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A friendly message came through on WhatsApp when we were still on the comfy sleeper overnight bus to Montevideo:
Hello Ksenija! It’d be a pleasure for me to meet you. So, you’ll stay in Montevideo until Tuesday.
When are you thinking of coming to Punta del Este ? Sunday 1st of March is a great day to be in Montevideo. Mr. Lacalle Pou will start being our President. It’ll be very moving. I’ll write later to give you advice about this day and places to visit in Montevideo. – Esmeralda
A quick inquiry to an (Uruguayan) friend of a (Brazilian) friend started the ball rolling in a most unexpected, interesting and entertaining way and direction. This is what makes travel so much fun, especially for a traveling extrovert, one that loves to meet new people.
Initially we thought of only staying in Montevideo for two days, transiting from Brazil back to Argentina. But when a possible visit to a Brazilian coffee plantation fell through, we suddenly had two extra days. As they say: When a door closes, a window opens. Perfect timing for an interesting experience. We have been to coffee plantations before, but never to a presidential inauguration.
I shot a message about the timetable of inaugural events to our young Airbnb host Sergio and he quickly responded: I have a friend who used to be a journalist. Let me ask him.
Within minutes the obvious response came: The ceremony is by invitation only, but there will be a procession and big celebrations.
Somehow our “influencer fame” 😉 has not yet spread to Uruguay, so with no invitations pending, we decide to just follow the crowds. We booked a cool apartment
in the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), thinking it will be a lively spot for the weekend. My, my, were we mistaken.
There are only a few caffees and one museum open. It is actually one of those that Esmeralda has recommended. We really, really love it, the colors, the details, the playfulness!
It is dedicated to an important Uruguayan artist José Gurvich, who moved to Montevideo in 1932 as a child with his Jewish family from Lithuania, seeking freedom and safety from religious persecution. With his floating figures and sheep heads he reminds us of a much more famous Jewish Russian painter Marc Chagall.
We can’t help but ponder how ironic it is that many Nazis escaped to Uruguay for safety from international court after the WWII.
As we are wondering the largely deserted streets full of trash and homeless people, we quicken our steps and clutch our (very conspicuous) fanny packs tighter. In search of safety and nourishment we change directions from the port side inland, towards the Plaza de la Independencia. Even there everything is shuttered with big strong iron bars. The whole open plaza is barricaded with security fences and police. We see a small crowd of people with flags.
It is a natural instinct of humans to be attracted to a group of fellow humans. Maybe there is a snake charmer, or an entertaining hanging to partake in? This day and age a traveler would be wise to stay away from crowds; it can be an unruly demonstration, or a perfect opportunity for a terrorist bombing. (Or only some short weeks later, as we know now, – a lethal virus).
As travelers we might be old, but we are certainly not too wise, so of course we press on.
“Que pasa?” we ask a family with a few kids. They quickly deputize their grandma, the only one speaking English, to explain.
“We came to see the old president say goodbye. He will keep the Uruguayan flag for the last night and tomorrow the new president will get it. “
“And are you happy or sad about it?”
“The people who are here, all support the old president. It was a very narrow win and the new one only won through a coalition with diverse small parties. The country will swing to the right, we just don’t know how much.”
I could see the tears gathering in her eyes.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I feel your pain. We are in the same boat. It seems like the whole world is swinging to the right. “
We watch the small crowd sing the national anthem and wave their fists in the air. After the flag comes down, we leave to find the only open restaurant around the corner, right across from the Solis Theater.
The tours of the elegant old theater are suspended that evening due to the inauguration.
“How do you feel about the new president?” we ask the waiter bringing us a large bottle of beer.
“Well, I don’t know enough yet. He is talking a good talk, but then, they all do. He says he will keep what was working well and change what hasn’t. I would like to believe he won’t polarize the country.” Ah, we know too well about that!
Next morning we walk alongside long barricades with security watching over the corridor where
the new president will drive from parliament to the Independence square.
Soon we find a very different kind of crowd on Tristán Narvaja Flea Market.
It is one of the iconic Montevideo places on Sunday mornings. It is crowded and messy and hot. As much as I really like markets all around the world, I suddenly realize, I don’t really care for flea markets at all. Huh, it took me long enough!
In the meantime our WhatsApp pen pal is sending us more information about the inauguration and a plea to take some photos for her. She is obviously a big fan of the new president. After 15 years of the left imposing high taxes with no action, he will bring us security and economic growth, she writes.
The intriguing piece of information that 3000 gauchos on horses have come to Montevideo to accompany the new president clinched the deal. You know I am a sucker for horses. And indeed we find the whole square around the Palacio Legislativo ringed by men, women and children on horses.
A much, much larger crowd is out in force flying other flags today.
tails and ears anywhere the eye can see. Impressive sight, indeed. We heard some horses were brought by trucks and same took a week walking from the farthest provinces. We felt bad for the horses and the riders, it was a very, very hot day and they have been standing for hours and hours on the hot sun. There was no provisions for water either for the beast or man.
I realized there were also no toilets either for the riders or the big crowds who came, by horse or on foot, to welcome the new president.
Finally after all the other dignitaries got into their official cars the president Luis Pou and Vice President Beatriz Argimón Cedeira jumped into an antique car and drove a victory lap around the plaza. In the meanwhile we had a back and forth reporting with our pen pal Esmeralda, siting in front of her TV in Punta del Este.
It must have taken a good part of an hour to set all the horses into motion.
Overheated and not buoyed by nationalistic and party pride we did not follow the procession to the Independence square. We jumped into an Uber to get back home. The woman driver, who spoke good French, very excitedly shared her opinions about how only the rich will benefit from the new government. “I am worried that they will also try to roll back some of the freedoms gained under the old regime: women’s rights, abortion rights, gays rights to marry.”
Uruguay is indeed a very liberal country and the first country in the world that legalized the growing, selling and use of marijuana.
Next morning we leave our apartment to find the Old City transformed. The stores are open, the outdoor restaurant seating covered by colorful umbrellas. There are people everywhere; strolling, sipping coffee, reading the morning newspapers. Huh? On Monday you would expect everyone to be at work, right? But the old town being also the financial district, comes to life on Monday.
We walk through the small park behind our building to visit the Museum of Decorative arts (open on Monday morning!) when we notice a well heeled crowd spilling out from the museum’s courtyard.
“Que pasa?” I asked two gentlemen in suits. (You might notice my frequent use of this universal expression in my limited Spanish vocab).
“It is the inauguration of new ministers.”
“Oh, is the president here? We saw him at the Palacio Legislativo yesterday.”
“Oh, yes, he is here.”
“How about the Vice President? I appreciate that you have a woman vice president.”
“Sure, here she comes!” pointing at the elegant blond woman in a white coat followed by a woman in uniform. “Why don’t you say hello to her?”
“Are you kidding, the security will arrest me!”
“No, no, you can take a picture with her, too.”
Well then, here goes…
“Madam Vice President, congratulations on your win.” Her hand goes out to shake mine and the woman in uniform grabs my phone to take our picture.
It is a campaign strategy they have employed, I am told later, taking pictures with their supporters on the trail.
Oh, and here comes El Presidente. It is slow going, every guy in a suit or office shirt wants to shake his hand and give him a hug.
Here I am in my T shirt, magenta fanny pack and blue baseball cap, sticking out like a sore thumb. He catches my eye. It worked once, why not again…
“Mr. President, congratulations on your win!“
He smiles and then he grabs my phone and with a practiced hand switches it to selfie mode… and snaps away!
You can only imagine the reaction of our friend Esmeralda, when she receives our photos. “You are a genius, you are my idol!”She insists we have to come immediately and she will wait for us at the bus station with her car. She has a whole day of sightseeing including lunch planed. “You should stay for two days, there is much to see!” she writes.
Next day, our last in Uruguay, we take an early morning bus to Punta del Este. Finally we meet Esmeralda in person. She is a lively, colorfully dressed widow.
She has two small grandkids that live in Florida. Only at the end of the day we find out that her late husband was actually a senator. No wonder then, her interest in politics.
Without her driving us around we would have had no clue what Punta del Este is beyond high vacation apartment buildings and beaches.
We know it is the playground of the Latin America’s elite, albeit a bit more low key, family oriented. Many Argentinians and Europeans buy houses or apartments here.
“The season is really very short,” she explains, only during Christmas and school holidays. In the winter you can pass all these apartment towers and there will be only one light on.” We take a certain pleasure in seeing the abandoned Trump tower. Another successful business venture of our el presidente.
How wonderful to get a break from the daily grind of independent travel! No need to look for directions and find parking, decide on a place for lunch or wonder about opening hours. On top of it have a pleasure of an enlightened conversation in great English. As our travel motto says: Making friends along the way.
Knowing of Mirek’s engineering background Esmeralda goes out of the way to drive us to and over interesting bridges
and past and to beautiful structures.
The most famous one is probably
The white and blue home, atelier, museum, gallery
and now also a hotel
by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró was built organically, without architectural plans in 36 years. It evokes the blue and white of Greek islands or Spain, and it is enhanced by the fun large scale ceramics.
There is also an area that pays tribute to artist’ s son Carlos Miguel, one of the sixteen Uruguayan survivors who spent 72 days trapped on a glacier in the freezing high altitude Andes, after their airplane crashed in 1972. They were only rescued after two of the men walked for ten days over high mountains with no equipment and food. What a terrible ordeal for the young men and their parents. Some of you might remember the movie Alive with Ethan Hawke. I remember being very shaken up when I saw it as a teen.
I remembered meeting an Argentinian hiker (hi Marcelo!) in Tronador glacier area who told us about the three day trek to the site of the crash and spoke of the challenge to get there and the difficulty of being in a place of such tragedy.
Weeks later at a wine tasting we met an Argentinian couple who have a house just around the corner from a great restaurant where Esmeralda and us broke bread together.
Luckily we came early as it is the place to see and be seen even outside of the high season. Wonderful food, too! Yummy locally sourced camarones to start with
and grilled black figs for desert, oh my.
It was probably the most expensive lunch of our trip, but it was well worth it, we thought. Until the American Express bill came…
Next time we will try MasterCard! 😉