Sabbatical 2012 [Days 10-11] Montevideo. North Eastern Block.

Travel

From Colonia, Montevideo is best reached by bus. The bus line was quite nice – featuring comfortable seats and even had wi-fi on board that had a better connection than our Bed & Breakfast. The ride is scheduled to be about 2.5 hours. I was expecting this would be a fairly direct route, but we seemed to stop in places that didn’t even have a town. Just random spots on the highway along-side farms. The landscape passing by gave us a demonstration of many farms, cows, horses, pigs, and pretty much every kind of pastoral view you could imagine. Again, it felt like driving through Ohio – except with random scatterings of palm trees along the road. The landscape didn’t align with these palm trees or vineyards, but somehow it all fit together in its own way.We got to Montevideo in the scheduled time without any issues.

Pizza & Food

The first food I wanted to try in Montevideowas the pizza. This is largely in part due to Christine Hebl’s blog about their trip to Montevideo, and how they stumbled into a place and ordered pizza that looked funny but tasted good. Well, we actually sought out pizza, but the first place we wanted to eat was closed, so we wandered to the next restaurant which also had pizza and looked almost exactly like what Matt & Christine had ordered. It was indeed quite delicious – almost like a giant cheesy bread. Alex got a sandwich which he said was amazing.

 

The City

Alex noted that Montevideo felt like the Eastern Europe of the region. Perhaps it was like coming to Ljubljana after visiting Milan. It was quieter, cleaner, people were friendly and seemed slightly less stuck up than their Buenos Aires counterparts (not that wee have any complaints about people in Buenos Aires!) The buildings are shorter, and there are lots and lots of monuments dedicated to heroes and politicians of various sorts. In centers of Plazas. Mounted on horses, of course.


There are also lots of naked baby sculptures.

We noticed was that you definitely feel much less enclosed in Montevideo than Buenos Aires or Santiago. For instance, from the road our hotel was on, we could look straight down the road and see the ocean. If we walked the opposite way up the road, we’d reach the main street which seemed to run along the highest point of the peninsula encasing the old part of Montevideo – the “barrio historico”. If you walked across that street, you’d see the ocean on the north end of the peninsula. Even if you got lost, you couldn’t get too far.

Navigating this city was thus quite easy. You have clear boundaries (water) which are visible from most blocks, and you knew whether you were heading to or away from the water based on the slope of the road. Roads were given pretty simple one-word names and were clearly marked. The signs all featured about a 3” strip of advertisement space across the top. Usually it was purchased by some cell phone carrier, but occasionally, you’d see something like “Pizza 2039-2927”. Mmm, generic anonymous street sign pizzaria.

Doing our initial walkaround of the city, we finally saw some guys with machine guns standing in front of a bank, and they even had a chaser car for the bank money collection. Unlike most men carrying machine guns, these guys were all smiling and almost giggling the whole time at their own job. Its as if they thought their purpose was somewhat overkill, and they smiled like “Yeah, we’re Ocean’s-11-awesome”.

We also saw lots of horse-drawn… garbage trucks.


The following day, we woke up and got some food. I hated my omelette, but Alex liked his. We walked the Rambla on the southern shore of the peninsula. Originally, we hoped to go for a jog down this stretch but it was freezing cold outside and neither of us were too excited about running in the cold sea breeze. The views were nice, the beaches deserted, and the number of people jogging were surprisingly few for a city that size. We walked to Pocitos beach, which was a decent hike, then back in towards the city where we found an open-air food market in the middle of a street. There were some gorgeous houses along the main avenue which I very much enjoyed walking along. Until I was too tried, and it was time to take a cab back to the city center and sit in a café for a while.

We headed to the market by the port, which wasn’t so much of a market as it was a giant building stuffed with lots of Parilla restaurants, all serving basically the same meats cooked on open fire flames. Alex couldn’t resist, and ordered a half-size plate of sausage. The waiter/cook was delited to have us there, and asked us where we were from, and gave me a free plate of French Fries because he felt bad that I had nothing to eat while Alex was trying the meat (I didn’t mind). People are really so nice. As much as I don’t care for meat, the parilla was an interesting thing to view. They had an amazing system in place for grilling meat – I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Walking back to the hotel, we came across a little wine store that looked like they may do wine tastings. Why not? It ended up being a fantastic experience. There were two very nice women working at the store, and the one giving us the tasting set up a little plate of bruschetta for us to have with the wine, and some chocolates to try with the liquors. The wines were an amazingly different Sauvignon Blanc which had far more fruity notes than I’ve ever had in a Sauv Blanc. The red was some hybrid varietal between … Petit Verdot (I think?) and Merlot. It was chocolaty, tannic, and delicious. The liqueurs we tried were a tannat liquor – similar to port, and a dulce de leche liqueur, similar to Bailey’s but without that funky finish. Everything was superb. Service was great, and we learned a lot and had some good laughs with the ladies.

We were talking about Uruguay, and the small population. She said they needed more people – and if we knew anybody looking for a country to live in to send them to Uruguay – they’ll happily take them, even pay them to immigrate. Perhaps Uruguay should post ads along the US/Mexico multimilliondollar border and provide a free cruise that departs from the Rio Grande. I can’t think of anywhere else that may have lots of immigrants looking for an ideal place.

Similar great conversation was experienced at our hotel, Hotel Iberia. The owner was so friendly and funny. We chatted with them for some time before Alex went off to grab even more BBQ with his friend from middle school in Saudi Arabia. I had leftover gnocchi from the night before, and sipped some Tannat in the hotel, occasionally chatting with the hotel employees. It couldn’t be more enjoyable, really.

Back to Buenos Aires for a single night before we head off to a flight to Rio de Janeiro. Time to practicar o português para falar muito bom. Uff, this is going to be a bit more challenging, linguistically!

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 9] Colonia de Sacramento de Fotografía

After several days in large cities, it was time to do something a bit slower paced. Why not head to another small UNESCO town in Uruguay?

Travel

Colonia de Sacramento is located along the southern Uruguayan shore, about 2 hours across the bay from Buenos Aires. There is a high-speed ferry that gets you there in about an hour. The ferry station in Buenos Aires was immaculate and modern – and featured all of the luxuries of an airport, including baggage checking and duty-free shops. Unlike an airport, there is one major difference – customs and immaculate are taken care of before you even board the boat. I actually much prefer this method because usually the last thing you want to do when you first arrive in a new country is deal with their bureaucracy and paperwork.

The ferry was fast, comfortable, clean, and featured its own large and quite popular duty free shop. The ferry thus smelled like a perfume store. We got some hot beverages and Dulce De Leche chocolate snacks.

We arrive. We get a cab to take us the whopping 4-5 blocks down the street which had recently been renamed from “Florida” to 15-something-syllables-too-many of a person’s name. It was definitely a change for the worse. We got to our Bed & Breakfast, El Viajero. The staff was very friendly, the location was super quaint and inviting. This is exactly where to go to catch a break if you’ve been staying in cities where you can’t see the horizon.

Photogenics

I’ve come to realize that “UNESCO Heritage Location” really just translates to “photographer’s dream-town”. It is virtually impossible to take a bad photo in one of these cities. Even the cliché photographs such as staring down at your feet are totally acceptible, because you know what? Underneath those feet are 600 year-old cobblestone roads. Look at the texture!

How many photos can we take of windows offset to the side with a nice dooorway in a semi-colorful stucco-walled home? The answer is lots. How about some photos of the lighthouse? From the lighthouse? Oh look, some dogs sleeping and rolling around in the sun! An old fisherman on the pier with the sun setting behind him over the bay. A cat hiding in the breakwall. An old trailer. A trailer being loaded with chopped wood to fuel a parilla grill in a restaurant. Finally, its dark, and now foggy. Look how the light streaks across the plaza? A loose horse that is roaming around the park next to the shore.

Every 30 seconds brings a moment begging you to click the shutter. And you do. Colonia is like a drug that takes over your body and controls your eyes. Combined with a camera, it is a dangerous place. It almost felt scripted, as if a photographer or director had set everything up just right for the ultimate visuals and timing.

Editing photos and selecting the best ones becomes the biggest challenge.

We wandered around at night to find a place to eat, and it was much like wandering around Burton at midnight, except that people were actually out – sort of. Restaurants were packed and lively, but the streets were desolate and silent. The air smelled like burning wood, and reminded me of Christmas time in Burton. It was eerie after coming from Buenos Aires – where people were constantly walking the streets. It was a welcome change, though, and we were greatful to be able to take a breather and catch up on sleep before heading off to the largest city in Uruguay the following day – Montevideo.

Sabbatical [Day 6] Bankrupt Airline

Go directly to Buenos Aires. Do not pass Montevideo. Lose $500

Alex and I couldn’t seem to find the check-in station for Pluna Airlines at the Santiago airport. Finally, we decided we should ask at the information booth. We were told “I’m sorry, Pluna doesn’t exist anymore”.

What? Our airline doesn’t exist? No puede ser! I asked again – she again said something to the same effect. The airline went bankrupt two weeks ago, and there are no longer flights to be taken. They were supposed to be calling passengers to arrange alternate travel arrangements, but we were certainly never given any notice. No e-mail, no phone call, nothing. So much for basic customer service.

So here we are, at the airport with a phone number of a now-defunct, employee-less airline. I bought travel insurance, but Alex didn’t. We have different credit card travel insurance coverage. So, now what? I don’t want to spend another day in Santiago trying to figure stuff out or wandering around a smoggy city. We went to a random (TAM) airline and asked how much it was to go to Montevideo or Buenos Aires. They directed us to LAN, where a very friendly lady explained the Pluna situation in a bit more detail, and offered us a round-trip flight to Buenos Aires for about $400/person. Considering the circumstances, we weren’t in a huge position to complain about that price or availability, and made the reservation which we had until 12am to decide whether or not we actually wanted to pay for.

Off to a cafe with wifi. Cortado y té caliente, por favor. What does one do without internet in a situation like this?
Alex called the Buenos Aires hotel to re-book it to today via Skype. I called the Montevideo hotel to cancel it for today via T-mobile’s wifi calling. For this change, we may still be charged a night penalty. I called the credit card company to see about cancelling the charges to Pluna airlines, which they seemed to suggest would be no problem. We’ll see whether or not my travel insurance or credit card covers the price difference for the plane, or cancelled hotel reservation costs or anything.

So, travel disaster was mostly averted. We’re out some extra cash (thanks, Argentine reciprocity fee!) Our Montevideo/Buenos Aires itinerary seems to be reversed. We don’t yet know how we’ll be getting to Rio de Janeiro since that, too, was supposed to be on Pluna airlines. Here’s hoping we find something fairly inexpensive last-minute.

This was all a very eye-opening experience. Several years ago, I was baffled when I heard that Mexicana Airlines failed, and suddenly completely stopped service. No flights were in operation, employees went jobless, and brand new airplanes sat unused, essentially seized by the government. In the US, our airlines seem to go bankrupt every 15 years or so. You could probably set your calendar year by it. However, when our airlines fail, we provide a safety net called Chapter 11 Bankruptcy which allows the company to continue to operate under a highly regulated and monitored mode. This way, people don’t lose their jobs, passengers don’t lose their transportation, and the repercussions aren’t felt throughout the hotels, airports, taxi services, and entire tourism industry.

As costly, awful, frustrating and annoying as it is when companies go bankrupt, I’m now convinced that letting large companies like that fail is absolutely the worse way to go for both the social being and economic welfare of a state. Perhaps that little piece of law is part of what makes the US such a strong nation. Way to go, lawmakers & economists!

So long, Santiago. And so long, Pluna. You inconsiderate and incompetent cabrones.