Ottawa to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia to the Antarctic and back
February 2 to February 21, 2010.
“Be very very careful. Buenos Aires is dangerous. Robbers. Thieves. Pickpockets.“ So said everyone including Maria, my Spanish language instructor who is actually from Buenos Aires. Yes statistically parts of Latin America are among the most dangerous in the world. But after half a dozen trips there, I felt safer there than in some hoods in the so called civilized, developed world. I wasn’t planning on traipsing through a drug and gang ladened barrio anymore than I would south-central LA, or east Harlem. Call me naïve, but sometimes I think people need to escape from their bubble wrap or gated community. Can you imagine if early cave men never strayed from their fire pit, or if early explorers only went as far the corner brothel?
Besides, my road to the Antarctic would have to go through Buenos Aires. So after four and a half months on the road with Trish my more organized half, I would spend the final three weeks solo in South America and cruising to the Antarctic. For Trish and perhaps myself, our travel peaked in Asia. We’d always geared our travels to where the ancients built and lost wondrous empires. Where worlds collided and civilizations roared. Throw in some indigenous and or locals less schooled in the refinements of the west, and I’m there. I couldn’t imagine anything eclipsing our scaling of the remote, crumbling ramparts of the Great Wall; or the serenity of giving alms to four hundred saffron robed monks Christmas morning in Laos; or getting lost in the dusty, mayhem of old Islamic Cairo. (The exception was the Galapagos, which I'd also done with Adventure Life. The key word there being, ‘exception’).
As such, I was likely the least prepared and focused as anybody on the upcoming Antarctic cruise. But first Buenos Aires (BA).
I’d expected BA to be the most European of any Latin American city, so says all the usually over-hyped, tourist lit. Truthfully, and architecturally speaking, BA doesn’t just mimic Paris, Milan, and Barcelona. It tries (and often succeeds) to synthesize and replicate the best of old-Europe; spices in new world immigrant romanticism and pathos, and reconstitutes them into a purer, more affordable form. Cheaper by at least half than the old world cities. And probably every bit as passionate and hot-blooded if not more. If none of this matters to you, go for the beef. Cattle is pampas free range, and hormone free. What you eat has been freshly killed, unlike the aged slabs they export. I’m a seafood nut, so beef has to work hard to impress me. Got eight bucks? Go local. Your steak will be the size of a volkswagon, will dare you to not eat its red juiced rare sizzle, and will melt in your mouth before the rest of you sinks into gastro nirvana. Haven’t touched beef since. Why bother, anything else will seem like SPAM.
BA is also the hub to the rest of Argentina, most notably for me, Ushuaia in Patagonia.
Surrounded by a semi-circle of snow-capped mountains and the Beagle Channel leading to the Drake Passage and Antarctica, Ushuaia on the Grande Island of Tierra del Fuego, bills itself as the southernmost city in the world, the start (or end) of the Pan-American highway, the end of the Andes mountains, and 'the end of the world' (del fin del mundo).
For core trekkers, hikers, climbers and campers, Patagonia--the southern most region of Chile and Argentina, evokes wonderment and envy. Jagged snow capped peaks, glaciers, jaw dropping treks, an end of the world mystique, vast empty tundra, a remote end of world feel and emptiness draw adventurists from everywhere. I only got a morsel of it, highlighted by treks in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Many make it this far down solely to explore this region, making hay of this end of the world thingie. For those who use Ushuaia to gateway to and from the Antarctic, Ushuaia is an afterthought. A beautiful town, yet compact enough that one can’t help but notice the oddity of casinos and strip joints in such a setting.
Truth be told, this part of Patagonia is bested by BC's west coast, and the Inside Passage of Alaska. It scores high in it’s quietude and solemnity, but for wildlife beyond the innumerous penguins and odd whale (which you’d lose track counting on an Antarctic cruise), it’s not a can’t miss. In all fairness, backpackers would later regale me with stories and pix of other parts of Patagonia that most assuredly I check out some day.
Nevertheless, there are travelers for whom the Antarctic is the holy grail for penguin watching. Throw in some humpbacks, orcas and icebergs, and people dutifully pay up to fifteen grand on some boats. You even get bragging rights for knocking off the last of seven continents, as some do.
Our ship the Antarctic Dream, is home for ten nights, eleven days. At eighty-three metres, it seems puny compared to what it would encounter, but it's well appointed and is twenty shy of its 78 capacity. I'd expected a fairly well-heeled, sixty-ish age, kind of crowd. But the median was brought down closer to the low forties by a sizable contingent backpackers--each doing South America for an average of nine or ten months. The rest are Euros and some flashy Chinese (who brought their own food and rice cooker---sighhhhh).
The Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic waters converge to form the world's roughest waters, the dreaded Drake Passage. Most of the passengers take seasickness meds. Not all respond, or the meds make you feel sleepy and stupid. By the second night we hit a storm seldom seen by the crew. Winds and waves reach force ten on a scale up to twelve, twelve being a hurricane. Most passengers can't crawl out of their cabins for meals, which means extra portions for piggies like me. The food is Euro-centric, and I long for a decent curry, something with more edge. But it’s decent, especially the desserts. Others who make it onto the dining/lounge areas struggle to remain on their feet, or even in their chairs. Skid-proof mats can’t cement cutlery and glassware as things go flying. One passenger took a fall, sustaining a minor cut.
The moment is unique to most of us. I admit to myself that a quiet fear or anxiety shrouds me as we are completely vulnerable to an angry mother nature. If the unimaginable happened, I doubt we’d make it to the lifeboats, let alone get rescued from other boats, of which there are very few. But the crew remain calm, nonplussed and relaxed, which is a more useful elixir than any anti-nausea med. Travelling solo, with fourteen metre waves pounding about, huddling in a darkened cabin, pining for Trish...it's possible to see why they called the early explorers and whalers, 'iron men in wooden boats'. We kill time with lectures, meeting one another, playing games, gazing out at the grey onslaught of wind and waves.
We complete the Passage and reach the South Shetland Islands almost half a day behind schedule. But we'd already spotted our first icebergs, orcas and humpbacks --crossing from port to bow, back and forth.
For most, the real stars are those superb swimmers--the gentoo penguins as they porpoise (dive) in and out of the water at 12 knots, ready to pop out of the water and waddle as soon as they hit land (or ice). In many ways the physiology of them is fascinating. Their necks crane almost completely around and down so they can lick their oil glands and waterproof their fur. And one understands their incessant racket once you realize that it is sound which they use to distinguish one another. These and orcas, seals (crabeaters, leopard, elephant and fur mostly. Quite frankly, after the Galapagos, I'm a bit sealed-out), the odd minke and other birds (most of which I can't remember--they are birds after all) are the mainstays of wildlife we see.
After days of sea sickness and inertia, we are clearly restless and disembark with a child-like wonderment at Yankee Bay, for our first of eight zodiac landings. We are greeted by a colony of several thousand gentoo penguins and several species of seals. Cute is a tired, overused maxim for penguins. But I doubt many of us take fewer than several hundred pix of the awkward yet charming birds. After several more landings and a couple of other species (adelie, chinstrap), I get penguin-ed out, and over-heated. I've clearly over-packed and over-dressed. Yes it's the windiest, driest and coldest place on earth. But except for the windchill, it's downright balmy compared to an Ottawa winter.
I half anticipate the days to be somewhat redundant and repetitive. Wrong. I lose track of our precise coordinates and names of places. Off the boat, I hardly hear the expedition leader anymore. I’m so completely engrossed in the moment, and the surroundings. But every day is different, no area, or landscape resembles the previous. Each vista and day builds on the previous. Ernesto the Chilean-born Captain, is a big kid. He turns the ship around and chases whales; circles a three-kilometer long iceberg so he and other photo junkies can get that perfect angle and light. He has favourite haunts and slow cruises through Andvar Bay and Lemaire Channel. It’s clear this isn’t just a job for him as the icescapes and wildlife turn his crank even more than us.
Then I get it. I understand why the Captain with almost two hundred trips, and Rodrigo the expedition leader with one-hundred and sixty, and many other expedition staff and crew (not to mention photo nutsies) return again and again. They too are in absolute awe. There is no other place or solitude like this anywhere. It is completely antithetical-- that this hostile, barren beauty is as dangerous, unforgiving and daunting as it is remote. The landscapes, the tenous struggle for life, the unpredictability of its climate, its raw jagged peaks and smooth ice sculptures…its all hypnotic, addictive and mesmerizing. It’s the polar bacteria I read about. It seeps into you and moves you like nothing else. It is as Ernest Shackleton the explorer said of the Antarctic, like “gazing at the naked soul of man.”
And yet there is no man. In fact the near total absence of anything human, of any of the excesses and cruelties humans have done to this planet and each other, is as loud and glaring as it is desolate and silent. We got it right. We haven’t yet screwed this up. There is hope and it while this may sound naïve, this place affords you such innocence.
And then there's the colour blue. Icebergs of varying age have different colours. The most striking are the oldest which resemble a cerulean blue. Yet it is unlike any colour, tone or depth we have ever seen. It looks computer generated. It’s as if all my life I saw only black and white, then suddenly discovered a rainbow. There are so few moments in one’s life where one is almost overcome with beauty, and giddy with joy. This one is aboard a zodiac as it cruises iceberg alley. Neither these words nor any canvas can do it justice.
Even Alaska and Greenland vets are impressed. Our last full day on the continent is a history lesson on Deception Island, where Shackleton after he and his crew were shipwrecked in 1916, had initially wanted to seek refuge in this former whaling station. Whalers and sealers braved the impossible elements and left evidence of their wildlife pillage. Rusting away are enormous vats resembling crude spaceships constructed to harvest the whales and seals.
We complete the day and our last landing with a polar dip into one degree Celsius (33 Fahrenheit) water. Sounds crazy and it is painfully cold but also exceedingly fun. Underground hot thermals from this volcanic landscape allow us to sit in alternating hot and cold pockets of water.
Not to be forgotten is the, ‘cruise experience.' Just those two words would normally send me running. There is no swim-up bar or aloha deck, it isn't for the bubble-wrapped set. Quite the opposite. Most people are either well traveled and, or have a broad outlook. And our contingent of fifty-eight passengers and forty crew are perfect. Large enough to still be fresh, small enough to at least know the nationalities of one another. It's not an especially physically active expedition. The most sweat we work up is in the sauna or over cards. We sit around too much, and eat more than we need. But a group of about thirteen of us from eleven different countries gel. All of us, even the most jaded and seasoned travelers, agree this has been an intense, binding experience.
The return run on the Drake Passage is as calm as the initial one was harrowing. In anticipation of the worse, many had doped themselves up with meds provided by the onboard doctor. Each would soon crawl out of their cabins onto the sun drenched decks, blinded by the UVs. Blue skies, smooth waters and warm winds accompany the schools of dolphins who play hide and seek with us for our final two days.
The crew remark on the atypical superb weather we've had since the first Passage. Everyone's topside, lapping up every last moment. Just before we leave the Drake, we spy Cape Horn and bask in the sun and the glow of an indescribably rich experience. We disembark the Antarctic Dream, perhaps groggy from the final night of revelry, but also with a child-like exuberance--somewhat akin to a polar bacteria.
Trish and I have always designed our trips based on the possibility of cultural experiences, lured by the ancients and stunning geography. The Antarctic has unmasked our myopia. A good travel, an unforgettable travel, is not just what you see, or where you go, but how it moves you. And here the solitude thunders and shakes us in a manner that we won't ever allow it be forgotten. Even the Drake Passage which exacted a heavy toll on some, earns an unforgettable memory and a recognition that it is both worth it and adds to the adventure. Each and every one of us disembarks with a euphoria we hadn't expected.
I spend another two nights in BA on my way home, and except for quiet urban moments like El Ateneo—perhaps the world’s most splendid bookstore, and watching kids effortlessly play soccer in La Boca, I feel this five month run trip has reached its true crescendo. After the Antarctic experience, there is no other mountain to climb, no other experience that can ignite such passion. I'm blessed and thankful it comes at the end of an unforgettable travel, missing only Trish towards the end.