Ym Mhatagonia

This is an extract from the travel anthology Even the Rain is Different
which was be published in April 2005 by the Welsh Women's Press Honno

In 1865, a group of Welsh emigrants left their homeland for the new world. They wanted to go to a place where life was better, and also where there were no laws prohibiting them the speaking of their Language, Cymraeg, Welsh, and the free exercise of their Nonconformist faith. They lighted on far-away Argentina, and founded a colony in Patagonia: Y Wladfa, as it is known to this day still to Welsh speakers.

On the outskirts of the small town of Gaiman big hoardings advertise Welsh tea shops: Ty Nain and Ty Tê Cymraeg and Ty Gwyn. Then a wide, empty main road, crossed by narrower side streets. Lots of pickup trucks; everything dry, dusty. Most of the houses are nondescript, although some are beautiful, startlingly white or elaborately built of red brick.

The whole town - village, really - looks empty; there's the odd car on the road and the occasional person, and dogs sleeping in the shade, but those few figures are swallowed up by the vast land and sky. Behind the houses, where the side streets end, I can see dusty whitish hillocks. The land feels enormous, even here in the middle of Gaiman. There is so much sky! Most of the houses have only one, at most two storeys and the road looks much too wide for the few cars in it.

The taxi slows down, avoiding a large pothole in the road, turns right. We're in one of the dusty side streets now; small trees and shrubs left and right, some in flower. We drive towards the whitish hill at the end of the road. There's a sign on the left: "B&B Gwesty Tywi".

The wind is sighing and whistling in the trees; there are birdcalls, the barking of small dogs, occasionally the drone of a passing car or motorcycle. The air smells dusty and dry and clean, all at the same time. The sun is hot.

The first thing I see as we go inside the house is a big chair against the wall on the right. Y gwyr yn erbyn y byd is carved into its back around the figure of a dragon: 'Truth against the world', the motto of the Gorsedd of the Bards. We pass through an archway and into the parlour, the centrepiece of which is a beautiful Welsh dresser.
It is hard to believe that I am in Argentina.



Next morning. The weather is wonderful: the sky a brilliant blue, not a cloud in sight; the sun already hot mid-morning.

As I walk past houses in the Calle Miguel D. Jones - Michael Jones, Bala, was one of the founding fathers of Gaiman -, small dogs that have been dozing in the shade jump up and yap. Invisible birds screech and squawk. Occasionally, I think I can make out some sparrow voices among them, but other than that, their calls are entirely unfamiliar.


The footpath - beaten, dry earth - is completely overgrown with dry bushes which an elderly man and a youth are about to clear. The school is built of red brick and has sash windows - very unusual in Argentina. Two cypress trees and a thorny shrub grow outside, and there is a - slightly rusty - sign: Primera escuela secundaria de la Patagonia, fundada en 1906. (The first secondary school in Patagonia, founded 1906.) A plaque at the side of the building says Nid Byd, Byd heb Wybodiaeth in Welsh: The World could not exist without Knowledge. And in Spanish: La Educación es el Pan del Alma. Education is Food for the Soul. I find these two quotes strangely moving, and catch myself thinking: You wouldn't find that in England, not in the South-East, anyway.

Gabro is the Welsh teacher. He is from Gaiman, but it turns out that he, too, learnt most of his Welsh at the Wlpan course in Lampeter, albeit a few years after I was there. He tells me this as I burst into his Welsh lesson for grade nine. Miguel and I have a brief chat in Welsh, then I sit quietly in a corner for the rest of the lesson. Afterwards, he tells me more in the playground outside.

'Welsh has been part of the curriculum in Coleg Camwy since 1996,' he tells me. (Dyffryn Camwy is the Welsh name of the valley of the River Chubut). 'We got the official OK from the province's education authority, and now the Coleg is the only secondary school in all of Argentina where Welsh is officially part of the curriculum. In the eighth grade the pupils choose whether they want to learn French or Welsh as their first foreign language - last year, out of thirty-five, thirty-one wanted to do Welsh!' He laughs. 'I teach twenty of them now - I didn't want to be responsible for the poor French teacher losing her job!'

Some - but by no means all - of the Welsh learners have a Welsh speaker in the family, a grandparent, usually. Others just learn Welsh because it's fun and they enjoy the classes. A group of them are hanging around us now, listening. Visitors from Europe occur reasonably often, but still seem to be exciting.

'It is a bit mad, isn't it?' I say heretically. 'Learning Welsh in Argentina?'

Some of the pupils laugh and agree. Others point to the history of the Chubut Valley and the language of their foremothers and fathers.

'Every language is important!' Miguel says. 'You know, some people in Wales insist that you only speak Welsh, not a word of English! But I think you have to communicate as best you can when you're talking to someone - be that with your hands or your eyes or whatever language you have! Communication is so important. We should really be teaching a little bit of German as well here in Coleg Camwy, and French and Arabic... - everything!'

The bell goes - break is over.

* * *



In the middle of nowhere

I am on board the long-distance coach that goes from the Atlantic east coast to Esquél and the Andes mountain range. The coach - el colectivo - leaves Gaiman at 1pm and reaches Esquél at nine. In-between lie eight hours of pretty much nothing. That is to say, the pampas.

It's a sunny day again. I sit in a window seat and bask. The sky is unbelievably blue. The land stretches away on all sides, endless, vast, empty. At first, in the valley of the River Chubut, there is still much green; grass, trees, bushes. Then the earth gets drier and drier as we get into the pampas proper. I didn't know there were so many shades of brown: gold, yellow, ochre, tan, copper, sepia.

Later, hours later, strange rock formations appear on the horizon: Los Altares, Yr Allorau - The Altars. That's what the group of Welsh settlers called them who travelled from Gaiman into the unknown a hundred years ago. They are two, three columns of rock, striped grey and brown as though somebody had taken the trouble to paint them.

I wish the bus didn't move so fast. I wish I had time to get out, to walk for a few hours in the clear blue air, in the cool whistling wind and the hot sunshine, the unbroken silence. I wish I could make this journey by car so that I could set my own pace; better still, on horseback, at the same pace of those first European travellers, so that I could see the land as they did, moving through it slowly, slowly, slowly, week after week until I would be filled with silence, with the blue and gold and browns of the days, the absolute, star-encrusted blackness of the nights.

The coach moves on through the long hot afternoon.

It is almost dusk, the shadows are long and the light has turned from gold to purple, when we stop in the middle of nowhere. Three people stand by the roadside, and a horse.

A horse?

I rub my eyes and look again. Definitely a horse. And three gauchos with it. Two of them come on to the coach; with them comes a smell of wood-smoke and horses and leather. The third one mounts the horse and rides off into the sunset.

One of the two gauchos on the coach wears a hat, a hard, flat, black hat of the kind that previously, I've only seen on photos with the caption, 'Typical Argentinean gaucho'. I hide behind the seat in front and try to get a better look without seeming to stare. I've never seen a real gaucho before.

The gaucho turns round, scanning the other passengers on board. Then he sees me. He sees my eyebrows (green) and my hair (henna with blue strand). He stares. And stares.

He can't believe it. He's probably never seen anyone with blue hair and green eyebrows before.

He stares.

(c) Imogen Rhia Herrad

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