Thursday 6th May 2021
How living the simple life (and overseas) changed our family’s perspective.
As a military family we are regularly faced with the prospect of moving to a location we know little about. I am sure this is a feeling many of you experience regardless of which country or single Service you originate from. At present, we are living in Canada having never been here before this posting. Moving with the military can be an incredible adventure and when the opportunity to live in the Falkland Islands arose, we decided it would be a great chance to explore a far flung corner of the world and jumped at it. The population of the Falkland Islands is small at approximately 3,500 people with the majority of the indigenous Falkland Islanders living in the main town, Port Stanley. Approximately another 400 people are spread around the countryside known locally as ‘camp’, mainly living in small settlements inhabited by only a few people. At the time we had two children aged three years and 14 months.
The importance of researching an overseas assignment
Our research into Falklands living began in the UK by speaking to families already stationed on the islands and it quickly became clear that we needed to prepare for a remote and practical style of living. The recurring recommendation was to bring everything needed to be self-sufficient in making bread, yoghurt and other staple food items. As we were soon to find out, this advice proved vital.
The journey to the Falklands consisted of an 18 hour flight stopping at Cape Verde on a contracted Airbus A330 aircraft known colloquially as the ‘Airbridge’. On arriving at this small but beautiful archipelago just 650 nautical miles from the northern tip of Antarctica, it took some time to establish how to source our supplies and produce. Most people who settle on the Islands, especially those who live very remotely, are self-sufficient growing their own produce and using solar/wind power.
RAF life in the Falklands
There are a couple of ‘supermarkets’ in Port Stanley but it was a 60 minute journey from Mount Pleasant and not always accessible due to the weather. The main road was rough, dangerous and often closed due to high winds so regularly travelling into town to pick up shopping was an unreliable plan. In addition, fresh produce was extremely limited and often prohibitively expensive. Most household and non-fresh items were imported from the UK and South America which significantly drove the up the price. If you we were lucky enough to find something like an avocado, it would cost £8 for the pleasure! Due to the limited fresh produce and lack of dairy farming, families had to rely heavily on frozen and tinned goods. Occasionally the opportunity to buy fresh raw milk arose when local farmers sold a little of their subsistence supply – although this was done on a first come first served basis and we only managed to get hold of some fresh cream once in our 10 month stay.
Very basic fresh fruit and vegetables arrived weekly on the Airbridge but were only available to buy in small amounts at Mount Pleasant. Admirably, all families adhered to an unwritten rule that you only bought the essentials to ensure everybody had an opportunity to get their fair share. This spirit of camaraderie and consideration between families was crucial in such a small close-knit community where social cohesion was vital. Thankfully there was a farm not too far away and I would take a weekly 40 minute round trip along the rough unmetalled road in the hope eggs would be available. Occasionally, if we were lucky there would be some home grown vegetables available to purchase too. By the time I would negotiate my way there, source some produce and head back it was a good hour out of the day to make sure we had an egg or two for breakfast.
Adapting to a more basic way of life
Due to the limited availability of fresh produce we quickly began to change our lifestyle. All meals were prepared from scratch at home, (there is no option to ring for your favourite Chinese food), and carefully planned to utilise what we had available. I learned to make bread and yoghurt among other items that I would have normally bought ready-made like humus, aioli and coleslaw. I quickly realised that in the past I’d quite easily throw something like half an apple or some leftover pasta away, but living a basic, frugal lifestyle changed my attitude. That half piece of apple would be wrapped up and saved for later or used in another recipe. Fresh food was scarce and we were not staying on the Islands long enough to establish growing a sufficient amount of our own produce, therefore it became appreciated and savoured. Prior to arriving in the Falklands, the children had been used to an unlimited supply of snacks and fruit so they too had to adjust. It was not possible to have a bowl of blueberries at the drop of a hat, or at all in fact. We taught them to appreciate the food available to us. In all honesty they quickly adjusted without any complaint. Funnily enough when we returned to the UK the youngest child refused to eat any types of berries, like strawberries, as he no longer recognised them or knew what they were.
One of the biggest challenges that changed our perspective at home was the lack of recycling. Whilst we were living in the Falkland Islands in 2018 there was little recycling available, if any. Huge landfills were overflowing with waste and the windy climate scattered much of it across the extraordinary countryside, threatening the wildlife. It was heart-breaking to observe. As the saying goes ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that’s how we felt about the impact a lack of recycling could have on this majestic landscape. In an attempt to reduce our waste I switched to reusable make up wipes, introduced a plastic free skin care regime and moved to naked soap, shampoo, conditioner and moisturiser bars. In addition, we changed to reusable baby wipes and coffee cups. We became more conscious in our shopping decisions and we began to reduce and reuse as much as possible. As we were leaving, plans were being developed to build a large new recycling facility. Initiatives were beginning to drive towards a plastic free island and they had started to dehydrate food waste at Mount Pleasant to use for soil enrichment. I can only hope that these initiatives are now substantiated.
Life is simple in the Falkland Islands. There are no large cities, no high-street shops or rows of take away restaurants. You can drive for over two hours and only see one or two other cars. You can stay in a remote house next to a beach of penguins and not see another soul for days. Outdoor activities are focused around observing the incredible variety of wildlife, including five different types of penguins and 14 different species of marine mammals. We spent our weekends exploring rural farms, white sand beaches and coastal paths, taking our basic, waste free, packed lunches with us. Removing the never ending choices of supermarkets, shops, restaurants and fast food joints was refreshing and it changed our thinking.
I thought this new mind-set may disappear when we moved back to the UK and then to North America, but it had the opposite effect. I remember standing in a supermarket on our return having no idea what to buy; I was hit by the phenomenon of choice overload. I deferred the decision and in the end bought the same simple produce that I was able to access in the Falklands. I have since got used to the amount of choice but I do not take it for granted. I continue to carefully plan meals and nothing is wasted. We teach the children the value of food and reducing waste. We continue to make packed lunches for trips rather than buying convenience food. Don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate a night off cooking and the ability to order a takeaway but we choose this option much less than we used to. The changes we have made are not huge, but they are enduring.
Overseas assignments bring challenges but greater opportunities
Our experience of living in the Falkland Islands is one I will always appreciate. I enjoyed the clean air, the peace, the wildlife and the simplicity of life. Our children have had the opportunity to each their lunch with Gentoo, King and Magellanic penguins whilst watching dolphins swim a few feet away. As a family we have spent quality time together in a simple, natural environment. This is what we continue to crave and now seek out at our new posting in Canada. In the recent pandemic, these lifestyle adaptions have certainly come in useful. The restrictions imposed have led to a life not too dissimilar to what we experienced living in the Falkland Islands. I hope that the children (who are now five years, two years and 11 months old) remember some parts of our adventures. I hope that they see our small lifestyle changes and adopt them as they grow into adulthood. The lifestyle changes we make do not have to be huge to have an effect. Every little change to reduce waste, eat fresh, reuse items and recycle has a small impact. Every little helps.
By Helen Massy
To work in and around a mobile military lifestyle, Helen now runs her own business: www.medicalandhealthwriter.com