Every day, without fail, the water temperature of Maldonado Bay is measured by a weather satellite, circling from pole-to-pole, about 500 miles above the Earth. Despite the fact that the launch had been delayed due to bad weather, the spacecraft was declared fully operational after a six month, on-orbit checkout. NOAA-20 is a technological marvel. Sophisticated instruments collect high-resolution, three-dimensional atmospheric data, including SST (Sea Surface Temperature), a measure of the energy due to the motion of molecules at the top layer of the ocean. Put in more down-to-earth terms—the orbiter sticks a toe in the water to see if the temperature is perfect for swimming.
Last year at about this time I ran a similar test by kicking off my shoes and wading into the sea. The water was luxuriously warm. After a three-month string of sun-filled, 75°F days, the frigid Atlantic Ocean, near shore, felt like bathwater. This colossal tub stretched to the rim of the world. It was magnificent. It was mine. Spellbound, I nearly stumbled over a woman sitting in the water, splashing and smiling. That could be me, I thought, and pledged to reappear in garb proper for a good long soak. Yet, I frittered away the next few days buying fresh bread and watching the moon rise and basking in other quiet delights. Unnoticed were falling temperatures and approaching storm clouds. A downpour finally caught my attention. When the sun returned, autumn was in tow. Cold and wet being the long-range forecast, my date with the sea was scratched. Come the new year, I promised myself, things would be different.
At this writing, that new year has been underway for some months. Summer is gone, and with it my chance for a sensuous dip. I feel gypped out of becoming the Queen of Sheba, if even for an hour. How could this have happened? What was the reason? A lack of ocean access was not to blame, a beach being just two blocks from my apartment. The weather was faultless, with temperatures holding at a pleasant 68°F. The wind off the sea wasn’t the culprit, though I remain convinced that it moves things around in the night, when no one sees. After due consideration, the answer became clear: the fault is mine. I inhaled summer and while under its influence lost track of time. Sans the weight of life’s distractions, lifted by each moment’s beauty, I vanished into high season, à la Punta del Este.
The season’s kick-off is a grand New Year’s Eve celebration. Ground zero is OVO Beach on Maldonado Bay. We walked to the celebration, our apartment being just six blocks from the bay. This proved opportune as traffic was at a standstill. People filled every available patch of street, sidewalk, and sand. Elbowing our way towards the shore, we were absorbed into the throng of revelers, holding champagne in one hand to toast in 2019, smartphone in the other to record their presence. As the crowd counted down, corks popped and digital shutters snapped. At the stroke of midnight fireworks began all around Maldonado Bay. It must have been quite the sight if seen high up from a penthouse balcony or far off from a boat. The entire bay was a backdrop for a panorama of sparkling aerial dancers. Our view, down on the sand, was a bit more intimate; we were inside the fury, underneath a canopy of loud explosions and sizzling color. When the light show stopped, the all-night party started. Revelers, who had come a great distance and at great expense and were not going to waste a precious moment of their summer holiday, stayed to party. Those of us who lived here and enjoyed this paradise every day nonchalantly relinquished the beaches, clubs, and restaurants to the tourists. Echoes and reflections from the fete escorted us home.
While making morning coffee, I glanced out the kitchen window and spotted a few revelers, still dressed in their party frocks, just arriving home. Everyone rested for a few hours. After lunch the frenzy began. By then, vacationers had been online to share the night’s pictures and plan the day’s agenda. Punta made this easy with QueHacemosHoy.com (what are we doing today), the official guide to high season activities. Most were free, all were meant to provide more fun than could be imagined. The density and diversity of this schedule cannot be overstated. It included art exhibits; movies and film festivals; recitals; birdwatching; lectures; casino nights; a circus; seminars; wine tasting; fashion shows; walking tours; magic shows; all things food: fairs, buffets, classes, demonstrations; a golf tourney; stage shows; dance lessons: salsa, tango, bachata; beach parties; concerts in numerous musical genres; a car rally; an international bicycle race; gardening demonstrations; kids art classes, and more.
Counterbalancing this buzz of activity were miles of pristine golden sand beaches, carpeted by quiet sun worshipers meditating on the orb. Every morning they uniformly faced due east, into the crisp rising sun. After noon they turned west, to be washed in its warm rays. I fancied this pattern as a tennis match, played in slow motion on a sandy court, with spectators following the orb back and forth and back and forth. Matches were long; summer’s top guaranteed 15 hours of daylight. After each long day of holding up the sky, the orb would silently vanish, leaving the field to the stars. True to high season form, these stellar performers sparkled all night.
Tourists yearning for deeper understanding might venture to Punta’s very own oracle: La Mano (The Hand). Five human fingers pushing out of the sand, a 1981 artistic creation, stood apart on Brava Beach, waiting to be petitioned. In days of antiquity, supplicants walked to the Oracle at Delphi. In our era, seekers were driven to La Mano by tour bus, which dropped them off right in front of the ‘hand in the sand.’ They came armed with camera or smartphone to record their close encounter with this legendary icon. I’ve seen people become giddy while approaching the hand; grow animated as they touch it; start murmuring after climbing atop the thumb. It was as though they were in an altered state of consciousness. Recalling my own experience of being under summer’s sway, this didn’t seem so odd.
By the year’s first weekend, people were arriving by every imaginable mode of transport: cruise ship, airplane, car, bus, yacht, motorcycle, and hitchhiker’s thumb. Punta quickly filled up. Every street, beach, tourist hot spot, club, restaurant, shop, museum, and market check lane was packed. Traffic became treacherous for drivers and pedestrians. Down on the beaches, workers constantly reset the sun worshiper furniture. Enterprising vendors rented a 2-chair/1-umbrella package for 500 pesos ($15) a day. Beach hawkers, laden with blankets, hats, and fashionable cover-ups, enjoyed a brisk trade; the sun was seriously intense and women—young and old, firm and wrinkled—wore skimpy bikinis all day, even to the grocery stores, which enforced a dress code. And the weather in paradise? Hot and sunny, with a cool breeze off the ocean. Evenings were a creamy 68°F, ideal for open-air events. The season’s opening concert took place at Plaza Artigas, a patch of green in mid-town Punta del Este. A large statue of José Artigas, father of the country, is the centerpiece. Standing with hat in hand, arm extended, he seemed to gesture towards the musicians and singers now assembled at his feet. It was standing room only for this performance of American and Latin favorites. People sang along, hugged one another, and danced at the back. I was charmed to encounter an international audience who knew Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra lyrics as well as me. Though I remained on a steep learning curve, when it came to this country’s songbook and language, I already felt welcome at the community table.
Through my newcomer’s eyes, Uruguay appears focused on people; not who you knew, but with whom you shared life’s journey. It’s about we, not me. Family and community are at the center. The nationwide get-together is Carnaval. This amazing event is a duality of now and then; it is the pinnacle of high season, with all the sizzle a contemporary society can muster, and also the envoy of centuries-old tradition, with deep roots in the culture of enslaved peoples who were brought to Uruguay from Africa in the 1800s. Both aspects shine brightly throughout the 50-day schedule of events, parades, and performances, making this the world’s longest Carnaval.
Much advance work is needed to pull together a gala of this magnitude. One tiny piece caught my attention. It was announced in an 8th-column space on page 4 of a free 8page circular, which I happened upon at the Punta bus station. The notice was for an evening audition of drum and musical acts, vying for placement in Maldonado’s schedule. “Public is welcome” the news tidbit stated, which I took as a personal invitation.
Discovering exactly where to go was the first challenge. Not speaking Spanish made this particularly difficult. Luckily, a new acquaintance in our new building and a group of total strangers doing repair work in the lobby jumped in to assist. The destination was revealed as the Maldonado Cultural Center in Nuevo Maldonado; an unknown building in a remote corner of a still-unfamiliar town. Our next hurdle was getting there; by bus, at night. This would be a real test of our daring and savviness. We found a bus that went in the correct direction, though weren’t certain where to get off. Sputtering in Spanish to the bus driver got us within a few blocks, his pantomimed hand-waving pointing us in the right direction. A small map helped us locate the building.
Our trepidation in venturing to this unknown destination was countered by a few hours of top-notch performances from several well-rehearsed groups. It took place in a keen new facility, which deserves mention in travel books. The rhythms were hot and my urge to get up and dance was powerful; out of respect, I remained seated, yet couldn’t stop tapping my feet to a beat that surged through my body. Friends and family of the groups filled the hall. We were the only gringos in the room. We probably were the only gringos in Nuevo Maldonado, something we took note of once back on the street and looking for a bus stop. Was it this way? What about over there? Seeing in the dark was impossible until our eyes became adjusted. Eventually, we spotted a bus shelter, down a side street, hidden by overhanging trees. We would wait there.
Cars and scooters zoomed past on the main street. Two guys were sitting on the curb, drinking a beer. One approached us and asked if we had a match or lighter. Their attention shifted when we said no, in Spanish. Music drifted through a nearby open door. Lights in the corner shop went off. A woman pushing a baby stroller passed by, followed by a group of chatty teens; their vulnerability reassured me. A man pulling a cart struggled by and managed a slurry greeting. We mumbled a reply and continued to wait. How long had it been? What if a bus never came? Which way was home?
Longing to be distracted, I turned to examine a notice posted in the shelter. Reading the small print required stepping closer. My eyes, now accustomed to the dark, floated over the pictures and words, then off the edge of the page, and into the eyes of a man. He was motionless. Silent. Almost invisible, as he sat on a lawn chair nested into the hedge at the back of the bus enclosure. A few bags lay on the ground beside him. He lives here, I said to myself, in this bus shelter, and his worldly possessions are in those bags at his feet.
Out of fear, out of respect, I turned to face the empty street. My thoughts were swimming. Should I do something? What would that be? Was he hungry? If I gave him money, would someone steal it, like those guys drinking beer? They must have seen him. Or, did I have everything backwards? Maybe the beer guys were protecting him from us! We were the strangers. We were the ones out of place. Perhaps cart man had greeted him, not us. What if lawn chair man was just one of the neighbors and everyone knew him and worked to keep him safe because that was a community’s responsibility. Did that compassion extend to outsiders, like us? Had we been safe this whole time?
As if on cue, a bus appeared that could take us home. Riding in silence, we moved out from the neighborhood’s heart to Maldonado’s eastern perimeter. Empty land lay beyond the fence. The bus turned south and did a slow zigzag down through the town’s flank. My window was a movie screen. I watched passengers get on and off. Passed lit-up homes where people were sitting down to eat. Heard babies cry and dogs bark. It was all quite ordinary, and reassured me that lawn chair man’s community was not the dodgy place some had suggested. Tourists should come here, I thought, step outside the manicured box that was Punta and see where real workaday people lived; the ones who commuted to clean hotel rooms, wait tables, and pick up trash left on the beaches. Everyone benefits from understanding more about the people around them, and from displaying a little gratitude. My thoughts carried me to our bus stop. Home was a short walk. Along the way I picked up a few bits of trash lying on the street. Seeing as this was my place, too, I felt that I had a few obligations.
Overnight, the wind had rearranged the dunes on Brava, the wild ocean-facing side of the peninsula. Workers furiously shoveled sand off steps and boardwalks, readying paradise for the day’s visitors. I understood their haste when I saw the enormous cruise ship, likely arriving from Rio de Janeiro, gliding along the peninsula and heading for the bay. Over on Mansa, the calm side of the peninsula, other men scrambled to set out chairs and umbrellas. Farther down the beachfront a team unloaded jet boats and jet skis, para sails and paddle boards. To create such a flurry, that ship must have carried some serious vacationers; ones who knew that the water temperature of Maldonado Bay was nearing peak lusciousness.
Things also hopped at the bus terminal. Those booked in for a two-week stay over New Year’s now were heading out. They were easy to spot; faces tanned, arms loaded with gift bags, and an entourage of well-wishers escorting them to buses marked AIRPORT. Buses marked PUNTA brought in replacement vacationers. The newly-arrived dropped their bags, checked their maps, and scanned the area for coffee. Nearby cabbies fussed over their taxis, hoping to catch a fare. Over on the auxiliary boarding lanes relaxed travelers, carrying only a beach bag and a guidebook, waited for transport to day-excursion destinations like Punta Diablo, an unadorned fishing village that emphatically maintains its hippy charm or La Barra, a bohemian hot-spot where the tony go to be seen. Here in South America’s Riviera, there was something for every taste.
Now that the season’s red-hot, 2-week opening was over, visitors could settle into the everyday mania of beach-time, pool-time, club-time, dinner-time, and nonstop fun-time. Carnival was still a few weeks away, which left room for two big, international celebrations: French Culture Week and Chinese New Year. Both were replete with artistic, cultural, and theatrical productions. I had singled out one event: a commemoration of Édith Piaf (19151963), France’s national chanteuse. A vocalist performed selections from Piaf’s repertoire, chronicling the pieces with stories of her tragic, rags-to-riches life. The outdoor theater was filled beyond capacity by a most-appreciative audience who often hummed or sang along. In French, of course. I was a hummer, yet relished being part of this heart-warming community of strangers. Setting a very different tone was the Chinese fete; it was all color and motion, noise and snap, with a fireworks finale over the bay. We hoped to catch the big close. But that night was also a performance on the history of tango that I simply refused to miss. I was not disappointed. The enchanting show was a synthesis of poetry, live music, singing, and sultry tango dancing. By the time we were ready to make our way to the bay, traffic was at a standstill. With only four blocks to go, the fireworks ended. That’s enough fun for one day, we figured, and made our way home.
As January gave over to February, a rare astronomical event took place: a total lunar eclipse of a full moon. Whereas Punta was on the path of totality, I determined to stay up and see the moon disappear. It was very cool. Besides, the show took place right outside my window; leaving the house wasn’t required. A few weeks later that same moon, now a razorthin crescent, came out to enjoy the Uruguayan Navy Band’s evening concert. The players arrived in uniform, carrying their instruments, then assembled on a plaza overlooking the sea. We were among a few hundred spectators sitting near the beach, taking in the jazzy music. Runners out for an evening circuit paused to catch a few bars. Cars streamed by, the drivers signally their delight with gestures and honks. Ocean waves kept the beat.
High season was at full speed, and about to peak. Ready to explode in every city and hamlet across the country was Carnaval. Anny Pérez, reigning Miss Rio de la Plata and designated cultural ambassador, had been hard at work for months. Events in Montevideo, the country’s capital, were already underway. Punta was still counting down. Finally, parade day arrived. The weather was a perfect 70°F with a light breeze off the ocean. An hour before start-time, we hoofed it into downtown and melted into the mass of people, already 10-deep along the parade route. Suddenly, a roar went up a few blocks away, signaling the procession’s start. As the drumming grew louder, our excitement swelled. At long last, the parade burst onto the scene in a noisy, colorful rush.
Flag-wavers led the way, sweeping large colorful banners back and forth as they moved forward, announcing their individual troupe. Close behind, a few carried the traditional symbolic objects of a star or a half-moon. On their heels came a small group of men and women dressed as archetypal characters reminiscent of colonial times: an old woman waving a fan, a bearded man hobbling with a cane, and a young athlete doing tricks with a headless broom. Next was a wave of samba dancers, in glittery revealing costumes, who shimmered and shimmied their way down the street. A large contingent of drummers, dressed in matching outfits, brought up the rear and moved in step to their infectious beat. This is candombe; a unique Afro-Uruguayan rhythm and dance form that was born here, in the Rio del la Plata river basin area of Uruguay and Argentina. This 40-50 person troupe was the first of three companies to dance their way through downtown Punta. Cheering, clapping, samba-dancing spectators lined the entire parade route. The scene was electrifying.
The hot glow of high season becomes a pale blush with Carnaval’s end, when the nation stops to catch its breath during a 2-day holiday. The next day, Ash Wednesday, marks the first day of Lent and the first day of school. Warm sunshine and gentle breezes continued to whisper summer, but vacation was over, the season just a memory. Now, I often was alone with the hand in the sand. Were the fingers speaking in sign, I mused, urging the tourists back for a bit more paradise? But no, the beehive of summer activity had stopped. Cruise ships no longer dropped anchor in Maldonado Bay; it would be December before another appeared. No one arrived by land or air, either. The beaches were empty. The hawkers had vanished. With no need for seaside chairs and umbrellas, workers moved these items into storage. Boardwalks, once snaking across the sand, were rapidly dismantled. One by one, shops and restaurants closed. Traffic lights soon would be turned off, there being no speeding cars. Eventually, no cars at all. There were no footprints in the sand, save mine, as I walked to the sea, to stick a toe in the water.
Joy Kopp captivates readers with Notas de 35° S, a vibrant essay series about Uruguay, South America, a little-known paradise on the South Atlantic Ocean. In 2017, after a 30-year career in media and communications, she and her husband moved to Punta del Este, Uruguay, where she began writing about the experience of living in a foreign country. Be transported by her words, see through her eyes, as you read about this country’s rich culture and life-ways.