Uruguay Day Eleven

PUNTA DEL ESTE-PUNTA DEL DIABLO: Waking in time to do what I needed to do before leaving Punta del Este, I quickly organised myself for the unexpected change in day and made the bus to Punta del Diablo. A small fishing village with only a handful of people living here permanently, everything about the place looks like it has fallen straight out of the pages of a story book. What an interesting place to stop.

The Morning
After a very late night last night I did not expect to be awake in time to see the sunrise. For some reason, when I woke I was completely awake, so knowing that sleep was now defeated, I resigned myself to getting up. After the morning routines and packing everything away, I still had time to wander down to the beach and watch the sun rise. How beautiful it is to be soaked in the warming rays of the sun as it rises above the horizon.

Before returning to the hostel, I stop into the locutorio and start writing up the details of the day before. It takes longer than I first expected and before long I am racing against the clock to try and complete my story before the bus leaves. With only twenty minutes before departure, and over six blocks to walk carrying a backpack, I finally admit defeat, minutes before completing the whole thing.

A Driving Experience
I had originally planned to leave today, but after the late night expected to sleep in and miss the bus. When I did not sleep in, it seemed perfect to continue with my original plans. So when I returned to the hostel, I noticed the girl that was running the place sitting in her new car with the engine running. Walking over, I tell her that I am leaving now and thank her for everything, wishing her well as I head into the hostel.

After retrieving my backpack from the hostel and leaving the key at the front desk, I return to the street to see the car still there. The girl is trying to take off forward but seems to have more success in going backward still. I watch for a little while, and consider that perhaps she might want some assistance, so I knock on the window.

She looks over and smiles, and opens the door for me. I am about to ask if she wants any help but before I can, she asks if I would like a lift to the bus station. There was only about fifteen minutes left now, so I jumped at the offer and was quickly sitting in the front passenger seat with my bag in the back. I did not know up until this point, that this was the first car that she had ever driven. I was about to find out quickly.

It did not take long before I worked out that the problem with going backward, was not the gears, but the clutch. She would not release it enough for it to grab. With the pedal only half way out she assumed that the car was not in gear because it was not moving forward. It was very clearly in gear however. Eventually, with me using the handbrake and offering some coaching assistance, we started moving forward.

Once we started on our way, I expected a normal journey. I guess it was in that we made it there. Perhaps it was fortunate that we only reached second gear, and crawled along at 20kms per hour. At several intersections other cars were forced into giving way to us when we showed no signs of changing our crawling but constant pace. At least they had time to consider their options.

Catching the Bus
On reaching the bus station, I thank my hostel girl for the ride and we part in the traditional way of friends, with a kiss on the cheek. She then heads off at the same crawling pace as before, causing me to smile at her willingness to learn on the main roads. I consider that perhaps this is the only way people learn to drive in Uruguay, but do not really know.

At the ticket counter, I am told that I simply buy my ticket once onboard the bus. Every bus has a conductor and it is possible to buy your ticket directly from them. I noted that there was only a few minutes left before the bus was scheduled to arrive. If I had not received the lift I would still have been walking and may have missed the bus.

With a three or four hour bus ride ahead of me, I stop at the cafeteria and buy some breakfast, chatting with the guys there while I wait for my bus to arrive. Hardly finishing what was before me, the guys tell me that the bus has arrived. It was time to go.

Punta del Diablo
A little fishing village with a tiny population of permanent inhabitants, Punta del Diablo (Devil’s Point) has started to develop a name for itself as a place to go to get away from things. This name is highly deserved too, as the beaches are naturally formed with large sand dunes behind them, and away from the village there are no signs of development at all.

As a result of this reputation, the population of the village swells many times over during summer, filling with tourists. The fishermen who work hard on the boats all winter, turn their hands to working in areas related to tourism during the summer months. The money gained during summer allows some people to continue to live through winter without having to work.

It is certainly not a very developed place, with dirt roads forming the main path between all of the houses, some of which are nothing more than a shack. Only a few places, the more recent ones, have started to take on the form of a well built house. All of the others have varying levels of completeness to them, and many home to the locals.

The houses ranged from wooden structures leaning strongly sideways, to brick sheds with a few rooms, and any combination in-between. Roofs of straw, tin and clay keep the rain out, with new straw stacks for the next roof sitting out in the fields drying.

The character of this place is unique, like stepping back in time many years. It now has a water and electricity supply and has even grown to include a local school, all recent additions to this traditional village of fishermen.

Arriving In Town
The bus dropped me off right in the middle of town. A dead end road for all intents and purposes. With my backpack slung on my back, it was obvious I was a tourist here. Looking around I could see very few people, and I had little idea where to head to find somewhere to stay.

There was a lady sitting on a bench just near me with a girl next to her. I thought it would be best to ask her about hotels here. Once she finds out that I do not know the place, she tells me that she has a flat that she rents out if I am interested. When I reply that I am not certain, she says that I can leave my bag there and then look around the place for something else if I like. I agree.

The flat is a great little place, barren and basic, but sufficient, and the price is also very good. It seemed to me that this was a great place to camp out while here, so I tell the landlady that I will take this place. She is surprised and asks if I am sure I do not want to look around the place first. I am sure, so we conduct our transactions and I have a place to stay.

I was about to find out much later that this particular place housed one of the more influential and well known members of the village. By staying here, I was about to be accepted more warmly by everyone than if I had chosen any other place.

The Artists Fair
Locking the door of my flat with a padlock, I pocket the key and with my side-bag over my shoulder head down toward the beach. I pass many restaurants and shops, but they are all closed except one. From what I can work out, this is actually the main business street, but there was not a lot of business happening here.

Reaching the beach, I notice a scattering of stalls open along a building created for that very purpose. The one that caught my eye was actually food related. My favourite food of Tortas Fritas was on sale.

There was nobody in the booth when I approached it, but a loud voice from behind startled me. It was calling the name of the lady who ran that stall. When she arrived, I asked about the Tortas Fritas and she said that it would only take a moment. When she lit the stove and started to warm the pot for cooking it was obvious that I was going to have to wait a long time for my food.

To pass the time, I wandered around the different windows, asking for prices of different items. The prices were quite high, something that surprised me for a place like this, especially during winter. Even so, there were some nice items that I would have liked to have purchased.

It was only later that I discovered in my conversations with the local fishermen, that my side-bag alerted everyone that I was a tourist. As I approached anyone while wearing that bag, it was likely that I would be charged at a higher price. As soon as I learned that, I ensured my bag remained in the house from then on.

The Beach
Having passed the main point with the stalls of local art I then wandered along the beach filled with fishermen and their boats. This was a little beach encased on each end by rocks with firm sand down near the water and very soft and loose sand up around the fishing boats.

There are many orange and white fishing boats and fishermen are in or around some of them engaged in various activities. Some are painting, while others are in the process of repairing parts of their boat. A couple of men are sorting out their fishing nets, folding and stacking them in preparation for the next time they head out.

Over the set of rocks at the end of this beach I find a much larger and longer beach that led ultimately to another headland of rocks. Behind the beach was large hills of sand dunes disappearing into the distance. The village houses reached only a short way along this beach before stopping right up against the dunes.

As I wandered along the edge of the water, I noticed that there was only three other people on the beach. One was fishing while the other two were a couple wandering back from the point. It was a quiet place and very pleasant to be here.

To the side, in amongst the first section of sand dunes, a group of young children were playing on sand boards. Climbing to the top of the peak, one or two of them would sit down, straddling what was essentially a snowboard, and then zoom down the hill as far as they could. It looked like a lot of fun.

The Other Point
By the time I reached the far point there seemed to be nobody around. There was a trail over the point that led from the beach up over the sand dunes to the other side. Wanting to see the other side, I started through the fluffy white sand that made walking very slow and arduous.

The sight on the other side was worth the effort. As I looked out from the top of the sand dunes, I could see a beach stretching out for miles and not a person to be seen nor a hint of civilisation. It was one of the most perfect sights I had seen. Below me the water crept quietly up to the rocky sides of the point forming a pool of liquid blue and green, quiet and still enough to be a mirror.

With the sun blazing down from a perfect blue sky, pouring warmth back into my body from where the gentle wind and low temperature had tried to steal it, it was a magic moment. Behind me the waves were crashing over the sand, gently caressing the beach. In front of me was a sight of peace and tranquility. I could have stayed there for the rest of the day.

However, I had not yet explored the whole place and there were things to see and people to meet. So I returned back to the beach of fishermen, enjoying my time alone as I walked back along the beach.

The Fishermen
When I reached the fishing boats again, I stopped to take a photo of the two fishermen who were still sorting out their nets. They both stopped their work and looked at me, then said something like, “Hey look, he is taking a photo of us, should we smile or look mean!”

Not wanting to appear rude, I wandered over to them, and stopped to chat for a while. Their accent was difficult to understand, but I could work out enough of what they were saying to get the meaning. As well as the two working the nets on the boat, there was another standing by the side who was part of the same crew.

We started with the obvious initial topics such as taking photos and using digital cameras and moved on to who I was and where I came from. This led into discussions about Australia and New Zealand and the number of Uruguayans that live in Sydney and Melbourne, something that I hear every time I mention that I come from Australia.

As the conversation continued I found I was rarely a part of it, as I had to work really hard just to understand it. Talk turned to fishing and events happening around the village. The way that they all chatted together revealed a deep level of respect and loyalty for each other.

All three men, in their thirties or early forties, were very friendly and happy to chat with this “gringo”. Their faces, already weathered by their time on the sea, revealed much character of grit and determination. As members of the same boat, spending all day out on the sea, their time together had certainly united them with a bond of unity and friendship.

Eventually, all of the nets were completed and it was time to move on. I took a few more photos of the guys and then wandered back up the main road to my flat.

The Gringo
At my flat, the husband to my landlady was sitting out on his chair, enjoying the peace of a late Sunday afternoon. I stopped to chat with him for a while. A man of many years, his full beard hid a lot of the lines of character covering his face. His voice was strong and husky, and his amply but not over-sized body happily fills the plastic chair that he sits on.

One of the first things that he says to me is that he is a gringo. I am confused and ask him why. He is a second generation Uruguayan, with his parents also Uruguayans, and moved to Punta del Diablo during his teenage years. Somehow though, it was the name of Gringo that was applied to him, and it has stuck to this day.

Gardens and Roofs
He asked me if it was ok to transfer some garden soil over my roof to his back yard. The only other way of getting it there was through the house and that was not a popular idea with his wife. I told him it was no problem to me, and went into my flat to sort out a new battery for my camera.

On emerging from my door, I find Gringo struggling to even lift the soil that he has shoveled into a large garbage bag. Wandering over, I offer to help, and before long we are both carrying the very heavy bag over to his friend standing on the roof.

We raise the bag up to our shoulders and manage to get a rope into his friend’s hand. From here we push up while our man on the roof pulls until the bag is finally up on top. The problems continued though, with the bag tearing into pieces as soon as Gringo’s friend tried to drag it along the roof.

So to continue helping out, I climbed up and joined his friend, working together to carry the bag over the roof and dump it down into the garden below. Our aim was a little crooked though and one of the tomato plants below us was almost completely crushed. A little stalk was all that remained.

After helping Gringo and his friend with their soil, I headed off again. There was still sunlight and I wanted to see the other side of town. So after finding out where I could buy my daily supply of chocolate and Coke, I headed off again to see what else I could find.

The Other Side Of Town
Wandering through the other side of town, the first thing that I notice is that all of the buildings here, or almost all of them are available for rent. It is certainly a more commercial part of town than the area immediately surrounding the fishing boats.

There are a number of bars and restaurants here too but they are all closed. Some are obviously closed, with paper covering the windows, while others are empty and deserted with everything closed up. Ironically, a few of the places still have their “Abierto” (Open) signs showing.

A supermarket store is also closed, only the products that can be stored over winter remain on the shelves. Dozens of empty shelves are scattered around the glass walled shop, pushed against each other or skewed from their normal position. A broom jamming one door, a Closed sign and the mess inside help people to recognise that this place is not currently in business.

The Other Beach
Reaching the edge of the other side of town I find another beach. This beach extends for a long way until the next rocky point, upon which sits a lighthouse. The sun is low in the sky now, and long shadows from the large sand dunes fall across the beach.

Right on the edge of town, next to the beach, are some basic shacks. One is a true shack, slanting and struggling to stay upright, with its scrap timber the only thing stopping the wind from reaching inside. Other shacks have the luxury of real timber construction and verandahs or decks upon which to rest. Many of these decks use a roof of palm leaves, layered to provide some protection from the sun.

The Rocky Point
After enjoying the changing shadows and light of the setting sun, I follow the waterline around the point, over the rocks. As I wander over the rocks, navigating my way over large crevasses and big boulders, the crashing waves below send up large plumes of water, that threaten at times to engulf me. Fortunately I had taken the dryer path.

There were some fishermen down along the rocks too that were taking much greater chances with the waves. The children of one of these fishermen were waiting for their dad at the top of the rocks, straining to see what he was doing at the time.

By the time I reach the actual point, the sun had almost disappeared. There was only one large boulder left bathing in the fading sunlight. I headed directly for it and after climbing on top I was just in time to see the sun as it set over the houses of the village.

From here I wandered out the short distance to the end of Punta del Diablo to see the “little lighthouse”. This is a very low, electronic light, set upon a monument to none other than the famed Artigas. The monument has a lovely statue on the left side of the concrete structure and a plaque citing the important things Artigas had done on the right.

Now that the sun had disappeared, the temperature of the day was dropping rapidly. Now that I had been for my walks around the place I was satisfied that I had seen enough for today. There seemed little left to do than to return back up the small hill to my flat once again.

Getting Friendly With The Locals
Back at the house I find Gringo enjoying a wine with his friend. His friend does not say a lot, as Gringo has control of the conversation, but looks interested in what is being said.

I linger outside long enough to be invited into the conversation. Before long I am sitting down with them, enjoying the local wine and chatting profusely with Gringo.

We chat about the state of politics in Uruguay and the exports of the country, linking the two together and demanding a stronger and more honest government. The state of education in the place we both agree is pretty good, although we both feel that tourism needs to be exploited more, but also controlled more.

Of course we talk about Uruguayans in Australia, and the state of Australia and New Zealand compared with Uruguay also. Population and distribution of people. Crime and the up-coming elections. By the time we had finished we had been experts in almost every field.

Near the end of the conversation, when the wine was almost finished, Gringo’s friend excused himself and left. In the direction he headed, I presumed he had gone home to sleep. Gringo and I remained chatting for a while after this, until I was hungry enough to eat.

Dinner With A Crowd
So after finding out where the only restaurant open was located, I thanked Gringo for our conversation and headed off in search of food.

The restaurant had the most people in it that I would ever see during my stay here in Punta del Diablo. There was an Armenian and Uruguayan couple, and an English man who was traveling around the place in a car he had hired. When I arrived there for dinner we made a crowd. I never saw another tourist in the place after this.

As I entered the place I saw that Gringo’s friend was here. I asked him what he was doing here, and he replied that the owner was his brother, and the guy running it was his good friend. After we were introduced, there was instantly a different level of relationship here. It was like I was suddenly on the inside of what is essentially an exclusive club.

Selecting the house special, of steak and fries, I settled back for an enjoyable night chatting with the locals. At times I also chatted with the Englishman, who could speak virtually no Spanish at all, but the main conversation lay with the locals, who were asking me all sorts of questions.

Conversing With Locals
At first they tested my level of Spanish by twisting my words slightly and presenting them as a question. The normal answer in difficult situations of “yes” would have revealed my ignorance. Fortunately I was improving quickly in my Spanish and was able to pick up on their jokes and tests. Once I was “tested” we settled into more serious conversations.

Our conversation followed the usual path, from where I came from to what was I doing in Uruguay. From here we branched into many different areas, including politics and religion. By the time I left that place, there was only the owner and I left chatting. After our last serious conversation, which centred on God and who he really was, it was already 10pm. Eventually we bid each other farewell and I headed back to my flat.

Ending The Night
Back at my flat I struggled to get the fire burning, but once it was alight, I put virtually all of my wood onto it. It was a freezing cold night and this quickly warmed up the whole place filling it with smoke in the process.

Since the room was warm, and the shower not very warm at all, it occurred to me that this would be the best time of day for a shower. So I stood under what was now becoming a common type of shower, and turned on the water. The lights dimmed as the heating element inside the shower-head started heating the water. The temperature of the freezing water that entered this heating contraption was hardly raised above luke-warm, but then luke-warm was much better than freezing.

The bare electricity connections the lead from the shower-head to the open connection block on the wall with wires pouring out of it in all directions kept me careful about where I let the water splash. It was certainly a dangerous setup but since they were still using these shower-heads around the place, there cannot have been too many people die from them yet. None-the-less, I was cautious anyway.

Lights Out
Afterward, with a book about Punta del Diablo in my hands that Gringo had loaned me, I sat in a chair enjoying the warmth of the fire and read about this place that I was now staying. The book was full of stories about the fishermen and contained testimonies from some of the oldest inhabitants. Although it was in Spanish, it provided some very interesting reading.

With the warmth of the fire and the night growing later and later, eventually I could hardly keep my eyes open. It was now time to head for bed.

Punta del Diablo was a very interesting place indeed. A village of fishermen. Beaches of isolation. A place of tranquility. A great place to rest. Now if only it had internet too…