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Antarctic Diary Extract 2 – Peeling at the edges

June 25, 2012

I fly into Ushuaia, Argentina, and arrive at my hotel on a grey and moody afternoon.

It is 5 °C but the wind chill makes it feel much colder. I have to remind myself I am lucky, as January is Ushuaia’s warmest month. I take a taxi – which looks like a relic from the seventies – from the small airport to the hotel. We race down an unmade road as the wheels churn up stones that spring out in all directions, occasionally hitting cars coming in the opposite direction. As I peer out of the window, I have my first real glimpse of the town’s poverty: flimsy shacks and concrete public housing, ancient cars and cheap, well-worn clothing. I glimpse a horse half inside a shack’s doorway, its bum towards the road. Odd, but at least half the horse may be warm. The postcard pictures of the town-centre and harbour look very cute, but there is much that the postcards do not show.

Ushuaia is the capital city of Tierra del Fuego Province. It is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world and is the main departure point for ships going to Antarctica. Tourism now provides increasing employment here, but only in the summer months. It’s a tough place to eke out a living.

I think Fedor’s Travel Intelligence website sums up past and present Ushuaia well, and I quote:
‘When the prison closed in 1947, Ushuaia had a population of about 3,000, made up mainly of former inmates and prison staff. Today, the Indians of Darwin’s “missing link” theory are long gone—wiped out by diseases brought by settlers, and by indifference to their plight—and the 60,000 residents of Ushuaia are hitching their star to tourism… Ushuaia feels like a frontier boomtown, at heart still a rugged, weather-beaten fishing village, but exhibiting the frayed edges of a city that quadrupled in size in the ’70s and ’80s.’
I pass a memorial to the Argentinians who died during the Falklands invasion in 1982. The war with Great Britain has not been forgotten. Perhaps some of the men I pass fought in those battles. The occasional car still sports a sticker claiming the Islas Malvinas, even if that sticker is faded and peeling at the edges.
I spend the morning exploring the town and then sit in a warm cafe and read my Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica. Jeff Rubin, the author, really knows his stuff. I am reminded that 70% of the world’s fresh water is frozen in Antarctica’s ice sheets. Imagine what would happen if that water melted rapidly into the sea
Interesting info: Antarctica is almost twice the size of Australia
Photo: Ushuaia harbour taken from the ship © L.A. Larkin 2012

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