Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pan de Azucar

I took a day trip to Pan de Azucar which in English translates to "Sugar Loaf," a quaint town in Eastern Uruguay. I intended to climb the large hill or cerro in Pan de Azucar that you see below. There's a 35 meter cross resting on the top of this third largest hill in Uruguay, but let's just say that I never made it to the top of the hill.

I hop off the bus in downtown Pan de Azucar only to ask for directions to a tourist center or somewhere to buy a map. Oh wait, there isn't anywhere like that in this sleepy little town. That's ok. I'll just walk in the direction of the giant hill with the cross on top. I walk and walk and walk.

I walk alongside major highways, through farmer's fields, and unbounded natural brush. Other humanity is not to be found, but that's ok, as long as I keep the hill in front of me and head toward it, all will be fine.

Unfortunately the terrain is swampish from the rains of the past two weeks. My sneakers get soaked in squishy black mud. I climb over fences where cattle and horses graze and walk alongside large animals that begin to make terrible snorting noises. The brush gets thick in front of me, but the cerro is ahead so I push onward.

I climb through sharp thorns and thistles that get tangled in my hair, poke through my clothes, and cut my skin. But I know the hill is up ahead. A burning sensation creeps up my right leg. I look down and panic. My jeans are coated in a thick layer of big fat red fire ants. It is at this point I start half screaming-half crying while swatting the ants away. They crawled up my jeans, in my socks, and down my shoe; and I am still in the middle of the thistley brush. There is nothing I can do but slog back through the mud and nasty underbrush behind me.

I trek back out of the mess I got myself into and about 4 hours later I get back to where the bus dropped me off. Turns out there are no more seats left on any bus back to Montevideo until the very last one departing that evening. Fine. I'll take that one. I am covered in mud and it's getting cold, so where is the closest restaurant or cafe I can wait in until the bus comes? Oh there are none, the man at the counter says. No really, there has to be something. Nope not really. And there wasn't. I walked in every food service looking place asking for a cup of coffee but nobody could help me. Finally a kilometer out of town, I found a pizzeria that let me sit inside and watch the news while I drank a tall glass of cafe con leche. The best part of my day.

Overall, I'd have to say Pan de Azucar is a pretty agricultural town with spectacular sunsets, but I didn't have much luck the day I visited. However, at least it wasn't as bad as my trip to Concordia--no hitchhiking was involved this time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Heritage Day

Dia del Patrimonio or "heritage day" celebrations in Uruguay were a lot of fun. We got to see various museums, parades, displays, music, dances, performances, and other assorted festivities.

The photos you see are of candombe groups who usually perform during carnaval. Candombe is a style of music and dance that originated in Uruguay. I will dedicate a future post to explaining it more.

It seemed like everyone came out to enjoy the traditions of Uruguay. There were people everywhere in Ciudad Vieja and Centro. Uruguayans seem to be proud to be Uruguayan.

And what celebration would be complete without a giant jar of dulce de leche? This is biggest jar of dulce that you've ever seen. I have to admit...I gave it a hug.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dia del Patrimonio

Today and tomorrow (September 26th and 27th) the Dia del Patrimonio is being celebrated in Uruguay. If you are somewhere in Montevideo or the interior check here for a list of events in your city. Most government buildings are open to the public and there are to be celebrations of all types. I will report on what fun I get myself into these next couple of days.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Camp for High School Students

Earlier this week I helped at a camp in Carmelo for students who attend Liceo Jubilar. Liceo Jubilar is the high school that I visited last week in a neighborhood where the poverty was almost unimaginable. The school is doing admirable developmental work in the community.

The students at the camp were amazing. They know they have many challenges to face in order to meet their life-goals, but they were very open and willing to talk about their situations. Their realities are very different than any group I've worked with before (at camps or in the classroom).

My heart goes out to them. I want to see them overcome their circumstances. While everything might seem against them, they still have the potential to be profoundly successful. When I look at these students I see great potential. They can do anything they set their mind to. They just need the love, encouragement, and education that all children should be afforded.

At the camp, another Fulbrighter and I taught the students about the human values in the US Constitution and about American music. In the photo you can see the students learning how to swing dance.

I also taught them how to dance some hip hop (because I'm clearly an expert on the subject from the semester of Street Jam classes I took at my university's rec center last year, cough, cough). Awkward dancing aside, camp turned out to be quite a bit of fun!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Carmelo, Uruguay

These past couple of days, I've been in Carmelo, Uruguay helping with a camp for high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Carmelo is a cozy little town in the Eastern Uruguay nestled along the Rio de la Plata. The pace of life is much slower in Carmelo than in Montevideo. People ride through the streets on bicycles and pedestrians stroll casually alongside the river.

It is a beautiful little town in Uruguay, worth a visit if you are in search of a some rest and relaxation. I will post more about the camp to follow.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

7k Race in Montevideo

I ran in a race today. Yes, that's right. A carrera. A race! The 7k BBVA. Christine talked me into doing it. I have no idea how she managed to convince me (she must be very persuasive).

The race looped around the rambla along the Pocitos beach. It was only 7k (or 4.35 miles) which wasn't very much at all. My usual run along the rambla is 6k, so I figured might as well tag on another kilometer, join a herd of other runners, and get a cool shirt in the process.

The amount of runners who showed up was insane. There were probably close to 3000, or so we figured since our race numbers were in the 2600's. I can't believe how fast the race went. It seemed like it was over in a flash even though I had second doubts about signing up for it in the first place.

They gave us a chip to tie to our shoes to track our times. They also gave us free water mid race that I about choked on (there's probably some skill to running and drinking from a plastic cup simultaneously, but it's still a mystery to me). And after the race we got a medal. Woot woot. This one's for the trophy case!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Suburb Slums

I visited a liceo (high school) in the suburbs of Montevideo today. The suburbs in Uruguay do not mean the same thing as they do in the United States.

The suburbs are not full of middle class families with 2.5 kids, neatly mowed lawns, and a minivan in the driveway. The suburbs in Uruguay are where the poorest of the poor live. I didn't have my camera with me, but I did capture a few quick shots with my phone. I wish I could show you more.

The poverty is shocking--appalling even. I could never imagine living in such conditions. When people say that Uruguay is a third world country I generally think tisk, tisk, you don't know what you are talking about, Montevideo is relatively wealthy. Most people make enough money to live comfortably. But not in the suburbs. Not in the slums of the city.

When I see such utter poverty, I can't conscientiously go on living the way I am. I cannot not do anything. It's reprehensible that there are children living in such conditions. What can I do? What can you do? What can we do?

Because something needs to be done!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Expo Prado

I went to Expo Prado with a teacher from one of my conversation classes and her friend. It was a great time.

Expo Prado is basically a large farm show or agriculatural exhibition in the Prado neighborhood of Montevideo. This year is the 104th Expo hosted by the Rural Association of Uruguay "where all sectors of the national economy are represented." And 530,000 visitors are expected to attend.

Besides all of the livestock displays (cows, pigs, goats, sheep, bunnies, hens, horses, etc.), there were also many businesses represented, from industrial tractor companies to cellphone service providers. A lot of corporations hired pretty girls in matching outfits to hand out advertising pamphlets to passerbys.

There were also public awarness booths (like for the transportation ministry or national army among many others) and artisinal stalls where I picked up a few presents and another silver ring for myself (I might have a slight ring-buying addiction. Somebody stop me!).

There were also lots of tasty food options. You could buy a hamburger from a little cart on the street or sit down for a full asado dinner. I personaly had a taco from the Mexican embassy's tent. Finally--some spiciness! The first time I've had anything with actual hot sauce since arriving in Uruguay.

I think my favorite part about Expo Prado was people watching. There were people from all classes and walks of life at the expo (and they were all drinking mate). There were gauchos from the interior, children in school uniforms, rich women in leather coats, farmhands in knee-high rubber boots, teenagers in skinny jeans, and grandpas in sweater vests. Everybody came out to take part in Uruguay's commercial and industrial success.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Arms Race or Poverty Reduction?

Uruguay's president, Tabre Vasquez, is in the US this week at the very end of his term. He met with Hillary Clinton and the article that gets printed in the Associated Press has something to do about an arms race in South America.

Way to steal the spotlight, Venezuela, as usual. Chavez starts yelling about the US presence in Colombia and rounds up 2.2 billion dollars to purchase weapons and all the talk focused on how out of control he is. As printed, "Vazquez said he feared that an arms race in the region could divert funds from economic development in the poor countries of the region." And how true that is. Instead of playing with guns, why don't we earmark some funds for social justice, economic reform, or poverty reduction?

This article, Uruguay: A Chance to Leave Poverty Behind suggests that adequate funding for programs like "Plan de Equidad" (aimed at reducing poverty in the nation) implemented by the Ministry of Social Development can have some real results. For example, almost 12 percent of the Uruguay's population that was considered under the poverty line 4 years ago, no longer is and extreme poverty rates dropped from 4 percent in 2004 to 1.5 percent in 2008. The plan includes "initiatives like the food purchase card, new homeless shelters, the expansion of free health coverage, literacy and social inclusion programmes, and programmes for generating decent, stable employment, improving housing, providing free dental care, and offering free eye operations." While these services do have a socialist bent, they appear to be working (along with economic reform) to help the poor in Uruguay, and they are certainly better than investing an outrageous regional arms race.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Religion in Uruguay

Religion in Uruguay is not widespread. Uruguay is often considered one of the most secular countries in the Americas. Most people I have come to know fit this generalization fairly well. Religion is not a big part of people's lives here, but on the bright side, there is a lot of religious freedom.

A few quick stats:
47.1% of Uruguayans define themselves as Roman Catholic
23.2% as believing in God but without religion
17.2% as Atheist or Agnostic
11.1% as Protestant Christian
The population is largely non-religious, or religious, but not practicing, or what I would call "casually religious."

That said, religion does exist here. This Sunday a friend invited me to church so I went. It was the first time I've been to a church in many many months. It felt good. It felt like home. Something that has been missing from my life for a long time. The people's love for God and for others was very evident.

I think I will go back next week.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Movie: Mal Dia Para Pescar

I went to see the Uruaguayan film, Mal Dia Para Pescar (Bad Day to Go Fishing), by director, Alvaro Brechner, at the movie theater this weekend. The film earns a mixed review from me. On the one hand there were a few funny lines, artistic shots, and references to Uruguayan culture, but for the most part it just wasn't my type of movie.

It is the story of an aging boxer and his manager trying to run a gambit to make money. They come to a certain town in Latin America and their plan hits a bump in the road.

It's not that I hated the movie or that I loved it either. The profuse amount of chain smoking and booze-drinking started to pester me about three-fourths of the way through though. The movie's premise (fighting) didn't make it any better either--more of guy movie perhaps? If the characters had been developed better I may have been won over. As is, I could take it or leave it. The Pope's Toilet is still the best Uruguayan film I've seen.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Theater in Montevideo

Montevideo has a strong theater community. This past month I have gone to two performances. One at the beautiful Teatro Solis (pictured below) and one at the Anglo Centro Cultural. One a commentary on torture, and the other a light-hearted comedy.

At Teatro Solis we saw Resilencia, a one man performance expressing the what it was like to be tortured as a political prisoner during the military dictatorship from 1973-85. The linked article states that the director understands "el cuerpo es la Ășnica pertenencia que le queda a un individuo para mantener su dignidad" (the body is the only possession that an individual has left to keep his/her dignity). The show was dark, somber, and visually thought-provoking. The use of light, really only a light bulb on a rope, was surprisingly brillant.

The other show we went to see at the Anglo was Cada Vez Me Gusta Mas. It was a fun play with several up-beat songs interspersed between antecdotes about the lives of the two main characters. It was full of references to Uruguayan culture and life in Montevideo. At one point during the show the actor stopped the show and yelled at Christie and me for talking. I am not kidding. Somebody, cough, not me, wanted to sit in the front row, but when the actor caught us whispering he looked at us, asked for the lights to be turned on, asked us if we go to a "special school" and then told us to shut up. How mortifying. My face has never been more red in my life. I wanted to melt into the floor. (Just for the record it WAS a comedy and other members of the audience were picked on too. Maybe we were just a part of the act? I hope.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bags of Milk and Runny Yogurt

In the mood for some yogurt? Get out your twisty straw. Yep, that's right, no spoon needed. Yogurt is a slurp-able substance south of the equator.

Thick creamy yogurt is not the norm for South American households; it's usualy runny, or "bebible" as they call it ("drinkable"). In the hotter months, this consistancy didn't bother me because I just threw it in the freezer and had a thickened yogurt smoothie, but now that it's cold outside the only way to have yogurt is the drinkable way.

I suppose the consistancy is something I can get used to, but the packaging is something I will never fully enjoy. Liquidy dairy substances, like milk and yogurt, are always sold in rectangular plastic bags. Once you cut of the tip of the bag to pour yourself some milk you have to put the bag in some sort of container or it will spill everywhere (unless you can drink 1 Liter of milk with your coffee every morning), and sometimes it will spill everywhere just from the pouring, if you don't have your skill just right.

In addition, the plastic bags aren't very sturdy. I always see some poor grocery store employee mopping up milk spills in the refrigeration section. I bet s/he wishes Uruguay had cartons for their milk too.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Artigas' Mausoleum

If you are ever in Montevideo you need to visit the mausoleum of Artigas, Uruguay's national hero. But you may need to visit fast.

In the center of Plaza de Independencia is a statue of the beloved Artigas on a horse. This plaza is the heart of the city. Below the ground, down a few stairs, his body rests in well-guarded box. Two stoic, statuesque soldiers always stand by in full regalia guarding his remains. They don't move, ever. Even if you dance in front of the them waving your hands, they still won't recognize your presence. In the rest of the mausoleum, the lighting and block letters on the walls provide a very distinctive ambiance, that I find to be quite appealing.

Recently there has been some chatter about moving Artigas' eternal resting place because the mausoleo was built during the dictatorship in Uruguay. Some declare this is a political move, other say it is necessary to commemorate Artigas appropriately. No matter what the issue, when Artigas is involved, there is sure to be a firey discussion.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gay Adoption Law

Uruguay officially became the first Latin American country to allow gay couples to adopt children. Today the senate passed a bill that will let gays and lesbians adopt. As this article says,

"Uruguay has a long tradition of leading the way in civil rights, and has shown a desire to move ahead quickly on such questions,"
Earlier this year, Uruguay made headlines for allowing homosexuals in the military. It seems Uruguay continues proving itself to be more and more progressive.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hecho Aca

I went to Uruguay's largest craft exposition in Montevideo: Hecho Aca y La Mesa Criolla. The entry fee was 70 pesos to get into LATU, near the Portones Shopping Center, with three covered pavilions filled with artisan crafts.

Every handicraft you could imagine was featured--and everything was made by hand in Uruguay. There were goods crafted of leather, glass, ceramics, silver, wool, precious stones, wood, and so much more. I came home with a something special--a ring. But not just any ring, it is a ring carved out of cow horn. It's awesome. A little piece of Uruguay to carry around with me.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tango Mania

As if I haven't posted enough times about tango, I will give you one more taste of the South American dancing craze that consumes Uruguay and Argentina.

While in Buenos Aires with Emily we saw tango at every turn. There wasn't a day with out it. In fact, there probably wasn't a 5 hour time period without some sort of tango flashing past our eyes. There were street performers, live music in restaurants, tango dancers posing for pictures with tourists, old couples dancing the evening away in the Confiteria Ideal, and more. Buenos Aires was a complete tango mania.

I captured a video of some very good tango dancers in the Recoleta neighborhood. Even though the picture is small (sorry, I shouldn't have turned my camera vertically and then rotated the video), you still have to watch! This video clip is much clearer than the last one I uploaded. You can't not love tango when it's this beautiful.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Yerba Mate

I would be remiss if I did not tell you about yerba mate (pronounced like mah-tay) while in Uruguay. Yerba mate is the favorite drink of all of Uruguay. You can't walk down the street without seeing tons of people clutching their mate gear and sipping this warm drink all day long.

Yerba is a kind of plant with caffeine like properties that is ground up and scooped into a gourd. Then hot water is poured into the gourd, and the mixture produces a bitter tea-like drink. (You best like your mate "amargo" or bitter, because adding sugar is cheating, and you will be made fun of by any real Uruguayan). This potent beverage is then drunk using a metal straw that has little holes in the bottom (called a bombilla) to filter the yerba.

Mate is often passed around in social circles to be shared with the whole group. It is the central bonding element between friends and family. It connects people together. Drinking mate is as much about loving the taste as it is about loving the tradition.

Mate is more than a drink; it's an obsession. It is a beautiful cultural symbol of the Uruguayan people.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Want a Smoke?

New Images "decorate" cigarette cartons. This article in El Pais, gives a glimpse at the new labels cigarette companies are required to print on their cigarette cartons. See the labels below, but be warned that they are very graphic.

Since arriving in Uruguay I've been abhorred by the images of babies smoking, corroded lungs, and other nasty graphics already plastered on the side of cigarette boxes (I don't smoke but I have friends that do). Now, the images are to get worse. More graphic. More terrifying. And surpisingly these photos have to cover at least 80% of the carton.

Shocking, right? Wouldn't seeing these make you think twice about lighting up next time? I don't know.

I've talked with friends about how they can continue to smoke while such terrible things are printed on the side of their cigarette packs, but they have all said, that they are aware of the health risks, but it's not enough to change their behavior. One friend said she covers the picture of the baby with her hand. Nobody needs to see that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Club Bohemios

Thanks to the wind and rain keeping me for running along la rambla (the path along the beach pictured below), I joined a gym today! I've been meaning to for the longest time, but I couldn't find one just right for me, until I stumbled upon Club Bohemios. A few of the gyms I visited were rather gross, too far away, missing a pool, no good classes, or too expensive. Club Bohemios is close to my house and they offer tons of activities.

I went to volleyball tonight, and it wasn't any casual-toss-the-ball-around volleyball. It was tomorrow-I'm-gonna-be-sore volleyball. My favorite kind.

I also took advantage of the indoor pool. Finally, a pool! I haven't been able to swim laps in over 6 months.

The best part is that they were running a promotion where if you buy 3 months at once, you don't have to pay matriculation. Oh yeah, sign me up baby. The price in total with the medical examination and ID card was 2,650 pesos or about 120 dollars. That's only $40 a month. I think that's less than what you'd pay for the same type of gym in the US, although I'm no expert on such matters. Regardless, I'm really happy to have a place to go exercise rain or shine and hopefully the variety of activities will keep me motivated to actually go everyday.


While Emily was visiting me in Montevideo, we went to a futbol (soccer) game at the estadio central (which also happens to be where Uruguay won the first World Cup in 1930 for all you sports fans out there).

The game was fun, although I felt a little out of place for three major reasons.

1. We were two women in a sea of testosterone.
2. We didn't know the cheers of the "barra brava" (aka. crazy futbol fans, mostly 19 year old boys with firecrackers and drums)
3. I dressed inappropriately. I knew our team's colors were blue and black because I made a specific point to ask someone which colors to wear. But, it was rather cold that night so I wore my red coat over my blue and black shirt only to find the other team showed up in red. Great.

And on topic of discomfort, my stomach was less than pleased with me that evening as well. I have never eaten a more greasy hamburger in my entire life. My stomach gurgles just thinking about it. The bread's only function was to sop up the grease from the burger. And the woman I bought it from touched my money and then touched my hamburger. Yummy.

But even more yummy was the torta frita (fried dough) we had afterwards. There's just something about sports stadiums and fried foods together--they're universal.