There’s only one word to describe lying in the middle of a eucalyptus grove full of cow shit being woken up sunburnt and sore, at 5PM by the sound of racehorse hooves and trucks blaring cumbia, going to the cooler and having to dig through two dozen cans of the cheapest Brazilian beer before finding a bottle of water:
There’s only one word that justifies the following food intake:
-8 AM choripan
-Noon: asado de tira con papas fritas
-8PM: panchos con torta frita
There’s only one word that describes a night out where you return home 23 hours after you left, rolling down the 7 to full blast Kumbia Base:
There’s only one word to describe a party where jeans, a plaid button up with at least two buttons undone, a vest in colder weather, and even a beret, is par for the course:
There’s only one word to describe seeing students and their teachers, bus drivers and their passengers, doctors and their patients, parents and their children, anyone and everyone from miles around sharing a drink, a dance and a laugh:
There’s only one word to answer the question I always get from friends in Montevideo about living up here on the Cuchilla “Como que no te aburris alla!?”:
There’s only one word that sums up the best of life here deep in the heart of Uruguay:
There are a lot of things I knew about before coming here. Things I’ve been reading for nearly 10 years. People like their meat, their mate, their football, and are generally pretty relaxed, unhurried, etc…I’ve come here and realized how gloriously true all of this is. But I’ve also come to know traditions, and basic facts of life, that I hadn’t the faintest idea about before showing up. Raid is not something that you’ll see in a guidebook for foreign travelers. Sebastian Beltrame does mention various raides in his calendar of events in En Foco but not so much as can’t miss weekends as simply another thing to go see and do. Wikipedia directs your search to the article enduro ecuestre, which mentions an endurance horse race in its most literal terms, with none of the surrounding social events, and no specific reference to its importance to Uruguayan culture, much less Uruguay period. Even in my first two months in Montevideo, I don’t remember learning the word raid. Several times on subsequent visits to the capital, I’ve mentioned raides to people and received blank stares. All of which is to say that a raid is a phenomenon very particular to the Interior of Uruguay, and indeed in Uruguayan parlance “que fenomeno el raid che!”
So what is it exactly? It’s a party, it’s a festival, and it’s a sporting event. In a place with deficit of culture in the traditional sense of concerts, art galleries, and first division football, the raid is everything. To understand it a bit more, let me break it into its component parts:
-A raid hípico occurs somewhere in Uruguay every weekend from the beginning of March to the end of November.
-There are short track horse races (raides cortos) on Saturday and Sunday throughout the day at a track on the outskirts of the given town.
-There is a long distance horse race (raid largo) of up to 120km on Sunday morning. Often times you get out of the dance in time to see the horses on their way to the finish line.
-The “lunch” on Monday afternoons. Club members gather to award the race prizes, but open the club to the public for live music and asado, hence the name. As a daytime event it’s more open to people younger children and the elderly than the night dances are.
-There are dances on Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights beginning between 2 and 3:30 AM and ending sometime between 5:30 and 8 AM.
– A different social club organizes each weekend—the races and the dances—and enters horses in the races. Many towns have two clubs, which means more raides in that town over the course of the year.
-The music is provided by cumbia tropical bands. The bands are almost exclusively from the interior and not to be confused with cumbia plancha bands from Montevideo, the Uruguayan equivalent of Argentina’s cumbia villera. Among the most coveted today include Lucas Sugo y su banda, Malaga, Calipso, Kumbia Base and Sonido Profesional.
-Saturday nights are the most attended, and often feature two bands, either taking turns, or playing in separate rooms. The biggest dances can attract crowds of over 2,000 people, which is often more people than live in the town.
-All weekend long, clothes, tat and food kiosks line the area outside the club, which usually coincides with the main plaza.
-Raides are fundamentally rural. We’re not talking a posh suburban day at the races on Long Island. While there are raides in departmental capitals like Treinta-y-Tres and Melo, it’s small towns where the best raides are.
-Raides are not just specific to the interior of Uruguay, but almost exclusively to the eastern half. They are disproportionately concentrated in Canelones, Florida, Treinta-y-Tres, Cerro Largo, and Lavalleja Departments. There are almost no raides in the departments along the Rio de la Plata or the Rio Uruguay. A map of raid sites would help to illustrate two distinct cultural regions in Uruguay. For some analogy to the geography of raid hipico, Ruta 7 is to raid hipico as the SEC is to college football. The heartland if you will. It’s not something that’s celebrated much in Montevideo or the relatively less agrarian cities like Paysandu, Salto, Maldonado and Colonia.
-The horse races, known also as pruebas are part of a yearlong circuit, like FormulaOne or the PGA tour where points are tallied and accumulated.
-There is significant prize money involved in raids, with the most important races fetching over 100,000 Uruguayan pesos.
-Each raid has a different name, often having to do with some patriotic theme. For example the August raid in Santa Clara de Olimar is called “Independencia Nacional” because it falls very near Uruguay’s independence day. There are several raides named after battles (i.e. Raid “Batalla de Tupambaé) that took place in the towns.
-Per parliamentary decree in 2009, the town of Sarandi Grande in Florida Department is known as la cuna del raid, or the cradle of raid as it hosted the first raid in 1913.
-Club members and people involved in organizing the events are known as raidistas. A Raidista sweatshirt or sticker on your mate thermos is a badge of pride.
So this is the raid in a nutshell. But it’s a nut so worth cracking to revel in the simplicity of Uruguay and Uruguayan joda. It’s worth stressing how raids are the only thing around on any given weekend. The week leading up and the week following, it’s all the kids—and sometimes teachers–in school want to talk about. These towns are tiny, rarely bigger than 10,000 and very far apart, with a lot of nothing except cows in between. When there’s a raid on, it’s where everyone goes. It’s a chance for any small town to have its shining moment, the time of year where people pay attention to it. People come from all over. Gauchos and peones rurales turn up from deep in the campo. Folks from towns within a two-hour radius do their best to make a weekend out of the raid. It’s also occasion for the many locals living, studying and working in Montevideo to come back to their hometown to catch up with people for a reason that isn’t funerals or elections. I’ve been lucky to go to raides in several towns along Ruta 7 this year, and this weekend, I capped it off by going to the raid “Club Uruguay” in Fraile Muerto, which is the last, biggest, and arguably best of the year.
The type of joda involved in a raid is representative of Uruguayan leisure. It reeks neither of the “anti-social behavior” crisis in Britain, nor the problem we have in America with our campus alcohol and sexual assault culture. The booze is there and you drink it or you don’t. This is not to say that violence and abuse don’t happen (I have seen fights on two occasions), but that the overall atmosphere is one of inclusion rather than public disruption, secrecy or party at all costs. Part of this, I think, is that in small towns, people know each other, and watch out for one another, and if you really fuck up, the consequences are there for everyone to see and gossip about. This benevolent surveillance and density of social networks also helps to explain why a 14 year-old–that everyone knows is 14–can order a beer without anyone batting an eyelid. A lack of age distinctions and cliquishness/interest groups makes for a healthier experience on the whole.
On the one hand, raides are indicative of the lack of consumer choice and variety that define life in rural Uruguay. As the one show in town, it’s not like people have the option of going to different restaurants, bars and clubs offering a variety of services and products. I can’t choose between the opera, a jazz club, or a rock concert, and therefore can’t make a social signal about my preferences. However, there’s something refreshing and beautiful about not having leisure be broken up by demographics and tastes. As I will continue to stress, Uruguay, especially the interior, is a very lateral and anti-plural society, with relatively little hierarchy and compartmentalization. There’s just no fuss about the whole weekend. No decorations, no fancy costumes, or special drinks. No corporate sponsors, no advertising, no parades highlighting individuals or special groups, no charity fundraisers and no capital campaigns. It’s Uruguayan minimalism void of any pomp and circumstance. There are horse races going on so we go and have a good time. We don’t need anything else.
The joda extends to the races themselves. The winner of which, it is important to add, is an afterthought except for the few people who actually breed the horses. It almost has the feel of going to a minor league baseball game and watching from the berm, except without any of the pointless in-between inning “entertainment” promotions. You may know some of the players, but the result doesn’t matter. You’re there for a nice day out. You load your mates or your family in the truck, bring a cooler and some speakers. When the race is on you have the commentary running. When it’s in between races, it’s back to the cumbia. Cars and trucks are lined up inside and outside the track. All windows are open and flatbeds occupied. Just like what I saw on the ramblas in Fray Bentos and Mercedes last weekend, the cars become an active part of public space. And I don’t just mean the people in them, but yes, the cars and trucks themselves. This is not something a pedestrian or a bike could pull off (Hear that, Copenhagen?). And if you’re going to go all density on me, I will add that vehicles on the premises for the final race at Fraile on Sunday had an average of five people in and/or on them, sometimes with as many as 7 riding in the flatbed of a pickup.
And to part, did I mention the music? I’ve never fallen in love with anything like it. Befitting the whole atmosphere of the weekend, and life here in general, there are no pretensions what so ever. It’s a mix of swing your partner round and round, shake that thing, trance, and tacky 80s. But I swear it’s objectively good music. The bands are all local boys. Raids are their biggest shows and where they make their name. The music itself draws upon many different Latin styles, and often resembles cumbia from Argentina, Colombia and the Caribbean, yet doesn’t have any urgency. There’s a very relaxed spirit sincerely talking about everyday things untouched by studios and fat contracts, sung neither too vulgarly, nor too vacuously. There are happier songs and sadder songs, songs about love, songs about partying, but none of it is over the top. It’s all so even keel in a distinctly Uruguayan retranqui way. This country has many great well-documented musical traditions, see: candombe, folklore, and tango, but like raides themselves, cumbia tropical very much takes a back seat to these other genres in guidebooks and outside knowledge of Uruguay. Here in the profundo interior, I’m happy to report that kumbia (yes with a K) is king. And thanks in no small part to raid.
Here’s a bit of Chacho to leave you in the mood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlVkwQDZSqE