South America Travelogue – Montevideo

Santiago Day 3

We were in Santiago for 3 days and actually did not see much of the cordillera because we stayed in Lo Valle Campino, a hillside community near the airport, no Andes in sight, obscured by hills and smog. Nena took us to El Centro which I guess translates to downtown where we met up with my niece Nati and her boyfriend Andres to watch Chile vs. Holland. Fanaticos were out in force ready for a grand celebration that never happened as the Orange clad Dutchmen lead by striker Robben outplayed the scrappy Chilean squad.

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Downtown Santiago is a linear collection of buildings and shops for miles and miles. It has a little bit of a NYC feel without all the tall buildings and the sense of neighborhood. It felt like a giant outdoor shopping mall.

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Graffiti is in abundant supply and some curious and colorful murals adorn city walls and subway structures, some of it good, some not; some sanctioned, some clearly not.

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Our gracious Santiago hosts, Milton and Nena, made us feel at home in their tidy house with a living room constructed of pine wood adorned with local art. In addition to good conversation and cheer, we ate well. Nena served up Cazuela, a typical Chilean soup made with a clear broth, squash, beef, corn, potatoes, peas and green beans cut french style with pebre (a hot sauce) and fresh cut cilantro to sprinkle on top. She also served fish soup, fillet of reineta (a local fish) and Pastel De Choclo, a distinctive corn-based casserole. Wine poured a plenty, all local reds and whites. My favorite was the sweet late Harvest Riesling that had just the right balance of sweetness and acidity.

Montevideo, Days 1-2

From Santiago, we took a short flight to Montevideo and then a local bus from the Carrasco International airport to the city. We got off at our stop dragging our heavy bags, the heaviest weighing over 22 kilos, an oversized LL Bean bag. As we looked around for another bus to take to our friend’s apartment, we crossed a busy intersection, bags rolling behind us and I tripped over the bulky LL Bean bag my wife was dragging in front of me, getting good height and landing on my stomach atop my own bag, which served as sort of an air bag. Fortunately, I didn’t break any bones and only scrapped the bottom of my left hand that I used to help break my fall. The hand burned for a bit but seemed fine. When we finally got to the apartment, I noticed it was bleeding. I rinsed it off and applied a triple anti-biotic ointment I had brought along just in case. My youngest daughter, who witnessed the fall, could not stop laughing, to the point that she drew tears and a hiccup. I was not amused at the time. There were many locals standing around who also saw my tumbling act and god only knows what they must have thought of the strange gringo doing odd acrobatics with an orange bag.

If you know Spanish well, you will immediately notice that the Uruguayan accent is distinct. It’s hard to describe, but it has a sibilant quality, a sort of airy lisp that is pleasant to the ear, or at least to my ear. The people seem nice and accommodating thus far, although my wife had a bad encounter at La Chacra supermarket. All seemed fine at first. When we entered the store just as the sun set, a radio station was playing the song “Southern Nights”. The workers seemed friendly enough giving us recommendations on pasta, red sauce and the butcher prepared us a good cut of beef (lomo) that is popular in the country.  Uruguay is a meat eating place if ever there was one. And not surprisingly, beef is its major export.  But trouble began when my wife tried to buy the groceries unwittingly with my daughter’s debit card and her own ID. Obviously, the names didn’t match and they gave her a hard time about it. Ultimately, I had to pay with my debit card using my ID which matched. My wife asked the cashier to double bag some things but the cashier threw the bags at her in a huff and told her to “do it yourself”. True story. On a side note, I bought a combination corkscrew that cost 85 pesos or about $3.7 U.S. which turns out we didn’t need because there where 3 just like it in the kitchen drawer of our apartment.

We bought two 960 ml bottles of beer, one called Patricia, a hoppy and light lager, and a Pilsen Especial, which truthfully was not very special. The Patricia cost 57 pesos, ($2.49) and the Pilsen, 62 ($2.70). I doubt the locals drink these forgettable examples of Uruguayan swill. Being a local now for the next 7 days, I won’t be drinking the stuff either, well at least not the Pilsen.

The Internet here is interesting. For one, the government issues every resident, from what I can gather, equipment to enable free Wi-Fi – “Automatic for the People”. Our friend’s apartment has a modem/router with this free Internet but as we found out, it’s good for only 1 gigabyte of data per month which is little more than a few Google searches, 10 minutes of a movie on Netflix and about 4 photos uploaded and posted on Facebook. So, being the nice guests that we are, we used up her data plan as soon as we got on the Internet. After much bureaucratic maneuvering, several phone calls and a visit to the government owned Antel office, we, or more accurately, my eldest daughter  managed to “recharge” the 1 GB of data that we used for about 200 pesos ($10) and now we hope this gets us through our week. We pledged not to stream any movies or videos and only to check and send emails de vez en cuando.

We ventured downtown by bus (which is about the only mode of public transportation), got some maps of the city, headed to the Plaza de Independencia, to see the green statue of founding father Artigas, had an early dinner at the Cafe Brasilero that had free Wi-Fi, sent some emails, watched a World Cup match – Ecuador v. France, bought some beer and wine, which I am now sipping, the wine that is, a Uruguayan Gewurztraminer which cost about $8.60, that is, to be frank, slightly syrupy, not unlike a Viogner, and leaves a sweet and unpleasant medicinal cough drop like aftertaste. This recommended wine is unbalanced, but drinkable.

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The tourist information clerks said that Uruguay is known for meat and in particular, the Chivito sandwich, a carnivorous delight and what I ordered from the Chilean waiter at the Cafe Brasilero in an area of town called the Old City near Plaza Matriz. This cafe has been around since 1877 and sports antique chairs and tables, brass chandeliers and a big screen TV for world cup enthusiasts. It seems to be a good place to chill, get connected, have a bite and a Cortado, (the local version of a latte) which we did, or a drink, which we did not. The Chivito consists of bacon, ham, beef, tomato and lettuce served open-faced on toasted bread topped with a sunny side up egg surrounded by lettuce and fresh cut french fries, all for 230 pesos or about $10.

We walked a lot on our first day in the city. My pedometer had me at over 14,719 steps or 6.9 miles, which is the farthest I’ve walked by far since I began using the app on my phone back in October.

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Buses spew diesel fumes, and generally foul the air. Hybrid buses have not yet come to this big city nor has a subway system. Though we are not too far from Buenos Aires, the air is anything but good. And to make matters worse, everyone seems to smoke, and not just cigarettes, but weed too which is legal here.  With the air thick with toxins, and the population dieting largely on red meat, it’s a wonder the lifespan here is 76 years old.  Maybe I’m exaggerating, but it seems that most people are dressed in black. I’m not sure if this is just tradition for this time of year, which is the beginning of winter, or maybe it’s simply a fashion statement. People seem happy enough, but dress, ironically, as if going to a funeral.

Tattered Mural

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Way Down South Day 1

Dawn Near Lima, Peru 25,000 feet up

Dawn Near Lima, Peru 25,000 feet up

Where to begin, if to begin.  Stressed.  Tired.  Cranky and disoriented at Terminal 8 at JFK International in search of a flight out to Santiago, Chile after missing our flight.  We had an overly ambitious travel plan to drive from Boston to NY at 12:30 pm and catch an 8 pm international flight.  There would be no room for error, or delays.  And delays were all we encountered from Bridgeport, CT to the Bronx. Traffic, accidents, construction, slow cars, hidden cops and a few unplanned stops.  But I was hungry and the self-designated driver!!! What should have taken only 4 and one half hours, took nearly 7.  We arrived at the car rental return place finally and Frazier, the friendly return clerk and World Cup enthusiast, rushed us to Terminal 8 in record time weaving in and out of traffic like a expert taxi driver.  Despite his Mario Andretti like effort, we were late nonetheless, by two minutes, and our seats were given to folks on standby.  After much pleading in Spanish with the mostly helpful and sympathetic LAN Chile staff, we were put on standby for the next flight out to Santiago via Lima and we did get on that flight in the end which left about 2 and a half hours later than our original flight, which would have put us in Santiago at 6 am. As happened, we made it to Santiago by noon.  It could have been worse…a lot worse.

If you happen to get stranded at JFK, hope that it’s not in Terminal 8, which reminds me of the REM song, “Driver 8”. But if you are stranded there, here’s a tip:  shuttle over to another terminal before all the “restaurants” close.  If you don’t, you’ll have to make do with the Juan Valdez Cafe that serves over-priced chocolate muffins, pre-made sandwiches and salads intended for the carnivorous traveler.  Drink the coffee if adventurous, that is to say if you are addicted to Starbucks or, as in my case, Dunkin Donuts.  If you happen to be traveling on Lan Chile Airlines, go ahead and starve yourself and wait for the meal on the plane which is is sure to be decent as food goes 8 miles high.  I had the merken spiced chicken with crunchy green beans and a curiously spongy brownie. LAN serves free booze, good for the nervous flyer, and I’d recommend the Sauvignon Blanc which will be re-filled upon request.  For the beer drinker, enjoy a free Heineken or two, if you like GMO free brew – but you’ll have to request it – the flight attendants’ carts only display wine.

We landed in Lima around 8 am with a two hour layover and boarded a 787 Dreamliner bound for Santiago.  The Dreamliner.  It had been a dream deferred for me and for the troubled Boeing model too, but now all battery systems seem to be in order and the plane truly flies smooth as a dream and reliably it seems for Lan Airlines.  The wingspan of this luxury liner is truly something to behold.  It’s like the length of a football field and one would think the thing would be awfully difficult to fly, but it glides as agile and elegant as a butterfly in flight. And the entertainment system is second to none.  I listened to Radiohead’s, Kings of Limb, and could have watched any current movie or TV series I could have imagined, from VEEP to House of Cards.  Instead, I played Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (the British version) and I might have become one, had it not been for the fact that I did not know the expression “Down in the Mouth”.

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Los Andes over Chile from 787 Dreamliner window seat 32C

And so it goes or went as it were and I’m no British millionaire but I safely arrived with family in Santiago, Chile and have enjoyed visiting with our friends and family.  We’ll leave for Montevideo on Tuesday for a week and then fly to Rio for 3 and back to Chile for another 2 weeks.  Our adventures have only just begun.  Stay tuned for more posts.  If you’d like to see photos and more stuff from our trip, follow our exploits on twitter #cazuelangrits.