Denouement

Day 16 Mon 20th Jan 2014

After Patagonia and Buenos Aires, the rest of my journey passes without much incident.  Remarkably, my plane into Houston was on time, customs was a breeze, I get my hash and eggs, and I got put on standby for an earlier flight north to Cleveland.  I made this flight and was seated at the back of the plane next to a young mother nursing a child.  “How old is he?”, I asked.  “Eight months”, she replied.  Realising that my son’s eight month anniversary was just a few days away, I asked on what date her son was born.  She probably thought I was a bit weird.  But she willingly volunteers the information: “16th May”.  Phew.  Had she said “25th May” that would have been just TOO weird.  But 25th May is the date of her stepmother’s birthday.

The flight arrived twenty minutes early into Cleveland airport.  Light snow was falling.  I was back to my temporary home of North America.  And even my luggage was there waiting for me.

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Is the rocky shore nearing?

Day 15 Sun 19th Jan 2014 (continued)

I do fear my wave of luck is starting to rear into a more ugly, unstable form as it begins to feel the drag of an underlying rocky sea floor.  I wasn’t going to type anything else about my last day in Argentina, but after nearly getting knocked down on the crosswalk, I had the misfortune to have another insane airport taxi ride.  I don’t wish to make out that I’m a hero.  But let me just say that by watching the freeway for the driver so that he could focus more on filing his paperwork and accelerating, I did narrowly avert a high-speed multiple car pile up.  To be fair, had I remembered to shout “¡Tenga cuidad!” before the rather less pithy “Care-ful, care-FUL, CARE-FUL!”, he might have braked a little sooner behind the line of near-stationary vehicles.  Why near-stationary traffic on a freeway?  Just your average everyday Argentinian protest …. about twenty people with tree branches, colourful banners and drums had managed to block at least two lanes out of three.  But disaster had been averted – just.  Perhaps the rocky shore is still a little way off.

Once at the airport, it’s a bit smoother.  After the usual procedures, we lift off – on time! – and I bid farewell to Argentina.  Unless there are any unforeseen dramas, I need start to prepare myself for re-entry to cold North America.  Perhaps a longed-for breakfast of hash and eggs and the reunion with my family will help ease the pain.

Even the cutlery has my name on it …

Day 15 Sun 19th Jan 2014

I  k-i-d  y-o-u  n-o-t.  See the photographic evidence for yourself (click to enlarge and marvel).

knife engraving

How freakish is this?

Need I say more?  After sidling out of the breakfast room with this now-hidden delight to take a photo, I later return the item so my name can continue to garnish the platters of guests for years to come.

Lest our own memories of the history of Patagonian flood and drought fade too fast, Hywel and I trade electronic datasets after breakfast and I encourage him to finish photographing the pages of his notebooks (“More valuable than your passport” has been my constant harping).  As he catches his taxi to the airport for his earlier flight to the UK, I wish him ‘Buen viaje’, and I decide to go for a walk around the stifling streets.  After all, what other freakish delights might await around the corner?  It takes about one minute for me to come back to grim reality.  A few strides up the street, a sweaty, dishevelled, wild-eyed guy stops me and frantically asks: “Do you speak English?”.  Quickly looking around me to make sure that this is not an elaborate precursor to a mugging, a conversation ensues, in which he claims to have been assaulted and robbed of all his possessions at the bus station.  Now he has nothing: no passport, no money, no change of clothes.  His flight ticket is electronic so in theory can be accessed, but obviously he needs a new passport.  It’s Sunday, and the Belgian Embassy is closed, as would be any other embassy.  He’s shaking badly.  If he does represent scene one of a mugging show, he’s a bloody good warm up for the main act and quite possibly deserves my valuables.  Stepping out of the sun into the shade of a small shop, I offer him a cool drink to calm him down, but he refuses.  I also offer him a US$50 bill, which could fetch around 500 Argentine pesos using the unofficial exchange rate.  This would be enough to see him through a couple of days.  After all, I’m still riding a long wave of good luck, but I know only too well that some waves eventually crash on rocky shores.  By a quirk of fate, I could be in a similar position in the future.  Rather apologetically, he accepts.  I hope he makes it back to Belgium.

I walk the rather dirty streets of downtown in that strange, subdued Sunday atmosphere that’s brought about by half the shops being open and half being closed.  The broken paving slabs, turds and glass are at least more visible in the bright light.  Piles of trash are sweating as the mercury rises and give off pungent smells.  Police are very visible but this doesn’t seem to deter the businesses of the hawkers and unofficial money changers.  The black economy seems to be booming.  Even when I buy a t-shirt with the Boca Juniors colours for my little junior, the shopkeeper warns me to watch my backpack.  If Buenos Aires has charm, I have yet to find it in this part of the city.  But I have been to BA before, and I know that there are better parts.  So I persist, and make my way to the more elegant parts around the broad avenues de mayo and 9 de julio.  Monuments and placards abound, and serve to commemorate the key events in Argentina’s turbulent history.  This is an improvement on the dirty shopping streets of downtown.  But then I nearly get mown down by a car full of Argentine muchachos while I’m (legally) padding across a pedestrian crosswalk.  We end up in a shouting and gesticulating match – they driving slowly down the avenue while I walk rather more quickly in the other direction – and I realise it is time to go back to the hotel.

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.

A choice of words

Day 14 Fri 17th Jan 2014

Prior to the trip to Patagonia, other commitments had smothered any serious attempts to study Spanish or learn Welsh.  Greater command of the languages undoubtedly would have helped with some awkward conversational pauses and enhanced my appreciation of all things Patagonian.  Such is life.  But some of the linguistic confusions that have arisen during the trip couldn’t have been foreseen anyway.

Take the seemingly simple concept of ‘flood’.  Regardless of language, everyone knows what these are, right?  But as more interviews take place, it dawns on us that there is a subtle distinction in the words used to describe floods.  In interviews, I have been probing Spanish-speaking people’s recollection of floods by using the word ‘inundación’, but some people have tended to use ‘caudal’, ‘corriente’ and ‘crecida’ to describe river flows.  Discussions with local Argentine contacts indicates that ‘caudal’ tends to be the catch-all word for ‘flow’, and ‘corriente’ or ‘crecida’ tend to be used for higher-than-normal flows that don’t spill over the banks.  Although this is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, it makes sense: ‘crecida’ is derived from ‘crecer’ (‘to grow’), so essentially refers to the river flow engorging.  I like this idea.  As we intended, an ‘inundación’ is indeed a larger, bank-topping and floodplain-smothering flow event.

The English and Welsh language seems to be more impoverished in this respect.  In damp western Europe, most rivers carry water between their banks year round.  ‘Flood’ (‘llif’ in Welsh) tends to be a very loose term for anything higher than a ‘normal’ river flow, usually coming into use when the water level gets close to, or overtops, the river banks.  Other English language regional expressions for floods (e.g. ‘spate’, ‘freshet’) don’t really add many nuances.  But even this use of ‘flood’ isn’t consistent across the English-speaking world.  In arid-zone regions of Australia or the southwest USA, many rivers remain dry for months or even years, and usually only carry water after erratic, heavy rainfall.  In these ephemeral rivers, a ‘flood’ is used to describe any flow event, regardless of how close it gets to the bank tops.

So on the face of it, the Spanish language seems to have an advantage here: more words are available to distinguish between different types of river floods.  This could be very useful in investigating people’s memory of past floods: perhaps an ‘inundación’ is the kind of event that lingers longest in the memory, whereas a ‘corriente’ or ‘crecida’ is more quickly forgotten.  It’s a nice theory and seems to be partly borne out by the messy memories of the floods along the Río Percy as it passes by Trefelin [see ‘Messy memories by the Messy River’ blog].  The ungauged 1939 flood that swamped much of the town and surrounding floodplain was an ‘inundación’ by anyone’s reckoning.  This flood is still remembered by many older interviewees, and its depiction in a large photograph in the town’s impressively restored old mill (‘Molino Andes’) may help this flood to form part of the inherited memory of younger residents.  The gauged (500 m3/s) 1977 flood is also a well-remembered ‘inundación’ that impacted on the town.  The September 2013 flood – a mere baby at ‘only’ 150 m3/s – did escape its banks in places and managed to wet the ground floors of some floodplain-encroaching buildings at the town’s northern edge, but the bulk of the overtopping and swamping occurred south of town towards the lower end of Cwm Hyfryd.  Photographs taken from a helicopter by an interviewee confirm that the flood patterns were not as uniform as is commonly depicted in hydraulic textbooks.  Even a newspaper’s incorrect attribution of one of these photographs to ‘un sector ribereño de Trevelin’ (‘riverside sector of Trefelin’) instead of the Río Futaleufú located some 10 km distant, does not seem to have unduly influenced most local residents’ description of this event as only a ‘crecida’, if indeed they bother to mention it at all.

It’s a moot point whether the September 2013 flood is best described as a ‘corriente’, ‘crecida’ or an ‘inundación’.  As our interviewee’s photographs show, parts of Cwm Hyfryd did only experience the former, while other parts clearly were subject to an ‘inundación’.  Whatever word is used, it was still a significant event that affected lives and caused damage.  The more significant point is that by contrast with some floods in past decades, this Sept 2013 flood clearly pales in significance, and thus for many people has faded from the memory almost as quickly as the floodwaters came and went.

(Un)prepared

Day 13 Thurs 16th Jan 2014

It’s always hard to know how much preparation to do before a trip to somewhere new.  To get acquainted with the geography, history, road network, accommodation options, social etiquette and multiple other things in a never-before-visited region obviously requires some preparation, but just how much?  Do too little and during your visit you risk not noticing many of the important things – physical features, street names, commemorative landmarks – that knit together the environmental and social to make a sense of place.  Do too much and you risk spoiling many of the little surprises that otherwise are awaiting around the next corner; seeing too many pictures of things beforehand can sometimes leave you a bit underwhelmed when confronted with reality.  Sometimes it’s better to visit a place with just the minimum level of preparedness, have your interest piqued by something unexpected, and then do additional reading afterwards.

On a tour around the southern end of Cwm Hyfryd (a feature also rather confusingly known as Vallee 16 de Octubre, and which hosts both Esquel and Trefelin), my interest is piqued.  This tour had been kindly laid on for us by an interviewee with Welsh ancestry, and also takes in the dam and hydroelectric power station on the Río Futaleufú (a feature also rather confusingly known as the Río Grande) in the southern end of Los Alerces National Park.  I had been assuming – rather naïvely as it turns out – that the Andean border between Argentina and Chile had been set by drawing a line on a map to connect the highest points on the numerous jagged peaks and simultaneously divide the broken rims of adjoining river catchments.  Doing so might have created a hydrographically-neat division between eastward (Atlantic) flowing rivers belonging to Argentina, and westward (Pacific) flowing rivers belonging to Chile.  But as is clear from the Futaleufú – a river that starts in Argentina and initially flows southeastwards before abruptly turning westwards to follow a Pacific-bound course through Chile – a complex, poorly understood history of glacial erosion and river drainage diversion has put paid to any hopes of anything less than a highly tortuous border if this division were to be followed.  Furthermore, had this division been followed, then both Esquel and Trefelin would have been incorporated within Chile, for the surface waters of Cwm Hyfryd drain to the Futaleufú and therefore ultimately end up in the Pacific (assuming – perhaps again rather naïvely – that they are not extracted for industrial or domestic consumption en route).

View westwards across Cwm Hyfryd. The border with Chile lies somewhere in the distant mountains

View westwards across Cwm Hyfryd as evening starts to fall. The border with Chile lies somewhere in the distant mountains

It turns out this realisation had led to a border dispute Argentina and Chile near the end of the 19th century.  The United Kingdom acted as arbitrator, and the Welsh settlers in Cwm Hyfryd were canvassed on their choice of country.  Rather than aligning themselves with a neat hydrographic arrangement, in 1902 they voted to remain part of the complex social geography of Argentina.

This information fundamentally changes one of those many preconceptions that I had before coming to Patagonia.  Now that I have this new impression, gained from a semi-prepared visit to the region, further reading about this local border dispute will seem more relevant, and add to my growing understanding of what creates a sense of place in this Welsh-influenced part of Argentine Patagonia.

Messy memories by the Messy River

Days 10-11 Tues 14th-Weds 15th Jan 2014

[see also postscript for ‘25 de mayo’ post]

This project was always going to be a challenge.  We were a little anxious about being able to find enough people to interview, and then about being able to understand what was being said, regardless of whether the conversations were in Welsh or Spanish.  As we have seen already, Hywel and I need not have worried about the former, and the latter is less of an issue for either of us.  But there are other challenges this morning.  Our heads are a little … how shall we put this? …. ‘foggy’.  I prefer to blame it on the previous day’s driving efforts and the excess dust that we must have inhaled, but the mountain of rich food and bottle of wine (at mimimum) that each of us consumed the evening before may have more to do with it.  This consumption came care of the welcoming hospitality at the home of our local contact, Jeremy W., who has been very active on our behalf and has provided us with a long list of potential interviewees.  The challenge now is to contact and find them, and if they are willing to be interviewed, to fit them into our remaining time frame.  And a bangin’ headache in the heat doesn’t help.

Our search for interviewees doesn’t start well.  The first three people that we prioritise on our long list are not answering their phones or the number does not appear to be recognised.  We walk to one house to try and knock on the door but are confronted by a locked gate and closed shutters.  We do get an interview with a friendly Spanish-speaking local scientist, but she has only been in the area for about eight years and her memories of events of the past are limited.  She admits to knowing very little about floods or the irrigation works in the early years of Welsh settlement in the lower valley, and has trouble recalling the major floods of Sept 2013 that affected the region.  This is odd: these floods occurred less than six months ago, affected at least 24 families, and prompted a visit from the Provincial Governor who declared an emergency.  This was a big local event by any stretch of the imagination, yet her memories are hazy.  She is, however, more concerned about droughts, which are partly related to the reduced amounts of snowfall in recent years.

These themes are reinforced by our second interview of the day.  For once, this takes place in English, with a farmer whose house is located immediately adjacent to a small stream in a nearby valley with a beautiful view of the Andes.  Prior to the interview, we see large number of red foxes (15-20?) and a puma strung up in the farm buildings or nearby trees.  I took lots of photos.  It is not often that one gets to see the carnivorous part of the Andean ecosystem displayed in such fashion.  But these predators are not threatened: far from it.  Numbers are increasing (exploding?) owing to a steady diet of sheep and hares.  The government pays a bounty for farmers to shoot the foxes, and the pelts are cleaned and sold on.  The puma was shot before it got a chance to eat the farmer or his wife.  It is part of ‘the game’ he says, and I picture a pacman type game where the rules are eat or be eaten.   This farmer also knows little about the early floods or the irrigation works in the lower Chubut valley.  Despite the location of his house, he is not very concerned about floods, and also has trouble recalling the dates of the higher-than-normal flows of 2013, although from the date stamps on his photos (kindly shared) they coincided with the September floods.  He is, however, concerned about drought and also comments on the declining snowfalls in recent years.  Along with periodic volcanic eruptions that can cloak the landscape in thick suffocating ash, and winds that can destroy metal feed lots for cattle, droughts too he considers to be part of ‘the game’, and we humans have to learn the rules (or adapt the rules) if we wish to survive.

Some of these themes continue to emerge in Wednesday’s interviews, even those undertaken with some of the older residents in Trefelin, a small town located adjacent to the Río Percy.  This gravel-bed river flows in its multiple, tortuous paths towards the Chilean border, and the banks of the river (such as they are) are lost in a diffuse fringe of trees and shrubs.  Given its shape-shifting, untidy form, one early Welsh poet referred to this as the ‘Afon Fradach’, which Hywel tells me could translate as ‘Messy River’, although neither hydronym has stuck.  It was also one of the rivers that broke its banks in Sept 2013 and flooded part of the town, but this big local event still does not elicit many memories.  In fact, while one elderly interviewee can recall the 1939 Trefelin flood event and comments on the declining snows in recent years, the Sept 2013 flood event does not even get a mention.  The key theme in the Andes so far: memories of flooding and drought are messy, even close to the banks of a river that may be deserving of the adjective.

View across the Messy  River near Trevelin

View across a messy river near Trefelin

Tuesday’s working day had ended with our attendance at a meeting in Trefelin to discuss the planning of events to celebrate the 2015 sesquicentenario (the 150 year anniversary of the landing of the first Welsh emigrants on the Patagonian Atlantic coastline).  Most of this meeting is conducted in Spanish rattled out at the velocity of machine gun fire, but Hywel gets a chance to introduce our project in Welsh, and translations are given.  The leaflets that are being distributed to promote the sesquicentenario at least mention the importance of the irrigation works in the lower Chubut valley.  Perhaps such celebrations will help to stir the fading, somewhat messy, collective memories of the role of floods and droughts in the history of this hydrographic society.