Feeling Like a Yokel in Rural Argentina!
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
So when was organising my homestays for Buenos Aires, there was one concept (a fairly fundamental one) that I didn’t grasp. I would, however, challenge most people from outside the region to know that Buenos Aires is not just the city we have all heard of- capital of Argentina, home of Boca Juniors and birth place of tango- it is also a province the size of Wales! One of the offers I had for a homestay was from Yami (pronounced Shami) who is a 22 year old counsellor from Juan Andres de la Pena. Yami was very warm and welcoming and I was looking forward to meeting her before I realised Pena is a dot on the map 250kms from Buenos Aires. But hey, what the heck! I have the time to wander now I’m retired so after 12 nights in Buenos Aires, Silvana waved me off on a bus to Pergamino, 10kms from Pena. And I wasn’t disappointed!
The 2.5 hour bus journey was through very flat and monotonous scenery. This part of Argentina is akin to Norfolk or Belgium but from my top floor seat I was able to catch up on my diary.
The bus arrived 35 minutes early! I’m not sure how that works but I had a message from Yami to say she was on her way to meet me. She soon arrived and immediately panicked about speaking English which was entirely unnecessary because when she relaxed she was fairly fluent. I soon learnt that at the age of 18 she hitch hiked to Mexico and then got a boat to Cuba. Did she fly back? No! She hitched hiked back again. A girl after my own heart!! “Was your Mum worried?” I asked. “Oh no!” she replied but once I met her lovely Mum I realised something may have got lost in translation! She had wanted to leave school and go earlier but her dad was very against this. He agreed that if she waited until she was 18 he would buy her a ruck sack and he did.
Yami’s friend Lucia joined us in the bus station cafe. She did an English degree and speaks very impressive English. She’s well travelled and has visited the U.K. several times. She studied Shakespeare for her degree and was able to translate concepts like goose bumps so she must be good. It was delightful to sit and chat with Yami and Lucia. Like many young people from the U.K. today, they do not have secure employment, in spite of being talented and engaging young women. Lucia teaches dance and circus skills and does part time child minding. Yami runs inspirational workshops, sells beautiful crafts made from recycled material and works in the family shop and bakery.
Yami and I got a bus to Pena, a small rural village of 300 people. It has the biggest village green I have ever seen and an old disused railway station. Old fashioned tractors and farm machinery decorated the village. It felt as if I was in one of those rural museums that you get in Europe but I suspect much of it was still in use. Grain silos loomed over the end of the village. Yami told me that grain production is an important industry in the area and one in which her brother works.
Yami and her mum live in one of the oldest houses in the village. It was inherited from Yami’s God Mother and is a 1970s time warp that took me back to my childhood. It was set in beautiful grounds with huge cactus and mature trees surrounding it, and it had a pool in the back garden. A big bonus in 30 plus degrees centigrade!
Yami’s dad and brother live a few doors further up the village green in the original family home. Yami’s Mum and Dad are still happily married and work together in the family shop and bakery but live in separate houses. Yami’s dad retired from working in agriculture at the age of 58 and receives a state pension of about 200 GBP per month but this is not enough to live on so he took over the family shop and bakery. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the shop and bakery. Again, it was like going back in time. The shop has weighing scales that I remember from my childhood and when I was there a stray dog came for stale bread which Yami told me is a regular occurrence.
Yami’s mum and dad were very kind and hospitable and they invited me to eat traditional food with them on several occasions. They don’t speak English but with Yami translating and lots of laughter and non verbal communication, I hardly noticed. Yami’s dad‘s family is from Scilly and Serbia and her Mum’s from Italy. I encouraged her to interview them about their family history as she said she was learning about it as we spoke!
There are many dogs that wander around the village. Some have owners but many don’t. Those that don’t are what Yami called ‘Community Dogs’ because they are looked after by everyone. These Community Dogs are clearly fit and healthy so it works well. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to be neutered. My favourite ‘Community Dog’ was Pancracio. He was a black Labrador who would follow you round with a stick or stone he had found for you to throw. He would never get tired of this so you just had to ignore him in the end until he went off to find another victim.
One of the highlights of my visit was meeting Yami’s eclectic mix of lovely friends. They are generally older than Yami owing to her being mature beyond her years. Romina was visiting from Rio de Janeiro where she works in a hostel. She said her English has greatly improved whilst working there because the language of the tourists is English. Belkys is a fellow teacher but at the other end of the age group as she is a kindergarten teacher. Her 10 month old son, Simon had us all entertained. Yami’s best friend, Mariela (Mar) had a very premature baby recently but Baby Carmichael is doing well now. Her sister Annabella is very engaging.
Visiting the bakery was also like going back 100 years. Yami’s parents, Analia and Antonio, work incredibly hard and produce excellent artisanal bread and cakes. I know because I sampled lots during my visit.! Ok, so U.K. health and safety, and environmental health would have a field day. They don’t have inspections here! One machine was roughly my age and another even older at 80 years old. There were no safety guards etc so fingers could easily be lost! Antonio’s father had lost fingers on these very machines! I stayed up the safe end and helped take the bread off the conveyor belt. As Maureen Dedman commented on Facebook, where was my hairnet. Hairnet? There were cats and dogs wandering in and out! The oven was huge and fuelled by wood. Antonio gets up at 3am to light the fire and a few hours later to put the bread in the oven using large wooden shovels. I opted out of observing that part of the process!
When Yami took me for a tour of the village we visited the Police Station. Yes, you heard correctly, a police station for 300 people. At first I thought he had someone in for questioning but then I realised it was just a mate, there for a chat! He was armed but wearing a t.shirt. When Yami introduced me as a visitor from England, he was keen to know whether Margaret Thatcher was still alive. I was able to confirm she was not and he looked pleased. I’m afraid my Spanish does not extend, however, to a round of ‘Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead!’ which I am sure he would have appreciated!
Yami took me to her Argentinian Folklore Dance Class. Luckily, it is not as hard as Tango so I was able to join in and twirl around. It is not dissimilar to our own country dancing. A stray dog joined in and was tolerated by the class. Much as we are dog lovers at home, I can’t see people putting up with a dog running around under your feet, bringing litter in to the middle of the dance floor to play with and trying to grab the hankies used as props!
Eli and Cristian, the dance teachers, gave a wonderful demonstration at the end of the class.
One day we went to Zumba in the Park but we were delayed so got there shortly before it finished. Yami, however, nobly shouted, ‘I have a visitor from England! Please do another song!’ and much to my surprise, they did and everyone was really friendly and wanted to know where I was from and about my trip. It is very rare to get foreign visitors in the area so I think I was a bit of a novelty. There were lots of people who were keen to practice theIr English with me and I was happy to oblige. After Zumba we met a group of Yami’s friends and one said in Spanish, “I speak zero English“ but then realised she could sing a song in English. Music is such a good way to learn another language, but unfortunately, we get so little exposure to music in other languages.
Pergamino is a city of 185,000 people and is the main city in the area of Pena. It has a river running through it with pleasant riverside walks and some fabulous architecture. Much of it was nineteenth Century but the beautiful Roma Hotel (no longer a hotel) is a very fine example of art nouveau architecture. It has many good cafes and restaurants, plus a fantastic ice cream parlour with home made ice cream.
There is a strange British connection. The British built the railway in the 19th Century. It is now no longer in use so the old station is a cafe and museum and the old railway sheds are being turned in to a museum. There is also a metal railway bridge. The British man in charge of building the railway insisted the local football team be called Douglas Haig, a British First World War General. He had no connection, what so ever, to the town but its football team still has his name!
Another British connection was observed on a local poster seen all over the town. A local young man was killed by a hit and run driver who was drunk. There is a campaign to get justice, just like our own Harry Dunn who was killed by the wife of an American Diplomat who then fled the U.K.
Yami contacted a local photographer, Cristian, who is popular on Instagram and he came over to interview me about my travels and take some photos. Before I knew it, I was a local celebrity! On the bus home, we met an elderly gaucho in traditional dress. Yami spoke to him about his life on a local farm and he agreed to me taking his photo, even standing up so I could get a better shot.
On my final evening, Yami surprised me with a party at a friend’s house with traditional Argentinian foods. It was great to see her many friends again and meet the host of the party, Paola, who moved from Columbia 10 years ago to work as a doctor in Argentina. We chatted about my trip to Columbia which is the final country on my tour.
When Yami waved me off at the bus station, I felt very emotional. I had ended up staying for an extra two nights so five in total and I felt a real connection to Yami, her family, her friends and her village and town. It was an experience that I will never forget!