Once it was trash; now it's art

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

On the banks of Argentina's Chubut River, under a vast expanse of Patagonian sky, sits the town of Gaimán. Welsh immigrants settled the area in the late 1800s, and it is Gaimán's Gaelic flavor, visible most prominently in the presence of numerous Welsh teahouses, which have long been its primary draw for tourists.

But the town also offers visitors an unexpected chance to see the Taj Mahal, cavorting dolphins, and a very amiable-looking southern right whale.

The pint-sized Taj and other tongue-in-cheek tourist attractions are part of a massive artistic recycling project carried out by Joaquín Raimundo Alonso, an octogenarian former civil servant. Mr. Alonso has spent his entire retirement - which began in 1980 - constructing works of whimsy out of tin cans, plastic bottles, thread spools, buttons, plastic bags, and defunct household appliances.

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"I started making things, and people praised me, so I said I better keep making pretty things so people keep praising me," he says.

When he retired and moved to Gaimán, he began making things on the land around his tiny house to entertain his grandchildren. Before too long it turned into a park, which he has dubbed "El Desafio" - The Challenge.

A little placard in the park explains: "Like Kyoto, this achievement was the dream of a madman and it was carried out by him alone, as he is a born fighter. That's why it's called The Challenge. Because many doubted, I did not!"

One Argentine newspaper has called Alonso "the Dali of recycling." And in 1998 the Guinness Book of World Records named the site the world's largest recycling park - a designation he is extremely proud of, even if it is a category in which he may have few competitors.

The entrance to El Desafio, on Avenida Eugenio Tello, the town's main road, is marked by a welcome message painted on seven large tires in words that rhyme with "Desafio." A little wooden bridge leads into what its creator calls the "lobby," where a Volkswagen Beetle coveredwith the bottoms of beer cans sits.

Above, strands of multicolored flowers made out of plastic bottles stretch from a central pole to the park's surrounding fence, forming a canopy. To the right of the entrance, just outside his front door, Alonso sits at a table on most days, waiting for visitors. He says almost 150,000 visitors from 100 countries have come since he began.

Many of the works in the park bear the stamp of Alonso's strong sense of the ridiculous. Among the targets that he pokes fun at are the Argentine government, greed, and tourism itself.

Wandering around the replicas of tourist sites, it's hard not to reflect on the sometimes vast gap between the glowing write-ups of a place in travel literature and its reality. And in some ways, the collective presence of such disparate attractions parodies the desire of most travelers to cram as many "sights" as possible into one trip. The joke on Alonso is that the park itself is also now one of Gaimán's key attractions, featured in guidebooks alongside descriptions of the Welsh teahouses.

That is where two visitors from Europe who were wandering around the park on a rainy Saturday had heard about it. "It's really cool, actually," said Elizabeth James, who was visiting from England. "It reminds me of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, which were built by an Italian immigrant."

Although Alonso has occasionally been a tourist himself and loves traveling, he believes that he differs from most tourists. "They look, but they don't see," he says.

It is perhaps to correct this fault that Alonso offers a great deal of guidance to his visitors in the form of playful labels, quotes from great thinkers, and visitors' comments written on boards.

A handmade booklet and a hand-drawn map direct visitors to start their tour of the garden to Alonso's right, in the poetry corner. From there it's possible to climb up a treehouse or head straight to the walkway that leads among his creations. A tumble of bricks and bottles on one side, a reference to Machu Picchu, is dubbed "Mucho Chupi" ("I drank a lot").

One of Alonso's most striking creations is a tall hut made out of green and brown glass bottles cemented together with mud. Next to it, a large black whale, an allusion to the area's most famous tourist attraction, beams at visitors. Diagonally across from the whale is a castle, in front of which dolphins frolic.

Although El Desafio is now an institution in the area, its longevity is a concern. The park has been flooded six times in 25 years. In 1993, it burned down entirely.

In December 2004, when he was hospitalized for a month, his daughter, Milagros Herminia Alonso, a retired schoolteacher, looked after the park. "We realized that if Dad wasn't here and no one looks after the park, that was the end of it," she says."As long as his children are around, we plan to maintain it."

But, she and others acknowledge, the park wouldn't be quite the same without the creative force behind it. Alonso, however, seems sanguine about what may happen to his creation after he's gone.

At the moment, however, he's planning to add at least one more piece to it - a model of Stonehenge built out of aged wood. "It will be good to have one because that is a Celtic place and this is also a Celtic place," he says. "It will make the Welsh happy."

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