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the illusion of endless space and leading out to nowhere....

The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed.  Unlike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit,  but it does have a place in the record of human experience.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia

Tue 22-Feb-2000
From: Tan Wee Cheng <>

Wildlife Bonanza


Hello in Spanish.  Have to get used to it, plus other Spanish phases.  A few times I said da and nyet instead of si and no, as memories of my adventures to Russian speaking CIS still stick on...

I arrived in Puerto Madryn in Patagonia, southern Argentina, after midnight, about 1:30am on 20 Feb.  The receptionist of the hotel I had booked was sleeping somewhere and didn't answer the bell.  After a futile 15 minutes of pressing the bell, I walked into another hotel, only to find that it's a US$120 4star establishment.  Not my cup of tea but the receptionist was friendly enough to help me find a cheap place.  So I moved into Hotel del Centro by 2am - US$10 per night and in the heart of town.

At 7:30am, I joined a tour to Punto Tombo, a wildlife reserve full of penguins (500,000 of them !!!).  These fearless creatures bashed through anywhere, oblivious of mankind.  In addition, there were many groups of guanaco, camel-like creatures without humps - running everywhere in the reserves.  Plus rheas (South American ostriches), foxes, hares , etc.  I am amazed by the wildlife!  There will be more tomorrow, when I visit the UNESCO Biosphere site - Peninsula Valdes, with its seals, sea elephants and multitudes of sea birds.

In the afternoon, I visited Gaiman, centre of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia.  In the 19th C, a group of Welsh migrated here, wanting to set up a little Wales in the wilderness.  Some remained, of course, turning this into a tourist mecca, or to be nasty, a Disney-esque pseudo-Welsh playground.  The locals speak neither Welsh nor English.  Yet the most vibrant tourist attractions in town are the so-called Welsh tea-houses, serving "Welsh tea" and "Welsh cakes" for US$14 per person.

Back in Puerto Madryn (note the Welsh name), I found a crowded resort town full of shoppers and holiday-makers.  Flashy restaurants, souvenir shops, casinos, cafes, etc.  I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant serving eat-as-much-as-U-like for US$6.  Wide range too - beats London´s dodgy Mr Au or Mr Wu, which rank at the bottom end of any Chinese restaurant worldwide.  The owner was from Hangzhou, moved here 8 years ago, acquired Argentine citizenship and a local wife.  A prosperous man, he said he's the only Chinese in the Deep South, but more than 20 to 30,000 Chinese live in Buenos Aires (Bs As).  I looked at his mixed-blood kids, wondering if they would turn out to be the two Chinese I met in a Bs. As. supermarket yesterday. Those two Chinese teenagers manning the supermarket could speak neither English nor Mandarin Chinese.  They spoke only Spanish.  They have become the new Argentines.

Wildlife and Fun in Patagonia

This morning, I went on a local tour to Peninsula Valdes, a large nature reserve declared by UNESCO as world heritage.  The entire group was Argentine, apart from me, a Portuguese journalist, and A., a Swiss-Dutch girl I met the day before.  All three of us have a copy of Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia with us.  Bruce Chatwin, legendary travel writer, bisexual, who died a decade or so ago of an AIDS-related illness (which he colourfully described as a rare bone-eating virus caught in western China), propelled Patagonia into the realms of romantic imagination (and also turned his writings into cash machines).  The Portuguese has been following Chatwin's route diligently, and getting stamps (e.g. of police station, rail stations, etc) and autographs of people he met along the way onto the relevant pages in the book.  I was even asked to write something in Chinese on one of the pages.

It was a great day during which we saw sea elephants, sea lions, amardillos, Patagonia foxes, Patagonian hares (look more like a cross of dog and mouse to me), guanacos, rheas and more.  It was a great day and fun-loving A. and I had a wonderful time running away from the Spanish-speaking guide (I was promised an English-speaking guide and got one who spoke English only when asking for park entrance or optional tours) to take pictures of the odd Chatwin-like log cabin, or shocking the guide by getting close to the enormous four-tonner sea elephants (Get away !  Dangerous !).  A. was an artist/sculptor and sometime dancer, she had wondered throughout South America for 1/2 year and had just spent a month learning tango in Buenos
Aires.  After the tour, we had dinner and then bade farewell, as she set off for Esquel in search for the Old Patagonian Express (of Paul Theroux fame), while I get ready for the flight down south to Ushuaia.  Like nomads of that era preceding the internet age, no email addresses were exchanged. Inshallah, we will cross paths again.

OK, going off now.


Wee Cheng

PS: Because of the heavy Italian heritage, Argentines say Ciao rather than the usual Spanish Adios.

desert wonderers discover in themselves a primeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, attributed to W.H. Hudson

Patagonia a la Bruce Chatwin...
Guanacos - cousins of llamas
The van driver caught this poor little amadillo so that tourists can take pictures... Monument to the Welsh colonisation of Patagonia... the Argentines were reluctant to settle in this barren, godforsaken land, until the Welsh came in the 19th C., wanting to settle in an untouched land where they can recreate a new Wales, speak their own tongue. and preserve their culture...  Today, few Welsh-Argentinians speak Welsh...although many people in Patagonia have Welsh family names...Jones, Davis, etc... and Welsh culture is nothing more than kitschish "Welsh Teahouses" like these that serve tea and scones for US$15 !

They were poor people in search of a new Wales... their leaders have combed the earth for a stretch of open country uncontaminated by Englishmen.  

They chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate; they did not want to get rich.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia

The Argentine Government gave them land... it was a march of forty miles over the thorn desert. And when they did reach the valley they had the impression the God, and not the Government, had given them the land.
The Penguins of Punta Tombo - 500,000 of them!
An asian like me wonders if they can be eaten...what about BBQ penguins ?  Accounts from polar explorers have shown that they shot and killed penguins for meat. These little creatures are hardly afraid of mankind.  They walked into our paths and pecked at our shoes. Penguins & guanacos. The place looks too dry for penguins, huh ?  It's in a coastal nature reserve.
Seals of the Valdes Peninsula. More seals... These enormous sea elephants are 3 to 4 meters long. they are all so sleepy...
This onw wakes up with a howl.  The park guide screams at us when we got too close. A dead one. They are all so sleepy...