It takes two to tango!

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
Trip End Jul 19, 2007

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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Uruguay is a top country and I totally recommend it if you want to spend some time getting to know a very relaxed set of people. It is definitely their best selling point. I called by the thermals in Salto and the original Oxo meat factory turned museum in Fray Bentos. Then it was a bit of tango, rowing (where I almost became an international champion) and teaching basic computers and English to women in a refuge in Montevideo for a few weeks followed by time in Colonia and Carmelo before catching the ferry on the scenic route to Tigre in Argentina.

Get that cuppa tea brewed and read on...


Salto is known for it's thermal waters. After the horror trip I just had I was well in need of some rest and relaxation. It also had a rowing club from what I could decipher from my guide book! Unsurprisingly, it would seem they just reprinted old information from the previous edition without verifying it. All the hotels mentioned were closed over three years ago (the book was printed in 2004).

With no lycra to distract me I headed to the lovely town of Fray Bentos. Even at 8.30am or 9am, when you would expect there to be plenty of cars stressing around trying to get to work on time, the centre of town was as quiet as what you could imagine on a Sunday. It is the perfect town for a romantic trip back to the twenties with a lovely riverfront walk which looks west and gives a beautiful sunset - an enormous bright red disc sinking slowly below the horizon framed by thin wispy clouds taking on shades of pink and red as the sun disappeared behind Argentina. All this while sitting in a restored vintage car. There were hundreds of them, including the old Fiat128 and my favourite car of all time, the Fiat600. Didn't quite see that many Morris Minors though.

My nine months of travelling were catching up on me and I felt in need of a well deserved rest to recharge the batteries. No seriously, travelling can be a hard life you know. Not knowing where your next bed will be or if it will be some ancient mattress that has been worn thin by the hundreds of fellow travellers who have used it before you. Not to mind who you will be sharing the room with if it's a dorm and whether you will get a decent nights sleep (roll call people coming back drunk from a night out trying to be quiet and failing miserably and snorers). Not only that but also not knowing where or when you will have your next shower, it could be days or weeks. And those bus journeys! I'm sure some of the passengers haven't had a shower for years and I'm not talking about just the Gringo here. Why is it that I always seem to end up beside some rather rotund guy who has to spread his legs, extend his arm over the arm rest perfuming the air with his now exposed sweaty armpit and take up half my seat. If he pays my fare then he can have my seat but until then, shove over buddy!

And so Montevideo suddenly looked very tempting as my stopover for the next month. If the current trend was anything to go by, I would be spending that time in the company of some very chilled out Uruguayans. It's like the stresses of life just pass them by. Even three blocks from the main road of the capital, hardly a car goes by. And this doesn't change at what you would expect to be rush hour. Weekends are even quieter!

The main reason I decided to stay in Montevideo was to learn Tango. I hear you, I hear you. Isn't Buenos Aires the capital of Tango? Yes, I agree 100%. But who wants to arrive there and not be able strut her stuff when the most handsome hunk asks her up for a dance! Not only would the rose he has between his teeth be red but my face would match it twice over if I had to refuse because I didn't know the moves!

It would seem someone above had already decided that I should stay here a bit longer. Things just seemed to fall into place without much effort on my part. October was "Mes del Tango" and I headed to the Mercado de la Abundancia where Joven Tango is located and what do you know, just as I arrived a class was about to start. So with my very elegant running shoes and trousers-come-shorts I headed in to join them and met Pedro (Gabriela, Pedro's better half, lent me a pair of tango shoes so I just looked half a plonk then). I think I could probably hold myself quite comfortably in a social gathering where Tango was the theme after all those classes. It was fantastic. As always men were outnumbered at least two to one which was lucky for them but unfortunate for us as it meant we missed out on quite a lot of pratice time. Even with just the short time I spent with the guys their Latin charm won me over each and every time and I would always come out of the classes with a bigger smile than the last time.

Milonga was definitely something that caught my eye and something I definitely wanted to learn. Unfortunately it is a bit like running - first you have to learn to walk before you can run. In this case, first you have to learn to Tango before you can Milonga. Having said that, I did get to do a Milonga or three before moving on, so I was a very happy bunny!

In the time between Tango classes I had to find something else to do so my first Sunday I headed off to one of the rowing clubs to see if I could join for the few weeks I planned to be there. Remember what I said about things falling into place? Well, as it turns out it was Uruguay's version of Nat Champs (a direct translation from the Spanish on their program, Campeonato Nacional Uruguayo, although I'm not sure it actually was the Nat Champs) which would mean all the coaches were there and I could take my pick of the bunch. Oh no you don't! The number of clubs attending was in the high eights. Yes, just eight clubs (there are more than eight clubs in the Oxford (UK) area alone!!!). Of the twenty events offered there were eight with only one entry which were, for obvious reasons, cancelled. Nonetheless, this was all the clubs in Uruguay apart from Fray Bentos. Even their Athens Olympian of mens singles was there, oooh! And so I got talking to Dante, the coach for the host club. There was only one other girl rowing there, Carina, but that was fine with me as I only really wanted to do a double. Even better, towards the end of October there was a regatta nearby which we may be able to enter. And all this after just going out for one paddle! And then what do I see but around ten Navy boys training beside us! Things kept getting better every day ;-).

This was the hedonistic lifestyle that I had imagined. Constructive loafing and lovin' every minute of it. I felt rather guilty taking advantage of Uruguayan friendliness and decided to return something in the short time that I was here in the form of teaching English and basic computers to a group of women and children in a women's shelter. Between dancing, rowing and teaching my day was pretty busy and it started to feel like hard work again having to actually get up in the morning to arrive somewhere by a specific time!

I had considered staying on longer in Uruguay, another year in fact, when Dante asked if I would like to coach at the club (a paid job over in these 'ere parts) while he was temporarily away for the next nine months but the itch still hadn't left me. The tango festival was coming to a close and the rowing event we had entered had been cancelled so it was time to move on to the York of Uruguay, Colonia del Sacramento. A beautiful small town where a day would have been enough to see everything. This day extended to another two after I met Kris, Ken and Jane and spent a little while extra strolling around town with them. Following this was a quick jaunt to Carmelo to take the scenic ferry ride to Argentina through the islands of the ParanŠ delta, the end of the river where miles upstream you would find the Iguazu Falls.


Distances travelled so far
A very rough idea, as the crow flies, to how much I have travelled so far.

Air: 8418 miles / 13551 kilometers
Water: 1027 miles / 1654 kilometers
Land: 12988 miles / 21118 kilometers

Total: 22433 miles / 36323 kilometers

Carbon output = 7,139kg CO2

While calculating these distances and thinking about green issues I came across the this on the web as to how long it would take things to go back to 'normal' should the human species disappear.

What a fantastic country and an even more incredible set of people. They are so unbelievable relaxed a friendly over here. It's definitely a long way away from the hustle and bustle you get back in Europe or the US and I'm talking the capital of the country here aswell!

The people are super friendly and polite. While they may not hand out wads of cash when someone comes on to the local bus to sing a rendition of some well known song or strike a few chords on the oul' gee-tar to earn some pesos, all the passengers acknowledge his/her efforts by applauding at the end.

I remember saying that Bolivia was a poor country but the people seemed content. Thinking about it again, if a child from Europe had to live like the children in Bolivia there would be an outcry. Children as young as seven were already adults as they had to work on buses calling out destinations (imagine Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers said 10 times quicker than you can do and this is what they sounded like, completely undecipherable to even a fairly proficient speaker of Spanish such as me!) or working on the street corners, church entrances or anywhere they could find people needing their shoes polished. This is nowhere to be seen here in Uruguay. While some children may not complete primary school for whatever reason, it would seem the majority don't have to grow up as quick as those in Bolivia.

The difference between here and the other countries I have visited is quite apparent. The level of education and quality of life appear to be higher. There are also very few homeless people that you see on the streets (possibly due to the fact that the government provides them with night-shelters and refuges during the day). And no more did I realise the difference between the countries than when I entered a supermarket in Uruguay and the security guard stalked me until I left. Unlike Bolivia where I was considered "rich", my backpacker look must have been more like a homeless look here in Uruguay. Of course, I like to think it is because it isn't quite so much on the gringo trail as Peru and Bolivia and they are not used to seeing such dishevelled people!

Along with education and quality of life, Uruguay also tops the list of countries for being the most expensive so far. How this is I'm not sure as the basic minimum wage is only UYU$3000 per month (US$125 / €100 / £68) and accomodation in a simple pension (most likely sharing a room in a family house) costs half that while food can be as much as URU$30 a day (and that's not eating out). It doesn't leave much room for anything outside the basics.
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