From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

The great holiday pledge

I’m still here, although I feel that I’ve been living in the real world far more than on the Internet lately. It’s neither a bad nor a good thing, although I do miss writing more regularly. I miss a lot of things, in fact, but I suppose that this will keep happening forever, so there’s no point telling myself it will get better next year and I’ll have more time for myself. Things are good already, if exhausting. Let’s keep them that way.

I hope you all have a fantastic new year. Strange weather aside (it’s been very warm and cloudy since the beginning of December, and it’s starting to feel like we live inside a rather stuffy box), everything has begun well here. We threw a raucous non-alcoholic party with plenty of silly games involved, got up at eleven this morning feeling refreshed and glad, and we’re enjoying a quiet day at home before school starts again. One day at a time.

I’m not big on New Year resolutions, but I had one this year I wanted to share in case it might resonate in any way. As a non-religious person, Christmas has a somewhat blurry meaning for me, yet it does have meaning. We make Christmas trees and traditional Nativity scenes each year, we plant wheat and let it grow through December, we have traditional Christmas food. I enjoy it, I look forward to it, and I’d love to love Christmas, yet it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable when you go out in the city centre towards the end of December. People walk briskly, bumping into each other, looking for last-minute presents, some of them argue on the phone, stress is palpable everywhere. I could be wrong, but I hardly ever get a sense of happiness outside. What I do get is a sense of obligation, a sense that people run after time they don’t have to organise a celebration that will exhaust them before it brings them joy, and it’s a bit saddening. What people miss most during the year is a little time for themselves, a little peace and quiet, a good night’s sleep. And instead of indulging in all these things, it seems we forgo them even more forcefully around Christmas, for some reason nobody seems to truly remember.

I could feel sorry for ourselves as a society. I don’t. We’re choosing this, even if social pressures sometimes make us forget the meaning of choice. What really bothers me is the cost of this buying frenzy. Food will be bought, cooked and thrown away. Beasts will be tortured and slaughtered at an infernal rhythm, because few people imagine a vegetarian Christmas. Cheap presents will be bought because you need to make everybody happy, and never mind if they come from sweatshops or if they were made by people working in conditions we would never accept for ourselves. Trees are felled by the thousands just so there can be a Christmas symbol in every home, and thrown away a couple of weeks later. Even if all of this was enough to make everyone happy, it wouldn’t be right. We can’t buy a time of happiness by making other people miserable, we can’t buy joy with slaughter.

So my one good resolution is this: from now on, there will be no unethical purchases for Christmas anymore. I will only buy gifts if I can get some reassurance that they were made in ethical conditions (I know this is usually tricky to ascertain, but I will do my best at least), and make them myself if I can’t. Reusable Christmas trees have proven easy to make, so there will be no miserable felled fir tree for me from now on, and I won’t use any ornaments made in poor conditions on the other side of the world. I’ll cut back on meat even if I don’t go fully vegetarian, and I’ll encourage people around me to do the same instead of including one measly vegetarian option for the one non-meat-eater at the table, because there’s no reason a dozen animals should die every time a family wants a celebration (tasty vegetarian dishes abound, just use your imagination!). And I’ll remember that if end-of-the-year celebrations are to have any meaning at all, then I shouldn’t value my personal temporary comfort over the lives and safety of people making my Christmas purchases, or over the animal lives suffering so we can gorge ourselves.

Ideally, of course, this is what we should do all year long. But let’s face it, switching to an ethical lifestyle in a Western country is arduous work, as it is the exact opposite of the ideal consumer lifestyle that is being pushed on us on a daily basis. But since we have to start somewhere, here is my suggestion: between whenever the holiday season starts for you and whenever it ends, let’s make it an actual time of peace and joy, not by making perfunctory donations or by writing gift cards, but by truly thinking about our littlest choices and making them count for the best, not for the worst.

Seahorses riding the waves

We were about to sit down for lunch with my grandaunt and granduncle when my mother said:

"Did you know seahorses were fish?"

My brother and I started to roll up our eyes.

"Seahorses? They’re invertebrates, mum! Wherever did you hear that?"

"On the radio this morning. They called them fish. It did sound weird, though."

"They’ll just say any crap on the radio." My brother called my granduncle, who’s reputation as a walking encyclopedia is well established in the family. "What are seahorses, anyway? They can’t be fish!"

"I think they are fish, he said. Did you leave the Internet on, Cécile?"

I had. I had wanted to make him proud (and show off a bit, yes) by showing him my first ever online academic publication. My article was still on full screen. We called Google to our rescue and swiftly found the page on seahorses.

Well. Seahorses are fish. They’re not even, like, a truly uncommon order of primitive fish or something. They’re part of the most widespread suborder of fish in the world. And yes, they do have fins. And fishbones, and everything. Only a weird-looking head to fool people who don’t look past appearances, and beyond-the-hypest-postmodern males who incubate the eggs in their bellies. Otherwise, they’re just plain, 100% genuine, homegrown-with-fresh-farm-ingredients fish, going about their buisness and proving the world that even fish have a right to be different. And they made my brother and I look stupid.

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But then after that we had a walk on the beach, along the waves. Rolling, howling sprays of crashing sea, turquoise and white, battling in all directions at once when the currents met the coast in different points, bursting rolls of foam and melted wind inside walls of water. We stayed for a while, watching the currents swell, and ever so glad that our 88-years-old grandaunt still makes us look like fools when we try to help her up the steep path and she just brushes up aside and strides ahead of us, still laughing from that story she told us about a woman who had passed before her in a queue pretexting that the was a respectable elderly lady of seventy-one, and refused to believe our grandaunt when she told her her age. The waves still licked the rocks when we went back to the appartment, happy and giddy from the sea air, still thinking of seahorses.