Ushuaia

This is it, the end of the line, four months to the day after I left Nova Scotia.

I step off the bus and congregate with the French I’ve been tagging along with. We’re right on the waterfront and the wind coming off is goddamn cold. We are at 54 degrees south I suppose and Antarctica’s only 600 miles away. The city’s beautiful, rimmed by mountains and snow and with architecture that looks… I don’t know… alpine, I guess you’d say, maybe Scandinavian? Sonia remarks that it looks like Chamonix, but I’ve never been there. We run down to the water to get a quick pic or two and then rapidly move up the hill to get away from the wind.

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After checking out a few places we find a dorm room for about $25 a head. Ooof, kind of steep, but that seems to be the going rate. We’ve only got half an hour before the supermarkets close so we rush out, grab some pasta fixins and vino, throw together a great meal at the hostel and crash hard.

In the morning Damien, Gregory and Sonia split to move to an apartment they’ve rented for the next three nights. They invite me along but I hang back – they’re old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while and I don’t want to impose… and not being able to speak their language and forcing them to speak English out of politeness is certainly an imposition. I may take them up on their offer of coming over for Christmas Eve dinner and drinks, though.

Hitting the town for desayuno it quickly becomes apparent that I can’t hang around here long. A simple breakfast at a cafe costs me almost $14 CDN. Everything seems kind of crazy like that – even the cheaper restaurants have $20 CDN main courses – and given that I still have to get out of here, and where my finances are at, it’s like being on an eighth of a tank of gas and then watching the needle plummet as you pass a sign that says “Next Gas 200 Miles”.

I spend most of the day on administrative tasks, like buying/writing postcards, investigating the tour companies around town, and finishing up my visa paperwork for Australia. Unfortunately I have to lawyer up on a few of the questions and he doesn’t get back to me until the middle of the night (aka noon Aussie time), when he informs me he’s leaving for a 12-day holiday break. He won’t be sending the paperwork to the government until after that, so I might not get my visa until February now. On one hand I’m fired up to get working again but on the other it’s kind of cool – that means this trip is far from over.

The following day – Christmas Eve Day – I hit the town in earnest. Almost nothing’s open here until 10 am so I hoof it down to the nearly-deserted main street and the waterfront.

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La Quiaca… I remember that place way, way back…

One thing that’s apparent here is that the Falklands War may have been thirty-plus years ago, but it isn’t old news. Ushuaia is the regional capital of Argentinian Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and the South Pacific Islands, which in the eyes of the Argentine government and people includes Las Islas Malvinas, aka the Falkland Islands to the English-speaking world. There are stickers laying claim to the Malvinas/Falklands in almost every gift shop, usually in the shape of the islands and filled in with the Argentinian flag.

As I walked past the secure port area, I noticed what looked like graffiti, but given its proximity to the main gate – only a few feet away – I have to assume it is officially sanctioned:

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That reads something like: “English pirates are not allowed to dock here.” Whether that means that UK-flagged boats aren’t allowed in port, I can’t say, but I don’t think I’d want to try.

Next to it was an official-looking declaration in Spanish and English:

We inform our visitors that by the Argentine National Law No. 26.552, the Malvinas, South Georgias, South Sandwich Islands and the surrounding maritime areas as well as the Argentine Antarctic Territory, have been included in the jurisdiction of the Province of Tierra del Fuego.

At the same time we should remember that the Malvinas, South Georgias, South Sandwich Islands, and the surrounding maritime areas, are, since 1833, under the illegal occupation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Next up I hit the Museo del Fin del Mundo. The front door was closed but a guy waiting there – who told me he worked at the front desk – said it should be open in a few minutes, he was just waiting for maintenance to unlock the front door. He told me he was from Buenos Aires but moved down here because he loved it so much and I said I can see why. He asked me about my trip and then asked me if I’d ever been to Japan – he studies aikido and travels to Japan whenever possible, absolutely loves it there too. I had to laugh – speaking to someone last night I’d said that Patagonia/TDF is now tied with Japan for my favourite place in the world.

The museum is divided into sections for natural history, the indigenous peoples of the area and European exploration and settlement. This map shows the former expanses of the four indigenous peoples of the area:

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The pictures and culture of the Shelk’nam (aka Selk’nam, aka Onas) are the ones that jump out at me the most. Way, way back, Murphy and I had found some postcards outside of Santiago showing Fuegans in costume – it turns out they were pictures of the Shelk’nam in a coming-of-age ceremony called the Hain. Personally I find these costumes to be terrifying.

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There was a back room with an Italian movie playing from the 1930s, showing the Yamana people (another of the local groups) doing their thing. It was pretty incredible – their lifestyle was so basic it could have been from 10,000 years ago rather than 80. There were several other short films after that showing some of the other people, as well as one showing a German explorer trying to fly around the area during the inter-war years. I scoured YouTube to try to find these things without luck, but this one includes clips from what I was watching:

There was also a large display of (stuffed) native birds. I didn’t count how many specimens there were exactly, but it was into the hundreds for sure. I tried to find the loon-type things I’d seen at the north end of Lago del Desierto without any luck, but I did find the yellow finch I saw hanging around the BBQ stall to the south of the lake – it’s called a Patagonian Sierra Finch.

Around the corner from that museum was another, the Yamana Museum. Kind of let down (especially for 75 pesos), much of the information was the same – even the same video – and a lot of it was contemporary genealogy, i.e. this one family in town is descended from indigenous group _____. Interesting if you’re really into that stuff but I’m a casual museumgoer. Much of the material didn’t even have to do with the (nearly-disappeared) Yamana, but with the other ethnic groups, and some had to do with the geology and the climate of the area – again, big time overlap with the last museum.

There was an interesting pic of a Yamana dwelling however – they were nomadic, and only built shelters to last for a few days at a time:

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The third edutainment opportunity of the day is the Maritime Museum, just up the hill from the naval buildings. It’s officially four museums in one, hosted in an old prison, but it feels more like a House of Random. The start is relatively coherent – some model ships, some historical maps of the region, a few pics of the Yamana, a history of the prison and features on particularly notorious prisoners – but as I go further, each jail cell seems to have a different, unrelated theme. Above the section about the prison are a series of jail cells describing other historical jails throughout the world (the Germans come out looking bad here – their example is a WWII concentration camp). Then there’s a section on Croatian immigrants to the area. Then some antique phones. Then some penguins. Then some Antarctic explorers. Then some weather-sensing equipment. Then something about a Falklands War operation. Then some art.

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The final two wings are a gift shop and an unrestored wing. The unrestored wing is sweet – it’s more dimly lit than the other wings, cold, with bent metal railings on the stairs and paint peeling from all the walls.

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With the museums knocked off, I run around town and take care of a few things I wanted to do before leaving. I’d like to stick around longer, especially to do some of the hikes here – one goes up to a glacier – but seeing some penguins is priority number one. If I stay here I can only check them out from a boat, but if I go to Punta Arenas apparently I can walk around a rookery while they pay the people around them no mind. Sounds great.

A second factor is that this really is the end of the line, but I’m not quite ready to face that and call it quits on the trip yet. I want to keep going, even if it isn’t in a southerly direction any more. Now that there’s a delay with my work visa, there’s no reason I can’t do that for a few more weeks, so I might as well try to cram as much in as I can.

I’m also craving the wilderness again. This is the first real city I’ve been in since Coyhaique and even though it’s a beautiful place, the transition hasn’t been easy, especially because my hostel seems to be filled with extremely loud, drunken assholes. I’d like to get far enough north that I can sleep in my tent in comfort, maybe even flying back to Santiago and then heading north toward the Atacama. I have no idea, but I suspect I’ll have plenty of time to figure it out on bus rides (and hopefully boat rides) in the near future.

There’s a bus that leaves here at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. I don’t know where it goes but it’s the first one out of here so I’m going to take it.