Isla Navarino and Emeralds

After a few days I start feeling better. I have always wanted to do the „Dientes de Navarino Trek“ on the Isla Navarino, a four-day hike around a mountain that looks like a rotten tooth.

Because of health and time issues, that will have to wait for another trip. When I can finally start working again, being here makes sense. I might as well be sick at home where I have my family.

I visit the museum and start filming interviews with different people living in Puerto Williams, the „capital“ of the island. The interviews are short and follow a pretty straight layout. I always love it when my works allows me to get to know people in different parts of the planet, which helps me understand this world a little more.

Puerto Williams is basically only inhabited for strategical reasons. It serves Chile as a military base at the gate to Antarctica. There is only one main road on the Northern coast of the island leading from the east to the west end. The rest is nature. There is a nice little net of treks, which easily allows for three weeks of exploring if you want to hike and enjoy it all. Most tourists are come for are satisfied with shorter one-day hikes or for navigating the surrounding smaller islands, or to Antarctica or even Cape Horn. On Friday 29th of January Chile is celebrating the 400- year discovery of Cape Horn. Even Chilean President Bachelet is coming either by helicopter or by ship (depending on weather conditions). Until then I will be back in Ushuaia or actually on my way to Lima.

The Martin Gusinde Museum is worth a visit. It’s named after the Austrian theologist and anthropologist, who spent an appreciable amount of time with the Yagan population in the 1920ies. The Yagan are the natives to Isla Navarino and surrounding islands. Gusinde brought back precious chronicle about a culture that was already on the verge of distinction back then and does not exist any more. One “pure-blooded” Yagan is left today: Cristina Calderón. She lives in the settlement Ukika, right next to Puerto Williams. Ukika was founded in 1960 as a settlement for the descendants of the Yagan population. It’s situated at the water mouth of a small river into the sea, imbedded between two steep hills. It’s a lot cozier and more romantic than Puerto Williams, where there is a lot of construction work going on. The population of the town is growing – mostly due to the inhabitants committed by the Chilean navy. Many are interested in the Yagan. Those who are left of the descendants know very little about their ancestors. Only Grandmother Cristina (Abuela Cristina), as everyone calls her, speaks the language today?

I feel hesitant to simply walk into the village and talk to this woman. Who gives me the right to intrude into the private lives of other people, be it because of my personal interest or work-related? I am grateful to feel inhibited and regard it as a healthy form of respect towards the people I write about and whom I film. I have never found it too difficult to talk to strangers. It’s even easier in another language. Even though I might speak it well, I will never feel as attached emotionally to the words I use as I do when speaking my native language. The days leading up to my first visit in Ukika I feel that inhibition much more than I ever noticed before. Maybe it’s because of experiences I have made with other projects over the last few years. I feel deeply grateful for what is made possible by people that let me dive into different worlds and share their lives with me. All despite of the fact that they really have other problems to deal with than shepherding a foreign filmmaker. I cannot take those experiences for granted and I am touched when people open me the doors to their lives. At the same time, I have learned to listen in a different way and watch out more carefully what might be hiding behind the words spoken. What could be expected of me? What can I give back? Money, time, or simply attention, hope? I have learned to be more attentive in those encounters. More respectful. I therefore gather all my energy and go to Ukika. Yes, it takes a lot of energy. I have to be alert and use all my senses when trying to behave accordingly in somewhat delicate situations. At the same time I have to keep an eye on the story that needs to be told.

Ukika is smaller than a village. Only a few families live here, according to a sign at the entrance it’s about 60 individuals. In Ukika I meet Martin, one of Grandmother Cristina’s nephews. I ask him, where I might find her. We are standing directly in front of her house. Upon entering I am invited to sit down at the table. I feel welcomed. Grandmother Cristina is used to having visitors. Many come to talk to her and take pictures. She is regarded as a living object of cultural value in Chile. That’s why the government even built a new house for her a couple of years ago. It is well isolated and has better windows I have seen in all of Chile or Argentina. Others tell me that the old lady isn’t treated favoured when she is invited to visit other parts of the country and gets the cheapest seats available. I guess there are always different sides to a story, and I am not here to discover this one anyway.

When Grandmother Cristina was born, her relatives were as good as completely assimilated. About nearly 10.000 years ago the Yagan are said to have arrived at the southern point of the continent, when islands were not islands yet and the temperature was higher. They adapted to their environment. Even when it got colder. They didn’t wear clothes, walking around naked even in the freezing winter. The grease meat of sea lions and wales made for an important part of their diet, which made them resistant towards the cold. They lived a nomadic lifestyle in the many channels at sea. Wooden canoes were their means of transport. Of course, neither Chile nor Argentina existed politically at the time. Grandmother Cristina was born in Ushuaia in 1928. Her nieces, nephews and own children were born on other parts of Isla Navarino and on other small islands. Many would still move around in canoes freely across the shore to Argentina. That’s not possible today. They are only allowed to fish until about the middle of the Beagle Channel. Those who cross over too far are stopped by Argentinian forces and have their whole fishing equipment taken away. It’s essential for survival. The descendants of the Yagan still go out fishing today, mainly for their own use, and nothing of sea lions or whales any more. They stick to Centolla, the Antarctic king crab.

Cristina’s nephew Martin can build canoes himself. He even built the canoe at the museum in Puerto Williams. The women are learning again how to weave baskets. They sell them as souvenirs and as traditional handicraf. I read somewhere that Grandmother Cristina has been weaving baskets all her live. She tells me she only started a few years ago to make some money. Other traditions? Non existent any more. The descendants of the Yagan are an underpriviledged group in Chilean society lacking good education, special knowledge and work opportunities. Whenever I come to Grandmother Cristina’s house, Clara serves me tea. Clara is in her mid 20ies. She is from Santiago and staying with Abuela Cristina for two months, together with her boyfriend Nacho from Ushuaia. They are doing a photography workshop with the people of Ukika, teaching them the very basics. That means they are building very simple “cameras” and take pictures. They show scenes from the every-day lives of the people. I am impressed and touched. They stage themselves and their culture, as they see themselves, and turn it into pieces of art. I admire Clara and Nacho for this ingenious ingenious idea. Who knows what can become of that! It is certainly helping the descendants of the Yagan to celebrate their cultural heritage and self-confident carry it out into the world. Even thought there might not be much left of the culture itself, it gives it a new face and expression!

Between the interviews I am slowly re-gathering full physical strength. I am walking around all the time anyway and only take two walks along the road. There are such few cars that one can confidently walk in the middle of the road. The landscape is breathtaking, even the way to the airport with only one airplane per day. I walk between slim trees and bushes, cross a bridge over a small lagune, on the left side a wide grassland opens up, the evening light turning it into a golden meadow.
Another day I walk all the way to the entrance of the Dientes de Navarino trek. Parts of the road are very steep. From up there I get a unique view across the forests and swamps of the Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego in the background.

For my last day on the Isla Navarino the opportunity opens up spontaneously to go to Mejillones, together with Grandmother Cristina, her niece Julia, Clara, Nacho and a bunch of children. This is where the Yagan cemetery is located. In the end, I cannot go. As I arrive at my Hostal for dinner, I am told that the only opportunity to go to Ushuaia this week will be tomorrow. Ushuaia Boating is dealing with a broke motor once again! The guy made a deal with another company that usually charges twice the price to take all of his reservations and bring them over in once crossing. There are not sailing boats headed for Ushuaia either this week. They are already gathering in Puerto Williams to continue on to Cape Horn in the opposite direction to celebrate the “discovery” of it 400 years ago. The Yagan certainly knew it before 1616, but it wasn’t called Cape Horn and didn’t play an important part in international trading affairs. I don’t have a choice but go to Ushuaia even earlier than I had already planned in order to be safe and catch my flight. I am cursing Ushuaia Boating.

At least the crossing of the Beagle Channel from Puerto Navarino to Ushuaia takes only half an hour, after a one-and-a-half hour drive across half of the island. I do not want to be in Ushuaia. Ushuaia is expensive. Ushuaia is touristy. I really have to make an effort to accept being here for a three-day stopover. I finally succeed in that and am immediately rewarded! As I wake up on my last day the sun is shining beautifully. The morning air smells refreshing. It promises to be a gorgeous day. I talk with Pablo at reception my Hostal La Posta, and half an hour later I am sitting in a collective taxi upcountry. The hike to Laguna Esmeralda is a beautiful wrap-up of two weeks of filming interviews in the most southern part of Patagonia. It’s an easy hike through forests and meadows, alongside a river and finally up to the lagune that is situated at the bottom of a glacier. I am lying on the shore, blinking into the sun while happily eating my avocado sandwich. I am listening to the wind, the birds, the nothing and am happy. Esmeralda means emerald. The turquoise water is glittering like emeralds and curling from the wind that blows across it gently.

I even end up getting Calafate ice-cream in the town centre. They say: he or she who eats Calafate berries will one day come back to Patagonia. With a red face from the sunshine during my hike, I can say good-bye perfectly satisfied.