Uruguay Day Ten

PUNTA DEL ESTE: Rising late can do a lot to minimise how much you can do in a day. It did today. Perhaps it was the fact that I got caught in the local handicraft markets for so long, or that I stopped to chat with and feed some of the poorer locals, but in the end my main activity was the bus tour. This took me all over Punta del Este and the neighbouring areas for some very interesting sights.

The Morning Start
I did not expect to sleep in today. The light from the windows had drawn me out of bed early yesterday so I was actually expecting the same again today. However, when I rose late today, there was not too much left of the morning. Not to be daunted, I was quickly organised and out of the door, ready to enjoy the sunniest day here yet.

The wind was blowing strong at some sub 10 degree C temperature making even my two coats falter in keeping me warm. This was the new turtle neck jumper I had recently bought and my feather down jacket that had kept me warm in sub-zero temperatures in Finland, yet they were faltering now. All around me people were dressed more for arctic conditions than for a seaside resort. In many instances, only their eyes were visible from amongst the multiple layers of clothing and wraps.

Plaza de los Artesanos
Across the road from the Hostel is the main plaza on Punta del Este, called Plaza Artigas, after the nation’s hero who secured their liberty. His presence is felt in every town and city, with statues, busts, buildings, plazas and streets named after him. Every person in Uruguay understands who this man is and what he did for the country, and the naming conventions ensures that no-one will ever forget.

In this plaza a Feria de los Artesanos was established and waiting for people to come. I was one of the first people there, with some stalls setting out their wares indicating that it was still early hours. Most stalls had already finished their setup however, and there was much to see.

Most of these places, where people sell their handicrafts and art, normally do not have anything that really interests me. I often wander through the place and see some interesting things but nothing that compels me to part with my money. This place was not like most of them however.

As I wandered through, it became obvious to me that the art and craft on display here was of a very high standard. The price of everything too was quite high, but compared with most ferias, each item was worth every bit of what they were charging.

Money, Money, Money
The places that interested me most were surprisingly all associated with money, but not in the normal sense. One place had coins that had been turned into keychains, bells, horse carriages, and more. Each coin was highly polished and well presented. The artist was very eager to show me each of the different items and explain to me which coin it was and from what country. There were coins that are currently in circulation through to ancient coins that dated back to the early 1800’s.

The other place that really caught my attention also had coins on view, although it was not immediately apparent that this was what they were. After some discussion with the artisan, I realised that each of the intricate pieces of art that I saw laid out on his table was actually a coin, with the extraneous metal removed from the main pattern.

There were coins from all over the world here, and they ranged in price from very cheap to well over USD$100 according to the amount of work that went into it and the value of the coin. I found coins from Sweden, Spain, Italy, Belgium, all of South America, Mexico, United States and even Australia. Of course there were many coins from Uruguay too, some of which were made of pure silver.

The work in cutting out each of these coins was so fine and so accurate it looked as though each coin was laser cut. Yet each of these coins had been cut with a coping saw using a super-fine blade. Even with a magnifying glass there was very little places that the artist’s work could be faulted.

Spending Everything
Magnificent patterns resulted from his work, with each coin now looking like a fine piece of jewelry. I felt compelled to buy some of these, and if I had sufficient money, I would have bought the most expensive ones because they were the most beautiful. This time though I overrode my champagne tastes, and kept within my beer budget.

Other stalls offered a similar quality of work. Clothes made of leather, wool, and animal skins were all very well presented, as were some of the more common items found at these ferias such as yerba mate (ma-tay) cups and trinkets useful for gifts.

By the time I left these markets I had all but emptied my wallet of money. Certainly I had spent a lot, especially by Uruguayan standards, but I was thrilled with every one of my purchases. This was actually the first time that I had bought anything non-essential since I started my journey to Argentina over six months ago. It was nice to splash out just a little bit.

Looking at my watch, it was already time to wander down for my bus tour which started shortly only five blocks from where I was. First though, I stopped in at the bank and retrieved some more money to fill up my empty wallet.

Feeding The Hungry
As I wandered down the road, a lady approached me, dressed in very basic clothes, and asked if I would help her out with food. Another lady that looked related was near her and so I motioned to the two to come with me and we would eat. As we started walking, there were more people that joined with us. They were all of one party. It looked as though there were three, and then four.

We entered the nearest restaurant, for there were no places selling cheap food around Punta del Este during winter. Even McDonald’s had closed up for the winter. Sitting down at a table, I discovered yet another person wandering in hoping to get some food. There were now six of us including me. What I thought was going to be two people had turned into a family.

At this point I considered declining to buy food for them all, and only buying it for the lady and her friend that I had initially expected to be supporting. But when I looked at each one of these people I could see that they were all hungry, and could not justify being selective in who I fed. So I called the waiter over and ordered enough pizza for everyone.

One of the ladies asked me if I would also buy them Coke as well. I looked at her and smiled. She was pressing her luck. I told her that Coke, being a chemical is bad for her and I did not want to be responsible for killing them with a chemical, so they could drink water instead. They all laughed and nodded in agreement.

When You Have To Go
Just after we had ordered the food I thought I should check on the time. There was only fifteen minutes left before my bus tour started and I had not yet booked myself on it. I quickly explained my situation to the ladies and told them I had to leave right now, but would pay for the meal. We found the waiter and told him of my urgent need and he eventually returned with the bill.

I paid enough for the food with a little as a tip for the waiter and ran out the door. It was not my usual practice to buy someone’s meal and leave, but this time I had little choice if I wanted to catch my bus. Normally I like to sit and eat with the person for whom I am buying a meal. To pay and go is like flicking an annoyance out of your way, while staying and eating with them demonstrates that you value them as a person. Some of my most interesting conversations have come from situations such as these.

The Race And The Rest
Running as fast as I could down the street, I made it to the tourist office with only ten minutes to spare. I breathlessly tell the man there that I want to book on the tour for today. He says there is no problem with that, the tour starts in another half an hour, at 2.30pm. Then he laughs as he realises and asks me if I thought it started at 2pm. I just nodded, then asked him if there was a cheap place to eat lunch around here. He directs me to the local cafeteria and tells me to relax and enjoy my lunch, for there is still another thirty minutes to go. I smile and head off toward the cafeteria.

After enjoying a wonderfully cheap and hearty meal, I still have time before the tour, so I wander over to the nearby beach. Out of the sand protrude massive fingers of concrete. The whole structure is actually in the shape of a hand, although only the ends of the fingers can be seen to protrude above the sand, and the longest of these is almost three people high.

A Tourist Tour
Returning to the tourist office I am directed onto our minibus that will become home for the afternoon. I am directed to the front seat, a perfect position from which to take many photos as we pass things on the way. We journey around the hotels picking up another three couples and then begin our tour.

Throughout the tour we are given interesting facts and information by our driver, who at times forgets to watch the road while he is chatting with us. Everything is in Spanish, the common language between this Australian and the rest who are all Brazilians or Argentines. Surprisingly I was able to understand virtually all that was said, and even ventured to asking questions. This was evidence of exciting progress in my language skills.

Punta del Este
The first part of our tour passes through Punta del Este. Here we learn that there are only two main beaches to the Point, although both are over 10kms long. We stop by to see the port, which is closed for winter, and have a number of restaurants and houses pointed out to us which are owned by the ex-president of Argentina, Carlos Menem.

We learn that the divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the outflowing river is purely cartographic, meaning that it is only a line on the map. The water on both sides of the Point are the same. The place that the real confluence occurs is at Montevideo where the water at the beaches is sometimes clear and sometimes brown from the river water according to how the winds blow.

We also discover that the Ilha de Lobos, or Seal Island, is a reserve and no person is allowed to disembark onto the island itself, so all tours out there simply circumnavigate the island and then return to shore. But one of the most interesting pieces of information for me was that there are no tides at Punta del Este at all. The water remains at the same level all year around regardless of the phase of the moon. It does rise and fall a little though, according to the action of the wind.

The Rich Neighbourhood
Moving on to our next part, we see some of the richer houses near the Point in a suburb called Parque de Golf. The prices of these houses rise and fall rapidly according to the season they are sold in. The cheapest price of a house in this section starts at over USD$100,000 and skyrockets from there. Many of the houses we passed were wintered, with everything closed up, and a gardener paid to maintain the appearance of the place.

Every house in this area was built by designers and architects, with the materials and shapes changing on every house. There were square and round houses, tall and underground houses, and houses made of everything from brick, to concrete, to wood, to straw. Three little pigs, eat your heart out.

One of the houses has a fully equipped huge underground bunker ready for survival in the case of nuclear war. This is the house that any official that comes to Punta del Este stays at. People like Presidents, Prime Ministers, Premieres, Singers, and Movie Stars have all had their turn in staying here according to their connections with the Uruguayan Government.

La Barra
The next place we visit is even more expensive than this, and is covered in houses owned by famous people from all over the world. To get there we need to drive over a bridge that was designed by an architect rather than an engineer. As a result the bridge has two pronounced humps in it in the shape of a camel’s back. This produces a very aesthetically pleasing bridge to look at, and one that is a lot of fun to drive over fast.

The whole area of La Barra, although housing some of the most well known people in the world and large organisations such as Fashion TV and CBN (or NBC or something like that), seemed just like a cosy little seaside town in New Zealand. With the exception of just a few places, every business in this area was either a restaurant or night club, and of course was closed for winter.

The big difference that separated here from any other place was the prices. There was no mention of purchase prices, but to rent a very ordinary looking house during the month of January would cost over USD$12,000, and one of the more expensive rentals was USD$41,000 for 12 days. Obviously it was marketed at the people with money.

Beverly Hills
From here we headed toward toward the city of Maldonaldo, stopping to look around the area known as Beverly Hills. This area is filled with Brazilians. Rich Brazilians actually. It is very likely that you will see Ferraris and Lamborghini’s and any other of the ludicrously priced vehicles in this place during the summer. Many times these cars are only shipped in while the people are here over the summer period, and then the massive houses are closed up and left throughout winter.

Although we did not see any of these cars this time, every house in this area was the size of a large hotel and had great areas of ground surrounding them. Each house is identified only by the name of the house, there are no street numbers here. As exclusive as it is, Beverly Hills is not an estate, as Uruguay does not allow there to be private sections of land divided into housing. As a result the whole area is open to the public.

Once we arrive in Maldonaldo, the capital of the province of the same name, our destination is the old church in the centre. Inside are a lot of people listening to a priest and I assume that it is a church service, although it does not sound like one. Outside is the town square, or plaza, around which is situated the church, police, government office, and the jail in a format that is common to all towns in Uruguay.

We stop here for a while, long enough to take some photos and look around the church a little, before continuing on our tour. The best thing about driving through Maldonaldo was that I saw people again. After being in Punta del Este with absolutely no one around and little traffic, seeing cars and people everywhere was a great sight.

Punta Ballena (Whale Point)
It was a long drive from here to Punta Ballena, from where we could see Punta del Este in the distance glowing in the golden rays of the quickly setting sun. The view was amazing from this high, rocky point, and we could see over all the beaches that lay between us and Punta del Este.

On this point is a artistically styled house, called Casapueblo, that is also a restaurant and an art museum, gallery and workshop for Carlos Paéz Vilaró. Carlos is a well known Uruguayan artist, although certain parts of his story led me to believe that he may have had African roots. His son was one of the survivors from the plane that crashed into the Andes during the 1970’s.

As with many places like this, it was all oriented toward getting people to buy the works of art or books that were there for sale. Some of the art was quite interesting, although very distinctive in its style, while other pieces of art looked to be created by children.

After looking around the place at the art and seeing the video about the life of Carlos Paéz Vilaró, I found my way to the outside balconies where I was whipped by the chilling wind as I enjoyed the view of the setting sun. The view from the balcony over the unusually shaped building and its many sections allowed me to watch the waves breaking on the rocks below. The whole scene was very relaxing if it were not so incredibly cold.

By the time we all climbed back into our minibus it was dark and we were all ready to return home. On our way back we listened to some great jazz songs in English, detoured around some major roadworks and other cars heading in the same direction, and passed by the major casinos on the Point. Virtually all of us got out at the same place, along the main street of Punta del Este itself.

Meeting The Relatives
Having returned home to the Point, I head off for a quick meal and then grab my sugar sources and head to the locutorio to write up my story. When I get back to the hostel there are two new people there talking with the lady that runs the place. It turns out that they are her sister and brother-in-law who come down almost every weekend to visit her. Today they also brought a new little car that she had purchased from Montevideo through them. This was the first time she had seen it.

After introducing myself and chatting with them all for a while, Nelson, the brother-in-law, and his wife and I all left to go to one of the famous bars called Moby Dick. I expected we would be walking, but instead we had the luxury of the new car to take us there and back.

Moby Dicks
Moby Dicks was reasonably quiet, with about 30 people in an area large enough for hundreds. As the night continued, a group of guys and girls started climbing onto the bar stools and dancing away, glorying in the attention they were receiving from everyone else. They certainly were providing entertainment for many people.

We each ordered a meal and drink from the bar and sat talking about everything and anything, straining at times to be heard above the volume of the music. This was probably the first time that I have had a prolonged conversation in Spanish, and I learned much about Uruguay in the process.

About Uruguay
Uruguay has a strong middle class population, and because there is only a few private schools in Montevideo, almost all of the children grow up together in the public schools. This results in very little class discrimination, especially when everyone knows each other.

The universities are the same, in that there are only a few private universities for courses with expensive infrastructure such as Information Technology. The public universities are very well received throughout the country and at times have a better reputation than the few private ones.

The health system here is divided into the private and public sectors, although the private sector is extremely expensive. As a result, most people use the public system, which was described to me as being adequate in the service it provided. The best thing about this service is that the wait for a normal patient is only measured in days and not weeks or months.

Finally, the political scene here is very active. Many people get involved at a political level and as a result there are often hundreds of people running for a position in the coming elections. Each candidate has a number to identify them, and this is often displayed more prominently than their name. Although there is some corruption in the system, because of the small size of the country with only 3 million people, this is limited in its scope.

Many Girls And A Car
So, having talked with Nelson and his wife about this and many other things including computing, the area which he works, we climbed back into the tiny car and returned home to the hostel. It was after 1am when we arrived, and about five girls poured out of the hostel and greeted us all with the familiar kiss on the cheek. They then proceeded to climb into the car that we had just climbed out of.

At first I thought they were new people that had just arrived to stay at the hostel, but then realised that they were friends of the girl that worked the hostel. We watched from the window as they tried to take off up the gently sloping hill. This was her first time ever in her new car, and she was still getting used to it.

As we watched, the car engine revved, and then it moved backward before stopping. Then it moved backward again and stopped. By the fourth time that it was rolling backward with the engine revving hard, we were all pulling faces of fear and terror in the window, much to the delight of all of the girls in the car.

The car eventually rolled backward until it was side on to the hill. From here all could see our grimaces of fright and there was a great roar of laughter from the car. Then something went right and they took off. We of course cheered and clapped our approval as they made up the ground they had lost and continued on their way around the block.

Late Night Activities
It was not long before they all arrived back in the living room of the hostel, laughing and chatting about the experience. The talk between everyone was constant and often flowing in several streams, with each person talking to whoever was listening at the time. I struggled to keep up at times, but was able to interject in places and participate too at times, although there were many times when the conversation was just not a guy thing.

It was after 2am by the time the girls had organised themselves. They were all going out to a club. This was about the right time to arrive as there would be a lot more people there now. Nelson and his wife retired to bed, and I followed shortly afterward, layering my bed with even more blankets and bringing the total now to somewhere around ten. At this hour of the morning sleep came quickly.

It was a great day today, having seen much of the Punta del Este region and enjoyed the company of new friends. Now I know I will have to return in Summer to experience the other character of this place when it is filled with people everywhere.