Friday 12 March 2010

It rains by night at the end of the world

Ushuaia usurps the title of "the world's southernmost city", sometimes dramatized as "the city at the end of the world". These slogans attracts countless crowds of tourists, hordes of them filling the local streets. For them shop displays offer goods such as North Face waterproof breathing trousers; supercomfy, also waterproof, Merrell hiking shoes; Speedo swim-suits; snowboards whose brands I don't know at all; penguins attached to pens and key-chains, hewn in wood or stuffed with foam; charming, ethereal dresses that in this climate only an Irish woman would dare wear out to the pub - in a word, everything a tourist needs. In a town of forty thousand, there are two Irish pubs, two airline offices, a few banks, several restaurants and dozens of places offering lodgings to tired travelers. Everything is expensive, more expensive than in Chile, too expensive, though - as it turns out - not everyone shares my opinion: I find a blog where an enthusiastic woman raves that goods in Ushuaia are so much cheaper than those available on-board the cruise ships. There are lots of ships in Ushuaia's harbour: alongside the fishing boats, there are container ships, tugboats, warships, cruise liners. Ushuaia is the launch point for all cruises aiming to set foot on the Antarctic.

Though Ushuaia is not really "the city at the end of the world" (the title seems to belong to Chilean Puerto Williams), it is "the southernmost city" that can be reached by road. The town is situated some 3040 kilometers from the country's capital, Buenos Aires: to cover this distance, one has to catch a bus at 5 am from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos (one reaches Gallegos in stages: leaving Argentina, entering Chile, crossing the rough waters of the Strait of Magellan by ferry, leaving Chile, entering Argentina again). "Those four stamps in my passport make me feel very appreciative of the open borders in the EU", I think just before reaching Rio Gallegos at 5 p.m., where you have to change buses. The one to Buenos leaves at 8 p.m., the ride lasting another 38 hours. To travel such a vast distance in only 50 hours would be impossible in Poland. In Argentina, looking out the window of your bus, you will begin to understand how they do it: the road passes through vast stretches of land that seem to have no inhabitants or distractions other than cows and sheep.

Except for the 100km stretch between Ushuaia and little Tolhuin.

Lakes, broken trees, forests, mountain passes, waterfalls, peaks covered with snow even in summer, storms on one side of the valley, while the sun shines on the other: this stretch of road is at least as beautiful as the route from Mendoza to Vallaparaiso. On the way South, before reaching Ushuaia, you begin to anticipate something amazing. And you aren't disappointed. Despite all the tourists, the city is charming. As we stand by the Beagle Channel, gazing at boats entering the little harbour, overhead some student pilot is practicing. The tiny plane takes off from the airport, climbing briefly into the sky only to turn back and approach for landing. Seagulls welcome the newcomer to the skies with noisy croaks. The town stretches out behind us, with its cars, colourful shops, a yellow church, the smells of barbecue and wine. It climbs upward, hikes the hills, each street higher than the next. And then suddenly, the town disappears, the rest of the hillside densely covered with green trees. But even they fail reach the peaks: Martial, Olivia, Cinco Hermanos proudly dominate the horizon.

We spend three days in Ushuaia, wandering around, hiking in the Tierra del Fuego Park, playing pool and opting for the cheapest mode of dining: cooking in the kitchen of our hostel. The summer is just coming to an end: so I wear "only" a sweater, a scarf, a hat and gloves. I look with astonishment at local schoolgirls walking around town in their uniforms: short skirts and no tights. In the evenings rain patters on the window panes, the wooden roof of our room seems about to give way to the water, everything creaks, the wind rages outside, while inside we drink wine with our spaghetti. Even though it rains by night, torrentially, in the mornings there remain no signs. Except for the snow on the peaks that surround Ushuaia.

For while the downpours revel in Ushuaia town, in the mountains the clouds release only bright white down. Beautiful.

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