The small sailboat plies the icy blue waters of the Beagle Channel.
It reveals to us, with each mile gained, perspectives of the semi-snowy mountain range around.
Little or nothing has changed these mountains in the almost five centuries that have passed since the pioneering incursion of Fernão Magalhães and the following ones, by other European navigators, through these places.
It is early autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Only 1000 km north of Antarctica. If the first days of exploration granted us surprising sunny afternoons that could even be tolerated in T-shirts, meteorology took its revenge on the unforeseen.
It launched a cold front from the depths of the frozen continent that alerted the region to what awaited and stirred up the hitherto calm waters of the Beagle Channel.
The Passage of HMS Beagle, Fitz Roy and Darwin through the Beagle Channel
Luckily, or more likely due to the good nautical sense of the reputed Captain Robert Fitz Roy, in its second expedition, the “HMS Beagle” sighted Tierra del Fuego on December 18th, in the middle of austral summer.
In the Beagle's first expedition, a group of Yaghan indigenous people reportedly stole one of the ship's auxiliary vessels. In return, Fitz Roy decided to take the accused's family hostage, awaiting a return that never came to pass.
As a result, the natives ended up traveling to England. There they received aristocratic and religious education and training until they became exotic celebrities.
Fitz Roy, an inveterate believer, had other plans: to bring them back to Tierra del Fuego where they would assume the role of Anglican missionaries among their own.
As we explore Isla de Los Lobos and Isla de Los Pajaros we find only noisy and conflicting colonies of sea lions, seals, loons, penguins and others that certainly dazzled Darwin.
Neither on dry land nor on the rocky islets that dot the Beagle Channel do we detect any signs of human life. It reinforces the border mysticism of those confines.
The Return of Jemmy Button and the Yaghan Indigenous Approach
With Fitz Roy and Darwin, things turned out differently.
As soon as they detected the familiar shapes of the territory they once lived in, the three kidnapped Yaghan rejoiced in the imminence of their return. Dozens of natives appeared on top of the cliffs, followed the ship along the coast, and shouted at the crew for hours on end.
The next morning, Fitz Roy decided to establish contact with the indigenous people. The group that landed offered them bright red fabric. The natives were immediately friendly.
An improvised dialogue ensued in which Jemmy Button – the most famous of the kidnapped natives – acted as interpreter.
Darwin was astonished by the natives' ability and tendency to imitate the gestures and words of the English – they even managed to repeat entire sentences.
And he described his unceremonious initial impression: “these poor bastards didn't grow up as they should, their hideous faces smeared with white paint, their dirty and greasy skin, their disheveled hair and discordant voices, their violent and undignified gestures .
Seeing such men, we can hardly believe that they are similar creatures and inhabitants of the same world”.
It was just the first of many contacts the naturalist had with the natives. And if Darwin quickly got used to analyzing them from an anthropological perspective, Fitz Roy persisted in his idea of establishing Anglican missions. Despite several desperate setbacks, it was relatively successful.
A Short Navigation on the Nearest Beagle Channel
Almost 200 years too late to follow the original events, we focus on the best that sailing can offer us and on feeling the historical trail of the place.
We go around the emblematic Les Eclaireurs lighthouse, reverse the route and return to the starting point. Even surprised by a thunderstorm, we disembarked safely.
Without waiting, that night, with our feet firmly on the ground, we continued to follow the adventure of the captain and the scientist.
The recent influx of visitors coming from the north and interested in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, was the mobile that Raúl Podetti – a businessman with other businesses in Argentina – was looking for to put into practice a cultural project he kept up his sleeve: to stage a multimedia show that reconstituted the adventures of Fitz Roy and Charles Darwin in Tierra del Fuego.
To this end, he erected a replica of the HMS Beagle brigantine supported by an adjacent room.
The Beagle Center and the Beagle Show Theatrical Reenactment
Thus, the Beagle Center was created. That's where an underpaid mix of young actors Fuegians e Porteños (from Buenos Aires) combine scenography, puppets, giant puppets, black theater, shadow play and special effects, all taking place on a stage that mimics the deck of the original ship, overlooking the homonymous canal.
Apart from the Beagle show, the Beagle Center is also a bar, lounge and dining room. After the show, the audience meets some of the actors and extras.
You can dine there, either in a space that alludes to XNUMXth century Plymouth – the English port from which the HMS Beagle set sail – or in another adjacent one, which imitates the villages and Yaghan and Yamaná canoes found by Fitz Roy and Darwin along the canals.
In the latter, the tables are lit by small bonfires similar to those that almost always warmed the indigenous people and that ended up causing European navigators to name the region as Tierra del Fuego.
We found the show more fun than we expected. We ended up staying for dinner. During an affable conversation with the director, we got permission to photograph a new showing of the show with full backstage access.
Two days later we returned. The action is already taking place when one of the extra boys leads us through dark corridors and stairs to the dressing room area.
Beagle Show's Hectic Backstage
We pass by the also dimly lit stage where Fitz Roy introduces his epic. And we find the wooden booths in which the other actors get dressed and undressed.
As is to be expected in that world of sailors, there are no women in the cast. We came across messy dressing rooms, full of paintings and messages written on the walls and a certain odor of testosterone.
At first, almost everyone is surprised by the presence of the foreign couple, but short conversations in Castilian break the ice. They give rise to jokes and jokes that almost always amuse us. Prevailing mirrors confuse the order of things and help to disrupt time.
It's our fault, in more than one scene, Arius and Marcos – the actors who play Fitz Roy and Darwin – have to run out to avoid breaking the sequence of the performance.
And among wigs, sailors' outfits, brooms and ironing boards, the rest line up in the hallway, puppets in hand and prepared to join the protagonists in a long musical scene. The group acts and lives for months in Tierra del Fuego.
You share an intimacy that doesn't always prove healthy. Backstage, two extras push each other and exchange insults: “Shut chubby!” or having faith in the strong accent Buenos Aires"cajate boludo” is the expression that gives rise to exaggeration and the joke goes wrong.
While the show continues, the two post-teenagers end up getting involved in a child's brawl that only ends with the intervention of several colleagues. We don't know what to say nor do we have anything to say.
That was the real backstage show and it just occurs to us to keep shooting. But the use of flash is prohibited from the start and everything takes place in a dim area under the stage.
It wasn't just in true history that Fitz Roy commanded the Beagle. Arius returns from the long dramatic monologue in which he confesses his disillusionment with Darwin's heretical ideas. He finds out about what is happening and heals the disagreement.
A little later, it is Marcos – Darwin – who appears. He informs us that he is just coming back for the final thanks. We took the opportunity to talk to him and take some relaxed portraits.
As we are told, the Beagle Show once had more viewers and better financial health. The guys in the cast enjoy your work as much as they can.
Something that neither Fitz Roy nor Darwin could ever enjoy: the cozy nightlife of Ushuaia.