The highs and lows of Montevideo

I’ve looked forward to visiting Montevideo for years.  I can’t say exactly why, but it’s always held a “sparkling city” status in my mind.  It is one of those cities that seems to go on forever, stretching more than 20 km around it’s big natural harbour, the city is filled with buildings and nightlife…or so we had heard.

Sure there were some impressive structures, both old and modern dotting the city.  Particularly the interesting Palacio Salvo that crowns the Plaza de Independencia. But opposite it, on the other side of the square, is one of the ugliest examples of post 1960’s build it and forget it, glass and aluminium box buildings.  This particular one, punctuated with exterior AC units and mismatched tinted glass is genuinely and eyesore.

A passion for brutalist architecture clearly at one time took this city by storm. Either by design or circumstance, this otherwise lovely city experienced rapid expansion at the ugliest time in architectural history. And they didn’t even do it well.

Montevideo’s beautiful Rambla, a sweeping seaside promenade, is fronted by more ugly brick box tenement buildings.  As we walked the streets on a beautiful Spring afternoon, it was mostly deserted. Shops and cafes alike were closed up tight – presumably for siesta.  People were milling about, and there were a few small markets dotted around, but really nothing to write home about.

I was having a hard time getting in to Montevideo, and trying desperately to not be disappointed in our whole reason for going to Uruguay in the first place!  But then, we happened upon a protest of sorts, and that changed things.

It was near sunset, and we had been walking along the Rambla.  We came to a little green space that occupied a point that joined the promenade with the water, and it was filled with people and the sounds of an enthusiastic drum circle.  

From the signage, we gathered that the city is trying to sell this little park for, no doubt, a hefty sum, and these people did not want that to happen.  For all intents and purposes, it was in fact a protest, but like none other I’ve ever witnessed. More, it was a celebration of the space they love in the way they presumably love it – demonstrating just what the space means to them, rather than shouting down the people who wanted to change it.  

I was starting to like these Montevideo people. At least 20 dreadlocked and tie dyed drummers beat away in their drum circle, causing hips all around them to involuntarily shimmy and shake.  There were acrobats doing stunts, jugglers juggling all sorts of things, hula hoopers, and stoned people doing some weird sort of stoned people interpretative dance. Even the stoners had something to say.  There were kids playing football, teenagers on slack lines, and petitioners walking around with clipboards.

It was a peaceful protest if I’ve ever seen one, and not a single police officer in sight.  There was no need. That’s when Montevideo started getting better in my mind.

Montevideo for us continued to have its ups and downs. It rained that night, and with it, came frigid temperatures. Again.

Undeterred, we set out to explore the Sunday markets, starting with the Feria Tristan Navarja, a long rambling street market of produce, cheap clothes, counterfeit toothpaste and finally, antique stalls. The market was busy, and barely bothered to pack up when it started raining. Again.

The rain didn’t seem to be disappearing, so we piled into a taxi and headed to the old market down at the port, which is indoors. Inside this repurposed industrial hall were wall to wall parriadillas (steak restaurants!) offering free bubbly sweet wine while you peruse their menus.

There were open flames and displays of red juicy meat everywhere! The patina of old wood, white tablecloths, tuxedoed waiters, and the orange glow of Edison bulbs made it an instragrammer’s paradise. And that’s before you even start on the walls of spicy Uruguayan red wine and the comforting aroma of perfectly seared beef, caramelising on an open grill. (Really, just stop, close your eyes and visualise this for a moment.)

There was no question that we were most certainly going to be eating here, in this market. The problem was choosing which one.  Naturally, we went for the one that gave us the most free drinks. Mark and I both ordered a wonderful ribeye, and upon request, they produced a special sausage and mashed potato (bangers and mash) for our homesick little boy. We were so sated and happy that we didn’t even eat dinner that night.

And so after two days of ups and downs, disappointments and the odd delightful surprise, we ended our last night in Montevideo on a high note.

But Montevideo, this city of contradiction had one last hit in store for us, and it was an experience that resulted in the worst public ugly cry I’ve every conjured up and couldn’t control.

We thought we were being clever.  We had looked for a hotel on the booking websites, and picked a few for a drive by.  After selecting a couple to go in and check out, we thought if we booked directly with the hotel, we’d get a better rate.  

Even better that the hotel’s name was the Hotel London Palace. Our homesick for London little boy loved it!

My conversation with the friendly man at reception did, in fact, bag us a better rate than the online rate. I confirmed that it was for two nights, and we were booked!  Do you need our credit card? Do we need to sign anything? “No, Madame…you pay when you leave”, he said with a sweeping welcoming gesture.

We had paid a lot more for that room in that city than we had for better rooms in better cities, but it was the average rate, and we were left without a choice.  We floated in and out for the next two days as we tried to find ways to like Montevideo.

And then it was time to check out.  The same friendly man produced a bill for double the amount agreed, and when I challenged him about the rate, he immediately got defensive, as though I was trying to cheat him.  After a semi heated exchange, and him showing no signs of backing down, I was ready to capitulate.

But Mark wasn’t having it.  We each had our moments during the trip – our personal breaking point where we just refused to take it lying down and dug in for the fight.  Mine would come later, in Bolivia when I shouted down a woman in Spanish over gas. But this day, in this hotel in Montevideo – this was Mark’s day.  

Problem is, Mark doesn’t have any Spanish. And the desk guy didn’t speak any English.  So I was caught in the middle, translating for two increasingly agitated middle aged men.  

It got ugly in a hurry.  Assaults on one another’s’ character were made, as well as promises to call the police.  Mark wasn’t backing down, and neither was the hotel man. We were at a complete standstill.  The hotel man pleaded with me to reason with my husband, and my husband pleaded with me to stand firm.

And that’s when I broke. I felt the tears coming, and had a choice.  I could either fight them and risk paralysing myself with frustration, or I could let them loose on all those shouting men and see which one succumbed first.

It was the worst day.  But, just as it often happens, it was followed up by the best day.  It’s getting through those tough moments in life that make us appreciate the good ones, and we were lucky to have followed up such a bad one with a great one.  I’ll tel you all about it in the next post.


About the author: Shalena

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