My friend and I arrive by bus to a small city in Uruguay’s interior. From here I want to go and explore San Gregorio de Polanco, the small town on the north shore of the Río Negro (Black River) in the very center of Uruguay. San Gregorio de Polanco is remote and it seems that the best way to get there is to rent a car.
We ask a business owner, who is stepping out in front of his printing shop to have a cigarette, if he knows where we can rent a car. He does, and tells us. However, the instructions are complicated – too complicated for my limited Spanish and my friend’s lack of familiarity with the town’s streets and landmarks. He tries one more time, speaking more slowly - but we are not getting it. He tosses down his cigarette and puts his head inside the front door of his shop and tells one of the workers he is going to be gone a little while - taking some people over to so-and-so’s car rental shop. He takes us to his mini-van parked on the street, and we are on our way.
It is fortunate that he is driving us because it is not close and it is complicated. On the way he tells us about the city. He explains that besides the ranch and farm jobs, there is a new lumber mill and wood shop that is creating a lot of new jobs – good opportunities for people whose families do not own land.
He goes on. Most people are working and making money. However, with the new prosperity, some of the young people are paying more attention to going out at night with their friends than working. And the hard truth is… that yerba mate is not the only thing some of the teenagers are drinking (alluding to alcohol without coming right out and saying it). He explains that a store window was broken a couple of weeks ago as a direct result of this kind of thing. He pauses and looks away from the road to see how we are reacting to this information.
He seems convinced that we have digested what he has said. He goes on to provide a perspective that even with some of the problems, most people are grateful and happy for the good business and new jobs.
When we arrive at the car rental, our Good Samaritan from the print shop introduces us to the owners of the car rental and then rushes back to his business. The car rental consists of an office with a glass front connected to a large garage of cars. The cars are a mismatch of makes, models, and years - with a young man washing one. My friend explains in Spanish to the man behind the desk that I want information about renting a car. Besides the man behind the desk there is another man in the office. (It is my guess that it is a family business.)
The man at the desk explains their rates and policies, which all seem fine. When I give the man at the desk my credit card, he copies my name, card number, expiration date, and the verification number on the back of my card into a large notebook that sits folded open to the page with my credit card information (as well as a dozen other people’s credit card information) on his desk.
I am a little shocked at this and ask my bilingual friend to explain to the man that I am not comfortable having my credit card information reside on a notebook page that is visible to anyone who comes into his office.
My friend explains, to which the man replies, ¿Cual es el problema?
So, what’s the problem? - translates my friend, who seems to be asking for her own interest as well as for the man. (Like many people in South America who have lived through times of currency collapses and bank freezes, my friend has no personal experience with bank accounts or credit cards.)
“Because too many people have access to my credit card information”, I say.
The two men and my friend are looking at me blankly.
So I go on to explain that the people who work on the cars, or wash the cars, or the visiting friends of the people who wash the cars all have access to my credit card information. Even other customers with a camera on their cell phone can snap a picture of your open notebook while your back is turned.
My friend and the man exchanged words and my friend interprets, “So why would someone want this information?”
“To steal. To buy things for themselves using my credit card.”
The man and my friend exchanged words in Spanish with serious looks on their faces. My friend translates, “so you think there is a person who would do such a thing as you say?"
“Yes, of course there are lots of people who would do that.”
As they realize the point I am making, both of the men in the rental car office and my friend look at me with expressions that border on disgust.
My friend and the man have another exchange and my friend translates, well if someone is going to steal, they better steal enough to live their whole life because their name will be black because of it.
I try explaining it again, but it becomes clear that everyone in the room believes I am suffering from an unreasonable paranoia. So I finally give in. I ask my friend to apologize and explain that I didn’t understand what was happening because it is different than what I am used to – but I understand they have been in business a long time and that their system has worked well for them. (Note to self: cancel credit card after the charges for this trip have been paid.)
As we drive off in the rental car for San Gregorio de Polanco, my friend tells me that I will hurt my health and attract bad things into my life if I hold such negative beliefs about people.
Both the land and the culture of Uruguay’s interior give me the feeling of going back in time. Lots of expats have expressed the same feeling and there are jokes about it. (If the world ends in 2012, it means that all of us in Uruguay only have 30 years left.) But the world goes in cycles and sometimes if a place gets far enough behind; it turns out to be ahead when the cycle comes back around.
Uruguayans do not use hormones or antibiotics for cattle - and do not fatten cattle on feed lots (they never had the money for these things) so the cattle is grass fed and disease is prevented by giving them lots of room to roam. Now Uruguay’s organic grass fed beef is in high demand and commands a good price on the world market.
South America has had its share of currency crises and economic ups and downs. As a result, most Uruguayans save up and pay cash for their homes (often living in a smaller home, to stay within their means). Banco Republica, Uruguay’s largest bank, keeps over 50% of its deposits in cash to guard against economic dips or bank runs. Both individual and institutional fiscal practices that seemed behind the times to people of North America and Western Europe are now starting to look like the future.
As I drive along the rolling pampas of Uruguay’s interior thinking about all the changes that are taking place in the world, I wonder if these people, for whom it is unthinkable to jeopardize personal honor for some unearned goodies, are so far behind the times that they are near the leading edge of the future.