Saturday, 4 January 2014

My Uruguay. Port and Town.

Just as New York is not the USA, and Edinburgh is not Scotland, in spite of the Jock Tammies on the Royal Mile, so Montevideo is not Uruguay. Yet elements in all are emblematic for their respective nations. The working historical museum of grumblng trucks, that have been such a feature of previous visits, are now morphing into eco-friendlier Asiatic lorries. The old buildings, crumbling derelicts, that have survived the 'age of de-struction and re-cementation', are emerging reinvented from their tin shrouds. Renovated to an earlier era's glory. A single neo-classical building, a referee, has split two neo-brutalist towers, a mauled chock prising apart two pugilistic protagonists. Bon motifs like these are scattered liberally throughout the town. Simpler versions throughout the Pampa.

Wander the streets of Ciudadvieja, and glance downhill, to seaward and your horizon is a canyon of containers. The name Maersk and Mol, Evergreen and Hapag Loyd emblazon the walls. I look down Calle Mitre and the green prow of MV Marmartin breaks the skyline. Discharging 'stuff', which is, I'm told, an industry technical term. Walk a block to Carlos Gomes and a box in the livery of Hamburg Sud swings from a crane out from the midships. Carry on wandering until Ituzaingo, and the superstructure and bridge gleam in the low evening light. All one ship. I move back from the frontage to gain height and perspective. Over three city blocks long, these are the leviathans that you never get close to view, nor to set on any scale.

The next day, I'm wandering further, and glance to seaward again. Where before there had been a sliver of open bay, now there was a six story block of flats. Rows of modern windows wedged between the street's old facades. Another Calle, another same view. Construction may be fast, but berthing is quicker. MV Golden Princess, with her cargo of blue-rinsed, white cardigan'd grannies has cruised into port. En route from LA to Rio. En route from dockside to leather emporium, the one that just happens to be the sole retail experience open on this New Year's Day. The gaucho boots are beautiful, so too is the drop tag.

Unusually, this port and this city sit in very close proximity, their boundaries diffused. No torc of industrially blackened brick bonds, or rusting tar embedded rail tracks to isolate or demarcate. A weld mesh fence and a row of expectant Paraguayan articulated lorries are all that separate the two.

The commercial story of city and country is written in this small space. The hides and wool traded through these yards created the wealth that built these city houses. Today it's the carcass that's paying for the restoration.

It's one of my favorite days of the year to wander a city. The world is sleeping off the excesses of the old year. No buses. No taxis. No trucks. No sonic smog. An apocalyptical utopia. The city emasculated, one vital male role removed, like the deprivation of one vital sense. Now add in a sharp morning light, a barrio of diverse architectural delights and you have the ingredients for a very different street-wander. The pavements are still sticky, the smell of yesterday's brew. So the best place to appreciate these buildings is from the middle of the road. Wandering aimlessly, being distracted easily, we gravitate down to the docks.

Viewing through that mesh wire, there's the anonymity of modern sea cargo. Gantry cranes, like hunting herons, lunge and extract a packet from the stack. Reach stackers, like predatory cats, pick up the load, as if it were a mouse kill. Straddle carriers, like giant mantis, haul away their prey, sixty-seven cubic metres of metal box. Robots in a humanless world.

Port and Oldtown might not be Uruguay. But one begat the other. For the ghosts of Hereford cattle still walk these streets.