Not The End of the World, But You Can See It From Here

This will be a short post (postscript: apparently not), and definitely our last for at least 5 days and possibly longer since as of tomorrow evening we will be aboard ship rounding Cape Horn and heading up the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields.

We flew today to Ushuaia, at 55 degrees south latitude supposedly the southernmost city in the world. It is a town of 65,000 people squeezed in between the bottom of the Andes and Ushuaia Bay. Here is the view from our hotel room:

This is one of THREE mountain ranges separating Ushuaia from the rest of civilization

It might have struck you that “Ushuaia” is not a very Spanish-sounding name. That’s because it isn’t: it means “westward-facing bay” in the language of the original indigenes, the Yanama. And where are the Yanama now, you may ask? Silly question: remember that the Spanish colonized this place. The natives were wiped out by imported disease, conflict with the settlers, and over-hunting by the settlers of the sea lion population, which was the Yanama’s primary food source.

After another dramatic flight over the southern Andes we arrived at about noon today and started exploring the area. The town itself as you can see from the picture looks sort of like a ski resort from the Pacific Northwest, and there is indeed a ski resort here (though the season is just over, it being early spring here). We got lucky on the weather, at least for today: it is partly sunny with temperatures in the low 50’s. We are assured that this is unlikely to last. The wind is extremely gusty, which we are told is typical.

Our hostess exhorts us to share, and pretend to enjoy

Our first stop was lunch at a private home, a beautiful chalet-style house on the hillside overlooking the town and the mountains on the other side of the bay. The hostess and her family (husband and two small daughters) prepared a wonderful lunch — lentil stew with achingly sweet tres leches cake for dessert — and gave us the run of the house so we could chat with the family and admire the view. Afterwards we were presented with the Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony, in this sharing the communal pot of Yerba mate. In case you have not heard of it, mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a very bitter herbal tea made from the Yerba shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. There is a whole social ritual and vocabulary associated with partaking of it; our gracious hostess explained all this whilst preparing it, and we passed around the communal cup while pretending that it did not taste like pencil shavings soaked in motor oil.

Good grief, St. Charlie Brown!

Our first stop after lunch was at a bizarre collection of shrines along a roadway just outside of town; the prevailing style seemed to be Snoopy Doghouse, as you can see at left. Some are much more elaborate, though: as a bastion of a particular idolatrous form of Latin American Catholicism, Argentina has a couple of favorite saints that seem to generate a proliferation of shrines and legends. The

Don’t kill Gil

 first is “Gauchito Gil” who lived a virtuous life in the north as a landowner and sort of  Robin Hood figure, fighting against the evil Paraguayans and corrupt local sherriff. When finally captured he warned his killer-to-be that if he (Gil) were murderd then the killer’s son would also die. The killer reconsidered and checked up on his son, who was indeed suddenly gravely ill. So he prayed to Gil, his son recovered, and the lesson learned was Don’t Mess Around With The Gauchito. So now Gil’s got big roadside shrines about the size of beach cabañas, all draped in red, which was his symbolic color. The deal is that you offer him some wine by pouring it out of the bottle while making a wish. I’m not sure where any of this occurs in the Bible but we did it anyway. Julio warned us not to wish for good weather because that was probably a lost cause, so Alice wisely asked to be protected against seasickness. At right you can see her making her offering in front of the Big Red Shrine.

Arguably even more bizarre than Kill Gil is the shrine to La Defunte (“Deceased”) Correa, a woman beatified for breast feeding her baby while she herself starved to death in the wilderness. The child survived, and her shrine consists of many, many statuettes depicting her corpse cradling a baby. You make an offering of drinks to her too, and her shrine is copiously littered, both within and without, with hundreds if not thousands of empty bottles, mostly one- and two-liter soda bottles. Tell me that this isn’t an inspirational scene:

Becoming a saint really works up a thirst

OK, I think I’ve spent enough words on the local religion, at least the supernatural one. The other local religion — more accurately, one of several national obsessions — is obsessing over the 1982 Falklands War. But you damn well better not call it the Falklands War: those islands are the Malvinas in this country, and no substitute name is accepted.

“Yep, we lost.”

The Falklands/Malvinas were originally colonized by Argentina but conquered by Britain in 1833, and Argentina has been pining for them ever since. Problem is, under standards of international law once you own a place for 150 years it is well and truly legally yours, and the clock was running out. So at the 149 year mark — this is all true — the Argentine government decided to increase its abysmal popularity by making a grab for them, figuring that (a) Britain wouldn’t respond militarily, and (b) the US would support Argentina. Wrong on both counts; Margaret Thatcher wanted to increase her abysmal popularity too. Final score: the British lost about 230 men, plus 100 or so taken prisoner; the Argentines lost 649 men and 11 thousand taken prisoner; and the Falklands are still owned by the UK. Thirty two years later, Argentina is still gnashing its national teeth and trying to think of a clever comeback.

And so it came to pass that our last event of the day was an interview with a Malvinas war veteran, a pleasant 50 year old man who served on a naval vessel during that war when he was only 18 years old. His ship was sunk, and 300 men were lost out of a crew of about 1100; he survived in a covered lifeboat for 44 hours with 22 other men, huddled together for warmth. He related his experiences through our latest local guide, Laura, who acted as interpreter. It was interesting to hear, but in the end (a) he was only 18 at the time and (b) c’mon Argentina, get over it already.

Dinner tonight was a serious treat: King crab is found in these Antarctic waters, and so we went to a seafood restaurant where you can pick live ones from a tank for steaming, just like lobsters at home. If you have never been to either Alaska or Patagonia then you have probably never had fresh king crab, which is wholly unlike the frozen stuff you get in every store or restaurant or home. It’s like a transcendent experience in your mouth. Dessert was a stroll into a local ice cream store; remember that Argentines do a really good job on ice cream. So all in all a great end to the day.

So that’s been our introduction to Patagonia, here in Ushuaia. We’ll be off the grid and o’er the hopefully-not-too-bounding main starting late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll keep up my notes offline and post the batch of them the next time we have Internet access. Till then, our best regards to everyone!

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