On Friday John and I decided to go for a weekend trip to Montevideo, the capital city of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. Montevideo is only a three-hour boat trip from Bueños Aires so it seemed like a good thing to do while we’re here.
So, bright and early, we boarded the Francisco, a comfortable catamaran destined to ferry us across the River Plate. Strangely, there was no access to the outer decks and windows were all blacked out so it was very difficult to see the river. Instead, our gaze was drawn to television screens advertising a newly opened Trump tower at Punta del Este and some kind of New Age retreat starring an earnest big-eyebrowed woman named Isha.
Disembarking, we were fed into a waiting taxi line, only to realize (1) that we hadn’t brought any Uruguayan pesos and (2) there were no ATMs in sight. Luckily, the first driver we spoke to accepted Argentine pesos and we were soon tooling our way through town to our hotel.
It was an overcast day, not cold but grey and gloomy—the kind of weather guaranteed to take the sparkle out of any vista. Even allowing for this, though, the prospect was pretty dreary. The street near the port was lined with closed-up, abandoned and decrepit buildings, covered in graffiti and not good graffiti either. Of course, ports are rarely in posh neighborhoods but as we travelled towards the city centre, there was little change. The eye was drawn to blemishes: cracked paving stones, piles of dog- and human-do on the sidewalk, some skinny grilling chops over coals in the gutter outside what looked like a prostitution point, judging by the drunken pair a couple of metres downhill (and by the blonde creature who propositioned John later on in the same spot).
Arrived at the hotel, we checked in and found everything as it should be. It was around this time, however, that John felt the first twinge of his molar. This little mischief-maker had given him bad trouble a couple of weeks back, but a round of antibiotics had seemed to clear it up. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but in my experience teeth often like to air their grievances at the least convenient times. Easter and Christmas are great favorites, as are four-day weekends. John once had a particularly bad problem around Christmas in New Zealand, when almost all dentists have a 10-day break. And now this molar had decided to speak up just when we’d arrived in a new town on the weekend. But the twinge subsided and he thought he might have been imagining it anyway, so we set out to see the sights.
It was a short trip. In the few blocks around the hotel, including the big street called Avenida 18 de Julio, almost everything was closed. Burger King was not, so we went in there. As we sat sipping coffee we watched some excitement across the street at the big Rio Santander bank: four armed policemen were guarding the door, scanning the block, index fingers caressing triggers as if actively willing some lunatic to rush them. Because there was an armored vehicle outside, I presume they were transferring funds out of the bank. A line of about twenty weary Uruguayans waited patiently for the bank to be open for business again.
After finishing a ‘medialuna’ (croissant) and café con leche, we strolled a bit further along the street and saw a big poster above a cinema showing four figures, only one of which we recognized–Alfred Hitchcock. Further on was a large statue dedicated ‘to the Gaucho’. The legendary gaucho is a figure particularly important to Uruguayans and Argentines. In days of yore they were nomadic horsemen and outlaws admired for their courage and trickiness. Gabriel Uriarte recently gave us a copy of Argentina’s great epic poem “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” by José Hernández. We weren’t quite sure why the gaucho statue held a three-pronged stick–maybe we’ll find out on reading the poem.
As we pondered the pointy-stick mystery, John said his tooth was really hurting now and that he’d like to head back to the hotel immediately. Off we went, with a quick trip to a pharmacy for some anti-inflammatories. And it was back at the hotel room where poor John spent most of the weekend. He would not go to an emergency dentist, but resolved to wait until Monday, when he’d see a proper dentist. The reason for his hesitancy was not fear but prudence; in the aforementioned 10-day holiday in New Zealand, a novice dentist had given him a botched root canal that had come back to haunt him for years.
Leaving him in bed and agony, I callously set out again, determined to see something. Here are some of the items of interest:
On Sunday, when I wasn’t gadding about, I researched viable dentists. Finally, I settled on one on Bulevard España, which judging from the ad seemed to be one of those vast, gleaming medical complexes. There was a clean-cut young woman in scrubs on the website, and dental tools gleaming with antiseptic sparkle. Even better, it opened early, at eight.
The next morning, I dragged a pain-harrowed husband out of bed and into a taxi, looking forward to having everything fixed up in a jiffy. When the taxi dropped us off at the correct address, I sought the medical palace of my mind’s eye. Instead, there was just a poxy apartment building. A relatively respectable poxy apartment building, but certainly not a hospital-type building. We hovered outside the building, double checking the address, when a world-weary doorman came out to meet us.
Despite his suffering, John spoke suave Spanish and the man nodded yes, there were dentists here. Which one did he want to see? Dr. Russo? Said the doorman helpfully.
John and I exchanged a glance. On the one hand, this was weird, but on the other hand what we really needed was a dentist. We indicated that Dr. Russo would do. The doorman assured us that Dr. Russo was very good, very experienced, so we got into the lift and let him guide us up to the eighth floor. He got out and, with the gestures of an impresario, rang the dentist’s door. He spoke to someone for a moment and then gestured that we should go in.
As we stepped through the door, we met a character in scrubs who was unshaven and spoke very softly and slowly, as if in a dream. John explained what he needed in Spanish and the man gazed at him as if he were a magnificent sunset. John thought this meant he’d failed to get the message across.
“No, no, I understood,” the man said very slowly. “Very good. Wait here.”
“Shall we go away now?” I whispered.
John shook his head, resigned.
The waiting room was very dark. There was no electric light. Cardboard boxes stood piled up in the corner. A door slightly ajar revealed a cupboard-sized room that seemed to be an untidy repository of instruments. I picked up an issue of Hola and quickly put it down again out of nerves. The surgery door opened, letting in a bit of natural light and a middle-aged man emerged. A patient. He seemed calm. I hadn’t heard any screaming. The dentist beckoned John in and to sit down on the chair.
I had a bad feeling. I stood up and went in but it was a pretty small surgery so retreated and sat on a chair by the door, peering in.
The dentist interrogated John in that quiet, dreamy voice, and John explained the issue. I noticed that there were instruments on the table by the chair that didn’t look terribly clean. There wasn’t any assistant, and the dentist wasn’t wearing gloves or a mask. But what do you know, you’re not a dentist!
He inspected the area and said there wasn’t anything he could do because it wasn’t the tooth that was the problem—the infection was in the soft tissue. I heard him say “Bueños Aires” and guessed he was telling John to get it taken care of there. I felt greatly relieved and was already picking up my bag when I heard a drilling sound and froze in my tracks.
Quite suddenly, without any preliminaries, the dentist had decided to do pick up his electric saw and file away part of the molar. This was surprising, because he’d just spent three minutes saying that it wasn’t the uneven bite that was causing the pain.
John, as usual in a medical office, gave no outward sign of discomfort. However I noticed that his face had gone ashen. Sure enough, once we were safely away from the building, he informed me that it had hurt quite a bit having a tooth filed without any analgesic and that moreover he didn’t have a very high opinion of the “top-notch dentist” I’d sourced. There were some other heated words on the subject in the taxi back to the hotel.
The rest of the visit was pretty much an eager looking-forward to getting on the Fransisco and returning to dear, sweet, beloved, Bueños Aires.
I would like to end this account by drawing attention to the fate of the Charrúa, the indigenous people of Uruguay. They were seasonal nomads, used to shifting according to the weather or availability of food. When Europeans settled in the area, they lost their cattle and suffered from famine and persecution. In 1831, Bernabé Rivera organized a campaign known as La Campaña de Salsipuedes (the Get-Out-If-You-Can campaign) culminating in a massacre on April 11 1831 that led to the official extinction of the Charrúa. Four survivors were sent off to Paris and exhibited to the public. The display was not particularly successful and they all died in France. No reason. Just thought I’d mention it.