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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 44, January 14, 2003

Nothingness, Latino Rednecks, Penguins Seals and Wales, Porn Again

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Road to Nowhere

I have mixed feelings about
Patagonia. On the one hand, it has loads of really cool stuff: majestic mountains, glistening glaciers, fabulous fjords and wonderful wildlife. In every single one of these categories it is like New Zealand, just better (sorry Kiwis) and on a continental scale. However, New Zealand has the decency to pack most of its natural splendor into the bite sized South Island; Patagonia’s numerous and wondrous attractions are strewn across an area the size of India. And, in between these fabulous things is a desert of unremitting flatness and dullness. Patagonia is Marlboro country – as in the fag ads [cigarette, for any Norte Americanos out there ] writ large.

That said, it’s not all bad. I mean a million square kilometers of steppe-like nothingness does have a certain bleak beauty about it. But it’s pretty difficult to maintain your interest in bleak beauty for more than about half an hour. Mainly it’s just insanely monotonous and we are talking about most of the lower half of
Argentina here, from the Andes to the Atlantic. Driving across this blandscape, you soon readjust your interest threshold. A bend in the road is noteworthy; a power line is an event; and, if you were ever lucky enough to spot a tree growing on the side of the road, well, you’d probably pull over to check it out and take photos.

We were on a bus and the woman next to me, a pleasant lady in her early fifties had taken something of a shine to me. Jane was sensibly feigning sleep and had left me to practice my Spanish with someone who was intent on telling me about the local petroleum industry. Initially, I was bored. But boredom is a relative thing and I soon adjusted. After a few hours, I’d be grabbing her arm and saying: ‘Look – there’s a gas storage facility and how extraordinary, it has four tanks when the last one only had three. Do you think if we keep our eyes peeled for the next 100km, we’ll see something even more interesting?’

Almost all of
Patagonia has less than one person per square kilometer. But even this is a deceptive statistic. Because almost all of these not very many people live in the towns, meaning for the most part, there is nobody. On the buses we took, we saw no tourists or travelers, just people going from one nowhere town to the next, possibly hoping for a change of scene. I suppose this is hardly surprising as most of the region’s noteworthy attractions lie around the periphery. Though it did occur to me that there could be a market for some sort of lonesome tourism. I imagine citizens of the world’s most densely populated areas – places like Singapore, Hong Kong and the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation – might be prepared handsomely to hang around somewhere as utterly depopulated as this.

Latino Rednecks

But eventually we arrived at Peurto Madryn on the Atlantic coast. PM may just be the most southerly resort in the world and it’s actually a rather pleasant and surprising place. Located on a broad calm gulf off the southern
Atlantic, with its vast beach, flat landscape and rather windswept look, it feels like somewhere on the Norfolk coast, minus the tat. In the summer it is probably hotter, but the sea is noticeably colder; although beautiful and clear, there is absolutely no doubt that what you are swimming in was an iceberg not so very long ago. 


Inexplicably, PM is also the home of some of the worst translation work on the planet. Everywhere I saw there were English translations and most of them looked like they had used free software available on the internet. One, at a seal sanctuary read: ‘This place is not a hospital, but the sense of need for quietness is the same’; menus were littered with chucklesome nuggets like ‘a meat filling for the pleasure of the user’; and, my personal favourite was a brochure which read ‘Peurto Madryn’s casino – where YOU are the protagonist!’ What made this all the more touching was that, as far as I could see, the English speaking tourists in the town numbered no more than a dozen.

It is not a typically Argentine place either. The Argentines are, by and large a foxy and stylish people. But Peurto Madryn is one of the few places in
Latin America where I have seen rednecks, in this case, in a very literal sense. Here there were actually fat people on the beach – and many of them were bright pink. There was the odd mullet and even a bubble perm or two, one sported by a topless chap who really should have known better: the world was not ready for his pendulous man breasts. In all fairness, you would probably see far worse in any English seaside town, but there, at least you expect it. Looking back, I’m sure this white trashery was probably only a few people, but, in chi-chi Argentina, you really notice these things. Then you remember, this part of the country was settled by the Welsh, which is probably why not everyone looks like a Latin love God.

Penguins Seals and
Wales

Though the beach is nice enough don’t really come to these ozone depleted parts to sun themselves though: they come for the wildlife. So we hired ourselves a nice little VW and headed south to spot some penguins. I have to stress that, although I make this sound like something one just does, you have to really want to see the penguins: it is a 400km round trip (500 if you take a wrong turn), most of which is off road. Luckily Jane had enough penguin love for the both of us. 

On the way down, we stopped at Trelew, a green smudge on the buff landscape. Trelew is famous for being ‘The Welsh settlement’. All the guidebooks say that this is a place that has lost its Welshness. But I disagree. Inasmuch as Trelew has an OK centre, suburbs that look like a gulag and isn’t worth more than half an hour of your time, I would say that it closely resembles any modern Welsh city.

Driving 220 kilometres off road in a ‘WV Gol’ (which, I think is Polo) isn’t much fun. But once you get there, ‘los penguinos’ are well worth it. The only penguin colony I had been to before was in New Zealand where I saw two very rare penguins and, as I am not a true penguin spotter, I was somewhat disappointed by this poor turnout, endangered as the birds in question may have been. But here, there was thousands of the things: in fact they were a traffic hazard. 

So we hung around with the penguins for an hour, just generally digging their cuteness, with a fair few tourists as well and four American college students for company. I only mention the latter as we haven’t seen many travelers of late and I’d forgotten how good dreadlocks look on white people. The penguins themselves seemed to know they were protected and would happily waddle up to you, making a strange braying penguin sounds. Occasionally you’d even see a penguin chick, which is like a regular penguin, but fluffier (and is this possible??) cuter. In fact, only one thing sullied this wonderful spectacle of fluffiness and Hallmark card imagery. Penguins stink: they hum, they honk, they smell absolutely awful - a sort of fishy BO, and the result of eating nothing but anchovies. You really wouldn’t want to cuddle a penguin. Still, on the plus side, I don’t suppose many penguins die of heart attacks.

The following day we drove another 400km, this time to see sea lions and elephant seals. This was up onto the Valdes peninsula itself, which, although it covers 15,000 sq km (not far off the size of
Wales) has nothing except a few salt pans and sheep. In all honesty, the seals weren’t that great, but the sea lions were pretty casual. Huge and noisy, the sea lion is the gangster rapper of the animal kingdom. At any given time, a successful male has around 40 wives and drives around in a big red Jeep with blacked out windows and gold bull bars.

Porn Again

Then it was back to Peurto Madryn (three hours of utter tedium, mostly on gravel) in time to catch a strange ritual on the beach. This turned out to be a full immersion baptism. As the people who do these things tend to be fairly hard core religious types, I have to salute their way of getting around the strict antiporn rules their faith stipulates. As in the movies, those who are about to be reborn, always walk into the water wearing pristine white robes. And, when the newly baptised women emerge from the water, reborn in soaked white cotton, you get to see absolutely everything. Casual.