Memories of Montevideo

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Montevideo, with barely enough time to inhale the Rio de la Plata at La Rambla’s edge before being whisked away again. Truthfully, in the chaos and nostalgia of my trip I hadn’t given it much thought, instead focusing on remembering my Spanish and eating as many tacos as possible. As a result, coming back to Montevideo seven years after my departure was a bit of a shock.

I came to the city in early 2003 to work at a nonprofit in sustainable development law. Struggling to protect the Esteros del Ibera, Argentina’s largest wetlands, the nonprofit had me working out of a small office in La Barra de Maldonado, some 2 km from the nearest grocery store. Adjacent to the glamour of Punta del Este but a world away in spirit, I arrived to find that my office had no doors and that I shared my room with poisonous spiders. The living room, with a yawning attic far above and bookshelves to peruse on every wall, was home to a staggering amount of wasps, who also carpeted the couch and chairs. Spiders lined the stairway to the top floor (meaning I rarely went up there) and the only other person in the house was a caretaker in her seventies named Luz, who spoke no English.

A year alone in France under my belt, I thought I would be prepared for this solo trip. But I was wrong, and moreover I was completely unnerved by the homesickness and the loneliness that kicked me deep in my gut. As an arachnophobe, I was also deprived of sleep for the first few long weeks of fear. Exhausted, I finally settled into a tenuous truce: if I knew where the spiders were before bed, I could manage to sleep a few hours at a time. (Looking back, I fail to see how I managed to do this; I’m shuddering just writing this out for my site.) I never knew lonely, and suddenly I was in the middle of nowhere with no knowledge of Spanish and a room full of animals who wanted to kill me.

And then, over a month in, I met a guy at the grocery store who knew a guy who had a cousin who had a friend with a room in Pocitos, and in the blink of an eye I was living in Montevideo. In one of those truly fantastic moments of fortuity, my laptop and I were transplanted from La Barra de Maldonado to the middle of a new, energetic and welcoming group of friends in Pocitos.

Sunset over Montevideo in 2003
Sunset over Montevideo – photo from my album in 2003.

Those first months in Montevideo taught me about soccer, about the intricate politics between friends in Latin America, about cumbia and late night parilladas and dancing until the sun comes up. I learned how to swear so gloriously that I still make my Spanish-speaking friends blanch, the fruits of a night filled with wine and laughter and cross-cultural note-taking. And I learned a slogan I never forgot: “you can change your job, your house, your wife, your sexual orientation…but you can never change your fútbol team.” The city was in the middle of a financial crisis but it was lively and optimistic.

Montevideo 7 Years Later

In contrast, the Montevideo I saw in 2010 appeared to be well on its way toward inexorable decay. Graffiti littered almost every building in the city centre, the facades crumbling, windows reflecting the empty streets. Compared to the city I had lived in and marveled at, it was jarring. In the outskirts – in Pocitos where I used to sit and watch the water lap against the shore, the stoop where we’d all watch the world go by – the streets were still busy. But the downtown core was eerily quiet, and it was unnerving.

Montevideo, devoid of life in the afternoon
Montevideo, quiet in the afternoon.

Some of the friends I knew are elsewhere, working in New York or DC. Others still in Montevideo lamented the way the city was crumbling, an undeniable reminder that while jobs were not scarce, the city still had its problems. With the US dollar weaker than before and inflation high, the cost of food (especially fresh fruit) was amazingly high. A sandwich and coffee cost me more than in New York.

Walking through the empty streets, I stumbled upon this sign and it symbolized (to me, at least) the feeling in Montevideo these days:

Cuidado hay tension en Montevideo

This is not to say the city felt in any way unsafe. It didn’t. But in contrast to the prevailing optimism of my prior visit, it was the tension and the decay that stood out. I didn’t go searching for pictures of corrosion or graffiti, but naturally these were the elements of present day Montevideo that caught my eye.

Here are some photos from my weekend in the city:

Shadows just off of Plaza Independencia in Montevideo
Shadows just off of Plaza Independencia.

Montevideo - Burned down garbage pail
A burned down garbage pail near Plaza Independencia.

Montevideo Plaza Independencia
The Artigas Mausoleum is a monument to Uruguayan hero José Artigas.

Graffitied Traffic Sign in Montevideo Uruguay
Traffic sign in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Hanging out with friends in Montevideo
Hanging out with Wandering Trader (who is trying to pretend he’s a bird taking a crap on me) and his uncle in Montevideo.

Graffiti in Montevideo.
Graffiti in Montevideo.

Lamp post in Montevideo uruguay
Lamp post fraying in the afternoon sun.

Trash bin in Montevideo, uruguay
Trash bin on 18 de Julio avenue.

Downtown Montevideo.
Graffiti just of Plaza Independencia.

Plaza Independencia in the sun, montevideo uruguay
Plaza Independencia in the sun.

Peanut vendors on 18 de Julio avenue
Peanut vendors on 18 de Julio avenue.

Still the same (and busier still): this tribute to eternal love, a rusted iron fence and fountain crammed with locks of young couples wanting to commemorate their affection:

Locks in downtown Montevideo

And the inscription: “The legend of this young fountain tells us that if a lock with the initials of two people in love is placed in it, they will return together to the fountain and their love will be forever locked”.

Locks bound together in Montevideo Uruguay

Montevideo locks of love

Note: for a great love story re the above purple lock, see here.

Overall, a surprise to see the city less preserved than before, but a real treat to spend time with my friends and the kids I babysat (now graduating high school!) from 2003. The hours we spent talking on a quiet Sunday afternoon, catching up on all the memories of Montevideo we shared and the many years in between, was the perfect way to end my brief time in Uruguay.

Next up: Buenos Aires and some reviews of the hotels from this whirlwind of a trip.

12 thoughts on “Memories of Montevideo”

  1. Along the way I’ve met a few travelers who are returning to cities they visited years ago, it’s interesting to hear their impressions of the city now both good and bad but sad to hear about Montevideo.

  2. What a fantastic post. I really experienced some of the same feelings when I was in BsAs 2 weeks ago. I can’t believe how much it has changed over the last 5 years. Good and bad. AWESOME pics!!!

    This had me laughing so hard: “You can change your job, your house, your wife, your sexual orientation…but you can never change your fútbol team.”

  3. Ayngelina: I’m sure a first time visitor would have a very different view, but the prism through which I saw the city was affected by my prior time there. It’s still a great place to visit, but it was still a surprise.

    Andi: I agree that BsAs has changed as well. That slogan was the g-rated version of what was actually said, by the way. :)

  4. So many crazy stories.

    Speaking of recluse spiders, I remember watching the Discovery Channel one time, and they profiled Australia’s Brown Recluse Spider — supposedly the most poisonous spider on the planet!

  5. Nice post with interesting insight. I’m in the middle of my first trip to South America (Argentina, to be exact), and I, too, have noticed signs of decay. I’m interested to read what you think about Buenos Aires.

    Damn, those spiders are evil.

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  7. Time and fond memories tend to embelish places I have visited. Repeat visits are often a disappointment. The world is big, life is short, therefore my slogan is: onwards and upwards, don’t turn back.

    1. Thanks for the comment Inka. I think that sometimes returning to a place itself helps propel you forward in life. These were work (not purely travel) trips but in offering me an incredibly stark contrast to then and now, both in places and in my own personality, they really did recalibrate me for the next year.

  8. Really? I didn’t have that impression of Montevideo at all. I lived there for a year in 2009 and granted, I hadn’t been there before, but instead of seeing decay, I saw pride and hope. Just because Ciudad Vieja is crumbling (which it is really, and it’s kind of sad) I think other areas of the city are emerging like Carrasco, Pocitos, and even Centro. My impression was that people were ready to move on from their past (namely the dictatorship) and somehow old sections of the city got lumped in with this sentiment. It would be nice if they suddenly desired to reinvigorate the old city, but I think Uruguayans are all about living in the present and that’s not where they decided to focus their energies. Every city has it’s problems, but one thing is for certain, Montevideo is definitely not just about graffiti.

    1. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for your comment. I am glad to hear that was the impression you had after time in the city. Of course MV is far more than graffiti, but the lingering impression to me was one of slow decay. I still loved my time there in 2003 and would be happy to spend more time there today – it is a place of fond memories and great friends. But in the brief return that I had, what stood out was the contrast and not the optimism you saw in your time there. I’m happy to hear it wasn’t the case for you!

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