Another night bus, another two hours more than advertised. But this time it was a blessing: had I arrived in Montevideo on a Sunday at 5am as we were supposed to, I would have had to wait outside for hours in the cold and the dark until the hostel opened at 8am. As it was, I managed to persuade them to let me in when I arrived at 7.30am.
I decided not to go to bed, as having a nap after a night bus tends to confuse my body clock, but I did take it easy with a long breakfast and a nice hot shower. I was pointed in the direction of two outdoor markets and I headed out into town to first one then the other. The first ‘feria’ was huge, filling the main street of Tristán Narvaja and many side streets, with everything from antiques to electrical parts to animals (I hate seeing dogs in particular in tiny boxes and cages, but it would be impossible to adopt them all!). The second market in the Parque Rodó was smaller and mainly had clothes. (One top said “Don’t worry, be sexy” – a great idea that sadly would not be achieved with the baggy black top on which it was written.) From there, I wandered through the fun fair (unfortunately closed) and down to the beach, though any sunbathing or swimming was out of the question at this time of year.
Now there’s a strange habit in some countries of South America, mainly Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina – very strange to those of us not used to it, though incredibly commonplace for those who are. It’s drinking mate: well, not really the drinking of the tea itself, but the act of carrying it around with you everywhere you go. Men and women on the street, on the bus, at the national park, will be holding the typical gourd in one hand, periodically sucking through the metal straw, while clutching a big thermos under the other arm. Others carry special cases to hold both the thermos and a big bag of the yerba mate for continuous refills throughout the day. The closest parallel would be if Brits started carrying around thermos flasks with Earl Grey tea; but I also have visions of The French carrying bottles and glasses of wine, Germans with barrels of beer, Russians with bottles of vodka… Not that mate is alcoholic or even particularly stimulating. In the cold of the winter months I can definitely understand the appeal, but otherwise I’m at a loss to understand the addiction.
Anyway, on the bus on the way back into town, I was accosted by a student from Mexico who had recognised my foreigner status (what gave me away?!) and asked if he could join me. So we had lunch together – ‘chivito’, a national dish of Uruguay that consists of meat with bacon, cheese, egg and mayonnaise on a pile of fries, a veritable health bomb; went for a guided tour at the Teatro Solís; and finally wandered down the Rambla all the way back to the fun fair and took the same bus back into town again. Montevideo is packed with beautiful architecture including many gorgeous art deco buildings from the 1920s, and its location just across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires makes it an appealing and accessible destination both for ‘porteños’ (the residents of Buenos Aires) and for us tourists who have come to Argentina.
Back at the hostel, the usual eclectic mix of people: a German woman (we spoke Spanish!) who had just moved to Montevideo for work, her husband arriving later that evening; a couple visiting from Chile; and José from the north of Spain. After twelve years as a social worker in Spain, José had quit his job and spent two years volunteering in Asia. Now he’ll do the same in South America, after which he plans to go to Africa. He spoke incredibly passionately about his work and the people he got to know as he worked on different projects; and he advocated the importance of being grateful for what you have and living in the moment.
And that’s pretty good advice, I think!