(the following was initially written at the start of my plane ride from NYC)
One of my life's goals has been to visit all 7 continents. To that end, I've been trying to find a reason to travel to South America ever since I made it to my fifth continent (Australia) in 2011. But it isn't quite that simple because my main rule of travel is to follow my heart. Since I felt more drawn to travel to other wonderful destinations in the ensuing years, I wasn't going to forego those ideas just to click off a mark on a theoretical checklist. Then, in fall 2013, I eagerly pored through the offerings for the next year from my favorite singles travel company and I was immediately intrigued by their December expedition to Patagonia. Initially, I was torn between that trip and another to Bhutan but I ultimately felt it would be more interesting to travel somewhere completely different instead of another (fabulous) area of Asia. So I set my sights on Chile and Argentina, and the dramatically gorgeous looking Patagonia region! And since I'd have to transfer in Buenos Aires on my way home, I was compelled to add a stopover there on my own.
A few months later, I noticed that my travel company added a trip to Antarctica which originated in the same city where the Patagonia trip finished, and which departed the next day. Ooooooh, temptation! But let's just say that Antarctica is not cheap. Or even moderately affordable. OK, let's not sugarcoat: prices range from massively expensive to you've-got-to-be-kidding. Plus it would mean being away for a long time and missing a lot of work. But, on the other hand, if I passed up this opportunity, I'd have to fly all the way to the tip of South America again sometime since Antarctica was a definite goal. Thanks to the incredible support of family, friends, and coworkers the entire decision essentially boiled down to the financials. At that point, I just had to go for it and hope for the best. So, with some trepidation and much excitement, I clicked on the button online that would sign me up for a journey to the icy continent.
In the weeks and months before my trip, I bought an incredible amount of travel gear because I really didn't own much in the way of cold weather outdoor clothing. My idea of cold weather activity tends to be huddling inside with my furricanes. I also kept buying more memory cards, figuring you can never have too many... And you can't exactly go out to Walmart to buy more when you're in the middle of Antarctica.
Everything seemed to be working out nicely until I came down with a nasty stomach bug a week before my departure date. It may or may not have been related to trying out my doctor prescribed anti-nausea patch. Whatever the cause, there were moments when I definitely doubted that I'd be able to go through with my full travel plans- when you don't have enough energy to move from the sofa, hiking through Southern Chile doesn't exactly seem like a realistic short term goal. But fortunately, I started to recover, slowly, as my departure date neared.
As I am poised to achieve my dream of visiting all seven continents, part of me is still in a state of disbelief. Antarctica is going to be like nowhere else and I'm so excited to be able to step into some of the incredibly scenic vistas I've seen online. I am a little nervous about seasickness on the Drake channel, and about being so far in the middle of nowhere (without internet! For 10 days!). But I have to believe that the positives will much outweigh any negatives.
I also can't wait to finally see step foot in South America and enjoy new experiences there. I'm especially looking forward to the (optional pre-trip) excursion to a ranch at Torres del Paine which promised to be especially beautiful. I've gotten to know some of my fellow travelers through groups on Facebook, and it seems like I'll be surrounded with an incredibly fun and friendly group of people for both segements of my trip.
All in all, I feel like I am embarking on a truly special adventure, toward experiences that will be a total departure from any of my past travels. My heart and mind are open to discovery. All that's left is to let it happen, and to try to appreciate each moment, great or small.
It's a tradition for me to get an "official pre-trip" haircut; namely because I can be lazy about getting my hair done if I'm not going to be aiming for photographs of a lifetime. However, this was the first time I'd made an appointment on my actual departure date. Good thing though- I probably would have had to cancel if my appointment had been earlier in the week because of how sick I'd felt. I loved how the cut turned out. Even though I wouldn't be able to style it this way on my own, at least I looked cute and sassy for my long plane ride!
After I took a shower and scrambled to finish putting together New Years surprises for my nieces, my friend Brian came over to drive me to JFK. I don't get to see him quite as much now that Julia can drive to my place, so I enjoyed having a chance to chat together. He's awesome, and totally gets my love of travel. Traffic wasn't great, but we left plenty of buffer time so there were no worries.
Realizing that there was no way to get my carry on under the official weight limit for LAN (17 lbs), I was hoping it wouldn't be weighed. So when the agent asked me to "just put it over there" on what I knew was a scale, I smiled and hoped for the best. Sure enough, she raised a concerned eyebrow and told me it was at least 3 pounds over. I explained that my bag was mainly filled with photography equipment, electronics and medicine- none of which were a good idea to check! She asked me if I had a laptop and, when I answered in the affirmative (even though it's technically a netbook), she asked me to take it out and weighed the bag again. I'm not sure how much the weight had changed, but she seemed satisfied. Thank goodness! It can't have hurt that I was all smiles and excitement.
JFK airport wasn't very crowded and I had plenty of time to wander around, as I got more and more psyched for my trip. M&M's had been my airport "go to" snack on my last overseas trip so I decided to get a bag here. They were ridiculously overpriced! Lesson learned... I ought to grab some at a supermarket next time. But on the plus side... I was glad to have M&M's! [and they ended up lasting until well into my Antarctica cruise]
I'm a bit of a transit nerd, so I was excited to be flying on the new 787 Dreamliner. Naturally, I had to take a selfie to document this event, and I was pleased that it turned out super cute. Unfortunately I was in some weird spot where I couldn't get any internet connectivity from my phone. So I was a Bad Traveler and kept my phone on in hopes of being able to successfully upload the photo while it was still relevant. There was finally a blip of connectivity just before we taxied for take off that lasted just long enough to post the photo. As we took off, I thought "I am so addicted to the internet... This does not bode well for Antarctica at all!"
A little over an hour into the flight, dinner service commenced. And it was cheesy. Literally- I chose the cheese ravioli which also came with cheese and crackers, as well as a dessert that tasted suspiciously like chocolate cheesecake. A nice touch is that meal service came with actual silverware. After picking up the empty food trays, the stewardess distributed tiny snack packs of M&M's. So I probably didn't need to buy any afterall.
The 787 plane was as nifty as I'd heard; I loved how the lights could change color and mood. But the seats weren't as spiffy as the ones on Cathay Pacific last year- I really loved that set up with the USB port and the mini tray to hold headphones and glasses. Also, for what had to be a relatively new plane, it was disappointing that the cup holder on the seatback in front of me was already broken. However, since it was a red eye flight, my main focus was on trying to get some sleep.
I must have gotten some sleep on the plane, even though all I remembered was fidgeting around uncomfortably. It seemed like very little time had passed when suddenly breakfast was being served. I chose the ham and cheese sandwich, and also enjoyed the raspberry yogurt that was included; Yogurt is good food. Landing time drew near, and my excitement level was through the roof... Or at least as high it could be given my somewhat groggy mental state.
At the Santiago airport, there was no line for foreign passports but it took awhile for bag to come out. My stomach started bothering me and I was tired so I just wanted it to be over. I confirmed that the group air flight, with most of my group, had arrived on time about an hour before me so there was no chance of trying to see if they were still at the airport to get on their bus. I ended up going to a taxi desk and not worrying about the cost. I was just glad to be on my way.
When I arrived at the hotel, I was surprised to find the local guide for my group was in the lobby. She was very welcoming and told me the group was getting ready to go on the Santiago city tour. I was (pleasantly) surprised since I'd been under the impression that they'd be doing the tour on their way back from the airport. I had just enough time to pop up into the hotel room, meet my roommate Beth (whom I immediately liked), and put on some sunscreen. I don't think I even changed clothes; I certainly didn't have time to shower and totally forgot to take a photo of the hotel room like I usually do. The prospect of seeing a new city filled me with some energy.
I was pleasantly surprised that most of the tour was a walking tour. After being cooped up in coach class of an airplane for 9 hours, it felt wonderful to be walking outside. We started out at the Central Market and walked to the Plaza de Armas and finally the Presidential Palace. All the while, the guide pointed out some sights and told us a little bit about Chilean history. A funny moment was when she- referring to neighboring countries- said that Chile doesn't get along with anyone.
At one point, the guide suggested that we buy water- but unfortunately I didn't have any pesos yet. But when the group stopped at a coffee shop, she helped me get some cash from an ATM- the first place we tried didn't work with foreign cards, but the second one was fine.
As we were walking, one woman caught her foot in a weird way and face planted to the ground. We all felt so bad- I obviously didn't know her yet but you never want to see anyone's vacation start that way. The guide coordinated getting her back to the hotel (I think for her passport) and then to the ER. We were so relieved later to find out that, although she fractured her arm, she was cleared to continue traveling with us. Her arm was in a sling and she couldn't ride horseback like she'd wanted, but I think she still had a great time; I know I was glad to be able to travel with her. She also praised the Chilean healthcare system- her ER bill was ridiculously low by US standards.
At some point during the walk, I found out that there had already been a mishap even before I'd arrived. A woman was standing in front of the hotel showing one of the employees something on her phone, when a brazen scoundrel came and grabbed it out of her hand and dashed away! The hotel employee had tried to run after him but to no avail. Scary stuff!
The tour was interesting enough, although it was mostly fun to meet my fellow travelers, many of whom I'd gotten to know online via a Facebook group set up for our trip. There weren't any "must see" places for me in Santiago so I just wanted to soak up what I could. I noticed that Frozen seemed to be as popular as in the US and that there was a Lush cosmetics store I'd surely have stopped in if only I'd been there when it was open. Through it all, I couldn't believe I was actually on the trip that I'd been dreaming about for 14 months!
We ended the tour at a restaurant the guide recommended, "Como Agua para Chocolate". We were able to snag 2 tables outside on the sidewalk; it's always a treat to sit at an outdoor cafe- especially when it's winter back home. I decided to order the highly recommended conger eel dish which was prepared with spinach, toasted almond and cheese. Omg, it was soooooo good! There was so much food that I found it impossible to finish, though it pained me to leave any of it behind.
A couple of us walked around the nearby craft market which was a little disappointing. After sharing a taxi to the hotel, I took a nap. Our hotel was really comfortable and it was located on the main thoroughfare so it was really convenient as well.
When I woke up, I discovered that our third floor room opened to a humungous terrace- only 3 rooms in the entire hotel had this arrangement. We were told that there would be a parade so we decided that our balcony would be a perfect vantage point. As we were waiting for it to start (there had been some confusion over the time), I got to know Beth a little better and I enjoyed talking with her. I also had fun watching the crowd below- I particularly liked seeing an entire family that reminded us of George of the Jungle.
The parade itself, which is apparently the biggest Christmas parade in Chile, was cute. It consisted mainly of a series of large balloons of characters that would be familiar to children. Based on the number of little girls dressed as Disney princesses in the crowd, the target audience shouldn't have been surprising. The crowd seemed to grow crazy when the handlers rotated the balloons. It was a cute parade, but not really very thrilling compared to US parades. I still don't quite know why it's called the "Paris Parade" but I figure Paris must refer to a sponsor.
After the parade, five of us set of to explore and try to find somewhere to sit and get some drinks. On the way, I went into the San Francisco church next to our hotel- most of the others didn't want to go in so I just took a quick peak. Walking along the main street outside of the hotel, we saw a ton of debris and confetti from the parade peppering the walkways. Combined with all the crowds and Disney costumes, it felt like I was back at Disney World. I was more intrigued with the dramatic hills I spotted in the distance.
While wandering around the area that was recommended by our hotel staff, someone spotted a 3rd story outdoor rooftop eatery which was perfect. Still full from lunch, I was only going to order a water until I heard someone else ordering ice cream; there's always room for ice cream! There may have been some language gap with the waiter as I'm not entirely sure that the ice cream was nutella flavored, but it was chocolately and good, which is all that mattered. I really enjoyed the conversation- when you get a bunch of well traveled intelligent people together, there is never any shortage of interesting topics to discuss.
When getting ready for bed and jotting down my notes, I felt that the day exceeded my expectations- though admittedly I hadn't expected much. I was looking forward to soon journeying to the places I'd really wanted to see, in Patagonia and then Antarctica. All in all, I was pleased to finally be visiting my sixth continent.
My roommate had to get up early because she was going on a wine tour with 3 other people. She'd posted about it on Facebook, but I hadn't elected to go because it was expensive for something that I wasn't really looking to do. Fortunately, she didn't wake me at all when she got ready. The beds were super comfy and I ended up sleeping until some time just after 8am.
When I arrived at breakfast, I very quickly discovered that everyone but Bob and I had booked a van to spend the day in nearby Val Paraiso. It was something that had apparently started out small, but then more and more people had joined. This was the first I was hearing about it. A few people really tried to get us included at the last minute but unfortunately the van was full.
I'm not a fan of having a free day scheduled at the very start of a group trip because it's hard enough for me to get to know people when we're all together. I really wanted to get to know everyone in my group, and it was hurtful to be left out even though I knew no one intended to snub anyone. Actually, it might have been a little worse for Bob because this was his first trip with this travel company.
My disappointment had little to do with the potential quality of my day. I can, and have, traveled solo and had an awesome time. However, if I want to be on my own, I can plan my own damn trip. It's entirely possible that I could have been the only one left out, instead of there being 2 of us. Or that Bob could have. Any potential hurt feelings could have been prevented with better programming options for the group as a whole- the guide the previous day could have offered suggestions for us to sign up for.
It felt even worse because I kept getting shuffled around at breakfast as everyone got ready for their tour. Initially, I sat down at a table with people who left while I was at the buffet and moved my stuff to another table. Then, everyone at the second table got up to leave which is when I found out about the Val Paraiso tour. It was all around a weird morning; I started to feel like a second class group member.
Wanting some ideas to make the best of our day, Bob and I went to the front desk, and all they could really suggest was the hop on hop off bus. So, after a quick detour to the metro stop so I could withdraw some more pesos, we set out to find the well designated tour bus stop near the Plaza de Armas. And by the phrase "well designated", I am being as sarcastic as humanly possible. Neither the map provided by the bus nor the directions from the hotel were specific enough. We walked around the spot many times before we realized that was where we needed to be. As we tried to find the stop (even asking a couple policemen), I recall saying hopefully "The 3rd time's the charm" and then "The 4th time's the charm." We finally discovered the obscure sign marking where we needed to be, and the red double decker bus came pretty quickly. We (temporarily) had the bus all to ourselves so we occupied the 2 front seats on the top level.
We rode around for most of the loop before getting off; I was impressed that we'd covered so much of this ground with the previous day's tour. There was a mall that was a little far out (which was slightly tempting) but otherwise we were mostly near areas we'd already seen. I'd never done one of these buses, but it was pretty cool. There was audio commentary in many languages and the people working the bus were all friendly and helpful. When we passed the Presidential Palace, we happened to catch the changing of the guard.
After awhile, I got sick of being on a bus and I saw that there was a sculpture garden at one of the stops, so I suggested getting off there. Bob is very laid back and was amenable to my suggestion. The sculpture garden was small, but neat; The huge sewing needle was particularly whimsical. And it felt good to be outside on a warm sunny day... I just wished they'd had someone selling water there because I was getting very thirsty!
We waited at the completely unmarked stop where they let us off in front of the Sheraton, and pretty soon (though not soon enough to prevent us from running into the Sheraton to confirm the stop location), another bus came along. We only wanted to go one stop so we just stayed in the bottom this time.
We got off in the Bellavista area near where we walked around after lunch yesterday, and we checked out the menus at a number of restaurants before settling on one. Craving Italian food, I had fettuccini. I also had 2 bottles of water and still feared I might never fully quench my thirst. The service was very slow but otherwise it was enjoyable.
After Bob grabbed a Starbucks, we walked to the funicular. Normally the bus has a stop there but it had to skip if for the holiday. The street leading there was crazy busy, and lined with people selling junk. It would have been cool to get up close to the Virgin Mary statue and look down at the city. Unfortunately, since it was a national holiday, the area was way too crowded.
So we walked back to the semi-marked bus stop where we'd disembarked and decided to take the bus a couple stops and head back to the central market area where we'd been the previous day. There had been some talk about heading to the mall but it was getting late and I wasn't keen on going all the way there and not finding cupcakes. (Although they did have ice skating which could have been amusing.) This would probably be my only chance to get a cupcake in Chile because we'd be heading to more remote regions.
We sat on the bottom level of the double decker bus again since it was a short ride. Soon these four people came on and discussed ad nauseum whether they should stay on the bottom or go up to the top. Just pick one! I was glad to get off because it meant that I would no longer have to listen to their annoying chatter.
As we stepped into the central market, someone handed Bob a whole container of king crab! He had to explain that he had nothing to do with it- although it might have been interesting to present it to the hotel staff and ask them to cook it for us. When we walked outside, I saw an orange looking building that tempted me... But first Bob wanted to go back in. We could smell that the fish was... not as fresh as the previous morning.
Finally we went outside again, and I led us to the orange building where... Yes, there were cupcakes! Not the most thrilling ones, but they'd do. Yay! I didn't really think I'd find any because the one cupcake place I'd found online months ago had closed. Many of my online friends were expecting me to find cupcakes, and I think I was just as glad to not disappoint them as I was to find them. It was slightly confusing to order, since I didn't know the language, but of course it ultimately worked out.
As we were sitting at a table and eating, a guy came by and asked Bob about a trash bag on the floor to his right. Fortunately, Bob instinctively turned back toward his backpack because it looked like a guy at the neighboring table to his left was just about to swipe it! It was all so quick that I probably wouldn't have even been able to vocalize anything until it would have been too late. There were no doors to open, so it would have been easy to make a quick getaway while we were stunned. Needless to say, we became even more vigilant about our belongings after that scare.
Bob also told me that, the previous day, he'd left his cell phone in the taxi after lunch. By the time he realized it, the phone had been turned off. He went back to the restaurant, and lo and behold the taxi driver was there holding his phone. Bob ended up paying a small ransom to get his own phone back!
After the near miss at the cupcake shop, we walked around a little and decided we could walk to the hotel. Eventually I caught a glimpse of the Entel Tower which made me confident of the way to go. Bob still asked someone for directions- but of course I was right.
We sat in the hotel lobby for awhile waiting for our fellow travelers on the two group tours to return. After Bob headed up to his room, I stayed at the lobby and eventually heard a bit of a commotion and saw a small procession outside that may have been related to the holiday. I asked the hotel staff, but they didn't know what it was.
The wine tour that my roommate was on was the first to get back. I was glad that they'd had a great time. They were all very sympathetic when they found out about how Bob and I had felt left behind. A couple of them joined us for dinner which was full of fun conversation. We ended up at a really cute place recommended by the hotel called Bocanariz; it was most noted for wine which was ironic since none of us had any.
I wasn't actually all that hungry so I had a smoked salmon appetizer; my roommate just had water and was probably only joining us to help us feel better. When we asked for separate checks, the waiter handed them to the 2 guys... and none to me! My roommate didn't eat anything, but I had. Clearly, Chile is a male dominated society even moreso than the US. Since I like to pay for myself, I tried to pay one of the guys back in US money or Chilean money of limited denominations but he wouldn't accept. All in all, it was a good time, and I was glad to spend at least a small part of my day with a group of people.
It wasn't a bad day at all, and- although I was jealous of the amazing Val Paraiso photos someone had posted on Facebook- it didn't matter to me if other people had a better or worse day. It is never cool when people feel left out, and I wish things had been planned out better to have prevented that. But, if I think of the fact that Bob could potentially have been the only one left, then at least I feel happy that I was able to be there with him. I was also grateful to have spent a day getting to know a nice person, especially since he would also be continuing to Antarctica. Basically, I tried to make the best of things even though, in truth, it hadn't been a really thrilling day. Although the food was wonderful, Santiago just didn't have much to distinguish it as a fascinating destination; none of us would have minded skipping it. It certainly didn't help matters that we were there on a Sunday and then a national holiday (Feast of the Immaculate Conception) but it's not like that really prevented me from going anywhere I really wanted to see.
At breakfast, I was able to meet up with my fellow travelers who had spent the previous day in Val Paraiso. At least one of them apologized for the fact that I was left out, and I assured him that there were no hard feelings. Some tried to make me feel better by emphasizing the down sides to the tour, but that really wasn't the point; in fact, part of me felt even more disappointed to have missed a chance to bond over a shared less-than-positive experience. But I appreciated everyone's good intentions. Although I didn't know them well, I felt that everyone seemed really friendly and I had absolutely no anger or blame for any of them. I just wished that things had been better organized for the group.
Speaking of "down sides" to the Val Paraiso trip... I found out that someone had his wallet stolen practically right out of his hands at a pharmacy there. Yikes! There were only 15 people in our group, so the number of incidents we experienced in Santiago was ridiculous. I couldn't get out of that crime ridden city soon enough- although I wished I could have taken the hotel's super comfy bed with me.
We all met in the lobby at the appointed time to head to the airport. Spirits were high because everyone else was at least as glad to be leaving Santiago as I was. There was a little drama when Veda didn't think she had her landing card (when you land in Santiago, you fill out a landing card, a copy of which should remain with your passport until you leave the country) She got off the bus to go back to the hotel to franticly search the papers she'd recently tossed. She was still nervous she'd be sent to jail because her card didn't look exactly like everyone else's, but that was just because she'd flown in on a different airline.
Before I'd checked out of the hotel, I'd redistributed my carry-on bags so hopefully neither one would be overweight. But I needn't have bothered because they didn't weigh them at all at the airport. We arrived early so there was plenty of time to browse the shops, not that they were all that thrilling. Still, I managed to buy myself a cute pair of Chilean earrings so one mission was accomplished! (I try to get earrings from each country I visit) I also bought some for my nieces- yay for Megan getting her ears pierced just before my trip!
Someone pointed out a kiosk that sold good chocolate, so of course I had to check it out. I chose to buy 3 caramel bon bons, and in the process I was offered 2 free samples- not a bad ratio at all! And they were goooooood.
While we were sitting around someone mentioned a photo on the Facebook page from the main group which included a stuffed bunny. I've been traveling proudly with a stuffed bear since 2000, so I had to stick up for plush travel companions. Of course, this only made me get laughed at, too. But it was all in good fun.
Our flight was scheduled to leave at 2pm and then arrive at Punta Arenas at 6:25, after a 30 minute stopover at Puerto Montt on the way. I wished we'd had a direct flight and/or one that arrived earlier in the day. (there were other options) Because of the late departure we were able to have a leisurely morning, but I'd gladly have traded that for getting up at the crack of dawn and actually getting to our destination at a reasonable time. And I am not a morning person.
On each leg of the flight, a stewardess came by and allowed us to choose 2 of 4 snacks pictured on a card she held up. I passed the first leg but tried a couple on the 2nd. Apparently choosing the picture labeled "Huerto Salado" meant you'd get little breadsticks with cheese and oregano; these were tasty enough. The "Huerto Dulce" option was some cake that I tried but didn't like.
I watched the most recent episode of "Once Upon a Time" on the first flight, but I still had plenty of time to reflect on my travels and I wrote the following:
I've heard the weather forecast for where we're headed isn't so good and that rain is predicted. I hope that's wrong because it would be very disappointing not to be able to take the kind of photos I've been hoping for. On the plus side, at least I packed plenty of waterproof gear.
It's exciting to know that I'm about to land so far south in the world. I'm trying not to think about Antarctica and just live each step of the journey as I take it. I can never really picture myself at these places, but once I get there it feels natural.
After we landed, we were excited to see an ad for the cruise we'd be taking in a few days at the luggage carousel. We were met by another excellent local guide who told us about the discovery of the Magellan strait while on the short van ride to the hotel. During the drive, we passed a replica of Magellan's ship which was smaller than you'd expect.
I was itching to explore the town with my camera, and so I went outside as soon as I could after we checked into the hotel. Punta Arenas is not the most thrilling place, but it did have some charm- especially the waterfront just across from our hotel. I think I'm naturally drawn to water because I'm a Pisces. It was a novelty to stroll around in a place where cars would totally stop for pedestrians crossing the streets. It was colder here than Santiago, which had been extremely warm and almost tropical, but it wasn't too bad.
I returned to the hotel to meet back up with everyone since we'd decided to eat dinner as a group. While walking by the shore, we thought we saw penguins but it turned out that they were just birds. I could sense that everyone had high energy because we were out of Santiago.
We were heading to a restaurant recommended by our hotel. The sign outside wasn't promising and it made me temporarily wonder how anyone could point us there. But once I went inside, all worries vanished; It looked like a really nice place.
King Crab was a regional specialty so I had to order a dish that contained King Crab and cheese- since, afterall, everything is even better with cheese. Well, it was absolutely fabulous- I ate every bite! Dinner was full of laughs, high spirits, and toasts to being out of Santiago.
I was surprised how late it was when we left the restaurant; it stayed light until after 10pm that far south in the world so it seemed earlier than the actual time. This was definitely far preferable to the 4-5pm winter sunsets back home!
When we got back, we still had not received any official word as to when we'd need to be ready the next day for transport to our resort in Torres del Paine. They were supposed to leave a message, but that never happened. So I decided to be social and hang around in the lobby in case we got some word. Everyone was sharing wine and chocolates but I didn't need any of that, I just enjoyed the company. Needless to say, there were plenty more laughs.
Some of us were plotting ways to try to get to our next resort sooner... Hijacking a bus, taking a taxi, renting a car- these were all tossed around. I would gladly have left right then and there- or even at the crack of dawn- if it meant that we'd get to our next destination early enough to enjoy the day there. We all couldn't wait to be there, and were dreading losing a second consecutive day to travel- the journey was supposed to take 5 hours.
After we got a 7am wakeup call, I was hoping to get news that the bus to Torres del Paine would be earlier than expected. Alas, it was still due to arrive at an ambiguous "maybe at 9"... which eventually turned into 9:30. Argh. We were all getting annoyed not to be leaving earlier. Since the transport was being sent by our resort, I wondered if it was a bad omen for the next few days.
But once the 2 vans finally arrived (slightly after 9:30), all worries immediately dissolved. The guides' enthusiasm was infectious and I felt like we were in good hands. They even gave us little gift bags with a brochure about the hotel, water, etc.
I'd been dreading another long travel day, but it was actually rather relaxing. The scenery was incredible- and kept getting even better as we got closer to our destination; it was no PA turnpike. We were riding on "Ruta del Fin del Mundo" which translates to "the route to the end of the world." Most of the time, I didn't see any vehicles on the road other than the 2nd van. When we approached a town and saw a sprinkling of other cars, I joked that it was a Patagonian traffic jam. It was like we had the whole vista to ourselves, and it was so peaceful gazing at the snow capped mountains as they grew ever closer.
Our driver was also a photographer, and we were able to pass around some of his works which were really beautiful. I can only aspire to be able to capture such amazing images. Throughout the ride, he played various selections of classical music, which reminded me so much of skating programs that when I nodded off briefly, I could swear I was watching someone skate to the godfather.
At about 11:45, we stopped at a place called "Estancia Cerro Negro." We walked into a quaint house which I thought was just an Extra Special restroom stop. However, it was a bit of a destination into itself. A guide showed us around the house, which no one lives in anymore (I missed some of the story). Then they took us outside and showed us how they barbecue the lamb, which was to be our lunch.
I don't generally eat much lamb, and in fact had noted a preference for salmon on the bus, but I decided to try it since it was a specialty. It was delicious! The entire meal was another winner- from the wine, to the company... heck, even the potatoes seemed especially terrific! We all applauded the cook.
Before getting back on the road, we were treated to a demonstration of sheep shearing. One of the highlights was the adorable dog who herded the sheep and then ran them around the field afterwards- he was a little scene stealer. It was really just wonderfully calming to be in such a charming, uncrowded little spot in Chile.
As mentioned, we drove into scenery that grew bigger and more awe inspiring as we got closer to our resort. Gazing out in wonder, I was grateful that this was far from the wasted travel day that I'd feared. In fact, as we got much nearer to our destination, we stopped and were able to stretch our legs some more while photographing sites including lakes and guanacos (similar to alpacas). With the snow capped mountains in the background, it was almost like stepping into a dream of a picture postcard.
Finally, at 5:45 we reached the resort which would be our home for the next 3 nights. We were ushered into a meeting room and the check in process seemed a little disorganized. I think they expected everyone to want a single bed in the room so they had to go around and split the beds, plus they didn't have the correct rooming list. More disappointing to some was the fact that they were offering a set program for everyone- most of my friends wanted to go on more advanced hikes. I couldn't blame them- we seemed to be in the perfect location for challenging treks. Even I would have liked some more walking than what they'd described, but scenery and photography were my priorities and surely those commodities would be in abundant supply.
But in spite of any minor issues, we all loved it there- how could you not adore lounging in your hotel bed while viewing a snow capped mountain out the window? After settling in, I hung out with some group members in the lobby bar area and snacked on the Pringles chips they served.
We all wished we could have cut out Santiago and spent more time in Patagonia. Our resort was... not cheap... so it may not have been practical to add an extra night there. But at the very least, we could have spent the two buffer days at Puntas Arenas instead.
Dinner was a buffet with diverse options that included gnocchi pesto, cream of pumpkin soup, seafood, and polenta. And of course, the wine was included. Everything was very tasty!
After we ate, a few of us decided to take a short hike around the scenic hotel grounds. The walk was probably super easy for the 4 others (who were among those desiring a more rigorous hike through the area); it was slightly challenging for me but I was able to hold my own. It was fortunate that it stayed light until after 10pm so we had time to wander around a little. I was simply in awe of the beauty surrounding me, and was grateful to spend some time outside with new friends. I reflected that it was a day where my pictures would surely say far more than I can with words.
I woke up at 7am without the alarm, which was even earlier than my roommate. One of our group members, Dick, was a certified yoga instructor and he was leading a session that morning so we headed straight there. I was really impressed at how well he'd prepared for the class, including using music which ranged from typical eastern sounds to less conventional (for yoga) selections like "Here comes the sun". I'd recently started doing yoga at home and it was great to start the day in a session with a new (to me) approach. At the end, we were paired up and we had to look in our partner's eyes for a really long time, which is quite a challenge. (I was with my roommate, Beth) There were only 5 of us there, and I'm glad I made it.
After the breakfast buffet, we went on what was supposed to be a full day tour called the "Full Paine". Our first stop was not planned- there were several other vehicles pulled over and we soon discovered that everyone was looking at a puma that had been spotted. Only one slight problem- you had ascend a hill to be able to gaze upon the large cat. Halfway up, I was paralyzed by my phobia of heights. I stood there and breathed in the scenery, and told myself that if I didn't get to see the puma, it was still all good, even though I was a little frustrated with myself. As my friends started to descend after taking their requisite photos, I explained my mental state. I thought maybe they'd share some pithy words of comfort- but instead they wanted to help me. While I was physically capable of climbing the hill, it helped me mentally to be able to hold onto them. When I finally reached the top, the puma started roaming around instead of being ensconced in a small spot. So I had the fortunate opportunity to take some incredible photos which have been much admired by my companions.
The moral of this story is that true friends will be there to help when the going gets rough. And if you can persevere through your fears, you can reap amazing rewards. THIS, my friends is WHY I travel... Not to take a vacation to "get away from it all" but to challenge myself, to grow, and to ultimately become a better self throughout my daily life.
We had quite a few more stops- and though none of them could be as inspirational as the puma stop, they were all amazing in their own way. Our second stop featured an incredible overlook with condors flying around. There was a narrow stretch where I needed some help (mentally again) but I was otherwise ok. It was a little windy- "only" about 50 mph. Most of all, it was jaw dropping beautiful to behold the azure water framed by mountains. This was exactly how I'd pictured Patagonia, and I was grateful for the sunny weather.
Another stop was to view the Salto Grande waterfall. By this point, the winds were now estimated to be about 70 mph. There were a couple times it seemed like I might fall over (I didn't; I have excellent balance thanks to a few years of ice skating). It was almost unreal to be assaulted by the wind while trying to admire the scenery and not drop my camera. I was laughing like crazy; it was awesome. I felt so alive.
One of the sad things we discovered was that there had been a few fires in Torres del Paine. We could still see the skeletons of the trees that had died in the fire. I didn't realize that dead tree trunks could remain after an area had been devastated by flames.
At around 1, we stopped for a lunch where they distributed the sandwiches that we'd ordered. I had smoked salmon which was very yummy. Since we were outdoors, in a small shelter, we had to be a little careful for the wind.
Our last stop was the visitor center where we saw a model of the entire Torres del Paine area. I really liked the unusual Christmas tree there- it was made out of empty soda bottles.
We were supposed to take a boat to see grey glacier, but the boat wasn't running due to the wind situation. I was disappointed since we'd already been told that the boat would not be running the next day. I was only slightly comforted by the fact that I'd surely see tons of other glaciers during the trip. Instead of the 3 hour boat ride, we returned early to the hotel.
I felt slightly motion sick on the ride back to the hotel. But I still reflected on how astounding the natural beauty must be if it could even move a city girl like me. I was almost moved to tears at times- admittedly that was partly due to how kind and helpful my fellow travelers had been when I'd had anxiety about climbing to see the puma. I was reminded of how much I'd loved spending time amid the Norwegian fjords way back in 1993. I'd previously considered Norway to be the most scenic place I'd been privileged to see, but Patagonia seemed to be even more picturesque.
When we arrived at the hotel, the staff helped us make plans for the next day. I was thrilled that they were able to offer a more challenging hike to satisfy my friends' desires. (somehow I ended up hanging mostly with the hard core hikers, LOL) Most everyone else was planning to go horseback riding and then on an afternoon hike. I was nervous about the horseback riding because I recalled hating it at camp when I was 11 or so, even though I'd wanted to do it. But I figured that was a long time ago, so I thought it would be good to try again.
After lazing around the hotel room for a bit, I headed to dinner which was again a delicious buffet. I enjoyed pairing a pumpkin sauce/dip/something with pasta, although they weren't meant to be together.
Our small group of 15 had really started to bond and we were a bit leery about meeting up with the main group in a couple days. Laughs flowed freely, especially when Greg handed a bottle of carbonated water to someone; since Agua (water) is ordered either "con gas" or "sin gas" (with or without carbonation), someone decided he was passing gas. Another highlight was when Veda shared her business plan to set up a prison dating site, which was inspired by the news of Charles Manson's recent nuptials.
After dinner, many of the group relaxed in a cozy room with a fireplace. There were some games that guests were welcome to borrow. A few of us engaged in a rousing game of scrabble featuring words like "qi" and "zowie." Despite Veda's killer competitive instinct, Don won; Veda vowed to beat him up the mountain on the hike the next day. Greg poked fun of our intensity (that was mainly Veda; I was pretty laid back) but it was all good. At the end of the evening, Bob took an awesome photo to commemorate a fun evening.
After showering and organizing my photos and notes, I took a moment to reflect on how incredible my time had been in Torres del Paine. These few days had been the most anticipated part of the Patagonia trip for me, and they lived up to my expectations.
After treating myself to more yummy pancakes, it was time to get ready for the horse riding excursion I'd signed up for. Or rather the alternative to an intense uphill hike. (There was another option to travel to a lagoon that was offered mainly for Mary who'd hurt her shoulder. I wish I'd chosen that option, but more on that later)
I was exceedingly nervous getting on the horse and when he/she moved at first (when we were waiting) I made lots of jokes about anything and everything possible. But, as I waited for everyone to mount their horses, I started to feel some level of comfort. It wasn't quite zen, but I was doing well and looking forward to a nice, calm ride.
When we set off, we went almost immediately on a steep, narrow uphill. More because of the height than being on a horse, I suddenly succumbed to a huge panic attack. Fortunately someone noticed and I decided-with much embarrassment- that it would be best for everyone (especially the horse) if I didn't continue. When they led me back, my friends on the more intense hike were still getting on their horses. I was mortified for them to see me take a walk of shame, but they were very compassionate. I'd felt bad for my horse that he/she was all dressed up with no place to go, so I was happy that someone from the advanced group was able to ride him/her- I'd been apologizing to the horse because it wouldn't get to go somewhere fun. To try to create a positive, I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph each of them on their horses.
I think I could have liked the excursion if I'd been able to take my time, or if it had been a more flat path. The hotel hadn't adequately explained the terrain at all. If I'd known that it was uphill, I might have signed up for the lagoon option.
Back at the front desk, I asked about other options but, as I'd expected, it was too late for any other morning activities. I sat in the lobby and waited awhile til my room was serviced (just after noon) and then I took an anti anxiety pill- as well as a handful of emergency M&M's (from JFK airport). The medicine helped, but it knocked me out.
When I woke up, it was already 2:15pm. I was a little surprised no one from my group had checked up on me or included me in lunch. Fortunately, I ran into Mary and Karen (from the lagoon excursion) and ate with them in the bar by the lobby. I ordered a ham and Gouda sandwich which was very yummy. Afterwards, I enjoyed a hot chocolate.
I noticed the hiking group leaving when I was still finishing my food. No one was looking for me and they left. It would not have been a good decision to hike without lunch, so I was basically ok although I regretted missing an opportunity to go somewhere photogenic. Since these were the same people who'd seen me bail on the horseback riding, I think a part of me was afraid to face them.
So I hung out with Mary and Karen, and did some walking around the grounds. It was pleasant to spend some laid back time exploring the resort. We saw an area with different types of rocks displayed, and Mary (who was looking forward to horseback riding before her unfortunate injury) was able to have a lively conversation with someone at the stables.
When the full day group came back, I was glad they enjoyed their challenging hike. Unfortunately, Don beat Veda to the summit but everyone was in great spirits.
The people on the hike I was supposed to do said it was hard, especially due to insane wind, which apparently made a joke of the wind we'd experienced the previous day. A couple of them said they were glad I wasn't there because I wouldn't have liked it. I'm sure their hearts were in the right place- but, despite my anxiety issues, I am not a fragile snowflake. They were able to do the hike- why couldn't I? I was already feeling self conscious about my horse riding fail and those words didn't help. At some point, I joked about how it would be to my advantage to meet up with the main group the next day- there would be 33 new people who would have no knowledge of how I'd chickened out of horseback riding.
I didn't enjoy the dinner options as much as previous nights. Afterwards, 4 of us hung out for just a little but everyone else were tired from their energetic days. It was stunning outside and I was able to take a few sunset photos. I was sad it was going to be my last night rooming with Beth- but my melancholy mood made me wonder if she'd get sick of me anyway.
I really wish I'd had another day in Torres del Paine, so I wouldn't have to end my experience there on a bit of a down note and so I could have explored more. It may not have been the best day, but it was impossible not to feel grateful to be able to spend time in such an amazing little corner of the world.
The consensus among the group was that everyone wished we'd had another day at the resort; we were already paying a premium for the pre-tour so what's some more pesos? I mean, if you signed up for the pre-tour, it was basically because it offered the opportunity to stay at the ranch in Torres del Paine. So we were all a bit sad to be leaving.
Our package at the resort was "all inclusive" which meant that all food and drinks were included in addition to all excursions. (yes, this included some alcoholic beverages) However, you still had to sign for meals or drinks. Some on the group were unpleasantly surprised to see that they were billed for the tips they'd signed for; I guess they figured that since we didn't have to pay the base cost, we also wouldn't have to pay any tip that was added. If I had one piece of constructive criticism for the hotel, it would be that they could do a better job of explaining policies and excursions. To their credit, they were able to void the tips off the bill of anyone who complained with seemingly minimal hassle (particularly our "substitute tour leader", Greg, who kept signing for the whole group!) The issue with tips didn't apply to me personally because I hadn't signed for anything.
As we made our way out of Torres del Paine, I tried to drink in one last view of the breathtaking scenery. We were treated to the sight of a Rhea (similar to an ostrich) crossing the road with a handful of babies- so adorable!
The trip back to Punta Arenas seemed much quicker than going the other direction- of course, we also didn't have an extended visit at a ranch. We just made 2 short stops. The first was at the same souvenir shop where we'd stopped on the way up- this was perfect because it allowed someone in the group to exchange a shirt she'd purchased in the wrong size. The second stop was to eat the sandwiches that the hotel had provided. Once again, I had the salmon. Greg didn't want his olives so I emailed a photo of them to my older niece who loves olives.
When we arrived in Punta Arenas, we headed directly to the city terminal to check in for our ship. It was exciting to receive our official documents, although it was an extremely slow process. One of our group members, Bob, had issues checking in because he hadn't printed out the correct document to certify that he'd paid his reciprocity fee to Argentina, where the cruise ends. He was ready to just pay it again, but the website wouldn't let him because his passport number was already on file as having paid. So everyone knew he was legit- but because it was a Sunday, it was difficult to reach the people in Argentina who'd need to approve his boarding. Since we were a tight group, we were all concerned and felt bad that he might have to miss the cruise. It turned out that he was able to make it onboard in the nick of time- just 10 minutes before we left. And there was much celebration when we saw him onboard!
While Bob remained at the terminal trying to work out his issues, the rest of us had some free time to wander around Punta Arenas. Many were in search of gloves or waterproof pants, both of which I'd been sure to purchase in anticipation of the Antarctica portion of my trip. After the guys I was with found some really cheap waterproof pants, we wandered around to the Magellan strait and the central plaza. In the central plaza, I thought it was hilariously ironic that someone had apparently stolen a letter "o" from the word "Santiago". During the course of our walk, we also ran into some of the people from the main group who had spent the previous night in Punta Arenas; I was especially happy to reunite with some old friends from previous trips
At around 5, we returned to the city terminal to take the bus to the cruise ship terminal, although it really would have been easy enough to walk there. Bob, of course, was still having issues and was unable to board the buses with the rest of us. When we entered the cruise ship terminal, there was a cardboard penguin display. I took a photo of Greg by these penguins because his sister had been bugging him about seeing penguins. After going through security, we still had to wait for a shuttle bus to the actual ship because security protocol wouldn't allow us to walk down the pier.
It's always exciting to board a cruise ship- there's the anticipation of the journey, and the desire to explore a floating hotel. Once onboard, I was directed to my cabin where I met my roommate, Erin. We had a chuckle over the fact that she'd chosen the lower shelves assuming that she'd be rooming with someone taller- she's 5'4 and I'm 5'2 so... not so much. Erin was really sweet and friendly, and I feel bad that I wasn't able to get to know her better. I am guessing that some of the rooming assignments changed between the pre-trip and the cruise in an effort to get the participants from the 2 groups to mix better. But it's really hard to suddenly be rooming with someone new on a cruise when you've already bonded well with other people. Don't get me wrong- I made a huge effort to get to know everyone from the main group, especially at meal time. Possibly more of an effort than most people. But I always seemed to eventually gravitate toward my friends from the pre-trip.
The cruise was officially bilingual and all briefings were held in Spanish in one lounge while the English language home was the Darwin lounge on deck 5. Our first gathering in the Darwin lounge was for an introduction to the crew. But before they came out, we were treated to a delicious array of appetizers and champagne- a little preview of the cuisine we'd be enjoying. The Stella Australia (literally "Southern Star") in a relatively new ship and life onboard was first class all the way.
As we pulled away from the pier, everyone headed out on deck. Full of merriment and savoring the wind blowing in our faces, we all took photos of each other. When gazing at Punta Arenas, we were all amazed by the light shining down on the city as if from heaven. It was definitely a good omen for our voyage.
Dinner was wonderful. In a trip where I enjoyed so many delicious meals, the food from the cruise stands out as being particularly spectacular. We were immediately impressed with the king crab appetizer; it was such a hit with my table that we asked for extras. The fish entree was also wonderful- it included fresh shrimp and calamari (aka my old favorite from Vietnam). I've never had as much seafood in my life as during my time in Patagonia, and it was all terrific.
At 10pm, we returned to the Darwin lounge for a briefing on the next day's itinerary. In particular, they focused on instructions for boarding the zodiacs which were the small inflatable boats that would transfer us to our various excursions. The morning trip to Ainsworth Bay was going to have 2 options: an easy hike and a more difficult one. Since they said you'd see more from the easier hike, my choice was an absolute no brainer. In all, the staff did an excellent job of getting us excited for the coming adventures.
A few of us hung out in the lounge afterwards to chat for awhile. I was the only one not drinking. Veda had asked me earlier if I don't drink alcohol. I do, but just in extreme moderation- even when it's essentially free. After taking a few photos outside, I finally headed back to my room.
When I got up, I took a quick look outside and admired the stunning views before heading down to breakfast. Our cabin was perfectly located across the stairwell that led down one deck to the dining room. As with other meals, breakfast on the cruise was ample and good quality. There was a wide selection offered at the buffet, including of course yogurt.
Then it was time to get ready for the first of what would be many zodiac excursions! I prepared myself by pulling on my waterproof pants on top of my regular pants, as well as slathering my face in sunscreen. The finishing touches were my warm hat, gloves, and of course the requisite life vest. After I was satisfied with my attire, I headed up to the Darwin lounge which was the gathering area for English speakers who were not on the more difficult hike (which left earlier).
I was super impressed with how organized the cruise ship was about loading everyone into the zodiacs for the excursion. There were only a small number of zodiacs, each of which seated only a handful of people, but everything flowed so smoothly that I never once felt like I was waiting forever to disembark. We would gather in the appointed room and then line up to make our way down a couple flights of stairs to the zodiac loading area. In order for the staff to keep track of who was off the ship at any given time, we had to place clips from our life vest with the cabin number onto hooks with the matching number. (coming back, we retrieved the clips and put them back on our life jackets)
I used the 1-2-3 technique (step on gangway, then on the rim of the boat, then finally in the boat) for boarding a zodiac that we'd learned the previous night with some trepidation; After my horseback riding fail, I was a little nervous about riding the small zodiacs. But any anxiety was relieved almost immediately as we took off through Ainsworth Bay. I felt myself zipping through the waters almost like I was on a mild amusement Park ride. Fun! The only minor problem was that the woman next to me was wearing a backpack and she had a habit of turning so that it would hit into me.
When we got to the island in Ainsworth Bay, we shed our life vests. A couple of us placed ours together under a rock. Since it was surprisingly warm, we left our gloves as well which would more easily identify our vests from the sea of orange vests around them. After taking some photos on the shore, we divided into groups to explore the island.
We walked on easy terrain (with an occasional puddle to cross) that was surrounded in glorious nature: trees, a distant glacier, mountains, and even a waterfall. One of the things that struck me the most was the colorful patchwork blanketing the earth: yellow-greenish moss produced by lichens (which showed the lack of pollution), an orange tint from the remains of tundra (the island had originally been covered by the Marinelli glacier), specks of reddish flowers, and of course greenery and the blues of the water surrounding us. The guides said we were lucky to have such good, sunny weather which was atypical for the region.
I hadn't expected much from the ship, but the excursion totally blew me away! The guides did a great job explaining the landscape. Everywhere I turned, I found another magnificent photo op, so I was in my element. But it wasn't just about taking pictures- I was simply in awe of being in such a beautiful place. At one point I looked up at the trees pointing into the deep blue sky, and just took a moment to savor the feelings of joy stirring inside of me.
When we returned to the docking area at the shore, the crew from the ship was serving beverages: both alcoholic and non. It was so peaceful on the blissful island so I took my time lining up to return to the ship via zodiac.
When we returned, I did some journaling from the previous day and ended up closing my eyes for a short bit. By then it was 1pm- lunch time. I looked at the menu in front of the dining room and was thrilled to see that they were presenting an Italian buffet! I wanted some of everything! I ended up with gnocchi, lasagna, and spaghetti with meat sauce. And of course some calimari. For desert, I had chocolate cake and raspberry gelati.
Then I relaxed on my bed, watched some scenery go by through he large windows and took a nap. I woke up and worked more on my journal. I appreciated the fact that there seemed to be a good balance between activities and down time on the ship. I was also happy to finally find an outlet in the cabin near my bed.
At 4:30, we took a short zodiac excursion through Tuckers Islets. It was so warm (reportedly 57) that I just wore a short sleeve shirt and windbreaker; the guides once again told us that we were extremely lucky with the weather. For this trip, we remained in the zodiacs as we were driven around to observe the wildlife. By far, everyone was most excited about seeing a colony of Magellanic penguins. Some in our group were disappointed that we couldn't dance with the penguins, but we were at least able to sit in zodiacs on the shore and watch their adorable antics from up close.
Among the other fauna on our tour were birds including cormarants and skua. As we headed back to the ship, we also saw some dolphins. It was hard to photograph them as they circled up to the water because by the time I'd snap a photo, the dolphin would already be back under water. Fortunately, there were 2 together so that when I was too late to capture the first one, a second one shot into view.
When I got off the zodiac, I had to run up to join a meet and greet for our group (pre-trip and main trip). I talked to someone I hadn't met, and found it interesting to hear how many trips everyone had taken. After introductions, we headed outside to take an official group photo on deck. As we got into position, we noticed one lady who was clearly not with the group who started posing with everyone. Our tour leader Salanda diplomatically asked her if she was with our group... and she answered "yes"! Eventually, she was gently directed away and we were able to take our photo.
After a lecture on glaciers and the ice age in preparation for the next day's activities, it was time for dinner. Since I was trying to mingle, I sat at a table where everyone else was part of the main group. It was actually a bit of a party table, but I didn't stick out like a sore thumb. I mainly talked to Phil who is also contuinuing on to Antarctica. Favorites for dinner were the salmon appetizer, squash soup (even though it said it was made with coconut milk), and an especially tasty toffee dessert called Suspiro de Limena. The sea bass entree was ok after I scraped the mushrooms off.
There were 2 options for evening entertainment: a documentary or karaoke. I can see documentaries anywhere, so I opted for the latter. The ship staff proclaimed it the most Southern location for karaoke in the world but I was a bit skeptical of that claim- I believe there are karaoke options in Antarctica though they are probably not very tourist friendly. (and surely there are cruise ships in that region who offer karaoke nights)
Although I am rather shy, I am actually a performer at heart- I participated in many theatrical endeavors onstage during my school years. So I wanted to perform. I was hindered by the limited song list which didn't include songs like "Let It Go" or even anything by Billy Joel. I considered doing "New York, New York" but that idea died a quick death when a staff member opened with it. After some consideration, I ended up making my karaoke debut singing a duet of the Abba classic, "Dancing Queen" with Barb. It was a fitting song, as it reminded me of a fun 70's night on my 2010 Asian cruise. I know my singing voice is... well, "limited" is probably a nice way to put it... so I tried to infuse my performance with as much personality as possible by bopping around and trying to project to the audience (which was difficult since the room was arranged such that you needed to have your back to the crowd in order to read the lyrics)
Eventually, as people started imbibing more alcohol and as additional people came up after the documentary, more and more people got into the spirit. I'd only had a glass of Chardonnay at dinner, but I was able to keep up with everyone- I don't need alcohol to loosen up. As the night progressed, I enjoyed singing in group numbers to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust", Glee's "Don't Stop Believing" and James Brown's "I Feel Good". We were all really impressed by one somewhat older gentleman who performed an impassioned version of the Sinatra classic, "My Way." There were some Spanish speaking ladies who were frequent participants who also did a good job. All in all, it was a fun and different way to cap off a wonderful day of exploration.
I didn't sleep very well and ended up being too tired to get up for the yoga session that a group member was offering. I got to breakfast at around 8 and was very happy they had pancakes on the buffet; they tasted quite good with Dulce de Leche spread.
After breakfast, I attended a lecture on the history of exploration of Patagonia and the native people. The presenter, Maurizio, had done research in Europe and was incredibly passionate about the topic. Still, I found myself nodding off a bit at first due to fatigue and a toasty, dark room. One of the most fascinating facts I learned was that the Yamana people used to not wear any clothes, and rubbed blubber on themselves for warmth. (it's not nearly a tropical region so that's pretty insane) Also, explorers added depictions of cannibals and giants to maps in order to discourage others from coming to the area- giants were an exaggeration of one of the native peoples.
It was interesting to take a tour of the ship's bridge- it's a small room so "tour" may not be the appropriate word, but they did explain a lot to us. I was fascinated that much of the navigation still involved drafting by hand.
After a short nap, it was time for lunch. Today's theme was a Japanese buffet. Which means- sushi! How excited was I that our first 2 lunches were my favorite 2 cuisines?!? (Italian and Japanese) In addition to savoring a variety of dishes, I was able to snag one of the yummy desserts that had been served the previous evening.
At 2:30, we went on an excursion to Pia Glacier. As we rode on the zodiac, we passed a field of ice chunks in the water- and we could even feel them crunching underneath the zodiac! After walking along the shore, those of us who had opted out of the more challenging hike had the option to climb to an overlook for a better view, and I seized that opportunity since I'd probably never have the chance again. It was challenging for me at parts due to the terrain, even though there was sometimes a rope to grab onto. There were a couple times I needed a hand. When running into a little difficulty, I joked that if anything happened to me, someone needed to save the pictures my memory card. On the way down, a couple of us did the unofficial "hug and hike" program which entailed giving he guides a hug when we got help from them or walked over to them. Such a sacrifice we endured... not! (they were cuties)
I enjoyed my well earned view from the climb. Even better, my friends from the more difficult hike were there, too, and they were able to share my joy at making it. Their hike was extremely muddy so I was particularly glad not to have taken that option.
It wasn't as sunny as the previous day, although I felt warm when walking, so I welcomed the hot chocolate that was served when we returned to the dock. The word "hot" was no joke- I probably should have plopped a tiny bit of glacier ice into my cup!
After changing out of my outdoor clothes, I went up to the lounge in anticipation of our ride through Glacier Alley. Before we reached the glaciers, I had a coke zero and chatted with some of my fellow group members.
The first glacier we came to was the Romache Glacier- it was exciting to go out on deck and look at it. As we passed by, the scenery dramatically opened up to reveal a waterfall! It was an amazing sight.
Since most glaciers we saw were named for countries, the staff bought out appetizers themed to that country- what a a delightfully fun bonus! They served sausage for Germany, cheeses and crackers for France, pizza for Italy, and beignets for Netherlands. I was really impressed with the attention to detail. Each of the glaciers had its own character and were beautiful to behold- though I wished it could have been a sunnier day.
During our quick briefing on the next day's Wulaia Bay excursion, I decided to do the medium level hike to get a better view than the coastal hike. I was happy some of my friends who usually did the most difficult hike would be joining me.
As if we hadn't had enough food already, it was soon time for dinner! Highlights for me were the steak tartar appetizer and the chocolate mousse with berries. The main course, salmon with seafood, was also outstanding but I was just too full to eat it all! The onion soup was ok. No one ever seemed to refill my water glass so I kept stealing the ones from the 2 empty places at our table;.
Someone said she was worried about me coming down the afternoon glacier hike. It still annoys me when people make comments like that because I never want to be "that person" who is in over their head and who ruins things for everyone. I was basically fine, though I'd needed a tiny bit assistance (like a hand) a couple times. I just took my time. We also talked about hostels, bad travel stories (plane incidents), and how John had stayed up til 4 to experience the brief period of the boat moving in open water.
At 10, I hung out with my friends for a fashion show and bingo. I was at the "Democratic table" where Veda and I couldn't believe Greg didn't believe in climate change, and others were saying that it wasn't something like Santa Claus that you could either believe or not.
I had high hopes for the fashion show since, as I alluded to earlier, there were a number of guys on staff who weren't hard on the eyes. But alas, it was a total bust and only included 3 people modeling items from the gift shop- and none of them were the hot guys. We were robbed!
On the other hand, Bingo was a total hoot. The staff members dubbed it "the most corrupt bingo ever" and were very entertaining. According to their rules, if you called Bingo and were wrong, you were supposed to sing. One staff member called the wrong letter ("E" instead of "I") and since he didn't want to sing, he talked in a Chinese accent by request and also a Scottish one- it was very funny but you probably had to be there.
The boards were not cleared for the first 3 games which aimed sequentially for a horizontal line, an "X" and the full board. Veda won the 2nd game and was rewarded with a stuffed penguin and a mug. A 7 year old boy won the full board and it was adorable because he could not have been any more excited.
For the final game, everyone stood up and started with a clear board. As soon as they called a number on your board, you would have to sit down. As I continued standing, I joked about the pressure. Finally, when only 3 of us were still standing (me, Maureen, and someone else), they had us stand together in the center of the room and state where we were from. It was the moment of truth- only one of us would win the final prize of the evening and all the glory it entailed. I heard a voice calling "N38" and saw the 2 other ladies returning to their seats. Victory was mine! I raised my arms in triumph, and gratefully accepted my prize of a cute little stuffed sea lion.
A few of us hung around for a bit to chat- I couldn't believe that we only had one more day together and knew I'd miss them, especially Veda and Greg. A photo Bob had taken of Veda caused much debate over what kind of photos guys like. Despite our incredulity over Greg's position on global warming, we all agreed that he did an outstanding job as the "substitute tour leader" for the pre-trip and told him that he deserved raves. He's a chemist, and has a bit of a quiet Midwestern demeanor. (We actually had 2 chemists from Kansas on the pre-trip... What were the chances of that demographic being so well represented?) I was particularly impressed at his empathy for me when I felt left out; he seemed to get along equally well with the more outgoing people as well as the more restrained people like me.
After breakfast, we stopped at Wulaia Bay. Since some of my friends who usually do the hardest hike opted for the medium one, I was able to walk with them. I was a little nervous about needing to ascend a hill, but I definitely wanted to see the view. Fortunately, there was no problem and I could keep up with everyone (although on the way down, I was behind someone slow). The terrain was similar to hikes I'd done at home- but there were ropes and wooden hand rails to make things even easier. It wasn't very long, and the view at the top was splendid. We even saw a rainbow over a tiny island. It was slightly challenging but really perfect for me.
On the way down, I had a delightful talk with the 7 year old boy who'd won the 3rd game of bingo; he was wearing the hat he'd won. (He'd liked when I said we were on a winners group since 3 of the 4 winners were there) His family was from Boston but his dad was taking a sabbatical and they were living in Chile. I told him he was very lucky to have these experiences. He told me about some of the places he'd been. I asked his favorite and he said he liked the cruise in Australia because they had a nice cabin and he could watch TV! LOL Talking to him helped distract me from any potential height issues.
After changing and relaxing a bit, I went upstairs for the Cape Horn briefing. Veda and I were beaten at Uno by the 7 year old boy who'd won Bingo. We also talked to his mom who explained that they were staying in Val de Mer because she wanted the kids to learn Spanish. It probably goes without saying that I thought they were a seriously cool family.
At lunch, Dick had us in stitches talking about Scott hanging laundry around the room. The buffet had a Chilean theme and some of the fish, including fried Congor and a king crab souffle, were out of this world.
After lunch, there were tip envelopes and disembarkation instructions waiting on our beds. I was bummed that we'd be leaving the ship in less than a day! The cruise was outstanding- the staff were uniformly excellent and I loved the food even though I am a picky eater.
I took a nap and relaxed, and then worked on my journal. While spending some quiet time in the room, I reflected on how I'd soon be journeying to Antarctica. I felt like it was good to do the Patagonia cruise back to back with Antarctica because I felt so much more confident after succeeding with the zodiacs and excursions. I knew that ship to Antatctica wouldn't be as luxurious but I was ok with that. Mainly, I couldn't believe I was so close to achieving my dream of stepping foot on my 7th continent.
At 5:30, we gathered in the lounge to find out if we could disembark at Cape Horn. Only about 70% of cruises are able to make the stop due to weather. In fact, the last cruise on our ship was unable to make the stop. Since the winds were picking up, we had some cause to be nervous as we photographed Cape Horn from the ship. Excitement mounted, but so did the tension as a crew member went ashore to check the conditions in order to render the final verdict. There was every chance that we'd all lugged our life vests upstairs just to be set up for disappointment.
Finally we got the word- Cape Horn was ON! The wave of thrills rushing through the room exceeded the levels of the mostly calm waters. It was definitely exciting to be able to visit Cape Horn, the ultimate icon of traveling to the end of the earth.
After getting off the zodiac, you need to climb 160 stairs to visit the sights. Walking up the stairs, I reflected that there is no such thing as fear of heights when you're at Cape-freaking-Horn! There was some wind, but it was still not as bad as the waterfall hike. There was lots of photo taking and amazingly high spirits all around. We visited the monument to the sailors who had perished while exploring in the dangerous seas. Or, more accurately, half of the moment since the other part had recently been blown away by the cruel winds. We also went into a lighthouse in which a different Chilean family lives each year. (it supposedly pays extremely well)
Dinner was another great meal... punctuated by a fabulous Creme Brulee! It was sad to think that our adventures together were nearing an end; even though I'd be continuing on, I knew I'd miss my new friends.
After dinner, we shared a farewell toast with the captain and watched a slide show of passenger pictures. None of mine were included because I didn't give them my SD card. I also made it a point to take a photo with Veda and the 7 year old bingo winner.
Then a bunch of us hung by the bar and laughed together one last time. I returned to the cabin around midnight and started packing.
After receiving a wakeup call, I reached over and checked the iPad for the time as was my habit. It was 6:30am... and it looked like I had a 3G signal! I'd been queuing up photos and I was excited to finally be able to share them with my Internet friends and family. Hopefully I'm not annoying anyone by posting a ton of photos when I travel, but at least some of my friends seem to enjoy getting a glimpse of a faraway world they may never get to see. (And on the flip side, I certainly love being able to travel vicariously whenever any of my friends takes a trip, no matter where it is.)
As is usual for a disembarkation morning, everything was a rushed blur. After a quick breakfast, our passports were returned to us. (they had been in the custody of the ship to expedite customs between Chile and Argentina) Most of us headed to the reception desk so we could commemorate our trip with a Cape Horn stamp in our passports; we also received a certificate that we made it there. Those were nice, but nothing beats the actual experience of standing in the wind and realizing you've made it to the edge of the world.
When depositing the envelope of tip money I'd prepared, I added all of my remaining Chilean pesos since I'd no longer need them- and the excellent staff definitely deserved some extra. After some last minute packing of my carry-ons, I walked off the ship and realized that I was one of the last of my group to leave. My 6 fellow travelers who were continuing to Antarctica were standing in a circle just off the ship. The Patagonia travelers who were heading home were already on a bus for the airport, so I hopped onboard to say a quick goodbye. It felt weird to be parting from some of them- particularly my close knit pre-trip group- in such an awkward, impersonal way. I suppose there's never really a good way to say goodbye, but it might have been nice to at least share some hugs.
The Antarctica cruise would board the next day, so the 7 of us who were continuing on had booked hotels to stay overnight in Ushuaia, Argentina. Most, if not all, of the 9 other group members for the Antarctica trip had already flown in. We'd all booked separately, although most people ended up in the same 2 hotels. I'd reserved a room to myself in an altogether different hotel because I felt I'd need some down time. Plus, I wanted to try to stay somewhere with laundry service.
The 7 of us had decided to walk together to our hotels- at least to the point where we'd have to go our separate ways. I was surprised that my luggage had to be x-rayed on my way out from the pier; my suitcase wouldn't fit on the conveyer belt so it had to be taken separately.
Ushuaia seemed like a cute, photogenic little town, surrounded by snow capped mountains on one side and the waters of the Beagle channel on the other. I think the walk to the hotels was longer than anyone had anticipated from the map, especially since we had to go slightly uphill from the port to the main street, Avenida San Martin. My hotel was the furthest; it was about 7 blocks (0.4 miles according to Google maps) from the Lenox hotel where we'd meet up. It was a flat walk on the main pedestrian street, so it really wasn't bad. Still, I joked to myself that the distance felt like "3 blocks past aren't I there yet?"- especially when I had luggage.
I was relieved to finally arrive at my hotel, although the room wasn't ready yet. I asked about doing laundry but the prognosis didn't sound great. There was a definite language barrier which made it more challenging to converse. I always feel humbled traveling to a country where I don't speak the language, and I am grateful that the locals can understand me at all.
After dropping off my bags, I headed back 7 blocks to meet up with some people in the lobby of the Lennox. I was feeling cranky and tired from lack of sleep as well as walking ~0.7 miles with heavy electronic equipment in my backpack. However, it lifted my spirits to meet some of my fellow travelers. I was especially excited to finally meet Shannah, who would be my roommate for Antarctica. When we'd chatted online, she immediately impressed me as an awesome and kind person. Those positive impressions only intensified after meeting her in person.
A small quorum of my fellow travelers and I decided to explore Ushuaia. We wandered around, and hit the tourist office to try to decide what we might do the following morning. (we couldn't board the ship until 4pm) Someone wanted to go to the Dublin bar for drinks and food, but we were disappointed to discover that it wasn't open until 7pm. So we got a recommendation to head to the oldest bar in Ushuaia (El Almacen de Ramos General) which turned out to be an awesome place with a lot of character.
We spent a very leisurely time laughing and getting to know each other; a few others from our group joined us later (social media and internet are very helpful for group travel). I decided to order the Tagliatelle Bolognese from the specials menu, and it was very good. The only negative was that the wifi was slow. No, not just slow- painfully, challengingly slow. It took me an inordinately long time to finally upload the group photo I'd had taken with my camera to my Facebook page. (not that I was constantly focused on it)
On the way out of the restaurant, I had to buy one of the chocolate meringue penguins which it was noted for. Adorable, chocolate snack? No, can't resist!
When I walked back to my hotel, my room was ready- and they said they could do my laundry! Yay! They said it might even be ready that evening; at the latest, it would be done by the following morning. They charged per item so I gathered together a bunch of things, and decided to just hand wash my underwear when I got to the ship.
I enjoyed some quiet time in my hotel room, which I luxuriously had all to myself. I took a nap, chatted on Facebook with my niece, and eating my yummy chocolate meringue penguin (though not before taking plenty of photos of it). I thought I might just spend all night relaxing and reveling in an evening of antisocial bliss but I saw online that a group of people had decided to do a tour of the Tierra del Fuego national park the next day and I definitely wanted to get in on that. So I made a mad dash to get ready and then headed over to the Dublin bar... and then Roxie told me I had to go directly to a travel agency that was vaguely located down the street. I eventually found everyone and was happy I could pay for the tour with my credit card.
I joined everyone for dinner at the Dublin Bar, which was a neat little place. We had to divide amongst ourselves into a couple tables. My table shared 2 pizzas and fries. We were sitting with someone many of the others knew from previous trips who wasn't actually going to Antarctica. (she'd been on the Patagonia cruise, but not with our group) She was a very interesting and well traveled person, although it was a tad awkward for the 2 of us at the table who didn't really know her.
After we ate, Bob decided to walk around with me for a bit. We headed down to the waterfront, which looked quite lovely in the 10pm twilight. We stumbled across some memorials which I later learned were commemorating the Falklands war. There isn't a ton to do in Ushuaia, but it sure is a photogenic little town.
When I got back to the hotel, I was pleased to see that clean laundry was on my bed. I went through my things twice, and couldn't find my black Queen/ Adam Lambert concert t-shirt, which is one of my favorite articles of clothing, so I asked about it at the front desk. As I started packing up my newly clean clothes, lo and behold the Queen t-shirt was in between 2 pairs of black pants! I felt like an idiot, but in my defense, it really should have been with the other shirts. Or at least not in between 2 pairs of black pants. I called the front desk to let them know; thankfully, I'd been nice about it earlier and she seemed to be cool. Although for all I know she might have been thinking whatever is Spanish for "Stupid American tourists!"
Once the laundry was settled, I greedily took a nice long shower. It still felt absolutely unreal to me that in less than 24 hours, I'd be on a ship bound for Antarctica!
I slept rather fitfully because I was paranoid about my alarm. Eventually, it was time to get up... it's Coronation day! Err, make that "Embarkation for Antarctica day", which is just as amazing. But first, there was the group tour we'd booked to Tierra del Fuego national park.
In preparation for the cruise that starts by going through the perilous Drake Passage, I took a Bonine for anti-nausea since it was recommended to start before you are actually at sea. I quickly got my stuff together- I'd barely unpacked- and then checked out and checked my bags in the hotel lobby. It was a little rainy as I walked the 7 blocks to the Lennox hotel, and I was disappointed that the weather wasn't exactly the most conducive to visiting a park. I was hungry since my hotel hadn't included breakfast and I couldn't find anywhere to stop. Fortunately, someone went up and stole me a couple croissants from the Lennox buffet.
At around 8am, our enthusiastic guide Gaston (no one leads tours like Gaston? Yes I've watched too much Beauty and the Beast...) came by to pick us up. We also drove around to several other hotels to pick up additional people, not all from our group. I probably could have had them pick me up at my hotel instead of walking to the Lennox, but oh well.
The first stop was "El Tren del Fin del Mundo" or "The End of the World Train", the Southernmost railway in the world, which was originally used to transport convicts to work. After pooling all of our money for the national park fee (not included in the tour), we waited in the station until we could board.
Only some of the train cars were unlocked, and you couldn't move between them. Fortunately, a staff member unlocked a car for us so that our entire group could sit together. The train was very narrow, with only 2 seats across separated by a central aisle. When we pulled away from the station, I could swear that we were traveling slower than I can walk. It had me recalling the childhood tale of the train that kept saying "I think I can, I think I can"
En route to the Tierra del Fuego national park, we passed some beautiful scenery and were even able to disembark for a short bit to see a waterfall. There was narration throughout the ride, but I had difficulty hearing it.
Once we arrived at our destination, we reunited with our guide Gaston (no one reunites like Gaston?) and some people who must have opted to do the tour without the train ride. We were driven around the park and stopped at a few places. Some of these included short hikes through some mud so I was glad I'd worn my hiking boots. The hikes were optional, but they were fairly easy for me with just some mild hills/ stairs. Fortunately, it had ceased to rain.
There was a little post office type place where you could get a passport stamp for $2 US. It was really nifty looking- it even included a photo and a sticker, so that was money well spent. Even though it wasn't very sunny, the park was quite beautiful. It also felt good to be outside knowing that we'd be cooped up in a small ship for the next 2 days.
One of the last stops we made was for a much welcomed, albeit quick, lunch break. I wasn't sure if they served food, but as soon as I saw someone ordering a Ham and Cheese sandwich, I jumped on that option. And promptly devoured it. I also bought a Coke Light (aka Diet Coke) and a cereal bar for later that I probably ended up tossing.
By the end of the tour, I was getting antsy/excited for the ship so I was ready to return to Ushuaia even though under normal circumstances I probably would have wanted more time at the park. On the drive back, I spotted the ship in distant port thanks to zooming in after I took a photo.
I learned from my group members that there was a supermarket all the way at the end of the main street, Avenida San Martin, so I decided to find it to look for some more M&M's for the ship. It turned out that "way down the end of the street" was only a half a block from my hotel- I was so correct that it was located "3 blocks past Aren't I there yet?" They didn't have M&M's but I got a couple snacks. Then I sat in my hotel lobby and uploaded some photos, which had proven to be more difficult than expected in Argentina (I always tried both wifi- if available- and 3G)
The ship started boarding at 4pm, so at quarter to 4 I inquired in the lobby about getting a taxi to the port/puerto. The lady at the desk showed me a rate that looked a little expensive, but I really didn't want to walk all that way again with my luggage. When the driver arrived, I fortunately overheard her instructing him to take me to the aeropuerto (airport). I was able to fix the misunderstanding, and the driver showed me the correct (lower) rate. Even if I hadn't been able to realize there was a communication gap, the airport was close enough that I would have had plenty of time to make the ship.
When I entered the pier, I had to show my passport and ticket but that was absolutely it for the security. I thought it quite odd that my luggage had been scanned on my way off the Patagonia ship but not on my way aboard this one. Roxie and Shannah had just arrived so I walked up the pier to the ship with them. We were so excited! It was really happening- we were going to board the vessel that would take us to Antarctica!
Someone was in front of the ship to take our large bags and let us know our room numbers. Then we just walked on the gangway and were aboard! The first stop was the main lounge where we lined up to turn in our passports and health forms. Once that was done, someone showed us to our room. We didn't receive keys because there are no locks- the ship has an "open door" policy which I think is not unusual for cruises to Antarctica. I guess if anyone has the money to take such a cruise, they aren't going to engage in petty theft; plus, it's not like you could swipe something and run off somewhere. (I think they may have safe deposit boxes or something available, but I don't know anyone who used one)
When we were led into our cabin, the first thing the staff member said was not to worry about the water on the floor because it was just condensation. If the first thing someone points out a flaw in your room in an effort to minimalize it, that actually serves the reverse purpose and brings more attention to it. Suffice it to say that the dampness ended up being an annoyance though it never brought down our spirits.
I was surprised that the cabin was larger than I'd expected- it had one single bed and one double bed. The guy who showed us the room had us pick numbers to see who would get the large bed, and I ended up with the smaller one. I didn't really care, especially since I'd expected a single berth, anyway. All of our group seemed to be upgraded to cabins on a higher deck. I wish I'd had a chance to see the cabins on the level we paid for, because I thought I read that they were renovated during the off season. So, even though they were sold at a lower price point, they may have actually been nicer.
Even though the cabin was larger than expected, it was difficult to find appropriate places to unpack all of my stuff. It would have really rocked if there had been drawers under the bed, but the foundation was solid. I thought our ship would have a designated room where you could change for excursions and store your muck boots and other outdoor supplies, but it didn't so that meant more challenges. Eventually I made things work by stowing all my toiletries in the bottom of the closet and hanging up most of my clothes or leaving them in packing cubes in the closet.
After getting situated, we headed back to the main lounge for orientation. Sampling hors d'oeuvres and sipping free champagne with thoughts of penguins in our heads, our group was the picture of excitement. So of course I had the idea for a group photo. After I took one of everyone else, someone outside our group offered to take another so I could be in it too.
The staff was introduced, and our expedition leader Monika seemed friendly as she welcomed us and spoke fondly of the ship, emphasizing that it was a research vessel and that safety was of paramount importance. "She [the ship] may not be pretty, but she's sturdy!" is a paraphrase that summed up her attitude. Throughout the trip, I was impressed with how knowledgeable, friendly, and passionate the crew was- and none excelled at these virtues more than Monika.
Throughout the introductions, I was so excited that I almost wanted to cry tears of joy. For years, I'd set a goal of traveling to all seven continents. For almost 11 months, I'd planned and dreamed. And now, it was all about to come true.
Well, except for the fact we couldn't leave port at the planned time due to wind. First lesson of an Antarctica cruise: nature doesn't listen to schedules so you have to be flexible. In fact, unlike your standard cruise, you aren't given a set daily itinerary when you book a cruise to Antarctica. Each cruise line may have a standard set of destinations it likes to include, but the timing and exact stops of any individual cruising are determined based on weather and often negotiations with other ships in the area.
At around 8pm, we were finally moving! Wheee!!!! We stood out on deck to mark this momentous occasion, and to say goodbye to solid ground for the next couple days. Birds swirled around our ship as we pulled away from the port of Ushuaia. It was chilly out, so I quickly reconvened to the interior of the ship.
One of the least fun activities of many a cruise is the life vest drill. The drill on the MS Ushuaia (the name of our ship) was no exception. We had to wear our life vests and words can't express how annoying and uncomfortable they were. But I realized it was important. During the drill, they instructed us on the plans that would be enacted if we needed to be in life boats for longer than a day (ie they are supplied with water and food, but the water wouldn't be distributed right away due to the lack of bathroom facilities combined with the very cold weather...) It was obviously good to know that there were contingency plans in place. But, on the other hand, it was unsettling to imagine being in a life boat for an hour let alone for days.
We'd been spoiled in luxury on the Patagonia cruise so the meals on the Antarctica cruise were especially a let down. Still, I felt that the spaghetti and shrimp was ok and not as horrible as others made it out to be. My main problem at this meal were that the chairs were small and attached to the floor- they needed to be for times when the ship crosses violent waters, but I felt cramped next to a larger guy.
Back in my room, I hand laundered my underwear so I'd have a clean supply for the rest of the trip. Everything I read about Antarctica cruises said that clothes dry extremely quickly because of the dry air. Lies! Well, at least for our cabin on this particular ship- perhaps due to the extra condensation moisture. Also, everyone says that ships are toasty warm and that wasn't the case, either.
I skipped the movie because I wasn't really interested. We were out of the range of internet, though I'd been surprised to find out that our ship had computers on which you could access the internet for $10/half hour. (not totally exorbitant when you consider the circumstances) As I backed up my photos and reviewed my blog, it felt like an anticlimactic way to end the day.
At 12:30am, I noticed an increase in the ship's movement. I assumed we'd arrived in the notorious Drake Passage. I went to sleep hoping for the best- in other words, I was hoping I wouldn't be motion sick for the next couple days. People talk about the "Drake Shake", meaning a crossing full of rough waters, versus the "Drake Lake", meaning a crossing through calmer waters. I was obviously hoping for more of the latter.
I woke up a bunch of times in the night and I could definitely feel that we were going through the Drake Passage. However, fortunately, I did not feel sick. When they broadcast a wake up message, I still wanted to stay in bed. My previous evening's cocktail of Bonine, Advil, and anti-anxiety medicine combined with a lack of good quality sleep made me feel very zen and restful. In fact, I felt like I could stay in bed for the next 10 days until we returned to Ushuaia.
But I eventually made myself get up. I knew a shower would make me feel refreshed... but the ship's movement wasn't exactly conducive to accomplishing this task. So I decided to compromise and kneel under the water at the bottom of the shower rather than attempting to use the hand-held. Being short sometimes has its advantages!
The next challenge was to get dressed. This is not easily accomplished when you are on a ship going through waters that make it hard to stand still in one place. But once I did it, I felt a sense of pride akin to what a toddler must feel after dressing herself for the first time.
In an effort to prevent motion sickness, I'd recently purchased a Relief Band, which is battery powered band that looks like a watch. It sends pulses through your nerves and receives good reviews for its results (most negative reviews focused on the price point and the fact that the batteries are not replaceable). I put it on for the first time and it felt tingly weird, but not painful.
I arrived at breakfast at the nick of time before it ended, and ate some calming foods: Frosted Flakes, oatmeal, yogurt, and toast with eggs. I saw a few people but mostly was alone because I'd arrived so late.
Apparently, we were passing through a relatively calm version of the Drake, so I was grateful. I didn't feel nauseous at all, but I did feel better laying down. Some of that may have had to do with the Bonine I was taking, I can't be sure.
At 10am, I attended a lecture on ice. It was hard to keep my eyes open, but it was very interesting. The topics included glaciers and ice shelves. They also announced a contest to guess the latitude when we'd see the first iceberg, but I wasn't very interested in trying to figure out Latitude For Dummies.
Because we were traveling through good conditions, the crew decided to offer a bird watching session on deck. It seemed a little disorganized, as I never did figure out what birds I was seeing. But it definitely felt great to be outside- at least until mild sleet started coming down. I was able to use my big zoom lens to take some photos; it's a great lens but I rarely have a chance to use it and often leave it at home because of its weight.
After lunch, there was a lecture on birds but I skipped it because I was too comfortable relaxing in bed. (yeah, it probably would have helped me identify the birds I'd seen earlier...) However, I did attend the 5:15 lecture on penguins. Because penguins are awesome and I'd never miss anything penguin related. They talked mainly about the 3 types of penguins we'd most likely see: Adelies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps.
At 7pm, we had a briefing on the next day's activities. We were all thrilled to hear that we might be able to get in a "bonus" landing in the South Shetland islands since we'd been making good progress. If we could make it, we'd be visiting a volcanic island with different types of wildlife and landscapes than most areas we'd be seeing.
I wasn't thrilled with the pork for dinner. Thankfully, I still had emergency M&M's left from JFK airport. On this evening, they felt worth every overpriced dollar I'd spent on them.
I had to fill out a form to request to borrow a pair of muck boots. Some people brought their own, but I didn't want to use the extra weight/space when you could rent them for free. They were showing the movie about Shackleton's voyage that I'd skipped on the Patagonia cruise- it was a good decision not to watch it then because I didn't need to see it twice in a week.
There weren't a lot of programming options on the ship. It made some sense since the voyage was mainly designed to be a research/ expedition type feeling. But we'd all expected more. I liked how they'd had options like Karaoke and Bingo on the Patagonia cruise- those kinds of things don't seem too hard to implement. Then again, the crew worked hard enough as it was.
After feeling relatively calm, the ship felt like it was rocking some more. If this was the mild version of the Drake, I'm definitely glad we didn't feel the extreme version. I went to sleep filled with excitement that the next day, I might actually set foot on Antarctica.
When the wake up announcement was broadcast, I did not want to get out of bed at all. Just the thought of the energy required to get up and get ready while battling the ship movement was too much for me. It wasn't just trying to keep my balance- which was hard enough- but I didn't feel up to another battle with doors that wanted to swing shut (like when trying to gather things from the closet) I still didn't feel nauseous at all, but the movement definitely bothered my system- and the medicine probably made me more tired.
With great effort, I eventually managed to get dressed and even put in my contacts, but I took my time and ended up skipping breakfast. As the mandatory 10am briefing approached, I started to feel stressed because I basically wanted to stay in bed for the rest of the cruise. Or at least for another hour. I heard an announcement that the first iceberg had been sighted, but I didn't even have any interest in going out to photograph it. (announcements were broadcast to speakers in the cabins)
I dragged myself down to the briefing, which mainly reviewed common sense things such as keeping the environment pristine, being safe, and using the zodiacs. Our expedition leader Monika's enthusiasm was contagious and helped bring up my energy level. I was definitely looking forward to being on land!
We also received lightweight life vests (not to be confused with the horrid ones we had to wear for the previous day's drill) which we needed to wear anytime we left the ship. Each vest had a number- the ship kept track of passengers by checking your number off on a master list when you departed and then again when you returned. I received a life vest with number 14, which immediately resonated as being the same number Pete Rose had worn when he played baseball. Cool.
I was disappointed that there wasn't hot chocolate amongst the various hot beverages that were available 24/7 in the main lobby. I mean, hot chocolate isn't exactly a luxury item. There seemed to be an ample supply of tea and coffee, but neither of those appealed to me. I was later told that they would serve hot chocolate after landings so at least it would be around, albeit on a limited basis.
At some point, someone asked me if I was feeling seasick. I replied, somewhat jokingingly: "I'm sick of being at sea." Lunch didn't really improve my mood, as the beef chop suey was... not thrilling. I also felt like falling asleep at the meal.
Shortly after lunch, we could finally see land in the distance. After over a day with nothing in sight but water, this was a genuinely exciting development so I went out on deck to take a look.
Back in my room, I saw that my rented muck boots had been delivered. They actually fit me pretty well. They wouldn't win any awards in a cute shoe contest (although I did see some with purple available to purchase online) but it's essential to wear a tall, waterproof boot when transversing the lands of Antarctica where the terrain contains snow, ice, and potentially mud and penguin poop. Also, you need to step into a very low level of water when exiting the zodiacs- so your feet need to be well protected.
Feeling refreshed after a short nap, I attended the 3pm lecture on Seals and Sea Lions. There was a mass exodus when a bluish iceberg was spotted right by the ship! It wasn't very large, but it was awesome to see the pretty colors that I'd only ever seen before in photos.
Shortly before 5, I started to prepare for our first landing at Barrientos Island in the Aitcho Islands. Layering is an important strategy when you embark on an excursion in Antarctica. I started by putting on my merino wool long underwear (I had 2 sets: one purple and one teal), and then a long sleeve shirt and pants. Before pulling on my muck boots, I put on 2 pairs of socks: one a light silk liner and the other a heavier wool. The final step in my getting dressed was to don my waterproof pants and coat. I grabbed my heavy gloves, enveoped my neck in a Buff, and put on my insulated woolen hat. Before heading down, I wrapped my camera in padding and stowed it in a waterproof bag.
We all gathered in the main lobby in anticipation of our landing. Compared to our Patagonia cruise, the process seemed more chaotic despite the fact that there were a lot fewer people on this cruise. (When looking into Antarctic cruises, I definitely wanted to take one with fewer than 100 passengers since only 100 people are allowed on Antarctica at once. So with more passengers, you have to go in shifts. Since the weather can be unpredictable, it's technically possible for one shift to miss a landing. The reviews I read on larger ships were favorable in spite of this limitation, but it wasn't the way I wanted to travel)
Before getting on the zodiac for any landing, you need to step into tubs of water to be extra sure your boots are clean and aren't going to contaminate the purity of the land. (you also need to step in these tubs on your way back) Eventually I was walking down the flimsy stairwell that led to the zodiacs.
We were all very happy to get off the ship, and pumped to actually be in Antarctica. Woo hoo! As I approached the island in my zodiac, I was delighted to see that we were being greeted by penguins. And not just 1 or 2... Tons of them! We'd entered penguin heaven!
As soon as I got off the zodiac, I took out my camera. I also took off the waterproof outer layer of my mittens, which had a toasty inner layer with a top that conveniently flipped so I could use my fingers. I'd searched long and hard before finding those gloves and I was very happy with my purchase.
We were able to freely explore Barrientos Island, walking up and down the hills and trouncing through snow that was occasionally a bit deep. Snow is way more fun when you don't need to drive through it or shovel it. Wherever we wandered, we had to be sure to pay attention to avoid the "penguin superhighways"- these are narrow channels that penguins dig and use to travel from place to place. It could disturb them if humans step in those paths, so we had to be careful. We also weren't supposed to get too close to the penguins- although it would be allowed if they came up to us.
It was wondrous to watch the penguins waddle and listen to them cackle. And just beyond incredible to be sharing the island with them, and no people other than my fellow cruise passengers. We saw tons of Gentoo and Chinstap penguins going about their daily activities. As if penguin paradise wasn't enough, we found ourselves in the middle of the most incredible vistas and scenery. It was definitely like no place I'd ever been in my life.
The weather was pretty incredible, and I was actually a bit warm in all of my layers. Skies were clear, the sun was shining. In stark contrast to my lack of energy earlier, I felt happy and bubbly to the point of giddiness. My understated phrase for the afternoon was "This SO does NOT suck!" The excursion to Aitcho Islands was one of those blissful bursts of time when everything converged to virtual perfection. This was life at its very best. Everyone I talked to felt that their trip was made. And this was just- pardon the expression- the tip of the iceberg!
When we returned to the ship (based on my photos, it seems like I was actually on land for about an hour and a half), I quickly shed my outer layer and went down to the main lobby to help myself to the hot chocolate that was promised after afternoon landings. My hopes were dashed when there was none available. But after hanging out with friends, someone finally brought some out and I practically ran over to grab a cup. It was GOOD. I had seconds. Penguins and hot chocolate.. What a life!
I enjoyed the chicken Caesar salad and actually ate all of my dinner entree. The dining room was still a bit loud and overwhelming for me, though.
We'd survived the Drake Passage and it no longer felt like a battle to accomplish normal everyday tasks. So I was finally able to take a nice shower- aaaaah! I totally needed that. I also decided to stop taking seasick medicines since the worst seemed to be over (until the way back, of course) Being off Bonine could only improve my energy level.
While going through my photos, I had a long discussion with Shannah about anything and everything- topics ranged from dating to rape (the Cosby allegations were a hot topic at this time) to careers. I could have talked forever- it was one of those glorious conversations about everything and nothing. But eventually it got late, so we went to sleep.
Even though the ship wasn't moving as much, I still had trouble sleeping. But once I got up, there were no doors to battle so I made it down to breakfast. The ship breakfasts were all buffet- this morning, they offered pancakes which were just ok. I also had some of the standard items like yogurt (better than strawberry than the vanilla I'd tried before) and oatmeal.
I heard an announcement that there were whales around the ship so I went outside but I didn't see any. I wasn't really disappointed though- actually, I was amazed by the Antarctic scenery around me, especially the icebergs.
At 9am, we had a landing on a small island called Hydrurga Rocks, which apparently are off the beaten path and are not on any maps. It was just another day in Antarctica- and by that I mean that it entailed trekking through snow while admiring incredible vistas and observing the ubiquitous penguins. The trekking is just a tad challenging at times, due to the snow, but pretty much at my level. The great thing is that you can choose how far you go at each landing- I'd chosen to walk up all the hills because I wanted to take in as much as I possibly could. Antarctica isn't like Disney World where if I miss something, I know I can just see it another time.
This stop proved to be the best opportunity we had to observe seals. We saw several Wedell Seals lazing on the island. Most of them seemed to be sleeping, but I lucked out in spotting one who woke up and started looking right at me.
After returning to the ship and taking off my outer layers, I switched out my camera's memory card. I was in excellent shape since I still had a lot of unused cards left! I was now on my 3rd 32GB card; I still had 2 more blank 32 GB cards along with several smaller 16GB and 8GB ones.
At lunch, our group started a tradition of occupying the small back area of the dining room, which was set up with 3 tables of 6. This was great because we could all be close together. (there was room for 2 other passengers in addition to the group of the 16 of us) It was a little quieter so it proved to be so much easier for me to follow conversations. Plus, I didn't feel a cold draft when the doorway opened like I could in the main rooms.
We all had seconds on the tomato soup which really hit the spot. I wasn't thrilled with the beef entree but at least it came with fries and they brought around ketchup. The eggs and onion on the side... well, the less said about them, the better.
After a nap, we had a 2:30pm briefing about our next landing. They also mentioned that the ship might try to go through the Lemaire Channel that evening, which would be very scenic.
After taking a few photos of the scenery, I hung out in the lounge and ended up ordering a Coke Light and eating a cream puff. (If it wasn't for the fact that we had to pay for sodas, I would have been annoyed that they ran out of Coke Light about halfway into the cruise.) During the afternoon, they also had sandwiches available- but I never understood why they put them out so close to lunch. Alas, there still wasn't hot chocolate available but I still checked. Josie and Amy taught me how to play Yahtzee and that proved to be really fun. Playing Yahtzee in Antarctica... that's not a phrase I thought I'd ever write!
Our afternoon stop was at Cuverville Island, which was home to colony of gentoo penguins amid a fabulous landscape full of glaciers. I saw so many penguin superhighways that I decided I was in the middle of a big city- penguin style. In addition to watching penguins waddling in their roadways, I also saw a couple who got confused and walked on the human path. It's really hard to put my landing experiences into words without making them all sound the same- there are only so many ways you can elaborate on fantastical scenery and penguins.
On the way back to the ship, our zodiac took us on a slow ride touring the icebergs in the area. I felt like I was in the middle of a special type of modern art museum. Each iceberg was like a uniquely crafted abstract glasslike sculpture that revealed its nuances as you approached and evolved as you circled around it. I tried to enjoy each beautiful detail, especially the cool bluish tints and diverse textures.
When we returned to the ship, I was finally able to enjoy some hot chocolate. At dinner, we again occupied the back room. My stomach bothered me a little, but I had some of the potato soup (which we thought may have been recycled French fries from lunch). Then, all of a sudden, my stomach took a turn for the worse. After talking to some people later, my hypothesis is that my stomach was defending itself from the invasion of the "vegetable lasagna" which apparently virtually all of our group- including vegetarians and people who usually eat everything- were unable to eat. I was told that it contained creamed corn and spinach- but alas, there is no photographic evidence of this concoction. (and again, people who love corn, spinach, and your typical vegetarian lasagnas found it inedible) Apparently, full plates began accumulating at my empty seat. My only regret is that I missed the live mockery.
Instead, I rested in my cabin and took some Pepto Bismal tablets. When I started to feel a little better, I decided to watch some of Frozen on my iPad. I'd been obsessing on Frozen at the same time I decided to take this trip so they are both tied together in my mind. (And yes, I know the movie takes place somewhere that's meant to be like Norway, but it's still ice.) I'd really wanted to watch it in Antarctica, so at least I accomplished a goal. The lyrics from "Let It Go" particularly resonated with me: "No right no wrong no rules for me, I'm free!"
The attempt to pass through the Lemaire Channel was postponed until the next day, but it was unclear if we'd have any landings or if we'd just have some zodiac rides.
Reflecting on my day, I felt like I was really starting to get the hang of this Antarctic cruise thing. Before the trip, I thought I might feel claustrophobic and isolated in Antarctica, so very far away from civilization, but it wasn't like that at all. In truth, living aboard the ship felt a lot like any other cruise, in a good way. (obviously the ship itself had a very different feel than either a Disney cruise ship or a Vietnamese junk) Although I was dying to tell people that I'd stepped foot on my 7th continent, I otherwise wasn't missing the Internet- which was rather shocking. In fact, it felt like my Antarctic experience was even more authentic because I was totally disconnected from my every day, city life.
A 6:30am wakeup announcement alerted us to the fact that the ship was going to try to go through the Lemaire Channel. There hadn't been reports in several days about the condition of the passage so they weren't sure if we could make it, but it was the only way to our intended stop at Petermann Island to see Adelie penguins.
The passage was supposed to be scenic, so of course I went out on deck to observe. By 8am, we still had not reached the Channel and I reflected that I might have slept longer. By then, I was very cold from standing on deck for an hour, so I went in to eat some breakfast. Oatmeal, lukewarm crepes and yogurt all hit the spot- especially since I hadn't eaten dinner the previous evening.
I'd been skeptical that the ship would be able to make it through the ice- there hadn't been a clear path visible to me. After eating, I returned out on deck and sure enough, the ship started making a U-turn. There was an announcement later that we wouldn't be able to land at Petermann afterall. I was bummed because I'd read about Adelie penguins in my pre-trip research and I'd been looking forward to seeing them in person. But instead, Monika had negotiated with other ships in the area and found a spot where we could make a late evening landing.
After a nap, I attended a lecture on marine mammals, which discussed dolphins and whales. Then it was time for lunch. We seemed to be served soup at every meal and we presumed it was because fresh salad could only be served for so many days. The meal was ok- we had vegetable soup, chicken with rice, and nut kuchen. Michelle let me eat some of her dessert which didn't have nuts, and it was pretty good- it tasted like shortbread. Overall, my meal time strategy had evolved to enjoying the bread (which was great), doing my best with the main meal, and thinking to myself that "we are so going to the expensive sushi place when my nieces pick me up from the airport."
Since we had a long break before our 4:15 zodiac ride, I went up to the cabin and caught up on TV episodes I'd downloaded from Once Upon a Time and Amazing Race- which was not something I'd really expected to be doing during an Antarctic cruise. I reflected that the cruise seemed to alternate between Oh-My-Gosh-Amazing and Nothing-Much-Happening, with little in between. When there was too long of a lull between the thrills, it could feel a little underwhelming. Obviously, Antarctica is not predictable, but I wished they could have done something. Actually, if meals had been delicious enough to be an event (as they are on most cruises- even on other Antarctic cruises friends have taken), it would have gone a long way to enhancing the experience (even though I certainly didn't go on an Antarctic cruise for the food).
I reflected on the fact that I was now headed toward the home stretch of my travels: I had traveled for 16 days and had 8 more to go. But even though I'd completed 2/3 of my trip, there was plenty of time to fill with memorable adventures.
JC knocked on our cabin door to tell us that there were penguins playing near the bow of the ship. They were gone by the time we got outside, but WOW what a beautiful area we'd reached! With virtually no wind, the water in Andvord Bay was as still as a lake and it served as a mirror for a myriad of snow covered mountains reaching gently toward the sky. A seemingly infinite number of crystalline bits of ice and glaciers floated calmly all around us. If ever there was a place where I wished I could shoot a 360 degree panoramic shot, this was it! Because of the lack of wind, it was very comfortable to stay on deck and admire the view. And it was blissfully quiet.
Eventually it was our turn for a 1 hr zodiac ride through the picture postcard beauty. For some reason, they filled the zodiacs with 10 people which left less room to maneuver with cameras (it's been 8 for transport when you really want more because there is a line) Also our driver was fond of collecting black ice into the zodiac and I banged my knee on one while trying to kneel to get a photo. But despite these nitpicking complaints, it was a glorious 1 hour ride. We were treated to a close-up view of artistic blue tinged glaciers, and saw a seal napping on one. I even managed a photo of one of the penguins that was swimming around us. Just another amazing moment in Antarctica...
Our evening plans were equally as chaotic and confusing as our morning. We were told that they'd try to have an early dinner so we could do a 9pm landing. But then it turned out that the kitchen couldn't get dinner ready in time. That was fine, but it took quite awhile for that information to be disseminated so there was some confusion. Once we found out that dinner would still be at 8pm, Shannah, Josie and I played a round of Yahtzee. I lost again.
Dinner started with a cream of pumpkin soup which, despite tasting of neither cream nor pumpkin, was actually quite good. The lamb entree was also pretty decent, even though I'm not big into red meat. I took one bite of the strawberry dessert and that was enough, but some people liked it. I enjoyed spending dinner with everyone, and we even saw a glacier go by (well we had to stand up and take a look- you can't just see out the dining room windows if you're short)
After dinner, we took our time getting into our gear since everything had been delayed all day. While we were lined up outside, we were told that the landing, which was to have been our first of only 2 on the continent, was canceled; the glacier we were supposed to climb had collapsed (thank goodness this didn't happen when we were there!) and the wind conditions were such that if we'd attempted a landing, we might have been stranded overnight... which would not have been a Good Thing. Welcome to Antarctica, land of the unpredictable!
We took some photos on deck since we were all dressed up with nowhere to go. I'd donned my "Let It Go" hat in honor of the continental landing. I'd tried to braid my hair like Elsa's too but that didn't work so I just wore it loose on one side.
Josie, Shannah, Phil and I played a fun game of Yahtzee. The best moment was when we felt a kinship after realizing that we were all math geeks at heart. I finally won a game! And I finally rolled a Yahtzee- 5 of a kind- which was even more thrilling. Actually, Phil would have won if only he could have rolled a single one in 2 attempts of rolling 5 dice 3 times each. That's 30 rolls without a one, which I told him was something incredible. Afterwards we had a lively conversation primarily about travel and when/why we came to our decisions that brought us together on our Antarctic journey. Then we checked the next day's schedule and realized we ought to get to sleep.
Back in the room, Shannah and I both moved some of our stuff out of cold, damp areas and into the closet instead. So the limited space we had for our belongings... was even more reduced.
We were awakened with an announcement that the ship was entering Paradise Bay. Once I got ready, I went out on deck to gaze at some more glorious Antarctic scenery. The weather was fabulous- sunny and relatively warm. Seeing pristine snowy mountains in the morning light would never lose its wonder.
After breakfast, we had a 9am landing to see the Gonzalez Videla Chilean Station; this was to be our only landing on the actual continent (as opposed to the surrounding islands). Like the previous evening, I wore my Frozen Elsa hat- only this time, I was actually able to do my "Here I stand" Elsa stomp on Antarctic ground. Mission accomplished!
Near the docking point, there was sign posted that identified the station. Of course everyone- myself included- had to take their requisite photos that announced that we were in Antarctica. From there, a paved path led to the main building where we could climb a narrow stairway and look out at an excellent view of the area.
One of the highlights of this landing was visiting what I affectionately called the "Mall of Antarctica" which provided us our only chance to purchase some Antarctica swag (other than souvenirs on the ship). Despite my grandiose nickname, it was really just a single room with merchandise spread out on folding tables. Unfortunately, the largest selection of items said "Chile"- and I'd already been there, done that. But I managed to grab some items including a kitch "I was here" T-shirt and a few small souvenirs for friends at home. It was all packaged in spiffy Antarctica paper bag. Of course, everything was a little overpriced for the value- but you have to expect that when you're shopping somewhere so far from easy (and cheap) transit.
Once that goal was accomplished, I took my time observing the many penguins that shared the area with the Chileans. They were so adorable in their movements- I observed one who appeared to be practicing making a nest by transporting small stones in its mouth (it wasn't breeding season). We could often hear a cacophony of penguins honking their unique call.
On the way back to the ship, we had a short tour among some more amazing icebergs which had provided a dramatic backdrop to our view from the station. There really aren't words to describe their beauty, especially when viewed on a sunny day like this one.
When we were hanging out back in the ship, the crew called us out for "appetizers" for lunch which turned out to be yummy BBQ sausage in rolls. Our lunch was to be a barbecue- and they were actually preparing it authentically on deck. You wouldn't typically think of Antarctica as one of the most likely places to have a barbecue, but fortunately the weather was cooperating.
Some of the Chileans who worked at the station had been transported on board our ship, which seemed to be a treat for them. In addition to the food, I think they really enjoyed seeing some new faces- especially females. They all seemed in great spirits as they took turns having their photos taken with a passenger who we'd affectionately dubbed "Santa" because of the obvious resemblance (although he typically wore a fluorescent orange suit instead of red) and the proximity to the holiday. There were a lot of laughs as we posed for a photo with a Chilean, "Santa" and a bunch of women from our group. The atmosphere was quite festive.
Eventually, we headed to the dining room for a more formal mealtime, where we were served more items from the barbecue. I had chicken and sausage and they were really good as far as meals go on the ship.
After a little nap, we boarded zodiacs for an afternoon ride around Paradise Bay. Sitting in a zodiac in Antarctic waters, I always marveled at the epic, pristine beauty surrounding our tiny boat. The landscape was truly breathtaking and I was grateful we'd been lucky with the weather so far. I couldn't get enough of the icebergs floating around us- each with its unique shape, and lovely aqua blue glow.
We passed near the Brown Argentinean Station, which at one point had been intentionally burned down by someone stationed there who wanted to return home. While a cruise to Antarctica is a fun diversion, staying there for an entire winter- without sun- can be psychologically brutal.
After shedding layers, reviewing photos, and drinking some hot chocolate, it was quiet so I decided to take a few minutes to go online to make sure everything was ok and to let everyone know that I was having a fabulous time. I also warned everyone that I'd be posting a ton of penguin photos as soon as I had better access to the internet. I tried to send my mom an email but I couldn't figure out how to get Comcast to display in English (instead of Spanish), so I wasn't sure I hit the right buttons. It was only $10 for 30 minutes on the ship and I didn't use all the time. The internet was obviously slow, but it wasn't actually as painful as I'd expected.
A bunch of us enjoyed a rousing 6 person game of Yahtzee, which was quickly growing into a bit of an addiction for me. We had a great group of people, and I liked hanging out with them.
Dinner started with onion soup which tasted nothing like onion but it was warm and inoffensive; the taste was enhanced by crumbling some bread into it. The main course was salmon which was- shocker- actually good. At dessert time, the staff came out with a lovely birthday cake for Amy. The chefs had truly done an excellent job accommodating everyone with allergies, and that included baking a cake that was egg-free. Josie presented Amy with a penguin postcard that we'd all signed with our birthday greetings. Pronouncing it the "Best. Birthday. Ever," Amy seemed so touched and happy. It was such a joy to be able to share that moment. The birthday cake was full of nuts so I stuck with the standard dessert of mocha cake which was good enough to finish.
Everyone was excited because the next day would be Christmas Eve. It was tough for me since I don't have that tradition- and in fact I usually feel alone at Christmas. But I tried to be in good spirits, nonetheless. It didn't help when I thought I overheard a comment about people having fun in Buenos Aires that excluded me. But I felt much better when Amy wanted me to take a photo of her cake; I like playing the role of trip historian.
Shannah wasn't feeling well and had left dinner abruptly. People tried to get me to call the room to check on her, but I figured she wanted to be alone. So Stephanie called, and eventually Shannah returned to dinner and the waiter made a paper rose for her. She had a sinus problem and I hoped she'd feel better.
After eating, we had a briefing for the next day's activities. Before starting the meeting, our expedition leader Monika publicly wished Amy a happy birthday and gave her the bottle of wine she'd won for guessing the latitude when we'd see the first iceberg. Then we were told that the landing the following morning would give us a chance to hike up a glacier. I figured I'd wait to see the actual landing site before deciding whether I'd just walk around the perimeter of the beach.
Meanwhile, I noticed a crew member wearing orange crocs. It isn't truly an epic trip unless orange crocs are involved somehow. Just ask my nieces. ;)
After we watched a cute short animated movie ("The Madagascar Penguins in A Christmas Caper"), I noticed that the light outside seemed especially beautiful, so I braved the wind on deck and walked around taking some photos. Just another evening in Antarctica... surrounded by breathtaking scenery and nearly endless daylight. While outside, I noticed someone taking photos with an iPad and thought about how my friend Heather would cringe.
I felt like having a quiet night which was in sync with Shannah not feeling well so that worked out nicely. I took a shower and did some laundry (socks and underwear) so that hopefully I would be good for the final week left of my trip.
At just past the midpoint, we were deep in the heart of our Antarctic cruise. Although I may have had some tiny issues here and there, the overall feel was incredible. There's something really special about visiting an area of the world where the penguins far outnumbered the humans.
By now, I could make my breakfast selections on automatic pilot: oatmeal, strawberry Yogurissimo brand yogurt and orange juice. Occasionally, there would be waffles or crepes to add, but not this day. There was always bacon but- much to my dismay- I found it to be practically inedible.
I've mentioned before that itineraries for Antarctica cruises are not even close to being written in stone; they're closer to being sketched tentatively in light pencil. This was another day when we ended up going with a "Plan B". There were many other ships which, like ours, had been unable to pass through the Lemaire channel. As a result, the area we'd originally intended to visit was quite crowded. So, instead we headed through another glacier dotted landscape to the Orne Islands.
I can't imagine that our planned stop could have been any better than the glorious morning exploring on the Orne Islands, which offered practically everything you could want in an Antarctic destination: breathtaking scenery, a landscape full of snow that was fun to traipse through, and of course the ubiquitous penguins. The weather was spectacular- sunny and so warm that many of us ended up taking off our winter coats and hats.
Once we arrived at the island, Shannah and Roxie decided against the short uphill hike from the docking area because they weren't feeling 100%. But they were actually lucky because they were treated to a closeup view of 2 Adelie penguins playing; because we'd had to cancel a stop, many of us (including me) were never able to see a single one of these penguins.
I didn't quite make it all the way to the pinnacle of the island- mainly because I asked someone if there were any more penguins to see at the peak and decided it wasn't worth it when they answered in the negative. The views I saw were still incredible, especially with the sun shining down on all the ice.
Much of my time was spent lingering and observing a cluster of penguins who were nestled atop a rocky hill. I shot a short video again and decided to pan out to the view of the waters around me. I took some moments to simply savor the joy of being in such a beautiful, serene place where I had the privilege of being a spectator to penguins going about their lives.
Due to a bit of luck, I was in the right place at the right time to get my photo taken with the ship's Santa- I was even able to borrow a hand printed "Merry Christmas" sign that someone had made. We also had a group photo taken with almost everyone the ship, and one for those from our individual group who'd made it up the first hill. Before returning to the ship, some people let out their inner children as they laid down in the snow and made snow angels.
Lunch consisted if cream of cauliflower soup which was ok despite not actually being creamy. The main course was pasta Alfredo, which could be more accurately described as "corkscrews with bland cheese, ham and a few mushrooms" After picking out the fungus, I ate all of my pasta despite the fact that it wasn't thrilling. Dessert was advertised (on the board outside the dining room) as some kind of biscuit with caramel. But it looked more like a piece of cake with something splattered on it. The splatter part reminded me of baby puke, and most of us ate around it after a few people reported not-so-positive experiences when they tried it. I actually had to cover the remnants of my cake before the plate was cleared from the table because I really couldn't bear looking at the splatter anymore. At least the cake part was actually pretty good.
As we were finishing up, Monika announced that there was an interesting iceberg on the starboard side of the ship so I ran up to my cabin to get my camera then went outside to take photos. After we passed the iceberg, I headed up to the ship's bow with the intention of trying to capture it from another angle. While I was there, I noticed a slew of penguins swimming right in front of the ship- I could even see them underwater, it was so clear. So I put my camera on burst shooting as I enjoyed watching the penguins bob in and out of the water. The result was that I ended up taking approximately eleventy billion photos in just about 2 minutes. (OK, so it was really "only" 130 shots) When I reviewed my pictures later, I was thrilled to come upon one that made it all worth it- the "money shot" in which 4 penguins are above the water and about to dive back under, with their reflections clearly visible beneath them. There were some other good captures- but that one was uniquely intriguing.
I hadn't slept well all night- I kept waking up. So I took advantage of some down time to take a nap. At one point, I dreamt that I was at the cupcake place in Atlantic City; when I woke up, I realized this was probably as close as I would be able to come to cupcakes in Antarctica.
As I lined up for the afternoon zodiac tour through Wilhelmina Bay, a bunch of people from my group called me over to them. This worked out perfectly because we all ended up in the boat driven by Monika, the expedition leader who has a brilliant personality. We first came upon some truly spectacular glaciers with amazing shapes and textures; Phil dubbed them "nice pieces of ice" We saw penguins perched on some of these masses. With barely a cloud in the sky, the ice took on some stunning shades of blue and green. Because it was so warm, you could see and hear one of the glaciers dripping water- I took a short video to capture that memory.
After JC spotted some whales, the latter part of our expedition turned into whale hunting. It was very exciting to spot them, and then take some continuous shots. At one point there were 2 that were really close to our zodiac, and it was incredible to hear the unique sounds they made (unfortunately I didn't take a video) I was glad to get some photos of their tails in the air as they plummeted below the surface. I took even more photos of the whales than I had of the penguins earlier, although none of the results were nearly as impressive. It's definitely way more fun to look for whales than it is to sort through a ton of photos of your whale search.
As we retuned to the ship, we saw our ship's Santa dressed in full costume- he'd apparently switched into the costume while on his excursion. Of course much picture taking ensued. At dinner, he came around and gave everyone a tiny pair of clogs that said Holland on them. I'm pretty sure that he just decided to do this all on his own- he's a really nice guy and he created some truly fun and festive memories for everyone aboard.
Dinner was pretty good: fish appetizer, turkey with an interesting mix of potato, egg and cheese, and a cream puff. There was a slightly awkward moment when someone asked me about my Christmas traditions, but I was mostly able to fight against holiday depression.
At dinner, JC mentioned that she was served wine in a sippy cup when she saw Book of Mormon on Broadway. That made me want to see the show again just to be able to take a photo of wine in a sippy cup. No matter where I am in the world, something always reminds me of in-jokes with my nieces (such as sippy cups. And Book of Mormon, for that matter) and I feel like a part of them is with me. It's a nice feeling.
Later, champagne glasses were passed around and candy bars (torron and mani) were out on the tables in the lounge. Monika made a Christmas Eve toast and everyone was in high spirits, clinking glasses and wishing each other Merry Christmas. I was very happy that Stephanie let me borrow her Santa hat- it was purple and sparkly so it was totally me. As we were gathered, there were several whale sightings which brought focus to the windows, while some ventured out on deck.
When I got ready for bed, I realized that our cruise was winding down (we had only one more day of excursions before setting on course back to Argentina). I thought with gratitude of the things I would miss: spending time with the awesome people from my group (especially the Yahtzee geeks!), the daily dose of penguins, the incredible scenery, the freedom from dealing with money, and being away from the internet. I also considered the things that I would not miss: the wet spots on our cabin floor, the annoying way you needed to open both sides of the closet in order to close it, the food, and being away from the internet.
I was definitely starting to feel some more movement on the ship as of around 11:30pm, but we'd been forewarned that would happen.
Some people can't sleep on Christmas Eve because they are filled anticipation and excitement; others have trouble because they are in a small bunk on a ship that is navigating through some noticeably wavy waters. After being awake for quite some time at 2:30am, I finally took an anti-anxiety pill... It did the trick but, as expected, I had a horrible time trying to get up in the morning. I finally got down to the dining room at 8:40 expecting it to be closed-I was pleasantly surprised that I could still go in to grab some oatmeal and orange juice.
We had a morning stop at Deception Island. At first it sounded like it was only for people who wanted to swim in the hot springs. That wasn't really my thing, so I was going to skip it until I found out that you could also just walk around. I really didn't want to miss one of the last excursions.
We'd been spoiled with sunny weather until this point, so it was slightly disappointing to encounter a cloudier day. But it was still very pleasant to walk around on the black sands along the short shore and it wasn't overly cold.
Michelle, Amy and I spent a laid back morning hanging out together- talking and just enjoying the outdoor air and the scattered penguins. We mostly kept our distance from the hubbub of people in bathing suits who were excitedly crawling into little hot springs although we did stand in a hot spring for a bit (in boots) to warm up our feet. Michelle and I lingered quietly and were among the last to return to the ship. It can be very peaceful to find your own little nook in Antarctica, away from the main group. (although never too far off- that wouldn't be safe)
After Amy left, Michelle confided in me that Amy would like to room with me in Buenos Aires. (a few of us had planned to spend a couple days in Buenos Aires after the cruise) She'd originally agreed to bunk with Raewyn but was concerned that the plan had changed so that there would be an extra person in the room. Michelle also knew that I'd been concerned that I might be all alone since Raewyn had moved her reservation to another hotel so she brought up the idea that Amy might be able to room with me. (Raewyn had originally booked the same hotel as me) Even though I'd originally wanted to have my own room for the post trip, I was instantly cool with having Amy join me. By now, I knew that Amy was a sweet person and that we could get along as roommates. It also felt nice to be wanted. Rule #1 of travel is to be flexible- sometimes that wrinkle in your plans will end up making your trip even better. (spoiler alert- this was definitely one of those times!)
Before lunch, Amy passed out adorable cute handmade penguin Christmas presents. So sweet! Lunch consisted of onion soup that actually tasted like onion, seafood and rice, and strawberry jello. The English on the menu signs was notoriously bad; this day was even worse than usual as it declared that the dessert was "Struwerry Yelly" so we all had a chuckle.
After lunch, I took a nap and was happy with the announcement that the landing in Yankee Harbour would be delayed. It took Shannah and I awhile to get up and ready and we were among the last to get off the ship.
I'd had visions that I'd stay ashore for my final landing in Antarctica until they dragged me back to the ship. But the weather had taken a turn for the worse and we found ourselves conditions that you'd more typically expect for Antarctica: snowy and brisk. You couldn't even see the landing site from the ship because the sky was so overcast. So it was not conducive to lingering- or to taking a photo wearing Stephanie's sparkly purple Santa hat which I'd also wanted to do. I really wished our last landing could have been picture perfect, but I couldn't complain since overall we'd been spoiled with such lovely weather. Again- rule #1 of travel: be flexible.
Unaccustomed to the dreary and windy conditions, part of me wanted to just turn around and go back to the ship. But I found out that there were 3 types of whales spotted and that provided me with enough motivation to march further down the beach. I carried my DSLR camera in a dry bag and my small one in my pocket. I used both, but didn't really take many photos. At one point I had trouble understanding where a staff member was directing me, but it turned out he was pointing out a whale. At another time, I almost walked into a skua nest because it blended with the ground.
After seeing the last of the 3 whales, I turned around to walk back to the landing site. Without anything exciting to tempt me, the trek was rather miserable and seemed interminable. Specks of falling snow seemed to be attacking my face, and it didn't help that one of my outer gloves was twisted with the dry bag.
Still, the sight of penguins waddling through a curtain of snow flakes had its own unique beauty. I'm glad I got to see Antarctica in the falling snow; I just wish it hadn't been for my last experience on the continent. The final photo I shot on Antarctic soil was of a trail of footprints of human boots and webbed penguin feet, side-by-side. It may not be the best photo I could have taken (given the uncomfortable conditions), but I love that I ended with a photo conveying such beautiful symbolism.
I felt soaked when I got back to the ship, but my waterproof outer layer had protected me from the worst of it. With some sadness, I returned my boots and life vest since I wouldn't need them anymore. They'd become almost an extension of my self, and had journeyed with me to some incredible places. After some (very) hot chocolate, I took a shower because we'd soon be hitting the dreaded Drake passage. For the first few minutes, there was no cold water- turning the faucet away from hot only reduced the water pressure. But fortunately it soon started to behave like normal.
Before dinner, I helped Josie and Phil with a crossword puzzle that had been troubling them. One of the clues was the 2005 Tony Award winning musical- that was right up my alley although I'm embarrassed to say that I am so rusty with recent theatre events that it took me way too long to come up with "Spamalot".
Dinner started with corn soup, which was pretty good. But the ship's movements were getting choppier so I decided to skip the pork and lie down instead. I thought someone was going to bring me up some of the delicious bread but there must have been a miscommunication.
Nestled in my bed, I watched the remainder of the movie Frozen which I'd started a few days earlier. During "Let It Go", a mixture of tears slid down my face- I felt an incredible sense of joy because I had lived a dream that had been so closely tied with the film but I felt an even more acute tinge of sadness because that adventure was now winding down. It occurred to me that this was like my usual Christmas: solitary and somewhat melancholy- but doing my best with the situation and embracing things I love.
Laying in bed, I felt mainly ok. I was able to go through photos, write notes for my blog, and even eat some candy (one of the candy bars from Christmas Eve and a Dulce de Leche cookie from Ushuaia). I felt accomplished when I managed to stand upright to take out my contacts.
I wasn't looking forward to 2 more days confined to a ship going through waters that could get choppy. I reminded myself that I hadn't been totally incapacitated on the way down, and tried not to think of the possibility that the upcoming passage could be worse. I hoped that after getting some sleep, maybe my body would become more accustomed to the movement. Of course, that wasn't based on any logic beyond wishful thinking.
After the morning wakeup announcement, I wrestled with an important decision: "To get up or not to get up". Part of me felt that I could live in my bed. I didn't even open my eyes until after breakfast was over, but Shannah was sweet enough to bring some food up to the room just in case. The Bonine did a great job at preventing nausea but I'm convinced it made me very tired.
At around 10am, I opened up my iPad. This monumental achievement was cause for some celebration. At 10:35, I managed to put in my contacts, take a quick hot shower (aaah!) and get dressed. As I performed these usually routine tasks, I felt like I was pulling off miraculous feats from the musical "Barnum" because the combination of the ship's motion and my fatigue made even the most basic tasks more challenging.
The highlight of my morning entertainment was watching the woman make up the room. I was seriously impressed by how skillfully she could maneuver while the ship was moving.
I succeeded in making it to the dining room for lunch, and actually enjoyed the tuna pastry appetizer so much that I asked for a second. But then I felt like the motion was bothering me again, so I went back up to my room. My bed was my happy place where I alternated sleeping with dreams of seeing my nieces in a few days. I was really excited to spend New Years with them and I couldn't wait to see how J would react when midnight would bring the revelation that I was planning to take her to Japan for her upcoming high school graduation present. I also had something prepared for M as well, because I didn't want her to feel left out (even though she may have her own graduation present in 4 years)
During my free time, I invented a new weight loss idea. I called it the "Drake Diet". It basically involved feeling so uneasy that you wouldn't want to eat anything. If only it was more convenient for people to take a spin in the Drake Channel, I could be a millionaire!
I made it down to the dining room again for dinner. I wasn't thrilled with anything on the menu, but the waiter happened to be there when I was looking and he made a huge effort to find something that I'd accept. I ended up with a plate of rice along with the egg/zucchini thing that everyone had which wasn't bad; the rice was definitely most welcome. I sat next to the wall and I think that helped me feel more steady.
I was really craving some ice cream, and I was not alone in that thought. But despite asking the waiter and even the bartender, there was not a lick to be had. Someone could make serious money on black market ice cream on these cruises.
After eating I felt ok enough to hang in the lounge and play Yahtzee with Don (newbie who won), Phil and Josie. My rolls were so bad I had to gamble on getting a 2nd Yahtzee bonus to even have a prayer at winning. I also helped a little with a crossword puzzle. The movement seemed to be getting worse- I even saw the deck get splashed. Although I spent most of the day feeling like a zombie, something I was doing was obviously working since I was not nauseous.
While we were in the lounge, we found out that someone had fallen down a flight of stairs. I didn't see it, but apparently she was just walking past a stairwell when the ship shifted and knocked her through the doorway and down the stairs. I didn't know who it was, but obviously I was shook up and my thoughts were with her. This Drake Passage was some serious stuff. It's so easy to have a momentary loss of concentration and then end up injured. Believe me, after this happened, I was always careful to hold onto something stationary whenever I had to stand up or move.
At around 11pm an announcement came over the PA system instructing those who were standing on deck alone to stand nearer the bridge for safety. They were more polite than I'd have been... which would have been along the lines of "Hey, you idiots who thought it would be a good idea to stand alone in deck while the Drake is doing its thing? Worst. Idea. Ever. Move your butts to somewhere less insane"
They said that at 4pm the next day we'd be in calmer waters. I was counting down the hours! I was really glad that I'd be staying on in Buenos Aires for a couple days because the last thing I'd want to do after 2 full days in the Drake would be to take long-haul flights and deal with multiple layovers. No, it was definitely a much better idea to chill at a nice hotel and get a taste of a new city.
Not long after I got back to the cabin to get ready for bed, the yogurt that Shannah had brought me from breakfast took a nosedive from the desk and splattered on the floor, making a bit of a pink mess. Somehow, that seemed an appropriate end to the day.
Although the ship movement seemed markedly improved from the previous night, I still didn't feel like getting up for breakfast. I tend to sleep late at home when I can get away with it, but not so much on vacation- so, in retrospect, I really feel that the Bonine was getting to me. I didn't take one in the morning and hoped that would keep me more alert through the day.
I felt like I achieved a major milestone when I made it downstairs for the 9:30am lecture on the Antarctic treaty; I'd skipped all the lectures on the previous day. I felt a little more myself, with the exception of the fact that I was starting to feel a hint of a scratch in my throat. Ugh. A bunch of people in my group had been dealing with minor throat issues and I was hoping to escape that fate.
Monika presented the lecture on the Antarctic Treaty and, as usual, her enthusiasm was infectious. Among the interesting facts I learned were that Antarctica was not governed by the same International rules as other countries- in particular, they are not a part of the UN. Also, a nifty bit of trivia is that Antarctica is the only continent where no murders have been committed.
Everyone was relieved to learn that the woman who had fallen down the stairs the previous night would be ok. She had a hematoma and would be taken away by an ambulance, but her prognosis was bright. It's very fortunate that, if there had to be an accident, it happened after the main trip activities were completed. It would be tragic to miss your entire once-in-a-lifetime Antarctica trip due to a freak fall on the ship.
I thought I had 12 minutes of Internet access left from my purchase a few days earlier, but when I logged on to use it, I discovered that I only had about 8 minutes left. Oh well. At least I had time to post a quick status update and congratulate a friend on her pregnancy.
Lunch was completely acceptable featuring fried calamari and fish. There was still some drama playing out about the Buenos Aires rooming situation, but I was hopeful that it would sort itself out in a way that worked out for everyone. And that Amy would end up sharing a hotel room with me. I couldn't believe that I was actually hoping for a roommate, but once the idea was suggested to me, it just felt right.
In the mid- afternoon, the ship had stabilized- I'd survived the Drake! YES! I may have become better friends with my bed than I'd have anticipated, but at least I never felt nauseous. Someone said that the passage was about a 5 out of 10 at its very worst so we were pretty lucky.
I took some time to shower and to do most of my packing. Removing my winter clothing from the closet made me face the reality that the cruise was drawing to close. I was sad that it had to end, but I was also definitely looking forward to returning to dry land! I kept hoping for a random 3G signal from the coast on my iPad, but that never happened.
At our 4pm meeting to discuss disembarkation, we found out that there were an impressive 22 nationalities represented among those on the cruise! (since the ship carried a maximum of 88 passengers, this was pretty amazing) At the end of the presentation, the crew had a surprise for us- they'd prepared a slide show for us! It was really well done and set to music that even included Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now"; it captured the excitement and feel of the trip. Plus, we'd be receiving a DVD that included the slide show as well as a slew of other helpful information about our cruise: a map, all the daily programs, a list of wildlife we'd seen, and more. Awesome!
After settling my account (some of my charges and Shannah's were on the wrong bills), I received my passport back. Complete with Antarctica stamps! We'd seen Monika personally stamping them when we were at the Chilean station.
I felt like the cruise was technically completed at this point- we were docked somewhere off the coast of Chile but we wouldn't actually disembark until we could pull into Ushuaia port the next morning. So it almost seemed like we were just killing time; it would have been awesome to have internet since that's always a great time sink.
I was already missing our landings on snow covered sites dotted with penguins and all our zodiac rides through mazes of beautiful glaciers. Reflecting more deeply, it wasn't the actual places I missed as much as the amazing feeling of discovery that greeted me at every turn. Antarctica was truly like nowhere else I'd been, and it had been an incredible experience to journey so far from my comfortable city/suburban life. It was now 2 days since our last excursion and it was already starting to feel far away- as though once upon a time, a fictional character who looked like me and talked like me had found herself transported to a wintry penguin wonderland.
And, just like that, the amazing cruise I'd been anticipating for so long was finally over. I set my bag in the hallway in the morning and went on deck to take a look at Ushuaia; I had a slight sense of deja vu recalling the previous arrival from my Patagonia cruise. After grabbing some oatmeal, crepes, and orange juice, I headed back to my cabin for one last time. I grabbed my carry-on and unceremoniously walked off the ship onto the pier.
Just about everyone from our group was congregating together. We had to make our way to the airport, although everyone had plenty of time before their flights. As we watched some people board vans and buses for the airport, we wished we'd known to make transit plans in advance. But it all worked out- for $10 each, we ended up riding on a bus with some other travelers. It was super convenient, especially since we didn't even need to lug our bags to the end of the pier.
Our time at the airport could best be captioned as "Travelers in Search of Wifi: the failure" We even asked for information, but nothing worked. And joy of joys, the flight most of us were taking was delayed. So we had tons of time to... sit and wait in the tiny airport. If anyone is looking for a sure win business plan, you could open up a shop at the Ushuaia airport selling anything that said Antarctica. We were a captive audience, with money to spend, and there was a definite shortage of interesting items to purchase. I personally would have spent a good chunk of change on anything remotely cute that was labeled "Antarctica".
The highlight of my wait at the airport was when I decided to take a walk by myself outside. Within the airport area, you could see green grass, water, and a mountain backdrop- just your typical Patagonia scenery. I knew I'd miss being in places where simple beauty was so easy to find, virtually everywhere you turned.
At some point in the airport, I managed to get online- probably because I still had an International data plan for my iPad. So I messaged my nieces and asked them to bring a winter coat from my closet when they picked my up at the airport in a couple days. (I didn't want to worry about keeping mine out). My younger niece informed me that, contrary to plans that we'd all discussed, she wouldn't be spending New Years with the rest of the family. It probably wasn't the best time to receive disappointing news, since I wasn't exactly having fun. I tried to tell my niece how much it meant to me for her to be there, but her mind was made up. I wasn't going to hold it against her or anything- after all, she is a teenager (*rolleyes*)- but it kinda hurt. Ironically, the main reason I was disappointed was because I'd worked on a present for her that I'd planned to give at midnight.
At last, it was finally time to board our plane. The highlight of the flight was having a Coke Light- this was truly exciting since the cruise had been out of diet soda for days.
As we approached Buenos Aires, I looked out the airplane window upon the sprawling metropolis below. It was total culture shock after weeks in the sparsely populated regions of Patagonia and Antarctica!
Once we landed, I said my goodbyes to most of my group members who were on the plane. They were going to transfer to the other Buenos Aires airport for their flights back to the US. After a couple days full of nothing, I was really glad to have a day and a half ahead of me to enjoy a new city before my return home.
Amy and I decided to book a private car with another woman who was staying at a hotel near ours. As we rode to our hotel, I already felt that Buenos Aires seemed more interesting than Santiago.
I'd booked a suite in my hotel because it included a late check out and free wifi, and it was still cheaper than the initial rate I'd booked. That worked out really nicely because it meant that Amy and I had plenty of space. Although they couldn't let us borrow a rollaway in for fire reasons (which seemed odd given that the suite had ample space), they brought up some blankets for the sofa.
In the hotel room, I did some basic research on possible activities in the city. I found a Hard Rock Cafe for Amy and a cupcake store for me. I also discovered a free walking tour that looked like a good way to spend the next morning.
We asked the hotel for recommendations for dinner, and we ended up walking a couple blocks through quiet streets to a cute little restaurant. Amy, a flight attendant, said it had to be a quality establishment because flight crews were eating there. It was almost overwhelming to have so many choices on a menu after 10 days of no choices. I enjoyed my spaghetti and Amy enjoyed her pizza. For dessert, neither of us could resist the ice cream- I had chocolate and dulce de leche!
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a convenience store. It looked like an interesting neighborhood, with plenty of stores but they were all closed because it was a Sunday night at 9pm.
Once we got back to the hotel, I organized my photos, re-connected with everyone online, and took a long shower. My throat had been feeling scratchy so I was glad to have a quiet night.
I had a terrible time trying to fall asleep and I reasoned that it was because my body had become accustomed to being lulled to sleep by a rocking boat in the Antarctic waters. I finally took an anti-anxiety pull but it took awhile to work; I recall being awake at 2 am. Nonetheless, I awoke at 9 and was eager to start exploring Buenos Aires.
There was one problem- Amy was still asleep. I wasn't sure if I should disturb her or not. I finally woke her at 10am since we were planning going on an 11am walking tour. When she didn't get up, I wasn't sure if I should just leave without her or if I should wait. She eventually got up enough to tell me that her migraine was bothering her and that she'd taken some medicine that would knock her out for about 4 hours.
By then, it was too late to get to the walking tour. But I was completely ok with that.
Remember- my first rule of travel is to be flexible. I enjoy wandering around cities and am a bit of a public transit geek so I was excited to have the opportunity to go adventuring on my own, although I felt bad for Amy.
I started by walking down Florida street, the pedestrian street across from my hotel. Unlike the previous evening, the area was bustling with activity including a couple tango dancing (for donations). I wandered into some shops I but didn't buy anything though I was surprised to see Ushuaia/Patagonia souvenirs. When I made a turn to get to the subway stop, I was excited to see that I was headed directly toward the Obelisk that is an icon of the city.
The best thing about the Buenos Aires subways is that they were dirt cheap (5 pesos which was roughly the equivalent of 50 cents). There were also interesting mosaics at many of the stations. On the negative side- well, they could have run a tad more frequently.
I disembarked one stop before I'd intended because there was a mass exodus and I figured there must be something interesting there, but it seemed like a relatively ordinary street. Someone tried to get my attention to tell me that I'd dropped some money, but I figured that it was just a scam like some of the things we'd experienced in Santiago. It wasn't until much later in the day that I realized that I had, in fact, lost a tiny bit of money. Oops.
Eventually I found the mall I was searching, though it took me a second to figure out how exactly to get in. But once I did... a cute little cupcake kiosk- that holy grail- was beckoning me from a level below! Needless to say, I headed directly towards the nearest down escalator. As I tried to work through the tough decision of what to order, I stalled by taking photos. It was practically a given that I'd need to try the Dulce de Leche cheesecake flavor. I wanted to try a second one, and settled on a more standard selection: Oreo (though I was very tempted by the Bon Bon which contained Dulce de Leche).
There was nowhere to sit so I found a very vacant Starbucks. Partly because I didn't want to eat there without purchasing anything, I bought an orange juice before settling down out a table. Then I am sure I amused the sparse clientele with my pathetic attempts to take cupcake selfies along with cupcake portraits. The Dulce de Leche cheesecake was absolutely amazing but it was very rich, so I was glad my second selection was a little lighter.
After walking around the mall for a bit, I decided to take the subway to the Cathedral stop which was near the Casa Rosada, the one site that was a "must see" for me. I'm a huge musical theatre fan and I've spent practically my whole life listening to the title character in Evita belt out "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" from the balcony of the Case Rosada. It was great to actually see the famous building and its surroundings. After some pathetic selfie attempts, a lady offered to take my photo- yay! So I was able to do my best attempt at an Evita pose in front of the Casa Rosada.
From there, I found my way to the Florida pedestrian street and walked its entire length back to my hotel, occasionally stopping in stores and eventually buying a Coke Zero. When I entered one souvenir store, I heard Billy Joel's "Allentown"- not exactly a song I'd expect to hear while touring in Argentina.
It was a hot day (high of 88F) especially in comparison to my recent travels, so I was exhausted when I finally returned to my hotel room after walking around for an hour and a half. I took a few moments to bask in the A/C.
Amy was feeling better, and Raewyn also wanted to do something so we made plans to take a tour bus around the city. The bus was a purple double decker, with the top deck being completely open. Instead of an audio guide, the guy was narrating for us and letting us know when to get cameras out etc. We made 2 stops, which were plenty considering that we were all feeling a bit under the weather. At the first stop, we walked around inside the Metropolitan Cathedral; I'd been in that area earlier (it's right near the Casa Rosada) but hadn't gone inside. The second stop was the colorful, vibrant neighborhood of La Boca. Neither Amy nor Raewyn felt up to exploring so I set off on my own. At one point, I panicked for a minute about finding my way back to the meeting place for the bus, especially since I thought the others would be worried. But it all worked out, and I even had a small amount of time to spare.
Before returning to our hotel room after the tour, I accompanied Amy to the nearby McCafe to get a Dulce de Leche milkshake. (I must have really not been feeling well to have not gotten one for myself!) That place should get some kind of award for being the slowest. ever. "fast-food" place I've experienced. This was impressive since there was absolutely no line.
We considered spending our evening at a Tango show but unfortunately the 3 of us weren't really up for that. There was some debate about whether we should go out to dinner at the same place as yesterday or do room service. I was feeling really beat so I was in favor of the latter. When Amy came back to the room, she felt likewise. We invited Raewyn to join but she must have decided to do something else. So the 2 of us took showers and enjoyed a lazy pajama party eating pasta and ice cream! I wasn't sure my ice cream had the Dulce de Leche flavor I'd ordered, but it was all good. After the Antarctica cruise, I was just happy to be able to have as much ice cream as I wanted, whenever I wanted it.
I tried to do an online check-in for my flight the next evening. When that wasn't successful, I called American Airlines to try to ensure a seat assignment. Although the agent was nice, he allegedly couldn't help me even if I'd been willing to pay. Memo to myself (and a tip to anyone reading): do not book a codeshare fare on an airline that isn't the one actually running the flight. (I was taking an American flight that was booked as a LAN codeshare) I was more successful at ordering a car to the airport. As Amy called to request a late checkout, I was slowly wrapping my head around the fact that I'd soon be returning to my real life.
Buenos Aires seemed like a great city and I wished I'd had time and energy to see more of it. In particular, I enjoyed the European influences on the architecture. And of course the colorful La Boca area was totally my type of place. The city was way more interesting than Santiago, and it felt as safe as any big city.
All good things must come to an end, and at last the final day of my extra long vacation had arrived. It's tempting to say that it felt like I'd just boarded the plane bound for South America, but in reality it had been such a full trip that it seemed like that flight had been a long time ago. I was ready to get home and back to my furricanes. It wouldn't even be a letdown because at midnight on New Years Eve, I'd be telling my older niece that I'm taking her to Japan for her high school graduation present. In essence, the day after arriving home, I'd need to start planning the next trip. That's really the best way to do things when you're a travel junkie like me.
My flight wasn't until 9pm and the car to take us to the airport would be arriving at around 4:30, so we had some time for a little last minute sightseeing. I was feeling worse with my cold (and cough), so I wasn't all that energetic about touring. Amy still needed to see the Hard Rock Cafe (it's a tradition for her to get shirts from there- and I totally respect traditions), so after a bit of a lazy morning, we headed there for some t-shirt shopping and lunch. We toasted to a successful trip over refreshing non-alcoholic beverages, and I ended up just ordering a chicken fingers plate that was technically an appetizer.
After we were done eating, I suggested we walk around a bit. My travel instincts didn't let me down as we happened upon a marketplace where I was able to purchase some hand crafted earrings. It was a stroke of good luck because I always like to try to get colorful earrings from countries where I travel, but I hadn't really felt up to pursuing that in earnest in Buenos Aires.
We also found a local pharmacy where I somehow managed to communicate with the pharmacist to purchase a decongestant; like in Austria, they weren't sold over the counter. I didn't feel that bad, but it was important to me to do my utmost not to annoy other people on the airplane. Plus, if I felt worse on the way home, it would be good to be prepared. I'd been carrying an array of medicines with me "just in case" but alas decongestant was not among them.
After taking a taxi back to the hotel, I did some last minute souvenir shopping on Florida street by my hotel. I was excited to see an Antarctica T-shirt among the designs on the wall. But my euphoria was short-lived since they didn't have any of that T-shirt in stock. Darn!
Once we got back to the hotel room, we took showers and finished our packing. We ended up lingering slightly longer than we'd told the front desk, so they called up to the room and I assured them we'd be down soon. We weren't charged for any extra time and the front desk personnel were very friendly as we checked out and settled the bill.
We sat in the lobby to wait for our car which ended up arriving early. Amy's flight was later than mine but she felt it was best to share a ride with me. It was hard to say goodbye to her in the car (our flights were at different areas of the airport)- Agreeing to room with her was one of the best spontaneous decisions I'd made and I knew I'd miss her.
Fortunately, I had no problem getting a window seat on my flight to Miami. After I stepped away from the check in desk with relief, I noticed that there were a bunch of young men nearly dressed in suits and ties. And didn't they have name tags on them...? I soon realized that I was ending my trip in a quirky musical theatre style that is so me... I was living a "Book of Mormon" fan fiction! Yes, I was seeing young Mormons on their way back home to the USA after their 2 year missions in the land of Tangos and Dulce de Leche. (note: I realize if you haven't seen the musical "Book of Mormon", most of this entry may sound like I am on crack or something...)
I had a ton of time to kill but fortunately, this airport was a lot more interesting than the Ushuaia airport. Even so, the most amusing activity I found was to message my nieces (huge "Book of Mormon" fans thanks to their cool Aunt taking them to the show) about the Mormons I was seeing walking two by two from gate to gate. To my delight, I overheard a couple of them saying they'd be on my flight. It doesn't take much to amuse me when I have a long wait at the airport.
I'd messaged my nieces asking "Is it wrong that I want to be sitting next to an elder on the plane?" never thinking that would actually happen. So I just about died when Elder T. had the seat next to mine. As plane rides go, this one was epicly amusing and interesting. Elder T was a friendly and sincere young man on his way home to California. While I slept for a lot of the trip (it was a red-eye afterall), there was still enough time to talk to him about his experiences being on a Mission. He told me that he was really isolated from society- I believe he wasn't allowed to watch TV or go on the Internet so he often got his news way after it actually happened. He also wasn't able to come home to see his sister when she had a baby. He really wasn't sure what he wanted to do in the future- at that moment, his only thought was to get home to his family.
Although he'd spent a couple years in rural Argentina, Elder T was a young and very inexperienced traveler and so he asked me for advice on filling out his customs form. US citizens are entitled to bring $800 worth of merchandise into the country without having to pay duty and he was sure he'd spent more than that. While I might have considered fudging a little if it had been me (after all, it seems silly to have the same limit on someone with a 1 week trip and someone with a 2 year trip), I wasn't about to tell a devout Mormon to lie.
He wasn't sure if he should check off the box stating that his trip was for business, but he ultimately decided that being on a Mission was indeed his job. He also wasn't sure about ticking off the box about being on a farm since he was on some kind of a farm for a Christmas celebration. I advised him to be honest and that the customs officials would probably ask him for details and guide him in how to proceed.
As snarky and amused as I was about sitting next to him, my conversations with Elder T. were all genuine and without judgment. Thankfully, he did not make even the smallest effort to convert me or things might have been entirely different. Unfortunately, I thought I'd written down notes that included details on our conversation after I arrived home but I can't find them. I ultimately found it most interesting to note the juxtaposition of his worldliness after having lived immersed in a foreign culture for a couple years compared to the overall sense of naivete (in the best sense of the word) that he exhibited.
To my surprise, Miami proved to be an excellent airport for a layover. I liked using the automated entry kiosks, and the entire process of transferring went smoothly. (LAX could learn a thing or ten...) Plus, I found cupcakes! It wasn't even 6am but it's never too early to eat cupcakes.
The final leg of my trip went off without a hitch, and also without anything nearly as interesting as sitting next to a Mormon returning from his mission. Soon enough I was picking up my luggage, and then hopping into "Greenie" (my niece's car) . I was thrilled to see the 2 girls and I regaled them with travel tales as we talked nonsense and eventually went out for sushi. As fun as traveling is, it's always awesome to come home to people who are happy to see you.
Mission: Travel to All Seven Continents was achieved... and done in grand fashion!
The high points were all my excursions within Antarctica. It's an absolutely breathtaking, amazing continent. If I can, I'd love to return in 10-20 years and perhaps take a longer cruise that crosses the Antarctic Circle. I'd probably want to try a different cruise line, although I'd have to weigh the costs- Antarctica is not an inexpensive destination. I'd still want to take a smaller ship, carrying fewer than 100 passengers, because otherwise everyone has to divide up into shifts for all landings. That can make it hard if weather conditions change, as they often do in unpredictable Antarctica.
Patagonia was also amazingly gorgeous. Like my fellow travelers, I wish I'd had more time in our resort in Torres del Paine. I'm totally a city girl in my real life but it's such a treat for me to visit scenic wonderlands and just enjoy the peaceful beauty surrounding me. The Patagonia region of Southern Chile and Argentina rivals Norway for the most gorgeous areas I've visited (so far).
I also wish I'd had a little more time in Buenos Aires- or at least that I'd felt better when I was there. I can definitely see myself visiting again if the opportunity arises. This time, the stop was just long enough to break up the very long trip home with a dash of excitement. I hadn't done much research on the hotel but I couldn't have chosen better- the Plaza Hotel was very comfortable and its location was perfect, right across from a pedestrian shopping street.
On the other hand, I could have done without Santiago. Admittedly, my group ran into terrible luck with crime plus we had the misfortune of being there on a Sunday and a holiday. However, there just didn't seem to be an awful lot of sites or activities that interested me (that I couldn't also find somewhere more to my liking). I will say that the food was delicious so at least there was that.
I remain somewhat ambivalent about traveling with groups. The start of the Patagonia pre-trip was rough for me in terms of feeling left out. And, as noted above, group travel often means that I can't necessarily stay at my destinations for what I'd consider to be the ideal time. However, I ultimately found myself really bonding with the Patagonia pre-trip group and the Antarctica group, both of which were small. And on the Antarctica cruise, it was definitely a plus to have a built in network of friends to hang out with. I think I'd rather pay more for traveling with a smaller group because the dynamic works better to me than when among a larger group. I think it's because I can be quiet and laid back, and that's resulted in feeling confused as to who to socialize with when I'm part of a larger group. I've definitely had some awesome experiences on trips in larger groups (Hanoi rooftop FTW!) but it feels harder for me to fit in.
From a puma to a plethora of penguins... through a smorgasbord of delicious Chilean seafood... from the various annoyances of Santiago to the thrill of having an Evita moment at the Casa Rosada... through climates ranging from sweltering heat to icy cold... it was truly an epic journey, and one I'm very grateful to have taken.