My day in Colonia del Sacramento, or Colonia in short, was one of unmitigated surprises. One of which would only become apparent a few days later. I didn’t particularly have Uruguay down as a ‘to visit’ destination, but by virtue of circumstance it had become the place to go for a visa ‘refresher’. Unfortunately, as a Malaysian I only get a continuous 30 day stay (and what can you see in thirty days, really). On this most recent visit, my second to Uruguay, I flew solo, so to speak. I decided on the 12pm Buquebus ferry (much more civilised than the 8.15am) leaving Puerto Madero for Colonia, and the 5.01pm return – giving me a bit of a cushion to head back to Pilar on the perfectly ordinary Pilar Express. Though entirely practical in nature, I wanted this little excursion to rekindle that spirit of travel that I set out on this adventure with nearly 9 months ago, a spirit I feared was being stifled under the disappointment of what my time volunteering at La Amistad Polo (and living on site at La Quinta Polo Club) had become, and what I was increasingly learning about the nature of people in the equine industry.
After my first surprise of the day – the customs officer at Colonia seizing my organic oatmeal, raisins, almonds, and sun dried tomatoes (I guess she was famished and had a hankering for a healthy yummy tummy comfort breakfast) – I headed off on the short 15 minute walk to the Old town centre. I was armed with Google’s strong contender for my ‘gluten free café in Colonia Uruguay’ request – Queriendote on Paseo San Gabriel 70,000 – and I was feeling quite peckish by then. More surprises, especially food related, and especially of the crappy sort, were the last thing I wanted.
Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised by the quaintness of old town Colonia del Sacramento. And the quiet. It was a balm to the spirit to walk down cobblestone streets lined by huge trees as far as the eye could see in all four directions, and have there just be the sound of … nothing. Occasionally, the breeze gently stirred or the birds chirped, the odd dog or two would pad by almost silently, a car or two would whir by. But other than that, it was the definition of that now antiquated saying in 21st century modern life – peace & quiet.
Over the years, living in central London (and every other big city I’ve lived in) has felt like a weight I carry on my shoulders, pressing down as soon as I step out the front door. Eventually even the double-glazing stopped being a match for the roadworks, bathroom/kitchen remodels of the surrounding flats, and general construction in a city fumbling to keep up with a burgeoning population and inadequate infrastructure. Let’s not even talk about the ever-present groups of runners banging down on the grates as they huff and puff sweatily by, strolling gossipers loudly and unreservedly sharing the intimate details of their lives, or multitudes of delivery men (from Amazon to DPD to Deliveroo) and their assortment of vehicles. Screaming kids (of all ages it seems) and the thumping of loud house music almost seem whimsical …
I didn’t find (or hear) any of that in Colonia. It was the first time in my life I felt such tranquility in a space which showed obvious signs of civilisation – houses, cars, streets, and (arguably) people (insert laughter). I wasn’t in the Mongolian steppe or up in the Kazakh mountains people. I wonder if this was what Dorothy felt like … light and airy, I could almost see myself living in one of the charming (though occasionally slightly decrepit) little houses I spotted on my walk. Standing in their faded yellows, pinks, greens, and off-cream shades – they were little pastel architectural delights that looked as if they were sensibly built to climate rather than the boxes sprouting up like weeds in London, or for that matter, Kuala Lumpur. Box living was all the rage, it seemed.
After fifteen minutes of not seeing another living soul (pretty much) I turned the corner of Manuel Lobo and stood awed at the sight of the Porton de Campo – the reconstructed 1745 city gates. It wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring by itself but when taken in context of the slightly dazed and confused way I felt at the unusual quiet – awestruck seemed natural. A bit further up and I arrived at the main square – Plaza de Armas – with its associated church Iglesia Matriz (the oldest in Uruguay, dating back to 1680). The small congregation of people enjoying their lunch and shopping – miniscule by any measure in any big city – is overwhelming by Colonia’s measure, and I quickly move on to find my little café by the waterfront. There was noo need to ruin the moment.
The last surprise Colonia had in store for me was a doozie, an all in one combo that had my ‘lovely’ waterfront cafe Queriendote at its centre. Queriendote was a chi-chi cutesy English afternoon tea joint on steroids which I took full advantage of. Its not everyday you find good tea, much less a variety of good teas, and gluten free options. That’s options, plural, that don’t cheekily try to limit themselves to the salads. Having the gentle lapping of waves as the soundtrack to lunch didn’t hurt. Unfortunately my attempts at relaxation worked so well that I left the café at 4.15pm for my 5pm ferry and didn’t notice that the establishment’s owner practiced a little fishy custom the Uruguayans have when dealing with foreign currency.
Their modus operandi: when accepting Argentine (AR) pesos, they first convert the AR to US dollars and then they convert the dollar to Uruguayan pesos, a rate which is determined solely in country and doesn’t follow the global rate. This little ‘process’ is a sure way to lose you money in the conversion, or as I like to call it, highway robbery. At this little café, I ‘lost’ …. nope, you know what, let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that my attempts to get in touch with the owner once I realised what had happened were ignored, and I hope that, dear reader, you’ll pay in USD or Uruguayan pesos if you ever find yourself in Uruguay. Fishy indeed.
Done with surprises for the day, I enjoyed some casual (and not so casual) conversation with a couple of fellow lady travellers on the Buquebus back to Buenos Aires. It was just plain nice to have a chat about what we were doing in Argentina, which led to the cornucopia of questions and answers that reveal themselves when you share things in common.
They added their voices of discontent to those of my friends (a freaking chorus by now), at my situation at the La QuintaPolo Club/La Amistad Polo (concierge service). And its funny how things would shortly turn out because I would end up leaving the dump or the shithole, as I had recently started calling it, the day after. Goodbye disgusting and unsanitary shower and toilet ‘facilities’, fly ridden kitchen with often times leaking gas stove and light-fingered grooms, urine stained duvet and the appearance of itchy bites on my arms and legs, drunken yelling past midnight on workdays that had a 6am start, 5 lessons over a span of 6 weeks in exchange for 12 hour workdays, and having to deal with a revolving door of head grooms (5 in 6 weeks – all with their own lunatic idiosyncrasies) that ranged from friendly to perverted to outright physically aggressive. All in service of ‘the organisation’ – as the owners like to call their little outfit. Oh brother, spare me from the over-inflated ego of the un-initiated. More to come on what I like to call the Polo Series: My 6 Weeks on Planet Oblivious aka Planet New Colonists.