Out of the desert and into the swamp

Day 14 Sat 18th Jan 2014

We finish our final two interviews in Esquel and make preparations to get to the airport for our afternoon flight to Buenos Aires.  Our good luck is still holding: the people in Cwm Hyfryd and surrounds have matched the helpfulness and generosity of those in the lower Chubut valley, and enabled us to get far more interviews and data than we could realistically have hoped for.  This phase of the project has been nothing short of a success, and we have recorded a valuable snapshot of individual and collective memories of flood and drought in the Welsh colonies.  But we have yet to return our hire car with its cloying dust, scratched door, and double-chipped-and-cracked windscreen.  Surely we will get charged for the dirt and damages, unavoidable though they may have been on Argentina’s ageing roads.  And our luggage is likely overweight, which may also incur a charge.

But the hire car guy doesn’t even mention the damages.  Perhaps he is grateful that some European tourists for once haven’t rolled a car on his country’s gravel roads.  Or maybe he is impressed by Hywel’s ingratiating message that his friends in Trefelin pass on their best wishes.  Everyone seems to know everyone else in Patagonia, and when we discover things in interviews, we use it to our advantage.  And the ladies at airline check-in don’t even bat an eyelid as we heave our luggage onto the scales.  Indeed, things are going so well that rather than sitting in my assigned aisle seat, I rather cheekily sidle into the adjacent window seat as the plane fills up.  A young man walks up the aisle, looks at me tapping away on the laptop in his assigned seat, and mutters “Es igual” (“It’s the same”). He sits down in my aisle seat and promptly goes to sleep.  The convenient switch allows me to watch the Patagonia landscape unfold, first as we circle above the airport and then as we track northwest.  East of the distant snow-capped Andes, desert features abound: some are very familiar (conical alluvial fans debouching from mountain ranges, green meander belts with oxbows and abandoned channels sunk into the dry dusty plains, and the bright white oval pockmarks of salt pans), but some other jagged erosional features are bizarre and still have me pondering.  As we leave dry, dusty Patagonia, the wetter, more fecund landscape around the mouth of the Río de la Plata comes into view … verdant swamps, canals, and wealthy, well-manicured Buenos Aires suburbs.

Take off from Esquel airport

Take off from Esquel airport

We step off the plane and into the sticky heat of a summer evening.  Our luggage takes a while to make it from the plane to the carousel but at least it arrives.  And our taxi driver is waiting to whisk us efficiently from the maelstrom outside of the airport to a hotel in a central city location.  I have a good conversation with him on the way, even trading terms to describe the ramshackle dwellings (‘barrios’, ‘favelas’, ‘shanty towns’) that in places line the freeway and stand cheek-by-jowl with 5 star hotels.  Hell: perhaps my Spanish really has improved.  Even my comprehension of Welsh seems to be better, for when Hywel mutters something with a recognisable start and end (“Dw i’n ….. mochyn”), I realise that I can interpolate the rest.  I can empathise: I too am sweating like a pig.

Our hotel has adopted the old trick of putting its efforts into creating a lavish looking lobby, while forgetting to upgrade the rooms.  Our room is fine – the air conditioner works reasonably well – but is tatty to say the least, with exposed wiring behind the bed heads and a hot water pipe that vibrates violently when the tap is turned on.  The location is central but the streets of downtown are not exactly relaxing: water drips onto me as I step out of the hotel (hopefully it’s just from an air conditioning unit rather than from something more sinister), and with the poor lighting it’s a constant battle to avoid broken paving slabs, dog turds and glass.  Among the rather menacing darkened side streets and the brasher main thoroughfares, there are pleasant spots to eat and drink, but it takes work to find them.  We had been warned about pickpockets but not about the constant hawkers and money changers that bother us like Patagonian mosquitos as we attempt to have a peaceful pre-dinner Quilmes outside a corner café.  The 1 litre bottle is warm before we finish, and we are not exactly renowned for drinking slowly.  In the end, we retreat to the air conditioned inside of a backstreet restaurant and treat ourselves to an authentic Porteño experience: eating meat and drinking wine while two local rivals (Boca Juniors and River Plate) battle it out on TV for the latest football bragging rights.

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