Chapter 2: Into Patagonia
Tuesday, February 9
I slept very lightly, waking up at 4am when asked to move out of my seat and take my proper place next to a lovely, young mum and her baby daughter. I had awoken to the desolation of the Pampas and its miles of bush. Our breakfast was served at 6.30am by a bus attendant with similar looks and mannerisms to the Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez. He slotted in a series of DVDs to keep the passengers entertained and jigged happily along the aisle to a music video. The young mum left me completely at ease with her wispy smile and her reassurance that we would arrive in the coastal town of Puerto Madryn before long. She was travelling to Rawson, further down the east coast.
We arrived in Puerto Madryn at 1pm in dust and sandstorms as the wind swept down from the Pampas with a threatening ferocity. It was a short walk to Hostel El Gualicho, another Hostelling International location where I could get a discount with my YHA life member card. The friendly host showed me my room. An amiable German guy, Andreas from Bavaria, greeted me, a Kurt Cobain lookalike with a keen interest in rock ‘n’ roll. We joined up later on the patio for a few beers despite the wind blowing out cigarettes and sweeping things off our table. Earlier I had heard shouting on the patio when a long-established drinking team had competed with the strong wind. Compared to my first experience in Buenos Aires, this seemed like a nicer hostel, more spacious and less confined, with its trees and hammocks and a huge dining area.
I ventured down to the promenade. It was a pleasant, lively seaside scene with lots of little gift shops and arcades pumping out loud Spanish-language pop music. Later, after a two-hour sleep, I visited ‘Mr Jones’, a restaurant offering a hearty meat menu. Serving from 8pm, the place quickly filled up and I moved seats to accommodate a family of later eaters. I paid up and tried complimenting the staff on the Welsh-themed surroundings. To this end, I utilised my Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish phrasebook, a great help which also guaranteed lots of laughter! My Spanish at this stage really was a struggle – especially my sentence construction. It would appear I was saying “Like I would” instead of the intended “I would like”!
Wednesday, February 10
After a long sleep until midday, I freshened up, ate some fruit, had a coffee and walked into the town. There are incredible highs and incredible lows when living a life where anything goes. Yet despite my fatigue after the long coach journey, I felt a relieved type of euphoria firmly settling in my soul in this new continent. The deep blue sky excited me. Spanish radio blared out English and American music, and fried-food smells wafted in the air. Puerto Madryn was quite modern in appearance but the town’s street names like Avenida de Lewis honoured its Welsh history. Fresh sea air on such sunny days also gave a temperate climate similar to back home. I spoke to an elderly man who struggled to walk so I gave him a couple of pesos. He then became animated and started kissing the badge of his yellow football shirt. I’m not sure why he did this. Perhaps he was wearing his lucky shirt. He seemed like quite a character.
Later on, I took a bus down to the headland of the bay and made my way up to the Welsh Museum, the fascinating Museo del Desembarco, the exact spot where a hundred or so Welsh families had landed way back in 1865, having sailed on the Mimosa to start their new lives in this strange place. I learnt a great deal in the museum about the challenges they had faced in adapting to such a dry and arid landscape, having to live out the first few months in caves carved out of the cliff face on the headland behind the museum.
I walked back along the beach, still busy with young crowds shouting ‘hola’ (hello) and waving. I needed an adaptor for my camera battery recharger and mobile and bought one from a nearby electrical shop but it wouldn’t work. Feeling miffed, I returned to the shop where a very helpful young woman full of friendly laughter tried to find a suitable adaptor and test it out. Again, the phrasebook proved so helpful, relaxing the situation and generating even more laughter. What was I saying to provoke such hilarity? Apparently, this time I was getting my hundreds and thousands mixed up but I soon safely returned to the hostel with the correct 250-volt device! It seemed compatible, and not a gadget blaster, as my mobile started charging up. The spacious dormitory was now full. An Israeli lad and two brothers from Switzerland had just arrived. But I had a very good bed and enjoyed another long sleep.
Thursday, February 11
The nearby wildlife sanctuary Peninsula Valdes was a big draw for visitors, but my attention was diverted westwards to the Chubut valley. I took a mid-morning rickety blue bus to Gaiman in deepest Patagonia. Music by Franz Ferdinand entertained the passengers as we stopped halfway in Trelew and then drove for another hour before arriving in the Welsh settlement built along the riverbank and surrounded by eucalyptus trees. I had gone there to sample life in the Welsh-speaking communities, and song lyrics and lines of prose floated through my head as my imagination was stimulated by my new surroundings. She’s got a little red flower to keep her hair together, I reflected as a beautiful young woman climbed on board the bus.
Despite Gaiman being a small town of 6,000 inhabitants, I struggled to find my way about. The key lay in gauging its scale. I was no longer in Buenos Aires and even Puerto Madryn seemed large compared to Gaiman. It was a quaint little place with some adobe houses, a few replica Welsh houses and chapels and one tea house with a massive ‘paned o de’ teapot outside in its front yard. It looked quite comical and made me chuckle. Most people visited Gaiman to sample the well-known Welsh tea houses. Having meandered through the outskirts sprinkled with corrugated factories, I returned to the town centre and its main street which reminded me of a Welsh market town.
I paid a visit to the tourist and arts centre where the kind and approachable Sandra Day introduced herself and spoke Welsh to me. The last four years of night school in Bangor University’s Adult Learners’ Welsh class had given me lots of confidence to speak in my mother tongue once again. I felt blessed to share in such wonderful moments. In her Spanish-accented Welsh, Sandra told me much about the town. Later another lady, in Casa de Te, in the Ty Gwyn Tea Shop, conversed with me in Welsh too. I was delighted by this experience and enjoyed a lovely tea for 45 pesos. To be honest, finishing all the treats became a difficult task as I tried to wash down the cheese sandwiches, cupcakes and bara brith with sweet, milky tea. I was also filled with a sense of contentedness in this cosiest of places. Its traditional interior design with Welsh dressers, tables and chairs made me feel at home so many thousands of miles away from Wales. The red fabrics stood out as well and I tried to record the details in my notebook and with my camera.
There were good bus connections back to Trelew, where I had to change for the ride back to Puerto Madryn. I stayed in the hostel garden enjoying a beer (Quilmes) and empanadas (pasties) throughout the evening. Reflecting on the day, I decided I’d be returning to Gaiman, the clincher being the folk music brothers Brigyn who would be performing their music there on Saturday. A year before, I’d missed the chance to see the boys in concert in Loggerheads near Mold.
Friday, February 12
I awoke feeling uplifted, following a lovely night with a great bunch of Germans. About eight of us had sat drinking, smoking and laughing around a patio table till 3am. The hostel thing can become a package product but free spirits coming together always works well. It’s the chance meetings that add the magic. I concurred with the sentiments echoed by one of the German women, Eva, who agreed with me that the guided tours cater for the holidaymakers. They’re still a great experience but they don’t always allow for independence and serendipity.
After a late breakfast, I made my way to the bus station and headed back to Gaiman. Gwesty Plas y Coed was busy but the proprietor, Rhian, phoned Ty’r Haul on my behalf and I bagged a room there for two nights. It was another sunny day in Gaiman. I’d arrived in the early afternoon and for a while I rested in the small, central park with its lush greenery and flowers. I noted I would have to watch my funds. But if I bought a guitar, I could perhaps start busking.
Welsh names adorned the hundreds of gravestones in the cemetery on the elevated outskirts of Gaiman. But it was later in the Museo Histórico Regional Gales, housed in the old railway station, and guided by the curator, that I came to firmly understand the struggles of making the new Welsh life work out here in this hostile landscape. Famine first took hold when crops failed in the barren, sandy soil and frequent dust storms. The native Teheulche Indians taught the Welsh some ancient ways to eke out a living in such infertile conditions. Gradually, through limited supplies, irrigation and settling out further west in the Chubut valley, the Welsh managed to survive and prosper.
While finishing an evening meal in the Red Lion Restaurant, the two Brigyn brothers arrived and I enquired about the following night’s concert.
Saturday, February 13
I moved to another guest house, Ty Gwyrdd, as Ty’r Haul was double-booked. The proprietor was very apologetic. My new room seemed a lot more basic and without the timed anti-mosquito spray (a new misting device). I drew the curtains to block out the glare of the sun and had a rest.
Later that day I visited the town’s closed chapel and its very own Gorsedd Circle, an Eisteddfod tradition so steeped in Welsh tradition back home. I thoroughly enjoyed the Brigyn concert along with about 70 members of the local Welsh Society. A man in the audience enquired about my Billy Bragg Welsh tour T-shirt depicting all the Welsh-town names. I also spoke to Ynyr, one of the Brigyn brothers, after the concert. When I said I’d missed their concert in Loggerheads due to the weather, he laughed and commended my efforts in coming this far to finally see them perform! Ynyr was travelling in Argentina with his girlfriend till the end of March. The concert had been arranged here because his parents had been living in the Chubut valley for the last six months.
Before returning to the guest house, I went to a little restaurant where I was invited to join Juan Dafis at the table he was sharing with his wife Catherine and young daughter. Juan, a local government officer, had been filming the concert. He told me about how his grandparents, from Betws y Coed, had come over to Patagonia in the early 20th century. We had a lovely time conversing in Welsh throughout the evening. Buenos Aires-born Catherine was a school teacher and her accomplishment in becoming a Welsh-language nursery teacher was an inspiration to all Welsh learners.
Sunday, February 14
A presumed 12.55pm departure from Gaiman, with an early arrival in Trelew, seemed to bode well. But it turned into a three-hour wait. I certainly had no love left for bus stations after Trelew. Screaming kids on school holidays held a noise-jam competition with excitable teenagers. A bespectacled, white-haired terminal operator struggled to accommodate the throngs of ride-less people. Three times he inspected my ticket and, gesturing to me to wait, muttered ‘Welcome to Argentina’ in a barking Spanish dialect, inspecting all around him with a fast-turning head whilst clutching tightly a wad of papers and lists. The family in front of me were waiting for the same bus to Rio Gallegos. I resigned myself to the likely transport inconveniences and busy buses for another fortnight of summer-holiday mayhem in the southern hemisphere. The extremely busy Andesmar bus dropped some passengers off in the coastal city of Comodoro Rivadavia. Light meals were served on most buses and they certainly kept me going. But this night-time journey served up only a desolate feeling, lasting far into the Patagonian plains down to Rio Gallegos in the south east.
By morning, I felt more optimistic. Passing a wondrous and desolate land, stretching as far as the eye could see, the sun rose on an empty world with nothing but sheep dotted about and even a few camelids as we made our way down the long, straight roads into the increasing cold of southern Argentina.
Monday, February 15
There was an almost crisp feel to the air in Rio Gallegos. The out-of-town bus terminal thronged with people wrapped up in their fleeces and alpaca sweaters awaiting their next journey. A few like me had to accept that there were only next-day seats available to Ushuaia in these busiest of holiday-season times. So, I took a taxi to check out nearby hostel availability. A couple of hostels were fully booked and I eventually chose the Hotel Alonso and a single room. Matters from the night before were still being settled by the hotel staff so I visited a shop for a few breakfast snacks and then returned to book myself a single room. I paid about £35 for the privilege, but there was a free-to-use computer in the dining room.
After pottering about and starting to make notes on my visit to the Chubut valley, I enjoyed a ridiculously large steak for lunch at the empty Club Britanico, a fine-looking restaurant where the tables were laid out resplendently with thick white napkins, crystal-clear glasses and shining cutlery. Nearly bursting after such a protein-filled meal, I thanked the staff, who welcomed me to return for an evening meal.
I walked down to the Esplanade, a paved front with a huge stone-wall sea defence. Temperatures were pegged down to 13 Celsius as a light breeze, sunny intervals and drifting clouds gave an almost Northern Hemisphere, early-spring feel to the place.
Then back in my windowless room number 22, I slumbered deeply until 9pm. Rio Gallegos seemed a purposeful place, a working town. Wealth from the nearby oil refineries seeped through onto its street life and into its busy port. There wasn’t much to do but take advantage of a very accommodating hotel. So for the rest of the evening, I wrote letters to six Worldwide Organisation for Organic Farming (WWOOF) affiliates up in the El Bolson region. I fully intended to stay at a farm to carry out a few weeks of voluntary work, where I could also grab myself free board and lodging. By midnight the rumbling traffic had eased and I dozed off thinking about the phonetics of Spanish after an earlier confusion between doze (12) and dos (2). It was a new language and I needed to keep on my toes, especially when it came to prices.