The1965 Jeep Grand Cherokee, painted the milky blue of a dirty swimming pool, had windows that went neither up nor down, frozen in place by years of dust, dirt and use. Two huge Labradors panted in the bare metal back, their dirty dog smell mixing with the odor of hay, thistle and mesquite on the summer air.
At the bank of the wide, caramel colored Rio Negro that cuts through the heart of rural Uruguay, I opened the Jeep’s door with the outside handle and helped Ethan wrestle a little boat into the warm water. “Shit!” I said to myself as we launched toward the far bank. I came all the way to Uruguay to realize that–other than a pristine stretch of white sand beach on the Black River–I have absolutely no idea where I’m going.
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights;” wrote the late author and traveler Miriam Beard. “It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
When we left Los Angeles six months ago, I was hoping to experience the transformation Beard was writing about. I would find clarity on the road. Inner peace. Perhaps I would even discover that without my anchorwoman identity or job perks that both seduced and ensnared, I was still O.K. But down by that deserted river, dogs and kids splashing in the slow, knee deep water like they’d found heaven, I felt pretty lost.
Hosteria La Sirena is a working cattle ranch located outside the town of Mercedes. This estancia, or ranch, is part of South America’s “eco-tourism” boom, in which families open up their homes to travelers who want to experience a different way of life. La Sirena offers the chance to live like a gaucho—a South American cowboy—and, along with Grandma Donna and Aunt Sandra who were visiting from LA, we were ready to ride the range.
We arrived on an afternoon so hot that the estancia’s towering windmill, main house, barn, guesthouse and horse pasture looked painted onto the landscape. Not a ripple of wind marred the surface of the swimming pool, which on closer inspection, was just a round water tank painted blue. Our sparsely furnished rooms had no air conditioning, which did not bode well for Grandma, who prefers hers the temperature of a meat locker.
Since my mother-in-law’s idea of roughing it is The Hyatt instead of The Four Seasons, I thought the huge spider balancing on spindly, inch-long legs in her bathroom might send her running back to Los Angeles for an immediate appointment with her therapist. But Grandma, much braver and more pragmatic in the face of such hairy scariness than I would have guessed, surprised me; she simply clapped a glass over the spider, allowing Griff and Ado to stare safely at its intricately patterned coffee colored back. At an American Hyatt, or even a Motel 6, giant spiders would spur complaints, but in middle of Uruguayan Nowhere, it just made our drop-in experience of rural life feel authentic.
La Sirena, which I was hoping meant “serenity”, actually means “The Mermaid”. Its owners, Rodney and Lucia Bruce, are both former professional athletes; she a tennis player for the Uruguayan National Team and he, stocky and bandy legged, a professional water skier back when wooden Connolly skis were considered high tech. Since I love both tennis and waterskiing, I identified with these people who lived a world and a lifetime away, and wondered if they might have found the key to happiness in the Uruguayan boonies.
I did some journalistic digging. “Do you ever get lonely living out here?” No. “Do you like taking care of tourists, branding cattle and removing spiders?” Sometimes. “Is it hard?” In high season, yes. “Does living a simpler, slower, lower tech life give you some advantage?” Lucia looked confused.
“Advantage, disadvantage. There is both,” she answered, looking like she wanted to add “Duh”. Shit, I thought again. Apparently, even a bucolic, eco-tourism, gaucho life includes worries about money, family and the future.
“Ten years ago,” Lucia explained, “we were forced to sell our previous estancia—land that was in Rodney’s family for one hundred and fifty years.” Their two children had grown up there, learning to waterski on a large stream that cut through the property. If the boat’s motor broke, the kids would ski behind a horse instead, holding onto a rope harness. But Lucia didn’t whine or even seem wistful that her children’s birthplace was lost to her. And for me, part of the happiness puzzle clicked into place; acceptance of things you cannot change.
The next morning, our group of rookie gauchos saddled up and trotted our horses through an electrified gate and onto open ranch land. A few cows shied away as if we might be hunting ojo de bife (rib-eye) or bife de chorizo (New York strip steak) for dinner. Griffin, his feet sticking out nearly horizontal, trotted along on
the broad back of an old Clydesdale named Pampa. When we reached the river, Grandma Dubrow, an experienced equestrian who looks about as grand-motherly as Annie Oakley in her hey-day, did some actual cow-girling, riding into the water to help Lucia round up some cows marooned on a small island.
Living like a gaucho means eating like one too, not easy for a slightly lost, slightly squeamish American woman who prefers the familiar parts of a cow. That evening, as the sunset burnished the corrugated metal barn door into a shield of gold, we gathered around the outdoor parilla where Angel, a huge, sunburned man with deep laugh lines and the only real gaucho among us, served up short ribs and sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are thymus glands, and though they were good in a lemony, livery way my brain kept getting in the way of my stomach and I could only eat a few. Ado, however, gobbled his like sugar cubes and when I told him no more until he ate his vegetables, the little gaucho actually bit me. He screamed when I yanked him to our room for a time-out, but when I went back to get him he just snuffled, “Mommy? How do you (sniff, sniff) say Jellybean (sniff, sniff) in Spanish?” Ah, those were the days, I thought, when the most important thing in the world was being able to successfully ask for candy.
In that moment, holding my son in the quiet, warm darkness, I had one of the small, energizing epiphanies that keep me moving forward on this less-traveled road. Where ever you go, I realized–however far you run–whether into the sticks of a small South American country or a bottle of Jack Daniels, all the accumulated shit of a lifetime is right there with you, packed in your suitcase like a time worn t-shirt you just can’t throw away. But could I just let it go?
I remembered an email I recently received from a friend—one of those semi-annoying, semi-preachy sentiments that suddenly didn’t seem annoying or preachy at all.
“Dear God,” it read, and since I’m not very religious, I substitute ‘Higher Power’ for ‘God’. “I release this business, project, or goal to You. I know that my tension, my control, and my direction do not serve the project or You. I ask only that Your will be done. I have shown up. I have done as I have felt You have asked me to do. And now I place all outcomes in Your hands. May my efforts gladden You. May my work please You. I am here only to do Your bidding, that I might feel lighter, that I and the entire world might be healed.”
Lucia’s beautiful, longhaired daughter, Lucia, Jr., was playing her guitar and singing sad Uruguayan love songs when I returned to the patio, and it seemed like a good time to try it. So I imagined standing on the Rio Negro’s sandy bank and throwing that shit-laden suitcase into the water, watching as it bobbed in the current and rounded the turn out of sight. Under a carpet of brilliant stars a hemisphere away from home, I chose to stop trying so hard to see the light. Instead of searching for the key to happiness, I would try to use this adventure like a candle to guide me into the next phase of my life.
When Lucia finished, we applauded her performance, reveling in this slice of life that fate, luck and choice allowed us to experience. I’m sure Miriam Beard, writing of “changes in our ideas of living”, was talking about moments like this.
“I want to make your travels,” Lucia Jr. said, her Uruguayan-accented English sounding quaint and girlish. “You have a beautiful life.”
And it was true. I couldn’t speak three languages like she did, sing like an angel, or water ski behind a horse, but I felt lighthearted and thankful—and not at all struggling to see where in the world I am going.