ANTARCTICA (1)

As anyone reading my blog knows, I’ve launched my Octo year…I will be 80 in September. I published 80 things for 80 years awhile back and one of the things was a trip, already planned to Antarctica and Easter Island.  Mission accomplished and here is the very first installment.  If I can get my arms around it, much more will follow and I hope I don’t bore you with the details.

The voyage to Antarctica was on the MS Plancius.  We boarded in Ushuaia, and sailed through the Drake Passage. The narrative about Antarctica begins here:

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After two days on the Dreadful Drake we opened the windows of our cabin and there they were–the icebergs of Antarctica. I had no idea of the time and fixed my eyes on the glistening white mountains of pure ice. The sea was calm and daylight flooded our small room. I was caught off guard by the pristine beauty and majesty of it all.

I remembered the time we traveled to Venice and got off the train and confronted the historic canals.  “There they are,” I said and pinched myself to be sure I was alive.  The same feeling overcame me on this Saturday morning, our first day on this international and pristine continent.

I rushed through breakfast to be sure I would have enough time to don my outdoor gear. I’d already put on two layers of pants—fleece-lined tights over jeans.  On top I put on a camisole, determined not to wear a bra the whole trip; over this went a silk long-sleeved shirt and a turtle neck polo.  For this day I selected the red one, a favorite of Marv’s which I always enjoyed wearing.

Even if he couldn’t be with me, I was sure he was smiling down at me from heaven or wherever his soul lies now.  After all, he said, “When I die, you can do anything you like.”  So there, I’m doing everything I like, but I still miss him every minute of every day. Secretly he probably would have hated this trip, because he couldn’t stand being cold, but he would have come with me because of his unconditional love and in the end he would have admitted it was enjoyable and a great adventure.

I put on my trusty black fleece vest we bought in the Victoria market, added my rainproof pants over my jeans and squeezed into the Plancius furnished galoshes over my two pair of wool socks.  This was hard work and I wasn’t close to being finished.

The blue down parka from Eddie Bauer covered me from the top of my head down past my tush.  I was shocked that I could zip it up so easily.  I grabbed the Swoop furnished balaclava for around my neck, and plopped my Nike beanie on my head. Finally I slipped into the yellow rainproof slicker I’d rented for the occasion. I was so afraid of losing my phone I’d bought an inexpensive Canon just for Antarctica and stuffed it neatly into a pocket.

Now I was ready for the life vest.  I could barely move and wasn’t quite sure how to put it on.  Susan, my travel mate helped me and I squeezed into it.  No matter how we struggled, we couldn’t get the damned thing closed. “Let’s just go,” I said, “they’ll check it on the gangway.” We’d suffered through a life vest drill the day we started the journey and I was certain the crew did not want to lose anyone.

I grabbed my walking stick, shoved a pair of glove liners into the outer pocket with the camera and fiddled with the bulky ski gloves trying to find a place to hook them to with no luck. “Ready?” I asked Susan.

“I guess so,” she said.

“Do you have your room key?”

“Right here,” she showed me. “What about you?”

I patted my chest.  The two of us waddled to the gangway entrance, well not exactly directly to the entrance.  There was a long line of people ahead of us. Many were still in the hallway waiting to go down the steps toward the opening of the gangway. “French speakers come this way,” someone said in French.

The line suddenly got shorter as the French speaking group made their way to the zodiacs. A young woman behind me said, “Your tail is dragging on the floor.”

“I know,” I said, “I couldn’t buckle my life vest.”

“Here, let me help you,” she said and I turned around as she fastened the front buckle and reached for the tail that goes between the legs and ends under the front buckle. “I’m not trying to be fresh,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “I really appreciate your help.”

“Sign out,” said Julia, one of our expedition leaders.

“How do we do that?” I asked.

“Like this,” said the man in front of me, as he swiped his room card on a screen.

I unzipped the outer layer of the rain jacket, the upper layer of the parka, and the top of the fleece vest.  Finally, I reached my room card which was safely around my neck, swiped it and the screen said, “Janice Alper, ashore.”  Not quite yet.

I waddled over the gangway door and there Idris, the ship doctor, was checking life vests.  He pulled mine tight around my body, checked to see that the tail was intact and said, “You’re good to go” and off I went, down the steep gangway steps to the waiting black rubber zodiac.

Easy peasy so far.  I handed my walking stick to the waiting pilot, Daniel, the photographer, and the seaman on the platform grabbed me under my left arm as Daniel took me by the seaman’s grip, counted “One, two, three,” and I was on the zodiac falling into the nearest seat.

When ten of us were in place, Daniel started the engine and we glided on the clear water through the Errera Channel to Cuverville Island. Skua birds circled overhead, I breathed in the air and then it hit me—the stench—yup, you can smell the penguins before you see them.  As we got closer we saw the Pink Penguin Highway.  Now it  became clear why they told us to stay off the Penguin Highway and away from the birds.

The Gentoo penguins were everywhere as we disembarked.  It was easy, I swung my legs over the side of the zodiac and landed in the water.  Daniel handed me my walking stick and I made my way up the rocks, to the life vest stash, unhooked myself, dropped my vest onto the pile and posed for pictures with the penguins and the guys I’d befriended on the ship—Vivek, Amith, and Tim.

Susan and I were on line in the blustery air of Ushuaia waiting to board the ship and Vivek and Tim were in front of us.  We started to chat.  Tim, an Aussie, is teaching English in Shanghai while studying for an MBA. Tall, thin, with pale skin, he said he was taking advantage of the Chinese New Year break to make this voyage.

Vivek, a maritime engineer, is originally from Bangalore, India, and now works in Rotterdam, Holland. I started to drool when I looked at his dark handsome face. Hm, why isn’t he married, I thought—smart, gorgeous and probably makes a good living. He was meeting his school chum, Amith, on board so they could venture to Antarctica.

On our first evening on the ship Susan and I had dinner with the two of them and met Amith, who still lives in Bangalore and works in the computer field. Amith was the tallest of the three and completely bald.  I noticed after the first night he kept his head covered with a red cap, which in my eyes made him even more attractive.

The guys were great and solicitous of this old broad and seemed to enjoy posing with me. We became shipboard friends.  However, as the voyage continued I noticed they veered to the single young women, many of whom were traveling solo, so we only had polite conversations now and then.  However, if we were nearby on the islands, they were always ready hands to help me if needed.

We’ve been in touch by e-mail, but other than that, I doubt that our paths will every cross again. Years ago when Marv and I made our first trip to Israel I remarked to a friend that I had made friends for life.  Her response was, “I doubt it.” She was right and I was wrong.  I’ve met wonderful people on my many travels, but few stay in touch.

One exception is Audrey Liu, who I met when she was fourteen in Kunming, China.  She  re-surfaced in my life last year as a confident 26 year old woman with a Master’s Degree in Finance from Texas A&M university. But that is the exception and a story for another time.

I strutted around Cuverville Island looking at the clacking Gentoo penguins. Several stood in place near their new born chicks. I watched one come out of the water, and using both feet together, hop from one ice block to another. It fascinated me to see how he/she/it could do this.  I can hardly jump rope with both feet in the air, and here is God’s remarkable, although smelly creature, so agile.

My little sojourn over, I made my way back to the life vest pile and selected one to put on. Again, a fellow traveler, this time a member of the group from Walking Adventures International, came to my rescue. “This one is a little tight,” he said, “I’ll loosen the straps for you.”

Once finished to my size he helped me slip it on and buckled the front. “Now the tail,” he said.

“I’ve got it, thank you.”

I reached for the tail and snapped it into place and shuffled my way to the waiting line for the Zodiacs.  This time the Frenchies stayed among us and we chatted amiably as we laughed at ourselves and the penguins.

The French group, thirty-four of them, came from all over France.  Over the next few days I learned that most of them had been to the United States and this was the ultimate adventure for them.  Unlike us, their company had furnished them with bright red outerwear and we could be distinguished by our get ups.

I finally made it to the front of the line to board the zodiac, walked gingerly over the wet rocks and stood there. “Face the driver,” said David, who was assisting us.

“I can’t get my legs up, it’s too high,” I complained.

“No worries,” he said in his Kiwi accent, “put your hand on my shoulder, I’m going to lift your legs.”

How embarrassing, I thought, but in one motion, I found myself on the zodiac, and found a seat. The zodiac cruised around the island before returning us to the ship. Getting off was a snap, three, two, one, the reverse of boarding, up the steep steps to the baths.  In order not to bring in anything from the islands we have to clean our boots and vacuum any specks off of our clothes.  I put both feet in the tub of water, scrubbed the soles of my boots and marched through the gangway door, sweating.

“Be sure to check in,” said Julia.

Out came my room key, swiped, and the screen said, “Janice Alper, aboard.”

 

 

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