Los Momentos Mas Inolvidables del Interior de Uruguay
Como muchos ya saben me voy para mis queridos pagos de Oregon el lunes. Si quieren verme antes que me vaya, voy estar toda la tarde mañana el sabado en el Salto de Agua. Fue un gusto grande compartir estos meses aca en Cerro Chato y los otros pueblos de la Cuchilla. Yo he aprendido mucho de todos ustedes y me quedo con muchas ganas volver. Aqui son algunos de los momentos mas preciosos, chistosos y involvidables de mi tiempo en el interior. Gracias a los amigos siguentes por haber compartidolos conmigo. Abrazo grande a todos y que pasen feliz las fiestas.
- Cono’s Catalog
I’m in a large shed, which has not changed an ounce since the 1930s. This is where Cono—who’s real name is Douglas after General Douglas MacArthur. His brother “Ike” is Dwight after Dwight Eisenhower—has long worked as a regional animal health inspector for MGAP, the Ministry of Cattle, Agriculture, and Fishing (notice how cattle comes first in the acronym). On a cold winter evening having dinner—chorizo and asado de tira, what else?—Cono opens a catalog, which I believe came from a productor rural. He flips to a page on something like air vents. I can’t remember exactly what, and that is precisely the point. He and a friend start talking about said devices. Not “my air vent is better than yours”, nor “I know more about air vents than you do”, nor “I need an air vent because my current one sucks”, nor even “Oh my God, air vents! I love them!” No. Just looking earnestly at something practical, something they can share a bit of knowledge and conversation about. This moment was so mundane yet so genuine. Real people were doing real things with no pretenses, no hurry, and no pressure. This was very soon after I arrived in Cerro Chato, and I’ve seen and been part of many such beautifully simple interactions hence.
Cooking with a hotplate at Cono’s MGAP office
- We don’t think. We sleep.
I’m reclining in the teachers lounge at the Liceo in Cerro Chato talking with Loana the English teacher about my work with the students in Tupambaé on agroforestry. She says something to the effect of “that’s wonderful and fascinating and well-intentioned, but the kids don’t care. You must talk about things they care about”. A couple days earlier, I had mentioned to her what I’ve come to call Sunday night syndrome. This has nothing to do with anxiety or having to return to a boring job on Mondays. Rather, for me, it is the blessing and curse of an overly active mind stimulated by a weekend’s activities and the promise of new discoveries in the coming week. Often, not always, I take extra long to fall asleep on Sunday nights. The Sunday night preceding this conversation, I’d had a particularly acute case. I told Loana about some of the thoughts over which I’d gained about as many pages of notes as I’d lost hours of sleep. Her response, “In Uruguay, we don’t think. We sleep.” Loana is one of the shrewdest people I’ve met here. She’s the first to have stimulating conversations with me, but also the first to put me in my place, reminding me that the things I’ve spent all my life being told are important to being a good person and thus making the world better—critical thinking, hard work, ambition, way with words, precision, intellect and problem solving–aren’t always so useful. Exchanges like this have helped me realize that I can be happy in environments with different value systems, and that such systems needn’t be mutually exclusive. Moreover if I continue to teach, it’s thanks to Loana more than anyone that I now have a better idea of how to relate to students and how to share material with them than nine months ago.
- The Raid in Tupambaé
I’m sitting on a curb on a freezing August morning. I’ve just gotten out of my first baile de raid. Lucas Sugo y Su Banda was the main act in the Centro Obrero de Tupambaé. In terms of popularity here in the Interior, Lucas is like Justin Bieber plus Selena Gomez, but without the grotty, clingy and most importantly, media and commercial side of fandom. You take your selfie with him and you’re satisfied. Lucas played very well from a musical standpoint but the dance didn’t have the thumping uno dos movement and constant brushing of shoulders vibe I’d imagined about this kind of event. In the Uruguayan cumbia genre, Lucas falls much more on the romantic end of the spectrum, and this particular night, he stuck mostly to that part of his repertoire. Back on the curb, I’m with Manuel, Gabriel and Victor, contemporaries from Cerro Chato I’ve recently met. It’s not yet 7AM and the next bus doesn’t come till half past nine. Since 4PM the previous afternoon, besides dancing to Lucas, I’ve held a baby in a kids clothing store, done a television interview, gone to a beauty pageant, had many conversations passing people in the street, gotten sunburnt in winter, and drunken lots of mate. In the following several hours, I will also referee a youth football match and get lost walking through cow pastures trying to find a priest at an addiction rehabilitation center. I’m quite shattered and cold. We sit on the curb and joke around for a while after not seeing enough passing cars to warrant hitchhiking 45-minute trip. We had the opportunity to warm up in one of Gabriel’s friends’ houses, but the majority declined for reasons, which I forget (I think something involving not being able to heat up water for mate). In my freezing, half-asleep state, I rose both arms and protested in a high-pitched voice “¿Por qué no?” a story which Manuel subsequently has told any occasion he can get. Fortunately I have a key to the Liceo and take advantage to sprawl on the teacher’s lounge chairs for the most awkward hour nap of my life. Twenty minutes before the bus is due to arrive, my companions come and duly wake me. People I can trust and people I can have fun with. Having been in Cerro Chato only a couple weeks, I could now confirm that life here is not only peaceful, but also full of encounters, people and events that can interest me as much if not more than campus or city life.
Myself, Manuel and Gabriel waiting on the curb
- El Chicho and the boss
I’m in a pizzeria in Tacuarembó run by a radio broadcaster who called Nacional’s dramatic 1988 Intercontinental Cup win (which remains the last major international trophy won by a Uruguayan club) and Uruguay’s 1990 World Cup Run. At his joint were an odd couple of two regulars you could only find in the interior, a old gaucho named “El Chicho” already several litres of Patricia down, and another boinad man who’s livelihood had something both very obviously, yet very vaguely to do with the Partido Nacional, and travelling back and forth between Montevideo and Tacuarembó. Picking up on my ambivalence to Patricia, the boss dropped off a stumbling El Chicho, then took me to Cabesas Bier, an establishment that wouldn’t be out of place in most bougie American neighborhoods. One of the only microbreweries in the interior, or in the country as a whole for that matter, Cabesas was founded by a Tacuaremboense who had gone to Maine on an exchange and came back with a love for craft beer and wanted it to share it with his compatriots. Every single time the boss introduced me to someone with the requisite slap on the back and inquiring after the health of their family, cows, or land, I asked him how he knew them, and every time, he said “Politica. La Politica”. One such “amigo de politica” was a young gas station attendant. We chatted for a while, and I asked him about his involvement with the party, and what he thought Cuquito needed to do to win the election. He mumbled something about getting lots of votes. The boss told him he should keep in touch with me, and encouraged him to give me his card (about the only instance of networking as I know it that I’ve seen this year). So he handed over a card, with his name, number, national seal, and the two words: “Partido Nacional”. After a few pints, the boss took us both to a place, which he talked up as another of his usual haunts. Outside: a one-story house with a small neon sign. Inside, a bar filled a row of boinad men and their Patricias, opposite three fireplaces (this is mid-winter in the Southern Cone, remember) graced with scantily clad women. The boss goes over to one he’s obviously very familiar with, puts her arm around me and says, “Che gringo, te presento la mejor negra de todo Artigas. Mil pesos, servicio completo. En Carnaval cobra mucho mas. Tenes omnibus en cinco horas. Disfrutala.” Politely refusing anything more than conversation, showing a genuine interest in her life story, the same way I would an architect, or a musician, I retired for the night once a willing client solicited her services, thanking the boss for showing me a great night in a great town. He happily bade me farewell and offered to put me up and put on an asado the next time I came through town, happy to have shown me a good time, without taking offense at my own modesty.
- Intermodal Coexistence on the Fray Bentos Rambla
I’m walking along a rambla for what seems like the millionth time this year. I remembered reading how spectacular the sunsets here in Fray Bentos were, and I made sure to get up from my nap just in time to see one. The Fray Bentos rambla is no ordinary rambla. It lies directly below a hill with a park that provides amazing views, and its benches curiously face away from the water towards the town. Local wisdom has it that fraybentinos prefer to socialize with passersby than look at the scenery in isolation. Like myself, everyone had recently woken from a siesta. By this time of year–late November–no one is out and about until 8. In Oregon on a Saturday like this, high 80s, sun, no humidity (i.e. most of the summer), people will be out all day riding bikes, fishing, playing sports, running, kayaking, etc., then retire once the sun comes down. Here quite the opposite. Around 5 PM I saw but two people while sitting on the main plaza for a good fifteen minutes. Three hours later, at sunset, everyone was on the rambla. What’s special about this is something I think could have enormous implications for urban planners. It’s one of the few cases I’ve seen where cars, bikes, motorcycles and pedestrians (Unlike Tupambaé, Fray Bentos is too big a town for horses to be part of the usual traffic flow) exist harmoniously. Everyone not stationed in the ample public space is moving a long at a slow enough clip to wave, chat and take their time enjoying the sunset and river view. As a pedestrian, I felt that the cars had no more power than I did. Windows fully open, mates tucked under shoulders, vehicle passengers were engaging with the space the same way any pedestrian, biker, or motorcyclist was. I understand this is an exception to how cars are meant to be used. However, it struck me as a powerful act of coexistence. The speed limit sign read 30 kph not 10 kph, and was not accompanied by other signs saying “Please Respect Bikers and Pedestrians”. People simply moved leisurely, regardless of the chosen medium. For me as an urbanist, I take this as a powerful lesson that instead of wanting to ban cars and wide roads from our cities and towns, that we should recognize the instances in which they too become as much an asset to public space and public life as bikes, bike paths and pedestrians. But public space and ramblas and Fray Bentos only get better. Following a candombe parade, and leisurely dinner, I found a chopería that served the local brew. After learning from regulars about the promiscuity, conviviality and hard drinking habits of the many Europeans who came to Fray Bentos build a paper plant in the late 2000s, I found myself again on the rambla. This time it was 2:30AM and even more packed than at sunset. In fact every bench was full to the brim. Clutching a bottle of Dharma to bring back to the beer desert of Cerro Chato, I was hailed by a group of kids on a bench, luring me in a mix of confusion and pity for being alone, and soon thereafter, curiosity for being American. They were drunk enough to be in multilingual mode so we spent the better part of an hour on the rambla improving their English. When they went off to their baile, I went off to sleep several hours before catching a bus, confident that Fray Bentos is the first place besides Cerro Chato I will return to next time I’m in Uruguay.
The Rambla in Fray Bentos
- La Talibanda Uruguaya
I’m waiting at a bus stop on the side of Ruta 7 twenty miles from any town. It’s well before sunrise, and I’m freezing and tired. Fortunately I have a band of teachers from Fraile Muerto for good company. We are waiting for a bus carrying other teachers from Melo to come take us to a monthly meeting in Rivera. Instead of passing the time moaning about the ungodly hour, the temperature, the wait, the impending five-hour ride, or choosing to be silent, we simply do things that make us laugh. Rather than being grumpy, we make the best of a situation and have fun. With Brazilian buffets, duty free shops and all the live and let live that comes with border towns, the theme continued the whole day out. However it’s one image at the bus stop that stands out. Noelia, a science teacher, takes a scarf and wraps it around her face, which immediately illicits a series of jokes about the Taliban. This type of humor is not isolated. In Cerro Chato, there is a social group that gathers mostly for drinking and football called The Talibanda. Say what you want about the irony of José Mujica’s government welcoming both Guantanamo detainees and Syrian refugees into the country this year, but in Uruguay you can joke about these kinds of things. There’s no politically correct police to come stop you from having fun. Sadly, Noelia is no longer amongst us, ironically given the scarf incident, due to a tragedy. I’ve seen more good human behaviour this year than I ever have. Yet being in a series of small towns, adultery, feuding, and even murder are no longer things I’ve seen in the news and elected not to read about. The objective of the 5K which I ran last month was to react in favor of good treatment towards other human beings, inspired by several recent events, including the brutality which took Noelia’s life. I’m glad I have a memory of her as someone initiating a series of cheerful jokes, taking the piss out of something that deserves to be mocked. And I’m glad people here care enough to raise public awareness and action against acts that take such peoples’ lives.
Noelia and the Taliban scarf
- ¿A que sirve el futbol sin clasico?
I’m in a classroom on the top floor of Liceo Enrique Alzugaray in Cerro Chato. There are about 15 students from quinto scientifico, or the 11th graders on a scientific track. This is the first day I come to work with Loana in her English classes in Cerro Chato. This is a chance for them to ask me questions about my culture, leisure, family and friends. Naturally the topic of conversation veers towards football.
Matias: “Who is the best [soccer] team in the USA?”
Me: “The best or my favorite?”
Matias: “What do you mean? They’re the same thing.”
Me: “I’m afraid that’s not true in the MLS. The league is younger than me. There’s no history.”
Matias: “But there still must be a best team?”
Me: “I’m afraid that’s also not true. Every team has similar resources, so every year any team can win. No one’s won more than four or five championships.”
Matias: “So the league is awful then?”
Me: “It’s about the level of the Argentine league, but imagine the Uruguayan league without Nacional or Peñarol. That’s the MLS.”
Matias: “So no one roots for the best team?”
Me: “People root for the team from their city. No matter how bad they are.”
Matias: “So who plays the Clasico then?”
Me: “There’s no clasico, just a bunch of rivalries.”
Matias (gesticulating jumping out of his chair): “But what’s the point if there’s no Clasico?”
My second favorite Amsterdam. My favorite football team. BOLSO COJI5-0.
- 5 Red Cards: Another Day Out in Sunday League Football
I’m sitting on the cement hard stands at Parque Manuel Alcides Fuentes with a torta frita in one hand, and a cup of Paso de los Toros pomelo in the other. On Sundays when I am in Cerro Chato, I like to go watch the football games at the local ground. There are four teams in town—La Cuchilla, River Plate, Dublin, and San Jorge–and I know multiple players on all the teams, thus I have reason to cheer any goal. The play is very entertaining, all the more for knowing many of the personalities. In one game where Dublin played a team from Santa Clara (the next town up Ruta 7), I arrived midway through the second half and soon noticed that there were only 17 players on the pitch. I asked a friend if the teams were short players, and she said nonchalantly, “No, el juez ya echó a cinco”. FIVE RED CARDS and no one seemed to give a damn! The fans in the stands contently sipped their mate while egging on their friends on the pitch. There was another game between San Jorge and Valentines. The latter were up 2-0 ten minutes into the second half when they had a player sent off for a handball on the line. After San Jorge duly dispatched the penalty, two more players were sent off for disputing the call. 2-0 quickly turned into 3-2, when another Valentines player was dismissed for a high boot, a 5-2 triumph was thereafter sealed. In a Sunday league like this, the fact that the players are friends with their opponents and the referee makes it easier to act immaturely on the pitch. You can joke about it the next time you see each other, and there are always opportunities to make it up. In professional football in most of the Northern Hemisphere, if a player is sent off, he’s “the naughty boy” in the papers for the next week. But even at amateur levels, this difference in discipline and passion holds true. A friend in Oregon who worked years as a high school soccer referee told me he never once brandished a straight red. This is how Uruguayan football works. There’s a mix of second yellows, talking back to the ref (putear al juez), and bad tackles. It’s not so much malice or playing dirty, as it’s the way things work. Your heart comes before talent and before your mind. The essence of garra charrua is available for everyone to see on pitches like this all over the country. Watching la Celeste live in the Centenario, or on TV with friends, I’ve heard more applause and “bien, bien”s for hard nosed tackles than any stepover. Uruguayans simply don’t care for this kind of bullshit. Make a tackle and get on with the game. If you pick up a booking, so be it. We do believe in second chances, after all.
The Keeper’s Requisite Half-Time Smoke Break
- La Feria Gastronomica
I’m ambling around the gymnasium of the Liceo in Cerro Chato. But I’m not playing basketball, soccer or handball. It’s the most colourful scene I’ve witnessed all year. Had I arrived in time for Carnaval, it would be a different story. For a moment I feel transported back to The Midway. It’s not Chicago and it’s not 1893, but it is the 3rd annual Feria Gastronomica y Cultural, another Loana brainchild, and each class has set up a pavilion (Spanish: stand) to represent the food and culture of a chosen country. I’ve been helping the kids for several weeks now. Either going to their class to help them review basic facts about their country, preparing the English passages they will be graded on, or in the case of the England group, teach them how to make a proper cuppa. The feria is a competitive event. Classes are graded on different components, which include cooking, presentation, pavilion, dancing, and English. There are 15 classes, and the top six receive some sort of prize, the best of them being weekend beach trips. Thus it’s not a project to be taken lightly. And that goes for both the kids and the parents. Most such school functions don’t tell you as much about the character of a place. But here, local dynamics are very much in play behind the scenes. As soon as Australia was deemed the winner, there was suspicion about how parents with more land (Yes land, not money. People here are more likely to say tiene campo than tiene plata to indicate wealth) are able to buy better quality materials for the pavilion, better ingredients for the food, etc. As I’ve noticed with many gatherings, time is not of the essence, yet such ignorance doesn’t get in the way of things running smoothly. Things will start around 10 AM, and end around 4 PM, and there’s no need to make any more specific schedule. While the costumes, pavillions and food kept me interested, what I found incredible was that kids representing South Africa put on blackface, and kids representing Japan slanted eye makeup. At such events like this in the US, a kimono or other traditional costume will get you 10 points extra credit, but playing with your facial features could land you an expulsion and multiple appearances on CNN. Here, such cosmetic alterations drew neither laughs nor whining, much less calls for an emergency PTA meeting. I’ve always tended against political correctness, but experiences like this have shown me simply how silly it is. If the best student in the class is assigned to impersonate Nelson Mandela, who cares what color his face is that day. Congrats to the kids on putting their best effort and learning a few things about places outside their rinconcito of the world. I hope this is an event that continues for many years to come.
The winning stand of Australia by one of the 9th grade classes
- Jodá Jodá Jodá!
I’m in another teachers lounge. This time, it’s the one at the Liceo Rural de Tupambaé. Lunch has recently finished, and the teachers who aren’t in class at the moment are casually hanging out. It’s been a couple months since I’ve started helping out in the Liceo with the kids on Geography and English projects. I ask some serious question about details, plans or dates, or something totally unimportant, and Marcos (who is also the foremost historian in Cerro Largo–on this another time) tells me “Aca, todo es joda Samuel. Todo es joda”. To which I reply in a mix of mimicry and realization “Jodá, Jodá, Jodá!”. It quickly became a catchphrase and a healthy way to tease me. Joda is a word that has mixed connotations here. It can mean fucking around, being lazy and disruptive, but as a noun, more than anything, it is the closest translation for fun (diversión is a bit too tame and stilted). Similar to what Loana would tell me in another teachers lounge several weeks later, I really appreciate people encouraging me to have fun, to relax and enjoy the pace and activities of life here. And thank you for helping me realize that by having fun, the things I came here to do seriously—such as write pieces like this—come out the better for it. I may be here to accomplish semi-academic goals, but I wanted to come here to above all to experience a non-academic way of life. I’m glad there are people who not only help me realize this, but support me doing so.
Marcos balancing outside the Liceo. The AFE Station is behind him.
- Peña Folklorica: All Hours, All Ages
I’m in a bar across from Cerro Chato’s abandoned railway station called El Galeón (The Galleon) on a Friday evening. Spring is in the air. In several hours, I will get on a bus to Montevideo to pasear for Dia de Patrimonio. This is my first peña folklorica. Much like my first time at a raid two months earlier, this is an illuminating experience. In a town that has few other options for nightlife, this offers a bit of everything for a bit of everyone. It’s just two days after the Feria Gastronomica, and the class that represented Germany starts off the evening with the polka that saw them sweep the dance category. The show continues with a local folklore band, a humble landowner (these two words are not a contradiction in Uruguay, unlike much of the rest of Latin America) playing the part of payador, singing a series of jokes in verse that causes uproarious laughter. Interspersed, there’s plenty of cumbia and even a few milongas, which the older members of the audience take well to. And speaking of the older members, many of them are adorable dancing as couples. But equally adorable are the younger parents that dance with their babies in arm. How often on a night out in a big city or a college town can you see people from eight months to eight decades having fun together? There’s something I find very healthy about this, compared to Friday nights out where we’re stuck in bubbles based on age, class, race and tastes. On the one hand, I’m looking to coming back and spending more time with like minded people in similar stages of life, but on the other hand, there will be something important, something very human missing when far less of my time is spent being with kids, with adolescents and with people considerably older than myself. And to continue a theme most of these moments share, when I left just short of 4AM to catch my bus, things were still hopping. As ever, time is a secondary concern, if a concern at all.
The dance floor at El Galeón