Archive for February 2018

A Welsh tea house in Gaiman

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman.

Although Gaiman was originally founded by a Pennsylvanian named David Roberts, it eventually achieved notoriety as the largest Welsh settlement outside Wales. Today, the town’s population numbers less than 5,000, but a large percentage of these people are direct descendants of the original colonists. Public signs are in Spanish and Welsh, and the Welsh language is still taught in the public schools. Here in the heart of Argentina, it’s not at all unusual to encounter people with names like Williams, Davies, or Jones—perhaps even with red hair—who speak Spanish with a Welsh accent and not a bit of English. Locals still proudly recall a visit by Diana, princess of Wales, in 1995.

Tea, Anyone?
Gaiman’s biggest tourist attraction, by far, is its tea houses. Here you can have a traditional afternoon tea with a large selection of pastries. An English couple in our group couldn’t wait to tell their families about the experience, as it was something they’d never actually do at home. Other major attractions in the town include the Primera Casa, a stone house built by Roberts in 1874 (still intact but with a new, corrugated metal roof), and a brick chapel built in 1880. The town also hosts an annual festival of choral music and poetry called Eisteddfod, where you can hear both Welsh and Argentinean folk music.

Of the roughly 500,000 people in the world who speak Welsh, roughly 1%, or 5,000, live in Patagonia. Of these, the vast majority are bilingual, and in fact few speak Welsh as a first language. But today, as in the earliest days of the Welsh settlements in Patagonia, a group of dedicated citizens is working hard to maintain and revitalize the Welsh language and culture in this remote area. And if that requires help from a couple of Harry Potter novels, well, it’s all in the service of a good cause. —Joe Kissell

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Today’s article is part of two week-long series on Patagonia. To learn more about Patagonia, see the first article in this week’s theme, Introduction to Patagonia.

For more information on Gaiman, check out:

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Gaiman and the other Welsh towns in Patagonia are covered in Time Out: Patagonia.

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Tour guides, docents, and professional speakers of all sorts love to ask their audiences questions to which the answers are obvious. They do this in order to “encourage participation,” but I always find these exchanges patronizing. “Who can tell me the title of the seminar you’re currently attending? That’s right! Communicating Clearly. Now if we’re not communicating clearly, how are we communicating? Anyone? Yes! Unclearly!” Ugh. So I don’t like to encourage this sort of behavior. If you have facts to relate to someone, then relate the facts. If you can’t ask genuinely useful questions, find some other way of involving your audience.

So there we were in a van with seven other tourists, a driver, and a chipper guide who was eager to practice both her English and her professional guide skills. We were a captive audience in the only vehicle for many miles on one of the narrow highways that stretch across Patagonia. It was going to be a long ride, and we did pay a lot of money to be there, so we tried to make the best of it. “Who can tell me what meteorological feature this part of Patagonia is best known for?” she asked. Silence. We all knew. She knew we knew. No one wanted to play.

I sighed and decided to throw out the obvious answer just to take the pressure off my fellow tourists, and make the guide feel better about her job. “Wind,” I said. The guide smiled condescendingly with the look that means, in any language or culture, “Not the answer I was looking for.” Dang it. “Well,” she said, trying to reassure me that I hadn’t said something completely boneheaded, “it is indeed very windy here.” And she went on to talk about how many windmills were being installed, what a large portion of the nation’s electrical needs they hoped wind would provide in a few years, and so on. But this was all a diversion. She was looking for a particular answer to her question, and after asking a second time with no response, she filled it in for us. “It’s incredibly dry here.” Well, yes, of course—we knew that. We were confused because it was too obvious. Our guide went on to tell us how very few centimeters of rain the Chubut province received each year, how only the hardiest plants and animals could survive, how heavy pollution in other parts of the world was leading to dramatic climate changes here, and so on. This was all interesting in a vague, academic sense, but not what I really cared to listen to at that time. As I would later discover, however, stories involving thirst figure prominently in this arid region’s popular mythology.

Shrines of the Times
As we drove all over Chubut province—and again in each of the regions we visited—we repeatedly passed small roadside shrines, often in the remotest and unlikeliest locations. We always zipped by too quickly for me to get a good look or take a picture, but something told me there must be a story behind them. Finally someone asked what they were. Our guide said, with a mildly embarrassed tone, “Those are shrines or monuments to Deolinda Correa.” The story she then related is one she clearly did not believe in herself, but equally clearly, a great many other Argentineans did.

As legend has it, in the 1830s, María Antonia Deolinda Correa lived in Argentina’s San Juan province—an area at the foot of the Andes well north of Patagonia. Her husband, Bustos, was taken by force and drafted into the private army of Juan Facundo Quiroga, a regional gaucho warlord. Deolinda was so distraught that she set out on foot, with her newborn son in her arms, to follow her husband. After days of walking through the desert without food or water, she finally collapsed and died. Days later, passing mule drivers found her body; amazingly, her infant son was still alive and nursing at her breast. The men buried her, and having found the name Correa on a pendant she was wearing, labeled her tomb “Difunta Correa,” difunta being a word that literally means “defunct” but is more commonly used to mean “dead.”

Birth of a Saint
Years later, as her story spread, the locals began to think of her as a saint who had given her life for her child. And so, in this predominantly Catholic nation, people in need began to pray to her. When one man’s prayers were miraculously answered, he built a small chapel to honor Deolinda. Shortly thereafter, someone brought an offering of water to this chapel, symbolizing the divine relief from thirst. Soon, small roadside shrines began to appear all over the country, some of them littered with hundreds of bottles of water brought either in supplication or in thanks. Deolinda Correa has become the unofficial regional patron saint of travelers, farmers, and all those whose lives or livelihoods depend on a precarious supply of water. The monument built on the site where Deolinda is said to have died is now a large sanctuary—a hilltop where 17 chapels, and numerous smaller shrines, pay her honor. Over half a million pilgrims visit this site in the small town of Vallecito each year.

Deolinda was never canonized by the Catholic church, which regards the entire tale as nothing more than a superstition. There is little evidence of Deolinda’s existence and even less of the supposed miracle. The legend also does not say what happened to Deolinda’s son. But none of this weakens the beliefs of thousands of people who claim that Difunta Correa’s intervention resulted in miraculously answered prayers.

Travelers do not often cross the deserts and plains of Argentina on foot these days. But I can easily imagine a parched and weary soul, stranded far from food and water, who stumbles upon a shrine to Deolinda Correa and drinks from a water bottle left as an offering. Whether or not this ever happens, I like to think that in death—or even as the figment of someone’s imagination—Difunta Correa now has the power to save countless thirsty travelers. —Joe Kissell

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Today’s article is part of two week-long series on Patagonia. To learn more about Patagonia, see the first article in this week’s theme, Introduction to Patagonia.

For more information about Deolinda Correa, see:

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Caleta Valdés

The Argentinean portion of Patagonia comprises five provinces, of which the northernmost one is known as Chubut. You have to fly about two hours southwest from Buenos Aires to get there, yet it’s still over 1,000km (about 600 miles) from the tip of the continent—just barely into Patagonia when you consider its overall scale. This impossibly dry, windy, and desolate area is as far south as Paul Theroux got in The Old Patagonian Express. He felt he was nowhere, and it was here that he experienced his much-quoted epiphany that nowhere is a place. Although I was to discover a much more varied and inviting landscape a few days later as we traveled deeper into Patagonia, I have fond memories of the quiet, empty, and rugged steppes of Chubut.

Wonders Around Every Corner
Our guide had arranged for us to spend an entire day visiting one of the region’s most popular areas, Peninsula Valdés, a provincial park that is home to more wildlife than you can shake a camera at. This peninsula is really more like a large island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. In certain seasons—though not when we were there—whale watching is the peninsula’s big industry, as migrating southern right whales and orcas frequent the waters just off the coast. We did see plenty of elephant seals and sea lions and a variety of birds, not to mention astonishing numbers of sheep. But the thing I found most interesting on Peninsula Valdés was the view from a rest stop.

We had been driving for quite some time through an endless expanse of Nowhere on our way from Somewhere to Somewhere Else. We had a schedule to keep, but we could afford perhaps 15 minutes for a quick rest stop. As we pulled into a restaurant’s parking lot, our guide mentioned that if we walked down this trail to the right, we could see (still more) elephant seals; if we took the trail to the left, we’d be able to see a most unusual sight known as Caleta Valdés, or Valdés Creek. The left-hand trail was a 15-minute round trip, which meant that we were supposed to choose between using the restrooms and beholding a natural wonder. I opted for a hasty restroom visit and a jog down the trail on the left.

Catching the Drift
What we saw from an overlook at the end of the trail was a long, thin strip of land—basically an overgrown sandbar—running parallel to the coast. At the far end, about 30km (20 miles) north, this strip of silt is connected to the peninsula. Here, at the southern end, is the only inlet to the so-called creek—a channel about 150m (500 feet) wide. Less than 10 years ago, the channel was 600m (2000 feet) wide. This geological feature, known as a coastal cord, tends to trap a bit of sediment every time the tide goes out. For the past couple of years, observers have predicted that it will close up entirely “any day now.” Unless another outlet forms—which seems unlikely—Caleta Valdés will soon change from a creek to a salt lake. And given the shallowness of that lake and the area’s extremely low humidity, it could dry out completely in several more years.

Caleta Valdés is thus the only spot on the continent where the coastline is growing; everywhere else it’s either being eroded slowly away or receding due to rising ocean levels. It’s almost as though this little strip of land is thumbing its nose at continental drift, growing out toward the east as the whole continent slips slowly westward. This small wonder was well worth an abbreviated rest stop. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Caleta Valdés…

Today’s article is part of two week-long series on Patagonia. To learn more about Patagonia, see the first article in this week’s theme, Introduction to Patagonia.

For more information on Caleta Valdés, see Caleta Valdes at or Caleta Valdés at Inter Patagonia. Also see Caleta Valdés (in Spanish; try this rough English translation from Google).

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Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express details his long trip (mostly) by train from Boston all the way to Patagonia.

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On December 25, 2004, my wife, Morgen, turned 30. She had decided many months earlier that she wanted to celebrate this milestone by taking a grand trip that would be, in a sense, a sort of pilgrimage. No one has to twist my arm to talk me into going on vacation, especially if it’s to some exotic, faraway place. But I told Morgen that the decision where to go should be hers alone: my only input in the process would be smiling and nodding. “You tell me where you want to go,” I said, “and I’ll be there.” For a while she was thinking seriously about going to Spain and doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Then she started talking about Rome. After that, it was Australia, and for many weeks I thought she was leaning strongly in that direction. Then one day last summer she announced that she’d reached a final, irrevocable decision. “Where are we going?” I asked. She replied, matter-of-factly, “Patagonia.” I smiled and nodded and said, “Great!” And then I thought for a moment and added, “Where’s Patagonia?”

Since then, virtually every time I’ve told friends or family about our two-week trip, they’ve had the same reaction. “Patagonia? Oh yeah, the clothing brand. You mean it’s an actual place too? Where is it?” Had I myself not been entirely ignorant about Patagonia just a few months ago, I would be incredulous that such a huge place—and one so full of stories—could be unknown to so many otherwise intelligent, educated North Americans and Europeans. Patagonia is in fact chock-full of interesting things—people, animals, plants, customs, natural wonders, and amazing stories—and now that I’ve had a small taste of it in person, I’m going to do my part to share that information with the rest of the world. Each of the articles on Interesting Thing of the Day this week, and again during a second week next month, will have something to do with Patagonia. Accordingly, I thought we should begin with a little primer on Patagonia: its whereabouts, its history, and most importantly, some of its best-known legends. We’ll revisit some of these items, and many others, in more detail as the series progresses.

Where Patagonia Is
Patagonia is the southernmost portion of South America. Its exact northern boundary is somewhat vague, but it begins somewhere in the vicinity of 40° south latitude, or roughly where the Rio Colorado cuts diagonally across the continent. Patagonia extends all the way to the tip of the continent—encompassing, by most accounts, Tierra del Fuego and the many smaller islands up to and including Cape Horn. The western quarter or so of Patagonia is in Chile; the rest, to the east of the Andes mountains, is in Argentina.

Patagonia is an immense region; its area of about 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 sq. km) makes it well over twice the size of California. And trying to describe Patagonia is very much like trying to describe California—do you want to hear about the deserts, the mountains, the valleys, or the coast? The cities or the rural areas? The wildlife or the politics? With so much to describe, generalizations become difficult. One thing you can say with certainty, though, is that Patagonia is sparsely populated—it has a total of roughly 1.5 million inhabitants (compared to California’s 34 million), of which the vast majority live in large towns. Depending on whose estimates you believe, sheep outnumber humans by at least 5 to 1, and perhaps as many as 20 to 1. And one of those sheep contributed the wool for that Patagonia-brand sweater you have in your closet.

The name “Patagonia” was once thought to have been derived from a Spanish expression for “big feet”—a supposed reference to the proportions of the area’s original inhabitants, described by early European explorers as “giants.” But the generally accepted etymology is that the word Patagonia actually comes from Patagon, the name of a giant in a Spanish novel called Primaleon—apparently a favorite of Ferdinand Magellan’s.

The Stuff of Legend
Magellan, of course, lent his name to the strait that separates mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego; he discovered the long-sought passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific in 1520. Even three centuries later, though, when Charles Darwin set out on H.M.S. Beagle (under command of Captain FitzRoy), Europeans knew very little of Patagonia or its inhabitants; it was more of an inconvenient obstacle to sea travel than a place one might actually want to visit. The exotic descriptions Darwin brought back—especially his confirmation that the inhabitants were savage giants—reinforced in the minds of many Europeans the notion of Patagonia as being a desolate and forbidding place, far from (and perhaps unworthy of) civilization.

Partly because of its remoteness, Patagonia attracted its fair share of outlaws. Following a major heist in the U.S., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out in Patagonia for several years in the early 1900s. Pirates, too, found the busy shipping channels near Patagonia a lucrative source of business.

As recently as the 1970s, English-speaking people in the northern hemisphere knew little of Patagonia. British author Bruce Chatwin almost single-handedly brought Patagonia into the popular consciousness with his best-selling 1977 book In Patagonia, a travelogue of sorts that is part autobiography, part fiction. Two years later his friend, travel writer Paul Theroux, wrote The Old Patagonian Express, detailing his attempt to travel by train from Boston all the way to the heart of Patagonia. These two books have inspired generations of travelers to discover Patagonia for themselves.

Far and Away
Today, Patagonia is a favorite destination for ecotourists and adventure travelers. Some go to see the vast expanses of steppes—desert-like plains that are constantly buffeted by strong winds and support only the hardiest plant, animal, and human life. Some are interested in the impressive glaciers descending from the Andes, or in the millions of nesting penguins along the coast. Still others are interested in the cultural anomalies, such as the Welsh colony of Gaiman, where you can always get a proper tea. And many tourists stop briefly in Patagonia on their way to Antarctica—a mere 600 miles (1,000km) or so south across the Drake Passage. But one of the biggest reasons to go to Patagonia, even for residents of northern Argentina, is its sheer remoteness: it is one of the last places on Earth that can still be called “one of the last places on Earth.” —Joe Kissell

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Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is essential reading for anyone interested in the region (or simply in good stories). Also see Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, Time Out: Patagonia will serve you well.

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At the end of December 2004, I was among the millions watching the endless hours of TV coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. As I watched the huge death toll rise by the hour, I remember thinking, naïvely, “How could so many people not have known what was coming?” After a bit of reflection, I had a worse thought: “How could they possibly have known?”

Living in the U.S., I’ve become accustomed to having instant information about everything. When something newsworthy occurs anywhere in the country, television crews materialize out of nowhere and broadcast the story to a nation of information junkies. And if the TV or radio isn’t on, I’m never far from a cell phone or a Web browser. If I think I feel an earthquake—not an uncommon occurrence here in San Francisco—I can check a Web site that tells me its strength and epicenter within minutes. The notion that something cataclysmic could be occurring without my knowledge, whether in my neighborhood or across the continent, is almost unfathomable.

And yet, when I fantasize about a dream vacation, the picture in my mind is invariably that of a tiny, picturesque island out in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Maybe I’m even in a bungalow built on stilts over the water. I’ve left all my gadgetry behind, and have nothing to worry about but finishing the next chapter of my book and maybe taking a quick swim before dinner. I’m not thinking about staying connected to the rest of the world; that’s what makes it a vacation. And that, tragically, is exactly the situation many tourists found themselves in when the tsunami struck. Of course, even locals with phones and televisions were not warned, because the existence of the tsunami was largely unknown before it hit.

Since then, while the governments of every coastal nation in the world have talked about the urgent need for a global tsunami warning system, I’ve been wondering exactly how that could happen. On the one hand, I want to know why it isn’t trivially easy (Don’t we have satellites?), and on the other hand, why it isn’t immediately dismissed as impossible (What about all those people on the remote islands without communication equipment?). Although I knew that a lot of money was being spent on sensors and radios, I didn’t understand just how this proposed system would work. So I decided to look into it.

Little Things Mean a Lot
Tsunamis usually begin with strong earthquakes, and there is already a global network of sensors that can adequately detect and measure seismic activity. But not all strong earthquakes that occur in the ocean produce tsunamis, and even when they do, seismic data gives few clues as to the direction or speed of the waves. So although some regional tsunami warning systems are based on seismic data alone, such systems are notorious for false positives. The only way to know for sure if a tsunami is coming is to observe the waves as they move. But perhaps “observe” is not the right word; tsunami waves appear quite small at the surface when far out at sea, even near a quake’s epicenter. With a height of sometimes as little as a few centimeters, they look like ordinary waves from a boat or plane. Only as they approach land do they swell to dangerous sizes. This characteristic makes detection a tricky business—requiring high-tech equipment and computerized analysis.

The first method used to supplement seismic data was taking readings from tide gauges. Although some tide gauges are quite sophisticated, many are simple mechanical devices that measures the height of a float protected from waves by an enclosure called a stilling well. Because tide measurements require a fixed point of reference, tide gauges are normally installed on or near a coast. Thus the data they provide is more useful for landmasses farther out from the tsunami’s starting point.

A more direct way of detecting tsunamis is to measure changes in pressure on the ocean floor. The Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) program, already in use in the Pacific ocean, uses bottom-mounted sensors to detect changes in water pressure consistent with a tsunami. The sensors relay the information via sonar to a buoy floating on the ocean’s surface; the buoy, in turn, transmits the data to a satellite, which relays it to ground-based stations for processing. DART greatly increases both the speed and accuracy of tsunami warnings, but the sensors and buoys are prone to failure and must be serviced or replaced frequently. And there are at present far too few of them in place to monitor all the world’s oceans.

Although tsunamis out at sea are not visible to the naked eye, radar satellites, if they happen to be pointed in the right place at the right time, can detect them. The problem with satellites, apart from knowing where and when to look, is that the data they produce must be processed back on Earth; the time required—currently several hours—is generally too long to be of use for warnings. Future generations of satellites, however, may overcome these limitations.

The Challenge of the Last Mile
But even if and when the world’s oceans are populated with perfectly functioning tsunami sensors, the truly phenomenal challenge will be getting the information from the scientists who operate the equipment to the people living in the coastal areas where the tsunamis will hit. For one thing, tsunamis move incredibly fast—up to 1,000 km/h (about 600 mph). So land areas must be at least a few hundred kilometers away from a quake’s epicenter to have even a small chance of receiving a warning in time. Once the warning does come, the nation must have the infrastructure to relay it rapidly to coastal areas at any hour of the day or night. Although telephones, television, radio, and the internet can be used for such purposes, residents need something that can wake them in the middle of the night—such as a siren—to be assured of having maximum time to react. While such warning systems may be feasible in densely populated coastal towns, it’s inconceivable that every remote beach in the world is ever going to have a tsunami alarm.

Then, of course, there’s the little matter of preparedness. If someone told me right now that a tsunami was going to hit my house in 15 minutes, I wouldn’t know what to do—where to go, what to take with me, how to be as safe as possible. Every child attending school in California learns what to do in the event of an earthquake, but not, in general, how to cope with sudden giant waves. This is all the more true in many other parts of the world. No matter how great the technology is, there’s no substitute for education.

All that to say: if the world’s leaders keep their promises, spend enough money, and encounter no significant technological barriers, global tsunami detection could very well be a reality in a few years. Will we then—or ever—have the ability to effectively warn everyone of an impending wave? Absolutely not. But with diligent attention to education and civil preparedness, we can certainly hope to reduce the risks dramatically.

I learned long after the fact that some friends of mine had been very close to some of the tsunami zones when the waves hit, but all of them returned safely. This made the tragedy seem more personal, and the need for a warning system more urgent. Even knowing what I know now, I still long for that idyllic island getaway. I may, however, pack a cell phone on my dream vacation—just in case. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Tsunami Warning Systems…

Soon after this article was posted, I received messages from two different readers pointing out that Robert Cringely has been talking about tsunami warning systems in his blog—see Wave of Change (December 30, 2004) and the second half of Help Me Help You (January 14, 2005). Cringely is an advocate of the Open Tsunami Alert System (OTAS), which seeks to automate the process of using seismic data to relay tsunami warnings to affected areas using the Internet, SMS text messages, and other means. OTAS will unquestionably be cheaper and more efficient to implement than the large-scale, government-funded projects I discussed above. On the other hand, it is (by its own admission) only a partial solution—the seismic data alone is notoriously unreliable, and the system does not address the needs of folks in areas without cell phones or Internet access (yes, there still are some!).

To learn more about tsunami warning systems, see:

News articles about tsunami warning systems:

Other pertinent sites include:

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