Salsa King

All aboard the Colonia Express, our boat to Uruguay. Once of course we had found the ferry terminal; third port and a taxi ride later (only £3 between us for the taxi, but a necessity after the slight goose chase I had led us on). It’s an hours sail from Buenos Aires to Colonia, Uruguay, followed by a bus ride to Montevideo. The buses in Uruguay were our first taste of this ideologically eutopic country. Sat in conditioned arm chairs with on board free WiFi, we raced across the countryside. Arriving in Montevideo we headed for the Hostel Tibet, our chosen accommodation for the evening. I had decided to select a slightly more expensive option – around £25 each for two nights – but seeing as this was only our second paid accommodation in three weeks I figured we could stretch a little. We paced for half an hour in the heat, arriving at tall and very closed iron gate. After 15 minutes of head scratching, failed attempts of the doorbell and an aggressively loud call of ‘Hola’ up the stairs we alerted the resident hound of our arrival and we were let inside.

Hostel Tibet was like a family home come hostel. One large living room, one dorm and a large roof terrace up an iron ladder housed the outdoor kitchen. We were shown to our beds in beautifully Nepalese decor, the top bunk of a three tier stack – not the most practical after a beer – and we headed to the terrace. Another guest was busy on his phone, his complection and red hair told us immediately he was a fellow Brit. Mark, a freshly graduated career abandoner, had arrived in Uruguay two days ago. Beers, cards and a dinner of Stephens crushed Jordans cereal followed, before attempting not to fall straight through the human sized open window at the bottom of the iron ladder, and subsequently attempting to not fall out of the 5 metre high bunks.

The following day after a cute communal breakfast with our fellow hostel mates, we headed to the walking tour with Mark. Our ambitious 15 minutes to attempt a 30 minute power walk across town meant a spontaneous colectivo and arriving 15 minutes late. Fortunately walking tours are unanimously characteristic of a large ethnically diverse group with at least half the population carrying arrogantly unnecessary photographic equipment (myself included). We spotted them immediately.

Today’s guide – Marco – led us on a hilariously inspirational tour of the capital city of this small ideological democratic nation. Mate flask under one arm (Mate – Latin American tea, popular with pretty much everyone, five times stronger than coffee, impossible to walk 10 meters without someone holding a thermos) he told us about the amazing culture of acceptance that is Uruguay. As an atheist country, all religions, faiths genders, races, sexualitys are accepted – just someone help you if you are vegetarian. He explained that unlike the rest of the world, Uruguay are trying to increase their small 3 million population and that for six dollars and your birth certificate you could become a Uruguayan citizen. The next 30 minutes was subsequently filled with Stephen discussing with himself how he could get his birth certificates sent and that if he then married me would he get dual nationality. I switched off. Marco ended the tour in a parrilla paradise (parrilla: Spanish for grill). Meat sizzling in all directions you could walk around until you stomach became origami, sampling the free white wine each restaurant offers to entice you in. Half an hour later and slightly lighter in the head, we caught a colectivo back across town.

After a tourist stop at the Montevideo sign, Mark made tracks for the Hostel and Stephen and I headed towards the British Cemetery for a spot of who do you think you are. The whole purpose of our trip to Montevideo was to uncover the Bowen family mystery of what happened to Uncle Albert. Uncle Albert was the Captain of a Merchant Ship that was sailing in the Rio Plata when Albert tragically had appendicitis and died. Stephen had a photograph of the letter sent to his family in 1907 from the Cemetery in Montevideo saying he had died. So over one hundred years later his great great nephew and his girlfriend went from grave stone to grave stone hunting the illusive Albert Bowen in the scorching Uruguayan sun. Ste fathomed that one particular corner was dedicated to international sailors and after a painstaking hunt we eventually give up. As we left I spotted an administration office and headed over. The room again was empty and it took another ‘Hola’ before a woman appeared. Somehow in my very best Spanish I managed to get her to search the system for any mention of Albert Bowen. And there it was the record of Captain Albert Bowen, of The Arctic Stream, died 1902 and buried in sailors corner. No gravestone but a least a concrete record. Our Scooby Doo mystery solved.

Back at the hostel, it’s a game of beer and ‘shithead’ with Mark. After a while though, I’m struggling to focus on what is going on. Probably a combination of too much sun, cereal meals and a litre of beer but I interrupt. ‘Is it just me or can you guys hear drums?’ We sit in silence for a moment listening to the dull rumble growing closer and closer. I can no longer focus and begin twitching like some desperate addict before manically stopping the game and declaring that we should all go drum chasing.

Road beers in hand we head off in the direction of the drums. Drunkly pausing at each intersection and cupping our ears like some interpid game hunter, we weave from street to street as the roar grows louder. Suddenly we turn the corner and are faced with a bellowing sea of flags, Latino ladies in full flow salsa, followed by around thirty men and boys, each with a huge samba drum. The noise was reverberating in my skull. It’s Carnival!

We follow the crowd from street to street, myself dancing in full drunken Gringo style alongside them on the pavement. There is a very muscular man directly in front of the drummers, all dressed in black with a flamboyant amount of shaved tanned chest protruding from his tight shirt. He has long blonde dreadlocks pinned up and is showing all the ladies how a salsa should be done. He is the salsa king and he was my next hero.

Eventually the small parade comes to an end at a large junction. There is a huge parrilla cooking meat for the party, and we sit on the pavement watching the smallest boy playing with the largest flag, before heading back to the hostel.

The next day after another communal breakfast we grab our things and head for the bus terminal. A rain soaked bus ride back across to Colonia and we sail back to Buenos Aires, jump on a train and head out to the suburb of Victoria to meet with our first couch surf host.


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