February 9th, 2010

I write this post a full three days after my return to South America, yet my head is still spinning. It’s perpetual motion like the Drake Passage which leave it’s mark, or should I say, take it’s pound of flesh with persistence. I uncoil my power cord, realizing that I haven’t bothered to commit this ritual of regularity in many months. It can only be likened to a first time mother that pays full price for name brand diapers, somehow thinking it will make a difference in her worshiped’s development.

Wow, where do I start?

When we first boarded the boat, the hotel manager looked at us with a bit of disgust and asked “Are you on this boat.” Baffled, I looked at one of the crew members and asked them if that was a trick question. “Uhhhh, Yeeeeessss. I am in fact standing in front of you….” My multiple backpacks destroying the fragile first impression of five star luxury. “Do you have a ticket?” “Why yes I do…” A thick smile pours over the hotel manager’s face. “Welcome!!!” It was official, I was a backpacker on a vessel that was a minimum of $8,500 buy in. The top passengers paid $20,000 but since there was a recession roaring back home, I was among a few lucky backpackers who picked up a last second deal for $3,990. Once on the boat, the crew didn’t know the difference, but the initial presentation of baggage and lack of wrinkles gave it all away. For the next 10 days, we would be dining on 3 course meals, guzzling down fine wines (or Coke) , and learning what that third fork was for on the table.

There was a heli-pad on the top of the boat, just below that was the restaurant, below that was the gym, and below that, finally was the sauna. Just dial 600 to get the bridge and speak directly with the captain if you like. You dial 500 to get the front desk (ya, it operates like a hotel.) Turn on your flat screen and watch channel ten for the live feed of the front of the boat. Channel 12, 14, and 16 cycle through different movies every day. Check out the library or the conference room if you want the most comfortable couches ever. Any boat that sails iceberg saturated seas commercially is required to have a double hull. There is an on board doctor in case you are feeling sick, 6 zodiacs up top, loaded via two cranes. Enough submarine life boats to fit every passenger.

But it isn’t all roses and ponies. Our room was damp and lingered of musty musk of the sea. In true backpacker fashion, we never bothered to complain and were left with a ambitious mildew on day 8. And let’s not forget that our beds were on a swivel. A bar ran down the center length of the mattresses which allowed the mattress to rock and roll side to side with the motion of the boat. Somehow this was meant to offset the particular placement of our room (center bottom). From a physics point of view, we had better seats to handle the drake passage than the poor schmucks who paid $20,000 to be in a room on the 4th floor surrounded by windows. Sure they were in the middle of the boat (great for the front to back motion saturation), but the higher you were, the more the side to side motion would show. Who knows if there was any water left in their whirlpool spas by the end of the second day.

We had a port hole in our room that would remain bolted shut with a thick metal plate for the first two whole days for safety reasons during the drake passage. The word Drake would never be anything less than a shaking, drilling sensation for the rest of our lives after this trip. The drake passage officially starts just south of cape horn. Legendary for it’s robust weather; this is where the Atlantic mixes with the awesome power of the Pacific like dynamite tossed into a barbecue. This combined with the third deepest ocean floor and the world’s largest ice field (by far) make for memorable crossings during the best parts of the year.

The two days we spent on the drake passage were witnessed under heavy influence from motion sickness pills. We felt lethargic, antisocial, and just generally not ourselves. We didn’t want to throw up, but this wasn’t much better. The end of the drake brought blue sky’s and a beautiful sunset. The next day we were greeted with the blue seas doing their best impression of black. A thick snow fell directly into the darkness. But before that, we had to pay, what we perceived as our proverbial pound of flesh.

The boat lurched forward, yanking all silver ware to the bowed floor. The waiters stood at 30 degree angles to compensate, not so much as spilling a drop of red wine. The Sheff prepared steak tar tar as a sort of cruel joke. We went up to the bridge to speak with the captain. The boat had 17 degrees of sway in each direction. The most the captain had ever seen was 47 degrees, to which he so candidly shared, terrified him. He was in the middle of a hurricane off the coast of Buenos Aires on that day. If you think 47 degrees is bad, the boat is built to recover from a 67 degree roll. At this point it’s contents and passengers would be collected firmly against the corner between the ceiling and the centrifugally elected wall. All these stats made my imagination go wild. Rodger (our expedition leader) recalled of when he was in a ship 2 years ago on this very trip that got stuck in a category 4 hurricane for 24 hours in the drake passage. Windows were lost that stood some 60 feet in the air. Waves crashed clear over the bow of the boat. The passengers were on lock down. This return passage came so pertinently after a last day in Antarctica which included heavy partying and drinking. The entire boat endured with the exponential misery of a hang over. For any of you who are wondering what a class 4 hurricane consists of, it lies between the wind speed of 130 and 155 miles per hour with 18 foot storm surge. Out at sea, that means top to bottom swells of up to twice that. The scale only goes up to 5 in case you dare. “And, what do you do to survive that?” “Slow down the speed of the ship, and try not to blow all the way to Africa.” Rodger was only partly kidding.

(Side note, while typing this, three days later. The last paragraph literally invoked a seasick burp and a queasy feeling. I think they call that “recall” in psychology. Like getting sick every time you smell banana after growing up with banana flavored tooth polish in the dentist’s office. Greg will eventually read this back home and know exactly what I mean.)

But we earned it, right? On to the good stuff.

Antarctica is, on all accounts, is the most beautiful place on the face of the planet. This journey runs with the flawless flow of a top shelf Rollex. The captain navigates our ship so finely that it kisses an iceberg twice our size. On call, 3 varieties of whales, 3 varieties of seals, and three varieties of penguins. It matches the three course gourmet meals that we receive three times a day.

There was a word that I burnt to bits on the trip, Majesty. By all accounts, no one warned me of how grand this place is. It will ruin any idea of snow and glaciers if you come here. I found myself, for once not saying, “When I was in……” during any part of the trip, because it just isn’t comparable to anything else I’ve ever done.

On the way back, through the Drake, the first night, we in fact achieved gale force 11 winds (twelve your officially in a hurricane). On the way over we only got to gale force 4-5 and the worst that we had heard of from fellow backpackers was gale force 9. The captain, in his 47 degree roll was only in gale force 14 (Hurricane 3 level). Thick snow fell of the black sea as we roller coasted up and down magnificent swells. I pound my fist on the table “Hey, where the hell did my second and third fork go?” sarcastically “What are we, poor now?” As I raised my voice even further “I Paid 2000 pesos (equivalent of roughly $500 USD) for this trip and I had better get my monies worth.” This part I made sure to say loud enough for the $8K-$20K crowd to hear. I regally glanced back to absorb their collective disgust. There is nothing better than making a top shelf traveler feel cheapened by the presence of a backpacker. All of their power from exclusivity, taken in a single statement. What a prick.

(My stomach is still motion sick, and I deserve it!!)

But wait, where was the meat of this story? I talked about getting there and going home, but not a bunch of being there. Well, some things I am going to start saving for my book. The stories on this trip are not going anywhere. I’ll remember them firmly for life.

After 10 intense days of bonding, we had a crew. A pack of people in the right place with plenty of time. A lucky ten to join an exclusive club. No one quite understands what we went through. We will all attempt at such stories as this post and fall clear of the mark which accurately portrays what must be lived first hand.

My posts draw commonality in themes such as freedom, taking every moment by storm, making time, the slam of silence, the power of trust, and the backpackers dilemma. But this punch line comes in a new sliver of respect. I respect goodbye, and goodbye is, in this moment, the highest form of respect I can receive.

The night grew loud and we celebrated our return in the local pub. The music pounded as old friends polished inside jokes. Glee flooded the room’s ambiance. Just then, in the hight of it all. I faced my dilemma. I knew that the morning brought solitude and new beginning. All of these friends, would be gone. All would part their respective ways, crush anything resembling a comfort bubble. But this was not my first rodeo. I’ve learned this lesson before. I’m hardened, but I still hate the concept of goodbye.

We made our promises to stay in contact, as you do, but the next morning each and every one of the people still in town, independently paid a visit to my dorm room to quickly say goodbye. This is an effort that I have long discounted as a formality, but in this moment, it could only be taken as a deepened sea of respect.

Credence Clear Water seeped through the walls of my dorm from the lobby of my hostel. It wasn’t even something that I would have associated with home, but it was American as I had heard in some time. I sighed as the tunes swayed my mood. I once noted the danger of waking up to music. In the first moments of the day, before you can settle into your coat of armor, the song can stir the soul. This is where you are delicate. I stepped into the shower. The water rained down and activated the rocking of the drake. “Breath, Stretch Shake, Let them Go” came to mind as a life lesson learned in Europe some months ago. But the million dollar question persists quietly….. “What will this mean for when I finally return?”

CLICK HERE FOR THE PICS

Comments are closed.