Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tea and Wildlife in Welsh Patagonia

I’m having a lazy day in Puerto Madryn today, catching up on uploading pictures and, of course, writing here. I’m off on a night bus to Bueno Aires at 7 pm; this time I’m travelling “cama ejecutivo” so am looking forward to it. I hear it’s very good, and at any rate it’s got to be an improvement on North American buses! Have you ever travelled by night bus in Canada or the U.S.? I did, once, from Toronto to New York (12 hours and $100); I don’t recommend the experience.

I spent the past couple of days exploring the area. Tuesday, I headed off to Peninsula Valdés, which is a protected wildlife area. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew around the area as the postal manager from 1929 to 1931, and there’s an island off the Peninsula that inspired his description of a “snake swallowing an elephant” in The Little Prince. (I’ll have to re-read it – it’s been a while since Grade 10 French class!). Interesting note: did you know that The Little Prince was one of the books banned under Argentina’s former dictatorship?

The Peninsula is chock full of interesting wildlife. I was too early for whale season – that starts in about June – but some of the Magellanic penguins were still hanging around. I didn’t get to wander among them as I did in Antarctica, but they’re still pretty funny to watch. These penguins carve out burrows for their nests in the side of the hill, working away industriously with those little webbed feet. Sea lions and elephant seals were also hanging around; any time I’ve seen these creatures, they’re pretty much just lying on the beach snoozing, so I don’t think it’s a terribly difficult life.

Well, other than the ever-present risk of being dinner for an orca, anyway. I also saw a few of those lean, mean killing machines cruising around near the beach, one swimming close to shore as if to check out the seal and sea lion snacks on offer, and the others further out to go after any animals that might get past the first one. We didn’t get to see any orca hunting, though, as they seemed content to just watch; I felt a little bloodthirsty wishing for a sea lion pup to be captured, but it would have been an awesome display. I’d have felt bad for the cute little pup, though.

One sea lion pup almost got snagged as he followed his mother into the water; Mom made it out again safely and looked around for the pup, who was no longer right behind her. You could almost see the panic on her face as she looked around the beach; she plunged back into the water, heedless of the lurking orca menace nearby. Mom and baby both made it out safely on the second attempt, and wisely shuttled much further away from the water.

Land animals were out in force, too. I didn`t see any pumas, but I think I saw everything else that lives around there, including some sheep being chivvied along by a border collie and his authentic gaucho handler on the horse behind. Guanocos, alpaca-like creatures with reddish-brown fur, liked to hang out by the side of the highway, only moving when the van came too near and leaping effortlessly over the high fence to get away. Speedy little maras (also called the Patagonia cavy or Patagonian hare) also lurked by the roadside, taking off at high speed when we approached; they`re odd little creatures about the size of a beagle that look like a cross between a kangaroo, a deer and a rabbit, that leap like `roos on their spindly little deer-like legs. I can`t show you what they look like though, as they moved too fast for me to snap a picture; you`ll just have to google them yourself.

Our very friendly guide Hugo also introduced us – two Australians, two Brits and a lone Canadian – to the Argentinian mate (pronounced `MAH-tay`) ritual. Argentinos are addicted to this bitter herb, which is brewed something like tea into a hot drink. There`s a special mate cup from which you drink it (they`d think you were loco if you used a regular mug), and it`s usually shared.
They drink this in preference to coffee, as it`s a mild stimulant like caffeine; I think I understand now why there is usually only instant coffee on offer everywhere I`ve stayed! I`ve just been looking for the wrong drink, that`s all. Mate`s pretty good, actually, so I might see if I can find it back in T.O. – take a look at the pic to see my first taste of the stuff.

The next day brought me to Gaiman and a drink to which I`m more accustomed: proper British tea. Gaiman was settled in the late 1800`s by Welsh immigrants, who left Britain after some abortive independence movements and rising unemployment in Wales. They looked around the world for somewhere with a lot of free land, where the English couldn`t be found; consequently, they settled on Patagonia and 153 intrepid souls came over in the first boat in 1865. You can still see the site on Puerto Madryn beach where they built their first crude shelters after landing.

Puerto Madryn has lost most of its Welsh character, but Gaiman is much smaller and is clinging fiercely to its heritage. Welsh is still taught in schools in Gaiman and the rest of the lower Chubut valley, and street names often has a distinctly non-Spanish flair (`Avenida Lewis Jones`, for example!). And teahouses flourish all around; I met a couple of Vancouverites on the bus ride there and we went for an authentic Welsh tea at one of these establishments. All-you-can-eat scones, apple tarts, custard, jam, fruit cake, and a dozen other kinds of baking meant we all walked out of there groaning because we were so full; likewise, the pot of tea was never emptied as the attentive lady of the house kept it filled. I didn`t bother to have dinner that night.

There`s also a wee museum in Gaiman that displays some of the artefacts belonging to the first settlers and gives you a history of the area. The sweet little old lady in charge could have stepped right out of an illustration for a traditional British grandmother; she spoke in slow, careful Spanish to me until she realized I spoke English, then switched to that language (with a hint of a Welsh accent).

I also paid a visit to the garden-cum-art-park El Desafio (Spanish for challenge or defiance), an ever-growing installation by an eccentric local artist who creates sculptures, walkways, arches and other decorations for his property out of garbage.  For 10 pesos, he lets you wander around at will, and will occasionally come harangue you about the meaning of his art (I think – he spoke in very rapid Spanish so I missed a lot of it!). It`s a fascinating little place and quite thought-provoking even if you can`t translate all of the Spanish. And I think it`s a much better use of plastic water bottles to turn them into flowers, or Chinese lanterns, or the Taj Mahal, than to pile them up in a landfill!

The only thing I didn`t like about Gaiman was the fact that it hailed, briefly. Yes, HAIL ... you know, that hard icy stuff that falls from the sky. It isn`t winter here, yet, so if that`s any indication of what`s to come, I think I`m glad I`m leaving the area! Buenos Aires should be warm, and I might even be able to stop wearing my fleece and hiking boots – T-shirt and Tevas, here I come!

1 comment:

  1. Welsh is taught in Argentina? whoda thunk it! You can definitely get mate in Toronto, I've seen it in health food shops and Kensington market...I will have to try it now that I know it tastes good! I think some cafes serve mate drinks, too (not Starbucks, but the more interesting ones you can find).