Thursday, November 6, 2008

Finishing up!

I was bummed to have been outside the USA for the most riveting election in a generation, but it was pretty cool to be on the guest list for a party at the US Ambassador's residence. After the Ohio and Pennsylvania wins it was pretty obvious Obama had it in the bag, but I stayed up until the wee hours to watch history be made.

Here is a picture of the reception at the Ambassador's residence on election night.

At the event, the Ambassador had put on display a painting by one of Uruguay's most famous living painter, Carlos Paez Vilaró. It was inspired by the events of September 11 and will is a gift to the New York City Fire Department.

Another chance to for me to wear a tie came a few weeks later when the Uruguayan Ministry of Education and the US Ambassador had a joint press conference to announce the Uruguayan government's recent decision to commit funds to Fulbright scholarship exchanges with the US. I'm not sure if this will mean more scholarships for US students like the one I have, but it will definitely mean more Uruguayans in the US.

Probably the biggest piece of news coming out of Uruguay recently has been the Parliament's approval of a bill that would legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. President Tabaré Vásquez vetoed the bill on "biological and philosophical grounds," as expected, and legislators did not have the necessary majority to override the veto. But the bill received major international attention as it would have given Uruguay Latin America's most liberal abortion laws outside of Cuba and Mexico City. It has come at an opportune time for my research on the role of religion in politics in this proudly secular country.

The debate over abortion reached a fevered pitch in Uruguay that was very familiar to American expats. Outside the legislative building during the vote, religious rock bands and hundreds of opponents of the bill gathered to protest. There was also a smaller and much quieter contingent of people supporting the bill, and one of them was carrying this sign, which humorously reads "Enough of your rosaries in our ovaries!"

This past November was an especially fun month to enjoy music around Montevideo. Our "cena de despedida" (goodbye dinner) for Fulbright was at the atmospheric Bar Tabaré, where an incredible tango singer only 23-years old named Francis Andreu performed. She had the raspy voice, the gravitas and the sass of a tanguera three times her age.

The other great concert I went to see was Bajofondo, probably the most well-known group of "electrotango" music. Its principal musician is Gustavo Santaolalla, who had become a big name for winning the Oscar for the theme song to Brokeback Mountain. Here they are taking a bow.

Another fun trip around Montevideo was to Barrio Reus, which is something akin to affordable housing from a century ago. The little homes fell into disrepair like much of the city, but one street in particular has been restored a brightly painted. I hadn't heard a thing about the neighborhood until a history professor tipped me off. It reminded me somewhat of La Boca in Buenos Aires, without the tourist hoards and nowhere to be found in any guidebook.

While it's been fun exploring the parts of the Rio de la Plata that are well off the beaten path, I still have fun living it up in the tourist playground that is Buenos Aires. The inflation there is ridiculous, but a strengthening dollar has somewhat balanced this out for American tourists. Here I am with Facundo (my Uruguayan boyfriend of 6 months, if you haven't caught on) in the Plaza de Mayo in early November. We had a lovely visit, and I scouted out some great restaurants for my family's visit before Christmas.


And last, my family will be happy to know that I celebrated Thanksgiving with good friends and lots of food. Besides a turkey (which cost a fortune here), we managed to scrounge up the ingredients for a very authentic Thanksgiving meal, and the food and wine kept us seated from 3pm to 9pm.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Winter of discontent made glorious summer in Montevideo

At long last, balmy spring has arrived to the Rio de la Plata, although the Americans seem to be the only persons using shorts and sandals so far. Since August I've been enjoying plenty of time in Uruguay, saving money, interviewing all sorts of interesting folks for my research, and taking advantage of the many festivals that take place as the cold starts to go away.

Recently I was happy to have a South American reunion with Robin, who I met as a fellow intern at the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile in 2006. After a business trip in Buenos Aires she was a good enough friend to make the trip to Montevideo just for one night. Here we are trying to cram a number of important Uruguayan symbols into one shot: the Palacio Salvo, the tomb of José Artigas, and the iconic maté and thermos.

One of Montevideo most exciting annual events is the Semana Rural, which is essentially large stock show where ranchers show off their prize cows, sheep. chickens, etc. and the food is in great supply for non-livestock aficionados like me. Here is a sedated sheep getting ready to lose its winter coat. 

My boyfriend Facundo's quasi-public company INIA had a stand at the fair, which highlighted its work in sustainable methods of crop production. Uruguay is an agricultural powerhouse when you consider its small size, and INIA is one of the research institutes that keeps it on the cutting edge of innovation in all sorts of products, from rice, wines, and blueberries.

Here is me paying homage to what is probably my favorite thing in Uruguay: the delicious free-range Hereford meat that has caused me to gain the happiest 5 pounds of my life.

The next few pictures capture what was undoubtedly the most interesting night in Uruguay. After having been in touch with Mae Susana, a religious leader of the an Afro-Brazilian Umbanda movement in Montevideo, regarding my research on issues of church and state in Uruguay,  I was kindly invited to one of their ceremonies. This particular ceremony celebrated Xangó, the deity of justice. The alter shown in the photo has been set up in honor of him, and the cakes and soda pop below are offerings from children to Xangó for good luck in their exams.

The picture below captures the most fascinating part of the ceremony. The women dressed in white became possessed by deities known as Orixás, spun in circles to the rhythm of Afro-Brazilian atabaque drums. Mae Susana, also possessed by an Orixá, led the ceremonies and rid spectators of evil spirits and spoke in Portuguese. As an outsider I'm sure I cannot accurately convey everything that was going on, but suffice to say it was absolutely fascinating to witness.

Finally, one of the highlights of the past few months was the Dia del Patrimonio in early October, in which the country's museums and most important historic buildings (many of which are closed to the public the rest of the year) open their doors. Thousands of people take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate their country's history and enjoy all sorts of live entertainment. The perfect weather made it a very enjoyable weekend. Here's a picture of Montevideo's Plaza Cagancha, where some of the city's most important buildings are located, including the Supreme Court (the highlight of the day for me).

The highlight of the following day was the once-a-year chance to see the workshop of Uruguay's most famous sculptor José Luis Zorrilla de San Martín, son of Uruguay's iconic poet Juán San Martin and father of celebrated Uruguayan actress China Zorrilla. Here is another of San Martín's daughters sharing some personal stories.

And here's the younger San Martín's homage to his father, the great Uruguayan poet Juán San Martín. The statues made from these molds are found throughout the country.

And last, I can't resist posting one photos that captures something I notice on a daily basis in Uruguay, and that is the extraordinary popularity of the color purple among women of all ages here. My friends Kay and Andrea visiting from the US also noticed that purple is the rage this year in the Rio de la Plata, and I have seen classy leather stores that sell purses and shoes in black, brown and purple. And if I had a peso for every time I've spotted purple denim pants since I arrived, I might have the equivalent of Uruguay's GDP.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Second semester begins

In August, I entered the second half of my research experience with plenty of work ahead of me. In my final 3 1/2 months I'll be busy with classes, interviews, readings, volunteer work, hosting out-of-town guests, and a Portuguese classes on the side.

But one of the things keeping me pretty stress-free in Uruguay is the wonderful "rambla" (waterfront promenade), where the Uruguayans and I go to unwind. Now that the days are longer and the cold isn't quite as bitter, the city seems to be coming out of its hibernation, and the rambla is starting to have a lively buzz, as you can see below. 

And after about 6 months in my current apartment I'm continuing to be charmed by the neighborhood I live in, Pocitos. Nowadays it is one of Montevideo's high-rent areas, but historically is was one of the neighborhoods where all swaths of Uruguay's large and dominant middle class could live (from the milkman to the doctor, according to some friendly octogenarian neighbors). Pocitos is dotted with gorgeous homes from the early 1900's that suggest obvious wealth (the fact that they have garages is one clue, given their age), but are modest in size and not overstated, compared to the palaces found in Buenos Aires.

I began to notice that one of the things many of the most beautiful homes had in common was a plaque reading "Bello y Reborati." After a little research I found out they were the city's most famous and prolific team of architects in the early 1900's, building dozens and dozens of homes that look like little Italian villas adapted to an urban setting. Here's an example below.

And one of the highlights of August was a visit from three of my good friends from Curitiba in Brazil. I hadn't seen them since São Paulo in May, and I am looking forward to spending a little more time with them next summer in Brazil. Here's a picture of Italo explaining viticulture to Osvaldo during a visit to Bouzá, one of Uruguay's best-known wineries.

The Brazilians had a great trip, but did not become huge fans of Uruguay's acidic Tannat wine or Montevideo's nightlife. The highlight of the trip was definitely the leisurely Saturday we spent in the Old City, where the weekly antiques fair was buzzing and where there was plenty of meat to be eaten at the Mercado del Puerto. Here's a picture of antique's fair, and the vintage car and bus in the background are kitschy enough they look like they should be for sale too. 

And the last few pictures are of a quick weekend trip I took with a friend to the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, right across the border from Uruguay. The state in the far south is somewhat similar to the "Wild West" of the US, populated late in the colonial game by rugged ranchers who created a thriving cattle industry. I've been very interesting in the state for a while now due to its progressive politics (participatory budgeting and same-sex civil unions) and its extraordinarily high per-capita rate of supermodels.

Here I am with Facundo and the statue of the Laçador -  a symbol of the rugged and independent "gaucho" spirit of Rio Grande do Sul. Nowadays, residents of the state are called "gauchos" due to this heritage.

Rio Grande do Sul stands out in Brazil for its remarkably high literacy rates and more equal distribution of wealth. In this sense, it resembles Uruguay in many ways (but also due to the ubiquitous consumption of maté in both places). But one difference is that Rio Grande do Sul was blessed with a much more stunning and varied landscape then Uruguay. Here's an example of of of the state's natural attractions, the Cascata do Caracol.

And last, here I am in the town of Gramado, in the mountains of Rio Grande do Sul, which proudly and perhaps flamboyantly shows off its Alpine heritage. Our visit coincided (and not coincidentally) with the town's annual Film Festival, described by many as Brazil's Sundance. We had a blast joining in among the star-struck Brazilians who were screaming alongside the red carpet at the festival's closing ceremony.

Celebrity sightings included the Barbara Borges, Leandra Leal, and Daniel de Oliveira (who inspired particularly loud and high-pitched screams by the teenage girls standing next to me).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sorrindo na Bahia

No matter how far the dollar slid and no matter how many testy consulate officials I had to sweet-talk, I was hell bent on a trip to the state of Bahia in Brazil from the beginning of my stint in the Southern Cone. Indeed, the visa process was a real hassle (and this in "reciprocity" for the money and hassle caused to Brazilians when applying for visas to the US), and the dollar has not ceased to amaze me with its impressive gravitational force. But in the end it was fated as I got my visa and recovered from pneumonia just in time for the trip.

Bahia is home to Salvador, described by many as the beating heart of Brazilian culture. Bahia and its emigrants have given birth to so much of what makes Brazil famous, including samba and the martial art-cum-dance called capoeira. As an aspiring student of capoeira, this was an important pilgrimage for me, and one I hope to repeat at many stages in my life. Here I am at Salvador's classic "money shot" in the Pelourinho, the historic district and site of the Portuguese Empire's original capital in the Americas.

I was lucky enough to have my favorite cousin join me for the trip, the one I and all of Denver affectionately call Primo. He flew all the way from Mexico City, and despite his nightmarish stories in air travel I know he had the time of his life. Here we are with two of my newest and bestest friends - Rodrigo (in the Mexican hat - a gift from his old beach buddy Primo), and Osvaldo. They are both Salvador natives and showed us a great time around the city. I really hope to see them soon, ideally in the Carnaval block party of pop star Daniela Mercury.

Salvador was as beautiful as I imagined, but no Primo adventure is complete without a an idyllic island getaway. So we decided to take a mid-week trip getaway to Morro de Sao Paulo. Although the island is entirely touristy, we was very pleased to find that almost all of these tourists were Brazilian. Here is a picture of the beach where we stayed. The gentlemen farthest to the left are playing capoeira, and I had a blast joining in with them.

Here's another picture of my capoeira friends at sunset, and probably my favorite shot I took on the trip.

One thing I can't get enough of whenever I am in Brazil is the fruits. Umbu, acerola, graviola, and caja were some of my favorites. It's a nice change of pace from Uruguay, where apples, oranges, peaches, blueberries are equally un-exotic fruits are all my pesos will get me. Here is Primo sampling some of the local flavor.

Perhaps the only thing preventing the trip from being a complete fantasy cruise was the fact that Brazil has gotten extremely pricey! As my Fulbright counterparts in Brazil and my credit card statement will attest, the Brazilian currency is kicking butt, and living comfortably in safe areas in the big cities is more expensive than many places in the US. A magazine I bought was almost US$10 (a domestic one), and a Big Mac costs the equivalent of over US$5.00 (making the real overvalued by a whopping 33%, according to the Big Mac Index).

But, without a doubt, the currency could skyrocket and Brazil would still be soooooo worth it. And the friendly folks at the Brazilian consulate in Montevideo could get me to do just about anything for the new visa I'll need this coming summer (so I hope they're not reading this).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My trip up the Paraná

Buenos Aires is absolutely packed with American tourists, and they are no novelty in Uruguay either. In order to restore my "street cred" as a true backpacker, I needed to look a little farther than the immediate vicinity of Uruguay for adventure. That was just one of the reasons I decided to make a trip to Paraguay - a country "famous for being famous for nothing," and for being completely off the gringo trail.

But there were plenty of other things that sparked me interest in Paraguay: the fact that it is the region's only bilingual state, where indigenous Guaraní is spoken as frequently as Spanish; the fact that Asunción has been ranked for several years as the world's cheapest city; the impressive ruins of the Jesuit missions that dot the south of the country; and balmy weather that would be a nice change of pace from the cold, wet winter on the Río de la Plata.

My trip to Paraguay involved a long but very enjoyable trip up the Río Paraná, a large and important waterway traveling up northeastern Argentina. My first stop was Rosario, a city with the same beauty and cool vibe of Buenos Aires, but a much smaller size and without the tourist hordes. It is also the birthplace of the Argentine flag, commemorated by a giant moment shown below. At night it is lit up the colors of the flag.

It was a very enjoyable city with a lot of activity. But the ubiquitous presence of Peruvian windpipers inevitably playing their rendition of "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic reminded me I was still on the gringo trail.

The next stop was Posadas in the Argentine state of Misiones. The city was pleasantly perched on the Paraná and is mainly visited by tourists for its proximity to Jesuit ruins. I stayed in Posada for a night and visited the nearby ruins of San Ignacio Miní. Also nearby was the home(and now museum) of Uruguayan short-story writer Horacio Quiroga. He can best be described as a Spanish-language Edgar Allen Poe, as his stories are spooky and very entertaining.

My entrance into Paraguay only involved a quick but chaotic bus trip across the Paraná from Posadas, Argentina to Encarnación, Paraguay. My first impression of Paraguay was that it felt like a giant shopping center where absolutely everyone is selling something, from cheap electronics to chipas (tasty cheese bread) to perfume to Disney-themed underwear. The presence of Korean restaurants and Ukrainian churches reminded me of Paraguay's unique cultural mix. 

I was also struck by the many signs of vibrant religiosity in Paraguay. To a much greater degree than in secular Uruguay, Jesus is big business in Paraguay, and competing evangelical and pentecostal churches have murals and advertisements all over. Below is a picture of one city block that was covered by such ads.

Just an hour outside of Encarnación is Trinidad, some of the largest and best preserved of the Jesuit missions that had huge cultural and political significance during the colonial period. If you've seen the movie The Mission, you know what I mean. The ruins were definitely a highlight of the trip, and besides a group of about 30 Chileans boys with a church group who used the ruins for a daytime mass, I had the place all to myself.

Finally, my last stop was Asunción, the world's cheapest city and the least visited colonial capital of the continent. When trying to explain modern Paraguay, most people reach back all the way to the mid 1800's when the country disastrously lost the War of the Triple Alliance (against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay). The war wiped out about 80 percent of the male population of the society. However, the leaders that go Paraguay into the mess are still regarded as national heroes and share a prominent resting place in the middle of Asunción, as shown below.

Also buried with them as a national hero is Gaspar Francia, the country's fascinating dictator and "philosopher-king" in the early 19th century who shut Paraguay off from the outside world after independence and, with a remarkable degree of success, turned it into a neo-traditionalist utopia for a short time. He was also a ruthless dictator, but in Paraguay it seems that "dictator" and "hero" are words that can be used somewhat interchangeably.

Asunción has a beautiful spot at the convergence of two major rivers. However, the riverfront area downtown is completely occupied by slums and can't be enjoyed by tourists. Paraguay is South America's second poorest country. However, I found that Paraguayans were much more inclined to try and sell me underwear, pirated goods or other knick-knacks than beg for money or take it without permission, and I never felt unsafe during my stay in the city.

And what struck me more than anything about Asunción were the displays of obscene wealth in the midst of general squalor. While in Buenos Aires and Montevideo the wealthy have their enclaves and poor areas are mostly out-of-sight in the periphery, in Asunción there are absolutely enormous modern houses all over, even in neighborhoods than aren't exactly high-rent. Also, souped-up Mercedes Benz' and other large American cars wiz around town.

And last, one of the things I wanted to see most in Asunción was the Taiwanese Embassy. Why was this remarkable? Well as some may have guessed, Paraguay is one of the few countries worldwide that officially recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People's Republic of China. For these small countries, the loads of donations and investments that come from recognizing Taiwan outweigh the more practical political benefits of maintaining relations with the world's emerging superpower (China). Paraguay is the only country in South America that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

(Photo courtesy of Taiwanese Embassy in Asunción)

Overall, it was a fantastic trip and felt exhilarating to escape the comfortable tourist orbit. But I'm happy to be back, especially since I caught pneumonia in overly air-conditioned buses and will find myself in bed for the next week.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cooling off...

Winter has arrived in Uruguay. No frost or snow, just pervasive cold, wind, fog, and an energy crunch that's making it very pricey to keep my apartment as warm as I'd like. But the lessened appeal of spending time outdoors made June a productive month of research in the library.

Below is a picture of the historic center of Montevideo, taken from the plane on my way back from Brazil. The city was founded in the early 1700's as a military and commercial outpost to ward off the Portuguese. This was very late in the game, considering Buenos Aires was permanently established about 150 years earlier. 

Because the cold weather does not really make the beach or leisurely days at the part an attractive option in the winter, it is a great time to take advantage of some of Montevideo's indoor attractions. One of the highlights of the past month was seeing Uruguayan singer (and Oscar winner) Jorge Drexler at Montevideo's historic Teatro Solis. Here's the theater before the concert.

And below is a picture of Drexler in action. As you can tell, the concert was low-key and intimate. I thought it was a fantastic show, and I'd recommend his music to anyone who enjoys calm, thoughtful music. With creative metaphors and smart references, his lyrics read like poetry and are a nice change of pace from the "en mi corazon" simplicity that characterizes the bulk of the Spanish music I recall from airwaves in the U.S.

One funy little trip I made in Montevideo was to the Edificio Liberaij, where in 1965 a group of bandits from Argentina who were hiding in Uruguay after a bank robbery engaged in a deadly shootout. Two of the bandits were said to be lovers, and the incident is captured in the steamy Argentina film Plata Quemada, a great movie to check out for a glimpse at romantic 1960's Montevideo.

One highlight of June was a trip to one of the poor communities on the periphery of Montevideo, where Catholic priest Gonzalo Aemilius directs the Juan Pablo II school providing elementary education to the community's youth. I hope to interact more with Gonzalo in the future. When I told him about my research project, he joked that he was a big fan of Uruguayan secularism because it meant he didn't have to dress up in traditional religious garb. Here I am with Gonzalo and the other Fulbright research scholars. 

One of the perks of being abroad on a government-sponsored program is the chance to mingle with important people at embassy events. Here's a picture of the embassy's Fourth of July party, which took place at US Ambassador Frank Baxter's beautiful residence in the middle of Montevideo. Cotton candy, doughnuts and other junk food were on hand  and made us feel right at home.

And last, the definite highlight of June was a visit for long-time friends Kay (from Denver) and Andrea (from Michigan). They took a detour from their travels in Argentina to spend some time getting to know Uruguay. We had a great time, in large part due to large consumption of many pastries, steaks, ice cream and pizzas. Here I am with Kay outside Cake's, where we enjoyed a fantastically satisfying end to our carbohydrate binge.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

São Paulo Pride

If you don't count my trip to Buenos Aires, which is only a short boat ride away, São Paulo was my first real "trip" since my arrival in Buenos Aires. I decided to come for the weekend of May 25th since that was the date of this year's gay pride march, which by all counts is by far the largest in the world. This year, officials are saying 3 to 5 million people took to the streets in support of the gay community, or perhaps just to party.

Knowing that São Paulo is known more for world-class dining, nightlife and other indoor pleasures than for quiet parks and pedestrian-friendly streets, I decided to splurge just a little by staying in a hotel room and enjoying a trendy meal or two. Here I am at the top of the BANESPA building in the city center. 

This only gives you a small glimpse into what is an absolutely sprawling city, home to something like 13 million people and one of the most populous cities in the world.

A definite highlight of the trip was getting the chance to reunite with four of the Fulbright Scholars I had met about 6 weeks earlier during the conference in Buenos Aires. Here we are on Avenida Paulista in the heart of the parade.

Somewhat serendipitously, the theme of this year's parade had plenty to do with my research topic. The poster below reads "12th GLBT Pride Parade: Homophobia Kills! For a De Facto Secular State!" The organizers of the parade wanted to advocate the removal of religious influence from state policymaking, with respect to legal protection of gay and lesbian persons in the workplace and same-sex partner benefits. The image on the left depicts the many religions that make up Brazilian society, and advocates a form of "secularism" that is not anti-religious but rather respective of all minority groups, both religious and sexual.

Given Brazil's reputation for a somewhat libertine attitude toward the topic of sex, I thought this next photo was very funny. 

All in all, the parade weekend was an absolute blast. I also thought the city itself was spectacular, in spite of the warnings of the Brazilian consulate officer who issued my visa that I was wholly ill-advised to go to São Paulo instead of Rio for tourism. While not atmospheric like Buenos Aires, and nowhere near as cheap, Sampa wins high marks for its great food, nightlife, shopping, and impressively liberal attitude.