Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Uruguay: A Search for Gauchos

Uruguay---the country that seems small enough to fit in your hand. We decide to rent a car. Like Cuba, Uruguay is filled with old-timey classics---we imagine ourselves driving through the countryside in a 1960s Ford or a muted-color Fiat. We drive away from the rental lot with a bright yellow Euro box.

We take off for the interior of Uruguay, listening to the tribal music Anderson gave us. We have no idea where we are going. There´s Route 5, Route 7, and Route 31 and we can go anywhere. We head north, down dirt highways, past cows and more cows. When there is a town, we drive through it--along the tree-lined square, past the church and the school. Every few miles there is a field, a horse often framed by the goalposts, cows grazing near what would be a sideline if there were any sidelines. We play with fifteen year olds and a church group and keep moving. We want to play with the cowboys...the gauchos...the legends.

We are not quite sure what a gaucho is. Our guidebook tells us they wear sombreros or berets and baggy pants tucked into high boots. Our Uruguayan family friends tell us they used to roam the countryside, getting in shoot-outs over land until the goverment made them put up fences. With the fences came the end of a certain type of gaucho and we´re not sure what we´ll find.

We drive past an agricultural school where there are two handfuls of twenty-something-year-old guys wearing berets and sitting on benches. (We find out later that they are actually seventeen and eighteen, but this is hard to believe as their confident, sun-worn faces look so much older than our own.) They all have their legs crossed like intellectuals and they hold thermoses of Mate tea: a green, grainy drink that looks like someone emptied out a lawnmower bag. Something a witch or a hippy would drink. They pour it into glasses that look like sanded-down coconut shells.

We roll down our windows and Ferg asks, ¨Juega fĂștbol?¨ They give us a kind of snort and point to the field. ¨Claro,¨ they say. We play in a game that involves lots of beret throwing and guys chewing on the tips of corn husk cigarettes. It´s forceful soccer, when tricks fail, they are still able to power the ball through the mess. The game ends with a rainstrom and we return to our room above a bar. It´s a giant building with high ceilings and hallways that face each other, like an orphanage out of a film. We sit on four identical cots, listening to the rain pound against the roof, water coming through the shuttered window by Ryan´s bed.

The following morning we meet the cowboys at 7 am. They wear v-neck wool sweaters, berets, and what look like old-fashioned baseball pants tucked into brown boots. At 7:30, they push an old Mercedes work truck and hop in two at a time as the engine kicks over. We follow them deeper into the countryside through a low, thick fog that hides the cows and the trees, everything except for the truck in front of us and the dirt it kicks up.

Twenty kilometers out, we turn down a private road into a farm. All the guys in the back of the truck laugh and point as they watch our mini car leaping through water and taking the punishment of big rocks.

None of the four of us have ever seen sheep shaved. Ryan and Ferg film, Luke and Gwendolyn stare.

Every so often a sheep makes a break for it, turning suddenly and scampering in the wrong direction. The four of us lean against the wall and root for it secretely, the voice inside our heads saying, ¨Go, go! You can make it.¨

For lunch, we eat lamb chops.

In the stretch of grass in front of the barn, we play 5 v 5, each team occasionally going down a man when someone had to sit and pick the thorns out of his feet. Our goalkeeper is a true gaucho--the fifty-something-year-old who knows the sheep, fattens the pig and teaches the agricultural students how to work the land. He wears a sombrero, an unbuttoned flannel shirt--big belly out and about--and pants with rips up both sides tucked into leather boots. He looks like the legend.

For the weekend, we head back to Montevideo and play in the games that fill the city. Our favorite spot is in the Old City--the beautiful buildings forgotten and ghost-like, soot in the crevices and carvings of stone. Cement blocks filling in the great windows so no one can find their way inside.

After we play in games up and down the Rambla, we take the overnight ferry to Argentina, arrive at 7am, and walk through downtown.


kt hill said...

i wonder were those wild cows? family story that ferg may never live down... ferg's mom

ajr said...

lived two years in uruguay, the most simple people of all of south america