Over winter break, I headed south to try and find some warmer temps. Most of my trip was spent in Patagonia, but that's for another post. Before heading to the end of the planet, I wanted to visit Uruguay. Uruguay has been on my list for many years, primarily as a professional curiosity. The Economist magazine named the small South American nation "Country of the Year" in 2013, an award given to the country that has shown the most progress in the last 12 months. From 2010 to 2015 it was run by the "poor president", Jose Mujica, who lived as a normal citizen during his administration, which drew international coverage. How could such a small country draw the attention of the world community, and such a positive light?
It turns out all the positive attention was warranted. Uruguay is not a perfect place, but the pundits were right. Montevideo, at least, is a clean, safe, somewhat laid-back capital city. There aren't any big ticket sights or world-class museums. Instead, it's just a city. That might sound bland, but as a tourist, I found it fantastic. I could walk the streets, stop in at a cafe, peruse some shops, and quickly get a feel for the culture.
I also had the opportunity to meet several Uruguayans at one of the many microbreweries that dot the city. Veronica, a chef, and Carolina, an architect were more than happy to answer my many questions about life in their small republic. My main question was about the ethos about the Uruguayan. How did they see themselves?
Both answered similarly. Uruguayans are proud people, but conscious of their small international stature, especially compared to their only neighbors, Argentina and Brazil. They also embrace a culture of tolerance. Marijuana, abortion, and gay marriage are all legal with few restrictions. They are social, but of the tea and dinner as opposed to bar and nightclub variety.
Speaking of tea - people drink Mate (pronounced Mah-Tay) everywhere. It seemed that on every other street corner there would be a group sharing the bitter and hot drink, the preparation and drinking of which contains many rituals and customs. Do NOT, under any circumstances, touch the straw. Drink steadily but not too quickly. Make sure to pour the water around a central mound of dry mate. And so on.
Both Veronica and Carolina agreed the main issue facing Uruguayans was the cost of living in Montevideo. As the country's only city, there isn't much a future elsewhere. This has led to many Uruguayans and even foreigners moving in, leading to escalating prices. I was surprised by how expensive the city was. A craft beer at a brewery cost $5. A dinner entre at a decent place was around $20. Overall, it was similar to a cheap area of the US, but wages are far lower.