November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

…is, confusingly, the adjective often applied to the people and country of Uruguay. It’s because it lies to the east of the Uruguay river (whose name, wonderfully, means ‘river of painted birds’ in Guaraní).

I made a four-day escape to the Oriental Republic last Saturday, hopping on a ferry across the Río de la Plata. People often make jokes about Uruguay being just another province of Argentina, and about how small it is. Well, it is admittedly quite similar to its larger neighbour, and small in Latin American terms (though still bigger than England and Wales combined).

I went, though, because compared to Buenos Aires, at least, there’s also a lot that’s different. The main thing that attracted me was the tranquility. It seems to be becoming a bit of a recurring theme here that BsAs is a bit too big, noisy and loud for me. So to arrive on Saturday afternoon in Colonia del Sacramento was a very welcome change. Colonia was founded in the 17th century by the Portuguese, and changed hands between them and the Spanish several times over the centuries. Much of the town dates from around the 18th century, and hence looks like this:

I spent a great afternoon wandering around the town, spoilt only by the fact that there was some sort of tree, plant or grass whose pollen turned me into a sniffing, sneezing wreck. But I can forgive Colonia that.

I spent three nights in a hostel in the countryside, in between Colonia and Montevideo (the Uruguayan capital). Waking up to the sound of birds, dogs and horses instead of traffic or shouting was a joy. So was being able to see the stars, and so was the long bike-ride I made one day over seemingly endless rolling hills to arrive at Santa Regina beach, which was deserted and completely magical. Uruguay is, it seems, still a very rural country – I forget how by how many times bigger the cattle population is than the human. Here, at least, the gaucho, the cowboy of the pampas, survives in a form which is not entirely tourist-oriented.

The hostel itself was great too, run by a couple who after years of living in various European countries came back home. Miguel, one of my hosts, was full of grand stories about his grandfather (bomb-maker in the Spanish civil war and French resistance), his adventures in Africa and the consequences of the Uruguayan dictatorship. Oh, and they had a sauna, which was a bit surreal, but very, very relaxing.

Montevideo, while not exactly a village, is far from on the scale of Buenos Aires. All in all, I think it has about 2 million inhabitants (there are only 3 million people in Uruguay!). So it’s a bit more manageable, and best of all, has miles of open seafront and white beaches. There’s also a quirky restaurant area called the Mercado del Puerto, which was apparently destined to be a train station in Rio de Janeiro. The boat carrying it broke down, though, and was forced to offload its cargo in Montevideo. It’s a believable hypothesis, when you look at the place

(here is meant to follow a photograph, but the uploader broke. Watch this space.)

All in all, then, a welcome break in what seems like a lovely country. There are, I’m told, plenty more fantastic beaches to be explored on the Atlantic coast, and probably much more mate to drink – the Uruguayans are even more fanatical about the stuff than their cousins across the water.

For now, though, back to porteño life, which I can hardly complain about.


Indoors outdoors

August 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I promised the next post would be about mate, and it is, amongst other things. Yesterday, I managed for what must be the first time since arriving in Buenos Aires to have a completely relaxed day. I didn’t leave the house once, which sounds like it would be depressing and claustrophobic, but wasn’t because luckily my house looks like this:

My room.


Big fan of brick


Dining room


Stairs leading to...


La terraza


With all-important parrilla

I spent a large part of yesterday afternoon on the terrace (hence lack of claustrophobia), drinking mate with housemates and reading Rayuela by Julio Cortázar. The two things in order: mate is a sort of tea made from a herb of the same name (the cup you drink it from is also called a mate, which is confusing). You fill the cup with leaves and stems and insert a metal straw called a bombilla, so it looks a bit like this:

You pour water in from a thermos, refill when you’re done and pass it round. Thermos sales in Argentina must be colossal – people drink mate in groups in their houses, in parks, in the street – and, I’m told, in cars, passing it between driver and passengers. It seems the quintessential social ritual – and the preparation is complicated enough to require a fair bit of initiation. You have to tilt the leaves to a 45 degree angle, and the water, while hot, absolutely must not be boiling. My technique still requires some work.

Element number two of my non-claustrophobia was Rayuela (Hopscotch in English). It’s a bonkers novel, really, where you skip backwards and forwards between chapters, and between Paris and Buenos Aires, via musings on the nature of art, chance, leaves and just about everything else. But it’s also glorious, largely because Cortázar’s sentences are so wonderfully crafted, each one with the rhythmic precision of verse. (I’m getting a bit carried away). The novel is very much of its moment (the 6os) in its willful experimentation – but Cortázar manages better than just about anyone to use formal fireworks to convey a psychological or emotional effect.

One example, not from Rayuela but from another story which uses a 1st person plural narrator to tell the story of a failed romance:

Nunca habremos hablado de esto, la imaginación nos reúne hoy tan vagamente como entonces la realidad. Nunca buscaremos juntos la culpa o la responsibilidad o el acaso no inimaginable recomienzo.

Which in English is something like:

We will never have talked of this; imagination brings us together today as vaguely as reality did then. We will never look together for the blame or the responsibility or the perhaps not unimaginable new start.

I’m wittering on – Julio has this effect on me. One important I did take from yesterday, though, was that I am very glad to be writing my year abroad dissertation on Cortázar. Travelling companions don’t come much better.

P.S. A housemate just sent me this, which I can’t resist sharing. Tango and Cortázar. Genius.

Beyond the city

August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Bit of a gap since my last post – no real excuse other than bad organisation and…well, bad organisation. Classes at the university have more or less got going, despite another couple of ‘bomb threats’, I’ve continued to meet people, explore the city and generally enjoy myself. Last weekend I did however reach a point where I needed a break from Buenos Aires – as fun as it is, it can be a bit overpowering (particularly if, like me, you’ve never lived in a big city before). There isn’t a huge amount of green space either, at least not close to where I live.

My destination of choice, then, was Rosario, a city in the province of Santa Fe, and 4 hours from the capital by bus (peanuts, in Argentine terms). It’s not renowned as one of Argentina’s top attractions, but it certainly served a purpose. Which was partly to reassure myself that Argentina existed outside of Buenos Aires (it does, and it’s flat and grassy, from what I’ve seen). It was also partly to have a couple of days in a quieter environment, to let me catch my breath. It was perfect for that, since it’s got most of the attributes of a city like the capital  – stylish old buildings, trendy cafés, bars, galleries and theatres – but on a smaller, more tranquil scale.

The big draw for me, though, was the river. The Paraná is the second-biggest river in South America (I’m not sure by what measure), and the area along its banks in Rosario has been redeveloped and has lovely parks, restaurants etc. The Monday I was there was a bank holiday, so the whole town was out along this strip of greenery, sunbathing (with mate, of course), playing games, or eating food from the several family-run grills scattered around. The atmosphere was , it was sunny, and I finished reading Middlemarch. All in all, a good trip.

There are photos of Rosario (and some new ones of BA) here.

I realise as I write that I’ve mentioned mate a couple of times now without explaining what it is. It’s a herbal tea which the Argentines drink religiously (not really an exaggeration – the social ritual involved in preparing and drinking it is amazing). A subject for the next post, I think.

Another subject for a post is tango – I’ve been enjoying the annual festival at the moment, and went to an astonishingly good concert by Néstor Marconi on Thursday. Until then, here’s a taster:

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