baby cries with erotic moans and heavy bass. I have no idea what that room was supposed to signify.
I went in search of another of the four buildings only to find it padlocked shut with no sign indicating anything whatsoever about the reason for this. Okay, fine. I decide to take a walk along the Rambla, the road along the other side of the peninsula. The guidebook said that this was a pleasant walk and one traveler had described it as the highlight of their trip to Montevideo. That person was clearly drunk, drugged or had had an even rougher start to holiday than I had. As I crossed the four-lane highway I had to be extra careful of the Monday afternoon traffic, barely making it across when the one car came barreling down the road towards me. Again I wondered if there had been an evacuation of the city and me and only a few other souls were unaware of this. It was sunny and the sea/river was a bit rough. It usually cheers me to see the water but the ugly high rises in the distance just did not do much to lift my mood. I was beginning to feel sleepy and decided to just return to the hostel for a nap.
That evening I went out for a free performance of tango being offered at the Montevideo Cultural Center. I found the building just in time and found a seat in a small crowded room. It was like a small chapel in an old school, narrow, with pew-like seating. Again even though I was in a room full of people, I felt as if we were lost in time, in a forgotten era. I sat and waited for the singing and dancing to begin. I sat there for 30 minutes and it never did start. There was an announcer who brought two guys onto the small stage and they sat behind an old grand piano and chatted. Occasionally the audience clapped and I joined in. It was like watching a radio talk show. I started to wonder if I had, in fact, wandered in on a town hall meeting and the tango was going on somewhere else in the building. I thought to ask the guy next to me, but then the game would be up – I would be found out to be a phony, having just sat through 30 minutes of dialogue I could not understand. I just got up and left.
Back at the hostel, I watched a movie with other guests while I planned my escape from Montevideo the following day. My favorite part of Montevideo was NOT the Rambla, but instead two other things – my first exposure to the children’s school uniforms, which seem a cross between a lab coat and a painter’s smock: knee-length white lightweight polyester coats with large pockets, buttoned in front, with pleats on the girls’ uniform, topped by a large blue bow at the neck. Add a black French beret on their heads and they would have looked the part of the quintessential French painter.
The second thing I liked was the horse-drawn garbage carts. Throughout my walk around Montevideo, I distinctly heard the clop clop clop of horse hooves on cobblestone. At night, on the wet pavement and in the semi-deserted streets, the sound romantically echoed of the past. Finally, on the second evening while heading back to the hostel I caught sight of one of them, the driver leaping off the cart to grab bags of garbage and hoist them onto the back of the cart or tie them to the sides. Even though the site of large plastic bags tied all around and piled high is not the most attractive sight, I could not help but feel a little delighted to find the source of the sounds to be something so every day as the garbage man, in the most un-everyday kind of way.