Lightbulbs by Suki Davis

While we've focused on retelling our experiences in Uruguay, there are some times when something is written so beautifully and thoroughly that it shouldn't be paraphrased. A wonderful friend of ours wrote the following article about the daily realities of life in Montevideo. Hope you enjoy. Lightbulbs by Suki Davis

I want to tell you about light bulbs, not that I have an inherent interest in the things themselves. As you may know, we have had a few spontaneous power outages in the past weeks and several of our bulbs had blown as a result.

While I was in the shops, I thought of my English student that evening and decided that we could not work in the half light. I went to the hardware aisle to pick up a couple. Dumbfounded I was, looking at the choices and styles. I read all the labels. Did I need a large base or small one? Did I need the conventional 60 watt or the fluorescent 11 watt that was equal to the 60 or the 7 watt one that was actually 45 but lasted eight times longer? Did I want the Germany trade mark brand or the Chinese made generic brand? Electricity here is very expensive. I looked and I left the store without new light bulbs.

At home, I removed light bulbs, scrutinized them, investigated the different types, even talked with a neighbour. Then, I could return to the store to buy the best bulbs.


Life in this new country is the step by step, sometimes painful, often funny, configuration of an ever changing puzzle. The bulbs are just one piece. The electricity bill is another. Bus lines, bank lines, bargains and swindles, little bits of things are always poking up their heads and laughingly saying, "Just when you thought you knew something..."

And I guess I am learning something. In the same way that once you have heard a particularly good story, you are forever changed by it and with that knowing, you can never go back. I think once you move to another country, you are changed right down to the core. Even though I sometimes miss my home country terribly, I realize that if we returned tomorrow, I would also miss Uruguay.

I would miss the rich smell of asado cooking, the sweet smell of jasmine, the open markets where I buy vegetables so fresh that they surprise me, where the vendors sing out the praises of their wares, "Ripe ready tomatoes, 15 pesos a kilo," of the warmth of people here, the constant kisses of greeting and of adios, how easy it is to spend time together, how families are close and caring. And also, I have encountered the other life that lives parallel to us. We just don't sense it with such ferocity in the first world.

We live in a middle class neighbourhood. It is not ritzy. Garbage is collected from our dumpsters at night by a big truck that dumps each bin into its hold and through the day, people come by on horse drawn carts to glean whatever recyclables and useful items they can find. I love the clip clop sound of the hooves and I used to tell our kids, "Oh, that man got quite a score," when we saw a man emerging from a bin with a handful of plastic bottles. I wanted them to identify with this guy, that he was working, that he was a hunter gatherer, that he was just like us.

RecyclersAnd more and more, since our first visit in 2002, there are carts that now are pulled by a man or woman, maybe they have a bike and maybe they have a kid or two with them. There is even a group of people that have no carts at all but they roam the streets with patched up knapsacks and sticks to prop up the lid of the dumpster.

And I want to recognize the dignity of the work, as their other option could be crime, or violence, or giving in. I hang bags of bottles and recyclables outside the bin so they are easy to get at. I set out left-overs. I might even think I am doing my part.

And then, the other day, I was dropping our daughter off at her school and a little girl who usually begs from cars at the nearby stop light was looking in the window of the kindergarten class. The teacher came to close the curtain but the little girl stayed, peaking through a crack, until her mother called her back to her responsibilities. She left, her white public school uniform stained and her hair wild.

I walked home and saw a little boy, maybe 3, standing outside of a dumpster, chewing on a bit of bread. The lid of the dumpster cracked open a little wider and his father handed him out another something to eat. The kid's eyes were wide and wild.

Here, a friend of mine told me that when she said to her mother, "I am hungry", her mother responded, "You don't know what hunger is." And the other day, I went a massage therapist (and to me, everything is a Spanish lesson,) and we talked and she felt pride that our poverty here is nothing like that of Bolivia, Columbia, Peru. We have literacy. We have school lunch programs. We have a new government.

Here in this country where cheese is taxed 22% and tobacco is hardly taxed at all, I am being changed from the inside out. I feel like I am hearing the story up close and I can never go back.