Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Uruguay, I'm a guay tres - Cabo Polonio is duned

I spent the weekend in Cabo Polonio, an isolated beach town along the eastern coast of Uruguay that is renowned for its sand dunes and laid-back style.  Because it's so far out on the coast, with dunes that get as high as some New York City brownstones, Cabo Polonio can only be reached by large 4x4 shuttles that run between the local bus stop and the town itself--normal cars can't traverse the road.  The isolation also means that the town is almost completely off the grid, in a literal sense: the lone electrical line powers the lighthouse, and nothing else.  As a result, it has developed into something of a hippie commune, where there are no schools or government services, and people go to live a life apart from the rest of civilization.

I should note at this point that Cabo Polonio was the first place I've been on this trip that didn't leave me thrilled and amazed, which might bother me some if it didn't also connote an absolutely stellar batting average in terms of (places I''ve visited that are jaw-droppingly awesome) divided by (places I've visited).  On the plus side, the natural beauty was spectacular, and it was pretty amazing to spend two nights in a place that is largely untouched by technology.  On the other end of the spectrum, I think that, between summer camp and college, I've seen enough drum circles to get me through a lifetime, so I didn't feel like the cultural experience offered me much of anything new.  So I left Cabo Polonio feeling pretty ambivalent--I was certainly glad I'd come to see what it had to offer, but at the same time thrilled to be heading out of town.

I traveled up to Cabo Polonio with my friends from school Adrian (from Switzerland) and Elisete (Brazil), and we were met the next day by Tuanny (Brazil), Pepe (Spain--he's not a student, just in Montevideo for work), and Hedda (Germany).  The night we got in, I actually loved the place.  First off, the truck ride out was a pretty uncommon experience, topped off by the last 10 minutes of it spent driving along the beach.  Moreover, we found a really lovely place to eat some dinner, and had quite an adventure finding our way around what pass for roads--really just paths of sand that don't have grass growing on them--with my tiny pocket LED flashlight.  The whole atmosphere of the place was as serene as could be, and I was pretty thrilled, notwithstanding the frankly unreasonable prices of the hostel we stayed at.  When we visited the lighthouse the next morning and looked across the water to a rocky island that was covered in sea lions--which were, unfortunately, more easily heard than seen--I started to understand the uniqueness of the place.

The dunes, which stretch for miles from the coastline, give one the feeling of having suddenly left the fairly developed comforts of Montevideo and arrived in the middle of the Sahara.  For no particular reason, I felt a burst of energy as we approached these massive mounds of sand, and took off running for the top of one.  Once my friends made their way to where I was--mostly confused by my reaction to a large plot of empty space--I sprinted off again to the next peak, just a bit to the West, and at a slightly higher elevation.  Crossing just over the crest, I found myself in a spot where neither my compatriots nor the ocean were visible, and where sand stretched out in every direction, patches of grass springing up in places, and the hazy outline of civilization painted on the horizon to the South.  The only clear evidence of human presence was the line of footprints that ended exactly where I stood.  The ocean was still audible, though not much more so than what you hear when you put your ear to a conch shell.  The experience left me with the feeling of an almost hyper-awareness of my surroundings, stemming from the total isolation of the place.  I'm not a particularly meditative fellow, but if ever there was a place to go and just exist, this was almost certainly it.

The illusion was unfortunately shattered for me when I began the walk back to my friends and I came across a large plastic crate sticking out of the sand.  If this were an isolated incident, I could have written it off, or at least let it go.  But it quickly became one of those situations where noticing one example of a thing attunes your senses to other examples of that thing, and I found myself coming across discarded sandals, containers, and even a glo-stick.  At this point I started to process the fact that Cabo Polonio, in spite of being so naturally unspoiled in so many ways, was at the same time one of the most neglected and exploited places I've been on this trip.  I had already picked up on what was quite frankly the foulest odor I've come across in a long time.  The infrastructure is just not set up to handle the sewage of the crowds that descend on the place for the music festivals and hippie vibe, to say nothing of the town's few thousand permanent residents in their shacks (with only rudimentary plumbing in the best cases).  The result is a distinctive stench evocative of a mountain of week-old dead snails.  And that, in combination with the truly pervasive issue of litter on the ground, led me to the realization that the culture that has sprung up in Cabo Polonio appears to be completely unsustainable. 

There is certainly something fascinating about witnessing a group of people espousing a lifestyle unaffected by social conventions, a lifestyle that is purportedly pure and unblemished, and being able to see clearly how blatantly hypocritical the whole operation is.  Cabo Polonio has the feel of a Bob Marley poster in a Wesleyan dorm room.  There were Jamaican flags all over the place, and our hostel proudly displayed red, green, and gold over its roof.  But as one sees all too often in the states, the embrace of Rastafarian culture is really just an excuse to smoke pot.  If that's your cup of tea, it's well within your rights--philosophically, if not necessarily legally.  But it has always rung hollow to me, sort of along the lines of claiming to be Jewish because you like to eat knishes.  I don't know a whole lot about the Rastafarian faith, but I'm fairly certain it gets sold short by the denizens of Cabo Polonio, who have created an entire community out of a characature of a legitimate religion.  As a result, the whole town feels like one big excuse to rail against society, smoke a bowl, and throw trash on the ground.  I realize that you can find this type of thing pretty much anywhere, and that I'm likely to encounter no end of it when I move to Berkeley in the Fall.  But to me, the issue isn't so much that this culture exists in Cabo Polonio, as that it is the only culture that exists in Cabo Polonio.  Moreover, it is a culture that is not only destructive to its habitat, but unlike what I saw in Costa Rica, for example, it is a culture that seems blissfully unaware of just how destructive it is.  As such, the situation seems unlikely to resolve itself anytime in the foreseeable future.

So, at the end, I came away from this excursion feeling completely astounded by a landscape that was unlike anything I've ever seen before, but utterly infuriated by its treatment at the hands of its inhabitants.  I do think that it was good for me to finally travel somewhere on this trip that I did not love, both because I always enjoy (ever so slightly) having something to complain about, and because it is, of course, important to remember that, even in the middle of the adventure of a lifetime, things don't always turn out as you hope.  The lesson, I suppose, is to take away the good things: a completely new experience, an excellent time with friends, and a little more knowledge about what's out there in the world.

Tomorrow night I'm going to a show at Teatro Solís, one of the oldest theaters in South America, to see a concert of Uruguayan folkloric songs performed by two singers and the Montevideo philharmonic orchestra.  From everything I've heard, it should be a pretty remarkable experience, so hopefully this time I'll manage to check in without letting two or three days slip by.  In the meantime, it's late here, even by Urugurayan standards, so I'm off to sleep.


Cabo Polonio

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