Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ushuaia - The End of the World

In an earlier post I had written about Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago at the southern tip of South America. Even just a hundred years ago, this region was untouched and exactly as it has been over centuries. But now it is completely transformed and the ancient people have almost completely died out or mixed in with the European people who settled here in the 20th century.

Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego is a modern city now and holds the title "Fin del Mundo" or "End of the World". There is one Chilean city even south of Ushuaia, called Punta Arenas. But Ushuaia in Argentina claimed the title first.

Arriving in Ushuaia is an experience in itself, because of the dramatic approach to the city. Flights from the mainland skim low over the southern tip of the Andes before dipping down into the cluster of islands, landing on a tiny airstrip that runs from tip to tip across a small island!

This landing is often rough due to the constant strong winds in this area, and I was quite nervous. So I left my camera in the overhead bin fully expecting to be jostled about. But the landing turned out to be perfect, and absolutely smooth. Others we met who landed the very next day said they didn't have such a smooth landing, and so we were pretty lucky.

The plane almost skimmed the water's surface on its gentle approach, and just as I thought we would be landing in water, we touched down on the tip of the island on a bright and sunny day. Since I couldn't get up to get my camera, I have no pictures, but here's one from our take-off, when we left Ushuaia.

The city is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and has variable weather always. It can go from sunny and warm to breezy, cold and rainy in hours, and one has to be prepared.

Lupins were in bloom everywhere when we visited in January, and the city was absolutely beautiful. Lupins are not native to this region though, and were introduced by European settlers.

We stayed at a little bed & breakfast which was a 15 minute walk from the main downtown area of the city. These red lupins were on either side of our door.

Here are some more pictures of the bursts of color we saw all over the town as we walked around. I couldn't resist taking pictures of them!

We walked several miles every day getting to and from the downtown area, because we got almost all our meals from the only ALL vegetarian take-out place in Ushiaia - called El Bambu.

We found it really hard to find vegetarian food that I could trust in Argentina. The only pasta dish we would find in the restaurants in Patagonia would usually smell odd, but I would eat it quickly without delving into details about the ingredients, because I didn't have many other options. Then we took to cooking our meals at our hostel, but after a long day's hiking, cooking isn't the easiest chore!

So we really appreciated the delicious, affordably priced food at El Bambu!

Most Antarctic cruises start from Ushuaia, and the port is stunning at night. I took my tripod out there one night and took some pictures of the night lights at the port. More of that in the next post.

Here's one more lupin picture before I end this post!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Please STOP the seal hunt !!!

The annual Canadian seal hunt is underway. I break down and cry every year when I see this cruel, cruel practice. How is it that we humans are capable of so much cruelty?

Seal hunting takes place in Canada, Greenland, Namibia, Norway, US, and Russia. Apparently Russia has banned it this year.

Do we really need to club baby seals to death for their pelt, blubber and meat? If we do have to have these things, can it not be done more humanely? What kind of world is this, where such actions are legal and commonplace?

Please click here if you'd like to sign the petition to protest this year's seal hunt.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Austin's downtown

A big thank you to Pink Dogwood of Wandering Mind for giving me an award. Thanks, Pink Dogwood - your comments have always been encouraging and I'm glad to have found you in blog land!

Today's post has a few pictures and some history from Austin's downtown area. The best thing about Austin (I think), is Ladybird Lake, which lies in the middle of downtown and offers greenery and pleasant walks in the midst of chaos.

As a result, high-rise condos and apartment buildings are sprouting up all over, offering views of the lake, and proximity to the trails around it. I don't know the name of this building, but it's a new one, and gave me a good sunset picture one evening.

There is constant construction in Austin, as in most metro areas, and taller and taller buildings are coming up everywhere, with gleaming glass panels and geometrically precise shapes.

The Frost Bank Tower is one of the most recognizable buildings in Austin today. It was completed in 2003, and stands 515 feet tall.

This one is the Bank of America Center, a 26-story office building that was built in 1975.

What was more interesting to me about the Bank of America Center, was this lovely little building from across the street that was reflected on its polished glass exterior!

This is the 8-story tall Scarbrough Building, which was built in 1910. This building was Austin's first steel and concrete structure. It was originally the Emerson Monroe Scarbrough's dry goods store. Locally known then as Scarbrough's, it was the finest department store in central Texas. It is now dwarfed by tall sky scrapers all around, but still holds its place in Austin's downtown.

Many such beautiful, ornate buildings stand literally buried among the tall matchbox-like newer structures all around. One has to look carefully to see these fine buildings, but they are still there.

The picture below is of a statue of Mrs. Angelina Eberly (1798 - 1860) on Congress Avenue. She was an inn keeper and is remembered as a hero of Austin.

The story goes that Sam Houston, the President of the Republic of Texas in the mid-1800s, thought that Austin was an inappropriate location for the capital, and campaigned to have it moved to Houston instead. When the congress disagreed, Houston sent a delegation of Texas Rangers to steal the government archives.

In December 1842, when the rangers were loading their wagons in the middle of the night with the documents, Mrs. Eberly, an innkeeper, heard the sounds and ran down the road to fire off the town cannon to alert everyone. She missed the Rangers but blasted a hole in the General Land Office building a few blocks away!

The cannon fire woke everyone up, and they stopped the Rangers from stealing the documents. Houston would now be the capital of Texas, if Angelina Eberly hadn't fired the cannon! This statue by Pat Oliphant stands on the sidewalk near where Eberly helped preserve Austin as Texas' capital city.

I took these pictures on a downtown field trip that our photography class took a few months ago. I am usually not too interested in taking photos of buildings, but was pleasantly surprised at how interesting this trip was.

I had to wake up early in the morning for this (which I don't usually do :)), and as a result, got to capture the early morning light and shadows that all disappear by the time I usually am up and about!

Have a good week.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The ancient people of Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the southern tip of the South American continent, and is made up of several small islands that are exposed to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the cold currents from Antarcica to the south.

This is a windswept land where winters are freezing cold and summers are cool, where a day can change from sunny and pleasant to bitterly cold with gale-force winds within hours.

Yet, this fascinating land has been occupied by humans for more than 12,000 years now. Nomadic hunter gatherers crossed a land bridge from the main continent to get here all those years ago, before the sea level rose and separated the islands from the mainland.

Their descendants, the Mannekenk and Selknam (or Ona) people still lived here in 1869 when the first white settler founded an Anglican Mission in Tierra del Fuego. Since then, the indigenous people who had lived here for so long, have quickly died out, due to exposure to different ways, diseases and so on.

All that remains is a small, modest museum in the city of Ushuaia, which tells their history in simple, but carefully prepared displays that at best look like school projects of gifted children.

In contrast, the more recent history of this area is displayed in larger museums (with steeper entrance fees).

The Yamana Museum

We skipped visiting the more recent museums, but spend a large part of an afternoon inside the Yamana museum. No one else visited while we were there. We were told to take as many pictures of the displays as we wanted, so I took a lot of them. It's a good way to encourage sharing of the fascinating history of these cultures.

The Yamana: Canoe people of the Beagle Channel

The Yamana or Yaghan people were still living their traditional lives in Tierra del Fuego 150 years ago, so this isn't ancient history.

They were sea-going people who spent long periods aboard their canoes, living off the sea. While out on the ocean, the men hunted seals from the prow, while the women collected shellfish from the oceans.

The fact that utterly fascinates me is that only the women could swim. And since the Yamana didn't wear any clothes, these amazing women took to the icy waters with only seal grease protecting them from the cold! It was so cold even in the summer while we visited, that it is mind boggling to me that these women were so tough.

The Yamana always carried fire with them, even on to the canoes. They set the fire in a space in the middle of their canoes. This was so that they could instantly start a larger fire once they arrived on land, since it was always so cold.

The arrival of European settlers in 1884 mostly wiped out the Yamana due to a measles epidemic. Also, the Yamana way of life was very finely tuned to the environment they lived in, and had been honed over hundreds of years. When well-meaning missionaries tried to clothe them, the Yamana contracted pneumonia from the damp clothes that they wore, since their sea-faring ways didn't match the clothes they were given.

The last of the Yamana, Abuela Rosa, died in 1982. Some descendants of the Yamana still live in Tierra del Fuego, but there is only one surviving speaker of the Yamana language alive today.

The Selknam

The Selknam or Ona were powerful, fearless people who also lived in Tierra del Fuego at the same time as the Yamana. The community hunted guanacos, eating the meat and fashioning clothes out of the guanaco skin. They were expert hunters who used bows and arrows with great skill.

When European settlers arrived here in the 1880s and set up sheep farms, they fenced off large areas of Selknam land, and prohibited entry to the native people. This led to conflict, especially when the Selknam started hunting the sheep, since any animal was fair game to them.

This unfortunately led to a systematic genocide of the Selknam people. Headhunters were paid money for bringing in heads of the Selknam they had killed, with bonuses paid for pregnant women. The heads were even shipped off to collectors and museums in Europe. Poisoned meat was also given to the Selknam in the attempt to get rid of them.

In 1881 around when Tierra del Fuego was first colonized, about 3500 Selknam people lived on the big island of Tierra del Fuego. By the late 1920s, the hundred or so of the Selknam that remained, had to succumb to acculturization.

The last two pure-blooded Selknam: Lola Kiepje and Esteban Yshton passed away in the late 1960s.

For the whole time that we were in Tierra del Fuego in the city of Ushuaia, I felt a little disconnected from the modern city around me. It was cold and rainy on most days, and as we walked up to high glaciers and hiked in the forests, I felt the presence of these ancient people around me. I kept trying to see this land through their eyes. What a great loss it is to us that their culture is no more!

PS: The photos above are the ones I took from displays at the museum. I don't know who the original photographers were.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Bluebonnets are here!

It is Holi today in India, the Festival of Colours! This festival is celebrated by throwing coloured powder and coloured water over others, lots of dancing, and good food as always.

In the south of India where I grew up, Holi wasn't celebrated with as much fervor as it is in the northern parts of India. Several stories exist for the origin of this festival, and each one is very interesting. They all have one ending in common though, that it is the celebration of the victory of good over evil.

Traditionally, natural colours and powders were used for the festivities; the bright yellow of turmeric, the brilliant red of kumkum, the healing green of neem, and so on.

Since the change of seasons in the spring usually brings with it colds and other viral infections, this was possibly a way by which people invoked the protective powers of these Ayurvedic herbs to arm them against the germs.

The synthetic powders that have replaced the natural ones to some extent these days are toxic, so it might be wise to go back to the old ways of celebrating Holi!

To celebrate this Festival of Colours, I give you some bright natural colours from Austin. :)

Spring is here! Though spring in Austin is definitely not as much of an explosion of colour as spring in other cities, it does have its own fleeting charm, which I am slowly beginning to appreciate. We lived in Atlanta before moving here, and I loved spring there. I think that part of the country has the most vibrant spring ever, and will do a separate post on that. But in Austin, though one has to look more closely, the beauty is definitely there.

The redbuds were the first to bloom. Their bright pink petals contrasting beautifully with the silver grey bark. This tree in my neighbor's yard was at its peak last week when I took the picture, but is already fading.

Cactus flowers have started to appear.

And so have other small flowers in my front yard - not sure what kind these are.

The bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas and grows in small bunches close to the ground. Their little heads are already nodding along the highways on the grass, and the open spaces are starting to shimmer with a blue haze. Soon we will see them everwhere. It's such a pity that they don't last very long.

More colour is yet to come, before the heat of summer really sets in. I'll leave you with a sample of pictures I took last year, during late spring. This is what we can look forward to.

Happy Holi, everyone!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Where is Home?

I was tagged by Shayla to post the 4th photo from my 4th folder. But since I'd done something similar recently, I decided to modify her tag a little. The photo she posted led her to wonder about being home. And I've picked that theme up for this tag.

Home ... where is home?

I've lived almost exactly half my life in Chennai, India and half in four different states in the US. But when I sit down and think about it, the picture of home that comes to mind is a place where I've never lived, and have visited only about 3-4 times.

Kerala - a Southern state in India where my parents were born, and their parents were born ... though I've never really lived there, and only partially understand the language, I feel it is home.

With a large part of its land covered in evergreen forests and hills, and a long and beautiful coastline, there are aesthetic reasons why Kerala can make anyone want to live here. There is lush greenery everywhere, and this is a state that is famous for its backwaters.

Coconut palms grow everywhere ...

... and fruit trees & flowers grow in profusion in the fertile land. Jackfruit is so common that no one will pay money to buy the fruit in the market. I once found this deliciously sweet fruit at a farmers market in Atlanta. I had to leave it behind when I found that a slice the size of a slice of pizza cost $25 !!

Wild pineapples fall over with their weight ...

... ripe cashew fruit hangs from trees all over (sorry about the blurry photo)

and cool coconut water can be had by the roadside.

It is a land of beauty and nature's bounty. But beyond all this ...

It is the place where my parents, grandparents, and their grandparents before them lived their lives. On a recent visit to India, I went with my parents to Kerala, and visited the places where they lived as children. These places are still almost exactly the way they were all those years ago when my grandmother was a young girl, and I could see their stories come alive before me.

The temple tank that my grandmother used to visit daily as a young woman ...

Did she admire these pink lilies too?

The beautiful temple that generations of my family worshipped at ...

Where the sweet perfume of the Nagalinga (cannonball flower) scents the air.

Did my grandmother linger beside the tree too, mesmerized by the perfume ...

There is so much history here, and so many stories of my ancestors that I have heard, that I can almost feel their presence in these places. It is strangely satisfying to walk along roads they walked on and visit the places they visited every day.

So though I have never lived there, Kerala is home to me.

How about you? If you would like to ponder this question too, please feel free to take up the tag, and leave me a comment letting me know. I'd love to come over and read about it.

Have a great week.