Making Friends with Street Vendors

We’ve walked past them before. We’ve smiled and continued on with our determined route. We might have even stopped to buy artwork or listen to music before leaving a few coins. But have you ever tried to get to know a local street vendor or entertainer?

Luckily I had the chance, and time, to do so on the walking street (Peatonal Sarandi) of Montevideo, Uruguay. What started out with a couple of intriguing moments turned into two months full of experiences.

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Fabian sells old articles, books, and records (ranging from tango albums to The Mamas and The Papas). But if you spend an hour around him it’s realized that he is not on the street to only make money. He thrives on reaching out to others in passionate conversation – whether with foreigners or locals. Fabian will easily spend 15 minutes teaching a tourist about the relatively recent Uruguayan dictatorship. He’s constantly speaking with his hands – I can effortlessly picture him asking, “Que?” with a wince in his face and cupping his hand upward to the sky. And of course, as a true Uruguayan, Fabian always has his mate gourd around.

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Antonio the Payaso (Clown) adores interacting with kids – whether getting them to stick their tongues out or asking random questions. He has a patience with everyone that consistently impresses me – with a shy child who takes time to warm up, with a druggie who is having a hard time finding the words to ask for a cigarette, or with showing a traveler how to properly drink mate. He plays his flute roughly 50% of the time; the rest is spent wishing others a good day and to be happy. I have seen a lot of peoples’ reactions while sitting next to the Payaso – ranging from smiles to harsh expressions that made me want to yell at the passerby. But Antonio continues to flute along paying no attention to the negative glances while making his immediate environment a more positive one.

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Then there is Alberto. I think he sells art on the street, but I have never seen him next to his own display. He roams Peatonal Sarandi striking up topics with the other locals. Always one to laugh, Alberto also has a serious side as revealed when he debated land ownership in America versus in Uruguay. But if you hear a joke being told, Alberto is usually the one delivering it (although I can’t affirm if he’s actually funny – a combination of Uruguayan slang and cultural idiosyncrasies leaves me somewhat clueless when others are rolling in chuckles).

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The code of the Peatonal Sarandi crew (I like to call them the Peatonal Partners) is straightforward. Be generous and sharing with one another. Don’t judge, but rather accept others for their differences. And the last code declares that there is no rush – sitting down to talk for an hour (or three) is what now is about. Each time I break this code, I undoubtedly hear, “Tranquilo,” which roughly translates in this context to, “Slow down, gringo.”

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If you are ever in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja section of town, please stop to say “Hola” to my buddies. Whether you are dressed in professional attire on a business trip, traveling through the town with your backpack or on another mission, these guys will welcome you into their world with smiles and most likely a mate session.

all photos by Dominic DeGrazier and may not be used without permission

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30 January 2010

Awesome article dude, and even more amazing photos. I feel like I know these guys already! Looking forward to meeting them in March :)