Not-Walking Antarctica

 

 

 

For ethical reasons, perhaps we shouldn’t have gone. For financial reasons we chose to go the cheap way, by cruise ship. For companionship, we went together, even though it was Bruce’s idea, completely his idea, his idea from the beginning and thoroughly his idea to go in the first place. His reasoning went something like this: having already put our feet onto the earth in six continents, we should visit the seventh. We’ve done other faulty things for less well-thought reasons before. And so, for adventuring reasons, we did go.

Here’s the story (and remember, this was entirely Bruce’s idea):

We settle in to the massive ship, and I am torn about being here. Is it comforting that we have so much protection from the elements and the rough seas? The ship is completely full, and over-run with older people carrying large amounts of camera equipment, Audubon guides and Sir David Attenborough’s audio books. I learn that there is a naturalist who will be making presentations as we get closer to Antarctica.

Before we go to sleep the first night, there is a grumble in the atmosphere of the ship: A slightly unsettled blip in the inter-personal current. I think it is just me getting used to this place, just me getting my sea legs.

The next morning, long after the time when I could jump ship and swim to shore, we get a revised itinerary. It will take us longer than anticipated to get to our destinations, so our first stop, at Ushuaia, Argentina will be shortened. There is a vague explanation that is mumbled around the ship – an engine is not working quite right. And we are heading to one of the most turbulent oceans on the planet.

The stop in Ushuaia is even more brief than expected, due to weather or winds or engine trouble. Once back on the seas, we are told that it will take us longer than expected to reach Antarctica, due to weather or winds or engine trouble. We entertain ourselves with visits to the naturalist’s programs. Each one is entertaining and so crowded people are sitting in the aisles. What else is a ship full to do?

Passengers begin to emerge who know a thing or two about oceans and engines. I hear people complain about ship-shape upkeep and the seriousness of less-than-perfect engine function in the middle of a rough sea.

We do make it to the shores of Antarctica.

The continent itself is thrilling. Ice, snow, rock and ocean. Completely gray and white, with a bit of astounding turquoise when a piece of sunshine hits the two-story ice just right. Overwhelming in a black and white movie style, Antarctica spews its coldness into view. It seems to me a world apart from everything I know. It is unthinkable that I am here.

As we leave the continent, it is announced that we won’t be able to make our next stop, Elephant Islands. Bad weather, landing conditions, faulty engines.
That night, it is announced that we won’t be able to stop at The Falkland Islands. The next morning, we learn we won’t make the last stop in our itinerary, Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

During one lunchtime, Bruce – the one who wanted to be here – and I step into the buffet, and walk right into a security guard. Security guard? It’s not like he announces himself, but just by standing where he is standing and looking like he does, I know that’s what he is.

Then I notice that the buffet’s seating area is packed shoulder-to shoulder with passengers, and the multi-lingual speech is getting louder and louder. The windows are fogged up with the charged emotion that did not come from lunch’s sliced roast beef sandwiches. People are speaking in animation and high-emotion. I am uncomfortable and Bruce is nearly laughing. He asks the security guard what is going on while I sink into the background, losing my appetite.

It seems a joining of forces is occurring – the Argentine passengers and the larger tour groups (from the Philippines and from China) – have come together to sign petitions of formal complaints about the condition of the ship and the restructuring of the voyage’s schedule. They think this mechanical problem was foreseen and that we all have been defrauded and that King Penguins will be lost in the fray if we passengers don’t receive some recompense for having lost the opportunity of a lifetime.

I don’t know where to look for fault – the cruise line for skipping 3 out of 4 planned stops and running a huge ship on a faulty engine, the passengers for being as selfish as I didn’t want to be in booking this trip, or Bruce, whose idea it was in the first place.

We make it back to Buenos Aires, a safe place in any comparison, and nothing ever comes of anything. The petitions signed by every passenger (probably twice by most), the formal complaints to the governments and the companies involved, the simple violations of the rules of civility in promising one thing and delivering something quite different – nothing ever happens. It remains just one more life experience. Sometimes we just don’t get what we expect, but we do get something.

I got a continent I would never have seen by myself, and a never-ending story to recap time and again with the partner and love of my life. It was, after all, all his fault.

Walking Ushuaia, Argentina

I have been traveling through South America for a month at the point I reach Ushuaia, Argentina.

I think I know what to expect from the entire continent, in a general way. I’ve seen beauty and been shown gracious welcome. I’ve had the humbling experience of traveling by land through many border crossings and standing in line at two of those crossings for over 6 hours. I have braved city bus systems, fallen over several sidewalk irregularities, practiced my Spanish language, eaten food that did not agree, and enjoyed many meals that did. I have done all of that and am surviving – even loving the priviledge of being able to put my feet to the ground in places many people can’t imagine ever seeing in person.

But all my experience, as well as my abiding stereotypes, gives nothing to prepare me for this small city at the edge of the world. I begin my walk at the harbour, facing the downtown area and looking up to the surrounding jagged mountains.

I walk across the street to the visitor’s center. It seems no single nationality nor one language has a lasting claim to this place. I remind myself to speak Spanish, but I lose count at nine languages that seem common: Spanish, of course, and English, also German, Mandarin, Italian, the English spoken in Australia (!I know they can say the same about American English!), at least two Eastern-European languages (I think Polish and Hungarian?) and another tongue I can’t identify at all.

Across one street is the downtown area. It seems retailers find this place especially enticing, as brand-names from all over the world have built-up a presence here in this town of a bit over 50,000 souls. Hard Rock Cafe, for heavens’ sake, is here. It is apparent to me as I step into the city center – all two-square blocks of it – that something is going on here that should remind me that it is never a good idea to walk around with my stereotypes.

Whatever my expectations were, instead, I am greeted by: Upscale mountaineering retailers, luxury leather goods, specialty yachts, space-age small planes.

But even with the connection to the world’s marketers, Ushuaia remains a part of its pristine geography.  Even during this summer walk, snow is visible on the sharp peaks surrounding the bay, signposts warn of impending bear visits, the mirrored quality of the icy water reflects puffy clean clouds, penguins live nearby.

It all leaves me a bit out-of-sorts. I walk through the downtown and out into a more residential neighborhood. It is cozier here, and I find a bench on a pie-shaped park to sit and watch pelicans on the bay. I wonder what it is that has me so befuddled. I take a walk wherever I go; today should be no different. I am here today, and tomorrow venturing by ship to Antartica, but I find that Ushuaia is pulling my attention. On the cusp of viewing the continent that so few people ever see, it is this little city that makes me stop and think.

It feels more like home than I expected to experience in a place so far away from where I live. There is a California calm here, a confident idea in the streets that no town, anywhere, does life like its done here. I sit on a suburban bench, at the extreme southern tip of my connected continent, and I feel like I am living in the middle of California Cool. I think maybe that is not such a good idea.

But then, I remind myself, Ushaia knows itself better than I do. My own California calm takes over, and I decide to just let it be. Ushuaia seems to be doing just fine defining its own character, at its own pace. I’m the one that needs an attitude adjustment – and I hope I leave my stereotypes behind as I venture farther south.

 

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