31.08.2009 - 05.09.2009 26 °C
Uruguay! Nestled to the north of Argentina and south of Brasil, a tranquil country of just three million inhabitants: the Switzerland of South America, with relative economic stability, investment from surrounding countries, low corruption, and high quality of life. Famous for... winning the world cup twice? (In 1930 and 1950, beating Argentina and Brazil in the respective finals.) Not bad, given the whole country has a population a quarter of that of Buenos Aires. Uruguay is the smallest country population-wise ever to win the cup. Argentina is second smallest -- with 40 million inhabitants. Uruguay's team has won the South American cup the most times of any country.
Half the country's population live in the capital, Montevideo (monty-vih-day-oh). The city has a feel similar to Buenos Aires, though on a much smaller scale. Still, their central plaza is home to what was once the tallest building in South America, and is still one of the coolest I've seen. It's right out of Gotham City:
Entering Uruguay, mate (mah-tey) drinking began in earnest. Yerba mate is a leafy plant that grows in an area comprising parts of subtropical Brasil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The leaves are chopped up and dried, and then prepared in a tea-like infusion also called mate, which is invariably served in a hollowed out, dried and decorated gourd, also known as a mate. Typically the gourd is half-filled with the dried green herb, hot (but not boiling) water is poured on, and the water is sucked back out through an elaborate metal straw (bombilla) with tiny holes in the end, so as to filter out the yerba from the liquid. Mate drinking is a highly social practice -- groups gather and pass the mate around, taking turns to drain the liquid and refill the gourd from a thermos before passing it on. Many Uruguayans seem to carry around the gourd, yerba, and a thermos of hot water at all times.
I didn't try mate until my return to Argentina -- see the next blog entry! But I did like this sign, amongst a myriad of admonitions, in a downtown Montevideo bus:
'Dear passenger, for your security on this bus, it is prohibited to drink mate. The straw could injure your mouth, and the hot water could burn you or another passenger. Thank you for your cooperation.'
These obvious perils didn't stop everyone from drinking mate on all other buses.
On the topic of Uruguayan cuisine, I tried the national dish chivito, which literally translated means 'little goat'. No goats were harmed in the production of my sandwich. However most other edible animal and plant species were involved. When I asked what was in a chivito, the lady in the restaurant reeled off a list of about 20 ingredients; I thought it was the list from which I was supposed to select some fillings. It turns out the chivito had them all.
Steak, bacon, ham, egg, cheese, olives, peppers, lettuce, tomato, mayo, ketchup. Yum.
Uruguay had their own take on the ubiquitous empanada, this time fried and made with minced beef, but without the whole olive you always seemed to get in Argentina.
Popular in Uruguay and Argentina were Alfajores (alpha-khores), consisting of two or layers of biscuit separated from each other by dulce de leche (similar to caramel), all coated in chocolate. Despite a healthy ration of two or three daily, I never had the same variety twice: there seem to be hundreds of brands.
Montevideo was pleasant enough, but there wasn't a whole lot to do. I spent a day walking round and seemed to visit most of the main attractions, including the recently-restored Teatro Solis:
Scanning the map of Uruguay, I was surprised to see a town named Fray Bentos -- a name synonymous in England (though perhaps less so these days) with corned beef and canned meat. Having confirmed that the town was home to a now-defunct meat-processing factory, I just had to go there.
I wandered through town towards the Barrio Anglo, a riverside complex built in the 19th century containing an enormous slaughterhouse, meat processing plant, and housing for 5000 workers. In a pleasant leafy plaza I came across the first strange indication of the town's past: a monument to the 'Liebig extract of meat company':
Complete with a proud little display of some of their products: bone meal and corned beef.
The factory operated from the 1850s until 1979, but saw its heyday during the two world wars, when vast quantities of preserved meat were shipped across the world to hungry soldiers. A vast 6-story warehouse was constructed to store the meat and 'meat derivatives' at -35 °C until ships arrived to take the cargo away. 'ANGLO', the name of the company in one of its incarnations (giving rise to 'Barrio Anglo'), is still faintly visible at the top:
Typically impassioned football graffiti on the side of the warehouse -- 'Nacional, the reason for my existence':
These days the factory is a museum, open to guided tours twice a day. Just me and two local Uruguayans showed up for the afternoon tour. Somehow I felt just as weirdly remote from the familiar as I had ever felt in the tiny, isolated Andean villages.
The Liebig (later Anglo) company took its name from German chemist Justus von Liebig, whose extensive work pertained to agricultural and biological chemistry. He kicked off the fertilizer industry, and invented a process for concentrating meat into stock, or 'Extractum carnis Liebig'. He founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Company (or Lemco), and was principally motivated by a desire to feed to poor with the meat they lacked. The same company was later responsible for Oxo cubes, and the Oxo building in London.
See http://archives.cnn.com/2000/FOOD/news/09/05/uruguay.cornedbeef.reut/ for even more Fray Bentos meaty goodness.
Fray Bentos had a strange atmosphere: quiet, relaxed, and almost unbearably sedate. Somehow the place felt trapped in the past, yet had all the signs of modernity, including free wi-fi in the central plaza!
I was in disbelief. As I later commented to a travelling companion, 'Fray Bentos was a charming place that impressed on me the pointlessness of life'.
Crossing the Rio Uruguay back into Argentina was harder than expected. Due to a dispute between Argentina and Uruguay, the Puente de la Amistad (bridge of friendship) crossing the river at Fray Bentos is now closed. According to the Argentinians, the river is being polluted by a paper mill constructed on the Uruguayan riverbank. The Uruguayans, including an employee of the factory I met in Fray Bentos, say that the paper mill is not contaminating the river, and that the Argentinians are just jealous because they lost the competition when the contract (a huge foreign investment) went out to tender. Regardless, the Argentinian response seems pretty childish. Closing the border is an equal inconvenience for residents on both sides.
Not that any of this was apparent from the hand-painted bus timetable in Fray Bentos bus station, which clearly hadn't been updated for a while:
'Oh no, there hasn't been a bus to Gualeguaychu since they closed the bridge three years ago'.
That's Fray Bentos.