Strange but True Cultural Preference in the Southern Cone

They have really thick window shades to block the sun when you go to bed / wake up in the morning.

As someone who prefers a very dark bedroom when sleeping, I loved this about Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. When I stayed at people’s homes, they all had (at times fancy) window shades that kept the bedroom unusually dark.

Always fascinating how these cultural preferences evolve…

The East Coast of Uruguay

Confession: I hadn't heard of Punta del Este prior to this trip. I soon learned how big time it is: rich Latin Americans, rich Europeans, rich Americans all descend on the Punta del Este beaches in the summer (January/February). It's the place to be seen.

In winter (right now), it's empty, but stil beautiful. Adrian and I drove there from Montevideo (two hours). We ate overlooking the water. Stunning views.

We spent the night in a neighboring ghost town (crazy expensive and packed three months of the year, empty the other nine months) at the one hotel that was actually open. The lady working the hotel was very motherly and sweet and Spanish-speaking only.

The following morning I went for an early morning run on dirt roads and along the beach. Quite lovely and tranquil.

Take away on the east coast: extremely seasonal (probably more so than the Jersey shore for example), beautiful, and much more real estate development yet to come.


Almost Missing My Flight from Montevideo to Santiago

This is the story of how I almost missed my flight from Montevideo to Santiago. All conversations occur in Spanish unless otherwise noted.

At 2 PM Tuesday in Montevideo I went to the front desk of the hotel and told them I’ll need a taxi that night to go to the airport. He told me he could call a remise for me.

Every day in Latin America I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between a remise and a regular taxi. People tell me different things. Is it cheaper or more expensive? What’s the advantage to one or the other? I’ve heard a million contradictory opinions. I have no fucking idea which type is better if you’re just trying to get from A to B at minimal cost (ie, not a town car). I ask the hotel desk guy if it’s expensive compared to a taxi. He says it will be a little less expensive. I say ok – call the remise.

He asks for what time. I tell him my flight is at 7:45 PM. He doesn’t offer a suggested time of departure. So I ask how long it takes to get to the airport. 20 minutes. Ok. So I am working backwards, out loud, in Spanish. He doesn’t offer any help on timing. “Let’s see, get there at 6:45, so leave at six?” Silence. I say, OK, have the remise come here at 6 PM. He says he will.

I ask how much it will cost. He says 600 pesos. It’s my last day in Uruguay so I’m trying to use my pesos. I don’t want to take more out of the ATM because of the $5 transaction fee. I have 520 pesos in my wallet. I ask him if I exchange some U.S. dollars for pesos (via the hotel) to get me to 620. We do that.

Then I work online for the next few hours in the lobby area. It started pouring rain. Thunder and lightening.

At 5:50 PM I go to the front desk and a new guy is working there. He proactively tells me the remise is still coming at 6 PM. I wait in the lobby. At 6:05, the remise hasn’t called the front desk (as they’re suppose to do when they arrive), so I wait outside, and the front desk guy waits out with me. The rain has made quite a mess of the traffic. At 6:10 PM there’s a traffic accident (car rammed the side of another car) right in front of the hotel, blocking the street. Then, separately, a car alarm goes off and keeps ringing for 10 minutes non-stop. As George Costanza once put it, “The sea was fierce that day my friends.”

6:20 PM. No remise. No taxis either. Since it’s raining and rush hour, hailing one off the street was impossible.

At 6:25 PM the hotel guy calls the remise and gets told it’s not coming after all. “That’s ok,” he tells me after he hangs up, “That’s a really expensive car. Much cheaper to take a taxi.” He says he’ll call a taxi. Then, what I hear him say in Spanish is, “You should pay me something because I’m getting you a cheaper car.”

A taxi finally come at 6:45 PM. I get in. I tip the hotel guy and he tries to reject it – maybe I misheard him. Driver tells me it will be 200 pesos to the airport. I say ok. Takes forever to get there with the rain. Then again, maybe driver was “taking me for a ride”. We arrive at 7:15 PM. He says it’s 400 pesos. My international flight leaves in 30 minutes. I don’t have time to argue. I give him all the pesos I have left and run toward the terminal.

I find the check-in counter for Pluna Airlines. By this point, in my head, I’m already going through my contingency plans: where would I stay in Montevideo if I miss my flight? When is the next flight to Santiago? How can my phone-less self get in touch with my host in Santiago to say I’ll be a day late?

At the counter I learn they’ve closed the check-in for Santiago. I beg and plead. A woman comes out and yells at me for being late. I try to tell her the taxi was late. She fires up the computer and starts checking me in. She tells me I’m a bad person. I tell her the taxi. She keeps telling me, in English, that I am a bad person.

A woman comes up to me and says I need to pay her USD $20 to check my luggage. This seems like an absurd amount but I’m late, and not fluent in Spanish. The woman put the twenty dollar bill in her pocket. Nice. She gives me a luggage tag.

I get a hand-written boarding pass. Then I’m told I have to pay a country departure fee, which is par for the course in Latin America. I run to the departure tax fee window. I pay USD $30 departure tax.

The flight ticket cost USD $300 (one-way, for a two hour flight). Now I’d already paid USD $50 in extra fees.

I run to the security check-in station. As I’ve said before, security at Latin America airports is less a securing procedure and more of a “welcome to the gates!” exercise.

After taking nothing out of my bag and with my shoes firmly on I walked through the metal detector. 7:40 PM. My flight is supposed to leave at 7:45 PM.

Then I get lost. There are a gazillion duty free shops. Where are the planes? Panicked, thinking I’d already missed my flight, I yell to a security guard, “Donde esta las puertas??” He points. You have to walk through chocolate station after chocolate station, Johnny Walker stand after Johnny Walker stand. It felt like a Vegas casino with darkness and mirrors. Totally disorienting.

Find my gate. They haven’t boarded. Starving. I haven’t had dinner yet. I look for restaurants. None. I go back into the duty free but I don’t have enough pesos for any of the high end chocolate or booze. Eventually I find staircase leading up to a food court to buy a sandwich. I buy a triangular boxed sandwich – those disgusting kinds like they have in London. And agua sin gas. I then run back to the check in area and board the plane

The sandwich is soaked and the bread is so thin that I am basically gripping wet tomatoes in my hand. But I eat, because I’m a big man, and big men need food. Then I fall asleep, and miss the food service. I leave my umbrella on the plane by accident when de-planing.

At Santiago customs, I learn I have to pay a $131 arrival fee, because I’m American, and the U.S. enacted a similar fee on Chilean nationals.

And that’s the story of my six hours getting from Montevideo to Santiago.

Latin Dancing

Latin people take their dancing seriously. Whereas the typical American, if he can dance at all, will only know hip-hop MTV style grinding, Latin people have a wider repertoire of moves. Salsa. Tango. 1-2 step (not quite sure what that is). And a million other variations.

There are also set expectations for how men are to ask women to dance whereas in the States it's more of a free for all.

At the one club/bar I went to in Montevideo, grinding was eschewed in favor of circle dancing, solo dancing, or other local variations.

Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo is a city in part defined by what it's not: it's not Buenos Aires. Tourists to Montevideo often are coming from BA or en route to BA and treat Montevideo as a stop-over. This understandably generates a certain amount of defensiveness on the part of Uruguayans. Tourists looking for flashy big city action are too quick to dismiss tiny Montevideo and all its humble charm, but locals, too, are too eager to point out differences or Uruguayn superiorites which flatly do not exist.

All in all, I had a lovely stay in Montevideo, and I would certainly consider living there. It is probably a city better to live in than visit, though even a short-term visitor like myself had plenty to do and see.

The relative smallness of Montevideo lends itself to walking, and walk it I did. I was staying in Ciudad Vieja (old town) but walking to the different barrios, or to the waterfront, didn't take long at all.

After arriving by ferry from BA, I met up with a reader who was super gracious with her time showing me and other friends of hers around town. We had coffee in an ultra-hipster cafe which implored on a sign inside, "Don't tell other people about this cafe." Which of course is wondefully counterintuitive viral building marketing.

At night we ate at a typical meat restuarant (meat is eaten perhaps even more in Uruguay than in Argentina) and then went to a house party / birthday party at an apartment. Fun seeing local and ex-pats mingle. As always the language of choice was Spanglish, or mostly Spanish. Always interesting to see how locals react to very American looking Americans. Some harbor knee-jerk resentment; others knee-jerk curiosity; others simply display a univeral friendliness to all comers. (Uruguayans are friendly folk.)

The following day I checked out the town by foot and then at night we went to dinner, then hung out at a park which was epic in its own way, then a bar with a dancefloor downstairs. Montevideo seems to have plenty of nightlife options — BA seems to have almost too many options. But both Montevideo and BA start LATE and end LATE. Sleep deprivation: it's a way of life.

Along the way I had two chavitos, which is the national sandwich (how cool is that?) and kept buying more agua sin gas than probably anyone else. Thanks, diabetes.

Bottom Line on Montevideo: Come, visit, spend a few days, then head to the east coast. I'll be back, Uruguay!