Vicky’s mother, Elba, is visiting along with Victor and his girlfriend, Janet. Once again we are playing tourists. I took a city tour with them the other day to brush up on my tour guide skills and was proud to learn that the only new things I picked up were that Buenos Aires has 63,000 taxi cabs and Aristotle Onasis was born in the immigrant barrio of la Boca and lived there until he was ten vears old.
Fall is sneaking in on us quickly. Saturday brought a nice sunny break from the rain and cool weather of last week. It seems visitors always bring the bad weather with them. The sunny day was great timing for our day trip to Colonia, Uruguay which is about an hour’s ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata.
Colonia (its full name is Colonia del Sacramento) is a quaint little Spanish Colonial town far from the bustle of Montevideo and glitz of Punta del Este, the beach playground for Argentina’s rich and famous. Many Argentines own vacation homes in Uruguay and if they don’t go for the beach house in Punta del Este – as most do – they will choose the quieter summer lifestyle of Colonia.
It is a port town and most of the cargo is tourists – many just passing through on their way to Montevideo or Punta del Este. There are beaches but remember, this is still the Rio de la Plata and NOT the ocean. And it is a very BROWN Rio de la Plata!
Colonia was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese and was a sore point for the Spanish as British goods were frequently smuggled into Buenos Aires by the Portuguese. The city was a haven for pirates as well.
The five of us disembarked from the ferry and hailed a taxi to the center of town. There was only room for four, so I opted to walk the six or seven blocks – besides, you see much more on foot and also I wanted to scout a good painting spot. This was a second trip for Vicky and me, so I had the luxury of passing up the tourist role and devoting the entire day to painting.
As I walked along the river towards the old fort, a boy of about seven or eight years approached me. I instinctively knew what his question would be: “Una moneda, senor.. .por favor…” I am hit so often in Buenos Aires with mothers sending their kids out to beg (a common practice here that really annoys me) that the guilt thing doesn’t work on me. I told the boy that I had no change. He smiled and went on his way.
I met up with the others at a small café near the waterfront in the historic district of the town. Although Vicky and Elba were planning to take a city tour via taxi and Victor and Janet were renting a motor scooter for the day, Colonia is pretty small and very easy to get around on foot. I have to admit though, the scooters are a lot of fun and fairly reasonable – $35 for the entire day. Still, ‘a pied‘ was best for me on this particular day…
As we sipped coffee outside, ate toasted ham & cheese sandwiches, and discussed our individual plans, another poor soul walked up to our table: This one was a stray dog, a black and white collie mixture. She had spots of matted hair and a very sweet face. Upon closer inspection, I saw she was cross-eyed. I offered her nearly half of my sandwich [I know – “Gee, Robert, feed the dog half of your sandwich and deny the boy a few lousy coins!”] …She merely licked it a little and then looked back up at me with that sweet, cross-eyed little face. I picked up the ham and offered it again thinking that maybe she was blind. She simply didn’t want it. She laid down at my feet and looked up with a look that said, “I’m perfectly happy just to have a little company, thank you…” I was ready to take her home and wondered how difficult it would be to get her onboard the ferry – back to another country. It all sounded next to impossible, so I gave up on the idea.
Colonia’s cobblestone streets and brightly colored Spanish Colonial architecture reminded me immediately of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Bougainvillea grows just about everywhere and adds a lot of color. We had arrived early and the town had the same early morning freshness and bright sunshine balanced by cool spots of shade. But then there was no early morning clinking of beer bottles being swept up by city workers nor doorways stinking of urine and vomit that you often encounter in the latter.
Another similarity is the presence of stray dogs, though nowhere the same scale as San Juan or elsewhere in the Caribbean. Buenos Aires doesn’t seem to have a big stray dog problem, so I had become unaccustomed to the sight. Colonia has strays but they seem fed and taken care of. Colonia is pretty laid back and stepping over lazily lounging dogs on the sidewalks is one activity you will encounter for sure.
I walked down a narrow street and stopped at a stone house with a bright orange front door shaded by a thick growth of Bougainvillea which was casting interesting shadows onto the side of the house, sidewalk and cobblestone street. A visually appealing, curtained window protected by an ornate, iron railing was partially open. The shadows and colors in the window panes would be the focus in my sketch. A Model T Ford with an Uruguayan license plate was parked under the shade of the tree. This seemed a very typical view of Colonia’s streets (like Bougainvillea & stray dogs, old cars are all over the place) and I thought it would make for good subject matter. I told myself I wanted to go around the corner first and check out the marina. I came back five minutes later and the car was gone. I sat down and sketched with watercolor pencils which allow you to come in afterwards with a brush and water to add washes of color.
Next I strolled back down to the waterfront. There were steps leading down to a beach from a portion of the city’s walls. The beach was basically rocks, green, green grass, a bunch of willow trees and a bit of sand. I found a big flat rock with a spectacular view of Old Colonia and its lighthouse. There were very few people down here and it was a perfect spot. I unloaded my stuff and began to concentrate on a painting.
I heard the kid’s voice before he appeared in my frame. It was the same kid who had asked me for money and now he wanted to know what I was doing.
“What are you doing, sir?”
“Painting? What are you painting?”
“That over there.” I pointed to the view of town.
He looked at my drawing.
“That’s very good!”
He looked at my watercolor pencils.
“Are you selling those pencils?”
“Why not? I like them. You could make a lot of money.”
“I need them to draw.”
“How many are there?”
“I don’t know…why don’t you count them.”
He tallied up the official count and happily gave me the results.
He was a cute kid. He had tousled blonde hair and very dark brown eyes – so dark, they were almost black. A slant in his eyes gave him a slight oriental look, though I wondered if there was a tiny bit of deformity. No, he wasn’t cross-eyed, nor mongoloid… I couldn’t quite place what was wrong. Still, he was a handsome little guy despite the dirt on his face and grubby little hands. He was dressed in fairly clean clothes so, I assumed he wasn’t homeless.
The interrogation continued. I was getting distracted. His Spanish was with a strong, over-emphasized Argentine accent with the animated, Italian-like intonations. I guess Uruguayos have the same accent as the porteños. He asked me another question which I didn’t quite understand:
“I don’t speak Spanish very well,” I told him. There…maybe he will leave me alone.
He was even more interested.
“Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Do you like Colonia?”
“Yes, very much.”
He flashed a big smile as if he were the Minister of Tourism. His eyes slanted even more. It dawned on me that this kid had slanted eyes from his perpetual state of smiling. He’ll probably have deep crow’s feet by the time he’s ten.
“It’s really pretty here, huh?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Is it pretty in the United States?”
“How long will you be in Colonia?”
“Just a few hours,” I replied, with a little bit of urgency in my voice.
Maybe he will get the hint.
He was unfazed.
“Can I sit down?” he asked.
He sat on the rock with me. He couldn’t have sat any closer. And as my father used to tell me when I was a little boy, he smelled like a little goat.
He looked up at me and offered me some of his ice cream. His dirty little hands were holding the cup out to me and his mouth was encircled with dried chocolate and vanilla ice cream with a little dirt mixed in. He had his usual, big smile.
“No thank you,” I answered and, like his ice cream, my heart was beginning to melt.
He dropped his plastic spoon into the sand. His smile went away only to reappear as I pulled out my water bottle and rinsed it off. It had the same effect as pulling the thorn out of the lion’s paw…
“Wow!” he said, looking at my drawing, “are you going to sell this?”
He asked me a series of rapid questions which I had a hard time understanding. I finally realized that he wanted me to let him sell the painting.
“It probably won’t be finished today.”
He paused and took in the view of his pretty little town.
“Hey! Look! Here comes the ferry!” he beamed. I could see $$ signs and decisions about which flavor of ice cream to buy – in his slanted, little eyes.
“Can you give me a piece of paper so that I can draw?” he asked me.
“Sure.” I pulled one off my pad and gave it to him along with a pencil and gum eraser.
He let out a big sigh. “OK, WHAT should I draw?”
“Draw that palm tree over there.” I was miraculously undisturbed by all of this and working at a good pace. Maybe he will shut up now, I thought…
“I’m going to draw those steps over there,” he informed me.
“Good,” I muttered.
A few minutes passed. He was quietly having a great time.
“OK! I’m ready to add color! Hand me a blue pencil, please.”
I handed one to him and just as I was getting back to my own work:
“OK, green, please.”
“Red…do you have a nice red?”
I gave him a red one.
“Oh…I need the blue again for a second.”
I decided to give him a brush and show him how to make a wash with the applied color. It was like magic to him and he was thrilled. It kept him busy for a few more minutes. Then he was ready to move on…
“I want YOU to draw me something,” he informed.
Just as I was looking about for something quick, a garbage truck drove by:
“HEY! draw that truck!”
I drew a very quick sketch of the truck. I asked him what his name was.
“Christian!” he beamed, “What is yours?”
I wrote his name on the side of the truck.”Que BARBARO! (How cool!)” he chirped. He said it in a fashion much like I have heard a hundred grown Argentine men say before…
“Now it needs color!” Rather than hand him pencils one by one, I pushed the metal tray of watercolor pencils closer to him. He occupied himself for a few more minutes.
“What do you think?” he asked me as he held up his painting.
“Barbaro!” I answered enthusiastically, attempting to imitate his accent. His biggest smile yet made his eyes disappear.
Two college-aged girls – Argentine tourists – walked past us on the beach. Christian’s attention focused on them. He got up and headed towards them – partly out of boredom with me and partly out of another motivation:
A quick sale.
“Buenos dias, señoras,” I heard him say in the distance, “would you like to buy a painting?”
He gave them a sales pitch which held thier attention. I heard the negotiation process begin. In between bits of business talk, Christian charmed them with small talk.
“Would you like to learn how to skip rocks over the water?”
“Sure,” they answered.
He exhibited another skill he had and the girls were sincerely impressed. Soon he had them skipping rocks too, however, not quite as good as he was…
My concentration on the painting was going pretty good but I managed to monitor the sale in process. Christian was ready to move on and I heard him closing the deal. The girls wanted him to sign the drawing. He proudly asked me for a pencil again – as though he were signing an autograph for an admiring fan.
I looked at my watch and noticed it was time to meet the group for lunch. I got up and quickly packed my stuff up. I hollered over to my new friend:
“See you later, Christian. Good luck!”
I met everybody and we walked to a nice restaurant that was recommended to Vicky. In Colonia, everything completely shuts down at lunchtime and stays that way until about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The intense sun beats down and people take refuge in the cool shade of the only thing open – restaurants. We enjoyed a nice lunch in a restaurant in one of the typical, old stone buildings. It was furnished with antiques and had a pretty interior courtyard filled with tables, umbrellas, plants, colorful flowers and a fountain. Even though business was quite brisk (we had to wait fifteen minutes for a table), the town seemed to take on a peaceful quiet. I looked out at the deserted streets under the bright sun, felt a bit of sleepiness coming on and was reminded a lot of lunchtime in Italy. Service was a bit slow, but what-the-hell – we were certainly in no hurry.
Vicky and Elba went shopping. Victor and Janet got back on the scooter to zip all over town. I don’t think there was an inch of pavement they didn’t cover. Victor’s hair was frozen in a wind-blown state and he too had a big smile pasted on his face as he buzzed off down the road. I teased him by humming a few bars of “Born To Be Wild“. They were having a blast.
I headed over to the lighthouse and started on a third sketch. The lighthouse was surrounded by brick ruins. I painted it in a somewhat limited palette of yellows, violets and umbers and greens. I liked how the white lighthouse appeared a creamy yellow in contrast to the deep, violet-blue sky. The shadows were the most interesting feature.
There was an hour or so left before we were to meet to go back to the ferry, so I moved over to another subject matter. This time I set up across from a cobalt blue building that was partially hidden by a fading pink building. The blue building had red framed doorways and windows. The pink building was casting more interesting shadows over the blue one and the surrounding cobblestone streets.
As I began sketching, another young boy walked over. He asked me for some coins. I shook my head and focused my attention elsewhere. He was about seven or eight and wanted to know if I was selling my pencils. He sat down next to me and began inspecting the colors. He asked me what I was drawing. He asked me if I was going to sell the drawing. I was losing interest fast and didn’t want to conduct another lesson, so I excused myself and packed up to go have a nice, cold beer at the little café across from the water. On my way there I saw Christian coming up the hill from the other direction:
His face lit up and he ran across the street to greet me.
“Hola, Robert!” He smiled and firmly shook my hand.
This kid is going to be the mayor of Colonia one day, I mused.
“Did you finish another painting?” he asked, in the voice of an eager gallery owner.
“No, but when I see you again, I will have some for you to sell.”
“Barbaro! Gracias y muy amable. Ciao!” he said as he gave me a last beaming smile.
We shook hands again and headed on in our separate ways.
As I sipped my cold beer and reflected on a productive day of painting, I wondered if in twenty years or so I might hear of a young shipping magnate or famous Parisian gallery owner named Christian from Colonia, Uruguay.
[2007 post note: I still often wonder about what ever became of Christian and the cross-eyed dog. The dog is probably long gone and I pray that Christian is a healthy and successful young man. If I ever make it back to Colonia, Uruguay, I think I’ll look for him. – RL]