Charles Darwin and the Fireland

In ContactZone

By Gracie Bouker


 I lace up my Nike tennis shoes before inspecting them in the mirror. Grimey. Dusty. 

When I bought them, they were perfectly black on top and perfectly white on bottom. Now, the dust from the dirty, dry Ushuaia streets and crumbly sidewalks has caked onto my shoes permanently. Except for when my host mom sneaks them out of my room and scrubs them until they shine. The sentiment lasts, but the white never does. 

With a pat of my pockets ensuring that the house key and SUBE card are present, I stroll out of my room, bidding the white Schnauzer, Pipper, farewell. He barks and whines, begging to come with me. I look at him with regretful eyes before locking the door and sliding earbuds into my ears. As the gate squeaks shut behind me, I chance a glance back. Pipper sits on the couch watching me leave, ears perked. No matter. I’ll be back soon. With that, “Me Rehúso” floods my senses and I begin running on the muddy street. 

***

Upon arrival in Ushuaia, Argentina, I was surprised to learn that I didn’t look so different from the people around me, save for my red hair. Sure, a friend had told me that there was a larger European presence in Argentina than in other South American countries, but I didn’t realize just how big that European footprint was. While many of the citizens indeed had dark hair, around half had skin nearly as light as mine. It wasn’t long before I realized, though, that skin color wouldn’t exempt me from my sure minority status. If it wasn’t my Western features, it was how I stood attentively, or how recognition sometimes flashed in my eyes brighter than it should’ve. And if it wasn’t my demeanor, then it was, without a doubt, when I opened my mouth to speak. I was able to communicate what I wanted to say, but I learned Spanish in a classroom, not on the streets. Plus, I had an accent. A surefire American accent. 

But even when I did open my mouth to speak, most of my interactions were friendly. Many people appreciated that I was from the United States, and loved to ask questions about my life there. Is high school really like High School Musical? Why does anyone like to play football? Is Christmas time as magical as the movies make it seem? How do you feel about Donald Trump? How do politics work over there, anyways? But some of my interactions were less friendly. 

Lola is an extended member of my host family. My encounters with her were always at family parties, and there were many of those, on all nights of the week. She is a young mom, with two young kids. After one particular family function, my host parents offered to drive her home. I hopped in the back seat, and she strapped in her six year-old next to me. “How was your dentist appointment today?” I furrowed my brow and smiled, explaining to the young girl that I didn’t have a dentist appointment today. In fact, I hadn’t had a dentist appointment in months, and I wouldn’t have another until I returned to the United States. Her mother appeared at her side like a bee zipping out of the hive to scold her daughter. 

“Do not speak to her in Spanish. Only speak to her in English. She speaks English,” Lola fumed. My eyes widened in surprise while the daughter shrunk in her seat. The normally chatty six-year-old did not speak to me the rest of the ride. Unsure of what to say and in which language to speak, I was silent, too. It was a curious thing, really. Was she telling her daughter to only speak to me in English because she thought that I wouldn’t be able to understand her Spanish? Or was it because she wanted her daughter to practice her English with someone who knew it? I’ll never know. 

***

Normally, I’ll opt for the path towards the airport. The mountains are so close I can touch them, and they’re so grand they graze the sky. Huge birds sail next to me as I run, and grassy hills wave in the breeze. Not far off, cliffs give way to a beach that kisses the canal that leads to the oceans. The beaches are littered with seashells, starfish, and stones eroded into the most spectacular shapes. But today, the breeze is a hefty BLAST that would scrape my ears and reduce my speed to practically nothing if I tried to run back the way I came. Running against it is painful on days like this. I bypass my runner’s paradise and head towards town, running with the wind the whole way there. 

My favorite part about running into town is the art, and my favorite art commemorates the natives of this land: the Selknam and the Yaghan—the nomadic tribes whose footprints I very well may be jogging in. The murals are constant. They have an air about them that causes me to stop and stare each time I pass. Maybe it’s the stark stripes of white and red painted like tears on their faces. Maybe it’s the solemnity in pulling back an arrow pointed towards a guanaco. Maybe it’s those paint stripes enveloping a canoe, their only mode of transportation. #UshuaiaMásLindo is scrawled underneath some of the paintings, and I can’t help but think that yes, Ushuaia is more beautiful with these paintings. 

I run past the horses with dust on their backs, past the research center I would come to love, past Misión Alta where I basked in the sun with an Argentinian friend, banjos playing traditional folklore behind us. I run past the Anónima, glad to not be stuck in the monstrous lines despite only having a few items, or squirming when a cashier says, “How are you?” instead of “Como estás?” I run past murals of white bonnets smattered against a black background, a Yaghan woman with tears in her eyes as she watches men with guns and hats slaughter one of her own, penguins swimming in the sea, a Selkam woman holding fire in her hands with a look of wonder in her eyes. I run past Marco Polo, the coffee shop that served as a refuge when I was feeling homesick. I run past some sloppy graffiti that reads “the-big-boss” in English. I run past the Paseo de Artesanes, where I spent more money than I should have on art that I’d treasure forever. I run and I run and I run, until I find myself at the dock. Dozens of boats litter the bay, from dinky speed boats meant to cross the canal, to enormous cargo boats that bring in the island’s food and resources, to massive cruise ships waiting to depart for Antarctica. 

I slow to a walk, finding myself among giddy tourists. I walk until I reach the concrete lawn chairs, which are surprisingly comfortable. Taking a deep breath of fresh air, I admire the mountains, and the mountain that the city is built on. Ushuaia is in a tiny pocket in the Andes mountains, separated from the rest of Argentina because it’s an island. The province is called Tierra del Fuego. My host parents tell me that when the colonizers came, they saw a fire burning behind some trees. Of course, it was the natives burning a fire, but the colonizers didn’t realize people were already living here. The Europeans named the island that stood long before they arrived, “Fireland.” In Spanish, Tierra del Fuego. 

As someone who is so praised worldwide, I was disgusted to hear what Charles Darwin said about the Selknam and Yagan when he came to Tierra del Fuego. Less evolved, he called them. Primitive. I suppose this was the justification for taking their land and their lives. As Charles Darwin came to know, the Selknam and the Yaghan cared for their land and understood mercy better than any of us. They were nomadic gatherer-hunters. After they had used the resources in one region for a time, they got up and moved in order to allow the land to recuperate. No resource that they encountered went to waste. Everything they took from nature, they gave back. We have so much to learn from them. 

***

Feeling the breeze on my skin, I remember the purpose of running into town. I didn’t want to run home against the wind. That means that I’d be taking the bus home. Slowly, I peel myself off the seat and make my way to the bus stop. 

I stand at the bus stop, which happens to be a plexiglass hut. It soothes the bite of the wind, but does nothing to stop the chill of my own sweat drying on my skin. I want to run in circles, do some jumping jacks, anything to keep the blood pumping. But the stoic woman next to me, and the stoic man next to her, make me think that maybe I should just hunker down and wait for the bus. I unlock my phone and check the miBondi app. It says that the next bus should be here in 27 minutes. Rolling my eyes, I lock my phone. Five minutes ago, it said it would be here in two minutes. The woman next to me notices the app on my phone. She asks when the bus is coming. I unlock my phone again and show her the screen, explaining that it says it’ll be here in 27 minutes. She curses under her breath and marches away. The cigarette she flicked out of her long fingers rolls on the street, smoke billowing out of it. I crinkle my nose. 

Not less than five minutes later, I see the bus in the distance. Only the man and I remain, but in the time between seeing the bus down Avenida Maípu and the bus squeaking to a stop in front of us, no less than 10 people join us at the bus stop. Most are single parents with young children. I gesture to the space in front of me with my hand, allowing the last of the group onto the bus in front of me. Even though several people got off, the bus is still devilishly crowded. I pull my SUBE card out of the pocket in my leggings and press it to the reader. After a second, it beeps and flashes green. 32 pesos left. That means that I only have one more bus ride before I need to “recharge” it with more pesos. 

As more stops are made, there is more opportunity to scoot towards the back of the bus. All the seats are taken, but now I have a tiny opening to hold onto the yellow, oily rail above my head. I take it graciously. Although the bus is chaotic in every way, I look forward to it most days. Bus rides have been great ways to test my Spanish with people who know nothing of my background, who can only guess where I’m from until I open my mouth. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the idea. My first conversation with a stranger was not by my own doing, but his. 

***

I had stepped onto the bus with two friends who lived in the same direction as me. One of those friends would get off at the intersection of Kuanip and Fuegia Basket. Something I love about Argentina is how symbolic street names are. Kuanip refers to a mythological hero in Selknam culture, a renowned hunter whose legacy is immortal, as he is thought to live in the stars now, controlling night and day. Fuegia Basket, on the other hand, was the code name given to a young girl native to Tierra del Fuego who was captured and taken to England by Charles Darwin, along with two others, to become “civilized” and studied. “Civilized,” to the English, meant adopting the English language, European religion, European clothing, and European etiquette. Darwin expressed awe at the transformation and intelligence of these three, growing fond of them and accepting that they were just as human as he was. But Europeans still took their land and wiped them out with violence and disease. 

A seat opened up on the bus that day, and my friends gestured that I should take it. I did. I sat, looking at my hands in my lap, when I saw the young man next to me turn his phone screen towards me. I noticed that Google Translate was pulled up. He was looking at me with a smile on his face, encouraging me to read the screen. “The mountains are very beautiful.” I smiled and responded in Spanish. We talked about the mountains, Ushuaia, why he was here, why I was here. He pulled up the Facebook app and started showing me pictures of different hikes he’d been on since arriving four months prior. My jaw dropped at some of the sights– there was no way a crystalline, aquamarine pool of water surrounded by mountains with hazy mist floating overhead existed less than two hours away. But it did. And it was called Laguna de los Témpanos, Lake of the Icebergs. And there was one even closer, Laguna Esmeralda. When his stop arrived, I thanked him, Nicolas, for helping me practice my Spanish, for giving me some hiking ammunition, and for showing kindness to a foreign stranger. 

***

Months later, I did make it to Laguna Esmeralda. And Laguna de los Témpanos. 

We paid a Remis driver to take us through a neighborhood so far back in the city that we couldn’t believe we were still in Ushuaia, that it stretched this far back. He dropped us off at a gated fence that seemed to lead to someone’s backyard. The trek started off mushy — too mushy. We dragged logs over to icy streams too wide to jump, holding onto each other as we balanced across. By the time we stumbled to the grated metal bridge strung above a rushing river, I had almost lost a boot to the peat bog, and mud covered both of my ankles. I was a mess. I wondered: did the Selknam and the Yaghan traverse through these peat bogs, too?

We tread on, and as we did, the biosphere took on a totally different attitude. Long gone were the muddy peat bogs, low hanging trees, rushing rivers and beaming sun. Instead, we found ourselves in a dense forest, doing switchbacks and even skipping some in order to reach the top of the mountain quicker. Spring was showing. The trees were budding with leaves, chirps dominated the soundscape, and the warmth from the rising sun and our uphill ascent filled my lungs. If I was a native to this land, I’d spend all my time in this peaceful forest. But the glorious canopy of trees wouldn’t take us all the way to the Laguna. 

We emerged from the tree line with snow on our boots. Up ahead was a steep and rocky incline. We put our sweatshirts back on, no longer between the protection of the trees, and began our final ascent. The green of the mountains was behind us. All we could see now was the stream dividing the path into two sides, and the gravel and rocks along the way. One slip would mean a long, painful tumble down. We kept our eyes trained on the peak, where the water was coming from. The mist was coming into view, rolling in with a chill, so it couldn’t be far.

We made it over the peak. The ground didn’t dramatically change– it was still littered with millions of rocks of all sizes and shapes. But they gave way to a lake so electric blue it felt like we weren’t on earth anymore. Laguna de los Témpanos. Lake of the Icebergs. The water was as blue as the Antarctic waters beneath icebergs. The backdrop was jagged, rocky mountains, each crevice filled with snow. All of the mountains seemed to stop at the same height, because of the clouds that settled in. We sat down on some larger rocks just to take it all in. I can’t imagine living there, having that place all to myself, like the Selknam and the Yaghan did. It must’ve been so quiet then. I also can’t imagine having it taken away from me. 

***

We pass the stop where I usually get on the bus after Spanish class. The stop is decorated with red, white and black dots and stripes, representing the designs on the masks that the Selknam used during a coming-of-age ceremony. Ironically, the school where I took Spanish classes three times a week was an English school. My Spanish teacher was an English teacher. One day, we were invited to sit in on an English class and help the students practice speaking for their national exam. 

***

I entered the cramped classroom with some friends expecting to find children, like the ones we often heard screaming and giggling outside our classroom. Instead, we found people much older– people in their thirties and forties making a grand effort to learn English. The youngest there were 18 years old. We spent the better half of the next thirty minutes sharing who we were, where we were from, and what our goals in life were. The time went too quickly before I had to return to my own class. 

Class ended three hours later. As I made my way to the lobby, I noticed one of the 18 year-olds from the class standing by himself. I checked miBondi: 17 minutes until the bus arrived. I had time. His gentle eyes peered up from his phone to look down at me as I approached. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion as I proposed my idea: that I speak to him in Spanish, and that he respond in English, so we could both practice our second languages. He agreed, albeit with a crinkle in his nose that said he didn’t think this would work. To my surprise, it did. We talked about how he lived in New Mexico for two weeks with a host family last year, and how he longs to return to the United States. He asked me if Argentina was living up to my expectations, and about any and all of the differences I’d noticed between his culture and mine. Our exchange, in the lobby of Portland Institute, felt like a bud blooming into a thousand brightly colored lupine flowers, like my host mom had in her garden. 

I checked miBondi again: 7 minutes. I was cutting it close. If I missed the bus, I’d have to wait another 30 or 40 minutes for the next one. I quickly explained the situation to him. Laughing, he said he understood, and asked if we could take a picture together before I left. I obliged, feeling both honored and devastated at the prospect. Was he asking because he made a new friend? Or was he asking because he made an American friend? And why did that matter so much, anyway? Shaking the feelings off, I smiled for the camera before scurrying out of Portland, crossing some busy streets, descending flight after flight of stairs, and making it to the bus stop with the Selknam designs just as the bus arrived. I hoped I’d see him again. I never did. 

***

We turn the corner and I know I’m getting close to home. I hold onto the yellow bar overhead, using it like monkey bars to get to the back of the bus, where the exit is. I press the button next to the door and hear the customary high-pitched “BEEP” at the front of the bus, signaling to the driver that I was ready to get off at the next stop. The bus jostles and bumps, finally stopping to drop me off in the mud on the side of the street. Groaning, I do my best to avoid it, but to no avail. My shoes are caked. 

I watch the bus clatter up the road, a new song playing in my ears: “Aventura.” I bound across the street, happy with my decision to run to town instead of my normal running route. As I turn the corner onto my street and towards my home, I peek Pipper sitting in the window, right where I left her. In the shadow of the curtains, I see my host parents beginning to prepare for dinner. Milanesas, perhaps? I smile as I open the gate, hearing Pipper’s yips through the glass. That night at dinner, we’ll facetime my host siblings, whose university is in Córdoba. Unlike their parents, they learned English growing up. But to my great relief, they’ll speak to me in Spanish. 

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