Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The South American Experience: Montevideo

[NOTE: I had to choose between typing all of my memories or typing only what was interesting. I chose comprehensiveness over quality.]

Sunday, February 3, 2008
Montevideo, Uruguay

Matt swore he had read the Hotel Cottage was a 15-minute walk from downtown. We were sweating. We'd been walking for over an hour, and the only cloud in the sky hung uselessly in the east, having already passed between the sun and ourselves. Sure, the beach was only a few yards to our left, and the ocean only a few yards past the sand, but we'd had that view for miles and miles. Is downtown around the next bend? No: more beaches, more apartments facing the beach. Where were the buses? Do they not run down this busy street on Sundays? Where were the taxis?

Finally, near some tall buildings but not yet within our map's boundaries, we spotted a taxi in a convenience store parking lot.

"Plaza Independencia?"

Ten minutes later, passing even more crowded beaches, we were in the city center, where most everything was closed. It was early evening. We didn't like our chances of finding a cab after dark, and decided to taxi back to the hotel and start fresh in the morning.

"Hotel Cottage?"

Matt tried the name of the street, and the name of the hotel's fancy neighborhood.

"Hotel Cottage? Miraflores? Carrasco?"

The driver didn't understand. Matt tried to indicate on the map that we wanted to follow the coast back to Carrasco. A mile later, the driver pulled next to a group of drivers to find someone who spoke English. One person asked Matt to write down the destination, a solution so obvious it enraged us.

(During the remainder of the ride, I checked the guidebook for the spanish pronunciation of "Hotel": "o-TEL". If a Uruguayan approached my cab and asked to go to a o-TEL, I'm pretty confident I wouldn't respond with "Shopping?".)

Running on the few moments of sleep gleaned during the international flight, we elected to dine at the hotel and turn in early. Matt had a meaty sandwich. I had a salmon salad. We shared a bottle of local cabernet sauvignon. We checked our TV's 15 or so channels for the Super Bowl -- no dice. Sleep.

Monday, February 4, 2008
Montevideo, Uruguay

Matt had set his alarm to go off before dawn, in case we wanted to get up and watch the sunrise over the ocean. As it turned out, we did not. Hours later, workers disturbed our slumber. The hotel was under construction -- a jackhammer was involved. Eventually, just in time to miss the hotel's free breakfast, we got organized and left our room. We exited the hotel, crossed one street, and began to walk along the beach. Matt and I could only alternate between swimming, wading, and lying on the sand for an hour or so. The locals, who were refreshingly unashamed of their physiques, were still going strong when we left.

A taxi again dropped us downtown. Plaza Independencia was much the same as the previous evening, with every bench and many of the finer grassy areas occupied by citizenry. The guidebook recommended a parrillada (a restaurant specializing in lots of meat grilled over charcoal) nearby, so we grabbed lunch. Matt had kabobs. I had the "Baby Beef", which was turned out to be a big ribeye steak. We shared an order of "Barbequed Cheese", which was exactly like a margherita pizza sans crust.

Enough fucking around. It was time to see downtown Montevideo. We walked a few blocks, passing a couple of restaurants, where a park served as an outdoor market. Some were skilled artisans, offering paintings and handmade trinkets. Others were businessmen of questionable worth, attempting to sell rusty corkscrews and other attic-salvaged miscellany to sun-stroked tourists. We walked on.

Quiet dogs roamed the streets with no owners in sight. Many lounged in the shade. Almost every building was closed, seemingly non-operational, seemingly so for many years. We stumbled on another small park; again, every bench was occupied as people lounged in the shade and waited for something to happen. We walked to the pier, where a good number of locals were spending the day fishing. We walked to the tourist information center next to the Port of Montevideo. It was closed -- shocking. The only interesting place we came upon in several hours of walking was the small indoor mall of Mercado del Puerto, which consisted of a handful of craft kiosks and twice as many parrilladas.

Giving in to the local custom, we found a patch of grass in Plaza Independencia and made a plan: retreat to the hotel, shower, rest, and then find a place to get drunk. We walked to the nearest taxi and saw yesterday's driver waiting for us. He drove us back via the coastline, where the entire city sat on the beach drinking yerba mate.

The Carrasco neighborhood was so nice, it was hard to believe we spent the day wandering around dump of downtown. Every house was impressive, gated, and well-kept. We settled on another parrillada for dinner, sitting at a table outside, overlooking the fancy supermarket across the moderately-busy street. Still full from our huge lunch, we stuck to beer for the night.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Montevideo, Uruguay

I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep. Though not sunburned (thanks, sunscreen!), my legs itched from the shock of ultraviolet radiation. What did I have to keep me company? The Film Zone, a primarily spanish-language movie channel that dabbled in english-language films with spanish subtitles. I caught the second half of Comedy Central staple "Slackers", and kept The Film Zone locked in for the subsequent offering, "Blow Out". How could I not? The opening credits revealed a starring role by superstar John Travolta, supporting roles from John Lithgow and Dennis Franz, with the impeccable direction of Brian de Palma! Unfortunately, there was a reason I'd never previously heard of the star-studded affair: it really, really sucked. (1980s vintage Travolta should have been a big clue.)

Matt needed an ATM, and I needed antihistamine. Our first stop was the nearby gas station, which had no ATM, but did have a dumpster. The trash receptacle was not of interest to Matt or I, but it did receive attention from the horse-drawn cart parked 50 yards away. A young child was dispatched by the cart's driver to examine the dumpster's contents, and to retrieve useful waste items, such as plastic bottles.

After a brief and surprisingly simple visit to the pharmacy, Matt found his ATM, and we got a taxi to the port. Matt had purchased our tickets the previous night by telephone, after some difficulty finding an English-speaking representative of Buquebus, the company that ran ferries from Montevideo to Buenos Aires. The difficulty continued when we were told our names were not in their system. A company official -- small, steely-eyed, attractive, about our age -- stepped in; she told us that our tickets may be on the ship, and she would look for them as soon as it docked.

We waited a few hours in the terminal building. It was here where I cracked the first of the trip's many "What the hell does that mean?" jokes. The first victim was the port's cafe.

DAN: "Cafe del Puerto? What the hell does that mean?"

Sure enough, the boat held our paper tickets. More precisely, it held one ticket for a female named Matthew Rutt, and one ticket for a male named Daniel Maefef. It was enough to earn a shake of the head and a shrug from an immigration official, who waved us on to the ferry.

Each of us chose a cold, flat, breaded chicken breast with cold, fried potatoes for lunch. (Needless to say, the cafeteria's options were few.) My legs still itched, so I couldn't sleep even if there weren't kids running around the ship, screaming, or if the football team sitting near us wasn't listened to the same terrible song over and over again, the sound distorting through the headphones' tiny speakers. The inexplicable popularity of the ship's duty free shop wore on me. I was beginning to wonder if the trip was a mistake.

* * *


I'm not sure what motto the tourism ministry in Montevideo has come up with, but I would like to make a few suggestions:

1. Beaches and Stuff!
2. Sun, beaches, and that's pretty much it!
3. No need to go into town! Nothing is open anyway!

Lonely Planet's "South America on a Shoestring" dedicated a few pages to Montevideo. In those pages, they hyped the downtown area. Shame on you, Lonely Planet. Props for "Europe on a Shoestring", "China", and "Scandinavia", but you fell way short of my expectations this time. Perhaps it's time to give me a job. I can give you a rewrite in about thirty seconds.

As Ever,

* * *


*Go to relax, not for adventure.

*Stay near the coast, where you'll be spending the majority of your time. You have your choice of crowded and less-crowded beaches. We had a good experience in Carrasco at Hotel Cottage, near a less-crowded beach.

*Budget no more than 3 hours for exploring downtown, Mercado del Puerto, and the old city.


barbara said...

!magnifico! Based on your photo, it is unlikely I will ever order baby beef, but it is an awesome food picture. Although I find it distasteful, that is generally how I feel when I look at prime rib. Thank you for the photo. And thank you for saving me from some future encounter with baby beef. Carne de ninos.... Who orders that anyway?

dn said...

The waiter recommended baby beef - it was the house specialty or some shit.