Well, it's 10pm here in Montevideo, and the sky has been dark for about 45 minutes. Time just exists in a different way here, and it's a thing I'm still trying to wrap my mind around. In a place where you eat lunch at 2:30ish, dinner after 10, and where the sun sets around 9, I think the entire thing would make a lot more sense if everyone would just agree that it's two hours earlier than we're claiming. Unfortunately, I seem to be alone in that idea. Seriously, I'm getting up at the exact same time as I was in Costa Rica, but here it's called 4 hours later.
I didn't really know what to expect when I got here. I'd only ever met one Uruguayan person, a Spanish teacher I had when I went to Peru for two weeks in March of 2005, and took classes there. I took it as a good sign, however, when I woke up for my first morning and encountered Claudia, the very same Spanish teacher, who in the last five years has moved back to Uruguay and taken a job teaching Spanish here. Seriously. The only person I've ever known from this country happens to work at the very school I'm attending. It's downright ridiculous.
It's a nice change of pace to be back in a real city, and all the more exciting that it's one in which it is summer and there are palm trees. I have to say though, I have absolutely no idea how all of these people are not only alive, but apparently healthy. The local specialty food, the chivito, is the kind of thing a cardiologist might dream about a few days after contracting malaria. It consists of meat wrapped in ham, cheese, and bacon. The entire thing is sauteed in either butter or olive oil, and served with an absolutely necessary side of greasy french fries. More often than not, dinner is a steak. Just a steak. For what it's worth, I have seen vegetables. I just haven't seen anyone eating them.
As with neighboring Argentina, almost everyone here drinks mate, almost all the time. Mate (pronounced "MAH-tay") is a tea-like beverage made from a South American plant. They fill a mate cup--usually a hollowed out gourd--with hot water and powdered mate leaves. They then drink through a special straw called a bombilla, which resembles a hollow spoon with holes at the bottom. The holes allow the water to seep through while filtering out the chunks of mate, thus letting the drinker imbibe only the tea. It's a nifty little thing that I have tried before in the states, but have not yet gotten to test out here in actual mate-drinker land. Oddly, they don't serve mate at restaurants or cafes. People just bring their gourds with them wherever they go. Today, however, I got a gourd, so tomorrow I'll be mate-ing it up, and I'll let you know how it goes.
I haven't gotten to explore the city a ton, but I've walked around a few areas and it's really nice. There are parillas all over the place, which are restaurants where basically all the food is slow-grilled with indirect heat from a charcoal flame. "Parilla" literally translates to "grill," so that makes sense. One really cool thing here is the Mercado del Puerto, the port market, which is basically a shopping mall of parillas. I had only been to the touristy outside, but today I took a pass through after lunch and it's amazing. I was too full for anything other than a beer (the main local options are Patricia and Pilsen), but I expect to eat there more or less every day between now and when I leave. In addition to fairly decent beer, the Uruguayans make some reasonably tasty red wine (I'm currently drinking a glass of Tannat-Merlot blend) and a concoction called medio y medio--literally "half and half," consisting of half white wine and half sparkling muscadine wine. Medio y medio is possibly the sweetest thing I've ever consumed, but it's quite refreshing when it's 80 degrees out (apologies to my friends and family snowed in in the Northeast corridor).
Something I always enjoy noticing in other countries is what kind of businesses tend to combine in ways that we don't expect. In the states, it's Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. In Nicaragua it was hot dogs and coffee. Here, it's pastries and liquor. Yes, I've seen three different pastry shop / liquor stores here, with every indication being that there are others. It's nice to be able to grab a dulce de leche filled croissant and a bottle of dulce de leche liquor at the same time. In fairness, I haven't tried either yet, out of concern that all my teeth would spontaneously dissolve. But it's good to know I have the option. Of course, I've been spending those same calories on two ice cream cones a day, so maybe I'm not gaining a whole lot. The ice cream here is incredible (although I've heard Argentine ice cream is even better). Yesterday I had mascarpone ice cream. Today I had breadfruit and something that was a swirl of cream, dulce de leche, and chocolate pieces. Win.
I suppose I should also talk a little bit about the challenge of learning Spanish in the Rio de la Plata region (which is basically Uruguay and Argentina). If you've ever heard an Argentine speak spanish, you know it's quite different from other types of Spanish. It actually sounds beautiful, almost like a cross of Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, which makes sense given the immigrant backgrounds of the region. The "ll" or "y" sounds, which in other places are something of a cross between an English "j" and "y," are instead pronounced the way we'd pronounce "sh" or even the "zh" sound, like the "j" in "Jacques." So it's extremely difficult when you're accustomed to "Yo me llamo" being pronounced "jo may yah-mo" and instead hearing "sho may zhah-mo." Moreover, Rioplatense Spanish uses the "Vos" form, and does so with much greater frequency than I found in Nicaragua. "Vos" is used almost exclusively, with "tú" showing up in occasional formal circumstances, and "usted" largely reserved for VIPs. The conjugations of most verbs are completely different when using "vos," so it's not an easy adjustment, and something I've never really learned before. On the plus side, it's a fairly easy conjugation, as there are almost no irregular verbs (for those who speak the language, the verb "tener," for example, goes from "tu tienes" to "vos tenés." The accent moves to the second syllable, but it is otherwise almost completely straightforward. That said, one of the challenges I'm encountering is the incorporating and applying all the various types of Spanish I've been learning. It's not really a big deal so long as one stays consistent, but it's tough to do that when you've gone from "tu" in Nicaragua to "usted" in Costa Rica to "vos" down here, so I frequently find myself botching pronouns. In the long run I do think it will be better for my language skills, but for the moment it's a bit of a challenge.
Politics* here are also worth talking about. I've been told by multiple people that Uruguayans are deeply passionate and interested in national politics. The incumbent liberal party is very popular here, and their newest candidate, Pepe Mujica, was recently elected to the presidency (the incumbent, Tabaré Vázquez, can't run again for another five years, according to term limit laws). Voting is mandatory. If you do not vote, you are taxed. In all honesty, this could make a very interesting subject should my graduate research take me more towards comparative politics.
Montevideo is sort of a hard city to pin down, although I've done my best here. I've encountered a pretty broad range of opinions, pretty quickly. Initially I met a number of people who mostly seemed to bash the city. The primary complaint seemed to be that it has less to offer. This strikes me a bit as choosing to go to Charleston, SC over New York, and complaining that Charleston isn't New York. Certainly it's true, but that doesn't mean Charleston isn't a wonderful city in its own right. It is, in fact, one of my favorites. So I've withheld criticism of Montevideo, and I'm starting to think that was wise. I'm really enjoying this city. It doesn't have the bustle of a major city, or the active nightlife scene. But it's a really pleasant and relaxing place with a lot of cool cultural traits and really beautiful areas.
Anyway, with that, I'm off to watch last night's Lost episode, and then head to bed. Tomorrow, I'm hoping to make it to a soccer match. The South American champions league is going on right now, and Nacional, one of the Uruguayan teams, is taking on Deportivo Cuenco, from Ecuador. I'm planning to go with my new friends Matt, Liz, and Sam (a different Sam from the one in Central America), so hopefully we'll be able to get in and avoid any damage at the hands of riotous South American soccer crowds (note to my mother: don't worry, it's no more dangerous than a Mets game).
*For those who are wondering, Laura Chinchilla won the election in Costa Rica, and will be Costa Rica's first female president.