House-hunting in Montevideo

We have decided to buy some property in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. For weeks we have been scouring the internet for likely-looking properties, and by the time we boarded a plane, we had already booked a full agenda of houses to look at. For the first week of our trip, we stayed in and around the old town, mainly the barrios Ciudad Vieja, Centro and Barrio Sur, while taking a little time out every morning to study Spanish at the excellent a Academia Uruguay.

Montevideo traffic

There is a fascinating array of vehicles in town, a little reminiscent of Cuba. There are tax complications with importing foreign vehicles, so there aren’t that many of them around and those that are, tend to be kept running long after you would think that they should have fallen apart. There are rusty old fifties Chevrolets held together with string, rubbing shoulders with seventies Fords that are mainly patchwork and spray-on undercoat.

Wreck or runabout?
Wreck or runabout?

Large cars are rare. Taxis are usually very very small indeed; picture a Fiat Uno taxi, or a VW Polo. They are made even more cramped inside by the installation of an enormous safety barrier behind the front seats, so that there is barely room for passengers to squeeze inside, particularly for Bronwyn and I who seem to be a head taller than anybody else.

Stretch limo
Stretch limo

Mixing in with the cars, buses and motorcycles are a lot of horse-drawn carts. These are all owned by a group of gypsies encamped on the outskirts of town, who have the council contract to clear all the rubbish. Each family seems to specialise in a certain product, so you’ll find a cart parked up next to a skip while the gypsies rummage around for prize pieces. Cardboard and plastic seem particularly popular. When we asked the locals about this, they all shrugged and said “it’s a tradition, and the council can’t change it”.

Any old bags?
Any old bags?

Everybody describes parking as a big problem, but with few vehicles on the roads and what seemed to be a plethora of pay parking sites, it was hard to see what the fuss was about. A parking space underneath your building can often be purchased outright for a few hundred dollars. We would be much more inclined to buy a motorcycle in any case. In marked contrast to the ratty and unpredictable cars, all the motorcycles are new, clean and shiny, and we soon realised that this was because they are locally made; Yumba and Winner seem to be the two most common marques.

Bronwyn shops for motorcycles
Bronwyn shops for motorcycles

Ciudad Vieja

The old town has been in decline dating back to the political problems in the eighties and compounded by the fallout from the collapse of the Argentinian peso. Apart from those buildings occupied by a few prestigious banks and lawyers, most of the fine old colonial buildings are falling into disrepair. The locals describe the streets there at night as ‘dangerous’, although we didn’t think that there was anything particularly alarming about them, certainly no more than in any other civilised city centre.

Montevideo police on patrol
Friendly Montevideo police on patrol

The one part of Ciudad Vieja that is still alive and well is the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), an entire building given over to the cooking and eating of enormous pieces of meat. They are crazy about meat here. Seared on the outside, soft and tender in the middle, and cooked over a wood fire. You can tell when it’s dinner time, because the town is filled with the sweet scent of wood smoke as all the parrillas light up. To go with it, the Uruguayans have come up with their own wine varietal, known as Tannat, which is somewhat related to a good black Tuscan Chianti. I have decided that this is probably my favourite red wine in the whole world.

Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto
Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto
Parilla Chef
Parilla Chef

Over the last few years, speculators and architects have been slowly moving in to the old town, and one or two of the more spectacular buildings, such as the landmark Palacio Salvo, have been renovated.

Palacio Salvo
Palacio Salvo

Much of the rest of these barrios are still derelict.

Neglected buildings near the docks
Neglected buildings near the docks

Although there didn’t seem to be anything actually for sale in Ciudad Vieja itself, we did look looked at a number of quite stunning buildings in neighbouring barrios, structurally sound and packed with beautiful woodwork, mouldings, stained glass, enormous ceilings, fine wood tiled floors and marbled staircases, all overlain by a fairly thick veneer of dirt and neglect.


Priced at $60-70,000 (US), any of them would make a great restoration project and a fine residence. If your plan was to re-sell for a profit, though, you would probably need to sit on it for another five or ten or twenty years until the neighbourhood recovers. This is not our plan, as we’re looking for somewhere which ultimately would be our home. The Ciudad Vieja neighbourhood itself contains very little in the way of shops and cafes, but if we did end up living there, then it is an easy walk to neighbouring Centro for supplies.

Centro and Barrio Sur

While Ciudad Vieja has been effectively abandoned, the almost equally old barrio known as Centro is thriving. Here you find the hotels and the shoe shops and the restaurants that you would expect to find in a capital city. The neighbouring Barrio Sur is similar but more residential.

One of Montevideo's few genuinely ugly buildings, which borders the central square. Artegas on his horse quite sensibly looks the other way.
One of Montevideo’s few genuinely ugly buildings, which borders the central square. Artegas on his horse quite sensibly looks the other way.

Where they are being used for commercial purposes, many of the old colonial buildings are in good repair, although the residential buildings are more patchy. In fact, in recent years the architects have been moving in in force, and quite a few of the streets are largely colonial facade, with new building work going on behind.

We visited a couple of similar sites close by in Parque Rodo, and were very impressed by the attention to detail. Behind the preserved facade, the builders had carefully stripped out all the nice pieces of stone, tile, glass and woodwork from the condemned buildings, for incorporation into the new structure. No tower cranes or power tools here; these craftsmen build everything by hand. Certainly the architects are proud of their work and, when they are finished, usually mount a signature plaque or carving on the outside wall by the entrance.

Men at work
Men at work

Here as in Ciudad Vieja there are a fair few homeless people and street urchins. Some earn tips by signalling drivers in and out of tight parking spaces, and occasionally one might come up to you and beg if you hang around in one place for long, but even so they are as friendly and polite as everybody else in Montevideo. It is rare to see beggars pestering customers of terrace cafes, for instance, and the locals seem to view them with kindness. More than once we noticed that somebody might hand out a few coins to a beggar “because he has a nice smile”.

We did hear the occasional hearsay tale of robbers on crack cocaine, but we never saw any evidence of it ourselves. The only drugs on the street seem to be cigarettes, mainly smoked by women, and of course the ubiquitous mate.

Eating and Drinking

An inseparable part of Montevideo urban life, mate is a kind of tea made from an infusion of green herbs. It is drunk from a special cup with a special metal straw, and about half of the Montevideans that we have seen, from the oldest businessman on his way to work, to the sweetheart couple strolling La Rambla, to the fisherman on the pier, to the young girl sitting on the street doorstep, all carry a cup of mate and a thermos flask of hot water to top it up with. Mate is a social experience, meant to be shared around the group.

We’ve been staying at a few hotels in a few different areas, just to get a feel for the different areas, but by far our favourite is the London Palace. One of its trademarks is its breakfast buffet, a fantastic array of small nibbles, mainly constructed from the same basic ingredients of sweet pastry, ham, and cheese, but all different in taste and texture. In addition there are breads and fruits, baked apple, rice pudding, and of course the national indulgence dulce de leche, which is a thick brown cream made by partially burning sugar with milk. It is indeed a glorious confection, and is taken in cakes, ice creams, biscuits, on toast, or just out of a bowl with a spoon.

Breakfast at the London Palace Hotel
Breakfast at the London Palace Hotel
The dark brown stuff is dulce de leche
The dark brown stuff is dulce de leche

In between looking at properties, we did of course take time out to walk La Rambla, the walkway that runs all the way along the Montevideo seafront.

La Rambla
La Rambla

We also dined out in a number of fine parilladas and other restaurants, and snacked in fast-food joints which all sell enormous bottles of local beer and the delicacy known as chevito. This is a huge stack of chips, vegetables, fried eggs, bacon, olives and anything else that the chef can think of, stacked on, under and around a large steak. Fantastic!


And in between bouts of gluttony, we continued to look for houses.

Building in Montevideo

So we’re back from house-hunting in Montevideo, after an interesting flight back to Australia on the always entertaining Aerolineas Argentinas. I always think it’s nice when an airline’s computer system doesn’t recognise one’s visa, and when an aircraft’s electrical systems kick in and out without warning in flight; it gives the journey that extra frisson of excitement.

Before leaving, we did indeed decide on a property. We chose a renovation project in Parque Rodo, sort of a penthouse with rooftop terrace made from the remnants of an old colonial house. The details are now in the hands of the lawyers. Mind you, we haven’t heard anything from them for a while… but hey, that’s Montevideo. Its so very, very relaxed, which is probably why we enjoy it so much.

The architect has sent us some pictures from our Montevideo property using his phone camera. We now have a flat roof, which will form the floor of the rooftop terrace above. In the picture below you can see the kitchen (far back on the right) and the beginnings of the upper floor bedroom above it. Ultimately the bedroom floor will extend towards us as far as the steel cross-beam. The cameraman is standing in the double-height main living area; behind him will be full-height windows looking out into a wrought iron light well over an Italian tiled staircase.

Work in progress
Work in progress

The wooden barricade at the far back on the left indicates the start of our smaller ground-floor terrace, which looks out into another, outside light well. Right now, were trying to get the gas company to fit gas pipes to the kitchen and lounge.

Montevideo revisited

One of the most relaxing ways of getting from Buenos Aires to Montevideo is to take the three-hour forty-knot Buquebus across the muddy brown waters of the Rio Plate. Naturally one travels First Class, because it’s only marginally more expensive than Tourist, and you get a comfortable lounge and free champagne.

As our high-speed jet boat motored in through the breakwater of Montevideo docks, a bulk carrier was being pushed gently into position by a couple of powerful tug boats, and I noticed that construction of the promised new freight terminal was well under way.

A bulk carrier arrives in Montevideo port
A bulk carrier arrives in Montevideo port

It looked to me as if the new terminal would at least double the capacity of the loading dock, and in addition there were no less than two cruise liners in attendance. This pleased me greatly, because one of the reasons that I like the choice of Uruguay as our future home is that I predict a big expansion in its container industry as the world moves away from air freight, and the country┬┤s commodities market expands.

Sintonia Revisited

We were here to check up on our building project, a small penthouse in a renovated colonial building, which we were in the middle of purchasing.

Our apartment in Montevideo is a renovation project run by a small local building company Viva Tu Casa which specialises in taking old colonial-era buildings, removing all the original mouldings and woodwork, constructing a new building behind the original facade, and then re-incorporating the original materials into the new fabric. We had been impressed by some of their previous work, and had put down a 50% deposit on the largest or penthouse unit of the project of around ten apartments that is known as “Sintonia”. This lies on one of the main thoroughfares through the Parque Rodo district of Montevideo, which we reckoned was a good bet as it is still a bit run down, but sits on the edge of the more prestigious (locals would say “stuck up”) areas such as Pocitos.

In fact, on our arrival we noted many new building projects in the neighbourhood, all similar restoration projects because the city council has forbidden any changes to the character of the area. They don’t want a repeat of the high-rise transformation of Pocitos.

The last time we’d seen Sintonia, it was a hive of construction activity (all labour here is manual, with little or no help from power tools) but lacked a roof and much of the internal structure. We had seen some pictures from a few months ago, when the various floors had been finished but it was still a little hard to see what was going on, but now on our third visit the apartment is almost complete.

We climbed the marble stairs in the Italian-tiled entrance hall, lit by an enormous glass-and-wrought-iron skylight, to our four-metre high front doors.

Sintonia main stairwell from our front door

This took us to our marble-tiled ground level, with ample living space, more skylights, a “social toilet” and a small kitchen and balcony. Still under construction was the open wooden staircase that will lead up to the bedroom and main bathroom, and on up to the rooftop terraza.

This will be our rooftop terrazza

In the original design, the second floor of this apartment was to be split into two small bedrooms with a hallway to the bathroom, but we had arranged with the architect to leave the whole thing open-plan, and we were very pleased with the result.

On the roof, amongst a forest of chimneys and glass skylights, we found our parilla (the wood-fired barbecue without which no Uruguayan house is complete), our gas water heater, cold water tank, and lots of space to lounge about in the sun.

Rooftop parilla
Rooftop parilla, with steps up from the apartment on the left

There remained very little for us to do. The builders were leaving the wooden floor and staircase sanded but unlacquered so that we could choose our own finish, and so we organised a quotation from a floor-polisher who happened to be standing nearby. Saul, the owner of Viva Tu Casa, drove us around to a couple of dealers and we chose a wood-fired heating stove for the lounge. We just need for the builders to finish the stairs, complete work on the lounge window, install the electrical fittings and clean up. A couple of the smaller apartments are already complete, so we got to meet one of our new neighbours, and got a sneak preview of the finished product, with which we were duly impressed.

The sad part, of course, is that we won’t actually be able to move in when it’s finished. Not only is it time to get back to the yacht and start our sailing trip, but we don’t know what the future holds, and so somewhat regretfully we have arranged for the apartment to be rented out for the next couple of years until we have a better idea of what we are going to do next. This might cramp our options a little (Uruguay is a very cheap place to live if we run into financial problems), but we really didn’t want to leave the apartment empty for what could be a span of years, and in our newly unemployed state it’s likely that we will value the rental income.

Finishing touches in Montevideo

We’ve just had some pictures through from our agent of our property in Montevideo. It’s almost complete. The builders have put in the stairwell, the carpenters have sanded and finished the wooden floors, and the heating engineers have put in the cast-iron wood-burner. The carpenter has also added a few kitchen cabinets, but generally when Uruguayans move into an apartment, they bring everything with them, not only appliances but even the boiler.

Staircase and woodstove, looking toward the kitchen (right) and balcony (left)
View from the lounge of the staircase and wood stove, looking toward the kitchen (right) and balcony (left).

Apart from the upstairs bathroom and the stairway to the roof, the mezzanine level is completely empty. On the original plans, there were two bedrooms and a small hallway here. We asked the architect to skip all the internal walls and just leave the mezzanine open-plan. He looked worried. “But,” he argued, “you’ve paid for a two-bedroom house, and you’ll only have a one-bedroom house. And Uruguayans don’t want their bedrooms to be so big!”
After we pointed out that we didn’t care about either of those arguments, a big grin spread over his face, and he agreed that it would look much, much better the way that we wanted it.

The mezzanine level
The mezzanine level

The roof-top terrazza is almost finished, it just needs some cleaning up and some plants and furniture to make it liveable.

The rooftop terrazza. Stairway to mezzanine to the right. Parilla on the left.

Although this was never intended to be an investment property, we do recognise that it will be some years before we are in a position to move in, and we don’t want to leave it empty. The apartment is (sadly) almost ready to rent.

Overwrought over ironwork

Although there seems to be little obvious crime in Montevideo, it is noticeable that many ground-floor windows are protected by wrought iron grilles. We had always assumed that this was a throwback to the bad old days, but when our rental agent asked for a cage over the glass hallway to the rooftop garden, we were happy to oblige because although it is our own private terrazza, it is at least theoretically accessible from neighbouring rooftops.

Iron cage and door protecting the access to our rooftop terrazza
Simple wrought iron grille and door protecting the access to our rooftop terrazza

We were a little surprised when, a couple of years later, a tenant asked for a grille to be put over the lounge window. Bear in mind that this window is indoors, looking out over the building’s main marble stairway. The panes are tall and slender, an attractive feature of the stairwell, and the first thing that a visitor to any of the apartments sees when they enter from the street.

The tenant sent us a photo of the sort of thing he was expecting, even worse than our rooftop bars, like the security on a basement window, a thickly barred affair reminiscent of a Dickensian workhouse.

The subsequent conversation got quite heated. It was his contention that it was his right to demand that the landlord turn his home into a fortress on request, and that he intended to withhold rent until it was done. I was equally adamant that I had chosen the apartment for its Italian colonial styling and the last thing that I was going to do was turn it into a prison, particularly since he had presumably chosen to rent it for exactly the same reason.

If we had been on site or in the same time zone, the situation may well have been resolved amicably, but the increasingly acerbic conversation was filtered by email through the weak translation skills of our increasingly ineffectual agent, who in the end gave up and just forwarded our emails back and forth in whatever language they happened to be written.

Getting rid of a tenant in Uruguay is practically impossible. Officially they must pay their rent or get evicted, but in reality this is more of a promise that one day, the rent might be paid, eventually, if things go the tenant’s way, and until then it seems that they can just sit and argue and make small token payments until the situation is resolved to their satisfaction. Even in the normal run of things, when there were no arguments and everybody was happy, it was perfectly normal for our tenants to be months behind in their rent, which the agent regarded as nothing to be concerned about.

Something had to give, and it seemed that both the tenant and the agent thought that we were being unreasonable in quibbling about paying for pointless structural alterations to our property. Thankfully we had already had experience with the iron-workers who had built the rooftop cage, who had done quite a large job at reasonable cost. We sent them a series of photos of nice ironwork that we’d found on the internet, and asked if they could make something more in keeping with the style of our property.

Luckily they were able to oblige, and if we have to have a grille at the front of our apartment, then at least this one is pleasant to the eye.

The Tenant Departs

For a number of years now, we have been renting out our apartment in Montevideo. Once the building was complete and we realised that we were going to have to go and earn a crust somewhere else for a few years, we had a choice of either short-term letting to tourists (for US dollars), or long-term letting to locals (for Uruguayan pesos). Having very little wish to earn dollars, and with a vague feeling that we should be giving something back to the community, we engaged a local rental agent to find us a local tenant.

Uruguayan tenancy law is interesting. Before moving in, the tenant needs to provide an initial deposit to cover six months of rent. Since most people don’t have this kind of cash, they typically achieve this by using the title deeds of their parents’ house as collateral. On the flip side, the contract is unbreakable and the landlord is obliged by law to extend any year’s tenancy for a second year on request, and almost certainly for a third year, provided that the rent has been paid.

One of our early discoveries was that the concept of ‘being up to date with rent’ is marvellously flexible. It’s perfectly normal for the tenant to be months behind, or to make a part payment because they happen to be short of cash. We had one tenant who continued to pay back-rent long after he moved out.

Another aspect of tenancy is that you really do rent just the walls. A tenant will typically bring all their own furniture, white goods, light fittings, and even (and especially) their own hot-water boiler. The tenant can thus choose whether they want to use gas or electricity to heat their water.

Here are some agency pictures of our apartment, taken during an inspection.

The place looks quite different when furnished
The rear lounge, adjoining the kitchen
Bedroom area on the mezzanine
Bedroom area on the mezzanine, looking toward the lounge, with stairs up to the rooftop terrazza

In general, we have had a positive experience of long-term renting to local people. However, our relationship with our latest tenant, and with our agent, has become rather disgruntled of late. Out of the blue, the agent reported that the tenant was upset because the gas company wouldn’t turn on the gas supply due to a fault. This came as something of a surprise to us, because although we do have a gas supply, neither he nor any of the previous tenants had shown any interest in using gas, so it had never been connected and we’d never known that there was a problem.

It took a little while to organise a repair because the fault was located inside a neighbour’s apartment, and we had to knock down part of their wall to fix it. In the meantime, our tenant started withholding rent to compensate his loss, even though he hadn’t been using the gas supply at all throughout his tenancy. He then started angling for a decrease in rent. Instead of fighting in our corner, our agent began backing off from the whole affair and wouldn’t deal with either the tenant or us.

We did a deal with one tenant to fit kitchen cupboards
Note the new gas cooker in the corner, which appears to be working.

To cut a long story short, we got fed up with the whole thing, but we were far from the action and the agent was not providing us with any support. Then suddenly the tenant announced that he wanted to break the contract from his side. Officially he should have bought his way out of the contract, but we jumped at the chance and told him we’d call it quits if he cleared out, while simultaneously informing our spineless agent that we didn’t require his services any longer, and we were going to leave the apartment empty.

The upside is that finally, after five years, we now have the opportunity to use the property ourselves. Even though we have visited Montevideo on several occasions, we haven’t been able to spend even a single night in our own apartment, and we’re really looking forward to it. But first, there’s the little matter of redecorating and refurnishing…

Globe-trotting furniture

Our apartment in Montevideo sits empty. We don’t mind that it isn’t generating income, but we do worry that nobody is collecting the mail, cleaning the windows, or paying the bills. To address the problem, we contacted Reynolds, one of the agents that we used when we were originally house-hunting, because we know that they manage short-term lets for tourists and business people. One thing swiftly led to another, and they agreed to take over the maintenance of the flat while we were away.

The idea now is to rent the apartment fully furnished to short-term visitors, giving us the opportunity to use it for ourselves whenever we are in Uruguay. Since the previous tenant took everything with him, the property is completely empty of fixtures, so we decided to fly over this coming December to decorate and to furnish. Bettina, our contact at Reynolds, warned us that it would cost about US$10,000 to furnish an apartment of that size, and that the workmanship was liable to be far inferior to what we were used to. Her advice was to import the furniture from abroad, and just accept the massive 60% import tax that would be levied by Uruguayan Customs. The price would end up about the same, but the fittings would be far superior.

This set us thinking. During a lifetime of travelling, we have acquired a lot of stuff. Flitting as we do from job to job and city to city, we are always moving into new houses. Unfortunately there is rarely time to move the existing furniture from our previous residence to our new one, because usually at the end of a contract we throw our locally acquired junk into some local storage and go travelling. When news of a new contract comes in, we’re usually far away from our furniture and in order to make an immediate start, we have to set up a new place from scratch. We are pretty good now at completely furnishing a new property within a day or so of arrival.

Moving house again!
Moving house again. I can’t even remember where this was.

We had thus accumulated a succession of storage units, each containing a full household’s worth of stuff. In addition, when we sold our yacht Pindimara, we filled yet another storage unit with five years’ worth of liveaboard and cruising gear.

Over the past couple of years, we have been slowly consolidating all our stored items into a facility in Canberra, Australia. Once we were pretty sure that we had everything in one place, we had the whole lot shipped here to the UK, where we happen to be working.

When the container arrived last month, we had no real idea what was in it. Certainly there would be a number of tables and chairs, some washing machines, a handful of fridges and freezers, and boxes and boxes of books. That much we knew. But there was another 10 cubic metres of mystery, stuff that we’d forgotten about, stuff that we thought we’d destroyed, stuff that we thought we’d lost, even some boxes that had been travelling around unopened for over fifteen years. It was time to have a shakedown.

We were renting a three-bedroom cottage in South Wales, and spent a lot of time shuttling van-loads of boxes back and forth between our large lounge and our storage unit. Whenever we had some spare time, we would open a box or two and itemise its contents. Some of the boxes were beautifully packed but contained nothing of any use. Others were a jumble of really expensive and useful stuff obviously thrown in at the last minute. We assembled a collection of over a dozen travel adaptors, innumerable bottles of skin and suntan lotion, and piles of crockery and cutlery.

We've probably got any power question covered
We’ve probably got any power question covered

We were glad to discover that the few remaining bottles of wine from our wedding (gifts from our friends) arrived intact, along with a surprise half-empty bottle of rare whisky and, mysteriously, tucked here and there amongst towels and sheets, a handful of small bottles of cider. Since these latter have no value at all, we could only assume that we couldn’t bear throwing them out at the time and had quietly tucked them away for later, not realising that they would not be unpacked again for years.

Slowly we separated our stash into three piles, representing the three forks of our future plans. One huge pile contained all the stuff that we needed to move onto our new yacht, Elizabeth. One small pile contained sentimental stuff that we couldn’t bear to part with, and which one day would find its way all the way back to Australia and into our building project in Tasmania. And finally, a much larger pile comprised of furniture and fittings which we wanted to ship to our apartment in Uruguay.

On the face of it, it may seem insane to ship several apartments’ worth of furniture from Australia to Britain, and then to ship a large proportion of it on to South America. However, if you factor in the savings of closing all those storage spaces and the time and flights that would have been necessary to sort things out ourselves, and also the fact that we already own all this stuff and so don’t need to purchase it again, it was much easier to pay somebody to load everything into a shipping container and then deal with it here. It’s also surprisingly difficult to freight things directly from eastern Australia to Uruguay, because most of the shipping is travelling in the opposite direction.

There is a great deal of paperwork involved in importing goods into Uruguay. Just for starters, every individual item needs to be photographed and valued, and that valuation must be agreed by Uruguayan Customs, who will then levy 60% import duty against it. Because we envisage that any problems will occur at the Montevideo end, we chose to arrange the freight using a Uruguayan shipping agent, rather than a UK one. This has the advantage that they know how the import duty system works, but the disadvantage that the UK packers and movers are contracting for a foreign company, and calmly inflate their prices to suit.

In order to minimise our costs, we chose to pack our goods ourselves. Generally this just meant unpacking everything, photographing it, and then shoving it back into boxes (and after our clear-out we had plenty of boxes!), but for a few of the larger items, we had to construct crates from rough timber. Luckily there happened to be a power outlet in our storage, presumably for the cleaners, so we’d sneak in at night with a power saw, and then try to sweep up all the sawdust before anybody noticed.

After a good many sweaty nights in the storage, and quite a bit of rethinking and repackaging, we were all finished and ready for the removal men. The next day, the storage facility was hit by lightning, which didn’t damage our goods but took out the freight elevator, leaving us with the prospect of carrying twenty square metres of gear down a small metal staircase. By the time the truck arrived, we had established that the hydraulics were fine, it was just the safety interlock that was broken, and the owners had the good grace to allow us to use it even though the safety doors weren’t functioning. In a world gone mad with health and safety, thank goodness for some common sense.

We heard today that our container has been loaded on board a vessel. Our stuff is en route… but we still haven’t heard whether Montevideo Customs have agreed with our valuation. Still, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Forward to Montevideo!

A Container Full of Dollars

We were shipping a container full of furniture from the UK to Uruguay, without any clear idea of the import charges that would be levied at the other end. The wheels of South American bureaucracy grind but slowly, so although we had already forwarded a full inventory of our intended shipment complete with individual photos and descriptions of every item, the deadline for our own flight to Montevideo was looming and so we just had to let the container go, otherwise there would be no chance of it being there when we arrived.

Fast-forward to several weeks later, and we finally heard back from Uruguayan Customs when our container was already steaming past Brazil and just days from docking in Montevideo. At this point, of course, they could have imposed their 60% tax on whatever valuation they chose and we’d just have had to pay it, so we were pleasantly surprised when they gave us a figure which, although still in the thousands of dollars, was about 25% less than our own valuation.

We took a deep breath and set out to pay the bill. International bank transfers into Uruguay are problematic at the best of times. Uruguay’s banking laws are very strict and secrecy is paramount; for instance our simple monthly statement cannot be trusted to the postal system and must be couriered to us once a month. Since the peso, although currently well-behaved, has a slightly dicey past, most medium to large transactions are denominated in American dollars. Unfortunately Uruguay’s privacy laws offend US authorities, so getting any money through the international banking system is always interesting.

We had previously paid our Uruguayan shipping agent via Western Union, which had gone reasonably smoothly after we had supplied sufficient documentary evidence to prove that we weren’t international terrorists. Sadly, the US had changed the rules overnight, and our attempt at sending the balance of our account was refused. We were informed that we had infringed some international terrorism criterion somewhere, but were not permitted to know which one, so there was no way that we could fix it. To add insult to injury, having rejected our transfer, Western Union now get to keep our money for several weeks, presumably so that Homeland Security can wipe their bottoms with it or something.

Luckily we still have enough remaining funds to cover the bill, so we’re going to put used hundred-dollar bills in a paper bag and take them overseas in our underpants. It’s perfectly legal, but isn’t it the kind of thing that American money-laundering regulations were put in place to prevent in the first place?

What the heck, we have a plane to catch.

The Box Embargo

We were late for the airport, thanks to an idiot pre-booked taxi driver who hadn’t bothered to research his pick-up address. However, we weren’t too concerned because we’d already checked in online and just had to drop off our luggage.

We’d deliberately flown American Airlines because their allowance is two 32kg pieces each, and we had a lot of tools and decorating equipment to take with us to Uruguay, including a roll of specialised frosting film that we intended to use on our windows. At first, the check-in ladies reckoned that we could only take a single piece each, but that misunderstanding was swiftly cleared up because Bronwyn knows her small print. Then, just as our luggage stickers were being printed, the lady said “Isn’t there a box embargo on this flight?”

We were beginning to suspect  a conspiracy. The US government had already done its level best to prevent us from paying for our container shipment (see previous blog), and now they were randomly instituting a rule against our box of window film.

This “embargo” wasn’t mentioned anywhere even in the very small print of our tickets, which we had read very thoroughly because our box was only one centimetre short of the maximum length for American Airlines luggage. We encouraged the flight staff to check in more detail. Eventually it emerged that while there was indeed a “box embargo” on American Airlines flights out of our stopover destination Miami, the rule did not apply to flights into Miami. Our bemused but helpful assistant agreed to check in our box for the first leg, as long as we promised to repack the box into a bag in Miami, as apparently this would satisfy the regulations.

We had a pleasant flight, and no trouble with Miami Customs, especially as we got to bypass the enormous queues of US citizens’ waiting to use their “streamlined” automated gates. Instead we ambled up to the “foreigners” exit where a cheerful young man stamped us through without any delay. Our box was even waiting for us on the baggage carousel.

There was a dicey moment at the airport Left Luggage office when the rude attendant demanded to see our boarding card before he accepted our luggage. Who keeps their boarding card after getting on a long-haul flight? Luckily Bronwyn found hers screwed up amongst the empty food wrappers in her bag. We dropped our other three bags of tools and made our way to the Miami metro system with two small carry-on bags and a one-and-a-half metre box over my shoulder.

We found ourselves unable to decipher the metro map, but were helped by a friendly transit cop who showed us where we needed to go. He then accompanied us to the ticket machine, which didn’t accept notes larger than $20, something of a problem because all of our currency was in a paper bag full of hundreds (see previous blog). The machine supposedly accepted credit cards, but not without a numeric US ZIP code, so we couldn’t get it to accept our foreign cards. The nice guard spent a lot of time trying to find a US postal code that would work with our cards, or to get it to accept a truncated foreign post code, but in the end he reasoned that if the system was too stupid to let us buy a ticket then we might as well ride for free, and waved us through the barrier.

Much of Miami seems to be under construction
Much of Miami seems to be under construction

After delivering the box to our hotel room, we took a long bus ride to the waterfront and enjoyed a stroll, a paddle and a nap on Miami Beach.

Catching some rays on Miami Beach
Catching some rays on Miami Beach

We had pre-booked a late dinner at the excellent River Oyster Bar, reasoning that if we ate really late after lying in the sunshine we would reset our body clocks. The food and the ambience were wonderful, and we whiled away the hours over salt-encrusted bronzino, grilled mahi-mahi and excellent local wines, before returning to the hotel and sinking into a deep and satisfying sleep.

On Sunday we woke with a whole day to tackle the problem of finding a bag for our oversize box. The tourist shops only held expensive regular-sized rolling luggage, but while exploring some of the poorer Spanish-speaking quarters of the city, we eventually came across a little shop that carried simple nylon bags. The helpful lady located her largest bag, technically 50 inches, for just 20 dollars.

With that job out of the way, we returned to the River Oyster Bar for a happy-hour feast of oysters, locally caught cobia, and wine.

Lots and lots of oysters
Lots and lots of oysters

We headed back to the hotel, and found that even though the roll would probably almost fit inside, there was no way of getting it through the mouth of the bag. We knew from our original architectural plans that our film was oversized for the windows that we were going to fit it to, so we borrowed a pair of scissors from the bemused receptionist and shortened the roll until it fit.

Finally we grabbed a taxi to the airport, had no trouble checking in our box-in-a-bag, and enjoyed a relatively comfortable red-eye flight to Montevideo.

On our arrival in Uruguay, we quickly made our way through Customs and down to the baggage hall. We found our new bag patiently circling on the carousel, and to our complete lack of surprise, noted that it was sitting amidst a plethora of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. “Box embargo”, indeed.

Renovation Time

After five years of long-term tenants, we finally got to stay in our now unfurnished apartment in Uruguay for the first time. We arrived equipped with decorating tools and building supplies, because we intend to redecorate and move in our own furniture and offer the apartment for fully-furnished short-term lets when we’re not here, giving us the opportunity to use it ourselves once a year or so. The furniture is currently snarled up in red tape at Customs, so it is lucky that we also brought camping gear.

We were pretty glad that we came prepared to do some work. Although we easily fell in love with our apartment all over again, the previous tenant had left under a bit of a cloud, and it soon emerged that our previous letting agent has utterly failed to do any proper maintenance over the preceding years. The paint is peeling from the windows, there’s no cold water supply upstairs (including to the toilet) and no hot water supply downstairs. The chimney has obviously never been swept, the shower trays are leaking, and the very expensive US$1500 painters engaged by our agent had simply splattered white paint everywhere, including over the woodwork, radiators and electrics.

In theory I suppose we could go back and argue with our previous agent, but we’d much rather just draw a line under the experience, roll our sleeves up, and get on with a renovation.

Some information has been lost during the shuffle between tenants. For instance, we were a bit puzzled about why we had been left with both a gas boiler and an electric boiler, apparently simultaneously making hot water in the same system. We brought in a gas engineer who established that the gas boiler was all that we needed, so we disconnected the electric one. A friendly plumber soon discovered that our tenant had randomly turned off and disconnected some of the pipework, which was another easy fix, and while he was there he replaced our leaky toilet cisterns.

While a couple of the light fittings have been upgraded by tenants, most of them are still the temporary single-bulb mountings put in by the original builders, so after five years it’s really time to sort that out. Shopping for lights is no hardship here. Montevideo glories in lighting shops; there are hundreds of them in our area alone, often side-by-side. It is a mystery to us how they all co-exist, but it certainly provides for a lot of choice.

Let's paint the mezzanine. You can also see the original light fittings.
Let’s paint the mezzanine. You can also see some of the original “temporary” light fittings.

One of our tenants had fitted some kitchen units, which were fine in themselves but had been arranged in a curious way so that it is impossible to fit standard-sized appliances. We talked through a few options, and then simply ripped the whole thing out.

There goes the kitchen. It's restaurants from now until Christmas.
There goes the kitchen. It’s restaurants from now until Christmas.

In the new year, kitchen fitters will install something a bit more impressive to our own design. One bonus of removing the old kitchen is that we ended up with two rather expensive pieces of granite, complete with double sinks and plumbing, which we are planning to install on the rooftop terraza.

Summer is in full swing, the temperature is climbing into the thirties, so we ordered an air-conditioner. A couple of lively lads came to install it, which was a lot of work that took all day, but it works wonderfully and will be a good selling point when we rent.

We had the air-conditioning fan installed in the light-well of the building. The trouble with looking out over a shared light-well is that your lounge and bedroom look directly into your neighbours’. Many locals get around this by installing wooden panels over their windows, or keeping the curtains permanently closed (as in the photo below left), but we had thought of a sexier solution and had (not without some difficulty) imported some rolls of plastic film from England, which we used to make our windows translucent. It worked out rather well, giving us privacy while letting through the sunlight.

And finally, we have always thought that our 4.75 metre ceiling deserved a chandelier, so after a lot of entertaining window-shopping and many changes of plan, we finally had one installed. We think it looks rather nice.

Beaches and Plumbers

Our furniture is still in a bonded warehouse just down the street, Despite the fact that they’ve had the inventory for months, Customs keep coming up with new and interesting reasons to delay signing off the paperwork. The most recent one required a description of the precise chemical composition of the insulation foam in the freezer (how would we ever know that?), and a signed letter stating that we wanted our domestic freezer for, er, domestic use. In the meantime, we are camping in the apartment in sleeping bags with one plate, two mugs and a coffee machine.

Christmas is round the corner, and so it doesn’t look like they’re going to deliver our stuff before we leave at the end of the year. This is quite frustrating as it means that we’re going to have to fly back here in the new year, but as a Brazilian lady said to us in the hardware store the other day, the only way to deal with South America is to stay tranquillo.

We stopped worrying about it and took a two-hour bus ride to the resort town of Punta Del Este. Unfortunately an enormous storm rolled in and battered the town with 40-knot winds, so we didn’t get to spend much time on the beach, but we amused ourselves by trying out different restaurants and bars and thoroughly enjoying the experience of a room with real furniture.

Bronwyn rediscovers the wonders of bedroom furniture
Bronwyn rediscovers the wonders of bedroom furniture
Unemployed foreign gentleman of no fixed abode
Unemployed foreign gentleman of no fixed abode

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and back home to Montevideo. The search continues for a carpenter to help fix our weathered windows and to install some shelves and cupboards. Carpenters are mysteriously hard to track down, and although we did finally get one to come to the house, in the end he decided that he didn’t want to do the job. Today we had a visit from a second carpenter, a friend of the electrician who helped install the air conditioning. Hopefully he’ll come back to us with a proper quote.

Plumbers are much more relaxed than carpenters. The gas and central heating specialist turned up today and moved a radiator for us, because it had originally been installed smack in the middle of the bedroom wall, right where we wanted to put the bed. While he was bleeding the radiators, he checked the whole system and also decommissioned our old electric boiler, and all for just a handful of dollars.

We were just about to catch the bus into town, and Bronwyn had popped up onto the terraza to hang a towel on the washing line. A sanitation engineer hailed her from the neighbour’s roof. It turns out that each apartment has a grease trap under the sink, and once a month somebody is supposed to come round to clean it out. I doubt that ours has been done for years, as it smells pretty bad, particularly since we’ve dismantled all the kitchen units and exposed the drain cover.

Under the big round lid is a big smelly basin full of old grease
This big round lid (previously underneath the kitchen sink), hides a big smelly basin full of old grease

It didn’t take the engineer long to vacuum and deodorise our grease trap, and lift and clean all the drain covers. Since he had been engaged to stay on site all day, and since we were practically the only people home on this working weekday, he was going to have to hang out on the stairs on the off-chance that somebody else came home. Instead he went round our whole apartment, turning on taps and flushing toilets and making sure that all the drainage pipes ran smoothly, removing several years worth of hair in the process. He tut-tutted at the slow drainage in the upstairs sink, disassembled the pedestal, removed a good handful of old builder’s putty, and then reassembled it all with fresh sealant. Since he’d accidentally spilled about a teaspoon of water onto our already filthy tiles (we’re currently cleaning all our tools in there), he took it upon himself to scrub the floor, toilet, bidet and basin sparkly clean, and then repeated the process in the downstairs bathroom. Amazing.