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We made it! Thanks much for the prayers and well wishes. We arrived in Montevideo on Monday morning and as a Fulbright team we spent much of the first few days getting ourselves oriented with the program and expectations in Uruguay, with each other, and with this stunning city on the coast.
Fun fact: The origin of the name “Montevideo” comes from when the region was first discovered by the Spanish. The story goes that the Spaniards recorded the area as, “La monte VI de este a oeste.” This translates to, “The sixth (VI = roman numeral) hill from east to west.”
To this day, this hilly coastline is among the biggest attractions in Montevideo. At any hour of the day, hundreds of people can be seen walking, running, and biking along La Rambla, a path along the beach. From the Rambla, one can observe surfers of all varieties. It is always windy near the coast and for this reason is known as a haven for kite surfers and windsurfers around the world.
Our first day in Montevideo put in several miles walking along La Rambla, enjoying the sunshine, warm weather (75-80 degrees Fahrenheit) and views of the skyline. With nearly 1.5 million inhabitants, Montevideo is home roughly half of Uruguay’s population, but unlike San José and Lima – or many major cities in the U.S. for that matter – there really isn’t much traffic. Add in the fact that Montevideo sits on a peninsula, and you’ll find it is very easy to navigate and get around quickly. Generally, we either walk or use Uber.
The city is very safe and its’ people are incredibly warm and welcoming. Uruguayans always wish us an enjoyable stay in their country and are quick to offer help when we need it. On occasion, locals will ask us where we are from and more often than not, they are surprised to hear we are from the United States.
Due to the fact that many Uruguayans have roots in Spain and Italy, and the majority of its’ visitors come from Europe, we really don’t stand out as being exceptionally white, although blonde hair and blue eyes don’t help my case. To put it bluntly, almost everyone is white – to the extent that I almost assume everyone speaks English because of their skin color, which is weird to think about.
As part of our orientation we visited the United States Embassy in Montevideo, and met several members of the ambassador’s staff. Our meeting was very informative, as we learned all about Uruguay’s history, politics, economy, and education system. For those wondering what actually happens in an embassy, the US Foreign Service officers gave a pretty simple explanation. In a sentence, the embassy informs the US government of what’s going on in Uruguay and trends within Uruguayan economics and politics as they relate to the United States. In addition, the embassy monitors and aids U.S. citizens in Uruguay and controls visas for Uruguayans hoping to visit the US.
We also visited Plan Ceibal, a coalition that works closely with the Ministry of Education to provide improved education for Uruguayan public school students and opportunities for all Uruguayan citizens with respect to technology. This year, Plan Ceibal will celebrate its’ 10th anniversary of existence, and to date has provided nearly 700,000 young Uruguayans with tablets or laptops and nearly 1,000,000 citizens with free wireless internet – many of whom did not previously have access. It was fascinating to see how their investment in the youngest and oldest demographics of their population has helped elevate their economy over the past 10 years.
The highlight of my first week in Uruguay came on Thursday evening, as I had the chance to attend a FIFA Qualifying Round match between Uruguay and Brazil. Traditionally, this matchup features one of the strongest rivalries in international soccer. Uruguay and its’ stadium (Estadio Centenario in Montevideo) are known for hosting the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, with Uruguay defeating its’ much larger neighbor – Argentina – by a score of 4-2.
The environment in the Stadium was everything I had anticipated: a sell-out crowd of over 65,000 passionate Uruguayan fútbol fans. Unfortunately, the game reached its’ peak for Uruguay in the 9th minute, when Edinson Cavanni sent home a penalty kick to give the home team a 1-0 lead. Unfortunately Brazil would prove to be too much, tying it up before half and taking the lead early in the second half. Neymar chipped in a third and the fourth and final Brazilian goal was knocked in during the game’s final minute: a 4-1 win for Brazil.
I was accompanied at the game by Diego and Guillermo, the sons of one of my mentor teachers (Sandra) for the upcoming experience in Rivera, Uruguay. The boys live in Montevideo, as they are university students. This weekend we all headed “home” to Rivera, which sits 5 hours north along the Uruguay-Brazilian border. At this time next week, I will have completed one week in the schools and have much more to talk about with respect to Rivera, school, typical foods and day-to-day life. For now, life is good in Rivera!