The building is collasping. Built in the mid-1800s as the old train station and station master’s house, the muddy cement mixture connecting the bricks cannot be replicated.
“I’ve tried finding the recipe but it’s lost. We’ve tried modern techniques,” says historian Gorge Hernandez*, the building’s sole-caretaker as he runs his finger along the chipped grout and the modern attempts to fix it. “But, nothing seems to be working. The building can’t compete with the new roads and the more traffic they bring. Soon, it will collapse.”
Gorge leads a simple life. He wakes up early in the morning, he drinks a cup of coffee and he heads into work at the old train station, now known as the Museo Histórico Regional. Once there, he turns on the lights, checks all the artefacts are in a good condition and sits in his cramped office, whose walls are cascading under the weight of books detailing the Welsh heritage of the area. As the museum’s only employee, he’s worked there since the 1960s, he is the only person in bothered about keeping the Welsh dragon in the air.
“The Welsh colonised the Valle del Chubut in 1865, and were the primary habitants by 1874,” he says with the formal dictation of someone who has learnt a second language. He isn’t a man to use slang. “There are two good things that happened to this region: the discovery of the biggest-recorded herbivore in Trelaw and the Welsh arriving.”
After setting up homesteads across the valley, the Welsh irrigated the land. Soon, the local fauna flourished and the valley became a green oasis in the middle of the brown hills associated with northern Patagonia. Most tourists who visit Gaiman, the cultural central of the region, visit on day trips from the nearby Puerto Madryn, a city not too dissimilar from Weston-Super-Mare. A now defunct train line connected the two towns, but people only visit for the cream teas held at 15:00 every day. It is rare for people to explore the town from beyond the car window.
“Only a small amount speak Welsh,” Gorge explains. “The Argentines who visit from Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires don’t, and even the English visitors don’t understand. The easiest way to experience the culture is through the food so they eat scones.” Like anyone obsessed with maintaining pastimes, he is “disappointed” the language is on life support. At his insistence some of the street signs also come in Welsh.
…she started crying in the middle of the room. She solved a family mystery.”
Only tourists from Britain visit the museum, mainly out of “bemused curiosity” to see the famous flag fly this far from the River Severn, and they willingly pay the AR$20 entrance fee (less than a pound) to poke around. Sometimes they find something unexpected.
“There was this woman from London and she was looking at the land registry when she found the names of her great-great-grandparents. I grabbed one of my textbooks and found the recorded genealogy where we found the name of her great-grandmother. She then rang her mother to double check the family history,” he pauses as a smile stretches across his face. “Then she started crying in the middle of the room. She solved a family mystery.”
Gorge admits the woman was lucky. The land registry is the only written item in the museum that is in English and Spanish, and to protect the old manuscript its pages are rarely turned. Most of the other objects were brought over on the original ships — sewing machines, weights and a barrel whose purpose has been lost.
“These objects are important,” says Gorge. “They tell us of our history, but people are forgetting. Gaiman is an important town in the history of Argentina, a country built on immigration. But, visitor numbers are dropping.” For the first time, his smile falters. “I don’t know what to do if the building falls. I can keep translating, but I can’t do it forever — people will stop listening. People are.”
Gorge goes back outside and stands under the wooden awning. He runs his finger along the original grouting and part of it peels off with his finger.
*A pseudonym as Gorge wished to remain anonymous. The man in the featured image is not Gorge, but a kind tourist.