I’ve returned to Montevideo, Uruguay’s dusty capital.
After a week on the country’s enchantingly desolate eastern coastline, I’m looking forward to seeing a little more of the city, but things are not as good as they had been when I left.
The hostel I stayed at previously is now overrun with strange old men – one is aggressively touting a non-fiction paperback he’s just written titled Antichrist Religion, another is forever cornering me in his underwear, asking whether his figure has waned in his old age.
The weather, too, is deteriorating into misery. I’m scared of these men, and I need to escape, so I jump on Couchsurfing to find myself a place close to the city’s main transport terminal, Tres Cruces, hoping to leave the following morning.
The one offer I receive doesn’t seem particularly legitimate. ‘Vicky’ has just two blurry photos, a couple of lines about liking all kinds of music, and no references. But I’m desperate. I need to flee this hotel-turned -asylum, stat. I set up a meeting and pack my bags.
When Vicky approaches me on the steps of Tres Cruces, she says hello, but is otherwise silent. She gives me some shopping to carry, and we begin walking. I manage to let her know that my Spanish isn’t so great. She seems concerned, telling me I’ll have to learn fast – no one in the house speaks any English.
The house itself turns out to be, well, not a place anyone would agree to live in permanently. It’s broken. Tremendously filthy, unusually decorated, rather dark, and with odd rooms in odd places. A large, rusty rifle hangs threateningly in the entranceway, electrical wiring dangles from the walls and none of the armchairs have cushions. There’s clutter everywhere – boxes, broken chairs, a washing machine in pieces, and a strange barrel fireplace – and that’s just in the living room. It’s difficult to walk around.
I meet the five other housemates. One is fixing some of the electrical wiring while standing on a disused fridge, another is frantically sweeping the floor apparently on my account, and the rest are sitting in what seems to be the central living space, burning down an enormous trompeta – a great big dooby. One Love by Bob Marley is playing in an adjoining room.
Vicky takes me up a ladder to show me the rooftop – apparently, the feature of the house. Here there are many, many cannabis plants. She presents me with each of them, proudly. Cultivation of marijuana was made legal in Uruguay a few years ago, and it’s considered pretty much the coolest thing you can do. Grandmas, grandpas, mums, and dads can be heard talking in the street about their latest harvest, so of course Vicky and her mates have their own gardening obsession.
Evening rolls around and I’m making myself comfortable on the cushion-less couch that is to be my bed for the night, when Vicky’s housemate approaches me. This tall, beefy Uruguayan boilermaker goes, believe it or not, by the moniker ‘Negro’. He holds an enormous drum in his hands – a traditional Uruguayan Candombe drum – and invites me to accompany him to the park where, he explains in fast Spanish, he is playing with a local Candombe orchestra to celebrate a birthday.
Candombe is something fairly special. Three types of drums, lots of performers, ancient African rhythms, and a history that stretches back to the mid-19th Century. It’s recognised as World Cultural Heritage music by UNESCO and it makes up a big part of the culture in Uruguay. People get together, often several times a week, to play and to dance in the streets. All pretty incredible stuff. So I was very excited to finally get to know a real life performer. Of course I would go with Negro to his jam.
We head out. Negro with his enormous drum and myself with a litre of beer he gives me to share. We plough through the streets of an unfamiliar area, a district that seems a little shady. Negro engages almost everyone on the street. People are playing his drum, sharing our beer and saying things in slang that I gather are well-wishes for his evening of drumming. All the while, Negro is talking rapidly in Spanish slang. I pick out a few words and phrases – mainly things about the different strains of cannabis he is interested in growing. At one point he tells me that the orchestra is 150 years old. This, this is really cool, I think to myself. A real local, cultural and historical experience. This is why people travel. I’ve hit the jackpot.
We pick up a few friends with drums on the way, members of his orchestra. One is the living replica of Will Smith and sports a drum that has streamers attached. Not nice streamers. Shit streamers. Some of these streamers seem to have been made from old plastic bags and old t-shirts. Another man’s drum is spray painted a sparkling pinky-purple with silver stars and moons stencilled all over.
The historically-and-culturally-significant vibe is beginning to fade somewhat, but I decide drums with funny decorations are all part of it, and swig some more beer. We’re going to a park. At night. All the other Candombes I’ve seen have just been people in the street. This must be something extra special.
By the time we near the park, we’ve purchased and consumed a lot more beer. Everyone at the park is drinking 'mate' – the highly caffeinated and particularly alien national drink. I’m buzzing. And not just from the mate. I absolutely cannot wait to see this concert. I’m terrifically excited. I tell Negro and the others as much. I don’t know Spanish future tense, but I imagine they half understand.
As we wander in the night towards the other players who are beginning to collect in the park, I’m a little surprised. Everything is in darkness and many of the drums have shit streamers. There are really only about 10 people, all drinking beer and smoking. Most are wearing tracksuit pants with holes, and it seems dreadlocks are quite desirable all of a sudden. The ambience is decidedly local.
People cheer as Negro and his friends arrive. In Latin America you greet everyone, regardless of gender, with a kiss on the cheek and some friendly Spanish phrase (my go-to is ‘mucho gusto’) and so I begin doing the rounds. Names are unnecessary tonight, apparently, but Negro cries out in his loud voice that he has brought an Australian with him, prompting cries of ‘kangaroo’ and some pats on my back.
Negro picks an empty bottle of Coca-Cola, takes a sharp pocket knife and begins to saw the bottle in two. He folds down the jagged edges and fills this makeshift vessel to the brim with Coke, ice and fernet, before offering some to me.
A lot of countries have their national spirit or special liquor, many which taste like cleaning agent or motor fuel. Fernet, unfortunately, tastes like both of those things, with an aftertaste of cheap air-freshener. The locals here worship it. I drink it in earnest, or at least try. The sides of the coke bottle seem greasy and some of the plastic label comes off in my mouth.
As I drink, I get strange looks from the others. This drink, in its auspicious vessel, is meant to be shared. I pass it on. In exchange, I am passed a joint of truly epic proportions. Negro tells me excitedly that it’s from a strain of cannabis known as ‘anaesthesia’. I try not to smoke too much. With the track pants, the joints, and the rough-cut Coke bottle, things are starting to appear pretty damn trashy.
The drumming begins, as I try to beat down the weed-induced paranoia. The drumming is phenomenal. Captivating. They stand in a tight circle, stare deeply into each other’s eyes, and have an apparently innate knowledge of which rhythms to play next. It’s deep and rumbling, with some blank spaces peppered with maniacal solos delivered by a girl in some kind of trance state. I am lost in it. The drummers are lost in it. They all smile in some strange, knowing way, like this is some kind of release they have been expecting or longing for.
Something deep inside me is urging me to dance. It’s infectious. I stand up, swaying a little, intoxicated by the fernet and anaesthesia. Many people not playing the drums are already dancing. The music continues, maybe for a minute, maybe for hours. It becomes difficult to tell. I imagine it will never end.
But when it does, it ends suddenly, perfectly, and with a synchronised series of beats followed by a loud and raucous cheer. There are pats on the back, swigs of beer and fernet, the passing of joints, and people begin to chatter and catch up. There is talk of engagements, of new cars and houses, of job losses and promotions. Clearly this is their community event – their version of a London pub, or their neighbourhood barbecue. I feel privileged and somehow out of place. Like a spy.
Throughout the night the drumming continues, punctuated by conversation and brief trips to buy more alcohol. I try to communicate with poor Spanglish, but it seems this is not important. I am embraced by these people regardless of what I have to say.
It is at least 3am before Negro grabs my shoulder and indicates that it is time to head home. I would like to stay – I’m not tired – but I follow him back. When we arrive home he cooks milanesas. His girlfriend makes a salad. We eat silently. Somehow, the drumming has stifled the need to speak.
And so I stay in the house for a week, playing some drums, helping to care for and harvest their marijuana, helping to host street-parties and, at one point, playing Uruguayan Pictionary. There is a lot of miming to make up for the language divide, but Vicky, Negro and their housemates always do their best to make sure I’m content.
I leave when I realise the perennial purple haze is killing my short-term memory. They warmly wave me farewell, telling me I can come back anytime.
I think I’ve had enough for one life.
Image attribution: By Rosino, and modified by The Global Shuffle under CC licensing.
Will quit his desk job in 2016 and jumped on a one-way flight to South America, looking for strange tales and quirky people. Now he’s a quirky person with strange tales. These days he writes short stories, shamelessly rereads his Patrick O’Brien collection, and does mathy stuff.