January 19, 2000
At 2:30am I returned to my new room and saw a lump under some blankets Ė the Complainer. I moved stealthily to my stuff, quietly got it out the door, and found a note on my bed thanking me for the warning. It was polite and cordial and in Spanish. And it also said, "Call your mom."
I headed downstairs where a special half-scale buffet had been laid out for us early-flighters. Again, I ate as heartily as I could, not sure if any meal from there on out was going to be vegetarian.
The ever-peppy Paula, still a pleasure even at four in the morning, oversaw our bus ride to the airport. The rest of the bus concurred, Paula Rocked. She was happy, energetic, informative, and funny. After a few announcements she sat down next to me and we talked the whole way to the airport.
Our plane wasnít scheduled to take off until two hours after our bus arrived at the airport. Paula checked all our luggage for us and asked if Iíd mind being the group representative once we touched down in Ushuaia. How could I resist Paula? I couldnít. She took my approval and went back to the counter to retrieve all the baggage claim tickets.
While I waited for her to return, the group and I conferred about her overall stellar tour-guiding and we decided I should say something to her. I tried to think of something to say to her on our behalf. When she returned I told her how everyone agreed that she was an invaluable and inspiring part of our trip so far, and that I hoped she had the same luck with future groups. She shifted her weight to one leg, put her hand on her hip and explained that she just couldnít please everybody. I backtracked and explained that, as far as I could tell, she did please everyone. She continued to act defensive so I figured maybe she didnít speak as good as English as I thought.
Steve the Travel Agent insisted that I see Ushuaia on this trip and, had my expedition not already included it, he would have tacked it on without consultation. He deems it one of the most breathtaking places on earth, and since the time he mentioned it Iíve received like-minded sentiments from just about everyone whoíd ever been there. I was excited to see what all the hoopla was about, but I was more eager to just get on with this Antarctica business. I fell asleep on the plane and dreamt of lounging on an iceberg with Hilary and Jeremy and a polar bear. Us humans were sharing a banana pizza while the bear nursed a bottle of Coke-Cola. Wherever the cola dripped it burned and sizzled like so much hydrochloric acid. I hope to never see Coke-Cola and Antarctica together again outside of that dream. For that matter, I would do fine never seeing Coke-Cola ever again.
Polar bears, by the way, are only found in the northern hemisphere.
Our plane hit some turbulence and I could hear passengers chattering and sliding up their shades. I wanted just five more minutes of sleep but I was on the sunward side of the plane and beginning to sweat. The ride had deconstructed any progress my chiropractor had made, so it was with groggy eyes and a grumpy disposition that I drew my stupid shade.
My heart leapt. Nothing dispels discomfort and a bad attitude like jagged arrowhead peaks rising from snow-capped, glacially-sculpted mountains floating on an endless cloud bank. We were zooming over a landscape that single-handedly made Flight one of the best inventions of the 20th century. We hadnít even landed yet and I was already thanking Steve the Travel Agent.
The postcard-esque sights lasted right up until we landed at the Ushuaia Airport, a wooden A-framed, granite-walled structure one might rightfully compare to a timeshare cabin in the mountains. It housed only two terminals Ė one for flights coming in, one for flights going out. The inside of the building was warm, cozy and very difficult to get lost in (though I still managed to walk into the ladies restroom on accident).
We retrieved our luggage but there was some confusion as to where to put it. Nobody was outside the baggage terminal to meet us. This would have been fine as Ushuaia is a small town and presumably easy to get around in. Plus, I knew there was only one pier to set sail from and that we didnít have to be there any earlier than 5pm. But somebody was supposed to be waiting for us. I imagined it would cause much complication and paperwork to take off without meeting them first, especially since I had all the claim tickets. One person walked outside as if they knew what they were doing and of course, everyone followed. I knew better and chose to wait inside with a woman named Karen. We chuckled at the sheep-like tendencies of our peers while waiting inside the comfy confines of the quaint little airport.
Then I got bored and went outside to wait for our bus, expecting to be frozen solid in 20 seconds because I was still in my shorts and T-shirt. Surprisingly, I wasnít even cold. Not surprisingly, there was no bus waiting for us. Thatís two times so far on this trip that Iíve been ditched at the airport. Eventually though, Iris, wearing the signature maroon MEI polo shirt, showed up and loaded us all on a bus.
From the bus, Iris narrated us through Ushuaia. She offered facts about indigenous history, exploratory history, developmental history, climate, wildlife and what ever else she could think of, all the while cheerfully and informatively answering some of the most inane questions ever to come out of old people. Whoever hired her knew what they were doing.
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the tip of South America, separated by the Straight of Magellan. Even though it is surrounded by Chile on the west and water everywhere else, it is considered Argentina. At least, thatís whose stamps you get when you go to the post office.
Chile has a "town" called Port Williams that rests lower than Ushuaia, but the always opposing Argentina decided Ushuaia was a "city," thereby enabling them to advertise having the "southern most city in the world." Ushuaia also applies to the bay and foothills around the city. The white guys who first interacted with the natives wrote home about this area called "Ouchouaya," which loosely meant "bay towards an end." The spelling "Ushuaia" was adopted and now all the postcards say "Ushuaia Ė El Fin del Mundo." In fact, it says "El Fin del Mundo" all over the town. If one were ever to wake up unknowingly in Ushuaia it might be very unsettling to rub the sleep from oneís eyes and find "The End of the World" scrawled everywhere.
Oddly, the town has itís local prison to thank for all itís amenities. Around the turn of the century, Argentina exiled all itís worst criminals south and their labor, over the years, gave Ushuaia buildings, telephones, power and most of itís roads.
It was from those roads that we pressed forth to into Tierra del Fuego National Park where I fully came to understand why everyone was so resolute about me visiting Ushuaia. It was stunning and awe-inspiring and a lot like the Canadian Rockies or maybe Banff mixed with the Swiss Alps. It is the stuff calendars are made of.
Our first stop was the choppy blue-green Ensenada Bay where the Chilean Andes sat majestically on the other side. Expecting a "hike," we merely "walked" around the bay and ended up at a gift shop, reminding us that we are never too far from consumerism.
Our next stop was another inlet. To get there we had to make a hike (difficulty level: almost difficult) and I was disheartened to see half our bunch stay on the bus for fear of exertion. I came on this venture expecting to lose a finger or toe or the end of my nose or, at the very least, a few of my lunches. I wasnít hoping for any of that, but I was expecting it, so to see such little participation from so many was certainly disheartening.
The hike was the first time people started to socialize. We stopped at a remarkable vista for some photo ops and the majority of the people took only one or two pictures before returning to their neighbors and gabbing. I was no exception. Hilary and Jeremy were on the late plane out of Bs As, due to arrive later this afternoon, so I lost my only friends and was eager to make more. After assimilating with the "early birds" I recognized that only a small percentage of them were actually "old." Most of the those on this particular hike were in their 40ís or 50ís. My dad turned 50 last year and he could kick my scrawny butt up and down any trail on this continent, so surely these others were prepared for, and capable of, some action.
I talked to a 31 year-old State Farm Rep from Orlando named Sharon for much of the way up the trail. She was friendly and fit and good-spirited, and she had a Floridian tan. She asked where I was from just as we reached the vista. In between snapping pictures I told her "San Francisco." She moved up the hill to get a better view and a man in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jacket and cap filled her vacancy. He asked where I was from and I repeated myself, thinking he had to have heard me the first time.
"Good town, San Francisco," he replied.
"Yup." I said, not wishing to reveal that I am not actually from San Francisco Proper, but a town just outside San Francisco called Pleasanton. Nor did I want to explain how much I actually HATE San Francisco. "Where are you from?"
"New York," he said. Then added, "and Florida."
I knew it.
"Lots of things to do in ĎFrisco," he continued.
He had a weird demeanor. He reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, only a little more sedate. His left arm hung straight down, but his right arm, the one nearest me, was always cocked, like he was resting it in a pocket that wasnít there. He was always rocking his hips forward and backward and his face was baggy-skinned with a twitching, shifty right eye. The next thing I expected him to do was bug his eyes out at me and say, "Letís go Ė while weíre young!"
Instead he went on in his own peculiar way. "You can do whatever you want there," he said while looking over his shoulder cautiously.
"You can find anything you want there."
"Uh huh." This guyís gonna ask me for drugs, I know it. Iím losing interest in this conversation.
"San FranciscoÖ Anything you want, whenever you want."
"Sure can." Whatís it going to be, old man? Pot? Before I cut my dreadlocks off I couldnít go a day without someone asking me for pot. Now I look like any old dirtbag from Manteca (the methamphetamine capital of Northern California), so maybe itís speed heís looking for. I donít do any of these things, I donít even drink caffeine, but Iím used to fielding the requests.
"All sorts of things go on in ĎSFí. All sortsÖ" he informed me.
"You name it, it goes on there." Come on, just ask so I can set you straight and get it over with!
He yelled Fred! over the peopleís heads and another old man looked back at us and raised his arm. "Thatís my cabinmate," he said in hushed tones. I acknowledged his cabinmate but only after he had to repeat himself. I was already through with our conversation by this point and was only half paying attention to him.
"You should come to our cabin sometime," he offered.
"Yeah," I said not even hearing what he was saying. "Uh huh."
"Fred leaves for me because Iíd do the same for him." His twitching had grown erratic.
"You bet. No problem." I walked away and he kept talking. I made it ten feet before realizing what just happened. That wasnít twitching, that was winking... That wasnít a randomly rocking elbow, those were nudgesÖ He was hitting on me and inviting me to his room for some dude-on-dude action. I turned around to clear things up, but the group had started back on the trail and we were forced back into a single file line.
Our next stop was a Yamana territory. The Yamana were one of four tribes that occupied Tierra del Fuego before Whitey came. I donít know about all Yamana, but the group that lived where we stood never wore clothes. Their women sometimes wore sex coverings, but that was it. Imagine standing naked (not even shoes, mind you) in a walk-in refrigerator, and thatís a summer night in Tierra del Fuego. During the rainy season they smeared themselves with seal blubber, but that was just to keep them waterproof.
Iris walked us over to a field where a collection of circles embossed the landscape. It looked like somebody took a bunch of tractor-sized inner tubes and spread them out across the field many years ago, and now they had been grown over by soft grass. She stood down in the middle of one of the circles as the rest of us gathered around on the hump, about three feet above her. She explained that the Yamana ate mostly mussels. When they were done they threw their shells out the front door. Rather than clear them away when the mess got too high, they just rotated their house until their door was unobstructed. She traced with her finger the ring the rest of us were standing on and we all tried to absorb the peculiarity of standing on trash that was at least two times older than the oldest person among us.
After four such stops the now-educated troops were ready for food. Another Estancia, this one lower-keyed than yesterday. Little kids did little Tango in front of drawn, quartered, and BBQíed lambs. I ended up at a table with my new friend Sharon and a retired couple. Conversation came easy, even between tables. The "weird guy" came up and everyone knew of him but me. Everyone had a story about him. My intrigue was growing into desperation and I half hoped I got him as a cabinmate.
After the meal I excused myself and went looking for the restroom. Outside the dining room stood a man escaping the BBQ smoke. I asked him where the restrooms were and he pointed down a hallway and said, "Follow my stink."
"But you have so many," I tried to say out of earshot. He heard me and shot back a crooked smile indicating I was probably going to pay for that.
The restrooms had no toilet seats or toilet paper so I had to use the "hover" technique and finish it off with some fibrous hand towels. I emerged from the restroom and continued out the front door. Stink Man was out there and we got to talking. His name was Bob and he was a clean-cut 40 year-old pilot for Continental Airlines. He had a snide sense of humor but his big smile made any jab he threw out less offensive. We bonded over a few light-hearted belittlings of our fellow explorers. Bob was with another clean-cut man of the same age named Robert. Bob was clean-cut with good posture and Robert had a mustache. I didnít think twice about it, I figured them for gay.
While we waited outside for the Estancia to end, a young lady in her 20ís with dyed maroon/black hair burst out next to us. We asked her if the festivities were over. She said, "I fucking hope so."
I fell asleep on the ride back into the city and woke up just in time to hear Iris recommend some ice cream joints. I stepped off the bus with a mission and five minutes later I was enjoying some bona fide south Argentine cuisine Ė a double scoop of caliphate and dulce de leche ice cream (caliphate being a berry indigenous only to southern South America). I called my mom and left a message on her voice mail saying "Not only is everything all right, but Iím eating ice cream to boot!"
A few hours later we met back at the bus and got delivered to the gangway of the Lyubov Orlova, our Maltese-registered, 328-ft floating home for the next ten days. When we arrived, someone was delivering a bouquet of flowers. I got my room assignment and descended to the bottom civilian floor, the cheap seats. Right behind me was Peter, the Complainer. We were roommates again! Contrary to my imagination, Peter was a very friendly, outgoing man. He was also the only European on the ship (heís Dutch). He made sure I called my mom. I made sure he knew I did not snore.
Our cabin was categorized as "Lower Quad," meaning it was a bottom level cabin with four beds. I chose the right bunk and he chose the left while the two upper bunks remained folded into the wall. Also in our cabin was a "private facility," a 3" X 5" sink/toilet/shower closet. The shower nozzle pointed over the toilet which was cool because I like to pee when I shower, thanks for asking.
We were only in our cabin ten minutes when a woman came and asked Peter to step into the hallway. A minute later he came back in and grabbed his bags. With giddy enthusiasm he informed me that it was nothing personal, but he was getting his own room. "I complained only once," he said, "but in the name of ĎCustomer Serviceí they want to make sure I am happy for the rest of the trip!" He shook my hand and told me it was nice to meet me. He added that he hoped we could talk some more on the trip, then practically skipped out of the room, down the hall, and into an empty room.
Now, I thought, if he was given an empty room that could only mean I, too, had my own room. Par-tay! I threw my stuff on the floor and went back into town for some more ice cream.
We were scheduled to set sail at 9pm so I was instructed to be back onboard by 7pm for the orientation. Before that time I had two more ice creams, sent five post cards, walked all the way up to the top of the city (about a mile up a 40 degree incline), and got chased back down by a pack of dogs. And on my way back to the ship I passed through the city centre where I had to negotiate my way through streets and sidewalks crowded over by decked out and gussied up teenagers, presumably looking for someone to knock up/be knocked up by. Were I in a Buenos Airean cab, my driver would have likely shorted his horn honking at all the spiced up girls.
When I got back to the ship I skipped up the gangway and headed down to my cabin. I threw back the door and was just as startled as the person looking back at me. I had forgotten about the late shift of people coming down from Buenos Aires and it never occurred to me that one of them would be dropped into my room. He introduced himself as Jaime and I liked him from the start. He was big and loveable. He had a childlike enthusiasm about our forthcoming trip and bounced around the room with his luggage like he was too overwhelmed to know what to do with it. Heís a girthy 37 year-old successful Mexican ad director for a medicinal firm in Chicago. Last night he and another passenger met some "gorgeous Norwegian chicks" and took them back to his room.
"You guys shared a room?" I asked. I thought, if they shared a room in Buenos Aires, why arenít they sharing a room on the boat?
"No, I had my own room last night."
"Whyís that?" I asked nervously.
He handed me the fabled ear plugs and sleeping pills and said, "I snoó"
"Youíre the Snorer!" I blurted excitedly. He wasnít Weird Guy, but he was at least still somewhat famous.
He offered to go with me to the person in charge and explain his snoring problem, if it meant being able to switch me into a room with a more peaceful sleeper. But we got along so well already that I said Iíd tough it out a night and see how I felt in the morning. We finished unpacking and sat on our bunks talking. He suggested we have a party one night to get to know people, then brandished a large, unopened bottle of Absolut. Most mature adults would not propose such a thing to a new acquaintance, especially one youíre about to share very close quarters with for a week and a half, but I jumped at the idea and I sensed that he sensed that I would.
Come dinner hour we made for the dining room and chose a table. On the way we picked up some name tags and filled them in accordingly. Bob and Robert (or "Unmarried Gay Couple," as I have taken to calling them) joined us, as did Sharon and Hilary and Jeremy. I gazed across the dining room and took inventory of our compatriots, now all finally assembled in one place. There were 30 of us from the U.S., 30 from Canada, 70 Japanese, and a few randoms like Peter and a family from Tasmania and another family from Wales. Before the food was served everyone had a chance to do some talking. Dialogue among our group was effortless. We were an easy going lot with little regard for proper manners. A menu floated around our table and it offered three main courses to choose from, one of which was vegetarian.
Five Russian waitresses emerged from the kitchen with appetizers and asked us what we wanted for dinner. The two tending our table were Vika and Natasha. All the waitresses were spicy in that exotic sort of way, but Natashaís smile, playfulness with our table, and see-through blouse held my attention throughout the meal. The food was delicious, right down to dessert, and I hoped it wasnít a fluke.
When our plates were finally cleared, our expedition leader, Shane stood up before everyone. He introduced himself and ran off his credentials. He was an experienced seaman with 49 trips to Antarctica under his belt. He was heavy-set, but in the way that looked like he earned it. And his bigness went well with him beard and cap and auto-tint spectacles. He looked rugged and he exuded confidence. I came to understand that this was his ship, all orders came from his mouth, and he made all final decisions. Our boat was a Russian Icebreaker manned by a Russian crew, but our expedition had little-to-nothing to do with the Russians. They steered the ship, made repairs and kept us from drowning, but that was about it. Shane was top dog.
"Our enthusiasm depends on your enthusiasm," Shane said with absolutely no clue just how much enthusiasm I can muster up. He went on to stress the importance of Flexibility on our trip because "Mother Nature is our true expedition leader." Once it was understood that we could conceivably go all the way down to Antarctica and never get off the ship, and that we couldnít blame him or MEI, he introduced the rest of the staff, a collection of maroon-MEI-shirted persons at the front corner table of the dining room. Each member of the cadre had a specialty. Some were animal experts, others were sea experts. And still others were experts at making sure every one on the ship was fed, entertained, and more importantly, didnít go crazy.
Each staff member gave a short speech but the passengers were growing restless. The boat was still docked and we wanted to get going. We wanted to experience Antarctica. We wanted to start vomiting over the side of the boat and have snot frozen and encrusted to our faces or beards. And we wanted it now. A few speeches were cut short and we were eventually dismissed with a warning that the lifeboat drill was going to kick off in the next hour.
It was past 10pm when we finally left port. The Oh Shit horn blew and Jaime and I checked the back of our cabin door to see which lifeboat station was ours. We scrambled into our warmest clothes and life jackets. The 150 people on the boat (the Russians didnít have to join in our shenanigans) were spread out between six lifeboats, three hanging over each side of the ship. Our group, creatively dubbed Group 4, were asked to line up against the wall for a head count.
I shuffled awkwardly towards the wall in my bulky gear and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a man whom I recognized immediately. He was well over six feet, three inches tall and had shoulder-length bowl-cut hair tied into a tight ball on the back of his skull. His face was gaunt and unaffected by (or unaware of) the pandemonium around him. Where the rest of us were bulging with our winterís warmest (like we were instructed), he was wearing only a wet suit and some booties. It was, it had to be Ė Weird Guy. I asked him if he was having fun and I got no reply. He just looked straight ahead with his head up and his shoulders back. I repeated myself, just in case, but got the same reaction. Jeremy and Hilary were next to us in Group 2 and I promptly turned to inform them of who Iíd found, but in the five seconds it took to get their attention he had vanished.
The sun didnít completely dip below the horizon until 11pm. Jaime and I returned our lifejackets to our room then went topside with Jeremy. The air was clean, brisk and refreshing as the Lyubov Orlova glided smoothly through the Beagle Channel. The three of us stayed up talking for hours, unable to sleep due to the impending excitement. Two megaships passed us, going back to Ushuaia, that were so illuminated Jaime could read his watch as passed. It was explained to me that, though those ships were gigantic, they had less stability in rough waters than ours because our shipís hull extended below the surface about three times deeper than theirs. This was reassuring because sometime before breakfast we were going to be in the thick of the Drake.
In all the studying I did on Antarctica, it wasnít until the week after I sent in my deposit that I started coming across articles on the dreaded Drake Passage. Francis Drake passed through the stretch of water between South America and Antarctica, proving there was no connection between Tierra del Fuego and the mythical Terra Australis (Southern Land). Cartographers hence labeled the waterway the Drake Passage.
Once Europeans began commuting regularly to the west side of the Americas and Pacific Asia, going through the Drake was their only option. The only problem was that this sea, where the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans converge along with various weather systems, totally sucked. Most mariners consider the Drake Passage home to the most consistently rough seas on the planet. In fact, there were so many sunken ships in the Cape Horn area that they were forced to build a little device called the Panama Canal. My fear of water can be debilitating, so news of having to cross the "roaring forties," "furious fifties," and "screaming sixties" did not sit lightly. It would not be too far from the truth to say that Iíve spent two months crapping my pants about this.
Before Jaime and I retired, I applied my pressure-point bracelets. Countless cruise-experienced persons swore by these and said that to not take them would be mental suicide. The bracelets were nothing more than stretchy cotton hair ties with plastic nubs on the inside, designed to hit some pressure point on the insides of oneís wrists. Pregnant women are urged to wear them to prevent morning sickness and chemotherapy patients to ward off nausea. Jaime instead applied some sort of patch behind his ear as his seasick remedy.
With the lights out by 1am, we talked in the dark of our aspirations for the trip (have fun) and about music (rockíníroll = good, country = bad) and work (generally bad) and our lifeís direction (or, in my case, misdirection). An hour later we made a conscious effort to shut up and go to sleep.