Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Down Amongst the Smugglers

Can thinking positively get positive results? Can we wish up an alternative way to get back into Argentina? Why take the obvious and guaranteed when the problematic and covert might be more interesting?

The forager has picked up an on-line scent, the suggestion that there’s a river crossing in Bella Union. We’ve rejected an International Bridge and kept to the addictive Uruguayan roads for a further two days. Yet our Eurocentric commercial logic questions a boat's existence. The first crossing is for 9am, the locals are early risers, so this isn’t a commuter service, it’s not in any guidebook, so isn’t part of the ‘gringo trail’, no obvious gambling den can be spied from our shore line. No apparent reason to be. I’m part convinced that it might turn out to be an ephemeral ghost. A ‘here today gone tomorrow’ apparition. Even in town there’s no evidence, no advertising road signs, no pointers to it’s existence.

It’s only when we find, at the dead end of a pot-holed road, the shed for a plethora of government ministries and a solitary security guard. Without the latter we might still be lost, but a short chat and all becomes clear. The lancha is real, the service does exist.

The boat’s reason d’etre, it’s whole existence relies on one simple commercial fact: ‘Things are cheaper in Argentina’. What I’m expecting are the orientally fabricated luxury goods branded with European names, cartons of cigarettes, cases of whisky, high value items that might excite the exciseman. What we find are the shelf fillers for the mercado and the autoservicio, from boxed wine to Seagram’s whisky, from canned peas to corned beef, from corn oil to toilet rolls.

We’ve served out our wind related sentence of a grounded day in town, rolled up to the concrete ramp, to find a hint of activity. Battered trucks are reversed, backed into the pavement in an anticipation of custom, groups of young men stand chatting and passing round the maté bombilla. A cycling empanada salesman calls his wares and moves through the throng. A small wooden table appears and names are collected in exchange for dues. We’ve completed the ritual of trying to explain which country we hail from. Just check a British passport: there’s four possible countries and twenty six others alluded to on the front cover alone, three languages inside, none of which appear on the migracion officer's computer. Not that this international frontier has any electronic records. Even the date stamper had to be re-inked.

There is an air of imminent anticipation, yet nothing seems to be happening; it’s all Latino tranquilo, the Uruguayan strain. Slowly the officers of officialdom arrive and climb from their motos. The customs man, the immigrations man the prefectura man, the hydrographia man, the ministry of silly works man, men with jobs to do, and a suggestion that something might begin. Nothing does.

There is a ‘lancha’, a glazed-in river boat that looks water worthy, tethered up, but it’s not obvious if this is the intended craft. Maybe we’re waiting for another boat  that starts the day from the other side. First departure time has arrived, still nothing appears to be happening and then, as if an invisible whistle is blown, a crew morphs out of the crowd, the tethered craft is released and punted into place. We get ready, seasoned travelling Euros, ready to enter a scrum, intent on defending our space. Nobody else moves. Different rules apply here. It’s not ‘Retiro’ and the Argentine bus system, no kicked heels, no sharpened elbows, no pushing or shoving. Polite Uruguayan decorum. Names are called and individuals step forward, present their documents to migration and are nodded past the prefectura. Customs is lounging by the rail; he’ll wait till they return. At any departure point, it’s hard to tell who is actually travelling, how busy will the transport be, who is journeying and who are the meeters and greeters. There’s a capacity quota, and we’re bumped to the next sailing. It’s only fair; we’re on holiday and these people are at work. It’s fortuitous as we will get to see the second half of the story.

The lancha soon returns, crabbing across the fast current, the keel considerably deeper in the water than when it left. A few passengers climb from the cabin and it’s now that the real work starts. A chain forms and packages and boxes
start to build on the dockside. Hired hands, like sweating coolies are trotting back and forward. Such an un-Uruguayan activity, such a transformation from moments earlier. Lethargic tranquility to orderly chaos. Each trader has his own stash, a narrow passage divides them and it’s down this aisle that the prefectura has suddenly decided that the next sailing must push. Perhaps his level of caffeinated maté has dropped to critical and he needs to get back to his desk. Lesley British and  Sñ Pebels are called out and we pass down the corridor of officialdom and find ourselves at the top of a flight of wet, possibly slippery steps culminating in the pointed prow and a bobbing gunwale. The potential for a drowned bicycle is high. Somebody grabs the Navigator’s fully loaded bike and it’s spirited on board. She’s still stuffing documents into pockets and disappears from sight. I don’t hear a splash so I guess that she made it on board. These guys have a principle of pride to uphold: ‘if the señora can ride this, then I can lift it’. He’s probably got a hernia now. Now it’s my turn. I’m last and I’m a man, it’s machismo so I get to haul my own bike. The rope is cast even before I get on board, all of a sudden ‘time is money’.
Yet another permutation of coloured uniforms and document collectors await us on the other side. An even smaller ramp and a bigger tangle of ropes to navigate our kit over, whist a new cargo of dry pasta and paper napkins, soap powder and muesli bars are muscled on board; there’s even a case of Argentine liquor, aptly named: ’Viejo Contrabanditeros’, although I don’t see any of the old piratical Carib men that grace the label.  All depart, leaving ourselves and the ’prefectura naval’ as the sole survivors on the dock. We and officialdom go to find a place to be stamped into the country, he to find ink and his franker, then us to the panaderia and a celebratory bag of chipas. A toast to positive wishful thinking, and yet another return to Argentina.