Uruguay: Interior

Uruguay: Interior

As stated in a previous article, I’m in Uruguay on a Fulbright grant (the English Teaching Assistantship, or ETA, to be specific). The grant usually works like this: You spend half of the eight months in the capital, Montevideo, and the other half in the interior – AKA, anywhere but Montevideo. But after a month of living here, there’s so much more I want to explore in the anywhere but.

For the little the world might know about Uruguay, maybe it was made to memorize the strangely futuristic-sounding Montevideo in Spanish class. That clairvoyant capital – I mean, it’s like the conquistadores, or colonizers, predicted the radio, and then video killing the radio star! (More on the name’s leyenda, or legend, in a later article.)

The lack of awareness of Uruguay’s interior (Punta del Este doesn’t count) is one of the reasons I’m directing a photojournalistic project about women who grew up there: to share the little-known stories of women living in the littlest-known part of an already little-known country. It’s slated for exhibition at La Universidad Tecnológica del Uruguay (la UTEC) at the Fray Bentos campus, where I currently assist my strong, beautiful and hard-working mentor, Rossana, at teaching English.

Speaking of that university, this article forms the first in a series on Uruguay – addressing everything from the food, culture, and idiosyncratic fascination with the leyenda of gauchos (their version of what the USA knows as cowboys). In this article, we take a look at the differences between Uruguay’s capital and its interior – once again, literally everywhere else (Punta del Este still doesn’t count).

First, numbers speak: As of 2017, just short of 3.5 million people were living in Uruguay according to the World Bank. That’s less than half of the people you’ll find on the island where I come from (an exotic concrete jungle of sorts, you may have heard of it; it’s sometimes referred to as an abnormally large fibrous fruit: Manhattan, NYC). What’s more, about half of that population lives in the capital. That leaves 1.25 million people to populate the remaining 176,015 km2 of the country (176,215 km2 minus the 200 km2 that make up Montevideo; look at me, I did the math). Talk about an imbalance.

You might think, well hey, that leaves the second half of the country to run wild in all the open space! While that might be true on some occasions (I relish the streets of Fray Bentos, making music videos to Danny Ocean when no one’s around), it also leaves many services centralized in the capital. Sometimes people have to travel all the way to the southern coast for medical treatments, certain resources, and not to mention education. Uruguayan musician Pablo Estramín sums it up in “Morir en la capital” (Yes, that means “Die in the capital”. He actually did in 2007):

La capital nos ofrece

Buen servicio de salud

Los mejores sanatorios

Y hasta el mejor ataúd

The capital offers us

Good healthcare

The best hospitals

And even the best coffins

The entire song is quite clever, but I chose the above excerpt for the lyric referring to ataúdes, coffins.

For the noted and criticized differences between the capital and interior, my day-to-day and that of many now exists around UTEC. In 2012, Law No. 19.043 was passed to create the university’s headquarters in the country’s interior. The Google preview of this book addresses UTEC’s anticipated effect:

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Not only does UTEC help students find educational opportunities without having to be separated from their families and friends, incurring all the financial and emotional costs of travelling to and living in the capital; indeed, each campus specializes in a curious variety, from megatronics to dairy science to experimental jazz.

The moral of the story is, my friends with backpacks, mochileros – if you’re thinking of travelling to Uruguay, look into the innards; you’ll be doing it with cows, anyway.

More on the food in the next one.

Sarah Simon is currently based in Uruguay and will be writing more about her time there throughout the coming months. See more of her writing here, here and here.

In the meantime, find Sarah on Instagram and follow #uruguayumbrage for more.