First impressions from a year abroad in Uruguay

First impressions from a year abroad in Uruguay by duda_arraes

This article was written by Kia Marie Hunt from The University of Birmingham, published on 11th September 2015 and has been read 4871 times.

Kia Marie Hunt is a student of Hispanic Studies at University of Birmingham, and is spending her third year abroad at Universidad de Montevideo, Uruguay. To keep up with her adventures, check out her blog. After a month in Uruguay, Kia reflects on what she's learnt so far...

As I arrived at the beginning of August, I have now been living here in Uruguay for exactly one month, which means I officially have been away from home for longer than I ever have before! And I can certainly say that my year abroad so far has been an experience like no other.

Below is a list of updates from the first month of many, including both the good and the bad, such as things I have learnt by being a foreign exchange student, and my observations of the Uruguayan culture.

1. Mate, Mate Mate

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This most definitely has to be the first thing on my list! Before I left the UK, I read an article about Uruguayan fashion, which claimed that the Uruguayans’ favourite accessories are their mate cups. I thought this was an exaggeration. It is not.

For those of you that don’t know, mate (pronounced maté) is a traditional South American drink, made with dried yerba mate leaves and hot water, rich in caffeine, and typically served in a hollowed out calabash gourd.

I had heard of mate previously and I knew that it was a popular drink in Uruguay and Argentina, but I had underestimated just how popular. Coca Cola is popular in the USA, Tea in England, Guinness in Ireland, and Sangria in Spain; but you don’t see over 60% of people roaming the streets with their beverage of choice in hand. However, here in Uruguay it seems that locals are so addicted to their beloved mate, that they are prepared to take it with them everywhere they go. And I really mean everywhere! It doesn’t matter if you are walking through the city, in the park, or inside a shopping centre, I guarantee you will see more than one person with their cup of leaves in hand and a thermos flask full of hot water tucked under their arm.

Despite this, I regretfully must admit that I still haven’t tried it yet!

Hopefully, next time I update my blog I will be able to tell you what exactly it is about mate that makes it so damn addictive.

2. How am I still standing?!

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I feel happy but also surprised that I haven’t yet been hit by a car/fallen over/twisted my ankle. The streets here are absolute madness compared to what I’m used to England.

I suppose the first problem is that I’m still getting used to the drivers being on the wrong side of the road; it’s easier than you think to look right, think nothing is coming, step out, and nearly get run over by a bus coming from the left. Second of all, no one seems to care about lanes/crossings/traffic lights here…The light for the cars could be red, and the light for the crossing green, but cars will still turn in and nearly hit you. Third, the cobblestone pavements here are so uneven that two students already have sprained their ankles by just walking on them!

It’s going to take a lot of awareness (and balance) but fingers crossed I will still be standing by the next time I update you.

3. Either foreigners in Uruguay are very rare, or I just look like an alien.

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I’m sure we have all been told multiple times that it is rude to stare, but obviously Uruguayans never got that memo.

Everywhere I go people stare, and they stare rather intensely; it’s not like when you usually catch someone staring and they look away quickly, if you notice them here they just continue to stare you down. For a while, I was paranoid that I looked strange or had something on my face, but the rest of the international students say it happens to them too. I understand that I look quite obviously foreign being blonde and pale, and about a foot taller than any Uruguayan girl is, but it is still a strange thing to get used to. In the UK I see people that are obviously foreign all the time and I don’t bat an eyelid, it’s just normal!

I’ve come to the conclusion that foreigners must be very rare here, and that the staring is something I will just have to put up with. (Or I suppose maybe I could pretend I’m a famous celebrity and they are all staring because they can’t believe their eyes, that might make it more fun and less uncomfortable…)

4. PDAs in the park

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Something else I find strange is that people will stare at foreigners as if they are the weirdest things they have ever seen, yet to see a girl straddling a guy’s lap on a park bench and snogging him (more than passionately) is completely normal!

Honestly, the number of PDAs you see here is crazy. And I’m not being a prude, seeing people kissing is pretty normal, but sometimes I’m just taken aback by the enthusiasm that they go at it with, in broad daylight, in a busy park surrounded by families with children. Apparently, it is something to do with the fact that many Uruguayans can’t afford to move out and buy a home of their own here until they are much older. So, instead, they just kind of take their boyfriend/girlfriend to the park and get it on!

5. The Uruguayan way of life (patience is a virtue, don't you know?)

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One of the things I really like about living here is the slow pace of life. Most Uruguayans seem to be so laid back about everything; these people really know how to take it easy.

Because I am accustomed to the fast-paced city life in Birmingham, where everything is done in a hurry, I found the slow pace here a little frustrating at first. For example, eating at a restaurant in Montevideo includes a lot of time waiting for your food, which is something that makes me really hangry.

However, throughout the month, I am getting used to it, and I am really starting to like it. I feel as though I’m becoming a calmer and less impatient person, and someone that has more time to unwind and appreciate all the little things that are going on around them. There is also less cause for stress here, for instance; there’s no need to work up a sweat worrying about being late for your 9am class, when you can leave your house at 9am, stroll in late, and still make it in before the professor does!

6. I don't think I'll ever be vegetarian again

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As a vegetarian (or pescetarian, if we are going to get pedantic) perhaps I made a silly decision in coming to live in the country most famous for its beef platters, sausages, steak sandwiches, and barbecued kidneys. But, whether you call it optimistic or ignorant, I really thought I’d have the will power to keep up avoiding meat here.

However, after two weeks I had lost too much weight and I felt like I was weak and wasting away, so, on a whim, I decided to abandon my morals and just eat some cow already. I didn’t just start slowly either, I went with the mindset that if I was going to return to meat, I had to do it in style… so I ordered a huge beef steak.

The problem is, THE MEAT IS TOO DAMN GOOD HERE! I love it so much that I’ve forgotten to feel guilty about eating it, and now I don’t think I will ever be able to return to my moral high ground of vegetarianism.

Plus, I have the excuse of not wanting to be rude! A couple of weeks ago a group of us were lucky enough to get invited to a teacher’s home to enjoy a home-cooked asado; Uruguay’s national dish that basically consists of a never ending selection of meats (beef steak, roast lamb, sausages, pork ribs, you name it) cooked on the barbecue until deliciously tender… Who could say no to that?!

7. Culture shock (it's in the little things, sometimes you get down but it's worth it)

When I heard the words ‘culture shock’ I used to think they applied to people going to places like China or India: places in which the cultures are obviously and drastically different to ours in almost every way. Seeing as Uruguay is different, but not ridiculously so, I didn’t think experiencing ‘culture shock’ would happen to me.

However, as I have discovered, you don’t have to necessarily be ‘shocked’ by the differences in your new culture in order to experience culture shock. Sometimes it is more about the way the little things make you feel, and it is very unpredictable.

When I first arrived at the Universidad de Montevideo, in order to explain that we would likely experience the ups and downs of culture shock, our class was shown a graph that looked something like this.

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However, in reality, it isn’t just as simple as moving through the stages, instead, everything seems to come in random waves. Therefore, the exact same things that on some days are exciting and interesting to me, can on other days be frustrating and get me down- making me feel homesick. With culture shock it seems that some days I can feel like I’ve made a mistake, and all I want to do is go home and be surrounded by familiarity, yet on other days I feel enthusiastically cheerful and positive, and the quirks of this country make me feel happy and comforted.

Usually on the down days all I want to do is lie in bed, Skype my family, friends, or boyfriend, and have a good old cry… but that only makes it worse! I’ve found out now that it is better to go out and explore a new place and be sociable with friends, then, before I know it, the down day is over and another great day follows.

It’s a strange thing to get used to, but I’m feeling optimistic. The good days definitely outweigh the bad days by a massive majority, and because of that, going through the culture shock feels absolutely worth it ☺

8. Living somewhere long enough to see the seasons changing makes it feel like home

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As Uruguay is in the southern hemisphere, August equals winter, and when I arrived the weather was cold and stormy. Now that it is September, I am beginning to see the signs of early spring; freshly cut grass, sunny blue skies, and lots of tweeting birds.

It hit me as I was walking through a nearby park last week that I have never lived anywhere else for long enough to watch the seasons change, and that feeling it happen in my new home is a lovely and comforting, and makes me feel more at home here.

9. Being surrounded by internationals makes you appreciate Britishness

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve made so many amazing friends from across the globe by being here, and they are all great people. But, there’s definitely something about being with a group of internationals that allows you to make strong bonds with other British people.

You can lament with them about how much you miss a good cuppa or a Sunday roast, and team up with them to win (extremely important) heated debates against the Americans such as ‘cookie’ vs. ‘biscuit’ or ‘pants’ vs. ‘trousers.’ Plus, I never realised that talking to someone with a strong Brummie accent would ever bring me so much comfort!

10. Capybaras!!!

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Last but not least, I think I may have discovered my favourite animal ever here in Uruguay.

Behold, the Capybara (or Carpincho), above!

To me, they are basically the best mix of hippo/dog/pig/guinea pig, they are a little bit sassy and a little bit grumpy, they are fabulous, and they just bring me so much joy.

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