I loved Puerto Madryn from the moment I saw the flat blue ocean peeking through buildings and wide streets when I walked from the bus terminal, packs loaded front and back, to El Retorno Hostel. I loved it because I could smell the sea for the first time since I left Cape Town, nearly three months before. I loved it because it had that sense of peace that only seaside towns possess; a calming quiet even though it was a weekday afternoon.
I loved it because Gladys, the owner at El Retorno, immediately knew what I was talking about when I said “over-fishing”, about five minutes after we met. Because she gave me a 10-minute rundown of the corporate fishing situation in Patagonia. Because she called the local marine ecology programme to find out if I could go in and see them.
I loved it because you had to pay for the plastic bags at the supermarket. Because for the first time the Argentinian people responded positively to the word “conservation”.
I loved it for selfish reasons too. It was time to dive. Indirectly I would be diving in South African waters, since Argentina and South Africa share the Atlantic. They share climates too, and southern right whales, and penguins, and friendly people, down to earth lovers of nature.
I loved it because Eduardo the poet nearly badgered me into diving with sea lions the moment I arrived at the hostel (I’d have to wait a few days for that). I loved it because Gladys said I look 26. I loved it because the walk to the beach couldn’t have been more than a hundred hurried steps from the hostel. Because when I got to the beach, the sand stretched out in both directions for miles and miles. I was home.
I loved it because Eduardo bumped into me later on my first day and invited me along to a roundtable gathering of local poets. That night, in the humble but generous house of Carlos the bookstore clerk, we drank beer and wine, ate empanadas and ham and cheese and olives and pizza, and listened to Argentinian poets recite their work as a man strummed a guitar at the table. Their words were muddy to me, but their meanings were clear. (I guess that’s everything you need to know about poetry.) I loved it because the same guitar-strumming man rounded off the evening with a delicate rendition of folklore songs, because everyone sang along at the end, clapping hands, embracing. I loved it because at the end of the night I lamented the lack of spicy food in Argentina, and Carlos and his wife proceeded to whip up the most fragrant, spicy, garlicy dipping sauce I’ve ever tasted – and then proceeded to feed me more bread and pisco.
I loved it because of the happy overnight trip to nearby Gaiman.
I loved it because I got back in the water. I dived with marinos lobos (sea lions). At first, they were skittish and the visibility wasn’t great, but we settled down and the lions became playful. One kissed me on my forehead, just like I saw on that documentary that one time. Another tried to bite through my 7mm suit. One lion took a distinct liking to me, we’d play and swirl and hug and then he’d surface for air, only to return to me straight away down below, where I waited patiently for him. Many of the lions looked deep into our eyes, long moments of complete tranquility, either saying hello or trying to figure out what the hell I am. On another dive, a shipwreck’s exposed ribcage, spread out on the ocean floor, made me appreciate vulnerability, change and permanence.
I loved it because Matias, the diver who spoke about as much English as I did Spanish (we communicated for the first time underwater) was a hippy with priceless insights (“They invented Satan because they were afraid of female energy, but woman is making the comeback!”). Because he cooked an incredible vegetarian meal for me while talking about the evils of Coca-Cola and supermarkets, and about the Mexican pyramids where he was headed, and about the parallels between diving and sex. Because he wanted to know my life story. Because he paid attention as I told it in broken Spanish. Because of the way he treated his dog. (Matias didn’t send me the diving pics. No one’s perfect.)
It’s taken me a while to write about Puerto Madryn. When I left Buenos Aires a few days before, the smile on my face lingered. I finally felt … free. At the very least, I felt that I had broken down the various barriers and that I’d reached a ground zero of sorts. From here on in it would be about building, not breaking.
Everything from Puerto Madryn onwards has been profound and unimaginable. Shackles shaken off, eyes open, heart healthy. I was ready to head south, all the way.
As I write this in mid-April, a month or more since I left Puerto Madryn, I notice how much of my heart stayed behind.