Somewhere Near Antarctica El Fin Del Mundo

Almost instantly, the ocean temperature drops by several degrees. Pods of humpbacks and orcas start surfacing. The albatross and petrels that circled the ship since launch begin to grow in number. We’re approaching the Antarctic convergence; where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and give way to the distinctly polar region below.

The first icebergs should come into view any time now.

It’s all very exciting.

I stayed up all night packing before heading off to the airport. I was pretty exhausted by the time I got on the first flight to Dallas – but not so exhausted that I actually managed to get any sleep.

Dallas airport is still just as ridiculously huge as it was the first time I passed through. It’s possible it may have grown even larger. At the international terminal, I asked a woman at the information booth for directions to a mailbox, so I could return my unwatched Netflix before leaving the country. She walked me over to it.

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“These halls are incredibly wide,” I said.
“I know. Isn’t it lovely?”

Evidently in Texas, calling something “incredibly wide” can only be interpreted as a compliment.

“Why is there so much empty space?”
“This is the newest terminal. It was only finished a couple months ago. They anticipated an increase in traffic flow.”
“It’s just so…big!”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Well…it’s big, anyway.”

The international terminal of Dallas-Ft. Worth airport is also home to plenty of hideous macro-sculpture.

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I was approaching delirium from lack of sleep, so I sat down and watched some CNN. It was Texas CNN.

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The anchor, Nancy Grace, wears a blonde helmet and barks like a pit bull. She was worked up about a bunch of spoiled celebrities trying to get murderous former gang leader Stanley “Tookie” Williams off of death row.

How dare they? Who do they think they are? He’s a convicted murderer. Give me one good reason why we should allow him to live?

…Hmm. How about the Sermon on the Mount?

Tookie is probably dead now. We don’t have much access to the outside world on this ship, but I know his execution was scheduled for Tuesday and it’s Wednesday now.

I don’t have a strong personal conviction about the death penalty. I think we should be very very sure about a person’s guilt before they’re sentenced to death, but aside from that, I have no major objections to the practice, nor would I be at all upset if we abandoned it.

I’m stumped as to how Christians justify it, though. Jesus gave us a message of mercy and forgiveness, therefore we should murder criminals. I have trouble seeing across that gap.

As CNN went to commercial break, they updated us on our current terror alert level. Everyone set your fear to yellow!

…People are still using this? Didn’t the Department of Homeland Absurdity sheepishly retire the system to avoid further mockery?

I guess it’s still useful in Texas; where terrorists lurk around every corner.

For the packed ten hour flight to Buenos Aires, I got the middle seat in the center row. The seats were, as always, designed for amputee dwarves, so despite my inability to see straight, I couldn’t get any qualitative rest for the duration.

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s new book: Man Without a Country. He keeps promising never to publish again, and he keeps breaking that promise. This one is really just a collection of short essays about how the world – and in particular, the US – is going to hell in a hand basket. You can read the whole thing in an hour or two.

Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite writer. In my mind, he’s a historical figure; someone entirely of another era. To have him alive and commenting on our present circumstances, confirming that they are, in fact, very very screwed up, is quite affecting to me. In a way though, it almost makes it okay, because it puts us on the shelf with other times when things were very very screwed up and we’re not much worse by comparison.

That line about the Sermon on the Mount – I stole it from Vonnegut’s book. But he stole it from Powers Hapgood, so I don’t feel that bad.

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Changing planes in Buenos Aires required a $10 bus ticket and an hour-long ride from the international to the domestic airport. My brief glimpse of the city didn’t inspire me to want to visit for any longer period.

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There was a protest going on at the domestic airport. Some former employees of Aerolineas Argentinas set up tents in the terminal to voice their grievance at having been fired for no good reason. It seemed an unpleasant predicament for the airline, which has its ticket counters only a few feet away.

My last flight was to Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina along the Beagle channel. Many of the other passengers were obviously on my cruise. It was, as anticipated, an older group of people, but there were one or two in my Nielsen demographic and a few kids and grandkids being dragged along as well.

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Ushuaia is a very scenic town, positioned at the base o f Tierra del Fuego and surrounded by water and mountains. The mountains are uniquely Patagonian; sharp and pointy and impossible-looking, and the sunlight bounces off the snowcaps, making them shimmer like I’ve only seen in New Zealand.

But wow, the food is terrible. I’d heard Argentinian beef is great. If it is, I must have been going to the wrong places, cause everything I ate in the country was bland and lumpy.

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They tout themselves as the southernmost city in the world: El Fin del Mundo. It’s a shaky claim. There are one or two towns across the channel in Chile that are farther south. Ushuaia is certainly much bigger than any of them, at 40,000, but by the standards I’m familiar with it takes 100,000 people to even begin to qualify as a city.

At any rate, I checked into my hotel, had a late dinner, and went for a walk around town before sunset hit around 10:30.

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Teenagers! Always tango-ing in public like they own the sidewalk. No respect!

The next day I headed down to the pier to get my first glimpse of the Polar Star.

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And a fine ship she is. The others along the pier were all much bigger and more luxurious, but without the Polar Star’s icebreaking ability, which is crucial in these waters. I’m told it is, in fact, the only commercial icebreaking vessel in the Antarctic, though some have told me otherwise. It is, at least, one of the very few.

The two essential qualities that make an icebreaker an icebreaker are a super-reinforced hull for battering, and an extra pair of giant propellers in front for extra power.

By late afternoon, everyone was onboard and we were ready to shove off. There was a brief welcome meeting with champagne, and then this happened:

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The closest I’ve ever come to a cruise before was my week searching for whale sharks around the Seychelles islands. That was a much smaller vessel, so by my standards, the amenities on the Polar Star are quite satisfactory.

There’s a big dining area serving reasonably good meals:

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The one thing they serve in abundance is cheese. They’ve literally got tons of it. At time of departure, I estimate this ship was about 30% cheese. That percentage is dropping fast.

There’s a very large meeting room/lecture room/observation deck:

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A cozy library full of Dan Brown novels and political thrillers in random languages:

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And a bar that is usually much less populated than this:

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The first few hours of the cruise took us through the Beagle channel; named after the ship Darwin took through to the Galapagos islands and beyond. Shortly after going to bed, we rounded the bend and came out into the Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage constitutes some of the roughest waters in the world. It’s the only latitude in which there is no land the whole way round, so the water can really get swirling. I don’t think any of us fully anticipated what that would mean for us during the thousand mile crossing, though most were smart enough to bring seasickness medication.

Not me. I’ve never been seasick before, so I didn’t give it much thought. Around lunchtime on the second day, I spent a little too long focusing on my GameBoy screen without looking up to regain my bearings. The feeling hit me like a punch in the gut. I ran out to the railing of Deck 5 and hurled all over Deck 4. Five times. It sucked.

I certainly wasn’t alone. I’d guess around half the ship vomited at some point. One of my roommates, Xiaonan, couldn’t make it to the side of the ship, so he let loose on the carpet outside our cabin.

It was an awful, no-good, very bad day. And then it got worse.

After getting the taste out of my mouth with some Altoids, I decided to try to sleep through the rocking. I woke up an hour later to an announcement that we were turning the ship around due to a medical emergency.

The details came out slowly. One of the passengers; a woman in her seventies, had evidently boarded the ship despite knowin g full-well that she had emphysema. She didn’t bring her medication, nor did she inform the crew in advance. The rough seas exacerbated her condition until she reached the point where she could no longer breathe on her own. There was oxygen onboard and a ship’s doctor who could look after her, but the oxygen wasn’t going to last forever and they didn’t have the resources to fix her.

The crew arranged a Medevac by helicopter from the nearest safe landing: Cape Horn…”safe” being a relative term.

They held an all-ship meeting and Jørn, the expedition leader, delicately explained the situation. A couple aged passengers of the “I’m an American! Don’t try to rip me off!” variety put up a stink about the lost time, but ethically, there was clearly no alternative.

It was 10 hours back, followed by a hairy procedure of lowering a zodiac boat by crane with the woman onboard, racing to shore, and then carrying her up the rocks to where the helicopter was waiting.

Cape Horn is a landmark of great historical significance and it’s very rare to get to see it up close. Alas, I slept through the whole thing. It went fine, though. The woman was raced off to Punta Arenas, then flown home to the states after a couple days. The report is she’s doing fine.

The gossip mills churned full-blast after the incident. There was a lot of speculation about insurance. The woman was with her daughter, and the rumor was their insurance would only cover the unbelievably expensive Medevac for one of them. As for the ship, someone managed to glean that it burned through a ton of fuel per hour at a cost of $700. For the unanticipated 20 hour roundtrip added to our itinerary, the fuel cost was around $14,000. No one knows who is eating that, but surely there will be some lawyers and insurance agents involved.

With a little less than a day lost, the crew raced across the Drake Passage once again and managed to regain some time. It’s been an uneventful couple days since the Medevac. There’s been lots of bird-watching. We’ve got a resident ornithologist as part of the staff and it’s possible to absorb some of his enthusiasm through osmosis. The albatross, with wing spans up to 12 feet, are pretty incredible. My particular favorite is the wandering albatross, because of its unusually poetic name. But when someone spots a southern sooty snow petrel or whatever, I retire to the ship’s bar and order a tall glass of who-gives-a-crap?

They’ve been filling our days with lectures from the expedition staff. Some of them are quite good, some are boring. All-in-all it’s a great perk to have experts available on every subject relevant to the journey. In addition to Simon the ornithologist, we’ve got a marine biologist and a historian – both of whom lived in bases on the continent. There’s also a geologist, and an expert on marine mammals – which I think might be called a cetologist. They’re a knowledgeable bunch, and it’s apparent that despite their familiarity, they’re as keen about getting to go to Antarctica as we are – if not more so.

There’s a total of 10 expedition staff. And, by the way, a crew of 45. The bridge crew and most of the higher rankings are of Polish origin, while the guys down in the engine room and most of the hotel staff are Filipino. They serve a theoretical limit of 96 passengers, which I think we’re very close to on this cruise – or at least we were before we lost emphysema lady and her daughter.

Anyway, when I’m not bird-watching, listening to lectures, reading, playing videogames, sleeping, or vomiting, I’m spending a whole lot of time looking out at this:

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…which is not such a bad thing.

I’ve got an idea for an invention. It’s a pair of goggles that’ll allow me to see through the ocean surface at everything below. Here, in the fertile waters around Antarctica, home of the largest animals ever to exist, there’s an assortment of wonders swimming beneath me right now: sperm whales diving into pockets of the ocean unexplored by man, wrestling giant squid, colossal squid, and creatures we’ve not yet even discovered.

4000 meters underwater sounds like a long way away down, but it’s only a short stretch toward the horizon. If I could see through these confounded waves, a simple pair of binoculars would show me giants and monsters as strange as anything Ray Harryhausen ever animated to film.

So I’ve got the idea for these goggles. That takes care of the hard part, right? Now someone just needs to make them.

Anyway, that about brings me up to speed. Everything about the Antarctica trip not actually related to Antarctica itself. My next post will probably involve a whole lot of penguin pictures and ice.

Brace yourself.