FOREWORD: Below are some of my first impressions of a beautiful, little-known country in South America.
MATE ADDICTION: Uruguay, like most countries, has drinking and driving laws. Interestingly though, two laws are on the books: one against alcohol, another that prohibits mate, a bitter tea that is slurped from a hollow gourd with a metal straw then refilled with hot water from a Thermos. A tricky sequence. Traffic accidents were on the rise until politicians discovered that two hands for three actions didn’t add up.
There is no law, however, against drinking mate in every other imaginable place. On sidewalks, in parks and cafes and public buses, anywhere people gather, dominant arms fold like protective wings over Thermos bottles while the other hand is held in a permanent 90-degree angle so as not to spill the herbage from the gourd’s wide opening. It’s a national phenomenon that makes for interesting, sometimes comical people watching. At any given moment, based on my unscientific calculations, three out of ten Uruguayans are drinking mate, and the other seven are either waiting for their friend to pass the gourd, or are driving and will drink upon arrival to their destination….
MILITANT VEGETARIANISM: In Uruguay there are approximately four cows for every person. Uruguayans are very proud of this ratio. Much as mate is a national pastime (if not an inherited trait, passed to newborns like a natural disposition toward pickles or baldness), the asado, or BBQ, is the ultimate expression of the Uruguayan social scene. With the alcohol and food tab divided between all in attendance, people relax around the grill in a state of general timelessness as a variety of flanks and ribs and sausages slowly sizzle to perfection.
With so much social importance attached to the asado, a curious movement has emerged in the capital of Montevideo: the militant vegetarian. In no other city have I seen so much graffiti dedicated to stopping the asado, to saving the cow, to informing the world that animals feel pain too. Phrases like “Meat is death” and “VEGAN” are spray painted on major monuments and government buildings. A rodeo stockyard wall was tagged in big block letters with “Meat Parade of Ignorance.” This post neither approves nor disapproves but instead acknowledges that the graffiti achieved its mission, the mission of all conscientious graffiti: it made me think. Hyperlinked here are some staggering facts about meat that I’ve since read….
MEN KISS MEN: In public. In private. At work. In restaurants. At the asado. Helloing. Goodbying. The masculine ‘kisses’ that take place hundreds of thousands of times per day in Uruguay are not really kisses at all. They’re more like mafia cheek pecks that display each clan’s loyalty to the other, much like how the handshake evolved from the medieval days in which knights clasped each other’s forearms to prove no weapons were concealed there.
Of course, handshakes still exist—you’d almost never “kiss” a man upon meeting for the first time—but as encounters increase in frequency the man-kiss is essential to developing the relationship. Despite my foreignness, the male friends I’ve made now greet me by rubbing their scruffy cheeks against mine in a quick bro-hug reminiscent of Sicilian hit men. Woman-on-woman and woman-on-man kisses are as normal as mate, the difference being both are served up with generous sides of touching and lip smacking sound—two faux pas that will move your man-kiss in the realm of questionable macho-ness….
GYPSY PROPERTY LINES: Excluding the 1.3 million stronghold of Montevideo, the average size of the Uruguayan city is 30,000 people. From the Brazilian border to the fashionable Punta del Este, my low-season experience in the abandoned beach towns and forgotten villages the line the Atlantic was closer to 1,500 people. I came to view the house clusters as islands that faded in and out of pastureland, their shapes archipelago-like in smooth oceans of field, little dots on a pancake expanse so flat that they could be viewed seemingly huddled together from even the smallest hilltop.
After visiting these communities a doubt began to sing louder than the mp3s in my ear buds. Something, I noticed, was off. In Cabo Polonio, the remote fishing village timelessly surrounded by sand dunes, the off-ness was more obvious, or at least more concentrated. Here my unease became a metaphor: it was as if a Gypsy oxcart had pushed across Uruguay throwing off its extra weight, and where the accordion and tea kettle and wooden chest full of denim and corduroy matching suits crashed against the ground, there bloomed a village.
Since my Uruguayan friends won’t appreciate the Gypsy comparison I’ll be less subtle: Uruguay is the first country I had visited in which social contracts and property boundaries seemed to be an after-thought. Three in-country weeks later, I now know this is not the case, that law is a highly respected Uruguayan institution, especially when land rights are involved. However, the ramshackle of shelters piled atop each other in creative and spontaneous ways, like Gypsies circling ox carts in a Walmart parking lot, made me wonder whether disputes were settled with knife fights and horse races, girls seduced with mullets and sheep counts, property purchased with whisky bottles and man-kisses….
INEXPLICABLE BATHROOM SWITCHES: In Uruguay the light switches are OUTSIDE THE BATHROOM. This Uruguayan engineering is as confusing as Cabo Polonio’s backyard boundaries. What if, mid-shower, you want to turn on the heat lamp but the bathroom door opens to the living room? What if you need to short-circuit the source after a blow dryer falls in the tub? What if your toilet reading time falls on those precarious minutes between dusk and darkness when newspaper white becomes black as night? In my rational, American mind that was taught to sandpaper minor inconveniences into million-dollar patents, this unreachable light switch has become my Uruguayan glass ceiling. Until I can understand this elusive plastic button and its placement, I will never understand the Uruguayan people and the national psyche that created and embraced it….
ELDERLY EVERYWHERE: I arrived to the capital Montevideo at the beginning of Easter Week. I had been expecting youthful power walks across enormous European-inspired plazas, tight jeans and equally tight leather jackets as professional women pounded the sidewalks with sophisticated boots, also leather; men gathered in bars with wooden booths where their neutral-colored scarves hung next to their satchels on special hooks. Ecetera, ecetera, in run-on sentences with bad punctuation. Life on public display, youth raw and dripping sex, energy everywhere—this was the Montevideo of my mind, basically a mini-Buenos Aires.
Pedaling into the city, I saw none of the above. The pedestrian streets were null and void, a few cars putted along the city’s main vein avenue, 18 de Julio, and a natural wind whistled through the canyons of humble business buildings that seemed more apt to echo the urban howls of car honks and sirens. Instead, tweed jackets gently draped over the backs of café chairs, tango partners swayed to crackled speaker music in a still nameless park, and the contrasting lines of hunchbacks with canes accentuated the mostly unelectrified, shuttered-up storefronts. The average age: 70. As it turned out, the city ups and leaves during their week-long Easter vacation, to the nearby beaches, to Argentina, to Brazil. The only people who stay in Montevideo are the retired, aged 65 and over, who cannot afford to travel on their US$170 monthly pension check.
With Easter over, the streets are alive again with tight leather and fashionable five-o’clock shadows, moving above an arthritic crawl, but it turns out my first impression was not too far from the everyday reality. Uruguay is a country for old men (as opposed to No Country for Old Men, get it?) because a surprising amount of the educated, qualified youth leave Uruguay in search of economic stability abroad, mostly in Europe and the United States. Most every Uruguayan I’ve come in contact with has a friend or family living abroad….
POLITICAL PEOPLE: In Punta del Este I witnessed something that reminded me of the chaos following the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001: blocks and blocks of cars waiting to buy gas. When I asked a policeman who was directing traffic why they were in line, he responded, “The workers are going on strike during Easter Week.” During my three weeks in-country, the gasoline and gas industries have gone on strike, I’ve met several families whose members were jailed for years (!) as political prisoners during the 70s dictatorship, and I constantly hear snippets of heated political debate on the radio, in the streets, and among groups of youth. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Perhaps due to its size, perhaps due to this political consciousness, Uruguay has largely avoided the wide-spread corruption of its South American neighbors while maintaining a (mostly) friendly dialogue that includes all its almost four million citizens.