Tag Archives: argentina

Pingus and snorkels.

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…

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El Indio Tehuelche, looking out to sea.

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.

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Juampi looking out at whales on Doradillo beach

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.

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Whale watching

Near Caldeta Valdimg_5110ès 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.

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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.

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How most “quiet ones” in Argentina end. Sunrise.
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Salta la Linda

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.

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landing in 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.

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eating llama wearing a  jumper made of llama  in Tilmarca

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 aiimager 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…

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Wythnos yn y Gaiman. A week in Gaiman.

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.

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Warm welcome to Chubut in Trelew Airport

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.

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Now THIS is an asado. Welcome to Patagonia.

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.

Argentina co fi off.

Por qué?

So I’m off “lone wolf” to Argentina for three months. There are a few reasons for writing a blog. Firstly, my family holiday diary to New Zealand as a 6 year old was a decent read and I haven’t done one since. Secondly I might appreciate it one day when I’m old and past it… Perhaps the stories will make lugging my life about in a bag and the consequent hunchback worthwhile. Thirdly, my parents will probably appreciate knowing where I am on my sketchy nomad trip to see where about 150 Welsh men, women and children washed up over 150 years ago… And if nothing else it’ll be something to do on the the long lonely bus journeys.

The main reason for my trip is to visit Patagonia, a place that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I’m looking for that little piece of Wales in South America, where Gonzalo Joneses and Juan Pablo Jenkinses are commonplace and where people drink mate* and Welsh cakes at teatime. It’s a complete no-brainer and it’s been top of my list of places to visit since my mamgu (gran) went on a choirboy tour back in the day (true story). After living in Madrid and having learnt Spanish, I’m in this lovely, bonkers situation where I’m about to travel 11,000km, and be able to start a sentence in Cymraeg, end it in Castellano, and be understood. Teidi.

When they go “What are you going to do out there?”. Paid gofyn. Good bloody question. Hence the blog. I’ll write as I go. But the Argentinians and Patagonians that I know have been nothing short of fantastic whilst planning this trip. As a girl travelling alone I understand the concerns and the questions and the warnings and the spooky stories and the advice and the lectures. I do. Yet it’s a tricksy balance between sounding blasé and being sat scared for 3 months: I’ll take heed of advice, I promise, even if it means leaving the lycra short-shorts at home and being a little more cynical than we’d like but this is a trip of a lifetime and I intend to see that I squeeze every bit of adventure out of it.

As I have no 90 days + working visa, there’ll be no paid work but I’ll be visiting and helping in any Welsh school that opens its doors to me; coaching a little bit of hockey/rugby (though I haven’t picked up a stick since my Erasmus year?!) and basically trying to live a little bit of the life as they do there. However, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t travel around the place a bit. Type “Patagonia, Argentina” into Google images (Patagonia alone only brings you anoraks and rucksacks) and you’ll see what I’ve seen and know why I’m so keen to flit about as much as is financially and logistically possible.

The fun starts this afternoon, when I say tara to lovely Llandovery (which incidentally never gets any easier), fly from Bristol to Madrid, see some loved ones there for a few days before flying to Buenos Aires via a 8hour stopover in Heathrow. Don’t even ask, it just means I’m going with a significantly bigger pocketful of pennies. Start as you mean to go on, and no doubt it’ll be a few months jam packed full of fun, games and boarding passes.

Hasta pronto, boludos.

*Mate, or yerba mate, is a traditional South American caffeine-rich drink, very popular particularly in Argentina.