It was spring when I reached the end of the world. On that mid-September day it was cold and raining in the city of Ushuaia, Argentina, but the sky cleared as I trekked nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, allowing the sun to reflect off crisp glacial waters and snow-covered mountains.
In 1520, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan would have seen a similar view as he led his Spanish fleet into the region. He travelled along a strait (later named after him) between mainland South America and a windswept archipelago he called Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) for the small fires he spotted along the shore. For thousands of years, the indigenous community here, the Yaghan, lit fires to keep warm and to communicate with each other. The flames burned in their forests, amid mountains, valleys and rivers, and atop the long canoes they steered over chilly waters.
Sixteen years ago, Cristina Calderon – one of the estimated 1,600 Yaghan descendants still living around their ancestral grounds – started the annual tradition of lighting three fires on Playa Larga in Ushuaia, a beach where ancient Yaghans gathered. Taking place every 25 November, the act recalls the Yaghan custom of lighting three fires to announce the arrival of a whale or a banquet of fish that everyone would eat. Releasing smoke signals was a way to convene the entire tribe, and it was common for them to share food and eat communally along the coast.
“The importance of the fire is more than something that brings us warmth in such a hostile place,” Victor Vargas Filgueira, a Yaghan guide at the Museo del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Museum) in Ushuaia told me. “It served as an inspiration for many things.”
That inspiration can be seen in a word that has garnered rapturous admirers and inspired many flights of the imagination. Mamihlapinatapai comes from the near-extinct Yaghan language. According to Vargas’ own interpretation, “It is the moment of meditation around the pusakí [fire in Yaghan] when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.”
But since the 19th Century, the word has held a different meaning – one to which people all over the world relate.
Read more: BBC