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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Uruguay

South America's Best-Kept Secret

  MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – I’m walking along Sarandi, a pedestrian street in this capital city, with two Uruguayans, Alejandro Nowinski and Dario Queirolo. I’ve known them less than an hour. Already we’re fast friends.

  The best way to experience an unfamiliar country is hanging with locals. In this case, I’m in excellent company. Dario is a veteran tourism journalist with an encyclopedic memory of Uruguay’s history. Alejandro, a driver/interpreter working with me all week, has considerable knowledge of many things Uruguayan as well a keen curiosity.

  Sarandi, which bisects Montevideo’s Old City, is packed with strollers of all ages on an early spring Sunday afternoon. [The seasons are flipped in the southern hemisphere.] Once a year, government buildings and some embassies that are normally off-limits open their doors to the public. Today is that day, significantly increasing normally busy Sunday foot traffic.

  Street musicians and peddlers line both sides of Sarandi. They are joined by men roasting fat sausages on large, wood-fueled grills. The aroma makes it hard to resist.

  We encounter an artist, Luis Gomez, a small man with thinning hair, a white beard, watery eyes and a sad smile. We ask about his colorful, unframed work, displayed on the wall behind him and on a portable table. He’s enthusiastic in his response. He poses for a photo. Dario later explains that Luis’s work reflects that of Uruguay’s most famous artist, Joaquin Torres Garcia.

  Sarandi passes by two of the city’s main plazas – Constitution and Independence. At each, families are scattered about the green space and on benches enjoying informal picnics and conversation. Young couples share quiet, intimate moments. Children kick around soccer balls, imagining they are their local heroes.

  Visually, Montevideo’s center appears like various European cities I’ve visited over the years, reflecting its mostly Spanish and Italian heritage. Many of the buildings feature large columns and plain, concrete walls. Some are more ornate. Dario points to one that looks like two different buildings – one on top of the other. Salvo Palace was designed in 1928 by an Italian immigrant, Mario Palanti, from neighboring Buenos Aires, Argentina, where a sister structure was built. It’s 312 feet tall.

  “For a few years, it was the tallest building in South America,” Dario says.

  Observing the locals, there’s a surprising lack of diversity. It’s explained when I learn 87 percent of them have European roots.

  We turn our attention to an enormous man-on-a-horse statue - how many of these have I seen? – and another history lesson. The rider, Gen. Jose Gervasio Artigas, is the father of Uruguay’s independence, which was gained in 1830. Not true, says Dario.

  “He moved to Paraguay in 1820 and never returned.”

  I mention we have a somewhat similar situation in the U.S. regarding Christopher Columbus, whose legacy as the first European to reach North America turned out to be fake news.

  “But we still celebrate Columbus Day.”

  With that, Alejandro suggests we find a café to continue our discussion.

Why Uruguay?

  Over the past few years, I’ve been reporting from countries never visited, a list that is quickly dwindling when taking into account war zones and places in which I have little interest. Following stints in Jamaica, North Macedonia, Albania and Ghana, I turned my attention to South America. A previous reporting trip to the continent years ago left few options. Uruguay quickly surfaced for several reasons. It’s relatively unknown in the U.S. It’s safe. And, unlike a number of South American nations, its government is stable.

  As always, networking is the key to any such reporting trip. For me, it starts with a driver who can also serve as an interpreter in countries where English is not widely spoken, as is the case here.

I made my first contact in Lebanon, of all places, where I met Marianela Jalil in August. A Lebanese Uruguayan, Marianela contacted her friend Carlos Sotogorski, a Uruguayan businessman, who connected me with Alejandro, the driver. When I told Alejandro my areas of interest, he found Dario and Eduardo Rapetti, director of tourism in neighboring San Jose department [which we would call a state]. By the time I arrived here, my schedule was set.

  Uruguay is about the size of Washington state. It’s sandwiched between two giants, Argentina to the south, Brazil in the north. The La Plata River, the world’s widest fresh water system, separates the country from Argentina. You can leave Montevideo at 10 a.m. and after a 2 ½-hour ferry ride have lunch in Buenos Aires, one of South America’s best cities. The country has a land border with Brazil, which is as different from Uruguay in all aspects of life as France is from neighboring England.

  Half of Uruguay’s 3.4 million citizens live in Montevideo. The nearby Atlantic coast features pristine beaches and is packed with summer visitors from December through February. The countryside is dominated by cattle and dairy farms. I was shocked to learn that Uruguay has the most cattle per capita in the world. [If you’re a meat lover, a decent steak can be found anywhere.]

  On a continent rooted in old school traditions, I was also surprised by the country’s progressiveness. Technically, it was the first country in the Americas to give women the right to vote [1917]. From Alejandro I learned that Uruguay was the second country in the world to approve an eight-hour work day [1915, non-agriculture workers. Spain was first.] More recent legislation legalized marijuana and abortions, and Ok’d gay marriages. Vigilant on health care, dramatic spikes in hypertension among its people motivated the government to ban salt and condiments from all restaurant tables in 2015. [I noticed in every restaurant I visited the chefs under-salted their food.]

  Beginning in the early 1900s through today, the country’s leaders – conservatives and liberals alike – have worked to enact progressive policies, elevating Uruguay’s reputation in the Americas as a benevolent nation. [Strong democracy, little corruption, rare civil strife.] The firm separation of the Catholic church and state here – Uruguay is the least religious of South America’s nations – also has played a role in the country’s progressiveness.

Coffee Break

  Over fine cappuccinos, I discover both Alejandro, 59, and Dario, 65, have spent significant parts of their lives outside Uruguay.

Dario operated a travel agency in New York from 1977 to 1989.   Beaming as he recalls those years – he has a warm, engaging smile underscoring his Italian-Spanish roots - he laments passing on the opportunity he had to stay in what he calls his favorite city. Here he publishes an annual photo and information book called Pasaporte Uruguay covering all of the country 19 departments. In its 24th year, Dario says it gets harder every edition to pitch the advertising required to keep the publication afloat. But he soldiers on.

  For 21 years, Alejandro, whose pale skin, narrow face and sharp nose reflect his Polish heritage, traveled the world working on cruise ships. He loved the life. But when the age gap between him and his co-workers began to uncomfortably widen, he knew it was time to return to Uruguay. He loves the country’s chill lifestyle and relative ease in moving about. It’s not a congested place. Aside from ferrying about his clients, Alejandro and his brother direct an on-line enterprise selling ceramics and paintings by their late artist father, Jaime Nowinski.

  My friends’ worldly knowledge triggers a discussion that quickly covers the conflict in Gaza, American politics and soccer. Eventually, the conversation returns to Uruguay. I ask why everything is so expensive – yet another surprise. Gas runs $8 a gallon and a 22 percent sales tax inflates every purchase.

  The country’s size – or lack of it – is a major reason, I’m told, as pretty much everything has to be imported. On the plus side, Uruguay has a good health care system and employment numbers are reasonable, although youth unemployment and their migration elsewhere is an issue. The government is the country’s largest employer, providing decent wages and excellent benefits, Dario says.

  There have been some troubling developments. Post-COVID issues linger, particularly in the tourism sector. [Dario says the pandemic cost him most of his savings as advertising ceased.] The devaluation of Argentina’s currency by 50 percent this year has sent Uruguayans and other tourists scurrying to Buenos Aires.

  “Everything is cheap there,” says Alejandro.

  Meanwhile, the worst drought in memory triggered a major water shortage earlier this year, an embarrassment for a nation that prides itself on a boundless fresh water supply. That problem has since dissipated with the arrival of heavy rains in July and government-led efforts.

  Big picture, the issues are minimal. Having reported from scores of countries in turmoil, by almost any measure Uruguay is a shining light on this continent and beyond.

  After flying for 20 hours and spending the afternoon with my new friends, I’m gassed. We say our goodbyes. Tomorrow, I’ll begin chasing stories. The excitement of getting to know people in a new land rarely wanes. It’s a privilege never taken for granted.

Editor’s note: First in a series from a reporting trip to Uruguay Oct. 8-12, 2023

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