Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Welcome to Uruguay!

If our brief experience in Lima revealed a crowded, dirty city full of aggressive and frantic drivers, our introduction to Montevideo presented a clean, friendly and open culture. We landed around 4:00 am local time – 2:00 am by our internal clocks. (Side note: Uruguayan regulations require that airplanes spray pesticide inside the cabin prior to landing. While this may help control the spread of Zika, it's an uncomfortable experience.)  Upon landing, we decided to forgo a hotel for what remained of the night. (It was approaching 5:00 am by the time we had collected our luggage.) We used the airport WiFi and charging stations to power up our devices and then boarded the local bus for the trip downtown.

A perk of taking the bus with the locals is the opportunity it affords to observe local behaviours. Assorted Uruguayans on their way to work smiled as they managed the obstacle course of our luggage to find seats, and drank mate ("maw-tay") tea from specially designed vessels (the vessel is also called a mate), through a spoon/straw that filters out the pulp. Every third or fourth person carried a cup of mate, along with a thermos of hot water to pour over the mix.

(Later in the day, as we were on tour, Mindy drank from our tour guide's mate(!!) to get the local flavour. We'll get more into that later, but here's the proof.)

Montevideo’s suburbs, not far from the airport, are full of well-kept houses with broad lawns and gardens. The gates that surround each home – some of which are electrified – look to be made with aesthetics as much as security in mind. (As we later learned, home invasions did have a brief spike during an economic collapse around 2002, but now Montevideo is back to being extremely safe.) Inevitably, the manicured suburbs gave way to grit as we entered the urban core. These, too, improved as we wended our way to the city centre.

Our friendly bus driver dropped us off with directions to walk three blocks to our hotel, where we dropped our bags. Now 7:00 am, we went hunting for breakfast – no easy feat in a city that seems to come alive only late in the morning. We found Independence Plaza, almost devoid of people at this early hour.

Walking through the old city, we found restaurants set in parks – all closed at this hour. Later in the day, we will have our pick of open-air seating for dinner.

We finally found a restaurant for a small sandwich and some more floral coffee, and then made our way to the Spanish Plaza so that I could catch up on some blogging, with views of:


One of the first things that both Mindy and I noticed about the people of Uruguay is how different they look than Peruvians. We soon learned why, and it’s not a nice story. The Europeans who originally settled Uruguay annihilated most of the native populations. Those that weren’t eradicated were pushed beyond the borders to neighbouring countries. (Terrible as that is, I won’t pretend that the North American settlement story is a whole lot better.) Ironically, this malevolent history has given rise to a welcoming present, as modern Uruguayans have no preconceived notions of what a “real Uruguayan” looks like. In a country that is starving for immigration, this “open arms” attitude will be key to their continued prosperity.

Having spent the morning wandering around the city on our own, we met the Uruguay Free Walking Tour Montevideo in Independence Plaza. It was here that we met Valentin, the guide who forced Mindy to drink from his mate. (In case that wasn't unsettling enough: after Mindy acquiesced, we learned that it is customary for Uruguayans to offer their mate to everyone they meet. Valentin shared it with another participant of our tour, and probably shares his metal mate "straw" with several people every day. Ugh. I kiss Mindy's mouth.)

Valentin's lack of knowledge about bacterial transmission through saliva did not reflect his knowledge of Uruguay and Montevideo. He was fantastic! Really, this entry was largely written by him!

To start, we learned that Uruguay was founded - and is largely still managed - by Freemasons, and this has had a significant though subtle effect on the country's development. Freemasons exalt the number 33 and so the Independence Plaza, for instance, has 33 palm trees strategically planted around the perimeter. While Uruguay had largely completed the steps toward becoming an independent country by the spring of 1825, the declaration of independence was intentionally delayed to August 25th (25th day of the 8th month). The Uruguayan flag has Freemason symbolism in it, as well, and Freemasons still dominate the political sphere.

While Freemasonry may influence the country at the symbolic level, a laissez-faire and practical attitude permeates a lot of Uruguayan legislation and behaviour. They were the second country in the world to legalize gay marriage and have enacted very progressive abortion laws. In a country that only recently parted with Catholic predominance, these are not little steps! Marijuana is a regulated substance in Uruguay; the legalization and regulation has coincided with a dramatic reduction in the use of marijuana. Progressive practicalities also gave rise rise to Uruguay's Carnaval. 

Like most of the Americas, Uruguay imported slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. The difference in Uruguay is that - without plantations, factories or the like  - there wasn't much for the slaves to do. At the height of the slave trade, Uruguayan slaves had days off to do whatever they liked. One of the things they did was host parades celebrating the traditions and heritage they had been forced to leave behind. The Uruguayan slave owners loved these parades as a distraction from tending to their cows, and so imported more slaves and assigned them to put on more parades! (We tried to go to a Carnaval performance in the evening, but we couldn't find out what time it started. The websites all said they would be updated closer to Carnaval, and even our hotel staff couldn't figure out when performances were. Classic Uruguayan, according to Valentin.)

Back to the idea of mate for a moment. There is a style of watch that has gained traction in Uruguay specifically for this reason:

The flame is to light up a burner to heat water for mate!

While Uruguayans are tolerant of pretty much everyone, Valentin explained there is one group that is still persecuted to this day: vegetarians! It is a beef-heavy culture. A coastal country, they fish, but ship most of the fish elsewhere. (To countries that know what to do with the fish, according to Valentin.) Classic Uruguayan restaurants have a grill covered with various parts of various animals - though mostly cow. As Valentin later explained the surging running and cycling culture in Uruguay, as well as anti-smoking campaigns targeting improved health, he shared a secret with us. Uruguayans don't care whether you're black or white, straight or gay, or anything else. The reason they care about vegetarians is that deep down, they're afraid vegetarians may be right!

As Uruguay is a country of immigration, it is perhaps no wonder that we stumbled upon another cultural import as we wandered the city:

I suppose it doesn't say much that this real estate is for rent.

After the tour, we returned to our hotel - finally got a room - and enjoyed the view.

Though operating on little sleep, we prepared for an exploratory run. We ran along the stunning coast-line, naturally, and came upon a memorial to the holocaust as well as the welcoming sign to the city.

Depleted from lack of sleep, hot sun, and an hour of running, we made the only logical decision - look for a track to do a workout!

Admittedly, the workout was pretty much non-existent, though the facilities were stunning!

Back at our hotel, and unable to find out details for Carnaval, we opted instead for an orchestral "festival of Mozart" at the Teatro Solis.

("Solis" is in homage to the sun, the most important emblem in Freemasonry. However, when Uruguay was still dominated by the Catholic Church, the "official story" was that this theatre was named after the first explorer to discover Uruguay. The church insisted that it be re-named "Teatro de Solis" to avoid any apparent idolization of the sun. When the Catholic Church lost prominence, the name changed back to Teatro Solis. Incidentally, the explorer Solis was reportedly killed and eaten by the natives when he first arrived in Uruguay.)

The orchestra was excellent, but the day was catching up to us. We left at intermission and walked the brightly lit Montevideo streets back to our hotel and fell into bed.

1 comment:

  1. Your dad and I are enjoying reading of your latest adventure. I feel the same as you about Lima but if you do get a chance in the future you'll enjoy Cusco (the markets and Machu Picchu)much more.
    Thank you for sharing.