Until the Margay Do You Part
Once upon a time, a man crossed two countries and wove a web of lies for a year so that a margay at M’Bopicuá Nature Park would help him with the woman of his dreams.
This is a love story that starts with another love story. And not exactly between humans. The love affair that sparked a road movie with intrigue, deception, accomplices, and a happy ending was between a cat and a Homo sapiens, or more precisely, a margay and a French Argentine.
Maei Lara Castillón, the first member of the unexpected trio in this story, had always been passionate about cats. Since her childhood and adolescence in her native Toulouse, when she had no idea that life would take her thousands of kilometers away to Argentina, she had a soft spot for all types of cats.
But it wasn’t until 2016, when this political science graduate was temporarily working at the French Embassy in Uruguay, that she discovered a cat that won her over with a glance. It wasn’t in the wild or a house or a zoo—it was on a bottle of Salus water, which the brand was promoting with images of native species at the time.
This was how Maei discovered the margay (Leopardus wiedii), a cat native to the Americas whose range extends as far south as Uruguay. Maei suddenly felt a very intense desire to learn more about this animal that was looking at her with an enigmatic expression from a plastic bottle. It wasn’t that simple, however. Maei, a curious and tenacious woman, found out from her research that there was very little information about margays and practically nowhere she could see them in the Southern Cone. She discovered a place that had been successful in its conservation efforts of the margay: M’Bopicuá Nature Park, owned by Montes del Plata. However, she was soon disappointed to learn that it was closed to the public (except for educational institutions).
Anyone who has seen a margay will understand Maei’s fascination. It is a small, beautiful, and mysterious cat that has adapted to life in the trees better than any other. It has a big pair of eyes that elicit the same feelings as Puss in Boots from Shrek and yellowish fur with rosettes that are reminiscent of a leopard, even though this is not its closest relative. Evolution provided it with a unique trait that gives it an advantage over any other cat: It can rotate its hind legs 180 degrees to climb up and down trees with agility, to which it has adapted better than any other cat.
Eduardo Vives is neither small nor mysterious, nor has he adapted to life in the trees, but he does have other talents that will become evident in this story as the third member of the trio. Skater turned industrial engineer from the University of Buenos Aires, he had already been dating Maei for several years before she began her platonic romance with the margay. He had decided to ask her to marry him and was just waiting for the perfect opportunity to do so.
As meticulous as he was, he paid close attention to his girlfriend’s desires and projects. Once, when the couple was sharing their lifelong dreams, Maei listed three. One of them was modest, feasible, and Eduardo easily helped her accomplish it (turning a Singer sewing machine into a small table for the balcony). Another was ambitious, complex, and perhaps unachievable (a trip around the world). The third was difficult but not unimaginable, and Eduardo saw just the epic romantic opportunity to make a foolproof marriage proposal: come face to face with a margay.
Eduardo then began his own research in search of the perfect place to get on one knee, only to run into the same obstacle as Maei: The best place in the region to see a margay was M’Bopicuá Nature Park, closed to the public. But since he couldn’t find anywhere they could see one in Argentina and the next option was to go to Brazil, many kilometers to the north, Eduardo decided to place the romance card.
He found the nature park’s contact information and wrote an email explaining that he wanted to see whether it was possible to arrange a private visit to see the margay and propose to his girlfriend in front of one. On the other end of the email was the head of the nature park, naturalist Juan Villalba.
However, weeks passed, and Eduardo didn’t get a reply. At this point, he was already thinking of going into debt and selling all the family assets for the dream trip around the world. But the answer came. Juan Villalba, a man who was clearly sensitive not only to wildlife but also to love stories, explained that he had managed to make an exception due to the nature of the request and was going to allow them to visit. “At first we thought it was a joke,” remembers Villalba. After rereading it, he realized it was a serious proposal and brought it up for consideration by the authorities. “We thought it was worthy of consideration because it was a human situation that didn’t affect the animals or their serenity at all. It also made us happy that the nature park, in addition to its basic goal of conservation and education, had played a role in human relationships in this complicated world,” adds Juan.
The authorization of the nature park was the beginning of the story, but not the most complicated part. Now the issue was how to maintain the element of surprise, how to get to the margay enclosure with his girlfriend—in hopes that she would agree to be his wife—without blindfolding her for 300 kilometers.
He had to come up with an excuse to spend a weekend in Fray Bentos, something that led Eduardo to keep up a lie for a year.
Fray Bentos is beautiful but clearly not a popular place to vacation among Argentinian couples. Proposing it as a romantic getaway would immediately raise suspicion. Eduardo needed a solid story, and for that, it was essential to have a believable plot and accomplices.
It occurred to him to get the industrial company where he worked, or more accurately, a coworker from the company’s Uruguayan subsidiary whom Maei knew by name, in on it.
His idea was to pretend that he had to travel to Uruguay for a joint job between the French company’s two subsidiaries: Uruguay and Argentina. But he had to construct the lie, and an artist knows that authenticity, like the devil, is in the details. Eduardo began a work of praiseworthy patience, dropping occasional comments for months about his Uruguayan business partner and the famous project that was taking shape.
By the time 2017 came around, both were living in Argentina, so they needed to travel from Buenos Aires to Fray Bentos. Then, the Argentinian made a series of references to work that—let’s be honest—must have gone quite unnoticed by Maei. He added to that house of cards every two or three months while continuing to coordinate dates with Villalba.
The tension of weaving this web of lies and keeping it up for almost a year almost made him crack on more than one occasion. He woke up one morning after dreaming that he had confessed everything as if he had committed murder. He didn’t, fortunately.
At last, he prepared for the final push. “They want to build a plant from the ground up on the river, maybe in Fray Bentos,” he told her. It was orchestrated so well that the suggestion to spend a few days in Fray Bentos came from Maei herself.
The date chosen was the first week of October 2017. Eduardo was able to rent a car for the trip, and the couple managed to leave Buenos Aires for Fray Bentos without any major problems or obstacles.
The first goal was to get to the hotel in Fray Bentos where they would spend the night, but two unlikely things happened. (1) The hotel hadn’t confirmed their reservation. (2) Fray Bentos was exploding with visitors, and there were no accommodations available. Eduardo, taking advantage of Maei being away from the front desk, had only one card left to play, the same one that had worked with Villalba: the story of his long trip to propose to his girlfriend.
The receptionist was apparently also sensitive to love stories because she took pity on him and even managed to get the couple a room upgrade.
Why, if he had to go to Fray Bentos for work, was Eduardo there on a Saturday and not a weekday? The man had to invent another excuse and ended up blaming nonexistent unions that could object if they found out about it beforehand.
When Eduardo, crossing his fingers that no more awkward questions would come up, wanted to visit “the construction zone” (read: the nature park), he ran into another problem: Maei told him that she was going to stay behind and study while he went to work. A year of lies and planning was about to go out the window due for a very simple reason: Who wants to join their partner for a work meeting, especially a meeting discussing technical aspects of a project?
But Eduardo wasn’t going to let the circumstances defeat him and was willing to break the record for number of lies per minute. When Maei went to take a shower, he waited for her to come out and pretended to be on a phone call with his contact in Uruguay. As if he were Carlos Perciavalle, he feigned a conversation worthy of the best café concert while praying that his phone didn’t ring for real. For a few minutes, he pretended he was talking to someone who was eagerly asking him to bring his girlfriend so that they could meet, talk about Uruguay, and share a mate (a sentence that makes everyone nostalgic these days, not just the couple in this story).
Eduardo “hung up” and then, as if the invisible friend he had just invented in the conversation were the most influential man in the world, explained to Maei that he wanted to meet her no matter what so would she please come with him. The promise of bitter mate was what convinced her, to Eduardo’s relief. He told her that they had to visit a possible construction site, so you can imagine how much fun Maei expected to have that Saturday.
The difficulties didn’t end there. They took the car, but he couldn’t use Google Maps without giving away the destination. At the GPS’s first mention of the word “M’Bopicuá,” all the margay fan’s alarms would go off. Eduardo had to memorize the entire route, without stopping to ask anyone for directions on the way.
The next stage of the plan was to notify his contact at the nature park, which wasn’t Juan Villalba (who was ironically in Buenos Aires that weekend) but another employee of the nature park, Eduardo Prestes.
They got to the entrance of the nature park, and Maei was shocked. The landscape was beautiful, more than he had expected. “How are they going to build a plant in such a beautiful place?” she protested. Eduardo, of course, used his best resource: theatrics. “It’s up to the company. There’s not much I can do,” he said apologetically.
They continued toward the nature park and met Prestes, a very easygoing guy who had wanted to lend the couple a hand even though it was his day off. Maei, of course, asked her boyfriend if it was his colleague. “Yes, yes,” said Eduardo, involving yet another innocent person in his personal fiction.
The idea was to go directly to the margay enclosure so that Eduardo could take out the ring and say the short speech he had been working hard on for nearly a year. The problem is that it is very difficult to ignore what’s around you at M’Bopicuá Nature Park. Maei, whenever she saw animals, began “elbowing” Eduardo as if to tell him that she thought it was that nature park she had dreamed of visiting. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, pretended to be focused on the business discussion.
Maei’s suspicions were confirmed by a poster with a photo of Margarita, the nature park’s most well-known margay. She began to get desperate to see it but was still convinced that they were on a business trip.
Finally, they arrived in front of the margay enclosure. Eduardo, taking advantage of his girlfriend’s speechlessness at seeing her dream come true, did at least one of the things he had planned: take out the ring. He completely forgot about his speech and proposed as best he could, stuttering.
Maei was overwhelmed: Her attention was divided between Eduardo with his ringed hand and the margay with its ringed tail, which she might never see again in her life (she had the rest of her life for Eduardo). Anyone who knows anything about semiotics will say that proposing in front of a cage doesn’t send the best message for a marriage, but fortunately, the nature park’s margay enclosure is very different, a wooded site that doesn’t feel like an enclosure.
Despite the overstimulation of surprises, Maei said yes, emotional but somewhat embarrassed by the presence of the other Eduardo. And for good reason: She was still convinced that he was one of her boyfriend’s colleagues and that they were there for work. That’s how good the lie Eduardo Vives had orchestrated for a year was.
When he explained that the entire trip and the whole story had been created just for that moment and to ask her to marry him, on came the hug, the emotion, the enthusiasm, and the incredulity at that expression of love. Eduardo felt those emotions too, but those weren’t the only ones: He felt a huge weight being lifted off his shoulders.
The rest of that day was pure bliss: a walk around the entire nature park on a sunny day with the perfect temperature and a close encounter with Margarita and her family. “We saw the margay at its finest, how it behaves, its gaze, how it reacts when you approach,” remembers Eduardo. “It was so exciting. I couldn’t believe how the chips fell,” says Maei.
And the chips continued to fall, because some stories, as in life, tend to be circular. Maei didn’t know it then, but the margay in front of her was the same one that had dazzled her long ago on the bottle of mineral water since it was Margarita herself who had been photographed for the campaigns. Maei hadn’t dreamed of seeing that very same margay, but there she was, looking at her with the same enigmatic expression in her eyes as the photo that set this story in motion.
“We carry a little piece of Uruguay with us that is part of our lives,” they both say today. The story doesn’t just leave us with the engagement but has a happy ending. The couple, after receiving Margarita’s “blessing,” got married in a quiet ceremony in Toulouse, France, Maei’s native city.
The newlyweds sent Villalba a photo of the occasion, which we hope he shared with Margarita the margay, who ultimately started this journey that intersects two love stories, three countries, 150 lies, and 11,000 kilometers overcome by pure love.