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Exploring Inland Uruguay

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Most people associate Uruguay with Montevideo, its capital city, or the beach resort towns that line its coast. Inland Uruguay offers a completely different travel experience.

Tacuarembo Gaucho Country
Located in the heart of gaucho or South American cowboy country, Tacuarembo plays host to the annual “La Fiesta Patria Gaucha” or Festival of Gaucho Culture. The event takes place in late March, and celebrates the gaucho spirit with rodeos, folkloric music and dance and local cuisine.

Gaucho Festival by Vince Alongi

Gaucho Festival by Vince Alongi

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Big Mamma Cafe and Bar Montevideo Uruguay

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Last week, Mark and I spent a considerable part of the day in Migraciones in Montevideo, working on getting our residency papers. Like any country, there’s some bureaucracy and line-waiting involved, but probably less so than other countries. Nonetheless, having been there since 8:00 in the morning, we were hungry, and ready for a good meal. Strolling along Avenida 25 De Mayo, we came upon the Big Mamma Cafe & Bar.

Restaurant in Montevideo near Migraciones

Big Mamma Cafe and Bar

The billboard advertised a lunch special. Priced at 279 pesos, about $13.60 U.S., it included a main entree, a choice of wine, soda or mineral water and desert.  Once inside, our exceptionally friendly waitress sat us down and brought over a basket of herb-flavored bread, along with two special spreads. She was delighted to discover that we spoke English, a language in which she is quite fluent. We soon learned that she is owner Sandra Burcatovsky, or Big Mamma herself!
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Healthcare in Uruguay: A Firsthand Account

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Back when we lived in New York City, my husband Mark was one of the many aspiring actors who populated the town. Mark had a saying when he encountered adversity: “I can use this.” Translation: I can use this if I ever have to portray a character going through the same ordeal. This past month, I had two “I can use this” experiences, but they were not about acting roles. They had to do with a firsthand experience of the Uruguayan healthcare system.

Uruguay healthcare facility

Espanola Mutualista in Atlantida Uruguay

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Tsitsicamma Inn, Atlantida Uruguay

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One of the best parts about being an expat is meeting others who have chosen a similar path.  Here in Uruguay, many English speaking expats own small hotels and bed and breakfasts. A few weeks ago, I told you about Jerry Bruner, from the US.  His Viapark Hotel now offers movie nights every Sunday evening.  Meanwhile, over at Casa Inspiracion, owners  Syd and Gundy, hailing from Western Canada, have discovered three stray puppies hiding in their garden. Given that the couple already has three dogs of their own, anyone interested in their own pup should contact them. Today’s expat couple, owners of the Tsitsicamma Inn in Atlantida, came to Uruguay from South Africa.

Exterior of Tsitsicamma Inn

Tsitsicamma Inn Atlantida

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A Day In Pocitos Uruguay

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Montevideo is starting to grow on me.  Last week, my husband and I spent a day in the trendy, upscale Pocitos neighborhood. It was a bit like coming back to New York City. Depending where you walk, the area evokes images of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side or Brooklyn.  Street vendors are everywhere, as well as every type of store,  for anything you might need, or did not realize you need.

Playa Pocitos by Jose Porras

Playa Pocitos by Jose Porras

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Villa Argentina Atlantida Uruguay

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 When the bus from Montevideo pulls into Atlantida, Villa Argentina is the first community you’ll see. Mostly residential, it often escapes the tourist’s eye, which is exactly why you should visit. Unlike other parts of Atlantida, where summer visitors occupy many of the homes, most of Villa Argentina’s residents live here all year round. This is the real Uruguay. Separated, but only a short distance from the commercialism of downtown Atlantida, Villa Argentina entices you to explore its charming homes, and its equally charming residents. Perhaps that’s what drew Syd Blackwell and his wife Gundy to Uruguay.

 

Casa Inspiracion by Syd Blackwell

Syd and Gundy’s new home in Villa Argentina

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The Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park

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Having spent my honeymoon in Grenada, and visited again in 2004, the isle of Spice holds a special place in my heart. This small, Eastern Caribbean island enjoys an enchanting location at the southern extremity of the Windward Islands. Although situated in the Caribbean, Grenada is more than a beach destination. People come here to hike the mountains and rainforests and explore an active undersea volcano.

Grenada's Grand Etang Lake

Our Grenada Honeymoon

Others indulge their senses in the aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, pimento, saffron and ginger, which perfume the air and entice visitors with the subtleties of spiced cuisine. The Underwater Sculpture Park offers another reason to put Grenada on your must-visit list.

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A Meeting of Creative Minds in Punta del Este Uruguay

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Punta del Este is Uruguay’s most glamorous, upscale beach resort town, but Uruguayans rarely go there. To get to Punta, most people fly from Miami to Montevideo, then drive for two or more hours.  The “more” is a result of the road work currently taking place as you get closer to your destination.  If the speed limit signs say 30 MPH, you’d better go 25, or risk getting  ticketed by the overzealous traffic cops.Unfair? Maybe, but wealthy Punta patrons must have paved roads, and someone has to pay for them.
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A Serendipitous Carnival in Atlantida Uruguay

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Uruguay is often referred to as having an ambiance that evokes images of Eisenhower’s America. While in some ways, our little country is extremely progressive, in others, it is quaintly behind the times.

Case in point: While Uruguay has a policy that assures one laptop for every school child, certain important events are  never announced online. Such is the case with the Atlantida carnival parade, which I discovered by accident a few weeks ago.  But before I describe the parade, I need to tell you the back-story.

Black Orpheus

My brother is 12 years older than I am, and an avid film buff. When I was little, he sometimes took me to see  films that I did not quite understand. Black Orpheus was one such film. Set in Brazil, it tells the story of  Eurydice, who runs away to Rio to stay with her cousin during carnival season. She meets a trolley driver by the name of Orpheus, who falls madly in love with her.  Eurydice is afraid that death, represented by a man in a black skeleton costume, was chasing after her.

If you know the Orpheus myth, she is correct. Sorry for the spoiler, but the girl dies, and Orpheus goes into “the underworld” to find her. Being much too young to understand the deep symbolism, I had nightmares for weeks after seeing that film. In fact, South American carnival music always evokes images of the dude in the skeleton costume.

Black Orpheus

 

Fast Forward to 2013

Somehow I end up living in South America. Atlantida, Uruguay, to be exact. One night, around midnight, I notice that my husband still has not walked Whistler, our big brindle greyhound.  Mark said his shoulder was bothering him, so I begrudgingly became the midnight dog walker.  Even though Atlantida is far safer than the big cities in which I have lived, I still maintain my city girl’s dislike of being outside and alone late at night. Adding to the problem, my night vision is not that great.

The Drum Beats Call to You

Normally, I would only walk Whistler down the block and back, but I heard the faint sound of drums and sensuous melodies in the near distance.  Mesmerized, I followed the music, and walked for about a quarter of a mile. And suddenly,  I found myself in the midst of the Atlantida carnival parade – but without the guy in the skeleton costume.

I watched, hypnotized as a group of men danced with a huge flag, evoking memories of my veil dancing days when I performed as a belly dancer.

 

While the bigger carnival takes place in Montevideo,there’s something about being up close and personal to the parade in our quaint little town. I walked home, feeling that I had been privy to something inexplicably special.

Candombe, the drums of Carnival.

 

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Uruguay Celebrates the Festival of the Sea Goddess

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Uruguay is a land of many paradoxes. While its government encourages a strong separation between church and state, certain pagan rituals are observed with religious fervor. Should you happen to be in Montevideo or Punta del Este on February 2, you might notice people dressed in white or light blue. Toward mid-afternoon, they meander toward the beaches. Some hold small, Styrofoam boats, filled with fruits and flowers.

Yemenja Celebration

 

As evening approaches, candles light the sand along the beach. Music plays. Some people perform ritual dances to the rhythm of the pulsating drums. Others bring their small boats to priestesses, who bless their offerings. Then, they carry their gifts into the water. The event continues till the wee hours of the morning. Welcome to the festival of Yemanjá, the Goddess of the Sea.

 

About The Goddess

Yemanjá is one of seven deities of an African religion. Her worship became popular in Brazil, as a result of the African slave trade. The tradition eventually migrated to Uruguay. As a version of Voodoo, the cult was persecuted, so the African slaves disguised their goddesses by giving them Christian names.

This explains why images of Yemanjá bear close resemblance to the Virgin Mary. Worshiped by sailors and fishermen and symbolized by conchs and sea stars, she is considered the Goddess of the Sea. The gifts are given in exchange for her protection throughout the year. Some people present their offerings and make a wish for health and prosperity in the coming year. After they place their boats in the water, they retreat, always walking backwards, because one must never turn his back on the Goddess of the Sea.

Yemenja Statue

 

 

 

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