Cape Horn – March 2014

My new favorite animal!  The guanaco of Patagonia in Argentina

My new favorite animal! The guanaco of Patagonia in Argentina.

Day 1 – February 28, 2014

Travel

Have you ever woken up and just had a good feeling?  That’s how I feel right now as I sit on the plane taking me to Houston, Texas, where I will meet up with my mom, and together, we will board a plane that will take us to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I have a feeling this is going to be a great trip.

Now, I’ve probably just jinxed myself by writing those words down – our cruise ship will sink, I’m sure – but I can’t help it.  I have a good feeling.

It probably helps that I am really excited about this trip.  I mean talk about a bucket list item I can finally check off:  since I have discovered a passion for maritime history, I have wanted to travel around Cape Horn.  You can’t read a single book about the Age of Exploration or the Age of Sail and not read about Cape Horn.  For hundreds of years, it was the passageway to the Pacific Ocean, after all.  And what a passageway.  The adventure, the danger, the excitement – the waters off South American’s southern-most tip are some of the dangerous in the world.

And yes, I want to sail on them.

Well, on a cruise ship the size of Rhode Island anyway.  I don’t think I’m brave enough to go all Two Years Before the Mast here (which is an excellent book by the way).  But I want to follow in the footsteps – or maybe I should ships’ wake – of my maritime history hero, Charles Lightoller, who first sailed around Cape Horn on a three-masted sailing ship at the tender age of 14.  And if I survive this trip, then next up for me would be a cruise across the North Atlantic (guess what famous shipwreck my maritime history hero survived – it featured a brand new cruise liner and an iceberg).

So, yea, I’m definitely excited.

But I also have a feeling that this is going to be a good trip.  My mom and I have traveled together in the past, and I’ll be honest, she is not always the easiest to travel with.  She can be hyper-critical, and I have noticed that international travel pushes her out of her comfort zone, especially trips to countries where the primary language is not English, and she doesn’t handle being outside of her comfort zone very well.  I give her props because she travels internationally, and she has visited many non-English speaking countries, but I personally think she likes the idea of international travel more than the actual experience of international travel.

Therefore, I have spent time on previous trips with my mom feeling … frustrated.  It can be frustrating to travel with someone like my mom, and there have been more than a few trips where I have pep-talked my way through them:  I will have a great time no matter what is going on with my mom. I will have a great time no matter what is going on with my mom.  I will have a great time no matter what is going on with my mom.  You get the idea.

But for some bizarre reason, I don’t feel the need to pep talk myself on this trip.  We’ll see if that changes when I actually meet up with my mom in Houston.  But compared to the last international excursion we ventured on together – a train trip across Europe in September 2012 – I haven’t had to pump myself up for this one.  I had to pump myself up so big for the last one it was a wonder I fit on the plane.  This trip, I just feel like it’s going to be great regardless.

So I’m excited.  I’m ready.  What all are we doing?  I have no idea – my mom plans these things and I just come along for the ride.  I believe our first day in Buenos Aires is a shopping / tourist site visiting day, and then we board the Celebrity Infinity, the cruise ship that will be our home base for the next 17 days.

But stay tuned!  More updates to follow!

 

Day 2 – March 1, 2014

Arrive in Buenos Aires

Arrivo en Buenos Aires!  Okay, my Spanish is horrible, which is especially sad since I spent 5 years studying the language.

But as the first official day on my trip around Cape Horn draws to a close, I have used more high school Spanish today than I had in the 5 years I was in Spanish classes.  Did I foul it up?  Did I make a fool of myself?  Yeah, most likely.  But I’m at least proud that I tried to use it, especially since I am innately shy and I have a hard time talking to people, let alone talking to people in a language I don’t speak.

But I’m ahead of myself.  The day officially began on an airplane.  I met up with my mom in the Houston airport last night, and then boarded a 10-hour, overnight flight to Buenos Aires.  The flight went by remarkably fast considering it was 10 hours … on a plane.  I watched one movie (and will my gentle readers stop as soon as I announce it was The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones??  I hope not), and then conked out.

And surprisingly conked out.  I have vague recollections of squirming around in my seat trying to get comfortable, but it didn’t feel like I had really fallen asleep, or that I was asleep for that long, when I finally decided to just sit back up and try to read my book.  Imagine my shock when I noticed the sun was up, and my watch read 6:05am.  I had been squirming around for over 5 hours!

Our hotel in Buenos Aires was a converted mansion.  This was one of my favorite rooms - a public sitting room, today and in the mansion days.

Our hotel in Buenos Aires was a converted mansion. This was one of my favorite rooms – a public sitting room, today and in the mansion days.

We landed at 10:25am local time, which is 7:25am Houston time, and 5:25am California time.  And here came Challenge # 1:  figuring out how to get from the airport to our hotel.  As I mentioned, I am painfully shy.  I have a hard time approaching strangers and trying to talk to them, and as I already stated very overtly, talking to them in a language I don’t really speak can be downright paralyzing.  It’s amazing I accomplished what I did today, which I will get to in a minute.

My mom and I bumbled our way through ordering a taxi – of course, it helped 10-fold the two women behind the counter spoke perfect English – but on the taxi ride to our hotel, the driver tried to warn us about danger around our hotel.  I thought he was telling us that construction was ongoing (I heard the words “tengo cuidado” which I know means warning or danger but I didn’t catch anything else besides “el hotel”).  Then our very sweet driver points out several buses alongside us with large flags waving out the windows, and says simply, “protesta.”  Ah.  Here’s where the high school Spanish finally started kicking in.  He was warning us to be careful because of protests occurring around the hotel.

Okay, no need to be alarmed.  After all, my mom and I managed to get across Italy on a day they were having a railroad strike.  We can handle a little protesting.  In South America.  And is that really the word “Evita” I see painted on the flags?

Well, that excitement aside, our driver dropped us off in this quaint and charming neighborhood that reminded me so much of Paris, I almost forgot I was in the southern hemisphere.  My mom noticed it too because she said, “they call Buenos Aires the ‘Paris of South America,’” and there’s no need for the “duh” here.  The architecture, the cobbled streets, the planters hanging over the balconies, even the street signs riveted onto the sides of the buildings – all scream Paris with a capital P-A-R-I-S.

I tried to take it in while I also tried to figure out how exactly to access our hotel.  In front of me was a large, ornately carved, wood door with a gold door handle the size of a watermelon right in the center.  Push, pull, twist, and turn, and the door will not open.  How I managed to notice there was a buzzer nestled on the wall alongside the elaborate door, I don’t know.  Especially since the only coffee I have had today was the thimble of watered-down sludge I got on the plane.  But press the buzzer I did, and next thing you know, an equally nice gentleman in white suit is greeting us and welcoming us to this glorious former mansion that has been converted into a hotel.

And what a beauty!  Hardwood floors, heavy wood furniture, pastel period murals depicting early 20th century men and women, marble (or faux marble) bathtubs.  In fact, our room has 2 bathtubs!  One in the room itself and one in the bathroom.  That’s a first.

Not that we got to see it right away because we arrived at the hotel at 11:30am, and our room wouldn’t be ready until 1:30pm.  So we dropped our bags, and Mom and I hit the streets.  Looking for lunch.  We had to wander a few blocks before we finally found a café that was open, and here is where Challenge # 3 of the day came along.  Trying to order food in an Argentinian café.

This was the most nerve-wracking thing I faced thus far.  I should face a real life-threatening situation and see how I feel about trying to order a meal in a restaurant after that, but I felt very awkward and painfully self-conscious.  The gentleman who seated us brought us 2 coffees – espressos really – and then we kinda sat and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  And I have traveled to Europe before, so I know that ordering food in restaurants outside the United States is a different experience.  But I started to think the waiter felt we only wanted the coffees, and my mom and I were both starving.  So I worked up the courage to ask him, in broken Spanish mind you, if he had menus … and then worked up the courage to order a large mozzarella and Roquefort pizza too.  AND asked him for 2 bottles of water.  I tell ya, I was on a roll there.

There is a reason why Buenos Aires is called the Paris of South America...

There is a reason why Buenos Aires is called the Paris of South America…

And it was amazing how relaxed and content I felt after I did it.  No matter how the restaurant staff would have reacted to my botched Spanish (and they were very nice about it), I was proud of the fact that I worked up the courage to approach a stranger and talk to him in a language I haven’t even tried to speak in about 2,000 years.  And I was able to communicate with him because we got our supremely delicious mozzarella and Roquefort pizza – so delicious I ate three pieces of it, so there went Weight Watchers for the day – and our water, and we even managed to pay our bill.  Whew!

I felt empowered, so off we went to wander around the neighborhood we are staying in.  We stopped by the Basilica Nuestra Senora del Rosario, which is in the heart of the oldest part of Buenos Aires, and then wandered down el Paseo del Historieta, where we saw lots of beautiful buildings, amazing street art, fun and funky street sculptures, and took lots of pictures.  It’s a beautiful day out there, but we’re tired so we have since made our way back to the hotel, where we are now resting before we head back out in a few hours to get some dinner.  I have a feeling the dinner is going to go much easier than the lunch because now that I have done it once, bring it on baby.  I can order me a nice dinner tonight.  Then I have a feeling we’ll both stumble back to this luxurious hotel and crash into bed.  Although I was surprised that 5 hours passed so quickly on the plane, they still weren’t the most restful 5 hours I have had.

Then tomorrow morning, we are off!  We board the Celebrity Infinity, and the official journey towards Cape Horn begins 🙂

 

Day 3 – March 2, 2014

Boarding the Ship

Dinner last night was one of those rare moments that resonated with me down deep in my core.  That might sound a little theatrical or melodramatic, but there is no other way to put it.  Consider something that terrifies you, and the elation and accomplishment you feel when you have faced it head on.  I know I have harped on here long enough about my fear of talking with strangers in a non-English language, but it really is one of those paralyzing fears … up there with the boogeyman, the monsters under the bed, and death.

So I have to take victory in the moments when I face that fear and I succeed.

We stopped at a lovely restaurant a few blocks from our hotel, and, once again, I stumbled through my high school Spanish to order us a bottle of (delicious!!) Argentinian white wine and 2 bottles of water, followed by the Bolivar salad (arugula, blue cheese, and pine nuts) for me, and the spaghetti Bolognese for my mom.  I tried to communicate with our waiter in Spanish, who was a true delight – he indulged my broken sentences with lots of humor – and I could tell that he was very flattered by my attempts.  Especially since the patrons at the table next to us were 3 elderly American tourists, who didn’t even bother.  They just harped at the waiter in English, and the poor guy, who was trying his best, was having a difficult time keeping up.

I could tell our waiter was so flattered by the attention he paid us.  He checked on us far more regularly than our American neighbors; he made sure our wine was placed in a chilled bucket (which didn’t come out initially, so I don’t think it is part of the usual ritual); and after we had paid our bill, he made sure I got a copy of a local magazine and newspaper to keep as souvenirs.  I was so touched by such a simple gift, that I felt that familiar Grinch feeling – my heart swelled to 2 times its normal size.

I knew I had affected that man’s evening, and he definitely affected mine.

And it was after we returned to the hotel, where both Mom and I crashed, I fell asleep thinking to myself that I could do this:  I can visit exotic locations like Buenos Aires, but if an opportunity presented itself, I could live there too.  I could do it.  I could do it.  There’s no reason, except my own self-consciousness, that would really stop me.

I also felt an awareness of, an understanding of, an appreciation for, and a love for the culture I was immersed in.  Probably more so last night than I have had on any of my other trips, which is surprising because my favorite excursions thus far include Greece, Egypt, and London.  I still love those places as much as I did, but I feel like I am looking at them through a new pair of eyes:  if an opportunity to live in Greece or Egypt arose, I would take it.  I could do it.

I could live in Buenos Aires, especially if I got to see this face everyday....

I could live in Buenos Aires, especially if I got to see this face everyday….

It was an enlightening and heady feeling, and I’ll admit, it took me a while to fall asleep last night … even though the hotel we are staying in – and did I mention that it is a converted mansion?? – featured a bed that I could curl up and die in.  Gosh, was it comfy.

But while I rumbled over these thoughts of travel and life in exotic locales, and finding ways to combine all these passions into a life that is full and fulfilling, I did eventually fall asleep.

And woke at 9:00am this morning to my mom telling me the time.  I knew we only had until 10:00am to partake of the hotel’s continental breakfast, so it was a quick shower and a leap down the stairs to enjoy croissants, cheese, coffee, grapefruit juice, and a banana, before we caught our taxi to the Cruise Terminal.

And now, I’m sitting on our private balcony off the stateroom we have booked onboard the glorious Celebrity Infinity, watching the dock workers below me … kinda wandering around anyway.  And I feel a sense of peace at the prospect of going to sea again soon, but also a sense of frustration at my fellow American tourists.

I always forget the types that are drawn to these luxurious cruise vacations.  Snobs.  There is no other word for them.  They are arrogant, ignorant, snobby Americans.  Very similar to the trio sitting next to us in the restaurant last night:  I am an American and you will bow down to me as such.  I don’t have to speak your language; you have to speak mine.  I don’t have to abide by your customs; don’t you know I am an American and I am here to say I enjoyed your culture, but I still want to stay at the Sheraton, I want you to speak perfect English, and I want to eat McDonalds.  I know, I know.  Not all American tourists are such boorish slugs, but thus far today?  The ones that take cruise vacations are another insight into the failings of Social Darwinism.

Take for example, boorish slug # 1.  An elderly woman traveling alone – obnoxious in that she waves down every person she sees pass by with a uniform and a badge and asks them redundant questions like, “when are we boarding the ship” and “how will we get our passports back” when said uniform-and-badge-wearer just announced that small groups will be taken down to the dock to board a bus that will take us to the ship, and passports will be given back to guests when we disembark in Chile.  So red flags are already raised: somebody who didn’t like the overhead announcements, so she asked every uniform-and-badge wearer she could find in the hopes that one would eventually give her the answer she wanted to hear:  why, ma’am, for you, we are going to escort you personally to the ship in a stretch limousine ….

Ugh.

Then I had my own nasty encounter with said slug.  As luck would have it, we boarded the same bus taking the guests to the ship.  I was positioned just next to her and was holding my mom’s roller bag in between my legs (were there available seats?  Of course not).  She greets me with “watch my toes.”  Okayyy … will do, ma’am.  Then, as you can probably anticipate, the bus lurched, and the bag rolled towards Ms. Slug.  She gave a dramatic “ooh” and then started fiercely rubbing her nose.  Yes, her nose.  I meant to write that.  Why her nose?  Because as I shifted to try and catch the wayward roller bag, apparently I smacked her in the face with my camera.  After what happened next, I should have swung harder and broken the woman’s nose.

Because she proceeds to huff and puff about the situation:  “you hit me in the face with your camera” and “your bag rolled right over my feet and I told you to watch my toes.”  Did I want to hit her in the head with the roller bag?  You bet, especially since she kept droning on and on and on about how I injured her.  I apologized 3 times AND I wedged myself in between 2 other passengers so I wasn’t anywhere near her, and she kept going on about it:  “gosh, that smarts” and “what a great way to start a vacation.”  At one point she asked a fellow guest standing next to my mom, “do I have a mark on my face?”  And then it was the furious rubbing of the nose all over again.  Followed by more of “geez, that hurts.  I can’t believe my trip is starting this way.”

Cry me a river.

When we disembarked from the bus, my first words to my mom were, “well, I hope we don’t see that bitch again on this trip.”  To which she and I both engaged in a great camaraderie of just where on the Bitch Scale we should place Ms. Slug.  I give her an 8 – especially since she never once acknowledged my 3 apologies and she was more than just a touch over dramatic.  My mom didn’t actually place her on the scale, but she was miffed on my behalf that the woman wouldn’t let the darn accident go.  Geez.  I didn’t throw the roller bag at her, and I didn’t intentionally swing my camera in her face.

And you know what is really funny about all this?  Normally such confrontations deflate me.  I would board this ship and spend the rest of the day mooning that I had been involved in such an altercation.  But I feel different.  Maybe this feeling will dissipate when I’m back in the States, or maybe it won’t.  But I’m not deflated.  I’m angry.  I’m angry that I hail from the same country as that moron.  And at the same time, I let it go.  My mom and I went to lunch in the ship’s café, and I felt the lovely sense of calm wash over me again… I’m on a ship, and I am going to sea.  Stupid American tourists be damned.

And as my mom and I have wandered the ship this afternoon, we have overheard more conversations by typical snobby and boorish American tourists:  “If I had known we weren’t going to get into our staterooms right away, I would have booked a tour through Buenos Aires” and “I hate cruise ships” and “this city isn’t nearly as glitzy and pretty as I thought it would be.”  But I’m going to do my damndest not to let these ignorant comments get the best of me.  I can relish in the culture if nobody else around me can.

Boorish American slugs aside, we boarded an awfully beautiful ship...

Boorish American slugs aside, we boarded an awfully beautiful ship…

Day 4 – March 3, 2014

Buenos Aires

Whew, I’m already exhausted.  Well, actually, I spent most of the day exhausted.  I’m not entirely sure why – I fell asleep about 10:30pm last night, and from what I could tell, I slept great.  I think my one little cup of coffee this morning just didn’t quite cut it … and I needed a lot of coffee because today was a full day.

But let us first return to last night, and our first dinner aboard the Infinity.  It turns out that Mom and I have lovely dinner companions:  Joan and Joe from Florida, Marie and Rodger from Wales, and Rick and Lovina from Trinidad.  All were quite pleasant to chat with last night as we gorged on the multi-course dinner meals that come with cruising.

I at least tried to be good:  I had the fresh fruit to start, a salad for the first course, and the ricotta and spinach ravioli for the main entrée.  But I also had the crème brule, a few glasses of my absolute favorite wine on the planet:  Bolinni’s Pinot Grigio, and coffee.

Sigh.

I am on vacation after all.  And if it comes back on, I can lose it again when I get back home.

Then it was off to la-la land because 7:00am is awfully early on vacation.  Waking up at that time during the work week is a positive luxury but when I’m in vacation mode, I am in vacation mode … and anything before 9:00am is pushing it.

Breakfast was quick – serve yourself in the ship’s cafeteria style restaurant.  I had oatmeal and fruit … and one dinky cup of coffee.  Then it was off on our shore excursion:  the Buenos Aires city tour, with 2 hours of shopping included!

It was fabulous to be back in Buenos Aires again – I know, a whole 12 hours after I had “left” by boarding the Infinity – because I have completely fallen in love with this city.  It is so beautiful and so real.  The people here are wonderful.  Warm, welcoming, inviting, friendly.  There aren’t enough positive adjectives in the English language for the spectacular people of Buenos Aires.

And you’d be so proud of me, reader!  During the 2-hour shopping spree, I actually purchased a few books from a Barnes & Noble-esque book store in the city’s palatial mall (Galerias Pacifico) and I felt almost no hesitation.  I asked the cashier, in Spanish, if they accepted dollars, and I even understood her when she asked me if one of the books I was purchasing was a gift!  A legit question since I was buying 2 copies of the same book.  Here’s something truly embarrassing:  the first copy is going to my 2-year-old nephew in Florida, and the second copy is going to me.  What do I share in common with a 2-year-old?  A coloring book with several pages of stickers, all featuring what I am assuming is an Argentinian cartoon character:  Gaturro.  He’s damn cute.  That’s all I have to say.

But I am ahead of myself again.  It was wonderful being back in Buenos Aires.  Our first stop was the Cementerio de la Recoleta, the final resting place of Argentina’s best and brightest, including the one and only Eva Peron.  A whimsical stop since the cemetery itself is actually a collection of mausoleums, and there is no limit on the grandness of scale or the beauty of the architecture.  They are almost little homes in and of themselves stacked next to each other, and built in a variety of styles, including classical old world and art nouveau.  Our guide directed us to one particular monument, featuring a young woman and a dog, and explained that the young woman had died in an avalanche when she was 19.  The dog was so broken hearted over his mistress never coming home, that he eventually died of depression, and the family decided to bury them together.  This dog is the only animal buried in the Recoleta Cemetery.

The young bride and her dog ... the bride died in an avalanche while on her honeymoon and her beloved dog is the only animal buried in the cemetery.

The young bride and her dog … the bride died in an avalanche while on her honeymoon and her beloved dog is the only animal buried in the cemetery.

Next stop was Eva Peron’s final resting place, along with the story of her eventual placement in this, the oldest of the Argentinian cemeteries.  She was purportedly buried in another location upon her death in 1952, but during the coup de etat that followed in the mid-1950s, her body was disinterred and moved to Italy where it was then desecrated.  The Argentinian government somehow laid claim to the broken body again, and brought it back to Buenos Aires, where it was “restored” and then reburied in the Recoleta Cemetery.  It has been resting peacefully there since that day in 1974.  And not a day goes by where there is not a line of tourists waiting to snap a picture of the mausoleum entrance.  Interestingly, Eva is buried with her nuclear family, whose surname is Duarte.  She is not buried with her Peron relatives since her husband remarried after her untimely death at the age of 33.  Therefore, don’t look for Eva’s final resting place under the name, Peron.  You’ll be looking for a long time.

After the Recoleta Cemetery, we next traveled to the Plaza de Mayo, or the seat of the Argentinian government.  We saw the Casa Rosada, or the Pink House, which served as the former offices of the Argentinian president, and upon whose balcony Eva Peron speechified to the people (and sang, Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina in the film).  A couple quick snapshots there (especially since the building was surrounded by chain link fence indicating ongoing construction) and then we headed over to the Catedral Metropolitana, or the city’s cathedral, where Pope Francis served as Cardinal before his elevation to the papacy.  It is an incredible church, with a façade very similar to an Ancient Greek or Roman temple, and beautifully ornate marble inside.  We stopped by the final resting place of General San Martin (1778 – 1850), the liberator of South America from the yoke of Spanish control, who not only has his own side chapel off the main church, but also has the courtesy of 2 full-time guards to watch over his earthly resting place.  Very serious, austere, and Buckingham Palace-ish.  That made for a nice Kodak moment for sure.

Following our explorations through the Cathedral, I snapped a few quick shots of the Cabildo, the former city hall which was built in the Spanish colonial architectural style, and though the current building has largely been rebuilt in the 20th century, it follows the pattern of 16th and 17th century Spanish-style buildings to a tee.

We hopped back on the bus and made our way to our final touristy destination:  el Caminito della Boca, or the street of the Boca.  This is the quintessential Buenos Aires.  Apparently, the most photographed part of the city is the Boca, a former immigrant shantytown that has grown into one of the largest tourist sites in the country.  The original Genoese immigrants built broken-down buildings out of wood and corrugated iron they then painted in these bright and garish colors (it was cheap and they took it).  Today, the buildings retain their bright and fantastical hues, but what used to be tenement dwellings are now tourist shops and restaurants.  It was a vivacious way to spend an hour or so, although I was reminded of the 3rd Street Promenade in LA and Fisherman’s Wharf in SF, especially in the pricing.  A postcard cost one American dollar, or the equivalent of between 9 and 10 Argentinian pesos.  Prior to visiting la Boca, we were jaw-droppingly surprised by how cheap everything in Argentina has been.  Then we hit the touristy area, and well, there you go.

The iconic La Boca image - a former shantytown that is now a tourist destination.  Oh the irony...

The iconic La Boca image – a former shantytown that is now a tourist destination.  Oh, the irony…

For me, being the history buff that I am, I was more interested in the historical story behind la Boca than the touristy stuff anyway.  The street itself was located not far from one of the earliest piers along the Buenos Aires coast – a pier that has now long been abandoned, but still sits there, and it was the gateway that brought many of these Genoese immigrants to Argentina, and made la Boca a possibility.

It would have been nice to visit a museum and learn more about this history.  But am I complaining?  Heck no!

After la Boca, we had lunch at an all-you-can-eat Argentinian buffet.  I had fruit and penne pasta with pesto (bad, bad, bad!) AND I had a few samples of the dessert.  It was all delicioso!  Magnifico!  And probably about 20 million calories to boot.  Good thing I’m doing a lot of walking on this trip.

And then lunch was followed by the 2 hours of shopping, which I recounted earlier.  I purchased the 3 books (including an art book for J) and I also purchased a small lion figurine carved from Argentina’s national stone:  the rhodochrosite or the “Inca Rose.”  It is a beautiful pinkish stone with white and black trails, very similar to jade, and I am glad I found a piece that was somewhat affordable.  It will make a nice addition to my collection of international cat figurines.  Shopping took place along Florida Street, the definite 3rd Street Promenade and / or Fisherman’s Wharf in Buenos Aires.  More 3rd Street Promenade I would say, but still:  a long pedestrian walk flanked by high-end shops and boutiques.  My mom and I wandered into the Galerias Pacifico mall, which is so much like a Westfield Center, all that is missing is the giant red “W,” and after I bought the 3 books, we immediately trekked out.  It was far too suburban American for me.  I wanted to get back to the Buenos Aires I was falling in love with.

Sadly, very, very, very sadly, our time in Buenos Aires was drawing to a close.  We boarded the bus and came back to the ship, and that embarkation ends my time in Buenos Aires.  Our ship departed at 5:00pm – an event I did not miss; I was up on the top deck watching the ship get led out of port – and as I type this, we are headed for Montevideo, Uruguay.  I will admit that it is so peaceful to sit in the stateroom and listen to the sounds of the ocean outside, and I’m sure everything that follows Buenos Aires will be incredible, but considering that BA was my first stop on this trip, and my first exposure to the richness and vitality of South American culture, I think it will occupy a special place in my heart from here on out.

 

Day 5 – March 4, 2014

Montevideo and la Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

This is the life.  There is no denying it – this is really and truly the life.  As I write this, I am sitting in the Constellation Lounge, enjoying a crisp and refreshing glass of Chardonnay, and the Montevideo coastline is visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows at my left shoulder.

Yep, now is the time to feel jealous.  And when I come back and re-read these notes someday down the road, now is the time for me to feel sad that I am not in this exact moment again.

Especially as I effuse and gush over yet another incredible day, and add Uruguay to my growing list of “must visit again” countries.  What a gorgeous place!  And what incredible history!

The day started as is now custom:  up early and down to the cafeteria for breakfast.  We were up at 7:00am and in the cafeteria restaurant by 7:45am.  I made sure we had a little more time this morning since yesterday felt Speedy Gonzalez rushed, so we had almost an hour for breakfast today, whereas yesterday, it was about 30 minutes.  I had a breakfast sandwich – egg on an English muffin – and some Cream of Wheat, and today, I learned another important lesson from yesterday.  I had my dinky cup of coffee and three glasses of water.  Before we left to meet up with the shore excursion team, I bought a giant bottle of water AND I got a second cup of coffee in a to-go cup.

I was much more with it today.  And I’m sure it’s cuz of that second cup of coffee.

One of our many guides through la Colonia del Sacramento.

One of our many guides through la Colonia del Sacramento.

We boarded the bus and headed straight for la Colonia del Sacramento, or the City of the Holy Sacrament, one of the oldest settlements in the New World, and first founded by the Portuguese in 1680.  It became a UNESCO Heritage site sometime in the 1990s, and it does capture, in various ways, its 330+ year history.  There are traces of the Portuguese settlement – visible in some of the architecture, which today we learned is very simple and humble in style.  Portuguese homes tend to be single story, constructed of thick adobe brick, with small doors and windows that are built very low to the ground.  Why are doors so short, and windows so low?  To prevent invasion of the home via horseback!  I didn’t realize that guys raiding Portuguese homes on horseback was a problem, but it was enough of a concern to make a 6’ tall woman, such as myself, grateful I did not live in these early days.  I would have spent most of my time ducking.

Interestingly enough, the Portuguese also constructed gutters in the middle of their streets.  When they laid the stones to “pave” the road, they left a minute crack running straight down the middle.  All water and waste channeled down this central crack into the ocean.  And today, 330 years later, we can still see these original streets with their original gutters.  We can also see the convention implemented by the Spanish:  when they came along 30 – 50 years after the Portuguese founded the city, they constructed gutters along the sides of the street as we see today.

But how could I get ahead of myself here?!?  I am quite good at that apparently because I cannot believe I have not yet mentioned that our guide was aided in her work as we toured la Colonia.  She had several assistants actually – they all had four legs, thick fur, and their main form of communication was the bark.  Yes, there are several dogs that run loose through la Colonia, and it appears their main job is to escort the tours (we had no fewer than 3 dogs with us the entire time) and make sure those terribly dangerous car tires don’t get anywhere near us!  We always knew a car was coming because the dogs would chase it down the street, barking away, and trying to bite the tires as they went.

Adorable.  Adorable.  Adorable.

And think what you will considering these were feral dogs, but, yes, I petted them.  They were too friendly and too adorable.  I couldn’t pass up the chance to give them a pat on the head and a scratch behind the ears.  Luckily, Mom made sure I was carrying a bottle of anti-bacterial gel.  I’m sure I’m fine.

Anyway, in addition to its historic Portuguese roots, la Colonia also exhibits traces of its Spanish heritage.  We see that in more homes, still standing, built in the Spanish style, which featured tall doorways and arched windows (thank goodness – tall gals like myself could get in and out without claustrophobia setting in!), and many of the homes had 2 stories.  Spanish architecture also features a lot more ornamentation than Portuguese, so it isn’t a stretch to say that a Portuguese home is like a simple starter home you find in suburban America, and a Spanish home is a mansion you find in Beverly Hills.  They are very stark in their contrasts and easily distinguishable.

The lighthouse that would change my life ... built on the foundation of an earlier Spanish convent.

The lighthouse that would change my life … built on the foundation of an earlier Spanish convent.

And you know what else la Colonia had??  A feature that made me almost drop my camera in excitement?  A lighthouse!!  A beautiful, traditional, conical lighthouse built in the years after Uruguay won its independence from Spain, when the governments of Uruguay and Argentina decided to build an entire series of lighthouses along the Rio Plato.  What is the Rio Plato?  It is the widest river in the world apparently, and the main artery into this southern part of South America.  In fact, it is the Rio Plata we have been cruising thus far.  I thought we were coasting along the Atlantic, but nope.  The Rio Plata.  Big enough to accommodate a cruise ship the size of the Infinity.

Anyway, in the years before these lighthouses were constructed, shipwrecks were a far too regular occurrence in the waters of Rio Plato.  It is very wide, but it is also very shallow, and the coastline is ragged and irregular.  Without the assistance of lighthouses, wrecks were common.  Starting in the 1840s, the lighthouses went in, and voila!  The number of shipwrecks went down.

This particular lighthouse was built between the years 1845 and 1857.  In addition to being a beautiful piece of architecture that is, yet again, evidence of la Colonia’s 330+ year history (people still live in la Colonia to this day), this lighthouse has the distinction of being built on the ruins of an earlier convent.  It appears the convent was built by the Spanish sometime in the 1700s, and then fell into disrepair.  The foundation of the convent is so solid, however, that when the Uruguayans built the lighthouse, they decided to use the convent’s foundation.  It is a remarkable sight – this gorgeous white conical tower amidst the crumbling stones of an earlier and ancient complex.  The march of history right in front of you.

But you know what is truly remarkable about this lighthouse?  We had 20 minutes of free time to wander la Colonia on our own (after our delicious lunch of salad, ravioli, and some kind of gelato for dessert), and guess who paid the whopping 14 Argentinian pesos to climb that lighthouse?  Why, that would be me, of course.

Now, let me explain the import of this event:  I am terrified of heights.  We’re talking dizzy spells, nausea, near-vomit, and other disgusting body functions afraid.  The last time I climbed a lighthouse (as much as I love them) was back in like 2007 when I visited my sister down in Florida.  We traveled up to the lighthouse at St. Augustine, and she and I bravely (ha!) climbed that one together.  Wanna talk dizzy spells, nausea, near-vomit, and other disgusting body functions?  I barely made it up the stairs of that tower – partially because they were mesh wrought iron, which means I could see through them – and I was so paralyzed when I reached the top, I didn’t even step out onto the observation platform.  Moreover, I was so distraught on our way back down the staircase, I forced my sister to walk in front of me… the clapping of her flip-flops on the steps behind me was sending me into an episode of such severe vertigo, I was seconds away from fainting.  When I reached the bottom step, I threw myself (literally) onto the ground and kissed it.  I have never been so happy to be back on solid earth.  And the kiss tasted like dirt by the way.

So, here I am, terrified beyond belief of being high up.  And what do I decide to do?  Climb the lighthouse.  This trip has become a quest to fight my fears – to let them go and try to find a peace in who I am and what I want from my life.  I am ready to be the person I have always wanted to be.  So I paid the 14 Argentinian pesos, and I climbed that lighthouse.

And it was one of the most magical moments I can recall.

I made it all the way to the top, although I stopped on the observation deck that is about halfway up first.  I walked all the way around both decks – the platform halfway up and the official light deck at the top.  It felt like I was flying.  I know, I know, you can hear Kate Winslet in your ear right now, right?  “I’m flying, Jack,” and cue Celine Dion.  But there is something surreal about being that high up; the wind whipping your hair all around your face; the sky so clear and the sun so bright; the breathtaking views of the Colonia and the Rio Plato; and the exhilaration of knowing that what you are doing should be terrifying, but in that weird way, isn’t… how can you not feel weightless?  How can you resist throwing your arms wide and letting that feeling take you away?  I didn’t do that of course (partially because there were other tourists up there with me, and I have a feeling they would have thought I was crazy), but I wanted to.  Oh how I wanted to.  I was smiling from ear to ear, and I was so proud of myself.  Between this and not letting my paralyzing fear of, you know, people stop me, I have been on a real roll the past few days.

I was so captivated by my moments at the top of that lighthouse, I almost missed our meet-up time for our group.  I walked down the stairs (which, yes, were solid and enclosed, and I’m sure that helped with the vertigo), and then jogged to meet up with our group.  We had a bus to catch and a 2+ hour drive back to Montevideo to make.

The Virgin of the 33, still on display in la Colonia's church.

The Virgin of the 33, still on display in la Colonia’s church.

But before I take us back to the city of our embarkation, first I want to also mention the beautiful church in la Colonia.  Very Portuguese in style, although, if I heard our guide correctly, the original church was destroyed in a terrible lightning storm and re-built many years later.  It is built in that early humble and simple style with plain white walls and a rather simple sacristy.  Of note, however, is the statue of the Virgin standing in its own case to the left of the sacristy.  This statue is known as el Virgen de los treinta y tres, or the Virgin of the 33.  This exact statue was purportedly carried by 33 soldiers who fought in Uruguay’s war of independence from Spain (which was finally achieved in 1825 – Uruguay is also very partial to a general, Argites, who was their leader in that war, similar to San Martin in Argentina.  In fact, if I am remembering my history correctly, San Martin and Argites worked together), and since Uruguay did achieve its independence, the statue is revered to this day.  The church also features original pillars from the Portuguese one, built sometime in the early 1700s.

But back to Montevideo, because that is where we have been docked.  We learned very early in our tour that Montevideo is the largest city in Uruguay, and the seat of the government here.  What an incredible country, Uruguay.  Check this out:  they have universal health care and free education, at all levels, for all students.  In fact, every student is given a free laptop when they first enter school and again when they enter high school.  They have legalized marijuana, gay marriage, and abortion here, and they have comprehensive social services available for those who need them.  Therefore, there is no homelessness here, and no such thing as deep poverty.  People who cannot afford to eat are provided for, and those who lose their homes have shelters to go to.

And guess what, dear readers?  Uruguay is not the end of western civilization as we know it!  Yes, the country is expensive – the taxes are much higher here than other Latin American countries because the taxpayers support these services – but the unemployment rate is ridiculously low (less than 6%) and the crime rate is virtually nil.  Many students go on to higher education, and technology is the leading industry in Uruguay.  WiFi?  It’s everywhere.  And it’s free.

Wow.  A country that takes care of its people.  What a concept.

And it has opened my eyes in so many ways.  This is supposed to be the third world after all.  But there is nothing – and I mean absolutely and for truly NOTHING – down here to indicate that Uruguay is anything less than a prosperous nation.  Sure, their main vocations are technology and agriculture, so most of the land is farms and ranches… and some office buildings here and there.  But a country with such a low unemployment rate?  With virtually no homeless?  No starving children?  Everyone has access to the social services they need?  Can the US claim the same?

On top of everything else I have experienced down here, I have experienced this as well:  our definition of “third world” needs to change … drastically.

 

Days 6 and 7 – March 5 and March 6, 2014

Punta del Este, Uruguay and At Sea

Am I combining two days into one entry?  Yes.  Why?  Partial laziness and partial … well, there isn’t much to say about a day at sea.  So why not combine the days?

Yesterday was superb.  We arrived in Punta del Este, Uruguay, which is definitely the resort town of South America.  It was obvious from the moment we awoke yesterday and saw the lights of the city from our balcony.

But I was excited nonetheless because yesterday was an “art” day.  We were going to visit land art installations, sculptures, and museums.  I have become increasingly fascinated with land art installations thanks to my relationship with J, who is a big land art buff, and you can’t go wrong when you say the word “museum” to me.  I can find something to enjoy even in a contemporary and abstract art museum, which are my least favorites of the art movements and time periods.  And a few months back, I paid a visit to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and toured through their Latin American art collection.  It was beautiful and resonating.  So I was excited to see more Latin American art.  Was I disappointed?  Ha!

Our first stop was the monumental sculpture, The Hand, by a Chilean artist named Mario Irrarazabal.  Well, actually … our first stop was the point where the Rio Plata – our waterway of choice up to this point – and the Atlantic Ocean meet.  Which means … you got it.  Another lighthouse!  I took as many pictures as I could of said lighthouse, built in the 1860s, but sadly, it was not one you can get close to like I could the one in la Colonia.  No matter.  I still got tons of pictures.  And I got pictures of a lighthouse off shore.  It is on Sea Lion Island, and according to our tour guide, it is one of the tallest lighthouses in the world.  It was 8 kilometers away, so not a detailed photo, but it was a lighthouse.

Another lighthouse.  Can't get enough of 'em!

Another lighthouse.  Can’t get enough of ’em!

I am obsessed with lighthouses.  Now that one of the defining moments of my life has involved one.  I know that sounds absurd to say, but I can’t stop thinking about my adventure at la Colonia’s lighthouse.  I am serious when I say:  imagine a fear that paralyzes you, and imagine yourself conquering it.  That was me at la Colonia.

Anyway, before I head off down that path again, let’s return to our day at Punta del Este.  After visiting The Hand, we next headed to the Ralli Museum in the heart of Beverly Hills.  Yes, Beverly Hills.  There is a Beverly Hills in Punta del Este, and it is every bit as rich and illustrious as the one in California.  This particular museum was founded by one of those residents of Beverly Hills, an avid art collector, who wanted to bring art to the world.  Therefore, the museum is completely free; there are no guided tours; and there is no commercial activity allowed (so no museum shop and no museum café).  I was at home in this museum.  Not only was the building beautiful but the collection was amazing.  I reveled in much of the art, and even took some close-up photos that I can possibly blow up into canvas prints for my apartment.

But what else did I see?  Birds.  Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful birds.  Our tour guide told me the one bird I was seeing – gray with black and white on the chest – was the tero, a very common bird in Uruguay.  But I also snapped some photos of a green bird, which looked like a smaller and less colorful version of a parrot, and I later learned, is actually a species of parakeet.  Possibly anyway.

I also snapped some photos of one of my new favorite birds:  the black-necked stilt.  We have them in LA, and I absolutely love them.  Their long red legs make them dance when they walk, and their black and white bodies are beyond photogenic.  I definitely want to get one of the images I snapped of those guys blown up as a canvas print at some point.

After the Ralli Museum, we next headed to a local artist’s foundation and workshop.  This particular artist, Pablo Atchugarry, crafted sculptures for Punta del Este, including one that commemorated their centennial anniversary, but he has also crafted works that span the globe.  When we stopped by his workshop, I wasn’t as interested in his work.  I was more interested in some of the other sculptures he had collected and displayed on his property.  One such sculpture, Juguemos en el bosque (2011) by Jeannine Wolfsohn, was definitely my favorite.  It featured cat figures – seemingly split in half – in a small copse of trees.  I loved them.  I felt so relaxed and peaceful when I was among them.  I took a bunch of pictures (again), and at one point, I just sat on a bench and admired them.  I admired the play of light on the sculptures themselves as the sun slipped behind clouds and reappeared.  I admired the sounds that echoed around me – bugs, whispers of wind, splashes of water from the nearby lake.  It was a magical moment.

One of my new favorite birds - the black-necked stilt, which, thankfully, we also have in LA!

One of my new favorite birds – the black-necked stilt, which, thankfully, we also have in LA!

Why so many magical moments when you’re on vacation?  Is it because you’re in an exotic location?  Or do we just not notice the magic that is around us at home?

After the workshop, we went back to the ship, and my mom and I grabbed lunch in the ship’s cafeteria / café before I headed up to the ship’s computer lounge.  Then it was dinner time (gosh, time goes by so fast on these cruises) and I was checking a book out of the ship’s library because today was, you guessed it:  a sea day.

I love sea days when I’m on these cruises.  It is so nice to just sit back and relax for a day here and there.  We don’t have to be anywhere by a certain time; we don’t have to be awake and alert at a certain time; there are no demands on our time whatsoever.  So I relished it.  My mom and I were up about 8:30am, had breakfast, and attended a lecture on penguins since we are supposed to see some Magellanic penguins tomorrow, and then I took a nap and read the book I checked out of the ship’s library.

Dinner came fast again, and now as I write this, I am back in the Constellation Lounge, having just watched the sun set, and drinking glass # 75 of Bolinni Pinot Grigio.  I can’t get enough of the stuff.

But tomorrow will come fast, and it will be time to visit some more wildlife.  It makes me think about the Kitten Rescue in LA.  I have been wavering about volunteering with them, but I think I am going to pursue it once I’m back.  I want to be around animals, and working with people and animals.  I think if I work for Kitten Rescue, and I work for 826LA, which will expose me to more teaching, I will feel it.  I will feel like life is an adventure …

 

Day 8 and Day 9 – March 7 and March 8, 2014

Puerto Madryn, Argentina and At Sea

As I write this particular entry, I am relaxing again at sea.  We are coasting along the east coast of Argentina headed for the one and only Cape Horn, the heart and soul of this trip.  I am sitting in the ship’s wine lounge (go figure although I am not, at present, enjoying what would probably be my 3,798th glass of wine on this trip) and watching the turbulent gray waters of the South Atlantic out the giant porthole at my right shoulder.

One thing I love about this ship?  It not only has portholes … it has giant portholes!

Portholes on the ship, and not just regular old portholes either, but portholes ... in the floor!

Portholes on the ship, and not just regular old portholes either, but portholes … in the floor!

This morning, Mom and I attended two lectures presented by the cruise staff:  the first on marine life here in the southern hemisphere, with a focus on birds, seals, and sea lions, and the second a brief history and geographic overview of Cape Horn.  Me, the maritime history buff that I am and the admirer of explorers who navigated the treacherous waters between South America and Antarctica, should have known that Cape Horn is actually an island.  I should have known there is an entire archipelago of islands off the southern tip of Argentina / Chile, and it is through the various channels and straits around these islands that early mariners sailed.  But alas, I am not as up to speed on maritime history as I have long believed.  I always thought Cape Horn was the southern tip of South America, and the straits of Magellan were slightly north.  I did not realize the straits of Magellan are as far north as they are, and I did not realize that the dangers around Cape Horn actually stem from the currents that start north of the island and swing around counterclockwise to the southern side.

Today was the first time I heard about Faults Island – a smaller island slightly north of Cape Horn that many early mariners thought was Cape Horn itself (hence the name “Faults”) and the winds north of Cape Horn and southeast of Faults Island often shoved early sailing vessels onto the rocks as they tried to navigate around what they thought was Cape Horn.

Today was also the first time I heard about the man who actually discovered Cape Horn.  Again, considering how close I thought the straits of Magellan were in proximity to the Cape, I assumed Magellan had been the discoverer.  But today I learned Magellan never sailed farther south than the straits that now bear his name.  He thought he had discovered the only passageway into the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic (the prevailing thought at the time was that South America and Antarctica were one landmass), and since the guy died in the Philippines on his journey around the world, he didn’t have the chance to sail back to South America and discover other routes.

Instead, the honor of Cape Horn Discoverer goes to one William Schouten.  In 1616, he set forth on a journey to find another route around South America because after Magellan’s discovery of the straits in 1520, that passage became property of the East Indies Company.  And the East Indies Company charged a fee for ships to pass through.  Schouten sailed farther south with two ships:  The Hoorn and The Eendracht, and when he reached Patagonia, some disaster befell The Hoorn.  Details are murky but the ship appears to have caught fire and sunk, and the crews had to consolidate onto the Eendracht.  They sailed into the waters around Cape Horn, discovered the island, named it Hoorn (possibly for the lost ship), and then sailed home.  Schouten did not receive the warm welcome he probably expected considering his discovery (another route to the Pacific was possible without navigating the Straits of Magellan) because the East Indies Company accused him of treachery:  they believed he had circled around the entrance to the straits of Magellan and then sailed home claiming he had discovered a new route for the fame.  Schouten spent 2 years in jail until another explorer validated his claim:  South America and Antarctica are two separate landmasses, and there is an island at the southern tip of an archipelago of islands off the southern coast of South America.

Who knew?  Now I do, anyway.

We caught glimpses of the routes we are taking in the next couple of days as part of this second lecture:  a circle around the island of Cape Horn and then up the Beagle Channel (named for HMS Beagle, the ship upon which Charles Darwin sailed when he postulated his theory of natural selection), which is northeast of Cape Horn and then a sharp right turn to head north into the straits of Magellan.  We’ll exit the straits well north of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago – the archipelago of islands that contains Faults Island and Cape Horn – and then continue on up the coast of Chile.

Far more complex than I had originally envisioned.

Although not for me since I’m not navigating this ship.  I just get to sit back, in my slipper socks mind you, with a cup of coffee next to me, a book I checked out of the ship’s library sitting on the table, and my own thoughts.  And I get to take lots and lots of pictures over the next couple of days.

They will go with the hundreds of pictures I have already taken, including the almost 200 I must have taken yesterday.  Yesterday was the stop at Puerto Madryn in Argentina.  It is located on the east coast about halfway between Buenos Aires and the southern tip of the country, and it is right in the heart of Patagonia, one of Argentina’s 5 provinces.  First and foremost, Patagonia is like nothing I have ever seen before.  It reminded me so much of the Galapagos because those islands feature terrain and vegetation that appear nowhere else on earth.  Patagonia is the same.  It was flat and stepped with low scrub and chaparral, and chalky white ground.  It was beautiful in the way the surface of the moon is beautiful.  There is a harshness, a sparseness, a barrenness to its landscape that renders it all the more gorgeous.

And there is a feeling of freedom.  That harsh, barren, sparse landscape and wide open sky makes you feel like you are wild and free.

I know:  it is starting to sound like a poetry reading, but bear with me.  One of the reasons why I love travel is these feelings that come with exposure to new places, and immersion in everything they have to offer.

Anyway, it is the perfect landscape for wildlife watching, that is for sure, and that was the main objective of our shore excursions yesterday.  We saw rheas and guanacos, which are these incredible llama-like creatures.  They have big ears that shift around on their head to express their moods, and let me tell you, it is an unrivalled cuteness when you see them with their ears shifted back slightly because they aren’t sure about you.  Definitely a big “awwww” moment there.

We saw an owl!  Just sitting on the ground watching the bus as it pulled alongside.  He’s just chillin’ there.  He spins his head this way and that to make sure we aren’t going to try anything, but otherwise, he sits perfectly straight and still for the photos.  They came out amazing if I do say so myself.

Just hanging out...

Just hanging out…

But the highlight.  The crème de la crème of yesterday’s excursion were the penguins.  Magellanic penguins to be exact, a mid-sized species (they stand about 2’ tall) that come ashore every year to breed and molt.  Once the molting is done, they head out to sea and swim up to Brazil.  Then they come back down to Argentina and breed and molt.  These are burrowing penguins, so they dig small nests in the ground.  In fact, male penguins will come ashore a couple of weeks before the females.  They will return to their nest of the previous year and “fix it up” as it were – get it ready for the females when they arrive.  They will have to work hard because a female chooses a mate based on the nest.  The stronger and more secure the nest, the more likely the female will stay and mate with the male.  And that is how it goes:  the females come ashore a couple of weeks later, inspect the nests, pick their mate, and that’s when the hot penguin-on-penguin action starts.  If I remember correctly, the males and females work together to raise the young, and once the young are old enough, they ship out to sea.  The adults will stay behind to molt, and then follow.

We arrived in the middle of molting season, so most of the chicks were already gone, and we saw some penguins who looked like they could use a grooming session.  But most of them looked sleek and gorgeous as you would expect, complete with gorgeous red eyes and pinkish yellow coloring around their throats and faces.  These guys also have no fear whatsoever of humans.  We could literally get right next to them, crouch down to reach them in their burrows if we wanted.  In fact, one penguin was hanging out so close to the path we were instructed to walk upon, that he became the token photo op.  Many squatted down next to him to take their picture, and they were close enough to pet him on the head if they so chose.

Luckily, none of them did that I could see.  I remember from the Galapagos:  look, but don’t interfere.  We don’t know what kind of consequences we could initiate if we interacted with the wildlife.

They don't just live on the ice in Antarctica...

They don’t just live on the ice in Antarctica…

After about 200 photos of penguins, we next headed to Punta Norte, where we saw a colony of sea lions.  I snapped a couple photos there, but considering that I am surrounded by sea lions in California, I didn’t spend too much time oohing and awing over those guys.  Instead, I walked along the coast looking for more guanacos (they are so dang cute!!) and more birds.  I did snap a few photos of armadillos – who knew armadillos were in South America?!?! – but no luck on the guanacos front.

Sigh.

I can’t have everything I suppose.

It was back to the ship after the visit to Punta Norte, and I tried to snap a photo of the ship graveyard that is along the Puerto Madryn coast.  Turns out that many ships fish illegally off the Argentinian coast, and when they are caught, they are fined.  Rather than pay the fine, the ship owners will abandon their boats, and they are left to rot on the beach.  Our guide said that port authorities are thinking of scuttling the ships in the hopes their sinkings will encourage marine life colonies on the wrecks.

So many interesting things to learn, even while on vacation.

But now I want to close this particular entry with a great quote from the Cape Horn lecture this morning.  There is a legend that souls of mariners who have been lost in the waters off Cape Horn come back as albatrosses, and these albatrosses will escort ships coming into the waters around Cape Horn, guiding them to safety and protecting them from the same fate.  This has become such a legend, there is an albatross monument on Cape Horn itself with the following poem:

I am the albatross who awaits you at the end of the world.  I am the soul of all mariners who have disappeared over the centuries in these turbulent waters.  They have not perished but have been caressed and cradled for eternity in the wind and the waves.

– Sara Vial

 

Day 10 – March 9, 2014

At Sea / Cape Horn

Heading towards the end of the world

Heading towards the end of the world…

There are a few moments that rank as the most spectacular in my travel life.  The first time I saw the Parthenon in Greece.  The first time I set foot inside the British Museum in London.  The first time I set foot inside the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I in the Valley of the Kings.

And now today:  the day I reached the end of the world.

Today was another sea day, but this one was marked by a cruising adventure.  We did not go ashore, but we did sail right past Cape Horn, the southern most island in an archipelago of islands known today as Tierra del Fuego.

Cape Horn is legend in maritime lore – sailors from the early 1600s through 1914 and beyond sailed around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific Ocean.  It is some of the most dangerous waters on the planet, and many ships and sailors disappeared without a trace in those 400 years.  It took sailors of true grit and iron to sail around “the Horn” especially in those days of exploration and early sail.

And I have now experienced it firsthand … well at least why that true grit and iron was needed.

Because, yes, I am on a massive cruise liner, which, when compared with the tiny sailing vessels mariners used through the early 1900s, is like trying to compare a brachiosaurus to a field mouse.  But that makes what I am about to describe all the more awe-inspiring.  I experienced Cape Horn on a cruise liner the size of Rhode Island.  I can’t imagine experiencing even 1/10th of what I did today on a 3-masted sailing ship in 1885!

Because it was windy – brutally windy – some of the worst, if not the absolute worst winds I have ever experienced.  The gusts had to be pushing 100mph if they were anything more than a puff of a breeze.

It was frigidly cold.  I still can’t feel my fingers, or my nose.

The waters were frothy and rough with waves reaching as high as the lower decks of our Rhode Island cruise ship here.

And I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.  Would I want to do it on a 3-masted sailing ship in 1885?  Absolutely not!  But I felt alive out there today.  It felt it.  I could see why mariners went back to sea time and time and time again in spite of the risk and the danger.  There is such majesty in the ocean, and in the rugged landscapes that hug the ocean’s edges, that make you want to be right there, front and center, every chance you get.

To be at sea is to be alive.  At least when you’re in Tierra del Fuego.

Of course, that could be the brutal winds talking.  I mean, we are talking winds so strong, I couldn’t even hold my camera up!  My scarf nearly blew overboard (and someone else’s did), and, while I kept trying to wrap myself up in a blanket, I eventually gave up on that since I was more likely to kill somebody with the damn thing flipping all around like it was.

The lighthouse on Cape Horn - the lighthouse that is literally at the end of the world!

The lighthouse on Cape Horn – the lighthouse that is literally at the end of the world!

Or it could be the rugged beauty of the landscape.  I told my mom that Tierra del Fuego, and Patagonia, remind me of the Galapagos.  These are places that are truly unique – you can’t go to any other place on the planet and see and experience the same landscape.  Know what I mean?  Like think of any tourist trap you have visited.  Including Old World.  Italy, for example.  Although nothing can really compare to the true Italy, you can visit plenty of places that bring Italy to life.  One such place are the Italian-themed hotels in Las Vegas.  Or there are Little Italy’s in who knows how many major American cities.

What I’m trying to say is that you can get an experience of Italy, a taste of Italy as it were, in other places besides Italy.

You cannot get a taste of Tierra del Fuego, or the Galapagos, or Patagonia anywhere else.  The only way to experience these places is to visit them directly.

And the rugged beauty of the landscape aside, the wilds of the ocean down here aside, there is something spectacular in just knowing you are at the end of the earth.  We are only 200 miles away from Antarctica here at Cape Horn.  This is the end of the world.  There is nothing else south of here but penguins, birds, lots of ice, and a pole.

How many people can say they have been to the end of the world?

Which makes anything else I would say about my day all the more mundane – I slept, read a book, and ate – so I’ll end it here.

And wake up tomorrow for adventures ashore in Tierra del Fuego, including, hopefully, a visit to the lighthouse at the end of the world!

Sunrise over the Beagle Channel ... have you ever seen anything more incredible?

Sunrise over the Beagle Channel … have you ever seen anything more incredible?

 

Day 11 and Day 12 – March 10 and March 11, 2014

Ushuaia, Argentina and Punto Arenas, Chile

I have to admit that it will take a lot to top seeing Cape Horn.  There has been a lot of “amazing” on this trip, and there will continue to be even as the end starts drawing near.  But Cape Horn?  I can’t express how truly spectacular it was to see it.  To be right there, right in the same waters that so many mariners have crossed before, and to feel like I really was at the end of the world.

But right behind Cape Horn is Ushuaia.

Call me crazy, but I had a dream about visiting Ushuaia the night before we actually did.  And in the dream, I was wandering the streets of the city … trying to decide if I liked it or not.  When I woke up yesterday morning, I knew I wouldn’t just like Ushuaia, I would love it.

And I was not disappointed.

From the moment I first saw the city from our stateroom balcony in the wee hours of the morning (okay, 6:00am, but that is wee hours when you’re on vacation!) until we pulled away last night to head for Punto Arenas, I wanted to be there.  I wanted to be in Ushuaia.

I still want to be there.

First off, it is gorgeous.  It sits right on the Beagle Channel (named by Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle who discovered the channel in 1830.  A couple of years later, he sailed through the channel again on the same ship, but on this trip, he had with him a young naturalist named “Charlie” Darwin), a mere 200 miles from Antarctica.  It is nestled in the mountains of Tierra del Fuego – Argentina’s largest island – and all around the city are the calm silver waters of the Beagle Channel and the bright, snow-capped mountains of Tierra del Fuego.  The air is so clean and so pure that everything seems so stark and fresh.

Talk about a picture for a postcard.

And our excursion!  We couldn’t have picked a better one!  We boarded a catamaran and sailed around the Beagle Channel, stopping to view some of the many wild residents of this part of the world:  imperial cormorants (beautiful black-and-white birds), blue-eyed cormorants, great skuas (large brown sea-gull like birds), sea lions, and fur seals.

The Ushuaia Lighthouse, sometimes called the lighthouse at the end of the world as well.

The Ushuaia Lighthouse, sometimes called the lighthouse at the end of the world as well.

Ruling the roost!  Or getting a suntan, but either way, another view of the amazing wildlife seen on this trip.

Ruling the roost! Or getting a suntan, but either way, another view of the amazing wildlife seen on this trip.

We sailed past the Ushuaia lighthouse, built in 1919 by the Argentinian navy, which sits on a lonely outcropping near the entrance to the Ushuaia harbor.  The lighthouse itself is a stunning red and white striped color, visible from everywhere, even though it is only 11 meters tall.  The island had at least 10,000 birds standing on it, rustling their feathers and preening themselves.  Seriously.  There were so many birds, especially the imperial cormorants, the island looked like a chessboard.  But just standing there, at the far front of the catamaran, watching the birds and listening to the light slapping of the water … you couldn’t have ordered a more perfect moment in time.

Following our cruise through the Beagle Channel, we disembarked in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, where we boarded a bus that took us around and showed off the sites of this protected natural resource.  We saw more birds, including the black-necked swan and the ashy-headed goose.  But the best wildlife sighting thus far (aside from the guanaco, which are beyond adorable) was here in Tierra del Fuego:  a red fox.  A real honest to true living red fox, who was just hanging out on the side of the road.  He stood there and let us goofy tourists take picture after picture after picture of him, not fazed in the slightest by all the activity.

And what a beautiful creature.  They’re small – about the size of a corgi – but they have gorgeous coats of red, brown, and gray with a long bushy tail.  I couldn’t believe I was seeing him.  He was so close at one point that if I had bent over and reached out my hand, I would have touched him.

After Tierra del Fuego, our guide dropped us off in “the city” where we could do some shopping before walking the extensive 200 or so feet to reach the pier where the Infinity was docked.  I finally tracked down some dulce de leche, the caramel-like sweet sauce that is an Argentinian wonder for J, and I bought myself a book of maps of Tierra del Fuego, a history of maps of this area I should say.  My two favorite purchases though:  a wooden clock with 2 penguins that says “Fin del Mundo” and a penguin-shaped wine jug that says “World’s End – Ushuaia.”  I’ll treasure them for always, I know I will.

Another beauty in the animal kingdom:  the red fox.  I took this picture of the little guy -- he was standing less than 3 feet away!

Another beauty in the animal kingdom: the red fox.  I took this picture of the little guy — he was standing less than 3 feet away!

And do I even need to say it now that I’m almost a dozen days into this trip?  I handled my purchases with no sense of anxiety whatsoever, and conversed entirely in Spanish with the clerks.  It does help that the Argentinians (and the Uruguayans) are the friendliest people I think I have ever met.

But I also like to think:  I’m an old pro at this now.

After we re-boarded the Infinity and enjoyed dinner in the restaurant, the ship departed Ushuaia and sailed up the Beagle Channel to Punto Arenas.  What amazing views from our stateroom balcony!  More snow-capped mountains … and glaciers! … My goodness, the glaciers were right there!  Right off our own balcony, glittering like diamonds in the moonlight … and the crisp silver waters of the channel itself.

I tell you, even though it is colder here than it is hot in hell, I could live here.  The beauty of the landscape alone would keep me going.

One of the glaciers alongside the Beagle Channel

One of the glaciers alongside the Beagle Channel…

We arrived at Punto Arenas, Chile sometime early this morning, and it was another rather early wake up call to make our excursion for today.  Stupid me – I did not check the projected weather for today, so I was not quite as prepared for the cold.  I stepped out onto our balcony this morning after showering, and it felt nice.  So I thought we had traveled far enough north to leave the winter weather behind.  But then we went ashore.

Whew.  I thought Ushuaia was cold.

And Ushuaia was cold – 40 something degrees Farenheit.  But Punto Arenas had the wind.  So did Ushuaia mind you, but I was expecting cold down there.  For some stupid reason I thought it would be warmer in Punto Arenas since we have moved north.  But we’re not that far north.  And the wind slices right through you like a knife.

Luckily, today’s excursion was mostly indoor – a bus tour through the city of Punto Arenas, with stops at places like the city’s scenic vista point, and the city’s main square.  In the square, there stands a large monument to good ol’ Ferdinand Magellan.  He is credited with discovering Punto Arenas in 1520 as he was getting lost and trying to find his way around the straits.  In fact, at some point last night in our sails, we left the Beagle Channel and entered the Straits of Magellan … because Punto Arenas sits right on the straits.  As I type this, the Infinity is floating peacefully on those very waters, and the city is visible off our stateroom balcony.

Unfortunately, I didn’t catch a lot of information about the city today.  I have to admit I was having a hard time understanding our guide – his accent was so thick.  I caught enough to know the city has long depended on shipping, coal, natural gas, and ranching as the main industries.  But I wish I had understood more of the history, especially since we stopped by a collection of historic houses that are managed by the University of Magellan.

We got to tour the homes themselves, and they were absolutely fantastic.  They were set up as recreations of different industries in different time periods, so I saw, for example, a clock-maker’s shop and a pharmacy from the 1800s.  I also saw the typical tools and private spaces for the gauchos – cowboys – from around the same time.  My favorite though, and I spent so much time in there I almost missed our bus, was the maritime house.  Shipping and navigation are definitely a part of Punto Arenas, and always have been.  The material I saw today appears to be 19th century, although some of it could have been as old as 18th.  But, either way, shipping still is an important industry.  In fact, both Ushuaia and Punto Arenas consider themselves the gateways to Antarctica.  If I understood our guide correctly, the famous Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton stayed in Punto Arenas at one point, possibly before he embarked on his last journey down that aways.  Don’t quote me on that though.

After the historic house museums – which went by wayyy too fast if you ask me – it was a stop at the Maggorino Borgatello Museum, which is akin to a natural history museum.  It contained taxidermied specimens of local wildlife, including an excellent array of the birds, but it also contained a whole floor dedicated to the indigenous populations and the early Christian missionaries.  I was particularly impressed by the canoes these early peoples constructed.  They were long and deep, and the sailors could maintain a bonfire inside!  That’s right – these natives could burn a fire inside their canoe for warmth, but then managed to avoid setting the entire boat on fire.

A typical bedroom for a Chilean gaucho in the 1890s, according to the historic house complex at the University of Magellan.

A typical bedroom for a Chilean gaucho in the 1890s, according to the historic house complex at the University of Magellan.

How?  What can I say?  The indigenous peoples have always been resourceful and ingenious.

I was also intrigued when I read that sometimes these early peoples found arrowheads buried in the grounds of Tierra del Fuego.  Arrowheads that had been left behind by even earlier inhabitants (human habitation has been known in Tierra del Fuego for at least 13,000 years).  The native populations believed the makers of these discovered arrowheads died before the arrows were finished, and their souls turned into owls.  Therefore, the natives would not hunt or eat owls.  And they kept the arrowheads as special talismans.

How amazing to hear that people we associate with the past were also fascinated with the people who came before them.  It is so easy for us today to classify all the people who lived in the Americas before European contact as Native Americans or Indians, and to even specify select nations, like Chumash or Cherokee.  We don’t think about the fact that cultures change and evolve over time, and that the first inhabitants on the coast of California were not Chumash, nor were the first inhabitants on the east coast Cherokee.  They were pre-historic peoples, with their own cultures and identities, that can sometimes be called the ancestors of these later nations, but they were not Chumash or Cherokee themselves.  And with people, who, as a general rule, believed in a spiritual cosmology connected with nature, it makes sense that things found in a natural setting – like artifacts dug up from underground – would be a source of fascination.

On the flip side, there is the history we know all too well.  Especially those of us who live in California, and have studied the California missions.  And that is the eventual destruction of the indigenous way of life with the coming of the Europeans.  As in California, Catholic and Christian priests in South America established missions, and as in California, the natives were moved to the missions to undergo conversion to Christianity and to support the missionary lifestyle.  And, as in California, diseases brought into South America by these missionaries quickly decimated the native populations.

Ugh.

I kinda skimmed over that part.

And spent a good moment or two in the “shipwreck” area.  Of course.  Not a lot of information there, sadly, to feed the heart of an avid shipwreck buff, but enough to make me want to track down some more information on navigation through this part of the world.  I have studied a little bit about Cape Horn obviously, and I have read about Magellan, but I want to read more.  There has to be a book or two out there about exploration and navigation in South America, especially since the straits of Magellan and Cape Horn were the primary route between the Atlantic and the Pacific for something like 450 years.

Am I right or am I stupid?

But it was a thrill to see some artifacts recovered from shipwrecks in the area, including ones that date all the way back to the 1600s.

Yep.  I was in heaven there.

And after an hour and a half in the Museum, it was time to return to the ship.  Mom and I had briefly discussed another shopping adventure but since it is so blasted cold out there, and I assuredly wasn’t dressed for it, we decided to catch the tender back to the Infinity.  It will work out better anyway because tonight we are having dinner in the SS United States, which is a fancy shmancy restaurant on board, and supposedly contains furnishings and décor from the actual ship (!!!!) so it will be nice to relax a bit before embarking on that adventure.

And in 2 days, we’ll be in Puerto Montt, which will be much farther north than we are now, and hopefully much warmer too.

 

Day 13 and Day 14 – March 12 and March 13, 2014

At Sea

Awww … days at sea.  Time to sit back and relax.  Read.  Sleep.  Eat.  Drink.  Sleep some more.  Read some more.  Eat some more.  And drink some more.

I have to admit that it is nice to be in forced relaxation mode.  There’s not much else you can do when you’re on a cruise ship and you have two days back-to-back at sea.  But relax.  And enjoy it.

Add the fact that you can’t connect to the Internet without paying an exorbitant fee, and you’ve got the recipe for perfect laziness.

Which is basically what these past two days have encompassed.  I have done a lot of reading – in fact, I realize that I am on Book # 6 as I write this; I have read 5 books in less than 2 weeks – and I have done a lot of sleeping.  I have also done a lot of thinking, which has proven therapeutic in its own way.

However, I have also attended lectures where I have learned more about the topography and geography of South America, including what a fjord is; what a glacier is; what kind of wildlife you can spot down here; etc…

But before I launch into that, there was the night of March 11.  We had come back to the Infinity after spending a rather cold and windy day in Punto Arenas, Chile, and we had reservations for dinner in the SS United States, one of the specialty restaurants on board.

Dinner was elegance and luxury beyond my own imaginings.  It was a multi-course affair that included dishes I couldn’t even pronounce let alone describe what they entailed.  And wine.  Lots and lots of wine.  Although Mom and I were good, and we split only one bottle of a delightful Chardonnay that came to us all the way from … dum dum dum! … Napa Valley!

Yes, exotic at its finest as well.

Elegant dining aboard one of my gals, the SS United States ... at least a replica version aboard the Infinity

Elegant dining aboard one of my gals, the SS United States … at least a replica version aboard the Infinity.

I must confess that I have been trying to be vegetarian since I joined Weight Watchers in January.  And I have done extremely well on that front thus far – even into the cruise, where all the other Weight Watchers regulations and guidelines have essentially gone out the window – but the night in the SS United States?  I didn’t have much of a choice.  It was either chicken, fish, lamb, or beef.  There was no vegetarian option at all.  I can’t eat fish; I just can’t stand the stuff.  And I would have gone chicken but I am not a fan of half a bird on my plate either.  Chicken breast is fine.  But when I have to rip the poor thing apart to eat it … well, you lose me there.  I was going to pick the lamb, but I had just visited a city that thrives on sheep ranching, and I saw plenty of the guys running around, bahhing and looking cute as living creatures.  I couldn’t do that.

So filet mignon it was.

And I’m not going to lie – it was a fantastic cut of beef.  I enjoyed and relished every bite.  And after I left the restaurant that evening, I went back to my pseudo-vegetarianism.  I do say “pseudo” because of such examples above:  if I am ever locked in to a situation where I have to choose between chicken or beef or fish, then you can bet I’ll forego being a vegetarian for that meal.

As for the other Weight Watchers guidelines.  Ugh.  I tried so hard when I first got on board.  Fruit and oatmeal for breakfast, or an egg sandwich and fruit.  Salads at lunch.  Salads for dinner.  But the desserts.  There are desserts everywhere!  And I can’t pass up bread pudding.

So about 5 days in I finally told myself to forget it.  I can’t track my points anyway since I don’t have Internet access, and I’m on vacation.  I know that is the worst excuse ever, but I’m going with it.  And I will return to my regimented eating when I’m back in the States and I have a little more control over my meal options.

Cuz come on.  If you’re in the restaurant at dinner, and the only vegetarian option is pasta with gorgonzola cheese sauce, what are you going to choose?

I do, however, try.  I have had the Caesar salad for dinner more often than not.  And I am trying to keep it to oatmeal or egg sandwich for breakfast … although I have been eating toast and / or potatoes as sides with them.  I am doing good on the salad front for lunch:  lettuce, red kidney beans, corn, peas, carrots, cheese (yeah, yeah, yeah), and Italian dressing.  But I have had cheese pizza with that salad a time or two.  And I am having dessert at lunch.  Bad.  But when it’s bread pudding, I can’t pass it up.

So I haven’t weighed myself since the day before I left for my trip – when I checked in at 209lbs.  We’ll see when I get back in a few days.  If I have gained a few pounds … 5, 10, 15 … whatever … I will work hard to lose it again.  But I’m not passing up the chance to enjoy some bad stuff when I’m on vacation.

Anyway, enough of Weight Watchers.  Back to relaxing at sea.

And the night of extravagance in the SS United States.  Now, not only was the food delightful in a fancy way I have never experienced before, but the entire set-up of the restaurant was definitely a luxury I have never experienced before.  The head chef told us himself the restaurant was harkening back to the glory days of cruising, when dining was more than just eating, and I tell you, I haven’t seen such choreographed service anywhere, not even during the dinner scene in James Cameron’s Titanic.  There are multiple waiters for each table so that no one person is served before another.  That means plates go down in front of the diners at the exact same moment.

It was like watching a musical number.

And everything is done for you.  They pick up your napkins; they pour your wine; they practically cut the food and serve it to you.  Just kidding – it’s not that invasive.  But the waiters do a lot more for you than I am used to.  In some ways, I felt slightly intimidated by it all.  It is definitely a lifestyle you need to be groomed for.

What I enjoyed the most, of course, was the décor.  The restaurant is an exact copy of a restaurant on board the ship itself, so all I wanted to do the entire time was take pictures.  The SS United States was innovative in its construction and décor at the time.  Most cruise ships were very Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.  The interiors were constructed with wood and décor tended towards the Old World glamour like the various French and British design eras.  Lots of rich and elaborate ornamentation.  The SS United States was constructed almost entirely of aluminum (lighter than wood), and the décor was very modern.  The walls were painted white to make the rooms look bigger, and the embellishments were simpler (such as the chandeliers, which went from the ostentatious globes of 2 million candle holders and associated crystals to simple panes of glass).  Many of the rooms on board were decorated in mythological themes, with characters like Zeus and Poseidon, or in nautical themes – the restaurant we were in featured light blue glass etched with jellyfish and squid, and small alcoves in which large seashells were backlit.

Very simple and for that, very elegant.

All that said, I did not take pictures the night of our dinner – who wants to distract other diners after all – but did go back the next day and took them when the restaurant was empty.

And taking those pictures was one of the most active things I did yesterday.  I plowed through a book and took a nap.  That pretty much constituted my day yesterday.

Not that I’m complaining.  As I mentioned – forced relaxation can be good for the soul.  And last night, dinner was exceptionally fun.  We have such great dinner companions with exceptional senses of humor.  It’s always a delightful experience to spend a couple hours with them.  Last night was no exception, but I was trying to be good.  I had eaten a heaping portion of bread pudding for dessert at lunch, so I decided to forego dessert after dinner.  (See, Weight Watchers??  I’m trying here!)

When the waiter came to take my dessert order, I told him I wasn’t having anything, to which he promptly replied, “that is not an option on tonight’s menu.”  Great guy with a great sense of humor, so we started joking back and forth about it.  And it turns out that one of my dinner companions, Rick, was also skipping the dessert.  So I finally told Lloyd, our waiter, “we’ll split the nothing; bring 2 spoons please,” which caused the entire table to explode in laughter.

What you get when you order nothing for dessert...

What you get when you order nothing for dessert…

I thought that was the end of it, but nope.  This is the kind of guy that Lloyd is.  He brings out a plate with a silver cover (just like in the movies) and 2 spoons, and he places the plate between Rick and myself.  He whips the cover off with a flourish, and there, written on the plate in chocolate sauce is the word “Nothing”!!  Talk about an explosion of laughter.  We had tears streaming down, everyone was laughing so hard.  Pictures were taken, more laughter ensued, and then it was off to bed.

For Mom, anyway.  I haven’t attended any of the evening shows on this cruise thus far.  Mom and I went to most of them on the Mediterranean cruise in 2007, but this cruise has literally been eat dinner and go to bed.  Last night, since I had taken a 2-hour nap in the afternoon, I decided to attend the show.  And I am glad I did.  The performer was Leanne Mitchell, the winner of The Voice, UK in 2012, and she certainly has a voice.  I’m pretty sure she blew out some windows somewhere on board last night, especially when she belted out Somewhere from West Side Story and Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita.  Beautiful, beautiful singer, and I think I might have to look into adding Leanne to my musical library.

Today has been another slow and relaxing day.  Mom and I attended a couple of lectures this morning – we are both fans of the two scientists who are on board, and who are teaching us about the nature of South America – and now, I’m starting to feel like a real expert on the nature down here.  Ha.  I didn’t even really understand what a glacier was before I sailed on this cruise, and I always thought “fjord” was a verb.  You “fjorded” a river or something like that.  Well, once again, I have been proven so grossly wrong … It was quite fascinating actually to learn that a glacier is compacted ice.  It starts as snow that accumulates on a mountaintop (or flat ground, but mountains are more likely), which melts but doesn’t drain away.  When that melt freezes, it becomes ice (duh – I know we have all sat through high school biology).  Then more snow falls on top of the ice, melts, re-freezes as more ice.  And this process continues over and over and over again – for thousands or millions of years – until you have one big giant honker-tonk chunk of ice.  Sometimes the ice chunk is so big, it’s practically its own landmass.  As the glacier increases in size, it moves, and as with all things in nature, it moves in the direction of gravity.  So glaciers tend to plow downhill.  As they plow, at their whopping 1 mile per 25,000 years or something like that, they subsume rocks and soil into their mass.  Rocks are cracked, crushed, and ground into dust that is then re-deposited, and becomes ground cover, when the glacier starts to recede.

What does recede mean?  Sometimes, in cycles of warmer weather, huge chunks of the glacier will “calve” or break off from the main body of the glacier, and subsequently melt.  When that happens – when the glacier literally shrinks in size – it is receding.  When there is more snow and ice accumulating on the glacier, than it is advancing.

It is the mass and continued recession of glaciers across the globe that has many environmentalists biting their nails.  Because, as we all know, the ice melting off the glaciers is dumping more water into the existing bodies of water … causing water levels to rise … and well, if the environmentalists’ predictions come true, there will soon be beachfront property available in Colorado.

Anyway, there you have it:  a glacier is a giant ice block.  As glaciers move, besides crushing rocks into dust, they also carve out valleys and smooth over mountains.  If you have an eye for it, you can take one look at the landscape in front of you and determine if it was formed in part by glaciation – the formations of the landscape via ice carving are very distinctive.  For example, glaciers tend to carve nice U-shaped valleys.  The starker and deeper V-shaped ones (such as the valleys around the LA Basin) were carved by erosion.  If a glacier rises up and covers a mountain, it will flatten and smooth out the top of said mountain, giving it a nice globular look.  Mountains with nice, rounded tops?  Those are glacier-refined.  If a glacier doesn’t quite reach the top of a mountain, but rather molds itself around it, there will be a sharp point with nice rounded sides coming down.  The sharp point at the top of that mountain is called a horn.

All very fascinating, right?

Just wait.  When a glacier carves a valley – a nice U-shaped one – recedes from said valley, melts, and pours its melt into the valley forming a lake, that lake is called a fjord.  And that is what we have all up and down the Chilean coast:  fjords.  As we have worked our way north over the past few days, we have snaked in and out of the Chilean fjords.  We have traversed via channels – which are natural waterways that connect two smaller bodies of water, such as two fjords or two lakes.  We have traversed via straits, which are channels too, but rather than connecting 2 smaller bodies of water, they connect 2 large bodies, like the Straits of Magellan connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  We have not, as of yet, traversed the fjords through a canal – a man-made waterway that connects two bodies of water, regardless of size.

All information I learned in a couple of 30-minute lectures … was I not paying attention when I was in a formal classroom?  I don’t remember learning this stuff at all!

Now, that I have amazed and delighted with my extensive stores of earth science information, I am now reading away in the Constellation Lounge after scarfing down more bread pudding at lunch (but all I had for the meal was my salad – no cheese pizza!).

Awww… forced relaxation.  Did I mention that it’s good for the soul?  Everyone should try it.

 

Day 15 – March 14, 2014

Puerto Montt, Chile

Today, I am tired.  I woke up tired, and I have felt tired all day long.  And being tired isn’t a good thing because it tends to distort my thinking and my opinions.  Life is always so much worse when I’m tired.

But I decided to write today because I want to have the words I am about to put to paper here to reflect on.  Because today was a shift.  Today I felt a gear turn in my head.  Today, I was ready to go home.

Now, I love to travel (duh) and I know that I will always love to travel … and as I have mentioned in other posts and entries on this blog, traveling will be a part of my life if I have anything to say about it.  Sometimes – ha, let’s be serious here: all the time – on every trip I take, especially a massive excursion like this cruise around Cape Horn, I get so caught up in the excitement of traveling, of being in new places, and of learning the history and culture around the location I am visiting, that I find myself pondering that deep, life-altering question:  should I look at ways that I can travel for my job?  Say, should I look for a job on a cruise ship, for example?  I could work in the kids area, or the event and activities planning … it’d be fun.  And I’d get to travel all the time.  Which I absolutely love to do.

And it is this thought, these questions, that makes today so important to remember on the next big excursion.  Yes, it is fun to travel, and if I were to find a job that incorporated more travel, I would be excited to pursue it, but there is also a comfort and a contentment that comes with going home.  I am excited to go home.  I am ready to go home.  I am ready to spend time with J, to ride my bike, to go back to work, to start pursuing some of these volunteer opportunities I have been thinking about, to start pursuing these craft projects I have been listing off.  I am ready to spend time with my friends, go back to Weight Watchers (yes, I am ready for fruit, salads, and no more bread pudding).  I am ready to go back to everyday life.

This trip has opened my eyes to so many things – I have seen a part of the world I never really planned to visit, and I have encountered some of the most amazing people I firmly believe are on this planet.  I have seen beauty in nature that is unparalleled anywhere else (and I have been to Switzerland, mind you).  I have seen new wildlife, found new animals to love and adore as much as all the others I already do.  I have seen a different way of life, one which has made me want to look at how I’m spending my time when I get home.  I have taken inspiration from everything around me to understand what is important, and what I want to focus my energy on.

There's no other place like the end of the world...

There’s no other place like the end of the world…

To sound as melodramatic as it is possible to sound, I feel like a different person than I did when I boarded this ship almost 2 weeks ago.  Do I still consider myself shy?  You bet.  I always will.  But I have been reminded that it is possible to approach strangers, interact with them, and get something good out of it.  Not everything ends in tears.  I can remember that when I go back home to LA.

Did I remember to look for magic?  I sure did.  And I am determined to keep that forefront when I go back home.  Even in a place like LA – with the cars and the pollution and the noise and the rudeness – there is magic.  And I can find it. In nature, in architecture, in an interaction with a fellow person … I can find it.

And it was thinking about this today, as we sat on a bus cruising from Puerto Montt, Chile north to the Petrohue Rapids (a travel time of about 1 hour if you’re on a coach bus), that I really remembered and really felt it deep down in my bones:  my life is great.  My life is wonderful.  My life is happy, just the way it is.  I don’t need to move to an exotic location like Argentina to experience what I have experienced on this vacation.  All of the “lessons” I am taking from this trip are intangibles I can take with me anywhere.  Including LA.

And I can continue to grow, and feel myself becoming a more fulfilled person, at home just as well as I can on an exotic vacation.

And now that I have waxed poetic for … wow, 814 words, let us take a moment to review today.  It was a shore day – our penultimate shore day, as it were.  We are in Puerto Montt, which is right in the center of Chile’s salmon fishing industry.  Our excursion of choice today was a visit to the Petrohue Rapids and the Chilean Lake District, which meant a drive up to see waterfalls created by volcanic flow and then lunch and shopping in a lakeside resort town.  The Rapids were beautiful – water so green, the locals call it the Emerald Waters.  They crash and flow over old lava beds, where the black of the rock only makes the green of the water that much more radiant.

These are lava beds created by a still active volcano – Osorno – which sits right on the edge of Lake Llankhue, one of the largest lakes in South America.  Good ol’ Darwin himself saw Osorno erupt in 1834.  That was a bad one supposedly.  It erupted again in 1869, although that one wasn’t quite as bad.  Still.  And they are monitoring it very closely to see if Osorno plans to blow her top again anytime soon.

After a quick 45-minutes at the Rapids, we moved on to the town of Puerto Varas, which sits right on the edge of Lake Llankhue, across from Darwin’s own volcano.  This part of Chile is renowned for their handicraft products, so we spent an hour shopping in town – where I purchased my Chilean cat figurine (to go with my Argentinian and Uruguyan one, and my embarrassingly large collection of international cat figurines at home) and a salt-and-pepper shaker set that features a guanaco (I’m calling it that anyway) and a llama.

Then it was lunch at a hotel in Puerto Varas – where I got to try a Pisco Sour.  Tastes just like a margarita, but it is a local drink with pisco (a liquer), lemon juice, powdered sugar, and an egg white (which, our guide informed us, is more for texture than taste).  It was delicious!

I had to go pseudo-unvegetarian again today because my lunch options were salmon or chicken.  Since I can’t eat salmon without it resulting in a one-woman show of World War III in the restaurant, I had to go with the chicken.  Not gonna lie.  It was damn good chicken too.

The Rapids ... being rapid

The Petrohue Rapids … being rapid.

After lunch, we trekked back to the docks, where we have now boarded the Infinity for the evening.  Tomorrow is our last sea day – we sail for Valparaiso, Chile – and then Sunday is our official disembarkation day.  We’ll have a full day adventure in Valparaiso before we are dropped off at the airport, and I begin what I think is going to be a 29-hour travel adventure back home to LA.

Hopefully, J will have wine waiting for me when I get home.

 

Day 16 – March 15, 2014

At Sea

The trip draws to a close.  Technically, there is still one more day – we have a full day excursion in Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile tomorrow before we head to the airport – but tonight is our last night aboard the ship.  When we dock in the wee hours of the morning tomorrow, mom and I will disembark.

I wish I could say that I have had deep and profound thoughts today, but alas.  I either didn’t get enough sleep last night or I got too much.

Or it was the dream about the zombies.

Yes, I dreamt about zombies – that I was fighting them alongside Michonne from The Walking Dead – which is probably the surest sign yet that it is time to go home.

I feel pangs of sadness though.  I am ready to go home.  I am ready to see J and to sleep in my own bed and ride my bike and get back to my daily life.  I can’t wait to see our second bedroom, which J converted into a library while I was gone, and I’m very excited to work on some craft projects.

And I want to get a tattoo.  I have decided that it is time.  I have been wanting to do it for years – and have known for many of those years that I wanted a sailing ship on my leg – but after the experience at la Colonia, and the thrill of that day, I want something to commemorate it forever.  A lighthouse.  On my left arm.  Because it will remind me to always be brave, no matter what is in front of me.  And being on my left arm will take it straight to my heart.

My view ... while I've spent all this time thinking.

My view … while I’ve spent all this time thinking.

But I’m sad too.  It has been such a peaceful two weeks.  Granted, lots of thinking about life and the future and everything else I can wax poetic on, but I think I have spared a grand total of 10 seconds on my normal everyday stresses:  work, work, work, bills, money, work.  But being on the other side of the world, and experiencing everything I have these past two weeks, it has been difficult to focus any attention on those stresses.

Which is a good thing.

But it means they will become a reality again when I get off the plane in Los Angeles on Monday night.

Plus, I’ll admit.  I’m not really looking forward to something like 48 hours without good-quality sleep.  I can handle it, of course.  But I’m not looking forward to it.  If I could fast forward from the moment our excursion drops us off at the Santiago Airport to the moment I walk in my apartment door with J beside me, well … thank you, Scotty.

But that is all superfluous.  I’m ready to go back to work.  I have been ready for a few days now.  And I am very excited to go home.  But as I sit here and write this last entry I am going to write while still on board the Infinity, and I listen to the ocean waves outside our stateroom, and I think about everything I have experienced these past 2 weeks, well, I’m sad too.

I’m going to miss our dinner companions.  I plan to give them my contact information tonight, but we all know how that goes … 2 weeks at sea does not always form lifelong friendships.  And I’m sad because I know that in a few weeks, I won’t think about them much at all anymore.  And in a few months, I won’t remember their names.  My mom had to remind me who our dinner companions were on our cruise in 2007.  They were great people too.

I’m going to miss the staff I have befriended.  Our waiters Lloyd and Saul, and Aleka and Winston from the Constellation Lounge, and Martha, the insistent non-alcoholic drink waitress.  All of our lives will move forward, but I already miss them.  I wish all of them the best too.

And every day has been an adventure.  A glorious, wonderful, exciting, and beautiful adventure.  I know that I am insistent on carrying that on when I get home – part of why I am excited to go home – but I also know that everyday life has the sad reality of being everyday life.  It will be easy to get bogged down in the worries that generally constitute everyday life, especially as more and more time passes from the last day of this vacation.

But as I write this – as I put this worry into words – I think to myself:  another reason to get the tattoo.  So I never forget what I promised myself on this trip.

But I think most of all, I will miss the serenity of being on board a ship.  I wandered around the Infinity today taking pictures of her so I can remember what she looks like.  I was especially motivated after attending a lecture this morning, led by the ship’s Staff Captain (equivalent to Chief Officer in my maritime terminology) on navigating the Infinity.  But I knew I would take the pictures anyway.  She is a gorgeous ship, all 936 feet and 90,200 tons of her, and she has been another piece of magic these past 2 weeks as well.

Let me explain.  I am one of those superstitious freaks that believes inanimate objects have an essence, or a presence.  Old sailors believed each ship had a soul – and they believed there were “good” ships and “cursed” ships.  There is no science to determining how a ship was classed as a “good” ship versus a “cursed” ship, but there you have it.  Somehow, these guys knew, and they would jump at the chance to sail on a good ship.  The cursed ones?  Well, they’d have to be pretty desperate to sign up for a turn on them.  We call it superstition, but all I can say is that old sailors believed ships were living and breathing creatures with minds of their own.  And that is why ships are always referred to as “her.”  A ship is not an “it.”  A ship is a “her.”

A good ship.  One those old mariners would have been proud...

A good ship.  One those old mariners would have been proud to sail on…

And I believe it, just like those old sailors did, because in my years of studying maritime history – of visiting historic ships and maritime museums – I have found ships myself that have felt like they called to me.  They caught my eye the first time I saw them, and they bring a smile to my face every time I see them.  I think of the Balclutha in San Francisco.  Lady B as I call her.  She is my favorite.  And one day, I will get a tattoo of Lady B on my leg.

The Infinity – she is a good ship.  She is the kind of ship sailors would have been happy to sail on because they would have found her lucky.  And when sailors left those good ships, the ones they loved, they were sad.  When I leave the Infinity – when I say goodbye to her tomorrow morning – I will be sad.  It will be like saying goodbye to a friend.  Granted a 936 foot and 90,200 ton friend, but you get the point.  She is a good ship.  And I have been very lucky indeed to have sailed on her.

 

Day 17 – March 16, 2014

Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile and Travel

Well, homeward bound!  In about 27 hours or something like that.  No joke.  As I write this, it is 5:30pm in Santiago, Chile on Sunday, March 16.  My flight doesn’t depart until 4:00am tomorrow (so yes, something like 10 hours here in the airport) and then I am not scheduled to land at LAX until 5:00pm tomorrow night … LA time.  Which is 9:00pm Santiago, Chile time.

Oy vay.

But can I handle it?  Sure!  Got my Kindle charged and my laptop here, and I’m all set.  10 hours of Sudoku, here I come.

I can’t complain really because today was another great day – our last on this fantastic, wonderful, amazing, spectacular trip.  We departed the Infinity this morning about 7:30am – which felt so much like any other day because the disembarkation process was no different than any regular shore excursion – that I almost forgot to bid her a fond farewell!  I did remember right before boarding our bus, and I took one last look at her.  Yep.  I’m going to miss being on board that ship.

And our goodbyes to our fabulous dinner companions last night were not as sad as I had anticipated them to be.  I think because we all had such a great time together, and we all enjoyed our trip so much, we were all in high spirits.  It was a lot of laughs, hugs, exchange of emails, and then it was done.  Hope to hear from them soon.  But if I don’t, I will cherish the memories.  Even if I can’t remember their names 6 months from now.

And then we were off to see the sights of Valparaiso and Vina Mar.  It was a quick drive through Valparaiso with one stop outside one of the many ostentatious buildings dedicated to the Chilean military.  Our guide informed us that Chile dedicates something like 20 – 40% of the country’s revenue to maintaining the military force.  I guess war between Chile and Bolivia and / or Peru is imminent, and has been for something like 120 years, so they keep their military up to snuff.  Therefore, quite a few of these old palaces from the 19th century, when Chile was a resort destination for wealthy Europeans, have been converted into military buildings.

There was one location we swooshed by in Valparaiso, and I wish we had stopped and spent a few moments there, even though there isn’t much to see.  The site contains a church currently, but apparently, it had once been the site of a very wealthy and extravagant palace belonging to a very wealthy (and extravagant?  Sure) British noblewoman.  This woman, whom our guide never mentioned by name, poured a lot of money, time, and work into this palace, and it was considered one of the most beautiful in all Valparaiso.  She had an elaborate housewarming party in early 1906, when the palace was finally finished, and a few months later, a series of horrifying earthquakes and tsunamis struck Chile.  70% of Valparaiso was destroyed.  And this woman’s beautiful, elaborate, ostentatious palace?  Completely demolished.  All that was found in the rubble were two reclining lion statues she had placed in front.  Those two lion statues are still standing in the square across the street from that former palace today.

This story reminded me of a poem I had read about in my studies of Ancient Egypt.  I can’t remember who wrote it offhand (and I don’t have access to wireless here in the Santiago Airport to check), but the title was Ozymandias, and it was a look at Ramesses II and his over-the-top building campaign during his reign (early 19th dynasty, or approximately 1100BCE).  Ramesses built these palaces and temple complexes and monuments to himself in the hopes that his glory would ring throughout eternity.  But now, 2,000 years later, all that remains are ruins.  And that sadly is the fate for all of us:  no matter what we achieve, all that will ultimately be left of us is dust.

Now, I do not necessarily concur with Mr. Doom and Gloom poet here.  At least traces of Ramesses II’s greatness remain – granted they are ruins, but hey … they guy was pharaoh over 3,000 years ago and we know who he was!  And we know who he was because his monuments are still standing.  Even if they are in pieces.

But when I heard about this woman who dedicated all this time to create something glorious and permanent and monumental to herself, only to have it completely destroyed save for these two pieces… two pieces that are still visible today … well, it gave me a moment of pause, let me just say.

We also saw – for a flash – the remnants of an old fort on the hill.  A fortress built who knows how many years ago to protect the city from … pirates!  You bet I perked up when I heard that word.  It made sense when I thought about it in a tad more detail.  Pirates raided the eastern coast of South America – nothing but a journey around Cape Horn would stop them from raiding the west coast.  And the countries along the Pacific exported plenty of riches too.

After our quick dash through Valparaiso, we next headed to the resort area: Vina Mar.  Very nice.  Very fancy.  Very quick dash again.  We did stop at the Archaeology Museum where we saw an original Moai sculpture, or one of the gigantic heads from Easter Island.  Apparently, Easter Island is under the Chilean government these days, so there you have it.  And it turns out these very mysterious sculptures are memorials to ancestors.  Wealthy families could commission these giant statues as a way to honor their ancestors and preserve their memory.  Very similar to pre-photography Europeans who commissioned artists to paint portraits of beloved family members that could then be kept for posterity.

Mystery solved.  At least according to Chile.

Where have I been?  Cuz I probably should have known that Easter Island is a Chilean province ... At least I got to see an original Maoi sculpture!!

Where have I been? Cuz I probably should have known that Easter Island is a Chilean province … At least I got to see an original Moai sculpture!!

And I would say that seeing the Moai sculpture was the highlight of the day.  It wasn’t planned as part of our excursion, but since we were ahead of schedule, our guide swung us by.  And as with anything older than dirt, I was very excited to see an honest-to-goodness ancient artifact!!

After Vina Mar – I swear we spent a grand total of 10 minutes there and 8 of those minutes was at the Moai sculpture – we headed into Casablanca, the interior valleys where the Chilean vineyards are located.  We actually had a fancy lunch at one of those vineyards. La Estancia Cuadro, and an opportunity to try some Chilean wine.  I enjoyed the white I ordered, but apparently I was one of the few who did.

What can I say?  According to the wine tasting class I took with some girlfriends, I am considered a non-taster anyway.

But before I get too much into Casablanca, I did have a great animal moment today.  We stopped at a truck stop for the group to use the restroom and get water and other such necessities about halfway between Vina Mar and La Estancia Cuadro.  I was wandering around outside the truck stop when I spotted a feral cat hanging out by the trash bins.  We’re surrounded by them at home, so I don’t expect much when I see one – they tend to run away as you approach – but not this little guy.  He was as lovable as a kid’s teddy bear.  It was such sweet, sweet, sweet therapy to stroke and pet this cat, while he (or she) pressed up against my legs and my hands.  Awww.  I miss cats.  I miss having cats.

Sigh.

Anyway, after bidding goodbye to the cat and heading on to La Estancia Cuadro, it was absolutely gorgeous in Casablanca, but then again, it looks an awful lot like the central coast of California.  In fact, this northern part of Chile shares a lot in common with California – weather, topography, industry…  throw in the fact that I actually saw a Starbucks today – the only one so far – and I felt like I was back home!

Lunch eaten, buses boarded, and we were off to Santiago.  A beautiful city that shares a lot in common with any other large, metropolitan city, no matter what continent you are on.  Tall buildings, freeways, poorer areas, richer areas.  I don’t know if I was starting to feel tired (I didn’t sleep well at all last night) or if I am more ready to go home than even I have thought, but aside from being beautiful, nothing else with Santiago registered with me.  I had a moment where I thought it would be great to come back and spend more time in Santiago – really explore it as a city rather than just doing the mad dash through it on the bus – but aside from that, I snapped a few photos here and there, and then just called it a day.

I’ll blame it on the wine from lunch.

Now, I sit in the airport and wait to make it back home, and start the next stage of my journey, taking with me all the lessons I have learned from this trip.  If I can survive the next 27 hours …

An incredible trip that has completely changed my life....

An incredible trip that has completely changed my life….

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