Uruguayan Utopia in Flux

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You find yourself galloping down a dune, hail pellets whipping at ringlets and swimsuit already salty wet from falling post-headstand into a tugging eastern bath. Thunder swept in fast and only rough grass or sand footprints, no roads, lead to the nearest refuge beneath the ledge of an empty white box hut. Others huddle drenched as well and a Brazilian girl compares this to “Into the Wild” in Portuguese which then cycles through Spanish and English. You’re all laughing as the only time passing is the number of raindrops emptied from the clouds. A boy from Montevideo sets rolled paper afire and weed smoke twists up with the mist.

Candles, a fat moon and Times Square of stars later breathe kind light on all who declined the day’s last open-air auto off the protected peninsula. A peninsula, but more like an island or nation with distinct freedoms and codes. Tango barefoot or splash naked in a storm while a cow saunters past. Walk door-to-door selling banana chocolate chip cookies. Approach a silhouette singing and become entwined on a dune.

Don’t drive, use the Internet or ask for the time. And if you want your own house, make your own plumbing and electricity stand-ins.

This is Cabo Polonio, a mystical beach village deemed a national park with no streets on the Uruguayan coast.

“If you could capture what magic it is, what it does to people, I’d be impressed,” a new Uruguayan friend tells me. The magic of the intimate, the essential.

Cabo Polonio is a sandy “V” shape robed in shorelines with the sole power for the lighthouse, a beacon reigning over rocks with hundreds of barking sea lions at the land’s end.

Year-round only 27 families remain in the hand-built rainbow shanties and a rural elementary school in a one-room blue cottage teaches five students math and how to put metal shoes on horses’ hooves or to spay a dog. Rough winds, remoteness and cold black long nights drive most everyone away, except for some fishermen, natives and a few who gain inspiration from the harsh winters.

But come January hundreds of visitors enter each day, staying for hours, or several nights, or several weeks, by riding in a few government-sanctioned vehicles from the park’s entrance several kilometers away. Cabo might just swallow you and tempt you never to leave. That’s what I felt, from the moment I lurched up in an auto across the dunes under the sweeping pastel sky.

Each day when the sun bows below the westward waves applause break out across the beach. Together we watch the orange moon climbing from the opposite sea.

Then time for guitar strumming, rest and empanadas. Starting at 2 a.m. the young and feverish dance in candlelit boliches (clubs) until the sun reappears, and then they fall into hostel bunks or bungalow rooms for a few hours of hard sleep.

Cut off, thoughts elongate. Conversations drift. Hours dissolve, and bonds quickly form.

It certainly seems that simple for the visitor, like me. But for those who have their whole lives here, they not only face the elements but fight a constant battle to keep their homes–there’ve been years of disputes with the government over who has rights to the land.
The history is more than complicated, but leads to a precarious existence for dozens of the homes.

The two sides of the peninsula have had two separate private owners, while the end including the lighthouse is state-owned. The government has ordered buildings demolished as part of its 2009 claim to the land as a national park, and one of the private owners is fighting residents in court with the claim they are squatters with no right to the property.

Then there’s the “wealthier” side of the peninsula, whose private owner already sold off the houses individually back in the 90’s to residents who could afford them and razed the rest.

But for folks still living in Cabo, there’s not a way to even imagine leaving.

“If they really make us leave I’m ready to fight the state in court. This is my life,” Danny Machado, the “president” of the community (who lives on government land) told me. The past two years he’s been holding meetings with other residents to draft a plan that would allow them to stay and also preserve the natural area. They just voted on the final plan this December, and are now waiting (hoping) for the president of Uruguay to sign it into effect.

Machado, who owns the popular buliche Lo de Danny, is third-generation Cabonian. His grandfather was hired by the government to plant trees in Cabo and then his dad hunted sea lions (also contracted by the state) and uncle became a fisherman.

Machado is convinced that the government’s conversion of Cabo to a park was so the state could take control of the land’s fate.

“They want to take [the land] for their own use and their own type of tourism,” said Machado. But the state has asserted their plan is to protect the delicate nature, and some residents are hopeful this is the beginning of talks to formalize rules over sanitation, sewage and other environmental concerns.

“They won’t clear out Cabo, the people have too much history here,” one summertime resident told me in disbelief that the state would really make such a controversial move. It can be hard to believe in large societal changes when you’re in such a wild and tranquil place.

But even without roads and electricity, Cabo has already transformed–from a discreet fishing village to a destination spot for well-off families, creative types and young vacationers from throughout South America. And each year Cabo has two faces, that of the two-month summer and of the empty rest of the year.

“You spend 10 months alone and all of the sudden you see all these people. By the time you get used to them all the people leave,” Cabo life-timer Gustavo Olivera told me. He runs a restaurant in Cabo and has thought about leaving the peninsula “for ambition,” but any other place feels wrong.

“I don’t have an alternative. There’s not enough oxygen elsewhere,” he told me.

I, too, choke when I pull up to Montevideo after days in the hushing cloak of salty winds and candles. Maybe I will return.

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