I don’t know why I was so paranoid about visiting Trelew. In the middle of Carrefour, I was asked where I was from by one of the most delightful older women I’ve ever met in my life. She welcomed us to Argentina with open arms. Nonetheless, I decided to adopt the ultimate of anti- mugging strategies. If anyone had attempted to divest me of my cash, I would have shouted. ‘Soy Galesa!’ and pointed at my cap and then attempted to recite the first lines of ‘Under Milkwood’ or I keep my pyjamas in a drawer marked pyjamas. If they had spoken to me in Welsh, and been more than a little disgusted at my inability to reply in that language, I would have corrected my initial statement to ‘Soy Galesa in mi corazon!’
There are fifty thousand people of welsh descent. It’s hard not to feel admiration for people who were prepared to leave their homeland and embark on a tough and uncertain future, thousands of miles away, in the almost certain knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to come back. The first group came in 1885 on the ‘Mimosa’. They came to protect their language and their culture which they felt was at risk from English cultural domination. They had scoured the globe for possible havens, considering the possibility of going to South Africa, before accepting the invitation of the Argentinian government to settle in Chubut.
Many of them must have felt their hearts sink, as they journeyed through the miles of semi desert, scrubland before reaching the river of Chubut.
Years and years of hard graft saw them transform this valley into fertile agricultural land by digging channels to irrigate the soil and make it productive. They kept sheep and grew wheat and other crops and the farmers who work this land now have a lot to thank them for. Aerial photos show a huge band of green land between vast areas of arid land. They even built a tunnel and created a railway to allow them to transport their goods to Puerto Madryn for export. They were lucky that the native people were kind to them and taught them vital survival skills such as how to hunt the rhea, an ostrich-like bird, that were once very common in Chubut with a weapon consisting of hard round balls attached to a leather rope. (One of Jorge’s prized possessions was one of these stones that he found on his father’s estancia.) The native people were exterminated by the Argentinian government, which saw them as an irrelevance.
The Welsh were not so unlucky. A group also migrated further west to adopt the lifestyle of gauchos.
Argentina demanded that they enlist in their army, which was against their religion and began to deprive them of their autonomy, insisting that they become Argentine citizens. Chile tried to claim their land but they fought back and finally pledged allegiance to Argentina. The Welsh language went into decline. The chapels were neglected and even the festival of Welshness was given up. But then, relatively recently, there was a revival, even a kind of renaissance. One could be a little cynical and attribute it simply to tourism, but nowadays there are many people in the area who are trying to learn Welsh despite not having Welsh roots, that there must be more to it than that. There is even a bilingual school in Chubut teaching in both Welsh and Spanish and remarkably enough parents are happy to pay extra for the classes that are taught in Welsh. There is such a feeling of pride. It’s cool to speak Welsh, it seems. If only the native people had fared better and been able to pass on their heritage.
Sophie and I took the cap on an outing to Gaiman, a small town near Trelew and the epitome of Welshness in Patagonia. Gaiman is poignantly enough actually an indigenous name meaning ‘sharp rock’. What we noticed immediately was the smell of water and of lush vegetation. We were drawn to the river and it was relaxing to feast our eyes on trees, which were all planted by the Welsh. What was also really striking were the birds, flashes of exotic colours and shapes. It’s the birds that remind you more forcibly just as radically as the landscape that you are in a different hemisphere where evolution has taken many different paths. Having never been particularly interested in birds, I’m beginning to experience certain twitchings. When you’ve lived all your life in one hemisphere, you think a swan is a swan is a swan, or a swallow is a swallow. There may be some slight variations in the colour of the bill or the colour of a feather or two, but you’re so wrong. You see a little grey or brown shape and you think so what it’s just a lark, or something like that, but then you notice it has a bright red chest like the long-tailed meadow larks we saw on the Peninsula Valdes and you think, hang on a sec, why this crazy colour?
You can’t visit Gaiman without having a high tea in any one of numerous high tea outlets. Having starved ourselves all morning, Sophie and I took the plunge and were presented with a plate full of slices of white bread with butter and two types of jam and another entire plate laden with cakes of various types, all very delicious and all very over-priced. We went to the museum in the house of one of the very early settlers and were impressed by its austerity and by the bleakness of its interior. A very enthusiastic young man, a descendant himself to judge from his pale eyes and pale skin, gave us a guided tour for only 15 Argentine Pesos each about 80p. He told us about the difficult early days: the flood from the River Chubut, which destroyed many of their houses and about the fact that many of them gave up the project altogether and went to Canada. The interesting thing is that nowadays scorn would be poured on them for doing what so many people are still trying to do: trying to find a brighter future for themselves and their kids, while protecting their heritage and passing down their language, which is a unique way of looking at the world.
We found out that the penguin tours to Punta Tombo were all too expensive and too complicated. We read in our guide book that you can see penguins from Rio Gallegos, so we opted for that. We were going to spend one night there anyway. But then things turned out a little differently.
The last person we spoke to in Trelew was another descendant of the original settlers. He was our taxi driver, a nice, friendly man, who picked us up from the Soberania Comodoro, transformed into a street like something from the wild west, by dust clouds driven by the wind. He didn’t speak a word of Welsh.
We travelled south by bus on the night of the giant moon. We could see it rising above the Atlantic as we approached Rivadavia Comodoro. It was so beautiful. We tried to take pictures of it through the coach windows. Very early the next morning, after a night of very little sleep and three films, one of which was An Eye in the Sky, which was very interesting and quite harrowing, we arrived in Rio Gallegos but instead of going to our hotel, we decided to go straight to Puerto Natales. We were told there were potential problems at the border, with people about to go on strike, or already on strike. Of course I only need to hear that word and I see those sloths again…so we leapt at the chance of catching the bus.
We had about nine hours to kill before out bus for Puerto Natales. We had plenty of time to worry about what we should declare. There are very strict rules about what can be brought into Chile. Thanks to plentiful expenditure of dollars, we no longer had an excess of them. We did however have some food. No fruit or vegetables of any description are allowed on pain of a hefty fine, or any kind of dairy products or wooden products. We were thankful that we had finished our honey in Trelew. With a twinge of regret, we threw away our one remaining leek, then the rest of our cheese, which had not really tasted of anything and the rest of our bread. We settled down to wait in a small café in the bus station. There was nothing to do except drink coffee, eat sandwiches and try to stay awake but as the afternoon advanced, so did my paranoia. Maybe I should get rid of our pasta too and our pasta sauce? We had managed to cook for ourselves very successfully in Trelew. On the other hand, it was nice knowing that we were on the last but one leg of our mega journey. The service on this bus was also very good. We were given tea, already sugared and a snack and an information sheet with pictures showing contraband, which included pictures of wooden objects, such as wooden masks. My heart sank. Did I have something similar? Yes, I did. I had a little wooden bird. We chatted with the other passengers. Two young Brazilian men boarded at a small village called Esperanza. They were on their phones chatting to each other intermittently. They had no wooden objects lurking in their luggage. A lively Argentinian woman who was visiting her niece in Puerto Natales and whose grandmother is still going strong in Santiago at the age of 110, advised us to declare our little wooden bird, just in case the customs people got bloody-minded. She told me she was going to declare her mate tea to avoid any problems. I took a photo of Sophie holding the little bird as a final souvenir. It’s always better to be honest. Then I hastily changed my form from Nothing to declare to Something to declare.
The bus stopped at the Argentinian frontier and we all trooped out to have our passports stamped for exit. We got into the bus again and the bus stopped at the Chilean border and we all trooped out again, this time with all our luggage. Then it was time to go through customs. Two young men stood half watching a football match. I handed over my form and presented my bird. There was a moment’s pause.
‘What is this thing?’
‘It is a bird…made of wood from a tree, a long, long, long way away from here…which may have been infected with maggots, or other highly dangerous insects. I do hope you don’t mind if I bring it into your country but it was a leaving present from a very dear friend of mine, who made it with her own hands and..’
The customs official looked at it dismissively and almost immediately chucked it back. Then I picked up my rucksack and calmly walked off with it, unaccosted. Thank goodness for football. They were more interested in match between Chile and Uruguay.
Puerto Natales is just across the border. I wonder if Chileans feel a bit odd living in a country which is one very long thin sliver covering a desert in the north, more temperate regions in the middle and the cool areas in Patagonia. It is sometimes called the ‘stringbean’ of South America. It is the longest country in the world. The span is equal to one tenth of the earth’s perimeter. In contrast the average width is only 110 miles, with a maximum of only 217 miles!
Puerto Natales is obviously a really touristy town. You can tell right away because the bus station is a lot sleeker than the ones we had encountered. Thank goodness for long summer evenings. It was still light at nine p.m when we arrived. We found the tourist information office still open and someone available to give us a map and directions to the Hostel where we were going to spend the night and where we were going to finally meet the man who organised this whole workaway for us. His name is Juan. We had quite a hike from the bus station and since we had no Chilean money, we didn’t want to take a taxi. The bus driver kindly took us part of the way. It was very cold. There were benches on the pavements but I wondered who on earth would want to brave the cold winds long enough to sit on them. This was supposed to be summer but it felt much colder than even the coldest days in London because of the wind which cut through our clothes and shivered our timbers.
Finally we found the Hostel Coloane and Juan opened the door. It was nice to be in warm building with a warm welcome. It was a strange experience because we had been thinking about this meeting for the last three months. He showed us our room. We were ready to drop.
It felt a little alarming to be suddenly talking to him and for our plan to finally be realised. It was a strange sensation to put ourselves into his hands and to trust him. He seemed perfectly nice but he was only a link in a chain, the intermediary between us and our hosts, a Chilean couple living in the back of beyond, with whom we were going to be spending the next ten weeks! Now we were about to find out if we had made a mistake! It was very late by now and having provided us with a nice cup of Roibus, Juan told us we would need to be up very early the next morning to catch a boat across a stretch of water to where Ricardo would pick us up. We set off to get some Chilean pesos, buy some last minute supplies and find something to eat. We were starving. I deeply regretted having disposed of our pasta and our pasta sauce. Now, having finally figured out how to use my card to extract some money from a cashpoint, we bought exactly the same pasta sauce and pasta from a little shop opposite the hostel, that we had thrown away in Argentina.
A tall, lanquid American chatted with us. He told Juan it was his first ever experience of staying in a hostel. He makes enough money from doing adverts for Facebook and Youtube to enable him to spend six months of every year travelling. He has a Brazilian girlfriend who ‘looks after him’. It would be silly for her to be tied down to a job. It would severely cramp their style. He intends to spend the next few months in Cape Town, swimming with sharks..
What I hadn’t entirely realised in my enthusiasm for this plan to spend ten weeks in the Patagonian countryside was quite how remote it would be. The following morning, we were driven to the shore and waited for a small boat to come and pick us up and take across the choppy stretch of water to where Ricardo was waiting for us in his pick-up. What about the bird tours I wondered? There didn’t seem much interest in them. How well developed was this plan for eco tourism on the estancia? Would we be able to come back to Puerto Natales under own steam? There’s really something to be said for having your own steam. Being taken deeper and deeper into the wilderness brought back memories of Sikander and me hitchhiking in the US when we were picked up and driven deep into the forests of Oregon to spend ten days dredging for gold with a Vietnam vet and his young wife, who was our age. After ten days Dan, the Vietnam Vet, who kept himself going with a constant stream of black coffee and vituperative hatred of Jane Fonda, proposed that we try swapping partners. We declined.
How are we supposed to do this thing in reverse? Ricardo seemed like a perfectly sensible man, who spoke no English but didn’t seem to mind my Spanglish. Oh God, how I hate fumbling to express myself. It’s excruciating, sometimes. I’m no good at small talk in English and now I had to make it in Spanish. ‘Oh, look what a lot of birds!’ was about the best I could manage. One thing I am very good at is enthusiasm. ‘Que paysaje maravilhoso!’ or words to that effect went down quite well. According to Juan, Ricardo is determined to hang on to his Estancia and resist offers to buy it from neighbouring owners who own much bigger Estancias and are keen to make them even bigger. He wants to set it up as an eco- tourism venture that can be run by his daughters one day as a going concern. That will involve improving the infrastructure, improving the roads, creating gites, having a windmill built as well as the solar panels to provide more electricity. His daughters need to learn English, which is where I come in. But what can I teach them in ten weeks? Will we even get on?
In the meantime, Ricardo has to keep it running from day to day which isn’t at all easy considering the inaccessibility of the terrain. Ricardo goes around on horseback most of the time. Chileans apparently, don’t have much interest in coming to work for him. Hence the need for people like us, eccentric and slightly batty highly urbanised Europeans who fancy themselves on a farm and who are happy to come and muck in in exchange for food and a roof over their heads.
What was increasingly obvious as we drove further and further along a dirt track was that we had indeed entered a paradise for birds. Normally when you go to a birdy area in England, you feel fortunate if at the end of a long, cold wait in a hide you can focus your binoculars on some birds, any birds, which seem a very long way away. You are grateful for a glimpse of a Teal or a Widgeon or possibly, if you are very lucky, an Avocet but here it was like a scene from ‘Birds’ the movie, except the birds were all benign. Geese flew right in front of the car, as if showing us the way. Flocks of Ibis and flocks of white terns. We startled more and more flocks, rising in raucous harmony from the sides of the fjord. (Warning: this next bit may only interest twitchers..) The birds were so close, so extravagantly numerous on all sides, it seemed miraculous. Geese, geese and yet more geese and not just any old geese: ashy-headed geese and upland geese. Swans soared above the sparkling waters of the fjord, but not just any old swans: black-necked swans with their fabulously bobbly red noses. Now, a few days later, we have seen the black-faced ibis which have pink legs and orange-topped heads and the black-chested buzzard eagle and the chimango caracara, which is incredibly common and a southern crested caracara. We think we have caught a glimpse of a cinearious harrier. We’re not doing so well with our ducks but we have seen two white-tufted grebes. We have seen the black-crowned night heron. We’ve seen tons of southern lapwings, which screech at you as soon as you venture forth for a walk. We’ve seen a grey-hooded sierra finch, a Magellanic woodpecker, thorn-tailed rayaditos and a rufous-collared sparrow and that’s without even mentioning condors. We have not only seen one condor, we have seen not just one but several condors cruising together.
The birds of prey are particularly amazing. They are extraordinarily cool about being approached. They tend to perch in full view on a posts or on the top of a tree and only fly away when you’re really close to them.
Chile has in fact according to the many bird books that I have found in the estancia, 456 bird species. But can even this absurd enormous plethora of compensate for an almost total lack of contact with the outside world? It was obvious that we were entering an area from which escape with our huge rucksacks would be all but impossible. We would have to get on with our hosts at all costs. Not only are they separated from civilisation by the aforementioned stretch of choppy water but there is also the small matter of the mile upon mile of barely negotiable dirt track that meanders to their house. There is of course no internet, at least not until we have acquired Chilean sim cards. Luckily our hosts couldn’t be nicer. Karen is a very cheerful, hard-working, easy-going, down-to-earth woman. Ricardo, who is older than her, is also very nice, quiet and mild-mannered. Their two daughters, Amendra, 6 and Matilde, 4 are very sweet.
They are very good at playing together. They have to be because there’s nobody else their age for them to play with.
On the first day they showed us their hens and found that two of the chicks had drowned in the drinking water. They picked up the little corpses and carried them around with them for ages, stroking them and deciding where to bury them. Eventually they buried them in the garden close to where we were weeding. They sang to them and made a beautiful grave with flowers and stones, which they covered in mud.
They don’t go to school. It’s difficult to see how they could go on a regular basis. They just go to Puerto Natales once a week for a special school for children who live in remote areas, paid for by the Chilean government. I play games with them and sing songs: Head, shoulder, knees and toes or if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, or Old Macdonald had a farm and on that farm he had ten condors, e-i-e-i-o…
The house is small and old and pleasantly unposh. I had imagined something a lot grander with a lots of antlers on the walls and cannons by the doors. I guess I thought an estancia sounded vaguely posh and very big. I thought ‘latifundario’. I imagined huge barns full of sheep and masses and masses of horses and gauchos. How wrong I was. This was more ‘cold comfort farm’ except it is warm and cosy and there are no Seths or three-legged heifers and the views from the windows are stunning: snow-capped mountains encircling a fjord that stretches away into the distance and sparkles and twinkles on calm days and becomes ruffled and tempestuous on windy days.
Ricardo and Karen have a big solar panel which creates enough energy for lights in the evening. If they want to watch TV, they switch on their generator, which makes a really loud noise. They’re going to get a windmill in December, which will give them a lot more power, thanks to a German government sponsored initiative. Sophie and I are sharing a room with a gas lamp, which is very cosy but not very practical. Luckily we both brought torches with which we find everyday objects, such as our clothes..
As soon as we arrived we started helping out preparing dinner. They have a big midday meal with meat and vegetables and a smaller meal at five which consists of freshly baked bread and butter, jam and honey and washed down with tea. It’s really strange eating meat every day. They laughed when we explained about being vegetarians. They simply couldn’t understand the point of it. Was it because we felt sorry for the animals or was it because we’re simply insane? I told them I loved meat so it wasn’t a problem and it’s true, I do love meat. No hay problema! Para Sophie tampouco!
On the second day, Karen asked Sophie and me to collect wood for kindling from the tops of some trees on the top of the hill, or at least that was what I thought she meant. She gave us a sack each and we set off. The ascent was very steep. We saw flocks of birds, condors, which are immediately recognisable since their wings are splayed out like fingers, and got quite distracted and very excited since it was the first time we had seen so many together and they are spectacular sight. We kept climbing and it got steeper and harder to the point where I began to think that if she asked us to do this again, I would concentrate my efforts on trees lower down. Eventually we reached the summit and began to fill our sacks with dry branches from dead trees. There were quite a lot of them since there must have been some sort of storm which destroyed many of the trees. Then Sophie found a feather from a condor. It was incredibly long: an entire arm’s length. It was a triumphant moment. We finished filled our sacks taking care to only include wood that was dry. It took a long time, avoiding spines, taking care not to twist our ankles in a rabbit hole – which are a disastrous European import, completely out of control and eating up all the grass that the livestock need – looking for a less steep way down. The whole trek was exhausting but strangely exhilarating. The wind was blowing and I was hoping we might find more condors feathers to bring back to London as trophies.
When we came back we found the family and the young French couple all at lunch. They said they had been worried about us. Why had it taken so long? Of course I had misunderstood the instructions. We were not meant to go that far. We were very late. I told them that the whole experience for us of being in this landscape had a feeling of unreality, which was why I had leapt at the chance of climbing a small mountain instead of doing the sensible thing and finding trees a matter of metres away from the house. I tried to explain that I felt I was in strange kind of dream. Then I showed them the condor feather and they understood…
I think one reason I decided to come here was to experience a different kind of time. I wanted to know what it would feel like to be in the same place, a beautiful remote place with nothing around except wind and birds and sheep and grasses and to be able to experience time passing in a completely different, meditative sort of way. Yet I have found that time weighs a little heavily. I can’t believe we’re going to be here for so long. It seems that we’ve been here for a long time already but it’s only been three days. Evenings can be so long and I’m restless..I’ve always been restless. How can I stop being restless? That is the questions. As for Sophie, I’m guilt ridden already at how little contact she is going to have with people her own age, apart from the French couple who are also working here but who seem to have absorbed some of the silence of this place. They have been living in a little hut perched on a hill some hundred metres from the house…
Day two and beyond..
On day two Ricardo, Karen and the kids went off to Puerto Natales and left us in charge along with Laura and Sebastian the French couple. It felt a little alarming. We were left with instructions for making a fire in the stove and baking bread, as well as feeding the animals: two lambs, a heifer, and chickens. We managed fine, making two rather humungous loaves of white bread. I also cleaned the floor, prepared lunch, and fed the lambs and the chickens. We had the French couple to talk to who were beginning to open up a little. After several hours, Sebastian finally admitted to being English in the sense that his mother is English but he has spent most of his adolescence in France. Laura, his girlfriend doesn’t speak any English or very little English, hence his reluctance to speak to us.
The next day, Ricardo and Karen rang around four telling us that they wouldn’t be able to make it back because it was too windy and the crossing would be too dangerous. They have plans to leave us in charge for more extended periods, quite soon. Gulp! Luckily there is an amazing dog here called Pluma. He is extremely smart and a great companion on walks. We had a better evening with Laura and Sebastian and in fact began to enjoy each other’s company, albeit rather cautiously. They are working their way around South America for several months. He is a stone mason and she is a gardener. They have good skills and are very nice when you get to know them. Sebastian thinks going to live in France when he was thirteen was great because he was up to no good in England and it kind of grounded him. He likes the fact that the French enjoy talking politics. He likes the fact French workers in the public sector have good security. On the other hand, he doesn’t agree that in the public sector people can’t get fired.
In between feeding the animals we went out for walks, which was wonderful. I have discovered that I’m a terrible wildlife camera person. I’m too much of a fumbler. I’ve decided to pride myself on being crap at taking wildlife photos. You will have to believe me when I tell you what I was trying to photo. There is a Magellan woodpecker on that branch, believe it or not. It has a bright red head and black body. Those strange blobs in the distance are Ibis. They have pink legs and make a lot of noise. That black blob in the distance is a condor. Maybe I’ll get better with time. I’ll certainly keep trying.
Coming here we have really discovered the power of the wind. The clothes pegs are extra strong to help you keep your clothes on the line in the face of roaring gusts. The wind makes it impossible to cross the small stretch of water that separates us from Puerto Natales. We’ve learned to live without electricity during the day and make a fire to heat water and bake bread. We’ve learned how to feed bottle feed lambs, feed chickens and search for eggs hidden in long grass by hens who are constantly trying to outwit us, and we have bravely tried to feed a calf, abandoned by its mother, which is extremely difficult: It keeps running away. We have swapped short winter days for long summer ones, but if anything it’s colder here than in England and it keeps getting lighter and lighter and warmer and warmer and the wind now seems to have dropped.
We’re learning so many things: How much bread it takes to cook bread, how the wind affects the efficiency of the stove. I have literally in all my life had to make a fire in order to boil a kettle. I’ve had to learn patience. You have to wait a long time for an oven to heat up sufficiently to bake bread. It’s not enough to simply build a fire and bingo. But the most challenging thing to learn by far Spanish: first of all words for really important things: cordero=lamb, , gallino=cock, conejo=rabbit ternera= heifer. I’ve finally learnt how to feed her. You approach with a bottle and speak in a severe voice holding out the dripping bottle of milk. It’s a hilarious feeling traipsing around a field with a huge bottle of dripping milk and sounding like someone out of the pride of Miss Jean Brodie in order to convince a small skittish forlorn little heifer that you are her mother. I’ve also learned that there is nothing sentimental about the attitudes of our hosts to the wildlife. Ricardo has shot us a goose for dinner. In fact, we eat meat every day without fail. I didn’t mind the rabbit, or the sheep or the chicken, not one of his thank goodness, but now I feel sad about the goose. I heard the shot and saw the flock rise up into the sky in alarm, apart from this one goose that twitched and tried to flap and then was still.
I have also put my foot in it politically. Karen asked us what we knew about Chile before we came here and I found myself talking about my feelings about Pinochet and about how I had found out about it all through the film ‘Missing’ with Jack Lemon and Sissy Spacek about the 1973 coup. Karen shook her head sadly in response to what I was saying but from the other end of the table came Ricardo’s comment, also uttered sadly. ‘A muchos Chilenos gusto Pinochet mucho. Or words to that effect. Yo tambien creio que era muy bien!’
I said nothing. I had visions of being packed off back to Puerto Natales but Ricardo conceded that he was not too hot on derechos humanos and the moment passed. Sweep it under the carpet.
Karen has told me they are going to be away for four days in late November, as well as for a whole eight days in December…gulp!!
I don’t know how we will manage. Sometimes I feel a vague feeling of suffocation, a kind of anxiety, especially in the late evenings as night begins to fall. And now the weather has amazingly turned really warm! How did this happen? When we arrived we could easily believe we were near the Antarctic but now we sit in blazing sunshine, weeding the garden, hearing the hens clucking around us and the water of the fjord is completely still, like a huge mirror…we could be in the south of France in midsummer
Now, unexpectedly, we have the chance to go to Puerto Natales for the afternoon and this is coming with me. Maybe I will be able to send this off, and finally buy a sim card and then..
photos of the estancia to follow…I promise…