Culture Turkey Vulture

Coming from the UK perspective, where motorcyclists are viewed as organ donors and are 55 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured in a road accident, it was somewhat disturbing to realise that a good proportion of every single one of my classes from aged 11 upward seems to spend their weekends out on motorbikes or quads (including one the smallest girls in the school, who is apparently faster than anyone else around a motocross track). It took a few discussions before I began to get my head around it all and it became clear from their bare-faced laughter at the idea of a 16 year old only being allowed to ride a 50cc scooter that this wasn’t even for novelty’s sake. In camp (the countryside) and also on Stanley Common, just outside Stanley itself, it is a regular site to see children driving cars and riding motorbikes from 250cc upward off road. They’re completely sensible about it for the most part, perhaps because the landscape is largely relatively flat peat land that cushions falls quite well and perhaps because the safety and subsequent independence that the children here enjoy leads them to be more responsible, but it’s made me feel a little like the juvenile in this society and got me thinking about the UK/Falklands cultural differences.

Like many who come here, I’m approaching Island life from a society with higher levels of education, higher standard of living (by most development indicators, I guess) and a more…how can I say it…cosmopolitan lifestyle. We’ve become used to so many things that aren’t the same here and I can’t say I mind it all, though some realisation helps. I think those that will thrive here will be those prepared to change their attitudes to many things, and quickly. Arriving here, it doesn’t take long to realise that life is a lot more ‘pragmatic’ in more than one way. People, particularly in camp, will speak their minds quite freely and there’s always someone that can be easily found who is proficient at pretty much anything that genuinely NEEDS doing, though the seemingly all-important GCSEs in English and Maths that the UK craves might not necessarily be present in the same numbers. Similarly, outdoor technical clothing can be worn to every bar and food establishment without batting an eyelid (I’m in heaven!) and the boiler suit (I’ll talk more about that in a later post!) is de rigueur. There are some things here that leave me feeling, occasionally, mildly inadequate, when I realise that I’ve never driven a 4×4 off-road or controlled a 500cc dirt bike on peat upland, I’ve never been on the tiny twin engine prop planes that some of the children use to get home or been ‘lamb marking’ (or held a sheep at all, in fact!) so outside of the home or classroom you end up feeling like you’re the one from the less advanced society and you question just how useful your education up to this point has been. Still, I’m determined to get stuck in to Island life and haven’t shied away from any aspects yet. One “very Falklands” event begins this Sunday with the first Motocross race of the season (including two of my 13-member tutor group competing) so I can’t not go along and watch!

I’d love to upload some pictures after it but I’m running at 93% on my internet usage for this month and going over can get costly (I could upgrade my internet package to the next plan up, but that’s £190 per month; £2,280 per year and for something as insignificant down here as the internet, I just can’t bring myself to do it). Photos next month then! Just another aspect of Falklands life that, in the UK, we’d consider stuck in the past but is easily enjoyed with that all-important change of attitude.

(Like all good puns, the title might need a little explanation: the turkey vulture is the one vulture present in the Falkland Islands and they are everywhere around Stanley – flying just above you on the streets or landing on trees as you pass by – it’s something I hope I never lose the novelty of as they are amazing!)

On Her Majesty’s Service

I was told that my arrival here would time well with Spring and that it’d be the perfect time to get out and explore. I am also told that what we’re currently experiencing isn’t usual! Whilst I’ve avoided weather forecasts since arriving  on the basis that people giving live commentary on the ground couldn’t keep up with the changes here, this week saw the first opportunity to relax within the confines of Stanley proper. The wind was certainly over 40mph today and alternating between sun and snow the whole week put us off making any firm plans so it’s a weekend in the Capital! That sounds a bit more spectacular when said in countries with more than 2500 people in.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

With that in mind it has been an odd week, having gotten so used to the various adventures available, but it did allow the opportunity to explore some aspects of Stanley that I hadn’t yet had the chance to do; the Cathedral (with a stone from Canterbury Cathedral for a taste of home), the Museum (genuinely brilliant, and I am a Museum connoisseur) and a swift half at one of the few bars not yet sampled then dinner at a friend’s where they’d splashed out on some actual fresh veg for a salad! Luxurious!
This week also brought with it the first signs of a Falklands tradition that I have to confess to looking forward to. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office still, unusually, assign an ambassador to act as the Governor of the Falklands and have done for over 150 years (bar a few months of forced Argentine governorship – you may have heard about that). This means that there remains a unique social hierarchy running alongside the everyday, but we have the pleasure of being invited to meet the man himself.

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Cheers Gov'

Cheers Gov’

As an odd aside, despite the fact that it isn’t the case in the UK, all Falkland Island Government post MUST have ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ stamped on it. To some, it is another example of the in-your-face Britishness of the Islands that is certainly present. To me, it’s pretty badass. Not quite James Bond, but I’ll see what I can do about finding a stamp with ‘secret’ included.
I should add that anyone wanting to write to me/us can ask for our address (though just my name and Falkland Islands would probably do as there is no postman so the Post Office just learn your name and work place and your mail gets delivered to you at work) and I will go old skool and write back! It may take a while but I can try. I am told that Falkland stamps are quite desirable to those of that inclination.

Broadcasting, the old and the new

For those that don’t know, Han isn’t joining me until about 5:30pm on 19th October so I have been here alone (with the exception of many new, good friends and that unwavering Falklands hospitality) in the house since arriving. The limited internet (5gb/month = £80 and going over your allowance is COSTLY, the other teachers have warned me of bills of £2-300 being common) means that streaming/downloading is out. I’m an avid reader and, being a teacher, obviously have a lot to do in the evenings but even I have struggled at times with the silence of this place. Beside the odd 4×4 trundling past and the relentless but charming wind blowing by the windows, it is deathly quiet. Nice for a while, sanity-testing after too long. (Insert charming comment here about Han’s imminent arrival testing that). Today I gained a TV aerial! I can get BBC One and Two and the British Forces Broadcasting Service channels from Mount Pleasant military base. Limited but useful nonetheless!
I’ve attempted not to mention the teaching aspects of being here, both for professional reasons and not to alienate those non-teachers reading, but I cannot help but notice a minor link here. Whilst broadcasting in terms of TV is minimal here, Stanley finds other ways to broadcast various things. The weekly Penguin News is a must-buy for opening hours, local news and general feel-good factor, but the good old fashioned networks still operate. I was told that keeping fit here could involve starting a rumour on the West of Stanley and racing it to the East. I’m obviously intending on slipping under the radar here, in a position like mine, but I’ve had two encounters this week with parents who have known exactly what I was teaching in my lessons and one had followed it up by watching a film I’d mentioned with their child. What could be seen as unnerving levels of scrutiny is far from it!
When I was at a certain school not so long ago, I was told that the children weren’t the problem, the parents were. True to form, I encountered more questioning, insulting and undermining behaviour from parents (who expected much and gave little) than I ever expected – though it should be noted that the majority were thankfully supportive! Still, the contrast struck me and it got me to thinking about what explained this. Perhaps it is a combination of things: the majority of people on the islands are employed by the Government (FIG) and there is an agreement that lunchtime, for one hour at Midday, is untouchable! The result is that a mass-exodus of parents and children occurs daily so they see each other throughout the day to sit down and have lunch. Add to that the forced proximity that everyone has to each other (adult and child alike) and you start to see that there is little choice but to build good relationships with everyone, whatever their age. It is little wonder the children here come across as extremely confident, articulate and unusually comfortable talking to or around adults – it’s because they are so used to it. I already feel like returning to Europe will require a fair period of adjustment.

If you build it, sheep will come

Despite the fact I’ve been here 3 weeks now, very little has been achieved by way of fixing up our accommodation or generally getting stuff sorted (there is a plethora of things we need but have not yet had the opportunity to acquire). Foremost among the reasons for this being the case is simply that each Saturday, the time when I am not working, mobile and able to get to the shops during their 1980s opening hours, there seems to be a better option available. This week we were fortunate enough to be led out to ‘camp’ (the word used to describe all areas outside of Stanley – the rural Falklands). This involved driving the much-criticised ‘MPA road’ (the road to Mount Pleasant Airport; the military base – gravel, not tarmac) and then proceeding first to the small settlement of Fitzroy then on to Goose Green and Darwin

Goose Green settlement, home to a Primary school of 2 students.

Goose Green settlement, home to a Primary school of 2 students.

settlements (made famous by the battle and subsequent death of Colonel H Jones VC OBE). From what I understand, before 1982 (a phrase you hear often here – if ever there was any doubt about the impact of the conflict you should think of Falklands society in terms of either ‘before’ or ‘after’, I’ll write more about that at a later date if/when I feel worthy), there was a large rift between those living in Stanley and those in Camp. As a result, different rules apply in Camp – made obvious by seeing one of our Y7 (aged 11) students driving her 4×4 through the settlement. After a brief stop at Darwin House for tea (tea with snacks here is often known as ‘Smoko’, and is highly recommended as part of the legendary Falklands hospitality!) we headed off road (truly off road!) to go and find a structure no longer in use but impressive nonetheless; Body Creek Bridge.

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Body Creek Bridge, rusted and wobbly and truly in the middle of nowhere

This, I am told, is the most Southerly suspension bridge in the world. Bearing in mind we had to drive for 2 hours on a gravel track that wouldn’t have existed, then quite skillfully off road through mud for 20 minutes to reach it it is bizarre to think that, without machinery, this bridge was erected to save the journey with the sheep and would have required a mind-blowing amount of effort to construct. It is now blocked off, rusted and incredibly unstable – very wobbly if you stand in the middle, so I’m told…ahem…

I’m very much looking forward to exploring more of Camp and can’t wait to get hold of a 4×4 (and some much-needed off road driving tutoring).
By the way, I am trying to explain various aspects of life here but if you have any questions about anything, do please ask! Also, you can subscribe to get emails when I update and I’d invite you to do that too! I’ve never blogged before and find it a very one-sided method of communicating so feedback is welcome. Except from you, Frankie.

First encounters

As a result of the location (before/after the dangerous Cape Horn route), remoteness and geology of the area, the Islands are surrounded by shipwrecks, many of which I’m told are old insurance jobs based on the fact that no-one would find the ships here. East of Stanley lies one of many lighthouses, at a place called Cape Pembroke and it was there we turned our attention for today. A trip to the excellent Museum on the seafront and 5 Falkland Island Pounds (equivalent to £GBP but different notes and almost impossible to spend outside of here) gets you the hefty key to the Lighthouse so we took a drive out of Stanley.

Just make a copy, right?

Just make a copy, right?

About ten minutes away is the Stanley airport (home to the FIGAS flights, nothing international and I’ll write about those when I go on one) and just beyond that you pass through a gate (to keep the wild horses in/out) onto a track that even my old Skoda would have struggled with. 4x4s are the only option here if you want to get out of Stanley and this showed it. On the plus side, once you’re through the gate you can take your seatbelt off at last! (Another Falklands oddity, most journeys in town are extremely slow and short and no-one has to indicate by law but seatbelts are always, always worn).

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As the crow flies

The approach is a bizarre mix of rock, clay and peat and the whole peninsular is abandoned bar the lighthouse.

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Follow the road

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Walking as the crow flies will get you to the lighthouse, as well as the Atlantic Conveyor memorial (see internet for details of the Atlantic Conveyor). The building itself is now unused except for tourists but you’re in and quickly ascending. You quickly think ‘this would never happen in the UK’. You can climb to the top and go outside on to a ledge as well as squeeze through a tiny gap to climb inside the old lamp itself. Moving down toward the coast, the Memorial is fitting and another reminder of the effects of the conflict.

The old and the new beacons

The old and the new beacons

Atlantic Conveyor Memorial and Cape Pembroke lighthouse

Moving further down through some extremely long grass, able to hide people as well as wildlife, I reached the waterline and heard a snorting sound. Not 4ft in front of where I stood was a small seal pup just basking out on the rock. Absolutely unconcerned by my presence or approach, it was unbelievable to just walk right up to it by accident.

The old jetty

The old jetty

Not fussed

Not fussed

Tiring, being a seal

Tiring, being a seal

With the wild geese around Stanley, the various birds above you (the turkey vultures are perhaps the most strikingly common in town) and now this, you definitely get the feeling that the town and people here are intruding on the wildlife; this is nature and we’re lucky to be living right in the middle of it. I’m told it’s a very different experience when you stumble upon the elephant seals but that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Amalgamating

There are many, many curiosities about living in the Falklands and I’ve started to notice that they’re becoming more and more familiar to me. I’m in danger of not noticing them at all soon so I decided that I’d make a list of them to remind me of the things to forget about upon reintegration into ‘normal’ society in a few years’ time:

  1. There’s not really any crime, so leaving your house unlocked all day is the norm. Locking your car door is unheard of.
  2. You do need a car to get around Stanley as it’s so stretched out spaciously along the coast, but it’s not far enough to charge car batteries that well so going shopping and leaving your car unlocked with the engine running is pretty common. As a result, the car park will be full of 4x4s ticking over and drivers nowhere to be found.
  3. When passing a stranger on a darkened street at night, rather than worrying, saying hello is the done thing.
  4. The internet is slow, expensive and limited. Paying £70 a month for 5gb data usage at home does make you realise that most of the stuff on your Facebook feed just isn’t worth watching and you can manage without streaming/downloading things.
  5. I haven’t yet looked at a weather forecast for Stanley. When, in the time it’s taken you to have lunch, the weather has gone from bright sunshine to snow to hail and back to sunshine, I don’t think Michael Fish will be able to keep up.
  6. Fresh milk isn’t a thing, as there’s no dairy here and the lack of regular cargo flights in means that a bag of apples is many, many pounds. You need to forget UK pricing
  7. Cars are expensive. A car that you wouldn’t look twice at in the UK is several thousand pounds here.
  8. There’s no postmen – the post office learn your name and place of work then sort the mail that way, so post is delivered to the school.
  9. Lack of VAT and import tax on booze results in a very large round of 7-10 people giving ample change from a £20 note.
  10. Most people here are employed by Falkland Islands Government (FIG) and, historically, have a fixed lunch at midday of at least an hour to allow time to go home and stock the peat burners (the school’s lunch is 90 minutes). This is sacred and, each weekday at Midday, a mass exodus occurs and shops and services (police station included; no crime happens at lunch!) close to shun anyone left out in the open during this. It’s nice to think of all of the children sitting down to have lunch with their parents every day though.
  11. What’s that? You want a MAP of the vast and bitter wilderness outside Stanley? And a complete one without blanks that say “cloud obscured”? Jog on!
  12. The oven or heating not working indicates that either the large metal gas bottle or the giant kerosene tank plugged into the house are empty. Call the only supplier in town. Just not at lunch. Or the weekends.

Donner meat – South Atlantic style

Yesterday was my 29th Birthday, a somewhat muted affair given that Han isn’t here, I’m 8000 miles from my UK friends and family and it’s the first day of term today. Still, it merited a meal out with 12 other new friends down here and I’d been hearing all about the local squid. It turns out that, following 1982, a 200 mile patrolled fishing zone was established around the Falklands and is managed sustainably to provide 10% of the world’s squid supply (I hear the school was built from squid fishing money). Anyway, the Malivina House Hotel (named after the daughter of the owner, nothing to do with the more controversial name for the Islands ending in S) serves a beautiful kung pao squid so I finally got a chance to sample the local catch.
Interestingly, Government House in Stanley is also home to South Georgia government (no population as such, but a research base). It transpires that South Georgia government (these 6ish people) decided to remove all non-native species to the Island for preservation purposes and, as a result, the reindeer population of South Georgia was culled, butchered, frozen and packed of to Stanley. The up-side of this is that various freezers around Stanley are stocked with reindeer meat and last night I had a lovely hotpot of reindeer meat. I figured it’d be worth a go while there’s still some left knocking around. Strong tasting, but very good meat. See what I did there? Donner meat…?
I am desperate to get across to South Georgia but have been assured/shot down by various people that it is just not going to happen – unless you’re on a cruise, which may only be a one day stopover, or working there and I’m unlikely to be on either. Damn!