Argentina begins, wine is cheaper than water

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, April 20, 2007

Ushuaia, our first taste of Argentina, is a really memorable place for us. Even just getting there seems an adventure.

Firstly, the road there from Puerto Natalies is long - hundreds of kilometres, and generally flat and desolate. Wim and Ria our new Dutch friends (avid bird-watchers - they actually met at a bird-watching course in Groningen) are in the bus, with frequent excited sightings of rheas (large ungainly emu-like birds), flamingos, and plump black and white geese, very clumsy on land (they look like a walking, squawking Christmas dinner), but graceful on the wing.

Then there's the Magellan Straits. Until this point, always just a small blue bit on the map, somewhere I've heard about in primary school when we studied famous explorers. It definitely lives up to my expectations. The day is sunny, bitterly cold, and the wind blowing a gale, and the Straits are a seething choppy mass of water with a vicious looking current. On the deck of the ferry it's difficult to stand up because of the wind and the violent rocking. We are lucky enough to spot a small pod of black and white dolphins. They look smooth, streamlined, and so, so black and white, like little cartoon creatures. The experience is exhilarating - this is the Patagonia we're expecting!

The four of us arrive in Ushuaia early evening, and decide to have a beer (in an Irish pub of all places) before finding accommodation. Immediately you can sense that the Argentinian nature is more outgoing than Chile, even in this far-flung place. Carlito, a young guy at the bar says he knows a family. About half an hour later we're firmly entrenched in a large, comfortable multi-storey home, gas-heated to the maximum, and run as a B&B by Fabio (no relation to the Italian model), Pamela, their two kids, with an assortment of friends passing freely in and out of the house.

I'm exposed to the male on male Argentinian kiss for the first time, a perfunctory but affectionate air kiss to the side of a guy's face to say hello or goodbye. I can get used to this, it's just that the stubble on stubble action can be a bit disconcerting.

Over the next 5 days we're treated to grand Argentine hospitality with generous breakfasts of fresh media-lunas (croissants), a delicious roast lamb (Fabio is a professional chef), fresh seafood, vino tinto from the Mendoza region, and great Argentinian music (to which I also contribute a few performances on guitar!) We also meet Victor, a friend of the family, who speaks English with a very strong accent that sounds almost French. He is particularly funny when he wants to get someones attention, pointing and exclaiming "yeeeeeewwww". He also gives Wim the nickname of "Sumo" because he is always going back for seconds (unlike myself).

In Ushuaia we go on a cruise of the Beagle Channel, and walk in the Tierra del Fuego National Park (stunning because the leaves are changing for autumn). One night we are fortunate enough to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (for free) performing at the local Rugby Club for the annual Ushuaia Music Festival.

When Magellan first explored Tierra del Fuego he named it so because of the smoke he saw (from indigenous fires) along the coast. Unfortunately today the groups of indigenous people that inhabited this land are all but extinct. There is only 1 Yamana woman alive and she is in her 80's. Imagine being the last of a tribe. They were an amazing people to survive in this bitterly cold region without wearing clothes. Instead, they smeared themselves with seal fat which insulated them from the cold and kept water from their skin.

When missionaries arrived and forced them to wear clothes it contributed to their demise - the clothes once wet, did not dry easily leading to colds and flu. The Yamana did not have any knowledge of how to keep clean wearing clothes, which had the potential to harbour germs. And, like other groups first encountering Europeans, they had very little resistance to western illnesses.

An interesting observation about the Yamana was there walking style, a little pigeon-toed, flat-footed, knees slightly bent, and inclined forward at the hips. I do my best to emulate the Yamana walking style and find it strangely addictive. They also had loose wrinkled skin around their knees because they spent much time crouching, the warmest position on the ground.

It's worth mentioning the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) also. There is a huge monument to the war facing the Beagle Channel and we're in Ushuaia, just after the remembrance day. For some it was the machinations of a military government trying to engender support and the only positive is that it led to the downfall of that government. For others it seems to be an intrinsic part of their national identity. These people also feel that Chile co-operated with the UK by providing military bases and intelligence. There is no love lost between the Argentinians and Chileans. Many feel that the UK was very close to losing the war and without this help the outcome might have been different.

From our view point, growing up in the '80s and exposed to UK influenced media, we only got the victor's story. It's true to say that geographically, the islands lie very close to Argentina, but one can't help thinking that it's th character of the people and where they feel their roots are that's important. Apparently the Falklands is like a very cold, flat little England, populated with families that send their kids off to England for secondary schooling. My guess is that they identify with England much more than Argentina, but you'd have to ask them to be sure.

Our timing in Ushuaia is immaculate with 5 days of blue skies, pink sunsets and zero wind. On the day we fly out the clouds roll over and the snow begins to fall. We've had such a fantastic time with Fabio, Pamela and Victor, but its now time to reverse the ratio of wine to water.
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