Che Guevara, Whales and Welsh Tea

29 09 2008

Arriving in our hostel (Baluch Backpackers) in Cordoba was like walking into a pub in Dublin – we must have been the only two people there who weren’t Irish and who weren’t drinking or hungover. They weren´t even all travelling together, rather just happened to all be there at the same time, very bizarre! Deciding just to chill out for the day, we headed up to the roof and passed the rest of the day relaxing in the hammocks and reading! That night in the hostel was Empanada night! Like Mate, Dulce de Leche, and steak; Empanadas are another southern american culinary institution. Basically they are cornish pastys, but just not as good! You can fill them with anything you want, but the normal options are Jamon y Queso (ham and cheese) Carne (Meat) or Verdura (Veg). The good thing about them is that they are pretty cheap and are great for long bus journeys! Empanada night consisted of a brief lesson in how to fill your empanada and then the different ways of folding the edges together. This proved reasonably hard (for me anyway) and it was pretty obvious whose empanadas were whose: mine were the ones with all the filling spurting out the sides. Still tasted good though which is all that counts in my opinion! Once cooked, we all sat down with lots of red wine and beer and ate our produce. The lady leading the session had counted on a lot more people taking part in the session, yet only 8 of us turned up so we made and ate around 20 peoples worth of empanadas… good times! Furthermore, in the 8 people that actually did the class, not one of them was Irish! We had 2 canadians, 2 danes and 2 guys from south africa! We weren’t alone after all.

There isnt a whole lot to do in Cordoba itself; we spent the next day wandering around the plazas and taking in some of the sights. The main sight was Cordoba´s eighteenth century cathedral, Argentinas oldest. The building is part baroque and part neoclassical, and has very imposing turrets on top; sadly though it was built from very porous pale cream coloured stone, and despite being cleaned only a few years back, it has already began to blacken again from all the pollution. The afternoon was spent browsing the shops and sitting in the main square reading. Feeling hungry but not wanting to spend too much, we found a tiny little cafe offering burgers and sandwiches with chips for little over a pound. Having placed our order, the owner then proceeded to shout it up through a hole in the ceiling above the counter. 15 minutes later our food came down through the same hole via a pulley system. It was like something out of Pinter´s Dumb Waiter. Who, or what was upstairs we shall never know…

There a number of places to visit around Cordoba, around an hours bus journey away. We decided to take a trip to Alta Gracia, fourty minutes south of Cordoba. In 1643, Alta Gracia was chosen as the site for a Jesuit Estancia around which the town grew. Yet with the Jesuits expulsion in 1767, the Estancia fell into ruin, but was inhabited briefly by the Viceroy Liniers in 1810. Now it is the Museo Historico Casa del Virrey Liniers, and is definitely worth a visit. Exhibits consist mainly of period furniture, mostly from the 19th century, but the most interesting exhibits are the re created kitchens and toilets. There is also a buckets made out of a dried cows udder! Outside is a lovely garden with a number of orange trees. Alta Gracia was also home for a while to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In the 1930´s, his family moved here in the hope that the clean air would cure him of his debilitating asthma. His house has now been turned into a museum. We had heard mixed views on the museum, but Im very glad that we decided to go. The biggest qualm people had with the place is that all the letters and photos are replicas. Nothing in the house is the original item. That said, the museum is very well laid out, with different rooms dedicated to different areas of his life and charts his life from child to revolutionary. It is very informative, and for those who do not know much about his life and what he achieved, I definitely recommend that you visit.

The next day we caught the bus down to Puerto Madryn, right at the top of Patagonia. Not the most interesting of towns, yet nice to be by the sea again. The real attraction however is that it serves as a brilliant base for trips to the ´ecological treasure-trove´ of the Peninsula Valdes; a sandy and treeless hump of land, connected to the mainland by a 35 kilometre isthmus. In particular we wanted to see the Southern right whales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Right_Whale). The area is the largest breeding population of the species, with more than 2,000 animals catalogued by the Whale Conservation Institute and Ocean Alliance. The time of year we visited happened to be the time that the whales give birth so we were very excited indeed! To get there you can either book yourself on a tour or catch the public bus. We decided to catch the bus there and book ourselves on a boat tour once there. When we arrived it was quite stormy and the sea was particularly rough, the lady at the tour company advised us that there was a large tour group arriving and would be better for us to wait for the next tour in two hours time, as it would be quieter, plus there was a chance the weather would improve! We agreed and spent the next couple of hours exploring the beach. Even from the beach we were astounded to discover that you could see the whales breaching the surface of the water. Furthermore walking along the headland with our binoculars, we looked down at the water beside us to see two seals pop there heads up to say Hello.

Once we had donned our bright yellow oversized ponchos and orange life jackets, we waddled down to the boat to begin the tour. Words and photos simply don´t do it justice. Within minutes of being out on the water, a mother and her calve swam right by the boat. Over 50 ton of whales moving so gracefully through the water, oblivious to us as she balanced her calve on her fin. The calves take a few weeks to grow the blubber that enables them to float, therefore the mother keeps them safe on her fins. We saw a number of whales as the boat moved around the cove; each one as magnificent as the last. At times they swam right under the boat, other times swimming past as releasing a mass of water from their blow hole. The highlight if I had to pick one, was when one mother went under the water and her tail came right out, for over twenty minutes her massive tail fin moved around above the water. Our guide said the reason was that she was with child and the movement helped release pressure in her womb. It was truly an amazing sight to behold and I did not want it to end. Sadly it had to, and we found ourselves back on dry land. There a number of lovely restaurants and cafes on the sea front, and we contented ourselves with buying some fresh seafood empanadas and sitting on the beach watching the whales in the distance. Before we knew it, a mixture of sun, sea air and food, we were asleep. For over an hour we slept on the beach, luckily waking in time to catch our bus back to Puerto Madryn.

The other place we really wanted to visit whilst here was Punta Tombo. South of Puerto Madryn, it is home to the largest single colony of black and white Magellanic Penguins (or any variety in fact) on the continent, with a population of more than a million birds. Heading to Trelew, the self declared ´Capital of the Penguin´, we assumed it would be as easy to visit as the Peninsula Valdes was. However due to the fact that to get the there you need to drive over 70km down a dirt track, it is not possible to get a bus there. We looked into a number of tour companies, but for some reason as it was low season, none of them were running tours on that day. So we decided to rent a car, the owner of the hostel called the company and the lady arrived to sign the paperwork, not until we were about to sign did she say that she didn’t actually have car for us today but could get one first thing the next day… We tried every option but either because it was too quiet or it was way above our budget, none of the options were feasible. Eventually we had to accept that we were going to have to miss out on going… ah well, C’est la vie! I shouldn´t complain, I´m incredibly lucky to have seen all that I have so far.

Instead, we decided to head to Gaiman, the most frequently visited of the welsh towns..

“The idea of a Welsh colony in South America was put forward by Professor Michael D. Jones, a nationalist non-conformist preacher based in Bala who had called for a new “little Wales beyond Wales”. He spent some years in the United States, where he observed that Welsh immigrants assimilated very quickly compared to other peoples and often lost much of their Welsh identity. He proposed setting up a Welsh-speaking colony away from the influence of English. He recruited settlers and provided financing. Australia, New Zealand and even Palestine were considered, but Patagonia was chosen for its isolation and the Argentines’ apparently generous offer of 100 square miles (260 km²) of land along the Chubut River in exchange for settling the still-unconquered land of Patagonia for Argentina.

Towards the end of 1862 Captain Love Jones-Parry and Lewis Jones (after whom Trelew was named) left for Patagonia to decide whether it was a suitable area for Welsh emigrants. They first visited Buenos Aires where they held discussions with the Interior Minister Guillermo Rawson then, having come to an agreement, headed south. They reached Patagonia in a small ship named the Candelaria, and were driven by a storm into a bay which they named “Porth Madryn” after Jones-Parry’s estate in Wales. The town which grew near the spot where they landed is now named Puerto Madryn. On their return to Wales they declared the area to be very suitable for colonization.

The permanent European settlement of the Chubut Valley and surrounding areas began on July 27, 1865 when 153 Welsh settlers arrived aboard the converted tea-clipper Mimosa. The Mimosa settlers, including tailors, cobblers, carpenters, brickmakers, and miners, comprised 56 married adults, 33 single or widowed men, 12 single women (usually sisters or servants of married emigrants), and 52 children” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_settlement_in_Argentina)

Even today, there remains a real pride and cultural connection that goes well beyond the tourist trappings. Halting welsh is still spoken in some areas, but mostly by 3rd or 4th generation residents. With Claire and I having met whilst studying at the University of Aberystwyth, and Claire actually living in wales, whilst my father and all his family come from south wales, there was even more reason to visit the area.

Heading down on the bus, we decided to treat ourselves to a welsh tea in one of the tea shops in the village. Welsh flags adorned the walls, and welsh dolls and love spoons were everywhere. In one corner was a large harp and the sound of a welsh male choir filled the air. (from a CD!) We hungrily sat waiting for our food, something that would take us back home, for me something that would possibly remind me of my Gramma´s cooking (not that anything could come close!). However when the tea arrived we were very disappointed. There was no bara brith, no welsh cakes; instead we were treated to a large plate of different Argentinian cakes, full of dulce de leche. We did get some apple pie, but thats not really welsh! At the end of the tea, we paid and said Diolch (thank you in welsh) however it was lost on the waitress. Looking around us, we noticed that a number of people had left leaving platefuls of cakes left. I know they weren’t welsh, but cake is cake and we are hungry backpackers… following the example of two 10 year old boys nearby, we both took some with us for the ride!

On the way back we came across a smaller tea shop tucked away. We headed in to discover it was also a lovely museum, full of artifacts and family trees that traced the welsh movement in Patagonia. Not wanting to buy anymore tea, but wanting to look around further, we explained our reasons for visiting to the two old ladies that owned the place. They kindly agreed and showed us around. When I asked if any Jenkins (my surname) had come over, they went quiet, before explaining that one had but he had committed a crime and had apparently been decapitated… lovely! The visit to this museum restored my faith in the place and we left content. The rest of the day before catching our bus was spent back in Puerto Madryn, watching the whales from the pier! Next stop – El Calafate.

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