John Hamilton, a 48 year old pastor from the state of Kentucky in the US, has been in Uruguay with his family for the last 12 years and takes time out of a busy schedule to share his experience and advice on how to approach the life here.
I am originally from Kentucky, right in the heart of the Bluegrass state. In those days young men my age played basketball, explored the rural creeks and caves, and spent many hours working on beautiful horse farms as needed to pay for gas, car insurance, and college.
While I was born and raised in Kentucky, my parents were not. My father came from Syracuse and my mother from a far away mysterious land called Uruguay.
And that is where my Uruguay connection began.
Several years out of College, I found myself working full time as a Youth Pastor in a local church on the west side of Jacksonville, Florida, with a pull towards Latin America. It made sense. My wife, Lisa, was born in Michigan, but lived in Bogotá, Columbia, from the age of two. Her family invited us down to work with teenagers through a local church on the north side of the city.
I thought to myself that Colombia would be a terrific launching pad for Uruguay, helping me to master the language and culture for a couple of years. Two years turned into ten. We invested ourselves in teenagers, prisoners, and young parents during an exciting, challenging, and ultimately extremely fulfilling decade from 1993 to 2003.
In 2002, the Uruguayan economy had suffered a dramatic setback, which actually opened the door for us to come. The US dollar was trading at 27 to 1 and lunch at La Passiva was less than 100 pesos. It seemed cheaper to eat out with dollars than to cook at home. We brought our Labrador and three small children and rented a lovely home in Carrasco for U$S700 (“seven hundred US dollars“) a month, now the price of a room in many parts of the city.
The changes were significant. I thought my previous visits, reading, and study had informed me well about life here, but head knowledge and actual living experience is different.
We found Uruguay and Colombia to be almost polar opposites in many ways. The differences were rich, but challenging. My family, completely fluent in Spanish, struggled with the local dialect. We did not anticipate the small town feel of the capital city, nor the reluctance of people to drive short distances for a visit.
However, we loved the way you can pay all your bills at the Abitab or enjoy a leisurely lunch without worrying about traffic on the way to the next appointment.
We enjoyed the simplicity of the food offerings, although we missed international flavors, and the myriad fruits and vegetables we were accustomed to in Colombia.
Colombians in general are extremely proactive in pursuing improvement and change. Uruguayans in general seem to be much more willing to move with the natural flow. We struggled at first to adapt to the slower, small town feel, but quickly learned to appreciate the commitment to sunsets, long walks, weekends off and spontaneous asados among friends.
We have made Montevideo our home. Our girls have moved on to university and beyond in the States, but carry Uruguay in their hearts. Our son Josh was only four when we came and his blood runs Celeste Blue. My family tree runs back to 1885 in Uruguay and 1820 in Argentina so I have found a deeper understanding of my family of origin.
We have hosted many friends and facilitated the integration of many expats who have stayed from three to five years or longer. We feel this is our home and plan to stay.
For ten years, I have served Christ Church and the wider community as Pastor, Chaplain, and Protestant Priest. It has never been easy, but good things in life require hard work and effort. Many hundreds of people have passed through our home and church and most have moved on in the transitory way of the eastern side of the city, but we have had the beautiful opportunity to form lifelong friendships with people from every continent, dozens of countries while helping and being helped all along the way.
My advice to expats looking to retire is to be cautious. Costs have exploded and personal security is an issue. Regional crisis will reach us. But when you find friends, they will be always loyal and helpful. The fresh air and love of nature, the local produce and the richness of blended generations and cultures is delightful and perhaps, relatively unique. However, many people, my family included have been negatively impacted by asthmatic allergies leading to chronic bronchitis in the winters due to the overexposure to damp, moldy environments. If any one issue pushes towards a move away when our retirement approaches, it will be my pursuit of a drier climate where I can breathe in the winter months without inhalers, air purifiers and dehumidifiers.
Schooling: The schooling options are increasingly almost prohibitively expensive. Public education is strong in some aspects, but not nearly all students aspire to University even in private school. 50% of kids will not go beyond 10th grade in the pubic schools here. Some will go on to trade schools, and many do not even aspire to University. Most expats have a lifestyle and cultural experience that would be difficult to replicate for their kids without including a basic University degree…my opinion. A challenge for bringing your older expat kids to Uruguay is that some of the major private schools are not too welcoming of foreign kids so it can be a real challenge to break in socially. Expat kids (we like Third Culture Kids) need to discover and develop a talent that helps them have their own identity. Young children can adapt, but adolescents and teens are in for a tough time to break into the closed social dynamics of many private schools.
A bright spot is that teachers tend to be very loving, affirming and available to help students who want to be helped. Social life here (as everywhere) for teens really depends entirely on having a circle of friends to hang out with. Schooling issues and challenges for the children are probably primary reasons why families choose to leave in spite of other benefits they are experiencing.
All things considered, twelve years into our adventure, I would say that we have grown to appreciate Uruguay, but it is the deep friendships that keep us here. So lower your expectations, slow down, walk, breathe, cook over an open fire and invite some folks over…meaningful friendships are just waiting for you!