My teaching and traveling stint in South America came to a close a week ago. I boarded my plane in Montevideo, Uruguay to head back to the land of snow in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. It should come as no surprise that I wasn’t particularly thrilled to return to a North Eastern winter. Why would anyone want to leave a South American summer to face bitter winds and freezing temperatures? The answer is, they wouldn’t. But I found myself dreading my three-flight return for more reasons than simply the winter: I truly loved my time in Uruguay, and I honestly didn’t want to leave the country.
Some of you reading this may be struggling to picture Uruguay on a map. I’m embarrassed to admit that until a few years ago, I too didn’t know very much about the tiny South American country. In case you’re unsure, here is Uruguay in all its Google Map glory:
I came to learn about this little land through a friend from Uruguay living in my city. How on earth did an Uruguayan come to Buffalo, NY of all places? It’s not really a traveler’s hotspot by any means. With infamous winters, Buffalo isn’t really a place that Americans come to, let alone international folk. And, why would one voluntarily leave the pristine beaches of Uruguay to come shovel snow? These are some important questions for another time.
Whatever reasons (cough, cough,” insane thinking”) prompted my friend to stay in this cold-infested terrain, I can say I’m thankful he was here. Through him I became acquainted with a culture I never thought to give my time of day. I tried the most beloved Uruguayan drink called mate (a strong form of tea, basically drinking hot grass), went to some Uruguay-inspired asados or BBQ’s, and tried dulce de leche, which is better than caramel topping.
I learned tidbits about the relatively stable political situation in the country and the progressive programs in place for education. I became both a little jealous and impressed when I learned that Uruguay offers completely free education to students at the state’s university, Universidad de la República.
So it was clear I needed a visit to see it all for myself. When I made plans to move abroad to teach English in Chile, I knew Uruguay was a place I wanted to visit. After finishing my time in Chile, I headed to Brazil for Christmas and New Year’s for a month, followed by a solo adventure in Argentina, and on to Uruguay to my trip. My Uruguayan friend joked with me that I was saving “the best for last”. I don’t know that Uruguay is “the best” out of the four countries I experienced, but it certainly should receive a lot more positive attention than it currently does.
Uruguay is a prime example of the cliché that “good things come in small packages”. With a little under 3.5 million people, there are more cows existing in the country than humans. The land is filled with rolling hills that are perfect for agriculture, a huge component of its culture and economy. In just a few hours, one can travel from the capital, Montevideo, to the interior of the country or to its borders. Speaking of neighbors, the ever-large Brazil and Argentina contribute to Uruguay’s quiet presence in the media. With countries that are much more massive, Uruguay is often times over-shadowed by its MERCOSUR partners. But as I said before, size shouldn’t be the only factor taken into consideration. After visiting both Brazil and Argentina, I can say that despite its size, Uruguay offers just as much to tourists and culture-enthusiasts passing through this region of South America.
My 1.5 weeks in the tiny cow-filled nation gave me a pretty good snapshot of what this place is all about. Through the fortunate connections of my Uruguayan friend, I was able to spend 90% of my trip with actual Uruguayans, furthering my connection with the country and culture. While less than two weeks is certainly not enough time to run an anthropological analysis of a country and its people, I can offer you my opinion on what I saw and experienced.
Overall, I find Uruguayans to be calm and easy-going individuals about most things. The one thing they might not be calm about is politics. Many of them focus a lot of energy on being updated with the political situation of not only Uruguay but also their neighbors and other international players. They have rather strong opinions that they aren’t afraid to share. Coming from the United States, I would say this is a refreshing difference. It is fair to say that American citizens, as a whole, are less politically active than Uruguayans. Currently, we are inundated with news on the upcoming U.S. presidential election, but how many of our citizens actually turn out to actually vote on the big day? According to The Pew Research Center, only a little over half of the U.S. population, at 53.6%, voted in the 2012 presidential election. And that’s the election for the POTUS… I’m sure the turnout for the rest of governmental offices is just as bad if not worse. That being said, the fact that almost every Uruguayan I met had something thought-out to say about the country’s political situation was reviving for me.
When Uruguayans are not discussing political ideology, they are very tranquilo, or relaxed. I attribute this to a few factors, again my own personal opinion. I have an inkling that this calmness could be the result of living in a country with some of the finest beaches in the world. It could also be attributed to the copious amounts of yerba mate that they consume. It might even be the fact that Uruguay is small, and similar to a country like The Netherlands, they do their own thing, receiving less notice from the world and less pressure. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three of these ideas. Whatever the reason may be, foreigners will undoubtedly observe the relaxed nature of the Uruguayan people.
Coming from impatient Gringo-landia, this tranqui attitude intrigues me. Stepping back to look at the continent, it can be said that this slower paced life is a common stereotype of Latin America as a whole, and with good reason. I experienced this firsthand while living in Chile. Things just happen with less urgency; the mail, bureaucracies, getting an ice cream… the list could go on and on.
But in Uruguay, it’s more than simply a “Hispanic” thing. Uruguay is not a slow country, it’s a calm one. And it seems to me, that this tranquility is a country-specific facet. Uruguayans are not raised to move through life in an anxious fashion. You would never race to finish drinking a mate. The whole concept of drinking mate is enjoyment. The drink gets passed among a group, and it’s done when the yerba offers nothing more to consume. It’s not a timed-deal, and it’s never rushed like so many things in my country’s culture.
While I’ve rambled a great deal about Uruguayans being level-tempered people, I want to make something clear. Being a relaxed person does not equate to laziness. Uruguayans are far from lazy. Quite the contrary, all the Uruguayans I met put in tough hours and hard labor to make ends meet. The country is not cheap, not for foreigners and especially not for its people, but they make it happen because they put forth the effort.
This brings about a key point: working hard on the job doesn’t have to translate to your personal down time, a concept that we struggle to comprehend in the States. One can be dedicated and productive in the office, and still have a relaxed personality while at home. Often times I think Americans put a lot of pressure on themselves to be productive at any cost, at all hours of the day.
Visiting Uruguay opened my perspective. The small country’s way of life offers a compromise, one that many U.S. citizens could use as a good example to follow. Well, the Americans will probably never drink the hot grass substance that is yerba mate… that’s pretty certain. We are coffee consumers and I don’t foresee a change happening in the near future. But by making a concerted effort to separate our work and home mentalities, we might lead less stressful lives. Hey, we may even become a little more Uruguayan. From where I stand, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Have you ever been to Uruguay? Do you know an Uruguayan? Are you even Uruguayan yourself? Have thoughts or opinions on my views of Uruguayans? Please leave some comments in the section below! I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject!