A frigid island afire with wonders


Argentina: Almost five centuries after its discovery, remote Tierra del Fuego remains home to colorful wildlife and whimsical individualists.

February 05, 2000|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

USHUAIA, Argentina -- When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first caught sight of this frigid island at the tip of South America in 1519, he named it Tierra del Fuego -- Land of Fire -- for the smoky blazes rising from Indian camps on the shore.

Little did he know that the Indians had their eye on him as well. Tierra del Fuego's tribes had long used fire as a signal, throwing green beechwood branches onto their campfires as a warning if an intruder was spotted.

As Magellan cruised past the island in his tall-masted ship, through the straits that today carry his name, one smoky blaze after another blossomed along the shore. Fire burned even in the canoes of the Indians, who built their blazes on a bed of sand or turf.

Today, Tierra del Fuego's Indians are gone, apart from two elderly sisters living on the Chilean side of the island. But this land remains a place of wonders.

This is the southernmost bit of well-populated land in the world, just 700 miles from Antarctica. It is also one of the most starkly lovely, cut by the rugged snow-capped Andes, which turn to run west to east here, and by innumerable icy ocean passages.

With nothing but open ocean between it and Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego is raked by near-constant icy winds. Its 100,000 residents walk around with the fur trim of their parkas shrugged close around their necks and their hands jammed firmly in their pockets. Sun is rare but blessedly welcome, prompting the island's great hairy dogs to sprawl in the streets in pure bliss.

Ushuaia, the capital, is set on the Beagle Channel, made famous by the passing of the ship carrying naturalist Charles Darwin. The city is ringed by stunning cragged mountains that could be cut from a Dr. Seuss book, and the bay is so clean one can see the bottom, hundreds of feet below.

It remains a place of whimsical individualists. No two houses are alike, some tin with white-painted gingerbread, others rugged A- frames built on sleds for easy transport, the mobile homes of the near-Antarctic. One cottage sports Einstein's equation for the translation of mass to energy -- E equals MC squared -- on a neat wooden plaque where the address might otherwise go.

The buildings are painted to stand up to the ever-present gray clouds and drizzle. The tower at the city's new airport is bright gold and violet, the hangar a brilliant royal blue. The terminal itself is periwinkle, and the town's historic prison mustard.

Ushuaia, a city of 45,000, has a rugged golf course and a failed duty-free zone. In the late 1970s, to spur industrial growth at the country's remote end, Argentina's government declared Ushuaia duty-free.

Overnight Sanyo, Philco and a host of other manufacturers of television sets and videocassette recorders set up shop at the end of the world, knocking on doors to find scarce workers. Wages were high, and buyers in Buenos Aires snapped up Ushuaia's wares.

Then in the late 1980s, Argentina's once-closed economy opened to imports. Ushuaia's $1,000 television sets, made with expensive labor and well-traveled parts, could no longer compete with $300 Asian imports. By 1995, most of Ushuaia's factories shut down.

But the duty-free zone lingers, and on the streets of Ushuaia, the thick-coated dogs snooze in front of store windows filled with French perfume and imported Italian leather coats, things no one but the cruise-ship tourists can afford.

For a handful of days each year, starting in October or November, Tierra del Fuego lies under the Antarctic ozone hole, a swirling phenomenon the size of that continent that in spring sends arms reaching north to the tip of South America.

Fuegans are worried. A poster at the province's environmental agency shows residents tromping over the landscape in yellow radiation suits and black visors. "Be Careful with the Ozone Layer or Change Your Fashion," it warns in Spanish.

The problem, however, it turns out, isn't all that bad. The hole has stabilized in size, with a worldwide reduction in the use of chlorofluorocarbons and is expected to heal by 2050. Standing under it nets one gets no more radiation than lying near-naked on a Caribbean beach in the summer. Just wear a hat and sunglasses, scientists say.

Still, to better understand the hole, last fall they flew a converted Russian spy plane right through it, at twice the altitude of a normal commercial flight. The Russian pilot wore a space suit, to protect against not only the ozone hole but also cosmic rays.

Turns out Tierra del Fuego's a magnet for those, too. The rays, a bit like weak X-rays, sink at the Earth's poles. "Here we're very close to the sink," says Carli Bruno, an Italian astrophysicist with the ozone project, formally called the Airborne Polar Experiment.

The ozone hole and cosmic rays, however, appear to have done little to slow the real menace in Tierra del Fuego: the beavers.

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