The End of the Earth

July 18, 2011 – Killing the Buddha

The ancestral burial ground of the Yaghan people lies on the frigid southern bank of the Beagle Channel. White stakes slant out of the grass like so many scattered bones along the shore, as faded and blank as the Patagonian sky overhead. The next 20 miles of coast is empty but for the narrow gray streak of road that heads east to the Chilean outpost of Puerto Williams, the southernmost town on earth. Rows of tidy white houses huddle low under a wall of ragged peaks that seem to push them back north toward the water. Viewed from the channel, the town might be a giants’ cemetery, the houses just so many grave markers for a foolhardy civilization.

Some 2,000 people live here, about 60 percent of them connected to the navy. Among the permanent civilian residents, only one is of non-Chilean descent. His name is Ben Garrett, and he came here, like many before him, to preach the gospel.

Ben and his Chilean wife Monica first turned up on Isla Navarino in 1991. Forty years after its  founding in 1953, Puerto Williams still had no paved roads. Firewood served as the only source of heat (it still does), and residents lined up once a month to purchase vegetables arriving from the mainland. It was not an easy place to call home.

The Garretts had set sail from the more hospitable northern climes of Chile’s principal port, Valparaíso. With the yacht that Ben had spent three years building with his own hands, they had been commissioned to work on a documentary retracing the steps of Charles Darwin, who docked at Isla Navarino in 1835 en route to the Galapagos. Like Darwin, they had intended to stay only briefly, but circumstances conspired against them.

A fire at the dock in Puerto Williams damaged the yacht, stranding them through the winter until repairs were finished. The following year it had motor troubles. “We spent four years fighting to leave this place,” Monica remembers. “Then we decided to stay because it was God’s will.”

Ben remembers the decision somewhat differently: “I went to the library and read a book about Allen Gardiner and decided to try to fulfill his last wish to see the Yaghan people evangelized.”

*

Ben and Monica are far from the first people to attempt to fulfill the lofty imperative from Acts to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth” by evangelizing the Yaghan. The ancestors of the Yaghan arrived here 6,000 years ago, having traveled farther than anyone else in the great overland migration that populated the globe. Joan Didion once wrote of California, “Here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” On Isla Navarino, beneath roiling Patagonian clouds, humankind ran out of earth entirely.

The land here seems determined to resist settlement. Glacier-choked mountains rise on either side of the channel as faint outlines behind fog and clouds, etchings cross-hatched by rain. When the clouds lift—and they inevitably do in Patagonia, if only for a moment—thousands of snow-melt waterfalls shimmer into sight, bending down the flanks of mountains like silver ribbons through lush, algal forests that creep up the cliffs from the slate gray water. This is the landscape the Yaghan call home.

Yet isolation could not protect the Yaghan from the inexorable spread of European exploratory, commercial, and religious missions. Explorers, shipwreck plunderers, seal hunters, and scientists (like Darwin) had been in contact with the Yaghan for nearly two centuries before the first missionaries arrived. Among them was Allen Gardiner, the one who would later inspire Ben Garrett to remain here. Gardiner began his career as a sailor in the Royal British Navy, shifting to missionary work 15 years prior to his death. He set his sights on the young nation of Chile in the 1840s and sailed to the Tierra del Fuego in 1851 to evangelize the Yaghan.

Those who plied these remote and unforgiving waters in the earliest years of contact had little interest in the Yaghan and left them to their traditional way of life. When Gardiner landed here, he encountered a people who rowed the canals practically nude, with faces daubed in white paint and bodies smeared with seal fat to insulate them from the bitter cold. They subsisted on whale and seal blubber hunted by the men and shellfish gathered from the frigid waters by the women—a high fat diet that helped them to cope with the Antarctic chill. The Yaghan were, by all accounts (including those left by Darwin), the prototypes of the “savages” that missionaries the world over aimed to save from damnation. But Gardiner would not be the man to do it. Short on supplies, he watched his men die one by one, eventually succumbing to the elements himself less than a year after landing on Isla Navarino.

Just 20 years later, Thomas Bridges, another Anglican missionary, became the first to found a permanent European settlement in the region, and his efforts to modernize the Yaghan set in motion the process that would bring them to the verge of extinction. During his years in Patagonia, Bridges performed the first census (he calculated about 3,000 people) and compiled a Yaghan-English dictionary. His mission also introduced modern agriculture, western clothing, and permanent shelter, built upon the site of the ancient Yaghan burial ground at Mejillones. This weakened the Yaghan’s resistance to the cold and introduced foreign diseases that swept rabidly through the new settlement. By 1902, a new census performed by the South American Missionary Society estimated only 130 Yaghan descendants still living.

So, upon their arrival nearly a century later, Ben and Monica encountered a much-changed Yaghan people. The population had leveled out around 70, only a small handful of whom could claim pure lineage and speak the native Yaghan tongue. Today, only one remains, 79-year-old Abuela Cristina Calderón. Over the years, both religious and secular attempts to protect and integrate the Yaghan had all but completely eroded the traditions they had maintained for centuries. Nomadism had gone first, then ritual practices like the coming-of-age ceremony ciexaus, banned by Chilean authorities in 1935, when an accident during its preparation resulted in a fluke death. The founding of Puerto Williams brought the island’s first civilians and, along with them, government schools that all children on the island were required to attend. Too far from the school, Yaghan families living in Mejillones gradually abandoned the historic land in favor of the reservation established at Villa Ukika alongside Puerto Williams proper. By 1974 Mejillones too had been abandoned and transformed into a nationally protected landmark, a memorial to Yaghan culture, a headstone with no death date, biding its time over an open grave.

The Yaghan had been incorporated into the social fabric of Puerto Williams; they had also, like other indigenous communities world over, been separated from the last vestiges of their ancient culture in the name of development, modernization, and integration—more secular modes of salvation. Despite the devastation wrought by previous, well-meaning attempts to save the Yaghan, Ben and Monica saw there an unfinished task. Not only had the Yaghan yet to accept the church, Ben says that when he and Monica arrived, “90% of them were alcoholics and the majority were just living together.” The pair set it as their task to rescue the Yaghan from adultery, despair, and godlessness. But  they didn’t just want to save the souls of the Yaghan—they wanted to save lives.

*

It was 1977 when Ben had the accident that would eventually bring him to Puerto Williams. Diving for lobsters off the coast of Easter Island, he surfaced too quickly, resulting in a case of the bends. In his condensed version of events, he went unconscious and awoke in a hospital in Valparaíso. Immediately thereafter he began to pursue his missionary work. Symptoms of the bends can range from joint pain to death; in Ben’s case the disease left a permanently lame leg and an abiding desire to spread the word of God. Bubbles of gas in the blood can work in mysterious ways.

Thus, Ben’s life splits neatly into two parts: before the bends and after. Born in Los Angeles in 1934, Garrett, like Gardiner, spent the first half of his life as a sailor. By 1977, at age 43, Ben was serving as captain of a yacht circumnavigating the globe. In the three years that followed the diving accident, Ben devoted himself to two tasks: missionary school, and the construction of a 75-foot schooner. He named her the Victory.

The Victory first set sail in 1986, launching from the southern city of Puerto Montt, where Ben met and married Monica, 20 years his junior, at the evangelical Foursquare Church. Soon after, the pair began their missionary work together, sailing with the Victory to the small towns of the Chiloé archipelago just south of Puerto Montt to spread the good news. Cash-strapped after a couple of years, they put their missionary work on hold and chartered the Victory for tourism. Then, in January of 1991, at the height of austral summer, the Garretts received the commission to take the Victory south. They packed their belongings for the long journey and set off with their two-year-old daughter Grace for the bottom of the world. They have been there ever since.

Over the last twenty years, the Garretts have established their own idiosyncratic place on the island. They have opened and closed a mission, started a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, sold the Victory, and ensconced themselves in an isolated house on a hill, from which they gaze nostalgically back north over the Beagle Channel. Ben passes most of his days here, aloof from the general population, a subdivision unto himself in a town already strictly divided by occupation and race: Ben Garrett in the house on the hill, the civilian population to the east, the poor fishermen in wind-battered houses down the hill by the water, the Yaghan in Villa Ukika, and the navy families in the neat, white government houses on the western end of town. Ben has not sailed since he and Monica built their house, where he runs a tourist agency from his computer. Most of his contact with the outside world occurs digitally, and he’s a mysterious, almost reclusive figure to those residents of Puerto Williams outside the circle that receives invitations to visit the house.

Monica, however, has forged a prominent position for herself in town, overseeing a bed & breakfast, a small shop, and the island’s only internet café. Despite having now lived in Puerto Williams for half her life, Monica continues to seem less than comfortable amongst its gravel roads and utilitarian architecture. Tall, reserved, and possessed of a disconcerting sternness and sobriety, Monica is notably—perhaps deliberately—more elegant than most women in Puerto Williams. She nurtures a certain snobbishness about the place, betraying a quiet but unmistakable pride in her eldest daughter’s recent escape to Buenos Aires to study music. “I don’t want my children to grow up without vision,” she says, “but it’s difficult for kids to live here and leave.” The hard glint in her deep-set eyes assures you that her children, at least, are different—certainly in the eyes of their mother, and maybe in the eyes of God as well.

For their first eight years in Puerto Williams, the Garretts and their growing family lived aboard the Victory, moored alongside the defunct naval ship that serves as the base for the town’s yacht club. In the summer months an ever-changing rotation of boats would pass through, sailing under flags from around the world, an ephemeral cosmopolitanism that in the winter left the Garretts and their girls stranded. If they were lucky, Monica said, one other boat would remain there with them through the dark, cold months from May to September. Monica concedes that Puerto Williams has allowed her daughters to grow up in calm and safety, but the intense loneliness of those years has left its mark.

Like any good martyr, Monica has learned to bear her sufferings with the confidence that they have not been in vain. By 1999, just seven years after they began their work in Villa Ukika, the Garretts decided to close down the mission and stop ministering to the Yaghan. “It was time. Everything has a time,” Monica says, repeating the sage wisdom of Ecclesiastes with the unselfconscious clarity of a true believer: In just seven years, Ben and Monica Garrett had succeeded in doing what generations of missionaries before them had never managed: “They’re all believers now,” Monica says, neither smug nor insistent, but endowed with a stolid, protestant certainty.

Despite Monica’s confidence in the mission’s success, you won’t find a church among the 11 or so ramshackle houses that make up Villa Ukika. During their seven years among the Yaghan, the Garretts ran their mission from the home of Ursula Calderón, the late sister of Abuela Cristina, while they continued to live aboard the Victory. Ben and Monica measure the success of their mission not by its material residue, but by the changes they perceived in the fabric of the community itself—particularly the problems of adultery and alcoholism that they believed plagued it before their arrival. “After seven years,” Ben affirms, “we started to see them change from alcoholics and adulterers.”

“Before the men and women drank,” Monica agrees. “Now they don’t.”

*

On a Thursday afternoon, Villa Ukika seems abandoned. The handicraft shop near the road is closed and a knock on the door marked “pension” yields no response. A pack of stray dogs picks through garbage along the beach; a hoarse breath of smoke drifts up from a crooked metal chimney toward a wan, indifferent sky. These are the only signs of life. Even the fierce wind that so often howls down the channel has died, leaving just the distant November light—the same diffuse gray at seven in the morning and nine at night—and a deep, cemeterial silence.

Eventually a door creaks open and Patricio Chiguay emerges unsteadily from his home—a short, quiet figure trailed by five dogs of indistinct breed. When asked if he would be willing to talk a little about the Yaghan community he pauses, blinks, then responds: “Yes,” he says, “but not today.” He gives a wry smile and mimes a bottle with his right hand as he walks back toward the door of his house. He has been drinking. As he turns to close the door behind him, the four letters emblazoned in red on his white tee shirt come into sight: D.A.R.E.

Several days later, Monica’s assertion that no one in Villa Ukika drinks anymore elicits laughter and a shake of the head from a sober Patricio. “We had to go other places to drink,” he says. “They were trying to influence us… constantly involving themselves in Yaghan activities to get people to change.” Patricio recalls the Garretts joining them on their sporadic trips to Mejillones, but insists that their mission had a lasting effect on no more than three or four people in the community. Ben, on the other hand, recalls once leading a group of 10 Yaghan across the Channel to be baptized in Ushuaia. Whatever the extent of the Garretts’ success, their mission introduced a new rift in Villa Ukika. “Before we were a community,” Patricio says, “but now we’re more separated.”

Many of the converted Yaghan left Villa Ukika, some moving uphill to Puerto Williams proper, others, Ben says, moving away to Punta Arenas. Whether or not they have entered the evangelical fold in any permanent or meaningful way, these men and women have entered the fold of Chilean society, and in the process have taken another step away from the ancestors and traditions interred at Mejillones.

The Garretts may be the only ones here anymore who proudly declare themselves missionaries, but their line is a longer and more diverse one than even they realize. Gardiner and Bridges and other representatives of the South American Missionary Society are their most obvious predecessors, but the government officials who banned the ciexaus, who established Villa Ukika and insisted on attendance at government schools were missionaries of another kind, evangelizing in the name of progress rather than Christ.

Yet even as the Yaghan reach the point of extinction, they’re beginning to relearn some pride in their culture; even Monica Garrett pointed out the change, saying, “The Indians are taking their language seriously now. Self-esteem is improving.” Since August of last year, the granddaughter of Abuela Cristina has worked with her grandmother to pass on some elements of the Yaghan language in two small workshops, with partial funding from the Chilean National Council for Culture and the Arts. Now another cultural group among the Yaghan hopes to reinstate the ciexaus ceremony, though no living Yaghan has ever participated in it.

For their part, the Garretts hope to reopen the mission from their own home this year, beginning with a modest congregation of six to eight. They no longer go with the Yaghan on their sporadic visits to Mejillones. Allen Gardiner’s last wish remains unfulfilled. The Yaghan have begun their own slow return to Mejillones, whispering ancient, newly-learned words on the quiet, windblown shore where they last were spoken. In the spring, wildflowers grow among the graves. Many of them are marked by crosses—but not nearly all.

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