on…the Welsh of Patagonia

Posted: 20/03/2011 in Travel
Tags: , ,

If I recall the last e-mail I sent, or at least the last on… e-mail was from Mendoza. Since then I have calmed down a bit and settled into life in Latin America. If anybody cares about geography I left the dusty Mendoza for the freshly alpine El Bariloche in the Lake District. I spent a couple of days going up large mountains and eating Panchos (hot dogs)…more about that later. I must admit I was quite wasted after Mendoza, both physically and mentally, so I spent about 6 days not talking to a soul. This antisocial quest was made easier by the fact that most people in Barliloche seem to be of the Levantine persuasion, Israelis. A couple of them tried to make conversation with me in Hebrew but this is a language I have no knowledge of, after realising I was from another land they quickly lost interest in me and went off to talk amongst themselves. I think I have been mis-identified as an Israeli more than any other nationality, it’s usually a matter of context. There is a kind of trail of Solomon in Argentina, many hostels are Israeli owned or mostly frequented by Israelis. As I travel alone there is no easy way to identify me as an Englishman, travelling in  a group allows people to hear you talking and figure out where you are from. People rarely think I am from England for a confusing set of reasons. I have heard justifications like:

‘Oh, you had a bandana on so I didn’t think you were English.’

‘You didn’t speak for like 10 minutes so I presumed you were Chilean.’

‘You had a Brazilian Football shirt on so I thought you were Brazilian.’

Like I said, it’s a matter of context more than physical resemblance. However, since I developed a suntan from orchard work and my hair has become increasingly long and wild, I suppose I look more non- English than at any other time.

Back to the travelling thing. El Barliloche is perched on the North of Patagonia but the scenery is classically Alpine, parts of the town look very Swiss with a mixture of logs and rustic grey stone. There are also many German immigrants in this part of Argentina, so things seem distinctly European compared to other areas.

From El Bariloche I travelled into the real Patagonia, luckily the most boring part of the journey was during the dark. I think it took about 20 hours bus travel but the buses are suprisingly comfortable and they put films on for us. I find the films are a good way to learn a bit of Spanish as they have <English language but subtitles in Spanish. My next port of call was Puerto Madryn in the Welsh area of Patagonia. This was a pleasant and orderly city with a nice seafront and a few streets of shops and cafes behind the promenade. It has the sleepy feel of a provincial resort that has had it’s heyday but has still continued to shuffle along into the 21st Century. Most people visit this place to see wildlife on the nearby peninsula Valdes. This was the main reason I went but after realising that I have already seen most of the maritime wildlife elsewhere I decided to visit some strange Welsh towns instead. This mini adventure was a genuine surprise and has really affected my worldview. I don’t really know what I was expecting but I found the experience odd and otherworldly.

Before I go on I want to do a brief summary of who the Welsh are.

Thousands of years ago skilled pottery makers and builders of earthwork fortifications arrived in Britain from various places on the Iberian Peninsula. These people are generally reffered to as Celtic, a term also applied to people from Central Europe who also migrated to the British Isles in about the 5th century before Christ. The term Celtic is hugely contentious and is probably based on Herodotus misplacing the source of the Danube in the Pyrenees. I’m of the same opinion as Julius Ceaser who identified the Iberians as Keltoi and those further north as Gallic.  Anyway, the earlier wave of settlers quickly spread through the British Isles and became skilled farmers and Tin Miners in the South West. This influx probably supplanted the previous inhabitants of the isles who arrived 6000 to 12,000 years ago from the European Ice Bridge. Their skills in the extraction of tin warranted the attention of the biggest merchants and traders of the time, the Phonecians. Are you still with me? Good. Fast forward a few hundred years to the advent of the Roman Empire and the Celtic people reffered to as the Britons were still going about their business of farming and wiping out each other’s tribes with their ferocious War Chariots. The men were tough and the women were tougher. They had bizarre rules about what fish and fowl were not for consumption and they often had shaven heads but left a very long moustache. The Romans being a literate and curious people discovered about this lost but slightly prosperous corner of Europe from Greek literature, and as any self respecting Imperialist would do…they invaded. According to some of the Romans the Gallic tribes on the continent received help and arms from their cousins from Albion.

After a couple of failed attempts the Romans finally managed a successful invasion in about 43 AD. One of only two successful invasions of Britain in recorded history. There were a few skirmishes as can be expected, especially from the Britons in the North (Brigantes) and also those wild tribes of Picts and Scots who we now refer to as…Jocks. After this brief period of restlessness Britain was governed quite successfully by the Romans. They introduced the modern city, sanitation, transport, communication and many other interesting things. Despite being in Britian for around 400 years the Romans left almost no Genetic legacy on the people of the Isles, this is because the Britons were ‘Romanized’ and took care of their own business. The only Ethnic trace left on the Isles came from the Roman Mercenary soldiers, usually from North Africa, Macedonia and Sarmatia. Due to troubles in the Empire the legions who had protected Britain so well had to withdraw before they finally got wasted by the Huns and the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Thus, Britain and Britons were left defenseless against the invading Picts from beyond Hadrians wall. Some bright sparks in Kent and near London decided to invite an even more Savage bunch accross, Saxons, to expel the invading people from the North. This confusing time is known as the Dark Ages when history turns to Mystery and Mystery turns into dead ends and hearsay. What we can say is that the whole geopolitical structure and ethnic distribution completely changed during this time.  There is some debate about whether these Germanic peoples displaced the aboriginal Britons by conquest, migration or genocide. What we can say is that this period laid the foundations for many of the boundaries and place names we now use. Things changed so much that parts of the Island of Great Britain became known as Angland from the Angles of present day Denmark and  North Germany. To distinguish the Saxons from Saxony, people referred to the new settlers as Anglo Saxons. It’s difficult to be precise but the Anglo Saxons were the taller fairer race who inhabited the more easterly regions of the Island. Over a period of 200 years or more the original Britons, a ´darker race of smaller stature speaking an Ancient tongue, were gradually pushed further and further West. The marginalization of these ancient Island dwellers may not have been as clear cut as people believe. Ethnically, it’s difficult to prove that all the Celtic types were pushed West. The new peoples from Europe may have been a small ruling elite. . Culturally, it’s fair to say that the language, habits and legends of these people rested with those we now called  the Welsh.

Eventually the original Celtic types were confined to Cornwall, present day Wales and Rheged (the land between North Lancashire and Strathclyde. These people who had lived on the British Isles for millennia were in effect a lower status race in their own home, they were supplanted in  power and possibly in number (at least in the Eastern parts) by the peoples of Northern Europe. In fact they were regarded with such disdain that they were called …’The Welsh’, meaning slave or foreigner. I find the history of the Welsh difficult to come to terms with. I am quite convinced that within the mysterious and baffling language, in the songs and secrets from the valleys, is about the purest most authentic form of where we are all from and who we are, or were, or should be. This may also be true in the wilder and more remote parts of Scotland and Ireland. So here lies the confusion. I consider myself to be from the Isles, not just the artificial boundries of England but from the Isles as a whole. I would like to think that if I were to trace my bloodline it would trickle back to these ancient peoples who were pushed to the West. I don’t think I have any kinship with bearded Norse or Germanic types, even though I speak a variety of their language. Despite all this romantic pondering I am English and both Wales and the Welsh seem foreign to me. The Welsh are now confined to Wales where many still speak the original tongue of their ancestors, along with Basque it is the oldest language in Europe. Being part of the entity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, many Welsh have contributed to the civilization and culture of the modern World…Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and of course Hurricane Higgins. However, not content with singing in the Northern hemisphere many emigrated to Patagonia to raise sheep and make wool products. It was these Southern Hemisphere Welsh that interested me.

I made a journey into the back of beyond to see life in the Welsh settlements. I went to Gaiman, one of the strangest places I have ever seen. To get there I took a couple of local buses, on one bus a little Indigenous girl fell in love with my knee or maybe my trouser leg, she pulled it for about 50 minutes. Luckily I was reading the book ‘Are you Dave Gorman?´ so I was totally ok with her pulling the knee of my jeans. The scenery around Gaiman is flat and devoid of anything interesting, I did see a field full of torn plastic bags though. I suppose they blow in the wind then get caught on the thorny scrub, I think the guy from American Beauty would have had some kind of a breakdown with all those plastic bags not blowing about. The colour of the scrub can only be described as a shade of Nuclear Winter. This is a mixture of grey, beige and pale green. It’s the colour of Eastern European council estates, the colour of rubble after an explosion and also the colour of people´s complexions in an AA meeting somehwhere in Glasgow. Anyway, it was dull and flat. The Town itself was mostly one street, when you looked up the side streets they ended in small steep escarpments. There is something very Sergio Leone about the whole place, especially the silence. I went for a wander up a side street and was beckoned into a Welsh Tearoom by a blond kid on a bike (yes it is that weird). Inside a lady asked me what I wanted…………………er……………..tea?? The cafe or tearoom looked like it had recently been used by a large coach party, all the other tables were strewn with crumbs and barricades of crockery. The sight of previous activity only served to highlight how empty and quiet it was for my brief stay. I was the only one in there and they served me a HUGE pot of tea with about ten cakes. The tea was strong and good, exactly like tea at home. The cakes were ok in a slightly stodgy way. I can only describe the decor as late seventies institutional with a veneer of floral decoration and small tasteless trinkets. The girl who served me had mousy blond hair, wide blue eyes and freckles. Freckles?? I’ve only been in S America about 10 days but I had forgotten what they looked like. The people here were clearly not Southern European or Andean but obviously they spoke in Spanish as a first language. After growing up admiring or villifying South American football players, I found it hard to shake off the image of South Americans being swarthy, dark and exotic. Here in this small corner of Patagonia the inhabitants could have been serving you beer in your local or giving you cashback in a mundane supermarket. I since discovered the myriad of different races in Argentina.  After my tea I wandered about a bit more but did’nt really find anything, just run down factories and a few other tearooms. It was definitely more for the experience than the sites. I can add this place to my list of people in unexpected places, like the Mongolian construction worker in Perth or the Portuguese/ Brazilians in Malaysia. I have a real curiosity about lost tribes and South America is full of lost tribes. There are so many different groups to be found in unexpected places. In the spitit of my Welsh excursion here are a few other lost tribes in the Latin mix, the people who make me do a double take may be the descendants of the following:

Scottish farmers in Patagonia

English Railway Engineers in the Chilean lakes and Valparaiso

Germans in the Chilean lake region

German Mennonites in the Paraguayan Chaco region

Japanese in Sao Paulo and Manaus

Wealthy Palestinians in Chile

Nazi war criminals in Paraguay and Brazil (they usually run petrol stations)

Jewish immigrants from WWII in Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Neapolitans in Buenos Aires.

Thats just a few but I’ll find some more.


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