Archive 2008 1st Quarter

Political Correctness in Uruguay

Q: How do you get a one-armed Pole out of a tree?
A: Wave to him.

Q: How do you take an Italian census?
A: Roll a quarter down the street.

Q: How did 18 Mexicans get into the Cadillac?
A: Picked the lock.

Q: Why did God create WASPs?
A: Someone has to buy retail.

Are any of these offensive? You could freely swap the nationalities in any of the first three jokes, and they’d be equally good. Or bad. The fourth joke works only if the subject is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. You could make the argument that of the four, the last one is hurtful because the humor is dependent on a racial slur.

You would be wrong. Because WASPs are members of a privileged class and therefore fair game.

You can even get away with jokes about underprivileged racial groups:

A black guy walks into a bar with a beautiful parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says, “Wow! Where did you get him?”

The parrot says, “Africa.”

So why do I find
this image, found on the corner of a restaurant in Colonia del Sacramento, objectionable?
We descendants of slaveholders have learned to be sensitive when making remarks about the descendants of slaves. Caricatures of black people in demeaning dress are not OK in the States.

But south of the border, I see images like this frequently—in Mexico and now in Uruguay and Argentina.

At the San Telmo Antique Fair in Buenos Aires, I ran across this shelf of antique dolls: frilly little white babies on the bottom, Aunt Jemimas above.

Latin America has race issues. Blacks were treated badly here in the Southern Cone as elsewhere in the Americas. Early black immigrants came here as slaves. But they represent smaller fractions of the populations of Uruguay and especially Argentina, where they are notably absent. Porteños aren’t frequently reminded of their society’s sins. Less guilt.

But something else is at work here. Latins don’t object to poking fun at physical or racial attributes. I am called “Baldy” by Mexican friends and even waiters. A friend of mine is called
Gordo—fatso. Nobody gets offended.

The attitude seems to be that you are what you are—bald, fat, black, so why not get it out in the open? When I stand in the sun, the shine off my head make others squint. The most prominent aspect of my appearance is my lack of hair. So I learned to get over being called

Mate Drinkers

Jean was invited to the home of one of a small group of women she met in Buenos Aires. During her visit, they shared a gourd of mate. Jean thought the taste was strong, herbal, and grassy; an acquired taste at best. So is coffee of course, but at this advanced stage of my life, I can't remember ever not liking coffee. You can get used to anything, and mate is one of those beverages that becomes an integral part of your day, I guess.

The term mate refers to the tree that produces the leaves, the dried leaves themselves, the gourd the beverage is prepared in, and the tea itself. To avoid confusion, I'm going to refer to the vessel as a gourd. That's literally what most of them actually are: carved calabashes.

Mate the fluid is prepared by stuffing a large bunch of leaves into the gourd, moistening them with cold water, and then shaking the gourd to cause them to settle into a sloping, soggy mass with the large pieces of leaf at the surface and the fine particles beneath, so you won't slurp up any of the "grounds".


Photo credit: Wikipedia

The bombilla, a metal straw through which the drink is sipped, is then carefully inserted and used to further shape the pile of leaves, after which hot water is added to make the actual beverage.


Photo credit: Wikipedia

The gourd is passed around from person to person, and more hot water is added from time to time as the tea is consumed. Everyone sips from the same bombilla, since to remove it would stir up the pile of leaves and ruin the drink. Jean thought this sharing practice unsanitary. Jean tends to be concerned about such things.

She was experiencing mate-drinking as a social bonding ritual, an elaborate ceremony giving a group of people something to do together as they converse. Sort of like a fondue pot, I imagine.

I observed mate-drinkers on the street, particularly in Colonia del Sacramento. (Mate is the national drink of Uruguay as well as of Argentina.) These people were drinking it the way I drink my morning coffee, as a solitary pursuit.


They held their gourds in an upright position in their hands, without setting them down. Apparently it's important to keep the sloping pile of leaves in place to prevent sludge and particles from entering the bombilla. And the bottoms of many gourds have been left in their natural, rounded shape, so they won't stand upright anyway.

The drinkers carried thermoses of hot water to refresh the mate. Their faces registered pensive, faraway expressions. They spent a great deal of time sitting, drinking their mate, staring off into the distance. I noticed a man sitting on a shady bench beside the Río de la Plata. When I passed by two hours later, he was still sitting there, sucking on his bombilla.

All kinds of claims are made by people in the health food industry about the beneficial properties of mate. It's widely available in the USA, usually in tea bags or added to health drinks. Apparently if it grows in the wild and it tastes bad, you need to be drinking it to strengthen your immune system or whatever.

I don't think the people pictured above are thinking about the health-giving properties of mate. They don't seem to be much concerned about their health at all, judging from their appearances. I suspect they're just addicted to their morning drink of choice, like the way I am.


Getting around Colonia

Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way

—Mars Bonfire, Born to be Wild


What Tourists Do:

Here we have a tourist on a rented scooter. He's waiting for someone in the souvenir shop behind him.


The bike with the word "racing" and a checkered flag pattern and the matching metallic blue helmet promise a hip, snazzy ride. But it all falls apart with the Thrifty car rental agency logo on the back.

This rider was never going to pull off the look. He probably had no desire to anyway. Looks like a claims adjuster. And helmet or no, if he takes a spill on that thing in those shorts and sandals, he's going to leave a lot of skin on the road.

Rented scooters are one way to get around Colonia del Sacramento. Golf carts, motorcycles, rental cars, mo-peds, quadrimotos, bicycles; they're all available from Thrifty. Here some tourists, the largest clump of them I saw during our visit, are listening to a pitch by a Thrifty agent.


The odd thing is, the interesting part of town runs only eight by eight blocks. And the ferry schedule ensures you're going to spend at least seven hours here. So it baffles me why any healthy person would want transportation other than her own two feet.

Below we see a substantial couple on a motorbike. From the sound of the poor thing, the engine displaces only 50cc. The riders look as if they're concerned about the vehicle making it up the street. They seem to be offering it encouragement.


Thrifty doesn't rent the really cool vehicles. These women are riding around in a dune-buggy-like contraption powered by a Volkswagen engine. You can bet that it can get up and walk away from anything.


Obviously locally made, their vehicle gives a nod to being highway-legal, evidenced by the pair of rear side rear view mirrors and turn signal indicator lights jerry rigged to the tubular frame. Judging from the tire wear, this thing is a popular ride.


What Locals Do:

I've never seen so many functioning antique cars concentrated in one place. I'm not talking about Concours d'Elegances. I'm referring to ancient cars still in everyday service.

The '28-'31 era Model A Ford has been gussied up with un-Henry-Ford-like green paint and yellow wheels, but its owner tools around town in it.


I guess a Model A isn't all that big a deal. You still see a few around. But that red car parked behind it is a rarity: a Rambler American convertible. It's the cool version of the '60s most uncool car. Most Ramblers were maroon and the cheapskates that bought them usually didn't even spring for a radio. You never asked your dad for the keys to the Rambler. But this car... What a dilemma!

Resting in the shade of a wisteria, another Model A awaits its next assignment. What is it with green in this town?


This sad thing is a Mercedes. When I was a young professional, I couldn't afford it. Today, anybody could.


I saw this '30s vintage Vauxhall out running errands several times during the day. It runs quietly and doesn't smoke. Although its owner does.


Nothing says "Berkeley French Literature Professor" like a Citroen 2CV. This one nds. wrk.


The real find was this no kidding, take-no-prisoners Land Rover. This is not the luxury vehicle with the unnecessary headlight brush guards and the leather seats. You know, the one that gets no closer to going off road than a friend's gravel driveway.


This is a real safari-going truck that'll get you up close to observe the dik-diks.

At the far left, the owner is peering at me as I photograph the Land Rover. He told me maybe three people photograph it every week. He says he's proud of it—he should be—but that he will probably have to sell it. He needs the cash. (Note the little money pit sitting on the step.) If I'd had any reasonable way to get it to Mexico, I'd have bought it.

You've all seen this last vehicle driven by Nazis in WWII movies. It's also a Mercedes, no? Well, it's not anymore. Now it's a planter, the only non-running vehicle I saw. But still in service.


Check out the doors that open from the front and swing to the rear. What pathetic excuse for an engineer came up with that design? And why did the manufacturer let him? Can you imagine accidentally opening the door while riding along at 50 mph?

When you travel, you never know what you're going to see. I came here to look at colonial houses and ruins and Portuguese cobblestone streets built from ships' ballast. I found an artifact of Uruguay's isolation and lack of cash for imports. And a good warm bout of nostalgia.


Colonia del Sacramento

We finally made it to La República Oriental del Uruguay— a new entry for us to color in on our map of countries visited.


The Río de la Plata forms Uruguay's southern boundary. It's allegedly a simple matter to cross if you want to want to visit from Buenos Aires. You just get on a ferry.


The nearest town of interest is Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I've indicated the route by adding a red line to the ceramic mural map pictured above. Don't be deceived by the short length. A hydrofoil takes an hour to make the crossing, and a normal ferry takes three. Halfway there, no land is visible. The horizon is water in any direction.

(Incidentally, your atlas probably identifies this as the River Plate, because that's what the British called it long ago. Someone told me the English misunderstood the Spanish word plata to mean "plate", but I don't think so. They knew perfectly well the river was thought to be an artery into South America's silver country. An old meaning of "plate" is "silver", hence "the Silver River".)

Colonia, so called by locals, is the oldest city in Uruguay. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, it changed hands frequently, from Portugal to Spain and back, then likewise from Brazil to Argentina and back, not settling down until Uruguay became an independent country in 1828.

Here we relaxed away from the noise and tumult of BsAs in a quiet, tree-lined place, surprisingly free of tourist crowds.


A ferny town wall, with gate and drawbridge, offered ineffective protection during many sieges.


An old iron cannon mounted on a beautifully preserved gun carriage still defends the historical quarter.


Old walls make beautiful subjects for a photographer.


An abandoned building serves as canvas for a religious mural.


We did run into a few tourists. Here, four young Porteños pose atop a cannon in front of the city museum.


Do they fit the category of Beautiful Men?

The water here is said to be clean enough for bathing, probably a good thing as in summer, it gets hot. On the day we visited, the high temperature exceeded 100º. Jean and I wilted in our city clothes. The four young Porteños stripped down to their boxers and cooled off in the river.


A small yacht club berths primarily sailboats. The usually smooth Río de la Plata looks like it makes for excellent sailing.


The yacht club restaurant, recommended as the best in town, served shrimp stuffed with gruyère cheese, rolled in cocoanut flavored rice crispies and deep fried. A monumental culinary effort and one that failed.

Souvenir shops, galleries and restaurants occupy many colonial buildings, like they do in San Miguel de Allende. A block or two from the commercial district, lovely homes doze among old trees. I particularly admired this one. It's not for sale.


But this one is.


It's a huge stone waterfront house. It was much too hot to chase down the realtor, but I doubt it's priced over a million dollars—maybe much less. In Malibu, it would cost thirty.

The town has a functioning lighthouse. The Río de la Plata is a major shipping channel, and there's not a lot of room for navigation error, compared with the open sea.


In front of the lighthouse are the ruins of the 17th century Convento de San Francisco.

You wouldn't tour Colonia del Sacramento unless you were visiting Buenos Aires or Montevideo. You can see all there is to see in a day, although you could stay longer to relax by the water. You might even consider retiring here. Uruguay has little corruption, is liberal (same-sex unions are legal throughout the country), and almost 90% of the population are people of European descent, giving it the feel of southern Italy. Plus it's cheap.

But nothing much happens in Colonia, and it's hard to travel to anyplace else. So you need to be looking for rest and relaxation primarily, if you're going to settle here.