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Friday in the Falklands

I keep coming back to the Falklands because I like these islands.

They form a strangely serene and rather rainy bit of earth in the South Atlantic, but I keep boarding ships that take me there.

Last year I was surrounded by beautiful baby birds, and the year before that I ate my fill at a monumental teatime on far-flung Carcass Island. This year was different, though–this year, everyone kept asking me about the war.

Smart travelers avoid politics when they can, not opining but merely observing the conflicting passions that swarm around any piece of land with two names. Such stories are often quite old and highly complicated—rather than pick sides, I’ve learned it is better to accept the truth of two vastly different definitions of a single geography.

In the Falkland Islands, I have observed an overt expression of nostalgic Britishness (both conscious and unconscious) for an England that is no more, while throughout the entire nation of Argentina, I have observed a tearful love affair with a faraway dreamland that very few Argentinines know.

On Wednesday I left Ushuaia, which is the capital of Las Malvinas according to city murals, alley graffiti, the man on the street, and (I imagine) Argentine textbooks. On Friday morning I sailed into Stanley, which is the actual capital of the Falklands according to the vast majority of printed maps of the world (including those of National Geographic).

Conflicting geographies fascinate me. They are testaments to what is fluid (language, culture, and the flags on a flagpole) versus what is not: the deadly land mines that lurk beneath the surface, and the dead men (Argentine and British) now buried in the rocky island soil.

Indeed, the universal fact of the Falklands is that this is a place still defined by war, even 30 years after said war has ended. With all their different views, what Argentina and Britain have in common is the islands’ history of war. Today there is no more shooting of guns, but there remains the propaganda of wartime, with repeated slogans and overabundant flags and the kind of chest-beating that precedes a bare-knuckles fight.

Walking through Stanley last Friday, I heard several small explosions, followed by trails of white smoke that dissipated in the strong wind. “Controlled detonations” I was told—up to 25,000 land mines remain unaccounted for today and the efforts to remove them go on like any other business in town.

Such was my Friday in the Falklands: I doused a chicken pie in Waitrose’s brown sauce for lunch, then dropped a postcard into a red-painted mailbox adorned with the Queen’s gold initials, after which a 30-year-old bomb exploded near the harbor.

There is so much more to the Falklands then the war and the remembrance of war, and yet I doubt that the islands will ever shake that mark of war. It is there forever, like a regretted tattoo.

Last Friday, despite all the rumors of war floating through the media, I freely explored the peaceful, empty landscape of the South American archipelago. A single day is never enough for me, but it was enough to remember what I love about the Falkland Islands: the wistful wind-ripped terrain, the lonely farms on the outer isles, the quirky English relics, and most of all, the terrific population of southern birds who have called these islands home long before humans ever arrived, be they English or Argentine.

I will return again. At least I hope I will. Like all great travel destinations, the Falklands demands a longer look and I sincerely hope–for the sake of the islanders and for me–that such a journey will always be possible.

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Pure beaches and clear water at Gypsy Cove, East Falkland (Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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