The High Down on Rio

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Ipanema Beach

When one thinks of Rio, the first thing that might come to mind is the iconic and welcoming art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer a top Corcovado mountain. Or maybe you think of beautiful stretches of exotic beaches on the open Atlantic.  If you had asked me what I knew of Rio before I came, I would have said beaches, the Christ statue and music.  Now that I am here I realize that Rio has much more to offer and in my view, and view is key here, it can’t be fully appreciated until you visit.  But….

 

Samba Night at Club Bip Bip

Samba night at Club Bip Bip

Brazilian music is not just any music.  It is THE music in my book.  Bossa nova, samba, chorinho and all those great musicians from Luiz Gonzaga, Chico Buarque and Jobim to Elise Regina,Gail Costa, and Gilberto Gil and the list could go on.  Even turning on the radio and listening to Brazilian pop music is a pleasure.  It sounds uniquely Brasilian and catchy and NOTHING like that  sanitized auto-tuned corporate crap you hear on most commercial stations in the States. And then there is live music.  If I did nothing here but go to the beach in the day and catch live music at night, I’d be happy. We have already checked out Samba night at a tiny storefront club called Bip Bip that opens up to a sidewalk on a obscure street in Copacabana where the locals sit around a table (Roda de Samba) and jam as patrons take beers from the refrigerator inside the club, pay the owner who is seated at a small table outside the club, and then gather peacefully on the sidewalk, to watch/listen, dance (a little) in place and sing along if the words are known, as they are to all the Brazilians in the crowd.  The scene is all protocol driven. The owner does not like the musicians to be disrespected in any way.  At the gathering on the night I attended in which German tourists and younger hip-type Brazilians represented the majority, the owner (Fernandinho) stopped the music and lectured us in a hoarse, barely audible voice in Portuguese explaining that the club existed solely to preserve and maintain Brasil’s rich musical culture and that it was not a place to socialize or party- which meant no talking, laughing or clapping after the music either, but we were allowed to snap our fingers to show appreciation.  It wasn’t clear whether we were allowed to take photos, but I did and even took a little video too as did my daughter.

Fernandinho gave us a suspicious look and I was afraid he was going to stop the musicians and call us out and say “no music for you” and banish us from the club, so we bought some beers to appease him.  Wednesday is bossa nova night and we plan to go back.

But the point I am trying to make is that Rio is MORE than music, beaches and a stylish Christ.  Rio is a place of hills, rocks and mountains that give it that characteristic exotic and ancient look as if it were located on Pluto or someplace. Now the terms hills (morros), mountains and rocks are used interchangeably in descriptions of Rio de Janeiro. Around the beach areas, the smaller ones are called morros in Portuguese, as far as I can tell.  The larger, more touristy rocks would qualify as mountains in my book,  although geologist may beg to differ.  Sometimes the rocks, hills, mounds, morros or whatever they are are just referred to by their names, for example – Corcovado (where Christ welcomes), and Sugarloaf (Pao de Azucar) the one that has a face and a bunch of cable cars running to the top.

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Sugarloaf

You see, to REALLY see Rio, you have to get high (and quite a number of people are already that judging by the pungent odor on nearly ever street corner) and most of the larger “mountains” offer a supreme view.  Unfortunately, my acrophobia prevents me from summiting them all, but I did climb to the top of Morro de Leme (a smaller but formidable hill) and managed to make it up the third highest rock (from the sun) called Pedra Bonita inside Tijuca National Park.  I hiked the trail to the summit with my oldest daughter.  The hike is just that – a hike -  and unlike what the tourist guides say, it is not an easy, leisurely stroll.

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The Trail (not as easy as it looks, trust me)

If you look it up on Trip Adviser, folks say the thing is an easy trail for the family.  But don’t believe what you read.  The reviewers must be fitness freaks and triathletes, who think all people run 5ks before breakfast everyday.  I do not.  I don’t run at all and on most days of my somewhat sedentary life, I’ll manage 5,000 steps if I’m lucky.  I am by no means a slouch and am reasonably fit and can on a good day walk 10 miles, as I have done repeatedly on this trip.  Believe me, this trail is not for beginners.  It was rocky, steep, and slippery, with nothing to hold onto except some sketch vines, bamboo poles and a few thick low hanging tree branches that lovers had initialized.  The red clay surface was wet and muddy in spots and treacherous roots presented extreme obstacles to footing, something I lost several times.  And if the grueling trail alone wasn’t troublesome enough, and it was, there were mosquitoes darting about that bit with bloody abandon and perhaps injected us with a little dengue fever.  I may be exaggerating with the dengue fever, but who knows and it does sound dramatic.  Fortunately, I was not eaten alive thanks to my B vitamin regimen – mosquitoes don’t much like B6 and find B12 repulsive, I’m told anyway.  I suffered only 4 minor bites, but my wife, daughter and our Brasilian friend and host were mercilessly attacked by the parasitic marauders.  I did miraculously make it to the top but not without a great deal of effort.  To keep me going, I fantasized that I was about to be one of the few to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. When we did finally summit, I got so dizzy and paralyzed by fear that I had to crawl around as dozens of people around us were already taking in the view, frolicking about, taking selfies left and right, some even getting right to the edge and pretending to jump or fall off the mountain. My daughter recorded my pitiful crawling performance but I won’t be sharing that, or any of the pictures of me precariously standing with a look of absolute dread on my face.  I did manage to snap some nice shots of the mountains and Rio far below.

From the summit of Pedra Bonita

From the summit of Pedra Bonita

Rio is a city of remarkable beauty but to really see it, you’ve got to get high.

 

Forte Do Leme – What a View!

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If you ever find yourself in Rio (actually it’s a big enough place where you could lose yourself quite easily) not that I expect anyone to randomly go, but anyone who might be thinking about going to the 2016 Summer Olympics, plan to do this:

Walk to the end of Copacabana Beech toward Leme.  Veer off to the left.  Go to the kiosk.  Buy a ticket to Sitio Historico do Forte Duque de Caxias for R$4 or about $1.80 U.S. and head up the hill. You have to enter a military base to access it, so don’t be alarmed to see an armed guard staring at you as you pass through. Just smile.

Rio is known for its hills called morros.  Leme is one of the larger beach side hills and is the site of an 18th century Fort built to protect the city.  It is the third largest hill in Rio next to Sugarloaf and Corcovado where Christ the Redeemer welcomes with outstretched arms.  Morro do Leme has a nice stone paved twisting trail that you can take to the top to visit the Fort and get a magnificent view of Rio.  As you enter the trail, look straight up at the rock face and you’ll find cactus growing. It reminded me of a Dali painting.  Wear your walking shoes because it’s a bit of hike, but a pleasant one, as if going through a rain forest, with an abundance of fauna and flora, colorful birds and tiny squirrel-like monkeys called micos. And what a glorious view!

The walk from the middle of Copacabana Beach to the top of the Hill and back is about 9 miles, 17,000 steps according to my pedometer, and is well worth your time and effort; highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

Dali Exhibit in Rio De Janeiro

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I like Salvador Dali, though not as much as I thought I did. Dali first came to my attention as a freshman in college after seeing a print of his dripping clock in the University bookstore. It hung on my dorm room and apartment walls for 4 years alongside a Chagall. The surrealists made sense to me then – I got it. But now that I’m older, surrealist works seem a bit cheesy to me.  The shock value doesn’t carry as much of a punch and feels dated – trapped in time, aging badly.  That’s not to say I think Dali is a fraud, even though he was very much all about Dali, like so many self-promoting “superstars” of today.  He was certainly an artist oozing with talent whose mind saw things in a very peculiar and interesting way.  I have seen some of his works that are part of collections at major U.S. museums, but never an exhibit of them until now.  

I had the good fortune and pleasure to see a free Dali exhibition in Rio De Janeiro of a wide range of Dali creations from illustrations and sketches for books like Alice In Wonderland, and Don Quixote to some of his best known works from all phases of his artistic career. After viewing the exhibition, I came away with a better appreciation and respect for his talents, but also the realization that I don’t much like surrealism anymore. 

I did take a limited number of photos, with some reluctance, I’ll admit, of the stuff in the exhibit that I liked. We were allowed to take photos without a flash, so my reservation wasn’t so much that I was doing something illegal.  My reservation was more that the camera might cheapen the experience, act as a substitute for my eyes, such that I would not appreciate or savor the rare moment with the original artwork.  These days, people blow by exhibits taking photos and selfies indiscriminately with ALL of the art, without even really seeing or feeling anything.  And while it may seem hypocritical for me to critique this practice and then take photos too, I believe my process was a little more respectful to me, to the other patrons and to the artwork itself.  First, I went through a section of the exhibit making mental notes of what I liked and then went back and took low-fi snapshots with my Samsung Galaxy.  Below are the ones I took.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.  

Cheers! 

   

What I like about Brasil

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  • I like that that the country is spelled with an s in Portuguese and not a z. I’m not fond of the letter z.  And I love the sound of Brazilian Portuguese. It has a pleasing rhythm, cadence and intonation that I find musical and linguistically interesting.  I like that the t in a word is pronounced as sh – Argenshina, for example, although that might not be the best example, especially if Argentina wins the World Cup in Rio. I wonder if Brasilian fans will be rooting for Germany or Argentina?
  • Free and low cost museums.  We will be going to the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center (BBCC) to see a major and free exhibition of Salvador Dali and then to the Museu Da Imagem E Do Som (Museum of Image and Sound).
  • The beaches.  We’ve been mostly going to Copacabana near where we are staying, but we’ve seen Leblon, Ipanema and several others.  We are here during the World Cup, so there are a lot of soccer fans from all over the globe kicking the ball around on the beaches and drinking beer and caipirinhas.  The sand is brown and thick very much like the sand on Cape Cod.  The ocean waves from the Atlantic are dramatic and ferocious at times. On a clear day, the contrast of the pastel and white buildings and hills against the blue skies is breathtaking.  And the blend of blue/green ocean, white foam caps and brown beach reminds me of an exotic lime tapioca parfait with cashews.

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  • Caipirinhas.  It’s made with Cachaga, a Brazilian rum from sugarcane juice.  The Cachaga is mixed with sugar and fresh limes and served on the rocks. It’s super sweet, tangy and refreshing. These are sold everywhere, even by mobile vendors on the beach. They range in price from 5 Brazilian reais on the beach ($2.25 U.S.) to 8 reais at a cafe/bar for a well-made (strong) one ($3.6 U.S.)
  • The weather in July.  It’s winter here and it’s 75 on average, 80′s in the day (perfect beach weather) with a slight ocean breeze on most days, and 70′s at night for great sleeping weather.  There’s no need for AC’s or even ceiling fans; best to sleep with the windows open.
  • The music.  It’s everywhere from the typical accordion-based music of the Northeast a la Luiz LuisGonzagaGonzaga to the guitar chords of Bossa Nova and the rhythmic beats of Samba.  It’s all here, home to some of the best music, musicians and dancers in the world.
  • A relaxed feel.  While Rio is a big, bustling city of over 6 million people, people do not seem to be as rushed here like they are in NYC or Boston. This may be partly because I am on vacation and am myself relaxed. Be that as it may, folks do walk at a leisurely pace and seem cheerful and pleasant most of the time. Everyone has been willing to give directions or tell us which bus to take when we’ve asked, even though our Portuguese isn’t the best – and mine practically non-existent.  When I do try to talk to people, I speak Spanish slowly and sometimes I am understood and very often not.

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Dismantled Brazil Could Still Finish 3rd

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Well, I didn’t predict the winner – I had Brazil.  But I did predict that the losing team would score 1 goal.  You see, I had Brazil beating Germany 2-1.  I never imagined that in a semi-final World Cup game a team would/could score 7 goals. 7 goals! Germany completely dismantled Brazil with seemingly little effort, scoring 3 goals in 3 minutes and 5 goals total in the first 29 minutes.

I happened to be watching the game in Rio in the comfort of a friend’s apartment drinking sangrias (fittingly so it turns out). And good thing, because if I had been down by the beach drinking caipirinhas watching the game on one of the Jumbotrons set up on Copacabana beach, just down the street, who knows what might have happened to me.  I’m not saying I would have been attacked or anything, but I do look more German than Brazilian and don’t speak Portuguese. And trust me, the vendors make a beeline for me at the beach, marking me as both a tourist and a probable gringo with dollars. No one has yet to ask me, “Alemao? or “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

The game was an embarrassment to watch and I am sure an embarrassment and shock to all in the soccer community, Brazilians and Germans alike.  A 6 goal differential is the largest defeat a host country has ever suffered in a World Cup game and 7 is the most goals ever scored in a semi-final game.  And it’s too bad it happened in the way that it did.  Brazil had two men down essentially – star Neymar and captain Silva…but they did have the home field advantage with the support of the entire soccer crazy nation.  Soccer is a religion here.  An addictive drug one could say that keeps the masses distracted from the many problems Brazilians face from wealth inequality to corruption.

Whether Brazilians will forgive their team for their pitiful performance remains to be seen.  Many left the stadium before the first half even ended.  After the game, some of the players and the coach apologized to the fans and the country.  Players were praying on the field as if asking god for forgiveness for their sporting sins. The Brazilian team can only hope for a victory against the loser of the Holland and Argentina match – certainly no small feat.  It would be a consolation prize that could help heal the damage that Germany inflicted and restore the people’s pride and faith in their national team.

Brazil Can’t Possibly Lose, Can They?

Fifa

Futbol reigns supreme in Brazil. The national team known for its jogo bonito (beautiful game) has advanced to the semi-finals to play Germany, a team they last played and lost to in an international match in 2011.  They are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games and have won 42 straight home games since 1992.  Germany on the other hand has a record of 7-0-3 in their last 10 games and has the distinction of being the first country to reach 4 World Cup semi-finals in a row. But can they win? The last time they made it to the finals in 2002, they played Brazil and lost.  They last won the World Cup in 1990, defeating Argentina, a rematch that is theoretically possible.

Notwithstanding the history, the European, Latin American showdown should be close. Germany remains reasonably healthy, having lost only one player to injury, defender Shkodran Mustafi. Brazil on the other hand will be playing without two of its starting players, Neymar, who fractured a vertebra in the game against Colombia and Silva who was served a one game suspension in the same match. The fact that two of Brazil’s most important players are out may neutralize Brazil’s home field advantage in today’s match in Bello Horizonte, Brasil. May, but will it?

One cannot underestimate the power of the home country advantage and I certainly won’t. In the 19 previous World Cups played, the host country has won 6 times.  And that kind of advantage for a powerhouse may be very difficult for Germany to overcome. France was the last host country to win the World Cup back in 1998.

On a personal note, I have the good fortune to be in Rio and to have the option of watching the game where I am staying with family and friends or to go the beach just down the street and watch it with fans who worship soccer as if it were religion. Watching it on the beach would be nice, especially if Brazil wins, but I prefer the comfort of a couch and a big screen TV, as opposed to the sand and a jumbotron screen.  To be honest, being more of an introvert, I don’t much like crowds, especially ones where alcohol and fireworks are combined.  And I am a bit of a wimp too when it comes to celebratory cannon booms and displays of fireworks that have loud reports.  It all reminds me too much of war and suffering. Of course, soccer is a kind of war, and teams in this tournament have used violent physical contact as a weapon to weaken the opposing team, as Brazil knows all too well.  And like war, the losers will suffer.

My prediction:

Brazil 2 Germany 1

Don’t Drive in Rio

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Driving in Brazil is ill advised for a number of reasons. First, the streets are a tangle of twists and turns that only local motorists, bikers, taxi and bus drivers can competently navigate. Second, while it might be possible to drive on the long boulevards, tourists, bicyclists and vendors make the proposition tricky. Pedestrians and tourists going to and from the beaches put themselves at risk as they cross the bike paths and the major boulevards particularly Avenue Atlantica from Copacabana, Avenue Vieira Souto from Ipanema or Avenue Delfim Moreira from Leblon. There are speed limits posted but they seem to be rather more like suggestions than law. From what I have seen, buses and taxis will not slow down if you are in their path, even if you are in a walkway, so it’s better to turn back than to try to assert your pedestrian rights. Drivers may view you as more of a nuisance like a pigeon than as a human being with inalienable rights. Third, if you are still not convinced that driving is a bad idea in Rio, consider this: gasoline costs 3.99 a liter. That to American ears may not sound so bad. 3.99 is just a little bit more expensive than in the States, right? Wrong. We are talking 3.99 Brazilian reals a liter, not dollars a gallon. Let’s do a little math here: 1 Brazilian real = .45 U.S. dollars, so that’s $1.80 U.S. a liter. The average size fuel tank for a small car, like the Volkswagen Gol in the picture above (Golf in the U.S.) is about 50 liters so 50 x 1.8 = $90 U.S. to fill up vs. about $50 to fill up in the States. Quite a difference.

Gasolinera RioIf I’ve convinced you not to drive, what are the alternatives? Why not reduce your carbon footprint and walk or ride a bicycle? The amazingly beautiful beach areas including some of the hills and many parks are easily accessible by foot from where you would likely be staying. If you want to venture away from the beaches as we did when we went to Sao Cristovao, try a city bus. But fair warning: the buses are not like they are in the States and in other major Latin American cities I have visited. They look similar. The fares are reasonable – a buck or so a ride. But the ride is another thing. Hold on to something, because the bus drivers don’t mess around. They drive those Mercedes and Marcopolo buses like sport cars, taking turns at top speed and braking for nothing except to stop at the stop light or bus stop. Time is money apparently. The roads in Rio are rough in places and the suspension, at least on the bus we took, was not tuned for a smooth ride. I felt like I was on a roller coaster on a track full of speed bumps or humps as they are also sometimes called. I kept telling myself that the driver was a professional and knew what he was doing, but there were moments when I was not so sure.

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Out of the Frio and into Rio

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We’ve been in Rio de Janeiro now for three days and it’s beginning to feel like home and literally will be our home for the next 3 weeks, thanks to our dear and gracious friend who is letting us stay at her spacious apartment in Copacabana. After experiencing the fall like months of June and July in Chile and Uruguay, my body finally gets to experience the summer it expects in July, and ironically, July is one of the coolest months of the year in Rio de Janeiro, with average temperatures of around 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

If there is a heaven on earth, Rio might be the location – tropical breezes, world class beaches including Copacabana, close to where we are staying, and Ipanema, made famous in a song, that face the fierce Atlantic Ocean surrounded by majestic hills or morros as they are called in Portuguese. The view of the city and the beaches from atop the morros is simply breathtaking, with its main boulevard lined with white and pastel colored hotels and apartments and brown sandy beaches for as far as the eye can see.  The contrast between the white foam and brown beach at certain angles looks like a giant cup of coffee con leche or as the Brazilians say, cafezinho.

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In our first three days, we walked a considerable distance on the famous and clean beaches of Rio and through several neighborhoods in and around Copacabana with its unique and diverse architectural styles, and beautifully landscaped city parks, and walkways. We have encountered pavilions overflowing with music, soccer fans, and general merriment and felt the special spirit and pride of the place that defies description.

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Uruguay Travelogue Day 6: Colonia del Sacremento

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On Monday, we took a “luxury” bus out to Colonia del Sacremento, about 2 and a half hours from Montevideo. We’ve gotten around the city almost entirely on foot and bus. The buses have been a cheap and reliable mode of transportation for the most part. Some of the buses, which you pay a little more for have padded seats and are more spacious. The less costly buses are generally more crowded and have plastic seats. You might be more comfortable standing unless you have a padded butt that can absorb the bumps. As the buses fill with people, they push to the back where everyone has to eventually exit which means if you are standing, people who need to get off will have to squeeze by you and there’s simply no place for you to go when you are being squeezed but into the people who are seated as you try to make yourself less present. But what annoys me more than anything is the fact that when you get onto the bus and pay, you get a ticket or some sort of receipt. I can’t fathom why the ticket is needed once you have paid and are on the bus. As far as I can tell, you can’t use it to transfer to another bus. The conductors don’t stop and inspect the tickets. I can’t imagine that people keep these receipts for tax purposes, but they might.  What do I know? When it comes to the ways of the Uruguayans, perhaps very little.

The charming resort town of Colonia del Sacremento reminds me a little of Cape Code in the wintertime. It feels as off the beaten path as Isla de Chiloe in Chile. And even though it is wintertime here, the place still had a number of tourists, some from Argentina and Brazil. Buenos Aires is only a 50 minute ferry ride from the port of Colonia.  The town has a lot of military history and apparently was something of a strategic outpost controlled at times by Portugal, Spain and Brazil and you can see both the Portuguese and Spanish influence on the layout of the town and in the architecture. One of the more eye pleasing objects was the lighthouse, completed by soldiers (not sure which country’s) in 1857, that one can climb for something like 20 pesos.

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The town has many museums, restaurants, churches and shops that sell local art, handicrafts and clothing. There are beaches on the Rio de la Plata, areas for camping and picnics in Aaron del Anchorena National Park and there’s even a bullring.

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But the highlight of the day was the restaurant we stumbled upon called Buen Suspiro which features local cheeses, wines, pastries, soups and entrees made with locally sourced ingredients.

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It is located in the cellar of a home that must have been built in the 1700′s by the Portuguese, with low hung wooden beams. The cavernous space had a intimate charm with about 10 tables in all. Our waiter explained the menu, which consisted of several types of appetizers including the one we selected which contained 4 types of local cheeses from mild to strong, bread, a spicy jam, cheese bread squares and balls and dry salami.

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We also sampled 6 different local wines – a Cuna Crianza Tannant Merlot blend, one of my least favorites of the 6; a Fripp Tannant, my personal favorite; a Cuna Reserva Riesling, a semi-dry white, with a zesty lime tang that keep the wine from being too sweet; a Cuna de Piedra Sauvignon Blanc; and two rose wines – a Cabernet and a Moscatel. I don’t like roses much so these were my least favorite of the lot.

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For entrees, we had a squash soup and a vegetable and meat lasagna. We ordered a slice of dulce de leche cake – to die for – and a round of mate.

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Our waiter explained to us how to prepare and drink mate, something we were not aware of even though we had experience drinking mate, Chilean-style, which is not as protocol dependent as the Uruguayan way and as our waiter pointed out, the Uruguayan way is not nearly as particular as the Argentine way.

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And we ended the day with a 8 dollar bar of chocolate -always ask the price before you buy something- and a double cortado para llevar. And so it went on Colonia de Sacremento on this cold winter day.

Uruguay Travelogue Day 5: View from the Hill

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On this Sunday, we bused over to the Market, an endless line of vendors hawking everything imaginable, shoes, belts, clothing, electronics, birds, fish, jewelry, bootlegged movies and software, futbol stickers, mate gourds and bombillas, fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices and more. It was quite the scene, really, especially on Sunday, replete with shoppers sporting mate gourds and hot water thermoses, the local opium of the masses, well mate and soccer and for some marijuana too, which is legal.

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After the market, we headed to El Cerro, the hill, for a spectacular view of the city and to see the monument to the murdered and disappeared Uruguayans during the dirty wars of the South American dictatorships of the 70′s. The monument is a simple glass installment with the names of the victims about 100 in all, many of them women, stenciled in white.

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I don’t know much about the poverty statistics in Montevideo, but clearly there are many impoverished families living on or near the hill. Taking a bus to this remote part of the city was like crossing into another country. What I saw, reminded me very much of the houses and conditions in Guatemala, a much less developed country than Uruguay: poor sanitation conditions, trash overflowing, skinny and snarling, territorial dogs all about. Many of the roads leading to houses were not paved. My daughter keenly observed that there weren’t as many advertisement in the neighborhood as we had seen in the city proper, but there were more political campaign slogans and graffiti.

 

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Kids of all ages playing soccer

 

 

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