on the set of El Shining… Uruguay and out

It says a lot about us that The Mack and I decided to ditch a trip to Iguazu Falls and the nature reserves on the Argentine/Brazilian border in favour of a few nights unbridled hedonism in the Uruguayan Ibiza, Punta del Este.

It says even more about us that we turned up in Punta del Este to find that we’d well and truly missed the party.

The plan seemed foolproof and awesome.  By boat from Argentina to Uruguay then up the beautiful coast to Brazil.  For The Mack, it meant 3 countries in 3 weeks.  For me, a nice little sojourn before the Brazilian main event.

Buenos Aires to Colonia

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catholic upbringing

A hop over on the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia for a spot of lunch.  Pretty little colonial town (clue’s in the name). Coloured houses round a cobbled square, old jalopies with foliage dotted about the place, that kind of thing.  Just the right side of Disney in the sunshine.

Except that by the time we’d got off the ferry, found the tourist office, then found the bus terminal, booked our onward bus and dumped our luggage, we only had 2 hours to eat it and beat it.  Still, what we saw looked cute enough.  Even if all of the people in the town looked to be from the same family.  Very distinctive features, Uruguayans.  I think it’s the straight noses.

Colonia to Montevideo

We’d been told that the bus journey from Colonia to Montevideo was around 2.5 – 3 hours.  What they hadn’t told us was how unbelievably comfy the bus seats were.  Like they’d been woven from our most beautiful dreams, to gently cradle and cosset us.  Not only that, but the buses have wi-fi.  And they run on time.  And the staff is incredibly helpful and courteous.  The word that sprang to mind was “agreeable”. Uruguayans are just very agreeable people.  We think we figured out why, but more on that later.

What we hadn’t factored on was the bus stopping everywhere on route to pick up passengers.  Mainly in lay-by’s where there didn’t seem to be a single building within 5 miles.  And you’d be able to spot it.  Uruguay is very flat (probably).  And very rural.  All the shops we passed en route were selling tractors or farm implements.

We had seats assigned to us on our ticket.  But there was someone in mine when we got on the bus and there were plenty of other seats, so we did that very British thing of just taking the seats in front rather than trying to make a fuss in a foreign language.  Which was fine.  Right up until a young couple got on at about the 24th lay-by and told us we were in their seats.  So we got up, ready to recover our rightful seats.  Only to see that they were now occupied by a fast asleep guy and a woman with a sleeping toddler in her arms.

But it was ok.  We stood, figuring we only had about a half hour left of the journey.  Chalking it up to experience.  And then I made the mistake of thinking out loud to The Mack that maybe we’d screwed up and this wasn’t a direct bus, given the number of stops it was making.  By now it was 8pm.  We were hungry, crotchety and standing.  I didn’t have a ready guesstimate of how long it would take.  I wasn’t an expert on the arterial roads of Uruguay and how this affected journey times.  I should have kept my mouth shut.  I was saved when we rolled in to Montevideo 45 minutes later.

We’d only planned to stay one night in Monte.  We weren’t convinced of its merits when we did our pitiful research.  I think we were right.  However, our hotel was adorable.  The Hotel Palacio.  Just off the main square and staffed by spritely septuagenarians.  The Mack was expecting a s***hole.  What we got was a spruced up turn of the century room with great big bathroom and a huge terrace overlooking the city.  Not bad for £30.  And a lovely old man who spent 10 minutes showing me how to work the cable TV (there were 2 on buttons and an up and down programme selector involved… and he had bifocals).

view from the terrace

view from the terrace

We tried to have a night out in Monte.  We’d heard that it got a bit lively on a Saturday night.  It certainly had a strip of pubs/bars to rival even the ropiest UK town.  After careful deliberation (based on the severity of the look of horror on my face), we picked one that had “Pony” in its name.  It didn’t disappoint.  All you need to know about it was that our drink of choice was Long Island Iced Teas.  And the covers band started with a Bon Jovi ballad.  It was all we could do to drag ourselves away.

Montevideo to Punta del Este

The Mack was quite excited about hitting Punta.  He’d been allowed to choose the hotel for this one and we’d upped the budget so that we could do a bit of pimpin’ in Punta. We’d booked 2 nights, so that we’d have plenty of time to recover from a big night on the razz.

I’d checked where the hotel was before we left Monte.  I knew that it was a bit out of town, and I’d mentioned it to The Mack before we booked it, but he said he was fine with it.  Perfect mix of detox and retox.

When we arrived at the bus station at P del E, I asked the lady at the info point to show me on a map where our hotel was.  But she couldn’t.  Because her map didn’t cover a large enough area.  Because we’d booked into a hotel about 15km away in the next resort.  Literally miles away from the action.

So you see Punta del Este on the right.  And the arrow on the left.  Well look above the arrow and you'll see a lake in the middle of nowhere.  That's us.

So you see Punta del Este bottom centre. And the arrow on the left. Well look above the arrow and you’ll see a lake in the middle of nowhere. That’s us.

You think that was a disappointment…  Fortunately, it didn’t matter so much when we walked into the town to find a cab only to discover that it was empty apart from some tumbleweed blowing down the main street. Apparently, party season in Punta del Este stops at Easter.  Who knew?  Clearly not us.

Ok, no problem.  So what?  We get to spend a couple of days in a lovely golf and spa resort on the banks of a lake.  Tennis courts, bike rides, swimming pools, the works.

lady of the lake

lady of the lake

Oh.  And one other thing.  It’s deserted.  Most of the lights are switched off in the common areas.  They’ve drained the jacuzzi and turned off the sauna. You’re paying over £80/night to stay in a mausoleum.  The rigidly bored girl on the front desk tells you they’ve upgraded you to a lake-view room.  You realise it’s so they can better keep an eye on you and they only have to hoover one corridor.

helloooo??

helloooo??

We tried to escape on some rented bikes.  After an hour’s cycle of pedalling past weird thatched cottages, swearing, reattaching our chains every third revolution and a knackering hill climb, we saw Punta del Este still miles out of reach.  We cycled back, dejected and resigned to our gilded cage.  Pimpin’ it weren’t.

El Bungalow.  Honest to God.

El Bungalow. Honest to God.

We had a hushed dinner in an all-but-empty restaurant.  The food was good, but it came at a price.  I had no idea tedium could be so costly.  We marvelled at the fact that the mixers in the mini bar cost the same as the spirits.  So we just made stronger drinks.  We slept.  A lot.  And our dreams were a montage of The Shining and Cocoon.

the no-reservations policy had somewhat backfired...

the no-reservations policy had somewhat backfired…

We pondered on Uruguay.  Its political and economic stability, compared to its better-known neighbours.  It’s cleanliness and organisation.  The agreeableness of its people.  And we realised, it can be all of those things because… THERE’S NO-ONE IN IT.

So we decided to cut our losses.  No adventuring in search of people in ever remoter fishing villages up the coast, as originally planned.  Nope.  You won’t find anyone there.  We spent a heart-breaking amount of cash on a next-day flight to Sao Paulo.  But when we paid almost the same again in a taxi from the resort to the bus station at Punta del Este, we knew we’d made the right decision.  And I vowed never to let The Mack choose anything, ever again.

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Buenos Aires: big Mack style

So The Mack flew out about a week ago to join me in Buenos Aires and, in typical fashion, I greeted him with clenched fists rather than the traditional open arms.  I would love to be one of those girls who gets really excited at the prospect of 3 weeks’ quality time, away from it all.  But I’m far too uptight for that.

It’s ok.  We’ve developed a system.  We wake up, get a few hours’ work done.  Have a huge fight.  Then head out for some lunch and sightseeing.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is about The Mack that winds me up.  It seems to be everything.  Let’s see…

He can’t speak Spanish, so I have to do all the talking.  And when he does try a few words, he says them in a deep throaty growl, so he sounds like a Latin American Tony the Tiger.  “Una cervesa-grrrrrrr”.  Funny the first time…

The fact that no bread basket is safe within a 5 metre radius.

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But mainly because he wants to do stuff all the time.  Not just mooching around, but stuff that requires some degree of organising.  I mean, how dare he come all the way over here and then want to do something interesting.  Why the hell can’t he be content with just being here?  So bloody unreasonable.

What can I say, I tried my hardest to deter him, but the man is strong-willed.  And thank God he is, because otherwise we would have missed out on some corkers.

So I give you Buenos Aires: big Mack style…

Food

At least one meal a day must consist of something that your girlfriend/wife/cardiac surgeon says is bad for you.  If you can, try to combine deep fried with pastry and sugar.  Plenty of options in Buenos Aires.  Sweet and meaty empanadas?  Dulce de leche with everything?  Two double-scoop ice-creams back-to-back, with extra sauce and cookie sprinkles?  Don’t mind if he does.

Teatime at Las Violetas

Teatime at Las Violetas

The Mack said that he’d always had dreams of retiring to Buenos Aires and could picture himself as a bald, fat man in a white linen suit.  Sadly, we weren’t able to find the linen suit….

Orientation

Have absolutely no sense of direction and claim that it’s because they built BsAs the wrong way round.  Seriously think about downloading a compass app so that you can find North.  Regularly say to your girlfriend: “it’s that way, right”?  Er, wrong.

Mix with locals

Use vayable.com to find interesting tours and experiences given by local people – we did a tour of the lesser known Caballito district (cool barber-shop museum and an incredibly ornate church where Pope Francis was baptised, no less) and a wine-tasting (which I spoiled by being a know-all and the best taster was actually the Mendoza olive oil).

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Buy yourself a pair of finest Argentinian leather brogues.  In a colour that can only be described as dirt-cowboy-yellow.

Point out to locals the inherent flaws in their economic and fiscal policies.  And make a sound like a ticking clock when talking about their future.  Then say that it’s such a shame, because they really were such a highly educated, civilised, wealthy nation…

Nature

Be afraid, be very afraid of the gargantuan koi carp in the Jardin Japonais.  Especially the one that looks like it has false eyelashes.  Make sure you push a few small children in front of you for easier bait.

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Sports

Make sure you get to a football game.  Don’t bother with Boca Juniors – $200 a head to sit with a load of other gringos doesn’t make for fun times.  The Mack found a great guy called Eze through Vayable who took us to his family’s box at Independiente to watch a relegation battle.

Thoroughly woeful match (no structure to their play and the worst back four we’d ever seen), but great atmosphere.  And we had the excitement of being bundled into Eze’s uncle’s car as the final whistle blew to avoid being beaten to death by the Independiente fans who were baying for the Chairman’s blood after the 1-1 draw (the Chairman’s box was 3 down from ours…).  Footballing passion in spades.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxvlFqLHxpc

Culture

Admire the old Mafioso-looking men at the afternoon milonga at Confiteria Ideal.  Feel truly like the Mack Daddy when they ask you for permission to dance with your chicas.

Get suckered into trying a tango lesson when you’d only turned up at Café Vinilo so early because you wanted to be sure to get a table.  Mangle your girlfriend’s feet and get frustrated that Tango is such a restrictive dance when you’re just itching to bust some moves.  Console yourself with the full Latin cheesiness of the club singer. Decide that the chorus lyrics to all tango songs are probably “Antonio Banderas, Antonio Banderas, Antonio Banderas…. and Penelope Cruz“.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRjdplWkIb8

Off the Beaten Track

Take a trip out to the delta at Tigre.  Ignore the weather forecast and sit on a speedboat for 6 hours wearing only a t-shirt.  Discover that the river plate makes it possible to walk on water for a stretch of about 60km between Tigre and Buenos Aires (you might have to swim the last 200-odd metres).  Bang on about this amazing phenomenon for the rest of your trip/life.  Don’t worry about whether anyone’s listening.

Tigre Delta

Tigre Delta

And then congratulate yourself for a job well done.  Next stop, Uruguay.

Lessons Learned in Buenos Aires

My friend Aimee is putting herself through a self-imposed tango bootcamp here in Buenos Aires.  Most of which involves her lying on the floor wearing 80s flashdance leggings and breathing deeply – she claims it’s incredibly taxing, but we’re yet to be convinced).

They take tango very seriously here.  Aimee is not allowed to breathe standing up until she has learned to breathe properly lying down.  And that could take weeks.  Apparently she needs to learn to soften her breastbone.  Since bones are notoriously tricky things to soften, I don’t rate her chances.

She has bought some very beautiful red suede tango shoes from a famous shop here in BsAs, called Comme il Faut.  If you have a foot fetish, then may I suggest this as a suitable place of worship.  In the upstairs room of a little row of boutique shops, women line the edges, feet naked as the day they were born, their eyes lit up with the feverish glow of the true believer.  There are almost no shoes on display.  In this shop, you simply tell the assistants your size and they bring you heaped boxes of jewel-coloured stilettos.  It is a reverent place, voices are not raised except for little squeals and moans of pleasure.

I feel they’re missing a trick with their business.  If it were mine, I would make all the mirrors one-way and create a space in the backroom for pedi-voyeurs.  Double the revenue, double the pleasure-giving.  Win, win, kerr-ching.

holiday vs work/travel

This trip for me is the first real stress-test of the new lifestyle.  The idea was that the money I’d save by not living in London would fund the trip, so I’d come away from a 2 month adventure cash neutral.  And since I’ll carry on working on business ideas whilst I’m travelling, I’m not losing any time on income-generating projects.

Like so many of my ideas, this one’s proving great at a conceptual level and about a million miles wide of the mark in real life…

Firstly, South America is not cheap.  If, like me, you are pretty rough round the edges when it comes to actual knowledge on anything political or socio-economical, then you probably think that poor old Argentina is still on the financial skids and you’ll be living like a king on a couple of pesos a day.

Not quite.  Great quality beef is cheap.  You can feast on a side of cow quite happily for £10 a meal.  But that’s where the gravy train ends.  Accommodation is expensive.  Drinks are around the same price as in London.  Flights are extortionate and the amazing long-distance bus service has significantly ramped up its prices in recent times.

If you’re used to travelling in India and South East Asia, then South America will feel like you’re taking a sledgehammer to your savings account.  I’m realising that city living = city living, no matter where you are.  Which makes it fine if your plan is to stay put in a city for a few months and live like a local (like these guys do: http://istanbul.for91days.com/).  Not so good if you’re seeing the sights a lot and eating out twice a day.

In other words, I’m 10 days in and I’ve rinsed through an awful lot of cash.

important lessons

I’ve learned some valuable lessons since I’ve been here:

– I’m probably not cut out to be a tango dancer, so that’s one potential source of revenue gone.  I tried to blame my malco-ordination on the fact I was wearing flat shoes, but in truth I just can’t pivot in any way that doesn’t remind me of that old advert with the dancing hippos.  And I’m tense.  Very tense.  All the time.

– I really should do a bit more research (than none) on the places I’m visiting.  At least to find out if I can vaguely afford to spend time in them and, if so, for how long.  I like to think I’m being spontaneous and carefree.  In reality, I’m just in denial and increasing debt.

– Being away is great for creating space and focus to get on with projects.  Everything feels less pressured here and it’s amazing how much more energy you’re willing to put into work when you have new places to explore.

The Mack arrives today, so it will be back to the regime of post-it notes and time-keeping.  I’m not feeling anywhere near as cross about it as I do when I’m in London.  But that could be because I now know my way around Buenos Aires, so if it gets too much, I can just go off grid and he’ll never, ever find me…

Burger King, Buenos Aires-style

Burger King, Buenos Aires-style