My eyes opened around 7:15 am (which by Ushuaia standards is before the crow rises), and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get them to close again. It was like I was 8 years old on Christmas morning. "I'm going to Antarctica today!" I repeated to myself over and over - certainly a statement I wouldn't be able to use too many times in my life. It still seemed surreal.
As I returned from my shower, I bumped into a young couple in the hostel lobby. Large North Face backpacks and other assorted gear was piled up around their feet as they stood at the reception desk. The male part of the two was pretty short with long brown hair with a pair of aviator sunglasses still on. The girl was a pretty blonde with freckles over a sharp, angled face. Mercedes, the cool, flirtatious gal at the front desk introduced us - and explained they had just this morning returned from a trip to Antarctica on the same ship I was boarding today! I immediately started firing questions. The excitement of the trip was still etched on their faces. They were all smiles, and all too eager to talk about it. In their Australian accents, they described the ship, the food, the wildlife, the staff, the ice bergs, etc. They even showed me some pictures they'd taken just days ago. Playfully, I asked, "So it was worth it, huh?" They just laughed.
The schedule for the day was pretty simple - drop your luggage off at the pier any time between 10:30 and 12:30, then return to the same point at 3:00 for embarkation. It being only 8:00 or so, I had some time to kill. There was still a hint of fading gold in the sky as the sun was steadily rising through a few scattered clouds as I set out for a walk. I of course ended up down by the pier. I wanted - needed to see the ship. Truth is, I'd been looking for her in the harbor for the last few days - I knew there was a trip scheduled ahead of ours, but I'd figured it would be back for a few days of restocking and refueling. However, there was no sign of it until this moment. And, as advertised, there she was - bright red at the water covered by gleaming white decks - the M/S Explorer. It was a welcome and rewarding sight.
You have to understand - when this little journey was just starting to germinate in my mind, Antarctica was the keystone. Of all seven continents, it would be the most difficult to set foot upon. The reasons are many - most of them having to do with timing and expense. When the trip started to take form, and I penciled an outline, I finally understood everything revolved around this piece of the puzzle. I realized it was something I needed/had to book early for a couple of reasons - one logistical, and one psychological. First, it would guarantee me a spot on a ship - the thought of planning a year-long trip around the world with the goal of hitting all seven continents and being denied passage to the last one was unbearable. I could not let that happen. Second (and even more important in the grand scheme), it made the trip real for me. Booking this ten day journey was the point of no return for the entire year-long adventure. It was the first real purchase of the entire trip, and a big one at that. Believe me, once you shell out the cash for a trip like this, there's no turning back. It marked the end of the "thinking about it" stage, and thrust me fully into the "making it happen" phase.
So, here I am, a little over a year later, standing on the shores of Ushuaia, Argentina, staring at the ship that will take me to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was actually a fairly emotional moment for me. I walked up the shore for a bit, then stopped to pray for a minute - a chance to thank God for making this possible and for putting me in this place at this time.
As I mentioned before, the streets of Ushuaia are fairly compact and relatively touristy. If you've been to Breckenridge, Colorado, just imagine all the signs in Spanish and stick a bunch of water on one side of the city, and you've got it. You can walk the main drag in about ten minutes. It was 9:30 on Sunday morning, so not much was open outside of the convenience stores and the random internet café. I was meandering the streets, still pondering my actually being here, and generally heading toward the movie theater (yes, I know, weird how that works).
As I passed another block, I heard some familiar and welcome sounds - sounds of singing and contemporary church music. I walked toward the source, which turned out to be a little church on the corner of San Martin Street. I stuck my nose in the front door and found a little service taking shape. Up front were the requisite band members, complete with electric guitar, drums, keyboard, etc. It was remarkably similar to the service I attended in Quito, Ecuador. Well, if this isn't a sign... fifteen minutes after a long prayer, I find a church - at the end of the world no less. And, all things considered, it didn't seem like a bad idea spend a few minutes in church before setting off on a ten day voyage to the most isolated and desolate land on earth.
The songs were of course in Spanish, but I did my best to sing along - quietly of course. The third or fourth entry was one I hadn't heard since my days in FCA at Missouri Southern: "Lord I Lift Your Name on High". It was confirmation I was in the right place. In this moment, at this point in my life, I was in the right place. I was filled with a comforting feeling - quelling any lingering worry or doubt in the back corners of my mind.
I wandered back down to the pier around 3:00 to find two large buses waiting along with a few people milling around. I found the GAP (Great Adventure People - the company I booked the trip through) representative and checked in. They indeed had my name. I again got that ten-year old Christmas/Birthday excitement. This is actually going to happen! (So apparently, if nothing else, this little excursion has put me in touch with my inner child again.)
Around 3:30, the staffers herded us on the bus. Admittedly, I was excited just to walking up the stairs of the coach. I smiled to the Belgian guy next to me - he looked equally as enthralled. We drove to the check point of the harbor security, and after passing through security, I passed through the doors and saw the ship. And, like a true tourist, I had to have someone take my picture in front of it.
I finally headed toward the entrance, shaking hands with a bunch of the staff that were unlucky enough to be nearby - I'm sure they were wondering what was wrong with me. I then turned and set foot on the gangway. I can't really explain to you what this moment was like. I was boarding a ship headed for Antarctica.
Once on board, we were ushered by uniformed attendants to the forward lounge, which was actually very nice. There were enough seats for all 100+ passengers, and was complete with a small library and a bar. We sipped on champagne glasses filled with orange juice while we waited to check in. I took a quick look at my fellow adventurers. It was a good mix of young and old - quite a few people who looked to be younger than me, and a good set of folks in their 60s and 70s as well. Everyone was smiling and had a look of excited anticipation. As I chatted with a few folks nearby, I recognized quite a few other accents - Australian, Irish, English, Dutch, German, etc. We found out later over 20 different nationalities were represented in the passenger list. Pretty cool.
I did notice almost every conversation I could hear was in English. All the crew and attendants used English as well. Honestly, it was a very welcome sound. After being in Central and South America for over two months, it was nice to know the next ten days wouldn't include a lot of translation and guessing. I know, I should shut up and learn Spanish - and I will. Someday.
When I was finally called to check in, I met the hotel manager, a plump jolly fellow named Alwin from New Zealand. Of course, the first thing out of his mouth was a gasp about my height, which was echoed by a few of the crew standing near. I knew it was going to be a bit of an inconvenience when I walked through the door. The ceilings were "just" high enough for me to stand up straight, but they were decked with all kinds of potential forehead-gashing ornaments - fire nozzles, exit signs, smoke detectors, etc. Alwin warned me that the water nozzles were pressure sensitive, and a solid strike may result in a shower. I agreed that non-contact would be best for all involved.
One of the hotel staff (and yes, I agree its cool/weird to call it a "hotel" on the ship) led me down two flights of stairs to the lower deck to find my room. I'll not spend a lot of time discussing it here, but rest assured, I got to know it pretty well. Anyway, when I originally booked my trip, I'd naturally gone for the lowest possible price. That meant bunking with two other folks in a lower triple cabin. However, when I checked in, I was pleased to find I'd been put in a double cabin. Sweet! I saw the suitcase of my roommate, but no sign of him yet.
After check in, we assembled in the lounge where we heard from our Expedition Leader, Stephen Anstee, who talked to us about what to expect over the next ten days. He talked about the general route we'd be taking and overviewed the daily programs. The rough outline was for us to spend all night tonight, all of tomorrow and Tuesday morning crossing the Drake Passage. We'd then spend the next four days navigating the Antarctic Peninsula and its islands, and then spend the remaining three days crossing the Drake again. Seemed simple enough. He then introduced the rest of the staff who each said a little bit about themselves and why they were on board. We had a historian, an ornithologist, a glaciologist and a marine mammal specialist on board with us to give lectures and to answer any questions we'd have during the trip. Contrary to what I would have thought before the trip, each one of them was in their 20's or 30's. And, more importantly, they really seemed to know their stuff, and were genuinely excited to talk about it, and to discuss it with us. Stephen came back up and mentioned a couple things about the rest of the evening, then stated we'd enter the Drake Passage around 9:00 or so, and that the front desk would have some sea-sick medication if anyone thought they wanted it. Hmmm... Can't be that bad, can it? I had some Dramamine just in case, but I've never needed it before.
After the reception, I went down to my room again, where I found my roommate sitting on his bed. He was an elderly man named Derk. He wore a blue plaid button up shirt with grey trousers and worn black leather shoes. He had thinning white hair and his face was tired and creased with age, but his eyes were sparkling behind a set of thick glasses. A very used cane was propped up on the bed next to him. I sat down and introduced myself. In very rough English he did the same, then immediately started telling me about his family - about his two sons in Holland and his daughter in Germany, and all his grandchildren. You could see the pride on his face as he talked about them. Apparently the entire family had been on a trip up to the Arctic a few years ago, which he talked about with a little grin. I asked what made him decide to go to Antarctica. He proceeded to tell me his wife had passed away two years ago, and he thought since they'd already been north, it would be good to go to the South for her. Pretty cool. Then, apparently reading my mind, he told me he was 80 years old. 80! And traveling to Antarctica by himself. If I wasn't already inspired...
It was around 5:30 or so, and I decided to explore the boat for a bit. It was bigger than it looked from the outside. Five decks if you count the very top viewing area. I walked through the dining room and up to the lecture hall. There was even a little gym and sauna on board. It was already beyond my expectations, and we hadn't even left port yet.
I migrated my way up to the observation deck - the sun was dropping in the east, and the clouds were scattered enough to make the sky a patchwork of color. We were to depart at 6:00, and I wanted to watch us throw off our moorings and push off. About 5:45, I noticed the radar units (or what I assumed to be the radar units - what the hell do I know about naval positioning stuff?) at the top of the tower start to rotate. Soon after, I watched the crew at the bow of the ship throwing the ropes off, and wave a good bye to some folks on the pier. The ship slowly backed out and turned around to point toward the open water of the Beagle Channel. This is it. I'm on my way to Antarctica. Even on the boat, in the waters of the Channel, it still seemed unreal.
The Beagle Channel is pretty long - Long enough for us to be in it for the next two or three hours. About thirty minutes after our departure, we had a mandatory life jacket check which was amusing. All 103 passengers, plus several of the staff and crew standing in the lecture hall with huge orange life jackets on. It was comical. We then walked out to the lifeboats and got an explanation of what to do if the alarm sounded. Those of you who know me won't be too surprised that I immediately started thinking about Titanic and Kate Winslett and being stranded in freaking cold water. The crew explained that there were more than enough spaces for everyone, and then some. All the stuff you don't want to think about, but are glad someone has.
Around 7:30 we were invited to dinner, which was really nice. It turns out every lunch and dinner is complete with bread, a starter, soup, choice of three main courses and desert. For someone who hasn't had a home cooked meal for a while, this was some sweet news.
After dinner I went back down to my room to find Derk and all of his stuff gone! Apparently he was having quite a lot of trouble getting up and down the stairs during the life jacket test and the staff decided to move him to a room which didn't require him to scale two flights of stairs to get to the dining room. Seemed perfectly logical to me. And, very selfishly, it meant I had the room to myself! They hadn't put anyone in with me yet, and as every minute passed, I was more and more enamored with the idea of having my own room. I fully expected a new roommate to open the door at some point during the night, but much to my surprise, it never happened - and didn't for the remainder of the trip. Awesome. I could feel the boat start to rock just a little as I fell asleep, but it didn't bother me at all while I was lying down. Ha! Who needs motion sickness meds?