Uruguay

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We decided we liked Uruguay so much we didn’t want to simply spend a few days in the capital and head straight to Argentina, so instead after a few days in Montevideo, we headed north west through rolling grassland and forests, to the small village of Dayman, just before Salto on the border with Argentina.

Montevideo is a sleepy kind of capital city, with plenty of parking even in the centre and everything in easy walking distance. The main street is a bustle of shops and regular buses, but one street back and its quiet and calm. The main square hasn’t been overly developed and there are still many inhabited buildings right on the square.  There doesn’t seem to have been much push for development in the centre, and I’m guessing property prices remain low, as you have 4-star hotels rubbing shoulders with shops selling buttons, and beautifully renovated old houses next to discount supermarkets.

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The ‘old town’ has a shabby kind of charm, and the ‘rambla’ promenade along the river is pleasant.  There doesn’t seem to be much of a café culture, possibly because everyone seems to take their mate from home with them – mate is a kind of caffeinated bitter drink that everyone seems to drink constantly.

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One day we hired bikes and cycled about 10km along the rambla (and back! My backside still hurts…) to the upmarket neighbourhood of Pocitos, which is organized around a pleasant beach. The rambla was full of families with kids on bikes/roller skates, old men with their flasks of mate passing the time of day, guys fishing, teenagers posing, lots of other cyclists and some serious runners.  We saw a number of football matches going on, some clearly being taken more seriously than others.

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Nice spot for a break

Another day we went for a walk along a couple of the pedestrianized streets around the port – the only part of the city that seems to cater at all to tourists due to being close to the port where cruise ships often dock for less than 24 hours and the ferry arrives from Buenos Aires.

But Montevideo seems to be the sort of place worth getting to know for longer than a day trip – there may not be any major tourist ‘sights’, and Uruguay itself seems to suffer from being stuck between its two enormous neighbours, but it’s a lovely place to simply hang out. Yes, it’s very expensive – the government has instituted a law that reimburses the tax on all restaurant meals to tourists using a foreign credit card, but a simple lunch (main course of omelette or salad or the schnitzel-like milaneza, water, no dessert or coffee) was regularly setting us back over 25 usd – but its good value, in the sense that you get large portions and good quality.  In fact, I got the impression that everything they do, they do seriously and well. I’ve never seen such an organized queue for a bus before its even arrived as we did at the bus terminal…

They clearly want to develop tourism, but I am not sure how I feel about this sign that exhorts Uruguayans to see tourists as friends – its a nice concept, but on the other hand, if people have to been convinced by a sign….

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I also noted that there seemed to be pride in the country – signs such as “Uruguay: a country with potable water” in the (free, clean) public bathrooms. Also, respect for people – there were few ‘prohibition’ signs and when they were there, they explained why something was prohibited (e.g. “please don’t drink mate on the bus because the straw could hurt you if the bus stops suddenly, or the hot water could injure another passenger” – I liked that). People are organized – they queue for buses even before they arrive – and give coherent, logical directions.

Another example of the quality of things was the bus journey from Montevideo to Salto, where we are currently. It wasn’t cheap – about 70 dollars for us both for a 6-and-a-half-hour journey – but the bus was on time, airconditioned, had extremely large comfortable seats like those in business class on a plane, and had a reasonably clean toilet. There was a guy on the bus who was in charge of the passengers, and he spoke some English and kept us informed when we were slightly delayed by some kind of protest blocking the road. People also were generally quiet and respectful of other people’s space on the bus – in great contrast to some other countries I could mention.

We are currently based in Dayman, a small village just outside Salto, mainly for the massive waterslide park acuamania that Lauren will update you all on. Its set in lush green farmland and today we went for a walk before the intense heat that builds during the day and barely seems to dissipate at night. We saw a dead armadillo which was sad and interesting at the same time, it had clearly been run over on the road. We also saw a huge black bird (sorry, I’m not good on birds – it was massive and had a long neck) sitting on a rock in the river, which was teeming with some very big fish who would regularly jump half out of the water, presumably to catch some bugs.

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Tomorrow we head for Argentina, and another long bus journey, this time overnight up to Iguazu to see the mighty Iguazu falls.

 

 

Montevideo – Carnaval!

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Apparently Uruguay has the longest carnival (or carnaval) in the world. At 40 days, that’s quite a party. We stumbled into the middle of the opening celebrations yesterday and it was a great antidote for the sadness we felt at leaving the Grande Amburgo.

Our hotel told us we could buy tickets from a particular agency, but this turned out not to be true, and we were told to just turn up at 8.30 pm and ‘it would be obvious’ who to buy tickets from.

It wasn’t.

I approached one of the officials at the gate of one of the enclosures with seating, and asked how to buy tickets. He told me he was the boss (chefe) and I didn’t need to buy tickets, and he ushered us in. It turned out that we were in the main VIP enclosure, right at the start of the parade, and from what I could gather this was mainly reserved for family members of those in the parade. For a moment it crossed my mind that he wanted paying (Mozambique has damaged me) but we came to the conclusion he was just a nice guy.

Certainly we were made very welcome, and had a brilliant view of the parade.

It was an odd mix of brazilian-style skimpy costumes and headdresses, middle aged men and women in a range of odd outfits, and some tiny kids showing off their sambas. It wasn’t terribly slick or professional but it was massively good-natured and fun. Whilst there were some stunning figures among the men and women, beer bellies, stretch marks, cellulite and wobbly thighs were also all on show, decked with sequins and gold spray paint and not much else.

There was a big African theme, with an excellent drumming group and floats with elephants, grass huts, lions and troupes of ‘African’ costumes (animal skins, loin cloths, masks etc.). There was a group of guachos and ‘kings and queens’ which i guessed represented different states. There were harlequins and a group of people with model TV cameras on their heads. There was what i think was a Freddie Mercury tribute float. There was an ‘Indians from India’ group doing traditional Indian dancing. There was an excellent capoeira group. There were a lot of men dressed in drag. There were samba schools and religious groups. There was a singer with a yellow toy monkey around his neck. There were floats clearly making reference to various myths or stories – most of which were incomprehensible to us although I did recognize the Incas and some gentlemen dressed as conquistadores.

Half the time people didn’t really seem to know what they were doing, and at one point there was a 20 minute hiatus in proceedings. People wandered between the barriers and through the dancing hordes. Floats were generally pushed along by hand by a few guys, occasionally veering off course. Headdresses were routinely yanked back into place and costumes regularly re-adjusted. The music consisted mainly of hoarse singers with microphones attached to speakers in the back of vans and a couple of guitars or mandolins.

The primadonnas and perfectionists of Rio would probably roll their eyes, but everyone, paraders and spectators, oldies and kids, gay and straight, black, brown and white seemed to have a blast. I reckon that is more important that the perfect choreography or beach-buffed body.

It was a wonderful, bonkers, weird night. Most of the dancers were moving too fast to get decent pictures, and the woman in front of us spent most of the time on her feet waving her arms about, but these will give you an idea….

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Day 40: Disembarkation Day!

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We arrived in Montevideo sometime overnight, and disembarked earlier today. The Grimaldi agent had already taken our passports, and when we woke up we were told to be ready to disembark at 10.30. Lauren’s first response was we would miss our 11am lunch!

Our passports had been stamped in our absence and after some emotional goodbyes to crew and officers, and lots of wishing of good luck to the other passengers, we simply walked down the ramp and out of the port into Montevideo old town, mingling with the mainly Brazilian tourists who had arrived on a cruise ship docked next door. We got some funny looks with our backpacks.

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Our long suffering Steward, Vincenzo.
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Robin and Jorge, some of the crew who always had a smile for Lauren and sim cards/information for me.
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Just before we scatter in all different directions…
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Finally we get to see the bike we’ve heard so much about – Good luck Nikki and Moe!

I honestly have mixed feelings about leaving the Grande Amburgo.

Of course, we have 6 months of amazing adventures awaiting us, and I’m excited to get on with that, but we have almost become institutionalized on board – the initially baffling routines are now ingrained in us, and we’ve got to know the personalities and interests of some of the crew.

Lauren in particular has been made very welcome – I swear most of the crew don’t know my name but they all know Lauren and greet her every time they meet. We were all told the Gelato was finito yesterday (Wednesday is ice cream day normally) but moments after everyone dispersed, muttering that they’d been looking forward to gelato all day, there is Lauren being ushered to the kitchen for the last of the ice cream.

The thought of having to deal with the ‘real world’ again is not attractive. Yes, it will be nice to be able to skype home more easily and eat something green that isn’t ancient lettuce.  It will be good to be able to stride out and go somewhere that doesn’t end in a loop back the way we came after 200 yards.

But if I was told we had another month on board, I’d be perfectly happy.

I wanted to do this because I wanted to be ‘at sea’ – I loved the notion of being many hundreds of miles from any other vessel, of seeing sea in every direction. And the choice of cargo ship was because I didn’t want to do a cruise.

And I did love the open sea, although it was surprisingly the smallest proportion of the journey. I did love looking around and seeing nothing but sea and sky (and, often, our resident birds diving and swirling). Seeing dolphins on multiple occasions was fantastic. Even the flying fish I could watch for hours. The sunsets and (occasional) sunrise were often stunning. And yes, shore visits were fun, even the mad dash into Rio.

What I also loved, which was more of a surprise, was the actual cargo aspects – the logistics of loading hundreds of vehicles at top speed; the manoeuvring of enormous containers by cranes that stand many metres above the top deck of a 13-deck vessel; the logic of what is going where; the odd-shaped covered shipments that towered above us as we picked our way through the decks. The camaraderie at port and the autonomy of finding our own way in and out of these enormous places full of heavy machinery. All the different ships and boats, from tankers to canoes. I even loved watching the ramp being lowered and raised each and every time! Turns out, I’m a heavy machinery geek 😊.

I also loved getting to understand a completely different way of life and the social aspects of life at sea. From the Filipinos who send money home to families they see only a couple of times a year, to the young Italians who see going to sea as an only option after a bad school career, to the older and more reserved officers who work incredibly hard far from home. There is a great competence about men (they were all men, although the captain made a point of telling Lauren that many of the senior officers including captains are female within Grimaldi) who deal with big, heavy complicated things. Watching the incredibly complex process of loading and unloading many containers plus all sorts of bizarre consignments and hundreds of vehicles proves that there are skills that may not come with fancy degrees but which nonetheless demand great experience and intelligence. From the crane operators in charge of machines that stand 15 stories high, to the chief mate in charge of the whole cargo, to the drivers who know exactly how to fit everything in, to the chef who keeps nearly 40 people in 3 sittings fed and content for 5 weeks on 4 weeks’ supplies.

The seemingly-rigid hierarchy of this group throws up some interesting anomalies – the Filipino senior officer proves the separation which seems so clear at first can be overcome. The Italian steward who works alongside the Filipino one. The engineers who keep the engine going yet are not officers. The affable Italian driver who spends more of his time with the Filipinos. The fact that the Filipinos speak way better English than the Italians who manage them, and are far more at home in various ports.

I don’t claim to understand this world, but it has been a fascinating insight into the lives of people we might never have met, and for whom I have developed a great respect.

During the trip, there were of course a few moments of frustration, but genuinely none of boredom and after 40 days at close quarters, I can honestly say that Lauren and I get on better together than many mothers and daughters. Its been fantastic, a trip of lifetime. It truly couldn’t have gone better.

Now lets see what South America has in store for us!