Friday, October 31, 2008

el Hospital Militar

David has connections everywhere and arranged another visit for us on Wednesday, to the Military Hospital. We powered through a hard-charging hour's tour in the wake of a portly Air Force colonel, the hospital's head of personnel.

The hospital is another beautiful early 20th c. building, in need of some repair. The main building has high arched windows with panes of blue glass in the arches and the initials HM in beautiful blood red script on the keystone pane. There is a little museum of old hospital porcelain plates and enema bottles.

The colonel bustled us along, speaking mostly in Spanish and switching to English when I got hopelessly lost. We toured the maternity ward, the children's ward, the cardiac ICU, a stepdown unit, the emergency room, the dialysis unit, hydrotherapy & physical therapy rooms. There is not (or at least the colonel did not observe) anything like the HIPAA restrictions that aim to protect patient privacy in the States. At one point he grabbed a patient's chart and started flipping through it to show me. Another time we stood for 5 minutes talking about computerization of medical records in front of a screen filled with patient information.

The hospital is run for members of the military and their families, and also admits members of the government. Most if not all of the medical staff are in the military -- nurses oversee the nursing units and are officers, while most of the hands-on nursing work is done by enlisted enfermeros or enfermeras. Nurses here still wear white caps and are called nurse. There were soldiers posted everywhere, snapping smart salutes to our guide.

I went through the adjacent nursing school as well, accompanied by a lovely nurse named Cristina. She explained their different programs including a combat nursing program. Meanwhile, the colonel regaled Mike with stories of his time as part of a UN deployment to Africa during which he suddenly found himself promoted from observer to head of air operations. Someone had found out that he was in the Air Force back home. His quote when he found out that Tom flies jets: "I hate this guy. Tell him to send me one. No, two."

el telescopio

Tuesday night we went to our local planetarium to use their telescope. It's open to the public but not apparently publicized -- we only heard about it from the security guard who started chatting with us on our visit to the planetarium. We emailed (in español!) the society of astronomy aficionados which manages the telescope and Carlos said we were welcome to check it out any Tuesday or Friday from 8pm to 10pm. Of course the sky turned cloudy Tuesday but we didn't want to pass up our appointment.

Carlos and José Pedro took us up into the telescope tower, a squat white silo on the grounds of the planetarium. The telescope itself is a beautiful cylinder of blondish wood with rings of brass, about 15 feet long. It was built in 1851 by Henry Fitz, a telescope maker in New York City. According to our guides it was brought to Montevideo by a British ambassador in the 19th c. and how it ended up in the little planetarium on Av. Rivera I'm not sure.

Since it was cloudy we spent the whole time talking politics, travel and food with our two aficionados. José Pedro, whose family is in the meat business talked about selling beef to both Israel and Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. He said they had to have both a kosher area and an area approved by a Muslim inspector (he said the animals had to face Mecca). Apparently the Muslim inspector kept finding fault with everything they did until he fell in love with an Uruguayan woman. They got married and his complaints ceased.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

field school

Our Spanish teacher's husband, David, has been taking us on field trips recently. He definitively does not speak English which is good for us; he is also incredibly hard to understand which gets confusing. On Tuesday he took us to Leonor Hourticou, a public elementary school. David used to be a schoolteacher and the lovely principal of this school is a former colleague of his.

We got to explore a couple of classrooms and chat with a third-grade teacher (third is Mike's grade). This sounds quite a bit more freely flowing than it felt -- it's so difficult to hear the words someone else is saying, figure out what they mean, and then formulate your own thoughts, and get them out before the conversation has moved on!

Public school kids wear white tunics, kind of like labcoats, with a big floppy blue bow at the neck. Teachers also wear white labcoats, without the bow. The littlest kids wear colored tunics. We had a roomful of 5 year olds in red and white gingham aprons & sleeve covers sing us a song called La Caracol, which I believe means The Snail. Truly adorable.

The school has an organic garden out behind the big patio where kids have recess. The garden functions as an outdoor classroom around which different classes can be structured. The kids are growing beets, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, basil, mint, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, and many flowers.

Kids go to school for 4 hours a day here, either 8 to noon or 1 to 5. In many schools the morning session is one school (has its own name, teachers and principal) and the afternoon session has an entirely different name, set of teachers & principal. The teacher we talked with teaches in the morning at Leonor Hourticou, then travels to another neighborhood to teach in the afternoon. Some other teacher moves into her classroom when Franklin D. Roosevelt (the afternoon school) commences. Both school names have their own very differently styled plaques at the front door. Weird but I guess it works. Our teacher's room had some exercises in English posted up on the walls but she explained that those were done by the afternoon kids & that she doesn't speak or teach any English.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Night Owls

We had our first night out in Montevideo on Friday and I was entirely routed by it. Annie & Michel's friends' band was playing at the hole-in-the-wall BJ Bar downtown and we went to have dinner and check them out. When we got to the bar at 11:45pm the bartender said they were still closed but let us have a beer anyway. We got talking to a couple of guys from Brazil who were in the opening band, Empiricos, and had a good chat about music, in our common language of broken Spanish.

The hours ticked by and Empiricos went onstage around 2:30. Our friends' friends showed up and we exchanged numbers but by 3:30 I was falling asleep on the bar. We left before even hearing their band since they were to play third that night. They probably went on around 5am or so. I will have to get in the habit of serious napping before evenings out.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

el Palacio Legislativo

Although democratically elected, our profesora feels strongly that the alliance currently in power has strangled the middle class with taxes and now wants money for everything. Unbeknowst to her this includes guided tours of the legislature.

We had gone with Eddy to see el Palacio Legislativo and were sitting on the front steps, filling out worksheets to learn how to say "It's cloudy" while being gaped at by schoolchildren and waiting for our tour guide. The tour guide appeared and then made it known that our tour would cost US$3 each. With being told that she would have to pay to enter the seat of her own government umbrage of the highest order was taken and we were whisked back down the stairs without a backward glance. We don´t have a lot of say when Eddy decides something is correct, is not correct, will happen or won't happen. That we were more than willing to accomodate the entry fee was entirely beside the point.

We wandered around the outside and got an eyeful of an elaborately decorated but rather neglected building. A lot of eroded bas-reliefs and collected city grit. The medical college is nearby in a beautiful Beaux Arts building with broken windows. Graffiti is ubiquitous in Montevideo and covers the building and its bronze statues. Lots of students were sitting on the steps along with lots of trash and unchecked weeds. Much of the city shares this flavor of deterioration -- sidewalk tiles on possibly every street we have been on are torn up, leaving pits of sand to walk through.

We did better with Eddy´s husband the next day: At some point David was the second alternate for a member of parliament and still has the identity card to prove it to inquisitive policemen. At the Palace of Legislation he was accomodated for free with an excellent guide, Fernanda, who led us on a tour of the very beautiful building; it was finished in 1922. The main atrium is inlaid with many different marbles, all from Uruguay. There are Ventian mosaics portraying the Arts and the Sciences, and Milanese stained-glass windows. Also the Declaration of Independence and the first Constitution, both presided over by elaborately outfitted soldiers. (The Uruguayan constitution is not amended but changed entirely. At the moment they are on number 7.) The library was the best part, being entirely inlaid wood and angry brass birds. It's open to the public every morning.

Interestingly, there was a metal detecting gate at the front door, presided over by a security detail. No attempt was made either to look through the bags of those entering or to detain anyone for whom the gate buzzed. Possibly this imposition is reserved for members of congress who are not currently in the majority. We learned that in the building that contains members' offices the legislators retaining the greatest power have offices located on the higher floors of the building. When there is a power shift after an election, the offices are shuffled and the newly elect move to the upper levels.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

our address

I just realized we should have our address in here, though I have no idea how long mail would take to reach us. We expect to be in this apartment until around November 16. At least you can Google Earth us.

Avenida General Rivera 3355
No. 205
Montevideo, Uruguay

General Artigas & el Museo Naval

General José Gervasio Artigas is a very (possibly the most?) significant figure in Uruguayan history and has a remarkable mausoleum in the Plaza Independencia just at the beginning of the Ciudad Vieja.

We visted the mausoleum which is a massive structure of dark gray stone, rather threatening in appearance. Down a flight of stone stairs you enter an enormous, mostly empty room where Artigas' ashes rest in an urn, inside a large lucite box and flanked by two soldiers. Around the walls of this room are picked out in enormous high-relief letters the significant events in the life of General Artigas including his contributions to the liberty of the people of the region that is now Uruguay.

We also visited el Museo Naval which is down on the Ramblas, the road that runs along the waterfront. It´s a small white stucco building containing a lot of great images of early Montevideo and exhibits on warships, and with a scattering of cannon and anchors over the lawn. They're planning an exhibit on the Graf Spee, a German warship that was anchored in Montevideo for repairs following battle with some British warships in 1939. Uruguay was neutral but the ship had to leave within 72 hours of docking here. The German captain blew up the ship off the coast rather than letting it fall into Allied hands. He committed suicide 2 days later.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Sunday we didn't start class until 11am so had time to sleep in & have leisurely cafecitos y bizcochos (little breakfast breads) at home. I think the people in the corner panaderia undercharged me for leche y bizcochos but I couldn't get the translated arithmetic done in my head fast enough to question it. The milk here comes in plastic bags that we decant. Our teacher congratulated me on getting our groceries cheap.

We went to the little planetarium down the road this afternoon (many of the museums here are free) and listened to a professor of astronomy talk about the constellations in the southern sky in spring. So we've seen a representation of the southern cross but not the real thing yet. We had a nice conversation with Hectór, the guy at the door. He kept saying "Enjoy my country!" very heartily.

We also visited the little museum under the planetarium with interactive displays to explain scientific phenomena, laws of physics, etc. for kids. A number of the exhibits were illustrated using mate paraphernalia. Mate is a tea drunk constantly by Uruguayans. Many people carry around thermoses of hot water under their arm and hold a gourd filled with mate leaves. They add hot water to the leaves over the course of the day, using the bombilla or perforated straw to filter and drink the infusion. We haven´t drunk mate in Uruguay yet though I have not loved the mate I´ve had in SF.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


We´ve been here 4 days now and I´m starting to feel a little bit settled. We´re taking lessons in español in the home of a Montevidean woman who gave Spanish lessons at the U.S. embassy here for 40 years -- she speaks of some of her former students as "my Marines".

Profesora Eddy is a wonderful source of information about the history and culture of the country as well as being a good language teacher. She is also our landlady which got a little sticky at first when it appeared our rent might suddenly become double what we were told in email. Fortunately, diplomacy and the fact that we had no refrigerator prevailed. We now have a Coleman cooler in which to keep our plastic bags of leche commun.

At the risk of sounding like a Christmas letter, here is the daily recap.


Our travel down here took about 24 hours, stopping in San Salvador and Lima. Free internet in San Salvador (still can´t get over it) and delicious Peruvian beef & noodle soup in the Lima airport (looking forward to more later in the trip.) We arrived exhausted at 5AM & took a cab from the aeropuerto. So kindly, Eddy was waiting to let us into the apartment and then left us to sleep for about 10 hours. That afternoon we took a walk down to the seafront in our neighborhood, Pocitos, where there is a Plaza Winston Churchill next to a Point Charles de Gaulle. We went over to Eddy's (she lives around the corner from our apartment) where she gave us a tour of the house and some steak asado. She & her husband have an indoor barbecue in a building out back. Then she took us on a tour of the neighborhood for our first lesson -- the corner store, bakery, local Planetarium, your typical necessary services.


Before class we discovered that our shower is hot but pretty much just a trickle. We also found that the reported omnipresence of cafés in Montevideo does not apply to our neighborhood. The nice people at the corner panaderia made us some very sweet instant coffee, not something they typically provide, and we just made it to Eddy´s by 9am. Our lessons are a good combination of paper exercises and conversation, including some illuminating discourse on the jaundiced view our teacher takes of her country´s current government.

That afternoon we took a long walk down Avenida Rivera (the street we live on) to Avenida 18 de Julio (the main artery of downtown) and into downtown. A lot of buses and grafittoed buildings, and a lot of dogs. We stopped in at the Biblioteca Nacional where there is still an in-demand card catalog and walked down past the patinaed monument to The Gaucho. We had a late lunch of onion pizza in a little cafe off Plaza Cagancha and then took the long walk home to do our homework.

This is sounding very Christmas letter-y. Maybe I´ll do our next days in a second post.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

San Salvador Aeropuerto

We are almost at the end of our 6 hour layover in El Salvador. The flight down was surprisingly easy -- maybe leaving at 2AM is a good thing since you're exhausted and fall right asleep. From the plane El Salvador is green and mountainous and makes me wish we were staying for a little while to see it. There is a reentry fee if we leave the airport so we've been holed up here, drinking coffee, eating fruit (yikes but good!) and making use of the free internet kiosks everywhere. Our flight to Lima is finally up on the board; from there we'll stay on the same plane and fly to Montevideo, to arrive at 5:30AM.