Club naval, Puerto Williams
Calle de Puerto Williams
El Puerto de Ushuaia
Después de la tormenta (y una fiesta en Puerto Williams)
September 22, 2006
After the Storm
(and a Party at Puerto Williams)
The last day of the SPU journey turned into three days, when a strong wind front came through the Beagle channel. The morning of my departure, the Ushuaia sailors who were going to pick me up called me to tell me that there was no crossing through the channel that day, and that there was no way of knowing when it would be possible to cross. “one time I had to wait five days for a crossing”, one of the locals told me.
I was the only foreign visitor in the island at that time, so there didn’t seem to be too much pressure from anyone to make such a journey. This was compounded by the fact that every time someone needs to cross, it is necessary to summon two Chilean immigration officials who have to come along across the island to Puerto Navarino – an otherwise abandoned entry point where all customs and immigrations formalities have to be conducted.
Being in an island at the end of the world, without any posible travel via land, air or water, without knowing when the climate would change, put me in a state of anxiety that amused the locals. They, of course, live with this uncertainty on a daily basis and they like to say that they can handle any sort of weather eventuality (their only regular connection with the world is a boat that arrives every four or five days from Punta Arenas, carrying food and other merchandise).
“C’mon man, relax!”, I was told by Loreto, the owner of the only café in Williams. Loreto, a 45 year old, blue-eyed Chilean woman, who is also the one who coordinates the barge crossings. Loreto arrived to Williams not to long ago, in order to sublease the café business. What would make someone decide to move over here? “People stay here because they rather be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion” (a famous saying in Spanish), referring to the community of retired marines that, after serving in the military base in Williams decide to spend the rest of their lives here. “ You really need a very peculiar personality to live here”. Her personality, indeed, was the one of an alternatively friendly and crabby woman, with a big smile while she made bitter and even misanthropic comments. When I asked her what kind of friends she had made in the island, she replied: “None. Friendship is nothing but a financial transaction. You only have friends as long as you have money”.
Unsurprisingly, Loreto wasn’t complimentary when speaking about Cristina Calderón. I learned from her (and confirmed later on) that both Cristina and her daughter charge substantial amounts of money to tourists just to be photographed, or interviewed, like in my case. “They sell pure fantasies to tourists. They published a book of herbal remedies that are actually taken from other cultures. Yaghan culture? Don’t give me that. The Maya or the Aztecs, those were real cultures. The Yaghans were nomads, lazy Indians that did not leave anything behind”.
In truth, during my interview with Cristina I did not sense the kind of existential angst for being the end of her culture, as I felt with Marie Smith Jones. And, in contrast with Marie, La Abuela did not seem. To show a heartfelt concern for transmitting her language to others. But even if Loreto were right in her statement that La Abuela and her granddaughter outright exploit and mythologize the Yaghan past mainly for personal benefit, It seems perfectly understandable to me, if not fair, to seek some retribution out of the annoying tourist or interviewer, particularly is one is a 77 year old woman without income. While her language is a touristic curiosity or an archaeological item, for her it is a source of income. Is it reasonable to expect the last speaker of a language to start a crusade to save her language? And furthermore, isn’t this illustrative of the all the cultural mythologies that we have nurtured in Latin America, and which benefit the tourist industry more than local cultures?
These cases of last speakers like Marie and Cristina made me think about another (very Panamerican) group in extinction that I worked with in the past: the Shakers. With only four members left living together in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, and lead by sister Frances Carr, the Shakers stoically see the end of their religion, on the one hand trying to hold on to their faith and hoping more converts may join, but at the same time drafting legal wills in order to determine what may happen with their possessions. Just like these last speakers, they are surrounded by specialists, academics, businessmen and simple romantics who wish for them to continue existing. But they, as well as any other enthusiast who tries to save something on the verge of extinction, will find that natural death is unavoidable, just as with human beings. What used to be a rich cultural or religious legacy dissolves into a relic or a vague shadow of what it had been. The vestiges that I found in Villa Ukika, a few words uttered y an elderly woman, may be perhaps the end of a language, but actually Yaghan culture must have died many years ago when it stopped being part of a living and evolving community. To try to preserve a language for the sake of science of tourism does not constitute anything other than creating an artificial simulation of what it was. Ironically, death is the best indicator of authenticity. I die, therefore I existed.
What turned out to be my last night in Puerto Williams coincided with Chilean independence celebration. The local marines filled the local high school gym with plastic Chilean flags, made empanadas and skewers, served pisco and beer and danced the cueca (the traditional Chilean dance). The night was chilly, and the streets of the village were covered with ice. I made friends with the cook for the marines, with whom I spoke about soccer – the ultimate common denominator in any Latin American conversation— and I learned that the famous soccer move that we all known as “la chilena” (the “Chilean”) is, precisely, a move first played by a Chilean player during the first world cup. But it was more interesting to know the military viewpoint about Chilean society, still deeply devided after the tragic legacy left by Pinochet’s dictatorship. The cook told me: “my father was in the navy during Pinochet, and at the time they didn’t know about the atrocities of the regime. And nonetheless, my father ended up being accussed for the crimes, as if he had partaken in them. Still today, civilians point at us as responsible for all that happened in the past, and it is not fair”.
I returned to my cold room in the hostel, with this last image of Panamerica. The next day, the storm was over and the boat managed to cross from Ushuaia. I barely made it to the plane on time. It is quite a magical sensation, after traveling so much by land, to take a flight that would cover in a few hours the same distance that I did in four months.
The snowstorm forced us to cancel the last Panamerican ceremony, for which I had written a speech that was never read in the end. Once again, as it continuously happened during this project, the overwhelming presence of natural forces was felt, and their voice silenced every possible word in any language, dead or alive.
La Abuela en su casa
Buscando a Cristina Calderón- in Search of Cristina Calderón
September 15, 2006
For some reason related to the poetic symmetry of fate, it is fitting that the last speaker of the Yhagan language would live in the southernmost village of the world. The Villa Ukika, with population of 51, is an indigenous village located South East of Puerto Williams, a Chilean village that is in turn South of Ushuaia. Puerto Williams has a population of 3000. It was originally a naval settlement, and the officers of the Chilean navy appear to still constitute the main population here.
The search for Cristina Calderón turned out to be a feat no less challenging than the search of Marie Smith Jones in Anchorage. Having been in touch via email for several months with her granddaughter, who promotes the knowledge of Yaghan language and culture, I had only obtained spotty and vague information as to the whereabouts of “La Abuela” (“Grandma”), as she is known here. When I arrived to Ushuaia, I only knew that she lived in Puerto Williams, which is 20 km. away by crossing the Beagle channel. I did not know, however, that transportation between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams is practically nonexistent at this time of year. I also was not certain to find La Abuela once I managed to cross. But there was no other choice but to try.
I finally managed to hire a transportation in a little rubber boat that crossed me, along with two Australians, to the Isla Navarino in Chile, where Puerto Williams is located. We crossed amidst snow and the frigid wind on the boat that jumped on the waves as if we were horseriding. We had to make an appointment with two immigration officers that met us at Puerto Navarino (an otherwise deserted spot) in order to get our passports stamped (once again). From there, a van took us to the other side of the island, through a dirt road (there are no paved streets or highways here), crossing snow and sleet, until we finally reached our destiny.
I walked into Villa Ukina, which has a spectacular view to the sea and the mountains. The house of La Abuela was in the center of the village.
Cristina herself opened the door, and to my relief, knew who I was. But he asked me to come back at 3pm, and with her slight Chilean accent added: “but also you should know that I charge for interviews”.
At 3pm, I was back with a camera and two traditional Mexican dolls as gifts. The local butcher came in the middle of the interview to deliver a giant and bloody piece of meat, which seemed to make her very happy. “ Here all we eat is roast”, she said. “Before, we used to be able to get lamb, but now its all beef”. She explained to me that everyone was related to her in the village: she had six children, thirteen grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren keep coming. Refering to her large family, she said “ maybe I reproduced myself a lot due to the fact that I was practically an orphan”. Her father died shortly after she was born, and her mother died when she was five. She grew up amongst uncles and aunts, as well as her grandfather, who had a special religious veneration for the sun. During Cristina’s childhood, Yaghan culture was already in quick decline. The last Yaghan celebration she witnessed was in 1936, when she was eight years old. Hers was the last generation to learn the language, and her last interlocutor was her sister, who died recently. I asked her if she dreamt in Yaghan. “But of course. That is how I speak to all of them still”.
As it happened to me when I interviewed Marie Smith Jones, I did not know how to pose the question of how did she feel about being the last speaker of her language. But she started talking about it when she spoke about solitude, and about her ambivalence with God. “My daughter committed suicide a few years ago. She took pills. I stopped going to the church, because I thought that if something so unfair had happened, there was no god anywhere. An evangelist came once to my house and tried to convince me to go to church, saying that if my daughter died it was perhaps because it was the best fate for her, that she and I would have suffered a lot otherwise.” Cristina did not buy the argument, and she still never returned to church. However, she somehow regained her faith, although in a personal way and within her own home. “I think that, in the end, we all are alone with ourselves and with God”.
La Abuela showed me a few Yaghan crafts that she and others in the village make ( I bought a winter hat for Dannielle, made by La Abuela herself). I said goodbye to La Aguela, thanking her for her time and generosity. I left her house and saw the sea again, and that powerful and melancholic austral light, the many asleep dogs in the village, and I went back on the dirt road. That last and simple thought that we are ultimately alone with ourselves got me thinking. There is a lot to think about in the next few days and on these pages. But, for the time being, having met Cristina Calderón provided definite closure to my unrest. It closes this long conversation of hundreds of voices that started in Anchorage. This trip has officially concluded.
calle 9 de julio, Ushuaia
calle San Martin
la vista de la bahia
llegando a Ushuaia - arriving to Ushuaia
Marcelo Murphy en la casa de la cultura de Ushuaia
September 14, 2006
( and a Russian fairy tale)
As a child, I remember reading a traditional Russian fairy tale about a young prince who leaves his kingdom in order to reach the end of the world. When he finally reaches the confines of the earth, he meets an oracle there who unexpectedly tells him about the imminent danger run by his kingdom. He is able to see things very clearly there, and this allows him to save it after he quickly goes back home. When I used to read the story, I would imagine the end of the world as the edge of a cliff after which one would only see blackness and stars. And, incidentally, my first glances of Ushuaia did not differ too much from those early childhood images.
When we reached the edge of the continental part of the hemisphere, the bus boarded a ferry that crossed us through the Magellan Strait from the Patagonia to Tierra del Fuego, a geographic region that is shared by both Chile and Argentina. As a result of this, every Ushuaia-bound bus has to cross the Chilean side first in order to reach the Argentinian side of the island, and this in turn results in a somehow pointless dance of hopping in and out of the bus to do immigration and custom procedures, as we enter, exit and enter Argentina again in a matter of hours). We spent countless hours crossing a completely desolate landscape, without any trees or mountains and populated only by some sort of llamas who would lightly run through the dry bushes. Gradually, after sunset, the landscape started to turn more wintery and blue, while a forest o seemingly petrified black-greenish trees appeared, finally leading to a huge lake surrounded by imposing mountains, which indicated that we had reached the end of the world.
Magellan dis not seem to be too interested in this area when he crossed these lands in 1520. They were inhabited by various indigenous groups, amongst them the Yagan, who would lit big bonfires that would be seen in the distance by sailors and which eventually gave the name of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) to this island where Ushuaia now stands ( today, there is only one yagan Indian left, Cristina Calderón, who lives in Villa Ukika, a small village next to Puerto Williams, south of Ushuaia, and who is the person that I have as mission to meet in order to conclude this trip).
The notion of the end of the world, and the belief in its potential as providing a clarifying perspective of life, is a fertile idea in art, in the realm of the symbolic and the poetic. Ushuaia is the city that occupies the honor of bearing such a symbolism, as the southern-most city in the world (with the exception of Puerto Williams, a town on the Chilean side, just a bit further south, although it is debated on whether it really counts as a city). This has turned Ushuaia into some sort of tourist magnet and it has nurtured an expansion of the city’s commerce and hotels.
The cultural life of the city has intensified, and we have had as host both the city of ushuaia (led by its director of culture, Marcelo Murphy) and the organizers of the upcoming bienal del fin del mundo next year.
So the SPU joins the ever-increasing visitors to Ushuaia, not precisely to do touristic, penguin-watching expeditions, but rather to find, like in the Russian fairy tale, perhaps a shred of clarity, closure, or perspective about the “Panamerican kingdom”. After all, which could be the best place to see things in perspective than the furthest possible vantage point?
el muelle de rio gallegos
el megatherium americanus
calle Rawson, Rio Gallegos
37 horas y un dinosaurio patagónico
September 12, 2006
37 Hours and a Patagonian Dinosaur
It’s kind of a harsh awakening when you have been in a bus for 37 hours, and suddenly you wake up at breakdown, at a place like Rio Gallegos.
Río Gallegos is the southernmost city of Patagonia, this legendray city of interwoven mountains, open landscapes, and, they say, mirages. It was founded in 1884 as a port, a time in which several immigrants from Italy, Spain, Ireland and England started to occupy these lands and raise cattle. Rio Gallegos is 12 hours away from Ushuaia, my final destination. In the meantime, I had to make a quick stop here, in this city with curious attributes: gray and yellow colors, a cold wind from the coast that blows tiny black dots that look like charcoal; the city’s seaport, at the time deserted, with remarkably low tides, and, without any exception, a dog in every house.
Gradually I’ve had the impression that I have returned to the beginning of this journey, due to the wintery feeling of sunlight, the openness of the landscape, and the simplicity of Patagonian houses which bear some resemblance with the anglo ones (the majority of the old houses that survive from the time of the foundation of Rio Gallegos were ordered by catalogue from Europe, in the same way that modular houses are brought today to Anchorage)
While I was walking around the thre or tour semi-lively streets of Rio Gallegos, I went into the Museo Padre Molina, a curiously strange combination of natural history museum and modern art museum which surely would be liked by people like Mark Dion and David Wilson from the Museum of Jurassic Technology. (Father Molina was one of the first scientific collectors here, and, judging from the fact that this is the only real museum here, probably the last). Although many of the old exhibits seem to be gone, there is an imposing skeleton of a Megatherium Americanus, a “herbivore mammal, measuring more than 5 meters in length. It had strong claws. It coexisted with man. It lived during the Pleistocene. It was extinguished 8500 years ago”.
It ocurred to me, perhaps already in the delirium of the end of the trip, that perhaps the Megatherium Americanus could be a fitting metaphor of Latin America. Are we an indigenous project on a land of mirages, and on the verge of extinction? Are we condemned to be what the very Bolívar said at the end of his life, an ungobernable region? The metaphor of the Patagonian dinosaur is tempting, although certainly an infection of the waves of negativism that we have almost systematically received in every debate we’ve held. In reality, many Latin Americas and Panamericas have emerged in it— some of them extinct, some of them yet uborn. But we cannot do the final recount until we reach our final stop.