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Published: November 18th 2008
(Matt) Many months ago I was looking at a map of South America (whilst enjoying a glass of wine) and said to Catherine in true Andy from Little Britain style ´I wanna go to that one!´. ´That one´turned out to be Isla Navarino the southernmost inhabited place in the world (excluding Antarctic research bases!). Catherine responded with ´can I have some wine?´ and ´what´s there?, how do we get to it? And how much does it cost?´, all good and reasonable questions in the circumstances ´Errr here´s the wine I´ll get back to you on the rest´!
I knew I wouldn´t get away with a George Mallory (the mountain climber who was famously asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest and replied ´because it´s there´), so after some serious research we found that it was possible to get a small and surprisingly cheap plane to the island´s only town of Puerto Williams (population 2000) and the possiblity of a two day trip back to mainland Chile on a cargo boat. The scenery was supposed to be untouched and beautiful and there were some interesting short day treks (Catherine had banned anything too strenuous) and finally the clincher for me,
I discovered that there was an old woman who lived in a nearby village who was the only person left in the world who spoke the dying out indigenous language of Yaghan, I knew then; we were destined to go to the end of the world and meet the last living Yaghan speaker (how often in your life do you get to say that sentence!) Isla Navarino
We had a brilliant flight between Punta Arenas and Isla Navarino in a small twenty seater plane, we could feel each blast of wind and the mild turbulence (as Catherine´s nail marks in my hand prove!), the views of snow capped mountains were amazing and the one hour flight cost us less than 30 pounds each.
Accomodation seemed to consist of rooms in peoples houses and in our case a separate annex with a small living room, log fire, TV, bunkbeds and our own bathroom, it wasn´t luxury by any means but was still good. The owner spoke a little English and said something about visiting Portsmouth when he was a sailor and meeting a nice woman there.
We quickly realised that we might have a problem in
finding things to do in town. The meagre amount of places to eat were shut and didn´t look like they would be opening anytime soon. When we went to the only internet cafe/shop to check our email, the woman behind the counter looked at us and wobbled her hand at us, over the next three days we learnt this meant that the internet may or may not work! In fact this was a bit optimistic and despite numerous attempts on different days neither of us managed to get to a single webpage. We had slightly more luck with eating out, eventually we found a small pizza restaurant that opened in the evenings, we never found any other place open and the menu only consisted of pizza (no salad, pasta or garlic bread etc!) and dusty bottles of wine (due to lack of demand rather than age!). Journey to the End of the World
It turns out that I´m not the only person who liked the idea of going as far south as possible. Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WHY-uh) in Argentina markets itself as ´Fin del Mundo´(End of the World). I read that there is a big sign pronouncing ´End of
the World´, that you can get your passport and numerous souvenirs stamped with ´End of the World´ and even the train stops at ´The End of the World Station´, someone there knows a thing or two about tourism. What´s quite amusing about all this is that Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino (our destination) is 25 miles SOUTH east of Ushuaia but they were a bit slow on the uptake and didn´t see the same marketing potential as their Argentian neighbours, I´ve seen Isla Navarino described as the Chillean pebble in the Argentinean shoe! Being suckers for tacky tourism we looked everywhere for a Puerto Williams souvenir proclaiming...something like ´Hey welcome to the real end of the world´but we had to content ourselves with seeing the wooden clock in our empty pizza restaurant that quitely pronounced ´Isla Navarino - Fin Del Mundo´...that´s fighting talk that is! In search of the last living native Yaghan speaker
We couldn´t really find anyone around or have the spanish skills to ask where the last living Yaghan speaker lived, so we used all our powers of deduction and headed to the tiny Yaghan village 10 minutes walk along the coast, with no
real plan in mind (you can tell this part of the trip was my idea!). It turned out to be a really weird place with a nice official looking sign and a sign with information about the Yaghan people and the village which turned out to be called Villa Ukika. In contrast to the smart looking sign the village itself consisted of about a dozen ramshackled bungalow shacks, a small derelict guesthouse , a pack of dogs that started barking and running towards us and there was not a single person to be found anywhere. My idea of meeting the last Yaghan speaker and being invited in for a cup of tea went down the same drain as my idea of finding a working internet connection and eating something other than pizza. After a couple of laps of the village we (read ´I´) walked dejectedly back to our room.
A new day and with new hope we headed back to the same deserted Yaghan village. Looking through the window of what appeared to be a closed gift shop that sold approximately three gifts (in total) we finally saw some movement from a window in a nearby house. Still over
100 metres away and using a complicated set of hand signals we were directed to another house in the village. As we approached the house a middle aged man came out to meet us and in spanish we asked if we could have a look around the shop. Overseen by this grumpy man I bought an overpriced traditional Yaghan canoe (souvenir, not full size!) and in the process probably paid enough to keep the whole village in food for a few months.
Despite being a miserable sod, who kept trying to ask me about the Falklands war (not something you want to talk about in that part of the world), I decided to ask him about the last Yaghan speaker and suddenly he became animated, we were shocked when he said that his mother was the last person in the entire world who could speak fluent Yaghan...he broke into rapid spanish and with one hand he did the international thumb/finger rubbing sign of pay me money...´errr, sorry´... ´I only speak a little spanish and I thought you just said we have to pay you in order to meet your mother?´, he responded without hesitation´yes, 5000 pesos´ (about 5 pounds).
We appeared to be entering into some kind of negotiation that involved more money to hear his mother (called Cristina Calderón) speak and less just to see her. I can only say we were shocked and didn´t expect this at all. Eventually I paid 2 pounds and we had an awkward few minutes meeting an old lady who barely looked at us while I said things in Spanish like ´nice boat´holding up my souvenir. Feeling a bit uncomfortable I said how nice it was to meet her and how interested I was in the Yaghan language. This stilted spanish charm offensive didn´t change a thing and we decided to leave the house with the son coming after us saying things like ´you want to pay to take a photo? Very cheap´.
Although an incredibly unsettling and distateful experience, I couldn´t help but be fascinated by the whole thing. I tried to work out whether we were in the wrong by being tourists in a place we had no right to be and possibly disturbing an old lady unecessarily, however; our motives were good, I´m genuinely interested in the subject and we did buy an overpriced souvenir boat that Cristina
Calderón had allegedly made. Also, it´s not as though the place is swarming with tourists desperately queueing up to meet the last living Yaghan speaker. I think what is so sad is that so many unique stories, insights and traditions are bound up within this dying language and yet this is only viewed by the family as a way to make a bit of cash from tourists. We discovered that neither the son or husband had tried to learn the Yaghan language and I later found out that other attempts have been made to meet with Cristina Calderón but they too come at a price.
As a footnote to the above a few weeks later I read an excellent article in the New York Times called ´Say No More´and their reporter managed to track down another old woman on the Island who spoke Yaghan, she´s called Emelinda and practices speaking the language to herself while hanging out the washing and such like. This is one of the funniest/saddest bits of the article: I asked her if she ever had a conversation with the only other person in the world who could easily understand her, Cristina Calderón, the official
''last speaker'' of Yaghan.
''No,'' Emelinda said impatiently, as if I'd brought up a sore topic. ''The two of us don't talk.'' Heading Home
Over the next few days we did a fantastic walk up the nearby mountain called Cerra Bandera, it had patches of snow and everything, we did some nice walks along the Beagle Channel and we ate a lot of pizza.
As we packed up our things to catch the cargo boat that would take us on the two day trip back to mainland Chile we realised we were on the last leg of our round-the-world journey and would be heading north in a fairly straight line through Argentina and Brazil and eventually to Rio our final stop before the UK, we really are heading home.
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