Sunday, October 25, 2009

Uruguayan Elections 2009

My penultimate day in Uruguay was spent witnessing the Uruguayan elections, a once-in-five-year opportunity. At stake were the presidency, the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and two referendums (on whether to repeal the constitutional clause that protects the military dictatorship from being tried and whether to allow Uruguayans residing abroad to vote). As I mentioned earlier, this was a very exciting event, for all Uruguayans residing in the country are required to vote and thus people are very passionate about politics.

Having spent the past few weeks in Uruguay, I was well informed of which parties and candidates were running for the presidency, Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. I could probably identify the party colors since their flags are more ubiquitous than the Uruguayan flag. I have to admit that I could not wait for the elections to be over with as I was tired of all the campaign advertisements, both print and on TV; tired of people handing me campaign flyers (can you believe that they think I am Uruguayan?) and tired of the litter that these flyers generate.

On election day, the streets of Pocitos, the neighborhood where I was staying at, normally quiet, was filled with people. At the polling place, which is mostly in an academic institution, each person has to show his or her voter registration booklet or card and then enter an empty room filled with flyers. Inside, the voter would place his or her preferred party list (listing the senators and deputies in order of preference, as they vote along party lines), which is identical to the ubiquitous flyers handed out on the streets, and a flyer with “si”, if he or she supported the referendum, into an envelope. The voter would then exit the room and place the sealed envelope into the locked ballot box.

With my host family, I attended a huge post-election rally for the Frente Amplio (FA) party. The event was like a huge party, with fireworks, flags and food! I wish elections in the U.S. were this colorful. Unfortunately, it appeared that the FA was headed for a run-off at the end of November so I will not know the result for a while.

La Paloma and Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

I spent part of my last week in the department of Rocha, an area of Uruguay with Atlantic beaches. I visited two towns, La Paloma and Cabo Polonio.

My wonderful host in Montevideo, Aliusha, kindly recommended that I stay at her family’s cottage in La Paloma (which literally means “the dove”). I took her offer and was pleasantly surprised that the cottage had views of the ocean and was only two blocks from the beach!

La Paloma is a beach town that is very rustic, unlike its glitzy, commercialized counterpart, Punta del Este. In fact, the town is surrounded by forests and cattle (e.g., cows, horses) were grazing outside my cottage! The town gets very crowded during the summer but very empty during the rest of the year. I happened to visit during their “down time,” which was great as I got miles and miles of beach to myself. There was not a single soul in sight! I was surprised at how empty the town was. In fact, there seemed to be barely any locals around. Everyone who was there seemed to be busy building homes, hopefully ready for the coming summer.

The other town I visited in Rocha was Cabo Polonio. This town next to the beach is so remote that people have to take 4WDs to enter. The town is famous for two things--seals and sand dunes. The dunes were nowhere as large and impressive as those in Namibia, but were nevertheless aesthetically pleasing when juxtaposed to the ocean. Upon leaving, I was very lucky to secure a ride from the 4WD drop-off point (by the highway) back to La Paloma, courtesy of traveling Spaniards. Otherwise, I would have had to wait over an hour on the highway. This area is so empty (the beach towns are surrounded by farmland) that hitchhiking did not seem feasible.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Canelones, Uruguay

I spent a Sunday afternoon at the country home of Mauro’s parents, located in Canelones Department, adjacent to Montevideo. The home is located in parts of Uruguay’s wine country.

The visit was amazing! The home is actually part of a farm filled with cows, sheep, ducks, chickens, swans and a peacock. The most amazing sight was when the peacock opened up its feathers in order to attract a mate. Unfortunately, this did not work.

The home is surrounded by a large grassy field, which I enjoyed lying on. There were numerous trees and wildflowers. These included trees that bear oranges, lemons and figs. At the end of the estate is the River Santa Lucia, perfect for a dip on a hot day.

As for the lunch, it was scrumptious! We savored asado (steak), chorizo and the salivary glands of cows, all cooked on the outdoor grill! Furthermore, there was baked Roquefort cheese and an assortment of vegetables. We finished the meal with ice cream topped with strawberries in Kirsch liquor. Yum!!!


Carnaval in Uruguay may not be as famous as Brazil’s, but I believe it is more interesting. This event takes place for about 40 days, from late January to the end of February.

Besides the colorful dresses, hats and masks, there are two very unique characteristics of Uruguayan Carnaval--candombe and murgas. I was lucky enough to witness practice sessions of both.

Candombe is drumming that was introduced by African migrants to Uruguay in the 19th century. Each neighborhood, or comparsa, has its own troupe. An old man with a felt hat and an old woman typically lead the drummers down a procession. Every Sunday night, without fail, several candombe troupes march down the streets in the Palermo barrio in Montevideo, banging away, wowing both locals and visitors alike.

Murgas, on the other hand, are performing troupes. They sing, dance, act, or perform a combination of the above. As I previously wrote, I had the opportunity to view a murga of singers, drummers and a guitarist practice in Tacuarembo.

The Warm and Hospitable Uruguayans

Uruguayans are some of the world’s friendliest people I have met! They are a humble and friendly bunch, always willing to help people with directions and other needs. Various customs I have observed have also led me to believe in this. In social situations, Uruguayans kiss all the other people (cheek-to-cheek kiss and just once, on the right cheek), regardless of whether they have just met and regardless of the gender. Furthermore, they like to bring the mate gourd and thermos out into the streets and drink it on the beach or at a park, passing the mate around amongst friends.

My CouchSurfing hosts have been very amicable and also hospitable. For example, I felt like part of the Diaz family the moment I stepped into their apartment. Everyone, the mother, father, two brothers, sister, sister’s boyfriend, 2 cats and dog made me feel at home. I enjoyed learning about Uruguay and its culture through our conversations. I shared mate with my host Manuel and his friends by the Rambla just minutes after we met. One side note, the mother makes the best bread and pizza!

After staying with the Diaz family for a few days, the sister Aliusha and her boyfriend Mauro kindly took me into their apartment. I felt like I was staying with long-lost friends! Aliusha even arranged it so that I could stay with a friend of hers in La Paloma, a beach town on the Atlantic coast of Uruguay.

I was also made a part of Alejandro’s family at the farm from the very first day. I was invited to eat with them and help out with farm tasks. This occurred even though I had never met them and they knew nothing about CouchSurfing. Furthermore, it was amazing how we managed to communicate; I don’t understand Spanish and they don’t understand English. However, with the aid of a Spanish-English dictionary, some gestures and some patience, we were able to comprehend each other. I enjoyed playing with Alejandro’s youngest daughter, Anneline, who even served me fresh peanuts from the farm!

On the Farm, Uruguay

I had originally wanted to stay on an estancia in Uruguay (actually, in Argentina, but the two countries are very similar). I, like most other people, had romanticized about life on an estancia--riding horses, savoring parrilla (grilled meat) and sipping mate (tea) under the stars. However, since Cser Maria was able to connect me to a farmer friend of her’s (Alejandro), I decided to stay on a small farm instead.

Alejandro’s farm turned out to be very rustic. Not only was it in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by fields and hills, the farmhouse did not contain a shower. I was taken aback at having to use the traditional bucket and cup to bathe myself!

The farm is indeed very self-sufficient. Alejandro and his family owned 16 cows, 2 horses, 3 pigs and a bunch of dogs, cats and rabbits. Yes, I felt like I was living in a zoo! There was also a vegetable garden with lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, beans and corn. The only fruit grown on the farm were small peaches. And by the way, there were also peanut trees!

For a city boy like me, the tasks on the farm were indeed exotic. Daily tasks include milking the cows, herding the cows to the stream, feeding all the animals and making cheese. Other tasks include baking bread, making butter and tending the vegetable garden.

Here’s a 101 on how to make cheese, which is the only product that Alejandro’s family sells at the Sunday market. First, milk and curdling agent are added to a vat. I was told that it takes 11-12 L of milk to product 1 kg of cheese. Then, the mixture is stirred for about 1 hour. Next, the curd (to become cheese) is sifted from the vat and placed in a mold. All the “milk” is allowed to drained out, which takes 1 day. The next morning, the cheese is placed on a shelf for 15 days to mature.

Making cheese, in my opinion, is much easier than milking cows. I was excited at the latter activity, but when it came time to do it, I lost interest after a few minutes. This is because one can expend lots of energy in milking, yet out comes a trickle of milk. At the rate that I was milking, it would have taken me close to an hour to fill the 10-L bucket. Alejandro surprisingly preferred to milk by hand even though he has a milking machine. He milks at least 80 L of milk each day!

Tacuarembo, Uruguay

I traveled by bus for about 5 hours to the heart of “gaucho” or rural Uruguay--Tacuarembo. This town is literally in the middle of nowhere as it is surrounded by endless green fields and rolling hills.

My main purpose in visiting Tacuarembo was to stay at a Uruguayan farm for a few days. I’ll talk about my experiences at the farm in another entry as I would like to talk about my adventures at Tacuarembo. There, Maria, a CouchSurfer who helped me organize my farm stay, picked me up at the bus station and then took me to a practice session of a murga, which is a singing and dancing Carnaval troupe. In addition to the one guitarist and two drummers, there were about a dozen singers and dancers. This was a perfect complement to the candombe Carnaval drumming that I had witnessed the previous night. I was entertained by the fact that local TV was filming the event and also by the Uruguayan murga coach who could also speak Swedish.

In the evening, Maria’s friend, a farmer by the name of Alejandro, drove me to the farm on his motorcycle. Thank God I did not have my huge backpack with me, as I doubt it would have survived the ride! The ride was quite windy and bumpy but the main perk was being able to see the sky full of stars in a quiet environment. It’s quite interesting how trusting one becomes when one is placed in a foreign environment. I mean, I don’t even know this guy and I am riding with him at night on an empty road--who knows where he’ll take me!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Me Encanta Montevideo!

Montevideo is like one of those average friends with nothing obviously special about him. However, if one digs deeper and give it enough time, one will discover an amiable and laidback friend.

Montevideo is more than the above. In my short time here, I have savored the city’s delicious steaks, desserts and empanadas. I have shared mate (tea) with Uruguayans, passing around a “communal” mate gourd and bombilla (metal straw). I have witnessed a tango show--definitely a cultural highlight. I have attended a Carnavel candombe drumming practice. I have watched a piano concert at the Teatro Solis and have strolled down the Rambla to watch a sunset over the Rio de la Plata. Everywhere I have been, I have met plenty of friendly people, willing to go out of there way to help a lost tourist.

One experience I will never forget is attending a Nacional football match. This was my first live football match and it was exhilarating! I was sitting near the front and witnessed the back-and-forth of the ball. I also liked the passion of the fans, who would yell, swear, stand up and play the drums to liven up the atmosphere.

Another experience is witnessing the electoral campaign passion of the public. Since voting is mandatory in Uruguay, citizens are urged to be well-informed of the political parties and candidates. It was great to see a healthy democracy in action and entertaining to observe people waving multicolored flags of their political parties on the Rambla during weekends. I wish people in the U.S. were more involved with the electoral process and more passionate and informed about issues.

I have really enjoyed taking the time to stroll down tree-lined streets filled with Spanish colonial architecture. On the other hand, I have also enjoyed the fact that there are modern, first-world neighborhoods that remind me of home. Overall, I have discovered that it is definitely worth it to take the time to explore a city outside of the main tourist points.

Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is indeed South America’s most livable capital city. It has the culture of Buenos Aires and Europe, yet isn’t that hectic.

This is a city of contradictions. On the one hand, there are many cultural happenings and delicious food. The first weekend I was there, simultaneously occurring were a performing arts festival, a film festival and a tango festival. The museums are mostly free and the many mansions exhibits were housed in reminded me of Europe. This is amazing as Uruguay is relatively poor compared to Europe and the U.S., yet provides well in the area of culture.

The food consists of simple empanadas (baked pockets stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables) to the gourmet parrillas (e.g., steaks). My favorite daily pastime was entering a bakery and purchasing a bunch of tiny savory and sweet breads and pastries. These include cheese croissants, fruit tarts, flan, brownies, dulce de leche (caramel paste) with chocolate.

Another highlight is that Montevideo is blessed with miles and miles of beaches along the Rio de la Plata. Its coastal thoroughfare, the Rambla, is populated day and night with people enjoying the views.

On the other hand, Montevideo has its unsavory characteristics. These include dog feces all over the sidewalks and parks; potholes on practically every sidewalk; and air pollution from continuous car exhaust. There are also run-down parts of the old town that are unsafe to wander at night.


I find that traveling, like so much of life, is all about expectations. If one sets low expectations, then there is a great chance that one will enjoy the activity or place and vice versa. For example, before I visited London, I thought the city was boring since it was culturally quite similar to the U.S. However, I found the city to be very diverse, rich in history and culture. Conversely, my guidebook painted a very positive and charming picture of Montevideo, Uruguay. Thus, I was surprised at the run-down buildings and potholes there.

Night at the Buenos Aires Airport!

Staying overnight at an airport did not bother me as this was going to be part 4. In my past travels, I have spent the night in San Francisco, Toronto and Lima.

It turned out that I had plenty of company in a well-lit and well-guarded terminal. As predicted, I barely slept and did a little bit of reading. The most interesting observation at the Buenos Aires Airport were the numerous “wrap bag” services that charged $11 per bag. Basically, several layers of plastic would be wrapped around the luggage to ensure that no one broke into the suitcase. This service would never exist in the U.S. since the paranoid government opens passengers’ bags for “security reasons”.