17 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 3: Montevideo, the first impression

We arrived in Montevideo after noon. The city seemed to me big, expansive, with suburbs slow to appear. There are no huge highways or stacked road bridges. Montevideo (with its metropolitan area) has a population of 1.8 million, half the whole of Uruguay, almost twice that of Rosario and two thirds that of Buenos Aires, but it didn't look dense or complicated to me.

After a good while rolling down avenues and more avenues, the bus came to a brick-wall building, made a couple of turns and got inside. Terminal Tres Cruces ("Three Crosses Terminus") is relatively small. After the rather disordered Mariano Moreno bus terminal of Rosario and especially after the horribly filthy Retiro, Tres Cruces impressed me as surprisingly simple, clean and easy to navigate. There wasn't a single piece of paper or a plastic bag on the floor, or even one motor oil stain on the platforms. Neither were there people asking for coins to take your luggage from the bus, and I'd almost bet that the taxis waiting beside the exit weren't all members of a taxi mafia (as in Rosario). In fact, Tres Cruces is also a shopping mall, and as such the shop owners have an interest in making the potential client feel comfortable.

We crossed a street, asked around, and finally got on a bus that took us to the neighbourhood known as Ciudad Vieja (the Old Town), where, with the help of a map we'd gotten at the Tourist Office, we made our way quite easily to our hostel.

What I saw of Montevideo during the three and a half days I was there is almost enough to forgive Uruguayans for their inability to make decent icecream. Some might protest that I only saw the city center and the most touristic parts of the city, but at some point one has to acknowledge that's an excuse. Montevideo is infinitely cleaner than Rosario or Buenos Aires. During my whole stay, which I spent walking around the Old Town, the Center, the port zone, the neighbourhood of El Prado and a couple of beaches, I didn't spot one single pile of dog shit on a sidewalk, or a single garbage dump, or one overflowing trash container. I also didn't see people littering the floor, or pedigree dogs defecating on the public space before their masters.

The traffic also deserves a mention. To begin with, Montevideo car drivers don't look like madmen behind the wheel. They don't show the typical Argentine histeria to be the first to arrive anywhere. In Argentina, when you cross the street, you need to be fully aware you're risking your life. In Uruguay drivers seem to realize that between a walking person and a car it's the former who'll get the most damage if they have a violent encounter, and they slow down to let you pass, or at least they don't show a clear intent to run over you. In Argentina, you can often perceive that the driver is choosing between murder and jail and only refrains from the former to avoid the latter.

Public transport is another thing. Montevideo's buses are such that you get in, pay to a guarda (who sits apart from the driver) and that's it for the rest of the trip. The bus is clean, the guy who sells you the ticket always has change, and no-one ever fires up his or her MP3-enabled cellphone with trashy cumbia or reggaeton. Above all, one doesn't get the distinct feeling that one's about to be insulted or mobbed by another passenger any second, or that the driver is ready to kill if someone honks the horn.

I can't speak about taxis because they truly were unnecessary to us. We went around and around by bus, and only once, late at night, we thought of taking a taxi. It turned out we were just waiting on the wrong spot, for the wrong bus. Besides, in Montevideo you don't get the official fiction that buses work during the evening. After midnight it's almost impossible to catch one, and everyone acknowledges it.

You need some time outside the big city, in Argentina or wherever, to notice the awful load of barely-repressed aggressive instinct we carry around here, and which I didn't see in Uruguay. I repeat that this is my personal experience, and it's partial and limited, but the contrast was so stark and shocking I can't but note it. And I'm talking about Uruguay, which is almost an estranged Argentine province. They're not Swiss or Japanese or come from another planet where people are "better"; it's evidently us Argentinians who're doing something wrong.

On the other hand, and this must have lots to do, in Uruguay I didn't see the terrible amount of poverty or the obscene show of wealth you see every day side-to-side in Argentina. Some child asked me for a coin, and I saw many poor-looking people walking in Montevideo's downtown. Surely there are poor people in Uruguay, and surely someone will tell me they prefer insolently visible poor as in Argentina rather than invisible poor, or poor rendered invisible by society, as supposedly there would be in Uruguay. What I know is that you can't hide all poverty, and that in Montevideo I didn't feel sick witnessing armies of dirty children abandoned on the streets by the parents, asking passers-by for small change or washing the windshields of brand-new luxurious SUVs, and I also didn't see mothers with malnourished babies on every available space in the city center, begging before shops filled of imported goods or overpriced clothes.

All of the above might sound rather unpleasant on my part, and the truth is it is unpleasant, and probably more than one Argentinian with less-than-average IQ is thinking, if I like Uruguay so much, why don't I move there; and the answer is, I wouldn't mind doing it, and it would probably be better for my mental health, but practical and sentimental reasons keep me from it.

And because this post was unpleasant but necessary to me, I've poured all these impressions into it, until the last drop. One can't get to know a country or a city in a couple of weeks on vacation, but if truly the first impression is what counts, then I can't say almost anything bad about Montevideo or Uruguay in general. The comparison inevitably puts Argentina under a bad light. Whatcha gonna do...

I initially intended to write about Montevideo's Carnival, one of the first bright experiences of this voyage, but I had to let go of all the above. The next post, I promise, will be more cheerful.

To be continued...


  1. Anonymous12:38

    Thanks for the insights. Rarely post but always read and enjoy your blog and this post is enlightening.


  2. Anonymous18:27

    Dear Pablo

    I share exactly your sentiments on Uruguay and Argentina. It is realy sad - so much potential in Argentina.Much more than in Uruguay. The difference between a country that is run fairly well and one that somehow seem to struggle to vote for the right leadership.

  3. Anonymous20:43

    Yep, same here, please keep going, I also read your Sin Calma blog.

  4. Thanks everybody! The next post is coming soon.


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