Cruise Across the R'io de la Plata

NO doubt the boat was old. Fresh white paint and bright red trim couldn't quite hide the rust stains that showed through, like old wallpaper that won't be erased by whitewash. The interior of the boat had moss-green carpet, travel posters of the coast of Uruguay and the skyline of Buenos Aires, sepia photographs. Passengers lingered in the lobby waiting for the boat to leave as though waiting for the theater to begin. The captain, who greeted everyone upon boarding, was gray and refined. Like the ship, he had an air of grace from another time, when his passage across the R'io de la Plata was standard travel from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, 125 miles upstream. Now, a hydrofoil leaves Colonia, an hour north, and makes the trip in 90 minutes. The same crossing aboard this boat takes 12 hours, and is scheduled to leave each evening at 9 p.m. so passengers can dine and sleep and wake to the hustle of the Buenos Aires port, which is what my Uruguayan companion and I had decided to do.

The wind didn't seem strong to me, but it was enough to delay us. We were all boarded by 8:45, the gangplank raised and passports collected. The boat rocked gently in the wake of the harbor; huge tires acting as fenders squeaked against the hull. ``If the wind doesn't let up before midnight, we'll leave in the morning,'' one of the crew members told me. He paced the deck, while passengers gathered in the bar and the dining room, talking quietly and rocking babies.

At 9:00 the dining room opened. It seemed a little absurd to eat overlooking the customs office of Montevideo. All the officials had gone home, and only the night watchman remained, drinking his mat'e and changing his crossed leg from time to time. We ate at white-linened tables with sterling silverware, while the boat rocked and the wind blew. From the windows we could see ``El Cerro,'' the hill which gives Montevideo its name. According to history, one of Magellan's sailors cried out, ``Monte vid' eu! [I see a hill!]'' The hill only rises 450 feet, but it is the highest landmark in the low capital city.

After dinner we went to our cabin, which had two beds, bunk style, a lovely little window with wooden shutters, a sink, and a small closet with wooden hangers and soft wool blankets on the shelf. A stationary boat is as strange as a rocking house, but with the hum of the engine room and the lapping waves, there was enough illusion of movement to rock me to sleep.

The night ferry crawls along the R'io de la Plata at a snail's pace through a narrow channel deep enough for the draw of the hull. Tides make a difference of only about 3 feet, but the winds influence the river or lower the water level 6 to 8 feet.

It was this wind which caused the captain to worry. The depth and dimensions of the R'io de la Plata are equal to a sheet of paper one meter square, one of the crew explained to me. More than 30 feet of ooze covers the bottom, so if the ship is even slightly off course, it can be beached. This is not a real threat, since the piloting course is fixed, but the wind blowing is a concern. Thus, we waited.

At 2 a.m., my companion woke me up. ``Look! we're moving!'' And indeed we were. The lights of the port and ``El Cerro'' glittered like birthday candles and then disappeared. A full Hollywood moon was shining on the water, frosting the river with light. I woke frequently during the night, watching the sky brighten. I dozed off until the gleam of the sun on the river woke me completely.

We had left five hours late, and now had the day to enjoy the crossing. Breakfast was served in the sun-filled dining room; Brazilian coffee and croissants, rich cream and peach pastries. We roamed the decks after we ate. The river was blue as mid-ocean, with small white caps like icing on a cake. The captain graciously showed us his piloting station, the various control panels, and the huge wheel, as wide as the spread of my arms.

It seemed hour after hour we were still in the same place, for the river never changed, and no one seemed to mind. One of the crew had a deck of cards and he played with some children who had been restless at their parent's side. I wandered around looking at the huge coils of rope, thick as tree trunks, wound around enormous winches and smelling salty.

Midafternoon the coast of Argentina appeared, and quickly after, the skyline of Buenos Aires. It was sad to arrive. I had hoped we could go on and on, but this part of the journey was over.

The boat crawled into the harbor and within minutes we were tied and secured at the dock. We had gathered our bags from our little cabin, and I closed the door softly behind me, not caring if I had left something behind, a relic for someone else to find. I found my friend waiting for me on the deck, smiling gently like someone who shares a wonderful secret. We linked arms and left the boat, our heels tapping the grilled gangplank like a tiny applause.

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