Jan 21

Properly battening down the hatches, closets doors, and drawers before we went to sleep, Jaime and I woke up to an empty floor. We also woke up to an empty stomach, due in large part to being fed four times yesterday, thereby throwing our bodies into a state of perpetual hunger. Since our door wonít stay shut we secured it open. Weíre at the end of the hall so not too many people walk by, which is good because Jaime and I donít even shut the bathroom door when weíre using it.

We floundered our way to the meal deck while fighting the ever-present rocking of the ship. Again, I havenít the slightest feeling of wooz, and for that I am eternally thankful. Before I left home, two co-workers (both ex-Navy Seals) agreed that extended seasickness was one of the few ailments where sobbing and wishing for death was excused. Iím afraid Iíd throw myself overboard if I got seasick, seeing only water in every direction and knowing the sway was never going to end. But, alas, I continue to retain my wits and lunch when so many about me are losing theirs.

What Iím starting to not feel so good about is Weird Guy. Before meal time he again was sitting in a chair just outside the dining room doors with a posture that said, very clearly, "I do not socialize." While most of us are here to have finally set foot on every continent, to "check off Number 7," Bob believes the guy is here to complete the goal of killing someone on every continent.

Breakfast was the same as yesterday, but thatís A-okay because I can live off oatmeal and bananas all the livelong day. Especially when Natasha (the dining room Natasha, not Natasha the Bartender) is the one refilling them. Somehow the Weird Guy got the name "Dude" and he spent breakfast at a table with Japanese sitting in every seat except the oneís on either side of him. Shane announced that the balmy weather was so much in our favor that our two and a half day jaunt through The Drake was cut short by a whole day. Weather permitting, we planned to make our first landing by the end of the day.

Upon boarding the ship, the Japanese were each given remote earpieces. Kevin, their seasick, frosted-haired, I-will-survive-on-coffee-and-cigarettes-until-we-get-back-to-land, lisping translator, can be found at every meal and lecture whispering into the lapel clip that broadcasts to all the earpieces. But every now and then, when no speech is being made to translate, weíll see a show of Japanese hands. Itís eerie to be sitting in a dining room devoid of conversation, and have scattered hands raise themselves in unison. Bob thinks Kevin planning a coup.

"Raise your hand if you are ready to kill the imperialist swine," asks Kevin discreetly into his little microphone.

Hands go up.

"We will meet tonight in room 303. Rumiko-san will bring the plans, Yuki-chan will bring the sake."

In light of our proposed landing this afternoon, we were ushered into the Lethargy Room for a mandatory "Zodiac Etiquette" lesson. Gary threw Doís and Donítís at us while projecting educational slides of people who had probably sat in our very same room for our very same lecture and fell asleep the very same way everybody around me had.

The zodiac is our only connection to land. (Swimming doesnít even count because I seriously doubt anyone on this ship could make it 100 feet before freezing up and becoming a sealís hard-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside popsicle.) The zodiac is a rubber raft with a washboard floor and an outboard motor and holds between 10 and 12 people "comfortably."

When the ship finds a suitable place to drop anchor, we scale down the side of the ship via a clanky, slippery metal stairway called the "gangway" and into one of the many zodiacs, then motor ourselves to the landing site.

Unlike most of my sleeping shipmates, I was thoroughly excited and uncharacteristically awake during this lesson. Garyís adamancy hinted at the danger involved in making a landing. The rubber boot-unfriendly gangway; the choppy waters falling below then smashing back into the gangway making loading into the zodiacs risky and limb-threatening; the little motor boats speeding over below-freezing watersÖ It all served to build excitement which, droned by the Drake, I was more than ready for. During the lecture the person sitting next to me groggily brought to my attention that my relentlessly fidgeting foot was vibrating the table and keeping her from napping.

On a totally unrelated note, Shaneís disdain for us is now undeniable. He was the one who said his staffís enthusiasm depended on our enthusiasm and we have been working hand-over-fist to be as utterly enthusiastic as possible! Sometimes to the point of scaring people off! What more does he want from us?!

Some people take to me easily, others not at all. Bob seems to have that same problem. Jaime is an excellent example of someone who hits it off with us right off the bat. Shane, it seems, is an example of someone who does not readily enjoy our company. To test peopleís probable amiability, Bob and I have certain jokes we like to share. His joke de jour goes like this:

In the emergency ward of inner-city hospital, the head nurse of ten years comes out to usher in the next patient, but is overwhelmed by the pungent stench of human feces.

"Okay, which one of you shit their pants?!" she asks.

No answer.

"Címon, I can smell it! Which one of you shit their pants!?!"

Still no answer.

She moves to the first man and takes a sharp sniff. He smells, but of liquor and grime.

The next manís malodor is nauseating, but he does not smell like crap.

As she advances the third man, his rankness slaps her silly. "I just asked who shit their pants!?"

"Oh," the third man replies, "I thought you meant ĎWho shit their pants today!í"

Whoever laughs, Bobís accepts. Now, whereas Bob likes to test peopleís offensive threshold, I test more to see what their capacity of humor is, or rather, where their brow lies Ė high or low. A reaction to the most classic moment ever to air on the Newlywed Game is a typically adequate indicator.

The first round of questions included "Where is the strangest place you and youíre husband made whoopie?"

One wife answered "the kitchen." Another responded "secluded public restroom." Two more equally mundane responses followed.

In the second round the husbands came back to try and match their wivesí answers.

"Where does your wife say is the strangest place you have made whoopie?" Bob Eubanks asked the male panelists.

"Thatíd be the butt, Bob." one husband replied honestly, on national television, to be re-televised for decades to come.

If they laugh, theyíre in. The Naked Shackeltons enact a new rule: if itís inappropriate, itís funny. This theory is to be tested at our party tomorrow night.

Before we left the relatively calm, but still inclement waters of The Drake, I wanted to look my fear of water right in the eye. I have stood all over the top decks of this ship marveling at the sea for two days now, but I still retained an irrational fear of it. So, in a moment of intense gung ho, I clamored to the very front of the bow, where the winds were most fierce, where there was nothing to hold on to except a couple widely-spaced rails, where the ship met the sea head-on, and pulled a Titanic. I leaned over the rail, stretched out my arms, let the spray of the freezing ocean burn my face, and tried to keep myself upright and onboard. It was refreshing and exhilarating, right up until I lost my footing Ė then it became dangerous and I ran hastily back to a safer spot.

Next fear to overcome: guns. Had I known I would have worked out the fear-of-water issue so soon I would have brought some. No, on second thought, fuck the guns. On third thought, fuck guns.

Damn, they're actually kinda pretty.

Among my circle of friends at home Iím considered "well-traveled." Iím also considered short, a slow eater, and extremely talkative, but thatís beside the point. Iíve wandered into almost 30 countries, and in a couple of days I will have been to every continent. But in the company of my fellow passengers Iím about as experienced as an alter boy in a whorehouse. Iíve talked to more than one person with 100+ countries under their belt. I could spend this entire trip enraptured by tales of my fellow passengersí exploits and escapades across this oxygenated orb we call Earth. Itís made me realize that Iíve got a lot of ground to cover - the Himalayas in Nepal, the gorillas in Rwanda, the cannibals in Fiji, and, today, the penguins on the Aitcho Islands.

We dropped anchor near the largest of the Aitcho Islands. We were still a day away from the actual continent, but the many islands off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula provide much more wildlife. Everybody lined up, single-file, along the perimeter of Level 5, where the gangway was harnessed. Everybody, that is, except for the Japanese. They gathered and huddled right at the front of the line. Until this point there had been little-to-no assimilation between the Japanese and the English-speakers. And unfortunately, this was a bad way to begin. A couple people who had been waiting upwards of 20 minutes tried to explain the single-file, one-at-a-time system that was in effect, but by and large, nobody listened. (One of the few who did listen was a big, jovial middle-aged man with a big smile, big, excited eyes, and a Sumo wrestlerís build. He was wearing a childrenís snorkel set and trying to get his Japanese friends riled up by acting like a loon.) When most of the Japanese made no effort to adopt the wait-in-line method, things started getting edgy and uptight, but mostly because everyone was waiting for that one old American who still harbors ill-feelings from the war to say something derogatory. It never happened, and everybody eventually got into a zodiac, but something about that one cultural difference left a bad taste in a lot of peopleís mouths.

I couldnít care less, I was going to see some penguins. Somewhere in my half-sleep in the Lethargy Room yesterday I recall hearing stern instructions about animal protocol while on the landings. I donít remember if I have it correct, but I think we were never to touch any of the animals unless they touched us first. This was an Antarctic Law, if Iím not mistaken. Also, we were to give all penguins a five foot buffer zone unless the customarily inquisitive little buggers came up to us first. In addition, we were to give all birds and bird nests 10 feet unless approached first (which would be bad because they have no reason to approach unless to defend their turf). Lastly, we were expected to give all seals, the often aggravated beasts, 15 feet leeway - more if they started towards you. I canít remember what was said about whales, but Iím sure it went something like "Stay out of the water and you wonít have to worry about whales." Or maybe Iím making that part up because I know there was nothing about pizza delivery on the island like there was in my dream during that particular lecture.

To prevent accidents, only two people were allowed down the gangway at a time. Once our boat was filled we headed towards land. I had the front left seat, meaning that I was a shield to the others against all the spray and overflow that inundated our zodiac. By the time I reached the island I was downright soaked and panicky about the possible onset of hypothermia or pneumonia or even frostbite.

To explain Antarctic cold, I offer four examples:

1 Ė to throw a pot of boiling water out the window would do little more than make mist

2 Ė refrigerators are employed to keep things warm

3 Ė the difference in temperature between your front that faces the sun and your back can be over 100įF

4 Ė due to the high saline content of the water, the actual ocean temperature is below freezing.

I was wearing sunglasses and a bandana across my face, two wicked skin-shirts, a turtleneck, a sweater, and a big bulky jacket with an inch-thick hood, wicked long johns, trousers with weather-proof ski pants my dad used before I was born, and two pairs of socks so thick my two-sizes-too-big knee-high rubber boots were too small.

My outer shell, as I said, was completely saturated. I got nervous that the water might make it through all my layers all too soon, but as soon as I saw my first penguin all fears and sensitivities towards the cold vanished.

Aitcho is home to Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, thousands of them. Rookeries covered almost half the island. There were so many penguins near our landing site that it was almost impossible to abide by the 5-foot rule. Heightening international tensions, one Japanese man ran full speed through a rookery, displacing the lot of them. At first everyone was flabbergasted. Then everyone got pissed. Then, as more Japanese failed to give the animals their space, it was considered that something was getting in lost in the translations back on the ship.

Penguins as far as the eye can see.

I maneuvered through the penguins the best I could and ventured over to the other side of the island. On the way I skipped down a steep incline towards some rocks from which I could perch and spy on a dense chinstrap rookery. I got 10 feet away from the pile of rocks before I saw one of the rocks lift its head and howl at me. The first time you see them, moulting (shedding) seals can look a lot like a heap of rocks.

Looks like a heap of rocks, no?

Another stern instruction we received on the ship was to adhere to the wandering restrictions. Antarcticaís sunny, cloudless skies can morph into blinding, deadly whiteouts in under two minutes. Nobody wants to search through that kind of weather for a wandering tourist, and more importantly, nobody wants to be the wandering tourist the crew will risk their lives to rescue. I had no problem with this rule.

Little footballs.

I made a sharp and frightened right at the seals and met up with some of the other Naked Shackeltons. They were looking way off into the distance and shaking their heads in disbelief. We were already standing just beyond our designated boundary (because weíre irreverent boobs) when I was asked to guess at the figure on the farthest peak of the island. Even from 300 yards I could make out Dudeís outline.

Rob, resident whale expert, not babysitter, trotted off to reel Dude back in. The rest of us watched through the snow flurries as Rob hiked after him. We waited for him to reach Dude, expecting Rob to get hoisted in the air, spun in circles, thrown down the mountain, then descended upon and eaten raw. Instead, Dude listened repealingly then shot back within the designated boundary so fast Rob was still standing in his spot when Dude passed us.

As we watched all this in amusement, Bob let out a horrifically loud fart, one whose volume broke through the searing winds and penetrated my thick jacket-hood and earmuffs. I turned to him accusingly (not yet sure if it was what I thought it was, or from whom) and he looked back with a face that clearly said, "So what." It was followed by a round of laughs and Right on!ís. In my mind, this single action unleashed a surge of potentially inappropriate (and therefore Funny) situations. Jaime and I answered with farts of our own and we felt like we had truly found ourselves some kindred spirits. We eventually made our way back to the zodiacs, but not before witnessing Skuas, the Antarctic seagull, make repeated attempts at eating baby penguins. I was watching Trials of Life play out right in front of me. It was thrilling and in-my-face and all things Mountain Dew, but my feet and hands were as frozen as Iíve ever (not) felt them and I was eager to get back to our room to run them under some hot water.

Nursing my extremities back to normal was an excruciatingly painful process, not unlike trying to wake up a sleeping foot or forearm in the middle of the night. I cried, I screamed, and I fell down a couple times onto our toilet. But the chills eventually went away and I adjured to the festivities going on in the shipís social mecca, the library.

We threw together a game of Pictionary and through default Jaime and I were placed on Michaelís team. By this point it was very obvious I was not one of Michaelís favorite people on this ship. Even after I made comment of my suspicion, Michael substantiated it by belittling me further. Actually, he seemed to dislike all of us, except Sharon.

The object of Pictionary is to pull a card with an object or phrase on it, then draw it wordlessly for your team to try and figure out. Each team has a pawn that is moved around the board with each turn. The first team to land on the Finish square wins. Our team clobbered the other team in illustration-comprehension, but the other team got lucky and rolled better dice. Even though we shared a valorous bout of competition, where neither Jaime nor I were the dead weight we were assumed to be, it was all too obvious that Michael was floating away from the Naked Shackeltons which is a bummer because it doesnít look like Iíll ever get a chance to ever win that dollar back.

Dinner was fabulous, dessert was scrumptious, Natasha was gorgeous, the sea was calm, my hands and feet were warm, and I was stoked at having seen my first penguin. This trip is already worth it, no question.

After dinner everyone showered up and met at the bar where Natasha the Bartender was slinging drinks. Various card games, Connect Four and alcohol kept the high-energy types unruly till the wee hours. In an effort to look not-so-scummy, I found a shirt stuffed in the bottom of my backpack baring no offensive slogans or images. I unwadded it and threw it on, but my attempt at class was nothing next to Sharonís. Not only was she wearing clothes totally unsuitable for a trip to the South Pole, but she had heels and perfume to boot. Over the course of the night she got pretty drunk and left her camera on one of the couches. Still viewing her as "one of the guys" (despite her obvious leanings towards Michael, King of the Anal Retentives and swindler of one of my dollars), the Naked Shackeltons discreetly brought her camera to the top deck for some not-so-discreet photos. If anything is whiter than the scenery around here, itís our asses.

As Jaime and I turned in, we continued our discussion on lifeís ultimate meaning and chided ourselves for not complimenting Sharonís successful attempt to look pleasant.

Oh, one more thing: Bob and Robert are not gay. The two are old college buddies. Robert is happily married and lives in Toronto. But I will still refer to them as Unmarried Gay Couple because of Robertís mustache and Bobís aviator haircut, and because every time I pop into their room they are both in their BVDs.