What’s a Malvina you ask? Better known outside of Argentina as the Falkland Islands, the Malvinas are a flash point in Argentinian politics. I won’t weigh in on who actually owns the Malvinas/Falklands, but they are claimed by both Argentina and the United Kingdom, despite the fact they were discovered by the Dutch. The residents have UK passports and are as culturally British as they have been for the past hundred years. The unfortunate location of the archipelago is the sticking point, they are absolutely nowhere near the British Isles and are geographically a stones throw from Patagonia. They are a vestigial remnant of the British Empire’s designs on the South Atlantic at a time when they competed with other european powers to explore and appropriate the reaches of Antarctica.
It makes for good Argentine politics to remind Argentinians of the Falkland Islands war of 30 years ago – like the war itself it makes for an easy patriotic diversion from the problems of the day. We Americans shouldn’t get too sanctimonious about this, we’ve had our share of scrapes for similar reasons.
Having been eight at the time of the Falklands war, I was terrified. It was 1982 and the first war of my lifetime. I was sure it would spill over into Seattle somehow though I had absolutely no idea about the politics or even just how far away the whole conflict was. It turns out it was all the way down, just past the ends of the earth.
‘Ushuaia is the Capital of the Malvinas’ reads a sign entering town. Another one reads, ‘Welcome to the End of the World’. A capital in exile at bottom of the earth.
What is for sure is that Ushuaia holds a special place in the imagination of all determined travelers. It holds the uncontested titles of: the southernmost city in the Americas, the southernmost city in the world, the closest city to Antarctica and to Cape Horn. And it is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, a special place in the imagination of most of us who grew up thinking about the ultimate ends of the earth and how to get there.
Ferdinand Magellan named the islands Tierra del Fuego. It probably wasn’t because there were any volcanos or that it burns constantly for no reason. What he was probably seeing was the fires of the Yámana Indians who at the time were living in relative isolation at the end of the world and had been for only about six thousand years.
The Yámana are interesting for many reasons, but one of their most amazing accomplishments, in my mind, is that they were the end result of generations of travelers who’d left Africa thousands of years before and had journeyed farther than any of the other migrating peoples. They’d gone as far as humans could possibly go and I’m not sure they’ve received proper credit for this accomplishment. Not that Magellan or the Yámana could have been aware of this feat.
During our days in and around Ushuaia, first before then after our trip to Antarctica, the weather conditions varied wildly. In turns sunny and hot, windy and cold, pouring rain, sleet and snow. It was hard not to think of the Yámana here, naked and without permanent shelter, grappling with these conditions. Given that we were visiting at the height of summer, it is hard to imagine dealing with winter. A person would want to light a few fires.
The city of Ushuaia is geared completely towards tourism. Having started as an Anglican mission to convert the naked heathens, then as an infamously harsh penal colony, the city has now embraced its position as capital of an extremely remote piece of land and starting point for Antarctic adventure. Unfortunately that means that most of the area’s visitors are interested in one thing about this fascinating part of the world: Penguins.
Despite the fact that the Yámana and Patagonian Indians had a fantastic artistic aesthetic, gorgeous long masks painted on tree bark, the souvenir shops sell almost exclusively penguin oriented gifts.
Marble penguins. Jade Penguins. Ceramic penguins, plush penguins and penguin magnets.
There is even a person in an ominous looking penguin costume stalking the streets, hiring out photo opportunities with an equally malevolent looking beaver. Neither costume seems to have ever been washed, and they both have the color, texture and disposition of the town’s many stray dogs.
We were so wrapped up in getting to Ushuaia and getting on board the Ocean Diamond to see some penguins of our own, that when we arrived back in town we realized we’d failed to plan an exit strategy.
I’d been suffering through a cold for most of Antarctica and as we stumbled off of the boat and into a rain squall, Magda started sniffling as well. It was our triumphant return to terra firma and we were exhausted. There was no fanfare to welcome the intrepid explorers; our bags had been expelled from the ship into the rain and were soaking wet. Soon we were as well, trudging our way away from the docks to a quiet hostel at the edge of town. Once there we searched for a way out of Tierra del Fuego and found that all options were booked for several days. We also started to realize just how far away Buenos Aires is from South America’s tip. Yes it had taken a long time to get there from Santiago, but somehow it seemed Buenos Aires was just up the coast. Of course it is, in the same way Maine is just up the coast from Florida. We became a little downbeat and Magda’s cold got worse.
Plan B was to make the most of our time in Tierra Del Fuego so we planned a camping trip to the nearby National Park. As the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, we considered staying at the backpackers lodge in the park. As Magda’s cold got worse we considered not going at all – meaning our days stranded in Ushuaia would be a bust. Our room was in a peaked dormer in the attic of our hostel. We could hear the wind and rain pounding against the correlated metal roof all night.
The next day we opted for a day of recovery. We worked on the blog while the wind continued to howl outside. We caught up on our emails, bought tickets for a flight out of town, called our parents via Skype and slept.
The next two days were gorgeous and sunny. We visited Tierra del Fuego National park (beautiful), Magda got bit by a dog while angling for the perfect photo (scary – but it was just a scratch) and finally found the perfect souvenir.
A little A-frame house near the docks half buried in wildflowers had a Yámana mask in the window. A sign said open but it looked very closed. We knocked on the door someone looked out of the window above us. A little round woman opened the door and invited us into a room full of her work. Her walls were covered with Yámana masks of all kinds. Handmade an expertly painted, this is the kind of souvenir we’d been craving. We picked a little mask we could afford and carry with us and turned it over. The woman’s name was inside.
The only person selling crafts in the Capital of the Malvinas celebrating the rich history of its native people was not a Yámana Indian, an Argentinian or a British subject. She was Polish.