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Drinking, driving, ferrying abroad

The Baltimore Sun

For a transportation junkie, one of the great attractions of foreign travel is seeing how other societies handle the universal challenge of getting around.

There's almost always something Americans could learn - if we weren't congenitally resistant to ideas that smack of being foreign.

A recent vacation with my wife in Argentina and Uruguay wasn't a working trip. The sole purpose of the journey was to have fun - an objective we accomplished to the fullest in two of the most hospitable countries on the planet.

But as a transportation observer, I couldn't help but notice some striking differences:

In Uruguay, drivers actually stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Coming from Maryland, it took some time to get used to that peculiar behavior. But it was a nice change of pace from the Dancing with Death experience of walking around Baltimore.

Uruguay, on the other hand, poses a threat you're unlikely to encounter in the United States: driving while consuming yerba mate (pronounced SHARE-ba MAH-tay).

This herbal tea, indigenous to South America, is a national obsession in Uruguay. Unfortunately, the process of making and drinking it is not as simple as dipping a teabag in a cup. It's a complicated ritual involving mixing the loose tea with hot water in a gourd and sipping it through a metal strainer. All across Uruguay - on the beach, on restaurants, at work - you will see locals with a thermos of hot water tucked in their left arms while they hold a gourd of yerba mate in their left hands.

So fond of their mate are Uruguayans that the government has been forced to enact a law forbidding drivers to drink it behind the wheel. But not all Uruguayans get the message - as we noted when a young man giving us a ride from our hotel to the bus station attempted to refresh his mate with hot water while traveling on a bumpy, unpaved road.

He made a nice recovery before we landed in a ditch.

There have been some yerba mate sightings in local food stores. So Maryland legislators might want to get a jump on the next big driving distraction by banning the Mate Menace from our roads.

Also in Uruguay, intercity bus service is cheap and convenient. We started out planning to rent a car for a week - an expensive proposition. But after taking a two-hour bus ride from the historic city of Colonia del Sacramento to the capital and transportation hub of Montevideo, we scrapped our car rental plans and took buses the rest of the way. Our fellow riders were polite, the bathrooms were clean and we could buy a cold, inexpensive beer and get a decent meal at the bus terminals.

The experience made me wonder: If the United States treated the intercity bus system more as a national asset instead of a stepchild, could we get more people out of their cars?

In recent years, very preliminary proposals have surfaced to introduce hydrofoil ferry service to the Chesapeake Bay region. The ideas have sounded far-fetched, but after two hydrofoil trips between Argentina and Uruguay, I'll pay a bit more attention to what could be a very useful way to get around.

First a little geography: Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires and the coastal population centers of Uruguay are separated by a broad river - actually an estuary wider than the Chesapeake - called the Rio de la Plata. At Buenos Aires, the Plata is too wide to accommodate a bridge, so connections to Uruguay's famous beaches are made by ferry.

Buquebus is one of three companies offering fast ferry service on large hydrofoil craft. We took it twice - from Buenos Aires to Colonia and back - and were impressed with its 50-knot speed and smooth ride. The crossing between the two cities took 50 minutes - compared with three hours for a slower but less expensive ferry.

The hydrofoil we took has a capacity of 450 passengers and 55 vehicles. The largest hydrofoil in the Buquebus fleet carries 900 passengers and 240 vehicles. The cost for a one-way tourist-class passenger ticket: $38. On board we could get a snack and the libation of our choice and shop in the small duty-free gift shop. It was a very pleasant crossing.

The experience left me wondering: Could a fleet of hydrofoils take some of the pressure off the current Bay Bridge and perhaps stave off the need for a new and environmentally harmful crossing? Maybe we could couple the high-speed ferry with motor coach service to offer a quick, comfortable, car-free trip to the beach - with no bridge backups. After all, once you're in Ocean City or Rehoboth, who really needs a car?

How about this plan for a summer weekend? Get off work Friday evening, drive to Annapolis, park in the emptied-out Navy football stadium lot, catch a shuttle to the City Dock and a hydrofoil across the bay to Cambridge, where a plush new bus whisks you to Ocean City in an hour.

Maybe it would work, maybe not. But if I were head of an environmental group that wanted to protect the Chesapeake and limit Eastern Shore sprawl, I'd look at the idea.

Pothole patched

Whether Mayor Sheila Dixon pitched a Schaeferesque fit about it or not, the Conway Street pothole that got its moment of fame here two weeks ago was filled within days.

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