The Dublin Irish Pub in Ushuaia is booked solid for a Saturday night, so the barkeep seats us next to “mi amigo,” takes our order of pizza and writes “dos gringos” on the tab.
“Es verdad,” he adds as I glance over his shoulder.
With the pizza, we get a complimentary serving of popcorn. So, although jet lagged in Argentina, I have my favorite comfort foods in a bar fashioned after my mother’s homeland in the southern-most city on Earth about to get on a Russian research vessel for an excursion run by a Canadian company among which there will be a significant contingent of students from Hong Kong.
But don’t tell Chile, because they’ll tell you the southern-most city is across the Beagle Channel at Puerto Williams. The Argentines scoff that Puerto Williams is merely a “town” and not deserving of respect. In actuality, it is primarily a naval base.
Ushuaia, located firmly and quite beautifully in Tierra del Fuego, is a border town. As the primary point of embarkation for Antarctica in this hemisphere, it is at that frontier where reality and dreams overlap. To scrabble along its sometimes rough or nonexistent sidewalks is to walk through a mining town of sorts. Here, they mine the unimaginable.
Many languages and peoples pass along San Martin, the main shopping artery, and all are trying to get somewhere. The ususal outfitters are here to provide the proper kit for your excursion. It may be to Patagonia, Chile, Tierra del Fuego National Park or Antarctica. To steam south out of the Beagle Channel is to embrace unthinkable landscapes and possibilities. The clarity of the air dares your imagination to see further.
As Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote – “more than once in my short life I have been struck by the value of the man who is blind to what appears to be a common sense certainty: he achieves the impossible.”
Thousands of years ago, Antarctica was hypothesized to exist by the Greeks primarily for aesthetic reasons. In order to balance out the Earth, there must be “…a landmass in the south, acting as a counterpoise to known northern continents” (Mapping Antarctica, A Five Hundred Year Record of Discovery).
In fact, the name “Antarctica” comes from the Greek philosophers who knew the Earth to be spherical and used their math chops to reckon that there would be at least one day every year where the sun never set at 66° latitude and above.
Project this latitude to the celestial sphere and you intersect the constellation Arkikos – the great bear. Which is serendipitous, because there are polar bears in the Arctic but not in the ant-Arkticus (from whence Antarctica). Imagine the philosophers’ embarrassment had it been the other way around.
James Cook famously circumnavigated Antarctica in 1772-1774, and would have discovered the continent had he not turned north on January 30, 1774 to resupply his ship in Tahiti. Like the Greeks, he hypothesized the existence of land, because from where else did all these icebergs come? He described the area as “… a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie forever buried under everlasting snow and ice.” It fell to the Russian, Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, to actually sight the continent in 1820. Some two weeks later, Edward Bransfield and William Smith, had a clear sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula. There are some who feel that Bellingshausen merely sighted ice, but from the coordinates listed in his meticulous log book it is possible to sight the continent…whatever. The game was on.
Ushuaia itself is not without its gems. But like any mining town, they must be sought out. The Maritime Museum is worth a visit. The site is part art gallery and part historical artefact. The prison for this region was transferred to Ushuaia in 1902 for “humanitarian” reasons, and construction was completed by the prisoners themselves in 1920. One wing remains extant, and it is clear that this was a hard life. Less clear as to what a “humanitarian” reason might be.
Another gem is the Yamana Museum – small but informative. These unfortunate people, like so many, did not survive their encounter with the Western World. They are a reminder that well-meaning intentions can have disastrous and unforseen consequences – whether Tierra Del Fuego, Afghanistan or planet Earth.
There is perspective you gain at the southern tip of the world when you leave behind the connectivity, noise and chaos of modern life, as well as insight into the future of the planet, which I hope to make clearer as this travelogue continues…
See Part I, The Antarctic Peninsula
Next up Part III, The Drake Passage