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Ushuaia: How far can you go before you reach the end of the Earth?

ARGENTINA | Sunday, 8 May 2011 | Views [742]

    South America curls around the curve of the globe as though Antarctica is a drain pulling it closer with each orbital turn. Ushuaia is “El Fin de Mundo,” the End of the Earth. The closest city in the World to Antarctica- only 620miles/1000km; cruise boats to get to the icy continent depart from its modest harbor. From the first moment I started researching Patagonia, Ushuaia captured my imagination. I couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce the name (You-shwhy-ah) but I wanted more than anything to see the farthest reaches of civilization.

     The night was black and stormy. It was already 10pm- travel complications as well as the sheer distance from north to south in Argentina had lengthened the trip to fourteen hours- and that is the shortest, easiest way to find Ushuaia. Around the solitary baggage carousel in the tiny IKEA airport, families bundled in puffy parka jackets waited with warm greetings for the passengers to arrive. They looked so solid. Walls of human form carved out of the barren wilderness. Alaska, South American style.

     I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me through the pouring rain. I am stubborn and unable to let a day go by completely without exploration, so I wandered the town until midnight to see what I could find. The hostel, Freestyle was set on a hillside above the bay. It was a quintessential backpackers: full of twenties ranging from hippie to over-achiever all taking on the world and making out to celebrate it. Sometimes, I feel really old.  The streets were lined with small cottage homes belonging in the Munchkin village of Wizard of Oz. I wandered down to the bay where beckoning ship lights twinkled as hopeful stars in the velvety darkness. The night could go on forever and I wouldn’t mind.

I tried to catch the sun rise which consisted of checking the sky like a roast in the oven every hour- is it ready yet? At 7am, still only darkness. At 8am, a muted shade of gray. 9am, the Sun was thinking about how the day would start; she refused to show her face until the respectable hour of 10am. It wasn’t until then that I could see that Ushuaia is surrounded by glorious mountains ready to cliff dive into the bay.

     I made arrangements for a cruise of the Beagle Channel. So many explorers have passed through these waters. Ferdinand Magellan searching out the way to the Spice Islands and losing his life and 213 men along the way, Francis Drake stirring up the natives as he conquered English circumnavigation of the globe, Darwin cataloging everything from Guanaco (little wild llamas) to the Aborigines- the list goes on and on as a red carpet of exploration. This land is ripe with the history of man and his battle to survive in even the most extreme conditions.  My boat was delayed when the harbor was closed down because of the gale force winds knocking the ships back into the bay.

     Never discouraged, I hitched a ride to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. I chose the costal route. Time stopped as I breathed in the icy beauty of the mountains floating across the calm crystal water. The scope of the world suddenly seemed bigger. My claustrophobia flew with the birds to test the limits of how far I could go without seeing another human soul.

The harvesting colors of fall decorated the weather-worn trees in my favorite season. Every turn brought new discoveries, contrasting landscapes. I climbed a tree or two just because I could not resist their inviting arms. I played hide and seek with woodpeckers and stumbled upon horses lounging in a meadow with no sign of human supervision. Everything danced a balance between old and new- I began to understand that the two are the same qualities of life in the eyes of nature.

     Eventually, I got to my boat ride filled with tourists of every type. We sailed so close to a sea lion colony that I could see the snot dripping from their slimy faces! Know the difference between a sea lion and a seal? Sea lions use all four flippers to walk on land, seals use only the front two; seals have inner ear canals, sea lions have tiny little earish nubs. The comorants (little penguin-looking sea birds) live peacefully with the sea lions because they eat the algae off of the rocks- making it easier for the lions to climb up on the rocks to bask in the sun. An perfect example of symbiotic animal relationships…never bite the hand that helps you out.

On the boat was my first encounter with mate. Mate is a Patagonian tradition. They take a hollowed-out gourd, fill it with a green tea-like powder, add hot water and then sip it through a straw with a filter at the end. The most important detail is that Mate is meant to be shared: passed from person to person as a rite of inclusion into the family. The crew and I bonded over a few warm sips while the rest of the travelers preferred to stick with the safe bet of coffee or tea. I met a few other girls on the boat who were also traveling alone. We chatted our stories for awhile, discussing the highlights and lowlights of South American sights. Then I struck out on my own for an afternoon of treasure hunting.

     For me, the most fascinating part of every place that I go is the local people. Here was no exception. The earth in their lined faces, weight in their laughter. They were fishermen, ranchers, tourist guiding aborigines. They were chicly European with a penchant for haute couture and gourmet cuisine, they were denim and canvas workmen spitting crudely in the streets. And their driving rivaled Vietnam in their complete lack of regard for people crossing the street.

What made them come this far? What makes them stay? Originally, the Yaghan tribe smeared seal fat on their skin and hunted fish in the harsh winter waters without any clothes. Then, as Argentina developed its national roots, Ushuaia served as the Siberia of the South- a prison for the most dangerous criminals and most controversial political prisoners. Now, everyone has a certain misfit quality. They accept of any eccentricity; they share such close quarters and have seen it all. Strong people all holding out together until the summer comes again. I felt completely at home, wishing I could stay in their understanding company. But Chile was calling me back again…

"Now we feel her to be inexhaustible

like an ancient wine

and no one can gaze on her without vertigo

and time has charged her with eternity

 And to think that she wouldn't exist

except for those fragile instruments, the eyes.."

 - The History of the Night

by Jorge Luis Borges  

Tags: emily predny, patagonia, seals, tierra del fuego, ushuaia

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