Tom Michell, author of The Penguin Lessons, was an intrepid but fairly ordinary 23 year old when he travelled to Argentina in the 1970s to teach English in a boys’ school. But on one school break, in which he travelled through Brazil and Uruguay, he picked up an unusual companion… Here’s the story of how it happened.
Let’s get straight to the point: how did you manage to pick up a penguin in Uruguay?
I’d been staying in Punta del Este for a few days, just unwinding and chilling at the end of a holiday, and the day before I was going to go back to Argentina I was walking on the beach and encountered lots of dead penguins covered in oil and tar. Rather than turning round and walking away, I walked on just to get some idea of how many were dead. And while doing that I noticed one of them move.
My first inclination was to go and polish it off, because all the others were dead. But I wasn’t quite certain how I was going to do it, and as I approached this bird it stood up and made it quite clear that it wasn’t just going to sit there while I wrung its neck.
I thought, well, perhaps I ought to clean it, and perhaps it would survive if I did.
So once you rescued him from the beach, what happened?
And after rubbing him with butter and olive oil and various things – soap detergent, shampoo – I had really quite a recognizable penguin. And I thought, all I have to do is let him go now – take him to the sea. So I took him back down to the sea and tried to encourage him to go.
I thought if I put him out on the rocks, as the waves come in he’ll disappear and just swim off and it’ll be fine. So I put him out on the rocks, went back to watch, and the wave came in and he disappeared. But while I was saying goodbye and good luck little bird, out he came again and came straight back to me! So I tried again and again and he wouldn’t go, he kept coming back. What was I going to do?
Eventually I decided if I abandoned him there, if I just left him and walked off the beach and went back, he wouldn’t be able to climb up the wall. So I walked off and I left him. And then he came running up the beach after me, like some small child! No, it wasn’t like a small child at all, it was quite different from that – it was just like a penguin.
So you took him back to your holiday apartment and eventually made it across the border to Argentina. How did that go?
Knowing the Argentines reasonably well having spent 6 months there, I decided that if I called him an Argentine penguin, every officer would immediately say “Ah, well of course you must bring him back.” And so this was my plan.
And of course the ruddy bird squawked while we were going through customs, so the officer yanked me into a small interview room. I thought I was going for the high jump, but it became fairly clear fairly quickly that actually he was only after a bribe.
If I’d given him a bribe in the first place – if I hadn’t been so young and so foolish – it could’ve been so much easier. But of course I was English and I thought, how dare you ask for a bribe. I’m not giving you a bribe to bring a penguin through. I called his bluff and said: “Well I’m not going to pay a bribe, you can look after him.” And I made to go.
I said I was going to complain to the authorities about being asked for a bribe, and in revolutionary Argentina with lots of armed guards and military rushing around with guns, he obviously thought better of it too. So he let me go. And I took the penguin back on public transport.
How did the children react when you arrived back at school with a penguin called Juan Salvador as a pet?
It wasn’t really that strange – if I’d turned up with a dog, nobody would’ve batted an eyelid. A penguin wasn’t wildly different – they live there. So if somebody simply decides they’re getting a tortoise, would you make a lot of fuss about it? The difference is actually that tortoises aren’t as personable as penguins. So it was certainly his character that got people coming out to the terrace where I installed him.
As it says in the book: “Juan Salvador was a penguin who charmed and delighted everyone who knew him in those dark and dangerous days.”
From all the time you spent with Juan Salvador, do you have one standing moment that you will always remember?
I suppose the moment is sitting there, with him – doglike – leaning his head on my foot falling asleep, and saying “ I ought to write a book about you”.And he just looked up, and the shiver of disgust that run from his beak down to his bottom and excited that way gave you absolutely no doubt about what he thought of my idea. That’s the moment I will always remember.