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Archive for January, 2010

The Tierra del Fuego got its name from Magellan who, sailing by on his way to a violent death in the Phillippines, was amazed at the number of fires burning along its coasts. These fires would have been tended by native Fuegians, among them the Yamana, a people who according to one theory were forced to the literal end of the earth over several centuries by successive waves of migration to the Americas of peoples presumably more skilled in warfare. My inspiration to visit the Tierra del Fuego came from a novel I read about them when I was 18 (which happens to be the same year I got the idea of going to Bhutan after writing a research paper for a history course). Although the story of how the Yamana came to be in the Tierra del Fuego may be forever lost to time, the story of their extinguishment is well known.
The Yamana were virtually ignored by Europeans until the voracious hunt for marine mammals brought them into contact with whalers, missionaries, and associated germs in the late 1800s. Within a few decades, they were decimated. The last full-blooded Yamana and native speaker of their language is an elderly woman living today in Puerto Williams, Chile. As if their physical extinction were not enough, a placard in the Museo del Fin du Mundo in Ushuaia dismisses their entire culture in the following two sentences, which to me are incredibly sad: “They had a number of beliefs common among other primitive peoples. Yamana stories are known to be simple with little humour or keenness.” Fortunately, there is a Mundo Yamana museum around the corner which makes an honest effort to present the Yamana point of view as far as it can be known using available sources.

Aside from visiting the local musuems, which can be accomplished within a few hours, I spent my time in Ushuaia hiking in the incredibly beautiful Parque de Tierra del Fuego, visiting a penguin colony, and taking a 4×4 tour and a “kayaking” tour, which rather disappointingly turned out to involve paddling rubber canoes in groups of 8. The 4×4 tour was a pleasant surprise (I had just signed up to get the 1 hour of real kayaking at the end, which ended up being cancelled due to the gale force winds that day). The rest of 4×4 group, apart from a couple from New York, were Argentinians, and I really like it when I go to a place and find people visiting their own country. It made my first asado (think the best bbq you’ve ever had) and my first taste of mate even more special. Unfortunately for me I was the only one of the group who didn’t speak much Spanish and the Argentinians didn’t know much English, so I didn’t get a chance to talk with them as much as I would have liked to. Two of them turned out to be lawyers, so we managed a brief conversation in legalese. “Familia? Divorcado? Ah, si. Constitutionel. Ah, constitutionel este muy importante.” You get the idea.

It was sad for me to leave Ushuaia with so many trails unhiked and so many waters unpaddled, but there is still much to look forward to. After a brief layover in Buenos Aires last night, today I’m in Mendoza admiring the views of the Andes and looking forward to my first wine tour tomorrow…

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After 3 shots of tequila and one of mezcal, I could no longer delay the inevitable. The bag of fried grasshoppers, which Irma had just purchased from the market in Tepoztlan awaited patiently in the middle of the table. Dozens of detached insect legs clung to the inside of the plastic. “OK, just put one in my hand,” I asked Gabriel, already cringing. I squeezed my eyes shut and he dropped one on my palm. I screamed and threw it across the table. He picked it up and ate it while Irma laughed at me. On the second try, he slowly placed one in my hand. I had intended not to look, but could not resist. This one had no legs, and its tapered body reminded me of a tiny mummy. I popped it into my mouth. “You have to taste it, don’t just swallow it,” said Gabriel, reading my mind. It was crunchy and lemony, not bad, but I didn’t ask for seconds.

Despite the grasshopper episode, the weekend at Gabriel’s family’s vacation home in Tepoztlan was very relaxing, spent mostly throwing the frisbee for their tireless border collie Matteo, sleeping in the sun, playing Scrabble in Espanol and enjoying one delicious meal after another. We had initially planned a more ambitious weekend including visits to Puebla and Taxco, but one look at this peaceful place in the shadow of a pyramid and cliffs renowned for positive energy and UFO sightings, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else! My kind hosts agreed to stay.

On Monday, Gabriel and Irma were back at work, and I took a day tour to the pyramids at Tetuhuacan. Our guide disappeared for a couple of hours after dropping us off at the pyramids, but the other guests were fortunately good company: a young Parisian couple with an adorable 5 month old baby who just about puked on me on the ride home (his mom got the worst of it), a young American on a temporary assignment to the embassy, a Brazilian firefighter named Fabio who seemed to have a few fans among the English girls from his hostel who we ran into in front of the Pyramid of the Moon, a woman from Cleveland, a couple from Omaha, and a French woman who had been living in Washington DC for 40 years. The pyramid visit was followed by lunch at the nearby “Montezuma’s Revenge” where we were greeted by “Montezuma” himself.

It’s Tuesday and already I’m at the airport in Mexico City waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires. I’m going to miss Gabriel, Irma and Matteo, this smoggy, gridlocked, but fascinating city which I’m just starting to feel comfortable in, and this country of bright colours, shiny silver, ancient old and new, and Indian, Spanish and mestizo, of which I’ve only seen so little. Someday I know I’ll be back for more …

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Treasures of Mexico City

The traffic is insane – in fact I’m sitting in gridlock as I write this (my friend Irma is at the wheel) – but this has to be one of the most beautiful, surreal, eclectic cities in the world. My feet are killing me after two days of sightseeing and it’s been well worth it.

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A Traveller’s Poem

Eat-drink-eat-drink-sleep-sleep-snowshoe-sauna-eat-drink-nap-kayak-eat-drink lycheemartini-sleep-ski-shop-sauna-eat-drink teawithrum-sleep-eat-eat -walk-eat-eat-eat-eat-drink-drink-drink-pack. Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, and after a mere 27 days of Canadian winter (if you can even call what happens in southern Ontario and the Okanagan “winter”) it’s time for me to head south again. First to Mexico City, where I’m looking forward to seeing my friends Irma and Gabriel, and then to Argentina, Chile and Easter Island. I’m in Vancouver with a beer and a poem, trying to get back into “the zone” after a harrowing morning of trying to stuff everything I need for the next 2 months into two bags within airline weight limits, finally achieved with the help of my parents (thanks guys!) after I ditched the suitcase with the big wheels and ergonomic handle, which unfortunately weights 13 lbs empty, in favour of an unwieldy but light duffel bag. Considering I need gear for rain, sun, cold, hot, snorkelling, camping, horseback riding, rafting, kayaking, canyoneering, surfing, not to mention a couple of decent outfits for wandering around Buenos Aires, is the 70 lbs I ended up with really so much?

… breathe … sip of beer …

Here is the poem, a gift from my friend Mary Jo:

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye

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