URUGUAY / ARGENTINA
2015 October: Tuesday
The main problem with my arrival in Montevideo was that I did not arrive in Montevideo. The Iberian Airways plane landed and taxied to a halt and I rose as normal to exit. My hitherto silent neighbour in the next seat gestured to me to sit again and in fractured English told me that we were in Buenos Aires. What!?
It turned out that the pilot’s previous comments over the speaker had been informing the rest of the passengers in Spanish that we had been forced to make an emergency landing. Owing to the fact that we had run out of petrol.
Well, at least the pilot did not order a cash whip round amongst the passengers to refill the tanks – an incident rumoured to have occurred on a Russian plane somewhere in the Stans. I was already raddled by the 12 hour flight from Madrid and it took another three hours before the plane finally arrived at the correct airport.
Once installed in a hotel in Punta Carretas, the southernmost area of the city, I began to take cautious stock of Montevideo. It had a naturally beautiful setting that sprawled luxuriously along the bays of the River Plate coastline. At the western extremity lay the reason for its name – ‘I see (video) a mountain (monte)’ – although at roughly 100 feet tall, the term ‘mountain’ seemed a trifle extravagant. The whole seafront was bounded by a busy double carriageway called ‘the Rambla’ which made vehicle access to any part of the city fairly simple. The downside of this was that any pedestrian visit to the shore line became fraught with danger and car fumes. Also, any natural elegance that the city might have gained from nature was wrecked by the relentless line of high rise blocks of flats facing the sea. A couple of vast 1960s concrete slabs slashed the landscape like a razor.
The interior of the city was on a much more human scale, mostly two or three storey houses with small shops and cafes embedded on the street corners. A not so welcoming sign was the ultra-defensive appearance of these buildings; every possible aperture was covered by bars or grilles, every patch of garden guarded by high railings. It seemed a Montevidean’s home truly was his castle. Outside, along the streets, almost every available wall was covered in scrawled graffiti – seemingly a snarl of protest from the gutters.
During the first day’s walk, despite this initial negativity, I did come across two wonderful sights that immediately cheered my mood. The first was the Uruguayan flag, an emblem that had not registered with me before. It showed a brilliant beaming sun balanced above wavy blue and white stripes representing the River Plate. Surely Uruguay must be the first country to put a ‘Smiley Face’ emoji on its national flag? If so, bless ‘em.
Entering the very modern Punta Carretas shopping mall, I spotted the second reason to be cheerful. Above the shop window array of chic and haughty mannequins a high fashion boutique displayed its name. It was called simply and uncompromisingly: ‘TITS’.
The suburb of Punta Carretas itself had recently undergone a huge shift in its fortunes. Following the decision to close down the main prison that had formerly dominated the area and the conversion of said prison into an expensive Mall, the surrounding district had been transformed from a place of disrepute into very desirable property indeed. It was now one of the priciest suburbs of Montevideo.
However, the speed of the change had left some odd historical debris in its wake. The McDonalds’ Restaurant where I stopped for ‘lunch’ had previously been part of the jail. Even odder was the possibility that it had housed the cell where the most recent President of Uruguay had been imprisoned for over a decade. ‘Pepe’ Mujica had only left office seven months previously in March 2015. He turned out to be one of the most interesting of politicians.
Having started his career as a left-wing ‘Tupamaros’ urban guerrilla of the 1970s, he had been captured and incarcerated by the military dictatorship. From here, Pepe and his companions appear to have pulled off a series of tunnelling escapes that made the WWII efforts of Steve McQueen and Dickie Attenborough look amateurish. Tunnels started in the prison ended up in nearby houses, while friends on the outside tunnelled into the prison to provide escape routes on a regular basis. In Pepe’s case each escape was swiftly followed by recapture. To prevent further excursions, he was confined underneath an up-turned horse-watering trough for two years.
After thirteen years he was eventually released and turned to more conventional politics. When finally he was elected to office in 2010 he became known as the world’s ‘humblest’ president. He insisted on retaining his simple life style and donating 90% of his salary to charities benefiting the poor. He also legalised the sale of marijuana in Uruguay.
It is possibly in the nature of the corporate mind to obliterate anything that might distract their customers from the pursuit of purchase, but it seemed a bit strange that there was no acknowledgement whatever of these events. Where there might have been a plaque or (at least) explanation there was just an advertisement for Big Whopper Cheeseburgers.
2015 October: Wednesday
By the afternoon I made contact by telephone with the only person in South America with whom I had had previous dealings. Having spent a boozy afternoon in London discussing the tour a few months previously, I quickly realised that Jonathan was the best possible person to have on your side in such a venture. An Englishman with dual residency in Kent and Uruguay, he seemed to be on close personal terms with most of the population of the River Plate. A man of quick enthusiasms, especially for darts and croquet, he seemed to override problems with a disarmingly boyish grin. As W.B. Yeats once said of Oscar Wilde: ‘I think he would be a good man to lead a cavalry charge’. I liked him enormously.
However, our first contact was more concerned with practicalities than theatre. I asked him if he could bring various necessities as my Spanish was not up to the task of buying anything complicated (or simple either).
“I need a travel kettle. And powdered milk. And cheap socks.”
It sounded slightly like those last desperate messages from doomed Victorian explorers. Whereas most races telegraphed final messages that were exhortations to God or national glory or loved ones, the English telegraphed messages like: “For God’s Sake, send fish paste!”
Ten minutes later I received a call from Jonathan’s wife Beatrice to tell me that socks here were quite expensive. I told them to abandon the quest:
“No socks, please, we’re British.”
Quite apart from the aid he provided in practical terms, Jonathan was also ideal when it came to understanding Uruguay’s story. During a two hour taxi ride I was given a thorough grounding in its history through the technique of visiting five statues.
The first one was in Prado Park in the north side of Montevideo. The suburb of Prado had once been the smartest area in the city but its lovely early 20th century mansions now showed definite signs of decline. The park, though, remained well tended and pretty.
Jonathan stopped the taxi beside what he called the first heroes of the country. This modern statue represented the original inhabitants – the Charrua Indians. The Charrua were a small tribe who had been driven south from Paraguay by more warlike rivals. Jonathan said that in some ways they resembled early hippies – a hunter gatherer group who lived peaceably and only worked when necessary. He added that something of this philosophy still pervaded Uruguay. If they felt like it, the people were quite prepared to abandon work and head off to the beaches.
The statue itself consisted of a family of five figures. When the Charrua tribe was wiped out by incoming settlers, this last remaining quintet were transported to Paris for scientific examination. When this had been completed, the family were sold off to a travelling circus and died in captivity.
The second statue was situated down by the ferry terminal on the edge of the ubiquitous Rambla. This man was Hernandarius, a Spanish governor who in 1603 was based in Asuncion in Paraguay. Unusually the River Plate area was not settled from the sea, but by the expansion of the Spanish conquistadors from their western empire in Peru. Hernandarius was the first man to realise the potential of the area and released cattle into the pampas grassland. They thrived and slowly settlers arrived to take advantage – the Portuguese at the upriver town of Colonia around 1670 and later the Spanish in Montevideo.
The third figure was represented not by a statue but by a chapel in an Old Town side street. He was Francisco Maciel, a successful trader and philanthropist who lived through the late 18th century, a time of much colonial squabbling between the Portuguese, the Spanish, and inevitably the British. Maciel dedicated much of his money to building hospitals and other charitable institutions and became known as the ‘Father of the Poor’. However in 1807 the British attacked Montevideo and Maciel was killed in the fighting. This chapel was named after him and a cannonball remains embedded in its front façade in mute reproach.
Despite the British victory in the battle, their occupation only lasted eight months as events back in Europe had changed the game. When Napoleon invaded Spain the Spanish rapidly realigned themselves as allies of Britain and in a gesture of goodwill the British withdrew from Montevideo. As we drove off, Jonathan said that a Uruguayan friend had once observed: ‘You bastards – you should have stayed. This country could have been like New Zealand if you had.’
If the memorials to Jonathan’s first three heroes had been fairly restrained, there was nothing low-key about the fourth. The equestrian statue of General Jose Artigas towered over the main Plaza Independencia in the city centre while beneath it his underground mausoleum was the size of a football pitch and the eternal flame over his grave was guarded by two rigidly upright soldiers on permanent sentry duty.
Artigas seems to have earned his position as the undisputed national hero though. After a wild gaucho youth mostly engaged in stealing horses, firstly he was involved in the ejection of the British from Buenos Aires. He then led a successful rebellion against Spain in 1811 and established an independent state. His republicanism constituted a threat to the Portuguese monarchy then in exile in Brazil and they invaded Artigas’s fledgling territory in 1816.
After four years of war he was defeated and forced to flee to Paraguay. Although Artigas played no further part in Uruguayan affairs, his spirit had inspired his countrymen to again declare independence. After the relatively short Cisplatine War, peace was declared in 1828 and with Britain acting as broker Uruguay was born as an independent country and a useful buffer between Spanish Argentina and Portuguese Brazil. Artigas died in Paraguay in 1850 and his remains returned to the country he largely had created.
If Artigas had been an obvious choice of hero, Jonathan’s fifth and last choice was anything but obvious. We pulled over to the side of the Rambla at a spot that overlooked the sea and Jonathan gestured to a small weather-beaten bust on a plinth. The inscription read: ‘Sir Eugen Millington-Drake KC MC 1889-1972. Embajado Britanico. Leal Amigo del Uruguay.’ This was genuinely strange – why on earth should Uruguay wish to erect a statue to a foreign ambassador – even if he had been ‘a loyal friend’?
We stood in the gathering dusk and Jonathan explained. In 1939 Millington-Drake was the British Ambassador to Uruguay and a popular if slightly eccentric figure. A man of conspicuous good looks, he had been a champion oarsman at Oxford and was an expert boxer who was willing to take on all challengers. This greatly increased his standing in the macho world of the River Plate. His devotion to fitness led him to issue the not entirely welcome order to his Embassy staff to attend physical training sessions on the Embassy roof at 7am each morning. He also translated Kipling’s ‘If’ into Spanish and insisted on reciting it aloud to his guests at official dinners. His wife, Lady Effie, was an heiress who never travelled anywhere without her thirty trunks of dresses made by Worth of Paris.
Suddenly outside events spilled over into this slightly Wodehousian world. At the start of World War Two, the German Navy unleashed its greatly feared pocket battleships on enemy merchant vessels. One of the most powerful was the Admiral Graf Spee commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff. For several months this battleship roamed the southern oceans seeking and sinking every merchant ship it could find. Langsdorff was not a brutal man though, and was known to rescue the crews of his targets.
In December 1939, a British navy force of three cruisers found the Graf Spee just off the mouth of the River Plate and in the ensuing battle both sides suffered considerable damage. Langsdorff decided that his best option was to retire to the harbour of Montevideo for repairs to his ship. Jonathan added that in so doing he made a bad mistake as Uruguay, although neutral, had British sympathies, whereas if he had continued upstream to Buenos Aires, he would have found a warmer welcome from the pro-Axis Argentines.
It was at this moment that Millington-Drake entered the story. He commenced a campaign of labyrinthine diplomatic ploys that utterly bamboozled the honourable but straightforward Langsdorff. Under international law, a warship could not leave port if an enemy merchant ship had left port in the preceding 24 hours. Therefore, Millington-Drake kept sending off what purported to be British freighters whenever the Graf Spee looked like departing. He also sent a series of communications via channels that he knew to have been cracked by German spies. After a few days of such messages, Langsdorff became convinced that a veritable armada of Royal Navy ships were anchored outside the harbour. In fact, only one extra ship had arrived.
Langsdorff, despairing of escape, decided to scuttle his vessel to prevent the British from examining its new equipment. Most of the population of Montevideo came out to watch the battleship limp out into the estuary. Langsdorff evacuated his crew and then blew the ship to bits. Millington-Drake watched the demise by telescope from the city. The British Navy had wounded the Graf Spee but it was he who had finished it off.
This dramatic story was turned into a film by the British directors Powell and Pressburger in 1956, with Langsdorff being played very sympathetically by Peter Finch. Surprisingly what they did not portray was the even more dramatic finale. Langsdorff took his crew to Buenos Aires and established that they would be interned in relative comfort. He then retired to an office, spread out the battle ensign of the Graf Spee on the floor, lay down on it and blew out his brains. He was buried in Buenos Aires.
Jonathan said that this incident had achieved such prominence because, with the Phoney War prevailing, December 1939 was a dull month for the world’s and especially America’s press. It had become an important part of the Uruguayan psyche as it was the only time in history that the eyes of the world had been focused on Montevideo.