When the girl at the hostel reception told me that the most exciting things I could hope to indulge in, in Montevideo (being winter – whispering conspiratorially) was catch a movie in a neighboring theatre or sip maté on the roof or by the sea watching the sun sink across the bay; I should have known better to take the next flight out. But Uruguay is my 145th country and tenacity is my name and self-inflicted injuries to my mind are what I specialize in and I wasn’t going to give up Uruguay without a fight. Living with ‘zero’ expectations and being ‘disappointment proof’ has their own rewards and nowhere else has it been proven as conclusively as in Uruguay, the country that many dream of visiting. I spent the next five days in this flat nation and this is the story of what happened or rather didn’t happen during those interminable hours.
Before I dive in, let me give you all a summary of things I learned, since they are some pointers if you have this place in your bucket list. Tourist tips if you may call them –
Declare your mobile set at the point of entry (if not purchased in Uruguay) if you wish to get a connection in Uruguay
Do not bring in any vegetables, dairy products, fruits, plants, etc in Uruguay from other countries, it has steep penalty and you may be deported. Though I did get in my Brazilian Bahia bananas and apples totally unintentionally, don’t know how they escaped the X ray machine or I being deported. May be the cute X ray machine police woman was busy checking me out LOL
Loos are free everywhere and they are rather broken in most places, but male urinals have divisions between them in most places, don’t know about the female counterparts though LOL
Baggage trolleys in bus stands are real rickety, shaky, horrific, large and loud, rusted but work fine, don’t know why they can’t get some modern ones
People drink maté all the time just about anywhere, in the loo as well; it is the national addiction. Tastes ok, similar to black or herbal tea, nothing to rave about. So when you see someone with a large flask or a leather flask carrier you should know what it is for
Women aren’t as proportionate as I prefer them, don’t know why, but please all my Uruguayan women friends, I love you all totally and you have hearts of gold. In terms of fun, laughter and magic, they are complete outrage
There’s a chain of Om stores, selling Indian stuff at discount and I even met the man who gets them from India
Tata runs a chain of departmental store in Uruguay, what a letdown
for this mega giant Indian company!
Didn’t see any Afro origin people, no Japanese tourist
Streets are dirty like India; people are loud as in India
Was cautioned by everyone to be careful of mugging in dark hours and not to step anywhere close to the dock area even in day time. But nothing happened to me, perhaps since I look kind of rough too and I had nothing of any value on me
Do not change money at the airport; they are committing day time robbery. You get much better rate anywhere else in the city. Thankfully I changed only a tiny bit of amount at the airport to pay for the bus fare
The bus system is good, they take you everywhere, in two days I knew all about the public transport system. All city buses charge 19 peso for going anywhere, except CA 1 that takes you from old city to Tres Cruses (main bus terminal) for 11 peso. But after Brazil, Uruguayan buses seemed of another century gone past. Montevideo and all other towns of Uruguay are laid out in blocks of squares and it is indeed easy (even for a blond) to follow a map and not feel too lost. All major avenues are named after a General or politician or an important date in history that nobody remembers, the minor streets are named after cities, countries
Hardly anyone speaks English, so you better brush up Spanish or be an expert in sign language or good at smiling (like me)
It’s about half as expensive as in Brazil, food, transportation, communication, everything. Yet more expensive than India
There are many sex shops selling cheap made in China stuff LOL
Common people on the street are friendly and helpful even if you can’t understand each other. Just appear lost with a city map in hand anywhere in the street and someone will come to your rescue. Random men and women approached me under similar situations and went out of their way to make sure I knew where I was supposed to go.
Old city is a hoax, there’s nothing to see here really, at least not for me, so don’t go by my word LOL
There are endless beaches and they are really nice, though right now deserted but in summer I could imagine how crowded and lovely they would be
Football is a craze
Well that’s enough; now let’s get on with my adventure…
So a rewind first. I got out of the airplane all super excited and kissed the ground. The airhostess gave me a once over, thanking god that this lunatic didn’t show any such signs while afloat. The sky was grey and dripping like a rusty faucet. Immigration was quick, the airport tiny, and officials very official and efficient. Outside was neat too, free wifi and all. The tourist office girl super efficient and I felt bad to leave her; I was enjoying our conversation so much. She drew up suggestions for my next five days, adding between smiles that she was only doing her job and I didn’t have to thank her so profusely. Getting to the bus stand was super easy, just outside. Got into the bus and got lost in the eyes of my beautiful neighbor totally engrossed in beautifying herself with amazing dexterity. Even though the bus careened like a mad bull, not a line of her mascara brush slipped neither the lip gloss she applied and within all that I totally forgot where I had to alight. Suddenly I found myself in an empty bus with the driver gesturing not too nicely at me to get off using the universal sign of waving his pudgy hand repeatedly like a duck flapping its wing to stay dry. I got off and realized I was completely lost. And then mayhem struck and the sky opened up with vengeance.
All my efforts at asking people failed, I couldn’t locate myself on the map so finally I started walking away from the sea towards the center of the city in the hopes of finding someone more versed in English tongue. I was lost, as I normally am in a big city, and this place was crowded and belching dirty water through every manhole. No one cared about me, no one had time to talk to me, and there were no trees with enough leaves for shelter. I finally reached 18 July road and my map said it was the main street. So finally I realized that I was really far, very far from where I was supposed to be. And amongst such comical calamity suddenly a man points at my OM embossed T shirt and says, ‘Indian?’. He totally seemed like Saint Gabriel in a tweed jacket. I gasped ‘yes’. He told me his story in passable English: he has been going to India since 1991 and is the pioneer of getting Indian clothes and other riff raff into Uruguay since. He knew Delhi really well and then he told me that I was rather close to one of the Youth Hostels so I should head off there rather than look for my host’s place. I took his advice and finally reached the hostel where the all knowing girl at the reception gave me the best Uruguayan options as afore.
My first day followed by night got completely deluged away in the uproar of downpour that seemed apocalyptic in proportion and intention. Even after five hours when I couldn’t set a foot outside, the girl smiled and gave me the look, ‘I told you so.’ Can’t blame her or anybody for this abominable weather. I had no choice and that was a good choice indeed since I sipped maté with the girl thereafter, mailed few people and then taught Indian cuisine to a bevy of pretty girls from several countries in the well endowed hostel kitchen. Now that’s not a bad way to start knowing a new country! The night after all turned out to be rather nice; guitar and dance, food and wine, girls and kisses, I slept a happy man. Sometime during the night I woke up with few lines in my dreams and wrote down the following in frenzy, and then slept off again. Don’t know why these lines would come to me then, but they did. They mean nothing or may be everything, here they are –
Who can say what women do
When they go inside their loo
They say they powder their nose
With hairbrush and scent of rose
Their bags full of things wild
Some bit strong some little mild
They leave the men behind
Who just can’t seem to find
What women really do and what do they want
What’s the difference between mean and meant!
So next morning I woke up with the larks, ate a hearty breakfast, stuffed few apples and breads in the sly and headed for Tres Cruces bus terminal. Buy ticket of 386 peso for Cabo Polonio. Every guide book said this place is a heaven away from the real thing during the summers, and my hostel reception boy said that it was nice in winters.
The bus took 5 hours through some really pretty scenery deposited me and one hippie looking guy at a totally deserted outpost in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t find any hint of sea. A lonely man in a lonely café, took swipe at fleeing insects. The hippie walked over and delighted me with his sweeping English. Learning I am from India he gave me a mini lesson in spirituality, free living, and free thinking and free eating. There was a mammoth vehicle standing nearby that would take us to the village. The hippie claimed to be a summer time life guard at Cabo and full time life seeker (or sucker) other times. He was a real nice guy and I am only jesting like always, so if you read this, my friend from Cabo, don’t get upset. It is my way of showing that I really like you and you are welcome to visit India any time.
We bumped along in the vehicle to the village and right where we stopped, my friend spoke to an old guy reclining on a jeep, and got me a place to stay, which I guess was the only hostel open at this time, for as little as 200 pesos a night. Then my friend left. This is where it started to get hilarious. This old man and his bearded son spoke no English and they had a cat and big dog named Polonio, neither of whom spoke English either so there were five of us taking things really slow and fun. Father and son only cooked, cleaned and ate, drank wine and argued sometime, Polonio preferred my company, walking with me everywhere, while the cat stayed at his window seat purring for no reason I could understand.
I dropped my bag in the room that was a dorm with six beds but it was all mine for the night. Then with my camera and umbrella I headed out. Skirting the lighthouse I reached the sea lion (here they called them sea wolves) colony and then further through the upper hill of deserted houses and returned when the lighthouse had started throwing a pale beam. Cabo is a busy bustling village of sun and sea worshippers during summers and it’s easy to see the reason. The flat out white sand, seemingly endless, the dunes, the gentle rush, the surfing waves and the pretty colorful hostels dotting the beach… sheer delight. Add to this the squeaking sea lions, jumping dolphins, whales and the waddling penguins that come by often, and you have a perfect recipe for a perfect summer beach holiday. But at this time of year it was a ghost town. The houses and hostels stood mute and dark like relics of some other era. There were perhaps ten families still around and I didn’t see another soul during my sojourn.
At night I went out for another walk through thick fogs by the sea, hearing the roaring waves but seeing nothing and the lighthouse failing to break through the gloom. The night was cold, the windows shivered and screamed through the darkness. I slept well though.
Next morning Polonio and I took a long walk to the dunes, and then to the south beach where a man in red jacket fished with a long line. I ate bread and fed the seagulls and my companion who jumped up to catch the morsel before it fell on ground. I had to take the 2 pm vehicle back to the bus stand. Then reached back Montevideo around 9 pm.
The next day I headed in a more leisurely manner, walking all the way, now that I knew the roads well, to Tres Cruses and took the 9.30 am bus to Colonia Sacramento, another town that the tourist woman had raved about. When I reached Colonia, I realized that Uruguay tourism is accustomed to hyperbole. As I would end up around 500 pesos for the trip, I forced myself to walk through the aburrido (boring in Spanish) lanes and plazas. And then got back to Montevideo no wiser for my ordeal. The rain battered and so did I.
The day after being Domingo (Sunday), I headed for the flea market, which was mainly on street Tristan Narvaja and Gaboto and a bit on Av 18 de Julio, all marked in deep orange on the tourist city map. Being Indian little surprises me in terms of bustling markets, haggling shopkeepers and endless stream of stalls selling everything from yak dung to rock from Mars. No idea who on earth would buy most of these things. The predicted stalls selling mate kit, pet shops, fishes, snakes, rats, etc followed by fruits and vegetables, broken gramophone, tiles, cheese buses, watches, relics, old pictures, jewellery, sprawled around endless as far as the eye could fathom. One man was even selling a complete junk piece of BASCA, Russian at that, the kind that must have been used in the thirties. I took few photographs and left the place not much wiser but heavier beneath a mound of banana and ripe strawberries. So munching my way through I then headed back into the old city, determined to vanquish it at one go.
At plaza Independence I veered to the left towards the sea and walked on the seafront for a while, watching people fishing, the dark clouds rumbling and two pairs of tourists taking pictures of the road. I know tourists are desperate people trying to get full worth of their money but you got to be real desperate to take pictures of a road in the middle of another plaza. I mean, what are these guys thinking? Seriously!
Then I dove in through the pedestrian only street of Sarandi and reached Mercado del Puerto, the famed place for all things carne (meat) and fish. Being a cold Sunday, there were very few people around but the fire and barbeques were full on. I wasn’t there to eat so I just rushed through the eating stalls and left the place in double hop. In the afternoon I went to Punta Carretas to meet my friend, with whom I was intended to stay but I lost my way and the rain etc happened (refer to the beginning of this story, if you have already forgotten it). She has a neat casa very close to the sea and a cute church. We spoke through Google translator and for the first time I was thankful to technology and to Google team LOL. The rain kept on pouring and I returned chilled to my brain to my hostel for the night.
My penultimate day I headed for the Botanical Garden or Prado. It is a nice garden with plants from many parts of the world. A group of giggling girls from a local school was around and I liked the look of their teacher so I just followed them, she obviously didn’t like my looks at all and kept giving me the kind of look that women should not give to gentlemen. The girls kept laughing and making fun of me and I kept laughing with them. I saw the park and even got admitted to the medicinal plant section since I was with the school kids; else it wasn’t open to public at the time. The gatekeeper first stopped me but then seeing my pleading look, allowed me to float in. Didn’t I say before, Uruguayan’s are really nice and friendly!
After the park, I visited Museo Blanes and the Japanese garden behind it. A model shoot was happening in the Japanese garden that I enjoyed along with the flowers, ikebana, and the bamboo house. The river alongside is very dirty, just like in India so that wasn’t a surprise to me. The bus ride back was like any bus ride.
After getting off near Plaza Independence I had a sudden urge to apply all the languages I could utter and get a vegetarian sandwich from a road side kiosk. It took me around 8 minutes using all my limbs, eyes, head, neck, fingers, etc and all the languages including pashtun, to get the fellow understand that I wanted something without meat. He was shocked but then he gave me a grande one with extra olive on the house. The whole concoction cost me 50 pesos and it was real filler. We both seemed utterly satisfied with the exchange and the fellow thought that ‘Toshe khor’ (thank you in Pashtun) might be English or something, since he replied ‘TK’ to my ‘Gracias’.
Crossing Plaza Independence I suddenly realized to my horror that I didn’t have a single picture of self anywhere in Uruguay, how on earth would I ever prove I was here and since I would never return again (yes I know all about ‘never say never again’ stuff) I had to find someone to take an iconic picture of me, one that cannot be anywhere else but in Montevideo, so Plaza Independence seemed tailor made for the exercise. Eyeing a pretty lass coming my way, I approached her and gestured towards my Nikon camera. Though mildly sobered at seeing the Nikon she gave me a horrified look since she thought I wanted to take her picture. She broke into a toothy smile when she finally got my pantomime, then she took my camera, squatted on ground (to get me and the plaza fully), smiled and clicked. The result is comical but then that would remain my only proof.
Now it is my last night in Uruguay, most likely forever, I don’t see any reason or even accident that could bring me back to these shores. I would certainly come to her neighboring countries like Argentina, Brazil but Uruguay has nothing more to offer or excite me. Five days were enough and now as I pack my bag for tomorrow’s flight back into Brazil I can’t think of any wise words to conclude this post with.
I am sure in the next 12 hours or so that I am in Uruguay, nothing more or worthy of mention will happen. I will sleep now and wake up into another dull grey morning, will say hello to the girl at the reception, check my mails, munch breakfast and then ever so slowly make my way to the bus stand and catch a bus to the airport by paying 33 pesos. I am left with 210 pesos, have no idea what I will do with it, would I buy something inane with it for my mother or just give it away to some poor woman on the way! And then the flight will be announced and I will board a Pluna aircraft and soon would be airborne into the blue sky above Uruguay. The plane will bank north and take me out of this place for once and all.
Sometimes it is necessary to travel to a place to know that you must never travel there again. It is the knowledge of certainty that makes the voyage worthy else the seed of doubt would always remain – ‘what if…’