Friday, June 12, 2009

Ushuaia, end of Jan. 2008

Ushuaia is a very nice city: built on the slopes of beautiful snow-peaked mountains (snow-peaked in summer, snow-filled in winter) that descend into the Beagle Channel, with wooden, colourful, steep-roofed houses, The whole city sits on the land diagonally, with the main streets running straight across the slope and the connecting streets going up (or down… a glass half full/empty thing, I guess) in very steep angles. But a tourist that comes to Ushuaia, sleeps in a hostel (or a hotel… gotta remember that not everybody travels the way I do) in the city center and doesn’t wander off of the main drag, will barely notice the 30+ degree angles the connecting streets take from it.
It would be almost part of the scenery, those diagonal streets and alleys and the “streets” that are actually staircases. I guess it is something that you have to know by walking and not by seeing, let your muscles feel it.
The angle is not the only difference: the main street is filled with shiny shops, bright coloured-fleece (that have probably barely seen any mud, wind or snow) clad tourists, expensive (in Argentinean terms) bars and restaurants… To my eyes, it was a pretty commercialised and fake street. A (strenuous) climb of three cross streets will uncover a whole different face of the town: houses built of wood and tin scraps, aggressive, untied dogs, broken windows and some (not many) hostile looks from the residents. Of course this isn’t the “reality” either (Side note: reading this almost a year and a half after I wrote it, I conjure mental pictures of Ushuaia and am amused at how that first contact surprised and almost scared me, even though Ushuaia is probably much better off and much less “scary” than plenty of places I’ve been in. But it makes sense- you can attribute it to being the first place I visited in Latin America outside of the more central and touristic areas of Buenos Aires)(Second side note: Nabokov wrote somewhere that you should always place the world “reality” in between quotes, a policy I subscribe to). I’m sure almost all touristic cities have this duality ingrained in them. [What I originally wrote at this point was: isn’t that the whole idea of tourism? Come for a few days, enjoy the pretty things, ignore the ugly, and leave, not forgetting to mark to yourself (and on your “where I’ve been” map on facebook, of course) that you “know” another place in the world. In retrospect, that sentence seems too harsh, although somewhat true. I was in the midst of my traveler/tourist dilemma at that point (something I’ll post some thoughts on soon enough), and this particular thought definitely came from me trying to distance myself from the “tourists”.]

During the trip I’ve had plenty of chances to witness how much of your opinions on a place are shaped by tiny events that have nothing to do with the place itself. There are many cities of 100,000+ residents that will be entwined in my memory to one person I met (the man who called me over and gave me oranges while hitchhiking in Tamazunchale, the restaurant owner I talked to for 4 hours in Veracruz, the ‘empanada guy’ in El Chalten, etc.), many great places I didn’t enjoy because of my mood or my company (and vice-versa), many impressions that are only mine, untransferable and probably unexplainable. Like everything else in life, and probably more so than other things, traveling is a reflection on your inner world (while also being a great influence on it, for me at least).
Heh. I’ve inadvertently explained the name I chose for this blog…

Another thing about Ushuaia that I want to write about is how little traveling experience I had at this point. I’ve often looked back on my time there and scoff at my ignorance and how I “wasted” my time there. First of all, I booked a bed in a hostel there and in the next city, Puerto Natales, in advance, something I would never do again. Flexibility is one of the most important things to me while backpacking. From what others had told me, I had decided in advance to not make many plans (my plan at this point was: Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, and then head north) and to travel without a travel book, both decisions that turned out really well for me. Second, and somewhat related, I didn’t know where to look for info, and hadn’t developed the intuition about who to ask for tips yet (a lot of my tips I got from my dad, who had been there several years before. He doesn’t do trekking and, well, has a different style and taste than me). So I missed out on a couple of treks that are on my list of regrets (now called “things I left in South America”, but I should rename it “things I’ll do next time”. Positive thinking has never hurt anyone. Or has it…?). And third, I spent way too much money there. Which still wasn’t a lot. But here’s my first rule for saving money while backpacking: buy your beer in the supermarket, and drink it in the hostel (or in the park… or seating in the street). It costs less and is usually more fun.
One thing I did in Ushuaia and turned out great was buying a used tent from a couple of girls that had just brought it from Pucon, at the northern edge of Patagonia. (side note: a lot of people do that stretch, Pucon-Ushuaia or Ushuaia-Pucon, and that stretch only, with a tent, so you can always find used ones from backpackers in either city. I love to think of that: nomadic tents, doing that same trip, back and forth, over and over again, each time in different hands. Romantic, eh?) I would use that tent a LOT in the next 2.5 months, and it probably saved me at least 20 times what I paid for it.
At this point in time, as I said, I was still pretty new and naïve, and was planning on getting to Bolivia and Peru in the four months I had. So I left Ushuaia too soon, after only 4 days, and took what at that point seemed like a crazy bus ride (about 20 hours, 3 different buses, and a ferry across the Magellan Straits in the middle of it) to Puerto Natales.


  1. I don't think your writing is clotted, parenthetical, and discursive, the way you suggested it might be in your first post.

    Do you think in Spanish, Enghlish, Hebrew? Clearly, this is written by someone who has no trouble finding his way around either South America or a paragraph!

    What other languages have you got?

  2. I can agree with it not being clotted (to me, clotted sounds worse than convoluted, the word I'm pretty sure I used. I like complication), but not parenthetical? Really? There isn't a paragraph without parenthesis, and most have more than one set. It's not a bad thing, in my eyes. But it is the way I write. I wasn't trying to diss myself, just describe the way I see my own writing. The words I used weren't negative per se, in my opinion. Anyway, your opinion interests me a lot, as a writing professor (and as my only commenter), so any thought will always be welcome.
    As for the languages question- well, those three iz all I got, for now. But your question is a good one. I have a half thought-out, half-written piece about that- the strangeness of multilenguality (definitely not a word, but it sounds better than the spellchecker's multilingualism). A preview, to somewhat answer your question: I obviously think and speak best of all in Hebrew, but I feel like I write and read better in English (at lest when it comes to literature, since most of the books I've read were in English), yet I speak more instinctively in Spanish than in English. My English vocabulary is much bigger than my Spanish one, and maybe even than my Hebrew one. But there are some subject and ideas I've spoken about a lot in Spanish, so I feel more comfortable communicating them in that language. Also, even though I worked for more than a full year as a technician in the US, names of tools in English always elude me. Which language is the most fun? Spanish, for me. In short, it's kinda complicated, quite interesting and very introspective.
    Can we agree that I'm long winded, at least? Hehe.

  3. Small addendum: while in Mexico, there was a month and a half period I spoke almost exclusively Spanish, so much so that I started using some Spanish words while thinking, even if I was thinking in Hebrew.

  4. Maybe it's a distinction without a difference, as Red Sox announcer Ned Martin used to say. To me, 'parenthetical' implies long self-indulgent excursions away from the main point. What you do is layer meaning and add texture with those parentheses.