What do you know about Uruguay? Err, probably about as much as me.
Which might be because there isn't really that much to know. If
you look at a South American guidebook - one divided into those
reassuring country chapters, Uruguay is not part of the fat club.
About the same as Paraguay and that weird chapter on those three
little countriettes sat up on top of Brazil. Moreover, if it didn't
have nice beaches, it would undoubtedly be slimmer still. Geographically,
in a land of giants, it is somewhat smaller than the UK. Uruguayan
history is likewise brief: struggle for independence (aided, nobly,
by the Brits who were probably after beef, not oil); a series of
varyinglyly repressive governments; democracy and, most latterly,
massive economic stagnation, which has been been much exaccerbated
by the collapse of its giant neigbour. Oh yes, and Homer Simpson
once memorably mistook the country's name for "You are a gay"
Still, first we had to get there. Actually we'd been thinking of
going through Asuncion in Paraguay but it was about 40 degrees and
thundery there. And we'd also been thinking about going to Iguazu
falls. But I couldn't be arsed (how's that for jaded - time to go
home), although I was intrigued by US government claims that the
nearby triple border area (Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil) is a hotbed
of Al Queada activism. Isn't everywhere these days? Towelheads under
the bed, anyone?
So we spent a couple of days in Mendoza, during which time we saw
the River Plate football team swank into the Hyatt. Anywhere else,
this would have been an event, but, as our waiter explained, in
Mendoza, probably unique amongst South American cities, very few
people give a toss about football. I knew there was a good reason
I felt so at home there.
Anyway, eventually we plumped for Punta del Este, Uraguay's best
known resort because a couple of people had told us it had a nice
beach and was within a day's travel of Buenos Aires, our final port
of call. It also had a reputation for being a playground for rich
argies - the Monte Carlo of South America, apparently - which, we
thought, might be fun, too.
We picked up our mountain stuff from a hostel that took me straight
back to South East Asia. Full of people lounging around, affecting
that stupid slacker, stoner drawl. Why, you ask yourself, with the
peso in its current parlous state, does anyone stay in a hostel?
Seriously – you can get a three star hotel for less than a tenner
and a two for a lot, lot less. Then we took our clothes in for cleaning.
This may sound like one of the dullest observations ever, but 11
mountainous days (sewn into our strides like victorian children)
without washing followed by a trip down on a mule results in an
depth and fullness of aroma in that really is beyond compare. Truly
I was ashamed to ask another human being to wash my smalls. Though
not, it should be said, ashamed enough to do them myself.
And then we headed off to fly Aerolingus Argentinias to Punta del
Este. Now, if Lan Chile is the Singapore Airlines of South America,
then the Argentinian national carrier is the Aeroflot. In all fairness,
I doubt quite expect their planes to plunge from the sky. But outside
Colombian smuggling circles, there can be few less stylish ways
to get around the continent.
Naturally our flight was delayed and, naturally we got worried as
we had a very narrow connection window at Buenos Aires. But we were
constantly told it was OK - in that way that (depending on your
mood) comes across as delightful Latin laxity or the person who
is serving you not giving a fuck.
At Buenos Aires, our inter-flight time had been whittled down to
30 minutes. At which point the customs official (who was such an
outstanding arsehole he should get a job at JFK airport - incidentally
Americans are always surprised really when foreigners tell them
that their customs officials are the scum of the earth) decided
to give us a load of forms to fill out (to leave the country) after
which he told us happily that we didn't have the right form. And
we should get it from the airline. And he didn't understand us -
maybe true with my Spanish but a complete lie with Jane's.
Back down at the airline and the bloke at the desk was really, really
interested in our Cambodian stamps. Less so in the fact that our
plane (an international flight, just) took off in 15 minutes. But
eventually we found a woman who seemed to appreciate that we had
a problem and was actually prepared to help us. And, besides which,
as things turned out, our second plane was also delayed so what
was the problem anyway...
In fact, that is the key to understanding how Argentina does its
business. If everyone is slack, then the system works OK: sometimes
two (or more) wrongs do make a right. But if you ever had a situation
where someone in the business chain was, say, one of those scary
customer focussed Americans or an punctual German, then the whole
thing would collapse. I suspect that is why the banking system ran
into such trouble recently: SA slackness and global capital flows
don't really mix.
Incidentally, I believe that McKinsey sent a management consultant
to south America about ten years ago. After a month he went crazy
and wandered off into the Brazillian jungle, muttering something
about re-engineering the local indians. He was never heard of again,
although recently a frightenly efficient, but not very interesting
tribe were found on an obscure tributary of the Amazon.
Anyhow, you fly over the River Plate – through a terrifying thunderstorm
- and up the coast. Uraguay is cattle country, an unremarkable but
pleasant landscape of low rolling hills (the country's highest point
is 500m above sea level, a statistic likely to impress only the
Dutch) and, for all the world, it looks a bit like a subtropical
version of Herefordshire.
Fat people, banks and hail
Out of the airport and into Punta del este and the first thing you
think is “My God, how many financial products can a nation take?”
No really, every big bank has a "brand presence" in PDE
comparable to, say, that in the Square Mile or Wall Street. Why?
Well my guess it's because they all ran out of Argentina to stable
Uraguay where the currency has slipped by a mere 50%. And downtown,
PDE has managed to pull off the neat stunt of having having both
Visa and Mastercard as its official credit cards??? Seriously -
what a coup! Visa sponsors all the street signs and Mastercard seems
to sponsor everything else. Much like the Coke and Pepsi rivalry,
In fact PDE is something of an eye opener. It goes to prove that
America does not have a monopoly on fat people. PDE is this pint
sized nation's top cruise ship destination and is absolutely overflowing
with tubby septagenarians, the kind who hoik their shorts up over
their bellies so that the waistband occupies the same approximate
position as the equator does on a globe. It also has that sort of
odd, dislocated sense that you get in wealthy but rather pointless
resorts and feels like something out of a JG Ballard book. Probably
just a feel though: I would be very surprised if the mottled oldsters
who populate parts could ever muster the gumption to do anything
exciting (as in the novel “Super Cannes”) like run orgies or exorcise
their disaffection by beating up immigrants.
Actually I probably wouldn't have really cared about any of this.
But the weather was ghastly. Grey, overcast and rainy. Not cold,
but the kind of damp towel weather, where everything grows fungus
after a while. I feared for the fat people's folds. And the only
real respite to this was a hailstorm of such ferocity that it left
a few cars looking like they'd been in drive bys. Which was sort
of cool but hardly a compelling reason to linger.
Moreover, if the sun isn't shining, there is nothing, absolutely
nothing to do in PDE. Briefly we thought we'd spotted a manufactured
pop group – they had the sort of sheen that only comes from having
a stylist who's worked for Channel 5. Oh, and so as not to appear
totally negative, the food is pretty good. Unlike the Argentinians,
the Uraguayans realise that prime agricultural land can be used
to produce salad as well as cow.
When we hadn't seen the pop stars for a day or two, we gave it up
as a bad deal and got a bus to Montevideo, the capital. It was not
what I was expecting: what I was expecting was Buenos Aires mark
II. My initial impressions were more La Paz.
Beaches and Meat
But then you get used to the way things are and it's quite a pleasant
place really. Where it differs from BA is that BA feels like it
was rich a year ago; Montevideo feels like it was rich back in 1977.
Indeed, for connoiseurs of kitch there is a wealth of quite cool
marble clad 60s and 70s architecture. If it doesn't all fall down,
Montevideo can probably look forward to UNESCO world heritage site
status in a decade or two.
Initially matters improved. The temperature hit 35C and the sun
came out. Moreover, Montevideo has beaches. Quite good ones in the
city's swanky eastern suburbs. Once you've got your head around
the idea that brown water is OK – you're swimming in the chocolately,
sediment rich estuary of the river plate, it's all very nice. Also,
you get the entertainment of the latins on the beaches. You realise
that you are nearing Brazil here: the people are darker, there is
even more anorexia and the last time I saw such preening was in
a penguin colony.
Montevideo also has the best beef in the world. To sample what must
be vegetarian hell, you head down to the market at the port. Here
is one of the largest concentrations of barbies outside the syndney
suburbs, although these are all undercover. You enter and sit down
at a bar in front of a grill groaning with flesh, backed by an enormous
fire. Menus are charmingly visceral and to the point: “meat”, “guts”,
“blood sausage.” And then, for a couple of quid you sit down and
eat a kilo or so of top beef. Maybe with a salad if you're feeling
healthy. After my kilo of cow, I have to say, I felt good. A little
like a python had fallen asleep in my gut, but fine and meaty in
an unreconstructed 1970s sort of way.
Uruguay may also enjoy the distinction of being the latest country
in the world. I know that we northern Europeans like to kick off
our drinking early, eat, then turn in early. But here in Montevideo,
we usually catch a film at 8:30 – you would never, ever go for a
drink then. After this well, actually we watched a spot of tax related
civil unrest) you might go for a drink or two, say about 10:30.
11:30 or midnight is a good time to think about ordering food, but
there would be nothing wrong with doing it later. Finally, if you
were an earlybird, you might consider a nightclub at 2am. God knows
how they do it: as far as I know cocaine and ectsacy are almost
impossible to get hold of in Urguay.
For all its charms, though, Montevideo is very much a two day city.
And, after a good 48 hours the weather has returned to form - that
is, making you sweat without actually being that hot, the kind of
humidity that makes your armpits smell like Big Macs. So, rather
than linger on this torrid littoral, we have reversed our earlier
plans. And for travellers, we have done the unthinkable: no-one
on the Koh San Road will every speak to us again. Truly we will
be pariahs amongst the noseringed and beaded classes...yes, on Sunday
we fly up to Iguazu falls, keeping it real with a package deal.