Uruguay: the little country that could!

“So what prompted you to go to Uruguay?” My father asked me over the phone from Montevideo.

“Because it’s there.”

Not a fantastic answer nor entirely true. It does have a pleasing rhetorical air to it.

To be more honest, I wanted to see the country of cows and corrida sheep that produces my favorite brand of knitting yarn. No, my woolen adventures in Peru were not enough to satiate a lust for South American textiles. After a good deal of unfruitful online research, I emailed the only address I could find for Manos de Uruguay, the company that produces a fantastic hand-dyed sheep’s wool that retails for around $13 per skein in wool boutiques (I refuse to call them “stores” or “shops” because this implies fair pricing, instead of the ridiculous gouging that occurs in knitting stores all around the country). Unfortunately, the silly people told me to contact their US distributor to buy yarn, not very useful when I’m in Uruguay.

There were a few other appealing features to Uruguay, including its famed beaches; nearly half of the 13 million people in Buenos Aires flee to the resort town of Punta del Este for the summer to sit packed like sardines on the sand. We heard from a fellow norteamericano traveler that Punta del Diablo, a small town on the Brazil-Uruguay border, was a much more pleasant place to unwind from the rigors of the road, so we made plans to speed east once we entered the country and lie around on deserted beaches until it was time to meet a friend of mine in Mendoza.

We bid adieu to Buenos Aires from the Buquebus (lit. BoatBus) which took us across the Rio de la Plata at sunset, then spent our first real day in Uruguay trying to figure out the monetary value of the Uruguayan peso while visiting the quaint colonial city of quaint nomenclature, Colonia. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, the old city was mostly filled with bus loads of tourists and nasty mosquitoes, so we chose to languish in the shade of our hostel and wait for a bus to Montevideo. I then noted several mutant mosquito bites, some of which may be the vestiges of Iguazú mosquitoes, which have now swelled into inch-long bumps. A little disconcerting. We’ll see how that goes.

At this point, I was engaged in an email exchange with another yarn company, Malabrigo Yarns, whom I’d stumbled across on some Google searches for Manos de Uruguay. They seemed much more welcoming than the Manos staff, so I hoped that I’d be able to visit their warehouse. Just before we left for Montevideo, I found out that the warehouse wasn’t in the city center, but in a neighborhood of unknown location called El Cerro (lit. the mountain/peak). I didn’t really know what that meant, not being familiar with the local geography, and let it wait until we arrived.

In the beginning of our trip, we ripped out the sections of our general South American guidebooks that related to countries not on our itinerary. Clearly we weren’t going to make it as far north as Ecuador, and it’s not exactly safe to be in Colombia as an Anglo blonde—those pages went in the trash. As we go, we tear out the section of the book for a city, carry it in our pockets, and then leave it behind at the bus station. This keeps our thick books from taking up too much precious backpack space, and gives a wonderful sense of closure to each leg of the journey. We were a little too zealous in our book weeding four months back, not imagining in November that we’d ever get to Uruguay. Oops! Thus, when we arrived in the country, we didn’t even have the exchange rate, let alone a map of the places we were to visit.

Five brochures later I figured out where El Cerro was, and we checked in to a decent hostel in downtown Montevideo. The next morning, I had planned to meet one of the yarn people at 11:00 am at the warehouse, whose location I finally pinned down in the Industrial Center…but somehow we both slept through the alarm until 10:45. Mortified, I write an apology to the company and head off to the bus station to find a way to get out to the Parque Industrial. Several people I asked said flat out that there was no way to get there by bus. One driver, trying to be helpful, told me to take the 124, buy a transfer ticket, go to another terminal, find the connection to Santa Maria, and then ask someone how to get to the Parque Industrial. No thanks, I’ll take a taxi.

Nearly defeated, I was about to throw in the towel when one last email came through from Malabrigo. The person with whom I had emailed for several days gave me the warehouse phone number and the cell of some guy named Antonio. Since the warehouse phone didn’t work, I called Antonio. “¡Hello Thea, how are you! Everything well?” was the surprisingly cheerful response to my uncertain “¿Hola?” When I mentioned that I was trying to get over to the warehouse, Antonio immediately said “Oh no, don’t go in a taxi. I have to go over there this afternoon, so I’ll pick you up from downtown.”

Presto! All of my problems are solved. I scheduled meet him in an hour at a designated street corner, told him roughly what I looked like, and then waited until 2:45. Sure enough, at a quarter to three a small Cheverolet pulls up in front of me and Dave, driven by a forty-something man with dark hair and glasses.

As we would find out in our conversations both to and from the Malabrigo dyeing center and warehouse, Antonio is one of three directors of the company, an ex-architect who couldn’t find work after the economic Crisis of 2001 and started developing kettle-dyed wool for US and European markets. I felt a little bad explaining the way that I found out about Malabrigo (I had never used the product, but Manos de Uruguay wouldn’t talk to me), but the little internet research that did that morning gave me a good feeling about the stuff. There are little old ladies in the Midwest and West coast who go nuts for this wool, so much so that they started about a half-dozen blogs about it! It really is hand-dyed in enamel or aluminum kettles (I know because I saw the pots!), just like someone would do in their own house, which produces interesting variations in color intensity that I find makes amazing garments. Like Manos, they offer several multicolored products, more difficult to dye but also more interesting. I mentioned that I liked the Malabrigo version called acuarela (watercolors), and Antonio humbly explained that he invented the dyeing process that produces lovely watery color transitions. This was the same guy who picked me up on a street corner in the capital just to take me to see the wool warehouse. He had no idea who I was, how much money, if any, I had to spend, or what relation I had to the company.

As we wound our way around Montevideo Bay, we told him a little bit about our trip and ourselves. Naturally, the conversation turned to sheep. I learned a little more about merino wool, augmented later by a fascinating internet history of the originally Spanish merino sheep. D’s own sheep-ey past let him talk shop with Antonio a bit, discussing the plight of the modern sheep farmer plagued by falling wool prices little demand for meat.

It’s clear that Uruguay, while having suffered from the same economic crisis as Argentina, has been much slower in rebounding from it. Construction projects in the city seem to have been put on hold, and the restoration of the historic colonial neighborhood is nearly nonexistent.

“Who knows anything about Uruguay, or Montevideo? Who wants to come here? It’s all Buenos Aires. That’s what happens when you have big neighbors.”

Sandwiched between giants like Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay’s economic future has been subject to the fortunes of its immediate neighbors, something that Malabrigo and companies like it are trying to remedy. By marketing its artisanal product to more diverse markets like the US, Europe, and Asia, they hope to protect themselves against an often unreliable South American economy.

Poor marginalized Uruguay, the younger sibling of larger nations, still has a core of emphatic citizens more racially diverse than the population of its southern neighbor, and a strong cultural heritage. I had no idea that tango was as much an Uruguayan phenomenon as Argentine. Carlos Gardel, the über-famous tango singer whose life-sized portrait stood outside the gelato shop next to our apartment in Palermo, got his start in the tango scene in Uruguay before moving to Buenos Aires; the composer of “La Cumparsita,” the allegedly most popular tango in the world, was from Montevideo. I’m not surprised that they didn’t mention that during our tango show at Café Tortoni, the hottest spot for aesthetic and political intellectuals in late 19th century Buenos Aires.

Three cheers for Uruguay: it’s got heart even if it doesn’t have fame. ¡Olé, Olé, Olé!

As our conversation progressed, we followed the horseshoe shaped bay around to the opposite shore, a slightly rougher neighborhood full of impromptu housing and defunct industrial warehouses. Antonio pulled the car into what looked like an abandoned factory. Guess what… it was an abandoned factory. Together with other young businesses, Malabrigo purchased an old meat-processing plant and is in the process of converting it into offices and modern warehouses. We were gently herded into a steel elevator that once hauled beef carcasses up to elevated conveyor belts, feeling quite like livestock ourselves.

We stepped out of the elevator, walked down a snaking hallway and the mood changed completely. What used to be a bare concrete slaughterhouse is now filled floor to ceiling with hundreds of kilos of rainbow wool. Three women stood at tables weighing and tagging skeins as the afternoon sunlight poured into through enormous windows. Overwhelmed by the quantity of wool around me, I stared for a minute trying to process all of the different shades, shapes, thicknesses, and textures crammed on 12 foot high plywood shelving units laid out in aisles down the room. Antonio chuckled at my bewilderment and introduced me to some of the staff at Malabrigo. I wandered about, choosing colors and debating over merino or more traditional wool, while Antonio did his daily walkthrough of the warehouse. He greeted all six of the employees with a smile, clarifying some organizational concerns and keeping tabs on the boxes lined up for export to the US. Once I had my fill of picking out yarn, he offered to show us the dyeing facility on the top floor of the building before we returned to downtown.

[Abrubt segue followed by long tirade against industrial agriculture…can you keep up?]

What I have noticed on my many bus rides through the Argentine, Chilean, and now Uruguayan countryside is that many times animals coexist on the same pastures. The interconnectedness of grazing life is difficult to deny. The domesticated animals are not isolated from wild ones: hawks perch on fence posts looking for prey in the same fields that feed the cattle, sheep and horses. This sense of the natural world, the complexity of a living ecosystem, is lost with the creation of suburbia. In the supermarket, the personification of mainstream American life and a rarity down here in the land of specialty stores, everything is packaged or shrink wrapped and separated into specific categories. It’s hard enough to imagine that the T-bone and the flank steak or the liver all came from the same animal, let alone imagine that cow walking through a field among grub-eating egrets or lying under a shady tree. People have become so used to sterilized, processed food that most don’t even know what to do with a whole chicken.

In South America, with the exclusion of Buenos Aires, its own mini-country, there are urban areas and rural areas. The sprawling housing developments peppered with chains of mega-stores is an American creation, although the disease is spreading. Here, even people who spend most of their lives in a city have some connection to the natural world and things that grow. A businessman might keep horses out in the country, middle class people usually have family that lives on a farm or in a tiny out of the way town. Fortunately, Argentines are still very demanding in the quality of their beef, so the few feed lots that ranchers have established in order to raise profit margins have had little market for their inferior quality product. Back at home we’re not so informed.

In the United States, it is more than likely that the average person never comes into direct contact with nature. My family always went camping for vacation until I was a teenager and my parents constantly garden, so I often forget that there are millions of Americans who have never experienced the real fear of getting lost in the woods at dusk, watched a seed grow into a plant (or wither and die, as the case may be), or seen an animal in the wild. The lack of experience and understanding of the natural world distorts people’s perception of their place in the world, further distorting American culture. This seemingly meaningless absence trickles down into society, changing the way that Americans eat, dress, and move around the world. With industrial agriculture, cows, chickens and pigs are treated like machines than the complex and diverse organisms that they are. Having access to food that comes from real animals that run around and breathe fresh air shouldn’t be a luxury that you can only access by taking a several thousand mile flight. Synthetic fibers comprise most of the textiles that find their way onto shelves. People drive huge cars that churn through gasoline, but they drive them down paved highways in cities, not over gravel roads.

I don’t advocate becoming a vegan, burning my car and wearing hemp clothing, but rather making conscious decisions where and why you spend money. Last week at the Plaza de Mayo, a woman selling a locally produced magazine told me “Every peso is a vote.” Not a new thought, it is an idea that merits remembering. I dropped a big chunk of my budget at Malabrigo Yarns, and although it may be a miniscule portion of their annual revenue, it is a big deal to me. I am glad to support a company that treats its employees well, is run by passionate people who care about their product, who recognize the beauty of doing something by hand. Antonio comes to the warehouse every day to inspect the colors of each kilo of yarn and make sure it meets his expectations. The workers dyeing, packing, and sorting wool had fresh air, natural light from huge open windows, and seemed to be friendly enough with each other to enjoy a laugh every once in a while.

The dyeing facility on the top floor was shockingly rudimentary, with the aforementioned kettles and people meandering about, stirring every few minutes. Antonio mentioned that one of the major renovations they are hoping to have in the near future is a larger drying room: essentially a dehydrator the size of a studio apartment, to dry larger volumes of wool at a time. Business seems to have been good lately, but clearly the Crisis is in the back of everyone’s mind.

As I leave Uruguay, I can look out the window and see clumps of merino sheep scattered over the rolling fields, munching away and sharing the pasture with the cows, just like Antonio said they did. I think about the eight kilos of yarn strapped to the bottom of my backpack and wince a little at the thought of hauling it on and off of buses for another month and a half. But in addition to weight, this wool has a little more depth, a better story than it would as a chemically generated polymer spat out by a petroleum-burning factory. I’m okay with lugging it around for a while. It’s actually an honor.

I don’t know what will happen to Malabrigo Yarns, whether they will be able to negotiate the grey area between economic growth and industrialization, whether it will be able to keep its soul and commitment to high quality goods at fair prices, or if its leadership will end up sacrificing quality for higher production. I’m happy to have seen it the way it is now, and can only hope that my purchase acts as a vote of approval to help them keep doing what they do.

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