Saturday, 8 February 2014

A tale of two cities

Eh up people.
This post follows on closely from the previous one because there has been a lot going on recently and I need to get it all documented before I fall too far behind.

This post will focus purely on our short but enjoyable time in Uruguay, somewhat of an unknown quantity in terms of our travel knowledge.
Before coming to the country I only really knew a couple of things, past and present about it, and they were both world firsts:
Past: Uruguay won the first World Cup. Respect!
Present: Uruguay has just become the world's first country to legalise the sale of marijuana. Reeespecttt!

I missed a trick when it comes to the 'Past' point in that I didn't manage to do a tour of the national stadium where the said World Cup was won and lifted, which was a complete faux par on my part considering how much footy means to me. (Don't worry, I am making up for it back in Argentina)
As for the 'Present', well sorry mum but it is legal here and very obtainable so you can't tell me off. However, as we were only here for 6 days it is not like I went 'off the rails'!
On this point I must just add that I am in favour of the legalisation of drugs. This is not due to anything personal but more the fact that the trade produces so many millions of pounds / dollars each year so why shouldn't the governments of the world not control it and reap the benefits from tons of extra cash the could reap in taxation? That way, not only would it take the power away from the gangs and dealers but only a small amount of these tax dollars would be needed to pay for and assist in rehabilitation programs etc and so take the burden from the rest of us.
Also, this excess, minus cash for treatment programs could in an ideal world be put to good use in the public sector / services etc and again stop the governments robbing us normal folk!
I know I am not alone in this view but who knows where we will end up. Still, you never know as Colorado and Washington states has both followed suit and are now 2 of a few in the US that have decriminalised its use; and if the US with its many laws and 'nanny state' view of the world can do it then why can't the rest of us follow?

Anyway, to Uruguay.
We emerged from our overnight bus and immediately could feel a difference from the rest of the continent. Uruguay is real 'first world' and is actually right up there with Western Europe and Australia et al when it comes to the Standard of Living indexes and quality of life.
Therefore, it prices also reflect this which in part would be why we only stayed for 6 days. Imagine trying to travel around Europe with diminishing funds on a budget of £40 / $60 between 2 of us including accommodation?
But let's not take anything away from Uruguay, it is a really beautiful country (from what we did see) and the people are great; by the far the friendliest nation we have visited to date on this tour and so helpful.

Uruguay has a population of approximately 3 million people and half of these live in the capital city of Montevideo, which was our first stop, and by chance we selected the perfectly placed hostel. Apart from every single member of staff and backpacker wanting to say hello and have a chat, the building was situated one block back from the epicentre at the Plaza Indepencia, which itself acts as the split between the old city and the new city.
Montevideo also has to be the most laid back capital city that I have ever visited. No one seemed to be rushing about and it amazes me how many people seem to be sitting about in the town plazas and gardens with seemingly nothing to do at 3pm on a weekday.
For our first afternoon we just scratched the surfaces of the old and new parts of the city and the old part especially was really nice to walk around.
Set around the port the buildings were ancient (in colonial terms) and full of character and very similar to those in the old part of Panama City (another place we liked a lot) and there was also a beautiful indoor market made up of restaurants serving freshly grilled meat and fish to order.

Not wanting to wear ourselves out we just relaxed in our room that evening which we had managed to change after we saw another couple check out and so we now had a huge opening double window that we could climb out of and people watch from upon high from our balcony, once we had navigated between the lumps of old beds and wardrobes - you can't have it all.
That night there was the most 'electric' electrical storm we have ever witnessed and for hours the lightning just kept illuminating the sky; just one bolt after another like the strobe lighting at a club.
This was all nice from the safety of our room but step outside into the hallways and the open-top roofing in to the core of the hostel didn't seem like such a good idea!

We had only planned to hang around for a couple of days but as the next day was a complete washout and we were feeling a little lazy we decided to stay for another and it turned out to be an inspired and lucky decision.
The following day was Saturday and completely by chance happened to be the delayed inauguration parade of this year's Carnival.
Everyone knows of the Rio Carnival but few realise that Carnival is not just about Rio, it is a continent wide celebration and a month long party enjoyed all over South America, but especially on the Atlantic side; it is just that Rio's celebrations are the most famous.
In fact it is argued that other locations do it far better and much less commercially, such as Salvador in Brazil and so a much more authentic experience can be had.
We still need to do Rio though, it is one of those 'must do' things and we will return one day.

The parade was due to commence at 8:30pm so we filled our day by properly exploring the port and old city constructed with a real mish-mash of styles from Colonial to Art Deco. (AJ pointed all this out to my untrained eye)
Now my images of Carnival are like the rest of you, either packed out in Rio, or full of knife danger and attitude at Notting Hill in London.
In fitting with our brief introduction to Uruguay and its people to date this couldn't have been more different. The parade would begin at the Plaza Indepencia and make its way for a few kilometres along the primary avenue splitting the city from north to south.
Along each side of the avenue were 3 rows of ticketed chairs and then the rest of us could stand behind. Well with a combination of such a long avenue and a city with such a small population we were able to stand directly behind the chairs and get a perfect view of almost everything. Also when somebody did encroach on our space or interrupt our view they actually turned to us and apologised before moving on - now that sh*t doesn't happen everyday does it?

So the parade - it was fun but it was no Rio (I imagine). It ran for 4 hours from 8:30pm to 12:30am and we watched it all! The first 3 hours were something more like a mass breakout from theatre land and the circus but it in no way diminished our fun, it was colourful, vibrant and noisy and again being in such a small city it meant that everyone knew somebody in the parade so they would go crazy trying to get their attention for that person to spot them and then they would come over for a hug and kiss and so allow us to get some great photos.
It was only in the last hour under the black skies that parade became more how I envisioned a stereotypical Carnival Parade to be as the brightly lit dance schools and bands hit the tarmac. What we now saw were very scantily clad women in huge feather headdresses dance their way down the avenue (I honestly thought a few guys around us were going to have a heart attack or an aneurism given how crazy they were going) followed up by the most thunderous sound of the drumming bands that you couldn't fight off as you felt it creep under your skin and enter you soul making me want to tear my shirt off and go all tribal; it was that infectious.
Overall a great experience and nice to actually time something right for once even if it was random.
We will actually be somewhere close to Rio for the actual main Carnival weekend but as we spent our money on other expeditions we need to find another location to celebrate it. I think we will actually be somewhere in southern Brazil so I am excited to get the chance to enjoy it all once again towards the end of February.

Feeling that we had now definitely 'done' Montevideo we had to move on, but in which direction?
To the east were the beach resorts and hippy towns and to the west, back towards Buenos Aires was Uruguay's tourist jewel, Colonia De Sacremento.
Looking at the images of the beach resorts such as Punta Del Este and its beautiful port full of super yachts immediately told us that we would need to see it another time; like when we are on holiday, but you always make these decisions with a heavy heart because we want to see it all, especially as by all accounts the party's over that way are incredible.
We chose to head back west towards our main goal, Buenos Aires as we were only really here for a quick trip to see some of the country and to stock up on the all important dollars that very freely dispensed themselves from the ATM, and let's be honest, who needs Punte Del Este when you randomly walk into our good mate Saffa 'Where's the party' Brett on the streets of Colonia and find out he is staying at your hostel?

Colonia De Sacremento is absolutely beautiful and a real step-up in terms of quality - harbour, small private looking beaches and boutique looking cafes and restaurants including a great one that has converted an old fashioned car out on the cobbled streets into a 2 seater dining room!
What also stands out about this place is that the Portuguese first founded it in 1680 and the constructions of the old town was a real treat to the eyes after months of Spanish colonial architecture all the way from Mexico to Argentina. There is a very distinct difference in their styles.
Whereas we liked the look of the old town and its pretty little restaurants it wasn't going to happen for us and was in the sort of league where they wouldn't even let us take a table just for a drink if we weren't going to eat as well so we had to contend with sitting around a table with a local outside of an off-licence drinking beer from plastic cups! Much better as far as I'm concerned.

So apart from enjoying the surroundings and looking across the waters of the Rio De La Plata to Buenos Aires in the overly humid breeze, we once again had the pleasure of Brett's company for an evening.
There isn't much to be said for this night except that along with Matthaus from Germany we drank long into the night having a great time and eventually got to bed at about 4am.
We also discovered that we would all be in Buenos Aires at the same time, Brett's last night before flying back to South Africa, so a date was made for the coming Thursday in 3 days time. Now that was a proper party and will be in the next blog.

And so our brief time in Uruguay was up. It was only 6 days but that in no way does that take anything away from this country, number 15 of this trip.
It is a visually beautiful place and as I've said the people are fantastic.
I think our leaving the country proves the point.

To get back to Argentina we booked ourselves onto the 11:30am boat which would cross the Rio De La Plata from one country to the next in 1 hour.
The call went out for us to board the boat but upon reaching the actual boat there was a bit of a commotion going on. Although it wasn't exactly a commotion, it was a f*cking protest!
About 8 guys from a logistics company were protesting about something and had blockaded the walkway onto the vessel by tying a flag across the entrance and then stood in front of it.
Now in England this would not be stood for and before long there would be strong words traded and probably a punch or 2 thrown?
Maybe in the States someone would have been shot?
In Africa, maybe even a lynching?
Well in Uruguay, there was a friendly chat, the cops were laughing, the passengers were laughing and the protesters actually gave out water to us because it was hot. Yes there were a couple of annoyed people but nothing more than that.
So we had to return indoors to wait patiently for it all to end and eventually it did - 7 hours later!!
Fortunately we were given a free lunch and drinks because we had nothing with us but can you imagine the furore back home if this has happened, especially as our destination was only 1 hour away over the water.
Well personally we really didn't have a lot on so although it was boring it was no big deal and eventually we did leave to set sail for Buenos Aires and thankfully we claimed an hour back due to the time difference.
And so we arrived into the capital of Argentina and wow, what a city, an absolute winner.
We both currently have some big love going out to BA but this adoration can wait for next time.

Catch you later.

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