13 April 2013
Now that I am home, and seated at my familiar desk, I would like to be able to make some broad and striking generalizations about Uruguay, having spent a week and day there, and visited some four locations. I would like to, but I feel so tired from the series of flights — notwithstanding that I slept on the plane, since it was “airplane seat sleep” and not the real thing — that it would be incautious and inadvisable for me to attempt such generalizations with a fatigued mind (especially in view of the role played by the embodiment of mind).
Take what follows, then, not as hasty and unsupportable generalizations about a country I hardly know, but as spontaneous comments regarding memorable impressions I have retained.
The Red Earth of Uruguay
Upon flying in to Montevideo, I immediately noticed that the unpaved roads were red. Much of the earth of Uruguay is red, as I saw later in the unpaved country lanes of the rural interior.
The red earth of Uruguay shows itself, too, in the Rio de la Plata, which is a coffee-colored sea stirred by the perpetual winds (see below), which presumably dredge up this red earth from the bottom of the river mouth.
The only thing that I can think to say against Uruguay is that the wind seems to blow often, and at times quite harshly. Our hosts at the Estancia Tierra Santa mentioned the wind, and it woke me up once in the night while I was there. Later, on the Montevideo waterfront, the wind whipped up the ocean into a brown, muddy color topped by whitecaps.
The people of Uruguay appear to be modestly healthy, wealthy, and happy. But it is more than that. No where else I have encountered a people who so exude a sense of well being and of living a life mostly free of stress.
At a time in history when we hear so much about “failed states” it is a pleasant surprise to see a nation-state that really works, and this is the overwhelming impression that I take away from Uruguay: this is a country that functions well.
The skeptical, or statisticians, could no doubt cite many findings to the contrary. Certainly in the US and Western Europe, people are wealthier; in some lands overall health may be better, while in other lands, happiness may be greater. Bhutan, famously, tries to measure its own gross national happiness. The amazing correspondence of Uruguay is to bring together all three of these in a modest and — I suspect precisely due to this modesty — in a sustainable way of life. I salute the Uruguayans for their admirably sane society.
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12 April 2013
For my last day in Montevideo I revisited several of the sights that I passed last night in my four hour after dark walking tour of the city center and the old town (cf. Montevideo by Night). When I first arrived in Montevideo I was surprised how empty the waterfront area was, and then when I was first here in the evening I found it packed with people. When I walked in the center and the historical city last night, the area was really dead, but now during the business day it is quite busy. Where you go in Montevideo at what time of day matters. Of course, that is true of all cities, but once has to learn where and when the locals turn out to make use of their infrastructure.
There is a lot of interesting street art in Montevideo. I posted some pictures of this on Tumblr. I noticed that the painting above repeats some themes of a sculpture by Carlos Páez Vilaró, which is at the artist’s museum at Casapueblo (and in the photograph below with my sister). It is not unusual to see powerful themes of “high art” (whatever that is) repeated in vernacular art. In fact, it’s not unusual to see any theme repeated in vernacular art, but one notices the appearance of more sophisticated themes in a popular medium.
I had my rental car with me during the day, since when I checked out of my hotel I had to take my car out of the garage. It is always daunting to drive in an unfamiliar city, but I mentioned in my first post about Montevideo that the city lacks the frantic character of many large cities. While driving here is no piece of cake, it wasn’t too bad over all. People were polite and helpful. I was worried about figuring out the proper procedure for paying for parking, but I was helped with this, so it was not a problem. Also, driving around the city gave me a different perspective that I usually get from seeing a city on foot.
As the sun was setting I drove to the airport to catch my evening flight from Montevideo to Miami, and eventually to home. While the day began overcast, by the time of sunset the sky was completely clear. I got some good views of the lights of Montevideo as the flight was leaving, but couldn’t get any good pictures.
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11 April 2013
After the remarkable blue skies and sunshine I’ve had so far in Uruguay I guess it was time for some less than perfect weather, and today in Montevideo it rained heavily much of the day. I spent the day alternately napping and writing, only really waking up as the sun was setting. Though it was still slightly misting, I went out for a walk in the neighborhood.
The humidity from the rain combined with the kind of warmth at night to which I am not accustomed meant that only after a short while I walking I became quite hot and was sweating. I returned to my room and showered and changed my clothes so I could set out on a longer walk in greater comfort.
My longer walk took four hours to complete, and left me tired and footsore, but with a lot of photographs of Montevideo by night, some of which I posted on Tumblr. By this time the rain had stopped and it became quite windy — which for me was a relief, since it cooled down the evening to a tolerable level.
Montevideo is like Venice, in so far as in both cities if you walk far enough in a straight line you will eventually come to water, yet, again like Venice, it is rather difficult to walk in a straight line. The grid of the city is crazily confusing, as the grids adapted to the geographical features of the city run into each other at irregular angles. Nevertheless, in my four hours of walking I never got lost.
I walked a straight line by way of a major through street (starting near my hotel where Bulevard España originates at the waterfront), taking this all the way through the city, and then when I emerged at the waterfront again, I took a very long walk along the waterfront promenade as it snakes between the city and the ocean. The walkway along the waterfront is as wide as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It was almost 1:00 am when I got back to my hotel. Many restaurants were still open, but the streets were quiet and the roads almost empty.
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10 April 2013
There is a poem by Keats that describes the experience of leaving the city for the countryside, which begins thusly:
To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven, — to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
How are we to describe the opposite experience, of someone who leaves the countryside for the city? It would be an appropriate occasion for a poem, but my powers are not equal to composition at the moment, so I will here only mention the poetic opportunity as a kind of literary placeholder. No doubt there is a substantial literature of which I am unaware regarding the urbanization experience, because it is the predominant human experience of our time, marked as it is by increasing urbanization.
Nevertheless, for all its familiarity to the millions who migrate from what Marx called “rural idiocy” to the opportunities of the city, after spending some time in rural Uruguay it was a bit of a shock to the system to arrive in Montevideo. I previously drove through Montevideo on the day I arrived (before noon) and again passed through Montevideo when I drove from Colonia del Sacramento to Punta del Este (in the afternoon) but arriving the in late afternoon the city revealed an entirely different aspect. The roads were crowded and busy. The main highway which parallels the oceanfront and therefore passes all the port facilities, was particularly jammed with both car and truck traffic going into and coming out of the port (probably coming from or going to Buenos Aires, just across the Rio de la Plata).
And it was not only the vehicular traffic. The wide and miles-long oceanfront promenade, which had looked strangely abandoned during the day, was alive with joggers, dog walkers, fitness enthusiasts using the exercise machines installed along the promenade (much as I saw on Lima’s Malecon), and street people pushing shopping carts — the whole panorama of Montevidean humanity out for a stroll after dark. There are also multiple sports facilities along the waterfront, with games I did not recognize being played under glaring artificial lights.
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9 April 2013
Earlier at Estancia Tierra Santa I felt that I was deep in the rural countryside of Uruguay; here at San Pedro de Timote I know that I am deep in the rural countryside of Uruguay. You will find San Pedro de Timote 14 kilometers on a dirt track from the nearest town, and arriving here the isolation is palpable.
And the reader will not be surprised to learn that rural Uruguay is horse country par excellence. Horses are in daily use for routine tasks here, and while Uruguay’s roads are modern and in excellent condition, it is not at all unusual to see a horse and cart driving along the shoulder moving a load of fire wood or something similar. In the countryside, even in the 21st century, horses are both useful and practical.
But not only useful and practical; if one does not spend time around horses on a regular basis one is likely to forget how beautiful they are. And they are beautiful — or, at least, to my mammalian eye, horses are beautiful in the same way that tigers are beautiful, with a musculature that is so perfectly adapted to a particular way of life one cannot but admire to see such a body functioning at its peak.
Both the utility and the beauty of horses is complicated by the fact that a horse has its own will, its own temperament, and even its own social milieu, just as each rider has his own will, his own temperament, and his own social milieu. When the chemistry between horse and rider “clicks” then all goes well; when the chemistry doesn’t “click,” it’s sort of like a bad date, which each pulling the opposite direction waiting only for the experience to be finished as soon as possible. One cannot simply “work” with horses as one works with a machine or a tool. Despite readily anthropomorphizing our machines and tools, crediting them with a mind of their own, the fact of a horse having a mind of its own becomes a central fact of working with horses; some of us are more suited than others to enter into the equine mind, and those who are most naturally talented at this will have the most effective rapport with horses; and, vice versa, some horses are more adept than others in entering into the human mind, and such horses have the most effective rapport with human beings.
The utility of a horse to its human handler is directly proportional to the individual’s ability to appreciate and understand the horse on its own terms, in which case the relationship is more one of cooperation than of “use” in the narrow sense, and this is the essence of domestication: we are as much an agent of the species we domesticate and bring within the structure of our civilization, as we are the representatives of our own interests narrowly construed. “Ownness” here is the ownness of the civilization we have in common. And however far we project that common civilization into the future, it will continue to be a common civilization, jointly the product of the several terrestrial species that constitute it, and the co-evolutionary development of these species (and their successor species) will continue to constitute that civilization that we have in common.
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8 April 2013
To make the trip from Punta del Este to San Pedro de Timote is to cross a bridge between worlds. Punta del Este is a chic and sophisticated beach resort known to the world, with sandy beaches stretching for as far as the eye can see. San Pedro de Timote is a remote, rural estancia, a world unto itself, with rolling countryside and livestock for as far as the eye can see.
With its monumental ranch buildings, elegant interior spaces with high ceilings, and its isolated situation, San Pedro de Timote naturally dominates its surroundings, and one can readily see it as the economic focus of the area, if not the region, with its own institutions, its own power structures, its own client-patron networks. A community unto itself, an enclosed world unto itself, that functions all the more efficiently for being dependent exclusively upon its own resources and requiring nothing from the outside world, such a place exudes a feeling of completeness not to be found elsewhere. There is both an aesthetic and an intellectual satisfaction to be found in this.
We see here a perfect exemplification of a civilized countryside, and of the distinctive civilization that it produced — much more like the manorial system of feudal Europe than the commercial civilization that followed later and displaced the manorial system. The manorial system lived on in rural South America long after it disappeared from the European continent where it achieved its most distinctive expression.
From the air, upon arrival, Uruguay presents the aspect of regular quadrangles of orderly agricultural land dominating the countryside — no less regular than urban regularity, but realized in a different medium, and to a different purpose. The aerial view reveals the large scale structure of a civilization in its greatest generality, as I attempted to show in Epistemic Orders of Magnitude (and, a little differently, in relation to constructivism, in P or not-P) in relation to industrialized cities, but which is equally as truly revealed in the landscape of rural agriculture, whether the regular quadrangles of Uruguay, or the terraces of the Andes or of the terraced rice farming in southeast Asia.
While the cities have taken over the role as the economic centers of industrial-technological civilization, as this civilization relentlessly expands its scope, here in San Pedro de Timote it is still possible to believe that the estate itself remains the center of life. And indeed, if the industrial-technological civilization that overlaid itself upon the landscape were to suddenly vanish tomorrow, life would go on here as always, essentially unchanged and undisturbed by the coming and going of an alien form of civilization with which is shares little and coincides on only a few points of contact.
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7 April 2013
Punta del Este is a major resort city on the Uruguayan coast with a high season that is, apparently, very clearly defined. During the high season, which runs from Christmas to Easter (high summer in the Southern Hemisphere), the population of Punta del Este swells to as many as a million persons. At the present moment in time, less than two weeks after Easter, the city is almost deserted. It would be entirely possible to film a post-apocalyptic zombie flick in the streets of Punta del Este in the middle of the day in off season without really having to make any special arrangements. The season is that well defined. Even though the weather is beautiful here in late summer or early fall, the hotels and restaurants are empty. Many of them are already shuttered and will not open again until next December.
I think Punta del Este must have more beach frontage than any other city on the planet. It easily has more beach than Rio de Janeiro (with many times the population), and it would be hard to imagine another city that could be so blessed with wide, beautiful, sandy beaches in such abundance — although it must be remarked here that Montevideo is also on a peninsula of land jutting out into the ocean, though its waterfront doesn’t have quite the perfect beaches of Punta del Este. And with the high season bringing so many people into the city, the infrastructure is there to handle great numbers of people. There is a large marina and streets with many lanes, and a very long ocean front promenade where a person might literally walk for hours along the beach without retracing their steps.
I have tried to imagine what it is like when the tourist season is in full swing here and the permanent population of about 20,000 must provide services to a million visitors and deliveries into the city must increase by several orders of magnitude just to feed some many visitors for the two months of so that they fill the city, which is now quiet and sleepy and empty almost to the point of feeling abandoned.
Punta del Este, like Colonia del Sacramento, which I wrote about yesterday, was not exactly what I expected. Some things coincided with my expectations, while other experiences of the city diverged considerably from what I had in mind. This also happens when we meet other people about whom we have heard or with whom we have corresponded: we have an idea of this person in mind, but that idea is often set on its ear in an actual meeting. But even to make this observation suggests the possibility of the opposite experience: when we meet a person for the first time, or travel to a location for the first time, and the person or the place is completely predictable, and exactly what we expected.
Probably most people don’t think of themselves as being completely predictable, and probably calling someone completely predictable would be considered an insult — like a person who could be reduced to a machine. Similarly, it would probably come across as an insult to call a place completely predictable. Probably some places are in fact completely predictable, and therefore uninteresting. It is also possible that one person might find a place to be completely predictable even while another person might find the same place to be endlessly interesting. Similarly, again, for persons. So if we formulate the “knowledge argument” I mentioned yesterday in terms of ineffable properties (of a place or a person, etc.), it will also be necessary to take into account who is making the judgement of predictability. It might be possible to quantify predictability, but it also might be possible to classify objects of knowledge into those that are completely unpredictable, those that are predictable to some while unpredictable to others, and those that are completely predictable to all.
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6 April 2013
The Historic Quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, which is always a good indication that a particular place will be worth a stop and a look. I’ve been to several UNESCO sites on the World Heritage List, and I always enjoy them, but it almost always is the case that they are different from what I expected. Colonia was not exactly what I expected, but that was great. That is why one travels: in order to have one’s concepts corrected by one’s percepts, just as one thinks in order to have one’s percepts corrected by one’s concepts. Thought and experience are an indissoluble unity; it is when we divide them and compartmentalize them that we get into trouble.
Why travel? What is to be gained from travel? Travel is all about challenging assumptions. One could simply stay at home, read books, look at travel brochures, and watch travel videos, convincing oneself that one had learned all there is to know about a place, and never bother to go there oneself. But we all know that you do need to eventually go to the place — whatever the place happens to be — if you want to understand it on its own terms, rather than attempting to understand a place one has never visited on the basis of one’s preconceived idea of the place.
To say that thorough knowledge of a place is not adequate to saying that one really knows a place made me realize that this suggests a generalization of a thought experiment in the philosophy of mind known as “Mary’s Room.” In the Mary’s Room thought experiment, Mary is a scientist locked in a black and white room, who studies everything that there is to know about color vision. After perfecting her knowledge of color, she leaves her black and white room, and suddenly experiences what it is like to actually see color. The question, from a philosopher’s point of view, is this: when Mary leaves her room, does she learn anything? This thought experiment is also known as the “knowledge argument,” in so far as it points to knowledge that can be attained only through conscious experience.
Putting Mary’s room and the knowledge argument in the context of travel suggests a generalization of the knowledge argument: suppose, in isolation of the object of knowledge studied, one learns all that there is to learn about a given object of knowledge. Say that one learns all that there is to learn about Colonia del Sacramento. After learning about Colonia del Sacramento, does one learn anything by traveling there? Even the most experienced of travelers know that you learn something by visiting a place that you cannot learn by all the research you might possibly conduct. Another way to put this would be to say that there is something that it is like to be in a place — a formulation parallel to Nagel’s famous formulation about there being something that it is like to be a bat.
The conscious experience of a place is a source of knowledge not attainable through study. As I write this I realize that this argument entails that such knowledge is ineffable, otherwise, someone who visited a place and realized what was lacking in its description could simply write it down after having visited, and every subsequent visitor would thereafter visit the place with no surprise at all, and no new knowledge would be attained by such a visit. And yet we know it isn’t like that.
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5 April 2013
Previously I have written about The Cognitive Value of Horseback Riding and The Cognitive Value of Walking, and as I both rode and walked today at the Estancia Tierra Santa I was in a position to appreciate this sentiment again.
One of the fundamental differences that divides Occidental and Oriental civilization is the attitude to enlightenment: in the west, enlightenment comes from engagement with the world; in the east, enlightenment come from disengagement with the world and turning inward to what Augustine called the “inner man” — except this latter phrase is too personal, too individual, and altogether too western to describe (much less explain) the eastern attitude to enlightenment.
As a westerner, even when I am thinking I want to be actively engaged in some activity, like riding or walking or canoeing or evening simply listening to music. Nietzsche, whom I have quoted previously on this topic, said that only thoughts reached by walking have any value. I read somewhere that Seymour Cray, the designer of Cray supercomputers, dug tunnels in his backyard. This may sound eccentric, but anyone who has ever immersed themselves in their work until they reach a point that psychologists call a “flow state,” which is essentially meditative in character, knows what this is like. And it is paradigmatically western.
The eastern tradition is very different. In Yoga, for instance, the idea of meditation is that, if only one can perfectly still the mind, then the truth will appear out of the depths of that stillness. The westerner, by contrast, does not seek stillness, but activity and agitation.
Here is how one westerner, Will Durant, saw the tradition of India:
“Here and there, constituting one-fifth of the land, the primitive jungle remains, a breeding-place of tigers, leopards, wolves and snakes. In the southern third, or Deccan, the heat is drier, or is tempered with breezes from the sea. But from Delhi to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is heat: heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietist religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow, India starves, and dreams of Nirvana.”
The very act of placing Indian religious philosophy in its biological and climatological context reveals Durant as a westerner, but it is far better to try to understand the east as a westerner than to pretend that one understands as a native a tradition to which one has not been born.
At the extremes of the world, we find the extreme exemplifications of western extroversion and eastern introversion. In Japan, at the far east of the eastern world, we have the tradition of Zazen, or sitting meditation, in which monks sit virtually motionless for hours in meditation. In North America, at the far west of the western world, we have the idealization of unreflective activity. And while meditation can descend into ineffectual quietism, unreflective activity can descend into frantic nihilism.
Because of the western focus on activity and worldly engagement, philosophy has always been a marginal activity in the west, and while Plato dreamed of a Philosopher-King, philosophers never had the social status or communal approbation of scholars and wise men in the east; they were persecuted more often than they were praised.
At the same time, I think that the case can be made that it was the western tendency to seek active engagement with the world that was the essential source of modern science. Science in its modern form is almost entirely a production of western civilization, and this in itself has been a source of tension between western civilization, which in the form of industrial-technological civilization is driven by science, and the civilizations of the eastern, which have adopted science pragmatically, but for which it is not a natural expression of the greatest intellects native to the tradition.
In so far as industrial-technological civilization has demonstrated that it is capable of preempting other forms of civilization, there wouldn’t seem to be much of a future for other forms of civilization, and this would seem to spell the ultimate doom of eastern civilizations. One could easily suppose the the habit of science, adopted pragmatically, may eventually displace ancient culture traditions and come to be as intuitive and instinctive for the peoples of the east as it is for the west.
It is, however, equally as much a possibility that some entirely new kind of civilization will emerge from the collision of western science and eastern introspection, just as a new form of civilization emerged in the western hemisphere from the collision of European civilization and the native traditions of the Americas. The civilizations of the New World were annihilated by the collision, but many of the attitudes, intuitions, instincts, perspectives, and the overall intellectual orientation were not annihilated, and continue to shape the world to the present day, although in a much less direct fashion than western civilization shapes the world at present.
I do not think that this is the only possibility for the future of civilization, i.e., that the melding of western science and eastern introspection is the sole source of future civilization. I also think that the peculiar traditions of western civilization will continue their development in the western hemisphere, even as European civilization fades into the past in the eastern hemisphere. And from the continued development of science from western engagement and activity in the world will come a science that is so sophisticated and subtle that it will demand an account of its own foundations, and this will force westerners into a more reflective appreciation of the world that science has revealed to us.
In each case, something essential will be retained of the fundamental division between eastern and western approaches to enlightenment, and the character of enlightenment too, being, ultimately, human, all-too-human, will change — a moving target defined by the changing human condition.
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4 April 2013
It has been said — perhaps it has been said too often, as it has now become a cliché — that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the same spirit it might be said that a journey of a thousand miles continues with the iteration of that initial step: repeat as necessary. The destination is one’s extremal clause that terminates the travel algorithm. Any part of a journey of a thousand miles, then, consists of some subset of steps taken — and here we can even accommodate the empty set (since pauses between steps are also part of the journey) as well as the set of all steps (which is the journey entire). In some contexts nothingness and the whole are improper parts and need to be avoided, but they cause no problem for a formalization of this poetic characterization of travel.
I might decompose my journey from Portland to Uruguay into any number of parts, or stages of the journey — in fact, I could say rather that my journey was from Oregon to Uruguay, or Oregon to Montevideo, or Portland to Montevideo, and so on — so there are even different ways of construing the parts, and which parts go to make up the whole. My flights alone were divided into three legs, from Portland to Chicago, Chicago to Miami, and Miami to Montevideo. Then of course there was the necessary leg from my house in Portland to the Portland airport, a trip made possible by one of my sisters, who drove me to the airport.
On the other end of my flights, having arrived in Uruguay, I also had connections to make with another sister. She had earlier flown into Buenos Aires and had taken a ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia de Sacramento on the Uruguayan coast. Once I arrived at the Montevideo airport, I picked up a rental car and headed out on unfamiliar roads, trying to make out unfamiliar signs and using a less-than-optimal map, but I made it to the ferry landing at Colonia with little difficulty.
When I picked up the rental car the car rental representative told me that the best way to proceed was the drive from the airport to the oceanfront road that wraps around the whole of Montevideo, and then leads on to Ruta 1. This I did, and it gives the traveler a good initial impression of Montevideo to take this long oceanfront drive, with the city on the one side and the Atlantic on the other. My initial impression of Montevideo is that it is comfortable, laid-back, and tropical — it has none of the obvious poverty that one seems so frequently in Andean South America, and the city and the roads have nothing of the “frantic” feeling that one encounters in many third world metropolises.
I noticed, by the way, a lot of HBSC advertisements in the Montevideo airport, and there was an HBSC bank branch right in the airport terminal itself. Not long ago in Rationing Financial Services I wrote:
“If you have a hundred grand sitting around, you can park it at HBSC and get yourself a bank account that you can access at any branch in the world, taking withdrawals or making deposits in the local currency (or any other currency, for that matter). But I don’t have a hundred large to spare.”
And how right I was. If I could afford to have an HBSC account, I could have walked right into the HBSC branch and taken out my own money then and there, without having recourse to currency exchange for the greenbacks I brought along with me. But Uruguay is not an especially large or rich country, so I had to wonder about the HBSC branch at the airport.
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