Source: When I’m 64
On a hill in Puerto Madryn stands a native Tehuelche, in what look like his pants, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. He’s been stood there for a long time. Way back in 1865, from this high vantage point, he is said to have spotted a ship – the Mimosa – as it dotted over the horizon and landed beneath him on the rocks below. This one-way spin on a tea-clipper cost the 153 travellers a hefty £12, and the two months aboard provided its fair share of drama, with babies born, wedding vows vowed and tragic deaths among its mish-mash of passengers, who’d set off on their trip from Bala, Birkinhead, Mountain Ash, Liverpool…
I spent not two, but three months in Patagonia, with my own fair share of stories which began, and ended, in this seaside city so rich in history. Our history. Our story.
For me, Puerto Madryn means I get to play tourist. Having settled into a routine, with my Chubutense lifestyle, sports clubs, classes and acquaintances in Gaiman, a little trip to the seaside always offers itself as a reason to smile. My first encounter with the city was way back in October, where I got to introduce Juampi to the South of Argentina for the first time. Nothing will ever compare to one’s hometown, especially when one comes from Salta ‘la Linda’ where objectivity goes head first out the window and bias and pride is blinding. Nevertheless, I was determined to share something special from this part of the world. Luckily, the Valdès Peninsula is a bounty of handsome, extraordinary wildlife. A gift. A priceless experience. Only they forget to tell you that the price is double if you ain’t an Argie.
Discarding the logistical nightmare that accompanies my day-to-day functioning in Argentina, including bank hunts, bus timetables and opening hours, our time spent in Madryn, Puerto Pirámides and on the coast of the Peninsula Valdès was incredible. Claiming revenge on the system, I let Juampi answer for the both of us when asked “Where are you from?” upon entry into the national park. Being a resident of Salta, rather than Llandovery, grants you access at half the price. However, my master plan of silence was to be my punishment and the joke was ultimately on me and I had to spend the entire day mute and dumb, so as not to let slip my blatantly hybrid Welsh-Madrileño accent and get caught red handed and beetroot faced. We took a mini bus tour from our hostel early in the morning, with a tour guide who had a tick that became more and more grating with every tock of the clock. Our timing was perfect: October is prime whale watching season and we were treated to a spectacle on el Doradillo beach, with whales larking about in the water quite literally a stones skim away. They came so close that we could make out the parasites crusted onto their fins, water belching out of the blow-holes as they chased and frolicked amongst themselves. On the long stretches on rugged, rutted, dusty paths, we saw alpacas, salt flats and sheep and arrived at what was to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Near Caldeta Valdès we got to see the penguins. Comical, ditsy and whimsical, even more so than in the animation movies we’ve all seen, we gawped as they obliviously performed their unrehearsed sketches to a beaming, chuckling audience. Yet this is nature, real life, wildlife. Some penguins stood, open-winged, praying to the sun gods, lapping up the vitamin D with a quiet closed-eyed content. Others scurried about hurriedly with places to go, people to see. One chewed on a lady’s shoelace, venturing close to the barrier then nose-dived into the safety of its burrow, escaping her excited hoots and cackles. The remaining penguins snoozed, upright, or trumpeted in sharp, clumsy unison: chests pumping, beaks honking. They eventually dragged me away. Though unbelievably reluctant, I knew we had more to see.
The rest of the day was spent around Punta Loma and Pirámides, where gigantic sea lions lay, like giant overgrown slug corpses on the sea shore. Hundreds clustered together, flapping, fighting, and budging each other for space and air, like monstrous barnacles they cling to the rocks, plopping into the water inelegantly every now and again. Nature gave us good theatre, as we watched two alpha males have a good old fashioned punch up in the water. Over a lady, naturally.
The next time I would come into contact with these creatures would be three months on, with my limbs squished into a wetsuit, sporting a snorkel and balaclava. The contact would be quite literal, as, my last Thursday in Argentina was spent swimming with seals and sea lions. Who knew this kind of excursion existed? Regardless, a group of us coughed up for this unique experience, though watching videos of sea lion attacks on YouTube beforehand was not my cleverest trick. In I hopped with no hesitation, clumsily bobbing about with my oversized flippers and steamed up goggles, ploughing full steam ahead towards the slippery grey bodies tumbling through the water. One puppy took a shine to a man in another group, and was over him and his hipster beard like a rash, kissing him, nuzzling his neck and following him back to the boat when it was home time. My moment with the seals was significantly less romantic, as one surfaced inches from my face and did a half-cough, half-sneeze, spluttering water, shaking its head and clearing off underwater. His mate, a lively little rascal, bit at my hand and another shoulder barged me. I’ll take it as a cuddle, and forgive his eagerness.
Anybody that knows me will understand that I usually can’t fight the overwhelming urge to run when I’m at the seaside (or anywhere, to be honest). There is absolutely nothing like training with my neck more or less tilted, owl-like at 90 degrees, looking out to the vast ocean, jinking and jiving past the roller bladers and Sunday strollers on the prom. I take my watch, and nothing else. I set off near the caves that the first Welsh immigrants inhabited upon arrival, resilient and battling against the icy July wind and waves, all those years ago. The watch bleeps when I reach the aluminium factory that brings in thousands of Bolivian workers each year, Madryn still promising hope and a home to outsiders. I don’t take pictures, I don’t use my phone, I don’t talk. I just enjoy the sensation of running fast, at sea level, in a new place with fresh air and endless kilometres to get into my legs. It’s my way of getting to know a place. High-speed running tourism, it may be, but it’s my weird little dimension where I can switch off from the world, and connect with it, just like that.
My first and last few days in Patagonia were spent in Puerto Madryn (neu Porth Madryn, i ti a fi). Full circle, like the big fat orange sun that rose on our walk back from Margaritas bar at 7am on our last night. As we walked, I contemplated one of the bays that can be seen from the shore. On the surface, it’s a tad shabby, gasping for a lick of paint, in need of somebody with a a rake, a bin, some polish. Yet it’s also polluted with giggles and squeals of toddlers dipping toes into the ocean, a beach littered with umbrellas and deck chairs, and the racket of crashing waves, sea lions and school trips. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lovely, charming seaside town a skip away from an infinitely wild and turquoise underwater wonderland. I can only imagine that this is the glimmering hope that the Welsh held on to, when cwtched in their caves, staring out to the nothingness that greeted them. Let’s just be grateful that they did so that the circle can go on and on and on.
Arguably my least favourite part of travelling is the travelling itself. But I’ve developed a mantra as a coping strategy: It’s all another experience. This is good, I tell myself; it’ll be funny later.
After spending a sun-kissed Sunday afternoon watching polo in a field, eating tea and cakes and visiting an exhibition of vintage cars with our newly formed gang of Chubutenses, I was rather content and laid back about my plans to travel on the overnight bus to Bariloche. I’d been to the bus terminal midweek to consult about coaches and times and so cockily rocked up at 10pm ready to travel with my gigantic backpack/sleeping bag/body bag. However, if I’ve learnt anything on this trip is that even the best laid plans of mice and me go horrifically awry and today would be no exception. A small coach would be travelling to the cordillera and there was no room in the inn for a little one. Opting for the laugh and not the cry, I went back to the Gaiman with my tail between my legs ready for take two the next day. At least my bag was already packed.
I finally arrived in Bariloche at midday on Tuesday, giving me approximately 28 hours in the city before my bus to Trevelin for the town’s annual celebrations the next day. Travelling solo I only have myself to blame, but also I only have myself to please and I was determined to make the most of the precious hours in the city. This is usually easier said than done, when we combine dodgy directions with my dubious internal GPS system. I dumped my bag in the room, showered and followed the sketchy advice of the hostel manager who led me to a bike rental centre 18km out of the city, where they had absolutely no intention of renting out bikes to ditsy tourists at 3pm. Losing count of whether I’m not following Plan B, C or D, I found a map of a cable car route and opted to walk up Cierro Campanario, finding myself the only one in this silent uphill struggle, surrounded by trees and birds and butterflies. Nearer the top, I followed the distant bumble of tourists where the teleferico landed. I got to the top, and immediately, the 15 hours on the bus and the whole palaver that preceded this jaunt was worthwhile. The lake district is spectacular. It’s almost hard to believe that what you see is real: vast lakes, high snow-topped mountains and a panoramic view that is incomprehensibly beautiful. I stood, sweaty and stunned by the sights, soaking in what I could and wishing I could bottle, record or pocket this view for later.
On a roll I jumped on the number 20 to the end of the line, kilometre 25, and decided to explore Llao llao and what I could of the Circuito Chico before the sky turned its lights off. Llao llao hotel overlooks the most picturesque lake and is home to a golfer’s utopia. I had a funny five minutes where I toyed with the idea of taking up the sport, to enjoy delights like these. Maybe when I retire. For now, I’ll stand and appreciate the beauty without hacking up the greenest of greens with a Big Bertha. I took one of the shorter routes in the national park to explore some of the lakes and forests, in relative calmness and solitude, only to be met by hoards of boat trippers at the bus stop to head back to the centre. I spent the evening nipping in and out of the shops, drinking Mamoushka hot chocolate (basically melted chocolate, thick as custard, à la Madrid, minus the churros) and eating fish in a restaurant on my lonesome, avoiding the pitying stares and tucking into my food, happy as Larry.
After a quiet night in an even quieter (borderline eerie) hostel, I rose with the sun and couldn’t resist going for a long run along the shore of the lake, stretching out on the pebbles afterwards, trying and failing to take a photo to justify the specialness of this place. With time constraints limiting my options and because I love a service bus, I decided to visit Lake Gutierrez, 20 minutes away, where I met two Spanish girls. We strolled, chatted and sat between families and their picnics, watching paddle boarders traversing the lake. I took advantage of the mid November sunshine and followed the many teenagers wading thigh-deep in chilly water, drying off and shooting back to the city, on one bus to catch another, to catch another.
I eventually arrived in Trevelin at 10.30pm, five hours and two bus journeys later. No complaints this time. I would pay to do that journey again, if only for the spectacular fuschia of the sky above the Andes at sunset. I was handed a cup of tea by Nia and Gwion as I arrived in their ‘hen Ty Ysgol’ home, nestled between the Welsh chapel and the primary school. Yet another moment where being thousands of miles away from home feels like one big fib. The next day we’d be climbing Craig Goch, with members of the Welsh community, alongside dozens of rifleros and gauchos on horseback to commererate the birthday of Trevelin. On this date, 25th November, 1885 Welsh settlers, accompanied by Colonel Fontana, travelling from “East Side” Welsh Patagonia (Y Dyffryn) found the land of produce, of potential, of promise, that they desperately sought after. As the story goes, they reached the top of Craig Goch they stood in wonder at the lush green pastures of the valley below, proclaiming this to be “Cwm Hyfryd”; a very lovely valley indeed.
The climb took over two hours, spotting robins and quartz and great mulleins en route. An alien, blazing November sun punished my rookie preparation, draining my water bottle and leaving my back crispy and red while we waited at the top, feeding the five thousand (there were three of us, but we were starving) with sandwiches and five bitty oreos I found in my bag. We waited at the peak, under a weathered Argentinian flag overlooking Bryn Hyfryd, for the hundreds that would follow us up, on foot and on horseback. A two year old girl, in a gaucha-style beret was amongst the first to reach the top, hand gripped in her grandmother’s. Then came many a Davies, Jones and Hughes. The surname conversation is one I have had over and over in the valley, as everybody shares their piece of the ancestry jigsaw with the tourist. Then came a Lloyd, Sian Lloyd, weather girl, to you and me, followed by one man who had made the trip from Rawson, 750km away, on foot. He later told me he would be making the same trip back. I asked if the return trip was entirely necessary, that he had proved his point, but he had his reasons and with that he dragged Sian Lloyd to the cliff edge for a photo. As I stood taking a photo on her iPhone, I could almost hear the tinkle of the one screw he had loose dropping to the ground some 200m below. I thought I was going to capture her death on her own iPhone.
Trevelin’s birthday celebrations continued over the weekend, good-and-proper Argentinian style. Friday presented us with a village carnival crossed with a stampede, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Every zumba dancer, schoolchild, police van, fishing vehicle was out, marching the march, as was the military, with their stonking big guns and camouflage gear. If you’ve ever wondered what Uncle Bulgaria looks like with a massive rifle, look no further. Trevelin has got it all. Then came the combine harvesters and hundreds of horses, very nearly squishing the toddlers scuttling about underfoot, in a parade that sticks its middle finger up to health and safety but is undeniably colourful and fantastically fun. Speeches and national anthems were said and sung, and a red violin donated by Sian Lloyd triggered a new initiative that sees the youngsters of Patagonia receive actual musical instruments to play with. What we might find hard to believe is that things we take for granted, such as instruments, toys, books, are not so easy to come by. This is an eye opener, and my eyes are growing wider every day.
As with every good celebration in Patagonia, an asado was held in the school gym on Saturday night, organized by youngsters, who also served, cleaned up, danced and entertained at the event. I cannot praise some of the youngsters that I’ve met here highly enough. They muck in, work hard and stand up for things that they believe in, with image and coolness out the window. My opinion means nothing, but for what it’s worth I think they are the coolest. In a night of meat and folk songs, the highlight of the night for me was the Pheonix Nights-style keyboard player, well into his 80s, who had pre-set a playlist on his keyboard, playing a mish-mash of cumbia, flamenco and 80s classics, to which we attempted to replicate our latino cousins’ rhythms in a brightly lit sportshall. As said gentleman took off for a well needed break, I had flashbacks of year 7 music classes, where we hammered the Demo button, hovering our fingers inches off the keys as we played our best air-piano. I watched as he stepped off the stage, his “live music” still playing, but no matter, this playlist was a belter, apparently.
I will forever remember how we shared your day, on the 25th of November, and just two days later, I saw in my 25th year of life, on a night-bus, gifted the tastiest chocolate alfajor of my life, leaving you and heading back to the valley, sleep deprived and grumpy (due to the drivers refusal to stop in Gaiman – another story for another day involving insurance policies and brick-lobbing louts)…
Happy birthday to you, lovely Trevelin, in the lovely, lovely Cordillera. Or as they say in Patagonia, Penblwydd Llawen. I hope you enjoy many more.
Much like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Staines, I like to divide Welsh Patagonia into East side and West side. I’m East side, based in Gaiman, a short distance from the Atlantic coast where the first Welsh settlers started this story. Last weekend I ventured over to the West side, but it’s a distance that neither Ali G’s yellow cardboard box car nor my late Fiat Cinquecento (Siencs boy!) would see through. A 750km black spot of tumbleweed and dust seperates those in the “Dyffryn” to their relatives in “la Cordillera”, in the foothills of the Andes.
Anyway, back to the Dyffryn, where I’ve stayed reasonably still for the last four weeks, slowly transforming myself into a resident of the valley shouting hello at every other Jones on the high street and trying to get involved with life here. The question on everyone’s lips is what the hell am I doing here for so long. I’m not a Welsh teacher, they’re not paying me, why? I tell them I’m a tourist. A tourist that likes going to Welsh lessons and coaching rugby and living like they do. So what exactly have I been doing?
I’ve spoken Welsh, no English and sung the Welsh national anthem more times in two months than I have in my entire life. The classrooms of Ysgol Meithrin y Gaiman, Coleg Camwy and Ysgol y Hendre in Trelew have opened their doors to me and I’ve covered classes where we use beer bottle tops for maths games and read stories about Rhys from Rhisga. The children in Ysgol y Hendre, in particular, might as well be Welsh. It’s mental. They are obsessed with Sali Mali, Cyw, and are so over excited about the language it’s completely bewildering, but just fantastic. These are children that play with tyres in the yard and whose swings squeak high over the concrete ground below. I also attended an adult class in Trelew. This made me really think about our attitude to language learning at home. Lawyers, farmers, secretaries, with or without Welsh roots come week in week out after work to learn Welsh, a language we feel is too difficult to learn as an adult, which is “pointless” outside Wales. Try telling them that they’re wasting their time. Just don’t try telling them in English.
I went along on a school trip with Coleg Camwy to Rawson, the capital of the province and where all the government and administrative buildings are located. Ironically, in the very place they create laws in the “Legislatura”, we saw civil servants lighting up for their fag break indoors, turning a blind eye to the laws they themselves have passed. Welcome to Argentina, the kids said. They learn about citizenship and politics from a young age, which I think is brilliant but has also left me convinced that more often than not, ignorance is bliss. These very teenagers have switched on to the fact that I speak Spanish, and avoid clumsily conversing in Welsh, opting for their comfortable Castellano, despite encouragement. Nevertheless, they all have the basics and have folk dancing in their music lessons and attend choir, activities from which I retired at the ripe old age of eleven. The interview process for the Tom Gravell scholarship to Llandovery also gave me the chance to meet brilliant, talented youngsters and I am so happy that I’ll be able to greet the deserved winner on the other side, and hopefully our hospitality to her will match the open armed cwtch that awaited me in the cwm.
Draig Goch rugby club is a home from home in terms of having a ready-made community and new friends, with a shared love for both hockey and rugby. In the absence of one of the coaches, I led sessions for the under 10s alongside a junior player, happy to be the one with a whistle in my hand and not at the receiving end of a tackle. There is no grass. It’s a dirt pitch and concocting tackle drills that don’t leave them with scraped, bleedy knees and ripped tracky bums is a mission in itself. The boys also have to sidestep the six or seven dogs that also attend training, chasing their tails and the umpteen dropped passes. I’ve also had the chance to play hockey, a sport I love and have missed enormously. We’ve played two games, won two and I’ve managed to score a few ugly, “hit and hope” goals in the process, enjoying the camaraderie with new teammates, drinking mate and eating pastries in the post match “tercer tiempo” whilst sitting in the back of a pick up truck that doubles up nicely as a makeshift stand for the rugby.
Despite being a million miles from the non-stop life I led in Madrid, I’m not finding it too difficult to keep busy, and there is absolutely no telling what adventure or mishap awaits, each and every day. One day on my way to a lecture on Cynghangedd (a traditional form of Welsh poetry), the wind broke everything, leaving the whole town in darkness and without electricity for four hours. This wind makes running fun, through sandstorms, and proves tricky on the odd occasion when I cycle to the concrete athletics track to train on a bike with no front breaks. On the plus side, on one particularly windy day I only had to pedal a few times every 300m to get back to the village; gale force wind in my sails. Meanwhile, in the Casa de Te, I occasionally find myself peeling walnuts, cutting strawberries, laying tables or serving English speaking tourists, which is always buzzing with visitors fresh from their whale watching tours. It really hasn’t been difficult to make friends here, including some of the Welsh teachers that I’ve shared asados, eisteddfods and a few gansia-fuelled nights out with. The weather’s getting warm, and we spend more and more time by the pool, in between various end of term music recitals, polo matches (which incidentally are enjoyed by farmers and the working class in these ends), vintage car shows, concerts and spins to Trelew on the bus to trawl banks to see which ATM feels like giving me cash that day.
Yesterday I saw in my 25th birthday on an overnight bus to get back to Gaiman. Sleep deprived and a little (lot) nostalgic, I had a bit of an odd day, feeling disconnected from home friends and family after another power cut, my run disrupted by flash floods after an impressive downpour and generally having a bit of a pity party. Yet I knew I wanted to be back in Gaiman, surrounded by these familiar faces, with my surrogate sisters and family, eating food and laughing until I forgot what was so funny. I suppose it’s started to feel like a little Argentian home! I have less than a fortnight left in East Side y Dyffryn, and it’ll fly. Here’s to making most of these last two weeks and squeezing what I can out of my second summer.
We all know it’s not unusual to paint an idyllic, instagram-filtered, kalaidascopic picture of where we’re from. In my case, there is uber positive correlation between the time spent away from home and how beautiful I depict it to be. Yet the way Juampi spoke about Salta, it was almost impossible to believe the hype. I mean, I’d never even heard of the place before. Nevertheless, off I trot on a gazillion peso internal flight to the north – 12 hours on the floor of Ezeiza airport included, of course – to see for myself.
Sorry for ever doubting you Salta.
Comatosed on the plane, I woke up giddy to a view so stunning that I felt almost winded. I’d say I was speechless but chatting solo while travelling alone is not a habit I’ve developed thus far. I almost felt ashamed for not being more aware of this city until now. A leafy city, circled by gigantesque sloping, blue-grey whale-like mountains layered one against the other. Wow. This is a million miles from the flat, arid landscape in the Chubut valley.
When one travels to Salta one eats empanadas. A lot of them. The city is famous for these pastries, usually filled with meat, sometimes “spicy” (not to home standards) or chicken, ham and cheese or, controversially, veg, and cooked in a clay oven. I do as I’m told and see off 5 or 6 in my first sitting. This set the pace for a fortnight of serious eating, tasting all the regional favourites, from humitas (made with a dough made of corn, enveloped in the leaf), talamares, the biggest sandwich I’ve ever seen from La Esquina, alfajores, more meat (my asado attendance is strong, averaging about 3 a week),dulce de leche and I even ate milanesa de llama. However, I wasn’t quite brave enough to muster the llama that arrived on a plate with cow’s cheese, goats cheese and egg which Juampi put away: far too much animal in one go, even for me. It’s also customary in these areas to chew on coca leaves to combat altitude sickness. Imagine stuffing an entire bag of Sainsbury’s spinach leaves into one of your cheek pouches, causing your tongue to go numb and then attempting a serious conversation with a table full of lop-sided hamster-humans. I had two leaves tucked in my cheek for about as many minutes and survived the first round of bicarbonate soda before surrendering. Not for me, until I’m sick to the stomach and dizzy with altitude, ta.
We stayed in the chacra (countryside) in a lovely family home with a swimming pool, which experienced its fare share of bombs and belly flops in the first week. Temperatures remained consistently above 30 degrees, and while this second summer is a blessing, my body battled, sneezed and sniffed as the dry Salteño heat played havoc. No doctors for me: they sell whatever the hell you want over the counter in Argentinian pharmacies and dish out paracetemols as change if the till’s short of pesos. Bonkers. The chacra is one of many popular gated communities, a short drive from the centre. A crazy number of constructions sprouting up in each corner of Argentina due to the Procrear laws but here the increasing popularity to build outside the centre is testament to the value of security, spectacular views, accessibility to the city, and the sound of nothing but birds and breeze in this part of the world.
The city itself, as is the case in many Argentinian cities, is based around a large, bustling, pretty square. I nipped in and out of the charming little artisanal shops, each jam packed with colourful colonial backpacks, sweaters, key rings; the alfajor tasters being wolfed down as I went. I fell in love with the his-and-her blue and pink fairy style churches of Santa Rosa de Lima and Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria de la Vina. The latter is a bit of a mouthful and takes a while to spit out when asking for directions. We went up to the cierro (mountain) in the cable car although wind stopped play for 20 minutes: if you’re afraid of being stuck half way up trekking up on foot is your best bet. For me, the views are worth the risk/the hike.
I should mention that Salta is not only special for the capital’s charm, but for the surrounding area. Word on the hostel grapevine is that the world and his wife stop in Salta. Geographically speaking, it’s perfect as it nestles between Chile and Bolivia and a number of hugely popular landscapes and touristic feature are easily accessed from here. Making the most of this, in just two weeks I visited four provinces: Salta, Tucuman, Jujuy and Santiago del Estero.
A highlight of my trip so far was our day trip to Purmamarca, Tilcara and the Grandes Salinas (salt flats) of Jujuy. This is now hands down one of my favourite regions. Purmamarca is home to the Cierro de Siete Colores, where a mountain met a rainbow and chose to live up high above the clouds with the llamas. We quite literally left the clouds and drizzle below us, on one of the most spectacular drives I think I’ll ever experience. We bought grilled flatbread and climbed a cactus-studded mountain to view the cierro from up high. Here, you have to pay for everything from the toilet to hot water, but the prices of the souvenirs are dirt-cheap. I bought myself an alpaca jumper for a fraction of the price of Salta, £10, and wore it while eating my lunch of llama meat in nearby village Tilmarca. A bit dark ad a bit insensitive, perhaps, sorry. I can’t quite bend my mind around the fact that these people live here, but I’m glad they do and I’m so lucky I got visit. After lunch I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t in the driving seat while Juampi steered us around every bend, overtaking lorry upon lorry until we reached over 4000m and descended upon the big salt flats: a white desert, with scaly surfaces and pools of crispy cold water where I plonked my feet and drank in the scenery. We took photos and I almost hyperventilated after running 10m at altitude to make use of the self-timer.
Tucuman, a place where my Uncle Aled toured with Swansea RFC in the 90s is still just as rugby mad and we watched another few matches here alongside busy, competitive hockey pitches. Judging by what I saw, rugby clubs in Argentina are like golf clubs in the UK: largely reserved for the wealthy and fees grant access to many facilities. On a personal note, their large perimeters serve as perfect running playpens for people like me whose internal GPS is bust. We watched two games here, two losses, and I witnessed what for me was a horrible case of bad winner. Of course, this being Argentina, football is far from forgotten. It just so happened that Boca Juniors were in town to play against Atletico de Tucuman. We mistimed our drive and coincided with the Boca team bus, whose entourage of about 300 motorbikes (and a grand total of 2 helmets between them) literally rampaged the city. A taxi driver hammered the back of our car with his fist: stopping at red lights is not something you should do under these circumstances apparently. Meanwhile another group was not going to be held up in the same way and ramped onto a football pitch and drove their scooters directly through a game, players stopping in their tracks. It’s a city with a lot of life, a buzzing high street and commercial centre, a little hectic, hot and slightly scruffy, but a trip to Cierro de San Javier, another amazing asado and great company were definite highlights.
Like Salta, Tucuman is located in close proximity to many fantastic sights such as Cafayate, which to people who like their wine is a no-brainer. With time restrictions, a lack of love for the adult grape juice and unfavourable weather predictions, we opted to go to Santiago del Estero instead, a nearby province and namely to las Termas de Rio Hondo. This is home to a famous Moto GP race and a the principal thermal site in South America. It’s hotter than the sun, so unsurprisingly we opted against the thermals which were probably at air temperature and we chose ate more meat instead.
I spent a lot of my time in Salta with a family and friends, and was lucky to be treated to many meals shared in lovely company. It’s a very close-knit, conservative community and the people here are deeply in love with their surroundings and their people. I got lucky and got to experience it from the inside and only now can I begin to understand that La Linda is not only named “the beautiful” for the superficial; but its charm grows from the inside out. I’d definitely go back. I’ve left wanting more.
Now, ironically, it’s me that’ll be singing its praises from afar…
The big red Welsh dragon and Croeso sign in Trelew airport marks entry to “a little Wales beyond Wales”, where I landed just nearly two weeks ago now. Arriving with zero expectations but immense and immeasurable intrigue, I couldn’t help but smile with the comfort of something so familiar as our flag so very far away from home. A fifteen minute drive later (past Treorcki, home to many a Bolivian, they tell me) we arrived in Gaiman, one of the “welshest” of the Welsh-Argentine communities that punctuate the river Chubut like a dot-to-dot puzzle: home to about 5,000-10,000 (depending on who you ask, apparently) and the place I have chosen to “settle”, or at least base myself for the next ten weeks.
My first night in the beautiful Irianni home was a treat. The entire family had come to visit, to celebrate Sol, the youngest daughter’s fifteenth birthday. An asado (in this particular case, a lamb cooked on a cross on an open fire) was being prepared and we ate and chatted and laughed, in a home filled with Welsh poetry on the walls with predominantly Spanish conversation but with snippets of Cymraeg. I stayed at the mamgu’s house, just next door, just like home. Some call me “la Galensa”, a common nickname for the many people in the village with Welsh ancestry, or “la Gallega” for the Spanish accent I’ve picked up in Spain which differs quite significantly to theirs and is the subject of much amusement. To some I’m GaGa, the Spanish Welshie, a bit of a hybrid weirdo, let’s say. Mission Argentization is in full force to stop me lisping my way through my words. Speaking like an Argentinian for somebody that’s lived in Madrid is like learning Gog Welsh for a hwntws. In a week it’s crazy how some things have stuck, perhaps it’s my subconscious to avoid their teasing or simply to be understood, relearning new vocab for everything from bus to pool to hockey ball yet trying to hold on to a little bit of Madrileña.
My first full day in Chubut didn’t disappoint, either. When asked if I’d like to accompany a group of children who were going to sing and dance to traditional Welsh music in Trelew, I jumped, or as it were, skipped to it. A group of 6-10 year olds singing half in Spanish, half in Welsh was a surreal and special moment. Then came the folk dancing (dawnsio gwerin) hitting me hard with nostalgia of Urdd days, twmpaths in Llangrannog, flat caps, bonnets and clueless spinning and clapping. Little did I know that what was to come next would transport me a million miles away from my own childhood and culture. In South America, a girl’s fifteenth birthday is a hugely important rite of passage. Think “Super Sweet Sixteenth” à la US, or even better, a wedding without a groom and you’ve hit the nail on the head. An amazing amount of preparation went into a spectacular event and this tradition of a banquet, a waltz, cutting of the cake, dancing, eating, gifts, chatting and enough Fernet and Campari to sink the Mimosa was something I felt very lucky to experience. I got teary as the parents and siblings serenaded the birthday girl, and, although I’m not one for much PDA, my time in Spain and here has softened me: maybe we have a thing or two to learn about showing each other how much we care. I also came to the conclusion that going to sleep at 8am is something I’m going to have to get used to here, apparently.
The Welsh culture here is visible. The street names, the surnames, the folk dancing in Games lessons, the local rugby club “Draig Goch”, the Siop Bara bakery, the toy store named “Teganau”, the information centre, a carpenter whose business is named “Saer Coed”, the music school… Everything . Tai tê, or tea rooms/casa de tes are numerous and tourists visit by the busload. Where I’m staying the mamgu has a tea room. For anybody that knows me, they’ll know that I’m quite keen on a cup of tea and have the sweetest tooth going. Dulce de leche is my new nutella and this is my paradise. Here, the culture has been preserved and the people are proud. A lady spoke to me of the shame when visiting Wales and nobody in the bank could attend her in Welsh. Cywilydd, (For shame!) she scorned. Everybody I encounter jumps at the chance to tell their story about their great uncle Gwesyn who travelled on the mimosa, almost boasting about their heritage, and I’ve lost count of the number of “galensos” and redstone Welsh shirts I’ve come across. It’s surreal when teenagers spout random phrases at me “sut da chi”, “ti eisiau bara menyn?”, “enw fi yw Gonzalo” just like we would with “Je m’appelle John”, “J’aime jouer au foot” after our first term of French lessons. Despite the fact that not one student came to the class I went to help in – they were packing for their end of year trip – and that the six year olds learn Welsh lyrics with phonetics it’s impossible to be disappointed when they are learning a language whose relevance even within Wales is so often brought into question. I find myself every so often chatting away with somebody with a lovely hybrid hwntws-gog Patagonian Welsh and just for a minute I forget where I am.
The first week involved visiting the town, introducing myself to the people, reading a book about mental health to an elderly lady for an hour, training and playing hockey for the first time in four years for “Draig Goch” Hockey Club, winning 9-3 and scoring four goals which we will pretend were scored against a team of under 50 year old ladies but I can’t lie to save my life… I have been to an asado with a political party formed by quite disgruntled yet dynamic, bold youngsters frustrated with the system, visited the museum and ended up talking politics and football for three hours (something I’m getting used to) and eaten many lovely dishes and run many dusty, muddy miles. My plan is to see as many Welsh classes once settled into a routine, help where I can with English lessons and junior hockey groups, attend Eisteddfods and avoid singing at all costs. This is not Wales and if anybody travels here expecting a home from home I advise you to stay put. But a warm welcome you’ll receive and it’ll make a lovely home full of change, warmth, new ideas and experiences for these next few weeks.
Now that I’m functioning in Argentina Time it’s only apt and proper that I write about my first days in the country a full fortnight later.
Early doors on the 14th, after a shiggly ride, a dodgy landing and an aisle full of pins and needles I arrived in Ezeiza airport. Don’t be fooled, Ezeiza to Buenos Aires is like Beauvais to Paris. Bloody miles away. They say, that upon arrival, one must search for the Lion. This lion is the beginning of a quilombo (pron. kilombo – my fave new Argentian-Spanish word, which I think is best translated as a complete shambles) that leads you to the city centre via a coach-ride and a weird Bla-Bla-Car-taxi remix called a remis. This Tienda Leon service is the most reputable which essentially groups together people needing to go to the same neighbourhood. It’s easier than it sounds and after a day of my own company the chit-chat of my new neighbours was more than welcome.
During that journey of 30-odd kilometres, my eyes were both wide open and opened wide. I saw the national football team’s flashy training facility while on the outskirts small boys in wellies kicked cans, deflecting against wheels of trucks and the motorway’s metal railings. A microcosm of Argentinian society.. I don’t know? My first impression was one of sadness, and quite honestly, shock (and of how many lorries can they jam into one city??) I felt slightly guilty when the Remis stopped in Palermo, one of the loveliest neighbourhoods, and dropped me off at an eighth floor flat where Felipe lives (a friend and schoolmate of mine who came to Llandovery College in 2009 after winning a scholarship). I waited for the lift for about 5 minutes before realising that I had to open the door manually, and, embarassed, entered the flat to a warm Welsh welcome.
I seem to know more people than I had realised in Buenos Aires. The first night, I was treated to an amazing asado (in this context it’s a cut of meat. When in Rome one tucks in..) in a lovely restaurant with some of my brother’s friends; the second night I met up with an Uruguayan friend of mine from my Erasmus year which transformed into a Perpignan reunion in a cultural centre, dancing around a band of 7 musicians who, after every song moved around the circle to play a new instrument. I went for a run with Sian, who I know from athletics back home in West Wales. We chatted and chatted about our travels for miles. I also went out in La Plata one night to celebrate a graduation, which taught me three things 1) After the 8th glass, I still don’t like Fernet and Coke 2) Travelling in a car in Argentina is not for me or for anybody dear to me, thank you very much 3) 8.30am is justabout past my bedtime.
Spending time in a city doing as its people do is sure-fire way of getting a unique experience and I’m so glad and lucky that I got the chance to experience the city as I did. However, when those friends were at work I had to play hardcore tourist. Naturally, running turismo came into play and despite many stop-starts getting there, I fell in love with Bosques de Palermo and its Japanese Gardens, lakes and ducklings. What a beautiful place to run, to stroll, to be. I wandered along the Paseo de Historietas and ate my lunch with legendary Mafalda (introduced to me by my first Spanish teacher). I stepped inside El Ateneo, a bookshop, and spent an age in there stood in awe, wishing there was more space on the reading sofas for a little one.
In two days I became addicted to Havanna coffee and dulce de leche alfajores. Shopping is out of the question: the economy is a farce and clothes cost whatever the equivalent of a bomb, an arm and a leg in pesos is. Recoleta cementerio is at the same time beautiful, eerie and fascinating. I loved San Palermo, with its bars, its graffiti, its artsy shops and eclectic mix of people and I treated myself to a trip in a double decker bus. A trip to Boca didn’t disappoint: Diego Maradonna (or his lookalike, or was it?) lost the plot with me for taking a photo with him in the background. Plata (literally, silver aka money), he wanted, covering his face and pointing at my phone. My walk to the Bombonera stadium (named for its sweetie-jar shape) was riddled with people trying to sell me all sorts, from orange juice to Tango dances to portraits to a photo with a fake copa de libertadores. If you stray off the most colourfully beaten track in the history of the world, it ain’t so pretty, but its character, its people, it’s rainbow atmosphere, is magical.
There are bags and bags of things I want to do in Buenos Aires when I head back. I must say that after 3 days in Iguazu I felt like I was going home. The people I met were open, kind and fun, although of those I met none were your typical Porteño and mostly from other parts of the country and with a huge sense of empathy all being in the same boat (much like the Madrileños, in my biased opinion!). The food is outstanding, or re-rico as they say (empanadas, choripan, meat, pizzas, dulce de leche, ice cream and coffee!). Yet the money has seemingly been spent willy-nilly, building from scratch instead of fixing the broken and people dangle precariously on the edge of society, the reality often hidden behind walls away from the prying eyes of the tourist. You think you’re in an European city until you turn to see a mother sat with two babies with open hands and an empty stomach. But it’s a city that has its charm, its character, its colour and its culture and I look forward to December when I get to live it again.