Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part II. REVOLUTION

Chapter 7. LA PLATA

In Darwin’s Muddy Footsteps

The other day we landed our men here & took possession at the request of the inhabitants of the central fort. We Philosophers do not bargain for this sort of work and I hope there will be no more.

—LETTER TO A FRIEND, AUGUST 18, 1832

NO ONE TRAVELS TO BE BORED. But without the structured to-do lists of home, it’s an inevitable part of any trip. I’d guess that boredom is the most common, most universal of all traveling emotions. To combat it, travelers review and relive their few moments of glorious excitement by writing in journals (Darwin) or blogging for hours in Internet cafés (not Darwin). They think deep thoughts, and ponder philosophical and political questions, as Darwin did about slavery while lying indisposed in his hammock in Bahia. Or if they’re like my English friend Nathan, they lash against the constraints of inactivity like netted fish. Traveling with Nathan was never boring.

The tiny Atlantic coast country of Uruguay is boring, in the nicest sort of way. It’s clean, peaceful, tranquil, and scenic but not remarkably so. For Darwin, who spent several months wandering around on the north banks of the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay was at best a decent opportunity to practice his Spanish. “I never saw so quiet, so deserted looking a place,” Darwin wrote in his journal, about the eastern part of the country. “After pacing for some weeks the planck decks, one ought to be grateful for the pleasure of treading on the green elastic turf, although the surrounding view in both cases is equally uninteresting.”

For Nathan, I think, three days in Uruguay nearly killed him.

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I didn’t make it to Uruguay while following Darwin. But Nathan and I had been there before. When I reviewed that trip later, as I read The Voyage of the Beagle for the first time, the parallels between our three days bouncing along the Plata and Darwin’s experiences leaped out at me almost the same way the story of the Darwin’s rhea had.

I had met up with Nathan in Buenos Aires, where I had just landed, and where for the last few weeks he’d been an active conspirator in the nightlife at one of the most scandalous and legendary youth hostels on the continent. Although there was a particular Spanish language instructor he had in mind, the entire city had caught his eye.

Buenos Aires is an incredibly aesthetic city: beautiful people in beautiful clothes eating beautiful food from beautiful dinner plates in beautiful buildings. Walking the streets in the morning I would be passed by tall, thin businessmen and women strutting off to work in fashionable suits. The city seemed to be populated by energetic 30-something business people straight out of Hollywood casting central, the kind of people you always see working in advertising firms in romantic comedies. To my alarm, I discovered that Nathan had bought new shoes, a new jacket and a few new dressy shirts, He had also joined a gym and now kept up a daily exercise regimen that included brisk jogging around the park, and he was concentrating enough on his Spanish lessons (that instructor—not only pretty and fashionable, but a good teacher!) that he’d chucked his charming disregard for the language out with his old clothes. And then he’d turned into a zombie by trying to skip sleep for three weeks.

Darwin, who spent very little time in Buenos Aires, sounded something like everyone else in the hostel. (Or rather, they sounded like him.) “The whole town has more of an European look than any I have seen in S. America,” he wrote after one trip. (“The Paris of South America!” modern guidebooks proclaim.) Like my hostel mates, Darwin found little to do except roam the streets admiring the finely dressed women. “Our chief amusement,” he wrote to his sister Caroline, “was riding about & admiring the Spanish Ladies. After watching one of these angels gliding down the streets; involuntarily we groaned out, ‘how foolish English women are, they can neither walk nor dress.’ And then how ugly Miss sounds after Signorita; I am sorry for you all; it would do the whole tribe of you a great deal of good to come to Buenos Ayres.” (Check.)

The problem with youth hostels is that they don’t really want you to turn into a permanent resident. So when the Buenos Aires hostel staff chose to kick Nathan out for having overstayed their three-week limit, and we needed to go somewhere for a few days to relax, we chose nearby Uruguay. It turned out to be a little more relaxation than Nathan, at least, had sought, which is why three days later, within hours of our return to Buenos Aires, we found ourselves in a small, dimly lit underground chamber in the theater district, sitting with three groups of women who were having bachelorette parties and two groups of men who were having bachelor parties, all of us—and most especially Nathan—facing an eight-foot circular pool filled with mud and two wrestlers in thong bikinis that were also, rapidly filling with mud. Darwin probably would have done the same.

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In 2005, a Uruguayan pop music star named Jorge Drexler was nominated for an Academy Award for writing a song called “Al Otro Lado del Rio” for the soundtrack of the movie The Motorcycle Diaries. When Drexler asked to sing his own song at the awards show, the producers told him he didn’t have enough star power and that they had decided the song would be better handled by Hollywood’s most recognizable Latino, Antonio Banderas. Banderas performed and Drexler ended up winning the award. His rebellious acceptance speech was to sing, very sweetly, a few lines from his song. The entire affair was huge news in Uruguay but went mostly unnoticed in the United States. A few days later, Jorge’s brother Daniel Drexler told the Wall Street Journal: “We got excited when they mentioned the word ‘Uruguay’ on The Simpsons, even though they pronounced it ‘you are gay’ and made a joke out of it.”

Uruguay may be—and I say this with the utmost affection—one of the most irrelevant countries in the world for a twenty-first-century North American. It’s not in the Middle East or Europe or Asia, it doesn’t participate in or approve of the war on terror, its environmental footprint is probably around a quarter that of Los Angeles’, its socialist leader isn’t bombastic, its two major sports are soccer and rugby, and it has no major tourist sites, ancient ruins, iconic waterfronts, famous cuisine, or (sorry, Jorge) identifiable rock stars.

“Whoever has seen Cambridgeshire, if in his mind he changes arable into pasture ground & roots out every tree, may say he has seen Monte Video,” Darwin wrote after climbing a hill near the Uruguayan capital.

Or, as Nathan said, while slinging his backpack onto a bunk bed in an empty hostel dorm room in Montevideo, “I think Uruguay needs to work on its PR.”

The hostel was a huge three-story house with room for forty-eight guests in which we appeared to be the first visitors. Nathan, having dropped his bag, scanned the room for signs of intelligent life or at least signs of something promising hedonism and, finding none, plunked down moodily on the bed.

“Well,” I said, unloading my own pack in the opposite corner of the room, “what can you really say?”

“Uruguay!” Nathan cracked, perking up briefly. “It’s not Paraguay!”

And yet Uruguay was far more like my home in California than I’d ever have imagined. Montevideo and San Francisco are almost equally distant from the equator (one north, one south), and the average temperatures were within a few degrees of each other. Both Uruguay and California had been colonized by the Spanish, who had nearly annihilated the local Indian presence (leaving the few remnants so scattered and blended by intermarriage that tracing any kind of distinct indigenous history is nearly impossible). They had won independence from Spain four years apart, Uruguay in 1828 and Mexico, which California was a part of, in 1832. Both had carved the land into ranches for wealthy veterans, who had then fought losing battles to keep immigrant squatters from further dividing it. Both had, at one time, relied almost exclusively on trade in cattle—a shorter-lived period in California history, which changed abruptly when gold was discovered in 1848 and scofflaw Americans began to move in. Both regions spawned a breed of fiercely independent cowboys, Uruguay’s gauchos and California’s vaqueros, famed for their horsemanship and rugged lifestyle. (One article in the New York Times suggested that George W. Bush liked visiting Uruguay because there was a nice ranch house for him to visit that reminded him of Texas. Plus the non-bombastic socialist leader thing.)

Finally, triumphantly, both Uruguay and California had somehow ended up with suburban tract-home blight on top of many of those pastoral ranches. “Going north from Punta you will pass some of the finest residential areas in South America,” one Uruguayan tourist website proclaimed. “This area of the Maldonado Region is a ‘must see’ for tourists and visitors. Golf and tennis clubs can also be found in this vicinity.”

Golf! Tennis! Uruguay!

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Montevideo was a comfortably nice place, with tree-lined shady streets, old Victorian-looking houses, and an air of quiet retirement about it. Nathan and I strolled around for a while and ended up reclining on a grassy lawn at the edge of the Plata, basking in late afternoon sunshine and a sea breeze, lazily watching a few dozen men on a rocky breakwater as they pulled flashing silver fish out of the brown water. Shrewsbury-native Darwin may have found this a “great air of wealth & business,” but for us, it looked a lot like a bigger, more populated suburb of the rest of the sleeping country. A rugby team was practicing on the lawn next to us, running formations, tossing the ball from one end of the line to the other as they ran from end to end, and I felt a soothing sense of home. The grass and the fishing and the sports could just as well have been set in any marina in the San Francisco Bay.

But while I slid down the grass and relaxed into the slow-paced, somehow familiar Uruguayan rhythm, Nathan ground his teeth and openly despaired of ever finding seediness and wild hedonism again. “This is a capital city,” he said, through set jaw. “There must be nightlife somewhere.” In Montevideo, Darwin had attended a grand ball to celebrate the reestablishment of the president. “It was a much gayer scene than I should have thought this place could have produced,” he wrote.

While I was visiting Nathan in England—the first time I’d seen him since our paths had diverged in South America and I’d discovered Darwin—we compared notes and talked about the naturalist’s take on Uruguay. I read the bit about the grand ball out loud. “He found a party?” Nathan asked, incredulous. “Where? How? Can we find it still?”

The partygoers, Darwin reported, were finely dressed —the women in particular—and he expressed his amazement that even the lowest classes of society were allowed into the theater to observe the dancing. “And nobody ever seemed to imagine the possibility of disorderly conduct on their parts,” he marveled. “How different are the habits of Englishmen, on such Jubilee nights!”

A determined Nathan, ready to uphold his country’s reputation, burst out onto the Uruguayan streets that night. The hostel operator looked surprised. “We lock the doors at midnight,” she said quietly.

For a while, we blundered around the dark residential streets. We found a few restaurants, some cheerily lit pizza joints, and some shuttered office buildings. As Nathan got increasingly worried that there really might not be any bars in all of Montevideo, we reached the older part of town, with narrow pedestrian-only streets that reflected the lights from a few open doors. Suddenly, we came to a swinging green sign for “The Shannon.”

“Irish pub,” I read.

Nathan swerved. We had stumbled into the capital’s bar sector, with four or five different bars serving up music and drinks, and Nathan, back in his element, looking like he had finally found his ideal place to settle down, was hesitant to leave. “It’s like Irish bars everywhere,” he said, gratefully gulping his beer. “Guinness, dark wood, no actual Irish people. It’s absolutely wonderful.”

We sat wedged in the corner at a dark table, with Uruguayan waiters constantly tripping over my feet as they passed by on their way back to the bar. Nathan looked pleased. He later suggested that Darwin might have had his evolution epiphany while looking for a drink in Montevideo. “It’s survival of the fittest,” Nathan said. “It’s like some male of some soon to be extinct species crawling through the jungle in one last-ditch, futile attempt to find a female. Maybe it could have been Darwin’s eureka moment.”

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In October 1833, Darwin boarded the Beagle anticipating that it would soon be leaving Uruguay for good. But he was disappointed to hear that the navigational charts had not been finished yet and the ship would stay in Montevideo until December. Determined, then, to do something with his time, he decided to ride to the river marking the western boundary of the country. A few days later he arrived in one of Uruguay’s original settlements, Colonia del Sacramento, and found much of the town in ruins. The ancient church at the center of town had been destroyed—it had been used as a powder magazine and was struck by lightning. Darwin walked along the half-demolished walls for a while, pronounced it a “pretty” little town, and left the next morning.

Nathan and I arrived in Colonia early in the afternoon on a bus from Montevideo and found that it was now one of the most pleasant, sleepy towns on the continent. Tree-lined, broken sidewalks funneled visitors down toward the waterfront where the Rio de la Plata lapped gently at a rocky breakwater. The town looked like it hadn’t been touched much since Darwin strolled around admiring the ruins. Walking down the main street, we ran into a hard-partying Australian whom we had last seen days earlier at a Buenos Aires pool table, standing in a haze of cigarette smoke with cue stick in one hand and a liter bottle of Quilmes beer in the other at something like six in the morning. He had been in Colonia now for three days.

“What have you been doing?” I asked, looking to the end of the street and thinking it was an awfully small place to keep him entertained for a week.

“Detox,” he said. “I go to bed early, I sleep late, I go for a walk. It’s just such a nice place to relax after all the partying in Buenos Aires.”

“When are you going back?”

“Don’t really know,” he said. “Maybe by the end of the week. I’ve gotta get back there at some point.”

He agreed to have lunch with us in a shaded sidewalk café on the main drag. Nathan dove into the national dish, steak with ham, bacon, and an egg, and we leaned back into our chairs and felt laziness overcoming us. Colonia was a brilliant place to take a leisurely stroll, and everyone was doing it; families, groups of teens, elderly couples, almost all of them carrying carved, gourd-like containers and hot-water thermoses for their maté, a boiled-grass tasting tea-like concoction which they drank through metal straws. It was late in the afternoon, and the tea hour had arrived.

Maté is an addiction widely popular in Argentina and Uruguay, and its popularity is growing among natural-food enthusiasts in the United States. To prepare it, you pull out a small bag of the herb and pack it into the bottom of your “calabash,” usually a hollowed-out gourd made for maté. Add hot water and a metal straw, pass it around, and you’ve got everything you need for a pleasant afternoon. South Americans drink it straight, without sugar, although it takes quite some time to adjust to the flavor of freshly cut lawn. Darwin, by the end of his journeys through the Pampas, seemed to have grown quite fond of his daily “mattee.”

We saw people slowing up to rest against store walls, pulling thermoses out of backpacks, sharing their tea with friends. It was peaceable, friendly, and relaxed, and after lunch we meandered down to the harbor where we watched the sunset over the still water and admired the sailboats. Groups of people in shorts and sandals were out taking their tea on the decks of the boats, a father and his son were fishing from the end of the pier, and the Australian sat looking at the purple water, feeling the sun and the wind on his face with an expression of contentment, like he was telling us, “See what I mean?”

I did; Nathan did not. But now, he had a remedy.

For days, he had been scanning the papers looking for nightclub news. Back in Buenos Aires, this very night, he announced, was a mud-wrestling show. And, he said, after an almost incredible amount of effort (for him), he had secured two tickets. We’d just hop on the ferry, ride back to town, and finally get some of that culture we’d been missing in our relaxing country retreat, which is what we did.

Later, as I mulled over the mud-wrestling show, and Nathan’s enthusiasm for it—expressed in his usual excited terms as we raced back toward the ferry—I tried to imagine what Darwin would have said. In Uruguay, in our boredom, in Nathan’s search for bars, and even in watching his reaction to the nightlife situation, there was a nice parallel: we were following in Darwin’s footsteps by not following in them, without knowing that’s what we were even doing. By desperately seeking a bar, we were reacting to our own boredom; Darwin felt the same way, even if his choice of ameliorative activity (riding around on a horse, pursuing lizards to throw) was different. Now, as we raced through town to get back to the ferry that night, we were chasing the same idea of señoritas (the, ahem, pure Platonic form of señorita) except we were going to get the modern traveler’s version, as part of the cultural component of this Darwin quest.

I later shared my conclusions with Nathan. “I suppose,” I said, “that a mud-wrestling expedition could count as research. We went to see if the Spanish Ladies still held their charms when undressed and caked in mud.”

Nathan grinned.

“Your Darwin,” he said, “is a bloke I’d like to meet.”

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