Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 7 URUGUAY & BRAZIL  —  COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO TO FLORIANOPOLIS

Uruguay

Uruguay is the only country whose English name has the same letter three times in its first five. It is the second smallest South American country after Suriname, named after the Uruguay river which means ‘river of the painted birds’ in Guarani. It keeps track of every single one of its cattle which is an impressive feat considering the ratio is four to one, with 12 million cattle to 3 million people. There are also over 9 million sheep that live here.

It is also a country for the liberals to embrace. As the least corrupt country in Latin America, it is ranked first on indicators representing democracy, peace, quality of life, press freedom, prosperity and security amongst others. Every schoolchild was provided with free internet and wifi which means an almost 100% literacy rate.

Abortion was legalised in 2007 making it the only country to legalise abortion in Latin America except for Cuba. Same-sex marriage was legalised before the UK, as the 20th country to do so in 2013. In 1913 they made a law that women could seek a divorce, in stark contrast, Chile legalised divorce in 2004.

Uruguay is losing its religion with only 46% of the population describing themselves as Catholic. The national anthem lasts more than five minutes, making it the world’s longest in performance duration.

Uruguay’s president from 2010-2015 made headlines for being, well, a nice guy. This was necessary after the military dictatorship which ended in 1985.He was had also put in jail for 14 years for opposing the former dictatorship and has been shot six times.

Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica gave away 90% of his salary and lived in a one-storey building outside Montevideo, forgoing the presidential palace. He was amazed at peoples amazement at his life and told the BBC: “All I do is live like the majority of my people.”

He also legalised marijuana although this only officially came into effect in 2017 and the cannabis will come from state-controlled fields. There is a cap of 40 grams per month. He did this because he didn’t want his people ‘at the mercy of drug traffickers.’ Lessons to be learned by the rest of the world? He has been succeeded by Tabare Vazquez.

Colonia del Sacramento

We were still hanging out of our arses so we slept through the river journey on Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires to Colonia. CDS is a former Portuguese smuggling post but is none the worse for it. Its a very charming place and tourists love it. It was of course captured by the Spanish in the late 17th century which is why it isn’t Portuguese speaking.

People seem to be very enchanted by Colonia, I think we were too hungover to appreciate it fully, we only stayed for a day before moving on to the capital.

Montevideo

Montevideo is where a third of the Uruguayan population lives. It is compact for a capital and feels safe, just like the rest of the country. We spent a pleasant enough day there but it certainly wasn’t a big draw for me.

I had missed calls on my phone from my mum and it turned out that her cousin had died in a road accident whilst on his bike. I was very sad for her and I lay awake that night thinking about how sad she must be and listening to this stupid fly buzzing around the room which was really bloody annoying.

After Monte, we headed to Punta del Este which was our final Uruguayan stop before we headed to Brazil which was a considerably different vibe to sleepy Uruguay.

Punta del Este

Punta del Este is a beach resort for rich people essentially, however, we were there out of season and it was very quiet and pleasant. There is only one tourist attraction in Punta and that is La Mano en la Arena or hand in the sand. It is basically an Iron sculpture on the beach and it features in every picture of PDE ever taken. It won a prize in an art competition once and it has basked in that glory ever since. 

Steph and I used our time there to drink at the Irish pub, and that’s pretty much all we did.

I did discover that there is a place called Fray Bentos in Uruguay. The main industry of Fray Bentos is meat processing and they made corned beef there in 1899 for the UK. It is now owned by Baxters. The Uruguayan part of the history of the Fray Bentos brand is not mentioned on their website and I think that is a damned shame.

Unsurprisingly, we quickly got bored and decided that we wanted to move on. There was a direct bus to Brazil about twice a week but we didn’t want to wait.

We decided to cross the border crossing ourselves so we got a bus to Chuy on the border and walked across a dusty road past lorries to get our exit stamp, then we had to wait around before getting a bus to the border office on the Brazilian side. It was getting dark at this point. As border crossings go I do not rate this one – in hindsight, I would get one of the twice/thrice weekly buses straight from PDE to Florianopolis.

Brazil:

We got stamped into Brazil at the border office and then we walked in the dark to find a bus stop. Steph was not very subtly shitting herself at this point and hiding her valuables in different crevices of her body. A man greeted us and she jumped about 10 ft in the air. Luckily, the bus stop was opposite a youth club so there were some people around.

It was 11pm now and we’d been told there was a bus to Porto Alegre at half past. Steph was still rattled but luckily the bus did arrive on time and we were off.

We changed buses at Porto Alegre and I watched two guys having a fistfight at the bus station. I wondered want I had gotten us into with Brazil as it is certainly much edgier than the countries we’d previously visited. It was also a whole other language to learn, one that seemed more difficult to us than Spanish.

We had an embarrassing moment at PA at the ticket booth when we said we couldn’t speak Portuguese so he spoke to us in Spanish instead and we still didn’t have a clue. At no point during our Brazil visit did we redeem ourselves either.

Brazil is big and so naturally a big influencer in South America. It is the world’s fifth largest country and borders every South American country except Ecuador and Chile, making up 47% of the landmass. Around 210 million people live there. The word Brazil is named after the pau basil (brazilwood) tree which means ‘red like an ember’, these trees grew on the coast and produced a red dye.

Politics-wise it has gone from having a left-wing to a centrist government in recent years. An important year in the country’s history was 1888 as slavery was abolished, the Portuguese monarchy was overthrown and it was replaced with a federal republic model instead. After a coup, a nationalist Getulio Vargas came to power in 1930. He was ousted by a coup and after yet another coup involving a left-wing president, there was military rule until 1985 when civilian government returned.

Brasilia was a pre-planned capital and took the crown from Rio which held it for 197 years, the first capital on independence was Salvador. The city of Brasilia took 41 months to build from 1956 to 1960 and it became a UNESCO heritage site in 1987.

Brazil has a whopping 4,000 airports, coming only second to the US for the largest number of any country. The US has over 13,000.

A new trend in Brazil is for Osama Bin Laden-themed bars, there is one in Sao Paulo and several in and around Rio. It started after 9/11 when a ‘concerned customer’ called the police as they thought their local barman was OBL, and this likeness has brought him great rewards. His place is now full of goths and rockers. Another is the Caverna do Bin Laden (cave) and a restaurant called Bin Laden and Family.

There is a popular Brazilian numbers game called Jogo do Bicho which is based on animal characters and is similar to a state lottery but without the legalities as it is oft operated by mobsters. It was started as a guessing game to publicise the Rio de Janeiro zoo, different animals like deer and ostrich are associated with 1-25 and people often choose them based on their dreams. It is also practised in Portugal, which I guess also has saudade.

You can’t talk about the Brazilian mentality without mentioning saudade. It is essentially undefinable however the dictionary defines it as ‘a deep emotional state of melancholic longing for a person or thing that is absent’. This sense of ‘missing’ is a concept that has become an almost tangible part of the everyday culture which I think shows a deep awareness of the nature of sadness. It imbues literature, adding further layers of meaning to any art which shows the complexity of the Brazilian psyche.

Florianopolis

We were one of the last buses to enter Florianopolis for a while as there was a lot of flooding in this region. There was endless footage of the flood devastation playing on every channel on the hostel television. I saw a bus go off a cliff so many times that I just couldn’t watch any more.

The flooding meant that we couldn’t visit any of the beaches and we were confined to the parts of the city that weren’t flooded. We quickly ran out of things to do and spent our days trying to get drugs and booze to fill our time.

We asked the receptionist what we should do as we desperately wanted to leave and his advice was ‘take a boat and go East’, which would have put us in the sea. This became our motto for our trip when things went wrong.

One night we bought some really shitty weed from some young boys outside a petrol station and we sat getting pissed whilst playing shithead with a couple in the hostel.

I was quite drunk by this point, and who should walk in, both soaking wet? Martin from Bolton and his friend Dave! Needless to say, we were surprised to see each other but could we seal the deal this time?

The answer was no, no we couldn’t. I was drunk and stoned and was banished from his bedroom for being a mess again, the only annoying thing was I left my grey hat in his room which I loved.

Again, it goes without saying that we had made a complete nuisance of ourselves and some of the older hostel residents had complained about us. One guy gave me a lecture over breakfast about my behaviour but as I was still pissed so I didn’t really care. I just munched on my muesli like a total waster.

Funnily enough, the staff we very happy to let us know that the buses to Rio had resumed. I think by this point they would have helicoptered us out of there just to get rid of us.

It is worth noting that 250,000 Brazilians were displaced by the massive flooding and Victoria Beckham still made the BBC front page for something that she had worn. We struggled to find any information about the flooding from British news outlets and this is something I personally raised whilst working for BBC News. Three lines on something so major, buried on their website was not sufficient for the scale of it.

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