Enjoy these pictures of our day at Tierra del Fuego National Park (wild and wildly expensive) while I go on a bit of a rant. We were tired that day. Our legs didn’t want to go very far for very long. Lots of stops and starts. Eventually we just laid down under some trees and the weather turned and we chickened out and went back to Ushuaia for tea and dinner. It would be our last full day at the end of the world.
Tea-yeah-rah-del-few-go. It rolls off the tongue like something really important, big, mysterious … And so it is. Tierra del Fuego is Argentina’s southernmost province, it is a massive national park, and it is a state of mind.
It means “land of fire” and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the place got its name from what happens to snow when the sunset casts its waning, horizontal light on blinding white. But in fact, Spanish “explorers” (I love that euphemism, how the current inhabitants of this land – Argentina and, it turns out, Chile, and of course of so many other settled states in the world – have conveniently forgotten that they, like us South Africans, like North Americans, like Australians, are not in fact from the land but came to the land as settlers, usurpers, prospectors, eradicators. The social amnesia here is particularly tangible and gross, and while South Africa has its many faults, we do have that one thing going for us – a largely intact and upwardly mobile indigenous population. I digress and won’t make time here to flesh out the contexts, truths, lies and complexities of my previous statement) named it after the thousands of small fires that dotted the landscape and could be seen from hundreds of miles away as the indigenous people – the Yaghan – tried to keep themselves warm in harsh, southernmost conditions. The Yaghan, seafood-loving hunters, didn’t wear clothes and so relied heavily on campfires to fend off death.
Those same beacons of life would inevitably also betray the very people who relied on them for their protection: these fires provided a map of flames for the Spaniards to follow as they exacted their cruel and unusual colonization on this isolated frontier.
I read somewhere that one Yaghan individual remains alive today; an old woman that lives somewhere in Chilean Patagonia.
The Spaniards dominated and devastated the South America continent when they rode in on their horses. Their history on this continent forms something of a political labyrinth – fighting and killing off and ripping off each other in much the same cold, bloody way that they enacted genocide on all the indigenous inhabitants. For centuries they got fat and rich off the land, sent most of it back to the throne in Spain (Peru’s history here is particularly symbolic, but we’ll get there later this year). Looking at Spain today, you have to ask yourself: Where did all the money go? All this, for what?
Human life – any life – does not carry much more value today than it did back then, so I won’t spout platitudes about how far we’ve come. Cruelty and inhumanity rages on, the images of it spreading like the two-day wildfire that destroyed 1,550 hectares of Tierra del Fuego back in 2011 but affecting us only for a day or two, if at all. Today, like then, our panaceas are consumption, the pursuit of wealth, Opus Dei or just Opus Ego, pretty distractions, harmless simulations, voyeurism, apathy, greed, sex, entitlement …
One thing about travelling is it gives you a lot of time to think. Not that you don’t have time to think when you’re not travelling; I think the difference is you feel obliged to do so, to come to some grand conclusions, to gain insights you wouldn’t afford yourself the space or time or honesty to gain otherwise. It’s a holiday of body as much as it is of mind. The rootlessness is Romantic, and therefore artificial; the hankering back to an imagined state before tax returns, ex-boyfriends, former bosses and medical insurance is a dream for the very reason that it can’t be real because the fact of “life before” is irrefutable.
I have seen this self-created dreamworld take many shapes – not least of all misguided self-righteousness – and I try to remind myself very often: this lifestyle is just another luxury I could afford.
As I saw somewhere online: Anyone who says money isn’t important hasn’t tried travelling.
Lately I have been grappling with the elephant in the room: By the time my money runs out, will I return to that life I left behind when I was bored and disgusted? And if so, what could all of this really have been other than a sojourn of privilege to the other side?