Archive for the 'Culture' Category
Sunday, March 1, 2009
When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, an ancient village nestled in the Sacred Valley that’s been continuously inhabited since Inca times, we noticed a white station wagon ambling down the road. Its windshield was crusted in flowers, and it left a plume of toilet paper and colorful confetti in its wake. Later that afternoon we stumbled upon the village church, a white adobe beauty with old church bells. As we creeped through the massive front doors we stepped upon a blanket of confetti littering the courtyard. Inside, the pews were lined with fresh flowers that had been affixed to the ends of each aisle, with enough tape to withstand hurricane-force winds. We continued down the cobbled streets, watching in amazement as two men cradled an enormous pot of something. Then we saw the arch of pink and white balloons gracing a crowded doorway. All the signs were there: a wedding reception was in progress.
We curiously ducked our heads in the doorway, and within seconds were greeted by a man with deep pink eyes where the whites should have been. He looked as if was having a very good time. “Is it a wedding?” we asked. “Yes, please, come in, come in,” he encouraged. We looked nervously back and forth between one another, debating as to whether we should continue, but before we had a chance to respond, we were being passed through the crush of villagers to the front of the packed room. Rows of men, women, and children sat shoulder to shoulder on simple benches wearing everyday clothes in the dimly lit reception hall, and by the time we arrived to the clearing in the front of the room, all eyes were on us. Nearly the entire population of Ollantaytambo must have been there. We were officially Peruvian Wedding Crashers.
We found ourselves standing squarely in front of the head table, the bride and groom seated directly before us. I noticed that the couple was older. The bride was wearing a simple white wedding dress, with a veil and confetti sprinkling her coal hair, which was pulled back from her smooth, round, solemn face. Her husband was dressed in a simple navy suit and he sat to her right, looking equally serious. Two more men and women flanked their sides, dressed in casual business attire. What appeared to be the couple’s family sat in benches to the immediate left and right of the head table, and before someone offered us their seats, we ducked into the nearest doorway.
That doorway turned out to be the service entrance, and we watched wait staff clad in jeans and cozy sweaters parade enormous platters of drinks and dreamy pink wafer cookies through the opening. First came the chicha, a classic Peruvian firewater, served in tiny plastic Dixie cups; the servers insisted we each take one, which we happily accepted. A band played in the background, four men dressed a la Jefferson Starship in bright blue, sparkly tops and pants with silver cuffs. They were playing rousing renditions of nouveau Andean music, but the crowd sat completely still, in total silence, never clapping after the songs. It was a very strange paradox.
After a few enthusiastic songs, champagne glasses filled to the brim with agolden chica were served to the head table, and the speeches began. During one of the speeches we learned the couple already had two girls – they must have been the ones running around in frilly white dresses. No one clapped after the speeches. A round of pisco sours were served, and the wait staff coaxed us once again to drink up. I could swear that the groom made direct eye contact with me; I smiled and raised my glass to him. He did the same.
Next came the bouquet toss, and the band called for all the single girls to come to the front of the reception hall. Only one girl, dressed in a pink T-shirt and jeans, reluctantly made her way to the empty circle in front of the head table. The band leader called again for all the single girls, and she was eventually joined by a small clutch of young women. The bride stood with her back to the girls, limply holding the bouquet in her hand. “Uno,” called the band leader, the trill of a drumroll in the background. “Dooooooos,” he said, in his most high-pitched voice. “Dos y media. Trrrrrrrrres!” She didn’t throw the bouquet. It was a psych out bouquet toss that the band leader and the bride had worked out in advance. Nobody laughed. They went through the motions again, and when the bouquet was finally tossed, there was no mad dash and screaming as would have transpired in the United States. Instead, it silently bounced off the girl in the pink shirt and landed at her feet. Everyone stared blankly at it. No one would pick it up, so the band leader staged a redo. The bouquet landed once again at pink shirt’s feet, which she reluctantly picked up and shyly showed to the crowd. Nobody clapped.
The same routine transpired with the single men, but instead of a garter, a sprig of white flowers was thrown; the men were slightly less reluctant than the women. Afterwards, the bride and groom danced with the young man and woman who had caught the bouquet and flowers. It was not unlike something you might see at a junior high school dance. The couples awkwardly shifted to and fro across the dance floor, staring vacantly over the shoulder of one another at some far away point on the ceiling that only they could see, never making eye contact.
After the dancing, frosty Cusquena beers in amber bottles were produced from plastic crates and passed amongst the crowd. Now the head table had a tidy row of chica, pisco sours, and beer placed in front of them. Mr. Jefferson Starship announced something, which caused a group of young women to race towards the wedding cake, a fluffy white thing sitting below an ancient sign framed by two swans which read, Nuestra Boda. Our wedding. It was then that I noticed the decorations, or lack thereof. Some flowers were taped to the walls of the hall within an inch of their life (clearly, whoever was responsible for the décor at the church had continued their rein here). A few streamers clung to railings. The cake was topped with a western bride and groom, but a golden llama eclipsed the plastic couple in the foreground. There was no photographer. In fact, hardly any of the guests had cameras. This was no Martha Stewart extravaganza. More than anything, it seemed to be a community affair, a gathering of people assembled to wish this newlywed couple well. Everyone was invited. Even us.
To the crowd’s delight, some sort of a string was pulled from the cake. Then, the cake was cut, yielding massive slices for the bride and groom, who promptly proceeded to smear icing all over each other’s faces. Some things are universal. Just then, the now-bulging crowd parted, as four men supporting massive trays that cradled giant bowls snaked their way towards the head table. It was soup: this was what was inside that giant pot that those men had been parading through the streets earlier in the afternoon. Soon, bowls were passed to everyone in the hall, containing the most delicious creamy corn soup I had ever laid eyes upon. Bowls were passed to us, but we politely declined. The feast was just beginning, and we couldn’t impose any longer.
As we pushed our way back through the masses, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible (impossible), we were greeted by our “friend”, his eyes looking more red than ever. He encouraged us to stay, but we thanked him for letting us be a part of this experience, the kindness of strangers never failing to amaze. There is a time in my life, in the not-too-distant past, where going blindly into an experience like this would have completely terrified me. But I found myself saying “yes,” walking happily into the unknown, glad to be invited to be part of something very simple and very sweet.4 comments
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Setting sail from the shores of Lake Titicaca feels like passing through a veil into another world. A series of small islands, just minutes from the mainland, awaits, with their own language, culture, and traditions. Scads of tour operators from Puno run daily tours to the islands, but the best way to experience these distinct communities is by taking the local boat solo and seeing life up close and personal for oneself.
We first boarded the local boat, a tiny skiff anchored in Puno’s harbor, to Uros, the famous Islas Flotantes (Floating Islands). We were the only gringos on board, surrounded by locals apparently on vacation. After passing through a gauntlet of spring green reeds, we reached what has to be the world’s coolest Coast Guard tower, a mammoth thing constructed entirely of reeds! Soon we were floating amongst the remarkable Floating Islands, patches of woven grass – some no bigger than a few meters wide – that float gently on the lake’s glassy surface. The islands were first constructed during Inca times, when a group of villagers, tired of the warring factions between Incas and Spaniards, created a refuge on the lake.
While the islanders traditionally earned their living through fishing, tourism now provides their primary income stream, which is evident from the moment the boat reaches shouting distance of the island. A group of women, dressed in colorful skirts and blouses, ran to the reedy edge to greet us, smiling, laughing, and greeting us in Quechua, the islanders’ first language. Before we knew it we were tromping on the slightly squishy “ground,” being shepherded to a bench constructed entirely of reeds to learn more about the islands’ construction (the root systems on the undersides of the reeds are bound together and anchored to the lake’s floor). Small group of families live together on an island, sharing resources and income generated from the beautiful handicrafts they create.
After spending the morning hopping lazily from island to island, our appetite was whetted to journey farther afield, so we made arrangements to spend the following evening on Isla Amantani, one of Lake Titicaca’s least touristed islands. We considered taking an organized tour to the island, which promised ease of planning, but opted to take the risk of going it on our own and arranging a trip through the local boat system. After dodging touts at the entrance to the public dock, we managed to find our way to the office that manages trips to the islands, with each island maintaining their own ticketing system (a benefit of buying directly is that more profit passes directly to the islanders, rather than a tour company taking their cut).
We presented ourselves to the dock early the next morning, quickly realizing that we really were on the local boat. We sandwiched ourselves between clutches of dark and weathered women dressed in brightly colored, traditional garb, from hand-stitched tops to flouncy wool skirts. One of a handful of tourists on the boat, we settled in for what promised to be a long boat ride. In traveling the world, I am constantly amazed at the patience that everyday people exhibit. Some napped. The women chatted in small groups, filling their skirts with handfuls of puffed Andean grains, snacking and laughing. One man, donning an outrageously colorful hat, sat reading Cosmic Conflict. Another woman listened to an old school iPod, a set of modern earbuds attached to an ancient transistor radio. A little girl with a sweetly round face and wide set eyes, wearing a blue chenille jumpsuit, started intently at us for hours, undoubtedly spooked by the white ghosts sitting across from her.
Four hours later the boat glided into a lovely stone harbor under sunny skies, and we were greeted by a group of women dressed in traditional clothing, with large, black shawls draped over their head, embellished with stunning embroidery. Each tourist was quickly assigned to a “host family,” waiting on the shore, for our evening’s stay. Sonia shyly shook our hands and led us along the rocky shoreline, zooming up the hill ahead of us as we huffed and puffed, still struggling with any type of physical exertion at 13,000 feet. Sweeping views of green farmland stretched in every direction, and I jogged ahead to ask Sonia what the deep purple plants sporting small pearls atop, looking like broccoli, were. “Quinoa,” she replied, simply. I should have guessed. There were also leafy potato, oca, and habas (lima bean) plants, arranged in tidy rows.
We quickly settled into our room, complete with a woven straw box spring, heavy wool blankets, and candles (although wired, there is no electricity on the island). We met Elvy and Delia, Sonia’s two darling kids who were smiley but shy and, like us, spoke Spanish as their second language. Lunch was brought to our room: quinoa soup, jewel-like potatoes, a fried strip of salty local cheese, rings of ruby tomatoes, and fluffy rice. Simple but simply delicious. Muna tea was served to help with the elevation, purportedly more effective than coca.
Eager to begin exploring the island, we asked Sonia direction to the ruins that dot the island. “Take the main road,” she said, and we laughed when a simple stone path emerged out of nowhere. “This is the main road?” I asked, incredulous. We made our way towards the modest town plaza, where small groups of islanders sat chatting, and poked our heads in the public health clinic (a list of islanders still in need of vaccinations graced the windows). Villagers passed up, always pausing to smile and say “good afternoon.” We continued up the hill: rustic rock walls corralled colorful crops, like stone stitches on a green quilt. Passing under impossibly old stone arches, I felt like I was living a scene from Mama Mia.
Night falls early in Peru, and after a long walk, we returned back home in the waning light, where Sonia was busy preparing dinner. We huddled around a roaring fire in the rustic adobe structure that served as a kitchen, asking her a million questions about food preparation as she grabbed handfuls of this and pinches of that and added them to boiling clay pots. Soon we were joined by Vidal, Sonia’s gregarious husband who asked us a million questions as we dined on free-form dumplings and a steaming bowl of diced potatoes, carrots, and rice. He asked us what we thought of President Obama, how to make a website, and where Switzerland was located. Apparently, an islander had recently married a Swiss woman, who had lived on the island for a few months, and returned to Switzerland to live. Talk about a world away! Dinner ended at 8:30, and although it was still early, we fell asleep quickly, listening to the complete and utter silence that enveloped us wholly. It was one of the best nights of sleep we’ve enjoyed in weeks.
After a quick breakfast of fried egg stuffed in a delicate pillow of Peruvian bread, paid our bill: three meals and a night of accommodations ran us $15! We dashed off to the dock, which would transport us to Taquile, a neighboring island with its own set of traditions, where we reunited with the tourists from the day before, including a couple from Lima and a lovely family from British Columbia. As cattle ranchers, it was the first trip the family had taken abroad since their children, aged 10 and seven, were born. I so admired this experience they had given their kids, and couldn’t help but wonder what their memories from this very memorable overnight stay would be. It also renewed my faith in not only the ability but the joy in traveling internationally with children, who seem to be a magical talisman in connecting with locals. After a brief stop on Taquile, which was dampened by a soggy day, we spent the four-hour boat ride back talking with the Canadians and the limenas, language not posing much of a barrier. Hellen passed around photos from their ranch, and extended an invitation to stay with them in the future. I couldn’t help but think, once again, how we had met the most interesting people and had the most fun during one of our least expensive excursions. It was Big Kids’ Summer Camp all over again.
As we reach the end of this trip, my thoughts turn a great deal these days towards my life back home and how I want it to be different. I have been reminded so many times during this journey of how much I have, and how little I need to be happy. In fact, the less I have, the happier I seem to be. My greatest hope is that I can carry a piece of this feeling back with me.
Photos from our trip to Amantani and Taquile Islands are posted at the end of our Lake Titicaca album. Enjoy!6 comments
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
We knew we would hit Argentina at the peak of tourist season – we just didn’t consider that nearly all the tourists would be Argentine.
While the northern hemisphere is currently dodging snowflakes and bundled in layers of wool, Argentina’s cities are emptying, their residents seeking refuge in places like The Lake District, where cooler climes, verdant forests, and glittering blue lakes provide the perfect getaway for summer’s swan song. There are dozens of resort communities that dot the lakes, the season transforming sleepy hamlets into towns buzzing with activity…and bursting at the seams with masses of humanity.
We began our Lake District adventure in Bariloche, Argentina’s quintessential summer fun center. Originally settled as a German colony, Bavarian-style buildings grace a town ringed by deep woods, looking like a postcard from the Black Forest. At least, that’s how it probably used to look. What’s immediately apparent is that Bariloche has grown too big, too fast. The town’s central avenue is a mile-long strip of shops screaming for your attention, from tacky souvenir kiosks to the upscale chocolatiers that Bariloche is famous for. It’s also clear that the tourists are as diverse as the stores. Well-heeled portenos throw their pesos at decadent steak dinners, flowing heavily with velvety malbec, and cushy boat tours. Hotel Llao Llao, Argentina’s most iconic resort hotel, sits perched on the edge of a glistening lake, offering rooms and food as decadent as the views. Meanwhile, the emaciated, grungy South American backpackers, toting Doite backpacks, Quechua tents and spewing pitchouli in their wake, lounge in various states of repose in any available public space, crafting hemp bracelets, smoking heavily, and sharing vast quantities of mate.
It’s interesting that a town like Bariloche brings these two factions together, like some sort of battleground state. As an international tourist, it was a curious place to be in: we didn’t belong to either group, so we floated between both. During the days we took long, sunny hikes with the backpackers, summiting towering peaks that provided incomparable views of the jewel box lakes below, spread over the land like a collection of sparkling, sapphire rings. We spent our evenings in the midst of the portenos enjoying some of Argetina’s finest cuisine, the usual standbys of steak and pasta executed with exceptional skill, all washed down with regional red wines. Bariloche also offers Northern Patagonian specialties, including local lake trout, grapefruit-colored salmon, and tender lamb (and every shape of ravioli you can imagine stuffed with these succulent meats and fish). German dishes abound, with menus touting goulash with spatzel and buttery kuchen for dessert. After rich fondue and glasses of ruby wine, we groaned heavily as we walked home at midnight after dinner, back on Argentime.
Regardless of financial circumstances, Bariloche is one big cream puff, a South American Disneyland that offers escapism from everyday life. It’s a hard town to take too seriously. Between eating and shopping and lounging on the lake shore, every evening erupted into a flurry of activity. The Tren de Alegria, the Happiness Train, rumbled through town, a giant, cheery grin slapped on the face of the engine. People from all walks of life gathered around the impromptu bands that assembled on the sidewalks and squares, as electric tango and homegrown tunes drifted through the night. We giggled as one particularly good band, a group of men donning zany wigs, crazy clothes, and women’s dresses, captured a whole crowd’s attention with their music. A woman with purple butterfly wings weaved through the group blowing bubbles, as a band of kids danced like maniacs. A man with six improvised arms and faded pink leggings skirted the crowd, surprising people from behind. The backpackers were there. The portenos were there. Even we fit in.1 comment
Tuesday, February 4, 2009
I was trolling the streets of Chiloe, a small island community that has developed in relative isolation from Chile’s string bean mainland. Boasting its own culinary traditions, architecture, handicrafts, folklore, and even farming implements, I was feeling very cultured just breathing the same air as the Chilotas. We had exited a local artisan market, the only international tourists in the bunch. As I fingered the fine wool goods, a swarm of Spanish swirling around my head, I delighted in the fact that I could stop and have a conversation with a vendor who couldn’t guess where I was from, and wasn’t (yet) jaded by gringos. For the first time in weeks, I was a novelty. We purchased goofy wool hats and made our way up the street towards a fair that was spilling out from the church’s courtyard, a wooden relic protected by UNESCO, feeling very much at the end of the world.
Then, I saw it. At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but after a quick double take, the telltale lime green thumbprint registered in my brain. It was the van from The Mole, my favorite reality show of all time. In fact, it’s the only show I’ve pined for, obsessively monitoring CBS’s website for upcoming auditions. Once a program focused on contestants solving intellectual puzzles in exotic locations, the show took a turn for the worse in recent years, hitting bottom with Celebrity Mole Hawaii, which included such B-list gems as Stephen Baldwin, who starred as Barney in The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas, and Kathy Griffin. I was thrilled when the show was resurrected this summer, but disappointed when it debuted as a shadow of its former self, focusing on brawns over brain.
When the green thumbprint flashed before my eyes, emblazoned on a dented slate-colored van, my first thought was, “Oh my god, The Mole is filming their next season right here on Chiloe.” Suddenly, I had been transplated from the ends of the earth to Hollywood, and I found myself frantically scanning the church courtyard for obtrusive cameras. It was perfect, I thought, noticing that a variety of different games tables had been erected in the courtyard, imagining the contestants dashing from station to station. There would be quizzes on folk tales and races in the trineo, a Chilota farming invention used to ferry through muddy fields. There were be curanto eating contests, Chiloe’s native dish, a curious mix of pork, chicken, shellfish, and potatoes. The Mole: Chiloe would be the best season yet!
Then, memory and reason took hold. Last season had been filmed in Chile. I remember because I drooled over the dramatic Patagonian scenery and frosty pisco sours as they dashed around the country in a slate-grey van with a lime green thumbprint on the door!!! Clearly, after production had ended, the van had been sold to some Chilota, who probably wondered why they were driving a vehicle that looked like it could be some sort of crime solving machine.
Just as quickly as I had been reveling at finding myself in this remote location, I suddenly wanted nothing more than to plop myself down on my couch with an evening full of reality television at my fingertips.1 comment
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The one thing we really wanted to do in Uruguay was visit an estancia, essentially a large tract of open farmland where livestock roam and gauchos rule the roost. In recent years a number of tourist-oriented estancias have opened their doors, in the hopes of giving visitors an intimate understanding of rural life. Uruguay boasts over 200 government-designated estancias turisticas (Argentina offers even more), but many of them offer subpar experiences, pushing hundreds of tourists through 20-minute pony rides and bad parrilla buffets.
We were looking for the real deal. We wanted to ride alongside real gauchos, the ones with floppy berets and baggy jodhpur pants whose job was wrangling cattles, not posing for photos for Linda from Pismo Beach. We wanted to sing folk songs from the campo, cook tender cuts of meal over a roaring campfire, and recline on a nappy wool poncho while sipping mate under a canopy of stars. While we’re not plucking hay out of our hair, we found the next best thing at Estancia La Sirena, which we soon discovered was one of the three oldest estancias turisticas in the country, having shown farm life to city folk like us for nearly 20 years.
After a four-hour bus ride from Montevideo to Mercedes, a rural hamlet on Uruguay’s western border, we were collected by Juan, sporting blond curls and piercing ice-blue eyes. Much like Argentina, Uruguay was largely populated with Europeans in the 1800s, leading to people looking more Anglo than their indigenous neighbors to the north. On the bumpy ride in the pick-up truck to the estancia, another 20 kilometers down dusty lanes, Juan told us that the bus station had burned down. What he didn’t tell us was that the bus station had burned down the day before, and that trying to buy an outbound ticket would become a difficult task in the coming days.
When we finally pulled up to La Sirena in a plume of dust, we were greeted with a gorgeous sand-colored manor house that looked like something straight out of New Mexico with its Spanish colonial architecture, a jumble of adobe, wrought iron, tile, wood, sweeping portals, and chunky vigas. The guestrooms abutted the main house: there were only six rooms, and only one other guest staying the first night. A lazy windmill sat in the center of the yard, surrounded by a battalion of rustic lounge furniture. At the edge of the yard sat a crumbling stone shed, which had been converted to an outdoor parrilla. Wheat-colored farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, the only sound for miles a cacophony of birdsong.
A delicious homemade lunch was served: wedges of vegetable empanadas; rolls of tender pork stuffed with red peppers; delicately roasted baby potatoes and carrots, dotted with the ubiquitous Uruguayan mayonnaise; a fresh chopped salad of soft lettuce and ruby red tomatoes; and fruit for dessert. Always fruit for dessert. Full and happy, we took an afternoon siesta, then enjoyed afternoon tea with fluffy, fresh-baked butter cake.
As we munched, we were greeted by Lucia Bruce, the matriarch, who runs the estancia with the help of her husband, Rodney Bruce; between the two of them, speak excellent English, French, and, of course, Spanish. Lean, lithe, and tan, we weren’t surprised to learn that Lucia had been a tennis champion in a former life; in fact, the whole family seemed to be accomplished sportsmen. The evidence lain in the den, whose shelves were crammed with tarnished metal cups and fading photographs extolling countless victories.
After getting to know one another, Lucia provided us a tour of the property. The house, which once belonged to Rivadavia, the first president of Argentina, was purchased and carefully restored nearly 12 years ago. She pointed out hidden nooks and crannies, magical spiral staircases, trap doors, and decorative details, all with a history. Lucia shared information about the country’s history, too; the Rio Plata, which translates as the Silver River and connects Uruguay and Argentina, was believed to be the passageway to Inca gold in Peru and beyond.
It was time to set out for our first horseback ride, personally guided by Lucia. After hoisting ourselves onto the animals – it had been quite some time since either of us had ridden, and our legs would pay the price the next day – we began to meander through the fields. Our horses ambled up beautifully parched hills, the cotton clouds floating overhead through an impossibly blue sky. Lucia stopped frequently to identify local flora and fauna, relay anecdotes about local history, and share some of her own personal history. We eventually made our way down to the cobalt river, where lazy burnt sienna cows grazed and glanced sideways at us. After a long, hot day, the water was inviting, and after changing behind a stand of trees we plunged into the cool water and floated dreamily in the late afternoon sun.
The sun dipped low in the sky, and we began our homeward journey, the horses trotting a little faster. “They know they’re going home,” Lucia said. As we mounted that same grassy hill, the sky was perfectly clear, pale blues bleeding into soft tangerine. I have heard people talk about big sky county, hinterlands where that great canopy seems to stretch like a canvas to the ends of the earth. Until then, I never understood what a big sky felt like. I found myself memorizing this moment, something I don’t often do, but it was one of the most exquisite sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. We enjoyed a crisp beer as the sun made its final descent, nibbling on local sausage and cheese as fireflies danced through the yard. After handcut pasta and a bottle of Uruguayan wine, I went to bed with a single thought planted firmly in my mind, one that I haven’t had much these days: I can’t believe this is my life.
The next day brought more beauty. It was a scorching day, so Lucia arranged to take us to the river. She drove her battered, ancient Mercedes to the water’s edge (I completely delighted in the fact that she drove a Mercedes in the town of Mercedes), and we edged ourselves into the bracing water, fighting our way through the current to the pebble-strewn sandbar in the middle of the river. Here we began a simple but surprisingly fun routine: walk to the edge of the sandbar, let the river carry you downstream to the other end of the sandbar, and repeat until sunburned. After lunch and a siesta, we headed out on horseback back to the river, where Rodney met us with his boat. We motored to another section of the placid river, breezing past deserted beaches and reedy shores. Frolicking in the sand of a tiny strip of beach had never been such fun: these were truly life’s simple pleasures. As we trotted back towards the house at twilight, I found myself singing, “Home on the Range.” Even Lucia joined in.
Back at the ranch, we had requested a traditional Uruguayan parrilla, which our hosts happily arranged. A fire roared in the massive outdoor oven over a system of steel ramps, where slabs of meat sputtered under a tent of corrugated tin. Angel, La Sirena’s talented cook, explained the unique Uruguayan style of grilling as he flipped the meat and shoveled glowing orange embers from under the oven’s elevated fire and transferred them to just below the meat. The meat is grilled on an incline, wherein the fat runs down a plank and not on top of the simmering coals, which would create a direct flame. “This is nothing like an Argentine parrilla,” Angel assured us. “They use charcoal. It’s a totally different taste.” By 11 o’clock the extended family was assembled and we were ready to start dinner. First, grilled salchichas, fat medallions of country sausage, were presented on a wooden trencher. When those were polished off, multiple courses of meat were served, from beef tenderloin to rack of lamb. Great spoonfuls of chimichurri were dabbed on the meat, an especially popular Uruguayan condiment of chopped parsley, coarse garlic, and oil and vinegar: potent but delicious. Potato salad and green salad rounded out the meal. “A very typical Uruguayan parrilla,” confirmed Rodney. Over dinner we talked about politics and the US’s relations with Latin America. We talked about our trip. We talked about how we met 11 years ago. It was a real family meal.
People often ask us what have been our favorite countries that we’ve visited on this trip. It’s an impossible question to answer. Rather, there are certain experiences that we’ll never forget: this is one of them. As we sat waiting for our bus that would take us from Mercedes to Buenos Aires, the burnt shell of the station to our backs, we were grateful that Lucia had spent hours the day before procuring tickets on our behalf, as a ticket counter no longer existed. Sure, we didn’t see any gauchos at La Sirena, but as we waited a man in flannel shirt tucked into baggy forest green pants, an alpine-looking hat perched on his salt and pepper head, hopped onto a bus. “Look!” I cried to Maikael. “A real live gaucho!” It wasn’t what I expected. It never is. But it was good enough for me.No comments
Friday, January 9, 2009
What do you know about Uruguay?
Chances are, not much. I know I certainly didn’t. Cast off in a largely forgotten corner of South America as the continent’s smallest Spanish-speaking country, a thumbnail of land sandwiched between giants Brazil and Argentina, it hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves as a tourist destination. Most visitors, if they make it here at all, head to Colonia for a day trip from Buenos Aires, or hit the souped up beach resort of Punta del Este, which people joke is a suburb of Argentina. Indeed, nearly 50% of all Uruguayan tourists hail from Argentina, but even a brief introduction to the country indicates that Uruguay is one hour but light years away from its tony neighbor.
We began our whirlwind tour of Uruguay in Colonia, opting to stay the night rather than make the typical day trip. A former Portuguese outpost, the town is postcard perfect, offering shady, tree-lined streets; rows of tidy, colorful buildings; stretches of rough-hewn, cobblestone streets that edge towards the water; and total peace and quiet. It was hard to believe that we were only an hour from the honking and buzzing of Buenos Aires.
I immediately noticed that Uruguay is a cultural blend of its neighboring Argentina and Brazil. With Argentina they share their Italian heritage; the gaucho culture, South America’s maverick cowboys; and a curious penchant for mate (pronounced “mah-tay”). This was a custom that I previously associated with Argentina, but its roots seem to run deeper in Uruguay. Mate, a bitter herbal tea, is meant to be shared, a cup often passed between friends, whiling away a lazy afternoon. Uruguayans tote their own mate cups around everywhere, filled to the brim with a bright green concoction of herbs, a thermos loaded with hot water and tucked under their arms to facilitate easy refills throughout the day. Mate cups look like a hollow gourd, a slender metal “straw” resting on the side. Street vendors sell mate accoutrement, from cup holders to metal “tripods” to brushes to clean the straws, and it’s the only place I’ve been in the world where you can purchase new thermos lids on a street corner. Montevideo’s beaches are crammed to the gills with mate-toting locals on a Saturday afternoon, and toy stores sell “My First Mate” sets for kids.
The influence of Brazil is felt in Uruguay’s musical traditions. After the day trippers emptied out of Colonia, we had the town to ourselves for an evening. As we strolled towards dinner in the waning light, bemoaning our recent turn of bad luck, I heard a rhythmic beat pulsing nearby. “Oh god,” I groaned, “not a drum circle.” Suddenly, from around a corner, a flash of red and white appeared, swooping to and fro. A noisy procession of people was making their way down the street, a cadre of energetic samba dancers followed by a clutch of exuberant drummers, led by a young guy waving a gigantic flag. It was a candombe, an informal street dance that erupts in neighborhoods, usually on the weekends.
We watched the mass slowly shimmy their way down the street, and I was most impressed by the elderly man and woman who shook their rumps while wielding canes. This type of procession is something I’ve always associated with carnaval and Brazil, but I’ve had a serious education since arriving in Uruguay. Candombes take place year-round, although things heat up around carnaval as groups intensify their practice sessions in anticipation of the real deal. And while we’ve come to associate carnaval with Brazil, the celebration takes place all over South America, with major events in Bolivia and Colombia. I just had no idea that Montevideo’s carnaval, a 100-plus-year tradition, was so huge.
My education continued at the Museo del Carnaval in Montevideo, a repository of artifacts and knowledge related to the city’s strong carnaval tradition. We were lucky enough to catch an English-speaking tour, led by the passionate Vicente, which provided strong insight into the carnaval experience. Much like Mardi Gras, carnaval is a grand party that precedes Lent (the only difference being that carnaval lasts 40 days rather than one drunken week). But the first seeds were planted nearly 200 years ago, when Africans from Angola and Congo found their way to Uruguay, typically as slaves. At that time nearly 70% of the population was Black, compared to the 5% of present day. The Spanish didn’t allow the Africans to practice their traditions inside Montevideo’s city walls, so they moved outside to play their music, often shackled at the ankles. It was here that candombe was born, a shuffling wave of song and dance that paraded through the streets.
Eventually, the secular and nonsecular united, the traditions of African celebration combining with the religious ideals brought forth by the Spanish. Candombes were traditionally led not by someone carrying a flag but a broom, used to “sweep away” any evil spirits that might be lurking. Next in the procession came two people, one carrying a moon and the other the sun. Then were the figures of “mother” and “father,” the mother wearing a flouncy, colorful dress and the father bedecked in a stodgy black suit, carrying a doctor’s bag crammed with herbs. Next came the dancers, and finally the drummers.
Vincente showed us the largest drum to ever be carried in a candombe procession. It weighed 10 kilograms, and the drummer propped it on his knees for hours as he paraded through the streets, all for the chance to win a big bottle of wine and a place in the history books. The original drummer returned to the museum last year: his knees are still scarred 30 years later. Vicente proudly showed us some of his own “war wounds.” “This one’s from January sixth,” he told us, pointing to a scarlet gash on the side of his finger. “You get hurt, but it’s a sacrifice. You don’t feel the pain while you’re playing. Not until after.”
Something I didn’t know about carnaval is that the candombe is only one part of the celebration. Murgas are also important, essentially theatrical performance that take place in hundreds of massive, hand-made stages all over town.
Modern day carnavals also place a huge emphasis on floats – but this is no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Vicente complained that carnaval had become increasing commercial over the years, and the city was trying to get back to its roots. There is a huge influence on delivering a social message through carnaval, the result of which placed a significant damper on the event during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the museum is educating people on how to make their own floats out of recycled materials, emphasizing that carnaval is the people’s parade in which imagination trumps money. (For those Seattleites out there, think Fremont Solstice celebration.) The museum displays an amazing variety of hand-made costumes, papier mache figures, and floats, all born out of the human spirit of ingenuity. A Hugo Chavez mask took centerstage. “We like to make fun of political figures,” Vicente said, “including our own. We haven’t made an Obama mask…yet!”
Despite its similarities to its neighbors, Uruguay is just different enough to feel distinct. Milk comes in plastic bags, the mechanics of which baffle us. Chivito sandwiches are all the rage. The people are super friendly and laid-back, and with a capital city of only 1.5 million people, everything feels small and cozy. Rolling into Montevideo a few days ago, I felt like I did when I arrived in Portugal, that I had discovered a unique corner of the world that wasn’t overrun by tourists.
We met two older ladies on a sidewalk in Colonia one evening. They had propped themselves up in battered lawn chairs next to their apartment building, a common sight in Uruguay, and before we knew it we were telling them our tales of woe from the past week. The next day we found them in much the same position, as if they had never gone to sleep, and our conversation continued. We covered a variety of topics, from global warming to the ills of texting. I was floored that they had been to Montevideo, nearly three hours away, but had never been to Buenos Aires, visible from the very spot they were sitting. They seemed equally surprised that two young people wanted to take the time to chat with them. “Most young people, they are too busy.” The more talkative of the two summed up Uruguay’s mate culture best. “The most important thing in life is to take it easy and to get to know people.” If we weren’t running late for our bus, I’m pretty sure she would have passed the mate cup right then and there. We bid them a long goodbye, promising to return one day. “We’ll be right here, waiting!” they shouted after us. I hope so.No comments