I’m back! Life has been a whirlwind, within the span of a month I went from the tropical paradise that is Belize, to its polar opposite. (Get it?? Polar!) Antarctica is the first place that I have visited that is analogous to nothing, but I will struggle through this blog nonetheless.
The trip started cruising through the Chilean fjords in style aboard Holland America’s Ms. Veendam. Alex, my good friend from UCSB, has been working on Holland America ships as a DJ for about a year now with his girlfriend Lauren, and one of his perks is the ability to have a friend on board who can travel with him for free. Once he invited me to come a-cruisin’ it only took me a few conversations with friends telling me I’d be crazy to miss this opportunity to buy my plane ticket to Santiago. I should also note that most of the pictures on here are his, as he was willing to freeze his fingers off, while I was not.
The first few days were spent in extreme relaxation and luxury, learning the ropes of ship life. I was easily one of the youngest people on board, doing my part to bring down the median age. Sometimes I would feel a twinge of guilt when I thought about how not so long ago explorers were risking their lives making this same trek into uncharted waters, but then I would order a glass of wine and a cream puff and somehow that guilt would just melt away. After a stop in Punta Arenas, the world’s southernmost city, it was onward to Antarctica.
I was up in the cafeteria for lunch when I first spotted land, and immediately dropped my tray of food to run outside and gaze in awe. I quickly realized that it was far too cold to be outside without a coat, so I scarfed down some food, layered up and headed back outside. The sea was spotted with icebergs in all directions, surrounded by towering mountains of snow in the distance, some so tall that they appeared to simply disappear into the misty sky. It was all shades of grey (not like the book), with sudden patches of brilliant, electric blue. And I was in love.
Within the first hour of reaching the Antarctic peninsula we saw hundreds of penguins in the water and on land, two leopard seals, ten humpback whales, and six orcas. In the first hour! The passengers were transformed into kids on the 4th of July, going from one side of the bow to the other, enthralled and ooh-ing and ahh-ing their amazement. It’s a miracle we didn’t tip the whole boat over with all of our running back and forth.
The wildlife sightings remained unbelievable throughout the trip, with seals, whales and penguins in abundance. My favorite was watching the penguins taunt the leopard seals on the icebergs, jumping off into the ocean when they scared themselves. Every moment felt like something out of a nature special… I have been sitting here for five minutes trying to find the words for it but it’s impossible.
Along the way we passed several exploration stations, my favorite being Chile’s. As we approached the station a bunch of lonely men came swarming out, waving enthusiastically and taking pictures of us taking pictures of them. A different day the Palmer Station scientists from the US were able to take zodiacs on board and explain a bit about their research, especially climate change and its effects on the Antarctic. Even the plumber seemed about 1000x smarter than I will ever be.
I also learned more about icebergs than I ever thought I would. Most of the ice our ship was passing were not actually icebergs, but technically called bergy bits, because they of their smaller size. We also passed by pancake ice, which I don’t need to describe, and the pack ice that melts in the summer and freezes to twice the size of the continent in the winter. My favorite was the tabular ice, huge tables that were eye-level to the ship, some of them the size of Maryland across.
I’ve never felt so guilty about needing to do basic human functions, like eat or sleep or pee. I wanted to be outside letting the snowflakes accumulate on my coat and taking it all in, at all times. Most everyone on board felt the same way, so we would bundle up, leaving as little skin exposed as possible, and brave the cold outdoors. On the rare occasions when the cold would get the best of us, we’d go inside to grab a warm drink and thaw out while watching an episode of Frozen Planet to still feel as close to the outdoors as possible.
A perk I wasn’t expecting was making friends with the executive chef and his girlfriend on board. She also had nothing to do all day, so aside from having a friend to play with, her boyfriend would spoil us, with the clear highlight being his bacon cookies. That’s right, pancetta, American bacon and Canadian bacon, combined with pepper and chocolate and baked into cookie form. My vegetarianism never had a chance. Surprises like this also might explain how my jeans managed to get so tight in such a short amount of time.
Penguins are now my new favorite animals, and they were my constant companions throughout the duration of the Antarctic. We did not see any of the big emperor penguins, but we saw four different types of the smaller penguins, the adele, the chin-strap, the gentoux and the magellanic. In the water they were graceful and fast as the played and dove, while on land they were extremely graceless and comedic.
I was shocked at their sheer numbers down there, they were everywhere you looked: hanging out on icebergs, parcels (a gaggle of geese, a parcel of penguins) of them leading the ship, nesting on land. Even when not visible, traces of them could be found, either in their footprints on the ice or in the remnants of their pink poo.
I thought nothing would ever top the Galapagos, but this managed to edge out the islands and take the top spot for my favorite place ever visited. Apparently only 300,000 people have visited Antarctica, and there is no way to put into words how incredibly blessed I feel to have had this opportunity.
The cruise ended in Buenos Aires, which is hellish at the moment. The heat manages to be both smothering and piercing all at one, and I keep finding myself pining for the days when I needed to wear a jacket. The city reminds me a lot of Madrid, except just… better? Sorry friends of mine, but I think it might be true. Bigger monuments, more parks and better food, plus 78% of the people walking around should be models. I am continuously eyeballing the 90lb women around me, wondering how they manage to glide through the city without a hair our of place, while I spend most of my time covered in a glaze of dulce de leche and empanada grease, peeling my sticky shirt off my back and surreptitiously stealing napkins off tables at outdoor cafes to wipe away the sweat rolling down my face. Sexy.