Wednesday 28 April 2010

Busy doing nothing

My little trip to Uruguay was great fun. I love it there. Reading some other travel blogs, I stumbled across a couple who had taken a similar route to me, and they were shit canning the place because "there wasn't anything to do." Why do people travel? In search of things to do, or something more? I didn't "do" a great deal in Uruguay. I went to one museum. I walked a lot, took a lot of pictures. Drank coffee, ate, a lot. Slept. Want stuff to do? - go somewhere else. I hear Disneyland Paris is nice this time of year. You like museums? Galleries? Theatre? Pubs, bars? Save yourself the airfare - Britain is full of them.

Uruguay's not. It's full of quiet little towns, that are full of quiet, dignified people going about their daily lives. There are no outstanding natural features, historic monuments or ruins. If you need any of those things, or other distractions, then it's probably not for you.

Since my trip was a training exercise in travelling, what did I learn? I learnt that ATM cards, when they don't work, are totally worthless compared to good old fashioned US Dollars. I learnt that cockroaches are a non-lethal hazard to be expected in the coming months. I learnt that bus travel isn't actually that bad, but that they crank the aircon up so you need hundreds of layers despite the fact that it is blisteringly hot outside. I learnt that I actually quite like moving about. What others might be bold enough to call travelling.

The journey back last Friday was a long one with a lot of legs. The most interesting of them was the catamaran across the Tigre delta. Most interesting of that, other than the screaming little brats that filled the top deck, was the approach to Tigre, where the waters are dotted with boats in various stages of decay, disrepair and submersion.

It's pretty funny watching the toffs of Buenos Aires dodging these old shipwrecks in their speed boats. In fact it neatly sums up a lot of the contrasts and contradictions of the city. Other places, they might try and clear the old stuff out of the way. Not here - they work around it. They let nature take its course. The city, the landscape or - in this case - the river, will eventually assimilate the things that are dying in its midst. Meanwhile life goes on around. Me - I'm heading home, to spend one more week "doing" nothing, before home moves on once more.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Fray Bentos: Ghost town

After the cockroach infested, damp shithole I stayed in the other night, and in a shameful betrayal of the 'traveller' in me, I checked myself into the Gran Hotel Fray Bentos. The 'Gran' is probably stretching it, but at least the 'Hotel' bit won't bring the trade description guys knocking.

This morning I headed for the Museo de la Revolución Industrial early doors. Barrio Anglo, where the meat packing plant once thrived, is a fair walk from the main town. It's a beautiful stroll along the riverfront here, and it takes me ages since I can't stop taking photos. I think it's the wavy lines.

Fray Bentos feels different to the last couple of towns I've been to in Uruguay. Whereas they were bustling, lively and busy, here I just can't seem to find that many people. Even the Rambla was very quiet, though the few people I did see all offered a cheery hello. I thought maybe it was a holiday or something. I wandered further through the town, dotted with leafy parks and open spaces, which doesn't help the sense of emptiness.

No-one here....

.... or here....

.... or here....

.... or here

Looking for a restaurant is a tricky business. The places I found on the internet have either shut up shop or gone for good. Last night I went out for dinner around ten - prime time. There were a few punters in Treinta y Tres, the little joint I finally found, but the streets themselves were deserted (save for a couple of ferocious perros that hounded me for a block or two). I scouted a couple of places this afternoon, but again, when I got there they were shut. Two of the three open places were empty. Despite all this, I really like it here. It's a beautiful town; leafy, spacious and clean. The people, if and when you see them, are remarkably warm and friendly.

I decided to write two entries on Fray Bentos; one on the meat packing and its history, the other on the town, but I'm not convinced that the two are that easily separable. Thirty years ago, Fray Bentos suffered a massive shock - the business that had sustained the local economy for 117 years, ceased production. You can't help but get the feeling that it has never quite recovered. The preservation of the site as a museum only adds to the sense that this is in some ways a ghost town.

This situation is exacerbated by an unprecedented dispute with neighbouring Argentina. Puente General San Martin, the bridge that connects the two countries just outside Fray Bentos, and the only river crossing for 200km, is closed, and has been on and off for the last five years. It is blockaded by residents of Gualeguaychú, Argentina, in protest against allegedly pollutant paper mills being built on the Uruguayan riverbank. It is a staggering situation between two normally amicable governments.

The effect on Fray Bentos is clear - without the passing trade, tourism and freight, the place is in danger of drying up. In a cruel irony, the grand old Río Uruguay that 150 years ago transformed a sleepy little village into a thriving commercial town, is the very thing now isolating it as it tries to rebuild. If agreement isn't reached soon, judging by the state of the place, it's in danger of being suffocated for good.

Sunset over the Río Uruguay

Fray Bentos: a canned history

Combine the words Fray and Bentos and you tend to think of tinned meat pies. Ever wondered where the name came from? Spanish for reclaimed meat? Nope. They took it from the town that kept Europe in corned beef and oxo cubes for more than a century and fed the Allies long enough for them to defeat the Nazis in World War II.

In the middle of the 19th century, a crazy German invented a method for compressing 2lb of beef into 1oz of extract. With British financing he opened a processing plant on the Rio Uruguay utilising all the spare meat that was lying about. With it came the Industrial Revolution. All the latest innovations from Europe arrived, and Fray Bentos had electricity three years before anywhere else in Uruguay.

I'm guessing the rust is new

They soon expanded (or is that compressed) into corned beef under the Fray Bentos name, and lower grade extract that was later trademarked oxo, along with 200 sub-products. After the Great War, the German sold out to British interest and the company was renamed El Anglo. The flow of cheap, quality meat was especially important during the war, and Fray Bentos effectively became the kitchen of free Europe. It had the largest meat packing plant and refrigeration unit that has ever existed. Today it is a museum, which is how I came to know all this crap. Amongst the interesting industrial artefacts, the highlight for me was a two headed calf preserved in formaldehyde. Presumably the rest of it ended up as oxo cubes.

And you thought corned beef was good for you

A mural usefully depicts how it all worked

A small town evolved around the plant, now known as the Barrio Anglo. It had its own hospital, even its own crematorium (for those who got too close to the machinery?) Walking around the giant building, you can only imagine what it was like in its heyday. Huge deep keeled ships rolling up the Uruguay to the enormous warehouse. The town within a town, bustling with workers and their families from all over the world. And the smell - one can only wonder. There's not much left of all that now, just a few ramshackle buildings and the old wharf in tatters. But the frigorifico is still standing, and at least they're trying to keep their history alive.

Once the world's largest refrigerator

Hard to imagine it a hundred years ago

Wednesday 21 April 2010


Western Uruguay really does look like England. In between the towns that is. After two hours of green fields, tractors and acres of rapeseed, I have a couple of hours to kill in between buses in Mercedes.

There's not a great deal going on here, though it's charming enough. I was toying with the idea of spending the night, but thought better of it. After an hour or two, I think it was probably a good call. The town rises away from the bus station, reaches a crescendo around the Plaza Independencia, then falls away again to the river, and the widest costanera in the whole of Christendom.

I stash my bags at the station and walk the ten blocks or so into town. It is still bloody hot, and the clear blue sky persists. The town itself is awash with colours. It's begging for photos. A perfect opportunity to put my new compact to the test.

Missed the name of this church on the walk through town

Disused building on the riverbank

Amazing colours looking upstream along the Rio Negro

The little camera is turning out some awesome shots. Maybe I can survive with a compact after all and leave the SLR at home. I decide to put it's sun shooting skills to the test:

It looks like I'll be lugging the D300 around the world with me for a little while longer. Still, not a bad effort for a baby. I wander back towards the bus station and capture some of the colours, murals and graffiti. 

It has occurred to me that everyone in Uruguay seems so nice, I wonder if there are any assholes here at all. A few blocks later, a graffiti artist responds in the affirmative by eloquently scrawling all over a peace mural. Oh well, nowhere's perfect I guess.

A morning in Carmelo

I left the earplugs out in the hope that any cockroach scuttling might wake me before I suffered a 1984 moment and had my face overrun by the little bastards. I needn't have worried. It wasn't the best night's sleep of my life, but it was thankfully insect-free. After another instalment of a recurring dream in which I return to my old job at Ladbrokes (!), I woke to be confronted by a quite wonderful day. Not a cloud in the sky, and a few hours to kill before my one o'clock bus to Mercedes.

I grab some breakfast on the square and watch the world go by. Carmelo might be small, but it feels very busy. Everyone in town owns a motorbike or scooter it seems, except those that still go by horse. There are kids everywhere too. It feels very similar to Salta - that sense of contentment and general happiness. Everything is where it needs to be, and if it isn't, well, it'll get there when it's ready. It's nowhere as beautiful mind you. The cathedral is ugly and frankly the bell tower looks worryingly chimney-like.

The cathedral sells the town short


I cross the bridge over the Arroyo de las Vacas (Cow Creek) and make my way down to the beach. There's a different feel to the centre of town - quieter, peaceful and definitely a few rungs up the social ladder. There's even a yacht club for God's sake.

Choose your weapons

Up Cow Creek without a paddle

There are some pretty tasty looking houses along this stretch of road, and a few empty plots of land with for sale signs up. My mind naturally wanders. The beach itself is small but isolated. Personally I wouldn't fancy a dip in the Rio de la Plata, but I'd happily while away the hours sipping mate and looking at the sun shimmering in its still waters.

Playa Sere

I wouldn't be alone. Young and old are down here, just passing the time of day. Que lindo día, I remark to one of them. Un precioso día, es cierto, he replies, smiling. Everyone says hello when you walk past them here. It's a great feeling. Suddenly I'm noticing everything - the leaves are falling, the sun's shining bright and the trees are glowing in their different hues. I spend the next hour or two smiling to myself, plotting my return.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

I'll get me goat

My cash flow crisis was mercifully short lived. After a few blocks pounding the streets of Carmelo, it occurred to me that the problem might well have been a simple one, just like the person behind it. For once I was right.

Cash on the hip, I head for dinner at Fey Fey. It is an unprepossessing little place, a couple of patio chairs outside and a tatty door that looks painted shut. There are plenty of locals inside watching either of the two TVs. The tablecloths look like they were cut from the curtains in your great-grandmother’s spare room. The old ones - before she took them down and replaced them with something a little more ‘modern’.

Fey Fey. Looks a lot more orange in daylight

The menu doesn’t exactly set my heart racing either. The Lonely Planet says the Pescado Milanesa is good, but I didn’t come all this way to check out Uruguay’s answer to Captain Birdseye. I’m having the chivito al pan - that’s goat sandwich to you and me.

And a pretty big goat sandwich it is too. A thick roll with everything they could fit in. There’s smoked pancetta, ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato (I asked for it sin huevo). And nestling in amongst it is something I really wasn’t expecting at all. It’s the goat. After a couple of mouthfuls, I call the waitress over. In my fragmented Spanish, I ask her for another goat, but on its own this time. Against all probabilities it is very, very special indeed.

It’s the fillet, which helps. It is sliced thinly, then tenderised until it is barely a quarter of an inch thick. Then it is sprinkled liberally with salt, and flashed on the parrilla. It is soft, tender and succulent. Seared on the outside and still a little pink in the middle, it tastes remarkably similar to beef, but with a slight gaminess to it.

I’m halfway through my second helping when I have a bit of a moment. It occurs to me that I am sat in a very small restaurant, in a very small town, in a very small country, all by myself, a long, long way from home, eating a piece of goat meat that is so delicious a tear is almost running down my cheek. This is exactly why I am here.

Back in my ‘hotel’ I feel compelled to commit this experience to words immediately. However, my gentle tapping of the keys is apparently transmitting on some obscure entomological frequency, and before I know it I’m joined on the bed by a lone cockroach. At least I hope it’s a lone cockroach. If the others come looking for him, it’s going to be an interesting night.

The thief of time

In two weeks time I leave Buenos Aires. Thereafter I will be 'travelling' in the true sense of the word. To tell you the truth, that's a tiny bit daunting. I decide to embark on a little training mission and head back to Uruguay. This is a test for me - I have a number of self-erected obstacles to overcome.

First obstacle: procrastination. I am lying in bed toying with just one more chapter of my book, when it occurs to me that I don't even know when the boat leaves. Maybe this is the excuse I need to postpone until tomorrow and idle around here for another twenty-four hours. I shake the covers off. 12:30 arrives 13:45. Need another excuse.

Second obstacle: planning. I need to know where I'm going, when and how. Always. It's a question of control. Actually, that's a lie. It's fear. I'm afraid. Afraid of being stranded, skint, roofless or all three. I try and run the clock down further with an extensive search for Uruguayan bus timetables on google, to no avail.

Third obstacle: further procrastination. Right up until the last minute, I am capable of seemingly unachievable heights of ponderous delay. Today, this takes the form of washing-up, backing-up, and pressing-up.

All that out of the way, at 11:10 I decide I have to go. I hail a cab that takes the best part of forty-five minutes to negotiate the pollutant stalemate that is Buenos Aires traffic. (Actually, traffic is a technically incorrect description, since it implies some degree of movement). I'm there half an hour before the boat leaves. Long enough to buy a ticket, negotiate my way through customs and immigration and still be in time for a window seat. Not that there's anything to see bar a murky smog and a stale brown river.

In Colonia del Sacramento I walk to the bus terminal, but I've missed the last one for Mercedes. I settle for Carmelo instead, it's on the way and I can connect tomorrow. I spend the last of the Pesos Uruguayos from my previous trip on a third rate sandwich and some agua sin gas.

The bus is laden with school kids who hop on and off at the many stops. In addition, it masquerades as an extension of the Uruguayan Postal Service, delivering parcels to a number of different business en route. Out of the window, I could easily be back in England. Lush green fields, little copses, horses, cattle. My mind drifts a little and I think of a drive along the A272 in the old Corrado. It was what, ten weeks ago? What the hell happened to all the time in between?

Proud of my spontaneous 'travelling' adventure, I decide to reward myself by immediately checking into a hotel to throw down some roots for the night. Last time I did this, in Humahuaca, my policy of choosing the first place I found reaped rich dividends. Not so here. The fact that it's called the Hotel Centro should have set a couple of bells ringing. Centro is definitely the only thing it has going for it. I feel like I am back under house arrest, and the room is as damp as the place in Tangier on my first night in Morocco. Oh well, 500 pesos, I can't complain. Which reminds me. I need some cash.

Inexplicably, the ATMs in town are giving my card collection the brush off. I try a couple of exchange places but they laugh in my Visa wielding face. It is a classic schoolboy error and proof of my utter unsuitability to this 'travelling' lark. Suddenly I am confronted by two of my three great fears: I am stranded and skint. And the roof I'm under is a pretty flimsy one.

Should have stayed in bed and finished that bloody book.

Saturday 17 April 2010


Parque Nacional Iguazú is full of the most incredible butterflies I have ever seen. They are everywhere, thousands of species and colours, and they flutter about us throughout the day, landing on us as we walk. They make for an interesting contrast with the falls themselves - two great expressions of the extraordinary scope of nature. One of raw, devastating power; the other of elegant, fragile beauty.

Friday 16 April 2010

Iguazú: the wood for the trees

If ever one needed a lesson in the benefit of different perspectives, Iguazú Falls is it. On the Argentinian side you are in amongst them. Up close in a boat getting drenched, hovering over the tops of the Saltos falls . Looking up into the spray from the lower trail or teetering on the precipice of the Devil's Throat as the world slips away from you.

Over the Rio Iguazú in Brasil, things are very different. The first glimpse of the falls here is wide and clear. Suddenly you realise just how big these things are. The white lines stretch for what seem like miles. And you start to appreciate the layers, how so many separate falls meld together into one great spectacle.

I've got jeans on today so I'm not planning on getting wet. You can walk out into the middle and be engulfed in spray if you want. I don't. That was yesterday. Up close and personal, you can't see the wood for the trees. Or the waterfalls for the water. Today I'm sitting back and looking at the whole damn forest.

When you do get close, it's from a new angle, and you can almost see through the water. You notice each droplet of water, the colour and the light.

At the top of the observation tower, one more chance to survey the breathtaking scene before we head back to Argentina. A last glimpse of the whole vista. But something else catches my eye and I spend a few minutes trying to get a photo. No one else is doing this. Some of them are looking at me, they probably think I'm mad. I guess it's just a question of perspective.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Border Town

I like taking pictures, and am lucky enough to have a pretty decent camera. But it's not exactly practical at times, and completely impractical at others. Like in South American cities such as La Paz, Lima and Quito. It's going to attract the wrong sort of attention and get nicked. I need to get myself a compact as well, but they cost twice as much as in the UK.

This is why I need to cross the border into Paraguay, and visit Ciudad del Este. Ironically it is just the kind of place I need the new camera for; a bustling border town overrun by street traders, electronics shops and smugglers. It is the second largest tax free commercial centre in the world after Hong Kong, and the smuggling trade is said to equal about five times Paraguay's GDP. 90% of all goods sold here are counterfeit.

Whenever I tell someone I want to go to Ciudad del Este, their first response is always the same; Why? Up here, when you tell someone, they know. Queres comprar algo? (You want to buy something?). Well actually it's more than that. I want to see the place too. We hire a driver. He's pretty clear about it. He'll take us over, to an above board electronics centre, then we leave. Can't we eat there? I ask. Por que?

The border is the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge). It's hilarious; hundreds of motorbike taxis ferry punters over from Brasil. Behind chicken wire fences on either side, others make the journey on foot. Everyone's carrying something. It's dusty, traffic fumes clog the air and the buzz of people and movement is overwhelming. I look down over the giant Río Paraná I was strolling alongside in Rosario a couple of weeks ago. It feels a million miles from Argentina - the developing world. More what I expected South American cities to be like. And Thursday is the quietest day of the week. Every other day the buses back up for miles into Brasil.

I get the camera I want with little drama. I pay $480, about the same as in England. I've probably been ripped off but I'm happy. He makes out a receipt for $200 in case I get stopped at the border. Out in the humid street I take my first snap with it, looking back towards the bridge. I snap a few more, trying to get a sense of the energy and mayhem, but Lucas, the driver is waving at me. He really doesn't want to hang around.

We cross back into Brazil, and no one so much as looks at us. Obviously an Argentinean and three gringos in a car have popped over for a bit of sightseeing. There isn't even a border control - no one looks at your passport in or out. It's a crazy place. I really wanted to have a proper look around since I can't see myself being back here any time soon. But like most people who make the same journey, I guess I got what I came for.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Iguazú Falls

I know there's all that crap about water spinning the other way down the plughole in the southern hemisphere, but I didn't realise a similar phenomenon affected their chickens. It does. All last night, gangs of nocturnal cockerels cock-a-doodle-do'ed their way through some sort of battle re-enactment, right outside my window. As the first tiny rays of the sun crept over the distant horizon, they packed up their things and fell into silence. After four hours of lying under the pillow with bits of toilet paper stuffed in my ears, finally I get a chance to sleep.

It was round about this time that the huge canine population of Puerto Iguazú woke up, and took over where their feathered comrades left off. Another couple of hours slip from my grasp. I can put up with this infuriating lack of sleep only on account of the fact that today I am going to visit one of the natural wonders of the world: Las Cataratas de Iguazú.

I didn't know much about Iguazú Falls until today. Er, a bunch of waterfalls right? Seen a few in my time. Seen one you've seen them all right? Like statues, walls, pyramids, hanging gardens and all the other so called 'wonders of the world'. You have to part with 85 hard earned pesos just to get in the park, and another 135 are coaxed out of you to take a couple of boat trips. We trudge off, tickets in hand, smeared in Off.

You hear Iguazú Falls long before you see them. The first view is a wide one - the main group of falls to the right and the massive Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) on the left. It's a spectacular sight. Someone needs to do something about those trees though.

We're on our way down towards the boat to take us right up to the edge (the bottom edge, not the top Mum). The different perspective it offers is tremendous - looking up into the falls as the huge droplets rain down. This turns out to be an excuse to drench tourists, since the bastards then drive us right underneath. You can't look up, it's like being taken out with a fire hose. Saturated from the experience, we are able to take on a few more wet bits without worrying too much.

By the time we've taken the train to Devil's Throat, we've pretty much dried out. We're up top now, and following the walkway out to hover right over the top. All around is tranquil water, barey a ripple on its surface. How I pity the poor sucker who first paddled down here in his canoe, gently dozing off in the tropical sun.

The contrast between this and what awaits couldn't be any greater. Inches away from the dead calm, comes the edge. The water drops down into an abyss. The wind gusts and the spray is belched back up, soaking everyone. It is so dense, you can't even sense the bottom, let alone see it.

Standing over this, you cannot help but feel completely powerless. Awesome is a much overused word, not least by me, but this it is the only one to really describe this sight. It is the greatest display of the raw power of nature I have ever laid my eyes upon. Leaning on the rail looking over the edge, the roar, the spray and the sheer inevitability of the fall are compelling. It would be one hell of a way to go. In fact, I can't help but think it looks a little like a giant plughole.

Coming back tomorrow to have a look from the Brazilian side, so long as I get some sleep.