In the Land of the Charrúas

Poor Dianne! The bug that accompanied her to the Falklands remained with her for our next two days at sea. Unfortunately, one of those days was Valentine’s Day, for which we had made reservations at the swankiest restaurant on the ship. We got all spiffed up and put in an appearance. We each placed an order from their special Valentine’s menu. But, gamer though she was, she could not eat a single bite. The day wasn’t a total loss, however:

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Thankfully, by the time we hit Uruguay, the bug was gone. And, also thankfully, she was not contagious.

So, here’s what two days at sea look like:

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And, we saw plenty of it. We often kept our TV tuned to the ship channel and this is the news it had for us:

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You will note our position and the sea depth of 5,098 meters, or, as I like to say it, 16,696 feet, or,  3.162 miles. That’s deep water. Over two days you have time to ponder what must be down there. Who knows, really?. When we finally moved onto the continental shelf the depth was often only a few hundred meters. Well, anyway I always laughingly tell my passengers on the lake, it’s only the first few inches you need be concerned about anyway.

Over those two days the weather was clear and the seas generally calm. I spent a lot of time either on our balcony or on one of the decks. In all that time i never saw a passing ship. One morning though I was looking out a sea and near the ship, all of a sudden a little head pops up out of the water. It was a sea turtle! A big one. He took a quick look around, decided he didn’t like what he saw and disappeared. What he was doing all the way out there I had no idea.

There are certain perks to being out there, though:

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On Monday, February 16th we awoke to find ourselves in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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And, the buses were down there waiting for us! For the remaining three days of our journey, here and in Buenos Aires, all of our excursions would be with Travel With Alan.

True to form, NanSea was at the buses directing traffic. By now, though, it seemed that she had finally come to the conclusion that our group was not the nimrods she apparently was accustomed to dealing with, Plus we had spent some time with her on the ship while at sea. We all now knew what to expect from each other. And, things were winding down. Everyone was as relaxed as we probably ever get.

So, off we went to see the sites!. We started at the Constitution Plaza::

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This is in the oldest part of the city, so many buildings have been converted to government offices. The most iconic building in Montevideo is this one:

Antarctica Part 2 294This is the Palacio Salvo, originally designed to be a hotel. Now it houses offices and a few condos. Unfortunately, on the same square the architectural splendor of the city’s colonial past takes quite a spiritual nosedive with this little beauty:

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Each year this building says to thousands of tourists: “Central air? Never heard of it!”

Not all that much better is the President’s office space.

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What must certainly be an unsettling consideration for any aspiring politico on a continent rife with military juntas, is that the president’s office is LEASED! Good luck!

And, speaking of the military, what South American capitol would be complete without a general on horseback!

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This one honors José Gervasio Artigas, the father of Uruguayan nationhood. He is quite a colorful character if you want to look him up.

Speaking of Uruguayan nationhood, this is something that even in recent times has not always been a given. Our tour guide said that originally, there was no interest in this area because it had no gold, silver or anything else of value. Both Brazil, to the north and Argentina to the west had their own problems and plenty of them, so they left Uruguay alone.

Later, however, it was discovered that cattle really liked the grass around here and cattle farming became all the rage. Since then, one or the other of its neighbors have rattled their sabres nearby, but so far, none have crossed the border.

Today it is a liberal oasis. Think of a liberal cause and here it is either championed or outright written into law. And this in a country that is predominantly Roman Catholic. So, it may have become like Switzerland, a convenient place to do business, shall we say, on the side.

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Next we went to a very pretty nearby park. This is a monument to the last four indigenous Charrúa people who survived several massacres that killed all the others. These four were taken to Paris and exhibited there, where they all soon died as well. A nearby plaque commemorates the courage of the Charrua’s in fighting off the Spanish and may others for over 300 years. In situations in which Uruguayans display bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, they call themselves “gara Charruas.” The Uruguayan national football team is called the “Los Charrúas”. So, like the native Americans on our own continent, they are remembered for their bravery, but, at least in North America full-blooded descendents remain. Not so, the Charruas who were wiped out entirely.

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Well, we were enjoying the nearby trees when all of a sudden a couple of Montevideo’s finest pull up on motorcycles in front of our bus. The driver, in the middle, engages in a long conversation with them including several cell phone calls to the bus company. Turns out we only had a sticker that allows them to give tours of the country, not the city. Apparently headquarters provided the proper assurances and we were eventually allowed to continue. Most of us, including the driver, were surprised they would stop us. I, on the other hand, was even more surprised that NanSea wasn’t out there chewing their asses for holding us up.

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Our next stop was the Legislative Palace, much more in keeping with the colonial style of the city.

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Quite the place! More like a cathedral than a hall of congress.

On our way to our next stop, another park, we passed by this building:

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Depending on which side of the political fence you happen to be sitting on, this building is either a national treasure or a pork-barrel extravaganza. Our tour guide apparently took the latter view. This is a building that houses the nation’s telecom operations. The architect, she said, had only previously built hotels and built this one in the same fashion (I do, however, think there are a few others involved who might check on these things.) Well, apparently when they started moving all the heavy telecom stuff in there, the floors started to crack and windows started popping out. Turns out they had to spend millions more pesos (or, probably about three hundred USD’s) to shore the place up. Whoever the party in charge was had egg on their faces over this one. Ha ha ha. OK let’s move on

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This is the Estadio Centenario, home to the Uruguay national football team. For a country that is by far the smallest to play in World Cup competition, they have won it twice and have won the Olympics as well. AND, in winning the Cup they beat both Brazil AND Argentina!. Since they are not likely to prevail on too many battlefields, this is one happy way to stick it to the rest of the world.

Antarctica Part 2 346Our next stop was a local park, where the tourist business was good. On this table you see what looks like cups. Actually, they are either gourds, or fake gourds with a stainless steel straw sticking out of them. These are used for the Uruguayan (and South American) national drink called Mate (MAH tay). It just so happened that our tour guide had a container of fresh brew right handy. It is the custom in these parts to take a sip and pass it around the room. So, she passed it to me and, you know, why not?

Well, this is a tea made from the leaves of the yerba mate and the flavor is pretty much like our standard tea, BUT, compared to coffee it would be much more like espresso. VERY strong. One sip was more than plenty. Our tour guide is a social worker as well and she said sometimes she has to make several home visits in an afternoon. At every house, before the conversation begins, out comes the mate and around the table it goes. To decline is an offense, so an afternoon of that and one might become just a little jittery.

This park is also home to one of the country’s most famous sculptures:

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This is called “La Carreta” or, The Cart. It was done by the Uruguayan sculptor Jose Belloni to commemorate the struggles of the early settlers. The team is pulling the cart out of the mud.

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Very impressive!

Next we headed east and up the coast for a view of the city from one of the nicer areas:

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Montevideo is home to 1.3 million people, about a third of the national population. These are boom times, since their banks went down the tubes with the Argentinians about 10 years ago. Uruguay has the makings of a resort area. To the east of the city, on the Atlantic coast there is an exclusive beach area populated by the rich and famous of South American (and, no doubt North America as well.) Our tour guide said there are lots of movie stars there, but did not make it clear whose stars were likely to be in attendance. South America has plenty of its own stars in the various arts and, believe it or not, it’s not hard to find people with no interest in our own American popular culture whatsoever.

OK, so I know there are some bird enthusiasts who read this blog from time to time, so here’s a quiz. Who’s nest is this?:

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Need a hint? Well, just find the birdie!

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You got it!

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Parakeets! To our surprise, these birds are both wild and abundant and are generally considered to be pests. One thing for sure, they are NOISY!. It was hard to carry on a conversation in the park they call home. What fun!

Antarctica Part 2 414Sorry for the blurry tour bus picture. On the way back into town we passed by this sculpture which, we were told, is a gift from the people of South Korea. As generous as they were, unfortunately this guy has failed to win the hearts of an adoring public. Why? It took no time at all for the populous to realize that something was either missing, or drastically not to scale. Let me search my Spanish for just the right word. Ah yes, this is it: cojones!

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All around Montevideo there is a huge beach. We were there the Monday following Carnival, which is still a national holiday. Otherwise these people would be hard at work. The water, by the way is from the huge Rio del la Plata. Some say it its the widest river in the world. Apparently those people have never heard of an estuary. But regardless, it is very wide (140 miles at the mouth) and very muddy. I can’t speak to the water quality, but thousands of people use it. However, considering that it drains the no doubt pristine effluent of both Montevideo and, farther upstream, the 15.5 million souls in Buenos Aires, I believe I would prefer to join the movie stars out on the Atlantic.

Our tour had come to an end and, incredibly, we still had some time left before we had to be back on the ship! So, the driver dropped us off here:

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Our tour guide noted that it wasn’t much to look at on the outside (true), but if we opened the door under the red awning we would find a culinary carnival of our own! So, in we went:

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Incredible! It was like a mall of meat! All of it was being roasted on an open flame. AND it was lunch time. Not only that, see those bottles in the front of the picture? Some are white wine, some are champagne. Apparently the national drink around here is called the half and half. Half wine and half champagne. AND you get to mix your own for free while you are waiting in line at one of the restaurants.

Well, it all smelled so good and Dianne was ready to try out her recently recovered tummy, so all we needed was a line to stand in. We saw some people waving. Turned out is was some of our friends from the ship. In no time we found ourselves inside. Well, our friends were originally New Yorkers where patience is not always a strong suit. And, we were in South America where lunch is an opportunity explore the depths of one’s experiences in the most infinite detail. Well, we had an absolutely fabulous Uruguayan steak feast, which was done beyond perfection. Fortunately, we were finished before the cultures clashed over the wait time to get the bill. Dianne and I were more than happy to stay out of that particular go-round. Finally, the perspiring owner wrote and the checks and we were out of there!

Here are more restaurants to choose from:

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Care to dine outside? No problemo!

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What a great way to end our time in Uruguay! Now, it was back to the ship. Tomorrow, at last, we would be in Buenos Aires!

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