2015 November: Tuesday
Jonathan arrived in the late morning. Having given me his Five Heroes of Montevideo tour, he now took me on a Two Heroes of Punta del Estes tour. We drove back into town passing some magnificent mansions on the way. Jonathan said that the English footballer David Beckham and the Columbian singer Shakira had both bought houses in the area.
He pointed out one hideous eyesore that looked like a concrete bunker designed by Albert Speer. I discovered that this allusion was not far wide of the mark as it had been the summer holiday home of the Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner.
Stroessner was one of South America’s least endearing dictators and is chiefly remembered for his enthusiastic use of murder and torture. He especially enjoyed recording the screams of his victims and then playing the tapes back to their family members. One political opponent was dismembered alive with a chainsaw while Stroessner listened on the telephone. Occasionally he displayed his softer side as when he granted asylum to the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. He was only ousted from power in 1989 and died in 2006 at the ripe old age of 93.
As we drove back on to the Punta peninsula we passed an art installation known as ‘the Hand of God’. It was a sculpture of five giant fingers emerging from the beach and marked the exact point where the River Plate met the South Atlantic. It was intended as a warning to swimmers that they were leaving the relatively benign waters of the river estuary and about to meet the full oceanic swell. Jonathan suggested that on the far side of the peninsula there should be another sculpture of five giant toes called ‘the Foot of God’.
In 1895 Punta del Estes did not exist; it was just a bare shoreline of sand dunes and a couple of rocky headlands. But the next year saw the arrival of the man who changed all that utterly. He was of Croatian ancestry and he was Jonathan’s main ‘Hero of Punta’. Antonio Lussich was a rich man who had made his money from salvaging wrecks off the notoriously dangerous Uruguayan coastline. On his first visit to the future Punta he spotted its potential and bought four and a half thousand acres of the district. On his wife’s suggestion, he imported trees, mostly eucalyptus and pines, to create a windbreak and also a botanical garden and bird sanctuary. The plantation succeeded beyond his dreams and the whole area for miles around became densely wooded.
We stopped outside his house (now a museum of timber) and walked through the arboretum to the top of the hill behind. It had a magnificent view amidst the trees to the beach and sea below. It was here that Lussich settled to live out his life and raise his family of eight daughters and finally a longed-for and beloved son. In a sad coda to the story, this son was killed in a plane crash – a blow from which Lussich never recovered until his own death in 1928.
The tour continued down to the Punta Ballena or Whale Point. This was a flat promontory that jutted out into the bay and was regarded as the best place to view sunsets and mating whales. Today it was deserted except for a lone trader hawking fridge magnets, and a mobile hamburger stall.
The latter was manned by a charming husband and wife team called Wilson and Angelica. As we had been their only customers all morning they entertained us by bringing out the family photograph album. In one shot Wilson was shown displaying an enormous fish that he had caught in the bay, while Angelica proudly showed us photos of her daughter, an actress currently performing in Italy.
She also helped me out with a problem that had arisen overnight. I had woken up with a mouth ulcer and whenever pressure was applied to it by the small denture above, it hurt like hell. Eating had become an endurance test. Abandoning her set menu of hamburgers and hot dogs, Angelica knocked up a soft omelette that I was just able to swallow without too much wincing.
Returning for about 500 yards along the promontory, Jonathan turned off on a side road towards the most extraordinary structure I’d seen in Uruguay. It was a straggling building built onto the side of the cliff and looked like the weird Welsh village of Portmeirion as re-designed by Gaudi. It was called the Casapueblo and was the creation of the second ‘Hero of Punta’, a sculptor, painter, muralist, and all round artistic good egg called Carlos Paez Vilaro.
Originally, Vilaro had owned a simple wooden shed here in which he stored his work materials. Gradually it became his home, then became suitable for guests, finally it became a hotel. Without any formal plans he had simply added another room whenever he had an extra visitor. He had constructed it out of whitewashed stucco and cement and with no straight lines in its design, until it stretched over thirteen floors from the base to the top of the cliff. Today it had grown into an entire complex – hotel, restaurant, galleries and museum – but it had remained a work of living sculpture, albeit one that one could house a multitude of tourists. Vilaro had lived there until he died aged 90 in 2014.
It also provided a link with another epic story of Uruguayan life that had reached the world press. Paez Vilaro’s son Carlos had been one of the 45 passengers on an airliner that crashed in the Andes in 1972. This incident became the basis for the 1993 feature film ‘Alive’ starring Ethan Hawke. For 71 days, the 16 survivors of the crash endured the cold and hunger by ingenuity and cannibalism until three of them managed to trek out to reach aid in Chile. Paez Vilaro had spent weeks desperately searching for Carlos and was rewarded by the news of his rescue. The Casapueblo featured a tribute from the father to the son. It had turned out a lot better for them than for poor old Lussich.
The venue for tonight’s performance was about as different to the previous open air pampas gig as it was possible to get. The Nogaro Theatre was a fully equipped 300-seater auditorium set in a large casino complex. We entered through a sizeable cavern lined with brightly twinkling fruit machines. Five muscular security men stood with folded arms watching the sole punter – a middle-aged woman who sat transfixed by the spinning lemons on the screen before her. Jonathan said that the Casino was forced by law to provide some sort of arts programme in order to keep its licence – hence my appearance.
As far as the show was concerned, the theatre itself bordered on the luxurious. The lighting was superb, the stage spacious, the technicians skilled, and there was even a lapel microphone on offer. It was a temptation I fell for. Despite its potential for embarrassment, the mike meant that I could relax my voice. The room had sound-absorbent walls and also I had no idea about the size of the audience, so there was a good excuse.
About 45 minutes prior to the advertised start, a trio entered and Jonathan hastened to introduce them. The first was a spry military-looking gentleman named Andrew, who turned out to be the Honorary British Consul for Punta del Estes. He gave me a lengthy speech of welcome and a hearty handshake. The second was Florencia, who was the Concejal Titular, and who had very decently spent the day advertising the show via radio and TV interviews. The third was a spectacular blonde called Mariana, who lacked a title but possessed the looks that rendered one unnecessary. Then slowly the rest of the audience began to troop in.
After a short introduction by Jonathan, I launched into what was the smoothest of the four shows on the River Plate. Although it took time to warm up, the audience was responsive and by the end enthusiastic. The only problem was my mouth ulcer, the pain from which had become a problem even when only talking. The delivery of a Wildean quip was not improved by a grimace of anguish during it. Still, as usual Dr Theatre kept me afloat to the end.
As I took the bow, Andrew, Florencia, Mariana, and Jonathan joined me on stage. Andrew gave a lengthy speech of thanks and presented me with a book about Punta. As I came off stage into the auditorium I was surrounded by well-wishers and the compliments rained down. It was all very gratifying and when Jonathan delivered me back to the Swiss chalet I was high on a bubble of self-regard. I waved farewell to him and Beatrice as they drove off into the night. They had done me proud.
2015 November: Thursday
Two days later, having returned to Montevideo, my spirits rose even higher with the news that I had received an invitation to take morning coffee with the British Ambassador. This was unprecedented. Over thirty odd years, I had been given aid by the authorities of France and Ireland, Bahrain and Belize, but I had never received any official recognition whatsoever from my own country. At last – the moment had arrived. A cup of coffee!
I arrived promptly at 10am at the British Residency on Calle Jorge Canning. It seemed inevitable that the UK representative should live on a street named after an obscure 19th century British Prime Minister. It was a reminder of the time when Uruguay was a constituent of that extensive but unacknowledged organisation – the British Unofficial Empire.
The gate was unlocked by a friendly guard who led me to the steps of the mansion. A butler opened the front door, smiled and bowed, then ushered me to the main office. The Ambassador rose from his desk, crossed over and shook hands. He was a tall imposing man, aged about 50 with a rugby-player’s build – in fact it turned out that he had been a rower in his youth and had competed at Henley Regatta. He had a distinct gravitas but an attractively easy manner. One felt him to be a man well capable of dealing with crises – and a worthy successor to Millington-Drake.
Passing through the spectacular Regency hallway, we reached a large square room decked out with chandeliers, Chippendale furniture, and 18th century pastoral English prints, then sat down on the elegant silk-covered sofas. The butler arrived with a large pot of coffee and a plate of rock cakes, bowed again, then withdrew.
As he poured the coffee, the Ambassador began to describe his work. He said that in many ways his job also involved acting. Although he tried to remain outside the role while with his friends, when necessity demanded he had to assume the mantle of Her Majesty’s envoy and act appropriately. “All the world’s a stage.” He’d found that some of his ambassadorial colleagues found it difficult to drop the role after a time.
He told me an interesting story about the perils of political life during the Falklands War. While Uruguay had strong historic links of friendship with Britain, it was very dependent on Argentine investment and had to tread a wary path. One day the Uruguayan President came to Montevideo Airport to greet the arrival of the Argentine leader General Galtieri on a goodwill mission. Galtieri walked down the steps of his aircraft, then along the red carpet to shake hands with the President. The latter reciprocated, then to his horror noticed that over Galtieri’s shoulder was the unmistakable sight of a shell-damaged British Harrier jet landing on the runway for repairs. Adopting a rictus grin, the President led the party firmly in the opposite direction in the vain hope that the Argentinian delegation might not glance back and notice. The ploy failed and the rest of the ‘goodwill mission’ was carried out in tight-lipped silence.
I was thoroughly enjoying our conversation when, in an incautious moment, I picked up a rock cake and sank my teeth into it. A spear of pain seared through my gum. I’d forgotten the ulcer. I was stuck – a mouth filled with rock cake but a total inability to swallow it without agony. The Ambassador continued chatting while I could only stare dumbly and nod. This was embarrassment to the maximum. This one occasion of social glory had turned into a ridiculous etiquette predicament. What do you do with a mouthful of bloody rock cake?
There was only one thing for it – I had to spit it out. But quite apart from the indelicacy of the actual removal, it might also be assumed that I was delivering a blatant insult to the embassy cook. I had to be subtle.
As the Ambassador leaned forward to pour more coffee I seized the opportunity to place my palm over my mouth, affect a hollow cough, and retch the lump of soggy goo into my hand. It was then a simple job to slip it inside my jacket pocket. It was impossible to tell whether he’d spotted the manoeuvre or not as he maintained a diplomatic silence throughout. But then I suppose that’s the nature of the job?
We ended the talk after an hour, posed in the hallway as the butler took photographs in commemoration of the meeting, then walked outside to the gate. As we shook hands, the Ambassador told me that his last official visitors at the Residency had been the pop group One Direction.
2015 November: Friday
The trip to the River Plate ended as it had begun. Two hours after the scheduled departure time, we were still stuck on the runway waiting for Iberian Airlines to get its act together. Whereas on arrival they had run out of petrol, on departure – due to leakage – they didn’t have enough petrol to take off.
Next week on November 6 – On to Canada