By Lu Anne Stewart
Ever since I returned from a 10-day vacation in Uruguay in March, I’ve been trying to crystallize in my mind why this country resonated so deeply with me as a writer.
Uruguay is like an old soul – quiet and reflective, mindful of its past, richly human. As I moved through its cities and countryside, I sensed that I was collecting experiences that were intensely authentic, ones that radiated universal truths about how people live their lives each day, and what is most important to them.
In the capital city of Montevideo, my photographer husband and I spent a leisurely afternoon at Café Brasilero, an atmospheric literary hangout dating from 1877 in the historic quarter. Inside, the high ceiling, dark wood wainscoting and languid Brazilian music created a snug and relaxing vibe.
I saw Richard suddenly reach for his camera the way he does when he’s spotted a potential shot. I looked back over my shoulder in the direction he was pointing the camera, toward the entrance of the café. There sat a young couple at a table in the window, backlit by the bright sun, a beam illuminating the woman’s glass of amber beer. The reversed letters spelling out the café’s name on the window glass were perfectly centered over their heads in a crescent shape. They leaned toward one another, conversing intently.
It was a shot that looked instantly iconic, like a scene from a classic film. In that moment, I could imagine this couple as characters in a melancholy short story, perhaps lingering over drinks in their favorite café before one of them must depart for reasons mysterious.
One Saturday morning, we took a walk along the Rambla that winds along the city’s waterfront on the wide Rio de la Plata. In a large public park, we stopped to watch dozens of young children at soccer practice. We took a seat on the metal bleachers next to parents cheering on their progeny. It struck me that this exact scene could be replicated in any American town on a Saturday morning – indeed, in any city in this soccer-loving world. The encouraging shouts of the proud parents. The excitement and concentration on the faces of the kids as they moved up in line to take their turn to advance the ball and practice their footwork. In a world with so much turmoil and division, this felt like a shared moment that linked humanity anywhere and everywhere.
That same feeling hit me again and again as we made our way through Uruguay. In Colonia del Sacramento, a historic waterfront town of cobblestone streets and lush bougainvillea, we stopped by a small restaurant to check the menu. A mustachioed man sitting at a table on the sidewalk rose to introduce himself as the chef-owner. “Experimental!” he said, pointing to the menu board and encouraging us inside.
It was a tiny place, eclectically furnished, with a half-dozen tables. Every wall and table surface was covered with nostalgic artifacts, from faded family vacation snapshots to china plates and newspaper clippings. Jazz from the Billie Holiday era drifted dreamily through the place. The total effect was mesmerizing. I felt transported into a state where everything was more vivid and delightful than real life – from my crock of mussels baked in a garlic wine sauce (experimental!) to a spontaneous conversation with the restaurant’s only other patron, sitting at a table in the corner.
He was about 30 and a rare bird in Uruguay – a fellow American. We fell easily into a spirited discussion about the recent U.S. presidential election and quickly deduced that we were of the same political persuasion. He told us he lived in Washington, D.C., “in the District,” he said, and had been traveling since February. He’d spent a month in Brazil and was now sampling Uruguay before heading to Buenos Aires and then parts unknown.
From his professional look and passionate political views, I imagined that he might have been an Obama administration staffer, swept out of town in January in the change of regimes, and so distraught about the fate of the country that he just hit the road with no plan. His circumstances seemed ripe for a memoir or novel.
We ended our journey in Punta del Este, an intoxicatingly beautiful beach resort on the Atlantic. Again, deja-vu kicked in as I looked out at the ocean waves crashing up onto a rocky shore, looking for all the world like the coast of Rhode Island where I’d lived for 20 years. The same ocean, after all. Another shared treasure linking this American traveler to a new country I was quickly learning to love.
In many ways, Uruguay was unique, exotic and unexpected, with its sensual tango dancers, vibrant Carnaval costumes and history of cattle-wrangling gauchos. But it also felt intensely familiar to me, like trying on a new pair of shoes that feel like you’ve worn them for years.
One of the great joys of travel is exploring places that are totally different from your experience. But in Uruguay I also found joy in what unites us all as humans traveling on the same planet. As writers, we try so hard to capture universal, true-to-life experiences that will touch our readers and make them say, yes, I know exactly how that feels. From this small corner of South America, I brought back many souvenir moments that I hope will weave their way into my plots, characters and settings for years to come.