Friday, November 24, 2006


la Patagonia, Part 3

Another chaotic airport arrival. We had to circle the Comodoro Rivadavia airport a few times and land into the fierce gusting westerly winds; the plane took two wild bounces before finally sticking to the runway. Another thousand miles further away, but "home", almost at the bottom of the world. We stepped off the plane into the howling winds of a land far out of time and out of place, unexpectedly stark, strange. We'd downloaded and read all the sparse information we could find on the internet about our new home-to-be, Comodoro Rivadavia, provincia de Chubut, Argentina. We had been surprised at first to learn that Patagonia was mostly desert. But a few grainy internet pictures of the city did little to give us any real sense of the place.

The three of us had left our former home Alaska in the middle of a cold dark winter, finding ourselves just a few days later standing with our mountain of bags in front of the small dusty airport on a warm, windy, Sunday afternoon after the last flight of the day. All the taxis had already left for the day by the time we realized our promised ride wasn't going to show up. (We eventually got used to this sort of unfulfilled promise or commitment - rather than say they couldn't or wouldn't do something, people would nod their heads and agree, and then just not do it.) After a while, we persuaded a (haltingly) english-speaking ticket agent to call a cab for us (it took three trips for all of our bags) and eventually we found ourselves stuffed into a small, dark hotel room that reeked from the smell of strong cleansers,whose only window looked out onto the small air-shaft in the middle of the building. We listened all night to the cacaphony reverberating from the other 20 rooms facing the same narrow air shaft. The next morning I asked for a better room and was told, "sure", but why hadn't we asked for one when we checked in (heck, we assumed all the rooms were like that)? We were soon shown to one of their three "premium" rooms - at least it had an external view - on an upper floor.

What was my reaction to our new home, supposedly for the next three to five years? What had I expected, after all? From this point many years later, all of my preconceptions have been overlayed with the realities. Still, we didn't go into this all naive and wide-eyed. Both our families had lived as expats; we actually met while our families were living in Jamaica in 1970, and we returned there a few years later to teach. We knew to expect many things to be different. We weren't at all surprised that time moved at a different pace, that getting things done would take much longer and only after several tries. We expected to have to stand in long lines at banks, post offices, government offices, stores, etc. We had already run into some of the bureaucratic excesses just getting the paperwork together for the visas and work permit. We expected things around the house not to work, and we expected major challenges trying to find competent repairmen to fix them. We expected to have to get used to a new diet, that grocery shopping would be an adventure, only occasionally marked with a rare discovery - like the time we found a few kilograms of cheddar cheese, and the time we found a jar of peanut butter!

I really didn’t expect so much trash everywhere, or the uniformly drab houses. Nor had we expected that much wind and dust. I didn’t expect the cars to be so small, nor so old and underpowered. We didn't expect the people to be so friendly. One thing we had been assured of was not there - other expatriates. Not that it really mattered in the end, but our high priced "orientation" by Brand X, and even my Brand X boss in Buenos Aires had repeatedly told us that a small but thriving expat community existed there - and most importantly, there was supposed to be an expat run school. After a few days, we realized that we had been misled (inadvertently), their small expat community had left several years earlier when the one international oil company sold its holdings and left. No one remained. So, no school, and no english-speaking welcome wagon to help us settle in.

We were surprised and obviously disappointed. We knew expats tended to rely on each other for support in dealing with the variety of cultural, linguistic, and economic differences - this was doubly important for new arrivals. Six months after moving there, another expat couple moved to the area, and we were able to offer them the sort of initial support that we missed out on.

In hindsight, it turned out to have been a lucky thing for us, although it wasn't much fun at the time. It forced us to work harder to learn spanish, just so we could get to know our new neighbors and my new coworkers. It forced us to try harder to fit into the local culture, where we learned so much more about the Argentine people than if we had sheltered behind the buffer of an expat community. We found the local people to be exceedingly friendly, open, warm, and sharing. Many of my coworkers had indeed studied english in school and hesitantly began to try out a few phrases with us. Our social calendar soon filled with invitations to one "asado" (more about this later) or another, almost every weekend. We learned to drink mate.

We eventually found a school that supposedly offered instruction in english as well as spanish, although Z was their only real english speaker for most of his first year there. Z learned to read and write and do basic addition in spanish before learning these things in english. Within a few days he'd found a group of friends, initially communicating only with facial expressions. But within six weeks he was chattering away with them as if he were a native. By the end of a year, most people meeting him outside of the home were surprised he spoke english so well, and really surprised again to learn he actually was estado unidense.

We immediately began househunting with a realtor (who did not speak english), using electronic translators and lots of sign language. She had been instructed by my new Argentine boss (yeah, two bosses - but it worked) to show us a set of middle to upper quality houses. Most were quite uninspired, but we really were trying to be positive. But one house sat near the top of the pile, a big recently renovated house on a large fenced-in lot on the beach in a nearby town called Rada Tilly. We really liked it, but it was renting for almost three times the average that we'd been shown. My Brand X boss flew down from Buenos Aires and was quite apologetic upon learning of the expat situation. He asked about our house hunt, and we showed him the most promising ones. As soon as he saw the beach house, he called the realtor and rented it for us - saying it was the least he could do after misleading us about the expat issue! He also told us to furnish it with the best stuff we could find (locally) and send him all the bills. In a few weeks we found ourselves living in one of the nicest houses in one of the nicest locations in all of Southern Argentina.

For the next year and a half we lived on the waterfront of the seaside beach resort (villa balnearia) called Rada Tilly; named after an 18th century Spanish sea captain, the Marques Francisco Everado Tilly y Paredes, who defeated a Portuguese armada near Buenos Aires in 1795. A Spanish sailor, Juan de la Concha was the first to anchor a small ship in the small semi-circular bay (rada), and now has a street named after him. Rada Tilly is a bedroom community for some 3,000 people from the upper middle classes of Comodoro Rivadavia, 15 kilometers to the north. It sits along a 2-kilometer crescent-shaped bay, carved out eons ago by water runoff from the high desert and by tidal action against the sandy bluffs. The beach, and thus the town, is bounded on the north and south sides by 200-foot high cliffs (Punta Marques and Punta Piedras), which abut the water’s edge. These flat-topped “cerros” are narrow fingers of land that retain their original height, somehow having avoided the wind and water erosion that carved out Rada Tilly, and neighboring depressions up and down the coast.

About 75 houses were “en frente la playa” (facing the beach). Another 300 houses were located within a few blocks of the beach. These constituted the “classiest” homes in the entire Province of Chubut. The rest of the houses lay further inland. The town served as "the resort" for the rest of Comodoro’s 150,000 people. On those rare combinations when a weekend coincided with warm weather, low tides and most importantly low winds, the beach at Rada Tilly was packed with thousands of people. On weekdays or when the winds are up, the beach was deserted.

The combination of greater tidal ranges at these higher latitudes with the geological history made Rada Tilly's beach quite interesting. With a long slow drop off and a high level of silt mixed in with the sand, the beach at low tide was at least one kilometer deep, flat and hard-packed like concrete, enough to ride bicycles and drive cars. With the desert behind the beach stretching 200 miles to the west, the strong winds coming off the desert brought tons of dust, but as they blew through town, they also picked up all the loose trash and dumped it onto the beach. At high tide, the waves washed away much of the trash, sandcastles, vehicle tracks, dog litter, etc. But in those places along the road where the normal high tides did not reach, the wind-blown trash would quickly build up, until a rare extreme tide washed it away, or someone cleaned it up. Unfortunately neither happened often enough, and the small scrub bushes along beach next to the roadside were usually coated with plastic bags and whatever.

The long deep beach at low tide served as the summer promenade for all of Rada Tilly and much of the town of Comodoro, when the winds didn’t blow. Few people used the beach in the mornings before 11:00. But on a warm sunny weekend afternoon, when the tide was out, you would see up to 10,000 people of all sorts on the beach, from the local characters who took a daily swim in the cold (polluted) water, to the joggers, walkers, bicyclists, “paddle” and volleyball players, dog-walkers, bird-watchers, wind-surfers, sand-sailors, motorcyclists, families out for a stroll, large groups of teenagers on-show for one another, sports teams doing workouts, musicians, extended families gatherings, mate-drinkers, beer-drinkers, sunbathers, waders, swimmers, lifeguards, surfers, fishermen, boaters, and people-watchers (but interestingly never any picnickers). Accompanying the crowds on the beach were the cars cruising the front street, hundreds of cars an hour, crawling slowly through the streams of people coming and going on foot to the beach.

The massive beach parties usually lasted late into the evening around numerous bonfires. However, if the wind came up, the stinging sand quickly drove all but the most dedicated walkers off the beach and indoors.

We were fortunate to have one of those few houses “en frente del mar” facing the ocean, set on a small rise from the road, with a large enclosed yard and a front deck facing the water. Immense 10’ x 7' windows dominated each end of the house. Our front window offered more entertainment than the television, with ever changing tableu of the beach, the ocean and the sky. From bright crystal-clear mornings with the sun streaming in, to dust-laden sunsets that reflected all shades of red and purple off the clouds and even the air itself onto the water, to the people using the beach, our vista changed every day.

The waters of the southern Atlantic are quite cold, fed by currents off Antarctica, so swimming was not the major activity. The waves were generally mild, most of the time, usually less than four feet. But a few brave neoprene-clad surfers were regularly in attendance in the afternoons and weekends. With the strong winds blowing seaward, the waves would often curl backwards as they lifted up on their ascent of the beach.

The beach would occasionally be covered with trash washed out of the city’s landfill a few kilometers north or tossed from passing freighters. Other times kelp and algae would cover parts of the beach, usually after storms. One week the beach was covered with thousands of jellyfish of all sizes. It usually took several days for the tides to clear away this stuff. The unseen pollution from the cities’ sewer plants was of even greater concern - for swimming or for eating any fish or mollusks.

One winter Sunday, we watched a very rare lightning storm work its way down the coast, with dozens of strikes onto the water and beach only meters from our door. You could hear the sizzle of the strike and smell the ozone afterwards. Another time a lost penguin staggered onto the beach, across the road, and into our yard (we called animal rescue). A few times saw orcas, and once a few of the large ballena francas (southern right whales) spouted and rolled not far offshore. A colony of lobos marinos (sea lions) lived on the other side of Punta Marquesa just south of Rada Tilly, and frequently they’d swim up and down the beach in small groups, stopping at times to examine us.

I never tired of the view out our front window, or from sitting out on the front deck on calmer days. A fair trade-off for the trials and tribulations of a demanding, frustrating job in an alien world.

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