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.