I think she was 20, 22, maybe. Israeli, and traveling alone. “It’s like going to Antarctica,” she said to me, somewhat hopefully, and I did not have the heart to disagree with her, nor did I want to take away from the fact that here she was, having what is nothing short of a grand adventure. Six months she had before returning to Israel , university, her family on a kibbutz near Haifa. She pushed her way out of the plane, as though her pack would be first on the carousel. “Ah, Israelis,” I thought, giving up any hope of forgetting the clichés.
Ushuaia’s setting is pretty, windblown and steep, water everywhere. The plane banks in over sand bars and scrubby leaning green-brown plant life. The road from the airport crests a low rise and looks right into the pier. An enormous cruise ship was docked; I gasped at the sight of it. “It’s bigger than the city!” I said, in my clunky Spanish, and the taxi driver agreed. I watched that same ship leave the next day, an enormous white building disappearing on the blue black water.
In spite of the mad numbers of tourists here, most of the people I’ve interacted with either don’t or won’t speak English. This has forced me to unbox my high school Spanish from the dusty attic of my brain to what seems like the perpetual amusement of those I have to talk to. My accent is, I think, not too embarrassing because the waiter, the clerk at the pharmacy, the taxi driver, the lovely woman at the bakery, they just keep going, in Spanish, as though I understand every single word. It is terrifying and hilarious – what am I agreeing to? “Manzana! Yo se esto! Apple!” I laughed and that lovely woman at the bakery, she really did look delighted, it was in her eyes. “I know that one!”
Ushuaia had a native population, the Yamana, you can imagine what happened to them post European contact. Then, this was a prison colony – the convicts logged the forest, built the town and the tiny railway. A brief flirtation with gold led to nothing; now this is the gateway to Antarctica. While there’s lots of big nature around, the town feels like a checklist destination – people who aren’t going to Antarctica come here to be at the most southern city in the world. It is easy to imagine that the city is divided into three demographics – those going to Antarctica, those wishing they were going to Antarctica, and the local population.
It feels a bit like any of those Alpine tourist towns – Banff, Jackson Hole, only not quite so wealthy. There is a lot of shopping. You can buy leather pants and sheepskin booties and major North American outdoor brand clothing, all for premium prices. There are several chocolate shops and many places to get grilled meat – you can look in the window at an entire flayed carcass, pork or lamb, pinned into a rack over a wood fire. I spotted three Irish pubs, half a dozen places serving king crab, a dozen or more hostels. A clot of backpackers sat on the steps at the post office, every cash machine had someone in front of it.
The afternoon I arrived I walked until I found a welcoming looking café. I sat at the bar, ordered a massive salad, and watched the waiters run back and forth. The cashier smiled at me, my waiter offered to take my picture. I ate, then walked some more, past construction sites and graffiti and gardens full of lupines and roses. The sidewalks are broken and unpredictable; I suspect an unreported tourist epidemic of broken ankles. I bought a few snacks at the supermarket, circling two, three, four times to find the bottled water. Back in my room at my somewhat Spartan hotel, I watched the sun set the sky on fire. It did not get fully dark until after ten o’clock.