Sunday, December 4, 2011

Desde el Monte... The Culture

Previous installations of Desde el Monte...


There are so many interesting facets to Uruguayan culture. I did not learn them all and I do not remember much of what I learned, but let me share a few memories with you.

We were blessed that one of the missionaries living and working with the church in Montevideo, Dan Coker, used to be a professor of Cultural Anthropology before he became a missionary. Our group would begin our day at the church building with a lesson in Uruguayan culture. Dan had put together folders (I still have it but cannot find mine) full of information for us. He taught us things that were culturally interesting and also things that would keep us from getting into sticky situations out in public. For instance, we learned to greet people by kissing them on both cheeks (very European). This took some of the guys in our group by surprise, but they adjusted quickly. I also learned that silently communicating with someone across a big group was going to get harder because the hand sign for "okay" and the "thumbs up" were not acceptable gestures in this society. That means we all smiled and nodded quite a bit.

Dan Coker teaching our Cultural Anthropology class

I have to admit that we upset Dan a little bit. We were a very excited group of young people. We stayed up late at night and probably had plenty of adrenaline running through our bodies with all of these new experiences. That means we had adrenaline crashes and were very groggy in the mornings - not necessarily bright eyed and bushy tailed for our classroom experience. Didn't I mention before that I was writing poetry as a strategy for staying awake? After a few of us nodded off in class, Dan yelled at us (I'm pretty sure Dan is the kind of man that can make a person of any age feel like they are going to be sent to the Principal's office) and told us that we did not have to continue these classes if they were that boring. After many assurances that we were interested and begging him to continue, he grudgingly agreed to keep going. 

One more special thing about Dan Coker is that he was the person who let me know that I had a new nephew. Caden David Shaw (my brother's son) was born on May 13, 1998. My Mama called the church in Montevideo to let them know and Dan conveyed that blessed information to me in class the next morning. I yelped and clapped and squirmed in my seat during the rest of the lesson. Happy happy happy! Cade makes me very happy still!


In addition to classroom teaching about Uruguayan culture, Dan arranged for us to have some cultural experiences. The young people of the church threw a party for us one night and gave us several examples of things they liked about their country. 

Standing for the National Anthem

We stood as the Uruguayan flag was displayed and the National Anthem of Uruguay was sung. This song is very long. Even the "short version" is long. The first word of the anthem is "Orientales". Whenever I think of the world "oriental", I think of the Far East. I learned in Montevideo that "Orientales" means people from the East, but not necessarily the Far East. I cannot remember if the Uruguayans considered themselves Orientales because their country was on the east side of South America or because their ancestors came from Europe (which is east of Uruguay). Either way, they like a good, long march to sing to and this song fits the bill.

While a gentleman they had invited sang some Tango songs for us, the young people from the church went and got made up for their next number. They came out with brightly painted faces and sang us some Carnival songs. Carnival is akin to what we call Mardi Gras. It is a big party that happens before the beginning of Lent. Even though Uruguay is a fairly atheist country, they don't see a reason to pass up a great party, so they celebrate Carnival too. 

Singing Carnival songs

Finally the music led into a fast-paced song that they used to start a Conga line. The Conga line was their way of leading us out onto the porch for dinner. 

Conga line leading out to dinner

I was committed to participating in is as much of the culture as I could. So after dancing in the Conga line, while everyone was standing in line waiting to eat goat burgers (more about goat in a bit), Meg Rama and I ran off and found the Carnival makeup. 

Meg and I in Carnival makeup

The young people from the church seemed amused but also confused that I would go smear Carnival makeup on my face. They said, "if you want to wear Carnival makeup, why not just come back in February for the real thing?". Through an interpreter, I tried to explain that by the next February I would hopefully be working hard to make a living and pay off tons of student loans. You have to take your chance to wear Carnival makeup when it presents itself. 


Another experience we had with the culture around us was a surprise event. One night after we had spent time with members of another church, we were told we needed to catch a bus for the other side of town. We thought the night was coming to a close, but evidently not. The group leaders would not tell us where we were going (they loved doing that), but led us on a walking/riding jaunt to a part of town we had not been in yet. We ended up at a club called Tangueria Vieja Luna for a show called La Noche Tipica Uruguaya (A Tipical [their spelling] Uruguayan Night). This was a fascinating. It was over all too quickly for me.

We sat at long tables surrounding a dance floor. The performers first showed us several examples of the Tango, a  beautiful dance. I was enthralled watching them. This must have showed on my face, because when the time came for the Tango performers to invite audience members to the floor to dance, one of the gentlemen asked me to join him. I was SO grateful that I had taken "Folk, Social, and Western Dancing" as a PE class when I was in Junior College. Knowing how to be led served me well out on that dance floor. My partner even dipped me back low and I did not falter. I was not ready for that dance to end.

The gentleman who asked me to dance

Next up were the Gauchos (cowboys). Outside of the Montevideo, most of Uruguay is rural ranching land. It has been that way for most of the country's history. Just as cowboys here in Texas have developed their own culture, so have the Gauchos of Uruguay. The Gauchos displayed amazing skilled with the bolas. They performed several dance and drumming demonstrations. Gauchos (the pants) have become of fashion faux pas here in the States, but on these men, they looked awesome. If one of these men had asked me to ride off into the sunset with him, I might have said yes. I think I have a soft spot for cowboys, even ones who don't speak my language.

Gaucho displaying skill with bolas

The last group to show off some unique culture were the Candombe dancers. Candombe is a fusion of African and local culture. The music is mainly drums and the costumes are colorful. Totally fascinating.

Candombe dancer

Once again, I was asked to dance at the end of the performance. I could have danced with these people all night. There were so much fun and I thoroughly enjoyed learning new dances. I'm not sure that dancing would have been sanctioned by our Church of Christ sponsors, but our group leaders seemed to think that when in Rome...

My last dance partner of the night


Now a word about goat. I ate a lot of goat in Uruguay. I ate goat chivitos, goat empanadas, and goat milanesa. Most often, the meat was tough and bland. It seems that for some reason, Uruguayans don't use much in the way of seasonings. We never saw salt or black pepper on the tables in restaurants (sometimes you would see ground white pepper). It would seem that a culture developed by Spaniards and Italians would have amazing, seasoned food, but that was not my experience. Bland food. Tough goat. If you ever serve me dinner, please - I'm begging you - do not serve me goat. Unless that is all you have, in which case I will smile, nod, and chew. 


Tune in again next Sunday for another installment of Desde el Monte... (from the mountain).


  1. "You have to take your chance to wear Carnival makeup when it presents itself."

    You said a whole lot, right there, Carolyn. I'm going to be thinking of that all day.

  2. Sheila, I write things like that and it all of the sudden hits me - He has been giving me amazing opportunities all along. I just need to put aside the fear of what other people think and take the opportunity, whether it is putting on Carnival makeup or something much bigger. Also, I want to clarify with you that although my experience in Uruguay plays a small part, it is by no means the only reason that I voted "no" on you not getting goats. I'll have to tell you the rest of it in person sometime.

  3. I would love that, Carolyn! I visited some neighborhood goats when I was out caroling with our church last night.

    They were behind a fence, so it was good.

  4. So in summary: dancing yes, goats no (unless they're in trees, of course). Way to join in!

  5. Dave, yes, goats in trees make me laugh, but only because all of the other bad history with goats. But dancing (the Tango especially!) and Carnival makeup are great! Joining in when people are trying to show you hospitality, as well. Breaks down barriers...even the goat barriers. ;)


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