Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Uruguay kindly reminded me not to forget Mothers Day. So, Happy Mothers Day, Mom...You are the Budweiser of Uruguay! :) And amazingly enough, the brewery was founded in 1936, the year of your birth. 

Saludos Patricia! Of course, it's a little odd getting drunk on your mother night after night, but in the spirit of the great Persian poet, Rumi, I think it's a perfect way to celebrate what a good Mom she is, as those of you who know her can attest.

Caught by our own thoughts,
we worry about everything.
But once we get drunk on that Love
whatever will be, will be.
Bring the pure wine of
love and freedom.
But sir, a tornado is coming.
More wine, we'll teach this storm
A thing or two about whirling.

Of course, travelers cannot live on beer alone. We enjoyed another of Uruguay's national beverages... grappa miel, as did Henry.

Grappa is an italian brandy, which for whatever reason is mixed with honey (miel) here. It's tasty in the way of cough syrup. I first learned of grappa as a high school student via Ernest Hemingway who wrote of it in Farewell to Arms: "The next day in the morning we left for Milan and arrived forty-eight hours later. It was a bad trip. We were sidetracked for a long time this side of Mestre and children came and peeked in. I got a little boy to go for a bottle of cognac but he came back and said he could only get grappa."
- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 12

I was unable to locate the elusive fish empanada that Portenos told me existed in Colonia, our first stop, but I did find affordable salmon for the first time in 3 months and more bunuelos de algas (seaweed)

We rented bikes to ride around Colonia, which is a charming Portuguese town (a bit touristy but beautiful like Carmel, so all is forgiven) founded in 1680 for smuggling purposes when the Spanish wouldn't allow anything to ship via the east coast of South America...everything had to go through Lima in those days, which is why Buenos Aires was also rife with smuggling during that era. 

Uruguaysos speak a similar Spanish to Argentines, though they have a few different words which I've come to like. For 'esta bien' which is like OK, or alright, or fine...they just say 'ta'. Instead of 'che,' which is dude or guy in Argentina, they say 'bo'. There money is a tad prettier too.

and includes non-politicians and women, which is also a welcome sight. (Chile has a 5,000 peso note with Nobel poet Gabriela Mistral that I wrote about last year). Below is what would be the $50 bill....with poet Juana de Ibarbourou's likeness...she was a prominent feminist and her poetry was highly erotic
Oh, how I wish I could come upon Walt Whitman on our $50 bill or Allen Ginsberg on the $20.
One day America will live up to JFK's words etched in stone on the Kennedy Center:
"I look forward to an America honored not for its victories or defeats on the battlefield or in politics, but rather, for its contribution to the human spirit." George and Abe and Ben are legit on their bills, the rest need changing: I suggest MLK, Frederick Douglass, Whitman or Emerson or Ginsberg or Emily Dickinson...Mae West! Mother Jones! Sitting Bull.

The kids wear the same guardapolvos, but with big bows. It's more traditional here, more Spanish, less brassy and fashion-oriented. Uruguayans are chill and proud of that fact. They drink mate even more than the Argentines.

And yes, un monton (tons) of feral dogs. One gets adopted by them for a few hours at a time. They're good companions and just sort of hang out with you until they find something else more interesting to do. Most seem to get enough food, but of course, they don't end up neutered or spayed and if they get sick, they just suffer the consequences. But they're generally treated well and as much as it's not ideal, they aren't being euthenized en masse as so often happens in the US, if it weren't for the legions of dog rescuers who save at least some. It's funny to watch them chasing cars down major thoroughfares, which they tend to do generally around dusk. Below are two of the dogs who adopted us, one of whom was just a little puppy...I kept wondering..where is your mother, cachorro?

We headed east along the coast to the more remote beaches. Punta del Diablo is a classic beachtown of surfers, backpackers and little bars and restaurants that were really not much more than shacks.

We stayed at Diablo Tranquilo, a great hostel. It's good to stay in hostels now and again for the community of world travelers you always meet......we met a hippy family from Pennsylvania with two cute little kids, the charming Uruguayso Diego, and Sabina, from Azerbaijan via Canada. There was a nice little bar, decks, our room had a great ocean view (you can rent private or dormitory style rooms)..and there was good vegetarian food to be had. This hostel was run by an American who is not just a great host, but a very accomplished person for his 29 years. 

Previous to this hostel, which he started at 24, he worked in Brazil, analyzing economic issues and is one of the most well-informed people I've met in years. After having run his hostel here for 5 years, he totally understands the problems in South America and educated me considerably about the finer points. I really appreciated his insight on the corruption/stasis/economic malaise much is about relationships, not laws, which is different from our system. Success is not celebrated, but frowned upon. He agreed that the church is indeed an enormous obstacle and maybe the single biggest contributing factor to the tragic stasis of the class society in South America that keeps the rich rich and the poor poor and all of their economies and politics in a sort of cyclic left/then right/then left/then right ad infinitum rollercoaster of counterproductiveness. He has an understanding of capital and political theory that made me think he is going to continue to do great things (he's already started two family businesses here and has contributed enormously to the local economy. His was the first hostel here..there are now 32). He has a technology company in Austin and talked at length about how computers/the internet can create economic prosperity without the need for traditional capital, which is an especially huge and importnat point in economies that offer no access to capital to the majority of their citizens. He made me feel more hopeful after the hopelessness I was feeling after reading Galeano's book. I also see him as part of the younger generation that is capable of some real greatness, creating sustainable dynamic smart businesses for the future...In a word, I'd say the dude is more or less 'unstoppable'...Saludos Bryan!

 Next day we set off to the fort, a Spanish stronghold to contest the British and Portuguese presence in the Rio de la Plata (built 1762). I loved the orange lichen on its walls...


We took a bus up there and walked back on the beach for about 8 miles...saw about two people, and since it's a national park, it's pristine wilderness most of the way. We picked up trash (there is much less litter here in Uruguay, a nice change) partly because I like doing it, feel obligated to do it somewhat, and because I like garbage as it always has a story. And I like stories. You find the most interesting things among the garbage and the flowers.... had the added incentive that Diablo Tranquilo gives away free 40-ouncers to whoever brings back a bag of garbage after visiting the beach. We were like two little kids, coming up with some innovative transport methods that made me think there would be much to still work with in a post-apocalyptic world strewn with trash.

While imbibing our free 40, Bryan shared more: Uruguay has an 84% divorce rate. It's only 65% Catholic, much more Protestant, compared with Argentina which is like 90%. He also described some of the frustrations of running a business in a culture where not only do those in power shake down anyone who starts making money (the folks he helped start a business), but the tax system is such that you are taxed higher if you pay better wages, creating an incentive to pay low wages, which once again only preserves the class society status quo. At the same time, workers can sue--and usually do--their employers if they are fired and generally always win. This again preserves the status quo as the workers don’t feel completely screwed, and for the young, it means a windfall when you get fired, so you can take a trip to Spain or elsewhere.  He then described how this goes on for awhile until the country’s currency deteriorates, then there’s a rightwing backlash (Uruguay has a similar history to Argentina…a brutal dictatorship complete with disappearances happened here in the 70s as well, with few brought to justice). The rightwing backlash is then followed by a leftwing rebirth when the right collapses under the threat of social revolution. This has gone on for 300 years as he sees it and is the endless cycle each country is trapped in. We all sat there wondering how ever can we change this… Bryan is all about freeing up capital. I always think of land reform, a similar result, but which can only happen here via revolution, which I don’t  want to promote per the violence, which is why I always feel the most hopeful thing that happened in South America was the Allende election in Chile.. course, it was crushed by the US (along with the Guatemalan.., Salvadoran.., Nicaraguan..., etc. revolutions). Cuba is the other beacon of hope to Latin Americans... Say what you will of Cuba, it provided medical care and education to everyone and has radically transformed the usual class injustices found in all Latin American countries, even while being harassed by the US for 50+ years. That’s why it is looked to as a watershed moment in Latin American history, and somewhat idealized. But it's about to end. Who knows what will happen…Chavez is just another of the cycles, and how anyone can believe a military man can save an economy and improve the lives of millions is kidding themselves. Short term. Politics is short term Bryan kept saying…people are the only hope for longterm solutions. How to get them access to capital remains the big question. I liked his attitude that people are the answer..he has certainly done a great deal for many people and is an example how one person can vastly improve his surroundings.

We left Punta del Diablo, and leaving a tip, I accidentally placed a 1,000 Uruguayan peso note in the tip jar (that’s $100 bucks). I was thinking it was a $10…luckily I was counting my money ten minutes later, noticed the mistake and ran back down, and it was still in the tip jar. Those guys deserve a $100 tip actually, but I had to give them a more reasonable one that I could afford.

The ugliest statue I’ve ever seen…..some kind of mermaid in Paloma…we only stayed a day. It was a complete ghost town with only one café open as it’s now the low season. Paloma is a beach town, but a commercial one, unlike Punta del Diablo. It’s basically the budget version of Punta del Este which is the Miami South Beach scene, popular among Argentine rich folks, celebrities, etc. I did like all the pines on this stretch of the reminded me of South Carolina and is probably of the same latitude. This is on our way out via the bus terminal....

We did stay long enough to sample Uruguay's national wine...Tannat (much like Malbec, quite good)

Looking very old country…and old I suppose…on the banks of a Uruguayan river when our bus broke down and we had to wait an hour for a replacement....4 hours later, we rolled into Montevideo, a beautiful chill city, filled with the same leafy sycamore trees that graced Colonia....

Right now I’m writing in a café, but will need to upload later as there is no way to connect to the internet even though wifi is plastered all over the windows. Seems no one here knows the ‘clave’ (password).  This is a common South American experience. No one knows and no one finds out. I went to the next place, same prob...4 people...cooks, waiters, etc.... arguing over the password. No hay problema, I'll come back later. Sometimes I really miss efficiency, other times I like how things just go along and no one stresses. I’m also noticing there is always sugar in the coffee here because they don’t use espresso, they use normal grounds which are infused with a small amount of sugar. In Argentina, espresso is espresso, but drip coffee almost always includes sugar….there is only one brand I buy when making my own coffee that doesn’t have sugar. Uruguay is not really as much of a cafe culture...Argentina is like France or Italy, every friggin' corner...Uruguay is more like the have to hunt. It's not an empanada culture either, which we found out the hard way yesterday, when we had the worse empanadas I’ve ever had…basically ground beef sans any spices or flavoring in the one, and fatty ham and cheese in the other. Of course, this is a corner dive bar, with several mid-day drinkers carousing on the corner outside. 

The coffee was like liquid asphalt in this place, and it’s generally harsh and not good here in Uruguay. No wonder everyone is drinking mate. Later, while purchasing a small alarm clock in a kiosk, I had a funny conversation with the man behind the counter. “Is this clock from Uruguay?” I asked, just as I discovered the 'made in China' stamp on the box. His answer: “Are you kidding? We don’t have the technology here for clocks. Only cows.” I asked him if maybe they could teach the cows to tell time. He laughed and said, “Cows aren’t for thinking, they’re for eating, and besides, why teach the poor cow when he’ll be killed in a year?” Happily for me (not for the cow), my Spanish has jumped another level. It really is true what they say about learning a new language…you labor along frustrated, feeling you’re getting nowhere, then you have these sudden jumps to the next plateau. Of course there are many plateaus, and I’m still only halfway up the mountain, but I'm a backpacker so I'll get there eventually!

There is a lot more fish here thankfully….it is not a coincidence that Argentina is shaped like a side of beef or a steak. We kept looking at Uruguay…what is it shaped like? …..a bunuelo!

There are ugly buildings as well of course.....

and charming old rickety hotel rooms.....

We came upon this little fountain which is literally covered in padlocks. As the legend goes, if you put your name along with your beloved's on a padlock and lock it here, the love will be forever. :)

It’s funny to see the old buildings surrounded by new ones…they’ve deepened the sidewalks.

This is an old hotel, now a squat, by the port…the port is undergoing renovation and reminded me a lot of Seattle’s Pioneer Square, which was completely derelict when I lived there as a child in the 60s and is now filled with restaurants, shops, etc. There are still many abandoned buildings and this isn’t the US, so it could be decades before it looks anything like that, and there are many more squats in the numerous abandoned warehouses here. Montevideo is a very pleasant city overall, with great weather, friendly chill doesn’t feel like it’s falling apart as much as Buenos Aires does either. If the economy was more developed, people would flock here… the climate and culture are ideal. There are only 3.5 million people so there’s a sense that this country could really get it right in a way that is much more elusive for its more populated neighbors. Same population as Ireland.  And Ireland did what Bryan for the capital-less.

This guy had a bookstand on the street and offered a wealth of knowledge about Uruguayan lit. We also liked his red Yankees cap which I’ve never seen before, probably because red is not the Yankees color. It was also sort of funny to see a Uruguayan with a ‘Yanqui’ cap. Then again maybe the only good Yankee is a Red Yanqui!? Hardy har har….


Mate is even bigger here than in Argentina and you can see people walking around with their thermos bottle tucked under their arm, mate in hand, sipping. This guy at a bus stop not only was drinking mate in this manner, but was also checking messages on his cell and listening to music with headphones while holding a cigarette which he dragged on between sips of mate.

We had a funny moment in the Pre-Columbian museum, which covered everything from Assyria and Egyptian mummies to Rome and Buddhas...why not called it Museuam of Antiquities?...What do all these other cultures have to do with Columbus? Anyway, most of the stuff was copies of originals. We found the American section, but I really wanted to learn something about Uruguay....finally we found out.........

'piedras, nada mas' Ezequiel said non-chalantly....which is basically saying...just rocks...amidst all those Roman gods and buddhas and Aztec calendars and Nefertiti, it was side-splittingly funny at the time.....Uruguay was like California...simple hunters and gatherers, no giant temple-building organized society. Probably a much more pleasant place to have lived than in those so-called 'civilized' cultures actually....

There are no Starbucks here...yet.But the Argentine copies are around in the richer neighborhoods...Martinez and Havana which are clearly designed to compete with Starbucks...they have superior coffee of course as well as waiters.

I like the zipper grafitti

Ezequiel and I both like to read lit...he in Spanish, me in English...we're into Orwell right now.

We'll be back in Buenos Aires by Friday where we hope to see Russ and Michelle again, who John Parsons, my old college friend, connected us to. There's a great tango singing place in Congreso that we went to and we had a great time speaking Spanglish. These guys have been traveling for over 300 I recall...Thailand, Slovenia, Budapest to name but a few of the highlights. They're heading to Ecuador next.

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