Saturday, February 21

Patagonia 6

Finally, after Rio Grande I arrived in Ushuaia, the southern-most settlement in Argentina, and which is described as the end of the world. It's nestled in a lush valley, made possible by the mountains which block the wind. Still, the temperature is very cold, even during a South American summer, and the people here rarely see anything higher than 15 degrees. Yet the winters are comparatively mild, averaging about ten degrees below zero. All of this is much more consistent than in northern countries, where temperatures can vary from 35 in the summer to -35 in the winter.

Despite the consistency in temperature, the weather itself changes very rapidly. Blue skies can turn to torrential rain in a matter of minutes. This makes planning outdoor activities a bit of a challenge, and it's always advisable to bring a warm coat and rain gear.

There are many activities here, and I tried to do as many as possible. One of the most memorable was an organized tour to a penguin colony, where we got to walk among several hundred birds. They were close enough to touch, and very curious. It's amazing to see birds with so little fear of humans. The tours are tightly controlled to avoid any abuse of the animals, and touching is officially forbidden. Still, some penguins walked right up to my feet. It was also amazing listening to them singing. They would break the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the rocks with high pitched cooing, which was unfortunately a bit hoarse.

The story of the aboriginal Yamana peoples here is amazing but tragic. They had quite possible the hardest lifestyle that I've heard of, having lived for thousands of years in the region wearing nothing but a layer of oil to help generate heat. The idea of always being naked, even in -15 degree weather with piercing winds, is hard to imagine. The logic was that since it rains so much here, it was more trouble to wear furs than it was worth, since they were usually wet. And during the winter, they were still constantly needing to dry off, as they navigated in small canoes. I can't even begin to comprehend being naked in a small boat in the middle of winter, being constantly splashed by waves coming up over the sides. It's not really surprising that at their peak, they numbered fewer than 3000. But when exposed to western diseases, almost all were dead in less than 100 years. Today, there is only one full-blooded Yamana left, and at 80 years old, she probably won't be around for much longer.

Raul, one of my hosts here, is a fascinating person. Born into extreme poverty, he never attended school, and didn't learn to read until he was 28. Today, at the age of 48, he's a history teacher in a public high school. It's amazing how far people can go if they have the proper motivation.


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