A few years ago I spent around four days, if I remember correctly, camping at the Club de Pescadores (Fisherman’s Club) in the western Uruguayan town of Paysandú. I was there for the renowned semana de la cerveza which sounds a whole lot more civilized than ‘beer week’. Each day followed a similar pattern. I would awake in my tent sweating streams of cured, salted ethanol through my pores. Then I would crawl out onto the banks of the Uruguay River, stretch, pull myself together and set of on the long trek into the centre of town. After eating and wandering around the central square I would arrive back at the campground in the late afternoon. It was packed with Uruguayans from all over the country and as the sun began to lose a little of its bite I sat around with the friendly folk. Some of us shared tall bottles of beer and stories. Others passed around their yerba mate pots. Uruguayans are devout in their allegiance to it. Guitars were strummed, footballs kicked, everyone seemed to be happy. When night fell we would all head off to the nearby cerveza festivities with music, dancers, lots of meat, fireworks and of course copious amounts of beer. It went on like this for the four days I was there.
Eventually it all came to an end and I was ready to decamp the town and direct myself to self-rehabilitation in Montevideo. The transportation planetary bodies, however, were misaligned and I found myself unable to get on a bus. It left me with one more day in town, post festival. Almost everybody else had fled the makeshift tent city where shin-deep water festered in the shower block.
Another day is another day though and I caught wind of a rodeo a few miles out of town and being deep in gaucho country I marched on out there and enjoyed it; the hats, the horses, la musica folclórica, mate pots and straws everywhere the eye turned. Folk were merry and I felt merry enough too and of course I spied the tumbledown shack with boots kicking the bar and big bottles of brew being drunk by gents and gents only. There was whisky too and talk of bulls and horses and falls and gaucho gear was on. There is only so long that I can keep myself away from such a slice of rural macho authenticity spiced with my drug of choice so before long I was amongst it, beer in hand, with a vantage point as good as any. There, I met a new accomplice -an experienced wing man, whiskey swiller and looking back now I see that it was this chance meeting that sowed the seed of the night.
Soon enough the switch was made. Ciro encouraged it. Fiery whisky flowed like lava down my throat, cut only by lonesome cubes of ice and my mind seethed (bubbles not anger) and a warmth came over me. The trots, canters and gallops of the equines swam before my eyes. Ciro had his little finger bandaged on one of his hands. He told me that a good portion of it had been cut off, to the first joint, in a machine at his work in a local mill and I sympathised with him but he told me that it was alright. It gave him some time off work and a long-needed break to just think and to drink.
Amidst the heavy imbibing time flew by and then the rodeo was over and the hordes of people poured out. Ciro and I made our way out too and I jumped onto the back of his motorcycle and we whizzed the few miles back into town. There really is nothing like riding that way. We raced along with the humming and purring power beneath us and with shiny, happy faces all because of the sweet alcohol that splashed and washed around inside us.
Once we were back in the central streets of Paysandú we zoomed around a bit more before we came to a sudden halt. We got off the bike and wandered, drunkenly but casually, into a kind of secluded, hidden from the street, old man’s drinking den. It was my kind of place again and Ciro was an old and known friend of the place and a regular frequenter and I, as a new friend of an old friend, was welcomed and treated like an old friend as well.
There were only six of us in the bar, I think, and they were all great, old friends and soon we were all great old friends and we stood around, joking, back slapping and posing for photos. Soon after I was behind the bar mixing drinks and handing them out and the barman was teaching me how to do this and how to do that and of course, being in Uruguay, there was a thermos and mate pot being passed around as well. That pepped us all up a bit amidst all the alcohol streaming through our veins. It was a complement to the liquor though not a replacement. That didn’t stop flowing.
They were such authentic old Uruguayan folk. For example, consider, these two gents; one such a kindly old codger that I doubt he has ever committed harm to any living being or specimen in his entire existence. He was like a Jainist, just sitting there quietly with his checked shirt covered by a pale blue cardigan, a bristly grey moustache and little French cap perched on his head . He cradled a little ale to allow a gentle slow-burn in his ageing being. His friend was a bit younger and a bit scruffier, with overgrown sideburns and a wild fringe. He wore grey slacks and rum drove into his soul. He put his arm around me and said ‘it’s such a pleasure and a privilege to have you, un australiano, here with us’. With these guys there was no pretension. They were there just to be, to share, to revel in the ambience and to bask in the sweet wave of drunken tides.
Sometime later in the night Ciro must have dropped me back to where my tent still stood and I guess I ventured my way in there for one last stunned slumber in Paysandú. The next morning as I revised my camera I began to make sense of it all. I saw the photographic records of the night, most of them since lost, and the final photograph showed a warm embrace of gratitude with Ciro and his motorcycle was present too. It was the end to such a fine day in the true Uruguayan spirit. I looked at the image, I would never see Ciro again and I would never see those old bar-dwelling chaps either. Melancholically I packed my bag. I had a bus to catch.