It's been a pretty interesting week, it always seems like there's something going on in Buenos Aires, and you never know what you're going to wake up to every day. Last week waking up everyday consisted of the smell and cloudy views of horrible thick smoke. It started last Monday, and wasn't terrible, but definitely got better Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday and Friday, however, were absolutely miserable. The smoke Friday morning was so thick that visibility couldn't have been more than about 200 feet. Consequentially, the local airport shut down as well as many of the charter busses out of town and some ports.
What exactly is this smoke? Lovely, that's what. There was no escaping it; it invaded the apartments, and now I think all of my clothes have that dreaded, impossible to escape smoky stench to them. Really though, it started with the farmers in the Provencia, the area right outside greater Buenos Aires, burning off the weeds on the soy crops. I lead a pretty uniformed life here I feel like, and I probably should change that, but that's the basic story as I understand. The fires were meant to just burn of the weeds and crops in preparation to replant (though I don't think you have to replant soy? So I'm not entirely sure its soy), and in the process of these controlled fires they got out of control, which tends to happen when it's really dry, as it is here. The smoke made it very hard to breathe and altogether unpleasant to be outside. At one point though, I have to admit, it smelled a little bit like a barbecue pit with smoked meat. Made me pretty hungry. The smoke has also made for some pretty bright red and orange sunsets, which I've gotten a few interesting pics out of.
Last Thursday one of my friends invited me to go to Punta del Este, Uruguay, which is a pretty famous beach resort 2 hours east of Montevideo. A lot of Argentines own apartments and condos there and it's a HUGE resort spot during the summer months, but now that it's getting more into winter, its' pretty much vacated. Considering how miserable life was with the smoke and the hope of escaping its presence, I decided last minute to tag along with the two that were going, Tamarinda and Star. We went and bought tickets about 30 minutes after I decided and left Friday afternoon. I got my student visa on Friday morning, kind of cool, but it helps a bit when travelling.
We left Buenos Aires Friday at around 230 in the afternoon on a bus to Tigre to catch the boat which we thought was going to Montevideo. We had our mate and yerba (I'll explain that culture in a bit) all packed up and ready for the journey and got on the boat. We met a couple of Argentines from Córdoba and hung out with them on the boat for a while and they helped us perfect our mate making abilities. The boat ended up docking in Carmelo, Uruguay around 8:30 and we had to take a 3 hour bus trip to Montevideo. Our Argentine friends ended up on the same bus and we figured out that we had reservations in the same hostel that night in Montevideo. We took the three hour bus ride to Montevideo and arrived around 12-1215 A.M. We were having trouble deciding rather it was worth it to make it out to the hostel in Montevideo because we wanted to catch a bus at 5 in the morning, which would mean less than 3 hours of sleep, which we would still have to pay a whole night for. Luckily, we found a bus that left out of Montevideo at 1 A.M. and bought tickets. We ate McDonalds with our friends in the bus station because it was the only thing that was open and we hadn't eaten since we left Buenos Aires and then went our separate ways. We got into Punta del Este around 4 A.M. and made our way to our hostel, called 1949 Hostel. The hostel was closed, but for some reason there was a girl on a computer downstairs, and she let us in. God only knows why she let three people in to a hostel at 4 A.M. in the morning in South America, but I'm pretty thankful she did. Turns out she was from Houston, but not a whole lot of fun to talk to, kind of a bummer. We ended up finding the person on duty in the hostel to check us in and we slept until about 10 in the morning. It's one of the first times I've ever just gone somewhere without definite plans on the mode of transportation and there were a few moments when I thought we would be sleeping in the bus station or spending all night at a bar, just as a place to stay, but it ended up being all good memories and I'm glad it worked out.
Punta del Este was absolutely gorgeous. We spent a lot of our time on the beach, and Star and Tamarinda both surf, so they rented boards both days. I tried to a little bit but it just wasn't working out for me. I caught a couple of waves but there was no way I was even close to getting up, so it was a little bit more like boogie boarding. The hostel was really cool too and we met a couple of people from Australia who were travelling all over South America. It seems to be a trend among the Australians and United Kingdom folk, I've met more than a couple everywhere I've been who are taking off time from school and work just to travel. It's a pretty awesome idea, and I'm not really sure why that hasn't caught on in the States. Anyhow, Tamarinda, Starr and I decided to have a bonfire on the beach Saturday night so we went and bought a ton of wood and beer and invited our Australian friends to go with us. Only one of them decided to go, but we trekked back out to the beach and dug our pit and started our fire. I think we sat out there for like 4 or 5 hours starting at around 11:30 P.M. and just talked about everything and enjoyed the cool ocean breeze and the warm fire. It was a pretty amazing night, and something I'd yet to have experienced, that being pretty much only the 3rd or 4th time I'd ever even been to a beach.
We spent the whole weekend just trying to find waves and enjoying ourselves on the beach and drinking tons and tons of yerba mate. The only kind of downer thing to happen was that the smoke from stupid Argentina started to invade the air of Punta del Este. It wasn't overwhelming, but made things hazy and ruined a lot of good picture taking opportunities. I saw a paper in Punta with a headline saying something along the lines of "Montevideo and Uruguay suffer from the Argentine disaster." The wording in Spanish cracked me up; it was definitely very accusing of Argentina.
Overall, it was an incredibly weekend and I'm really glad I decided to go. Uruguay seems a lot more relaxed than Argentina, and Montevideo is definitely more chill than Buenos Aires, but also like 1/14 the size. Punta del Este just feels a lot more secure and you don't have to be AS cautious when you go out. Overall I really like Uruguay, and I definitely need to try to make it back to Montevideo just to do the tourist thing since I was unable to. I ended up coming back by myself because I thought I could make one of my classes tonight at 6, and the others wanted to stay and try to get some more waves yesterday, since everyone was telling us that yesterday (Monday) would be the best day for waves. I left around 7:30 A.M. from Punta del Este and got back to Buenos Aires at 6 and figured I would rather be late than absent to my class. I made it to the school exactly an hour late only to find an empty classroom and realize class had been cancelled. It was a bit of a bummer, considering I don't have class until 4:30 on Tuesdays and I definitely could've stayed another day, but what can you do.
On the whole mate culture: Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is like the official drink of the Rio de la Plata region, and I think they drink it a lot in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay as well. I think I talked a little bit about it in an earlier post, but it's basically a tea that you buy in huge packs like you would coffee. Basically you have three main components: the leaves, or yerba (pron. jerba with a soft j), the mate (which is the gourd that you drink the yerba out of), and the bombilla (pron. bom-bee-sha). The bombilla is basically a metal straw with a kind of strainer on the end to keep the leaves in the gourd. To prepare the mate, you have to put a little bit of the leaves in the gourd and add very hot water, letting the leaves soak it up. You put the bombilla in and add more mate, basically repeating the process of pouring just a little bit of water and letting it soak in, until it looks about right. Typically mate is shared amongst a group of friends, and you have one person who prepares and serves the drink. They fill it up with water, drink it all, refill it and then pass it to the next person. Each person drinks all of the water in the gourd and passes it back to the server who refills it for the next person. It's a pretty social event and I think like something like 80% of Argentines drink it almost daily. I tried it for the first time this weekend, and I think I'm already addicted. We had semi-sweet mate, as it's typically VERY bitter, but I definitely am a huge fan and will probably try to work into the more bitter stuff later on, at least to try it. We took our mate, yerba and thermos of hot water everywhere with us this weekend and drank an incredible amount of the stuff. I think it has a lot of caffeine in it, which might be part of the whole addiction process, but I think my addiction to caffeine is nothing new.
I'll try to edit this post within the next couple of days when I upload the pics to facebook with a public link so everyone can see them, so check back soon.
UPDATE: heres the link: