Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The pace of life is one of Montevideo’s most prominent qualities after a month and a half down here in Uruguay. This tiny South American country of just over three million people is nestled in between Argentine and Brazil on the Rio de la Plata, the world’s widest estuary, and the Atlantic Ocean. Commonly confused with the much poorer landlocked Paraguay, Uruguay is another world with one of Latin America’s most stable democracies and a large middle class flush with strong German and Italian heritages.
The beverage yerba mate, a South American infusion of hot water and the dried leaves from the yerba mate plant, is drank through a metal straw from a gourd and is the foundation of life here. People go about their day gourd-in-hand cradling a thermos between their arm and chest. The most popular activity in Uruguay is spending hours on end drinking the bitter beverage with friends on the Rambla, the boardwalk along the Rio de la Plata, to discuss politics (many are following the American primaries closely), socio-economic woes, soccer or just nothing; I had a 45 minute discussion the other day with a friend about the school’s photocopier.
While mate is certainly a very chill activity, the culture of tranquility does not stop there. One of the most common expressions is “todo tranqui” which is probably most appropriately translated as “everything’s chill.” I recently began an internship with Red Mercosur, a branch MERCOSUR, the economic union of South America. Red Mercosur is supposedly a network of institutions dedicated to economic research on regional integration, although my duties thus far have consisted of translating a few pages. I asked if there was a current project I could help with and was expecting to get a stack of TPS reports or something pertaining to economic development, trade or poverty in the context of regional integration. My supervisor’s response? “Todo tranqui.” I took that as a no and took another sip of mate while looking out over the waterfront from my desk by the window. Todo tranqui indeed.
There are certainly some trade-offs to todo tranqui. This country has got chilling down pat, but todo tranqui has probably resulted in a less productive and dynamic economy. Would Uruguayan’s give up some todo tranqui for more economic growth. I think not. People seem content to arrive at work anywhere between 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon to do their thing for a few hours before retiring to some mate. Could todo tranqui have a role in why Mercosur receives a lot of mixed press many people think it is inefficient or useless (many Uruguayans are in this boat)? Perhaps. If I can ever figure out exactly what it is that Red Mercosur does, or for that matter, Mercosur in general, I try and give you a better answer. Before I do that though, I need to take a break to chill and drink some mate.
Friday, April 11, 2008
Thursday, April 3, 2008
I quickly settled into life in Montevideo. I live two blocks from Jeremy, and Ruby Bolster, also from Middlebury, lives on my block, so we´ve spent a lot of time together. The pace of life is certainly slower here, which is frequently for the better, but can also translate to long, slow moving lines, and a more accurate translation for “ahora” (which literally means “now”) to mean anything from a few minutes from now to sometime before the world comes to an end. One of Montevideans (I don´t know if that´s a real word, but it works) favorite activities is to go the Rambla (the waterfront that stretches from Montevideo to Brazil) and drink mate for hours on end. It´s probably my favorite way to spend an afternoon here. For those who don’t know what mate is, yerba mate is a plant grown in the southern cone of South America and used to make a beverage similar to a tea. In a nutshell, to make the drink you fill a gourd up most of the way with herb, add hot water and drink the mixture through a metal straw with a strainer at the bottom so you don’t get a mouthful of leaves. Down here it is much more than a drink to most people. It is something to share with family and friends, to have as a study buddy (yes it does pack a bit of a punch), and there are a lot of traditions, customs and rules that go along with the preparation and consumption.
I´ve settled in well with my family, am live with an adorable old couple and their daughter in her late 20s or early 30s. They also have a son about the same age who left for Spain the day I arrived to visit friends and work for a while. They were quick to take me in and welcome me into their family. There have been a lot of things I´ve had to get adjusted to. First off is television. My family loves it. It´s on for about 95% of waking hours, and is the center of attention in the kitchen and where we eat. It´s one in the morning when I eat breakfast which is a short tangent to get sidetracked on now. They don´t eat breakfast other than coffee and milk, and say their stomachs feel bad if they eat in the morning. Back to television. It´s on all morning while my host dad and mom are around, usually watching it at the kitchen table. After my host dad goes to work around noon, the rest of the day my host mom is around with not much to do, and I think she mostly watches tv. Come evening when my host dad returns from work, he´s at at it again with the tv, and it´s on throughout dinner keeping us company right next to the table (we still have conversations, but it´s always right there if we want it), and they watch it until going to bed anywhere between midnight and 2, depending on what´s on.
Another difference is food. The staple in my house is milanesa, which is just battered and deep fried meat. We have chicken, veal or ham milanesa most nights of the week, accompanied with a type of fried or baked pastry, and sometimes a tomato salad smothered in vegetable oil and a little vinegar. Coke is the main beverage, which is "good because it helps hydrate you." They think it´s unhealthy to drink much water. Hmm...I guess between the coke and grease you get enough liquid each day. When we don´t have milanesa (we´re currently on three nights in a row), it´s usually either pasta or ravioli that´s been cooked for 30 minutes and left in the hot water until serving time, which can sometimes be a while. Needless to say, it usually disintegrates when you try to eat it. Since my other meal there is breakfast, they assumed that all Americans only eat fruit loops and frosted flakes, so they invested in a few boxes of the former and 4.5 pounds of the latter. They were blown away and think I´m a professional chef after I made an omelete, and couldn´t understand why I would want to eat something like granola, which they had never seen and were so puzzled as to why someone would want to eat cat food.
Although predictable, the food is alright and sometimes we have a good surprise, such as Gnocchi on the 29th of every month, which is eaten with money underneath your plate (old tradition to have a month of good money) or a good stew. It could be worse, so I´m not complaining (or am I?). Plus, I´m on my own for lunch (which is almost always milanesa for them), so I made a trek to the supermarket to buy non-deep fried foods and vegetables.
Although I miss Mom´s cooking, I still like my family and they´re really nice. They´re happy to answer any questions, we have some good conversations, I have my own room, they let me have friends over (but, like prep school, if it´s a girl, friend or more, they want the door to be open) and they sometimes ask what I want to watch during dinner! To boot my host mom always makes a delicious fresh juice mixture that may include any of the following: orange, peach, apple, carrot, melon and vermouth. They can be intense sometimes, as every night before I´ve had a bite of dinner, my mom asks in her booming voice(almost demands): ¨Eric! Do you like it? Is it good?¨¨Yes, this milanesa, it´s something special.¨I don´t need to try the food anymore to know what it´s going to taste like.
Enough for now, more on classes, university life, internships, etc. in the future.
January (with Lizz): I started in Niteroi (across the bay from Rio), Brazil, spent a week there and in Rio. From there, a bus north to Salvador for three days, another bus north to Maceio for another three days, followed by a final northbound bus to the twin cities of Recife and Olinda for two more days. Bus back to Salvador for a night before a flight back to Niteroi for a few nights. (In come Andy and Wendy for a week) Short bus south to Ilha Grande in the state of Rio for two nights, followed by a night back in Niteroi before a flight to Iguazu Falls for three more nights. Return to Niteroi for five days before Carnaval.
February (with Lizz, David, Sage and Jeremy): David and Sage arrive for the four days of Carnaval, followed by three more days in Niteroi and Rio. We flew south to Florianopolis, Brazil for two nights before continuing on a bus to Montevideo, Uruguay for two more nights. Bus and boat ride to Buenos Aires (in comes Jeremy) for five days before a bus west to Mendoza for five more days. Bus west to Santiago for a two days, mountaineering trip up Cerro Plomo outside Santiago, bus back to Buenos Aires and from there boat/bus to Montevideo.
The only problem with the trip was crossing into Chile. Maybe the altitude slows them down, because at 12,000 feet at Paso de los Libertadores, Chile and Argentina seem to have worked together to develop as inefficient a border crossing as possible. It took them over two hours to give everyone on our bus the two stamps to leave Argentina and enter Chile. Maybe a few more of the soldiers standing around could have set down their machine guns and picked up a stamp to help with the process. At least they forgot to charge each of us the $135 entrance fee that Americans have to pay. I guess the wait was worth it.We arrived late in the afternoon to meet our friend Sergio Juarez. David and I met Sergio when we did a NOLS course in the Chilean Patagonia in 2005. After becoming close friends over the three months down there, we hadn’t seen Sergio in three years, who has since become a father of the most adorable kid Santi. David, Jeremy and I stayed at with Sergio, Santi and his wonderful wife Kara in their house in the hills above Santiago. Over the next couple days we hung out, went hiking, climbing and had some serious bro sessions drinking mate (Santi at one and half years already loves it), listening to Jack Johnson and catching up. It was a very welcome break from cities and hostels.
Our time with David came to an end, as he had to head off to Valparaiso to study, and Jeremy and I asked Sergio, an expert guide around the area, for a good backpacking or mountaineering trip to celebrate my 21st birthday. We decided to try and summit Cerro Plomo, a 5450 meter (about 18,000 ft) peak a couple hours outside Santiago. Sergio outfitted us with all the gear and clothes we didn’t already have, and we packed up our ice axes, crampons and 25 hot dogs we bought for a dollar at the supermarket.We headed out on February 27th, my birthday, and were driven up an endless number of treacherous switchbacks to the trailhead at 12,000 and said our goodbyes to David, who was starting his program in another day. Jeremy and I hiked in for several hours, every step revealing a more gorgeous landscape and intimidating Cerro Plomo towering over us. We set up camp below 12,000 ft that evening and took a break to watch the sun set over the valley we were camped in and the mountains beyond. Although not the traditional way of celebrating your 21st birthday, I can´t complain, as it was certainly one of the best birthdays I´ve had.
When we got some food and the stove out to cook dinner, when we realized something was missing. The stove pump. Sergio had loaned us a stove and we had two bottles of fuel, but in the process of a quick stove review at Sergio´s house, the pump was left behind in the kitchen. Without the pump, the stove was useless. I suppose we could have tried pouring some gas on the ground, lighting it and holding a pot over it while burning our hands to a crisp. We went with an alternative and went to our neighbors a few hundred meters away to see if they happened to have a pump for an MSR Whisperlite™, a very difficult task as Chilean Spanish most closely resembles gibberish. You may not understand what they say, but Chileans can be extremely generous and nice, and the couple, much more prepared than us with two stoves, loaned us a stove and some fuel for a day, allowing us to eat that night and the next morning.The next day was a six-hour ascent up to the highest camp at over 14,000 feet. When we were at the more popular of the two base camps (an hour below where we camped), we ran into a group coming down from the summit. They didn’t even get close to the summit, which had been the story for everyone that week. When it came up that we didn’t have a stove pump, they asked if we were returning to Santiago after, and when we replied yes, they gave us a stove and more fuel (again, they had two), wrote down an address and phone number in Santiago and continued on their way as Jeremy and I continued on ours, speechless.
We got into camp very tirebut hoped to attempt the summit the next day if conditions were good. After twiddling our thumbs for a few hours around camp we began to feel the altitude as headaches and nausea set in. Okay, Jeremy is much more a man than I am...it was my head and tummy that were hurting, and they continued into the night, a sign I probably wouldn´t want to ascend another 4,000 ft hours before the sun comes up. That afternoon clouds rolled in along with some snow, and before long we found ourselves literally in the middle of a thunderstorm surrounded by our metal gear. Our three stoves and accompanying fuel reassured us that if we got struck by lightning it would be quick and painless. The next day we were both feeling better, and took the time to eat plain hot dogs and enjoy the views of the most spectacular mountains either of us had seen.
Summit day. Since we were at the higher of the two base camps, the other which had a few groups, we figured we could get a late start and hit the trail around four that crystal clear and bone chilling morning. As we climbed along in the starlight, we could see the lights of Santiago far below us. A French couple caught up with us and we took turns cutting fresh tracks up the mountain through the knee-deep snow, pausing occasionally to try and catch our breath in the thin air. Watching the sunrise over the Andes was nothing short of incredible, and I came to the conclusion that although South America has some great cities, its real gems are outside, having seen beaches, waterfalls and mountains. Again, every step revealed a more spectacular view of the Andes as Santiago disappeared beneath a thick layer of haze and smog. Late that morning, we reached a plateau before the last push of 150 vertical meters below the summit. The French couple, by now wasted on altitude and struggling to put together coherent sentences, decided to turn around while Jeremy and I trudged on.
Our first steps up the incredibly steep slope sunk all the way down to our waists. The weather holding, we continued up but the deep snow and steep face were quickly sapping our remaining strength, and after a third to halfway up about to collapse from exhaustion with a long descent ahead of us, we made the difficult decision to turn around about 100 meters below the top. The top was so close right in front of us, but it probably would have taken another hour to get there. While the ascent took seven hours, it took us just an hour and a half to get back to camp. Once we got our boots off, we didn’t have the strength/will to do anything with ourselves for a couple hours, and I imagine our conversation went something like this: “Bro, that was sick.” “Yeah. Man. Legit.” “For sure.” “Word.” Pretty content with how far we had made it (I had never been much higher than 10,000 feet) we become very happy that we turned around when we did, as a large group we could see descending that we had passed on our way down, disappeared into a cloud of snow and lightning that engulfed us too. Hopefully they didn’t die. If we had been a little scared the day before in a cloud of lightning, this time we figured that the best thing we could do to hope we didn’t get struck by lightning was to pass out and dream about Argentine girls.
We hiked out the next morning at nine as we were meeting Sergio that afternoon. We were happy we weren’t going for the summit that day, as it had snowed 8-12 inches in the last 18 hours. We made it out quickly in less than four hours, Sergio showed up 10 minutes later and we headed down. We filled Sergio in about our trip and stopped at a roadside stand with a backyard patio overlooking the hills for steak sandwiches and mote, a delicious sweet drink made with barley (no it’s not beer). Let’s just say it beat the hot dogs we had been eating for the last four days. Back at Sergio’s house we unpacked, showered, repacked, chilled, slept and headed to the bus terminal at eight the next morning after stopping by our friend’s work. I felt very American walking into a very serious and formal office building in jeans, a t-shirt and a stove/gas in hand.
As we had come to discover while traveling, things just work out, and the trend certainly continued that day. We had no idea if we would be able to get tickets to Buenos Aires that day or even the next, but when we walked up to our friend Cata International at the bus terminal, they had two seats for us on a direct bus to BA leaving in 10 min. Perfect. We got on the bus, with all the usual suspects—hot meals, movies that made up stereotypes about the Northwest, hot stewardess, wine and whiskey (the stewardess kept insisting on refilling my glass)—and pulled into BA exactly 24 hours later. We settled into a different hostel this time that was very nice and met a friendly old man in his late 70s. He was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s but was heading home after a month of traveling. He could not stop talking about how great the army was, but I decided to keep the conversation friendly and not give him my piece of mind.
The next morning, after a night out in BA that is the antithesis of a good night of sleep, we headed to the boat terminal to catch our ride back to Montevideo. It was about two miles away, so we figured the taxi could get us there in a couple minutes. We pulled up an hour later, thirty minutes after our boat was scheduled to depart. Not too pleased, we went inside, checked in, went through security, got our passports stamped and realized our boat hadn’t even boarded yet. God bless (Latin) America. It was a long trip to Montevideo and we got to our host families’ houses that evening after another 10-hour trip. I don’t think it needs to be said we were both exhausted after a five-day mountaineering trip, a 24 hour bus ride to BA, a sleepless night out and another 10 hour trip. I was looking forward to settling down and having a life.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
As the Rio de
The first thing I noticed about
After two days, David and Jeremy took off for
For our last day, I was itching to get out of the city and into the mountains. While I love cities, I had been doing city after city for almost two months, and wanted a little change of scenery. Lizz and I decided to go to on a hike around Potrerillos, which the tourism information center in town recommended. Once we were on the bus they said to take, we had gathered that we would pull into a bus terminal or stop that said “Potrerillos,” from which we could ask around about a hike. No so. After a couple of hours, there weren’t many people left. We asked a group of people where to get off, and they said we were at the last stop, and there was only one more bus returning to the city that day. It turns out our destination was nothing more than a region, and there is no central town. We got off the bus with the group of friends, and with rain clouds bearing down on us, they invited us into their house where we hung out with them and waited for the rain to pass. They were incredibly nice but also very weird. When the rain passed, Lizz and I had time for a little stroll through the rural neighborhood before catching the last bus to the city (which of course showed up 45 min late).
Our time traveling together had come to an end, as David, Jeremy and I had a bus ticket to