Man, it’s been a while since I posted. You might recall that in my last post I compared my departure from the beautiful city of Rivera and all of its’ incredible people as a sunset, as it was truly impossible to capture all of the elements that made the experience so memorable.
As you admire a sunset, or when you’re in the midst of a memorable night with friends, you don’t give any thought to what you’ll be do the following day. Likewise, in an effort to take in and live up every last opportunity in Rivera, I really hadn’t wasted much time thinking about what awaited me in Tacuarembó.
Coming off a tremendous experience in Rivera and knowing that I would only be in the city of Tacuarembó for just two weeks, I anticipated a let down. After all, how well can you really get to know a place in such a short amount of time? Plus, I knew that following my brief stint in Tacuarembó I would be leaving for a two-week vacation in Brazil. Needless to say, my expectations weren’t too high.
Nevertheless, human beings prevailed. Wow, did I underestimate this place and its’ people. What I had figured to be a time-filler turned out to be an experience that left me completely overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation. The Tacuaremboenses took me in the second I got off the bus and we squeezed in as many memories as is possible in 12 days.
In terms of size Tacuarembó is the largest of Uruguay’s 19 departments, but I stayed near to Tacuarembó city, which is home to roughly 54,000 people.
I stayed in four different homes for 2-3 nights each.
Yes, that means four different families took me in, housed and fed me, and none of them accepted a single peso. It was really cool to get to spend time with all of my hosts and I will treasure the memories made with each of them. Simple things, mostly: a bike ride, cards, dancing, a chorizada, a morning of pancakes, and a whole lot of laughs and stories shared.
From 3 year-old Federico and his 6 year-old sister Sofía to the group of retired women with whom I worked one afternoon – the oldest of which was 84 years old – I got to experience a little bit of everything in Tacuarembó and felt the love from every demographic.
The bulk of my work in Tacuarembó was done in Instituto de Formación Docente (IFD), a post-secondary institution, which trains and licenses prospective teachers. The students there were extremely excited about teaching and learning and I really enjoyed working with them. Sticking with the trend, they made me feel at home right away. We shared several meals together and they were tremendous cultural ambassadors for their city. My dictionary of Uruguayan words grew significantly!
While their welcome was incredibly warm, the weather here (at first) was not, with temperatures plunging to -2o Celsius (30o F) early last week. In fact one day early last week, my host (Valeria) and I had to get out and pour water on the “ice” that had formed on the front windshield during our drive to a local school. Fortunately the cold only lasted the first few days of my stay.
Immediately following this cold spell came uncharacteristically hot weather, with temperatures reaching 26o Celsius (78o F). Taking advantage of the winter heat wave, I traveled with one of my hosts (Andrea and Juan), an English professor from IFD (Andrés), and an English teacher (Virginia) to Pozo Hondo, one of many natural beauties in the Tacuarembó department.
The landscape of Tacuarembó made me think of the American heartland – the department is even shaped like a heart! The city is completely surrounded by vast expanses of countryside and plateaus, and tucked away a half-hour to the city’s west lies Valle Edén (Valley of Eden) and Pozo Hondo, a waterfall and natural swimming hole surrounded by especially rocky terrain and beautiful scenery. Gorgeous!
Here’s a video I grabbed, which gives you a better appreciation for the place!
I spent the following day with students at Balneario Iporá, a manmade lake just a few kilometers north of the city center. It was here that I noticed my Spanish has made noticeable improvements since my arrival in March.
It’s difficult to explain, but I finally feel like “myself” in my second language. I’m able to make jokes and references that others understand! I can understand pretty much everything people say. I can listen in on others’ conversations and no longer distinguish between “hearing” and “listening” Spanish. In other words, as I read the newspaper from the living room, I don’t just hear the sounds of people conversing in Spanish in the kitchen, but rather I comprehend the conversation without having to work to listen.
Having more confidence with the language, I decided to have a little fun as I visited the Tacuarembó high schools for the first time. Tacuarembó receives very few visitors during the year and for this reason I stood out and students are curious as to whether I speak Spanish or not. This time around, I decided to tell them that I only knew a few phrases in Spanish.
The result: hilarious, as students had no idea that I could understand every single word of the commentary they murmured to one another in their native language. I will never forget the look on the students’ faces – particularly the girls – when I switched to Spanish to wrap up the class period and thank them for their participation. Classic.
As I mentioned, there aren’t too many gringos who visit Tacuarembó on a regular basis, and as a result I drew some attention in the city. I took part in a live interview on Radio Tacuarembó and was also featured in the local weekly newspaper – El Batoví.
Now before you write this off as a rinky-dink radio show and an article from The Shopper, believe me when I tell you that Tacuaremboenses share a strong sense of pride for their community. The vast majority of people whom I met in Tacuarembó love Tacuarembó to an extent to which I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced in cities elsewhere, and it was really cool to see. Evidence of this sentiment can be seen in the multi-sport gymnasium and swimming pool, which was recently constructed following decades of fundraising among community members.
The strongest sense of pertenecía (belonging) that I experienced came through a visit to Tambores, a village of roughly a thousand people on the department’s western border with Paysandú. The origin of the town’s name – “drums” in Spanish – is said to be derived from the sound of the wind bouncing off the beautiful rolling hills and cerros surrounding the community.
It’s a humble place. There is neither a gas station, nor a supermarket. Yett many teachers choose to travel the 40 kilometers into the countryside just to teach there, and after one afternoon with the students and faculty I can understand why. Apart from the beautiful scenery, people just know how to treat one another and I had a blast working with the students, their English teachers (Virginia and Micaela), and the school’s principal (Leticia).
The kids were fascinated by American football, so after the traditional classroom lesson and question-and-answer session, we took to the field and played! I showed them the basics of throwing and catching (I was a backup quarterback in college, so I know a few things…), and then we played a few rounds of Quinientos (500) to practice using numbers in English.
The kids – who ranged in age from 11 to 16 – loved it. They quickly learned that the best way to get yourself into position is to be physical and they enjoyed roughing each other up a little bit. There were no arguments. No complaining. No whining. When they we the field, they were covered in dust, their uniforms painted with grass stains.
It’s unlikely many of these kids will ever travel outside of Uruguay, and I was told that only a handful of these kids had ever even left the department of Tacuarembó. Never the less they were fascinated by the stories I told and they told me all about their own community, without even a hint of embarrassment. We just chatted and joked around until it was time to part ways.
It became obvious to me that the people of Tambores and Tacuarembó simply wanted me to love and enjoy their communities, and they succeeded! Word got out quickly regarding my love for dulce de leche and Tacuaremboenses responded in great numbers. The gifts and treats I received are too numerous to list. Thank you so much Tacuarembó for your amazing generosity and thoughtfulness.
Muchísimas gracias a los alumnos de Liceos 2, 3 y 4 de Tacuarembó y el Liceo de Tambores, profesoras Natalia, Leticia, Virginia y Micaela, y docentes y profesores del IFD y sus familias. Fue un placer conocerles y trabajar con ustedes. Una experiencia que guardaré para siempre.
At various times during our two weeks, we discussed the idea of, “Why?” in an effort to find ways to answer students’ never ending question, “Why do I need to learn this?” More than anything, a second language enables you to learn and share life with people you couldn’t otherwise connect with, and helps us all to be a little more understanding and thoughtful.
For me, I could use my experiences in Tacuarembó or Rivera as a means for explaining why. Without Spanish, I never could have met all of these incredible people, and while our time together was short, for me the impact was significant.
A las ordenes.