“In politics I am growing indifferent – I would like it, if I could now return to my planting and books at home.”
– Ulysses S. Grant, former president of the U.S.A.
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego – I cannot decide if the right word is incurious, indifferent, or perhaps even disinterested. But it is a word somewhere in that category that describes this place for me. Not my feelings about it, though I could, perhaps develop something quite similar – it’s more the general, pervasive attitude I’ve found. Folks are friendly enough, in the “hi, how ya doin’?” sort of way, but beyond that, there’s a blankness, perhaps even a bleakness… resigned… maybe that’s a good word, I even used it yesterday in expressing how I felt about the whole tourism thing here. It shows up in the tour guides, who, for the most part, could be following as well as leading, they’re simply accompanying… our young guide on yesterday’s visit to the pinguinera, which I’ll get to shortly, announced to us as we were getting on the bus to go back, “we’re just going to drive back via the same route, so I won’t be saying anything about it.” The guy sitting next to me grumbled, “She didn’t say anything on the way out, what’s the difference?” That wasn’t completely fair, she did say things like, “This is our first stop, you have five minutes to take pictures.” And a few times, she did actually manage a few sentences about somewhere that we were. It was the same the day before on the sailing trip – outside of the time on Isla H, we may as well have not existed for our guide. Waiters too – they’re just all so over it all that they go through the motions. The chefs and their food. The museums and their blank faced staff. The occasional person who’s actually engaged in what they’re doing here stands out like the proverbial diamond in a coal bin.
So, that all said – on to yesterday’s adventures… A van trip… oooh, my favorite, 18 of us, plus guide and driver, crammed into a van for about 3 hours out of a 6 hour tour. Remember that guy who grumbled above? He didn’t shut up the entire trip. He was like, you know, like on a like vacation from like California, you know, like and it was like exciting and like he’d read, you know, like, everything, like you know, about the area, and, like, you know, he was like, gonna like share it, like with everyone, you know. Again, I’m just going to pick out a few photos and save the rest for a Flickr album to come next week. The road trip, on the only road that leads out of Ushuaia (and you have to pass through a police checkpoint going either way, I don’t quite get what that is for – too many Chilean or Antarctic immigrants or people escaping to Chile or the South Pole? A bit of a drive up Route 3, which is the last stretch of the Pan-American Highway, then a turn-off onto a rural highway and our first stop, to see a beaver dam. Yup, there it is, a beaver dam. Lots of them around. Apparently, in the 1940s, someone got the bright idea to bring 50 beavers down from Canada and stick them in an area to start a beaver fur industry. Well, beavers being what they are, they got out of the penned up region, and spread around like wildfire – there are now more than 100,000 of them, and they’ve destroyed whole swathes of forest. So, food, fur… whatever… that seems to be the general goal around here.
Our second stop, Bahia Brown, or Brown Bay, presumeably named after someone (who I’m sure I could look up should I not be resigned about being a tourist) – beautiful, lots of mussels apparently, though a red tide at the moment, so no eating them – and, away in the distance, which you can’t really see, Port Williams in Chile, the true southernmost outpost of civilization, though as I mentioned yesterday, at fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, the Ushuaians don’t consider it a city. Then again, that could be a whole Argentina vs. Chile thing.
While these windswept “flag trees” are pretty much everywhere, this one is the famous one, and gets the picture postcard nod, because of its size, tangled-ness, and being over 100 years old.
On to the pinguinera (via pontoon boat from Estancia Harberton), and an hour spent meandering amongst the penguins. Very cool. Very cool indeed.
Did I mention it was very cool?
Then, back via the same pontoon boat to Estancia Harberton, one of the earliest European settlements on the island. We spent about an hour wandering the farm, having a coffee or tea. I was disappointed that their gift shop was out of their book of local rhubarb recipes – the one thing I would have been interested in buying! Then back via van an hour and a half to Ushuaia.
I decided my system needed a break from all that rich food I’ve been ingesting, so an all you can eat salad bar at Arco Iris, corner of San Martín and Antartida Argentina – it’s actually an all you can eat Chinese buffet, for a mere 43 pesos, which isn’t bad – I kept it light, I certainly didn’t “all I can eat”, but this plate did me just fine.
I decided to spend a little time exploring the backstreets of Ushuaia, away from the touristy strip. It’s still a bit touristy, with some of the cheaper hostels and such perched up on the hill, but it also seems to be where more of the locals live. I happened by the neighborhood fire station, where they had on display an antique engine.
And stumbled across Parque Yatana, a little 6 acre nature preserve that was actually a delight to visit. The woman staffing the little office at the entrance was charming, clearly passionate about the preserve, and took the time to explain how it came to exist where it is, introduced me to the artist (daughter of the woman who started the preserve) who now owns the land.
The artist, Monica Alvarado, has “installations” scattered here and there amongst the trees, and also they hold workshops for local kids who help decorate with bits of yarn and such – the name of the park, Yatana, comes from the Yámana word for weaving.
For dinner I’d arranged an evening at Kaupé, Roca 470, touted as one of the best restaurants in all of Argentina. It’s perched way up on a hill, looking out over the city and bay – a beautiful view. The room is handsome, the staff as well. I’d been warned that “they have a bit of attitude” by various folk, including writeups on the internet. I have to admit, I didn’t find that – they were, however, like many other restaurant staff I’ve found here, simply not all that interested in what they were doing. Their service was correct and attentive, but somehow a bit perfunctory. The chef would go into the kitchen to cook each dish (there weren’t many people dining there), and then in-between spent time sitting at a computer behind the bar. The woman who was the hostess wandered back and forth between staring at the reservation book (those four reservations for the evening never changed, amazingly) and looking at the couple of us dining there, occasionally asking if things were good. There was a lot of “todo bien?” going on – every time someone passed by the table they asked.
And, things weren’t todo bien. They were fine. There was nothing really wrong with the food. It just wasn’t that special. This king crab and spinach “chowder” was tasty, rich, pretty much creamed spinach with crabmeat thrown in. And that’s about it. Simple, moderately elegant, and not anything to write home about (even if that’s what I’m doing). And, it cost 84 pesos. Oh, and I found four bits of crab shell over the course of eating it – more indifference on the part of the kitchen staff in preparing it.
The main course, a simple fillet of Chilean sea bass once again, this time in a butter, lemon and sage sauce, with a trio of potato slices, was outrageously priced, in comparison to the other places I’ve eaten now, at 84 pesos – only outrageous because it was just this one small fillet. And, it was slightly overcooked – not badly mind you, but just enough to have that sort of squeaky, slightly chewy feel to it that says someone left it in the pan a little too long. Add to that a bottle of Rutini Gewurztraminer priced at 107 pesos, and this was an expensive evening. But I knew that going in, right? I just expected a whole lot more from the kitchen.