What would you like on your pasta?
A car picked me up at 0530 on Saturday. Across Belgrano, cars were picking up 18 students at that time. I was happier about it than the students. The cars shuttled us to the port where we caught the Buquebus (ferry) for Montevideo.
Montevideo was a nice change of pace. Despite being a national capital with over 1 million residents, life moved at a much more relaxed clip than in Buenos Aires. We were able to check in early and spent Saturday and Sunday touring the city at our own relaxed pace. I failed to find pants. That is, I found a lot of pants but, apparently, the waist to thigh ratio is significantly different in Uruguayan fashion and I was out of luck. I walked a good bit, saw some green birds, heard tales of intrigue and debauchery, at least some of which is no doubt true, from my students and generally had a nice rest-bit.
Which brings us to Monday. On Monday we were to catch a bus at 930 to take us to Colonia de Sacremento, a city founded on a peninsula facing Buenos Aires in 1680 by the Portuguese. They then fought the Spaniards for over a century before losing the city and, thus, what would become Uruguay. The Spaniards lost it to the residents less than a century after that.
In any case, it’s an old city with both Portuguese and Spanish architecture. Loads of cafes, art shops, dogs, cats, birds and motor scooters. It is a really pretty place and I’m glad we went. But the day was our first that didn’t go super smoothly. Rain had been forecast each day in Montevideo but never really materialized. It started raining late Sunday night and continued until about noon on Monday. Our guides pushed back departure – Colonia is a place for walking outdoors – to 1030. We finally left around 1045. Our group has many fine qualities, punctuality is not one of them. We drove through a lush, green countryside stopping only for a quick look at collections of keychains and pencils, each of which is a Guinness record holder. It was more interesting than it sounds but best was the collection of marmalades and cheese sold in the gift shop (it’s a working farm). We proceeded on to Colonia, stopping for lunch just outside the old city walls.
Here is where we started getting the study abroad experience which I think of as “things aren’t going bad but they’re going in a way I don’t really understand”.
Americans tend to be an inward looking bunch. We think we’re pretty awesome (we are) and that the entire world should work like it does in the United States (it shouldn’t). Perhaps all peoples do this but we’ve been more successful than most at bending the world to our ways. I doubt I’ve been farther than 2 miles from a McDonalds since arriving in South America. I think I have a Starbucks following me. One of our students is flabbergasted at the shower in his bathroom at the home-stay and tells the story in a most entertaining manner (to be fair, it sounds pretty rough). No one gets the laundry or meal times. The behavior of cars is likewise incomprehensible. Learning to adapt to local custom and that our lives in the USA is not some pre-ordained routine but rather than evolution of custom from the first principles of national character are, perhaps, the most important elements of any study abroad program.
Corralling 18 students is a difficult task and they eluded our guide’s efforts to place them in a single restaurant for lunch. I ended up with about half the group in the restaurant the guide picked out for us. It was fine and I was able to order Tannat, a Uruguayan wine that is quite strong. I liked it but not as much as the Argentinian Malbec. Three of the group ordered pasta. I chose a chivito. The dishes arrived faster than usual for this part of the world. My guess is this is due to the restaurant catering mostly to tourists. Placing nine dishes takes some time and so it took a bit for the three pasta eaters to realize they had gotten all they were going to get.
The three pasta dishes were generous but without sauce. The boldest of the three asked the waitress about sauce. Sauce, it turns out, costs extra, basically doubling the price. Instead of sauce, they were offered oil and Parmesan. The three had very different reactions: one loved it, one wasn’t crazy about it but was hungry and resigned and plowed ahead and one hated it, though was generous enough to share with the rest of us. The waitress seemed really confused and, perhaps, a bit offended, that the students expected sauce for free. It’s a very minor point and will likely be lost by the time we’re done here but, to me, it summarizes international travel. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of a place and can order food in a restaurant a custom that is obvious to locals rears its head and bites you.
One of the three – the one who was okay but not crazy about the sauceless raviolis – reports that his host mother served him a late (see below) dinner of sauceless raviolis when he returned home last night. That appears to be how it’s done along the shores of the Rio de la Plata.
The next engagement with the vagaries of traveling where you know little of the language and few of the customs came on the ferry on home. The old city is a two minute bus ride from the ferry port and we boarded our ship, scheduled to depart at 2001, around 1915. All going well, we’d be back home by 2130.
All did not go well.
I was deep into a Tana French novel, trying to spend a few minutes back in the English speaking world, and failed to notice that, at 2030, we still hadn’t left. Finally, some students got my attention to ask what was going on. Like I know. It’s lovely how they think I have a clue. I guess I should let them think that. At least for a few more weeks.
We had weather trouble and weather trouble that precipitated technical trouble. The initial delay was due to thunderstorms between us and Buenos Aires, 30 miles away. Once those passed, we could go but, as it happens, the ferry has to be towed out of port and, for some unexplained reason, the tow could not operate with the river running as high as it was.
Now, we were told during orientation to expect travel delays in Latin America. And, honestly, I’d forgotten that because I’ve crisscrossed the southern half of the continent without a hitch. And weather delays seem quite reasonable. I’ve been on a boat in a thunderstorm. No thanks. I’ve also sat in plenty of North American airports as “weather” holds things up. I see no reason to suppose our delay last night had anything in particular to do with our being in Latin America. The other thing we were told in orientation is that the locals would take long delays in stride, that they are endlessly patient and/or not in any hurry at all.
By 2100 a group that, were it less well dressed could be called a mob, had gathered at the – you know, I’m not sure what that guy’s job was. Probably to take shite from the passengers. Anyway, they were angry and letting him know. We got announcements which failed to pacify. They gave us free sandwiches which failed to pacify.
My students on the other hand were busy being American. There was a lengthy discussion about how to fix the problem despite our not really knowing exactly what the problem was. There were several rousing games of Go Fish! They played some strange game where a student held their iPhone to their head which displayed things (movies, actors, games, teams, etc) that the rest of the group would act out trying to get the iPhone holder to guess the thing. At first that seemed to greatly annoy their fellow passengers but, by simply ignoring the dirty looks, they eventually provided a lot of information. One guy took on the role of interpreter for the passengers who weren’t yelling at the crew. When it free sandwiches were announced, the entire group dropped the game mid-round and bolted for the line. Once they had their sandwiches they tried desperately to get our group coordinator to advise them on picking up Argentinians. And they did all this very, very loud.
Americans are loud. You don’t notice it in the United States because you’re busy being loud yourself. But we boomed around the boat and a debate over the best Spanish pickup lines between three young American men drowned out a near mutiny at the other end of the ship.
Finally, we arrived in Buenos Aires. Only are troubles weren’t over yet. The river was high in Buenos Aires, too, of course. So the ship rode too high to use the jet-bridge type walkway. Instead, we had to wind our way out through the cars trying to exit the ship. The locals were not happy about this. While waiting to pass our bags through customs the ladies in front of us turned to ask where we were from. One student helpfully told them, “The United States,” and got a nice smile. “Yes, but where?” It turns out the daughter in the mother-daughter pair had lived for a year in Winston-Salem and her brother had gone to Davidson. A small world. We passed these words easily above the volume of the heavy machinery next to us.
We had one last experience to let us know that, despite being in a wonderful city with fantastic people, we were also far from home and don’t really understand how things work. I rode home, with three students, in a cab up Libertador at midnight. I would tell you about it but my parents read this blog and I think they’re worried enough already. Let’s just say that a red light doesn’t mean quite the same thing here as it does back home.
So, the group had the chance to travel together and get a sense that they really aren’t at home any longer. They got along well with each other and with their surroundings. There was grumbling about the late night but they rallied and no one missed class after our late arrival home. I think all this bodes well for the rest of the program.
I know you’re probably wondering about Uruguay. Here are some pictures.
Captions above the picture.
Panoramic from a jetty out in the river, looking back toward the hotel.
For some reason, this school was practicing American football. Good athletes, QB throws like a soccer player.
Pretty green birds everywhere. I never could get a 1005 positive ID but I think they’re monk parakeets which turns out to be a significant pest. Which explains folks looking at me like I was crazy for trying to get a decent picture.
Beach along the Rio de la Plata.
A gift from South Korea. According to our guide, the people of Uruguay are not entirely sure what to make of it.
French school down the street from the American football practice. Those guys weren’t good but I’d give the points if they play the French school.
Armenian plaza. Uruguay is unambiguously a country of immigrants. And, as promised, very European.
The site of the first World Cup, which Uruguay won, in 1930.
The flag outside the presidential office (to the left). A student told our guide that the building in the background is “the worst building I’ve ever seen”. I cringed, worried about our being ugly Americans. However, she agreed and says she doesn’t know anyone who disagrees.
The remnant of the old city wall and gate.
What is in the block outside the old city gate.
A planetarium and observatory! Alas, I was two hours early for the first show. They take their late evenings seriously.
The world’s largest collection of keychains. Yes, there was one for each American state. No, I don’t know why.
Ravioli sin salsa.
The entrance to the old town of Colonia.
That’s the gang, listening to the tour guide inside the walls of Old Colonia.
A little art shop in an original Colonia house.
The city was established by the Portuguese but the lighthouse wasn’t built until the Spaniards took over in the late 18th century.
The church still operates.
Our program coordinator bravely tries to cross the cultural gap between Argentine and American. She did well.