Once again I took an over night bus to save myself hostel fees, and once again I didn[t manage a wink of sleep (Well maybe a few, but nowhere near 40!). I arrived at the Red Hostel in Montevideo nice and early in the morning of Monday, a bit shattered, but eager to go out and explore the city on foot. The capital of Uruguay is a small, compact city of about 1.5m inhabitants, and nicely situated on the banks of the River Plate which brings in a refreshing breeze. I walked around the city all day trying to get my bearings, and to get a sense of the city. One thing became clear immediately. Uruguayans are incredibly friendly people, very peaceful and laid back. They like to stroll around the streets, sit in doorways, in parks or on public squares chatting away, and invariably drinking from a gourd of mate tea. I am familiar with the custom of drinking the herby concoction from my time in Buenos Aires- the custom is to sip the water from the metal straw, and then refill and pass the gourd to the next person. But Uruguayans take the practise to an almost ludicrous level. They literally walk around the streets, all day long with a thermos flask and gourd in hand, taking a constant fix. I am told the drink has a mild stimulant similar to but weaker than caffeine, called mateine. Perhaps the substance is more addictive than people seem to be aware of! My only concern is what they should do if they accidentally nudge a valuable vase from a shelf, or witness a hapless Mother dropping her baby with no free hands? I suppose they helplessly watch the event unfold before their eyes, shrug their shoulders and then go on sipping at their precious herb.
I walked along The Rambla by the river, and soaked in the pleasing rays of a beautiful pre-summer[s day. The thoroughfare is marked out for joggers, and apparently I walked three miles in each direction on top of the several more miles I must have covered walking up and down the main road in the city. I visited the park, saw the main historic plazas and just tried to enjoy the tranquility of solidarity. I was asked the time by a local despite clearly not wearing a wristwatch, and it turned out to be a mere pretence for conversation. My new friend, Dani, spoke passable English and told me his girlfriend was in the British navy. He also went on to inform me that marijuana was legal in Uruguay (which I have yet to confirm, but, find hard to believe) although he certainly wasn[t overtly trying to sell me any, and he invited me to watch the big game with him (apparently River Plate were in town for a Copa libertadores game, but I wasn[t up to facing a crowd of Argentine hooligans without any sleep, least of all on my own). He also invited me for a drink in the large bar at the end of the road which he claimed to be his Father[s. I have no idea if he was trying to hustle any thing out of me, but if was he was certainly the most erudite hustler I have ever met!
I ate dinner in a nice, cheap pizzeria where the pizza normally comes in the Italian style, without any cheese on the top. I ordered the peperoni and found it to be absolutely delicious. The secret[s in the tomato sauce I[d say! The pizza with a bottle of water cost me the princely sum of one English pound, although the waiter did his best to overcharge me by 50p. The elderly couple beside me, Uruguay dwelling, Argentine 7-day aventists and proficient English speakers, informed me that this was far from the norm in this country. They went on to echo the conviction that Uruguayan[s are generally some of the kindest most genuine people you will come across, and in my limited experience I would be inclined to agree. It[s the small details like not accelerating when you try to cross the road in front of them, and not hollering and pestering in the street that make the difference.
Today was more of the same as I explored the historic Old City and the international port on foot. The city has the familiar bread and butter Spanish architecture of Buenos Aires, or Barcelona, but without much of the beautiful originality of a Gaudi building or the neoclassical Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The old city is supposed to come alive in the night but, writing on a tranquil Tuesday, I am noit sure if I will be around to apply the acid test myself. The pleasures of the day, in common with the previous one, were tepid and at best pleasant. I gave the Museum of Modern Art a try, but they were closed, ironically enough, for painting. One does, however, get a sense from the streets themselves that there is an inherent artistic streak to Montevideo, and a rampant liberalism. The virile political conscience, that capitalism ironed out long ago on our own shores, makes itself known on every corner. The only culture I have exposed myself to in my short tenure though is the personal one, the culture of the people. As the sun set on my last night in Montevideo, I watched a children[s football match on a seaside gravel pitch. It was nice way to draw the curtains on my second night, and there was even a flash of genius to behold in the smallest boy on the field. In a country that has won two world cups, and at the centre of a triumvirate of nations who have won nine, the same inate feathery ball control, deceptive swivels of the hips and audacious flair is as ingrained in the Uruguayan as much as the agricultural heritage, and penchant for mate.
Maybe it is the brashnes and immediacy of Uruguay[s neighbours that contribute to making the experience that much more exciting and edgy though. Uruguay is a great place to take a break and recharge your batteries. It would be a place conducive to reflection, and the formation of verse. It would be a wonderful place to raise a family. But exciting, it would seem, is one thing that Uruguay certainly is not. There is some thing about the place I have already come to love, and I am in the right place at the right time in terms of the weather and the current tendency towards contemplation. I am looking forward to strolling in the UNESCO protected cobbled streets of Colonia tomorrow. But Montevideos unruly older brother is calling my name from across the River Plate, and the lure of spending time with an old best friend, Buenos Aires if you hadn[t guessed, is too great.