A World of Its Own

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Having successfully managed to navigate the burning tyres and seemingly endless delays caused by the truckers strike on the periphery of Buenos Aires, we approached the Argentina/Uruguay border with some trepidation. Six months earlier, an inattentive customs official at our southernmost entry into Argentina had failed to notice that our "carnet de passage" (the bonded entry permit for the van, which would allow more than the customary 90 days stay allowed on a temporary import basis), had technically expired. We now held our breaths as two customs officials checked the carnet without batting an eyelash, and finally a third official stamped and signed the document. We felt relief as we made our way into Uruguay, but it does make one question the significance of all the bureaucratic border exercises!

Perhaps it was simply our imagination in overdrive, but the perception of having entered a new and very different country was almost immediately apparent. The boundless miles of Argentinean pampa were replaced with green, pastoral, gently rolling countryside, and the small towns were clean and tidy with a very noticeable lack of litter. A particularly pleasant surprise was that the deliberately reckless attitude of Argentinean drivers was superseded by orderly and polite motorists who actually observed traffic lights and invariably stopped at pedestrian crosswalks. In the rural areas this considerate behaviour even extended to posting crossing times on cattle road signs! And everywhere, the people were extremely friendly and ready to lend a helping hand - always very surprised to learn that we had driven all the way from Canada to visit their country.

Uruguay has always been, and continues to be a world of its own. One of South America's smallest Spanish speaking countries, Uruguay was historically sought after by both Portugal and Spain, and it was the rivalry between these two countries that eventually led to Uruguayan independence in 1828. In modern times, Uruguay continues to have a significant role, acting as a political buffer between the two South American superpowers of Argentina and Brazil. Uruguayans are particularly proud of their independence, and despite their good manners and reserved style are quick to point out that they are definitely not just Argentine's 24th province - as apparently many Argentinean visitors are apt to assume. With its relatively small population of close to four million (half a million of whom have been forced to live outside of the country in their search for jobs), Uruguay continues to depend heavily on wealthy Argentinean and Brazilian tourists visiting their pristine beaches and lively seaside resorts. Unfortunately, the severe economic difficulties experienced in recent years by these two neighbouring mega-states has resulted in deep financial repercussions throughout Uruguayan society.

Entering Uruguay by the small town of Fray Bentos brought back childhood memories of those dreaded cans of corned beef - at least for those of us who grew up with food rationing in England after WWII!! Yes, it was here in the 1920s that the British-run El Anglo took over the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, and by the late 1940s with a workforce of over 4,000 were slaughtering more than 2,000 cattle a day. Thankfully, all that remains today is a museum housing the now defunct industrial equipment. We were frankly more interested in the Solari Museum where Luis Solar sarcastically pokes fun at people through his paintings of human figures with animal heads. And already noticeable at the water's edge are the upscale resort cabañas, sparkling and ready for a new season of tourists.

Vintage automobiles known as 'cachilas' continue to be a source of pride for the Uruguayans, and are commonly spruced up and left on display in the local plaza, or can be seen heading down the highway towards yet another classic car rendezvous. However, with the current cost of gasoline (approximately Cdn $1.73 per litre), a more familiar sight is often rows and rows of motorcycles, mopeds, and any other more modest mode of transport that is somewhat easier on the pesos.

A walking tour through the UNESCO world cultural heritage site of Colonia del Sacramento, was like taking a stroll through the past. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, Colonia was traditionally known as the smuggling route to Buenos Aires, and for this reason was constantly besieged by the Spanish until they finally captured it in1762. Vestiges of the Portuguese colony set amidst narrow cobblestoned streets that are lined by shady sycamore trees, make for a touch of magic in this pleasant, slow-paced town.

As we meandered around the old town's buttressed walls, the landmark Iglesia Matriz, the various museums, and of course the 19th century lighthouse, we heard some melodious sounds coming from the Teatro Bastión del Carmen, a renovated theatre that encompasses part of the original fortifications. Sneaking past the "do not enter - hall in use" sign, we settled into the comfy leather couch in the foyer, and were energized by the Afro beat coming from behind the closed doors. Choir practice over, we made our way to the entrance hall where we discovered that this was the opening night of an International Choir Festival. Forget the tired feet - we hastened off to visit the Internet Café, grab a quick bite to eat, and get back in time to purchase tickets for the best seats in the small concert hall. In addition to the Afro pulsations coming from the Madrigal Choir of Recife in Brazil, five choirs from Uruguay and Argentina filled the concert hall with everything from Latin love songs by a women's choir, to classical renditions by the particularly excellent Municipal Choir of Colonia.
As we made our way back to the van for the night, our toes continued to tap to the rhythm of the Afro-Latin beat!
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