Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bye Guay

"I've never heard of anyone going to Uruguay.  That's a pretty aggressive move."  That's what my buddy Sam said to me back in Costa Rica, about a week before I headed south to Montevideo.  I definitely felt the same, except that for me it was a bit more of a concern, because I was the one who would be heading off into the unknown.  I could not have hoped for a better experience.  Having finished my three week stay, I can unequivocally say that I am smitten.

I absolutely adored Montevideo, its people, and the Uruguayan culture in general.  To some extent, this was a function of fortuitous timing.  I managed to arrive right as the summer was cooling down a bit, so it was warm but generally not unpleasantly hot, and smack in the middle of the Carnaval season--which gave me the opportunity to see two Murga shows.  I also arrived just in time to attend the inauguration of the new president.  In a lot of ways, however, this was a near-perfect match of tourist and culture.  For a winter-hating, ex-musical-theater-camp-going, city-dwelling, political wonk, it's hard to think of a better place to be than an urban center with temperatures in the mid-70s, passionate political involvement and a rabid scene in support of what amount to local musical theater sketch groups.  And I haven't even mentioned the copious amounts of delicious steak and ice cream*.  Top it off with some of the more consistently outgoing people I've ever met, and you get a pretty giant smile on my face.  Outside the city is lovely too, as Colonia offered a connection to the region's history, and the eastern shore has some breathtaking natural landscapes (even if I did find the scene at Cabo Polonio a bit irritating).

I came away thoroughly impressed by the political involvement of the Uruguayan populace.  I thought I had a pretty decent handle on it, but yesterday's trip to Mujica's inauguration really drove home just how sincere it is.  In part, it may just be easier to keep everyone involved in a country of only three and a half million people.  But the rabid fandom persisted well past Mujica's official assumption of office, into chants for every member of the cabinet.  Can you imagine legions of people going nuts for Janet Napolitano?  The spectacle of the thing was truly impressive, with flags and patriotic fervor everywhere, and people overcome with happiness.  A taxi driver the other day told me "I'm going because I feel like this is the first time it's really my president."  Given that I cast my first presidential vote in 2000, and watched the next eight years thinking "not my president," I can certainly relate to that sentiment.

The one other thing I can't seem to stop thinking about is the remarkable nature of the many stories I heard about Uruguayan history.  Given its location stuck between the two regional superpowers, Uruguay is often completely neglected by the rest of us, and so its history is just completely unfamiliar.  Plenty of people could tell you at least one thing about most of the other countries in South America.  But we know very little of the Uruguayan history.  The thing about it is, even just the recent history is completely enthralling.  I've talked about about the political upheaval of the 70s and 80s, the Punta Carretas prison escape, and Pepe Mujica's fourteen years in prison and six bullet wounds.  These stories are amazing.  And they're just completely not a part of our world knowledge.  What's particularly odd is that even when Uruguayans mention these things, a lot of it is presented as a throwaway fact, e.g. "oh, yeah, 111 inmates escaped from Punta Carretas."  The details are just skipped.  My guess is that there's an assumption that as an American, I wouldn't really be interested.  So I personally am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to come into contact with this history, and to learn about it up close, and I hope you've enjoyed hearing about it.

Obviously, there are downsides to Uruguay, as there are with any country.  The conspicuous absence of green vegetables is a pretty noteworthy issue.  Sure, one could get eggplant or squash, or any number of things on the starchy side of the spectrum.  But leafy greens, green beans, asparagus, and their ilk were pretty tough to come by.  Cilantro is also, as far as I can tell, nonexistent, which I consider to be an enormous drawback.  If you ask for cilantro, you get coriander, which is the same plant, of course, but a very different life stage (and flavor).  The dearth of vegetables is a health issue too, obviously, as it makes it pretty tough to have anything but an extremely protein-and-fat-heavy diet.  I love steak more than any reasonable human being should, but the first week of the Uruguayan diet left me googling "angioplasty" on a daily basis.

All told, Montevideo is the first city I've been to where English is not the native language in which I could honestly see myself living.  That's not to say that I'll likely move there--the odds of the opportunity presenting itself seem a bit long.  But it is pretty remarkable to visit a place where you only understand about half of what is being said to you (on a good day), and still feel so completely at home.  Last night I was talking with my buddy Matt, who also took classes at Academia Uruguay, and we agreed that Montevideo was an extremely comfortable place, and it would have been easy to extend my stay such that it took up the bulk of this journey I'm on.  But the purpose of my trip is to see and experience new things, and, frankly, to keep moving outside my comfort zone, so I think to stick around for longer would be selling myself short, as lovely as it might be.

And so it is that I find myself in Buenos Aires after a three hour boat ride, preparing to eat still more steak, and to continue pronouncing my "y" sounds as "sh."  I'm very much looking forward to exploring the vast range of experiences this city and this country have to offer.  I walked around for a few hours tonight, and it's clear that I'm not going to get bored any time soon.  I'll check in at some point in the next few days, once I get my bearings and have a few new experiences.  Until then, hasta luego.


*neither sold nor consumed simultaneously, to be clear.



Mujica Inauguration


  1. Okay, first of all, Janet Napoliano RULES! I mean, she's no Ken Salazar, but who is?

    On a more serious note, it's awesome that you had such an amazing experience. I don't know that I've ever been to a non-English-speaking city that I could truly envision myself living in long-term (maybe Paris, but that's probably only if I didn't have to work and had an unlimited fromage/baguette budget). I'm excited for you, and a touch jealous, that you connected so powerfully with Montevideo and beyond; I think it's probably really good that you found something to annoy you too, as you need that in any live-able city (who doesn't love complaining about midtown during Christmas season, insanely over-priced bodegas, or the fact that the garbage trucks come around at 6:45 on Saturday morning in NY)?

    Still, good to stay outside the comfort zone, as you mention. Enjoy your steak, and say hi to Diego Maradona and Dwight Schrute's grandparents.

  2. Yeah, it was a pretty cool experience. Of course, as I noted, I got pretty fortunate in terms of timing. I'm told it's a lot less interesting during the winter, although that may just be an Argentine bias.

    On a note somewhat related to Dwight Schrute's grandparents, I was telling Mom and Dad the other day that I didn't until this week get the joke in Yellow Submarine, after the Blue Meanies' reign of terror ends and they're vanquished, the second-in-command suggests they move to Argentina.

    Diego Maradona, as it happens, is now the coach of the Argentine national team. As I understand it, he no longer directs the ball into the goal with his hand and then credits the almighty.


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