Playing with the Penguins

When I was a kid, my father had to work hard to make ends meet. He loved to travel, and he looked for opportunities without spending a lot of money, usually by working while traveling for the job. Sometimes we traveled for months, unlike other people who had maybe 15 days per year of vacation. Dad and I were close; he often took me with him, especially to the sea. We loved the sea and fishing. Each time I went with Dad, it was an adventure because he taught me a lot about life, and respect, especially towards animals. He taught me to observe and appreciate how animals and people share the space and how we should live together. The summer of 1974, I was six years old, and Dad took the whole family to Colmuyao, a small town on the central coast of Chile. It is a humble and beautiful town, with very affectionate people, most of whom are farmers and fishermen. The streets are stone and earth, and the houses are adobe. Surrounded by trees and a beautiful river that flows into the ocean, the area is dreamlike. The weather there is usually cold and windy; however, I found it very pleasant. The beach is huge, with coarse gray sand that feels like a foot massage. Colmuyao was our paradise and whenever we could, we went there to spend some time. However, this first adventure in Colmuyao was burned into my memory, for a very special reason. When we arrived at the beach that day, we saw birds lying on the sand. My dad said, "Look! Those are penguins!" It can't be, I thought; they live in Antarctica. We approached very carefully, and there they were, calm and close to each other. As we got closer, they noticed our presence and began to alert each other. Imagine a hundred penguins rhythmically singing a song that is a cross between a trill and a squawk. Dad asked us to sit in the sand and move forward very slowly without making a sound. We were so close that we could almost touch them. They were beautiful birds; their black and white feathers were bright and delicate, and they seemed dressed for an exceptional occasion in their “tuxedos.” I didn't hold back my desire and I tried to touch one of them, which caused a colossal stampede of well-dressed birds rushing into the sea. It was a lot of fun to watch them run with their wings spread and taking small leaps. They are very brave, I thought; the sea was raging and very cold, yet they jumped in with energy and decisiveness. I impulsively wanted to go after them, but my dad stopped my madness. I was astonished. It was like being in the middle of a dream or with my own Jacques Cousteu filming a documentary. I would never have dreamed of being so close to such beautiful and rare birds. My eyes were filled with their deep colors. Every detail was amazing, and watching them walk with difficulty and then, watching them ride the waves and fly in the water at an impressive speed, grabbed my attention completely. I felt like I could stay there forever without ceasing to marvel. Every day, we revisited the penguin colony. My family and I learned to tiptoe among them, and we often sat very close to them. We never touched or hugged them; although we really wanted to, we didn't want to scare them and make them flee again. On another day, my dad and some of my brothers fished from the shore of the beach while my youngest brother and I played with the penguins. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but we found one with a wound on one of his wings. Dad took it carefully to the house where we were staying. The poor penguin was very scared. My dad cleaned his wound and bandaged his wing. For many days, the penguin was with us; my dad fed him fish while his wound healed. I spent a lot of time staying with him and many times my dad allowed me to feed him fish or other seafood. The first time that I fed him, he approached me very carefully, and with a quick big peck he snatched the fish out of my hand. That was amazing. After more attempts, he trusted me, and received the food with more confidence. Finally, after a few weeks, the penguin recovered his health, and my dad returned him to the colony. For a few days, we saw him walking among the other penguins, completely healthy. My dad had named him “Muñeco,” which means “doll,” in Spanish. I learned a lot about the penguins; actually, they've been one of my favorite birds since then. Seeing my father walk through the colony made me feel so proud of him and the time we spent that summer with Muñeco is one of my family's most treasured memories. Each time that I feel bad or wounded, for any reason, I close my eyes and take a trip in my mind to that beautiful beach. Surrounded by penguins, with my parents and brothers walking around that marvelous scenario under the cold summer sun, I always feel better. Colmuyao is my inner paradise, a place in my mind where I can run away when I need to find peace and gain balance again in my life.

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