I wake in a country that feels like home. There’s something I love about these shabby run-down hotels. I’d take old stucco and cement over sterile plaster any day of the week. I wash up in the cool concrete drip of the bathroom and hit the street, worldly possessions on one shoulder. This kind of mobility is a gift, never having to worry about where to leave a bag. The sun is hard but fair across the town. I’m passed on the tiny main street by two Mormons, as recognisable as ever. Matching dark trousers, matching short-sleeved whites, matching sensible straw hats. One is round-shouldered and red-faced, short, a walk like a pug. The other is tall, lanky, all gangling spider-limbs and angles. They would make a cartoonist cry with joy. As they pass me the short one says hola in Yankee Spanish, apparently mistaking me for a South American. (This isn’t uncommon. Argentina and Uruguay are both mostly white, and apparently with my curls I kind of blend in. But I’m still surprised every time I cop a flood of fast Latino syllables in the street.) In their one concession to their youth, they each wear their backpacks slung over one shoulder in the manner of teenagers around the world. A bit further down the Mormons pass a bright pink hotel, their little white shirts framed against three blocky stories of lurid pink with fuschia edging. I wish to a God of their choice that I hadn’t forgotten my camera.
The day is perfect. It’s a fair walk to the river and coming up on midday but I barely break a sweat with the breeze and clear air. The road is shaded, houses set well apart, everything lovingly overgrown. The whole town seems so tranquil. A strangely familiar smell puzzles me, until my brain decodes a stand of gum trees at the corner, putting a bit of home incongruously back on my sentient map. Later there’s the sharp smell of pines, and even the acerbic tang of burning eucalypt as someone fires up a parrilla, a disorienting olfactory cultural mash. The last stretch of path is through a shaded plantation. It seems hard for it to be any more idyllic, but then get this. A beach. With trees. You come out of the plantation onto a genuine white sand beach, though you’re hundreds of miles from the sea. And dotted throughout it and along its landward fringes are giant plane trees, spreading their branches and plate-sized leaves out over the sand. Patches of sun and of deep shade. The sand glowing white and fine between your toes. Above, the luminous green of the leaves against the sky.
I’ve been looking for a place with a bit of this magic. In Asia I found them quite often, places that (often inexplicably) drew some kind of emotional response. There are places there I still have a deep affection for. This continent has been different. Buenos Aires is intriguing, but not seductive. Peru and Bolivia felt more like I was doing combat with them. There were worthwhile things to see but they had to be prised from a relationship built on tension and hostility. Iguazu was impressive, but the impressive often leaves me a bit cold. Rather than going to some official Site of Interest, there’s something much nicer about watching kids play on a riverbank on a beautiful summer day.
I wish I had a bit more time in Carmelo, I think to myself on the walk back. Approaching the dock, though, it seems curiously quiet. Curiously devoid of any kind of boat. And rather suddenly have a vague recollection, something about … Uruguay being an hour ahead? Ah yes. I won’t change my watch, I remember thinking last night. That will just make things confusing. With my steel-trap recall, this was clearly a sound policy. Now rather than being a sensible 45 minutes early, I am a sensible 15 minutes late. And the boat is the only conveyance in the history of this continent to leave at its appointed hour. It seems I have a bit more time in Carmelo.
The boat guy eases my nerves. Sure, of course they can change my ticket, no problem. Oh, tonight? No, there aren’t any seats tonight. But he can put me on the 5 a.m. boat if that would suit? It’s currently half past one in the afternoon. It seems I have a lot more time in Carmelo. So I do what any sensible person would do. I go back to the beach.
One thing you have to bear in mind when changing South American countries – their civic planners love naming streets after a handful of significant national dates, and every town will have streets named identically. Twenty-third of October Street might sound a bit dumb to you or me, but not over here. But of course the dates change from country to country, and when you’re completely accustomed to seeing 25 de Mayo and 9 de Julio, you get thoroughly thrown to find yourself at the corner of 12 de Febrero and 19 de Abril.
When I come back to the office, my friend has found me a ticket for the night boat after all. I am effusive, and join the mess at border control. Working customs is one of those real bonafide alcoholics that you very occasionally see. You know, a face that looks like it’s been slept in, and a bulbous nose like a soft red fruit, far too big for his head. He seems somehow friendly and endearing,with limp alcoholic curls sagging as much as his face (a premonition of how I might end up, perhaps), and a real happy drunky-drunk look. A borracho, in Spanish. He also looks a bit like the dad out of Round the Twist, which is still more endearing, Has anyone seen the dad from Round the Twist lately? Maybe he now works Uruguayan customs. A friend of mine dates the guy who was the kid who played Nugget on Round the Twist. This is endlessly amusing for me, though probably less so for him. I imagine it’s his version of size 17 feet.
Anyway, Borracho ends up customs-inspecting a guy who’s the archetypal picture of cheesy backpacker trash – a full-blown sombrero, no shirt, souvenir board shorts, and carrying a tiny guitar. Borracho tells Sombrero to play something for him. Sombrero shakes his head. Borracho insists. He is the customs offical, after all, he says. Sombrero started plucking a few dodgy strings. Borracho tells him to play more. Sombrero plays. The other customs folk start clapping along. Borracho tells Sombrero to dance. Sombrero obliges. Borracho laughs his arse off, then tells Sombrero to be on his way. Nary a bag is checked, but everyone has a really good time. I get the feeling Borracho is that kind of guy.
On board, the river reflects another of those strange tricolour skies, and takes on the aspect of metal. The sole immigration guy completes his lonely frenzy behind us, stamping and clacking away like an angry madman in The House of The Million Castanets. The night boat loads up and leaves – twenty minutes late, naturalmente. The towns going by on far distant banks are tiny orange glows sewn into a greater mass of black, and each one is a gift from the river gods sent to guide you home.