Thursday, July 18, 2013
I JUST GOT BACK FROM LAST WEEK'S TRIP TO MONTEVIDEO
Last week I flew to and from Montevideo from my home in Northern California. The trip takes about 25 hours with layovers for connecting flights, airport to airport; it’s a long way south and east to that part of South America. According to American Airlines, it’s about 7,000 miles one-way. My route took me from Sacramento to Dallas-Fort Worth to Miami to Montevideo and vice-versa. Miami-Montevideo and the return trip are overnight flights where an hour or two of sleep makes all the difference in how you’ll feel when you get there.
The overall impression I got from my previous trips to Montevideo, a city of 2.5-3 million people, was that little had changed over the 31 years I’d been going back and forth. This time it was different. New construction of apartments and buildings for businesses was evident near the airport in the Carrasco neighborhood, all along The Ramblas bordering the Rio de la Plata as we drove into the heart of the city, and in Pocitos, the neighborhood Elaine and I lived in back in 1999. Occasional new high-rise apartment buildings are going up in downtown inland from the river. Several of the older buildings downtown are being remodeled and modernized.
Gentrification of neighborhoods extended to restaurants. In 1982 you had your choice of beef or beef in any Uruguayan restaurant. It was very good beef, free range fed, the best of cuts or the parillada compleada (essentially all the parts of the cow barbecued individually), a meal guaranteed not to let you walk away hungry. If you were a vegan, you were dead meat (figuratively, at least). In 1999, you could find one or two restaurants in Montevideo with a salad bar to complement the beef. It is significant that even now, Uruguayans use the word “meat” as a synonym for beef. But, it is also significant that the menus in the better restaurants have chicken, pork, and often a vegetarian selection available for dinner in the new Montevideo. We ate at a popular (expensive by Uruguayan standards, but worth every peso of the bill) and superb restaurant (Tandory), new since my last visit in 2010, on an obscure side street in a residential area of Pocitos, that was every bit as good (or better) than the best restaurants of Sacramento or the Bay area. The style was a fusion of Uruguayan and Thai flavors that really, really worked well. High points of my meal were Mollejas al jerez (Sweetbreads with mushrooms) and Red Naam (fish fillets coated with coconut and lemongrass, with a risotto of banana and cilantro). This went very well with a nice bottle of Tannat wine from the menu.
The book cover for “The Matador Murders” is a photo of the actual area in Pocitos near the Rio de la Plata where we lived in 1999. We went to another dinner a few nights later at a restaurant two blocks north from our old apartment. I didn’t recognize anything. The banks, restaurants, a new parking garage, or a new shopping mall. Everything was new since 1999. We drove the two blocks over and everything was the same---the same apartment building, the same small park where the Saturday morning Feria described in “The Ambivalent Corpse” was held, the same buildings all around the park. The new construction at random in the better neighborhoods speaks well for the state of the economy. At the airport, I got 18+ pesos for my dollars when I exchanged currency. The last time I’d visited, just a few years ago, the exchange rate was 28 pesos to the dollar.
Our course on toxins produced by blue-green algae went very well. About 60 registered attendees from Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia, 46 scheduled contact hours (but a lot longer for the students taking the laboratory [Practical] portion of the course), over a 5-day period from Monday to Friday. My lectures (presented in English with slides in Spanish) were well attended and went smoothly. Thanks to substantial improvements in Google Translator, it was easy to do the bulk of translating by computer followed by my own proofreading.
The other guest faculty member was from Rio de Janiero, and she lectured in Portuguese. It was the first time I ever listened to several hours of a class in Portuguese, and found myself understanding a lot more than I expected to thanks to the slides and her clear pronunciation. A highlight of the course was a “for-fun final exam”, administered after the real exam, set up as a three-team competition in “Jeopardy” format. The students really got into that part.
Saturday afternoon the world was put on hold for 3.5 hours to watch the under-20 FIFA World Cup Football (Soccer) Championship match from Istanbul, Turkey between France and Uruguay. I refereed youth soccer for 7-8 years here in Northern California while my sons were growing up, so I know the rules, which impressed my hosts quite a bit. So did a couple of offside calls I made before the referee did, both of which were obvious from the TV coverage. France finally won a 0-0 match (two overtimes) by a score of 4-1 on penalty kicks (“penals” in Spanish). It was an exciting event for the Uruguayans, who had never done better than fourth place in previous competitions.
It was a great week with old and dear friends and a lovely ceremony at the University where I was given an honorary Professorship. It's the first one of those I've ever received, and something I'm really proud of.