26 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 6: The feast of Iemanjá

Disponible en español: La fiesta de Iemanjá

Bailando para Iemanjá
On the evening of our second day in Montevideo, we set up our stuff to go to the beach (for the first time in Uruguay) and to watch what promised to be somewhat of a novelty for us: an umbanda ceremony honouring Iemanjá, the orisha of the sea.

For those unaware of it, the umbanda religion is one of many cults which, after coming to the Americas with the African slaves, underwent a process of adaptation, growth and merging with the dominant Catholic religion. Among the multiple variants of voodoo (Haitian and Louisianan), the Cuban santería and the Uruguayan candoblé, the umbanda religion (which comes from Brazil, with its center in Bahia) is one of many with a pantheon of minor gods and goddesses, known here as orishas (written orixas in Portuguese), and which incorporated and assimilated the characters of Catholic saints and others. This fusion of diverse religious traditions is known as sincretism.

The names of orishas come from the Yoruba language (whose dialects are spoken by some 22 million people in Africa). Iemanjá is what people in Uruguay call Yemayá, the orisha who governs the sea. On February 2 she is honoured with dances, singing and offerings of flowers and fruit on the beaches of Montevideo, where her devotees come along with thousands of curious people.

We'd been advised to go to the beach known as Playa del Buceo because the place, although it attracts fewer people than others, also attracts fewer choripán salesmen and peddlers of the sort, who (kind of) take away some colour off the ceremony. The ceremony should begin after sundown, we were told, but we went a lot earlier to check out the sea/river and try the sand and the water. Buceo is the neighbourhood's name; the beach with that name is next (going west) to the well-known and extremely posh beach of Pocitos.

Playa del Buceo
Playa del Buceo
We got on a bus that left us a couple of blocks from the beach. Through this, incidentally, we found out something weird about Montevideo... By asking the hostel staff how to get to Buceo's beach, we wanted to be pointed towards a bus that wouldn't pass very far away from it, one that would leave us on the general vicinity; when one travels for half an hour in a big city it's no big deal to get off and walk five or ten minutes. But the hostel guys seemed intent on giving us a bus that would almost literally dump us on the sand of the beach, and even more so, on some specific point of it, and they would refuse to understand our lack of precission. Later, when we asked the driver about the best place to leave the bus in order to go to the beach, he was very concerned and disturbed, as if we'd taken a bus that took us on the opposite direction and he had no way to tell us the bad news. This happened to us again. It seems that the people of Montevideo tend to be that precise when giving directions; maybe they're used to there being buses that take you from all places to every other place without need to walk much.

But I digress. We got off the bus, walked a couple of blocks, and there was the sea (technically it's still the Río de la Plata, but it's so blue, so full of waves, so salty, that calling it a river is pedantic). The beach wasn't crowded at all; we dumped our stuff on the sand and, first one and then the other (with our Argentine fear of insecurity still in our heads) we took a splash. Then we dried off in the sun and sat down to wait.

Señora umbanda
Música para el mar
And they came. Several women, fewer men, no more than eight or nine, all dressed in white, the men with a cylindrical cap, the women with great kerchiefs like turbans, except for a guy who brought a percussion instrument (a hand drum, maybe an atabaque) and a woman dressed differently from the rest, with a long light blue dress and semi-transparent cloth of the same colour. The dark, wrinkled man with the drum started beating on it with a contagious rhythm; the woman in the sky-blue dress seemed to direct the ceremony. They brought a little wooden boat to the sand, set up candles on it and a great bundle of white carnations inside it, and then all the people dressed in white danced: first only revolutions around the boat, then rotations on themselves, with light steps, barefoot. A chant rose, and then another. Some turned and spinned with their eyes towards the ground, others waved their hands in precise, strong ritual gestures. Every now and then one of the women fell to the ground, prostrated and kissed the sand, then got up and went on with her danced and sung prayer.

The gathered public looked on calmly, in a circle, no more than two or three dozen people. The dance finished. The woman in blue gave some instructions, and the little boat was lifted and carried by the devotees to the shore. They entered the water and one of the men went on, pushing the boat through the waves that splashed up to his chest, until it sank or was lost to sea. Iemanjá had accepted the offer.


Later, when we were leaving to walk along the beach, we ran across another group of devotees. These were different: they wore colourful dresses and they carried flower and fruit (watermelon) offers, and some coloured cloth standards with figures we couldn't make out. They came walking and singing along the seaside road, and they were headed for Buceo beach. We didn't follow them, except with our eyes. The sun was setting.

Finally we arrived in Pocitos, where we decided that so much sun and walking were enough, and sat down on a little restaurant. We ordered a beer and had shellfish empanadas and rabas (fried calamari). Marisa was very tired, and I as well, but I persuaded her to get back to Buceo to check if something else had happened, since our Montevidean insider had told us the real show happened by night. We retraced our steps. Upon nearing Buceo beach again, we saw in the half-darkness a motion of people, plus some mysterious dots of lights in the sand.

As it turned out, countless makeshift altars had been erected, ornamented with veils and garlands and Christmas lights, statuettes and figurines and coloured candles; many groups of umbanda devotees were there, singing and dancing or laying hands on people. In the sand there were many holes, dug by hand, each containing one or several lit candles, protected from the wind, and many families were still coming, bringing their thermos and mate, and starting new holes. There was definitely a good vibe on that evening, cool and full the murmurs of the sea.

The time to return came and then we discovered we didn't know how. We'd lost our reference points. We went to wait for a bus at the closest stop we saw, but it never came. We were nervous and tired. We looked and walked around until we found the place we'd come from in the afternoon. Bingo! It was (apparently) the right place. The bus came, and it broke ten minutes later in the middle of nowhere... Ten minutes after that another bus came — not the same line, but it was close enough (again we had to explain the driver that yes, we did want to go to the Old Town, but no, it was no problem for us if he left us three blocks from there). We got off near the Citadel's Gate, I think. Five blocks of coolness and dark, and finally rest in our hostel.

To be continued...

21 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 5: The Port's Market and the Breakwater

Disponible en español: El Mercado del Puerto y la Escollera

Second day in Montevideo. We had a plan to explore the coast and the atractions of the Old Town (the Ciudad Vieja), where we were staying. First we walked up to Rambla 25 de Agosto, where we were greeted by some imposing buildings but mostly containers and other not-so-touristic sights.

Mercado del Puerto 2 (by pablodf)
A typical bar in the Port's Market

Following that way we arrived in the Port's Market (Mercado del Puerto), an immense old storehouse full of little bars and restaurants, dark but not gloomy and pleasantly cool, with huge skylights to let the sun in.

It was fascinating, if a bit expensive (in Uruguay everything's expensive for Argentinians, even more so if it's about having a good meal of fish or shellfish, or an asado). We didn't stop there for long. The Market is surrounded by shops offering art and crafts, very picturesque yet more city-like (and in agreement to my taste) than in small-town Colonia.

Pescadores (by pablodf) We kept walking. Sunlight was pouring on us, but wind blew some of it away. We ventured onto the Escollera Sarandí, a breakwater that emerges like a massive spine or narwhal's horn from the end of the peninsula where the original Montevideo was founded, into the river-sea. There were some port employees and others there, most of them fishing, sitting or standing on the big blocks placed on both sides. We'd been told, for safety, to go to the Escollera at a reasonable time of day and to avoid displaying our nice cameras around too much, but I didn't have any reasons for alarm (our Uruguayan correspondent might not have known that we live in an insecure, big city, and that through bitter experience we've acquired a certain sense of danger and opportunity). Montevideo, I must say, isn't quite a wonderful view from the Escollera, especially at noon, as the skyline of the Old Town and beyond isn't very impressive (I'm not saying it has to be either).

We spotted some birds, some bugs scuttling among the ever-wet rocks, and a few muddy little crabs. The fishermen seemed to be carrying on with their task more for fun than anything else, judging by the scarce, diminutive catches I saw.

It was a stimulating stroll to start checking out Montevideo, but the heat was overwhelming, so we came back and shut ourselves inside the hostel. The afternoon and the evening awaited us with the promise of witnessing a religious ceremony outside all of our previous experience: the festivities for Iemanjá.

To be continued...

19 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 4: Carnival in Montevideo

Disponible en español: El Carnaval de Montevideo

Palacio Salvo (by pablodf)
Palacio Salvo
Our first day in Montevideo was better than expected, without taking into account the easy and safe arrival, the cleanliness and everything else. It was the first day of February and, contrary to our fears, the weather was ideal. A nap was required, yes, but after that we were able to go out to the sunny afternoon and wander around the Old Town, here and there taking pictures of the typical icons: the Artigas mausoleum, the Palacio Salvo, the architecture surrounding the main square.

The really good stuff, however, was a change of schedule due to a rain we didn't witness. As it turned out, the opening ceremony of the 2009 Carnival season had been put off because of bad weather a few days ago, so that day we'd have the chance to see it. The hostel staff proposed that we go together, at 5:30 PM, and get a good place somewhere along Avenida 18 de Julio, which was already closed to traffic and where you could see long rows of wooden chairs and palcos that looked like gigantic baby playpens (all of which could be rented at reasonable prices).

Marisa and I followed the group but then, deciding we'd found a good spot already, we left them. We stayed at the corner of 18 de Julio and Rio Branco St. (I remember that detail not because I'm some sort of memory freak but because we stood there beside the sign with the street name for two hours).

Carnaval de Montevideo 5 (by pablodf) Carnaval de Montevideo 3 (by pablodf)
Carnaval de Montevideo 2 (by pablodf)

It's unusual, as I understand, for the first Carnival parade to start during the daytime. That also was good for us. First, of course, we had to wait for the police and the organizers to free up the avenue, for the comparsas and the murgas to line up correctly, for the peddlers of canned foam and cotton candy and confetti to leave (they never left completely). After that there came a couple of buses rolling side-to-side to make room, and then they began coming, one, two, ten, fifty carnival groups, each with their own outfits or banners, on foot or atop carriages with varied ornamentation, dancing or singing or doing choral parody.

Carnaval de Montevideo 4 (by pablodf)

Carnaval de Montevideo 1 (by pablodf)
I've never been too fond of Brazilian-style carnival or the modest copy of it that is en vogue in several parts of Argentina, with gigantic carrozas and a predominance busty women covered in artificial feathers. I acknowledge their effort but I'm not interested in it, except technically. The Montevidean carnival is different, since in Uruguay murga and parody troupes, which represent the true spirit of carnival (transgression, role inversion) are featured more prominently. You also get to more of, let's say, real people. I saw almost nothing of sweaty, muscled male dancers or hot brunettes displaying their natural gifts for the public; there were "queens" waving from their vehicles, but most of the participants were just people, young and old, fat ladies, middle-aged gentlemen singing, guys dressed as ladies, everyone with their own colours, with elaborate costumes, lots of face-painting, whirls of brilliance and sequins, and always a smile for the kids that clapped on the sides. This carnival had more mocking and parody, and yet more innocence, than what you see in the corsódromos.

If we had arrived one day later, we would've missed it. If we had come to see it on the scheduled date, days before, we would've missed it as well.

One after another came cabezudos, cumbia singers with flamboyant hairdos, a huge flag of Peñarol and a huge Argentine flag, a group of guys clad in gold with boxes, bottles, cages, umbrellas and a whole assembly of props on top of them; a smiling bishop, a king of spades, groups marching at the rhythm of a batucada, a parody of firemen on a mini-firetruck that sprayed Seltz water over us, ladies with curlers... Two hours went by, and necks were already hurting from looking west, and faces burned from receiving the sun on the same side all the time.

It was dusk. With the last lights we went walking, going up the river of colours towards its source and beyond, after the Citadel's Gate, where we found thousands of people, hundreds of troupes waiting for their turn to join the parade. The printed schedule of the carnaval listed (if I recall correctly) some 250 groups; we'd only watched about fifty. So we only saw one-fifth of the first day of the 2009 Carnival of Montevideo. That was enough to call it a day. We left to find something to eat, and then to rest.

To be continued...

17 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 3: Montevideo, the first impression

We arrived in Montevideo after noon. The city seemed to me big, expansive, with suburbs slow to appear. There are no huge highways or stacked road bridges. Montevideo (with its metropolitan area) has a population of 1.8 million, half the whole of Uruguay, almost twice that of Rosario and two thirds that of Buenos Aires, but it didn't look dense or complicated to me.

After a good while rolling down avenues and more avenues, the bus came to a brick-wall building, made a couple of turns and got inside. Terminal Tres Cruces ("Three Crosses Terminus") is relatively small. After the rather disordered Mariano Moreno bus terminal of Rosario and especially after the horribly filthy Retiro, Tres Cruces impressed me as surprisingly simple, clean and easy to navigate. There wasn't a single piece of paper or a plastic bag on the floor, or even one motor oil stain on the platforms. Neither were there people asking for coins to take your luggage from the bus, and I'd almost bet that the taxis waiting beside the exit weren't all members of a taxi mafia (as in Rosario). In fact, Tres Cruces is also a shopping mall, and as such the shop owners have an interest in making the potential client feel comfortable.

We crossed a street, asked around, and finally got on a bus that took us to the neighbourhood known as Ciudad Vieja (the Old Town), where, with the help of a map we'd gotten at the Tourist Office, we made our way quite easily to our hostel.

What I saw of Montevideo during the three and a half days I was there is almost enough to forgive Uruguayans for their inability to make decent icecream. Some might protest that I only saw the city center and the most touristic parts of the city, but at some point one has to acknowledge that's an excuse. Montevideo is infinitely cleaner than Rosario or Buenos Aires. During my whole stay, which I spent walking around the Old Town, the Center, the port zone, the neighbourhood of El Prado and a couple of beaches, I didn't spot one single pile of dog shit on a sidewalk, or a single garbage dump, or one overflowing trash container. I also didn't see people littering the floor, or pedigree dogs defecating on the public space before their masters.

The traffic also deserves a mention. To begin with, Montevideo car drivers don't look like madmen behind the wheel. They don't show the typical Argentine histeria to be the first to arrive anywhere. In Argentina, when you cross the street, you need to be fully aware you're risking your life. In Uruguay drivers seem to realize that between a walking person and a car it's the former who'll get the most damage if they have a violent encounter, and they slow down to let you pass, or at least they don't show a clear intent to run over you. In Argentina, you can often perceive that the driver is choosing between murder and jail and only refrains from the former to avoid the latter.

Public transport is another thing. Montevideo's buses are such that you get in, pay to a guarda (who sits apart from the driver) and that's it for the rest of the trip. The bus is clean, the guy who sells you the ticket always has change, and no-one ever fires up his or her MP3-enabled cellphone with trashy cumbia or reggaeton. Above all, one doesn't get the distinct feeling that one's about to be insulted or mobbed by another passenger any second, or that the driver is ready to kill if someone honks the horn.

I can't speak about taxis because they truly were unnecessary to us. We went around and around by bus, and only once, late at night, we thought of taking a taxi. It turned out we were just waiting on the wrong spot, for the wrong bus. Besides, in Montevideo you don't get the official fiction that buses work during the evening. After midnight it's almost impossible to catch one, and everyone acknowledges it.

You need some time outside the big city, in Argentina or wherever, to notice the awful load of barely-repressed aggressive instinct we carry around here, and which I didn't see in Uruguay. I repeat that this is my personal experience, and it's partial and limited, but the contrast was so stark and shocking I can't but note it. And I'm talking about Uruguay, which is almost an estranged Argentine province. They're not Swiss or Japanese or come from another planet where people are "better"; it's evidently us Argentinians who're doing something wrong.

On the other hand, and this must have lots to do, in Uruguay I didn't see the terrible amount of poverty or the obscene show of wealth you see every day side-to-side in Argentina. Some child asked me for a coin, and I saw many poor-looking people walking in Montevideo's downtown. Surely there are poor people in Uruguay, and surely someone will tell me they prefer insolently visible poor as in Argentina rather than invisible poor, or poor rendered invisible by society, as supposedly there would be in Uruguay. What I know is that you can't hide all poverty, and that in Montevideo I didn't feel sick witnessing armies of dirty children abandoned on the streets by the parents, asking passers-by for small change or washing the windshields of brand-new luxurious SUVs, and I also didn't see mothers with malnourished babies on every available space in the city center, begging before shops filled of imported goods or overpriced clothes.

All of the above might sound rather unpleasant on my part, and the truth is it is unpleasant, and probably more than one Argentinian with less-than-average IQ is thinking, if I like Uruguay so much, why don't I move there; and the answer is, I wouldn't mind doing it, and it would probably be better for my mental health, but practical and sentimental reasons keep me from it.

And because this post was unpleasant but necessary to me, I've poured all these impressions into it, until the last drop. One can't get to know a country or a city in a couple of weeks on vacation, but if truly the first impression is what counts, then I can't say almost anything bad about Montevideo or Uruguay in general. The comparison inevitably puts Argentina under a bad light. Whatcha gonna do...

I initially intended to write about Montevideo's Carnival, one of the first bright experiences of this voyage, but I had to let go of all the above. The next post, I promise, will be more cheerful.

To be continued...

15 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 2: Colonia

Callecita (by pablodf)
A Colonia street

Vieja ciudad (by pablodf)
Another street in Colonia

Puerto de Colonia (by pablodf)
Little boats on Colonia's port

Espiral de madera (by pablodf)
A wooden sculpture by Ricardo  Pascale
We arrived in Colonia del Sacramento on the sun-filled noon of Friday, January 31. They made us disembark through a long tube with many turns; we were led to the customs office, and there, mysteriously, all the forms we'd had to fill in to become temporary immigrants into Uruguay were rendered unnecessary by a simple gesture and the words "keep going, keep going" from the guy who checked the luggage. So we took our bags and entered the country just like that, though we were still looking over our shoulders in case some official was coming after us.

The hostel we would be lodged in was a few blocks from the port and on an upward slope, but we managed to get there with our heavy stuff (Marisa was carrying a long backpacker's backpack; I'd taken a wide military-type backpack with a steel frame; both also carried extra bags). The hostel was an old house with lots of tile floors, flowers and shade and quiet.

We had only booked one night in Colonia, so that afternoon we spent touring the older part of the city, wandering along cobbled streets, visiting the port, the small beach of the Old Town, the remains of the ancient wall of the fort, and lighthouse, which we climbed right before sunset. We watched a kart race on General Flores Ave., which was closed to other traffic and full of people: a noisy and at first sight very dangerous event that seemed to us rather alien to its context.

Colonia is, no doubt, but also sells itself as, a picturesque place, away from noise and modern urban decadence, and beautifully preserved. The tourists, mostly high-class porteños and middle-aged foreigners with delicate skins, are after that. Young backpackers and traveling artisans you will find, too, as everywhere else, but these belong to a different kind. We young Argentinians from the inner country, on a budget and without any chance to take away anything (not leather, not carved wood, anything but photographed memories) were also a little alien there.

Here, on our first day in Uruguay, we found out that ice cream is not the forte of this country. What was served to us on a corner of Colonia was a half-melted mass of cream with little flavour and too much colouring, which cost us twice what a larger, much tastier ice cream would have cost us in Rosario. (Rosario, in case you didn't know, is the National Capital of Artisan's Ice Cream. The title sounds pretentious, if I may say so as a native, only until you taste the ice cream that is made in other places.)

The next day we only had time for a brief final tour, on a cool morning, along the coast of the river-sea. We were ready and set for the two-hour trip to the capital, Montevideo.

To be continued...

13 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 1: Rosario-Buenos Aires-Colonia

Terminal de Buquebús 3 (by pablodf)
People waiting to board, Buquebús terminal in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Terminal de Buquebús 4 (by pablodf)
A boat of the Buquebús fleet, similar to ours

Marisa frente al río (by pablodf)
Marisa before the immensity of the Río de la Plata

El faro de Colonia (by pablodf)
The lighthouse of Colonia del Sacramento, as we came close
I begin my travel chronicle with the well-known disclaimer for whoever has had a different experience or thinks I'm overgeneralizing. These vacations were mine and Marisa's, and the experiences and impressions I'll recount are undoubtedly very personal and very partial. One can't get to know a country in two weeks, or even a city. Therefore, anything I say about Uruguay must be read as if preceded by "As far as I saw it...".

That said, I begin my tale, and I have to go back a little. My original idea was going to Uruguay via the most direct route for us, by land through Entre Ríos and from there to Paysandú or Fray Bentos. I would've liked to check out Gualeguaychú, which I saw years ago for a few hours, and Fray Bentos, with its (in)famous pulp mill. Fray Bentos is also where Borges chose to locate the story of Ireneo Funes, "the Memorious". But the news about road and bridge blocks by the Gualeguaychú Environmental Assembly were disquieting. It wasn't in our plan to begin our vacations stuck in the frontier.

Marisa then came up with the idea, which I seconded immediately, of going the other way, which was longer and more expensive but nicer and safer. We researched it a bit and finally booked passages on the Eladia Isabel, a boat of the Buquebús company, to go from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento across the Río de la Plata.

The trip to Retiro Station (BA) took us about four hours. We arrived at the hypertrophic capital of our country about three hours after leaving Rosario, and from Greater Buenos Aires to Retiro we spent some 45 minutes. Then we had to wait half and hour to enter the huge bus terminal, located wall-to-wall to a huge villa miseria, full of peddlers of dubious merchandise, its tarmac cracked or lost to negligence and time. How a capital which prizes itself on being the Paris of the South has a bus terminal that is so unnecessarily complicated to get into or out of, so ill-placed within its urban environment, and so filthy, escapes my comprehension.

We got off the bus, grabbed our stuff to guard it against unseen thieves, hailed a taxi, and were left on the Buquebús terminal in Puerto Madero, suddenly transported to another world, similar to a squeaky clean and very congested airport. We went through the embarkment paperwork, had coffee, and then boarded. The boat moved away from the coast slowly, and as we went far into the Río de la Plata I could see why Juan Díaz de Solís, the first European who found it and surveyed it, called it "Mar Dulce", that is, the Sweet Sea. It was an infinite expanse of earthen-brown water, with a few boats at the limit of one's vision looking like a gray cardboard figurine. Thus three hours passed, until we saw a few green islets and finally the white lighthouse of old Colonia.

To be continued...

I'm back!

Just a short note to let you know that I came back to Rosario from my vacations in Uruguay yesterday afternoon, and I'll be delivering my usual travel chronicle through this blog as soon as possible. For the moment you can see the pictures I'm uploading to Flickr at the set Vacaciones Uruguay 2009. It's good to be back!

05 February 2009


Folks, this is just a brief note to remind you that I'm still on vacation in Uruguay. We've been to Colonia and Montevideo and now we're in La Paloma, on the Atlantic southern coast of Uruguay, enjoying the beach and the sound of the sea. We've spent some very nice days in all of these places. Colonia was picturesque, if full of Argentinians. Montevideo surprised us with beaches that we hadn't seen advertised anywhere, and with its cleanliness. La Paloma is simply beautiful. If everything goes OK, we should be in La Pedrera in a couple of days.

Bye-bye for now, from the other side of my pond.