Soccer, pickpockets and a people’s president

As I mentioned in an earlier column, our only trouble in La Paz (Bolivia) was on account of a bad cook, not with conmen or pickpockets, the warnings in my travel book notwithstanding.  We were, however, to come very close to having our valuables stolen in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

As we were getting out of a subway train in Buenos Aires on a Saturday, being the last of the passengers alighting from the train, with my wife a few meters behind me, like a straggler, I suddenly heard her scream. Turning back I saw a man close behind her who she said had tried to open her backpack.  I did, indeed, find it half open.  Keeping his nerve, the pickpocket said he was trying to close it because it was open!  A good man!  Did he expect us to thank him?

Our next close call was in Montevideo the very next day, while walking to the jetty to catch a ferry back to Buenos Aires.  It was a Sunday, with most shops closed.  We were walking through a pedestrian-only street with two to three-storey buildings on both sides.  There were a few open air performances going on, including the usual street dancing, as is often the case in most cities in this part of the world.

Further on, it became quiet and deserted.  Suddenly, I heard my wife say: “Razi, waapas mudo” (Razi, turn back).  I turned back without asking why.  Not because I am one of those husbands who will always follow their wife’s directive, but because I kind of understood that she might have sensed danger ahead.  Having a suspicious bent of mind certainly helps.  Occasionally one is likely to be right.

After making an abrupt u-turn, I had merely gone a few metres, perhaps twenty, when I felt a hand groping my back pocket, followed by my wife’s scream and my hand touching someone else’s at the back. Lunging back I saw a teenager walking away from me to join a man and another teenager who were waiting ahead.  Given the age of the two boys, and the botched attempt to deprive me of my wallet, they were probably apprentices out on a practical training with the man.

Montevideo is another typical South American capital city, albeit smaller than the other capitals. Our first port of call in Uruguay was the town of Colonia.  It is on the northern side of the very wide La Plata river, directly northeast of Buenos Aires.  We took a fast ferry to Colonia.

The historic old part of Colonia is a charming little place with its narrow cobblestone streets, fort and leisurely pace. From here, we caught a bus to Montevideo, about 200 km to the east, where the river meets the sea, returning to Buenos Aires by a direct ferry that took about three hours.

Uruguay is not only rather small in a continent of big countries, but it is also sandwiched between two of the biggest, Brazil and Argentina.  Our bus moved through sparsely populated, green and flat countryside with the occasional village and not much traffic.

Small and laid back Uruguay has much to brag about when it comes to soccer.  Most recently, it won the 2011 Copa América South American championship, which it has won a record 15 times. The national team has twice won the Soccer World Cup, including the first World Cup in 1930, which it hosted.  It has won 20 official titles, a world record for the most international titles held by any country.  No wonder, Montevideo has a Football Museum.

A less known but amazing fact about this little country is the president himself.  According to a BBC report by Vladimir Hernandez (“Jose Mujica: The world’s ‘poorest’ president”, 15 November 2012), President Jose Mujica “lives on a ramshackle farm and gives away most of his pay.  Laundry is strung outside the house. The water comes from a well in a yard, overgrown with weeds. Only two police officers and Manuela, a three-legged dog, keep watch outside.”

“President Mujica has shunned the luxurious house that the Uruguayan state provides for its leaders and opted to stay at his wife’s farmhouse, off a dirt road outside the capital, Montevideo.  The president and his wife work the land themselves, growing flowers.”

He donates about 90% of his monthly salary to charities.  “I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.  I’ve lived like this most of my life,” he says, “I can live well with what I have.”  He drives an old VW beetle that belongs to his wife.  Elected in 2009, Mujica spent the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Tupamaros, a leftist armed guerrilla group inspired by the Cuban revolution.

He was shot six times and spent 14 years in jail. Most of his detention was spent in harsh conditions and isolation, until he was freed in 1985 when Uruguay returned to democracy. Those years in jail, Mujica says, helped shape his outlook on life.

One hopes that political activists everywhere will use their personal experiences, both good and bad, pleasant and not so pleasant, to shape their outlook on life, and be an example for others to help create a better world.

Meanwhile, we should all say:  Jose, your country may be small, but you are truly great.

Note from author:  This column will resume in January 2014.

By Razi Azmi

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