Friday, April 17, 2009

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay - As rural as it gets!

April 13, 2009 I’m not sure we knew what we were getting into when we decided to visit Cabo Polonio on the east coast of Uruguay, just a few miles from Brazil. We left Montevideo on a public bus with just our 2 backpacks. We were told that it was a 3½ hour trip. We were looking forward to the ride because we had never been to that part of the world and didn’t really know what to expect. It turns out that much of the country looks a lot like Missouri and Illinois, but with a lot more sheep, a smattering of palm trees, eucalyptus forests, dirt roads and an occasional view of the ocean. After 4½ hours, the bus dropped us at the bus stop for Cabo Polonio (a stand made out of a few wooden poles). We walked across the road and saw a truck loading people on the back, so we bought a ticket and hopped on. There are no roads to Cabo Polonio, a village of 50 permanent residents, and the only way to get there is to walk or buy a ride on one of the shuttles that take you in over the 10 miles of sand dunes. The ride takes about 40 minutes, since the vehicle sometimes gets stuck. We arrived about 3PM and were surprised to see tons of people there. It was the Saturday of Holy Week and everyone was on their last day of vacation. There were beach bums in dread locks, temporary stands put up to sell shell jewelry and beachwear, a surf shop and a row of one room huts along a makeshift road. Was this the isolated get-away we had heard about?!? But by 6:30PM the town was almost empty, because everyone left before the lights went out, literally. There is no electricity! We had called the lady who owned the Mariemar Restaurant and asked if she had a room to rent, since there are also no hotels in the town. She agreed to let us rent a room above her restaurant for a couple of nights. Well, no surprise, the place was not a five star – or even a one star. But the view was incredible. From our window (no screen, even the glass didn’t meet up – so we had a nice ocean breeze going through the room all the time), you could see at least 4 miles up the pristine coast. And there wasn’t a building on it; just huge, beautiful sand dunes. Every time we wanted to complain about the room – like the bathroom drizzle shower that spit out about ½ cup of water per minute – we looked out the window and said, “Wow!” At dusk, the village started glowing with candles and the main activity was star-gazing and looking at the full moon. The next morning, we headed up the beach past the few people there and then it was just us - alone and barefoot on the beach. Yes, that’s why we came.

Going to the Prado (no not that one)

April 9, 2009 When you’re in Montevideo, Uruguay and someone says they are going to "The Prado"; they aren’t talking about the great art museum in Madrid, Spain. They are going to a rodeo to see cowboys ride wild horses during Semana Criolla (Cowboy Week). It is one of the biggest events of the year. To get there we took a local bus, like almost everyone else. Nearly every bus had a sign in the window saying that the Prado was either on their route or told how you could transfer to another bus from that one to get there. So, it was no surprise that when we arrived, the lines were down the block in both directions from the entrance.
We jumped in the shortest one and soon we were buying a $2.50 ticket to get in. We saw a sign that said numbered tickets were sold out; but didn’t know what they were for anyway, so we just bought the ones available. As we walked into the huge festival area, it looked like a circus. There were booths with people selling homemade wares – jellies, cookies, cakes, jewelry, mate cups, bombillas (silver straws used to drink the mate) , etc. We saw face painters, artists doing caricatures, stilt walkers, and jugglers. In several large tents there was entertainment like a band or a play; and outside there were dance groups in traditional costumes.
We were hungry for lunch since it was after 3PM, so we headed for the smoke of a parrilla (a wood fire with a ring of whole goat carcasses on a spit) and ordered a chorizo sandwich for an appetizer and then sat down to a full lunch of grilled ribs and steak with salad and fries. While we were eating, we kept hearing the roar and cheers of the crowd in the arena; so as soon as we finished eating, we went over to watch. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, they were taking a break and no one was riding. The stands were nearly empty, but a few of the criollos were sitting off to the side having a mate break. As we walked in to the stands, there was a man asking for tickets. I asked him if he wanted to see ours, but he just said no and waved us through. So we went in and, of course, I immediately started taking close up pictures of the criollos with their wonderful outfits. Almost everyone had a decorative knife in the back of their wide belt, gaucho pants with high boots, and a hat (most wide brimmed, but some wore berets). What was really interesting was to see all of the styles of clothing, yet each man could have been Martin Fierro (the legendary gaucho) himself. The men (and a few women) were from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. They had all come to compete for their country. We took a seat in the stands, in an area where no one else was sitting; and soon the riding began.
What we didn’t realize, until all the people started coming back to the seats, was that they had purchased one of the “numbered” tickets that had been sold out when we arrived. The number was the seat you had in the stands. Well, we just kept getting bumped until finally we were sitting on the stairs. Not a problem for us. I was loving the competition so much and was thrilled to be in the stands watching it. People without tickets were standing outside of the arena area 15 deep trying to see what was happening – and we had the perfect view from the stairs!
Down in the arena there were 3 poles, each for a team representing one of the countries. Each pole had a group of men working there - two on horses and the others handling a blindfolded wild horse. Just before the sound of a bell, one of the criollos would mount the blindfolded animal and at the sound of the bell, they would remove the blindfold and smack his behind. The horse would jump and turn as the jockey used his whip to get him even more excited. (Yes, I know, the ASPCA would have a fit.) But it was great! These men were unbelievable in the way they could stay on the crazy animal with no saddle, while whirling and bucking fiercely. After a minute or so, another bell would sound and the two teammates with horses would quickly ride up to the criollo and pull him off of the animal and set him on the ground. Of course, sometimes the rider had been thrown off before the bell. That was amazing, too. You would think he would be down for the count and they would send in the stretchers. But, no, amazingly he would hit the ground and bounce back up like he landed on a spring. He would twirl his whip in the air like the rotor on a helicopter and smile and wave to the crowd. It was incredibly thrilling. I had such admiration for the skills and strength they demonstrated.
As soon as the ride ended, an announcer on the loud speaker started to sing a rhyming verse about what had just happened. Sometimes he would mention the rider by name, other times he would sing about the color of the horse or the way he performed, but almost always he would end by singing, “. . . because he was an Argentine (or Brazilian or Uruguayan).” And then the crowd would cheer, sometimes standing and waving a white handkerchief to show their appreciation. The verses sounded like they had come out of the epic poem, Martin Fierro, which has a ton of verses praising the gauchos. I think the singer had memorized many of them and was able to quickly recall a verse that would apply to the ride he just saw and then adapt it. I was totally enthralled with the magic of the setting and could have stayed there for hours. Unfortunately, Paul was not so enthused. He liked it a lot, but after an hour or so, he was ready to move on.
That was really OK with me. I had had my chance to be in a place I never had dreamed of and even 10 hours there wouldn’t have given me more.