Offbeat Uruguay: A Country That Celebrates Individuality

A chessboard in Montevideo. Photos by Ian Sumter.

A chessboard in Montevideo, Uruguay

Offbeat Uruguay: A Country That Celebrates Individuality

By Ian Sumter

At a first impression, Uruguay appears to be a highly practical and utilitarian country. Driving in from Argentina on the bus, I saw mile after mile of farmland, largely deserted apart from the occasional animal herd to supply the voracious demand for beef, to keep the parrillas and meat markets well stocked.

The smaller towns trade on farm machinery, with numerous dealerships in tractors, harvesters and cattle trucks found on the outskirts of all settlements of any size.

The road to Montevideo is a continuous trundle of heavy goods lorries, and once these reach their destination in the capital, their cargo is loaded onto one or another of the large container ships which trade along the east coast of South America.

The capital, Montevideo, also seems in many ways to be the epitome of a modern, developing economy. Fashionable retail outlets are found in the downtown area long Avenida 18 Julio, high-tech consumer stores thrive in abundance, European music plays in many shops and the ever-present North American fast-food outlets are clearly in evidence.

A Spirit of Quirkiness

Yet despite these appearances, there is a spirit of quirkiness in the country which seems to manifest itself at every opportunity.

The hostel where I stayed was in a converted Colonial style building, painted bright blue and orange on the outside, with a spiral wrought iron staircase dominating the center of the room inside.

Several of my fellow residents in the hostel were sitting on orange and black leather chairs in front of a blazing fire, happily playing on a couple of guitars.

They did not seem particularly concerned what the tune or the lyrics were – one man deciding to improvise a melody of his own based on the subject of his broken internet connection. Their musical efforts were complemented by the hostel radio, which seemed to be tuned into the Bob Marley station.
Graffiti in Montevideo

Graffiti in Montevideo

As the last chords of ‘No Woman No Cry’ faded to silence, I then heard the opening blast of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ [a tone poem by Richard Strauss] from the CD player in one of the dormitories.

Once out of the hostel the following morning, I immediately noticed how many Uruguayans were carrying their yerba mate pots with them.

I had had the drink in Buenos Aires but only in mugs at the language school. Here people would walk the street with their pot of mate leaves in one hand and a flask of hot water in the other.

The mate is not drunk directly from the pot, but through a metal straw that is attached to the pot.

Little Reason to Rush

No one seemed to be too busy to have a mate. I had already found the pace of life in Buenos Aires was slower than London, and here things had slowed all the more. The streets were less crowded, there was not much of the late night life, and there seemed little reason for anyone to rush.

Here, too, the city´s rubbish is collected in wooden carts drawn by horses – that amble slowly around the city center amidst the taxis, cars and scooters. Occasionally junk and rubbish will fall off the back of the carts, but this too seems to bother no one.
A student pageant in Colonia

A student pageant in Colonia, Uruguay

Outside the city´s main hospital, accidents were also slow: the drivers of the local ambulance (a rough and readily converted people carrier) were asleep in the front seats, waiting for their next emergency.

An anonymous graffiti artist clearly found the relaxed and laid back atmosphere too apathetic by far, declaring “In a city this indifferent, not even god knows where we is going.”

Impressive and Atmospheric

My day trip to Colonia further along the coast was also not without its unusual incidents. The town was originally founded several centuries ago for the purpose of smuggling contraband goods into Buenos Aires. The town has an impressive and atmospheric district of old houses and cobbled streets, making it a popular tourist destination.

However, I had also chosen to visit on the day when the local secondary schools of the area were having some pageant or carnival. I had not realized this when I arrived, and only became aware of the fact as I was finishing my parrilla and was interrupted by the loud blast of a tannoy [loudspeaker] system.

As I went to investigate the noise, I was met by the sight of hundreds of teenagers in various degrees of fancy dress – and around 30 decorated carnival floats.
A dragon in the pageant

A dragon in the pageant

Here were children dressed as Romans (behind a giant Trojan horse), Chinese dragons, Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas, characters from the Flintstones, clowns, jugglers, planets of the solar system, magic mushrooms, dancing penguins, cowboys and marines.

Music accompanied the floats, usually played from giant speaker systems on the back of 4×4 trucks – though one group was led by a fat man in a leather jacket on a motorcycle, with two giant megaphones attached to the front and rear of the bike to play the music.

Quirks and Oddities

The town itself was not without its own quirks and oddities alongside the pretty colonial setting. Unlike Buenos Aires, most of the town’s motorcyclists (and there were many) saw no need to wear helmets – whizzing bare-headed through the busy streets on tiny mopeds or 125s.

In addition to the standard one pillion passenger, it was also not uncommon to see three or even four people on some bikes – in one instance what looked like three generations of the same familty, none helmeted, riding along on the same moped.

Other curiosities on the road were several vintage cars (one with a dog asleep in the front seat), golf buggies rented out to tourists to drive on the roads, a few quad bikes and several home made cars from kits.
A parade float

A parade float

Having become more attuned to the country´s oddities, I began noticing more on my return to Montevideo: a jazz band playing inside a cage in one of the plazas, a chessboard laid out in the street with human sized multi-coloured pieces, an intriguing modern art museum including such exhibits as relics from a haunted hotel and a collection of tiny vials of tears hanging suspended from the ceiling.

The country was clearly proud of asserting its individuality.

‘A Kiss is a Kiss’

As I was leaving the city, I passed two parades: one a political rally for the president, accompanied by much banging of drums, waving of flags, and people standing up out of car windows as they moved along the street.

The other was the beginnings of a gay pride march – this had not really got started, though a couple of floats and a rock music bus (Cristina Queen of the Pampas??) had arrived – all draped with large rainbow flags.

The theme for the event was ‘A Kiss is a Kiss,’ and there were several posters and banners on display showing pictures of men and women kissing, men kissing men, and women kissing women.
A homemade car

A homemade car

Not many marchers had turned up yet, but there were a few men dressed as cowboys and marines, while there was also a cluster of Goth women around by the floats.

Uruguay has traditionally been more conservative than the more relaxed neighbour Argentina – leading most gay and lesbian people to migrate to Buenos Aires – though clearly there are also those who wish to remain and assert their individuality in their native city.

Uruguay proved to be a welcome and unusual surprise: neither a simple tourist destination of beaches and pretty colonial towns, or a dull and unengaging industrial outfit or dockyard.

Perhaps it was the transitory and ever-changing population that inevitably inhabit a port, or the unconventional nature of the country´s smuggling heritage that have created a place which thrives on the quirky.

Either way, the country has a lasting appeal and an entirely different flavor than its neghbor Buneos Aires, lying only an hour or so away by boat on the other side of the River Plate.

Ian Sumter

Ian Sumter is from the UK and has traveled extensively in Europe and North America with several other trips to Africa, India, the Middle East and Australia. He is now traveling in Central and South America, mixing travel with volunteer work. He is the author of To Visit This Strange Nation, detailing his time working for a traveling carnival in California.

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