Uruguay. Aside from the fact that it’s almost text-message speak for “You are gay”, I’ve been intrigued by this place ever since Australia was spanked out of World Cup qualification 3-0 in Montevideo back in ‘02. When Kevin Muscat sunk them 1-0 at the MCG in the first leg, they were just another bunch of foreigners. (Although it was the birth of Muscat, The Muscrat, Muzzy, as a cult figure for me. The Dodgiest Man in Football, you can tell just by looking at him, hanging out in Sunshine in an Adidas tracksuit and scunging change off people. Melbourne’s best Balkan bogan. I can’t wait till he gets a Twitter. “Went down to St Albans station to sell some speed. Had to bottle two cunts already! Fuck Mondays.” When I saw him that night at the G, I knew it was special. So did Muzzy. He recently passed his 500-game A-League milestone, and they asked him: highlight of your career? He didn’t have to think about it. “Nup. Penalty at the G. World Cup qualifier. 100 000 people.”)
But then came the return leg. I stayed up all night to watch it, a late afternoon game there played in the morning sun at home, with Dario Silva and his stupid haircut slotting one past us in the opening minutes. But when the cameras panned across Uruguay’s capital, in between shots of Big Dukes being useless and Frank Farina raging on the sidelines, I decided that I wanted to know more of this place.
Now I’m standing in it, in Carmelo on the banks of the Rio Plata. They do rivers differently here. It took two and a half hours to sail from the Argentine side. The only thing I was told about Uruguay was that they love mate, a clot of herbs and hot water jammed in a gourd and drunk with a steel straw. This was true. Everyone I’ve seen sitting down has had one to hand. The supermarket cashier had one by his register. A guy was even drinking one in the passport queue for immigration. “Sir, do you have any plant or vegetable matter to declare?” “Err… slurp… nope…”
Carmelo is small and modest and just about perfect. There’s scarcely a building of more than one storey. Cobblestone streets, compact little houses, and an air of quiet as dusk settles in. It’sthat time of evening when the sky is still a dusty orange-brown along the bottom, then a band of dirty parchment, then the early blue starting to deepen above, with that special luminosity that only shows for these brief few minutes each day. The palm trees in the main square are impressively blacked against it, and the air feels warm and light and alive. There’s a small monument in the centre, a statue and a flagpole, like so many small monuments in so many small town squares. There are a couple of old men sat to the side and talking in mutters, baseball brims tilted high. Through the streets the dark settles in quickly. But all is gentleness and comfort – cobblestone roads, the low overhang of trees, old folks sitting on the footpaths outside their front doors. Drinking mate, of course. Always talking, both endless and completely unhurried, as though this can and will go on forever. This is what summer nights are about, melting into the matter of the universe, the feeling that we are both alive and endless. Spring, with all its talk of life and birth, is for acknowledging our mortality. Summer is when we transcend it.