The Partial Monte Video and Salto Insanity

Friday, July 02, 2010

I was in the old district of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital at a hostel called Che Legarto right in Independence Plaza. I had no idea what to expect of the city and somehow I had a very eastern European feeling almost immediately on the bus in that didn’t lessen with my time there. As one of the guys at the hostel spelled out my options for the evening - tango here, free; salsa there, free; great food everywhere, not so free – I began to have visions of Budapest, which longtime readers will know is one of my favourite cities in the world. Unfortunately, I had one key problem here which was that I didn’t have a very lively hostel with people interested in seeing what the city had on offer so I turned in desperation to a site of have used from time to time for some great travel experiences: Couchsurfing. I chatted with a girl named Daina but she was too tired to hit the town that night and we made plans for the next day instead if she wasn’t too busy. Then I took the hostelier’s advice and headed to Las Tres Bambalinas for a pretty reasonable cut of ribs and free live music. So alone and missing my recently departed friends or not, I had a pretty good night that first night and enjoyed just sitting back and people watching for a bit. I brought Charles Dickens with me as company but he didn’t say a word.
The next morning I set out to explore the city, or rather the old city. I didn’t manage to get to any of the other areas outside Ciudad Vieja in my stay here unfortunately. And to be honest it seemed like a city with a lot of potential that never really got there or at least was left to decay like the autumn leaves falling everywhere around me. Perhaps in the summer, when tourist season kicks in and Argentines flock to the beautiful beaches and coastline (which I would also be missing on this trip) things would be different. I wandered and watched and got some nice random shots of people and things but not much by way of landmarks or anything. I suppose that’s not such a bad thing in the end. My favourite stop for the day was the Port Market. When you enter there are wood-coal grills everywhere with various meats and things slowly cooking over a red glow. I decided that I would have to eat here and it was a good decision. They’re all more or less the same price but I decided on La Chacra de Puerto and had a delicious steak (well, three cuts) that I could barely finish nevermind the fries and bread and dips. But I finished it all anyway, it was that good. It was July 1 and I was hoping to do something interesting for Canada Day but aside from finding that somebody had put up a Canadian flag in Independence Square I had nothing to report.
The clouds were breaking up slightly and I was hoping to get some fantastic sunset photos but they didn’t clear enough to get that nice glow I was looking for. Still I set up the tripod and got some nice shots of the flag-lowering ceremony which I happened on entirely by accident and of the nearby theatre and a less nearby fountain. I chatted with Daina and also was invited to another event by a different couchsurfer – a get together/dinner at Las Tres Bambalinas, the same place I’d been last night. So I decided to go there and meet them and then meet up with Daina when their meeting was done. But I couldn’t find them through two strolls in the bar and gave up eventually to call Daina. She gave me instructions to take a bus but I waited for that bus forever and it never came. I called her back and she offered, quite nicely, to have someone come and pick me up but it was quite a distance and I not only felt bad but also was a little annoyed at myself that none of my plans had worked and thus in a bad mood on top of being tired and having to be up at 5:30 AM the next morning to head to Salto. My reason for rushing was to be somewhere before 3:30 PM when the Uruguay-Ghana quarter final game started and close to a border so I could be in Argentina the next day for their 11 AM quarter final against Holland. I could have stayed in Montevideo for the game the next day and then crossed back to Buenos Aires but the ferries are pricey and not timed well for this on top of which I wanted to see a bit more of Uruguay, however rushed. So I went to sleep without having met either of the people nice enough to try to meet up with me while I was in their town.

I was up early and got a bus at 6 AM to the bus station. I managed to take the most frustratingly slow driver in all of Latin America. He would wait 15 seconds at green lights and almost never shifted – no lie – out of second gear. He’d just lumber slowly down the street and I almost got out and walked thinking I’d be faster. Somehow I managed to arrive just in time to buy my ticket and hop on the 6:30 bus. The ride to Salto through the Uruguay countryside was uneventful. It was flat, green, and full of farms, reminding me of a scaled-down Saskatchewan in spring time. I got into Salto around 1:00 and immediately set to work sorting out a bus across the border that night into Argentina. There was a 10:30 bus from Concordia Aceso but I had to leave at 9 with a private ‘taxi’ of sorts that would take me across the border to wait. The taxi, it turned out, would cost as much as the overnight 8-hour bus and there were no options. In the end it probably would have been cheaper to stay in Montevideo and then go back to Buenos Aires and then head north but that is a side effect of going into the unknown and off the beaten track. The next operation was finding a place to watch the game: everybody told me to stay and watch in the bus station but I wasn’t having that. The tourist info guy (who must have the most boring job in the world in this place) made some phone calls and told me that everything – EVERYthing – was closed for the game. Nobody was bothering to open their businesses in the afternoon and who could blame them? There would be nobody around to buy anything. Even restaurants although he eventually found ONE that was staying open to show the game. Perfect.

I did a bit of exploring of Salto and made my way to the town centre from the bus station. There wasn’t much here to see: you could see Argentina across the river but even the park along that side was derelict and full of people confusing me for an ATM. The post office, in fact, was probably the nicest building in the city though it did have some plazas that could be beautiful with some work and a church/fountain that was nice. But I hadn’t yet discovered the best part of Salto when I decided I should get a spot at this restaurant before the game started: its people. It started when I got in: the restaurant was totally full but the waiter went out of his way to come up with an alternative and got me a stool to sit at the counter. Not much but you’d be surprised how often people just say no, sorry, we can’t help and send you on their way down here. I ordered some pasta (cheap and I only had so many Uruguay pesos to spend before I left the country that night) and a beer and settled in my stool. When the chorizo I got to start came out a table of students behind me told me I shouldn’t eat alone and invited me to sit at their great spots and watch the game with them. So we all watched a nail-biter of a game and I found myself having a Uruguay flag painted on my face which was no problem as I was cheering for them anyway. When Ghana scored to take a 1-0 lead the atmosphere cooled but nobody appeared to have given up. And when Uruguay tied 1-1, the restaurant went nuts. People standing on chairs, tables, jumping, hugging, kissing; you’d think we were in a bar. The tension was just as great with a tied game as the clock ticked down on an intense overtime and Ghana and Uruguay both had great chances.

Then came the penalty kicks which were so intense that I saw some fans with watering eyes on their knees praying and crossing fingers. Both teams scored the first two goals but Ghana missed its third which resulted in a scream so loud that I’m sure I heard a glass shatter. And when, finally, Uruguay scored that last goal which meant that Ghana couldn’t catch up, the restaurant cleared 130 dB easily. It just as quickly emptied out and by the time I’d paid my bill and headed out as well, there were already parades of cars, bikes, and flags going down the street. Soon, it was wall-wall people and impossible to move almost anywhere. Not only were the intersections packed but the whole street and several streets in various directions as well. People waving banners from atop traffic lights, jeeps, banners, beers, all screaming and honking and blowing their horns in unison made this a celebration to remember and one that topped even the Argentina ones I’d seen so far. I met some people in the streets that were likewise very friendly and could tell I was a foreigner. I suddenly felt sad to be leaving so soon, which seemed a common theme for Uruguay but I was booked and paid for so I made my way to the bus terminal and headed overnight to San Igancio de Mini where I would spend the early morning looking at Jesuit ruins. That is, after running through customs and then being dropped at an underpass in the dark with two police officers and a lot more mosquitoes to wait for over an hour, worrying that as the police had stopped halting traffic I might not be able to get my bus onwards to San Ignacio.

Montevideo and Salto Photos

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