Alex and I decided to go to Uruguay for the day – to Colonia del Sacremento. It really is that easy to just pop across for a day trip – it’s only 50kn from Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata and it only takes 1 hour on the fast Buquebus ferry. We’d had a bad start – breakfast in the Italian restaurant the hotel Moreno uses was a dismal affair – toast rationed to 2 slices each, requests for more butter, jam or tea met with icy stares, and a room paneled with floor to ceiling mirrors, which did little for confidence at the ungodly hour of 7 in the morning after 2 hours sleep with a head still swimming with fernet and cokes. Mild panic attacks began to surface, so we bolted quickly and tried to find a taxi. We got one eventually, and arrived at the ferry terminal with minutes to spare before departure. Fortunately, immigration was quick and painless, and, tired as we were, a video featuring famous South American footy players was being aired, and I had the chance to once again watch Carlos Valderama, Asprilla, Maradona, Pele and Chilavert, the flamboyant free-kick penalty-taking goalkeeper of Paraguay. They’re all a pretty flamboyant bunch, the South Americans, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, on and off a football field.
We arrived into a chilly morning, and stepped onto Uruguayan soil for the first time. It was a crisp day, cloudy with patches of blue sky here and there threatening to turn it into a genuinely nice day. We decided to hire a couple of mountain bikes and ride around the town and beyond. Colonia del Sacremento is a charming place indeed, and the Barrio Historico – the colonial era town – is, full of old cobbled streets, quaint little shops and restaurants, a church and a lovely white lighthouse. Alex and I were enjoying the chance to do something active – and riding around the cobbled streets recklessly on our bikes brought back fond memories of our death-defying rides through the streets of Osaka many years ago. Back then, we’d ride miles every day. Ride to work, ride to the supermarket, ride to the bar, ride to the club….those were the days of being young and free, the days when we used to laugh in the face of authority and outrun the bike police.
We stopped for some tostadas and a chocolate caliente in a little restaurant, for it was bitterly cold out. I was beginning to regret lending my wool-lined Blue Harbor jacket I’d only just bought from Marks and Spencers to Alex. I didn’t realise it would be this cold in this part of South America. We decided to ride further afield, towards the Hippodrome. The ride at the side of the Rio de la Plata was wonderful, and a cold sun had broken through. A white beach runs at the side of a grassy verge, and palm trees cling to land turning away from the frosty slaps of a channel wind. Small islands are dotted at various points along the the way. My head, heavy with a hangover and lack of sleep, began to clear a little, and suddenly everything seemed good.
We arrived at the Hippodrome, next to a racehorse track, but unfortunately it was closed. It was in a state of glorious disrepair. I like that. Things fall apart. Let the elements do what the elements do, otherwise it’s not something old anymore. Like the Great Wall of China – half of it has a new lick of cement and new stones to keep it together. Let it live….let it die. There’s a fine line between preservation and re-creation. Here we met Michael, a young chap from Hungary, also on a bike, and circling aimlessly on his own. He asked if he could join us. I couldn’t think of an excuse for him not to quickly enough, and so soon we were a 3. Michael turned out to be a pleasant enough chap, though I felt at times like I was being interrogated – the man never stopped asking questions. Really random ones. “Do you like the Queen?” “What about the Sex Pistols?” “Are you a fan of Manchester United?” “How is the food in China?” We stopped at a quirky little antiques ‘shop’ – a treasure chest of all kinds of things – old bottles, pipes, car parts, album sleeves, memorabilia from football games – it was half junkyard half antiques roadshow. Michael Aspel would have had a field day. A friendly old woman greeted us with a ‘Buenos Dias’, and we had a browse around before leaving the ancient place that must rarely make a sale and continuing on our way.
We were riding through the countryside now, up and down country roads, fields all around, cows and sheep dotted here and there, tractors ploughing, farmhouses – it could have been the English countryside, except here there were lemon tree orchards everywhere. We saw some kids playing football in the grounds of a tiny school. There were 12 kids in all – girls and boys, all playing together nicely – no arguments, just fun and football. When they saw us they ran up to the fence and started jumping up and down and chanting “campeones, campeones.” One of the little lads had a Uruguay football shirt underneath his school shirt, and was proudly showing it off. Of course! The Copa America had just finished, and, amazingly, Uruguay had won, after beating arch-rivals Argentina, and then Peru, on the way to the final, before thrashing Paraguay 3-0 in the final. Not bad a for farming nation of 3.5 million people or so. So the kids were rightfully proud. “This is a little school, isn’t it?” I asked. “How many people study here?” “We are all” replied one girl. A school of only 12 students! This must be the smallest school I’ve ever seen in my life! They seemed happy enough though, the kids. Michael spoke good Spanish, and suddenly became useful, translating our conversations with the kids. Onwards we went after bidding farewell.
We’d rode a fair way and were beginning to loop back towards the Barrio Historico when we stopped to take a photo of a small colourful cottage. As we were riding away, a dog came bolting from god-knows where towards us, and chased us down the busy road. We rode and we rode, for kilometre after kilometre, but the dog kept up with us. We cut up through a residential area, where every single dog tried to assert its authority, barking and yelping, making our mad new friend cower and whimper in fear. He trotted alongside our bikes, jumping up occasionally, but never threateningly, just annoyingly. We headed down a busy road, and suddenly an alsatian steamed up a hill and sprinted over the road to attack the mad dog. An ugly fight followed, and Alex, Michael and I rode on at full pace, exhausted. We thought that surely now the dog would give up the chase. He didn’t. He broke free from the other dog and scampered towards us whimpering. We couldn’t outrun him, he was with us at every turn, all the way back to Barrio Historico, a good 40 minute ride. Weary and frustrated at our new friend, we parked our bikes and went into a restaurant. We had a table by the window where we watched and hoped our new friend would get bored and go away. The restaurant was overly priced, and the waiter the most arrogant and icy I’ve ever come across. He treated the three of us with utter contempt, and was livid when we plumped for just 3 overly-priced cokes. We were parched, but didn’t want to drink the cokes too quickly. The dog was still there. Half an hour later, he was still there. Now he was barking madly at anyone who came within 5 metres of our bikes. He was guarding them for us. We left the restaurant as the waiter was beginning to get seriously upset with out presence for some reason, so we headed back out and our new friend greeted us with enthusiasm.
We headed towards a souvenir shop, passing a car stuffed with 10 crazed dogs all at the windows barking threateningly at everyone. What a weird sight. There are too many dogs in Uruguay. We told the woman in the souvenir shop our plight, and she laughed, explaining that he’d followed us because he thought we’d give him food. We had to get rid of him. It was almost time to go, we couldn’t have him following us on the ferry and coming back to Argentina. Michael the Hungarian was planning on getting the late ferry at 7pm, whereas Alex and I were getting the 5pm. We decided to go the lighthouse, and go to the top for a vista of the colonial town. It was blustery up here, but at least the dog wasn’t with us. When we got back down, we looked around warily, and noticed the dog had just started trotting towards the water, following a couple of tourists. A chance! We sprinted to the bikes, jumped on them, and rode like we’d never ridden before, laughing our heads off. To the casual observer, it would have seemed like we’d stolen the bikes, but they wouldn’t have know the pain of the last 2 or 3 hours, the panic, the desperate attempts to escape the mad dog, the horrible waiter. Nice as it is, we were glad to be out of this wintery town and away from the strays, for Michael the Hungarian and the dog essentially served the same purpose – to annoy.
Not until we were on the ferry did we feel safe from the strays, and even then we both kept seeing the dog crouching under the ferry seats – but we soon realised we were going mad possibly through insomnia, so we tried a powernap instead, which proved impossible, so it was back to Valderama and the others in ‘Football Stars of South America.’ What a day in Uruguay!
Back in Buenos Aires, we tried another powernap – successfully this time – at the Moreno. Woke feeling groggy, and we wearily pulled on our smart clothes – suit jackets, shirts, smart jeans and shoes – for tonight we were going to La Terreca – the most famous of Buenos Aires’ ‘after office parties’, a place for the suited and booted, so we had to look the part to get in. We had a wee glass of Drambers each to warm us up, then we were out into a bitterly cold night and into a taxi, no time for dinner.
It was a way out – but well worth it. We were early, but people were flocking towards the place dressed to the nines. The doormen scrutinised Alex and I carefully. They had the power to make or break our night. They let us in. La Terreca was a fabulous place – upmarket, huge, sprawling, with several rooms and a few outdoor patios. We started as we meant to go on – on the fernet and coke. But I could already feel the hangover. We needed to eat. Fortunately, La Terreca’s organisers had thought of that, and we found an area where they were selling pizzas, burgers and hotdogs. The trouble was, we had no idea how to get them – and nobody spoke English. Except, that is, Chully Villar. As we waited hopelessly in the queue, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Olah! Todo bien?” “Erm, hablas ingles?” I ventured. “No entiendo” she replied. Right. I mustered up some courage and tried my best at communicating what Alex and I wanted in Spanish. Chully, a lovely young lady with a winning smile, listened patiently, then replied in English. “You need to buy the vouchers from the bar, then you can get food.” Great! I offered to buy her a fernet and coke as a way of saying thanks, and she accepted. Chully ordered the drinks for us, sorted out the vouchers, and also managed somehow to get our food for us, battling through the hordes of people waving frantically at the people serving the food, in a scene reserved englishmen could never see themselves getting served in. Fortunately, Chully is more forthright, and soon we were tucking into a burger, washed down with out fernet and cokes. A result! Stomach lined, we got more fernet, and the three of us wandered around the club, which was now packed and full of shimmying hips, sexy moves and new couples snogging the faces of each other.
2 hours later, Chully was still with us. “Come on mate, let’s ditch her and go and have a wander. We keep picking up strays!” moaned Alex. He had a point, but Chully was cheerful and fun to be with, and not easy to just float away from. Eventually we slipped away with a quick goodbye, only for us to quickly lose our enthusiasm with the club and prepare to go home. We bumped into Chully again on the dancefloor on the way out. Everyone knew Chully. They all stopped to speak to her. She instantly cheered us. She turned out to be the organiser for this ‘after office party’ – and what a great party she was in charge of! We bid our farewells, and jumped into a taxi to San Telmo and Gibraltar for a final few pints of Quilmes and a pizza. It was nice to be back here. Quiet, homely. I really like Gibratar. We’d had quite a day.