One Man in Search of his Roots, From Wales to Argentina
Times were tough back then, a bit like they are now. There were no jobs, little hope and fears the Welsh language was under threat. Earlier emigrants to North America had largely abandoned the Welsh language. Something had to be done. So nonconformist minister and Welsh nationalist Michael Jones started investigating Argentina in the hope that there his flock might keep their language and culture. The Argentine government was encouraging and promised land, so, in 1865, the tea clipper Mimosa set sail from Liverpool bound for South America with 150 Welsh men, women and children onboard. The fare was £12 for adults and £6 for children.
The land proved to be rather less fertile than promised and the early settlers struggled. But gradually, with help from the natives, they made a go of it. More settlers arrived, and in 1875 the town of Gaiman was founded near the coast some 800 miles south of Buenos Aires.
The Patagonian Welsh waxed and waned over the years but there are still thought to be about 5,000 who can speak Welsh. And, in 2001, First Minister Rhodri Morgan went on an official visit.
My parents had friends who had been to Welsh Patagonia and my own grandparents had emigrated to find work, though to South Africa, not South America. So, this was a story that meant a lot to me. I wanted to see whether a piece of Wales continued to thrive in far flung South America. I won’t deny the fact that I could combine my quest with some time on Brazilian beaches and in among the bright lights of Buenos Aires sort of helped, too.
The lure of South America
Buenos Aires did delay me a while. As did the glorious vineyards of Mendoza; these I freewheeled around, pausing only to swig from another bottle of Malbec and take in the breathtaking scenery. Then Bariloche had me in her grasp, her beauty examined on horseback, aboard a boat, from atop a hill; the peace and tranquillity of the lake forever to the fore.
But these were diversions from the job at hand. Focus, I thought. Time to board the night-bus, zigzag the country once more and head eastwards to Puerto Madryn, designated base for Project Wales.
Puerto Madryn is where the original Welsh search party were driven ashore during a storm. They named the spot after the ship’s captain’s estate in Wales. They must have fallen in love with the place as they returned home to Wales to tell the good people the good news that this was a more than suitable new home. There would be a welcome in Madryn.
Puerto Madryn remains a fantastic starting point for a Patagonian adventure. The penguin (penguins!) colony on Punta Tombo is a delight. No more pedestrian crossings here. It’s all about the penguin crossings as you respectfully pause to let them waddle in front of you as they merrily go about their business. David Attenborough may have given them top billing on Frozen Earth but it seems not to have turned their heads.
Onwards, to Trelew. The original settlers built a railway from Puerto Madryn to Trelew but it is now long gone so I took a bus. The anticipation began to build. What should I expect? Finally, we arrived not in a field of daffodils or even on a mountainside covered with sheep – just a regular, sleepy bus station; a bit like the real Wales, in fact. This was a promising beginning.
Sadly there was no choir to welcome me with a heart-felt rendition of Sosban Fach. Or even Kathryn Jenkins belting out the national anthem in her rugby jersey. Tumbleweed would have been a more appropriate guest of honour.
But persevere I did and as I tried to navigate my way to the hostel, thoughts of home began to grow. Avenida Jones turned into Calle Davies. A left-turn brought me onto Edwards Street. Glory be! I had found it after all. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Tom Jones had tapped me on the shoulder and asked for directions.
It’s a bit unusual
With hope renewed I set out the next evening in search of company for the ultimate Welsh experience: a night at the pub watching the rugby. Being rather smart with timing (though I say so myself) I had fixed to arrive on the same day as the Six Nations match between Wales and France. I had found a willing French couple in the hostel to accompany me to what I imagined would be a bar teeming with my fellow countrymen. A joyous scene of singing, pint swilling and unabashed patriotism…
The good news is that I did meet two fellow countrymen that evening. We five were, however, the only ones in the bar. But we found an easy bond talking about our search for a home-from-home in this tiny Patagonian town. Less easy to bond with were the French couple as Les Bleus ran out comfortable winners. Some things never change.
But the street signs of Trelew were not enough to sate my wanderlust. What did Gaiman have to offer? The answer lay a short bus ride away. Being more experienced at these things, now I took all thoughts of Kathryn Jenkins out of my head and immediately looked at the street signs. Not a Jones or Davies in sight. My heart sank. A poor man’s Trelew? Not an auspicious sight.
So I trudged around the streets, cursing my luck and this cruel wild-goose chase on which I had embarked with such high hopes. A rumble in my belly made me raise my eyes in the hope of finding a parilla for a reviving steak and Malbec. Anything to raise the spirits.
But what was this? There was a sign saying Ty Gwyn. Was I dreaming? And what was that huge Welsh flag doing outside? As I entered the charming establishment there was not a dead cow in sight. I took in my new surroundings. There was doily, there were immaculate laid tables, there were maps of Wales, Welsh recipes, spoons, bonnets. All the trimmings! I had found a Welsh tea-house in southern Argentina, of all places. A lady at the counter promptly greeted me with a hearty, Bora da.
Stunned, I took a seat, ordered the tea and cakes and complimented myself on a job well done. They were delicious. My mission was accomplished.
I saw and did some great things on that trip. South America is a fabulous place to travel for all sorts of reasons. But my few days in Welsh Patagonia were special. Put some of your own history into your gap year plan. I can recommend it.
About the Author: Graham Barrett
At the age of 17 I was well and truly struck by the travel bug and embarked on a week-long youth hostelling holiday in Bath and Bristol. From then on the world was my oyster, whether kayaking around the Abel Tasman in New Zealand or speeding down route 66 from Vegas to the Grand Canyon in a convertible.
But it wasn’t until I had an early midlife crisis that I embarked on my big trip. A year travelling and teaching English in South America and a few months following the Ashes around Australia.
On my return I found a job with Round the World Experts that allowed me to talk about my travels every day, even if I couldn’t go anywhere. Well until the next trip… on the search for the big five in the Masai Mara, Kenya.