Our expedition to Antarctica was even more astonishing than I’d imagined … and I have quite the imagination. In every way this was an experience that surpassed all of my expectations (hhmmmm … expectations … that’s something I need to write about I think). Here we are enjoying ourselves in La Boca, in the heart of Buenos Aires as we prepare to visit the continent that wraps itself around the bottom of the earth. I think that retirement really and truly began for me at a particular moment on the flight home. During our time on the Polar Star we’d had almost no contact with the outside world – they’d post news on a bulletin board every three or four days but it was just a few headlines about what was happening. Our personal contacts were limited to a few e-mails we were able to send out to let family and friends know that we were doing fine. Surrounded by a continent of unbelievable beauty and an environment that’s as other-worldly as anyplace I’ve ever been, we’d truly removed ourselves from our Toronto lives and were just immersed in awe. As always seems to happen when we travel, the connection with our “real” lives began to weave itself back into our reality about a day before our return. This trip was no different. We had a final two days in Buenos Aires between Antarctica and Canada. At this point David had started to reconnect with his office; he’d been able to call them by phone and access his e-mail so he’d started to worry about things work-related. This anxiety seemed to be building until, by the time we were on the Buenos Aires-Santiago-New York leg of the journey home, I had an epiphany. When we got home David would be heading back to work and … I wouldn’t. My life had really and truly changed and what I saw awaiting me upon my return was an open space. Okay, maybe not quite as open as the snow-covered continent I’d just left but – nonetheless – a space not emcumbered by things imposed by the demands of work.
This realization is no small thing. It means that the way in which I’ve been managing “re-entry” (which is notoriously difficult for me and usually involves some tears within hours of returning home) has been quite different. There’s been no pressure to get everything packed and “back to normal” quickly so that the exigencies of work could take over. No stress about needing everything in place quickly so that I’m not distracted – or distressed – by the mess. This is my third morning home. I’ve done four loads of laundry and have just one final load to go. There are still things piled up on the living room couch and the dining room table. I have sorted mail into piles but not even started really going through it. There’s still a suitcase and a backpack on the futon in the spare room (not sure why it’s called that since it’s actually a room in which I work, exercise, read, pay bills, organize my life in general, and also the space that’s available for visitors). I’ve started organizing my close to 1000 photos but don’t anticipate finishing that for weeks … in the past I’ve pretty much had my photos uploaded to Shutterfly within 48 hours of returning from a trip. I feel quite content right now just moving slowly through my days; no rush to get anywhere in a hurry.
So – instead of rushing forward – I’ll pause here and share some of my first Antarctic moments with you – taken directly from my journal. If encouraged I’m sure I’d be happy to share more!
December 10th, 2008: Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego
We woke up at the Los Acebos Hotel which sits on the side of a hill high about the town of Ushuaia. From our window we can see the Martial Mountains which are a backdrop for Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel which marks the edge of this southernmost city in the world. Actually calling it “waking up” is a bit of a misnomer because neither of us really slept much at all. In and out of brief naps we finally got up on 7 a.m. in a rush to dress, pack up, have breakfast and be ready to go by 8 a.m. when we were expecting somebody from a local tour company to pick us up at the hotel for a day in the Tierra Del Fuego National Park before we sailed away into the southern seas. We were ready by 8 with our bags stored by the hotel for pick up and transfer to the ship later in the day. We waited. And waited. When by 8:45 nobody had arrived, Laura (pronounced Low (as in how) Ra) called a friend of hers and Anders picked us up shortly after 9 and away we went. Ushuaia, for most of the fisrt half of the 20th century, was a city centered around a prison for serious criminals. The Argentine government set up this prison following the example of the British with Australia and the French with Devil’s Island; escape from a prison on Tierra Del Fuego was nearly impossible. The prisoners were forced colonists and spent much of their time cutting wood in the forest around the prison and building the town. They also built a railway to the settlement, now known as the End of the World Train (Tren del Fin Del Mundo), the southernmost railway in the world. We boarded that train for the hour ride from Ushuaia to the Tierra Del Fuego National park. Anders picked us up again when we got off the train and drove us through the park, starting at key points to allow us to hike from one place to another, enjoying the incredible views and just revelling in our surroundings.
By 2 o’clock we were back in Ushuaia, moving our bags from the hotel to the tour agent who’d get them loaded on the Polar Star later in the afternoon, and we had our last meal “on land”. We spent the final half hour before boarding with me sitting in a parkette gazing out over the pier and David trying to find a bank machine and withdraw some extra pesos before sailing; a futile attempt since much of the city was caught in a power outage and none of the machines worked. At 4:45 we cleared security at the top of the pier and began a long walk down to the very end of the pier where the Polar Star awaited our arrival. We found our room (we’d been upgraded to a sweet little cabin with a double bed (hooray!), deep purple leather couch, desk and chair. We unpacked our gear, sorted ourselves out, and headed down to our first briefing which consisted mostly of lots and lots of recommendations for how to prepare for “heavy” seas.
Dinner was at 8 and it was our first real opportunity to meet some of our fellow travellers. The most common phrase I heard at dinner was the repeated question: “so, why are you going to Antarctica?”. I decided to record some of the answers since they were so varied. M (from England) told me that she’d always wanted to do this but because it’s so expensive she hadn’t been able to. Then an aunt died and left her some money and, as she said, “I’m sure she’d approve of my using it this way”. There was a couple from Holland who had left their jobs 5 1/2 years earlier and just started a world tour by car. “When we reached Ushuaia”, they told me, “we thought about where to go next and bought a ticket on the Polar Star.” There were a number of travellers, of all ages, who – like these Dutch explorers – had left their jobs/homes/cars/families to spend time travelling the world with no particular destination and no schedule to hedge them in. D (from Australia) told me that when she was young she’d known several men who had travelled to Antarctica. Indeed, her first husband had been a surveyor and he’d done a 400 km trek across Antarctica by dogsled. He’d died when her three children were quite young and she’d always thought about coming to Antarctica one day. So … here she was. The jackets that we’d been issued when we came aboard had the words “In The Spirit Of Adventure We Renew Ourselves” written across the back, and this seemed to be a maxim that held true for most of our fellow travellers.
We finally climbed into bed around 10 with gentle waves lulling us into a restful sleep. By the middle of the night the seas had “turned” and what had started as a lulling motion had now turned into swinging back and forth. Suddenly – bang! There was an armchair in the room next to the couch that wasn’t tethered to anything and it had decided that the time was right to do some travelling of its own. That bang was our first indication that we were in rougher waters. 8 metre waves were lifting and dropping the ship. I tried to roll over in the bed and was caught by a downturn that literally lifted me and tossed me over like an egg in a frying pan. The banging of the chair punctuated the rest of the night as it careened from one side of the room (crash) to the other (whack). By 6 o’clock neither of us could feign sleep and we began the task of dressing for the day. We had to manoever ourselves into clothing with the boat rocking quite wildly and a chair on the move trying – it seemed – to catch us unawares. One leg into my pants – then sit down. Lean over to put on a shoe – then hang on to the edge of the bed for dear life. Do all of this with one eye on the travelling chair (I must ask to have it removed from the room before it catches me off-guard!), Nonetheless, we managed to make ourselves fairly presentable and – holding onto the rails – made it up to the Observation Lounge for a cup of coffee. Pouring coffee into a lurching cup and then trying to carry it over to our chairs was quite the challenge; David developed real expertise in this quite early on in the voyage. Even here – on the rolling seas – he was finding a way to bring me my morning coffee. (Aahhh). I was astonished to actually be feeling hungry by breakfast time – a good sign, I hoped, that I was outrunning seasickness. Understand that to prepare for this I was wearing a Scopolamine patch behind my right ear, taking twice-a-day doses of Gravol, and sporting a jaunty red BioBand on each wrist … something with a little hard plastic knob that puts pressure on a point in your inner wrist that is supposed to then disrupt the transmission of nausea before it can be registered.
After breakfast – which included chairs sliding into each other which, I discovered quickly, led to impromptu introductions (“Hi, now that I’m practically sitting on your lap let me introduce myself …) – we returned to the Observation Lounge on Deck 5 for the first of many lectures we’d attend on the two crossings (outbound and inbound) of the Drake Passage. The expedition team was quite impressive; I don’t think I’ve ever travelled before with so many Ph.D.’s – in geology, bird (including penguin) behaviour, history, climatology, geophysics. You have to picture the scene however. We’re in an expansive room with comfortable chairs and large “picture” windows on both both sides. Because the lectures include slideshows each one begins with the lowering of the blinds on the windows to make the screen more visible. We’re gently – or not-so-gently – rocking back and forth, the room is darkened, and someone begins to tell a story. What are we trained to do in these conditions? Dark room, rocking, story time. Add to those conditions the fact that most of us are taking one or another form of seasickness medication. Yup, we fall asleep. The lecturers would begin with an audience of about 70 eager folks and by the time they got to the end and asked (as the blinds were being raised and the audience was starting to rouse itself again ) “are there any questions?” they were generally greeted by silence and thankful faces exhibiting a certain degree of embarassment since they couldn’t ask many questions not really knowing much about the lecture other than what they could glean as they slipped in and out of consciousness. I decided to skip the afternoon lectures and have my nap horizontally in my cozy bed talking quietly with David about what we were anticipating when we finally reached the Antarctic shores.
It’s after dinner now and I’m relaxing upstairs again (our cabin’s on Deck 4 but to get from there to the Observation Lounge we have to go down to Deck 3 (where the Dining Room is) to move from our section of the boat to the aft section where we climb up the 2 flights of stairs – holding on for dear life all lthe while. So far I’m spending a lot of time quite lost getting from point A to point B; wonder if I’ll know my way around by the end of the voyage? I’m looking out at the crashing waves, writing, and waiting for the first installment of the BBC series Life in the Freezer (there’s a YouTube clip you can view by going to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fBg8XcCcc8 )
I think that I might have seen an albatross flying by – not sure though … tomorrow I’ll try harder to tell which birds are which. There are two more things I want to do today; step outside just to experience the temperature change, and pay a visit to the bridge to open an e-mail account which will allow me to send very brief messages to friends and family to let them know we’re surviving.
There’s been a “lesson” running through all of the heaving to and fro today; two lessons really. Worth remembering I think because although they arose from today’s experiences I think they have importance in my life as a whole.
#1 – Let go of any need to control; it’s an illusion at best.
#2 – No matter what the circumstances, I can choose how I want to respond.
Not bad for my first day out I think.