My Lonely Planet calls Uruguay the Switzerland of South America. And that’s fitting, to an extent; most of the country feels solid, safe, grounded in thick grass, roamed by cattle and lived in by calm people who just want a few minutes of break every few hours to chat and drink mate. The grasslands feel more like a cradle than a wilderness. But the coins and the flag of Uruguay are stamped with a sun. Its official name is La Republica Oriental de Uruguay.
That oriental . The translation would be eastern, but I keep reading it (orientalistically?) as exotic, wild, unknown.
Even in the grasslands of the west, in the farm heart, near Tacuarembo, you can catch a glimpse of the wild when you wake up early to a neon sunrise and ibises calling from the trees. The gauchos whoop when they drive cattle and whisper to their horses. But it’s not quite up to the name. Their wildness is tangible, brass-and-leather-tough. This part of the country is sure and clear. It knows how to fix a fence, where to rotate the cows, when it’s going to rain.
Uruguay leads you east in search of wilderness. Montevideo, the capital, starts to get at the name, wild with 22 miles of coastline and sunset. The boats come in on the Rio de La Plata, the river of silver that separates Uruguay from Argentina. On Sundays, the whole city lives slow and sleepy and sensuous behind the peeling shuttered windows of old palaces, sending their children out in the evening to play on shadow-speckled playgrounds and shattered cobblestones. Candombe music builds to a peak, here, a mix of Brazilian and African beats. That may be more what the name means.
But oriental, orient. You have to orient yourself east, toward the ocean, eventually. You swing towards the waves like a compass needle. La Republica Oriental - the name makes more sense from the top of a dune that spills down into a curving beach and stretches into sun beyond your sight. It makes sense in a golden-brick fort just a few miles from Brazil, where in 1760 something the Spanish defended the first border from the Portuguese coming from the north. It makes sense in an empty state park on a lagoon leading into mountains, where green parrots swarm out of Ceibal trees; it makes sense in the marshes where two different species of birds prey in synch. It makes sense on a deserted, windswept beach, next to a rusty winch from an old fishing boat and eagles eating fish that the ocean spat out.
And you’re there, in the Republica Oriental, when you’re on a beach at dusk, when the tips of the waves turn pink with the sky, and you swim in those waves. It’s that wildness, the oriental, that hills and sky can’t match. Even the most weather-beaten fisherman can’t be sure of where today’s wave will take him.