91. Life in Uruguay

For months, my old man has been suggesting I write a post about life in Uruguay. “People love travel blogs,” he said. I’ve put it off because writing about other things—heroic bunnies and bladed weapons, for example—has been more fun.

Today is my last full day in Uruguay, however. My packing is done. Tomorrow I must endure the horrors of international travel. This is my last opportunity to write about my sojourn in Montevideo before it comes to an end.

I’ll start with the parrots.

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is full of trees, and those trees are full of parrots. They aren’t as common as, say, pigeons, but it’s not unusual while strolling along the sidewalk to hear parrots squawking overhead. My parents love them, but most Uruguayans consider them to be pests.

My parents’ neighborhood in Montevideo

Apart from the ubiquitous trees, Montevideo features many old buildings. Some of these have stood for centuries, dating from the colonial period. Others are fashionably old. Many are merely decrepit. These crumbling, rusting, peeling structures seem to have accepted their fate, and are now patiently awaiting the inevitable.

Montevideo stands beside a large body of water. I assumed it was the Atlantic ocean, but my old man informed me it’s actually an estuary: a cross between a river mouth and an ocean bay. An avenue called la Rambla runs along the water. It’s the backbone of the city. Turning off la Rambla plunges an unwary traveler into a maze of one-way streets.

The fanciest neighborhoods feature European-style buildings, bright flowers and beautiful views of the water. The seedier neighborhoods are decorated by graffiti and weeds. Most buildings are at least two or three stories tall.

The system for numbering floors in Uruguay is different than in America. A four-story building in America would be called a three-story building in Uruguay; the floor at ground level is simply called “ground level,” and “first floor” refers to the first floor above ground level.

Two other striking differences between America and Uruguay are electrical outlets and keys. The prongs on electrical plugs in Uruguay are round, not flat. The voltage in Montevideo is high, so low-power appliances get fried if they’re plugged in without an adapter. Uruguayan keys are charming because they’re designed in the old-fashioned way, complete with long barrels and teeth. Car keys are an exception, being identical to their American counterparts

Since Uruguay is located south of the equator, its seasons run in an opposite cycle to seasons in the northern hemisphere. January, February and March are summer months in Uruguay, while July, August and September are winter months. While it doesn’t snow in Montevideo, my parents tell me it can turn bitterly cold.

Most Uruguayans drink yierba mate, a kind of herbal tea. My old man and I like it. My mum insists it tastes “like pasture where cows have been recently.”

Uruguayans drink yierba mate from cups (usually fashioned from gourds or cow horns) called mates. The yierba is sipped through metal filters called bombillas that look a bit like straws. A single mate full of yierba leaves can last an entire day, provided the drinker refills the mate regularly with hot water. Many Uruguayans carry leather satchels called materas around with them, containing mates, bombillas, yierba mate and thermoses of hot water. As an avid drinker of tea, I wholeheartedly applaud Uruguay’s devotion to its favored brew.

A thermos, a mate and a bombilla

Everyone in Uruguay eats meat. (Sorry, vegan friends.) My mum once told me even the salad bar at a local restaurant featured meat. My favorite local cuisine is the chivito, a dish served al pan (as a sandwich) or al plato (on a plate) consisting of beef, bacon, eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and other trimmings. The literal meaning of chivito is small male goat, which seems appropriate.

The atmosphere in Uruguay is oddly European. Cities like Montevideo are populated by cultured, classy people. By contrast, the countryside is full of farms, ranches and small towns. Some of Uruguay’s major exports are beef, leather, yierba mate and amethysts. Tourism is also a major industry.

Spanish is the primary language spoken in Uruguay. The local dialect is different from the language I learned as a child in Ecuador. For example, impecable (impeccable) and divino (divine) are the Uruguayan equivalent of cool or awesome. Strangely, bárbaro (barbarous) is an informal synonym for good. It gave me quite a shock when a dentist in Montevideo inspected my teeth and proclaimed, “I’ve checked your teeth, and they’re barbarous.”

Uruguay is extremely secular. Christianity is considered foolish or quaint by most Uruguayans. Easter Week is known as Tourism Week by government decree. Despite its secular outlook, the country is full of superstitions and pagan practices. My old man sometimes finds coins, candles, decapitated chickens or other sacrifices set out to appease gods, idols or possibly Cthulhu.

In spite of sea, sunshine and beautiful scenery, the general mood of Uruguay is one of pessimism. My mum described the country as “a nation of Puddleglums,” alluding to the gloomy character from the Narnia books.

My favorite thing about Uruguay is that my parents and younger brother live there.

I thank God for my time in Montevideo. While I’m not quite sure what lies ahead of me, I’m hoping for the best.

My typewriter monkeys are excited for the trip back to the United States. I hope they find their suitcase comfortable.

6 thoughts on “91. Life in Uruguay

  1. Very interesting! There is yierba mate in some of the drinks at Geneva as the “new natural ingredient to replace caffeine” but your yierba mate sounds highly more authentic 🙂 I hope your transition into the States isn’t too challenging!!

  2. I loved Montevideo! I stayed in the Pocitos (?) neighborhood and drank an ocean of mate, sat on the beach, read about a thousand pages and thoroughly relaxed there. The people were great. The chivitos were excellent as well.

  3. Pingback: Home, sweet Uruguayan home | Latinsphere

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