Wednesday, January 30, 2008

To The Beach!

My father-in-law Ruben is a true beach lover. Not the crowded, "everybody look at me" type of beach, but rather the solitary sea sides of Patagonia, where he can swim, snorkel, fish, look for mussels, scallops, crabs, observe nature, and eats lots of seafood. He took his wife, Carmen, and the two kids to the remote beaches of the Pennisula Valdes for years, starting in the 1970's. Luis remembers his father rousting him from the tent in the early mornings, snorkeling gear in hand, to dive for scallops in the chilly Patagonia waters.

Images of a Luis as a small boy, his features and wiriness similar to Lucas', trotting along the beach with his father are in my thoughts as our family, including Ruben, headed off to Pennisula Valdes in January. The Pennisula is well known in Argentina, attracting tourists with its superb whale watching and colonies of sea lions. Penguins are commonplace birds, and guanaco (relatives of the camel and the llama, indigenous to Argentina) sprint around fearlessly. Our family, though, was avoiding the tourist draws completely, and going to a beach where a weathered octogenarian friend, Atilio, lived. Ruben told us that his house was very basic, but provided shade, a place to cook, and possibly a room to sleep in. He and Estela were frequent guests of Atilios', and we, apparently, were always welcome.

Argentine Patagonia, if you haven't heard me desribe it before, is a dry, windy, desolate place. Trees are few and far between. The sun is brutal, as there is, reportedly, a hole in the ozone layer directly overhead. We turned off the main road, onto a smaller road-like throughway --a place you wouldn't attempt after a good rain in a car without four wheel drive. We drove twenty kilometers along this road, crested a little bluff, and there it was: in this world of brown and low bushes, my heart leapt at the expanse of deep blue. In the next second, the excitment was replaced with disbelief: our idyllic, lonely Patagonian beach was a wasteland of junky trailers, tattered boats, and strewn empty bottles. You have got to be kidding. This is IT?? We drove eight hours from Neuquen to be surrounded by JUNK?

Welcome to San Roman Beach

Ruben's talents, obviousy, did not include description. How could he have omitted such important facts, such as, oh, the place is a sty? Most of the thousand mile Atlantic coast of Patagonia is largely untouched, so how is it we ended up here? With fallen hearts, we set up camp in the only bit of shade we could find, between a stunted tree and a broken down truck. Next to us was the large motorhome --a revamped city bus, acutally-- of a family who had also come to visit Atilio. This family had a boat on a trailer, and two four wheelers (one for the six year old granddaughter), and a generator, which they rarely turned off. It hummed along in tandem with another generator of a family camping nearby. So much for quiet.

There were, in all, three families visiting Atilio --a total of 16 people, which included four small children and a baby. Atilio, whom I had pictured as a hermit, was anything but. His possessions, and his house, were communal: all 16 of us ate our meals there, together; the house was used to relax in, to clean seafood in, to socialize in. Nobody seemed to mind that the house was stunningly filthy, with dirt floors, dangling cupboard doors, exposed cardboard insulated ceilings, and walls black with cooking oil.

Atilio, at 81, apparently didn't mind, or he surely would have done something to improve his lot. There were, in fact, many families living in this little settlement, which stretched over a half a mile or so, living in wheeless buses, junky motorhomes, clapboard houses. Luis's reaction to this jumble bordered on distress: he is a great lover of natural beauty, and when the disfigured landscape in question is in his own country. . . well, he takes it almost personally. I wasn't too pleased myself, but decided it was a good time to dust off the ole stoicism act I keep on hand for just these occasions.

How to Enjoy Life on a Junky Beach

I kept things lighthearted, Luis mostly kept his cool, and the old saying "things will look better in the morning" proved its wisdom. In the morning, we saw that the low tide revealed a stunning display of seal life. We started to understand why Ruben loves this place: he has eyes only for the ocean. You would never, ever go hungry on these beaches. Ruben and Luis waded out with burlaps bags, and in fifteen minutes had stuffed them with fresh scallops. The sea bottom was chock full of these creatures! Scallops are a very pricey dish, anywhere you go, so you can imagine what it felt like to see such "gold" there for the picking. Many of the families who live on San Roman come to pick scallops to sell, which is legal, I was told, if they are picked by hand. I later learned the selling of scallops and octopus is regulated, and I wouldn't harzard a guess as to who did and who didn't have permission to do so.

Besides scallop picking, Luis and Ruben went "hunting" for octopus (takes some know-how; Luis had a bit of success). Another fun one was fishing for cornalitos, which are miniscule fish that lurk near the shore. Two people wade out with a seining net, 20feet long, two feet deep, and walk back to shore slowly, sweeping up the fish as they go. These fish are too tiny to clean; you just roll them in flour, fry them, and eat them like potato chips. One of the memorable images is of Lucas picking those fish out of the net, and popping them into his mouth while they were still squirming. He had asked me if it was o.k., and I said, go right ahead. Let it be said that I did my best to cultivate open-mindedness and curiosity in my kids' eating habits. Not to be outdone, Maite started munching them, too. (Her current favorite phrase is "yo tambien!" (me, too!))

The Atlantic ocean this far south is chilly, but we swam and snorkeled, anyway. Lucas and Maite had a big time doing "children-on-the-beach" things, like building sandcastles and making roads. These beaches had almost as many broken shells on them as they did rocks and sand! There were empty mussels, scallop, snail, and clam shells, everywhere, billions of them. I had never seen the like.

Apart from the richness of the sea life, we recognized the uniqueness of the social situation. Everybody in our group of 16 pulled together for meals, water, tools, or whatever was needed. All three families collected scallops, and everyone helped clean them and prepare them for sale. (We were the only ones who didn't sell our loot). Incredibly, we were the only ones who ate the seafood. The other visitors were meat, rice, and potatoes folks, which surprised me of people who spend their summers at the ocean. With their motorhome, fourwheelers, guns, generators, their distaste for seafood, and talk about motorcross and pitbulls, we knew we wouldn't be exchanging email addresses with this family. But they were friendly and helpful, and we all kept on eye on each others' kids. Lucas and Maite probably had the best time of anyone, as they both had playmates their own ages. They don't know, or care, about the meaning of "redneck".

Junky Beach tourists?

In my life, I have spent time on beaches as widespread as the Bering Sea in Alaska, Vietnam, West Africa, and the Carribean, to name some of the more exotic ones. The beach of San Roman on the Pennisula Valdes now belongs to that list, but it gets its own special category. Here, we weren't tourists: we were friends of Atilio's, we were seafood foragers, we were wildlife admirers. And, if you take into account the filthy surroundings, the obnoxious non-stop generators, and the lack of water (did I mention the only water we had was to drink? We were sticky with salt water, our clothes stank and our hair was greasy after 4 days. That's a whole other chapter to this tale) I just have to add one more adjective to the list: survivor. Yep, we survived, damp, sticky sleeping bags and all, and came away with a few good stories, a deeper appreciation of the ocean, and forty pounds of scallops. I'd definitely do it again.
Our friend Claudia, when I told her about this post, exclaimed "your friends will think that's the way all the beaches in Patagonia are!" She's right; Argentina's beaches are beautiful, for the most part. Thankfully, San Roman is a very particular case.