I had thought that a port day in the Falkland Islands was going to be a kind of throw-away day, a way for the cruise company to fill the great distances between Antarctica and Buenos Aires with a land diversion. While the history of the British-Argentine Falklands war is darkly interesting, a contemplation on the stupidity of politicians and the horrid price in the lives of real people, that didn’t seem enough to fuel a day’s visit.
However, great fortune was ours on this day, with an exquisitely beautiful day. The sky was almost cloudless, and the wind was fresh and gentle. Each breath was clean, salty, grassy. From the ship we watched clusters of penguins skipping just beneath the surface, while sea birds piled on top, presumably because of fish that the penguins stirred up. The landscape of this part of the Falklands, around Port Stanley, is low slung and treeless. Shards of whitewashed stone push up though the ground cover of grasses, ferns and shrubs. Unlike our day here, very often fierce winds blow from the west, configuring all the plants and the few trees in town downwind.
We rode a shuttle from the port to Gypsy Cove. The bus drove past the colorful houses and buildings of Port Stanley, industrial port buildings, and a few shipwrecks. The ground grew white and sandy, with grass tussocks. We were deposited at the head of a trail above a surprisingly beautiful white-sand beach. Rocky promontories bracketed the curve of the beach; the gentle sea was aqua-green. A couple hundred Magellanic penguins crowded together on the beach, just below the trail. For the most part, they just stood around, looking at or past each other. A few were lying on their bellies, and a few more ambled among their brethren. At one point, a lone penguin waddled to the water’s edge; a few foot slaps in the shallows; and then a chest-first plunge forward. Little by little, some of his/her comrades followed suite. They just lolled around in the water by the shore, like vacationers on a summer day at the beach. After a while, one of them startled and jetted back to shore (which was only a few meters away), and all the rest instantly mobilized, dashing back to the beach. They all integrated back into the sleepy penguin crowd. Food must be plentiful this time of year, because there was no evidence of urgency of any kind. (A little like all of us on our cruise.) Ah, the life of a penguin colony on a beautiful summer day in the Falkland Islands.
We had waited for our late-morning turn in a tender (boat) from ship to port on an upper aft deck, in the sun and breeze, overlooking the bay. We enjoyed watching the rafts (groups) of penguins, flocks of birds, boats on the water, and the glorious sunny day. All the sensory dimensions were delicious, and I felt myself trying to inhale it all. However, the combination of cool breeze, warm clear sunshine, calm bay water, and rocky windswept land yanked up gentle memories of summertime on the coast of Maine — from over 30 years ago. Why is it that we always seem to compare a new situation or setting with something from our past? There were many conversations when we were soaking in the views of the Antarctic landscape about how it was like or unlike Alaska. In Buenos Aires, we talked about streets that reminded us of Barcelona, Mexico or Paris. Our evolutionary heritage prized the ability swiftly to compare a new situation with past ones to evaluate danger or opportunity; it was life or death, after all. Today, fully safe, I want to be fully immersed in the experience right now, being as aware as possible of my immediate sensations and feelings. I hope this embeds rich memories without filter.
Ironically, the only way to share stories later about our experiences is through comparison and metaphor. “Antarctica is kind of like Alaska, but it is different in that….”