Mate Tea, Dialects, and Free Walking in a Modern City
Montevideo took my breath away. Even before we landed, I knew I would fall in love with Uruguay. A small country located at the bottom of Argentina, Uruguay is cornered by the breathtaking Cordillera mountain range on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the right. Flying over the Cordillera was simultaneously exhilarating and petrifying. Luckily, I got a window seat and got a great view of the curvy mountains frosted with a touch of snow. We HAD to keep our seat belts buckled when flying over the mountains because of turbulence. Worth it.
The first day in Montevideo was unbearably hot. Still, we powered through the ungodly heat and made it to the beach and walked along the shore. We gave it our best, but only a few hours crawled by before we ran back into our air-conditioned hostel.
The next day we participated in a Free Walking Tour of the city. I am still unsure if our guides were volunteers or governmental employees of the tourism branch. In any case, our guide was informative, funny, and kind. We visited The Market, The Old City, and the Downtown Government District during the 2.5 hour tour. Taking such a walking tour gives you such an opportunity to explore many hidden gems around Montevideo. As we perused the city, it was easy to see the European influence in the buildings from colonization. Although Buenos Aires has a strong influence and presence of Italian architecture, Uruguay, in my opinion was a mixture of Spain and Britain.
I walked with my head up, marveling at the great buildings and sights to see. In all honesty, I did that partially because I could not fully understand our tour guide. Dialects. Dialects are so confusing and amazing to me. From the moment we met our guides, they could tell that we spoke Castellano, or Chilean Spanish.
“El peor de Sudamericano,” cried our tour guide. He was telling us what we already knew: Chileans speak a very distinct Spanish that is unlike any other. My Chilean friend even laughed at me once, saying, “You want to improve your Spanish...and you came to CHILE?”
There are many Spanish words that exist in Chile that do not exist in many other Spanish-speaking countries: guagua (baby/child under 7 years old), pollolo/a (boy/girlfriend), etc.
So naturally, my brain was not going to decipher yet a new version of Spanish (lots of “ch” sounds in the pronunciation). Luckily, I managed to zoom back in to hear all about mates.
One of the great noticeable aspects of Uruguayan culture is Mate. Mate is a tea that everyone drinks. At first, it tastes strange to foreigners. Having given it some thought, I would say that it mostly tastes like an aggressive green tea that is angry at you, but you don't know why or how to fix what you did wrong. It's bitter. And if you chug it mindlessly as I did, it might force you to take a step back and rethink every major life decision you have ever made.
The tea is pre-made in a thermos that EVERYONE carries around under their arm. The mate thermos is a little silver container filled to the brink with tea herbs that they pour the water into and drink it. In 35 degrees Celsius weather. In Montevideo, there is no weather hot enough to not be drinking mate.
Montevideo is such a modern city, I felt like I was right at home in Boston. We had a chance to walk by the world trade center and the main downtown area and I had to recalibrate to remind myself that I wasn’t home. The more I travel, the more connections I make between my city (Boston) and other cities around the world. And that’s one of the great takeaways from traveling: cultures change and dialects transfer but as explorers and educators, we are also always growing and always making connections to better understand the world around us. It was so impressive being home even when not being home.
Your time in Uruguay will be most excellent. I think it is one of the forgotten countries of South America because it is not spacious or as populated as Argentina or Brazil - but with beautiful beaches and clear blue skies, I say, take a chance on Uruguay… it will take your breath away. I hope your time in Montevideo was as refreshing and unforgettable as mine.
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Stephane Alexandre is the Intercultural Immersion Editor for Wandering Educators. A Tufts University student, she just returned from studying abroad in Chile.
All photos courtesy and copyright Stephane Alexandre