Antarctica

some crabeater seals on a drift icebergI wanted to go to Antarctica for a few reasons; first, because I am studying ecotourism for my master’s thesis and wanted to do a case study, second, because I LOVE penguins, and thirdly, because it is the 7th and last continent I had to visit. I actually booked this trip by accident, or at least with very little planning, since I was talked into going by a cute little japanese travel agent that gave me a price deal that anyone who is obsessed with traveling would have been crazy to turn down.

I sailed for 9 days from Ushuaia, starting due east out the Beagle Channel to avoid crossing into Chilean water (which is literally a few hundred meters away at certain points) on a 200 person capacity reinforced-hull cruise ship named the Clipper Adventurer with Quark Expeditions. Most of the other 120 passengers were either retired, rich, an American couple or questionably too old to handle the trip, leaving me as the youngest, brokest, loneliest passenger… until I made friends with the comparably aged crew. There were these two token ladies on the ship who always wore the same colour; one was always in yellow, the other, always in purple, and I mean head to toe in colour – shoes, pants, jacket, gloves, scarf, hat, glasses and even nail polish.

I shared a room with two hilarious Chinese women, who insisted they were from Alabama everytime you asked them where they came from even though they are American immigrants from Beijing with the furthest thing from a southern American accent. They were sea-sick the entire drake passage, as was most of the ship, and rightuflly so since the 5 m swells rocked our little ship, despite the stabilizers it claims to have. Our room was comfortable, and for the most part the ship was really luxurious (excpet for a minor issue with our toilet seat falling off) with the most amazing 3 course, porcelain plated meals a budget traveler could ask for (which was included in the cost of the curise).

Vernadsky, the Ukraine Antarctic research station we visitedMy first penguin sighting happened a few hours after departure, on a lighthouse island in the middle of the Channel. I smoked a couple cigars on the chilly deck, and managed to find a comfortable place to hang my hammock to try and counterbalance the sea-sickening rocking. Once we made it to the Antarctic continent 2 days later, we made 8 landings over the course of 4 days, visiting some active research stations, and other abandoned research stations or places that have been turned into museum-like historical points of interest.

There were all types of seals, lots of whale sightings, and the most dramatic, beautiful landscape of massive mountain peaks, thousand-year old glaciers, and icebergs the size of our ship. I saw thousands upon thousands of more penguins, of all shape and size, mostly Gentoo’s, Adelie’s, and Chinstraps, but also one each of a Macaroni penguin, King penguin and Emperor penguin, all of whom were far away from any of their species or breeding grounds. We had a polar plunge where 30 brave souls actually jumped into the water – it wasnt just freezing, it was below freezing! We visited one Ukraine research station and got out passports stamped as if we had cleared customs in Ukraine – very cool.

lots of gentoo penguins and their chicks, with the Clipper Adventurer in the backgroundThe sail home was suprisingly calm, with barely any waves – very atypical of the Drake. Once arriving back Ushuaia, it was hard to lose your sea-legs on stable land, and the faint smell of exhaust from cars almost made me choke – confusingly stifling after a week of the freshest, cleanest, cool Antarctic air. I flew straight back home after this, 38 hours and 4 flights later from 54 degrees latitude south to 49 degrees latitude north. Going through the airport in Buenos Aires was a weather shock, with the humid, tropical air equally stifling and the torrential rain soaking me in seconds as I walked from the plane onto the tarmac to get into the terminal. I managed to miss one connecting flight in Houston, but got rerouted through San Francisco, upgraded to first class, and then had 2 hrs to spare to meet my bestfriend for lunch at In-n-Out burger.

Finally getting back home was a relief, but I am definitely still daydreaming about the surreal landscape of Antarctica.

Argentina's Wonderful Cliche's

Iguazu FallsI traveled to Buenos Aires as my gateway to get to Antarctica, but thought I’d take the time to spend 2 weeks there roaming around. I of course took the opportunity to tango dance, making it out to a few ‘milongas’ and ‘practica’s’ to dance with the most stereotyped Argentinian men ever – serious faced in full suits, slicked back, long-ish hair, with shiny black dance shoes beautifully leading around women in dainty, stilleto shoes in this aggressive but very seductive dance in the most professional way you can.

I of course had to try mate, the strong, bitter tea that all Argentinians seem to drink but no tourist can actually buy anywhere without buying all their own ingredients and making it themselves. Figuring out how to cure the mate cup and make a perfect drink was no easy task either, but one friendly waiter at a hotel we stayed at finally helped us make our first cup.

My spanish is far from good, but my comprehension is alright and my travel companion’s speaking skills were great, so between the two of us, we got by ok but still had trouble with the ‘sh’ sound that Argentinians prnounce double ll’s (as in llamada or llave) instead of the traditional ‘y’ sound used in other spanish-speaking countries. ‘Calle’ (road) became ‘cashe’ and ‘llama’ (name) became ‘shama’ and adopting their italian intonation in certain words and phrases was tricky too.  However, different from the French, it was refreshing to know that they would always stick to their rapid spanish speaking and allow us to struggle through what we were trying to understand or say in broken spanish without switching to english the moment they knew we were english speakers. Some of them would be perfect english speakers too, but still patiently allow the conversation to continue in spanish unless we finally surrendered to english.

The wine was bountiful and cheap, great bottles of Cab. Sauv from mendoza for under $2US a bottle. Even their liquor was cheap, at $3 a bottle of vodka or whiskey, but their whiskey somehow tasted like bad tequila – a sacrifice I guess I was willing to make to support a steady drinking habit while on vacation. Best of all was the many types of domestic beers – Pilsen, Salta, Isenbeck – all availbe in lager, ale or dark/stout, for about $1 – $3 a litre. The street food paired perfectly, and we managed to find the best empanada shop in Buenos Aires in a small hole-in-the-wall place a few blocks from one of the couchsurfers we stayed with.

We went to Tigre, a delta town north-east of Buenos Aires, but were much more impressed by the rivers and waterfalls of Iguazu. We spent a day at the falls, accompanied by hundreds of butterflies all colors of the rainbow, and later at our lavish hotel realized we could kayak to Brazil by paddling accross a calm, 200m part of the river. We were met by a lone brazilian, on weekend retreat to his small shack built on the river bank. After realizing the river was at a high point, swollen high by the rainy season, and that anacondas would easily reach us, we quickly paddled back to be met by a security guard from the hotel frantically calling us back to the Argentinian shore. Too bad we don’t have a stamp in our passports to prove it (or any photos for that matter), but kayaking to brazil was definitely a highlight, and perhaps well worth the risk of being eaten by anacondas…

Argentina in High Season

I´ve been in Buenos Aires about a week now, and the first thing I noticed when I got into the city at 2 pm was the sleepy streets. This has both to do with the fact that siesta starts between 2 – 3 and locals lock up to nap in the afternoon heat, and also because it is mid January, the tourism high season for Poretños (residents of Buenos Aires) to go away to neighbouring Chile or Uruguay or somewhere further north. Alot of shop fronts are closed and the streets are filled with about as many non-locals as locals.

The first day and night here I spent with someone I met thru couchsurfing. He is a Porteño, but doing his PhD in Philosophy in Oxford so benefited me greatly with his excellent english and spanish fluency. We shared great conversation over a martini at a famous bar called Milion, rated to be one of the top 10 nightlight spots in the World, and topped the night off with an Argentine cigar and red wine from the Mendoza region.

The next day I had a glimpse into suburban life, as we visited Pablo´s (the couchsurfer) best friend´s country home, complete with afternoon tea and an outdoor pool. That night, my travel partner arrived into Buenos Aires – Steve from Berkeley – and we frequented the cozy streets of San Telmo – one of the many neighbourhoods comprising Buenos Aires. We stayed together in one of the coolest hostels I´ve ever seen, our room being an old medical library from the University of Buenos Aires, complete with texts on testes to steroids. We could hang my travel sized hammock from the balcony, and smoked the portable hookah I decided was worth taking up a third of the space in my backpack.

Together we couchsurfed the next few nights with Fernando, an excellent host with a comfortable apartment newly equipped with a much needed airconditioner. The second night there we went to Tigre, a town on an intriquate water delta 1 hr north east of the city, and toured around the water ways with some $1 road beers. We didnt actually make it home that night, because we randomly decided at 10 pm to bus 3 hrs north to the popular party town of Gualaguyachu, where Argentinian Carnival happens every saturday night for the month of January and February. We arrived sleepy at 1:45 am to catch the last of the parade, then went to a 2000 person capacity nightclub to greet the sunrise – complete with a band of 20 drummers who played an excellent outro to the long fiesta.

We slept a few hours on a dock, stretching out over the most beautiful, serene river I´ve ever seen, and woke up to the blistering sun to meet 2 friendly stray dogs who ended up following us around the rest of the day. We finally made it back to Fernandos the next afternoon, and still have yet to convince him that any of this actually happened, since we had no working cameras to capture any evidence.