|4 out of 5 stars|
Michell names the penguin Juan Salvador (“John Saved”), but Juan Salvador, as it turns out, is the one who saves Michell.
After Michell smuggles the bird back to Argentina and into his campus apartment, word spreads about the young Englishman’s unusual roommate. Juan Salvador is suddenly the center of attention—as mascot of the rugby team, confidant to the dorm housekeeper, co-host of Michell’s parties, and an unprecedented swimming coach to a shy boy. Even through the collapse of the Perónist government and amid the country’s economic and political strife, Juan Salvador brings joy to everyone around him—especially Michell, who considers the affectionate animal a compadre and kindred spirit.
What a charming memoir, featuring the adventures of a young Englishman in Argentina and the penguin he rescued/kidnapped off a Uruguayan beach in an ill-advised fit of conscience. I was particularly amused by the way that he managed to improvise his way through customs back to Argentina with the bird in tow. In our day of increased security, monkey shines like this are definitely a thing of the past. Michell was reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull when he discovered his penguin—Juan Salvador Gaviota in Spanish. In an instant, the penguin acquires his name: Juan Salvador Penguino.
Far more adventurous that I ever was or will be, Mr. Michell takes a first job at a boy’s school in Argentina during a restless time in that lovely country’s history. The monetary inflation in 1975 Argentina could double the prices of things in weeks, days, sometimes even hours. My first visit to beautiful Argentina was in 2002 and the banks were often closed for exactly the same reason! While we were in Buenos Aires, those who needed local currency went down to the leather-merchant just a few doors down from our hotel. He would look at your money, look in the air as if communing with the gods of commerce, and then offer you a sum of Argentine pesos. I have no idea if we got a reasonable exchange rate, but that should be the least of one’s worries when travelling. If you are well enough off to do the travelling, you can take a small haircut on monetary conversions, I think.
I have also been out to the Magellenic penguin colony at Punta Tombo that Michell describes so vividly. Nearly three decades later, there were (ineffective) barriers in place to keep tourists and penguins separate. Despite them, there were people manhandling some of the birds and treating them more like amusements than like wild animals. I was travelling with a small group, but entire cruise ships were disgorging vast crowds of people into the natural area. I was far happier on the following day when our local guide took us to a smaller, more remote rookery where we were the only people present.
Being a lover of penguins (all species), I could see myself falling completely in love with Juan Salvador just as many of the people from the boys’ school do. J.S. becomes a dear friend and confidant to many of the staff and boys as well as Mr. Michell.
Now I want to listen to tango!