Patagonia Part II: The White Continent

I know Antarctica is not part of Patagonia but it begs to be included in my description as it is indeed an extension of Patagonia. It’s farther, colder, whiter and more remote.

Anyone that knows me, knows I have a disdain for cruise ships. Now keep in mind, my commentary on any of this is just that, commentary. It is not judgement of people, places and things.

I have been on one cruise in my life. A two day sales meeting cruise from LA to Ensenada and back right before I left for Nicaragua during grad school. I made the best of it, but hated it. The feeling of self-importance and dare I say cultural ignorance had me throw up in my mouth. But I did it. It was a big boat.

Fast forward to now. I had not planned on going to Antarctica as I had heard of the prices and let’s be honest; I am a travel snob. Yeah I drop cash on dinner or a plane flight but I like going as simple as possible. If only to avoid separating me from the regular guy. Especially the locals. It is my choice. And sometimes a necessity.

Antarctica cruises are expensive and if you do a month long one, well, they are crazy expensive. I met Frank, a German engineer in my hostel. He had just returned. You must go Bob. 10 days.

I had heard they sell trips last minute discounted up to 50%. I had just filed it in the back of my mind. But Frank sold me in two minutes. I booked the next day.

I checked into my 3 person dorm type room to meet a man I was perhaps unprepared to meet. Tito. Tito was convicted of drug smuggling and tax evasion. He wrote a book that is an Amazon best seller. Gringo. Recently made into a movie. I shit you not. He got out of prison about 18 months ago after ten years and is in his mid 60s. The other roommate is a Romanian programmer. Strange bedfellows.

I got the full Tito the moment I met him. His unassuming manner of describing his “reverse” rendition as he was kidnapped from Venezuela by US authorities and held for a month without charges. I mean, can you make that shit up?

Hearing him tell his stories again to the unsuspecting suburban americans was pretty funny. The looks on their faces were like “When is he gonna say gotcha??”

He never did. It is all real.

Tito and I got along great and I just thought, well, he is what he is as he took pictures of himself holding his book in front of the penguins. He was a good guy.

The two day trip down and back thru the Drake Passage (some of the roughest water in the world) can be either the Drake Shakes or the Drake Lake. We had mainly the former but like a 5-6 on a scale of 12. On the way home it was so calm. We left Ushuaia, Argentina around 6 PM on Dec. 29th and had a gentle evening of beautiful skies as we cruised the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile. Around 10-11 PM we hit the Drake. I had never been seasick since a kid so I was hopeful. Many people had gotten these patches behind their ears to help with motion sickness that made them look like CIA or members of a secret society. I was not privy.

I got the cheap version of some relief from the doctor that entailed acupressure wrist bands and ginger tablets. I did okay. Morning one I was met at the dining room by a guy on all fours in the carpeted hall, horribly missing his barf bag and blasting the walls and floors. Don’t look. Keep on moving. As long as I don’t smell it…

By end of day 2, (which was really our first full day) I was feeling a little rough. Laying down and small meals got me thru. Mid day New Year’s eve had us in calmer waters and I could have a beer. The trip was beautiful but it’s all water, no land, you can’t read, can’t play guitar. Because of the motion. And my only form of distraction was eating, coffee, and endlessly watching the numerous birds that followed the boat. Mainly the albatross. What an incredibly beautiful animal. Essentially, the albatross (and a few other birds here) rarely lands. They lock their wings and simply ride the wind up and glide down; efficiently traveling hundreds of miles on little energy. Their beautiful dance with the wind as they circle the boat in the now seemingly endless sunlight had me mesmerized. I watched for hours. Always hoping for that one really close flyby, that had the bird stop in time, right by the deck, before he stopped his ascent and turned back to ride the wind. It was this beautiful, magical event like watching salmon catching the current or an expert kayaker paddling the rapids. It was poetry. And it had me appreciate that animal more than I thought. And birds in general for that matter. Because it really is all about birds down here. And whales.

The boat was built in the 90s and tastefully done. I was on the pull out couch which made me feel I was remotely roughing it. 6 foot 1 on a 5 foot 7 couch. Dining room, lounge and bar (manned by an Eastern European banging out hits with an accent but more like Murph and the Magic tones of Blue Brothers fame or Bill Murray singing Star Wars on SNL). But he was a good musician and a good guy.

The crew was an eclectic group of international naturalists/ex military/outdoor enthusiasts. They loved it down there and their enthusiasm was catching. Imagine 3-4 Joe Lamannas without the music and you’ll understand. I connected with many of them. During our journey down we were given presentations on the wildlife and geography to have us better understand what we were about to see. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly and with only around 100 passengers, it was easy to get to know them. During our private conversations the topic inevitably turns to the fact that many on the cruise either don’t know their good fortune, didn’t pay for it themselves (lots of millenials with parents), or have no idea about climate science. But I’m sure some did. And me being a traveler for a year and not a fly down/fly back guy, had the others asking me “What’s your deal Bob? Why are you here?” I like being the odd person out. Sometimes.

I had some really interesting and deep conversations with the staff on a variety of topics. And I connected with some of the other travelers. Especially a nice family from Colorado originally from Ohio.

On the first day I stupidly said to one Canadian crew member that Alaska was more beautiful, has animals, blah blah blah. I’m a dumbass. Should have waited.

By the time we actually got to the Antarctic Peninsula, and set foot on the actual continent (my 7th!) and not an island, I was mesmerized. I went on the daily hikes and penguin watching and sought a little nook to hide and watch things unfold. We dressed up in our warm weather gear and life jackets and marched through a decontaminating wash so our boots don’t bring contamination to the penguins and we don’t bring smelly penguin shit back on the boat. They drop Zodiac boats in the water to shuttle us back and forth. Since I joined late, I got no kayaking or camping in. A little bummed but the rest was just magic.

We passed by an 11 Km long iceberg on New Year’s Eve. Think I posted a pic of that with me in it.

The night after New Years I think, was so beautiful I played my guitar outside til 10 PM in the fading sunlight. Watching the last pink glow on the mountains until after midnight. Not sure if the glow would ever leave, I finally went to bed.

The night after that I needed my Bob time, so I left dinner early and went up on the top deck for about an hour and half of solo ice, glacier and whale watching until it became evident to everyone what was happening all around us. The slow fading light and no wind made it seem like I was in some episode of Game of Thrones or just fairyland. Hours of looking, watching, hearing, and just feeling really really lucky. It truly is stunning.

We were treated to 6 or 7 feeding Humpbacks and 5-6 feeding Orcas. A mad dance of light and ice and fins ensued as the captain kept moving the boat slowly in their directions. Ooohs and ahhs as the magic Fluke of the humpback disappeared. Over and over.

The penguins are just amazing yet hard to describe. They are funny and seem to be both collective and individual in their actions. Sometimes they are curious. Other times they don’t care. They are playful and silly. Go solo or trudge through the snow in pairs or more. Then walk slowly up these massive hills, stumbling as drunk here or there and bounce back up; seemingly invincible and oblivious to pain and embarrassment! They look clumsy on land but swift and nimble and playful in the water. At times they were living on cliffs 500 feet above the water!

It is not lost on me that the regular backpacker will never see this stuff without a loan or family money. You can do it cheaper like me but it still required a credit card and is once in a lifetime for me. Although I would do it again.

It is also not lost on me the amount of waste, consumption, and carbon emissions it took to get us there and back. All to view a place that could be disappearing and some species that are at risk. BECAUSE of consumption like this. But it is lost on many. Yet it is the only way to see this place unless you score a gig down here or a volunteer opportunity.

I had to succumb to the crew talent show which included karaoke singing of some classic 80s tunes. I Will Survive, All Night Long, and yes, Sweet Caroline. YMCA and a Conga line brought it home. Whiskey saved me. But the pain I experienced through the trite display of cruise life, was worth it to see what I have seen.

There are many moments in my life that resonate and they are mainly in the outdoors. Watching Namche take in the smells while watching a sunset over the Pacific, the last bit of sun on Everest, dusk in the Grand Canyon, a kayak sunset in Alaska, and the seemingly endless dusk or dawn down there in Antarctica amongst the quiet animals and peaceful ice flows. Only the random bird squawk, the wind, and the sound of ice against the boat. I wanted to sleep outside one night but didn’t get it approved in time. Watching the water and the mountains I spent hours above and outside. Thinking we might see a night like that again, since we had gotten two nice ones in a row, but knowing it would likely be the last magic one. It was. And it rocked me with its beauty and serene solitude.

The beauty of that place has filled up my heart and has me recommitted to exploring nature as much as possible on my trip. And for the rest of my life for that matter. I am committed to being outside. As much on my own power as possible. This place is magic. While talking to an British ex-military on staff last night around my age he said “Yeah, you really can’t explain it. You have to experience it.”

Exactly. Especially the Polar Plunge.

And i hope I can recommit my efforts in that environmental direction. If I can just finish this book….

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