Buenos Aires is a filthy city. That’s not what you usually see on tourist brochures, but it’s true.
Catalytic converters are yet to make their debut on the chaotic streets of this sprawling, grid city. Buses belch out black plumes of toxic smoke. Garbage oozes from straining plastic bags onto footpaths and its acrid reek mixes with the heavy, humid air of the semi-tropical summer. It’s a fun and beguiling city, but with the relentless stupor of heat, noise and grime, it’s no wonder that the locals abandon their home en masse in the first months of the year. Immediately after New Year’s Eve, there’s a marked difference in downtown Buenos Aires. Ãœber-trendy Argentinos are replaced by the unglamourous, Birkenstock-wearing, water-bottle toting and map-cradling species that can be recognised around the world as ‘the tourist.’
After a month of forbearance, I too decided that I needed a break. Instead of heading to the silicon paradise of Uruguay’s high-flying Punta del Este, I flew south to the End of the World.
Or so it is marketed.
Patagonia ‘s popularity as a tourist destination is undergoing a stunning rise. Like ‘the Amazon,’ the word ‘Patagonia’ refers to a climatic region in this case, it covers the southern extremity of Chile and Argentina. It’s a region that, for centuries, has ignited imaginations and imperial ambition. Yet much of Patagonia has proven immune to European designs to settle and develop it.
The grasslands of Chile are some of the driest and windiest regions of the world. They are vast and unforgiving. So too are the eerie and empty strips of coastline that wend and weave their way through the Chilean archipelago stretching hundreds of kilometres from Puerto Montt in the north, down to Puerto Natales in the south. Numerous attempts by Spanish explorers to establish settlements in this dark and brooding landscape ended in disease and death. Scurvy, flu and shipwrecks claimed the lives of hundreds of mariners. And further inland, Spanish bloodlust in turn claimed the lives of countless indigenous inhabitants.
Sources differ as to the exact origin of the name, ‘Patagonia.’ One story goes that the Spaniards were so impressed by the height and physical condition of the local inhabitants the Tehuelches that they named them after a character in some contemporary novels, a giant called ‘Patagon.’ The legends of Patagonian giants then further fed the colonial wanderlust to conquer this mysterious terrain.
Romanticisation of indigenous peoples is nothing new, but what surprised me was how it continues today. The most vivid example of this was my extremely troubling visit to Puerto Eden a minute and remote fishing village tucked into the cauldron-like vistas of Chile’s Lake Region that is described as the southern-most indigenous community in all of Patagonia.
I travelled to Puerto Eden on board a Japanese freighter called the Magallanes. Originally a transport vessel, the Magallanes now takes a strange mix of middle-aged holiday-makers and young adventure-seekers on a four-day cruise past the largest glacier in South America, the spectacular Pio XI, as well as stopping at Puerto Eden, which, according to the cruise operators, ‘ exhibit[s]the cultural heritage of the last surviving aboriginal people in the world, the Kawesqar (or Alacalufe) people.’
When I read this, I dismissed it as a poor English translation. But the phrase was repeated throughout the three-day lead up to our arrival at Puerto Eden. What was most troubling was that this was supposedly a drawcard we were asked to pay US$5 extra for the option of hopping into a dinghy and spending an hour or so wondering around the village to see these ‘last survivors’ for ourselves.
Prior to arriving at Wellington Island, where Puerto Eden is situated, the crew gave us an information session. We learned that the population was about 200. Estimates differ as to how many indigenous persons remain in the community but the number could be as low as eight. Their mother tongue is Kawesqar which according to a Chilean NGO, Comunidad Ser Indigena is being eroded as local young people opt for Spanish language and culture. A testimonial on the tour company’s website blithely states that the ‘g uttural language is basically extinguished and will die for sure when they are gone.’
With a hundred-odd other passengers, I donned an outrageous orange life-vest, and sat patiently in one of the boats as we headed for the tiny clutch of dull dwellings that we could see through the fog.
For the next hour, I felt the acute discomfort of being an intruder. There was no guide and nothing obvious for visitors to do. A wooden boardwalk stretched a few hundred metres around the perimeter of the island, with dilapidated buildings on the hillside and mounds of empty crustacean shells making pretty patterns on the shore below. There were six or seven huts where bored-looking locals sat watching us, as we watched them. They were selling clichÃ©d knick-knacks for a couple of bucks little canoes with clumsily painted decorations.
Some people paid money to have their photos taken with a local. It reminded me of the black-and-white pictures of White explorers and anthropologists with African or Melanesian tribesmen that I used to see in old university textbooks. Travellers pay a couple of dollars for them now, but the photos will be worth more once the last Kawesqar passes into history.
I chose not to join the dozens of tourists who snapped photos of everything, including the battered little supermarket. It struck me as ridiculous. There was nothing memorable about the supermarket except that the entire front window was packed with grog. Hard liquor. Sailors’ fare. But other tourists, in their pumpkin-orange fleeces and bright yellow rain-vests, with their massive trekking boots and the ever-present water bottles, seemed to think it worthy of recording. Either that, or what is more likely, they weren’t really thinking about it at all.
I wasn’t the only who felt like this. Many of the younger people were equally confused. Why were we here? We didn’t meet or talk to any of the locals. We had been expecting to interact with people, not to observe them. Frankly, I felt like I’d been taken to a human zoo.
The General Manager of the tour company’s Buenos Aires office later told me that all the money from the excursion goes directly to the community and that the Magallanes also delivers goods ordered by them from the port towns to the north and south. I asked about the alcohol. She didn’t know what was ordered, she said, her company just delivers the goods.
What about the four locals who joined the cruise, catatonically drunk until one of them sobered up enough to aggressively harass half a dozen of the young women passengers? What they do is their business, the GM said. The Puerto Eden people have to pay for their tickets like everyone else. If they get drunk, they are no worse than the British passengers who start on the beers at 11:00 am.
Fair enough. But why did we disembark there? I asked. Why not stop, drop off supplies and pick up more passengers? She didn’t really understand my point. We had seen ‘the last indigenous community in southern Chile.’ People wanted to see them.
Did anyone ever stay for more than an hour? Well, she knew that it was possible to buy a ticket to Puerto Eden, and stop there. She didn’t know whether there was anywhere to stay, or what one would do, but it was possible. Had any tourist ever done that? No, in the three years she had been working there, they hadn’t.
Did the company have any feedback from passengers about their visit there? No, they didn’t, but she would gladly send me some more promotional material about th
e tour if I wanted.
Back on the boat, those of us who weren’t drunk were subdued. As you do on the back-packer track, we sat around and talked. Most of us felt guilty but didn’t quite know why. Two Americans in the group insisted that our money supported the community, and that’s why they invited us. That may be true, but in society we exchange money for all sorts of goods and services and, depending on what those goods and services are, we feel better or worse about the transaction.
I kept asking myself what it was that I had paid for. Unlike the numerous ‘indigenous’ tours that are available in South America, and also in parts of Northern Australia, the community of Puerto Eden had chosen its own looming mortality as its best competitive edge. Unlike the Aboriginal nations of the Northern Territory, it is not the continuity and practice of culture, but its palpable demise that the Kawesqar and the tourism companies are marketing. Named for the Garden of Eden, site of the biblical beginning of human life, Puerto Eden is where tourists can go to take happy snaps of the gradual disappearance of a people.
Is this the new romanticisation of first nations? What must it do to a people to take money in these circumstances? Or perhaps this is exactly what the more thoughtful tour operators want: to affect visitors so deeply that they think about the reality of life for aboriginal communities in Patagonia. Maybe they just can’t market it that way because most people won’t go somewhere to confront something so difficult.
I’d like to think these are the company’s motives, but I just don’t buy it. And by the third round of bingo that night, I’m sure most of us had forgotten about the Kawesqar and their toy canoes.
For me, though, back in Buenos Aires, it’s not the startling, expansive beauty of Patagonia that sticks in my mind. It’s the drab supermarket and slippery boardwalk of Puerto Eden that I’ll never forget, even though I don’t have a photo of myself with one of the smiling survivors to show my grandkids when the Kawesqar are gone.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.