Paper or plastic?

Sometime last week, I had to pick up something at our friendly local pharmacy. Almost everywhere I shop other than supermarkets, people know I prefer not to take a plastic bag if I can avoid it. So I prepared to put in my pocket the “puppy aspirin” I had just bought (can’t bring myself to tell that story just yet), the smiling little man behind the counter proudly waved a paper bag, something I’d never seen before!

Then, at the farmacia in Tienda Inglesa, the same thing, again first paper bag I’ve ever seen there.

paper bag from pharmacy, Uruguay

I was reminded of the early 80s in the US, and the supermarket checkout question: paper or plastic?

Was it the same in Uruguay? Did there used to be paper bags for groceries?

Because here’s a strange thing: Plastic bags are made from oil. Uruguay has no oil. Paper bags are made from trees. Uruguay has not only an abundance of trees; it also has pulp mills.

So why are plastic bags ubiquitous in Uruguay “Natural?”


The retrograde mattress

Three or four times a year, an astronomical event occurs that I’ve learned to take seriously: Mercury going retrograde, meaning it appears to reverse its course for three weeks.

Mars retrograde – source:

It’s not because of the astronomical aspect, but the astrological. It’s a good time to make plans, but NOT arrange them, a good time NOT to buy anything mechanical or electronic, to be prepared for all kinds of communications snafus, on and on. And good luck if you sign a contract without reading the fine print five times. Here’s more.

In the early 2000s, I had two distinct related experiences.In one case, I had been on the phone with customers all week, but Thursday afternoon, all of a sudden I might a well have been speaking Urdu: communication simply ceased as conversation continued. Sure enough, Mercury had gone retrograde.

I had become frustrated with the limitations of my Macintosh, poring over the monstrous Computer Shopper magazine every month. One day I said to myself, just pick up the phone and order a PC! No sooner had I picked up the phone than I put it down again, checked online, and sure enough, Mercury had just gone retrograde. The purchase would most likely have been a disaster.

Similarly, friends here suddenly felt compelled to plan a holiday in Europe during the last retrograde Mercury period (22 March – 15 April). I warned them, but they were thrilled how easily all the plans fell together. Less thrilled when the plans started falling apart within a few days: rail strikes in France coincided with their bookings to and from Switzerland, and to add injury to insult, they were only able to get a 65% refund. Then airline strikes in Latin and America loomed, and Air France strikes threatened the flights they had booked in lieu of train tickets. Alas, all seems to be going well for them now.


Anyway, also ignoring my own advice, I purchased a mattress online during retrograde Mercury. It arrived two days later, and we struggled up the spiral staircase with it, started to remove the plastic, only to realize it was not what we ordered. And in fact, an un-flippable “pillow” mattress that we specifically did not want. The man who we phoned at the vendor’s showed absolutely no interest in finding a solution. Finally I reached a woman there, after seeing that a flete to return it would cost 1,500 pesos (USD 50+). She helpfully connected me with their flete operators, who quoted me 650 pesos. Mercado Libre was now involved, and assured me that the flete expense would be reimbursed. I wasn’t so sure.

The nice couple with their miniature van showed, strapped the mattress on the roof, and drove it back to Montevideo between rain showers. They assured me I didn’t need to pay, since it wasn’t my fault. So far, so good! I was a little concerned by the almost complete illegibility of the receipt they left.

illegible receipt, Uruguay

But it worked! A few days later, they showed up again, mattress strapped to the roof. And – drum roll please – again not the mattress we ordered! Knowing my wife didn’t speak much Spanish, the woman called the vendor, and hung up rolling her eyes. The “no help” man wanted her to convince us to accept the wrong mattress.

Finally, a month after the purchase, we did get a complete refund (less $17 exchange rate loss; the USD had gained in the meantime) with the help of Mercado Libre.

So, I hope I’ve caught your attention. Next occurrences of retrograde Mercury:

  • 26 July – 18 August 2018
  • 16 November – 6 December 2018

You can easily find them online.



One size fits all? (UTE office)

This starts with a story. We have a little chacra (mini-farm) 10 km inland with a little house that we’ve never even stayed in (others have, for a couple months). So there’s no energy consumption, and we usually end up paying the bare minimum of ~ USD 15 to be connected to the grid.

Except for last January, when I did a regular check and decided to vacuum up spiders and spider webs. The vacuum cleaner wouldn’t start. So I walked out to the road, because our attentive neighbor has been known to turn off the mains when I so much as leave a 5-watt LED light on in the bathroom. No, the main switch was on. So maybe a power a power outage. Returning to Atlántida, I discovered that indeed there was a widespread power outage. OK, no worries…

…oh but wait: the vacuum cleaner,  a cheap horrendous screeching thing we bought from a departing German-Romanian couple (seriously: you should probably wear the ear protectors you see on airport runways).

A week later, pulling in for another routine check, I heard a strange, high-pitched noise. From inside the house.

You got it: I didn’t unplug the vacuum cleaner, and the power came back on, , and the damn thing had been running 24 hours/day for a week. I could feel the heat as I walked into the house.

And of course we had a frightful electric bill. But then the next month was estimated, and high, and the next also estimated, and high, and in April it was back to the minimum again. But by now we’ve overpaid!

I checked the meter, pretty much inscrutable behind a stained plastic shroud, and decided that UTE – the electric company – needed to do a real reading, account for what we’ve paid, and issue a credit.

Which – ojalá – which may actually happen next week.

But what tickled me is what I observed in our little local UTE office. UTE is the government electrical company, and apparently the “latest and greatest” for every little branch is their idea of the best use of their resources.

Overkill at the local electric utilty office, Atlántida, Uruguay

Here is what you see while waiting at the UTE office in Atlántida. A, B, and C are the actual service desks. Two out of three in service today.

D is an automated-teller size device with touch screen, on which there is exactly one option – push the orange button and it will spit out a printed number for you. So – curious minds want to know – how is this an improvement over the paper number dispensers in the ferias? You know, the ones that cost maybe USD 30, and look like this?

paper number dispenser if you want to buy one 😉

You’ve got to wonder how many thousand dollars that stupid touch-screen machine cost, whose functionality boils down to a single button. I mean, seriously, don’t you? Oh, but – government.

But it gets better. See E: not only is there a TV screen endlessly replaying UTE television ads without sound in a fraction of full screen, whose subtitles are not exactly effective in this context of size and distance, but there’s a little sound system below. So when they trigger the next number, a female voice says número setenta-seis, punto uno. (Yeah it did say “punto uno” instead of “puesto uno” – at least I think so.)

When it was my turn, I was immensely gratified when the woman at “punto uno” simple called out “setenta-seis” instead of triggering this ridiculous electronic voice.

And then it turned out she loved my story of the vacuum cleaner.

And maybe thought I was a complete idiot, but that’s OK: objective is to get the billing straightened out.

It’s all an adventure 😉

What are the chances?

We went to both supermarkets in Atlántida today: Disco (which gives a 10% discount on the purchase of ten bottles of “fine” wine) and Tienda Inglesa. For both, I used the Alaska Airlines Visa card we’ve had since 1986.

We lived in Oregon from 1986-1995, and often flew Alaska. Charging all office expenses to the card gave us significant mileage rewards – as did showing up early for the 8:00 AM flight from Portland to New York, insisting they start a “voluntary bump” list, always to their objection, predictably getting bumped and a free ticket. After a leisurely breakfast at the airport, we’d fly out on the 9:30 AM flight. Those were the days, my friend….

I generally check receipts soon after purchase, curious about the exchange rate (great right now as the USD has “strengthened” – which, alas, cost me USD 14 as a result of the retrograde Mercury mattress purchase and refund; stay tuned for that quintessentially-Uruguay-business [and retrograde Mercury] story).

I sat down at my computer, placed the receipts in front of me and – holy something! –their totals were within 1.1 pesos of each other! (Prices are still calculated with centésimos and rounded, though the last coin smaller than one peso- the 50 centésimos – ceased being legal tender in 2010, shortly after we arrived.)

supermarket receipts

There’s the difference in USD from Visa online – three cents!

I find that rather remarkable, but then my attention was drawn to the digital clock* today at 3:33 and 5:55 today, so maybe Universe is saying something.

*on the computer; our only other two clocks on the house are analog. Speaking of which (we were?), did you catch this? — Schools are removing analogue clocks from exam halls as teenagers ‘cannot tell the time’

Seems like the teens are stressed, but the accompanying photo suggests a more quintessentially teenaged reaction: whatever.

teenage girl looking at an analog clock

It begins…

This summer (we’re now into autumn), we have been plagued for the first time by incredibly annoying acoustic pollution. Maybe as a kid, you loved hearing the piercing electronic truncated version of Für Elise, because it meant the ice cream truck was coming! Which maybe it did, once a day.

But not all day long, every day. Which is what the apparently-otherwise-respectable-in-terms-of-service gas company Acodike has been doing. When I wrote to complain, they responded that they can’t turn down the volume, because otherwise customers complain that they don’t hear it.

To which I responded, you have not been here the last eight goddam years, so how many customers, seriously, complained about not hearing something that didn’t exist?

End of conversation, needless to say. (I have a bit of a track record when it comes to ending correspondence using logic. A certain attorney in British Columbia comes to mind, but that’s another story.)

So fast forward, and the first deployment of anti-Akodike stickers has begun.

Sticker on trash container, Atlántida, Uruguay

Shut up, Acodike. It’s 2018. We have telephones.

Alas, these are just laser-printed paper labels. They won’t last long. I’ve got some high school kids, equally annoyed by this 1980s-era “marketing,” who may help post these. I say “may” because I delivered them to a couple houses  but not directly to the kids. Ya veremos. We will see.

This label stock is not sold in Uruguay, as far as I can find. I spent $30 to order 100 sheets @10/sheet, plus $7.95 shipping to Gripper, a Miami-Uruguay delivery service, and another $30+ to Gripper to get them here. And promptly trashed a couple sheets learning how to get them to print properly.

But it fits the characteristics of projects I like, such as freelance mentoring of at-risk adolescents in North Carolina, and adopting a bright and funny, but seriously socially disadvantaged 12 year old boy, also in North Carolina:

  1. I (we in the latter case) can maybe pull this off;
  2. If I/we don’t try to do it, nobody else will, and;
  3. It’s worth doing, even if it doesn’t end as you hoped (because it probably won’t, but that doesn’t mean you failed).

FWIW, the 12 year old boy is now cooking at Applebee’s in Prescott, Arizona, and has been awarded MVP (Most Valuable Player) status numerous times, and is training to be an instructor. I’ve lost contact with the others, but that’s OK: I didn’t want be a hero. Helping them navigate a little was enough. As far as I know, they are all doing well.