TRAVEL: Ushuaia, Argentina
WITH its snow-capped peaks and crystal-clear air, and the calm waters of the Beagle Canal, Ushuaia — capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago and situated at the bottom of the continent — really does feel like the furthest human outpost on earth. It’s this, and the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounds it,that lures thousands of travellers here every year. During the summer some arrive just to snatch up cut-price tickets for cruises to Antarctica before zipping home.
Ushuaia’s inhabitants may bemoan the escalating drug and crime challenges in the national capital, Buenos Aires, but here all such matters lie literally thousands of miles away. Well, almost, except for one of the country’s growing problems — sex-trafficking. It s prevalence is noticeable almost upon arrival. At Ushuaia’s tidy airport, posters call for visitors to report any suspicious activity to the authorities. Airline personnel have been trained to spot women in distress. Last year Aerolineas Argentinas crew returned three women, on two separate flights, using a new law passed in 2008 that seeks to outlaw sex trafficking, though prostitution remains legal .
Otherwise, life is good here. The population has exploded in the past 30 years, with many attracted by the special subsidies government offers or by work in one of the many factories. Today Ushuaia is home to 70000 people . It has all the amenities of a large city. On a Sunday you can see runners in their tights padding down the tartan path that lines the road to the airport. On Saturdays locals gather on a bridge leading to a dirt road just beyond the factories to cheer on rally drivers. It’s mostly a young crowd. Some drink Mate tea, others open a few beers. All are dressed warmly to stave off the icy wind.
They are altogether a quiet, solemn bunch, like Argentinians in general, with a penchant to muse about past events, like the time in 1930 when Ushuaia hit the headlines after a German cruise liner, the Monte Cervantes, went down near the town. All were saved bar the captain, and the incident sent residents scrambling, as the influx of the 1550 people on board suddenly tripled the population of the small town.
Maps in Argentina make for interesting reading. Aerolineas Argentinas’ inflight magazine and the weather chart featured daily in La Nation newspaper depict not just the Falkland Islands (referred to as the Malvinas there) as belonging to Argentina, but also the peninsula of Antarctica. This despite a 1961 treaty to which Argentina is a signatory, declaring that the ice continent belongs to no-one except the animals that live there. At the port a sign reminds people that "we should remember that the Malvinas, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and the surrounding maritime areas [have since 1833 been] under the illegal occupation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
Further on, a wall of remembrance in a memorial park lists the names of 649 Argentinians killed during the Falklands War in 1982. An eerie silence hangs in the cold air. The main island of Tierra del Fuego, too, has experienced its share of flare-ups. In 1970 war over it with old sparring partner Chile was averted only after an intervention from the Pope.
A number of years before, in 1958, a rather comical series of events took place after Chile set up a lighthouse on the disputed rock of Snipe in the Beagle Channel. The Argentine navy arrived and promptly removed the offending construction. A few days later the Chileans were back. They dismantled the entire Argentine lighthouse that was there and set up a new one in its place. Furious, the Argentinians shelled the new lighthouse and occupied the small rock, once again setting up their own.
This ludicrous idiocy only ended when both sides agreed on a truce and each dismantled its lighthouse.Many today say Argentina’s lack of respect for democratic traditions helped it down the road to ruin. This was noticeable even in 1884, when President Julio Argentino Roca pushed ahead with his idea to set up a penal colony at the end of the world, despite the bill necessary for such a move not having been passed in the country’s congress.
Roca argued that there was a need to act with haste and determination. A treaty had just been signed with Chile in 1882 on the southern borders. Now all that was needed was a cheap way to police it. When the first 10 prisoners arrived in Ushuaia in 1884, the island’s first governor had with him one employee — a man convicted of murder.
After a few years the prison was moved to another part of the archipelago, Staten Island, until 1902, when strong winds forced officials to move the 50 prisoners on it (including the wives of six) to Ushuaia, where a new prison was built. It was closed for humanitarian reasons in 1947. At one time 600 prisoners were crammed into 380 single-person cells. They undertook work that included laying the tracks for the southernmost railway line in the world. Today tourists can travel on a replica of the train to the nearby national park. Most prisoners sent to Ushuaia were second-time offenders. However, in the first decade of the 1900s street children were among them.