FRIDAY 26TH APRIL After packing away on the banks of Arroyo Solis, route 1B effortlessly led me along a muted water-colour painted landscape beneath a mackerel sky toward Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, claimed online as a “relaxed, vintage version of Buenos Aires.” I was looking forward to arrival, although the cool, colourless air dampened its tacit welcome.
The traffic built, as it does when approaching a major city, and I turned left towards the coast as soon as I sensed the vague outer limits of the city. The indistinct urban boundary, the traffic density and the time it took to crawl short distances from signal to signal made Montevideo feel expansive. Along the coast, the low rise waterfront gradually grew into a metropolitan sea-wall of tower blocks along the low-level shoreline, as charmless looking as it was long. Kilometres of endless Rambla awash with city traffic.
Finally, as the grey atmosphere began condensing into tangible drizzle, the city centre passed behind my right shoulder and I curled 180 degrees around the Ciudad Vieja (old city) at the tip of the harbour peninsular, past the old Mercado del Puerto, and turned right flowing inland with busses hissing over glossy tail-light streaked pavement to the Plaza Independencia. This could easily be Manchester or Liverpool back home. The mechanical tide drifted around the Plaza to gather at the red light at its junction with the Montevideo’s busy Ave 18th Julio.
Huddled with the cars and buses on the edge of the plaza impatiently waiting for the green light, I lifted my dripping visor to notice the warm glow of cafe lights beneath the dark brow of a colonnade on the plaza across the junction. Additionally, a gaggle of motorcycles parked outside suggested convenient, semi-secure motorcycle parking. Timely, since – although not yet soaked through – I had been slowly losing body heat during the trip.
Swinging open the glass door into the loud Spanish chatter of the crowded cafe, I spotted a vacant corner table displaying the remains of a lunch like it had undergone an autopsy. I stacked the plates across the table to make space for the laptop and plugged it into the nearby socket. A vegeburger and coffee would serve as rent for my stay as well as fuel for my body while I settled down to contact my prospective host.
Juarez Sousa, whom I’d met just over the border in Brazil travelling the opposite direction back to Sao Paulo at a Cafe in Brazil had put me in touch with Kapy Hbl and the Motoratones Motorcycle Group who offered me shelter if I were to visit Montevideo. And here I was: visiting.
I connected to the WiFi and received a reply within minutes. Kapy wouldn’t be there until 5pm so I sat back for a while sipping coffee and enjoying Praga’s post-lunch cosy hospitality.
Still not yet 4pm and Motoratones being 18km away, I set off east on an exploratory urban dawdle, calling in at the viewing platform at the City Hall for casting an eye over the urban panorama. I wasn’t too worried about leaving my fully loaded bike out front of the plaza; I could see it a dozen stories below me across the square but what could I do from the top of a tower if I saw someone unpacking the bike?
20 minutes later I was back on the streets jostling with the traffic and guessing my way northeast to Motoratones. One-way streets and ‘No Left Turns’ made staying on course impossible and morphed into a series of mini mystery-tours.
Out of the city centre, staying on Ruta 8 became easier with the final challenge of which was the last turning to take off the main road being the last obstacle. I guessed correctly turning along the dirt road to Motoratones, and then past it all the way to the Campeón del Siglo stadium at the Ruta 102 junction at the other end, confirming that at least I had been on the right road.
Lack of signage made the anonymous-looking tin hut difficult to identify. Checking the number painted on the front against the one on my laptop, I poked my head inside the door. Manuel had been expecting my arrival and warmly greeted me. His English was thinner than my Spanish but Kapy joined us after about an hour and between his better English and Google Translator we were able to communicate. I told Kapy I might need the British Embassy while I was here and he confirmed my obvious thought that it would be closed until Monday but it would be fine to stay at Motoratones as long as I needed.
Motoratones’ Club House is a large corrugated iron single-story building that looks like a workshop from the outside but contains all the comforts of a house inside. The double doors opened to allow entry for my motorcycle over the concrete floor and next to the pool table. Kapy showed me my comfortable double mattress in a bedroom and around all the amenities before he and Manuel left to go home. I had the place to myself. I’m OK with that. My own pad in the Montevideo suburbs.
27th April, thinking cities are typically busy on Saturdays, I stayed in: alone. I had food with me so spent most of the day hunkered down on the internet. My passport had a few months left on it but was becoming a bit of a concern on how to renew it. Montevideo, being a Capital City, had an Embassy. Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata had one too, but I didn’t know how long processing would take and wanted to be away from there in time for the Total Solar Eclipse of July 2nd. I couldn’t do much about it over the weekend, except finding out the location and renewal instructions so stayed in and researched as much as I could. There were two locations listed. Only one would be current and it was difficult to discern which.
Sunday 28th. I’d noticed Sundays are commonly a quiet day by passing through the Uruguayan cities along the way so today offered a perfect opportunity to go sight-seeing along the uncongested streets.
A cool and dry day under another grey sky became windier as I drew nearer the coast. The lighthouse loomed across the Rambla on my left as the buildings along Bulevar General Artigas parted at the coastal junction.
The road forced me to turn right, so I went with the flow to cruise along the seafront for a few kilometres before hanging a u-turn back.
The attendant at the lighthouse offered to keep my helmet on his desk while I looked around. Without any other visitors, I was left to roam freely around the exhibits and up the stairs to admire the view and indulge a private game of spot the manufacturer: often one of the Victorian, Industrial cities of Great Britain. I guessed Liverpool but no, Birmingham.
Now hungry, the La Estacada, next door, is a pricey restaurant, cosy but posh enough for me to feel conspicuous. I stepped in, spotted the serviettes and wine glasses and stepped out again before the door swung closed behind me. Cloth serviettes are red-flags to me, warning of high prices.
I pulled up outside Isadora Libros, a bookshop a little way up the coast from the lighthouse with this idea to buy a book in Spanish to spur me on for learning the language. Sunday: it was closed but I noticed Costa Azul Cafeteria at the end of the road was open. Sheltering there from the sea-breeze with a coffee and chivito.
The Monday Mission, now that businesses were open for the week: solve the mystery of passport renewal. Blue sky and bright sunshine being a good omen, off to the Embassy I rode to ask about the process face to face with a human. I parked on the sidewalk under the dappled leafy shade of a tree, half expecting to be at the wrong location of the two listed on the internet. Fifty-fifty. My lucky day, I rang the buzzer on the gate.
Funny how Embassy security employees never seem to speak English. Karina, the Consular Officer, instructed the guard to let me in and helped with their limited services. They can’t do much and were keen to state it after each enquiry, but what they can do they do reasonably well. I’s arrived with the impression that an Embassy could process a passport in-house, not necessarily while you wait but within a week or so. No, centrally processed online including all the risks and delays associated with international postage.
Karina kindly printed out the instructions I needed for applying online and emailed me authorisation, for printing out and including with the application, that I use the Embassy’s address for delivery. That was about all we could do, the rest would have to be dealt with anywhere that had an internet connection.
I continued with my hare-brained idea of buying a favourite book in Spanish so I could read it and learn the language and cruised up to the wonderful Escaramuza Libros bookshop and bought a copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions. I had already read it in English, twice, and sat in Esaramuza’s cafe courtyard to enjoy coffee and cake while flicking through the book’s pages in bewilderment.
Calling it a day, I retreated back to Motoratones, now familiar with the virtual labyrinth of prohibited turnings and handy rat-runs to get me onto Ruta 8.
There’s a Supermarket on the main road just past my turning not far from Motoratones. Handy for nabbing some snacks and a bottle of wine on the way for oiling the wheels of government administration.
Back at base, I filled in the online passport application and wrestled with the photo requirement rejections for an hour until the lighting and background suddenly and mysteriously accepted a photo I’m now lumbered with for 10 years. I saved the documents into pdf files on a USB stick ready for printing out later somewhere in the city for sending together with the old passport back to London.
Tuesday 30th I rode into the old town to buy an envelope, print off and sign my forms ready for sending over a coffee at another nice bookshop called Librería Más Puro Verso. Tomorrow, the plan was to pack up, call in at DHL then head West toward Colonia del Sacramento while waiting for the new passport, instead of drumming my fingers at Montevideo.
1st May I casually packed away, planning to find somewhere to camp on the coast about an hour west of Montevideo. I had all day so there was no rush. When I got to DHL it was closed. Today was Labour Day: celebrated by closing up and suspending labour for the day.
That was that then. I parked up at Plaza Matriz to connect to the free Municipal WiFi and determine my options. I discovered no couriers outside of Montevideo that would be on my route so would have to remain here until tomorrow and so fired up Booking.com to discover Punto Berro Ciudad Vieja just half a block away and only a block from DHL.
Punto Berro Ciudad Vieja is a cute old City-Centre Hostel, that doesn’t look much from the outside, run by a family from India that served home-cooked Indian food for dinner after the usual argument that I had already paid for the option on Booking.com’s website plus ‘Good Breakfast’ having to show my email receipt on the laptop screen as evidence, a lesson I had still not yet learned with Booking.com. They had no secure parking but I was calmly reassured, with the confidence that the absence of personal risk provides, that my bike would be safe in the street, especially as the holiday had emptied the neighbourhood for the holiday.
As this was my last afternoon in Montevideo, I cruised around the old city centre. The famous Port Market was closed but families were out in the street barbecuing to the thump of their reggaeton throbbing boomboxes. There wasn’t much to do or see, to be honest, and I soon drifted back to the Hostel to relax.
My dorm on the first floor faced the street, reassuringly able to monitor my motorcycle chained up next to the skip across the road outside Cafe Brasilero. I was surprised to find my roommates were three guys of African descent, only noticing because I’d only encountered Caucasian and Indigenous people over the last few months of travelling and it highlighted how less cosmopolitan Southern Brazil and Uruguay appeared to be compared to the UK. We didn’t share a common language but I think they were here for work since the Port was just a few blocks away.
Dinner tasted delicious, and the night passed peacefully in the quiet, street-facing dorm.
Thursday 2nd of May, I packed away and strolled around the corner to DHL and stunned to discover their US$105 mailing fee for a featherweight envelope no bigger than a birthday card. I said I’d think about it and retreated to Cafe Brasilera across the road from the Hostel for brunch and WiFi to discover that FedEx was no cheaper. I couldn’t risk domestic mail… they had me over a barrel. With all the fees, Passport renewal totalled over US$280. How Governments take away a right and sell it back to you.
I resentfully returned to DHL, coughed up the fee and sent the package off, setting my timer to wait “up to five weeks” for processing plus however long for shipping. Meanwhile, I couldn’t leave the country until receiving my new passport and planned to kick over the gravel around the undiscovered western fringes of Uruguay.
Starting the engine, I caught my reflection in the window opposite which reminded me I was still on a big adventure faking a picture to remind myself to not get distracted by daily problems and set off around the harbour, stopping only to buy a feeler gauge for adjusting my own valves, which hadn’t been checked since Asuncion in Paraguay. I hit the road around Montevideo Bay and out to Ruta 1 for Colonia, happy to escape the city, looking forward to camping out beneath sky and leaves once again.