After Rio De Janeiro, we spent two days at sea before arriving in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay on February 6th. Last night, we were tossed around by unpredicted 70 MPH Winds and 25 foot waves. We had no warning from the Bridge. Our stateroom is on the back left corner of the ship with a deck that wraps around the port side (that’s the left side for you nautically challenged). The views are stellar and we never miss anything. However, being on the back is not so great if the seas are rough. Imagine riding an ornery horse that never stops trying to buck you off. It feels like that. We spent most of the night trying not to get flung out of bed and securing anything glass that could become airborne and impale us. At 4 AM we finally turned west onto the Rio de la Plata (Plate River) and the seas flattened, but the winds roared on. The winds were so intense that the port was closed overnight to all traffic, which is fairly common here. We were in a cue of stacked up ships waiting for Pilots to guide them in. Pilots are local experts who knows the waterways intimately. They are essential when coming into a port or in tricky bodies of water (like the Amazon). They do not grab the wheel (metaphorically speaking… joysticks replaced wheels long ago), but they do tell the Captain exactly where to go, and they are in charge. No questions asked. The sleepless night was well worth it, because the storm cleared out the steamy air, and we were treated to a blustery day in the mid-70’s. Absolute heaven.
Uruguay is a tiny country of only 72,000 square miles (about the size of South Dakota) and is wedged between Brazil and Argentina. The population is 3.4 million. 1.8 million live in Montevideo, which has repeatedly been named one of the “30 safest cities in the world”. This is a true feat considering the crime problems that plague most Latin American cities. It is also the least corrupt. The city is on the Plate River, which is the widest river in the world, and muddy brown due to sediment.
We spent the morning walking around the “old city” near the port, and were struck by how clean the city is. There is a high level of “civic pride” here. Trash cans are everywhere, and people actually use them! There were very few smokers, and most consciously deposited their butts in special receptacles. The streets are in good shape. Parks are landscaped and well maintained. There were no homeless people sleeping on the streets. In most of Latin America there are scrawny stray dogs everywhere. We did not see one. And, we did not feel the need to be ever vigilant against pickpockets. Most residents were conservatively dressed. The guy below must have been visiting from Rio…
So, why is it so different here? Much can be attributed to Jose Battle y Ordonez; President in the early 1900’s. Impressed by the social legislation and state operated industries of Switzerland, he created a Constitution in 1918 that laid the foundation for social programs unparalleled on the continent today. He legalized divorce, abolished the death penalty and established an 8 hour work day with paid holidays. All essential industries and services are run by the government and all residents get free medical care. The entire population has access to clean water, which is uncommon in this part of the world. The Constitution also provides complete freedom of the press, the prohibition of “arbitrary arrest” which is rampant in most South American cities, and decreed that prisons were for reform not punishment.
But, the most dramatic difference between Uruguay and its neighbors is the complete separation of “church and state”. The Catholic church plays no role in the government, resulting in strong secular traditions. Christmas is “Family Day” and Easter or Holy Week is Tourist Week, when many people take off and travel. And, it is forbidden to name a public building after a Saint.
Remember, Uruguay is part of the “meat triangle” and most of the land here is grassy prairie. There are over 10 million cows and 4 million pigs. The smell of barbecue permeates the air. It’s impossible to get away from it. We strolled through a busy market, and after seeing the scene below, decided on pastries for lunch instead. Yes, I know meat has a face, but this was to much reality…
We took a city tour in the afternoon, and were amazed by the ample green expanse of city parks and miles of trails along the riverfront. Traffic flowed smoothly. Motorists stopped and smiled at pedestrians in crosswalks, instead of grinning maniacally and speeding up like in Rio. We saw hundreds of people jogging. And, to encourage fitness, there are “public exercise stations” dotted throughout the city, and people were using them. Mostly to sit on and chat, but maybe that works to, by osmosis.
A visit to the Legislative Building was a highlight. The Parliament meets here, and it was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The inside is stunning with 27 different kinds of marble, all found in Uruguay.
We were really quite impressed by everything we saw and learned today, but the most captivating sight was back at the pier. In the harbor, sunken ships riddled with rust and gaping wounds were mashed together as unintended sculptures.
Montevideo was one of the main ports in the Americas for the Spanish Empire. The high volume of traffic coupled with complicated wind patterns led to numerous shipwrecks along the coast. They started in 1772, when the frigate ”La Aurora” sank as it set sail for Spain with a load of Peruvian silver. The last significant wreck was in 1930, when the “Verano” went under as it transferred a leather shipment to a Dutch steamship.
The graveyard is a mecca for divers, sea life, and photographers. Pretty awesome, huh?
Next Stop, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Stay tuned…