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South America by RV: Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina

April 23 ~ Crossing to Uruguay

I slept like the dead, and woke for extremely short periods of time only to sleep again. Even when it was nine in the morning, I persisted and slept some more until finally Silvio's alarm--which is someone blowing an increasingly loud bugle--went off at ten. He had set it for the day he was picking me up, but obviously had ignored it anyway, and now we inherited the results of that decision. After washing up, Silvio went out to talk to the father checking his tires whose family car was parked next to ours.

Manuel proved to be an engineer who rents a house in Florianopolis, Brazil, over two thousand kilometres away. He began his conversation lightly enough, although it soon deteriorated into talk of Jesus, which was how we found out he was quite fanatical. The kids were cute and friendly, like most South American kids, and both he and his wife were nice, but he kept trying to get Silvio to translate how much I would be blessed by Jesus. He seemed to be more interested in my conversion than Silvio's, but the conversation was so sprinkled with jarring and out-of-context blessings that I couldn't really follow the logic of his statements.

It's always hard to understand a conversation when so much of it is disconnected from the speaker's previous topics. In fact, even though I understood his earlier statements, I got lost when his timing belt seemed to jump a tooth; suddenly we were talking about something else. Behind us there was a small garden plot where a farmer in rubber boots checked on his chickens and dwarf pony and dogs. Manuel's kids ran back and forth to the fence to see the animals so they evaded most of the conversation. We talked to them a bit while the man kept his salvo of blessing, until he finally handed me his card and said to contact him if we went far enough north along the coast of Brazil.

The other main topic for Manuel was the device he uses to overclock his car--if I understand correctly what he was talking about. He claimed that it saved him ten to twenty percent of his fuel cost. Silvio and I talked about it a lot after he drove away, and I got a more full explanation of what it was. Silvio views it as a scam, since he has never seen objective testing that shows the increase in fuel economy. As well, car companies do their best to sell cars which are economical--which is a particularly important selling feature overseas--and we both doubt any homemade device could do much more than trade fuel-economy for power. This is something which the driver of a vehicle with a standard transmission can do much more seamlessly. Silvio also said he would be worried about how such a device would affect the chips in a modern car computer, and he would never violate his warranty by doing that to his truck.

Only later did I stop to think about the similarity between Manuel's two principal topics of conversation: Jesus and the gas-saving electronic device. Although he had never opened the box and couldn't explain how the device worked, he had the utmost faith in its efficacy; that was similar to the confidence he had about proselytising. Despite Manuel's religious proclivities, we were happy to have met him. He regularly drives back and forth from Buenos Aires to a place he has in the forest outside Florianopolis. His family apparently arrives safely--if he is telling the truth about the frequency of their trips--and that gives us more assurance about the coastal entrance to Brazil.

Once he announced his impending trip, Silvio had been regaled by dozens of horror stories from his fellow Argentineans about the dangers of Brazil and even Uruguay. Although those stories tend to be more fantasies about terrors than anecdotes based in personal experiences or even the news, they still have an effect on a traveler, especially if the listener had never visited the country. We had to remind ourselves that most Neuquinos don't travel; any more than a few days' drive away and they imagine murderous banditry and magic.

After we left Manuel we drove on to the border, which was surprisingly close. Even while we were still in Argentina we could see the pulp mill on the Uruguayan side of the border. Apparently it's the cause of much contention. Silvio told me that Argentina wanted to build a mill, but Uruguay built theirs first. He said that pre-emptive strike upset many of the local politicians who had dined out on their promises through a few campaigns, and their corporate overlords, who stood to lose money on the deal, were less than impressed. The local government pandered to such jealousy-inspired complaints that the pulp mill would pollute the shared river by taking Uruguay to international court. Once I had regular internet, and had the leisure to look into the story, that version seemed to be more of a folktale than an easily verified news story.

The real version--as much as that can be determined from information available after the fact--is that in 2003 Uruguay was negotiating with Spanish and Finnish companies to make two eucalyptus paper plants on the river. Argentina objected, citing concerns about water quality, and then the rather local concern blew up into a bi-national and then international incident. Argentinean environmentalists, as well as people from nearby Gualeguaychú, blocked the Libertador General San Martín Bridge in protest, and that became a trade issue between the two countries. The protesters allowed farm trucks through, as well as the Uruguayan shoppers who regularly crossed for goods in Argentina, but they forced the Uruguayans to use local taxis instead of their own cars. That meant people running taxi services could charge what they wished for transporting Uruguayans and their purchases, and less shoppers began to come.

This went on for some years, and even though both President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and President Tabaré Vázquez of Urguay talked in 2006 they could not prevent the Gualeguaychú Environmental Assembly from blocking Route 136 which leads to the bridge. The Spanish company finally pulled out as a result of the delays, and the whole project seemed to be doomed. Uruguay began to suggest that the blockades threatened human rights by preventing the free movement of people and goods; they threatened to approach the World Trade Organization.

In the South American fall of 2006, Argentina jumped the queue by complaining to the International Court of Justice that Uruguay had violated their agreement by not consulting with Argentina prior to approving the construction. In May, at the opening of the European Union, Latin America and Caribbean Business Summit in Vienna, President Kirchner reiterated his accusations, with the assistance of Queen of the Carnival of Gualeguaychú, twenty-six-year-old Evangelina Carrozzo, who entered the proceedings under the auspices of a press pass from a weekly Buenos Aires newspaper. As the shooting was about to begin, Carrozzo took off her overcoat to show her tasselled bikini and held up a placard which read "No pulpmill pollution" in Spanish and English. Even the beauty queen's request wasn't sufficient, however; she was removed by security and the issue had yet to be resolved. After the Spanish company ENCE, under Juan Luis Arregui, ceased the construction, talks broke down between the countries. Even though both presidents were present at the XVI Ibero-American Summit in Montevideo, they rather childishly avoided one another.

The dispute had become so acrimonious that after Vázquez was no longer president, in 2011, he said he would have considered an armed conflict with Argentina. Luckily, by that point the issue had been largely resolved due to the new Uruguayan president José "Pepe" Mujica's effort to resolve the issue by meeting with then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. They signed an agreement of stewardship over the river, and now--although the historical animosity was still alive locally--the only trace of it we saw were crudely-made signs along the highway.

The border itself was as confusing as the fight over the environmental consequences of the Uruguayan pulp mill. We drove past Argentine customs, waiting for the border to appear, but when we stopped to ask, everyone said to keep going. Therefore, we drove across the bridge, paid an outrageous toll of twelve dollars, and were soon stopped at Uruguayan customs. There we drove along a wicket, were asked to pull over, and a man checked my passport and Silvio's national ID. In what must have been the easiest stop ever, the man stamped my passport, asked Silvio a few questions, and we went to the next check.

This was meant to be a slightly more serious affair, where they would search the truck for contraband. A militar went into the truck and I stood outside so Silvio could deal with him alone. They chatted, and Silvio, perhaps inadvertently, name-dropped that one of our plans in the country was to meet with Pepe Mujica. Silvio later claimed that he didn't know the effect such a statement would have on the border guard.

The man wasn't a huge fan of the past president, but he became much more friendly and flexible after Silvio's slip. Likely, I've thought since, he suddenly looked at the wealth the truck represented, and glanced past our traveling clothes to wonder why we were preparing to meet with his past president. Even if he were wrong in his supposition, and we were as harmless as we appeared, he realized he'd better err on the side of caution and treat us with more-than-usual respect. He looked in our fridge, told us how tempted he was to confiscate our fruit and bread, and then said he would ignore the violation. His boss came along and heightened our anxiety for a moment, but when asked he was happy enough to look at the truck from the outside.

We were sent on our way and soon were handing our ticket from the first wicket to the woman at the last. While we drove into the clean and expansive highways of Uruguay, Silvio translated the conversation I had largely missed. The guard didn't like Pepe, but when Silvio pressed him for reasons all he could point to was Pepe's backing of the legalization of marijuana. He didn't like marijuana because it was bad for people's health, and most of his argument hinged on his antipathy to his children seeing someone smoking marijuana. Once Silvio asked him if he were a cigarette smoker, he shrugged away his hypocrisy.

In the end, it sounded as though his animosity were based more in recent populist government propaganda, since he didn't even consider the benefits of Mujica's other policy changes, such as a higher minimum wage and the increased value of Uruguayan pensions. Despite Mujica's policy changes that had helped make his family more financially secure, the guard still spoke against him. Like the attitude of those who had hated President Obama in the United States, this man had directly benefitted from policies put in place by President Mujica, but couldn't quite bring himself to respect a man who wasn't ostentatious, manipulative, or avaricious.

Silvio asked about changing money as we left the last wicket and a guy with scarred knuckles came over quickly to offer him a rate far below market value. He sweetened the offer by claiming that we would have to pay many tolls before we arrived at the nearest town. Both Silvio and I have dealt with people like him before, who trade on a tourist's fear and ignorance, so we ignored his advice and asked at a gas station along the highway.

In the rather safe environment of the gas station, we had our first accident. Silvio was standing on the side-hill trying to take a photo of a modified Mercedes--for he now has an eye for people who make their own recreational vehicles--when he twisted his ankle on the slope. He could still limp around, but we both wondered if that would limit what we were able to do over the next few days.

Once we had arrived in the small city of Mercedes without paying a single toll, I stayed with the truck in a bus parking spot and Silvio went to the bank. Of course, Silvio did far more than that; he asked a policeman a few questions about the road ahead after he got some cash from a machine. He limped back to the truck with money and some information about the road ahead.

Luckily, he returned from the bank before the bus came. Since it was the only place which allowed us room in the small streets, we had parked in the bus stop, but that meant that other people stood behind the truck for their bus. I was more concerned about a man with a vision impairment, who either wasn't sure we were in the way, or was making a point by standing between us and the buildings. I was worried when the bus came that it might pass and miss him, and I was getting prepared to move the truck when it arrived. We were on our way before the bus came, so I never had a chance to check if he was making a point or he thought he needed to be there in order to encourage the bus to stop.

The roads in Uruguay were well-maintained and the countryside orderly and beautiful; it reminded me of southern Ontario or New England. It seemed to be a rich agricultural country, and we were surrounded by corn fields waiting on harvest, wheat fields and huge combines, and dairy as well as beef cattle. We even saw some sheep. The wildlife was mostly represented by some hawks and other birds; I thought I saw a small green parrot a few times, and a fox almost ran over the highway while I was driving.

We stopped in a few Wi-Fi zones, one of them in a small town which had a municipal internet system like those we had used in North Western Argentina. I Instagrammed some photos and Silvio spent his time trying to get his new camera working. Like the drone I had delivered for him the previous year, the camera was both temperamental and locked by proprietorship programming. He needed to download drivers, register the camera, and then upload something and then . . . Like the drone it was more setup than play, at least at first.

After we had taken a break to eat, we drove farther toward the capital. We needed to be close to it in order to meet Pepe tomorrow. I followed the GPS, but it led us off the highway because of construction farther up the main route. When we were double-checking our location by pulling into a gas station, we were further ensnared by a really strong Wi-Fi signal. Giving in to the temptation, Silvio spent almost an hour getting his camera working.

It was late when we left and I drove into the night. The construction problems seemed more manageable in the gloom, perhaps because the true extent of the disruption could not be appreciated. At one point I was even driving fast enough to startle a policeman into flashing his lights. I slowed down but I suddenly became paranoid that the police would turn around to follow us. I tried to imagine what a police stop would look like, since I didn't have an international license, spoke poor Spanish, and I'd gone over the not-very-well-posted construction speed limit. Mercifully, the police didn't turn and before long we were getting too close to the capital for nighttime parking comfort.

We pulled into a gas station where the main door was shielded with a metal grill and talked to a impolite gas jockey about my age who said we had to pay two hundred pesos or twelve dollars American to stay the night. The grill on the door was a pretty good indication that the place wasn't safe, and the man didn't guarantee security in the night. The woman working the shop behind the door seemed to sympathize with us, for she knew the man was making up a charge in order to capitalize on our arrival, but there was nothing she could say. She might do us a favour, but then she would be stuck working with him for the next ten years of her job. We'll be gone tomorrow, so she had to pick her battles carefully. If the charge was less, we might have stayed, but we took the man's greed in the context of our fear of being robbed and left. We drove back to a gas station we had passed and pulled in with several other trucks. When Silvio went inside they assured him the place was safe and that we needn't worry about paying. We stopped about seventy kilometres from the city, which meant we would be able to leave early the next day, since we were supposed to meet Pepe between ten in the morning and one in the afternoon.

 

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