Monday, January 27, 2014

Be your own travel buddy

I see them in airports all over the world.  They are clearly Americans, these couples: slightly frazzled, wearing the latest in travel fabrics and clutching fleece jackets despite 90 degree temperatures, the man walking a half step ahead of the woman as she anxiously attempts to translate signs in a language she clearly doesn't speak.  They look tense, just one delayed flight away from a meltdown.

I recognize them because that used to be me.  I was married once to someone who did not like to travel.  He would have been happy lying on a beach somewhere, but I dragged him up mountains and into jungles.  He spoke loudly about the drawbacks of third world countries while we were in them.  While I liked to arrive at the gate with plenty of time, he disappeared into the bathroom while the flight was boarding; while I was happy with snacks in the terminal, he insisted on a full meal.  Bars in the airport called his name, while I wanted to find an empty set of chairs and read my book.  Clearly, we were not compatible in travel, or anything else.

Most of the time I travel solo now, but I'm not really alone.  I meet up with a group of people, strangers at first.  We climb a mountain, or hike a trail.  We become friends.  We are traveling together, but also separately.

When I used to travel as part of a couple, there was some security there.  There was another person to talk to, to help figure things out.  But traveling solo has been a gift.  I rely on myself.  I don't get annoyed in long immigration lines anymore, because there is nobody there to complain to.  I'm more relaxed.  I figure things out myself.  I don't have to worry if another person is having a good time or not.  I hike with someone one day and another person the next.  I meet people I would never have met.  People approach me in Latin America and ask rapid questions in Spanish, assuming I'm local.  On layover days in places like Buenos Aires and Kathmandu, I wake up with no plans and decide what I want to do.

So here's what I think.  Don't wait for someone else to be ready.  Don't go with someone to the mountains if he'd rather be on the beach.  By all means, if you have a friend or partner who is just as thrilled about the destination as you are, take them along.  But if you don't, or if it's just not the right time for them, go anyway.

Obviously, be safe.  Do your research.  Hire a guide if you're not sure what you're doing; it provides jobs for the community and you'll learn a lot more.  Don't expect travel to cure your broken heart or to provide all the answers.  But what it will do is show you that the world is a lot bigger than you think, and you are lucky to be able to see it and to be in it.

Just go.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The greatest danger in Antarctica is...

What do you think it is?

Is it...


Falling off the ship?

Freezing to death?

Being attacked by seals?

Being attacked by penguins?
Getting stuck in the ice?

It's actually none of these.  It's FIRE.

Although most of Antarctica is covered by rock or ice, with little to burn, fires have been started there through human activity.  Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, and despite all the glaciers, is very dry because of the cold temperatures. Because it's below freezing most of the time, there is very little available water around the research stations to put a fire out.  There also aren't any flights out in Antarctica's winter, so people at the year-round stations would be stuck there after a fire.

Fire is everywhere, even the Frozen Continent.

A Chinese fishing factory ship off Antarctica caught fire and sank in April 2013.  Luckily, a Norwegian ship was nearby and rescued the crew. Photo taken by the Chilean Navy.
This is an A frame hut used by New Zealanders at Antarctica's Scott Base for field training. It burned down in 2009 when a heater was being re-ignited.  Image from here


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The conversation stops at me. Again. Sorry.

The dining room in the ship to Antarctica was full of different-sized tables.  I usually sat with the same group, but if some of them were late, or didn't feel like eating, other people would come sit with us.  There were so many solo travelers that this wasn't unusual; in fact it was encouraged.  Soon, after the usual inquiries about where you were from, who you were traveling with, and if you had gotten seasick, the dreaded question would surface:

"SO.  What kind of work do you do?"

At this point, unless I was last in the round robin, had the other people really wanted to discuss their careers, they were pretty much out of luck, because as soon as I, cringing, said, "I'm a firefighter...." that was pretty much it.  Apparently, "I'm a tax attorney," doesn't quite have the same ring to it (sorry, Madeleine).  People were fascinated, especially the Europeans.  They peppered me with questions.  If I unwittingly added in the helicopter angle, that only added fuel to the fire (heh heh, see that, fuel to to the fire?).  A female firefighter was a novelty to them, especially one that flew around in helicopters and did search and rescue.

I thought I had the Americans in the bag and they would soon move on, because there is so much media coverage of firefighting these days they would be more blasé to it.  Instead, BECAUSE they heard so much about it, they had a lot of opinions and wanted to discuss them.  I suppose I could merely vaguely said I worked for the government, a tactic similar to the advice I got as an international backpacker in the late '80s - "say you're from Canada instead of America, everyone likes Canadians"- but let's face it, working for the government is not very popular these days and might generate even more chatter.

I attempted to deflect towards Hazel, who rescues cute injured koala bears and wallabies, but to no avail.  And to be honest, it felt kind of good to talk about my job to people who were interested, not angry because of government policy made well above my level, which happens often back home. 

Truthfully, most people on that voyage made a salary well above mine; some people were extremely wealthy.  Sometimes I wish I had made another choice in life, one where I didn't risk my life so often, one where people's bodies don't get broken by manual labor, where you have a little more security.  But these people respected my choices.  They thought what I did was brave and unusual and a little bit scary.  Some days it is all these things and many other days it is not at all.  But they let me see through their eyes, briefly, and it made me proud.

Another penguin.  Just because they're cute.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Antarctica Part II

The same friends who asked me why I was going to Antarctica asked when I got back, "So what did you DO there?" The answer is, a lot!

First, we had to detour to a Chilean base in the South Shetland Islands to drop off an injured crewmember.  Fortunately, there is an airstrip there, so he was transferred to another ship and then taken to shore to be flown to a hospital in Chile.

This is part of a Russian base next to the Chilean one.
The next day we reached the Antarctic Peninsula.  Twice a day for the next few days, there was an announcement on the ship's PA about "Gangway." In order to be ready for gangway, you put on:

-as many layers as you think you might need (I wore too much at first. It was pretty warm!)
-a backpack with your camera gear, extra layers (until you learned you didn't need them) and anything else you might want
-Rubber boots, provided by the ship
-A lovely yellow parka, provided by the ship, which we got to keep
-A life jacket
-A lanyard with a card on it proclaiming your name and the ship's name, in case someone wondered what you were doing on shore

and you headed down to the exits where your name was checked off a list, you stepped in disinfectant, and boarded a Zodiac.

Nikki explains it all on our first day on the Zodiac.

Fabrice was a French scientist who doubled as a Zodiac driver. Ooh la la.
Once on the Zodiac, some of us would cruise around looking at wildlife, scenery, and historic structures, while the other half of the group would go on land.  Only 100 people are allowed on land at one time at each spot.  Then we would switch.  No food is allowed on land.  If you have to go to the bathroom, there is a blue barrel for that purpose (it's not very private; I think most of us dehydrated ourselves).

Checking out an iceberg from a Zodiac
On land, we had the opportunity to explore penguin colonies, hike up hills to take in the view, and check out historic landmarks.

Three Gentoo penguins.

This is an emergency shelter.

Mountains and glaciers everywhere.

There were also activities we could sign up for, like kayaking, cross country skiing, and climbing.

Happy kayakers.

I went climbing. It was amazing!

I also had the opportunity to camp on the Antarctic continent.

We had 24 hour daylight.

And did I mention, we saw PENGUINS?

A penguin on the move.

Penguin on a rock nest.  (There's no trees, so no twigs or branches).

There's penguins behind me!
Baby penguins!


Wednesday, January 15, 2014


I promised penguins but I have been remiss in writing another post.

So here are some penguins, and I will write a real post tomorrow.

Look at the BABY PENGUINS.  Look at them!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Antarctica, Part 1

"Why are you going to Antarctica?" my friends asked. "To work?"

It did seem a little strange, I had to admit, to decide to travel to someplace so far away and expensive to get to, only a month in advance (although later I was to meet even more spontaneous folks who decided to go a week ahead of time and had no warm clothes with them).  But there was a half off sale, I wanted to see the 7th continent, and so I went.

I went on this ship.
I took this from one of the zodiacs.  You can see a zodiac loading at the bottom of the gangway.
I had my doubts, as a person who is not interested in cruise type vacations.  However, they call this an "expedition ship."  While you do get meals provided, there are no 24 hour buffets (although we eagerly awaited tea time with its included cookies), no casinos, no entertainment beyond wildlife and history lectures.  I decided I could stand it.  After all, there aren't a lot of ways to get there.  You can actually fly to the South Shetland Islands, but there is no guarantee (or refund) if there is bad weather.  You could also take a yacht or sailboat, but not having rich friends who owned one of these, I decided to brave the ship.
The yacht here at Port Lockroy is the summer home of a National Geographic film crew who was doing a documentary.  We did see some private yachts also.  I think it would be fun, but it would take a lot longer and would be quite sporty in the rough seas.
The long trek to Buenos Aires and beyond hadn't gotten any shorter than last year, but I finally ended up in Ushuaia, "El Fin del Mundo"...the end of the world.  I was there early, so decided to hike up to Glacier Martial, just outside of town.

"Can you walk there?" I asked the front desk man at the hotel.  "Oh no, you need a taxi," he said, looking concerned.  So for 55 pesos I was deposited at a ski area with a small chairlift.  Some people take the lift up, but I walked to the trailhead, saving a few pesos.  I hiked to the edge of the glacier in lightly falling snow, and then to a panoramic point from where you can look down on the town and the Beagle Channel.
Looking down at the port of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel
Hiking back down, I decided to forgo the taxi and walk back into town. It turned out to only be 7 kilometers and a nice walk.  The next day we were able to board the ship to begin our adventure.  I met four women who were all traveling solo.  Between us we represented Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden and the U.S., and ended up spending most of the trip together.

My room on the ship.  Note the life jacket in case we needed to abandon ship.  I paid half price for the room and didn't have to share it.
Leaving Ushuaia, we headed out into the Beagle Channel and towards the infamous Drake Passage, where it was time to know for certain if you were prone to seasickness or not...
Last sight of land for awhile
Happily, I discovered that I am not, although some people really suffered.
Seas are pretty calm here, but for awhile the ship rocked and rolled a lot
Next: Zodiacs, climbing, camping, penguins and more penguins!