That calendar holiday, did however mean, that most of my friends had the day off from work. So why not do what the dead cannot (see Ecclesiastes 9:5,6) and that was to enjoy a picnic!
It was decided that we should make the most of this mid-week day off and go somewhere special, so the Hills of Minas became our destination.
How would our group get there? Well, we hired a bus, 2 of them! One large commercial tour bus or "Omnibus" as it's called here and a smaller van normally used as a school bus. We ended up having a group of 61. An old fashion congregation picnic.
I was impressed with the size of the big Omnibus and always curious, I just had to ask how much it ended up costing, to rent these buses. The big tour bus was $9000 (Pesos) and the smaller school van $3200. The total of $12,200 was all inclusive meaning it included the gas and the drivers for the entire day. Since it was a calendar day off, everyone had advance notice of the trip. We all chipped in by paying $200 pesos each, putting down half, up front about 3 weeks before the date. Forty-six people fit into the large bus and the rest or 15 (not counting the driver) went via the van.
The one bummer for me was that I'm not a morning person and the pick up point was at our congregation in Salinas at 6:50 in the morning! I didn't want to leave my bike unattended in the back parking lot all day so I walked, instead of riding there. That meant a 45 min. walk, leaving my house at 6 o'clock in the morning! I did however have a game plan and that was to ask if our bus could stop on the way home that night by the highway near my street, which it did end up doing. That would later prove to be a wise decision on my part.
After roll call, we boarded our assigned buses and took off for the hour and 15 min. ride. As a side note, buses here have some of the steepest boarding steps I've ever seen with no low handicap ramps that meet the street or wheel chair access (that I can see). However, old people and crippled alike take this in stride and just seem to hop on up somehow while I "cringed" climbing aboard. The bus had a TV screen and it played music videos. I saw and heard a few Spanish ones but what always amuses me is the prevalence wherever I go of English songs playing, in particular old 1980's "hair band" music. I did enjoy hearing Peter Frampton and Toto again after all these years. Of course, this being Uruguay and all, everyone pulled out their mate gourds and hot water thermoses and settled in for the ride.
Our first stop was to the "Salus Park". It's a park built around the spring water of the Salus bottling company. They bottle the natural spring water and also bottle flavored waters like lemonade etc... The Patricia beer plant also uses the Salus mineral water in their product, so it's located in this area as well. Wally and I went to this park last year on our Anniversary. It is a conservation area and botanical garden that tries to educate people on the native flora and fauna. It has a section where the trees have identifying signs. I saw a cork tree that I noticed this time around.
The buses let us off to see the famous Puma fountain at the spring's source. We posed for pictures. My friends LOVE taking photos and goofing off in them as I saw later in some of my face shots.
Next, we climbed back on board and were driven to the family park portion where the kids aboard squealed with delight on seeing the play ground equipment.
Here the children really appreciate special treats. On seeing their enthusiasm, even the grownups were soon joining them in hoots and hollers of merriment. My thirty something, Forty, fifty and even sixty year old friends were soon running around playing and climbing on things. Two friends did a reenactment of the movie "Titanic" on the bow of this ship-like structure. Soccer and Volley balls suddenly appeared and games of dodge ball and volley ball were played and we swung on the swings. I have the photos to prove it!
After a few hours, we boarded the bus again and visited a confectionary factory, in an area called Villa Serrana that made "alfajores" a local sweet layered cookie thing and some meringue treats. I watched, while a woman frosted by hand, one at a time, each little "ding dong" sized treat. I bought a few at 10 pesos each.
Back on the bus again, we were taken farther into Minas about 20km more to a municipal camping and picnic area by a stream called Arequita. There we spread out to eat our self packed lunches. I always seem to bring a ham and cheese sandwich with me on outtings. I tried to analize that once and I came up with the thought that since ham is such a heavily processed food I must think it keeps better in a non- refrigerated situation, besides I like ham.
Hills are very rare in this flat country so that's why Minas (meaning Mines) is such a valued place. I heard some kids ask, in a sort of reverential way, "daddy that's a hill (cerro) right?" One young 18 year old turned to me and said "you probably don't have areas like this one in the USA, do you?" I had to remind her that just the one state, of Washington, was almost the size of the entire country of Uruguay and that we have 50 states in the USA. So yes, we did have places like this. Thinking to myself of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite valley. Yes, we have hills and we have mountains galore. To soften the blow, I did say that depending on the state you lived in, you might not see a place like this (Kansas comes to mind). For instance, if you lived inland you might never even have seen an ocean! Still the hills of Minas are truly lovely and we were about to climb one.
Most of our picnickers joined the hill climbing party and old and young alike took off down a road following someone, who seemed to know where to go. We followed a park road and aimed toward the hill. Soon we were passing by cows and into fenced land. We shimmied under fencing and took a group picture in a field.
Ombúes trees. The Ombu tree is the national tree of Uruguay! These trees, also found in Argentina, are the romantic subject of several books, such as, "Meet me under the Ombu tree" by Santa Montefiore and another book called "Far away and Long ago" by W.H.Hudson. Hudson recalls these trees from his youth growing up on an estancia (ranch) in Argentina. Inside the shade of this wooded area we saw a path.
Soon we were walking, as they say here, Indian style or one at a time, following behind each other up a steep rocky path. For some reason I thought I needed a walking stick so I grabbed a fallen branch. It was very flimsy but I went up the entire hill carrying it. Others saw me and found truly strong sticks but once I had found my stick, I held on to that same ridiculous branch without letting it go.
The path got rockier and steeper but everyone found their own footing and all made it up to the top! The view from the top was sweeping. You could see how green and pretty the surrounding area of Minas is. Also in the distance, you could see other hills. Most hills here are named. The name of the hill we climbed was called Cerro Arequita.
After climbing back down again we went back to the picnic area and the more energetic (not me) took part in sack races and a friend made fresh "Tortas fritas", a fried dough snack.