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Smells like Uruguay, feels like home

When you come to Uruguay, it seems foreign. More so than the busy place from which you arrive here.

Deco/Fascist Progress-style mural of naked man and woman forging the tools and edifices of "Modern Civilization"

Welcome to Colonia and Glorious Uruguayan Progress, Compañeros!

Most English-speaking visitors get their first taste of my new country from a day-trip by ferry out of Buenos Aires, that chaotic, dirty, noisy, uproarious, wonderfully gigantic capital of tango and drama.

cars, pedestrians, congestion at a corner in Buenos Airles

Bustling BsAs

Orange stucco building with white trip, single story, on cobblestone street

A simple, lovely, shop in Colonia. Note the Candombe drummers picture on the corner.

As such, the quiet cobblestone streets, the Portuguese colonization ruins, even the Deco-like naked female muse of a mural on the main street of the new part of Colonia del Sacramento, feel like stepping into “the real South America”, some gringo daydream of “the other”. The pervasive smell of the wood fires, from richly pungent woods like eucalyptus and “leña colorada”, burning year-round for both cooking and heating, making it “smell like Uruguay”, as a uruguaya friend of my family once said.

But that’s judging the USA by Plimouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg, sans period-costume actors doing “recreations”.

Picture of men walking with muskets along a cobblestone trail next to the Portuguese ruins of the city gate in Colonia, Uruguay

Maybe forget the “sans” / “sin” recreations. Re-creators are in Colonia.

What Uruguay does feel like, after you have spent time here: Home. In a deep sense, if you are an “American” of a certain age. A place where, when you get out into small towns and slightly off the tourist trail, your neighbors talk to you. Granted, in rapid-fire slurred Rioplatenese Spanish which has little to do with the español you learned in High School or in a language immersion stay in México or Spain. It’s neither Castillian (Spanish Spanish) nor Latin American Spanish, but rather its own thing.

Home, where of course people just hop onto their bicycles to do grocery shopping or visit friends, never wearing any special “bike gear” or “protective equipment” – exactly the way we all rode to school or to visit friends. There is good research, by the way, that mandating, either legally or via peer pressure, the use of “bicycle helmets” overall increases injuries and mortality – because it makes using a bike a hassle, a “thing”, an event, a sport, rather than a mode of transportation. Thus people get into their cars, at risk of other types of accidents, adding to pollution, and increasing their health problems from lack of physical activity. Uruguayans know better than to do that.

Home, where local shopkeepers know you, chat with you, are not behind barriers. Home, where the police help you when you lose your wallet, and are not walking around with tear gas and assault weapons but rather are strolling through town on foot, on bicycle, or in wonderfully tiny police cars about the size of a 1950s Nash Rambler.

Home, where despite the government itself being the phone company and sole provider of wired internet and voice, you don’t feel like you are being spied upon and every interaction recorded. Home, where there is no “If you see something, say something” paranoia.

Home, where on a Sunday afternoon, a doctor will come to your home if you feel ill, arrive within 20 minutes, and only a month later will you get a bill from your medical society that is for all of about 20 dollars.

Home, where everyone has access to medical care at affordable prices, without people screaming at each other and acting like taking care of the sick is a bad idea.

I came to Uruguay because I felt I needed to leave the no-longer-sane USA. What I didn’t expect was that I was coming home.

This post is written to be re-purposed in my forthcoming book, Falling Off the Hemisphere, or in other writings, and thus is © 2013 Mark C. Mercer, All Rights Reserved. Explicitly not Creative Commons nor other sharing licenses, despite any overall less restrictive website license grant.

  • don quixote

    So if you have no Spanish education, and you hesitate to buy into various options available in the US because “rapid-fire slurred Rioplatenese Spanish” and want to move to Uruguay next month, what is your recommendation?

    • JS

      study spanish on duolingo and other free sites online and then come to Uruguay and take Spanish classes for at least a month to start

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  • don quixote

    How *does* Uruguay smell? Wood smoke? Or…

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