Camping in Tierra del Fuego

July 16, 2010

Long before I had shown up Lily and family had planned to take a camping trip to Tierra del Fuego over the long Easter weekend. When I did show up they graciously invited me along. Our first stop was Lucho’s restaurant to stock up on provisions for the journey. There were a lot of provisions and so it was at this point that I learned we were going with a group of 15 people or so and not just the family. I also had the chance to get to meet the people who worked in the kitchen. One who helped out with a lot of the lifting was nicknamed “el chino” or the Chinese person, even though he wasn’t at all Chinese but rather part Indian. The way that it works here though is that they basically call anyone that they think looks remotely Asian “el chino”. Not sure that would fly in the US. To get some extra bread I went with Lily to a supermarket in one of the poorer sections of town. She told me the story of the neighborhood – there had been many immigrants from Chiloe (an island further north on Chile’s coast best known for its potatoes, and actually weirdly like Ireland in many of the stereotypes there are about the people) who squatted on this hill. At some point there were so many of them that the President decided to just grant them the land rather than to try to kick them off it, and so the community was born.

The next day we got an early start packing all the gear into the car while Lily’s son Felipe went to school to take a physics exam. First we picked up Felipe’s friend Tomás who would be coming on the trip with us. Tomás was a shy kid, especially compared to Felipe, but it was incredibly endearing to see how affectionate he was towards his mother. I think you would hardly ever see teenaged boys in the US act like that towards their mothers, especially in front of other people. Then we got Felipe, who was pretty confident he’d aced the exam, and hit the road.

After a couple of hours we reached the ferry that would take us across to Tierra del Fuego. Aboard Lily pointed to a group of people dressed in long skirts, slippers, and shawls and told me, “I bet they are gypsies.” Next thing I knew she’d gotten up and asked them if this was the case, and they confirmed it. It’s funny but I tend to think of gypsies as being the stuff of stories, sort of like unicorns or giants, and not expect to run into them on ferries.

The car was quite full but squeezing together was also convenient for warmth purposes. One effect though was that there was very little privacy when it came to what you were reading. Felipe had picked up a Men’s Health magazine for the drive and I noticed him intensely reading a particular article. Now, just to give you some background, Felipe not only goes to a German school but he had also spent 2 months doing study abroad in Hamburg last summer during which time he got his tongue pieced and generally did many things that his parents disapprove of. So I peak over to see the title of this fascinating article he is reading. It is the response by a doctor to the question “Can I get any diseases from licking a prostitutes’ breasts?” I couldn’t help myself and I burst out laughing. When Felipe’s parents asked me what was so funny I just told them I was amused by how we were all crammed in the car, which they accepted because by this point they had determined I was this kind of odd animal that laughed and smiled at almost anything. Then Felipe finished the article and put on some Spanish rap and raggaeton (his parents didn’t like it, but I quite enjoyed some of it and wished I’d thought to ask him for a selection to bring home on my computer).

For dinner we stopped at the Chilean police station near Pampa Guanaco (aptly named because of its location on a pampa where many guanaco reside). Lily made a big production of explaining how only in Chile are the police so friendly that anyone feels welcome to stop and chat with them. She had brought them a pumpkin as a gift, since the last time they had come through one of the policeman had explained how he was a little tired of the stew they always ate and would love something like a pumpkin to add in and spice things up. It was after dark by the time we made it to the campsite (and I use the term campsite very loosely – it was the end of the road before they had completed the bridge where we camped). Fortunately, the rest of the team had made it in several hours before us and were nice enough to set up a tent on our behalf. It was a medium-sized tent and it dawned on me that I would be sharing it with a middle-aged couple and two 16-year-old boys. It certainly was cozy, but it was cold enough that I really didn’t mind.

It rained during the night and it was an early start the next morning. First we took a zodiac across the river to the other side where construction of the road was ongoing. We hiked along the potion of the road that was finished (maybe 1 kilometers) and then had another 13 kilometers to hike where there was not even a path let alone a road to reach the house at Caleta Maria where we would spend the night. Distance-wise it really wasn’t much, but the walking conditions were such that we proceeded at a snail’s pace. A lot of the walking was through sphagnum red moss bogs, which your feet would sink a meter into and make an unpleasant slurping noise when you extracted them. I learned from experience that generally the lighter green plants would provide surer footing, but they weren’t always an option. We had to ford seven rivers, and all but two of them were easy, but it still meant a lot of up and down. For the widest river an old man named Julio volunteered to carry Lily and me across. Lily at least is a small woman, but I seriously worried that me plus my backpack (I had by far the biggest pack since it was one of the two pieces of luggage I’d brought with me to South America and thus contained 50% of my belongings, which I trekked back and forth) would break his back. Miraculously we both survived the experience. Lucho was not in such good shape (he has a bit of a belly and the walking was hard on him) but we all managed to make it. The final stretch had an abandoned airstrip (that I wouldn’t have even recognized as such if it hadn’t been pointed out to me), a plank that was underwater, and a very long, falling-apart, suspension bridge. I was grateful to reach Caleta Maria since I had had the sensation that my legs were about to fall out of my hip sockets since lunch. Our time was 9 hours in getting there, which we were told wasn’t too bad.

“There” turned out to be very basic. It was a home that Julio and Yvette (his ex-wife who was also on the trip) had built together on their property. At one time it had been furnished, but they said that fisherman had come in from the water and taken everything, right down to the furniture when no one was looking over the place. But they had a stove (which we were all huddled around), which served nicely to heat up our cans of beans and raviolis. I learned from the dinner conversation what it was that brought all these people together. Everyone, except for Julio, Yvette, and a friend Yvette had brought along who were from Santiago, were the owners of small, tourism-related businesses in Punta Arenas. Since the road was being built by the government to this corner of Tierra del Fuego, they had decided to go into business together in developing the area for tourism. I don’t remember what everyone did, but I remember one couple where the wife was German and the husband Chilean (by far the two of them were the best outdoorsmen of the bunch) who organized some kind of long distance kayak race in Tierra del Fuego every year. They were a sociable enough group, though I sensed there was some tension over how much they trusted going into business with one another. To make a long story short, Doug Tompkins (who is a Bay Area philanthropist who bought a ton of land in Chile) had once been interested in preserving this area, but since ownership needed to be in the name of Chileans he had used Julio and Yvette as partners (while the money presumably was his) and they had run off with the title. I’m pretty sure they spent some time in jail for this. They are not entirely unsympathetic characters though as Lily explained that during the Pinochet regime they had been members of a far leftist group and were captured and tortured, thus turning them into harder people than they were before.

We had further proof of the harder people they had become the next day when we started off and Yvette’s friend tripped and fell, injuring herself. They refused to slow down for her and she felt completely abandoned by the people who had invited her. However, our group (which honestly had been the slow pokes all along) stuck with her and made sure she made it. Incredibly considering that she was in so much knee pain at the time that she didn’t even realize she’d broken two ribs until she got home and went to the doctor. As I said, it was not an easy hike, but the scenery was so absolutely breathtaking that I felt incredibly lucky that I’d had the opportunity to visit there.

Someone was interested in hearing about my biology research so I started describing aversive learning and interesting C. elegans behaviors. This person heard me out before asking what exactly was a C. elegans. You should have seen his face when I said it was a worm. He cracked up and doubled over and once he’d recovered his breach enough to talk he said, “That is the LAST thing I expected you to say. When you were talking about complex behaviors I was at least expecting something with four legs, you know?” Sigh.

I had picked up the nickname of Hija del Tigre (daughter of the tiger) on the hike. I assumed this was because Lily had leant me some bright orange ski pants and I had a black fleece, but the person who had come up with this appellation insisted that it was actually due to my personality, which was “hearty like a tiger”. True I didn’t complain or anything like that on the hike, but I also wasn’t the one who had to do it with a messed up knee and two broken ribs. I had told people that my pack (which was bigger and more old-fashioned than most people’s) had belonged to my father, so this man presumed that my dad must be the “tiger” I was descended from. “And what does he do?” asked Alejando. I think he was expecting park ranger or fire fighter, and he didn’t seem to know quite what to say when I said, “He works…with computers.”

We reached the road just as the construction team was finished up their day’s work and so one of the truck drivers gave us a ride. Of course, we couldn’t all fit inside the cab, so Tomás, Felipe, and I clung to the outside of the truck. It was exhilarating! We slept that night again in the tent, and since it was Easter Lily hid some chocolates for us in the area around the tents and basically forced the boys to look for them. I was more into it than they were, and succeeded in being the first to locate one of the stashes.

On the way back we stopped at someone’s house where they told us that there was a small group of King Penguins hanging around on a particular beach (usually they are further south). So we offroaded for a bit to find them, and just when we were about to give up that we couldn’t find them we realized we were nearly on top of them! We got out and had an amazing view. At this point Felipe wanted to try driving. He did for a bit, but it made his parents nervous that he might be going too fast on the bad roads and Lily told him to pull over and switch. At this point they had a full on, screaming, crying argument. It seemed very Latin somehow. My guess is that tensions had been building for a while, since Lily absolutely despised the tongue piercing and Felipe delighted in playing with it in front of her. Lucho said that the car wouldn’t move until Felipe apologized to his mother and I felt, as I’m sure Tomás did too, that we were rather awkwardly caught in the middle of family drama. Finally Felipe said sorry and we were back on the road after 40 minutes or so. Later, when I was alone with Lily I said that even though it was tough just now with Felipe going through his adolescence, that he really did seem to be a good kid and that his stubbornness which so irked them now might in the long term serve him well in sticking to his guns in life. She just laughed and told me that what I had just observed was nothing – Felipe gave them relatively little trouble now compared to what he had been like at 14. By high school I was so obsessed with trying to do well in school that I don’t think I had the energy to give my parents much trouble, but I know that when I was younger I had been a “spirited” child (I think that’s the nice way to put it). It makes we worried what on earth I would do if I ever ended up in charge of a rebellious teenager. I suspect I might try sending him to Lily at the other end of the world. We stopped for dinner at a small restaurant with an amazing quantity of moths gathered on the screen and the ground near the front door. I was fascinated; Felipe was disgusted.

Dog days in Punta Arenas

July 10, 2010

(As a side note, one might be thinking that by this point I am so hopelessly behind in terms of the chronology on when these events took place and when I am journaling them that I am taking on a Sisyphean task to continue plodding away as I do. But my logic runs thus: 1) It’s almost always better to be out doing things than being overly preoccupied that one is “falling behind” in writing them down and 2) The more time between when certain events occurred and when I got around to chronicling them the more creative license I am allowed in turning them into better stories than they perhaps were at the time (TP I think would especially appreciate this).

While I was at Harberton Natalie had been kind enough to suggest several Punta Arenas scientists (mostly people who worked on marine mammals and who had been at the museum at some point). So I went about contacting them to the best of my ability. I say “to the best of my ability” because some of the notes where somewhat vague. For example, for one person I only had a first name and a phone number that turned out to have been disconnected. One person I did succeed in reaching turned out to be on sabbatical in Spain, and though he offered to do an interview over skype (very kind of him considering the time difference and all) it seemed to me that this would somewhat defeat the purpose of my having come all the way to South America to meet with these people. In more practical terms, I suspected that recording from skype with the kind of internet connection I had might be more of a frustrating than a fruitful endeavor. So I decided to cool my heels and wait and see what the next thing to come along would be.

Truth be told I felt that I was learning a tremendous amount just from hanging out with Lily. She may not be a scientist, but she is certainly one very impressive woman. Lily had to leave school when Pinochet came into power and privatized much of the educational system so that many could no longer afford to attend. According to Lily, the result is that even after democracy came to Chile public education is not very good on the whole and families scrabble to get their kids educated elsewhere. Lily’s son Felipe was a student at the German school (the running joke in Punta Arenas was that they had German, British, and French schools, but no Chilean schools), where he appeared to be getting an great education judging from his English and helping him prepare for his physics test (old habits die hard, I’m going to miss the teaching). Lily has four children, with I believe three different people, but despite the somewhat convoluted family tree its seems to be a very caring and close-knit bunch. Things are a little complex in Chile since divorce was only legalized in 2004, but long before that there had been separations and basically there had been de facto divorces and remarriages even if they weren’t recognized by the state.

No one would ever doubt the Lily and Lucho were together, and quite the enterprising duo at that. Lily had designed and built her hotel (and I do mean that quite literally though she did contract additional help). While I was with her we went to the beach to pick out some stones that she could use to repave the entrance. These were big stones, and we needed a lot of them, but it was much more fun than just going to home depo and picking out some slate or something like that. Lily liked running the hotel day to day, though it could be a headache since often as not some plumbing would break or someone would take a pile of rocks she had reserved for some special repair project and she’d have to run about to get things back in working order. For this reason, she was seriously considering an offer someone had made her to rent the hotel for 2 years and run it. It seemed almost too good to be true, someone else taking on the responsibility of the Hain Hotel during both high and low seasons, but Lily felt like if she went for it she would have to throw herself into some new project because she’d suddenly have free time and capital from renting the hotel. I really liked Lily, for her energy, her caring, and her sense of romanticism. She’d named her third daughter Almendra (almond) because she’d seen it as a name in some Gabriel García Márquez novel. Almendra had been the best student at the German school in her day, and the whole family really wanted me to meet her when I went to Santiago (though it didn’t end up happening unfortunately) because as Susana put it “she’s someone at your intellectual level.” My only response to this was thinking, “Goodness, I hope I don’t seem supercilious – probably using the work “supercilious” does not help me case.”

As in almost every other South American town, stay dogs were everywhere. Lily kept telling me how lucky their were to live in Punta Arenas because it was too cold for any flees or ticks to survive, but I had my doubts on that point. Lily was very excited because her golden labrador was in heat, and although she’d had puppies once before it had just been with the neighbor’s mut and this time Lily was determined to mate her with another lab. She’d found another golden lab on the street (probably abandoned since it’s unusual for breeds like that to survive very long on the street), and happily declared him her dog Luna’s “boyfriend” but despite all of Lily’s cajoling nothing seemed to be happening on the making puppies front. Lily’s theory was that the male dog she’d found was too young and simply didn’t know what to do. So off we went with the dog in heat to drop her off at someone else’s house where they had a male golden lab. From the second we left the house we were pursued by many very persistent male dogs that must of picked up her scent. We must have driven 20 blocks and not only were the same dogs still with us, but others had joined the game. It was exciting, but I was terrified we would accidentally run over one of the over-enthusiastic suitors.

Mylodon’s Cave

June 30, 2010

Puerto Natales is a quaint little town that is probably best known as being a taking off place for the fantastic Torres del Paine national park. This is the part where I rather guiltily confess to not having opted for the 3-day intensive hiking/camping trip through Torres del Paine that everyone says is the most incredible thing in all of Chile. Frankly, I didn’t want to do it on my own, even though I’m sure I could have run into other tourists. Plus, I was enjoying being with Lily and Lucho’s family so much I didn’t want to give up any of that time. So alas, my day-trip with Alex, Susana, and Raquel was as close as I got to the famed Torres. I had a decent view of them from where we drove, and every other postcard shows them up-close, so I’m not beating myself up over it too much.

During the decently long drive to Puerto Natales my companions started to warm to me. Not that they had been standoffish before or anything like that, I think they just didn’t quite know what to make of this random gringa that had appeared in their lives. It helped that approximately every 5 minutes after the silverware “incident” I would start cracking up over it, which lead everyone else to start giggling too. We covered some important terminology that I should know in Chile too. For example, the key vocab word “huevón”, which I saw rather charmingly translated by a British woman as some word I am incapable of remembering. But I remember being really impressed by the translation because it captured the essence of huevón without using offensive language (at least to an American). Basically it kind of implies someone is a lazy fool, but you can interject it into just about any sentence for emphasis or toss it at friends in a jovial way. Lily informed me that there had actually been an entire book written about huevón and how it can be any part of speech (adj. huevonado, v. huevonear, etc.). It is true, you hear it all the time, but I think I’d have to know my companions really well before I tried using it. Also key to sounding Chilean is using the abbreviation po’ instead of pues (because one syllable words like pues clearly need to be shortened). Sí po’ and no po’ I’d say make up a good 30% of sentences in conversations. Finally, using re- as in intensifier of any adjective is looked favorably upon. You’re tired? “Estoy cansado”. Your dead-dog tired? “Estoy re-cansado.” This is how you start to sound Chilean.

I didn’t really understand why there was a giant, bear-like statue that greeted us as we entered Puerto Natales, nor why all the street signs had this same creature on them. But I was happy to go with the flow and got a real kick out of all the Darwin memorabilia for sale in the shops not to mention the Darwin Hotel with the sage himself tactfully place above the entrance. It was only after we’d left town a pulled up next to a big sign proclaiming “Cueva del Milodón” that I realized, “My goodness! Those weren’t bears, they were mylodons! The giant, prehistoric sloth fossils that Darwin happened across and that got thoughts of extinction and adaptation percolating in his brain. The scientific name Mylodon darwinii listai pays tribute to this important contribution. Especially as someone who read and loved Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (science + travel narrative, what is not to love?) it was so incredibly cool to get to be present in the Mylodon’s cave.

You pay admission when you enter the tiny museum near the cave. The Chilean girls paid their entrance fee first and then it was my turn. “You are Chilean?” he asked (non-citizens pretty much have to pay double for everything from museums to national parks down here). I decide to be honest, “No.” “Ah, but you are a resident, yes?” he replies hopefully. “Not that either.” “Look,” he says, “Just pay the cheaper entrance fee that Chileans pay and get inside.” J Yay for nice museum attendants.

The only odd thing about the museum and the Mylodon Cave was that there wasn’t actually any mylodon in either. Yes, some fossilized mylodon bones had been discovered there, but they had been removed ages ago and now they just had some replicas. The bones they had found were only some fragments at that, although there were the conspiracy theorists who thought that an entire mylodon skeleton had been unearthed there and toted off to Europe (as so many things are). I tend to believe the paleontologists though on this one.

We posed for some more pictures outside the cave with the mylodon statue and then walked around inside the cavernous opening in the mountain. It was nice and cool and the acoustics produced some amusing echoes. However perhaps the most interesting moment was when Raquel turned to Susana inside the cave and asked, “Are you thinking what I am?” “What would it be like to be here during an earthquake?” answered Susana immediately. “Precisely.” It goes to show the trauma that these two and probably many others experienced during the recent seismic events in Chile that they can’t stop thinking about if they would be safe or not if the ground began shaking at any particular moment. It sounds like it was absolutely terrifying. On the way out we observed a dead-tree that looked like a scare-crow and also a Patagonian fox that ran right by us (quite a find these days).

We drove a little further to an estancia where there was a pond with bathing flamingos (I had no idea they were indigenous to down here, but they really are elegant birds). Finally we returned to Puerto Natales where the girls and I went to a café and gorged ourselves on hot chocolates, cakes, and some calefate berry ice cream. As we were eating I realized the couple behind me were speaking Japanese. I turned around and said hello and I think nearly scared them out of their skins. They had, of course, come to hike in Torres del Paine though the woman had been in Mexico for several months beforehand studying Spanish. Once they recovered they asked me if I could recommend a place for dinner. I asked Susana and Raquel and they said there was supposed to be good pizza at a little place on the plaza, so I conveyed this information. From there we drove back to Punta Arenas though it was dark before we got home. As Alex took a cigarette break along the road I got a shot of the nearly full moon.

To Catch a Silverware Thief

June 26, 2010

By the time I made it to Punta Arenas in my crippled bus I was ready to crash. Fortunately, a friend of my mother was expecting my arrival so I figured in no time I’d be at her house and could stop fending for myself (which as the bus debacle clearly illustrates I am ill-equipped to do). As we got off the bus there was a flurry of pamphlets and various people trying to make off with us to various hostels – but I confidently assured them that my friend was meeting me. True, I had no idea what this friend looked like, so I was optimistic every time a woman approached, but alas none of them were she. I didn’t have her address so catching a cab wasn’t an option nor did there appear to be any payphones. By the time I was the only one left on the curb I figured it was time to take action. Fortunately, I noticed right down the block was a building with sign declaring DAP on it. DAP is a Chilean airline that basically has a monopoly on the few flights operating in the far South, and therefore a business contact of my mom. So I strode confidently into the offices, explained my predicament, and soon got into touch with the lady who was expecting me (but waiting at the wrong bus stop).

Armed with an address I hopped in a cab and headed to her house. The cab driver was chatty so I had the chance to learn a little about the town I had just landed in. One of the major early waves of immigrants had been from Croatia, so there was a distinctive building style in many of the old wooden houses that involved having peaked roofs and little steeples. Peeling paint on corrugated metal was clearly de rigor around here. It was cold, but the driver said it was nothing like it used to be and that there had been so little ice the past few years that they had actually opened up an indoor skating rink (to his mind the height of absurdity). Such is global warming.

When I got the Lily and Lucho’s house I walked in on an asado in progress and many friends and family enjoying the feast. Lily runs a small but well-kept hotel in town and her husband Lucho is in charge of an amazing restaurant (that I fear lacks clientele due to the size of the city it is located in). To say that they are well connected in town is an understatement, as especially Lily appears to have Punta Arenas just about wrapped around her little finger. They live in one of the old Croatian houses, which is a little drafty and constantly undergoing renovations but utterly charming. The lamb feast was exquisite and I stated to get to know the people around the table. Felipe was their 16-year old son and Susana was Lily’s eldest daughter from a previous marriage in town visiting from Santiago. She had brought her friend Raquel with her on holiday to Punta Arenas. Alex was a friend who couldn’t seem to pronounce my name so decided to just stick with using la gringa to refer to me. Once we’d stuffed ourselves Lily led me to a room upstairs and I was down for the count.

The next day I drove around with Lily and Alex looking at abandoned buildings (there were plenty) since Alex was himself thinking about opening up a hostel. They kept exclaiming how beautiful the buildings were, even though frankly many of them looked as though they should probably be torn down (or at least seriously shored up). Lily made a few calls and before long it seemed like Alex was well on his way to getting a fixer-upper for cheap. Lily was clear though that he would have to do things on the up-and-up. At one point we drove past an abandoned building and she told me that it used to be a hostel, but the proprietors had rigged up some illegal wiring to steal energy and the place burned down one night killing all 10 tourists inside. It is times like this that I’m grateful to not be staying in a hostel.

Alex took Susana, Raquel, and myself on a road trip to Puerto Natales. We took Lily and Lucho’s Nissan truck, which like so many things down here would probably have been scrapped elsewhere. Honestly, it was kind of refreshing that things were not so frequently discarded and lived out their full lives of reasonable usefulness (or even well beyond that). They liked to joke that the car was “progressive”, by virtue of the fact that it only moved forward and never backward (putting the gear into reverse only made the reverse noise, the truck didn’t go anywhere). We all chipped in about $15 and Alex took care of all the expenses for the day trip.

For lunch we stopped at a place called Reuben’s that was in the middle of nowhere but rumored to have the best sandwiches in all of Patagonia (I immediately thought deli because of the name, but if so I think there’s a very different take on kosher down here). I don’t doubt it, they were fantastic, but I really think that is in part due to how wonderful anything hot and smeared with mayonnaise tastes when you are hungry and it is cold outside. As we were leaving Susana went to find the proprietor since her mom had told her to say hello. He walked us out and as Susana was saying how much she really enjoyed the food there was suddenly a “kerplunk” as a fork fell to the ground. That was rather awkward, and for a moment I think all of us assumed there was a kleptomaniac in our midst. Fortunately for Susana she looked at her bag and there saw a knife still affixed to the magnetic clasp. She returned the cutlery with her apologies and the group seated outside got a good laugh. We couldn’t even just drive off either. Alex sat with the car in neutral while the rest of us pushed it back far enough that we could circle around back to the road. At least the spectators couldn’t complain that we weren’t good for a show.

High-speed Chase to Rio Grande

June 18, 2010

It was with considerable sadness that I had left Harberton. I’d learned some invaluable things (such as that one is never to touch the bombilla, what is essentially a long metal straw with a strainer at the end, when it is in a mate gourd) and even more importantly started to form friendships. They told me I could stay until mid-April, and in fact Natalie even told me she knew people at the bus company and was sure she could get my ticket changed. But I knew that I had people expecting me in Punta Arenas and consoled myself by thinking that so long as they still appeared to want me at least I knew I hadn’t overstayed my welcome.

That night I checked back in to my B&B in Ushuaia where Javier greeted me warmly. I ran a few errands such as getting a handful of postcards and stationary to send to the US (with a success rate I now know of only about 60%, and those that made it took on average 6 weeks. I guess that is part of being in the city at the end of the world). I replied to some of the emails that had come in during the days I had been away and out of touch. In the end, I stayed up much later than I knew I should considering I had a 5am bus out of town the next morning. At least I had my alarm clock I figured.

Everyone I’m sure knows that feeling when it is especially cold and dark outside and the thing you want most in the word is to stay under the covers just a little longer. Well, sure enough I succumbed to it. My alarm clock went off as planned at 4:15 but it was within reach of my bunk and I turned it off and promptly fell asleep for another hour and a half. The next time I woke up I knew exactly what I had done. Gulp. Javier had already told me that he had a big group coming in that night and that he couldn’t put me up any longer. I knew I’d missed my bus (which only left 3 times a week) but I figured that maybe if I ran down to the bus yard I could at least get on something headed the right direction. I packed up, grabbed one of the pastries Javier had set out for me (hey, I knew I’d already missed the bus by this point), and got down to the bus yard with my bags around 6:30am. It was completely dead with not a soul around.

I was freaking out a little by this point and so began pacing. I heard a car pull up behind me. Luckily it was a taxi and when he asked me what had happened I told him my sad tale. “Jump in,” said the taxi cab driver, “We’ll try to catch up to them by Tolhuin.” It was completely illogical to try to catch a bus that I’d already missed by an hour and a half, but on the other hand I had no other option so I jumped in. We went speeding off on the very windy, mountainous road out of town. We we’re going about 140km/hr and clearly the taxi cab driver decided the fastest way to get their involved taking out most of the curves in the road by driving in both lanes. I think he sensed my anxiety because he looked over and told me not to worry since there would be almost no cars on the road at this hour. Yeah, that almost didn’t do a whole lot to calm my nerves.

The driver was himself clearly anxious as well and asked me if it was all right with me if he smoked. I remembered vomiting on these very same roads when I’d been at the back of a bus with smokers and so asked him if he needed to could he please open his window. Turned out his window was broken so that it wouldn’t stay just partially up. It was still freezing outside, so what ended up happening was he lit up, opened the window, grabbed it with his left hand to keep it from falling all the way down, and then just drove with his right hand, except when he needed to adjust his cigarette at which point he used just his knees. It seemed to me that the probability of dying on these roads was higher than I would have liked.

It started to get light just as we were coming into Tolhuin and the driver let out a stream of expletives directed at the bus driver we were trailing. I guess usually the bus drivers take it a little more slowly and even stop at the bakery in Tolhuin for a bit with all their passengers, but this morning I guess the bus driver was in a hurry and didn’t make the stop. We carried on but my taxi driver was not happy about it. “You know,” he said, “That 400 pesos I quote to you when you got in was only for going as far as Tolhuin. It’s going to cost you more to keep going. And I have to drive all the way back without a passenger. If we don’t catch up to him by the time we get to the Chile border too I can’t take you any further and you’ll have to try to find another taxi on the other side.” This was a little worrisome for several reasons. One because I only had about 430 pesos (a little over 100 dollars) in my wallet and two because the driver seemed to think there was a real chance we would not catch the bus before getting to the border, at which point I was apparently supposed to obtain another taxi despite the fact that I had no Chilean money and would have given all my Argentinean money to this guy. Also, he kept making not particularly useful comments along the lines of, “Boy, that was an expensive nap you took this morning.” Sigh, didn’t I know it.

It was almost double the distance (some 220 km) until the next big city Rio Grande. It got lighter and more cars appeared on the road, which we veered around if they were in front of us. It was also my first introduction to the real Patagonian pampas and their wildlife. Everywhere you looked were elegant guanacos (related to llamas) and regal ñandus (Darwin’s rheas). I was thrilled and wanted to take pictures but I was worried that if my driver knew I had a camera when I revealed I was short on cash that he would suggest I offer it as compensation. The dawn was brilliant and almost made up for the situation I’d gotten myself into. There was a moment of false hope as we pulled up to a bus, but when we got close the taxi cab driver informed me that it wasn’t mine, and he passed it.

Finally, nearly two full hours after we’d started we came upon another bus. This time it was mine. I expected we’d honk or something to let them know to stop, but apparently that’s just not the way things are handled in Patagonia. No, instead we went around them at high speed and once in front slammed on the breaks. Now I’ve taken physics and seem to clearly remember objects of larger mass (i.e. buses compared to taxis) requiring larger stopping distances (maybe that was in drivers ed too, in any case I believe it). Luckily for me, rather than crushing us the bus somehow managed to stop. Desperately I turned to my taxi driver and told him I didn’t have enough money and asked if there might be an ATM anywhere. In hindsight I realize just how ridiculous this question was in the middle of the barren Patagonian pampas. He said if we went to try to find one I’d be sure to miss the bus and asked how much I did have. At this point I remembered that my mom had given me a $100 bill to hide in my bag in case of emergencies. Well, I considered this an emergency. So I handed over every single cent I had, Argentine or American, and he shooed me onto the bus. Everyone was starring at me. At least I know how to make an entrance.

It worried me some that I had no money and I didn’t know if I would have to pay either an exit fee from Argentina or an entrance fee to Chile. Not to mention that after detaining me they would no doubt discover the stow-away parasites in my bag. But mostly I was relieved to have “caught” my bus at last. For a 13-hr bus it was actually quite comfy. There was a nice grandmotherly figure who talked to me some about her family and two young Spanish girls who were traveling for a year with the smallest backpacks I had ever seen (that’s the way to do it, but still I was impressed). I couldn’t believe my luck when I got through Chilean immigration and customs with my parasites and without any need for money. But the adventure wasn’t quite over. There’s one point where they load the bus onto a ferry to cross from Tierra del Fuego to the mainland. I was looking forward to it because I had heard that often dolphins follow the ferry. It was a popular day for the ferry and they were trying to pack us in right next to a giant truck full of sheep. Then there was a gut-wrenching crash. We had hit the ferry and it took out the restroom. So no one could go to the bathroom for the final 3 hours of our journey but at least we could keep driving. Despite all the mishaps along the way I finally made it to Punta Arenas.

Nothing like waking up to…

June 12, 2010

The smell of rotting dolphin. I fear I may lose my entire readership if I go into much more detail, but I fear this deserves a little more explanation. My last day at the museum the weather was finally warming up enough that Natalie (who had some neck pain and can’t be outdoors too much in the extreme cold) decided it was time to “process” the animals that had been lying under a black tarp on the beach. They asked if I wanted to help and who am I to turn down an opportunity like that? Luckily they had some old clothes that I put on over my own so as to not get too much in the way of blood and guts all over some of the few clothing items I had with me. The effect, because we wanted both protection from the cold and the gore, was that we all roughly looked like marshmallow people. Out on the windy beach I discovered how exactly it was that they got all their pristine museum skeletons – hard work and a lot of it. First we hacked off some pieces of skin for DNA samples, then took exact measurements and noted gender, then Natalie drew the missing pieces of each creature, and then we sawed off the rest of the meat and tossed the carcasses into boiling water to do the rest of the work. Not the neatest of jobs as I’m sure you can imagine.

The previous day some of the students had been asking me what kind of biology I had down in college. I soon learned that despite its popularity in the States, C. elegans has yet to make it as a model organism of note in Argentina. In fact they thought it was hilarious that I would have spent so much time studying worms. Not just worms, but microscopic, dirt-dwelling worms at that. In fact, I think they may have thought I was pulling their legs. I got my comeuppance the next morning as we were working on tearing apart some of the more, ahem, mature specimens. Alejandra told me to come close to the porpoise she was working on and when I was about 6 inches away she pulled back the skin to reveal a giant horde of maggots. With glee she exclaimed, “Look what I found for the girl that loves worms!” OK, clearly I need to clarify my interests a bit more next time.

It was also humorous to observe the complete 180 that Natalie Goodall had made since I showed up. She was clearly itching to be interviewed and at one point told the other students to give us a while so that we could do our recording. I figured I was on thin ice so I tried to keep my questions short, polite, and easy. When I told her I thought I had enough she said, “What, that’s it? Don’t you want more?” It is so funny that she ended up wanting more of what she had insisted she so detested, but it worked out well enough for me so I can’t complain. Then I ran around to get a few words from each of the students that were available.

Kata had a special request. Recently they had discovered that many otherwise healthy juvenile dolphins were dying due to parasites in their lungs. They had a collaborator working on these parasites in Santiago for her thesis, and so when they heard that was where I was headed it immediately occurred to them to send the parasites with me. They had been so incredibly kind, even the thought of transporting formal-drenched, illegal organic matter across country-lines didn’t make me hesitate. I just stuffed in into the back of my pack as I was on my way out the door.

Mauro and Emilia accompanied me to the dock where I was to join a catamaran (for tourists) heading to Ushuaia. They were both very sweet and I think I got one of the most genuine comments about Argentine science from Mauro as we walked along the dirt path (of course unrecorded, but at least that way he’s not likely to get into trouble for it). As he put it, one of the things they struggle with as Argentine scientists is why to attempt what Nothamericans have been doing for much longer and better. Sigh, I tried to explain that similar worries occurred to anyone, no matter their country of origin, who felt like they were still low on the scientific totem pole. I don’t think he believed me.

So it seems that the tourist catamarans have an unofficial deal with Harberton to transport their students for free. Emilia whispered to me that I should just, “Talk as little as possible and maybe they won’t catch on that you aren’t Argentine”. I followed her instructions thought I felt a little guilty to be getting for free what most of the people had shelled $50 out for. Truth be told it was a beautiful way to see some of the glaciers and bird life as well.

Once back I dropped my stuff off at the B&B. I was glad to see the protests had run out of steam. When I had left for Harberton the president had been visiting to inaugurate a new natural gas line in Ushuaia (they are incredibly rich in natural resources, which as far as I can tell is the only reason politicians make the trip that far South. Well, that and perhaps if they are paranoid that Chile is trying to take over some desolate island down there). While she was there a schoolteacher’s union had taken the opportunity to air their grievances over their salaries. Truth be told, I was told in confidence that they thought the teacher’s we paid plenty and that it was a real shame that they kept striking so that the children were missing out when they should have had classes. But I think the strike is an Argentine pastime so what can really be done.

I then headed to the café Tante Sara to meet Amalia Goodall (Natalie’s granddaughter) for a submarino. The submarino is really just hot milk with a submarine-shaped piece of dark chocolate you drop into it. It was delicious and I really liked talking with Amalia, who had grown up at Harberton and now worked in Ushuaia for one of the big Antarctic tour companies. She was finishing up her tourism degree and had aspirations of moving to England. Her grandmother had told me about her younger sister, who was a real track star and who had a guaranteed scholarship to a US university if she could break a certain time in her running. With such a nice family I was rooting for her. Amalia walked me back to my hostel and along the way we ran into an adorable 6-year old girl who Amalia informed me was her boyfriend’s daughter. In fact, it turned out that it really wasn’t that unusual for young people to have kids out of wedlock. Ah, Catholic countries…

Hanging around Harberton

May 19, 2010

We started off the morning with a good group cleaning – they have a schedule and it seems to work well. Luckily, I was assigned mopping in the lab area, which also gave me the opportunity to look around at the many posters they had on the walls. It very much felt like an old-school natural history museum. On top of all the cabinets there were more bones, and I saw that as a joke someone had posted the flyer for the movie the “Bone Collector”.

For lunch I was invited by Natalie Goodall to dine in her home. I was sorry to miss the delicious casserole-like thing that Kata was cooking up in the museum, but everyone told me that if I had the chance to eat with Natalie I shouldn’t pass it up. The lunch was good – some kind of hearty soup that they also sell to tourists in the café next door. The conversation was also good. We talked about the friend that had put me in touch and also about history, family, etc. Dr. Goodall I think was a little surprised when I showed up since somewhere along the way she had gotten the idea that I wanted to film her and I guess she’d been expecting a whole film crew or something like that. As we talked it became apparent that she really wasn’t so adverse to the idea of being interviewed. She hadn’t liked the idea when she thought it was going to be on TV, but so long as it was just radio and she didn’t have to listen to it that wouldn’t be so bad. To finish off I was offered a choice from the 7 types of cake or so that they serve in the tearoom. All were based off her mother’s cake recipe, which she had carried over lovingly from Ohio. I think I had the orange cake and it was indeed excellent.

After lunch it was arranged that Santiago (yes, the subject of much doting upon by the female residents of the museum) was going to give me and Emi a historical tour of Harberton. I could see why he was admired, but he was good-looking in that yes-and-I-know-it kind of way. To each their own. I must have spent a little too long looking at him because I nearly missed the cue where you are supposed to sweep in a kiss South Americans on the cheek in greeting. Honestly, as an American this takes a little getting used to. When I lived in Japan I used to bemoan the fact that since people usually just bowed to each other it was possible to go months at a time without touching another human being, but this really is the other extreme of things. You mean, I’m supposed to kiss 7 or 8 strangers every time I enter a room? Well, yes, and it’s not as easy as you’d think either. For example, when I realized that I ought to kiss Santiago to make up for being slow I went for it a little too enthusiastically. You wouldn’t believe the damage you can do with you cheekbone when you really launch yourself at someone. I apologized and he said it was fine, but I noticed him rubbing his jaw afterwards. The tour covered a lot of things that I had already read about in Natalie’s book, but it was interesting to see nonetheless. They had reconstructed a yaghan hut and I learned about how they moved the entrance according to where the wind was coming from. Thus, the middens left behind were circular. More on the yahans to come though. Santiago asked why I wasn’t recording him, since I had been recording all the museum residents and I tried to explain that the focus of my project was scientific. At this point he revealed that he did know a fair bit about the native flora, and it certainly help provide a good foundation for the naturalists I would meet in the following weeks.

I was back at the museum in time to listen to some of the guided tours given by the museum residents. It made me think it would be fun to be a curator, though I’m sure that giving the same spiel a million times can be tough, and some of the tourists’ questions were a little off base. After he finished we the tour I was able to have a good chat with Mauro. Turns out he is a big Gould fan but cannot stand Dawkins. Also, he was a little down on the state of South American science. As he put it, why should they do the things that northamericans are already doing, and have a head start on to boot? But I think he answered that question for himself considering that the only thing he ever really loved and wanted to do was biology.

For dinner another invitation came in from the house that Kata, Emi, and I were invited to dine with the Goodalls. Emi especially was very nervous because she wasn’t very confident in her English. She needn’t have worried though, it was not as if we were being interrogated or anything, it was just dinner. We ate fried slices of beef and had a delicious raspberry dessert from raspberries that had just come into season in the garden (a bit late and not that plentiful this year because they had a very rainy summer). Thomas Goodall was a quiet old man with a kind face, though you could tell he wasn’t much into having guests for dinner. Part way through he excused himself to go watch the latest Chilean soap opera.

Back at the museum everyone was hanging out, drinking maté, and telling sexist jokes. It seemed a little odd since they were mostly women, but I guess it is not a bad way to pass the time. And to make sure that I was all caught up on vulgar anatomical terms. Most of the jokes were pretty harmless though. Like, “Al hombre le pasan muchas cosas por la cabeza, en cambio a la mujer le pasan muchas cabezas por la cosa”. Which is roughly akin to “men think about many things, while women fuss over everything”. Well, at least it was clear that in this museum it was the women who were running everything (sorry Mauro, but it is true). As we prepared for bed I regretted not having thought to pack a towel since it meant I really couldn’t shower and I wasn’t sure how many days Kata and Emi would go before they started complaining that I was sharing a room with them. Good thing I was taking off the next day. So far they still seemed to like having me around.

Museo Acatúshun

May 5, 2010

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I think the cultural barriers between scientists and non-scientists are larger than the differences among people of different nations. Crazy, right? Except I’ve noticed that even when I’m bumbling along in a foreign language, if the person I’m talking to has read “The Panda’s Thumb” for example, I’m not likely to run out of things to say. The same unfortunately cannot be said when my well-meaning friends invite me to parties filled with impeccably-dressed/coiffed, cocktail-wielding, young professionals who inevitably initiate conversations about celebrities or sports figures that I’ve never heard of. There’s something about being among a group of like-minded scientists that puts one at ease. You know that you’re among your people and that a certain degree of eccentricity is expected (even encouraged). I was fortunate enough to find that in my lab at Okayama University of Science, and again with the residents of Museo Acatúshun.

Kata picked me up from the B&B while she was on her weekly grocery run to Ushuaia. I was nervous at first, but after I met Kata, her sister Emi, and another museum student named Sil I knew I was going to be in good company. They were so lively and welcoming that it felt like I was reuniting with people I’d known for ages rather than heading off with strangers. Our first stop was a fabric store where I helped Sil pick out a new plastic tablecloth for the dining room table in museum (we opted for one with grey stripes and a white background with pink daises around the rim, both because it was cheery and seemed to be the most durable). Then we stopped by Natalie’s house in Ushuaia to pick up a bunch of moss-covered Cetacean (cifrido in Spanish if you were curious) skulls. They were massive so we couldn’t fit them all in the truck bed but we managed to fit about 11, which we then strapped down with bungee cords for the long drive to Harberton. There is something wonderful about being put to work right away – I felt like I was actually useful and had gained immediate acceptance into the group. What better way really to start the day than by carrying giant whale skulls to and fro? Before leaving town we made one final stop to pick up about 20 kilos of potatoes (yes, that’s a lot of potatoes, but it’s an inexpensive way to feed the many hungry museum students). The ride was stunning and I enjoyed it all the more this time that I wasn’t stuck in the back of a smoke-filled bus. We made some of the same stops: the gate on the beach that frames the Dientes de Navarrino mountains and the windswept Notofagus trees that have grown sideways. The best part was the conversation as we passed around a cup of maté. Somewhat embarrassingly I didn’t really understand how the maté passing worked at first. Basically you have a gourd (or some other intricate cup) which you fill with the bitter herbs and stick in a bombilla (silver spoon/straw with perforations large enough to let the tea through but not the herbs). I kept being passed it, taking a sip or two and passing it along to someone else. They thought this meant that I didn’t really like it (many foreigners find it too bitter and prefer tempering it with sugar), but the truth was that I just didn’t know that once you were passed the cup you were supposed to finish it before handing it back to be filled with water for the next person. Live and learn.

I don’t even remember all the things we discussed, but I know that Emi was very talkative and especially wanted me to teach her to cuss in Japanese after learning that I’d lived there. Of course, at least in the circles I frequented there wasn’t really the same tradition of affectionately cursing at people as you have in Spanish. I tried to explain this, but they said I had to know at least one so I finally settled on “Buta” which means pig and is mildly insulting in Japanese. They misheard my B as a P, and thought it remarkable that “puta” worked in both languages (anyone actually know how you would say “puta” in Japanese, I sure don’t). I did explain to Emi though that her name worked in Japanese too and meant bow (as in bow an arrow, and was in fact my Japanese professor’s first name in college). At first she took this to mean that her full name “Emilia” existed in Japanese, but after only mild confusion I explained it was just the nickname Emi.

We made it back to the museum a little after sunset, and I got to meet the nine residents (10 including me). Eight of them were women and one was a man, and all of them were Argentinean with the exception of one woman who was Brazilian. The one man was named Mauro (kind of like the Kamihori figure of my Okayama days) kept telling me how hard it was to put up with all these women, but that he somehow managed. They teased him relentlessly, kind of like a younger brother. Actually it was amazing to me what good friends everyone was to one another. All these women in their 20’s though clearly did get a little sick of being cooped up in the museum with no “eligible” guys (poor Mauro) and swooned over one of the Harberton guides named Santiago. The one tricky thing for me was that everyone seemed to have about 3 names, but went by a nickname that you would have never guessed from any of the 3. Clearly they had some difficulty with my name too. Mauro finally slapped the table as if he’s had a revelation and told everyone that he got my name. It’s ‘choline’, as in acetylcholine from the Kreb’s cycle (it’s a very bad sign when the Kreb’s cycle is easier for people to remember than your name). This worked for people, since they were all scientists after all. We stayed up talking until it was too dark to see anything at which pointed they switched on the generator and the lights. We had a light meal of crackers, dulce de leche, and candy with our maté, while people told some truly cring-worthy science jokes. (“Why don’t white bears dissolve in oil? Because they are polar”.) Sil gave me her bed for the night in a room I shared with Kata and Emi so that I wouldn’t have to sleep in the cold room at the very top of the museum while she shared Mauro’s room.  I felt at home and excited for the next day.

Estancia Harberton

April 20, 2010

Back in Berkeley I had been told that I had to meet Natalie Goodall when I went to Ushuaia. Hers is an incredible story. The Ohio native was trained in both art and botany and had originally traveled to Venezuela as a young woman to teach English to the children of the employees of one of the American-owned oil companies there. Somewhere she came across a copy of Lucas Bridges’ “Uttermost Part of the Earth” which discusses the Indians of Tierra del Fuego where his family owned an estancia and is still considered one of the authoritative texts. His father, Thomas Bridges, had been an orphan in England (found by a clergyman near a bridge and thus given the last name Bridges) who traveled to Argentina with the missionary who had taken him in as a boy. In Tierra del Fuego he learned the language of the Yámana/Yaghan (Yámana was the named they used to describe themselves and Yaghan was given to them by foreigners, but now they use it equally to describe themselves) and created the first dictionary. As a grown man Thomas Bridges asked the Argentine government for the land and was granted his estancia, which he named after his wife’s hometown. He had a prefabricated English house shipped in pieces and reconstructed in Harberton for his family home, which still stands with some modifications and additions to the structure from the 1880s. In any case, after reading the book, Natalie decided she had to try to visit this place at the end of the world before she returned to the US. She made it (it wasn’t easy, back before the road was built you had to either fly in or arrive by sea) and there she met Thomas Goodall, the great-grandson of Thomas Bridges. They fell in love and were married shortly thereafter and she has lived at Harberton ever since.

Before penguin-seeking tourists, the business of Harberton had been sheep. It used to be the case the Argentinean wool fetched a high price in European markets, and with the expanse of land at Harberton they could raise over a thousand sheep and only needed extra hands when it came time to sheer them and process the wool. However with the advent of other less expensive fabrics the wool trade in Argentina became less lucrative and now there are no longer any sheep at Harberton. They still have the sheering shed though and it is included in the guided tour that they offer tourists as part of Harberton history.

Natalie took charge of the garden when she arrived. They have quite an extensive vegetable garden, which to this day provides a great deal of the food they consume. Around the house Natalie planted flowers to remind her of home. Some of them, such as lupines and honeysuckle, proved to be great success as invasive species and are gradually spreading into the hills. The honeysuckles have colonized the family graveyard where most of the Bridges are buried, as well as some natives whose gravestones merely say “nativo”. Natalie also had a tremendous talent for scientific illustration and made detailed drawings of the endemic flora and fauna. In 1970 she literally wrote the book on Tierra del Fuego (and gave it that name). The first half is a field guide, and is still one of the best available for the depth and breadth of what it covers and what I personally used to identify species. The second half is more like a travel guide (including information on hotels, restaurants, cars, and schools) and is completely out of date. Natalie has never wanted to revise it, so it just continues to be reprinted as is.

Once she felt she had exhausted the botanical observations she could make she had moved on to collecting marine animal bones from the beaches. Every year there are many beachings of whales, dolphins, porpoises, etc. along the coast of Tierra del Fuego and Natalie took to combing the beaches and carrying back specimens. Soon word got out that she was interested in these skeletons and people began to show up with more bones for her. One thing that frustrated Natalie being so far away from scientific institutions was that there was little that she could do with all the data she was collecting. So it was that she decided to found a scientific museum at Harberton. The museum is called Museo Acatushún de Aves y Mamíferos Marinos Australes (or Acatushún Museum of Southern Marine Birds and Mammals). In one large gallery they have a display space for the very best specimens that they use on educational tours given by students. The students, when not touring, work in the lab space behind the gallery where they take measurements and write up their observations. There’s also a little kitchen where they can eat together. They live in rooms above the museum. Outside there are some vats and a shack where the more recent specimens are left to mature so that the smell is kept away from the museum until all that is left are the bones.

There was only one problem with the plan to go interview Natalie Goodall: she was sick of being interviewed. When I had written to introduce myself and to tell her about my project, I received the following rather discouraging response:

Hello Colleen,

Thanks for being interested in me, but I don’t do interviews.  I have done several hundred (maybe a thousand, I never counted them) interviews in the last 40 years and I have HATED violently every one.  I now charge $US 400 for an interview (as a donation to our research) but would prefer to charge $1000.  I will be 75 in April and think I have the right to some privacy. I will be glad to talk to you, but not to be taped for a program.  If you want to do that, I will say, no, don’t come.

I have students who can explain our work much better than I can.  Maria Constanza Marchesi (Kata) is in charge of the students this year and she is good at interviews.  I am sorry to be so uncooperative, but I really detest being taped and I have NEVER listened to myself in a movie or interview; it is something I cannot bear to do.

Best wishes,

Natalie Goodall

So that was that, but of course I didn’t really want to give up the chance to go. It was true that in the tea room at Harberton I had seen four gigantic albums all filled with clippings from articles about Harberton and Natalie. I was sympathetic, but I still wanted to visit if I could. So I wrote and said I would like to meet her in any case and interview some of the students if they didn’t mind.

Seeing Ushuaia

April 12, 2010

Most people visit Ushuaia in the summer (our winter) because of the better weather and its role as an access point to Antarctica and Cape Horn. By the time we arrived it was already getting into fall, so fairly late in the tourist season. The nice thing about this is that you get to see the town when it is a little less tourist-centric and when people have let down their guard just a bit. I’ve been reading Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” (a large part of which is fiction, but with some fascinating truths mixed in) and I found it strange that a city that I liked so much he positively hated. As he put it, the only honest, cheerful smile he got in this apparently childless town where the blue-faced inhabitants glared at strangers unkindly was from a prostitute who’s situation obviously suited her. Nowadays there are lots of children in the streets and the people positively welcome outsiders because of the income they provide to so many people here. To attract people during the winter months they have built some ski resorts, both downhill and Nordic, but it seems that tourists are less inclined to travel to the end of the world for a ski vacation. According to Javier, in some sort of promotion they had last winter they got Ozzie Osborn and his clan to come and stay at one of the ski lodges. I pity the Ushuaians. Hilton or Marriot or some other giant hotel group is building a mega-hotel up on the hill (which will be the first hotel chain to have a presence here) but I guess some of the funding fell through so currently construction is stopped. I know that it represents progress, but part of me secretly hopes that it never gets built so that the town’s character doesn’t change too much and establishments like Javier’s B&B continue to prosper.

We started off in the morning by going to see the glacier. There are many glaciers around Ushuaia, but only one that they have made easily accessible to tourists by installing a chairlift. We paid at the bottom (they charge twice as much to foreigners and Argentineans) and hoped aboard the slowly moving, two-person lift. At the top there was a loop trail through the glacier that we set off on. Near the glacier we stopped for photos (even though some of our group discovered that in glacial conditions mascara quickly transforms into a raccoon-eye effect). My camera vehemently objected to being brought up a glacier and hasn’t forgiven me since. After a couple of shots, the screen started fading and then the batteries claimed to be dead. So I swapped them out, but the new batteries also claimed to have no charge. Sometimes the camera would go on for a few seconds and the lens would zoom in and out like crazy and freeze at an inappropriate location. It was not good news. My camera has continued to misbehave since, especially in the cold, but I really don’t want to give up on it. It is light, easy to use, takes decent photos, and has served me well for going on four years (it was my first camera). I am hoping that the problem is with the rechargeable batteries (maybe they froze or only have so many lives worth of recharging) rather than with the camera itself. Fingers crossed and I will investigate once I get to a bigger city.

After the photo shoot (and my camera dying) my friends were cold and ready to head back down. I really wanted to finish the loop trail though. So they said they would wait for me at the bottom of the chairlift and I headed off. Luckily I met up with two Basques, whose names I couldn’t pronounce but who were friendly enough. They were my hiking companions, for which I was very grateful because the trail wasn’t an easy one. It had snowed the night before (for this reason we couldn’t actually see the blue color of the glacier, only white) and the trail had disappeared into powder. We managed to make it up to where there was a spectacular view of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. Looking the other direction I saw my friends at the top of the chairlift and I waved but I don’t think they could see me. Going down the wind felt strong enough to push you over and it kept throwing snow into my eyes. We ended up far off course but made it back to the chairlift eventually. We parted with an “encantado” (It’s like something out of an old movie that people would actually say “enchanted” when meeting someone). I went down the lift watching helplessly as my friends who had gotten sick of waiting for me climbed in a cab and left.

Walking is as good a way as any to see a city and I made it back to the B&B before we had arranged to go on a penguin tour. I think we were all expecting to get on a boat, and were rather surprised when they loaded us on a bus instead. After an hour and a half of speeding along an ill-maintained road full of potholes we arrived at Estancia Harberton. Harberton was my first stop for visiting a scientific institute to do recordings, and if I had known this was where we were coming I could have brought my things and stayed on. However, since I’d already set up having someone pick me up the next day I decided not to worry about it and just enjoy the penguins for the time being. They were adorable (and plentiful, even though apparently some had already left and at their peak you can hardly step on the island because it is so full of nesting penguins). There were mostly magellenic penguins, though about 25 pairs of gentoo as well (which are very funny looking). The guide was knowledgeable and ended up with more penguin pictures than you could shake a stick at. We had a tea back at the estancia and since I was hungry I ate some cheese and crackers I had brought with me (bad idea). I got distracted photographing something and by the time I got on the bus all the seats were full except for the middle one in the far back. The road was enough to make you nauseous and add to that that people on either side of me decided to smoke on the bus ride back. I quickly repurposed the bag I had brought the cheese and crackers in and began quietly hurling into it. Even the people sitting next to me didn’t notice until we were getting off the bus and I was carrying the vomit-filled plastic bag. I had a very light dinner of vegetable soup that evening with a tonic water.

The next day I drove with the girls to the airport and we parted ways (they were off to finish their whirlwind tour of Argentina while I stuck around to get started with my project). I spent the day hiking around the Tierra del Fuego National Park. I discovered it was trickier than I had initially thought to find groups moving at the right pace that I could latch onto. I initially tried joining some young Argentineans, but realized the error of my ways when I noticed the types of shoes they were wearing and the equipment they were carrying. These people meant business, not some leisurely stroll. I knew it was time to get out of there when they started eying cliffs and using words like “crampons”. Not that I have anything against serious mountain climbers, I just know that its not something I personally have trained for and I do have a certain aversion to falling from high places. I eventually found an elderly couple from the Netherlands carrying walking sticks who were moving at about the right pace for me, and stuck with older Dutch people (a whole boatload had just come in from an Antarctica tour) for the rest of the day.