At breakfast I was glad to see Natasha back on her feet. She was refilling the oatmeal when I walked up for a bowl and our eyes met. That same smile that has melted me this whole trip caused me to drop my bowl down on the table. I looked down to make sure it didnít break or land in the oatmeal and when I looked up Natasha was leaning over the table towards me. She grabbed my head with both hands and kissed me so hard I thought I was going to fall into the oatmeal.
Then I woke up to find my dinky little blanket on the floor and unable to cover my stiffy.
Jaime and I were both awake before the announcement for breakfast. We were supposed to be packed before we went to bed last night, but we were busy not packing so we had to start before breakfast. Most of the penguin smell was gone, but just in case I secured everything remotely stinky in a large plastic bag. Iím thinking of unleashing it on the first one of my friends to ask if I saw a penguin.
I was more than joyed to see that Natasha really was up and well. After breakfast she asked me to hang around a bit while she finished with the dishes. I started picking up glasses and napkins until she demanded I stop. She pointed to the staff table and instructed me to sit while she finished.
When the tables were cleared she came over and thanked me for everything Iíd done for her. I thanked her back for making this trip more than I had ever expected. She looked at me for the first time without any sort of shyness or reservation. I was awash with passion. If Anna and Vika werenít a few feet away I would have picked her up, thrown her on the table, and ravaged her for a solid week.
But they were there, so I didnít. She told me to come find her when I was done packing.
I returned to the cabin and plunked down on my bunk facing Jaime. We sat in silence for a minute when he finally shook his head and said, "ManÖ" It was a rhetorical Man. The kind of Man a dude says when the immensity of things begins to catch up.
We finished cleaning our dirty socks, books, film, and trash from off the floor while sharing a few choice memories from our trip. He gave me his business card and I gave him mine - a CD with my address printed on the back next to songs about food, farting, and log-flogging. We went back up to the dining room to receive our return boarding passes and, per her request, I sat with Natasha.
She grabbed a pen and a napkin and proceeded to write down her address and phone number in Russia. I didnít ask what I was supposed to do with the phone number, I just folded the napkin neatly in my pocket and held hands with her across the table. She walked me out to the gangway and gave me a full-body hug. We pulled apart but she kept her hands on my hips and said, "Thank you" again. I know, I know, I should have kissed her. Donít think that from the moment she was out of sight I didnít start physically kicking myself for not trying. If you have the time, watch me finish lastÖ
The rest of the staff stood at the bottom of the gangway and sent us all off with handshakes, hugs, or both. I was especially sincere when I thanked Gary and Angela. Shane was especially sincere when he said, "Bye."
A bus hosted again by the lovely Iris took us through the Ushuaian wilderness for one last afternoon in the blessed Tierra del Fuego.
We stopped at a vista overlooking yet another lake and whoever wanted to was offered a hike. A few of us unloaded and were told to follow the trail that lay before us. The bus, the rest of the passengers, and some lunch would be waiting at the other end. Karen, the woman who knew better than to follow the rest of the sheep out of the Ushuaian airport some many days ago, thus marking her as an independent and not a follower, took the lead with me down the hill.
Karenís in her 50ís, divorced, and dresses in action clothes. We stumbled down the already difficult trail and realized that we still had some serious sea-legs to overcome. Tramping through the mud I had to fight not to lose my balance. Karen was good company. Most importantly, she never acted offended by me. Sensing this, I never felt like I had to be on guard with her, like I do with so many other "adults." My mom is fast approaching 50 and recently went through a divorce that ultimately landed her a job doing the hobbies she was kept from during her marriage. Overcoming adversity is one thing, benefiting from it is even better. Karen wound up in Antarctica for the same reason. She was left by her husband and took hold of the opportunity by moving across the country to New Mexico, where she had always wanted to live. She now works, saves money, and travels.
She applauded my decision to do all of my adventuring while I was young, in case I never got the chance again. I hear that all the time, but I have long gotten over the "doing this while Iím young" phase. That was my excuse to my parents when I told them I was dropping out of college to go on tour in Japan. "I may never get this opportunity again," I told them. Yet here I am, eight years later, doing the same thing. Itís now a lifestyle, one that few comprehend. Thanks, Karen.
Sure enough, food was waiting for us at the bottom of the mile-long trail. I traded my ham sandwich with Steve for his apple and dulce de leche cookies. Jeremy saw I was enjoying the cookies and offered me up his last one. I traded my soda with Hilary for her apple and cookies and somehow managed, even with rationed lunches, to overfill myself on sweets.
I fell asleep on the ride back to the airport. Between my planeís departure in Ushuaia and my final landing in Oakland sat 36 long, forlorn hours, 16 of which were spread between three layovers. Iris hung out to see us off and wait for the next batch to fly in. What a weird job Ė being the transitory liaison for people going to and coming back from something as awe-inspiring as Antarctica. The change in people from when they left to when they came back must be so obvious.
I got a seat next to Karen on the flight back to Buenos Aires and spent it chatting. Sometimes, when Iím given the leeway, I can run at the mouth with non-sequiturs. You can ask Karen if you donít believe me. Three hours she had to listen to me drivel on about my ship-buddies and Connect Four and Power Bars and Natasha and whatever else came across my mind. It wasnít until I was on my next plane that I wondered why she hadnít pulled a Ted StrykerĖinduced suicide before we landed.
The three hour layover in Buenos Aires had me using up the rest of my calling card on friendís answering machines. I passed by Minaru-san who was sitting with a bunch of the Japanese passengers from the ship. Their one layover was twelve hours. He shook my hand once more while his friend fed him English.
"Sank youÖ..HaveÖÖÖsafe tripÖ. home," he repeated after his friend.
I said, "Do itashimashite," and bowed. A naked Japanese man on my trip, I thought, my friends are gonna be so stoked!!!
I slept through most of the flight to Miami. Melanie and her mom were sitting behind me. On a napkin I wrote, "PsstÖwanna pass notes?" And so began an hour of napkin-scrawled gossip. I donít know why we didnít talk more before. She was my age, vegetarian, and we shared a lot of the same dis-tastes in our generation. She hooked up with Gary, which was good to hear because Garyís what my gender would call "a good man." We sighed over our flings and agreed that fleeting love on the high seas makes home an unwelcome reality.
From Miami to LAX to Oakland I was on my own. Oddly, at the Ushuaian airport they spoke Spanish, at the Buenos Aires airport they spoke Spanish, at the Miami airport they spoke Spanish, and at LAX they spoke Spanish, yet never once did I get lost! And it was also with incredibly good fortune that all of my flights, on all the different airlines, were on time.
In case my mom wasnít at the airport to get me, I saved my remaining money (all $7USD of it) for public transport home. But alas, she was waiting for me when I arrived and she brought cookies.
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