The Falkland Islands

Posted on October 24, 2010

It took a war to put the Falkland Islands on the mental map of most people. The war was 28 years ago, but so little happens here otherwise, and it's such a remote place that the war is what figures in the minds of most if Falklands even crosses their minds. Of course I'm weird in this regard, and these tiny and isolated bits on the globe fascinate me, so here I am, landed in the Falkland Islands. Or, as the Argentinians say, Las Islas Malvinas. But I'm calling them by their British name. More about that later.

Only one commercial flight a week touches down here, on Saturdays from Punta Arenas, Chile. LAN Chile, the airline has an arrangement with the Falkland Government, and if the flight falls below a certain capacity, they must pay a subsidy to LAN. This tells you it's not a profitable route. There is another route here, the Royal Air Force (that's the British RAF) has 2 flights a week to an airbase in England, they call it the air bridge and sell seats, expensive seats to those wanting to travel to and from England. I arrive from Punta Arenas.

First problem is that the bus meant to pick me up is there, but it's already full and my name is not on the roster of pick ups. Uh oh.

Fly over a barren and bleak land, 2 big islands and many smaller offshore islands. Deplane, and get processed into the country (OK, it's not a country, and no longer a British Colony, but a self governing British overseas territory), by people who by all looks and appearances are British military. The international airport is actually a military base, and it's my first military base, and has all the charm (none) that you might expect of such an installation.

First problem is that the bus meant to pick me up is there, but it's already full and my name is not on the roster of pick ups. Uh oh. But no problem the driver says, and puts me on another bus, insisting as it's their mistake they'll be no charge. Just saved $30. I like this place already. We proceed, slowly into Stanley. As it's mostly a dirt road, takes an hour to get there.

Ah, Stanley, the capital. Three thousand people live here, the other 300 live scattered about the islands. Yes, that's correct, 3,300 people live here, a land mass about the size of Connecticut. Stanley is their big apple, their only apple, and so assumes a significance all out of proportion to its size. The seat of government and home of every service and about everyone. It seems bigger than it is. And very English, with its small town England homes with gardens and big lawns, and friendly white people with English accents. Talk to people, and most tell you their family arrived here 5 or 6 generations back.

First impression, it's also very windy, and there are no trees, on the entire islands. The predominant color of the islands is beige. Beige grass and beige sheep eating the grass. Add some black and grey from stone and sand, and your Falkland Island color palette is complete. So what do the Stanleyites do? They paint every house a different color, and then paint the roofs yet another color. Making Stanley a colorful little town. The buildings are mostly wood, the older ones used wood scavenged from shipwrecks, new one with imported wood. Roofs mostly from corrugated metal, locally called 'wriggly tin.'

By my third hour, I've pretty much seen Stanley. I've also discovered the Filipino community, as in the supermarket (big, even by US standards, everything imported from England, Chile, or Uruguay, except for the beef and lamb) I hear the clerks speaking Tagalog to each other, and quickly learn there are 60 Filipinos here. The woman I speak with have been here so long they too have British accents, at least to my ears. As my partner Richard is Filipino, I'm attuned to things Filipino. They tell me to go to Shorty's Diner to meet others. And as I'm hungry, I set off to Shorty's. I only need enter the door to see the entire staff is Filipino. The story is simple, one came, and brought friends and family due to the excellent employment opportunities in Falklands. At Shorty's they've put some Filipino specialties on the menu, and the dessert chef makes cheese cakes in about 10 different flavors. I succumb.

It's also apparent there are also Chileans and islanders from St. Helena, another British possession in the South Atlantic living and working here. It might seem odd a place with 3300 people needs immigrant labor, but the economy is booming, making this one of the richer places in the world. Immigration is tightly controlled, so think twice before you decide to come. Prosperous is the word for the look of this place. Two SUV's in every driveway, both aways dirty, as most roads are dirt so they always go off road. Unlike Americans who have a fetish for SUV's and never (OK, seldom) use them off road, but rather to show off (expensive jewelry for the driveway), here it's essential. Its the 2 wheel drive small vehicle that has no real use here. Lots of consumer items to buy, and all the kids have motor cycles (as there's nothing for kids to do but ride their bikes around, a valid point, there's no mall or movie theater or really anything that does not involve the out doors, which is everywhere).

As people are so friendly, they all talk with you, so it's soon very apparent that they all go to England, Chile or the USA regularly. To go shopping.

I see little to buy here, I'm not going shopping, but I'm going island hopping. I have a morning flight to Sea Lion Island, with the air taxi, also known as FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service). At 6 in the evening they announce the flight departure times, names of passenger, and destination on the radio (so much for stealth getaways) which the hotel relays to me (like I was supposed to know to listen to the radio at 6), so I repack (only 15 kilos on FIGAS) and go to sleep.