On entering any country there are always a few things that just seem to spring out at you. Why are they doing that? How much does it cost? Are you being serious? In Uruguay these things may seem less severe than in other countries, such as Bolivia and Brazil in South America or further away in the Far or Middle East but it’s crazy how much of an impact they still manage to have on your life. These are some of my curiosities about Uruguay that I probably spend far too much time contemplating.
Milk in Bags
This is something I first experienced in Argentina but it’s one that I’ve always found intriguing. Why would anyone think of putting a liquid substance in a bag? As a result all fridges now have an extra piece of plastic on their door so that the milk can be slotted in and remain upright. But with yoghurt also coming in bags too where’s my second piece of plastic? What you then have to do of course is actually find one of the specially-made plastic containers which are able to house these bags perfectly as well as making them very easy to pour. Maybe the plastic factories and dairies made some kind of agreement, let’s walk into the unknown together or something like that. Milk is of course also available in a carton but it’s a lot more expensive. I now use it as a barometer for judging people. If they have milk in a carton I can be pretty sure they live something of a luxurious lifestyle.
The popularity of mate in Uruguay is undeniable. Every single person has a mate gourd (the vessel for their indulgence) in one hand and a thermos tucked under the other arm. This is most pronounced around 6pm/7pm when everyone has finished work and heads down to the promenades (in the beachside towns anyway) to catch the last bit of sun and sit around drinking mate with their family and friends. The social element is so interesting, I really think there’s no match. Coffee seems to be a very personal thing, when people buy it to take-out it tends to be something to down on their way to an important meeting and at the office it is something that is drank while doing other things. Even the Italians who seem to have the greatest love for it gulp down their expressos like no-man’s business, making it more of an aid to the conversation than a central item. Tea is more social, especially when a plate of shared biscuits is involved but it lacks mobility, one thing that could not be levelled at mate. One evening I tried to count how many thermos’s I could see on a walk down Montevideo’s rambla. Turns out I can’t count that high!
Uruguay has many similarities with Argentina due to its proximity over the River Plate, it’s North also shares a few traits with Brazil (including a strange dialect that seems to morph the too) and generally speaking a lot of the culture could be seen as European, no surprise being that many of the people are descendents from Italian and Spanish immigrants. I think this is the reason why candombe is so popular. It’s a style of drumming developed by the mixture of African slaves brought over in the late 19th century and that has since been passed down many generations, effortlessly moving into the hands of the colonialists on the way. It is quite quintessentially Uruguayan and something that they are obsessed by. With no prior knowledge of what it was I at first found it extremely curious. It’s closest cousin in popular terms would be samba but this is so much more powerful, more insistent. Drummers pound away for hour after hour as they parade round their neighbourhoods on a weekly basis. Apart from a small intro some of the groups don’t change their rhythm for the entire 2 or 3 hour parade. After a while though it draws you in, especially while watching the strangely stilted dance that accompanies it, and the sound of the drums begins to drift into the back of your mind, just leaving this immense feeling of passion as it eventually gets you.
A lot is often made of an official statistic that Uruguay is 98% literate. Personally, I feel this is slightly incorrect as there is without doubt some problems with homelessness and I very much doubt these have been included in the poll. Nonetheless, these people are obsessed with books. There are bookshops on every corner and Montevideo in particular has one street, Tristan Narvaja, which has around 30 different bookstores. Attached to this love of books though is a sense that literature is something that should not be cheap. Hence, second hand books can cost as much as a new mp3 player or a brand new pair of a shoes. Even a newspaper can end up being the most expensive item in your shopping basket, I was personally shocked when I saw that it cost more than my 3 litre bottle of Coca-Cola.
Uruguayans eat late, really late, somewhere between 10pm-midnight. The amount of times I would meet people around 10pm for a drink only to find that they hadn’t eaten and that they were actually more interested in eating than drinking has been numerous, and each time, for a Brit like me has been hard to fathom. The normal English ritual of going out for a quiet drink, which is normally somewhere between 3 to 5 pints, would make you the token drunk in Uruguay. I have generally adjusted to eating really late, especially spending time in North Argentina where the siesta puts you back a few hours anyway, but still the idea of going out to eat all the time is hard for me. I never do it in England due to the cost, and would also struggle to do all the time in Uruguay for the same reasons. My ‘going out’ allowance will always simply translate as Beer allowance, it’s one cultural trait that I will always find hard to change.