THE ART OF GETTING LOST: A reflection on my first four months in Uruguay

Note: All photos were taken by or of me. Opinions expressed are my own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright Commission or any other entity

I came to Uruguay to get lost. Not to lose myself in a downward spiral like a drug addict, nor like a lone backpacker deep in the woods (adequate provisions or not). But to get lost in a sense of place, lost in a sense of time. My interest in the Southern Cone has always stemmed from a romanticized notion of its anonymity. I often tell people that the reason I chose to come here was “self-imposed exile to the Southern Cone in the manner of a fallen dictator to escape the rigors of the rat race of Yankee academia”. Or in Uruguayan terms “vivir la vida re tranqui”. The dictator analogy is perhaps more apt than you might think, not because I have sympathy towards autocracy, but rather a subconscious embrace of the mighty falling–at least temporarily.

The meritocratic life I’ve lived and the institutions I’ve been a part of can be summed up by the desire to be not just the best, but THE BEST, THE BESTER, and THE BESTEST. Coming to a country where not even the better is given much attention, where I rub shoulders with humans rather than giants, I’ve found it very difficult for people to understand, let alone encourage my sense of ambition. Heretofore, every task I’ve put myself towards has been about an ideal of achievement. And the people I’ve surrounded myself with—by chance and by choice–have reinforced this ideal in their words and in their actions. In Uruguay, work is something you do to make a living, something that is the logical conclusion of any combination of three things, your carrera in one subject of facultad, the demands of a locality given social and physical conditions, and the negocio that your family runs. Work is also something you don’t do at home, in haste, on the bus or in a café. It tends to be highly regulated by time (thanks in part to excellent labor laws). The assumption of a five-day work-week is not questioned. But when salaries are low, and pressure from any source is not part of the culture, there’s little incentive to go an extra mile in the search of achievements, abstract or concrete.

I’m used to being happy because I have triggers to my happiness that fall within the parameters of this achievement paradigm. Part of it is the adrenaline rush of modern life, particularly on a university campus. Zipping from here to there, doing lots of different things with lots of different people in one day. Class at 9, meeting at 11, lunch with an old friend at 1, office hours at 3, class at 5, rehearsal at 7, study group and 9, etc…Part of it is signals like awards, compliments and grades that are a constant reminder and feedback loop of achievement. Granted in a high risk/high reward system, there’s always room for disappointment. But fortunately I’ve tended to get the right end of the stick. However in a far more lateral society like Uruguay, there’s no stick to divide people between the achievers and the stragglers. To people here, what I’ve done matters far less than that I come across in an agreeable disposition. It’s as if the qualities and behaviour, and even manner of speaking that have earned me so many plaudits (not least among them the right to be here) are of little value or interest, or merely beyond the scale of comprehension. A slower pace of life with less attention to achievement doesn’t give me a constant ride of elation, but it does allow me to get to know people more clearly for who they are, and learn a sense of humor that values joda over sarcasm and self-deprecation.

The fact that I want to and most likely can spend several years doing whatever I please as long as I have an income stream is so alien here. As is the fact that I operate freely with no hard line between what is work and what isn’t. This is especially true with respect to the relationship between my studies and my future. In Uruguay because the one public university (with the vast majority of students) is divided into Facultades by subject scattered across Montevideo rather than having one central campus, the idea of LIBERAL ARTS is even more foreign than in Europe where at least different academic departments exist in close physical proximity. Seen in light of Mark Lilla’s June 23rd essay in The Nation, Uruguay hasn’t reached this stage of libertine libertarianism yet when it comes to academic and professional choice.

Despite a number of professors who have been helpful resources, both in listening to their classes and meeting privately, I’ve felt no natural slot to fit what is fundamentally an interdisciplinary project into the subject based balkanization of the university system. Even at UdelaR I’ve noticed this same ambivalence to credentials. For those professors that do respond to e-mails and answer my questions after their classes, there’s most often been a yeah sure, go ahead and listen to the class attitude, rather than any extra interest about a Chicago grad excited to do research in and for the benefit of Uruguay. If professors and students are familiar with The University of Chicago (and I can’t recall talking to anyone here who has explicitly told me they are) the neoliberal connotations associated with the economics department likely far outweigh the university’s overall scholarly reputation. And in an academic environment that’s very closely associated with leftist politics and unionism (never once saw a student at one of the public facultades brave enough to put a Blanco or Colorado sticker on their maté thermos), this may bring an air of scepticism. Ultimately, this bothers me only for the fact that bright, young Uruguayans have so few chances for interdisciplinary and international learning. For me personally, and my project here, I’ve been in the ivoryest tower there is for four years, and am still needing detox from academia, so getting out into the campo and working far away from a university setting I find to be liberating.

These differences in occupational and academic culture have led to some difficulties, or at least misunderstood exchanges. For example when I tell people I’m a researcher “investigador” (a common enough response in the US), I often get blank stares, or mix-up with police activities. The fact that I’m not in any carrera at the moment makes it even harder to explain. Tired of this, I’ve recently started telling more and more people that I’m here on exchange “intercambio”. But this also has its confusion, evidenced when multiple people subsequently ask, “So that means there’s a Uruguayan staying with your family in the US right now?” Age is another theme that can be hard for people to comprehend for similar reasons. In a country where free university degrees mean no urgency to finish in n years, where there is little pressure to move away from one’s parents or hometown, and thus little fine line between youth and adulthood, my age and my life trajectory can appear incongruous to Uruguayans. Conversations I’ve had on this topic can be summed up, “Yes, your face looks 22, but how the fuck is that possible given everything you’ve just told me you’ve done in your life, and the way you don’t act like a jerk the same way practically all 22-year old males here do?” Similarly, the reason for my project requires extra explanation. “No, I’m not a train enthusiast. I don’t know the first thing about a locomotive. I believe in the power of public transport, nomas, and want to do something about it in Uruguay”. This urbanist/activist/scholar mix just doesn’t seem to be in the culture, at least in the interior.

With respect to America and Europe’s social issues du jour, gay marriage and marijuana, at least the current Uruguayan government is aware of these freer attitudes and starting to institute policy, despite the fact that it will take years for culture to catch up. Here, culture tends to follow policy rather than policy following culture as in the US. There’s very little in the way of special interest groups campaigning and protesting, or single-issue voters. Rather it’s an affiliation to a party, or faction of a party that matters. In the Frente Amplio these factions tend to be strands of leftist thought ranging from straight-up Leninism to trade unionism to centrist social democracy. For the traditional parties, it is more likely to be listas—Batllistas, Herreristas, Wilsonistas and Saravistas–with an affinity for a major Uruguayan historical figure. That is to say ideology and myth surrounding historical figures drives political narrative and peoples’ opinions rather than commitment to taking a stand on issues. Imagine today’s Republican Party having a rift between Lincolnists, Teddyists and Nixonists and you start to get the picture of the Uruguayan political landscape.

I didn’t come to write a thesis, nor did I come to party. A bit of both, but more a bit of neither. Thesis and party has been the consistent narrative of my life the last five years. Not entirely literally, but at least in the sense of a constant—and in my opinion, healthy–balance between focused study and different manners of socializing. Coming here was about entering some kind of rhythm that would interrupt at least the pace of this narrative. Not that I knew what that rhythm was like, but I knew I wanted it. To the best of my understanding, the context of my grant here is rather unusual, First off, with respect to my age, second in the fact that I’m not a currently enrolled student at any institution, and third, that my ambition to come here was always about an intermediary step between undergrad and future work/grad school rather than seeking an end to any pre-existing project.

I arrived here without knowing anybody, without ever taking a class or doing any formal research on Uruguay. I’ve simply been really damn interested in this country for a long time and wanted to get to know it! My intention was never to become a Uruguayanist, let alone a Southern Cone-ist in an academic or professional sense. Despite this lack of specialization, I would feel comfortable and love to teach a class on Uruguay as a grad student or professor even if my area of research is in the least bit connected to Ruta 7. Furthermore if I do go on and specialize in geographic areas other than the Southern Cone, and thematic areas other than transport and secondary education, my time in Uruguay is incredibly valuable in context. Thus while I intend to co-produce a monograph on the rail history of towns along Ruta 7 with Marcos Hernandez, my objective here is not a thesis in itself, but a chance to experiment platforms for future work, academic and otherwise. The ferrocarril is the lens through which I see the country, but a lens that I’m using to obtain a wide a vision as possible.

Things have not gone entirely smoothly here, some of which is my own fault and some of which is the reality of environment in which I’ve chosen to go to. The research side of things has come along slowly in part because there’s little tangible motivation in the way of institutional requirements, but more so because of the difficulties of finding a stable living situation here in the Interior. As far as learning, soaking up as much information as possible, saying “si, por qué no” to everything legal and within reason, meeting all kinds of people and taking copious notes, things are going swimmingly. I’ve done very little in June and July with respect to the ferrocarril–mostly because I don’t want to delve seriously into something when I don’t have a routine and stable housing situation to plan ahead for–yet it seems I have taken notes on enough general material on my impressions of the country that I could write a travel book. After nearly a month of difficulties finding housing in Tupambaé (1,100 people), I found a room in a house to rent that served me hardly three weeks until the owner (who at least three people have subsequently confirmed to me is serious need of psychiatric help) told me to pack up and leave because her doctor told her to move away for the winter. The last two weeks of July, I’ve moved to Cerro Chato (3,000 people, and 45 minutes from Tupambaé), where I’ve had better support from people, and have been given a place to live for free thanks to the local parish. After two weeks living here in Cerro Chato, I’ve found it a healthier place to be than Tupambaé, for these reasons, for more amenities, and for the ability to do things like playing handball and soccer at the local gymnasium (an asset Tupambaé lacks) as a physical and social outlet.

In the last year, I went through my time at BaumanLyons constantly brainstorming about how my work with this great group of architects would carry over to my time in Uruguay. The examples I researched and the architects I interviewed inspired me to try my hand at adaptive re-use with an abandoned rural train station here in Uruguay. Having spent the previous four years studying and living in world of theory, working with practicing architects made me hungrier more than anything to practice. To take a theoretical knowledge of how adaptive re-use works, of the history of the railway network here, and turn a lost physical asset into something useful for a forgotten town. And this is what I set out to do my first two months here. I met with people in Montevideo that could give me advice on how and where such a project could be carried out. Meetings with architects, sociologists, politicians, photographers, and rail enthusiasts, attending classes at various faculties at UdelaR, and visits to different parts of the interior led me to come here to Ruta 7 and Tupambaé to work on a project involving the station starting the beginning of June.

Since then, I’ve encountered a number of obstacles that have derailed (no pun intended) my adaptive re-use ambitions. First, the uncertainty of my housing situation in June made me reluctant to make any long-term commitments. In a place where property passes from family to family and where new, let alone foreign, faces are extremely rare, people are not accustomed to have guests, short or long term. My demands for something furnished, given that I’ve brought with me from the US “ropa y nada mas” didn’t help either. Second, in Tupambaé I’ve sensed a general air of apathy and indifference, especially to me being an outsider. Whether people suspect a hidden agenda or not is largely beside the point, but when I’ve discussed the idea of doing some kind of work on the station with locals, the reaction tends to be nodded heads rather than any enthusiasm, concrete advice and consensus building. One of my colleagues at the liceo described this attitude to me in a saying “mejor malo conocido que bueno por conocer”, the essence of which is something like “better a bad, old friend than a good, new one”. If I’m going to set out to achieve something for the benefit of others, I want people to give a damn. And with the station, few if any damns were given.

Third, the physical constraints of the project site combined with limited resources continually stripped down the scope of my ideas until what I saw as achievable was an intergenerational garden in the railway bed in front of the station. Frankly, while I think it’s a fantastic idea that would answer many of the problems in Tupambaé (which is 5 hours from Montevideo and 1.5 hours from Melo the departmental capital of 50,000 people), I haven’t the slightest expertise in gardening, nor is it anywhere near the top of my list of hobbies. Wanting to do something helpful and new, but also something I’m capable at has drawn be away from this ambition for the time being. Lastly, actually achieving something in this case would require multiple bureaucracy hurdles, and inciting the willing cooperation of multiple actors. After hearing about many of the long-standing political (Cerro Largo has a blanco controlled Intendencia, but all ministry representatives are frentista) and personal (the non-profit TupambaéPLAN has achieved a lot in the town, but many residents feel undermined by their activities) grudges, I became hesitant to step on toes, and disinterested in building bridges that would easily be knocked down again. It’s great to learn something about these kind of difficulties, and with my work at the liceo, I still feel positive that my idea for an intergenerational garden could be possible in the future.

Perhaps these difficulties represent a distinctly Uruguayan fate. Uruguay is too rich to be on the international development circuit of countries used to Western intervention in architecture, public health, education, peacekeeping, etc., and too poor to have the resources that give rise to such innovations. The Switzerland of South America is a pretty misleading moniker for Uruguay but so, I find, are frequent accusations by people here that “we’re just another third world country”. Uruguay is not on the UN handout list, it doesn’t have ebola or jihadis or El Chapo Guzmán, but it also feels so far far far away from Silicon Valley, from Wall Street, from Capitol Hill, from Harvard Yard, or for an urbanist like me, from Jan Gehl’s Copenhagen, Hans Monderman’s Frisian towns, and even Peñalosa’s Bogotá or Lerner’s Curitiba. It’s as if Uruguay is part of neither sphere in which we’ve come to see a post-cold War world. It’s lost somewhere in between in an ill-defined sense of the past captured so beautifully by thick fog at any hour of the day covering Tupambaé’s abandoned railway station while I look across Ruta 7 from the liceo. Shrouded in fog. Shrouded in time. Shrouded in bureaucracy. Shrouded in ambivalence. In following with my original ambitions for coming here it’s only natural that I like it here, getting lost somewhere in an in-between land!

Following the postponement of any garden or station related activity, I’ve been basing my work out of the Liceo Rural de Tupambaé (7th to 10th grade). Being at the liceo gives me the opportunity to show the world to a great group of kids who know very little of it, and to learn from a dedicated group of teachers about the trials of public instruction, in a similar way that I learned about the triumphs and perils of the architecture profession first hand in Leeds. The director of the liceo is a respected local historian, so he and I will be teaming up to write a book about railway history in the towns along Ruta 7 between José Batlle y Ordoñez and Melo. Marcos’ interests lie in the original rise of the railways, while mine focus on the consequences of abandoning passenger and freight service along this corridor.

In a town of 1,100 people, coming to the liceo is, on one level, about grasping for straws of the social and intellectual “bestness” I’m accustomed to. The teachers are an educated bunch, and pass their free time in the staff lounge with conversations filled with passion, wit and sharpness. The gurises hold fewer prejudices than the adults in the town, and on a psychological level, it’s satisfying to me that they—for the most part—look up to me. But ultimately it’s putting myself in a situation where I can be a positive influence, where I can teach and learn simultaneously. Because the teachers come from all the nearby Ruta 7 towns, it’s the best place to get to know the area. Working out of a high school rather than a university or a more traditional academic setting has been great for social and cultural adjustment, because not only am I dealing with people from a different country, but from two generations that aren’t my own. It provides me a chance to see how people here interact in groups and to be a part of something rather than simply a researcher out acting on my own.

A further benefit of being at the liceo, talking with the kids in class, and on the soccer field, and with the teachers in the lounge and our daily lunches at Lo de Marenco is an acceleration of language acquisition that I wasn’t quite feeling while living in Montevideo. It’s a lot easier to communicate with academic/professional types in the capital (mostly but not entirely people who know a bit of English) on topics I’m familiar with, but comprehension and speaking with people not used to non-native speakers initially put me a step back here in the Interior. It’s little things like not knowing words that enrich an argument, using sentence structures that lessen my credibility, or not picking up on cues of whether something was serious or humorous. Since starting at the liceo, I’ve been more satisfied that I’m building up my language skills, especially of the colloquial variety, which was another motivation for coming here.

At the liceo I’m collaborating with teachers in a range of subjects on projects that fit into the existing curricula and also give me valuable data for my own research on Uruguay and the local area. Designed to last through the beginning of October, these projects give me a good few months to work hands-on with locals and to thence finish my time in Uruguay putting my findings into presentable/publishable form. After next week, when the pruebas semestrales are finished, I’ll start with the 7th graders and 8th graders, getting the former to learn how to do oral history, working with them to interview friends and family members about their how their lives have changed in the last 25 years with the closure of the railways and the rise of forestation. With the latter, I’ll be leading a geography project about Tupambaé mapping the town and getting them to understand the depth of local resources. With the informatica teacher, Miguel, both classes will take that information and present it in programs they are learning, for the 7th graders this will be power point and the 8th graders, Excel.

With the 9th graders, I’ve started a project I designed to fit with their history, civics, and geography classes that resembles a Model United Nations, except that it’s all small countries like Uruguay. The history teacher and I have decided to call it Proyecto Paisitos, wherein each student gets to study a different country over the next two and a half months and compare it to Uruguay, working on assignments from maps, to presentations to proposals for intercambio. I’ve noticed that Uruguayans have a fair bit of understanding about countries like USA, Brazil, and Spain, because they share existing economic, political and social connections. Yet to my mind, it’s an understanding of similar countries rather than more powerful ones that Uruguay could benefit most from. If you’ve paid attention at all to the local reaction to Luis Suarez’s suspension, it’s framed entirely as Uruguay against the world, as if “there are only giants towering over us out to get us”.

Thus getting these 20 or so gurises to see that the rest of the world is made of more than giants, of more than my country and their country will help to expand their worldview, while also giving them useful research techniques. Since this is a project with qualitative evaluations rather than notas on a scale of 1-12, it gives me a chance to work with each of the students individually and in small groups directing them towards themes that interest them and that they wouldn’t get to explore in a large classroom setting with the pressure of grades, and where there aren’t enough teachers and specialists for individual attention. Thus for example, my student whose goal is to become a nurse, can work with me to compare Slovenia’s health care system to Uruguay’s. Their geography class this semester is focusing on local economic themes, so for one of their presentations, they will have the opportunity to see how issues affecting Ruta 7 (mining and forestation) have been dealt with in other countries. While a bit distant from my work on the ferrocarril, I’m looking forward to sharing the findings of the students and putting them in a platform that could be taken seriously. With each country and each student’s proposal as a case study, I see this as something useful for people involved in international exchange from an economic, political and educational perspective.

My work at the liceo will usually take 3 days of the week. Most days that I don’t go to the liceo, I will be working with a local historian in Cerro Chato, Dwight “Ike” Lago. Ike has a study in his house full of books about the area, and is a fount of local knowledge. This provides me with a good place to read and write without the distractions of the liceo. Ike will also help in directing me in whom to interview, what questions are most work asking, what sources to consult, and simply brainstorming. When not working in his study, I will be conducting interviews (to complement the ones I’m helping the students at the liceo with) with residents of Cerro Chato and other towns along Ruta 7 about how life is different in a post-train era, as well as make use of newspaper archives in Melo with the help of Marcos. Since the liceo in Cerro Chato includes quinto and sexto, and thus students with a more advanced level of English, I will also be helping students with English conversation.

As for the ultimate audience for my work, my socially conscious side says that I can’t just write an article or book and take it to the ivory tower, especially in an age like the one we’re in, where reading for pleasure is increasingly rare, and other media are likely to reach a broader swath of people. But as I said above with the garden, I don’t like the idea of intervening when my proposition is not warmly welcomed. If I’m making a difference in my own actions in the school and talking with people, why does the audience of a book matter so much when it’s daily interaction that has the strongest impact? From a careerist perspective, just getting published is a good thing regardless of whether its dozens or thousands of people reading. Starting in mid-October, while I may continue to spend some of my time working at the liceo, depending on the success of the projects and the needs of the students and teachers, my main priorities will be writing up what I’ve learned from the people of Ruta 7, applying for jobs in 2015, and collecting data on other themes that interest me. The main secondary theme that comes to mind is the history of local transport in Maldonado/Punta del Este, which gives me a more urbanist-oriented project to complement the rural-driven nature of my work in the liceo and on the ferrocarril. This will involve spending a couple weeks there in October or November interviewing local politicians, planners and citizens, and searching whatever archival materials exist about how transit policies have (or haven’t) addressed the extreme population growth in the last 20 years. The likely form for this research is an article in a town planning or transport journal, and will be helpful when applying for more urban oriented jobs.

Thinking back over the last year, and the ambitions sprung by working with Irena and the BaumanLyons team, really what I’ve carried over from Leeds more than anything, is the opportunity to see the work of dedicated professionals, be a part of it in an innovative way through a wide variety of activities. After leaving the ivory tower in June of 2013, I’ve been able to see the world from the eyes of English architects and from Uruguayan school teachers. In both cases, I’ve had the chance to be part of a team with people older than me, sustained by a balance of wisdom with practical jokes. Researching a book about architects and their clients and then working in a high school, gives me insight into different types of service relationships that will be invaluable if indeed go the route of consulting work. It makes me more hungry (I originally typed this sentence as “It gives me more hunger”, which shows that Spanish syntax is starting to creep into my English) to have similar experiences doing research alongside practice in other countries and in other field. Anyone hiring a documentarist’s assistant in Kazakhstan, a public health researcher in Tunisia?

Working not only outside a university, but interacting mostly with people who likely don’t know Jane Jacobs from Jane Eyre, I feel isolated from the debate on current questions in urbanism, the field I’ve long wanted and still want to go into. No daily conversations about which city has the widest-reaching bike share program, or which European country will be the first to become carbon neutral does put me at a disadvantage. However, I believe that experiences like I’m having now, outside the realm of such questions, strengthen my chances to succeed. With the liceo, it’s a chance to find out where I’m most useful, where I’m happiest, what kind of routine I want, and what kind of people I want to be around. For this, I’m thankful that the grant allows me this exploration to pursue academic interests outside an academic or traditional fieldwork setting.

So really then, como me sirve todo esa joda? The two things I want most in my professional life are research and teaching. Not only am I doing them both, I’m doing them together. It’s common for professors to use their PhD students in the service of their own research, but I know of no examples where this level of work is carried out through a high school setting. Perhaps my experiment will fail due to the limited abilities of the students, but success or not, I’m very interested in documenting and showing to the world of pedagogy how secondary education can be relevant and welcome within the confines of PhD level research, specifically as it pertains to localized fieldwork. The projects I’ve designed, especially paísitos, are a chance to introduce a curriculum that can continue for many years in Tupambaé and that can be reproduced in similar forms elsewhere according to local demands. As I mentioned earlier, coming here was always about bridging undergraduate and graduate work. My undergraduate thesis was also about a path that I became fascinated with. But unlike my work on Ruta 7, which is socially motivated and based mostly on interviews, my thesis on the Wolverhampton Ring Road was rooted in policy and documents. My objective in PhD work is to combine these two methods and experiences, adding them with more quantitative analysis for a comprehensive transnational study that can find me a future in academia through Geography, History, Urban Planning, Public Policy, Anthropology and Sociology alike, as well as a future in urbanism consulting applicable across the world.

Not necessarily in terms of development, but definitely in terms of customs, professional structure, ambivalence towards material possessions, disdain of pretension, and the relationship with history itself, Uruguay feels situated in the past. I see Montevideo as somewhere in the 1990s, and here in the Interior as somewhere in the 1970s, and it’s not entirely clear whether the march is universally forward, or if there is even a march at all. If there is it probably resembles more of a lazy stroll. I wrote a piece on perceptions of José Mujica last month, that hints at a bit of how and why; both political factions campaigning on platforms about the past, which sum up Uruguay’s status as a retrotopia. All of which amazes me, because I came here to study the past, not to live in it. While this provides a certain amount of personal frustration in the context of my achievement and freedom oriented existence, it may be the greatest gift a young historian can receive, and for that I’m glad I’m out of my temporal comfort zone. The challenge, as always, is putting such observations into context, which ojalá I’ll darn well do over my remaining five months here!


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