Archive for the 'Uruguay' Category
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
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Why does everything have to be so hard?
This is the opening lines to one of my favorite songs from Avenue Q, and every time it shuffles through my iPod, I’m reminded that I’m not the only one who poses this question to myself on a regular basis these days. As much as we love traveling and experiencing new places, our energy for this trip is flagging. It’s not the traveling part as much as the planning for the traveling. Ours stars must have been out of alignment in recent weeks, because at every turn we have been met with resistance. Everything has been hard.
It’s a million little things that add up to something big. We are tired of simple tasks, like a phone call, taking hours to complete. We are tired of always thinking ahead to the next task that needs to be completed. We are tired of making a million choices a day and being wracked with indecision. We are tired of feeling constantly disoriented. But perhaps what I’m most tired of is dashed expectations. Nothing ever turns out like I think it will, and I guess I’m a fool if I haven’t learned this lesson yet. But my frustrations were illustrated beautifully at lunch yesterday.
We sat down under a shady umbrella on a cobblestone street in Colonia for lunch. The menu del dia had attracted me with its reasonable prices and multiple, fresh-sounding options. I ordered the spaghetti, expecting a steaming plate of pasta dressed with some sort of tomato sauce. You know, your average spaghetti. I was shocked when I saw the waitress carry out a plate with a mound of yellow. atop As it was delivered to me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in front of me, sat a huge plate of pasta with a pittance of shredded cheese atop. There was no butter. No salt. No pepper. “You got Noodles Jefferson,” said Maikael. He was referring, of course, to The Daily Show episode in which Jon Stewart reported that the diet of Gitmo prisoners had been called into question on Capitol Hill; fears were quelled when a communique stated that the prisoners were served Noodles Jefferson on a regular basis, a fancy pants name for buttered noodles with cheese. “Seeing as though I have no butter on my noodles, this isn’t even as good as what prisoners get,” I responded. Maikael insisted it wasn’t a conspiracy laid forth by the Uruguayan government, but I had my doubts.
I can’t wait until I can sleep in my own bed, take a bath when I want to, make a phone call without serious effort, trust that the faucet will produce warm water, and order spaghetti and know exactly what I’m in for.7 comments