It´s the End of the World as We Know It

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October 27th 2008
Published: November 18th 2008
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(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.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


In search of the last Yaghan speakerIn search of the last Yaghan speaker
In search of the last Yaghan speaker

The Yaghan village seemed like a good place to start!
Cristina CalderónCristina Calderón
Cristina Calderón

Borrowed photo!
Our cargo boatOur cargo boat
Our cargo boat

12 hours delay in leaving meant we had to spend two nights on the boat. Nine passengers slept in reclining seats but we were lucky to get one of two cabins with proper beds. I´m not saying the others were jealous but they didn´t really speak much to us!

18th November 2008

Brilliant Story
I think this is my favourite of your blog entries. Your meeting with Christine Calderon sounds bizarre and though you probably felt cheated and annoyed at the time it will surely become one of those memories/stories that you cherish. No one likes a story about a nice beach - it's always the most frustrating times that become the repeated anecdotes.
7th November 2009

time with Cristina Calderón
I spent several weeks in the home of Cristina Calderón, and I'd like to offer a bit of insight into why she might not have been very welcoming , and why her family charges money for her "appearances". Can you imagine the sadness of seeing the people of your family, your culture, die out completely in the space of your own lifetime? Can you imagine abruptly realizing, with the death of your sister, that there is no one left in the world with whom you can speak the language of your childhood? (Regarding the NY Times reporter's witty little comment - great journalism line, but I don't believe it. I am pretty sure that Emelinda is nowhere near fluent). Cristina Calderón is treated like an oddity - a celebrity by virtue of the tragedy of being last one left. Maybe there were no tourists queuing up to see her the day that you were there, but she gets plenty of people queuing up to see her: linguists, anthropologists, politicians and, yes, curious tourists come to see, as you put it, this "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." It's not some academic thing, this indigenous language of Yagán, it is the language of her childhood and her people. She is not interested in all of these strangers coming to her. And she doesn't feel that she owes anyone her audience. She and her family live in poverty. They have little opportunity to earn any money, and the Chilean government has stripped the Yagán of their traditional rights to use resources on their land. Her sons are not permitted to collect bark to make traditional canoes and, even if they were, they are not allowed to paddle in their people's traditional waters without a permit anyway. Last I was there, there was talk of the government authorizing permits for companies to mine the peat bogs where the reeds they collect for basket weaving grow. I don't know if that went ahead or not. She has had so many people who come because they want something from her: linguists and anthropologists want information, journalists want interviews, tourists want photos, they all want her time. She is really not interested in it - and few of them ever give her or her community anything back in any way. That's why she charges money for her time. She is an old woman with a sadness so deep that I don't think any human on our planet can imagine. She is not interested in talking to strangers about it, or being gawked at. She names her price - and usually it is quite high because she just doesn't want to do it - and the visitors can decide whether they want to meet her on her terms or not. I will add how I got to know Cristina and her family. I am a writer and photographer who is very interested in indigenous rights. In a visit to Puerto Williams, I became friends with Cristina Zárraga, granddaughter of Cristina Calderón. I was interested in the work that she was doing with her grandmother - recording as much as she could of her knowledge and about the language, and also working to teach Yagán language that she was only just learning to children in Ukika. She was interested in my connections to other indigenous peoples working at similar aims around the world, and the knowledge I could offer her. I was, of course, very interested in meeting Cristina Calderón, but I was also conscious, from what native friends of mine elsewhere have told me, of this tendency of people to come in from outside - well intentioned, yes, but with not a clue of what really is happening in these native communities, where people often live in dire poverty and where their culture and language are struggling for mere survival - people coming and only asking, asking, asking. I wanted to come, in a position where I could ask but I could also give. I offered to translate the book that they were working on, "Hai kur mamashu shis", to English. It was a lot of my time, and for no pay of course, but at least it was something that I could give that I knew would have value to them. Cristina Calderón was so kind to me for the weeks that I stayed in her home. She taught me to weave baskets, we stripped bark and collected reeds, and we chatted around the fire at night. They shared their meals with me some nights, and other nights I went out and bought groceries and cooked for the entire extended family. She is a lovely and kind woman. I am sorry that your experience with her was not what you had hoped for, but I hope that you have a better understanding now of why. Jacqueline Windh, Canada
18th November 2010

last Yaghan speaker
Hello, I've found your comments about the last Yaghan speaker search and desillusion quite interesting. It's a sad thing that things are working like that and nothing has been done to transmit the language. But this lady and the other one you talked about (the other speaker), as well as the whole community must have felt the weight of being imposed spanish in school, and in all their life (being mocked because they talked their language or what). Also the fact that the two ladies don't speaking together can be explained by the fact that, sometimes, two persons, not speaking often, and thus becoming less fluent with a language, can hesitate to enter a conversation using "their" language (this could lead one to being ashamed by the other if she doesn't remember a word or doesn't understand a word or can't answer rightly. This "becaming ashame" can be socially destructive so that kind of people, i.e. "last speakers", often prefer to use the more general language, here spanish, if they ever have to discuss together. This has been shown and seen at different places in the USA, with Indian languages that are no more spoken, or that are only spoken by 2 or 3 persons). Anyway, your experience at the Yaghan village must have been a good one, and at least you saw and had contact with a piece of humanity centuries old and soon to become extinct. Best regards, Lionel.
20th January 2011

responding to Lionel
Hello - I am responding to Lionel's comment from Nov. 18 2010. (Also see my more detailed comment, Nov. 7 2009). I'm not really sure why you assume the Yagán (Yámana) are not doing anything to preserve their language. I've just returned last night from a trip to Navarino Island: Puerto Williams and Ukika. I would just like to assure you that the Abuela Cristina Calderón and her grand-daughter Cristina Zárraga are actually working miracles on the language project - recording and translating everything the Abuela knows as well as teaching the language to the children. For an almost-unfunded project undertaken by a handful of people, they are making more progress than many better-funded projects amongst peoples that still have many more speakers than the Yagán have. Also, if anyone is interested, we are working to re-release the book of traditional Yagán (Yámana) tales Hai Kur Mamashu Shis, which has been out of print since 2006, in English edition this year. There is more info about it on my website (which is my full name with com at the end) and people can contact me directly if they would like to be informed when it is released. Jacqueline Windh, Tofino, Canada

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