Buquebus

Each northern hemisphere winter, from November 2013 to April 2016, we spent five months in Montevideo.  As a Uruguayan tourist visa only allows for a maximum stay of 90 days, we had two options; we could either request a once-only ‘prolongación‘ of a further 90 days at the immigration office (Dirección Nacional de Migración), or we could leave the country and return, same day if we wished, whereby we would be granted a new 90-day stay.  We have done both.

The most convenient way of crossing the Uruguayan border was to take the ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires.  In March 2014, we chose to travel with Buquebus, an Argentine company, which operates ferry services between Buenos Aires and both Montevideo and Colonia, and also has a fleet of coaches in both Argentina and Uruguay.  Our ferry was the ‘Francisco‘, one of the fastest in the world, capable of travelling at up to 107 km/hr, with 1024 passengers and 150 cars.  Compared with all the hassle of air travel and airports, international travel by ferry is both comfortable and relaxing.

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The newest Buquebus ferry ‘Francisco’, named after the Pope (photo from internet)

I was very much looking forward to going to Buenos Aires.  In late 1984, when my project with Bank of America in Lima was completed, my next assignment involved my moving to Argentina, where BofA had recently acquired a large retail bank.  The BofA HR department handled all the paperwork for the application for my work permit.  Unfortunately, in that era, I was travelling on a British passport and the Americans did not seem to realise that that might prove to be a problem; it was not long after the Falklands War and UK citizens were about as welcome in Argentina as pork chops would have been at a Jewish wedding.  My application seemed to disappear into a black hole and we could get no feedback.  After two months of waiting and marking time, I unexpectedly received an attractive offer for a senior management position with a computer services company in England.  I accepted, but that is a story for another day.

When I finally got to Buenos Aires, I confess that I was rather disappointed.  At the ferry terminal, locals warned us not to leave the terminal and to only take a certain type of taxi; apparently there were a lot of muggers in that area and many of the taxi drivers were less than honest.  And later that afternoon, within ten minutes of leaving our hotel, in a bar in the square outside, a young tourist at the next table was robbed and a crowd set off after the thief.  Compared to the relative security of Montevideo, Buenos Aires seem to have its problems.

We were staying beside the Plaza del Congreso, about 2 km from the Casa Rosada and the waterfront.  For the next eight days, we walked all over the inner city.  Although we found parts that were clean and well taken care of, with small parks, in general most of the city was grubby and had seen better days.  The pavements were narrow with irregular surface, the streets full of traffic, and every doorway seemed to be replete with smokers; at times the pollution was very noticeable.  And not a day passed without parades of protesters with their banners and chants, accompanied by heavily armed riot police.  Buenos Aires seemed to be a city in stress.

In comparison, the waterfront area was a welcome contrast, with its wide walks, fresh air and interesting modern architecture, with several very large parks.

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A small section of the waterfront
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The former navy training frigate ‘Sarmiento‘, now a naval museum

We returned to Uruguay as we came, by Buquebus, but this time by the relatively short crossing of 1:15, to Colonia del Sacramento.  It was noticeable that the water was thick with silt and occasional tree trunks; it looked more like a ploughed field than a river.

Colonia was founded in 1680 by Portugal, to protect its southern border with Spain. But the Portuguese were repulsed by the Spanish later that same year.  A treaty between Spain and Portugal, signed the next year, returned Colonia to Portugal.  Colonia changed hands no less that nine more times until the founding of Uruguay in 1828.

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Pórton de Campo – the City Gate

Colonia is renowned for its historic quarter and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  One can find whole streets with Portuguese architecture and others with Spanish.  And with streets and pavements of cobbled stones, just as one can see in the villages and small towns in Portugal.

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A typical street in Colonia
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And a street leading down to the river, brown with silt
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Sunset across the Río Plata

From Colonia, with our new 90-day visas,  we travelled back to Montevideo, once more  by Buquebus, but this time on the highway.  When we got back to our little apartment, it felt as if we were home again.

Fragolina

I first arrived in Montevideo on 1 December 2013 and Lotta joined me a few days later.  Within another week we moved into a small serviced apartment in nearby Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo.  And for three southern summers that apartment was our home.

It was not much of a challenge to feel at home in Pocitos.  Within a short time, the doormen of the neighbouring buildings would greet us, together with the parking attendants and the armed guards outside the banks.  On La Rambla, we quickly progressed from nodding acquaintance with the locals and their dogs, to greetings and conversation.  After I had been to a barber (see here) and Lotta had been to a beauty parlour (and here), we could not pass their premises without their waving to us.  It was the same recognition and welcome that we received in the bars, restaurants and supermarkets that we frequented.  And one of the parking attendants used to sing ‘You are my sunshine’, when Lotta passed him on her early morning run.  We felt quite at home.

When we returned for the second year, we wondered if we would be remembered.  We need not have been concerned, for greetings transformed into hugs and embraces.  We were now really part of the local scene and it felt so good.

Outside a brand-new building in the next block to our apartment, there was a small chalk-board on the pavement advertising daily specials for a new restaurant, Fragolina.  The restaurant was part of the large central lobby, with a small shopping complex, and had not been long opened.  It was lunchtime, so we entered and ordered a meal and found the food to be excellent and plentiful.  As soon as we finished eating, the chef came out of the kitchen, greeted us warmly and wanted to ensure that everything was to our satisfaction.  That was our first introduction to Gaston Garrassini and his immaculate attention to detail.

We returned to Fragolina at least a couple of times every week that we were in Pocitos.  We never failed to feel honoured and warmly welcomed by Gaston and his staff.  When we left in April 2016, there was Cecilia, Belén, Anna and Romina.  And of course Gaston’s father, who used to sit at the bar or at an empty table, reading a newspaper, or working on his laptop, until there was a home delivery for him to take care of.

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Fragolina during the day (photo from Fragolina)
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And during the evening (photo from Fragolina)
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Gaston Garrassini, chef extraordinaire, and his speciality, a gigantic paella (photo from Fragolina)

Every morning Gaston goes to the market to select the best quality meat, fish, vegetables and fruits.  And he never seems to follow a standard recipe, for each dish has a touch of his improvisation.  One cannot please all the people all the time, but I suspect that there are very few who leave unimpressed with Fragolina and its staff.

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A typical potato and cheese dish, with a sprinkling of bacon bits and parsley – my kind of food (photo from Fragolina)
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Or a lasagna, large enough for two (photo from Fragolina)
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And a typical ‘Gaston’ hamburger with the trimmings and chipped potatoes (photo from Fragolina)

These days we are based in Cape Town and have not been back to Pocitos since 2016.  But we follow Fragolina on Facebook (see here), and the business seems to be going from strength to strength.  We often look at their daily menu, and wherever we are, we say – ‘Why don’t we have lunch today at Fragolina?’

One of these days, perhaps soon, we will return.

 

La Rambla

For three years, 2013-16, we escaped the cold, dark, barren northern winters and flew south, like migrating birds, to the welcoming warmth of the Southern American summers.  Each year we rented the same apartment in Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo.  Our serviced eleventh floor apartment was just above the top of the trees that completely shaded the street below.  It was a perfect location for us, just two short blocks and three minutes from the river.

From Montevideo, the Río de la Plata does not look like a freshwater river, for it is so wide that one cannot see Argentina, about 100 kilometers away at the closest point.  Massive container ships, tankers and cruise ships, on their way upriver to Buenos Aires and beyond, look like tiny toy boats on the distant horizon.  When one of the regular earth-shaking tropical storms hits the upper reaches of the river, for days the water is brown with sediment.

Along the river runs La Rambla, a wide promenade, that stretches along the coast for more than 30 km, and is reputedly the world’s longest uninterrupted sidewalk.  Every day, almost without exception, we walked on La Rambla, first in one direction, then in the other.  After a short time, we started to recognize the locals, and before long we were greeting each other like neighbours.  Some times we would count how many people we had  spoken to in the course of a walk, and the number would usually end up in double figures.  We felt very much as part of the community, for Pocitos had the feel of a village.

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La Rambla at Pocitos

On La Rambla we also got to recognize the local birds, not just the species, but in some cases the individuals.  There were numerous birds along the river, some quite exotic.  There are reputedly more than 450 different bird species to be found in the relatively small country of Uruguay; the internet site, Avibase, lists 479.  Not only is Uruguay on the major migration path for many birds, but the country has plentiful water and a climate without extremes.  It was not long before I bought a book on Uruguayan birds and in the second year Lotta turned up with a new camera to photograph them.

Most days when we passed the end of the beach at Pocitos, there were several small snowy egrets with yellow feet, fishing at the edge of the water.  Often there was also a much larger great egret.

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A snowy egret

We once spotted a great egret sitting on top of a tree, near the small harbour at Punta Carretas.  When we went around and through the trees to get closer, we saw a black-crowned night heron.  It was a young one and it flapped away before Lotta could get a second shot.  Although we went back on other days, we never saw it again.

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Great Egret
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Black-crowned night heron

Where there were rocks by the river, inevitably there were cormorants with wings outstretched, drying their feathers.  Once we were very fortunate to witness a large flock of cormorants in a long semi-circle, hunting together, driving a shoal towards the shore.  We could see the fish splashing in the water, trying to escape their predators.

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Neotropic cormorant

Everywhere where there were mature palm trees, there seemed to be colonies of monk parakeets.  When they are feeding on the grass, they are well disguised, but when they are flying or gathered on a palm tree, they make their presence well known, for they make quite a racket.

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Monk parakeet

Humming birds are tiny; they hover and then move so quickly that one has to be lucky to see one, and even more fortunate to take a photograph of it.  One day we hit the jackpot, just up the hill from Playa Ramírez; a tree in full flower with many humming birds feeding on the nectar.  And for several days they had a banquet on that tree.

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A humming bird

Above the hill behind Playa Buceo, we often saw this little hawk, resting on a light pole.  If not an american kestrel, it was similar.  Even in the strongest wind it was able to hover motionless for several minutes, sometimes not far from us, then it would suddenly drop, grab its prey and fly off to nearby trees.

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The southern lapwing is Uruguay’s national bird and in the summer they are plentiful, especially on the parkland between the golf course and the river, after heavy rain.  The lapwings have a strange hesitant walk, that always reminds me of John Cleese in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

During our first year in Pocitos, we used to see one lapwing that was always on its own.  At first we thought that it was always standing on one leg, but when it started to hop, it was obvious that it had only one leg.  It appeared to be quite healthy, but perhaps the rest of the flock rejected it for not being quite normal.  I guess that handicapped people in our society can suffer the same rejection.

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The Southern Lapwing with only one leg

The last year that I arrived back in Pocitos, I settled my few possessions in the apartment and then went out for a short walk along La Rambla.  At the end of the beach, there is a small park and there on the edge of the park, waiting for me, was the southern lapwing with only one leg.

I felt as if I had come home.

A Dog’s Life

Montevideo

March 2016

We spotted the notice on a lamp post, inviting owners of salchichas (dachshunds) to a gathering in a park by the river the next afternoon, starting at 14:00.  It was being organized by a Facebook page called Salchichas Uruguay.  As we passed that park on La Rambla nearly every day, we decided to go that way the next day.

We had lunch in nearly Punta Carretas, and headed for the park.  Even if we had not already known where the park was, all we would have had to do was to follow the stream of salchichas, all heading in the same direction.

And when we arrived at the park there were already a multitude sniffing each other, barking, yapping, growling, lifting their leg, and vacating their bowels.  And that was just the dog owners.

The Facebook page had about 1000 members at that time and the organizers had expected 50-100 owners to turn up.  They were quite overwhelmed by the response, and by the end of the day over 400 dogs had attended.

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Meeting of dachshund owners

There were only two requirements for the owners; all dogs had to be kept on a leash and no females in heat were welcome.  I could imagine the ensuing chaos if an owner had not respected the second requirement.  It would have been comical to watch.

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Un Ménage á trois

During the afternoon there were gifts handed out, a raffle was drawn, and prizes were given for the best dressed dog.

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A rather embarrassed dachshund trying to look inconspicuous

Every day we saw many dogs on La Rambla, most not on a leash, despite the busy traffic on one side.  They seem be well trained and responsive to the owners and I have never once seen two Pocitos dogs growl or fight.  Many run with their owners, and I have even seen one that swims along parallel to the beach, while the owner strolls along, usually talking on his phone.

There are many owners, perhaps older citizens, who employ dog walkers to exercise their pet.  Over the three summers that I have been in Pocitos, I have got to know two of the many dog walkers, one who specializes in small dogs, and the other in large dogs.  They told me that the maximum either have taken at one time is 14-16 and the guy who takes only large dogs is built like a weight lifter.  His own dog is not on a leash, and trots ahead and stops at each light, until it is told it can cross.  It is amazing to watch the human-to-dog communication.

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One of many dog walkers in Montevideo

We also saw dog walkers in Buenos Aires, but the ones that we saw were wearing special belts, to which they snap the leashes, leaving their hands free and eliminating the risk of a dog escaping.

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Three dog walkers in Buenos Aires

In Mendoza, we saw many street dogs, especially in the park.  In no way were they aggressive; they were more a nuisance, in that they wanted to be adopted, and they insisted in following one everywhere.

My eldest son, Andrew, had a similar experience in North West Argentina, where street dogs followed him and his friends from where they were staying, when they went hiking in the nearby foothills of the Andes.

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Andrew in the Andes with his faithful canine friend

We also saw many street dogs in Santiago de Chile.  To cross a busy street, they sit at an intersection, waiting for the lights to turn green.  Sometimes they cross with people, at other times by themselves.

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A street dog in Santiago de Chile, waiting to cross the street

In English the expression ‘leading a dog’s life’ can have two diametrically opposed meanings.

On the one hand it can mean something that is pleasant – the good life: pampered, well fed, warm, comfortable.

But it can also mean something that is unpleasant – a rough life: sleeping outside in all weathers and surviving on scraps.

In our time there, we saw very many examples of both extremes.

Consumer Prison

Situated on a hill overlooking the river, one block from the Montevideo golf course, and connected to the 26-storey Sheraton hotel, one can find Punta Carretas Shopping with its 180 shops, food hall and multi-cinema complex.  It is the most up-market of Montevideo’s shopping centres.  Once inside the austere external walls, there is little to differentiate this centre from any other American-style centre; the shops display most of the same global brands that one can find anywhere.  But the language is a South American giveaway: almost exclusively Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese from Brazilian tourists, or occasionally English from Sheraton guests or cruise passengers in port for a few hours.

But this building has not always been a shopping centre.  It was originally the notorious Carretas prison, built in 1910, when the area was well outside of the nucleus of Montevideo.  In the era of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, many of the captured members of the Tupamaros, the urban-guerrilla movement, were imprisoned there.  In that same era, an estimated 14% of the Uruguayan population were forced into exile abroad.

In the years 1931, 1971 and 1972, there were three major escapes from the prison, using tunnels.  In 1971, 106 prisoners escaped through a tunnel that ended in the living room of a neighbour’s house.  One of those prisoners was José Mujica, who eventually ended up as President of Uruguay in 2010-2015.  He was shot six times, captured four times and eventually released in 1985.  With his austere lifestyle, refusing to live in the presidential palace, driving his own old battered Volkswagen and donation of 90% of his salary to charity, he became known as ‘the world’s humblest president’.  In the photos one can see Mujica as he was the day he was released and today.  Only the nose is recognizable.

After the end of the period of dictatorship in 1985, the prison was closed.  Following a competition, the building and site were eventually sold to a developer, and in 1994 the shopping centre was opened.  With its luxurious multi-storey apartments, desirable single family homes and restaurants, today the Punta Carretas area is one of the most sought-after addresses of Montevideo.  Apart from the external walls of the shopping centre, there is nothing to reveal the area’s undesirable past.

Many of the ex-prisoners are still alive today and at least one of them escorts curious tourists around the building and explains how the prison used to be.  For those ex-prisoners it must seem ironic that every day hordes of people, of their own will, enter the place from which they once struggled to escape.

Uruguay-Canada Friendship

When I migrated from Ireland in 1965, to see the world and make my fortune, more than fifty years ago, my first port of call was Toronto. I made many good friends there and had a lot of fun times.

But I could not stand the awful dark, cold, dreary winters, and after five years I moved to Australia, the climate of which suited me much better. Then followed a string of countries – eight in all, until I find myself today in Uruguay for the third year, soaking up the southern summer sun.

Recently on one of our daily long walks along La Rambla, beside the river, I noticed that a small park area at Punta Carretas had been cleaned up and a number of comfortable benches installed.

And today I realized that the park had been dedicated to Uruguayan Canadian friendship.

And the park is home to a family of herons that keep watch over it.