Southern Exposure 14: Ushuaia, Argentina

Around noon on Friday, November 8, under mostly blue skies, and with chilly temperatures and strong, gusty winds, we pulled into the port of Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost  town on the planet Earth. At a latitude of about 60 degrees, Ushuaia is about the same distance from the equator as southern Alaska or Iceland. The remote town has a population of a little over 100,000  and is situated on a hill below a snowy mountain towering over 5,000 feet above the  Beagle Channel, leading to the Pacific Ocean and Cape Horn, over a hundred  miles due south. The town, which has a definite alpine feel to it, seems more European than the Chilean cities we have visited, with its colorful, mid-rise buildings and few overt signs of poverty. The closest port to the South Pole, Ushuaia is where many expeditions to Antarctica originate, and two of these smaller cruising ships were docked near us. 

The highlight of the afternoon was our excursion aboard a large catamaran to several tiny islands– more like very large, desolate rocks– to observe scores of sea lions basking in the sun, and one large colony of Imperial Cormorants. The scenery was stunning with snow-covered mountains all around us and whitecaps decorating the choppy, blue waters. The last few days have been all about extraordinary natural beauty and pristine wilderness. The Beagle Channel was a fitting conclusion to almost a week of wonder.

The highlight of the evening was Che Guevara. Remember him? The infamous South American revolutionary from Argentina, who was a key participant in the Cuban Communist Revolution in the 1950s, and in the 1960s was killed, according to most reports, by the CIA. The Motorcycle Diaries, a 2004-acclaimed, coming-of-age film, was the ship’s movie of the day. Based on the journal that Che wrote when he was a 23-year old medical student about a motorcycle adventure, riding with his buddy through several South American countries in 1952, it is not the typical movie you would expect to see on a cruise ship. More of an art flick than a popular movie, it paints a very sympathetic portrait of Che, who grew up in a comfortable, middle class family and became a revolutionary mainly because of the glaring societal inequities he witnessed on the road trip. 

The big takeaway for me was how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The inequities that made such an impression on Che are still present throughout South America and the world. In fact in some respects they are getting worse. Communism is no longer the silver bullet it was thought to be by some intellectuals and idealists in the early part of the last century. In fact you could argue that   Communism not only failed to deliver, it made things worse. And the inequities remain.  Life is just not fair. There is too much suffering. Yet there are big question marks as to where we go from here. 

And you don’t have to go far to see glaring inequities. Just look in the mirror.  Here we are on a fancy cruise ship, in what could easily be described as Exhibit A of  over-the-top, self-indulgent living. I would argue that few of us passengers on this cruise ship “deserve” this experience. Few  have “earned” it. It is not our “reward for success.” It is due mostly to luck and circumstance—what country we were born in, what kind of family we were born into, how we were treated as infants and toddlers and what kind of support we got growing up. It is due to the education we received, who our friends were,  the mentors we had, the status  of our physical  and mental health , the kinds of jobs available to us, and the opportunities that came our way. Sure, we had to make something of these opportunities, but still….

Now take a look at the 500 persons on this ship who are not passengers but are here to take care of the 1,400 people who are—to keep us safe, entertained, enriched, comfortable, and happy.

When Embry attended the captain’s talk today, there were a bunch of questions to the captain about the treatment of the crew, especially the line employees at the bottom of the food chain—those who clean our rooms, prepare our food, serve it to us, and keep the ship going. They are mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines with a sprinkling from other, mostly Asian countries. These people are courteous and polite, always greet you with a smile and also, as far as I can tell, do what they are supposed to do and do it well. How much they get paid was not disclosed, but surely it is not a lot. What was disclosed is that a 70-hour workweek for them is not unusual. (Apparently there are international regulations that prevent workweeks over 90 hours. Yes, that’s 90!) And the irony is that most of these workers on this ship will tell you they are the lucky ones.

This, of course, is just one example of  low hanging fruit on the inequity scale. But if you think about it, the low hanging fruit is everywhere, all the time. For Che Guevara the answer was a revolution, in fact a violent revolution. Some today may continue to argue that only a violent revolution will level the playing field. As one  who vigorously  would not agree, I also have to admit that I do not have a simple or compelling answer. And if I am honest, I will admit that while I should probably feel guilty about being among the privileged few who   are able to go on a cruise like this, I am enjoying myself immensely. It takes a movie like Motorcycle Diaries to remind me of the way the world really is and that looking the other way is not the answer either.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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