America by RV: Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.