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Dispatches from our man at the Antarctic Biennale: postcards from the edge

by Adrian Dannatt  |  19.04.2017
Dispatches from our man at the Antarctic Biennale: postcards from the edge
Having failed to find postcards in so many different Antarctic stations, I finally bought a bunch at the one bookshop in Ushuaia
Tuesday 28 March: In the middle of the night I look out of the porthole and see mysterious points of light in distance, the first lighthouse, lone houses on the distant outskirts of Ushuaia, homeward bound. And when I next wake I can feel our ship is at anchor, sense our stillness out in the black bay, like a sleeper train stalled at some mountain station in the middle of the night, awaiting daybreak.

Too much drink, unable to sleep, I watch dawn emerge like murder. The light moving across the ceiling from my porthole; so Conradian, that metaphysical element of the ‘passage’ as if of life itself. The double ‘Conrad' of our whole trip, Tony as well as Joseph, video art and avant-garde sound installations all at sea.
 
Our last tannoy, 7.30, Ushuaia harbour. Out on deck the beautiful sun down the fjord and our morning coffee ritual, but with sense of sadness this was the end. The humping of enormous bags, carried off the boat by crane, amused outrage that my own suitcase so small, everything I need in just one hand. A blizzard of exchanged addresses, cards, slips of paper. Realised I could easily walk to the Albatross Hotel with my battered old bag down the length of the quay, like a Raúl Ruiz weary sailor in mirror shades. The depressing obligations of returning to the normal world and, specifically, a couple of thousand damn emails clogging the box, all morning dealing with the endless digital flux, backlogged reality, unleashing the dam of demands and duties and decisions.

Asleep for the afternoon, the ‘lost weekend’ catching up, and then out in my sailor pants walking the streets of Ushuaia looking for an old-fashioned Argentine barber for my ten days’ ragged beard; nothing but the dreaded ‘Unisex’. Having failed to find postcards in so many different Antarctic stations, I finally bought a bunch at the one bookshop, to help keep it going, and was amazed it was packed with people. All the latest titles, serious history section, and a crowd of locals browsing. Gives one hope, ‘the bookshop at the end of the world’. Wrote my cards on municipal bench overlooking the bay and actually saw our own ship sail away, our beloved Akademik Sergey Vavilov dwindling to a pinprick on the smudged horizon. Пока! And on my left the big mountains, like the best of Scotland, holding the last of the sun; it had been a proper long, hot day.
 
Wrote my cards on municipal bench overlooking the bay and actually saw our own ship sail away, our beloved Akademik Sergey Vavilov dwindling to a pinprick on the smudged horizon. Пока!
At eight, the last guard all met again at El Viejo Marino on the port front, for their world-famous king crab, absolutely delicious washed down with Quilmes beer.

A magnificent Pon-Pon in finest form leading us into the final vows and sentimental sea ballads, even the Queen of Shiba treating us to a melodious Shinto shanty. One day on deck, whilst watching the whales frolic alongside, I had tested my luck and innocently inquired: “You’re Japanese, right, you like eating them?” He had amusingly licked his lips and nodded, “from time to time, mmm.” Jean de Pomereu had met with a cousin just finishing ten months pedalling down the coast of South America; everyone eventually ends up here in Ushuaia. Jean had bought me a round decal proclaiming ‘Malvinas Siempre Argentinas!!!’ I put it on my jacket pocket and immediately realised a bad mistake, the angry waiter and rest of room staring, so I hastily peeled it off. The empty tank in front of the restaurant, which had been full of crabs when we arrived, all eaten by us English Pirates, yum yum.

The charm of this small, empty town perched on edge of nowhere, the parallel streets and their sense-scent of the sea just beyond. A lone kid roaring past on motorbike, hair blowing in wind, warm night air, all the romance of the sign ‘Buenos Aires 3,090’, the idea of setting off at night along the coast of Patagonia heading into the costal dawn. Managed deep dark bedroom by 11 dot.

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