April 2nd, 2015


Across the River Plate to Uruguay

I woke up to find my table stowed and the cabin in darkness so I set my seat to horizontal and went back to sleep under a blanket. When I went to the lavatory during the night Sheila advised me to go back to sleep because ‘there are hours to go yet’. Obediently, I slept until breakfast, which I declined because I was not at all hungry even though it all looked appealing. For the last hours of the flight I played Animal Crossing and read light thrillers.

As the plane landed we saw pampas grass waving alongside the runway. We weren’t in Kansas any more.

We made our farewells to Sheila and were first off the plane at Buenos Aires. We had not seen the last of her, however. We met her again after immigration as we waited to learn where our baggage would arrive. She was looking for a passenger who had left an earring behind. The woman was found as we waited and Sheila was clearly relieved to reunite the jewellery with its owner.

After a cursory customs check we found ourselves in the arrivals hall amid a scrum of taxi drivers touting for business. We pushed our way through to the Banco Nacional where we joined a short slow-moving line to change dollars into Argentinian pesos at the poor official rate (about eight pesos to the dollar; or twelve to the pound). Clutching our expensive cash we spoke to a cheerfully harassed man at the official taxi control desk who took a dollar prepayment for a cab to the port. A porter carried our bags to a car outside, introduced us to our driver, and went away smiling.

The sky was clear and blue and the air was warm. We were cool in our air-conditioned car speeding along the toll-roads into the city weaving between slower traffic with an assured albeit mildly scary panache. The port is on the River Plate in the heart of the city. We had prebooked our tickets online but the departures hall where bags were checked in and boarding passes issued was thronged with people in disorderly lines. All the desks bore paper signs showing departure times before ours so we wove through the bodies to a surprisingly quiet cafeteria where we bought four drinks for about twelve quid (or so we thought having confused dollars with pounds). This price seemed high and we speculated about the adequacy of our cash reserves. After a while I went back into the crowded hall and spoke to a man at a quiet desk labelled Business Class for the departure before ours. He told me that the desk for our check-in was at the very far side of the room. I fetched W and we discovered that the premium Business Class line was almost entirely filled with people clutching Tourist Class tickets. W went to ask the woman at the VIP desk if we could check in there but she was sent back into the mixed line. When we got to the head of the queue we found ourselves being called across to the quiet VIP desk by the woman that had sent W away. She had the grace to acknowledge this irony with a wry smile. Buquebus, the ferry operator, is also an airline and its business model is identical to that for passenger flight. Our bags were tagged and swept away on moving belts while we carried our hand luggage up stairs to emigration and customs before joining crowds of passengers in a departures lounge. The vessel holds over a thousand passengers and most of them were in that room as the departure delay stretched beyond 40 minutes; the rest were in their cars waiting to drive onto the roro deck.

Aboard the ship everything was indistinguishable from the arrangement of cross-channel car ferries all over the world. We could have been setting off to France on a Townsend ferry from England apart from the brevity of the one hour crossing. We settled into our large comfortable seats in the Business Class cabin in the prow. There was no access to the open air and through the large port holes we could see the featureless muddy river passing even though we were not by the windows. After nearly an hour, small low islands hove into view. One had a white tower that might have been a short lighthouse but none were remarkable.

At Colonia Del Sacramento we were among about a thousand people striving to disembark across a one-metre wide gang plank. The arrivals terminal was an unprepossessing grey concrete hall containing just three baggage scanners. We slung our bags through them while officials held desultory conversations apparently unrelated to their job. And then we were out in the bright concourse where Sebastian waited with smiling calm despite the delay. With gracious good humour he continued to wait while I changed more dollars into Uruguayan pesos (at 25 pesos to the dollar; 36 to the pound). When I was done he helped us carry our bags out into the sunshine and loaded them into the boot of a battered Volkswagen Golf with stained seats, large cracks in the windscreen, a missing badge and several dents. He then drove us to his office just 200 metres from the port. While W spent an age sorting out the paperwork it became clear that this clunker was our hire car. Sebastian explained the local rules of the road: 45 km/h in town; 110 km/h outside; headlights on at all times. He gave us an annotated map and his mobile phone number before sending us on our way into leafy one-way streets out of town. W drove us north along the coast road through the town’s only set of traffic lights to a turning to the abandoned bull ring. We circumnavigated the decaying brickwork before joining a hard packed dirt road that led to a T-junction with another metalled road. Within minutes we had turned off this tarmac onto another northbound road that immediately became unmetalled. The yellowish dirt road ran straight between pale green fields lined with trees and bushes surrounding cattle and horses with occasional small single-story buildings. A huge black hairy spider the size of a fist crossed the road ahead of us; its body was over 2 cm across and each thick leg was 3 cm long. We passed a dusty bodega closed with the wine season. Then we saw the green house and the small brick store that had been mentioned as landmarks and started to look for a turning on the left. The first gate that we saw was locked so we kept going until we realised that we must have overshot. Back we went to find that we had been watching the wrong side of the road. A modest sign indicated the location of El Nido. We turned onto an even rougher dirt track past a small house with tethered cattle and barking dogs running free among grapevines. Just beyond this we recognised the Tree House from Martin’s photographs and beyond this lay his own home. The Tree House is not a tree house but a balconied hut on stilts among trees. It overlooks a vineyard.

Martin is a gentle bearded man with soft eyes. He introduced us to his wife Carolina, to dogs Beefeater and Negroni, and told us of his two small boys. Our accommodation was like a studio flat. The big bed looked out across the balcony to the vines. To one side was a breakfast bar separating the sleeping area from the small kitchenette and a door off to a shower room with a lavatory. It was compact but the big doors to the balcony and the proximity of the great outdoors made it feel spacious. On the breakfast bar a fresh loaf of bread and a cake stood on a chopping board. Martin had been baking and the fridge contained beer, marmalade, pate, and dulce de leche to welcome us. We had had a long day, the air was warm and we had fresh food immediately to hand. There was no need to go back into town so we settled down on the balcony and then on the bed with our books and foodstuffs until night fell and we slept.

While we slept we dreamed of our first encounter with dulce de leche. We had understood this to be an Argentinian national dish but here it was in Uruguay (and all over South America, we were later told): a sweet paste made by heating sweetened milk until it caramelises and greatly reduces in volume. It is so sweet that just thinking about it makes my blood glucose monitor whimper but W was smitten. So our day ended with very sweet dreams.