A taxi dropped us in front of a nondescript door to a nondescript high-rise in the center of Montevideo. It was dark and we’d seen almost nothing of Uruguay’s largest city. We’d heard it was like Buenos Aires, only smaller and less interesting. So far the bleak facades were bearing this prophecy out. The doorman opened the glass door for us, and held it while we shuffled inside, hulking backpacks making a small foyer feel smaller still. He seemed to be expecting us and told us to go to the 14th floor without prompting. The elevator shot upwards with the virility of an Argentine bus driver. Once at the top we stepped out into a dark hallway and knocked on the only door we could see. We were welcomed in by our hosts, Ralf and Andrés.
Before we left for this trip, we appealed to the generosity of our friends and family for contacts around South America. People who might be interested in hosting a pair of travelers stinking slightly of penguin guano. Our friend Jochen in Berlin once worked with a man now living in Montevideo and suggested we try to contact him. Ralf and his boyfriend Andrés warned us that their apartment was small and we’d have no privacy, but that yes we’d be welcome to stay and the views would be unparalleled. Total strangers, zero privacy, amazing views. Budget travel at its finest.
We took in their small penthouse apartment, which was, if not the highest point in the center of Montevideo, one of them. Two walls were made partly of sliding glass panels that looked out over the sprawling city. The four of us sat outside on their enormous concrete patio together, eating ice cream and drinking cold Uruguayan beer in the warm evening air. We had a slight language barrier to negotiate but not for the reasons we might have expected. Andrés, the Uruguayan, spoke perfect English. Ralf, the German, understood English pretty well, but had stopped learning to speak it long ago, choosing to perfect his Spanish instead. Since Magda understands Spanish well, Ralf spoke to her in his language of choice while Andrés translated to me, complete with annotations and side stories to help understand the larger point. Ralf had come to Uruguay several years before to work on a sustainable energy project. A physicist and engineer, Ralf had designed his own wind turbine long before they were in popular use. They’d met in Montevideo in a bar called, “New York”. I later came to suspect that Montevideo might be a better place than some in South America to be gay and out, but they disagreed, Uruguay is as macho as the next Latin country. Maybe that’s why they were destined to meet in a bar named after a place where being gay is not only normal, but in fashion.
I’d sent them our blog before we arrived in order for them to get to know a little bit about us and our personalities. To my surprised, they read it. Andrés even quoted a passage back to me in an email and proactively decided to see how serious were were.
“We pride ourselves on saying yes to situations that propel us well outside the normal tourist orbit.”
Taking us at our word (which is of course how it is meant to be taken) they had arranged for us to meet as many of their friends as time allowed, interesting people who were interested in meeting us and would make our stay in Montevideo far more intimate. When we heard we were invited to the birthday party at the home of a Mexican/Peruvian couple with Uruguayan children, who both spoke English and were making all the food from scratch, we were thrilled. We are interested in touristy things of course, we want to see ‘the old clock tower’ as much as the next guy, but a chance to actually live in a country with its people for a few days is priceless. Throw in some home-made tortillas and I’ll agree to just about anything. Our only concern was that going to the party would extend our stay by a night, and I was worried we’d start to be a burden for two people we’d only just met. I will paraphrase Andrés’ response to this concern since it so perfectly sums up their welcome, honest attitudes about everything:
“I will talk to you very clear: You are friends of Jochen and the friends of our friends are ours too…”
He went on to say that if we were no longer welcome, they’d have no problem, and in the friendliest manner possible, asking us to leave. If true friendship is based on honesty, I felt we were off to a good start.
As a tourist destination, Montevideo is not spectacular, unless you are staying on top of a building with a view of the whole city. But for an architectural photographer like Magda, and an amateur urban philosopher like myself, it was a wonderful city to explore. Its bones are Spanish colonial with the heart of an industrial port city. For those saddened by the beautifying effects of gentrification, I recommend Montevideo’s Old Town, where dockside working class neighborhoods dwell on block after block of ornate but dilapidated one and two story 19th century colonial houses. Streets full of unpolished gems sit waiting for the day that Uruguayans rediscover a rich architectural heritage in the heart of their biggest city. For a lot of countries working their way past an era of totalitarian rule, preceded by aristocratic rule, preceded by the slaughter of the original inhabitants, the future is modernity, not a prettied up version of the uncomfortable past. Modernity is expressed in concrete, not stucco. Air-conditioners, not bas-relief. Asphalt thoroughfares, not cobblestone alleys. Fortunately in Montevideo they haven’t gotten around to wholesale destruction of these neighborhoods like Beijing (or New York*) has, and one can still wander and admire and imagine how beautiful it could be.
We stopped by Andres’ office one day where he works in the fingerprinting records department for the Uruguayan government. In order to vote, Uruguayans must register by giving a photograph and a set of fingerprints. Fingerprints are something of an obsession in the Plate River region, because of, or having resulted in, the invention of the international fingerprinting standards by an Argentinian named Juan Vucetich. Each record of every citizen is kept forever. Uruguay does not have a large population, but keeping everyone’s records forever takes a lot of space. The files take up three floors in a lovely building from 1920’s, complete with sweeping marble staircases and creaky wooden floors. Andrés showed us manilla colored walls full of people both alive and dead. At some point in the recent past the move to digitize the records began, but it was going to be a long, long time before a dent is made in the vast collection. The rooms reserved for dead citizens had a certain attraction, both aesthetic and macabre. The folders were stacked uniformly on high shelves but inevitably patterns formed: folders bent to the right, creating a domino effect down the row. Or they bent to the left in waves, undulating across the room. The aging files made for amazing photographs, and Magda began shooting at once. We wondered if Andrés might think this was strange, and perhaps at first he did, but soon he an I were moving ladders across the room, and he was devising makeshift tripods out of boxes. We all then spent the rest of the afternoon vigorously climbing the stairs trying to make a film of the antique elevator whirring up and down.
The night of the Mexican birthday party fell on the first day of Uruguay’s Carnaval. It also coincided with another festival of a potentially less than Catholic nature. Uruguay abolished slavery before her South American neighbors, but African rituals had already filtered into the native people and the working class Uruguayans. February 2nd was a Santeria festival for the goddess Yemanja. It is a celebration of offerings for the sea. Andrés was our guide as we sorted through the throngs of the faithful on the beach. He explained that this wasn’t necessarily not Catholic, and indeed there were many saintlike figurines, lit candles, and crosses to be found, but that it was a hedging of the bets. If you prayed to Jesus and not much happened, what harm sending a prayer to Yemanja at the same time? The alters to the goddess were elaborate and destined to be taken by the sea. They were either dug into the sand, lit candles buried in little subterreanean holes, or they were constructed on blue and white styrofoam boats. Coincidence that Yemanja’s favorite colors are also the colors of the Uruguayn flag? I think not. The boats people prepared included prayers and offering to Yemanja who, being a woman, likes womanly things. Therefore piles of nail polish (blue), (blue) necklaces, and other (blue or white) feminine sundries were put aboard these little ships and walked out into the sea. Once afloat, they were either accepted or sent back. It was important to walk backwards to the beach, so as not to turn your back to the goddess, risking offense. I thought while walking backwards it was good to keep one eye down, since part of the festival included leave dead, mutilated chickens on the beach. As the sun started to set, its light skipped across the waves and cast the celebration with a silvery light. Worshippers disappeared into the shining sun, escorting their cargo into the sparkling sea. Just as many styrophoam vessels returned by themselves, turning over in the waves and littering the beach with blue and white oddities.
The birthday party for Ralf and Andrés’ friend Soraya was in full fiesta mode by the time we arrived. The house was well outside of Montevideo, a beautiful ranch style hacienda in the country. Decorated in traditional Mexican colors, saints adorned the walls, fairy lights sparkled under a canopy of dried palm leaves. A fire blazed inside an outdoor brick oven, filled with meat and warm tortillas. Almost everyone in attendance was Mexican, and I felt a sudden longing for our Southern neighbor. We haven’t properly visited, but Mexico has such a foothold in American culture that I felt a pang of longing for this familiar environment. I wondered aloud if we shouldn’t head straight for Mexico. When the food arrived, casadilla on homemade flour tortillas, tacos pastor, fresh guacamole, we devoured it for its taste, the generosity with which it was offered and a longing for the familiar. We washed it all down with a remarkable Urugayan wine. Then Soraya’s friends started to sing. They sang sad Uruguayan songs and upbeat Mexican ballads. During a lull in the music around midnight we started getting ready to catch the last bus to town. As we thanked our hosts, there was a commotion from the side of the house. The ballads stopped and all eyes went to a group of people coming through the yard, each heavily armed with instruments. They all were wearing sombreros. The Mariachi band had arrived. The singing began again in earnest, but we still had to leave. Some time later, as we were standing on a dark Uruguayan highway waiting for a bus that was very late (if coming at all), the Mariachis passed us in a big van, a giant picture of themselves printed on the side. I imagined waving them down and sitting in the Mariachi van, strumming a large guitar and wearing a sombrero. They passed us by though, unaware, leaving us to wait in the darkness.
On our last day in Montevideo, Ralf and Andrés again arranged to take us to a party in a friend’s backyard. Like the Mexican birthday, there was a parilla burning meat to a perfect, moist chewiness. Once again we blended into the crowd at a weekly family reunion with enough food to provide a Thanksgiving dinner. In attenedence were, coincidentally, at least four other Magdas. Just when we thought we were full of pork loin and chorizo, a bigger, juicier pile of steaks appeared, luring us in for more carnal debauchery. The afternoon passed very quickly, and suddenly we needed to leave to catch our bus back to Argentina. We needed to leave not only the party, but Ralf and Andés’ outrageously generous hospitality. We said emotional farewells to them, though we could never thank them enough for their time, conversation and thoughtful planning. Several of the Magdas offered to drive us to the bus station, and just like that, we were leaving Montevideo and leaving Uruguay.
How could such a small country leave such a giant impression? It depends on the company you keep I guess.
•we are quick to criticize Beijing’s destrcution of its Hutongs, but surprisingly little of Old New York remains intact thanks to visionaries like Robert Moses