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December 08, 2004

El Fin del Mundo

My last night in Punta Arenas, and in Chile, turned out to be a great one. In the afternoon, while waiting out a rainstorm under an overhang, I met Earl, who works for NASA. He's down here with some other people doing what I think they call "remote sensing," where they fly over Antarctic glaciers and determine their distance using lasers--pretty cool. They're working with the Chilean navy on the project, because they have planes that can fly low over the glaciers and can go all the way to Antarctica and back without refueling. It's all in the name of assessing climate changes and global warming. So anyway, Earl invited me to join the crew that night for drinks at their favorite haunt in Punta Arenas. I was especially enticed by the local concoctions he described that I just had to try for myself before leaving the country.

The first drink he'd mentioned was a fanschop, which is orange fanta and beer (which they call schop here for some reason). It was okay--tasted a little bit like an orange dreamsicle or even cream soda, and a little bit just like, um, fanta and schop. The other drink was called a jote, made of (cheap) red wine and coca cola. Again, it pretty much tasted like the sum of its ingredients. I'm glad I tried them, but I also decided that all those things are just fine on their own (except for coke, which I avoid even here), and there's no need to mix them.

But it was fun to hang out with Earl, John, and Jim, from NASA, and also Andrew from England, who I met at an internet cafe and who makes tents for Antarctic expeditions. It was an interesting meeting of the minds. Earl even gave me and Andrew NASA patches, so now we're super-cool, and Andrew's hoping to get some data from them that will help with his product development. After several drinks, we headed out, and as we passed the main square, someone suggested we sneak in to the center, blocked off by construction fences, to kiss Magellan's toe--if you kiss the toe of the Magellan statue, you're supposed to return to PA. So Earl, John, and I were off, climbing over, under, or around several different fences and some tape with "peligro" (danger) on it, and heading for the statue. But Magellan's way up high on this pedestal, so we ended up just kissing the toes of the Indians at his feet instead! Who knows what that means for our future travels. Hmmm.

Now I'm in Ushuaia, Argentina, The Southernmost City in the World. It's all about marketing, really, as the island just south of here, Isla Navarino, is owned by Chile and has two towns on it, Puerto Williams and Puerto Toro. My Chile guidebook describes them, respectively, as the "southernmost permanently inhabited town" and "southernmost permanently inhabited settlement" on earth, so there's some small distinction I suppose. The guy who led my Fuerte Bulnes tour in Punta Arenas opined that Argentina's tourism board is just better, and does a better job of touting these things and giving them memorable names, like El Fin del Mundo, to increase tourism. All over Ushuaia are things about Fin del Mundo--it's a hard sell, and people really buy into it I think. It's hard to get to the two towns in Chile (unless you fly from Punta Arenas), especially since Argentina has so far refused to set up a ferry service between Ushuaia and there.

But Ushuaia is indeed a pretty place, surrounded by mountains on a few sides and on the south by a bay that lets out into the Beagle Channel, named for Darwin's boat. Yesterday, I took a sailboat tour to several islands in the channel, although there wasn't enough wind to actually use the sails! But there were only six of us, and the guide walked us around one of the islands and explained the plants, and some of the practices of the Yamana indians who used to live here. We saw rock cormorants up really close, then went to another island to see king cormorants and sea lions. We were able to get really close to the island, and really close to the animals, almost too close--I was enjoying watching them loll around, looking almost like they were posing for us, when suddenly a bright yellow stream started gushing from one of them, as he/she looked on nonchalantly. But I couldn't turn my head away, and it went on, and on, and on. Those sea lions must have some big bladders! We also saw some South American terns, which have bright orange beaks and feet and have really cool-shaped wings, very aerodynamic.

It was a nice trip, and it was even better because I met someone to hang out with--it was getting a bit lonely in Ushuaia! I had lunch with Laurence, from Switzerland, and then met up with him and his friend from Germany for dinner, too. Today is the Day of the Immaculate Conception, and a national holiday here (and in lots of other Catholic countries, apparently). Last night, I assume in conjunction with today's historic event, there was a big festival here, and Laurence and Matthias and I went to check it out. There were tons of people on top of a hill, with a stage where local acts were performing. For all of these people, there was one drinks stand and one food stand, and the line was insane--we all commented on how that would never work at home! They also had a huge tree of lights set up, ready for its first lighting, and a living nativity, where they acted out the immaculate conception and the rest of the Christmas story. It was similar to those many of us participated in as kids, probably, except that they brought in the Angel Gabriel high over the crowd suspended from a crane, while they played an Enya song! Definitely the highlight for us.

We left a little early and headed down the hill for a drink, and then I went back outside when I heard the fireworks start around 11 pm when it was finally almost dark. Yes, fireworks! I love a good fireworks show, and these were actually pretty decent, and went on for a good half hour, and then they lit the big tree at the end. It was cool to be here for a local event, and also to get a little sense of Christmas so far from home!

Today I went hiking in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, which was pretty cool. I took a coastal trail along the Beagle Channel and I saw lots of geese, ducks, and other birds, as well as some hares. The flora here is interesting, and includes some ferns, orchids, dandelions(!), berry-bearing bushes, several types of beech tree, and lots of lichen or moss hanging from almost everything.

Not sure what I'm doing tomorrow during the day, but at night I fly to Buenos Aires, and I'm really looking forward to exploring the city. It's been a little lonely down here, probably in part because I'm staying in a real hotel--with my own bathroom and everything! It's definitely stretching my frugal budget, but after 5 weeks of shared bathrooms I decided it was time. I'm enjoying taking long showers and getting to leave my toiletries in the bathroom, but mostly I'm finding it just allows way too much time for primping considering the meager selection of products currently at my disposal!

Posted by Amy on December 8, 2004 05:13 PM
Category: Patagonia

I love the image of you shooting the shit and drinking orange beer with a bunch of astronauts at the End of the World. Only when traveling!

Posted by: Mia on December 10, 2004 11:51 AM
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