Letters from Bob


 

 Greetings from South America:

My friend Kent and I are three weeks into our latest international adventure. This time we are touring the Mercosur Common Market countries of South America. So far, we have visited several cities and
resort areas in Brazil, the largest, and Uruguay, the smallest nation in SA. I am sending you this
 "e-card" in place of a more traditional postcard. This way I can hit a few highlights while they are still fresh in my mind.

Although these two countries share a border, we have found more differences than similarities between the two. If you think of these as backward, struggling Third World countries, you are half right.
Uruguay qualifies, particularly Montevideo, the capital with its dirty streets and broken sidewalks,
old buses and a waste disposal system that relies upon horse-drawn wooden carts for pickup of recycled plastic grocery bags left curbside. Brazil, on the other hand is poised to join Our World with roads, sidewalks, exercise trails and buildings in good repair, late model Mercedes and Volvo buses and a waste management system that actually utilizes motorized trucks.

However, both countries have severe vehicle exhaust problems due to widespread use of diesel fuel and the absence of catalytic converters. In combination with the prevalence of cigarette smoking in
practically all public places, these are not good locations to visit if you suffer from respiratory problems.
In Brazil, Portuguese is the national language while Spanish is spoken in Uruguay. Although many words are spelled the same, the pronunciation is vastly different. For example, the Brazilian town of Morretes is pronounced Mo-heh-cheese, with the emphasis on the second syllable. This is not a language I am going to be tackling any time soon. We did find the people of both countries to be truly fascinated and
interested in English-speaking travelers. believe it or not, they want to practice their English skills
regardless of their level of proficiency. Their attraction to English begins at a young age and can lead
to some interesting attempts at communication.

For example, we were approached by a child, Duna, at an outdoor cafe in Curitiba, Brazil while her mother observed from a nearby table. This roly-poly 6-year old with one front tooth just coming in and the other about to fall out, spent 45 minutes getting to know us by trying to communicate in English,
 Portuguese & Body Language, finally, she taught us how to count in Portuguese, making sure we didn't go on to the next number until we got every sound correct.

This kind of personal interaction was common in both countries. In Uruguay, the people we met were polite but somewhat superficial without really being friendly. The Brazilians, however, have an openness and genuine interest in being helpful that is truly refreshing. We experienced instance after instance of the attitude that "my time is your time" in Brazil. It was not uncommon for a waiter in Rio de Janeiro to spend 20 or 30 minutes helping us to decipher the menu and to make sure we were ordering exactly what we wanted. Truthfully, it became humorous as he would ignore our first impulses and suggest alternatives. Then, as the order took shape, he would review the entire request each time something
new was added or changed. It was best to enter a restaurant before getting too hungry.

Another example was the private escort we got at the Porte Allegre, Brazil airport by a flight attendant who took us step-by-step from our arriving gate to the departure gate for our connecting flight. These are
caring people who went beyond their job descriptions and exceeded our expectations at every turn. Why? My assessment is that the people of Brazil place a high value on sharing (with family, friends and strangers) in a country with a rich tradition of Christianity. Money definitely takes a back seat to the
stronger principles of doing what is right to help others in a meaningful way. Coming from a country where the dollars reigns supreme and time IS money, this spirit of fellowship and oneness takes some getting used to but would be a definite improvement for the USA.

Although both nations function with a form of Government called Patronage or Clientelism where the people receive good treatment in return for their loyalty to the ruling party and leaders, the two countries
differ in the way they handle the lowest class of society. Uruguay permits begging and has a significant
homeless population while peddlers are common place in Brazil. The latter also permits squatting on public lands in what are called "favelas." Although the resulting communities look like slums by our
standards, they are actually neighborhoods of poor working people who live rent-free in small shacks
and have a strong sense of belonging with each other. There are no deeds and no property taxes as long as the favela residents do not paint their "dwellings." One such community in Rio de Janeiro, not far from an up scale beach community, houses 280,000 poor Brazilians. I must say this is an interesting
alternative to homelessness and begging. Uruguay was colonized by the Spanish and remains today
a fairly homogeneous population of Spanish descendents who, for the most part, dress in drab, loose fitting, dark clothing. In contrast, Brazil is a true melting pot. Inter-cultural and interracial marriages seem
 to be the rule here creating many exotic looks in the offspring. There seems to be a national pride of being in good shape and looking "smart" by dressing in chic clothing. This was particularly apparent in Ipanema where everyone flocks to the beach on Sunday. After taking a swim in the ocean, we saw more than "the girl from Ipanema." In fact I sounded like a broken record as I repeated: "10" - "10" - "10" - "10."
The beaches in Uruguay were more often used by retirees and well-to-do individuals from Argentina. In fact the up scale resort town of Punta del Este was almost a ghost town because we were there 3 or 4
 weeks ahead of THE season. The Argentina owners are able to use their vacation properties during the summer from mid-December to mid-February, leaving them vacant the rest of the year. We find November to be an excellent time of the year to travel in the Southern Hemisphere: no crowds, the weather is good without being too hot, off-season prices are still in effect and we get a lot of personal attention in the hotels, restaurants and shops.

As you may know, the economies of both of these countries have been plagued by inflation in recent years presumably because the central banks print too much money in an attempt to meet their IMF loan obligations. This results in a gradual devaluation of the local currencies with respect to the floating US$.
While the local citizens lose worldwide purchasing power, US travelers are rewarded with very favorable exchange rates and some excellent bargains. During the last 6 years, the Brazilian Real and the
Uruguayan Peso have been devalued by approximately one-third of their former value. Consequently,
 we were able to stay in a three-star hotel in the beach community of Joaquina in Forianopolis, Brazil for $18 per night (double). Our third-floor corner room overlooked the town square and the most spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean with a perfect diagonal view of the white-sand beach more than 10 miles long.

Of course, this price included an all-you-can-eat, healthy breakfast of local fruits, juices and fresh-baked breads plus eggs, ham, cheese and plenty of strong coffee. Needless to say, this would hold us until dinner when we had to make a choice between the plentiful Fillet Mignon or the fresh fish, both of which
were available for $3 or $4.


One of our hotels (Montevideo) did not serve breakfast, so we ventured into the local McDonalds. I went for my usual pancakes (panqueque) which looked real good in the picture. Imagine my surprise when
 I received 3 crepes with a choice of the chocolate or strawberry syrup used for sundae toppings. Actually, they were very good and a bargain at 50 cents. In Brazil, the caffeinated drink of choice is coffee which is served very hot with hot milk. However, the Uruguayans drink a tea called "mate" which contains as much caffeine as coffee. It is a tradition that has been passed down by the native South American Indians and has become a national pastime. They don't just have an occasional cup of tea,
everyone carries around a thermos of hot water and a container filled with the mate tea plus a metal tool which acts as a straw to sip the drink on one end and a strainer for the tea leaves on the other end. People walk around their mate paraphernalia at all times of day and night apparently regulating their caffeine intake to just the right level. Some even have carrying cases or mounting boards for all of this equipment. The straws have a gold tip because, as we learned, "you can share your "mate" with a friend
 without passing any germs if your straw has a gold tip." It is a sight to see!

Of course, the rule in both countries is: DON'T DRINK THE WATER. That means spending 30 cents a day for an adequate supply of mineral water. However, if you do slip up and get sick, "farmacias" are on every street corner. Contrary to the written warning statements, you DON'T need a prescription to buy medications. If you know the name of the medication, you can buy it over-the-counter with no questions asked. I priced out a couple drugs that I use regularly and found a savings of 35% to 50% compared to US prices. The ever popular Viagra is even available without a prescription although this one seems to have a fixed world price!

Well, enough rambling. I'll just conclude by saying that, as usual, we are finding our travel experience to be a real adventure, rich in both incite about foreign cultures and perspective on life in general. People are so much alike all over the world that observing the small differences provides important lessons regarding ways to improve the quality of one's own life.

Mucho gusto,

Robert
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