Wednesday, November 26, 2008

El Palmar

A lot happens in a short amount of time traveling. It's hard to keep up. Writing about Friday on Wednesday means that I am really behind. Leaving Montevideo we took the bus to Paysandú on Uruguay's western border with Argentina, then another short bus ride over the Río Uruguay to Colón, Argentina. We wanted to see El Palmar, a national park with a lot of wildlife. We were running short on Argentinian pesos but figured we could get some at Colón.

Ah, but banks are not as easy to find as they might be and there was none close to the station. We asked at the tourist office if the town nearest the park would have a bank and took a chance that it might. From Colón the bus dropped us on the side of the road outside the little town of Ubajay where the bus stop attendant told us that the nearest bank was 40 kilometers away. Yay.

The guy running the restaurant changed one of our emergency US$100 bills for a little under the going rate and we got a remis (gypsy cab) into the park. We camped by the Río Uruguay and got to see a family of capybaras, or carpinchos, wander out of the forest. Many many vizcachas live in the campground -- they are like much bigger chinchillas with a heavy black stripe across their lower face like a Groucho Marx mustache.

It felt great to sleep out under the stars after our urban soujourn. The next morning we met 2 really nice Israeli backpackers, Assaf and Ofer, and spent the day hiking with them, into the depths of the palms and then back out to some undated ruins of giant stone ovens where quicklime seems to have played a great role.

We ate dinner in the patio of the park restaurant where the vizcachas scamper about the tables and giant toads get underfoot, sometimes fatally as Assaf found out. We also saw many beautiful birds, black and white iguanas and giant toads. We have not yet seen a ñandu, the ostrich-like native.

We started hiking out of the park Sunday morning, along the road that leads 9 miles to the entrance. About 15 minutes down the long and dusty road we hitched a ride from an incredibly nice guy named Manuel who chatted about the park, politics, Argentina. His car was amazing, with a gaucho Jesus dangling from the rearview mirror, a cracked windshield and 2 wires that he reconnected under the steering wheel while still driving when we moved from the gravel road to the highway. He ran out of gas a little while after we hit the highway and we hiked the rest of the way to the bus stop. We caught the bus to Concordia and spent the hot day walking in it and waiting for our evening bus to Iguazu Falls.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


A last post about Montevideo. In our last few days there we went to two Uruguayan graveyards. One in our neighborhood and another in the old city. They were truly astounding especially for someone who grew up going to cemetaries in New England. The only similarity is they both look wonderful as they decay.

I have decided that when I die I want a bust of myself looking very bearded and serene. Underneath I want a dozen or so statues: women, children, grown men, a priest, and possibly a winged angel, all with looks of absolute torment on their faces. Hilary hasn´t yet committed to this plan.

Here are a few pictures to give a taste:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

We're leaving already?

We're heading out for Argentina in the morning and I can't believe our sojourn in Montevideo is over. Everyone has been so kind to us here, curious about us and interested in our travels. We've said goodbye to the man at the cyber café - to us he will always be Señor Zoom. We took photos of the giggly bubbly chicas at the panaderia who all wished us good travels and told us to be careful.

We said goodbye to our friends at the planetarium and got to photograph Jupiter through the telescope eyepiece. Our lady at the lavanderia wrote us a goodbye note which she had a friend translate into English. Lavanderia became our "clean wash store." I want to post photos of all these people but haven't jumped through all the uploading hoops yet.

And we've said goodbye to our profesora and her husband, though we'll hand over the keys to her apartment tomorrow. She has been nothing but encouraging about our Spanish and wants us to take 10 minutes to email her questions whenever we hit a town with a cyber cafe. We may not be rock solid on the past subjunctive and conditional but we are miles ahead of where we started.

We expect to spend the first days in Argentina in a national park called El Palmar where we hope to see carpinchos (capybaras), among other things. For a leg of the journey up to Iguazu Falls we hope to sample a South American train ride. The falls are supposed to be spectacular, spanning the Argentine-Brazil border.

It feels as if we just got here and as if we've lived here a long time. We are lucky to have found such a lovely place and people on our first stop -- we feel like we'll always have a home in South America.

Monday, November 17, 2008

fines de semanas

We've taken two weekends away from the city -- one west to Colonia del Sacramento and one north to Punta del Diablo.

Colonia is a 17th century port on the Río de la Plata, S.A.'s version of the Big Muddy, and is across the wide river from Buenos Aires.

In its first century the town changed hands many times, control fluctuating frequently between the Portuguese and Spanish until the early 19th century when Uruguay was established.

The old town is a confluence of cobblestoned tree-lined streets leading down to the riverfront. A white balustrade lines most of the road along the river. There is an old lighthouse built on the ruins of an older convent, the old city gate and walls, and scattered cannons. We moved in to the Hostel Colonia and were promptly accosted by a sun-scorched Australian who upbraided us for spending too much on Spanish lessons.

It is a lovely town to walk through and we spent most of our time wandering the streets and stopping for a drink or a meal. This is where we met our helpful parrilla-hound Panqueque. We had a lovely glass of wine at an outside table at Garibaldi, a corner restaurant with walls hung with old-timey memorabilia -- someone's grandmother was a showgirl.

The second day we rented dread-o-bikes and doggedly pedaled them along the river, heading out of town and into the countryside. Brakeless and utterly uncared for, they made for hellish but exploitable companions. We took them out to the crumbling cement bullring that saw 8 bullfights before Uruguay outlawed bullfighting. We rode through vineyards and finally back to a watering hole on the riverbank where we downed Patricia and steeled ourselves for the ride home.

Punta del Diablo is along Uruguay's Atlantic coast. At this time of year, mid-spring, it is still mainly locals, fishermen, and inexplicable tourists like us. There is a new hostel in town, El Diablo Tranquilo, opened last year by a young (North) American couple. The hostel let us pitch our tent out back when we found out that the local campgrounds wouldn't open for another few weeks.

The beaches are remarkably lovely now, empty of people and edging up to rolling blue-green waves. We swam in the crashing surf and walked the 10 miles to a nearby fort in a local national park, one of the hostel's little dogs following us the whole way. We met lovely Dutch and Danish friends at the hostel and spent a night playing cutthroat UNO and drinking Patricia at El Diablo Tranquilo's adjacent restaurant.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bizcocho, Panqueque, y los perros de Uruguay

We have met many nice people in Uruguay, some of them dogs. There are many dogs in Uruguay. They are not the half-feral beasts I hear about in parts of Mexico and Central America. They are well fed and looked after for the most part (our teacher cooks meals for her dogs), but they have a level of freedom you don't see much in the States.

In Montevideo few people use a leash (except for the occasional professional dog walker who may have a dozen or more) and many dogs seem to just take themselves for walks with no human companion. This is especially amazing because the traffic in Montevideo is fast and follows no discernable rules. I have come close to being run down myself, but the dogs seem to fare just fine. They also feel free to pass out in the middle of the sidewalk on hot days and speak their minds in full throated barks in the early hours of the morning.

We met our first dog friend in Colonia at a parrillada where we had much too many barbequed entrails for my taste. Early in the meal we were joined by a long black dog we named Panqueque, the local word for a pancake that is more of a crepe and is usually served for dessert with dulce de leche and ice cream. He had sad intelligent eyes, bent ears, and a dignified habit of crossing his paws to look up at us as we ate. He soon ruined the dignity routine by sprawling in the cobblestone gutter by our table and covering himself in sawdust. We fed him most of our kidneys, liver, and blood sausage only when he sprawled out and ignored us, so as not to encourage begging.

Later in Colonia, Hilary and I rented rickety and nearly brakeless bikes and rode along the Rio de la Plata and out into the countyside. On our way back we stopped at a wonderful riverside watering hole and ate a giant chivito and drank a couple liters of Patricia (beer pretty much only comes in liters here). It was the kind of place Matt McGregor would love and we relaxed relentlessly. After awhile a couple came down the beach collecting shells, with two cute little dogs in tow. When they sat at a table, the littlest one, only a puppy, came over to us and we played with him a while. In Uruguay, it seems, people just assume that you like or are at least comfortable with dogs. There is no apologizing when they come up to you and demand attention. This dog was friendly and fluffy and adorable, and when the smallest conversation is an effort and often ends in confusion, it is nice to meet a dog who understands only pats and the occasional "bueno perro."

Panqueque and the little puppy were nice aquaintances, but we fell in love with Bizcocho when we visited the northern beach town of Punta del Diablo. We camped behind a hostel named El Diablo Tranquilo and played with quite a few canine hangers on our first night there. The following day we started walking along the beach to a historic fort in a national park to the north. We saw one of the dogs following a couple of surfers from the hostel. When the surfers went in the water the dog started to follow us. She ended up following us all the way to the fort which turned out to be about 10 miles away over endless beaches and through a deserted national park full of eucalyptus trees with enormous nests of squawking parrots. We were thinking of taking a bus back, but with Bizcocho with us we didn't think it was possible.

Bizcocho, named after the little sugary pastries and croissants sold in the numerous panaderias of Uruguay, was amazing. So little and so smiley, bouncing along the sand on her little legs and sending the shore birds wheeling into the sky, or bounding off through the underbrush after a rabbit with her tail curled tight, the longer hair of her ridgeline blowing in all directions, and her bent ears flopping around joyfully. Even she seemed to find it amusing when she was bit by some sort of beach bug which made her jump nearly four feet straight up in the air. She kept our energy from flagging with her enthusiasm. Only occasionally, when her panting would increase and she would start drinking the receding sea water did we find a piece of beach trash, fashion a bowl, and pour her some water out of our bottle.

Whenever we encountered others, which was rarely, she would go over and introduce herself. We overheard one man at the fort call her "precioso." One smiling soldier in the park, standing next to a sign with a picture of a dog with a big red line through it willfully ignored Bizcocho and another gruff one at the fort said she could come in but couldn't go in the barracks.

On the long walk back down the Playa Grande, if Bizcocho was half as hungry as I was she must have been famished. She found a huge old rubbery fish steak after we passed some fisherman. She was unable to make more than a tiny dent in it with her teeth, and licking it didn't seem to give her much satisfaction, but she insisted on trying to bring it home even though it was bigger than her head and she had to put it down every few minutes. I thought about taking it from her and chucking it in the ocean, but the sight of her proudly bouncing down the beach with it in her mouth was heartbreaking and I couldn't do it.

That night after a few beers and a surprisingly ruthless game of Uno with some human friends, I sat up for a while petting Bizcocho. I wanted her to sleep in the tent with us but Hilary nixed that idea. The next day she sat in the long grass near our tent as we struck it and followed us around as we got ready to leave. Goodbye was long and painful. I would love to have that little dog with us right now and to take her on our travels, but I imagine being a beach bum and a dog in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay is probably pretty heavenly and we couldn't have offered her anything better. Still we miss her.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sí, Podemos Cambiar

Hola, chicos. Hilary has kindly allowed me to post a spot today.

We spent last night watching the election streaming over the internet in the comfortable apartment of our new friends Pol and Rut, to whom we were introduced by Annie and Michel (thank you!). We didn't get back to our apartment until 4 am. This morning I wrote this:

"I am a little homesick for the first time. Not because I am unhappy here. We are having a wonderful time. But because I would love to be able to walk down the street today and see the faces of other estadounidenses.

"I am as proud as I have ever been of my country today. Not just because we elected my favorite candidate, the most interesting and exciting candidate of my lifetime. And not just because less than 50 years after the civil rights movement we have elected our first black president, as important as that is. My pride today is based on something deeper and harder to describe. I have always been interested in politics but it often seemed like a game and one disconnected from real life. We always seemed to be offered poor choices and we made poor choices. Enormous energy was spent fighting over trivialities while truly important decisions were left unmade or made without real public input.

"It seemed that most people felt estranged from the whole thing and preferred to ignore it. Five years ago, when we starting dropping bombs in Baghdad, the hot topics of discussion in my teachers' lounge were American Idol and Survivor.

"The country has changed. People are paying attention. I saw it when I visited my colleagues before leaving the States. Hilary and I saw it in almost everyone we met going door-to-door in Nevada. We saw it yesterday on the computers at El Zoom, in the pictures of people lined up for hours and reading quotes like, 'If our soldiers can spend a year in Iraq or Afghanistan, surely I can wait all day to vote.' We saw it last night streaming over the internet, video of people in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and so many other places, crying and jumping up and down. Hilary and I had the special opportunity to see it thousands of miles away in the faces of our wonderful hosts Pol and Rut who seemed to actually enjoy staying up with us well past three and listening to me babble about the vagaries of the Electoral College.

"So I am proud today because while I have always believed in the American system of government, I think it is only truly effective when the people are paying attention. People are paying attention and Barack Obama will be our next president because he made that attention the centerpiece of his campaign."

It is a special day. We are thinking of all of you. We would love you to post comments about your experiences on election day so we can feel a part of it down here in Uruguay.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day!

Mike and I have been at Zoom, our local cyber cafe, for about 3 hours now, vicariously standing in snaking lines at the polls and enjoying the buzz. We're going to pack it in for a couple hours and then meet Annie and Michel's friends Pol and Rut downtown.

Since we got to Montevideo we've been searching for a festive place to watch election returns, naively believing that in all the towns in all the world there would always be American gin joints bursting with election day fervor. Not so much. Neither the Artigas-Washington Library's binational center nor the Sheraton is observing the occasion. The U.S. Embassy froze us out with repeated no's to queries sent to a multiplicity of officers and offices.

But we didn't reckon with the kindess of our friends of friends nor with the perseverance of our Spanish teacher. Pol and Rut offered to search out a cable station airing coverage at Rut's mother's house. Then Eddy came up with a cyber cafe that stays open until 5am. We can have a convivial bilingual TV session and then go hit the computers in the wee hours.

Looking forward to this evening!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Día de Ñoquis

Food here in Uruguay is not something I am much inspired to write about. It tends to be bland and very light on the vegetables. Most things have ham on them, which isn't a bad thing. Parilla is everywhere -- meats cooked on a grill over coals.

The parilla mixta para dos that Mike and I had this weekend in Colonia del Sacramento consisted of the following: one sausage and one blood sausage; a couple strips of asado, which is a long strip of fairly tough fatty meat with short bones in it; a number of pieces of (cow?) liver; a couple of (cow?) kidneys; and one very small & good piece of grilled steak.

It is true that a dog of flexible attitude lying in the gutter next to our curbside table soon found himself outside one blood sausage and one kidney. To Mike's horror or relief I laid waste to the other kidney and all of the liver.

But this is beside the point which is ñoquis, better known in our erstwhile neck of the woods as gnocchi. According to our guidebook, the Uruguayan tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of each month dates to a time when most people were paid monthly. By the 29th they could only afford the relatively cheap potato-based food and día de ñoquis was born. I don't know if this is accurate but it is delicious.

In honor of their working-class roots we wanted to have our ñoquis at a little hole-in-the-wall but ended up in El Caburé, a modestly appointed bistro down the street. The ñoquis were fabulous, and I'm not a raving gnocchi fan most of the time. Delicious little puffs of potato, ours were spinach-based and green. My ñoquis came with a flavorful tomato sauce and a roasted chicken leg on the side. Mike's were in caruso sauce which is cream-based and incorporates mushrooms and ham. His were divine.

My only question is what happens in February? Do people go a month without their ñoquis or is the blessed event moved up a day?