URUGUAY

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SOLIS.  Astrid’s ancestral summer house lies 50 minutes from Montevideo and 30 from Punta del Este, across from Argentina on El Rio de la Plata.  It is so wide you can easily forget it is a river, because you can’t see across it to the opposite bank..  It has a small tidal movement, and people surf on its waves.   The lawn sweeping up from the river is very green, and a forest of Eucalyptus and Pine lies at the back of the long garden.  It has been here for about 60 years, I gather, as it was Astrid’s grandfather who bought the property and built the house. 

The house in Montevideo is in a good neighborhood not far from the river beaches, and includes a swimming pool, a maid, and a gardener.  The maid and gardener are paid about $2.00 US an hour, which gives you some idea of the local economy.  It is really a different world over here.  Here, as in Argentina, the maids in the hotels wear black or maroon dresses with white aprons and caps, while all the other staff, like receptionists and luggage tenders and the concierges, wear smart suits and snappy white shirts.  Of course, you leave tips for everything you do and are happy to give them, as you can only imagine how they survive.  In Argentia and here in Uruguay, I feel very rich.  I am very rich.

But security is tight everywhere.  Houses are equipped with alarms, windows are barred and shuttered.  You do not leave the house without locking up and closing, as the break-ins are apparently more opportunistic than organized.  The other day, Astrid and I went to her local hair salon for a little pampering, and the big excitement there was a break- in the night before.  The thieves had somehow sawn a circle into the plate glass window, pushed it through, and stolen —- a radio. 

Here in Uruguay, men with horse- drawn carts patrol neighborhoods in search valuable rubbish, like plastic and glass to recycle, and I suppose the occasional bonanza of  a discarded television or piece of furniture.  In Bariloche, our guide had told us that about 300 families live off the dump there, earning a bout 900 argentinian pesos a month.  That’s the equivalent of $300.00.  Who said there is no money in recycling?

In the old town of Montevideo we walked along streets lined by beautiful 18th- century buildings with intricate wrought-iron grills, some refurbished, some still dilapidated.  It is apparently possible to  buy an apartment, already done up, for less than $50,000 US.  The atmosphere is of an up and coming city emerging from its poverty-stricken past into a hopeful, thriving neighborhood.  We pass a few shops with beautiful hand-crafted items, like sweaters and cardigans knitted with fine Merino wool, carved sculptures, bright pottery, as well as old-fashioned general stores with everything from mouse-traps to pots and pans to nails. 

We lunch in the Mercado del Puerto, which was once the meat market of Montevideo.  It is full of stalls, high wooden beams, a huge carved wooden clock, noise and bustle from the bars and restauranats.  We sit just outside in the fresh air, and order an Asado which consists of grilled sweet-breads (delicious),chorizo, another kind of less spicy Uruguayan sausage, blood sausage, and beef.  We will eat lots of beef here, as we did in Argentina.

We are preparing to have an Asado for lunch today here in Solis.  There is a sort of summer house in back of the house, glassed in walls which you can open wide, with a big brick grill at one end.  Jonathan is preparing a fire at one end, and when the wood is down to coals, he will pull the coals under the grill, which is at a vertical angle, to cook the food. 

There is also a ‘horno’ in back, which hasn’t been used in a couple years.  I made some bread dough the other day, and we tried to bake it and a chicken, but we didn’t light the fire early enough and everything just tasted of smoke.  Not the nice smoky taste of grilling, but thick, sharp smoke.  We ate some of it anyway, and threw away the rest.  I’d still like to try again,though. 

EL CALAFATE AND PERITO MORENO

A fifty-five minute plane ride over tan folds of suede hills, then desert sand and sage will bring us to El Calafate.  This land looks a lot like the American southwest, but instead of flat topped mesas of red and ochre, black, jagged mountain peaks surround the valley.

We are met at the airport by our driver, who does not speak English, but we learn that we have an 80 km drive to our hotel by the Perito Moreno glacier. I do manage to understand that we are passing a 70,000 acre ranch owned by an English family, the Browns. I ask if they raise cattle, he says somethng I don’t understand, and we settle for goats. Not too sure I got that one right.

Lago Argentino borders the road. It is huge, and of a blue I have seen no where else. It isnt aqua, exactly, or turqoise, or blue. It is opaque and chalky. I ask the driver about the color, and he says it is that color because of the glacier. Later, when we see the glacier, we realize it is true. I now know the meaning of ice blue.

As we round a bend near the end of our journey, the driver says, "Look!!" He sounds proud and excited, as if he has not seen this hundreds of times. It is the glacier, the wall of spires which is Perito Moreno. We gasp. It is stunning.

At the hotel, you look out on the glacier from every room, including the common rooms. The hotel is spacious and light, all wood, an architecture between ranch and chalet. Its tall, wide windows look out upon the waters of Brazo Rica, an arm of Lago Argentino, the blueblack hills beside it, and the dominating mass of the glacier. The hotel is called Los Notros, after the name of a flower which grows there.  It is a hotel which is run by young people learning the hotel business, all under 30.  The hotel itself is built of recycled wood, and so is the furniture; the water comes from snow melt tumbling down the mountain, the heating system from gas cylinders, and there is no concrete anywhere.  It blends nicely with its surroundings, and everyone is once again smiling and kind.  .

We climb three staircases up the mountain to our cabin. We are all admiration for the young man or men who will bear our luggage up all these steps. The climb is good for us, though, and in our cabin we sit and look at the view before dinner. The glacier is a presence, a looming city of blue and white gleaming towers inexorably sliding toward the valley. You can’t take your eyes off of it for long. Its color changes from hour to hour, depending on the strenght of the sun, the clouds, the time of day

We have an excellent dinner in the central dining room. The menu is set, and included in the price of the room, so you don´´t have to spend too much time thinking about it.  This hotel is 50 km frm the nearest town, El Calafate, and yet the food is fresh, copious, and exquisite. The staff are smiling and helpful, as they all seem to be here in Argentina. At 10:30 pm we are ready for bed, but it isn’t yet dark and we are drawn again to the view, to watch darkness fall slowly over the mass, whiter now in the last dusky moments of daylight.  It seems to grow as its whiteness looms, and the black mountains fade into the blackness of the night.

The Beagle Channel

This channel, which cuts clean through Tierra del Fuego, is named after the first ship to navigate it. the first English ship, that is, and the ship was named Beagle because of Queen Victoria’s fondness for these dogs. So the Argentinians are stuck with it.

The clouds are low, so we don’t get views of the mountains today. We do come very close to Alice Island – I don’t know why it’s called Alice – after the bookj? There are after all enormous sea lions bellowing dominance over harems of females lazing on the rocks, looking utterly bored by it all. The females look very cuddly, with velvety, light brown fur and big,soft brown eyes.

There are also Imperial Cormorants, who look like penguin ancestors. Their feathers are black and white, and they stand very upright. They can still fly, but they like to waddle up the rocks, helping themselves along on the steeper rocks with their wings. Why these animals have chosen one or two specific islands out of all the other islands around here is a mystery.

Back at the hotel, we have a hot shower and go for a hotel meal. the chef here is very good, and we order regional specialities, the King crab (not as good as Alaskan, to my mind), and Merluzo Negro, a fish taken from deep down under the sea, which is the best fish I have ever tasted.

ˇomorrow, off the Calafate and the glaciers.

The National Park and the Beagle Channel

We set off in the morning in a van with Veronica and our driver. We are joined by a family of 5 noisy Germans, but Veronica, a lovely girl with yards and yards of curly black hair, has a German mother.  She manages to tame the boisterous family, and so we can hear her spiel on the flora and fauna and history of the park.  The Germans take the steam train ride, the souternmost railway in the world, the TRain at the End of the World, but Gonzalo told us it wasn´t worth it, so we don´t.   It is packed with busloads of tourists, so we are delighted when Veronica deposits us on a secluded, spectacular bay on the channel.  We climb a green, mossy patch at the edge of the water, protected by twisting trunks, granite outcroppings, and tiny grassy glades.  A pair of Magellan ducks stand at the edge of a rock by the water, who edge a little farther away as we approach. 

The sky is shades of gray, charcoal, blue, pale white,and  the water has that silvery glint we see here.  Tree trunks and branches are dark shapes outlined against the silver and gray, but green moss, grass, dark green leaves, and yellow lichen soothe the eye.  A flock of small birds is startled by our approach, but soon settle again.  we hate leaving here, but dutifully walk back to the van, where Veronica is about to come looking for us. 

We are driven to the end of the Pan American highway. It starts in Alaska and ends up here, by the water, which, if you cross it, would take you to Antarctica.
After touring the park, which is beautiful with lakes and streams, evergreen trees which are nothing like pinces but have small, round, waxy leaves, and all kinds shrubs and berries. I taste a kind of blueberry, which means I will return to Ushuaia some day.
We are deposited in town for lunch, before our boat tour. We lunch in a nice looking cafe and have a terrible hamburger, but get a great look at the town from our second floor table by a window. The town looks like I imagine an Alaskan town would look – tinny, false front stores, all looking somehow temporary – and of course many shops filled with tourist tat. Nevertheless, I buy a warm hat that says Ushuaia on it, and warm gloves. Veronica admired my striped ones from the Gap, so I gave them to her.

THE END OF THE WORLD

USHUAIA, 7 Febrero.

Three and one half hours and 1700 miles later, we are in a different world.  Buenos Aires is all glitter and thin, beautiful women and men and designer everything.  Ushuaia is silver water, dark pines, snow capped mountains.  The people on the plane going there are shorter, darker, more plump, and when we arrive at the small airport, the families and friends waiting are more of the same, in jeans, sweat shirts, anoraks, and trainers. 

The approach is Ushuaia´s airstrip is hair raising. 
We descend below the thick cloud cover to find our wingtips skimming the jagged, snowy peaks next to the plane.  The water below is clear, so we can see the underwater portion of the granite islets which emerge. This is the Beagle Channel, which cuts through La Tierra del Fuego from Argentina to Chile.  Bernard jokes That  the water is clear because it is too cold for anything to grow.

The snow line stops in a perfect line on all the black mountains around the shining silver water. 
We have escaped banging against any of the peaks, and now look down at a very, very short runway.  At either end there is water.  We clutch each other´s hands and say prayers of gratitude that it is not windy or foggy.  The water is very close.  The plane banks steeply to turn, then descends quickly, hits the runway, and manages to stop before we tumble off the edge. 

We are about 750 miles from Antarctica.  The South Pole.  An image of a red and white striped barber pole always flashes in my mind when I hear the words.  Some book from my child hood, no doubt.  Anyway, I now wish we were going there.  Next time, maybe.  Anyway, it will be light until 11 pm as a result, and we are told to be sure to close our drapes so we can sleep. 

Our guide and driver are waiting to drive us up to Las Hayas, our hotel up on the hill.  We drive through the ¨suburbs´ on unpaved roads, made hazardous and slow by potholes and very fat sleeping policemen to slow you down if the potholes don’t. We will not see a paved road here, except in the center of the ramshackle center of town. , There is no architectural harmony here, only a mish mash of slanted, corrugated roof tops, Swiss chalet type wooden houses, concrete breeze blocks houses, and several unfinished frames here and there.  The sky is gray and the clouds are lowering. We need our warm jackets.  Our guide, VEronica, says it snowed yesterday, we are lucky.  It is summer.

A little more Buenos Aires –

We visit other parts of the city, including a very colorful area where the corrugated iron houses are painted bright green, red, yellow;  any color which is available in left over paint, it seems.  At least, that was the origin of the color near the dock.  This is Caminitos, an area of touristy shops and music and energy, plus a street devoted to art stalls with lots of paintings, etchings, collages of the houses in the area itself, plus tango poses.  That’s pretty much the entire range of subjects.

At the end of this street is the dock, not much to look at and yet still a working boat yard.  It is called La Boca, where the river Plate meets a tributary whose name I don’t remember. 
Adjacent to the docks, under the railway bridges and along the river, is a shanty town of unpainted corrugated tin shacks where children play listlessy in the dirt.  It is in stark contrast to the opulence of La Recoleta. 

Gonzalo told us that medical care is free, and I am very glad of that.  Universities, he says are also free.  Good for Argentina. 

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

We step into a warm, humid night – or morning, rather, as it is 1:00 a.m. , shaky with the fatigue of a 17 hour day, dressed in London wool slacks and cardigan (removable).  Gonzalo, the man who will be our guide tomorrow, is there with a sign marked HALL.  We nearly cry with gratitude.  The thought of dealing with taxis and addresses  in Spanish is way too much, at the end of this long day.

The hotel is 45 minutes away so Gonzalo tells us about our schedule next day and chats about Argentina.  He is very friendly and nice, as is the driver.  The Hotel Alvear Palace is magnificent, and as we drive into the entrance, seems to swarm with young men in black tails and white gloves eager to help us out of the car, fetch our bags, guide us to reception.   I am ashamed of my blue suitcase, which, though it is new, is held closed by a strap as it tends to pop open!!  Anyway, no one looks disdainful, they remain friendly and helpful.

The room includes a butler to cater to your every possible need.  Roses are everywhere, chocolates on the pillow, fruits with plate, knife, fork, and napkin.  We just about take in some of these details before we crash. 

Gonzalo meets us at 9:30 Am, after our copious and delicious breakfast including just about anything you could want for breakfast.  Two kinds of scrambled eggs, bacon, tiny spicy sausages, ham, salmon with 4 sauces, the best croissants anywhere, all kinds of breads, crullers, scones, puff pastry filled with dulce de leche, a sort of creamy caramel, fruits, cereals, yogurt, cheese, and freshly squeezed orange juice. 

It is sunny and bright, and we are driven along spacious avenues and beautifully landscaped parks, to start with.  This is Recoleta, the best neighborhood in B.A., where all the embassies are located, as well as private residences, along with museums.  The wide, tree-lined avenues recall Paris, as does the wrought iron balconies and the building design.   B.A. was in fact laid out by Haussman, who also rebuilt Paris, so there is no coincidence here. 

The Avenue de Liberador (I’ll check the spelling), is 9 lanes wide – in one direction.  The whole of this area looks prosperous, clean, well-kept, beautiful.  We go to the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried, along with the rich and famous from 150 years.  There are fresh flowers on her tomb.  Our guide tells us there are always fresh flowers there. 

We also visit the municpal building where she and Juan Peron delivered speeches to the people.  I expected to see Madonna, but  Gonzalo says that Eva Peron actually spoke from a different balcony than the one in the film.

OFF TO URUGUAY

Tomorrow morning we’re off to Heathrow Airport at 5:00 AM, leaving for Buenos Aires via Madrid.  We have a wonderful trip planned, which includes Tango in B.A. and glaciers in Patagonia.  From B.A. we’ll go to Tierra del Fuego, then back up slowly to Buenos Aires, and from there to Montevideo.  There we will visit Jonathan and Astrid, Lucia and Mia.  We are very excited about this trip. 

 

Will not, though, be taking the computer, so  will be back in touch at the end of February.  Unless I get the chance to borrow Jono’s computer in Montevideo, that is.  A Dios.