A month in Patagonia28 November 2018
Osian Wynn Davies reflects on his experiences in the Welsh Settlement, sponsored by the School of Welsh and Banco Santander.
During the summer, I was fortunate to spend a month over in Patagonia as part of a project there to promote the Welsh language, and I had a truly amazing experience. Because I’m studying for a degree in Welsh at Cardiff University, I was eligible to apply for the School’s Santander scholarship, which enabled 5 students to travel to Patagonia and spend a month visiting and helping schools, organising Welsh sessions for adults, and much more.
Three of us went to the vicinity of the Andes, to the villages of Trevelin and Esquel, and two others crossed the plain to go to the Valley, to Gaiman and Trelew. I had no idea what to expect. I was obviously aware that Welsh is spoken there, but other than that, the place and the culture seemed very unfamiliar to me.
Our role as students
Before arriving at Trevelin, we received a week’s timetable of events and activities we were expected to attend. A programme of so many events enabled us to meet a number of people from various cultures and backgrounds, which was much better than having an empty timetable and nothing to do for a month.
The intention of including us Welsh speakers in sessions was that the inhabitants of Trevelin and Esquel would have an opportunity to see us, who were young people, as fluent Welsh speakers. Since the first language there is Spanish, people don’t get many opportunities to speak Welsh, so having us Welsh people there was an opportunity for them to practise their Welsh. One of my highlights was the opportunity to go to Ysgol y Cwm, a bilingual primary school at Trevelin, every morning. The little school only contained two classes, and I would help with the year 2 Welsh lessons every morning, as well as taking part in the Year 1 and 2 physical education sessions later in the morning. Although the year 2 children didn’t have much Welsh, it was a pleasure to help in the lessons and see their development, as well as making some new little friends. It wasn’t possible to chat to the children in Welsh, but they knew words, such as the names of animals, the seasons, numbers, the names of the months, and so on. One sentence I could ask and know that everyone could answer was ‘Sut wyt ti’ (How are you).
In the evening, we attended fun sessions through the medium of Welsh for young children in Esquel. This included playing instruments or dancing or playing games, but we did so through the medium of Welsh so that they got some weekly Welsh input. We had also been invited to attend the young people of Trevelin’s folk dancing sessions twice a week. An invitation had also been extended to sing in the Esquel Welsh choir every Saturday, so it was great to meet so many fluent Welsh-speaking adults many thousands of miles from Wales.
Although we had a very full timetable, we were determined to spend our spare time visiting different places in the area. Our new friends in Trevelin and Esquel were also more than happy to offer us lifts if needed, so we took advantage of the offers and travelled to the National Park and over the border to Chile for a day. We spent one Saturday travelling on the La Trochita train, which took us on a journey past Esquel to see all the available scenery. We also had an opportunity to spend a weekend in the Gaiman since the young people’s Eisteddfod was being held, and we’d been invited to compete there. It was a strange experience watching an Eisteddfod and watching things which are so familiar to us, such as the chairing ceremony, the flower dance and all the Welsh competitions, when we were surrounded by Spanish speakers.
Welsh language and culture
There is an obvious Welsh community in Trevelin and Esquel, provided you know where to look. You won’t hear Welsh spoken on the streets at all, since Spanish is the natural language of most of the population. However, it’s important to note that a number of people have the ability to speak Welsh, and when they walk through the doorway of a Welsh session, the language will be Welsh, rather than Spanish.
Many people who didn’t speak a word of Welsh had Welsh lineage, and could talk about ancestors from Caernarfon, Bala, Bethesda and many more, which was an eye-opener to me. It was good to see that they were aware of the importance of Wales in Patagonia’s history and the history of their own personal families.
Spending a month there has been an amazing experience, and I hope to go there on another visit in future! It’s been an unforgettable experience, and an opportunity to make new friends and connections which will stay in my memory for ever.