Just this side of the pretty resort, please.

Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Maldonado, the older and cheaper sister city from glitzy Punta del Este, was where we planned to spend the night.  We could save a lot of money by walking to Punta during the day, and it was a pretty walk along the beach.  Magdalena dropped off her parents and gave us a little tour of the ritzy district.  Gleaming condo skyscrapers, and quaintly named cottages with million dollar price tags litter the beachfront out here.  We drove back through a brief wilderness and into the normal city of Maldonado.  A grid of pungent streets and dusty buildings.  This we could handle.

Magdalena was tired, but wanted to make sure that we found a good hotel room.  We had to explain that we were searching for rock bottom, and that sometimes you have to dig through a few feet of muck to get there.  We convinced her to just drop us off, and a series of dirty hotels later, we found it.  The walls looked as if they were done during a speed painting competition.  Roller splotches all over  left them half yellow, half white, except for one spot where the worker had apparently slopped the dregs of the can against the wall, then smoothed it out with the roller.  But the price was right.  "We'll take it," said Cierra.  Well, except she said it in broken Spanish and right afterwards she asked the lady if she could spray the room for mosquitoes since the window screen had a big hole. 

We went for a quick walk to find supper and got an appetizer at a hot dog cart, a cheapo footlong in a regular sized bun.  Then we went to a local pizzeria and tried the faina, a chickpea-based pizza that Magdalena had raved about.  We thought it tasted like chickpeas, and Cierra let me finish most of it, which I did reluctantly. 

The next morning we had a grocery store breakfast and then headed for the beach.  Cierra hadn't slept well, so once we'd walked toward Punta for a while she got sleepy and took a nap in a shady spot while I did some Sudoku puzzles.  Not many people out here on the beach this early, and those that were definitely didn't fit the Punta profile of skimpy bikini wearing beach bunnies.  Some were showing off a bit more flesh than anyone would want to see.  Eyes on the paper, Hunter. 

Nap over, we hiked into downtown Punta to try a second and less risky recommendation from Magdalena.  The best chivitos in the country were served at a little place overlooking the yacht harbor she'd pointed out while driving around.  Since a chivito is a greasy, steak-based sandwich, we knew it couldn't go far wrong.  We ordered up 2 of them at nearly the cost of last night's hotel room.  But they were so delicious it was worth every peso, and we lingered over the view for a while, playing cards at the table.  A cruise ship had anchored out past the yacht harbor, and we watched the tenders come in and go back out again.

Punta del Este is built out on a long peninsula, which gives it great views in every direction.  We'd been hanging about on the river side, but now we took the short hike over to the real ocean so we could lay about on the sand some more and listen to the surf.

When we took a walk up the main shopping street, it became clear what a ghost town Punta was.  Most of the shops were closed for the season, and those that weren't were empty.  It was March, and fall was setting in.  Uruguayans, as a general rule, shut their whole country down in January and everyone goes on holiday until March at the earliest, with Easter as the agreed upon endpoint of respectable laying about.  Their long national holiday drawing to a close, everyone had already packed up and moved out of their vacation homes.  In another week, all the traffic lights would stop work for the season and Punta would be in full hibernation.

Walking back to Maldonado, we decided to live it up bum-style for dinner that night.  We bought a liter bottle of beer, the standard size here, and a couple of burgers from a local stand, then went to the main square in town for a picnic.  No bottle opener for the beer, but a rock wall and my palm worked just fine, and we had a great dinner with no charge for table service.

I had a bout with insomnia that night, perhaps the result of too many grease-laden sandwiches, so the next day while sightseeing in the city, we stopped to rest in the very same park.  Two guys came along with an open beer, and the local police officers kicked them out.  Guess we were lucky nobody interrupted dinner last night.

Touring Maldonado's museums turned out to be a bit hard, because most of them weren't where the map promised they'd be.  We found the regional museum, a big dusty house full of antiques that once belonged to somebody famous, one block away from the map dot.  The art museum appears to have been swallowed up by an open field.  And finally, we found yet another museum and monument honoring Jose Artigas, the national hero who for Uruguayans is either just below or perhaps even with God.  This is a pretty secular country, after all.  According to the Johnsons, around 40 percent of the population is atheist, and comparing that to the roughly 100 percent of public parks that have some big monument to Artigas, you have some pretty strong evidence that Artigas at least has a better publicist.

Having exhausted our list as well as our budget, we headed back towards Montevideo and the Johnson's house.  Solea had invited us back, and we took her at her word, staying two more nights there.  Rod had taken an unexpected trip to the States, so we tried to help out where we could, doing the dishes after meals and playing games with Cassie, like I Spy and a new one for us, Uno Spin.  We watched the movie "Open Season" with the family and had pizza the next night while getting to talk with everyone.  It was a great chance to feel like we were part of a family once more.

Rod and Solea's Love and Logic methods have helped them raise some really intelligent and well-behaved children, and watching Solea calmly discipline Ryan and Cassie made us want to write down her number for parenting advice, should we ever need it.

All rested up, on Sunday we left early for the bus station, caught a bus five minutes after arrival, and were off to Buenos Aires, which looked bigger and prettier on arrival this time.  We had one more night before we would fly back to Santiago.

Where we can, we try not to start our hostel search from scratch, so we dragged it back across town towards the last place we stayed here.  On the way, we stopped to eat at a small cafe.  We both ordered pasta, which came out in what looked like a metal doggie dish.  Perhaps this was for expedient disposal of leftovers... if the dog sees it in a dish like his, he's more comfortable chowing down? Anyway, we were making Rover very unhappy by cleaning our plates, when a pigeon alighted on one of the patio tables outside.  The wait staff was busy playing poker in the kitchen or something, and had left plates covered with food too long.  Son there were five pigeons all over the table, but instead of revulsion from the crowd outside, people were fascinated, smiling, pointing and snapping pictures.  Hey, look over there at the garbage bin! Rats! Honey, get a picture of those cute little furry rats for me.  I want to remember eating at this place forever.

Back at the Hostal El Sol, a guy named Michelle had been left in charge by the owner Paul.  He let us upstairs, but didn't know if he could sell us a room.  We left our bags and told him we'd be back later. 

Off for another walk around the city, and since it was Sunday, that meant a return to the markets for Cierra.  She spent over an hour milling through the crowds and looking at crafts and trinkets.  Buying very little, she had to extricate herself from negotiations often.  "They're very nice" she'd say while backing away after hearing the price.  Then she'd turn and run for it. 

We found the famous parilla where you could get a cheap steak, but the pasta from lunch was still in our bellies.  So we opted instead for a hot dog and burger on the way back to see if we had a room.  Michelle was on his way out and Paul wouldn't be there for another two hours, so we sat down to wait in the lobby, playing cards and getting progressively sleepier. 

When Paul returned, it took him a while to get it all sorted.  He thought he had two beds, but it turned out there was only one free.  It was a single and had a skinnier mattress than all the rest, but if we really wanted to snuggle up and share it, he would only charge us for one person.  Hey, great.  We went upstairs and settled in for a terrible night's sleep.  One person was constantly falling into the crack between bed and wall, the other hanging on for dear life to the other side of the mattress and trying not to hit the floor.  I've never been so happy to see anything as I was to see the rays of morning coming through the window. 

"Yay.  It's light outside." I whispered, mindful of the other sleepers in the room. 

"But the alarm doesn't go off for 10 more minutes." Cierra replied, eyes shut tight.

"I don't care.  My back hurts.  I'm getting up."

We hiked 10 blocks to the place where the airport bus stopped.  The first bus we flagged down wasn't even headed to the airport, despite having the correct number.  The next one was, but we didn't have enough coins, so we got kicked off.  I went in search of 4 pesos worth of coins from nearby businesses.  Nobody was interested in helping me.  Begging and pleading didn't help, as a succession of twenty or so heartless liars told me they had no coins.  Oh, I see, you run a locotorio, where the price of everything is fifty or twenty-five cents, but you have no coins.  How's that work again? Twenty minutes later, I found a greengrocer who was willing to take the deal I'd offered everyone... 4 pesos in coins for a 5 peso bill.  Seems reasonable to me.  I returned to the bus stop to find a worried Cierra, who thought I'd been hit by a bus. 

"That's the angriest I've been in a long time.  How many buses have gone by?"
"None." she replied, "But here comes one now." We clambered on board as the door slammed open, paid the fare and settled in for a long, long ride.

Two hours of start and stop later, we finally arrived at Eziza Airport, waded through the bureaucracy of tickets, taxes, and changing money, then settled down to wait for our plane.  We boarded just about on time, but once everyone was on board and belted in, the captain made an announcement.  The airport's radar wasn't working, traffic was heavy,  and we would be delayed for an hour.  Excuse me? The radar won't be fixed? If you're not sure exactly where all the giant whizzy metal tube things are in the air around here, I'm not sure I want to take off at all. 

But take flight we did, and all was just fine.  It was an overcast day, and so our sole daylight flight over the Andes resulted in only a few peaks winking at us as they slipped between the clouds.  Soon we were descending into Santiago for another four days in Chile.
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