Wales and Whales‏

08 Dec 2002

OK I’ve been a bit under the weather the past couple of days, nothing serious, I guess my frenetic pace has finally overwhelmed my body!  Too many tours, too many overnight bus trips ⁠— although these are quite comfortable, and I always get a kick out of the “bus attendants” who distribute sandwiches, coffee, blankets & such, and always pop in some bizarre B video from the US.  These flicks are always so weird, usually with big stars but are terrible productions (I expect they never enjoyed general release).

Yet a month of travel is so little time, I find I am skipping over whole interesting sections of Argentina’s vast geography (I’m saving those for another trip).  But yesterday was a restful day, in the pleasant El Bolsón, a smallish valley town flanked by two craggy ranges in the Lake District.

Per Wikipedia: El Bolsón is a melting pot of both histories, myths and legends of the first indigenous inhabitants of the area together with various waves of European immigrants and the cultural movements of the 1970s, often known broadly as the hippy movement where simple and sustainable living practices are still a way of life.

Argentina’s first “non-nuclear zone”, El Bolsón has its fair share of alternative types, donning Ché and Bob Marley tees, good organic restaurants with a refreshing variety of vegetarian choices (although I opted for the local trout with a Roquefort cream sauce ⁠— can’t pass that up!).  It’s quite laid back (not surprisingly) and a real treat of a town.  I lingered over a late morning coffee along the rose-lined main avenue, reading the paper and noticing the many “teach peace”, “protect the natural world” and “love mother earth” murals placed at strategic points around town.

Soon the weekly fantastic artisan market was in full swing in the central Plaza Pagano (literally “Pagan Square”, quite a contrast from all other Argentine, and Latin American, towns which invariably have a central plaza of Liberty, Independence, or some dude’s name).  The market was great, chock-a-block full of interesting goods, especially the food ⁠— I chowed on gourmet pizzas, empanadas filled with tasty local veg, soy milanesas, fresh wild strawberries, home brew, etc.

Oh yeah, that’s another great perk of the area:  the vast majority of Argentina’s hops are grown in the valley, so most restaurants have their own excellent microbrews (mostly weiss beers).  I managed to pry open my moneybelt and acquire some interesting items (I have a real problem when it comes to buying “stuff” especially when I have to lug it for weeks in a backpack).  I also hit the local natural foods store (funny how these always smell the same ⁠— a mix of funky grain and incense), browsed some interesting books on mineralogy and gemstone spiritualism.  El Bolsón is considered by some to be one of the earth’s “energy centers” due to the alignment of the mountain range.  Some claim UFO’s make occasional appearances here.  I can’t confirm that, but I have seen Mormons in town.  There seems to be a hardy mix here, that is for sure.

The past few days I spent in the Welsh towns of northern Patagonia.  Late in the 19th century Welsh nationalists petitioned the government of Argentina to settle the lower Río Chebut basin in Patagonia.  They sought political and cultural freedom (and of course economic opportunities), and despite the government’s initial misgivings (mainly due to the British presence in the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands), they were granted large tracts since the government also had an interest in developing the south which was then mostly wilderness.

The Welsh in Argentina seems to be a colonial history that mostly parallels the initial English settlement in our country:  a boatload of radicals arrived, encountered near starvation, were bailed out by indigenous tribes (in this case the Tehuelche), gradually established a footing, then proceeded to decimate the tribes in the pursuit of more land.  They established the towns of Puerto Madryn, Rawson, Gaiman, and Trelew (to name a few) and for many decades steadily  progressed, building a railroad, establishing Welsh-language newspapers, continuing their rich music traditions, and generally fared economically well as the price of wool grew with demand.  However, when the wool market crashed in the 1930’s, immigration from Wales was reduced to a trickle and slowly their cultural influence was displaced by the growing number of Italian and Spanish arrivals.

Welsh Teahouse, Gaiman, Chubut Province, Argentina
Welsh Teahouse, Gaiman, Chubut Province, Argentina

I visited Puerto Madryn (little if any Welsh influence remains), Trelew (where I enjoyed the museums and walks down streets with flashes of a distinct British feel), and in Gaiman I took afternoon tea, a feast of Welsh black cake, scones & local jam, homemade bread and cheeses, and a pot of hot ceylon tea (tea cozy and all!), and occasionally saw the clear eyes and fair hair of the Welsh descendants on buses, in shops, on the streets.  Unfortunately I didn’t hear any grandmothers speaking in Welsh, but apparently there still are speakers (the Tabernacle Chapel in Trelew still offers Sunday service in Welsh).

For me it was a somewhat wistful journey through this area, which now claims vibrant towns, alive with commerce and energetic youth.  But the Welsh influence seems a mere shadow of what it once was.  The original churches, banks, hotels, train stations (now abandoned), and cultural centers still exist as buildings, but are devoid of Welsh spirit.  The museums tell grand stories of sacrifice, hardship and well-earned success, and the massive hope for a Greater Wales in a New World.  The quintessential Immigrant Story.  Yet the legacy now seems to be kept alive only for tourists and now seems to be just a curious historical side note.  I suppose that’s the fate of most immigrant stories.  After a few generations without new arrivals, the minority culture is subsumed or eclipsed by the dominant forces.

Parque El Desafío, Gaiman, Argentina
Parque El Desafío, Gaiman, Argentina

Faded Welsh glory aside, Gaiman is home to the Parque El Desafío (“Challenge Park”) an oddball park made entirely of recycled junk (recognized in Guiness’ book as the world’s largest recycled park).  It includes lengthy walks past collages, castles, sculptures, bridges, maps, dinosaurs, metallic gardens, creative vehicles, colorful overhanging awnings ⁠— all made of old crap.  Bottles, cans, tires, bags, boxes, pipes, hangers, you name it (in a strange way it kinda reminded me of the Grotto in Dickeyville, WI!).

Even the entry ticket was individually crafted out of post-consumer paper (mine was a pack of Marlboros), which can even be recycled if I give it to another visitor!  And to add context, many interesting quotes or original sayings appear throughout, often wittily mocking of modern consumerist and workaholic society.  The creator this curious spectacle is this guy in his 80’s, with whom (and his wife) I chatted with at length about (of all things) the Harry Potter books (the film just opened here) and the tragic oil spill in Galicia, Spain.

Magellanic penguins, Península Valdés, Argentina
Magellanic penguins, Península Valdés, Argentina

The previous day, I enjoyed an incredible day tour of the Península Valdés, an awesome wildlife reserve just off Puerto Madryn.  We witnessed the extremely territorial sea lions protecting their “harems” of females, drowsy young elephant seals and their parents (awaiting a new thick coat that will keep them warm in the frigid winter waters), flocks of guanaco and rhea, curious little Magellanic penguins with their recently-hatched newborns, and numerous other less “celebrity” fauna.

But the highlight certainly was the whale watch cruise, which for a thrilling 2-hour ride (in a pretty small boat in rough seas) we saw a good 12-18 southern right whales at an amazing proximity ⁠— like 10 feet from the boat!  At times they swam under the boat or jumped high out of the water (show offs!). It was incredible, truly.

Due to its warm protected waters, nearly 2000 whales come to this small area each spring to give birth (the pregnancy is 12 months exactly) and mate again (they waste no time).  We saw lots of “madonna con bambino” pairs.  The tour was excellent and a naturalist working at a local marine institute was our guide, and was careful to keep the engine off and not follow the whales.  But they are curious by nature so approached the boat to gawk at us.  I learned so many interesting, amazing facts about these beautiful creatures but the real gift was the ability to see so many of them in their own nurturing environment.  Wow.

Orca fin, Península Valdés, Argentina
Orca fin, Península Valdés, Argentina

And we were lucky to spot two orcas (killer whales), but not so up close and personal as the right whales.  These bad guys come to prey on the young elephant seals each spring, which I understand is a bloody event ⁠— they beach themselves and wait for the waves to wash the unsuspecting pups towards them.  Ghastly, to say the least, and occasionally tour groups get to witness this, but I can’t count myself among the lucky.

I spent a few days in Puerto Madryn, a congenial resort town (but there were few tourists ⁠— it’s still early in the season).  I napped in my pleasant family-run hotel (complete with a nosy kitty, blooming clematis, and nattering birds on my terrace), did my laundry (always such a treat!), finished one book and half of another, and ate excellent seafood meals with the new friends I made, first a couple of Australian mates (also doing the Round-The-World) and later a sweet older gay couple from Buenos Aires.  They were finishing a three-week vacation and we met on the Península Valdés tour.  We instantly struck up conversation, shared mate (the ubiquitous River Plate tea, often drunk in communion with family and friends), and chit chatted all day, over dinner, and then again over breakfast.  They are such interesting guys, spent lots of time traveling the world in the 60’s and 70’s, so we shared lots of stories.  They even added some important Argentine writers and musicians to my growing list of books/CD’s to check out when I return.

Well, enough for now.  I’m currently in the Lake District in the Andes, mountain biking and eating fine chocolates.  I hope to get some more trekking in mid-week, then north to Mendoza (wine country) and finally to Santiago, Chile where I fly home in 9 days. Time flies!


⁠—Pedro en bici

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