Our guide on the Beagle Channel cruise, a young man from Cordoba, Argentina, who fractured English charmingly, came out of the wheelhouse of the Tres Marias with a maté gourd and handed it to the Israelis. They sipped curiously and passed it to me. It tasted warm, medicinal, vaguely bitter but not unpleasantly so. Feeling a slight buzz, I handed it to the Germans to my right, who finally smiled.
For those who are unfamiliar with this subtropical South American fetish, yerba maté is a tea like beverage. The leaves of an evergreen holly tree are covered with warm, but not hot, water and the steeped results are served in round silver or wood containers the size of an orange. The leaves can be used about 20 times before replacing. The hot beverage section of Ushuaia’s local super market, La Anonima, was 95% maté.
Ushuaia, seen in the Google picture above, is a city of about 40,000 with steep streets sweeping down to a naturally beautiful harbor and up to jagged, glaciated peaks. It’s the southern most city in the world unless you consider Puerto Williams, across the Beagle Channel in Chile with fewer than 2,000 people, a city.
Ruth and I were not typical visitors when we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia several years ago. They would be affluent couples from around the world either going to or coming from Antarctica from October to March or November to mid-April sport fishers seeking combat with rainbow trout. We were there out of pure curiosity like Ferdinand Magellan. In 1520 he was seeking a western route to the Spice Islands and observed native fires and volcanoes, so he named the place Tierra del Fuego, or land of fire. As he sought a passage from the North to the South Sea, Magellan had no contact with the resident Yámanas who had already lived in this inhospitable but hauntingly beautiful place for 8,500 years.
Had he met the Yámanas, Magellan would have found them naked, a hard to believe fact in a place where Ruth & I seldom shed even our outer layer and it snowed on the first day of summer. Yámanas slathered themselves with seal grease and stayed close to the fire, even carrying it with them when they went fishing in canoes made from coihue trees. Clothing, actually, was their downfall. When missionaries insisted that they cover up, they lacked hygienic, cleansing rain on their skin and clothes bred flu, measles, or worse and led to their ultimate decimation (down from 2,500 to 300 between 1860 and 1893). Charles Darwin, who did meet them, described them as “infrahuman beings”, meaning subhuman.