Uruguayan Reunion

27 Nov 2002

Here’s the latest of my travel adventures.  Wow so much has happened, let’s see where I last left off… oh Buenos Aires, was it?  Seems like an eternity ago…

Anyway, after I finally recovered from the Big Gay Night Out hangover, I was ready to rally again by 6 PM, so I reunited with the Argentine juggler since she invited me to this REALLY COOL community theater event in a working-class neighborhood just south of downtown.  She said the theater is a converted warehouse (just my type) that was intended to be an arts school, buy that never happened.  Anyway the rough-n-tough locals decided to turn it into a community theater and for twelve years have produced barrio-written and performed original works.  It receives no governmental funding but has managed to produce very innovative theater and have established a reputation for excellence among porteños…. That night’s performance was called “El fulgor argentino” and was sort of a musical/performance art thingey that dealt with the history of the neighborhood from the 1920’s until now, involving amazing costumes, cool music, probably 100+ local performers (no professionals), incredible puppets, sound efects, etc etc.  Wow, I TOTALLY loved it as you can well imagine.  Even before the show there were a couple street vendors selling everything from gourmet pizzas, roast lamb on a spit (even I admit it *looked* tasty), more than a dozen homemade pastries, beer, wine, etc.  Very different from the Italian sausage crapola normally sold on the streets.  I treated my friendly host to both the show and pre-event wine/dessert — the total cost: $9.  Unbelievable.

I met Bob afterwords for a nightcap at the Café Tortoni, an elegant mahogany-lined Bs As institution dating from the 1920’s.  I swear it hasn’t changed.  It was jammed packed with locals, a small tango orchestra filled the air with melancholy tunes.  It was magical.  A nice break from the shopping sprees of late.  My travel pals’ hotel room was filled with cheap Argentine goods including 5 leather jackets (two custom tailored), numerous paintings, countless curios, etc.  I swear I couldn’t see one of the beds since it was covered with so many shopping bags.   Bob’s friend is certainly is bringing his enthusiastic American consumerism down south where it is greatly needed.

As for anti-American sentiment, I personally haven’t noticed a single instance of this.  Everyone, I repeat, everyone is most welcoming especially when my nationality is known.  The only thing I’ve noticed is the news reported that some protesters dumped some garbage on the US Embassy’s lawn in response to a recent ¨La nación” report (this is the equivalent to their “NY Times” daily) that the US government promised humanitarian aid (but hasn’t yet delivered, although US church-affiliated aid has arrived) to Argentina’s most affected province (the Andean northwest where already several dozen children have died of malnutrition).  MEANWHILE… US companies continue to deliver hazardous waste (deemed too toxic for our own dumps) to Argentina.  Hence the symbolic act of dumping trash at the US Embassy, which I totally support.  Our treatment of Latin America, historically and currently by the Bush administration, has mostly been a bunch of shit.  One exception is FDR’s genuinely benevolent policies in the 1930’s, which is still included as standard material in student textbooks here and explains why nearly every town and city in Latin America has a street named “Avenida Roosevelt”.  I don’t find Latin Americans hypocritical when it comes to this:  while they honor and celebrate our (rare) generosity, they also protest our less-generous acts and have a right to do so.  That’s more than I can say about our current president who, you will remember, declared this to our southerly neighbors as “the American century”.  OK, so he’s busy with this “war against terror”… is he unable to multitask?  By the way, I heard him on the radio giving a speech in Spanish to the president of Mexico.  His Spanish, even when being read from a canned speech, is atrocious.  I certainly hope someday he finds a fluent way to communicate (perhaps he should pick up fingerpainting)  Anyway, I digress.

Back to the journey.  The next morning I caught the early ferry to Uruguay and spent a relaxing afternoon in Colonia, a laid-back Portuguese colony town with a well-preserved historical center (now a UNESCO World Heritage site), basically gorging on ice cream and veggie delights at this lacto-ouvo restaurant I chanced upon.  I caught the afternoon bus to Montevideo, my mind full of memories from my time there as an exchange student.  It is still the exceptionally welcoming place I remembered, full of very civilized and proud people despite their tiny nation being overshadowed by the two South American behemoths: Brazil and Argentina.  It really hasn’t changed much, and I guess that may not be all for the best.  It hasn’t developed at the same pace as its neighbors, and despite its government and fiscal  solvency being in substantially better shape than Argentina’s, it’s being dragged down by the regional difficulties.  It actually seemed a bit rough-around-the-edges in ways I didn’t expect.  The roads have more potholes, not much development outside of Montevideo, the buses older, etc.  Not that it’s run down, just not as flashy and slick as Argentina.  But the people are the same, courteous and friendly to a fault.  And in Montevideo I didn’t notice a single street beggar, unlike Bs As where they are on seemingly every street corner.

I got a cheap hotel, had a quick beer & finger food and dashed off for the theater where I saw another “warehouse” performance called “Tangay”, a locally-written play along the lines of “Jeffrey”, but really not anywhere near as interesting.  It was basically two hours of gay cliché, laughs, cries and silly what not.  The locals seemed to like it a lot.  Strangely, I think I was the only gay person there.

The next morning (Sunday) I caught the first bus to Minas, the town where I lived in 1987 as an exchange student.  I didn’t have the address or hadn’t contacted them in advance, but despite my misgivings (were they all dead?  had they all immigrated to the US and now work at MacDonald’s? did they hate me for not recently sending Xmas cards?) I decided to chance it.  Arrived in the wonderful town, beautiful and friendly as ever, grabbed a coffee and sweets at the local cafe, grabbed phone book, and sure as heck they still were there!

I made my way to the house, which looked odd (later I learned my brother recently renovated the front), rang the bell and my crazy sister Alejandra opened the door, her eyes as big as volleyballs, cried “Piter!!!!”.  The next few moments are a blur, my mother Lilián ran to the door, grabbed me like I rose from the dead, tears flowing like mad.   My other sister Analía appeared, ditto.  Wow, I was overwhelmed with emotion.  It was amazing, totally amazing!

After some moments the tears stopped but the smiles continued, and we slowly started catching up, everyone talking at once.  Babies were passed to me, kisses kisses galore.  For a long time we laughed, telling stories, remembering funny things from when I lived there.  They told me about their families (each sister has a wonderful husband and two adorable children — I am now their Tío “Uncle” Peter), the friends I made while there (one, sadly, died a year ago yet another is now a dentist in Indianapolis of all places), the grandparents, local news and gossip, etc etc etc.

A couple hours later I saw my brother Jorge and his classy wife Alexandra, now 6 months pregnant.  The reunion was fantastic.  Since we still had the whole afternoon we hopped in the car, kids piled on laps and headed for the Piriapólis beach, sat in the sand and later ate pizza and drank beer on the boardwalk.

The evening was packed with more conversation, laughs, hugs. FINALLY around 1 AM we all manged to get to sleep, but up early to head for the country, where Alejandra’s husband Rolando has a farm and we rode horses until it started raining.

Back to town for the family lunch I remembered so well:  homemade pasta (despite my protests to not complicate matters, they even left out the meat for me… believe me this isn’t easy in a country with one of the highest per capita meat consumption rates in the world) and dulce de leche (their version of caramel) for dessert.  I visited my sister’s stores (they both own boutiques) and the family news shop.  The hardware store I used to help out with when I lived there has closed.

Finally, the day-long dream come true had to end as I had to bus it back to Montevideo for the evening crossing to Buenos Aires (unfortunately I had a flight the next day to Patagonia which I had a hard time getting and couldn’t change).  But I did manage to slip out alone for 15 minutes before I left and order flowers to be sent to each of the four homes after my departure as a thank-you since they refused ALL my attempts to contribute and loaded my backpack with remembrances and gifts.

With admitted difficulty, I held back tears as I waved to my whole Uruguayan family standing in the rain as the bus pulled out of the station.  Pinch me, was it all a dream?

Argentine Patagonia

OK OK so I know you’re probably asleep by now, so I’ll sign off.  I arrived yesterday after a 4-hour flight to El Calafate, southern Patagonia on the border of Tierra del Fuego.  While considerably colder that Bs As, the sun sets here well after 10 PM (and rises around 4 AM) and the landscape is beyond description.  I’ll try in the next message… I’m still trying to process the beauty of today’s visit to Perito Moreno, one of the world’s few advancing glaciers and clearly the most spectacular.  THAT and more stories from Patagonia, a place that has for many years been in the forefront of my travel mind.  And boy does it deliver!  Tomorrow I cross to Chile where I hope to begin on Friday a 3-4 day trek through Torres del Paine National Park.

Pedro con patagones

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