Tag Archives: patagonia

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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Y Dyffryn.

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?

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Embracing everything Argentina on my birthday! Another asado under my belt and an amazing present from my Patagonian familia! DIOLCH X

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.

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inside the legislature building in Rawson

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.

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After a 1-0 win on a concrete pitch. That’s the first team rugby pitch behind us

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.

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.