Coastal Uruguay…and the ridiculous Bank incident(s)


Not far in from the border of Brasil the two-lane highway we are moving west on widens strangely into this unmarked 25-meter or more wide piece of road.  As I ride over the place that it widens I see some strange white rectangular patches and giant numbers painted on the road and then nothing….just a giant slab of asphalt to meander in. It’s mildly disconcerting without the stripes to keep traffic apart.  It takes a few seconds for me to realize I’ve just ridden onto a runway, and that this is obviously a multi-purpose road.

Thankfully I wake up enough to get my camera ready for the shot at the other end of the runway.  That’s a first for me….the runway riding.

Uruguay is flat and open and obviously intensely agricultural if the cow-filled pastures and fields are any indication. Trees line the roadways. We duck into Punta del Diablo, a cute and colorful backpacker beach town, for a few minutes but decide to move on when we find there aren’t many things open.  Welcome to Uruguay in the off season.

So we ride back out to the main road and on to Castillo for the night.  It’s been a long day of rain and doubling-back, so it’s time to find a bed and a hot meal and get a different attitude.  We stop at a bank and Brian tries to get some cash out, but returns to the bikes to say the machine has just eaten his card.  Perfect.  What a way to cap off the day.  I, luckily, can get cash and off we go for a hostel and some dinner.

We debate about hanging out to retrieve the card on Monday, but that would mean two days out of our schedule so we decide to keep moving.

Next stop, Rocha, to try and get some cash for Brian.  One of our big projects for Uruguay is to go into super-withdrawal mode from our bank accounts. We are booked to shop the bikes back to North America from Buenos Aires in about 10 days and if we can pay for the shipping with US Dollars instead of local currency we can save almost 40%.  Some serious motivation in that number. Brian’s already down one ATM card and as we enter the bank at Rocha we are both a little apprehensive, but never expect it to happen again.  But it does.  The machine takes the second of his three cards.  OMG!!!  How are we going to cope?  We have withdrawal limits on our cards, for security reasons if the cards are lost or stolen, and now we may not have enough days to get our money together for the shipping of the bikes. I’m seriously panicked now. Brian is stressed but coping pretty well, and calls his bank to get one of the cards cancelled.

We decide to stay near Rocha for the night and wait until the bank opens on Monday to return and retrieve his card. La Paloma it is. I think some beach walking is in order….just right to calm the nerves.

After an evening stroll, some homemade pasta, and some online research, we feel a little better, but not a lot. On Monday morning we head back to Rocha to visit the bank, which doesn’t open until 1:00pm, strangely, so we wait in a café for three hours for them to open. This just keeps getting better and better, and Brian starts to develop a firmly negative opinion about Uruguay.

As we approach the bank, it occurs to me that maybe this was the same bank brand as the one we lost a card at in Castillos so I look back through some photographs and find that it is.  At this bank there was the word “Oriental” in the stonework which made me think it was another bank, but when I look at the window signs I now see it’s the same bank. I feel stupid.  I should have been paying closer attention so we could have gone somewhere else.  The weird thing is that I have gotten money from both banks where Brian lost cards.

We don’t bother taking a number along with the hoards of locals who rush in as the bank finally opens. I’m now a cliché grumpy and rude American and I don’t care.  I’m getting to the bottom of this…yeah right. A kind receptionist points me to a banker at a desk across the open lobby and I stride over confidently and put on my best manners and smile to try and get him to help us.  He brushes me off to a woman a few desks down. All the while I’m rehearsing the requests and questions in Spanish to make sure I convey the right message and tone. But it’s all to no avail. This woman has Brian’s card in her hand along with a half dozen others. After half-listening to me she explains that it is the policy of Super-NON-customer-service-oriented Banco de Uruguay to not return cards for any number of reasons. I explain that Brian has his passport and can prove his identity and we can call the bank to confirm his card, which is technically his property or that of his bank, should be returned to him. She isn’t having it. I ask why the machine kept his card. When he first lost one I thought maybe he had pushed the wrong PIN on the keypad, but the second one cleared any doubt from my mind. Brian didn’t make a mistake. She explained that the bank’s ATMs are programmed to keep cards for the following – if the wrong PIN number is pressed (and you don’t get a chance to correct it), if the bank your card is from is not recognized by Banco de Uruguay (wtf?!), if the power goes out or if the communication is interrupted during the transaction for any reason (ie. the wifi has a hiccup for milli-second and disrupts the signal and it’s not your fault), etc. The following conversation ensues:

Me:  Fine, whatever, please just give us the card.

Clerk: Nope. Our policy is to destroy the card and it will not be returned to you.

Me: What if we need it to check in for our international flights next week?

Clerk:  Not my problem.

Me:  I’d like to speak to a supervisor. (This makes me giggle as a former Spiegel and Holiday Inn employee who heard this a thousand times.)

Clerk: No.

Me:  Isn’t there someone we can ask to make an exception for us?  We are in an emergency situation here.

Clerk:  (rolling her eyes, picks up the phone and calls someone and talks for less than 10 seconds, and gives a 1/25th-hearted attempt to get an answer to my request….followed by…)  No.

All the while, Brian is seriously tempted to grab the card out of her snotty hand. I can’t blame him. But since we are dressed in head-to-toe black heavy duty riding gear and look like SWAT team officers and each stand a foot taller than every local in here, we have already drawn a lot of attention. The bank is silent as everyone watches our interaction with the clerk. I’m pretty sure his grabbing the card would cause an international incident and the guard would shoot us before we could make the door.

I’m disappointed my calm and friendly, polite demeanor didn’t buy us even a second thought from her. So he says he wants to see her destroy it then and she happily complies, cutting it into two pieces but not damaging the magnetic stripe. He asks her to cut that and she does.  Well, that’s that then. What next?

We ride to Punta del Este that afternoon and settle into a hostel and go see the famous beach city.  It’s quiet this time of year. The undulating bridge we cross to get into the city is fun and original.

The man who designed the Mano del Desierto sculpture in Chile made one for Uruguay too.

I’m enjoying some of Uruguay.  I’m sad that this looming banking problem is taking away from our ability to enjoy it more. Well, maybe it will get better tomorrow. It almost always does.

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