Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's the 29th, so lets eat Gnocchis

It is tradition in this part of South America to eat Gnocchis (en Espanola noqui) on the 29th of each month. For future prosperity, it is custom to leave money underneath your plate as you eat. After eating, you carry that money with you, not to be spent. Our waiter also advised us that it was lucky to instead leave the money on the table for him, though I think perhaps he made that up.

There are two theories why gnocchis are eaten on the 29th. One is that it is right before the end of the month and gnocchis are cheap soul food to sustain you until payday. The other is that the 29th is the feast day of Saint Pantaleon, who performed a miracle by blessing poor farmers who shared their meal of bread with him.

Per Wikipedia, "In a curious reversal of meaning, in Argentine and Uruguayan slang ñoqui has also become a way to denote a government employee that is listed in the payroll but only shows up to collect his or her paycheck around the 29th of each month."

We celebrated the 29th by enjoying an excellent meal at La Spaghetteria 23. La Spaghetteria is an excellent Italian restaurant located near our hotel. Sauces and pasta are ordered separately. All the pasta and sauce is made in house and is extremely fresh. I counted over 50 types of sauce and there were several more off menu as specials. The meal started off with excellent fresh fruit smoothy champagne drinks on the house. I had tri-color gnocchis with a spicy arrabiata sauce. It was so nice to get something spicy as generally the food in Uruguay has very little spice (surprise, not like Mexico). Laura had gnocchis with a prosciutto sauce heavy on the cream and fresh basil. Trusha had the gnocchis with the same arrabiata sauce I had. Paired with an excellent local cabernet and an apple flan for dessert. Total cost, $25 each, including tip and bread charge.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Montevideo Street Markets

As in many South American cities, the weekend action is at the street markets. Here a mix of locals and a few tourists mingle over the wide variety of merchandise for sale. Here you can find everything from a new set of undies (in many many colors) to handmade lamps to a new hammer. The hundreds of vegetable stands are a testament to why people are skinny here. What I would give to just have one of those vegetable and fruit booths in Columbus! This is where the locals do their shopping and the prices are very low. The streets are shut down and crammed with hundreds of booths in a chaotic order that perhaps makes sense to a Uruguayan. There are two markets I have graced with my presence:

Feria de Tristan Narvaja

This is the mother of all street markets. It covers 30 square blocks of narrow, tree lined streets. The entire market is set up every Sunday morning and it is completely gone by late afternoon. The focus of the market is on useful things that you use in your household and it is more for the local than the tourist. Some of my favorite vendors included:

- A mobile pet store with hundreds of colorful birds for sale, ducks, rabbits, dogs, and cats. Perhaps some were intended for a relaxed weekend meal.
- A belt store with thousands of varieties of belts. They can customize on the spot, changing the sizes of the belts, changing buckles, adding holes. Average price for a nice belt is about $7.
- The sponge store with piles of sponges in the street, both natural sponges and the yellow kind with an abrasive green backing.
- Multiple book stores with interesting old books on things like vacationing in Argentina and poetry.
- Fruit, fruit, fruit everywhere. It all looked so good and the colors were beautiful. We bought peaches that were so juicy they exploded like water balloons.

photo courtesy of Laura B.

photo courtesy of Laura B.

The side streets contain the flea market areas where anyone can throw down a blanket and sell whatever happened to be sitting around. It was a collectors dream and the prices were so low that everything was tempting. Who doesn’t want to start an old camera collection? Or have an entire collection of Brazilian love song records?

Feria de Biarritz

This market is a little better organized, set up along the paths of a large park a few blocks from my hotel. Feria de Biarritz is held each Saturday morning and the wares offered can be grouped into three categories. There is the food area with fish vendors, cheese trucks (queso), meats (carne), and lots of fruits and vegetables. There is a clothing area with hundreds of vendors selling everything from bathing suits to leather jackets. Finally, there are random artists scattered around the edges selling homemade jewelry, pen drawings, and other assorted stuff. My favorite was a large metal sign with a metallica logo. I really wanted to see who might buy it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rojo Bicicleta

I have made my first large purchase here in Uruguay, a shiny new bicycle. It is bright red, has but one gear, and wide silly looking tires. It is a good solid bike though, suitable for the relatively flat terrain of Uruguay. I will mostly be using it to get around town so I do not always need to pay for a cab. It is also good exercise. Total cost was about $120, including bike pump and good lock. Bike theft is a big problem here though, so hopefully I will be able to keep it relatively unscathed during the next two months I am here.

I have taken the bike for some rides along the Rambla this weekend and it has been spectacular. There is a bike path all along the coast, passing beaches, lighthouses, restaurants, and condominiums. With spring slowly yielding to summer, this is a perfect time of the year for a nice ride along the water.

photos courtesy of Laura B.

The Rio Uruguay Runs Through It

The waves hitting the shore of the river today are gentler and better organized than yesterday. Yesterday a storm threatened Montevideo, coming from the hated, respected, and jealously watched Argentina. Yesterday, the waves crashed against the shore, throwing up huge walls of white, churning foam. The large black rocks scattered in the water add to the excitement and at times can barely be seen due to the turmoil engulfing them. My days are tied to the river, it being the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night.

The horizon neatly bisects the view out of my window. The bottom painted with the stacked concrete buildings, constant car alarms, wandering dogs, laughing taxi drivers, and excitement of a city that does not seem to find time to sleep. Higher up, near the river are the soccer and rugby fields, scattered with amateur players all times of the day and night. They wear bright uniforms and are quite good. Sometimes I wander down to sit and watch them. There are always people watching, usually sharing mate with a group of friends. A thin line of black rocks and smashing waves separates the fields from the river.

The river color changes based on the sky and the flow of the water coming all the way from the flatland cattle country of the interior of Uruguay, the mountainous forested hidden Paraguay, and the beautiful hard worked land of Brazil. The Uruguayans have not yet completely forgiven Brazil for the cross border wars that ended in 1825. The river water is brown from the silt carried hundreds of miles downstream. Far out in the river on some days you can see the blue water of the Atlantic Ocean, which I guess makes periodic incursions up the river. The line preventing the sea from reaching up to the sky is patrolled day and night by huge freighter ships moving up and down the river. They are too far out to see much detail, but I can see that they are huge and their lights move slowly across the horizon each night. Above the sea / sky line are the constant rolling white clouds and the beautiful bright blue sky on most days. The eastern orientation of my hotel room affords me sunrise views each morning. Those on the other side of the hotel are graced with a view of the beautiful red sunset.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bodega Bouza and El Mercado de Puerta

Something you may not know is that Uruguayan wine is very high quality and is excellent. Most of the available varieties are familiar, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet. The local favorite is a grape called the Tannat, a rare find just about anywhere but Uruguay. In Uruguay it is the beloved local vine that flourishes in this climate and produces a dark red, strong wine that pairs well with steak, the other local delicacy. Tannat can be purchased standing on its own or part of a blend with pinot noir or merlot. I really enjoy dry, red wines, and tannat is a new favorite. A good bottle of wine can be purchased for $5 in the grocery store or about $9 in a restaurant. A decent sipper can be had for as low as $2.

Over the weekend we decided to visit Bodega Bouza, a winery just outside of Montevideo. A fast 20 minute taxi ride out of the city, past fields full of cows and tin shacks, dazzled by the bright sunlight and vivid blue sky, and we there pulling up the long driveway surrounded by grape vines with their new spring growth.

The winery was originally established in 1942 though it subsequently was turned into a cattle farms and then abandoned. The Bouza family purchased the farm in 2002 and renovated the buildings, planted vines, and started turning out excellent wine. The focus of the winery is on quality, with smaller production quantities than you might see at some of the more industrial vineyards here. The production building was beautiful, with thick stone walls and a deep cool wine cellar. Great pride clearly went into the restoration of the winery. A restaurant is on site housed in a former stone barn. There is an impressive menu featuring steak of course and a nice smoky wood smell in the air. An on site vegetable garden provides some of the ingredients.

As we finished our personal tour at noon, it was way too early for lunch. Usually lunch does not start until 2 or 3 pm here, especially on the weekend. We opted for the three wine tasting with a plate of cheese. We sat on the patio overlooking the vineyard and took advantage of the perfect, spring weather. Our tasting included an oaked Chardonnay, a Tannat-Termpranillo combination, and the special Monte Vide Eu which is not usually included in the tasting as it is a $70 wine (a small fortune here). The Monte Vide Eu is a Tannat-Merlot-Tempranillo blend that may have been the best wine I have ever tasted. I loved it.

The wine is named after one of the two stories on how Montevideo was named. This story is based on merging several Spanish words and abbreviations. Monte (mountain) VI (roman numeral 6) de (west) eu (east). In other words, six mountains from west to east, which actually is accurate. Any records that may have existed to confirm or deny this story have long since disappeared.

After Bouza, we decided to grab lunch at the Mercado de Puerta (market at the port). This is a huge building with a high ceiling that encloses many food stalls (at least 30). Each of the stalls has a full wood grill groaning under the weight of a huge variety of sausages, steaks, vegetables, and even a little fish. The air is smoky and smells delicious. It is the top tourist attraction in Montevideo and I did unfortunately run into a number of Americanos. I was getting used to having the city to myself. We had a great lunch there and then waddled the three miles back to the hotel.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Second week at Clausen - Workin Hard - Trusha's Birthday

I have now completed my second week of work at Clausen. I am feeling good about what I have accomplished to date, but am worried about having my project completed in time. I have nine more weeks to finish a huge amount of work and to not only come up with solutions to many problems, but also to create documentation and implementation plans.
Sunrise over Montevideo, Uruguay

As I have had to tell a couple people, I am not here on vacation. This is hard work! I am working 10 hour days and maintaining a very high level of focus. At the same time I am trying to remember that an important part of this trip is to pass on knowledge and experience I have to other people at Clausen. Many employees want to talk to me to practice their English and to understand what my life is like at home. They are very good people and this is one of my favorite parts of each day.

I started this week with a presentation to the top management of Clausen. I covered the work that I had already done, some initial thoughts, and a proposal for how I will spend the remaining ten weeks. The proposal went over very well and it is clear that I will be actively supported.

The EY CR Fellows discussing our projects and ideas on how to proceed in the Executive Lounge at the Sheraton. The only complementary items are water (gas or no gas) and mellon balls on a stick.

I am following a fairly standard way of identifying where the issues are by conducting individual, confidential interviews with employees from all over the company. I have completed about 20 interviews so far and have six remaining. The interviews are intense and I can only complete a few each day so I can maintain my disposition. It is so important that I can remain neutral and calm throughout the process. I am good at this, but it can be challenging to have problem after problem put upon my shoulders. This is what I volunteered for though, and it has been so interesting. It is amazing how many people can be talking about the same problem and not realize it. My job is to draw those links and propose some solutions.

I had the great fortune this week of being led on tours of the Clausen manufacturing plants. The intense focus on high quality, extremely cleanliness, and standardized procedures makes for an unusual tour. A pharmaceutical manufacturer is so different from the manufacturers of chemicals, bus doors, ketchup, and rail cars that I have seen in the past. It was very interesting and will help me to understand the manufacturing process for my project.

In the plant you need to wear protective clothing both to keep the product clean and to keep the workers safe and isolated from the active ingredients.

Overall, I am still in high spirits. I am having fun in Montevideo and I am being treated so well by the people I work with. They inspire me and make me want to work harder for them. Eleven weeks is a long time to be away from home and the familiar, but this challenge is still keeping me excited and focused. Keeping the weekends busy with activities and new experiences is important. I am told at the four week point that keeping up this enthusiasm gets harder, and I will be keeping an eye out for that. Having ready access to friends, family, and co-workers through email, chat, and VOIP makes me feel still connected. I love the supportive emails I am getting from people who are reading my blog. Now if only I could find a way to still watch the Steelers pound the Browns…..

Enjoying dinner at the Restaurant Tandory. The chef took pity on us and made us a wonderful dinner of vegan indian food. It was a fantastic dinner and we left so full. We enjoyed a very nice Uruguayan white wine with dinner (sauvignon blanc?).

Happy Birthday to Trusha! We were happy to celebrate her Birthday with her even though she did not tell us until is was too late to buy her a gift. I hope you enjoyed the nice Indian meal (with some hot sauce).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Colonia del Sacramento

Over the weekend we visited Colonia del Sacramento, one of the best preserved historical areas in South America. It is one of the original landing areas for the Spanish and Portuguese settlers and served as an important port area. Today it is relaxed and quiet, visited mostly by tourists. Colonia is across the Uruguay Platte (river) from Buenos Aires, and you can see the tall buildings on a clear day from the light house. The light house (en Espanola: faro) stands above everything else in the town and is the central landmark.

The town is characterized by plazas ringed by long straight streets lined with very old trees. There are buildings that date to the 1600’s which were clearly aged and quite beautiful. A large stone wall that used to protect the colony is still partially standing. The food and wine are good and the pace is slow. There are beautiful art galleries and little shops selling cheap tourist knick knacks. We didn’t have time to visit many of the small museums, though we did enjoy a little two room display of tiles imported from Europe around 1840. I will let the pictures tell the story.

Colonia is slightly over two hours from Montevideo and buses are readily available. A round trip bus ticket can be purchased for the princely sum of just $15. The bus was comfortable and just as modern as anything you would find in the US. Something that was different is that anyone could stand by the side of the road and flag down the bus for a ride to the next town or all the way to the final destination. The journey was nice because it was my first opportunity to see the Uruguayan countryside. This is a green, flat country full of cows, sheep, and tin shacks. It is beautiful in its own right.