Ushuaia: Day 1

December 31, 2014:

10:31 – sitting by the bay in Ushuaia waiting to board a boat. Marco, one of my Couchsurfing hosts, had an extra space on a boat tour he leads daily that goes through the Beagle Channel. I look out across the clear water to the green forested slopes of the steep mountains where they plunge into the sea.

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The boat tour takes us towards some of the islands in the bay, first to a small island where there’s a colony of sea lions. I’ve seen sea lions before, at the wharf in San Francisco and in Cabo Polonia in Uruguay, but never so close. The sides of the island are so steep that the prow of our boat nearly touches the rock next to a sleeping animal. We’re maybe three meters away from them. Looking back now, I’m surprised I couldn’t smell them, but at the time I was enchanted at being so close and didn’t think about smells. They lie in heaps piled on top of each other, snorting and burping and sometimes snarling at one another. Our guide tells us that most of them are female and most are pregnant. We take photos in silence to avoid disturbing them while they sleep.

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The weather improves steadily as our boat heads east toward the end of the little archipelago where a disused lighthouse looks out toward the Atlantic Ocean. The guys running the boat break out mate and beer (they actually have what looks to be a little keg on board) and blast ska music. I chat up three friendly Brazilian guys who spent a summer working at a ski resort in Tahoe some years ago and we reminisce about Nevada.

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We round the end of the archipelago and glide back west along the channel, over what I’m told are unusually calm and beautiful waters. We pass another island where cormorants are nesting, and like the island with the sea lions we get very close. I’m able to see young chicks begging for food and adults diligently adding sticks to their nests stuck in cracks in the rock.

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As we continue west, the sun comes out – another rarity in Ushuaia – and the clouds clear from the tops of the mountains surrounding the town. There’s snow on the mountain tops and we can see where there’s a little glacier tucked along a slope. Someone spots dolphins on our left and we stop to look. They’re tiny – maybe a meter long – and shy, surfacing 10 meters or so from the boat to breathe.

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We stop at another island covered in rich green grasses. Our guide takes us along a careful walk, pointing out flowers and grasses of interest. We see hawk-like birds called caranchos. One of them squeaks a high pitched, melancholy cry. “That one is hungry,” our guide says. We find chauda berries, called devil’s apples. “Don’t eat those while you’re in the park, they make a good laxative.” We spend a while examining a llaleta plant, which is a hard mound of small, tightly clustered leaves that looks like moss growing over a lumpy rock, but is actually hard layers of a plant heaped up over hundreds of years. We find one about half a meter in diameter that is probably 150 years old. The plants only grow a few millimeters per year.

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The sun is out fully as we return to the boat and our guides are fanning themselves and sunbathing with their shirts off. I’m still shivering a little in long pants and long sleeves – they’re not used to the comparatively warm weather here. Everyone is happy and relaxed and we sit on the boat enjoying the sun and speaking little. Ours is the only tour today so there’s no rush to get back to town.

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22:10 – I’m drinking fernet and coke nervously. For New Years’ I go to an asado with my Couchsurfing hosts. As an introvert I find large group interactions, especially with people I don’t know well, inherently draining and sometimes stressful, but I still enjoy being around people in general so I decided to go for this one.

Maybe it wasn’t the best choice. I can have a conversation with an individual in Spanish, but a big group conversation is too advanced for me, and I’m not able to follow the rapid Spanish conversation at all. I feel incredibly self-conscious sitting at the table trying to figure out what to do with myself while everyone around me talks and laughs and drinks. I feel isolated. I don’t want to leave – that would be giving up, right? – but I feel more and more uncomfortable as the night goes on. This is one kind of situation where I find myself completely lost – I have no idea what someone less introverted and socially anxious would do. Am I supposed to give up and leave? Do I interrupt everyone and insist they speak English? Do I interrupt the person next to me and make them talk to me instead of the group? I can’t figure out how to feel more comfortable without being rude. I drink more fernet.

Eventually it’s midnight and the conversation pauses for a few seconds and we say cheers.

An hour or so later, the asado is ready. Being drunk only makes it harder to speak Spanish when I get the occasional opportunity to talk to someone one-on-one. This combined with a couple of hours of social anxiety makes me almost unable to string together a sentence. I try to enjoy the slow-cooked steak and sausage. I grab a taxi back to my hosts’ apartment while they head to the national park for a party. I should have pretended to feel sick and left hours ago, I think to myself. I wonder what it’s like to be an extravert.

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