Banda Oriental

The Oriental Republic

We are marching across Uruguay.
It’s so dark you can gouge out your eye.
One can hear loud cries of the parrots
And gorillas’ chit-chat nearby.

From a “folk” song

 

The color below can be described most charitably as “American coffee” with cream. Any other association is completely up to the reader’s imagination. The official name of this surface 15,000 feet under the wing of our small commuter plane is The Silver River or Rio de la Plata but it’s just a naming mistake, like Greenland. There was never any silver within hundreds of miles of the place.  This river is fifty miles wide, but crossing it diagonally takes a 120-mile hop. The shore we are aiming at does not look much different from the Argentine side, just some greener patches here and there, but it’s almost as flat.  No mountain to be seen as we touch the ground in Montevideo. We are in Banda Oriental – the Eastern Shore of the River Plate.

La Plata
La Plata
Gobernador Zabala – founder of Montevideo
Gobernador Zabala – founder of Montevideo

Truth be told, by now I know not to expect any gorillas, certainly not in the capital. But back a few decades ago gorillas and Uruguay went together very well (like horse and carriage) in the minds of teenagers half a world away: both seemed equally wild and exotic. And it’s a horse and carriage that greet us in the capital of this “Switzerland of South America.”  In the middle of the colonially graceful if more than a little shabby Ciudad Vieja (the Old Town),  a village cart drawn by a horse and driven by what seems to be a street person in non-descript rags and a knit wool hat, hauls a load of black plastic bags.  At first we think that maybe this is a stray peasant from the village who came to the city to comb through the choicest pieces of metropolitan garbage. The peasant smiles cheerfully and does not mind being photographed. A couple of blocks away in the more modern part of town on the wide and grand Avenida 18 de Julio we see another chariot and warrior of exactly the same countenance. This guy is picking his bags from the curb and throwing them into the cart. We realize that this must be the city’s regular garbage collection service. A far cry from grasshopper-green immaculate high-tech contraptions and their operators in matching uniforms employed  by the City of Paris (France), but surely cheaper, and probably more energy efficient. The latter consideration is not so outlandish as I learn from a local newspaper. The top headline on the front page announces a decision by the government to ban nighttime events requiring artificial light, most notably soccer matches, which will now have to take place in daylight.

Switzerland this obviously is not, even forgetting that the Alps are missing.

Bindyuzhnik of Plaza Independencia
Bindyuzhnik of Plaza Independencia

We enter Plaza Independencia, the grandest of the string of plazas along the main avenida. This is where a mass demonstration would take place, and where the government grandees would inspect it from the reviewing stand, if there were such a thing in Uruguay. Maybe there is, because the Government Building is on the square. Moreover, in the middle of it is a mausoleum. It contains the remains of José Gervasio Artigas, the founding father of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. Fortunately, there is no waiting in line to enter the subterranean enclosure, no wax-like mummy to be spooked by, and no ban on picture taking. In fact, there is nobody in the spacious, dimly lit crypt, besides us and the two motionless guards in splendid uniforms. Huge low-relief inscriptions on the high slanted walls mark the main events in the life of the Uruguayan Washington, ending with the repatriation of his remains from exile to the belatedly grateful Patria.

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José Gervasio Artigas – no mummy
José Gervasio Artigas – no mummy

The most important date on the wall is May 18, 1811, the Batalla de las Piedras, the local equivalent of Lexington and Concord, when Gen. Artigas, then a mere Capitán, defeated a royal Spanish detachment. No matter that he had to go into exile when the fortunes of his yet to be born country changed. Today’s newspaper contains a history section for kids to introduce them to the famous battle. That’s because today is May 17.

Another front page news item is the proposal of Edil (City Councilor) Aníbal “Gloodotksky” to set up “zonas rojas” (red zones) for the sex workers and related businesses, like whiskerias, in the city (yes, those are the places where you can step in and have a drink of whiskey). This is supposed to relieve residential neighborhoods from the said businesses, which apparently find a way to flourish even without the benefit of protective zoning. The Councilor’s name is spelled “Gloodtdofsky” and even “Glooodtdofsky” elsewhere in the article, even though this gentleman seems to be quite active in local affairs, as a review of the Council protocols shows. The spelling of such a name must have been more familiar in the shtetl of his ancestors. Our tour of the Uruguayan capital thus begins in the future zona roja.

Palacio Salvo – birth spot of La Cumparsita (Artigas monument on the left)
Palacio Salvo – birth spot of La Cumparsita (Artigas monument on the left)

Back on Plaza Independencia we face the tallest and most impressive specimen of the eclecticismo style of architecture – the Palacio Salvo. Its wall surfaces are as ornate as those of a medieval cathedral and it’s crowned with a massive tower surrounded by a retinue of vassal turrets. It was the tallest building in South America for a while, probably at the time when Uruguay deserved its “Switzerland” sobriquet, if only because of economic stability (and not the temporary appearance of Alpine-caliber mountains). But the Palacio Salvo hides something much more famous. It was there in 1917 that Gerardo Matos Rodriguez gave the music score of a tango he had written to the orchestra of cafe “La Giralda” which was located on the spot of the yet to be built skyscraper. The tango was named “La Cumparsita,” and the rest is history.

Curiously, this is only one example of what is usually thought of as the essence of the Argentinidad (a term used in Argentina for its national and folk roots) having its real source in the Banda Oriental. A few blocks further down the main avenida the most graceful of the turn of the 19th century mansions, Palacio Uriarte de Heber, houses Museo del Gaucho y La Moneda.

Palacio Uriarte del Heber – Museo del Gaucho y la Moneda
Palacio Uriarte del Heber – Museo del Gaucho y la Moneda

The word gaucho makes one think of the wide expanses of Argentinian pampas, the South American answer to the steppes and the prairies. Yet that very word is more correctly pronounced in Uruguay, with the stress on “u” as it’s derived from garrucho, the bearer of a special spear for prodding cattle. The Montevideo Gaucho Museum beats its Buenos Aires counterpart hands down. Amidst the splendor of a baronial palace of the belle époque, colorful figures of gauchos in their distinctive hats, ponchos, and chiripá pants are accompanied by equally colorfully dressed gaucho women and pony-like horses.

Gaucho family
Gaucho family

The glass displays are full of spears, intricately decorated focones (gaucho daggers), fine leather or stone boleadoras (three-balls-on-a-string devices thrown to hobble out of control cattle), and jewel-quality silver mate gourds and bombillas for preparing and drinking mate “tea,” the national drink of all the countries along the Paraná. The lower level of the museum is dedicated to a temporary exhibit sponsored by the Canadian Embassy. The featured artist is Ruth Dorrit Yacoby of Toronto, whose art would be easy to ignore even if we were not concentrating on the local flavor.

Boleadoras – cattle control tools
Boleadoras – cattle control tools

More encounters with ostentation: a local version of the Statue of Liberty, on a tall column in the Latin American tradition. An opulent Supreme Court building guarded by sentinels in Napoleonic hats and white pants is located in the Pasaje de los Derechos Humanos (Passage of the Human Rights). A welcome tribute, even if only in intent.

Corte Suprema – in Pasaje de los Derechos Humanos
Corte Suprema – in Pasaje de los Derechos Humanos

At the end of 18 de Julio, a statue of the horse-riding Gaucho brackets our too brief a journey which started at the equally equestrian but more baroque monument to Don Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, founder of Montevideo. Somewhat incongruously, the Gaucho faces Michelangelo’s David in front of the Palacio Municipal.

Monument to Gaucho
Monument to Gaucho

It’s time to go back to the Aeropuerto Internacional de Carrasco. That’s when we find that the trip back costs only 280 local pesos, compared to the 580 we had to pay on the way from the airport. This is the dumb tourist tax in action, granted that in the morning we were driven on the longer route passing by miles of beautiful and completely empty beaches, something Buenos Aires does not have. 

Ramblas Costaneras – Montevideo’s beaches
Ramblas Costaneras – Montevideo’s beaches

An equally empty airport greets us with a warning in English: “It is forbidden to enter any animal or vegetal product.” This is the fight against foot and mouth disease which every country in this neighborhood thinks is imported from its neighbors (the sign is posted for those traveling to Argentina, apparently by the Argentinian authorities). We are not, however, required to wipe Uruguayan germs off our feet before boarding the plane. The murky waters plied by fish-man Ichtiandr in Belyaev’s fantasy novel The Amphibious Man cannot be seen on our return flight in the dark. Thirty minutes later we land at the Aeroparque Jorge Newbury. We are “home.”

Do not enter vegetal! Argentina won’t let you.
Do not enter vegetal! Argentina won’t let you.