Adventures in Antarctica
Years ago, I decided I wanted to make it to every continent before I turned thirty. I backpacked around Europe with a side trip to Morocco, worked for Habitat for Humanity in Thailand, hit the high points in Peru, and woofed it in Australia. By the age of twenty nine, I had one destination left on my list. It was the most remote, most difficult continent to visit on our vast planet – Antarctica.
I had heard stories from other travelers about the cruises they had taken, spending a month or so cruising around the continent. My roommate in Thailand even spent a year working in Antarctica. I, personally, hate the cold and had no plans to invest a whole year of my life that far south, especially when there are so many other great places to visit around the globe. For my trip to the great white continent, I wanted more of an "in and out" plan. And that's what I found, an eight-day cruise aboard the Marco Polo Cruise Ship.
Back home in the United States, I do have a job, which often puts a damper on my travel plans. Because I had some difficulties reconciling my work schedule with my fun schedule, I booked the trip at the last minute. Often, I take off at the drop of the hat, so I was somewhat prepared for the obligatory transportation hiccups that occurred – like the Aerolineas Argentinas strike in Buenos Aires the day I was scheduled to fly from that city to Ushuaia. Even though I booked my flight from EZE, the international airport in Buenos Aires, it actually departed from the Aeroparque, AEP, the domestic airport 45 minutes away. Yes, I missed my flight and was placed on standby for the next and yes, I made my standby flight, but my bags did not. However, I made it to the Antarctica Hostel in the southernmost city in the world about five hours after schedule, which worked for me. And what a hostel it was!
Antarctica Hostel reminded me of everything I love and hate about hostels. Within five minutes, I had dinner plans, and within 30, I had met a whole group of new travelers to swap stories with. The people were fantastic. They were also loud, but not as loud as the roosters. I don't know if roosters crow all over Latin America at the crack of dawn, or if they only do so directly under my hostel windows, but they're a big problem when it gets light at 4:00 a.m. in the Fuegian summer time.
We were to embark at 3:00 p.m. that day, five hours before our scheduled departure. This was my first cruise, and I was interested to find that it would take that long to walk on to a boat. Here I was thinking that arriving at the airport two hours early was bad. I reached the cruise ship dock, with my backpack on my back and my daypack on my front. I don't suppose I looked like the standard passenger, pack in tow and not yet old enough to draw social security. Whatever, I was there and I was ready to go.
As I said before, this was my first cruise and that was for a reason. I'm a pretty active traveler, so I was certain I'd be bored out of my skull confined to a boat for endless hours. Generally, I travel solo. That's fine when you keep busy, but when you're crossing the Drake Passage and the biggest news on the entire ship is a bird sighting, it can be trying. Seriously – a bird.
During the cruising part, I got quite restless. There were activities available for passengers, but they were geared toward the older set, the norm on the ship. Activities like art auctions that I couldn't afford, bridge tournaments that I didn't care about, and various lectures on the flora and fauna of the region did not do it for me. I did attempt a lecture and it was okay, but I was so worried about missing something outside that I spent most of my time wearing a path on the deck around the ship, and reading my narrative of the great venture of Ernest Shackleton.
Lucky for me, there were a few other people traveling alone. It's my understanding there was another girl traveling solo, but I never had the opportunity to meet her. Maybe she was seasick, or maybe she was less focused on making the daily happy hour to score the two-for-one beers. At any rate, the solo boys became my amigos on the trip, even after we returned to go clubbing in Argentina (an opportunity you really shouldn't miss if you happen to make it all the way to the end of the earth). Ladies, I'm living proof that you can do it and you can do it alone, if that's how it works out.
Upon arriving in Antarctica, we were scheduled to cruise around the volcanic caldera of Deception Island. As we were late leaving port, this portion of the trip was cancelled. It was a heartbreaker, also prolonged our time on the boat. We weren't set to land on that portion of the trip, so I got over it. We did see several humpback whales breaching – an amazing site. What struck me most, though, was how tiny the whales looked in comparison to the snowy mountainous background. It was my first point of reference to actually see how enormous those mountains were. From the boat, they looked like foothills. Compared to the 40-ton mammal, they were monstrous.
For our first excursion, we still didn't set foot on Antarctica. We loaded up on the Zodiac boats at our group's appointed time, and cruised around Culverville Island watching the penguins. Penguin shit smells bad. If that sort of thing bothers you, you should really consider taking along some Carmex or Vic's VapoRub, or some other smelly substance to cover the odor. I didn't have that information before we departed, and I didn't find it too foul.
Watching the penguins waddle around was wild. I expected Jeff Corwin to pop out at any second with commentary about this, the largest Gentoo Penguin colony in Antarctica. Instead, we had a salty old Scandinavian sailor tell us about the tuxedoed birds. He sounded a little bored.
Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island was our next stop, on a cloudless Antarctic day. The day of our landing was a balmy 55 degrees Fahrenheit, much warmer than back home in the States. Passengers were wandering around in T-shirts and sunning themselves on the back deck, out of the wind. I had to take off my jacket.
The water in the port was like a sheet of glass. The penguins were having a heck of a time leaping from the water. When the guide pointed out a leopard seal from the zodiac, I was impressed. However, it was so still I have to question whether it was really alive, or if the cruise ship staff clubbed him over the head and posed him there for our photo opportunities.
We landed, I snapped photos, and then I dropped it. I dropped my "white C" boarding pass, that notified the crew which group I belonged to. My first steps on the continent were marred by the fact I had to explain myself approximately every three minutes to a crew member that I really was part of the "white C" group and no, I didn't know where my boarding pass was. No matter, I had achieved my goal. I put my foot down – in my fantastic lilac and purple, hearts on fire, guns a blazing, Love Hurts boots. In the history of BootsnAll, I may have found the perfect pair of boots for a trip. They were the envy of the ship.
The following day, we were scheduled to cruise the Lemaire Channel. However, when we reached the channel, there were too many ice floes present to make the passage. Orient Lines did warn that all excursions were "weather permitting", but I really thought that was just a formality. Apparently, in the harsh Antarctic climate, they DO mean every word of the disclaimer. So we cruised some more and I walked around the ship some more. Boat or no boat, the scenery was breathtaking. I wondered if I, being from the south where a snow day is big news, was more impressed than, say, a person from Colorado or Montana who sees the white stuff all the time.
Did I mention the hot tub? Oh yes, the hot tub was open for business and an endless source of entertainment for me and the hoards of Japanese tourists. It was very James Bond, sitting in the steamy waters, sipping a drink, watching the icebergs float by. Drinks were readily available at the nearby pool bar, which was open for the duration of the trip. WAY cool.
We then made our way to Paradise Harbor, with the Chilean research base. If you have the opportunity to visit this location, the Chileans are nice enough to come aboard the ship to give every passenger a souvenir passport stamp. This day, I held my boarding pass tightly. It was our one and only landing on mainland Antarctica, on the peninsula.
Penguins, while they do smell bad, are cute little critters. The rocky nests were interesting, and I hugely enjoyed watching the mother birds feeding the new hatchlings. Every now and then, it struck me that few people ever get such an opportunity – watching twin chicks eating from their penguin mother's mouth. Sunset that night was a stunner. To see it, you had to stay up until midnight, which is approximately 4:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. No wonder I was under the weather the next day, after all the beer and freezing my tail off to watch the sunset.
Gusty winds prevented us from making our final landing of the trip on Half Moon Island. When the ship's P.A. woke me at 6:00 a.m. to announce the news, it sounded strangely similar to the mysterious Air Traffic Control delays I've dealt with in recent months when traveling to and from the Newark airport. For no particular reason, I was more excited about this landing than the others. Maybe I just liked the name, which is, incidentally, how I pick my racehorses. The "we may not land due to inclement weather" disclaimer strikes again.
The roll back to the Drake Passage and mainland South America was just as boring as the first trip over the water, but this time I was raging with a fever and hacking like a tuberculosis patient. I was sick, really sick. I'm seldom ill, so I'm a huge baby about it when I do get the slightest cough. Thank goodness room service was available and free, even if the chicken noodle soup was a strange concoction of hard boiled eggs and onion soup broth. I quarantined myself to my room for that day, and most of the next.
The following day, I emerged from my room feeling somewhat better. I was actually happy to see that my fellow passengers did miss me during my absence. Cold or no cold, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to go clubbing in Ushuaia. SO glad I did. As a girl with blondish hair and blue eyes, I was hugely popular with the Argentinian men and vice versa! My favorite line of the night was "You're a beautiful woman, I'm a beautiful man, so let's dance." How do you say no to that! My four friends from the ship and I danced the night away, stumbled back to the port at about 7:00 a.m. Quite a sick day, it was.
The final day, we had the opportunity to see the Alps-ish port city of Ushuaia. After one final night aboard, it was time to head back to Buenos Aires. My trip was over. I made it to every continent before my third decade. After disembarking, I had only the headache of making my way back to the U.S. remaining. Here I am, looking forward to my next big adventure – Killimanjaro 2009!