I leave on the 0845 Bluebus ferry to Colonia. Allow an hour for departure including customs and immigration. The terminal is modern and efficient and spacious with high ceilings. These are fast boats similar to what we have had on Cook Strait. Bluebus had a crack at establishing a service in New Zealand 10 years ago. The boat is full of Argentinians going to Colonia for a romantic weekend. They have an exchange rate advantage over the Uragurians and with the advantage of duty free shopping. They buy chocolate and perfume and the shop is go, go, and go for the whole trip. The stewardesses resemble models. My seat mates are a professional couple. He is a lawyer and she is a bio-chemist. They dream of their peso being again on a par with US$. It does not register that the US$20 billion default of their money is because of this.
The Saturday edition of the BA Herald has stories about the economy and the hope that people can get foreign loans for less than 10%. The unofficial exchange rate is 20%. The cost of living is in fact all they talk about. Neighbouring countries Uruguay and Chile can get bonds for 5%.
I read in the B.A Herald that the personable and left wing President Kirchner has supported the Grandmothers of the Disappeared in their desire to have a court case. Also an Argentinean pilot on a Dutch passport has been charged with dumping bodies in the Atlantic Ocean during the rule of the Junta in the 70’s and 80’s. My seatmates are worried that the Generals may leave the barracks. Other news is that all the Argentine football teams’ games in the World Cup will be shown live in every school classroom – They know the important things in life!
I arrive at the ferry terminal at Colonia and pass through customs. This is again a high class terminal with a tile floor so clean you could eat a meal on it .Although signs for the bus could be better. I buy a ticket to Montevideo for US$10.00. The roads are good and we skirt past the historic city of Colonia on the road north. The land is very green and flat. We pass small hamlets built for the workers who maintained the railway line which is still visible with grass growing and a donkey or two grazing on it. The houses built of concrete are very simple in design. You see cows, but it’s not the Waikato and Taranaki operation.
Around midday we make our way into Montevideo. There are a few shanties on the outskirts, but nothing as large as in Asia. The bus depot is well organised and we dock quickly and safely. Martin is there to meet me. Taller than I remembered, but there is the warmth of an old friend. He takes me on a city tour, showing me the port area and the derelict old railway station. I will come back later to take photos and check out the old railway carriages that date back to 1950. I ask about taking a train trip and Martin is really opposed to it although he does not offer a reason his manner indicates please, no way.
Montevideo has one of the finest waterfront walks anywhere. The port and the city is surrounded for miles by the Rambla; a concrete foot path maybe 3 metres wide. It is accessible from all parts of the city – even from a crack addict’s apartment building that looks so desperate. Tower Hamlets in London are up market in comparison. Perhaps they need a Harry Brown to sort it.
Opposite the docks is an old area of housing that could be Freeman's Bay Auckland 30 years ago. Rundown, but there is evidence of renovation, it definitely happening area with bars and a life.
Martin and Carmina apartment is in the middle of an old warehouse district which is in slow transition. His neighbour is a crack dealer but the neighbourhood seems safe. We pick up some beers and go visit some of Martins friends – Danny and Renee. They live on the edge of a wealthy area and they have an ancient Doberman who I make friends with and an affectionate Persian cat. We share the beers which are from a small brewery and have the taste of well-crafted ale. Dani and Martin are book editors and designers. They have made some interesting art books and also a bilingual history of the restoration of the Montevideo Racing Club. This is a fine work and one that has a real value for racing people everywhere. It also a tribute to the once great British empire when Britannia ruled the waves. They are fine folk, generous and bohemian. We talk on the history and politics of Uruguay.
Everybody in Uruguay talks politics, football, and racing. We all go for a walk around the waterfront and at a good seafood restaurant share more beers and a platter of calamari, cockles, prawns, and local mussels. We then walk back to their house through a neighbourhood which reminds me of Kelburn in Wellington except the houses are more modern. All have dogs which continually bark from behind high wrought iron fences all down the street. There are security guards at all the street corners where you enter. Martin jokes that we come in the night.
We make our way to Martin’s mother’s apartment which is in Palermo, a middle class part of town. It is one of four apartments in a converted mansion. My room has a single bed with a window that looks down the entrance and gets a nice breeze. I listen to a local radio station and have a siesta. Transistor radios are very popular here. You can hear the races and football games blaring. Uruguay is football, racing, and beer.
Clara’s apartment is a thespian dream. She has a collection of books and music which would grace a home anywhere. The leather couches are comfortable and later I recline with a generous scotch and listen to Rada fan. I give Clara the Denis Welch biography of Helen Clark. She is very happy Surprise surprise, Helen is known here too
At 2200 we go to Dani and Renee’s for dinner. Renee has gone to some effort and has marinated fish. We have home-made bread and zucchini fritters. For a main course we have pan fried fish and potatoes. We enjoy some wine from small producers who drive around town selling their produce door-to-door. The wine – a Merlot – is fine. All Uruguay wine is 12% alcohol and they seem to drink it young.
Dani and Martin are Lambretta enthusiasts. Danny has two under reconstruction. They have a status where as Vespa’s, which though not popular, are not rated. We check out on their laptop the Flight of the Concords, the Top Twins, and the Wellington International Ukulele orchestra. They are all a great hit.
Uruguayans are proud of their culture, tango, film, music, and books. They are prolific readers, and with soccer and racing, are a proud talented people, proud of their independence and their fight for democracy. They have paid a high price perhaps that is why they opinions are strongly held.
Sunday is to be one of the most moving days of my life. Martin and his new girlfriend Carmina are having a family reunion of his father Carlos’ side. Carmina is a very intelligent and well read student. Her dark intelligent eyes scrutinize everyone‘s comments, even those of the grandfather’s. He had been to New Zealand with a son and daughter-in-law and was disappointed I was not a six foot tall Maori and I that I can’t sing to save myself. However, three of his sons had joined the Tupamaru guerrillas who were then imprisoned and one was exiled. Carlos has lived in France and Switzerland.