WE ARRIVED in Ushuaia last night at 10:30 pm, but the sun remained hovering midway up the sky. The bus came to its final stop by the pier near several medium-sized vessels that were dwarfed by an Antarctica-bound cruise ship. As we got off the bus a crowd of salesmen swarmed us with offers to stay at one of their hotels or hostels, but I had already made a reservation the day I left Montevideo. An Israeli girl I had been talking to since the ferry across the Strait of Magellan jumped at one of those offers and before I knew it, she and her uncle and brother were in a van, out of my life and into my memories. The other passengers dispersed leaving me alone with my overstuffed pack and a crude map of Ushuaia. In Ushuaia the wind blows only from the south and the diminutive trees bow in penitence. And if light could blow in the wind, here it does. It blows into you. It blows through you. It fills you.
I followed the road listed on the map and climbed a steep hill, but the road ended at a cliff before I reached my hostel. Playing in the streets were a couple of kids (What is bedtime in a land that never darkens?) whom I could have asked for directions, but I felt confident in my ability to find my destination. I turned on a street then onto another paved road whose incline was so severe I thought any wind from the opposite direction would send me tumbling down several blocks before depositing me in the water. But the wind was at my back pushing me onward, and eventually I discovered the road restarted atop the cliff. My back ached by the time I reached the hostel, but my body and mind were confused as if I had jumped time zones. All I wanted to do was sleep in a bed.
I was assigned a room with a mother traveling with her fifteen year-old daughter and seventeen year-old son. Two other pairs of unmade bunk beds appeared occupied with clothing strewn over the sheets, so I threw my bag onto the top bunk above the teenage boy. I introduced myself in Spanish, and as it turned out, the family in my room was from Argentina—Mar de Plata—and Spanish was the only language they knew. Oddly, they seemed to be the foreigners. I spoke with the mother and son, but the daughter shied away and hid herself under her covers. Had I interrupted an important conversation or was my presence making her uncomfortable? She didn’t even introduce herself but instead allowed her mother to do it for her. Ultimately, I retreated into my thin, stiff pillow and fell asleep before the midnight sun’s final light receded.
I slept until eleven o’clock this morning and the Argentinean family had already left for their day’s excursion, but two young women were sleeping on the bunks on the opposite wall near the door. A wild night possibly? Their faces had that contorted look that showed how they fell into their bed last night is where they remained until the morning. By the time I returned from taking a shower in the communal bathroom across the courtyard, the two were stirring. We performed our Spanish introductions before settling into English. Lauren was a British university girl on holiday and Julie was a young professional from New York. They had a reasonable explanation for their wild night: they were celebrating Lauren’s birthday.
“It’s my birthday today,” I told them.
“Happy birthday,” said Lauren, “but I don’t think we can do another night like last night. We’ll go to lunch with you though.”
We walked into town for lunch, but it was a hurried affair as Julie had an early afternoon plane to catch back to Buenos Aires and then on to New York City. She was also insistent on visiting a shop to buy a “fin del mundo” t-shirt, so we went shopping afterward. How it could be so hard to buy a t-shirt, I don’t know, but nothing satisfied Julie. She was so tightly wound that any minute it seemed as if she’d spin out of control. Her excuse was a guy. She was not the first of many solo female travelers I’d encountered whose response to a bad breakup with a boyfriend was a trip to a place as far away as possible.
“So if a guy tells you he doesn’t love you anymore and moves out and never returns your phone calls, do you think it’s over?” Julie asked. “We were so good together. Four years! That’s what I gave him before he pulled this on me.” She stuffed her new t-shirts into her luggage. “I just hate putting all those years to waste. For nothing!”
“You enjoyed your relationship then?” I asked her.
“You have good memories?”
“Well, keep those good memories and move on before they turn bad.”
She scowled at me. “I took this trip to put him out of my head. But I can’t.”
“How long have you been away?”
“You should stay.” I told her. “Give yourself at least a month. You’ve already made it this far.”
“I can’t. I have to work.”
“Quit. Relax. Believe me. You need to.”
She dropped her eyes as if in prayer. “I know. I should. I should stay.”
It is here in Ushuaia, the precipice of our hemisphere, where the road ends, you pause, then turn around and start again.