All photos and videos by Laurie Gough
Just got back from buffet (didn’t exactly follow vigilance regime but it’s the first day so lenient) and am thinking of how I’ve never thought of myself as a cruise-type person. The very thought of cruises has always vaguely horrified me. I’ve often wondered what could be more stifling than being trapped at sea in a gas-guzzling vessel with hefty cruisers making their way from the casino to the ice cream to the disco while discussing the virtues of the NRA. I’ve actually just seen some of these people in the dining room. Their conversations didn’t run that deep though, more along the lines of how they’re going to miss their pets and where they keep their pets when they go on cruises and how they came to name their pets. Oh, and I saw a woman roughly the same size as a storage shed. It scared me so much I fled right past the dessert counter without a second glance.
My toothache has come back. I can’t eat or drink anything hot or cold and am taking ibuprofen around the clock. The dentist I went to while visiting Guelph at Christmas told me there was nothing wrong, which was such a relief that the pain actually seemed to subside. Must have been psychosomatic. I’m in agony! And look where I am, surrounded by the sloshing southern sea headed for Antarctica.
I think I need a root canal.
Frank’s One Regret In Life
I just had breakfast with a sweet man named Frank. He’s 93, uses a cane, and can’t stand Republicans. He also knows a lot about the Canadian health care system and was an engineer in Baltimore. His wife died ten years ago and he goes on cruises alone all over the world. He told me his life has been rich and memorable. Then he looked out at the ocean and said, “Never had a blow job though. My one regret.” After choking on my watermelon, I tried to cobble together the appropriate response although, to be honest, wasn’t sure what that was. “Well, um, maybe it wasn’t so common in your era. Except for, I don’t know, Marilyn Monroe?” He didn’t seem convinced, so I added, “But anyway, your life isn’t over yet. There’s still time.” He gave me a curious look and I took a sip of tea, forgetting how a single drop of hot liquid shoots flares of pain through my cranium. It was actually good timing to rush off to take an advil. The conversation had turned a bit awkward.
Ice Cream People
Just saw a large pack of extra-large people pouring out of an elevator, all with giant ice cream cones in hand. Found it rather alarming. On the other hand, there’s that poem written by the woman octogenarian who wished she’d eaten more ice cream in her life, gone barefoot more, etc. But surely she was talking about the occasional ice cream, not four triple cones a day. These people are certainly living it up. Out on the Lido Deck they’re exposing great mounds of flesh to the ozone-less southern sun while sipping dozens of pink social drinks all day.
I love escaping into my small cozy room. Everything is miniature—tiny bed with the softest pillow-top mattress, comfy sofa, even a cute TV which runs repeats of the onboard lectures, CNN, and a movie channel. I’ve noticed the people who work on the ship all seem to be from Indonesia and the Philippines, probably because they’re hired cheaply. They work so hard. These two Indonesian guys keep wanting to clean my room, twice a day! I keep saying not to bother, it’s not dirty, just give me the little chocolates and skip the cleaning. They seem happy I’m not high maintenance.
We Speak English in Texas
Just got back from a Spanish lesson where the woman next to me was completely perplexed when I told her I live in an English-speaking part of the province of Quebec. “There’s a non-English speaking part? What language do they speak? We speak English in Texas.”
I’m going outside. Not only is the air fresh and invigorating but the IQs are higher. And the people aren’t nearly as fat out there. Yesterday morning when I opened my curtains I was taken aback to see streams of passengers purposefully striding down the deck with their arms swinging. Turns out they’re doing it for exercise and refreshment. What a concept! One rotation is a quarter mile. I joined them and went around about 15 times. I think I’ll just keep going round and round for the rest of the cruise. Not only is it enlivening to be in touch with the natural beauty of the earth, feel the wind on my face and breathe in the sea air, I also get to eavesdrop on the eccentric British birdwatchers and intelligent naturalists who spend the day at the back of the ship with their binoculars. It’s a whole other culture out there!
We’ve reached Patagonia. Up close the hills are green, curvy and feminine. Beyond them are distant misty forests leading up to the alpine snow-peaked Andes. At any time you can see hundreds of mountains in all directions and not a soul living in them. I keep singling out particular far-off mountains and thinking, chances are nobody has ever set foot on that mountain. Ever. They’re just too many of them, the populations have always been too low and the conditions too harsh.
As we make our way through the inland passages the water has become emerald green dotted with floating pieces of ice from a nearby glacier. The name Patagonia comes from the word patagón used by the explorer Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people who his expedition thought to be giants. Patagons were actually Tehuelches with an average male height of 5’11” compared to the 5’1’’ average of male Europeans at the time.
Hanging out with Stand-up Comic
I finally met someone else who, like me, doesn’t belong on a cruise ship, a fellow outcast. His name is Marty Brill and he’s an 80-year-old stand-up comic, hired by the ship to entertain us. He used to be an actor, was the neighbour on the Dick Van Dyke show, wrote for TV shows of my childhood: Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, MASH. He was a guest on Johnny Carson 29 times. We met because we were both in the library/café, trying to get the satellite internet to work. He just started saying funny stuff to me and then we got talking about his life. He’s full of incredible stories. I must have listened to him for two hours. Next time I'll video him.
I need another advil.
I’m reading ‘Chronicles’ by Bob Dylan, which I found in ship’s library. Fascinating account of Dylan’s thoughts and the books he read while starting out in early 60s, his move from Minnesota to NYC where he slept on people’s couches, heard certain records for first time and how they transformed him. Then suddenly he mentions he has a wife (where did she come from?) Nothing about the book is chronological. Anyway, Bob Dylan wanted to keep his family life private. It nearly killed him how hounded he was by fanatical fans and the press. He and his young family were forever having to move to find privacy. They had five kids, something that shocked me. I’m also reading ‘In Patagonia’ by Bruce Chatwin, and ‘Chile: Travels in a Thin Country’ by Sara Wheeler.
I just got back from hearing Jamm the Piano Man at the piano bar. He’s this incredibly talented, sweet, humble, cute guy from Brighton who can play every song every written, all beautifully. For example, I happen to know every lyric to every song from Oklahoma (my parents played this record when I was a kid, apparently over and over) and I was ecstatic when Jamm started playing a medley of Oklahoma show tunes. Seemed unbelievable to hear an ethnically Middle-Eastern British guy sing about 19th century Oklahoma in British accent while headed for Antarctica. It must be one of those things that only happens once in the history of the world. And I was there, smiling my face off the whole time, even made a little video. I hope they pay him well. He works every night.
Today I wandered around the little Patagonian town of Castro, looking for a café with wifi, photographing a giant yellow church that looked like it belonged on a wedding cake, using my rusty Spanish with the locals. For a while I walked with Frank (never-had-a-blowjob-Frank) but he was shuffling along so slowly he told me to go on ahead.
I walked all over town and along a winding road leading out of town and noticed I was famished. I’d run out of the little Chilean money I had buying a wool hat and a cappuccino. I wished I’d taken some food from the ship along but was worried that even hiding a banana in my knapsack would have security take me down like I was the Unibomber. All the stuff we carry on and off has to go through x-ray detectors.
Puerto Chacabuco, Chile
I did my first organized shore excursion today, part of what the cruise people are giving me so I can write about it. I thought it was meant to be a rugged hike through the mountains but turned out to be a three-quarter mile stroll on a flat pathway which took over two hours. One old guy actually had a walker and the guide kept showing us plants. I would have preferred staying on the bus to see the scenery of southern Patagonia and see how people live. On the bus ride I caught glimpses of little farms in bright-green valleys. I did some research and learned the place we went, Parque Aiken del Sur and surrounding acreage, is owned, incredibly, by Ted Turner, for conservation purposes.
I’m looking out at rumpled white glacial mountains of Chilean fjords and…. mmm, I vowed not to each lunch today after my double helping of nutella on pumpernickel this morning, but maybe I’ll just pop up to the dining room to have a look. Just get some peppermint tea. (If I take an advil my tooth will be okay, still have this damn toothache!) Remember, no lunch! Back in a minute.
Ten Minutes Later
I’m eating a plateful of the most scrumptious pickled herring—creamy and slightly sweet, also some stir-fried veggies, sushi, and a dollop of guacamole on the side. Honestly this pickled herring has to be the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I think I’ll go up for one more plate. But no dessert. Definitely not. At home I would never eat dessert at lunchtime. Unheard of. Besides, I have to work off that 11 pm pizza from last night.
Ten Minutes Later
Okay it’s just a small dessert, a mocha pudding claiming to be low in sugar. Now, off to the gym!
Two Hours Later
I just ran three miles on the treadmill and nearly keeled over from boredom. Gyms can’t help but be boring, even this one with its panoramic Patagonian views. I also did lots of abdomen crunch type exercises. Feel slightly better about overindulgence of food.
There’s just way too much food on this ship. I watched a Charlie Sheen interview last night on CNN. He’s not off the rails anymore and explained his ‘going off’ last year by his Hollywood lifestyle, the sheer access to anything and everything any time of the day or night, money never an object. It’s the same with the food on this cruise. You don’t pay for it and it’s always being made fresh practically around the clock. The main deterrent for me in not loading up on every yummy thing in sight is watching everyone else load up on every yummy thing in sight, setting their loaded trays on their stomachs as they waddle off to their tables. Not pretty.
Still, rules are necessary!
Must run on treadmill every day.
Must eat only fruit salad and yogurt for breakfast.
Must eat only from salad bar at lunch (there are tons of beautiful fresh veggies all nicely grated—this is so much work at home and it’s all done for us here.)
Must walk around deck at least a mile each day.
Punta Arenas: Adventures in Dentistry
I’ve just had the first half of a root canal. Despite all the warnings of fellow passengers saying I shouldn’t step foot into a ‘foreign’ dental office, I made an appointment in a little port town called Punta Arenas. When I lived in Mexico I went to dentists all the time and found them all excellent, not to mention a quarter of the price of dentists in Canada. I knew I had to do something about this toothache or I’d be in mortal danger. It turns out I was right. I had severe inflammation and an infection up the yin yang which could have gone to my brain. Thank god I went!
It started out a bit weird when the taxi driver who the ship contracted to take me was late, and driving through the run-down neighbourhood didn’t exactly inspire confidence, nor did the exterior of the dentist office itself, a little cinderblock building covered in graffiti. After sitting in the waiting room, a pretty woman of about 28 with long black hair and wearing skinny jeans and high heels entered the office. She looked at me, said, “Hola!” and walked through a door. Ten minutes later this same woman, now dressed in a white lab coat with her hair up, reappeared and asked me inside. Apparently she was the dentist.
This amazing young woman soon figured out what the dentist in Guelph missed entirely, that a chunk of a filling was broken and this problem tooth needed serious work. She had to whip out her cell phone several times throughout the course of the operation to check various English words with her aunt (an English teacher) but the three of us communicated pretty well. When it was time to leave, she wanted US dollars ($326 to be exact), which luckily I had mostly but was still short the equivalent of 30 dollars. We arranged for the same taxi driver to take me around the corner to a bank machine, then we’d come back and pay her. At the bank machine, the annoying taxi driver came right up behind me, tried to look over my shoulder as I entered my PIN, then tried to get me to take out more than I needed. Even worse, back in his taxi, he didn’t take me back to the dentist. He took me back to the ship, pretending he didn’t know what I was talking about when I said I still had to pay the dentist. Helplessly all I could go was get out of his car and tell him the money I left him was for the dentist. I called the front office of the ship and explained what happened. They said it would be fine. I hope they’re right!
Just had a call from the ship people saying the dentist called asking why I hadn’t paid her the rest of the money. Ahhh! I explained all over again what happened with the taxi driver and they said they’d work on it. Creepy taxi driver!
Tierra del Fuego
We just had to miss docking in Ushuaia, most southerly town in the world, because of strong winds. As we watched it so nearby, I thought of my old friend Joe Fisher who was once accosted in Ushuaia and almost had his pocket picked by a method particular to this region. A couple rushes up to a person, feigning concern, waving a handkerchief, saying, “Oh please, let us help you. A bird has shit on you! Let us wipe your coat for you!” Meanwhile one of them sneakily squirts mustard on the person’s coat while the other fishes out a wallet. The old Tierra del Fuego bird-shit-mustard-distraction scam. Luckily Joe knew about it so yelled at them to back off just as they were getting started. They pretended they were highly offended and went off to try on someone else.
I’m sorry to miss Ushuaia. Some passengers just told me the reason they’re disappointed about missing this last Chilean port is because they were going to buy some good Chilean wine at dirt cheap prices. It’s a fortune to buy wine on the ship but with Holland America you’re allowed to bring your own wine to dinner. No cork fees.
The dentist and I have been emailing about creepy taxi driver. He still hasn’t paid her.
For the next two days, we’re out on the open sea in rough waters headed for Antarctica. I’ve been attending lectures in the showroom, learning all I can about the ice continent. Oh, and today I discovered I can use my earphones to watch the TV attached to the treadmill. I ran four miles in forty minutes and hardly noticed since the movie (Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal) was so gripping (and Jake Gyllenhaal so cute). So this is how people make gyms bearable, by escaping to Hollywood.
Antarctica, at last
I’m in the Crow’s Nest which is a big comfy lounge at the top of the ship with giant windows all around, watching for my first glimpse of Antarctica. The captain is making announcements about how close we are to the Antarctic Peninsula and the anticipation is palpable. And now, yes, there it is! Protruding out of a bank of low-lying clouds lie a range of icy mountains, completely covered in snow. It looks exactly like a dream I’ve had before—a far-off mountain range rising out of mist, their powdery white tops shining in the sun. I don’t know where this dream comes from since I’ve never seen a sight like this before: ice mountains rising out of the sea. I can’t believe it’s real. I’m here!
Antarctica is the least known off all continents, the most dangerous, least hospitable, colder, higher, and more isolated than anywhere else on earth. Incredibly, it’s almost twice the size of Australia, and 98% of it is covered by one-mile thick ice. Over 90% of the world's snow and ice lies here in Antarctica and temperatures have reached −89 °C. (Luckily it’s summer here so it’s not even freezing today.) Hurricane winds whip across its surface and at the pole itself, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for six months. Still, Antarctica has a mysterious effect. Diary after diary of explorers describe a world of spectacular beauty and a place of such frightening solitude that one can go insane. Nobody lives here permanently. Small scientific research stations are scattered across the continent but those people come and go, rarely staying longer than six months at a time.
Next Day, Humpback Whales
While we’re here, strict marine laws govern what we can and can’t do (for instance, the smoking passengers are no longer permitted to smoke outside in their smoking area so are now smoking in the casino, which is stinking up the library). Also the captain has to steer the ship very slowly, steering around giant icebergs and various land masses and ice sheets. We have onboard two British brothers, Chris and David Wilson, great-nephews of Edward Wilson, the Antarctic explorer who went to the South Pole twice with Scott and died in the tent alongside Scott. Edward Wilson showed the world the first artistic impressions of Antarctica. For example, before him, nobody knew about emperor penguins. Nephews Chris and David Wilson are scientists who have studied Antarctica for years and are continually providing commentary over loudspeakers. This morning the commentary started, loudly and enthusiastically, at 7:30 when one of the brothers spotted gentoo penguins jumping off an iceberg.
I’ve been outside on the top deck all day, not wanting to miss a single iceberg. A friendly older man keeps lending me his binoculars and then disappearing (which means I have to meet up with him again to return them, a bit complicated.) So far today I’ve seen gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins, Adélie penguins, leopard seals, orcas and giant sea birds—petrels and terns.
Most exciting to me are the humpback whales. Luckily they weren’t all hunted out as were many other species in the whaling slaughters that have taken place here in history (and still today by the Japanese.) It’s amazing to watch the humpbacks breaching the surface and flipping their tails out of the water. Mostly they travel in pairs. Their underwater lives are still such a mystery to scientists. At a whaling research station on the St. Lawrence seaway I once learned how a pod of whales will start singing a new song at a certain time every year, sing that song over and over all season, sing it so deeply underwater that its sound waves are carried on what’s called the SOFAR channel, a layer in the ocean with a certain salinity, temperature and density which makes it easy for sound to travel at vast distances—no interference. A sound made off the coast of Newfoundland can be heard in Bermuda. Whale researchers studying whales songs, working together in Mexico, Japan and Hawaii, found when the whale song changed in Hawaii, within several days it also changed in Mexico and Japan to match the Hawaiian singers, baffling researchers.
No wonder we’re so captivated by whales. Under these dark waters are these immense beautiful and complicated creatures we know so little about. And the more we learn, the more intriguing they become. We share this planet with them, breathe the same air, yet they remain so other-worldly.
Scientists who work at a small American research station have come onboard to give lectures on their latest research. For instance, they used to think Antarctica was just one big chunk of thick ice but they’ve recently discovered that there are liquid lakes, rivers and streams running underneath all this ice. Also, in taking core samples they can accurately record temperatures going back thousands of years and see how much the planet has been warming up. Glaciers are retreating significantly in Antarctica, up to 30 feet a year; there’s much more warm moist air here now, and temperatures are, of course, rising. Many species are disappearing. There’s an 80% decrease in certain types of penguins, and now they have new species moving in which have never survived here before, such as crabs.
Conversation Unfortunately Overheard
I’m in the Crow’s Nest reading a book on the horrors that the explorer Shackleton endured down here and thought I'd jot down this conversation between two ladies on a couch across from me as they drink their Baileys hot chocolates.
First Lady: “There’s no way I’m going outside. It’s almost down to freezing out there. How do all those seals and whales and penguins and fish and whatnot keep warm out there?”
The second lady looked at her, incredulous, and I was waiting for her to say something like, they've adapted to this climate, you stupid ignorant nincompoop. But no, the second lady said, “Silly, you know that God made them special so they’d stay warm.”
How do people like this make their money to afford a cruise? How? How? I assume their husbands are as dimwitted as they are. I’m going back outside.
Just as I felt in Patagonia, and here even more, I feel inspired and comforted to stare out at these blue-white monoliths of ice, watch the enigmatic humpbacks swim by, and the far-off mountains of pure white, knowing how untouched this place is by humans. Nobody, ever, I’m sure of it, has ever set foot on that particular mountain I’m staring at right now. It’s just too vast a land for that chance.
Frank, Again with the Blowjob
Once again, at dinner tonight, 93-year-old Frank has brought up the topic of never having had a blowjob. One minute we’re talking Chinese repression of dissidents, the next he’s telling me how he never had the nerve to ask his wife to “play the skin flute”. He seems genuinely sad about missing out on this life experience. Obsessed actually. What should I do? Offer him this service in the name of humanitarian assistance?
I try to imagine the scenario but am not sure I could go through with it when the actual moment came. I told him maybe he should just get some chocolate ice cream to take his mind off things. His face lit up a little and he agreed.
Oh, creepy taxi driver finally paid the dentist. Very relieved.
One of my favourite poems used to be The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I just learned that Coleridge’s teacher William Wales was an astronomer who sailed with Captain Cook on an expedition to find this great fabled southern continent. His sea stories must have inspired Coleridge in writing his famous albatross poem. Just now, off the back deck I watched albatrosses in the sunset as they followed the ship. Mesmerizing.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled
Like noises in a swound!
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came…
Moonrise Over Uruguay
It’s several days later and we’ve left Antarctica and come up the eastern side of South America. We were supposed to go to the Falkland Islands but a huge storm prevented us. I spent today wandering around Montevideo and am now back on the ship on the night of the full moon. When I was outside on the deck, I realized the moon was rising within minutes but I was in the wrong place to see it. I tried to rush to the opposite end of the boat where I could go up to the top deck to get a good view. Stupidly, I ran inside the ship to take an elevator since I thought it would be faster. A bunch of people were crowded around the elevators having just come from dinner and were waiting to go up or down. Seriously, most of these people have never taken the stairs, even to go a single flight. I gave up waiting and ran back out to take some outside stairs. Finally I reached the very top deck. Nobody else was out there and no wonder. The wind literally knocked me over. I had to grab hold of a railing to manoeuvre and get back down the steps to a place more sheltered. It was all very exciting although the moon itself was hidden behind a low bank of clouds so I missed its actual unveiling out of the sea. It was exhilarating nonetheless. I always like to watch a moonrise.
Last Entry—Buenos Aires: See-Through Dresses, a Root Canal, and Lost Viagra Man
I must have walked twelve miles today through the lively energetic streets of Buenos Aires. For most the day, I was with my three new friends from Portland who I met on the ship. Here in Buenos Aires, it’s the height of summer, it’s hot and sticky, and apparently, see-through dresses are in. After we’d wandered around the Recoleta cemetery, full of elaborate marble mausoleums including Eva Perón’s, we saw a young woman holding hands with her toddler, smiling as she strolled toward us. She was wearing a flimsy white short dress seemingly made of gauze, her electric-blue bra and underwear clearly visible underneath. After we’d passed her, all four of us surreptitiously turned around for the back view and, sure enough, she was wearing a thong. Oh, and her sandals had heels the height of a small skyscraper. I started noticing these dresses everywhere, even worn by women in their 50s. I thought it was fantastic, wishing all cities of the world allowed this sort of fashion exuberance.
At the Bellas Artes national museum, we were staggered by the wealth of artwork (Rembrandt, Goya, Gauguin, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Monet, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Moore, Pollock, Rothko, and hundreds more) but were amazed the gallery had no air conditioning. It was a Dutch oven in there. Don’t works of art need temperature and humidity control? Clearly, the Argentinean economy is troubled.
I’d made a dentist appointment to finish my root canal here in BA (through an online site: whatclinic.com) because it would be much cheaper than a root canal in Canada. The website gave reviews of all English-speaking dentists in the city and I chose one with good reviews and could fit me in. The dentist in Chile had done the first part of the root canal and now I needed the last part done. My appointment was for 7 pm in the district of Palermo. The guy that I thought was the assistant since he looked 15 turned out to be the actual dentist, but no matter. He’d obviously been to dentistry school. After an hour and a half of unpleasantness, which I’m sure is typical of all root canals, it was over, and only $300. I was so relieved to be done with it, that I practically skipped down Santa Fe Avenue, a main street that I realized would eventually lead all the way back to the port and the ship. I decided I didn’t need to take a cab after all. Two hours later I was still skipping, well, okay, hobbling from a blister, and the neighbourhood that had so recently been upscale, trendy, and full of young people rushing from one café to the next had suddenly become full of shadowy hooded people and broken beer bottles. From my map it looked as if I should be getting close to the port, but where was it? Then I realized I wasn’t even on Santa Fe Avenue anymore. I backtracked, but that only took me deeper into seedier neighbourhoods. Finally, I admitted I was lost. Worse than that, I had the feeling someone was following me. All I could do was step inside a corner store, which turned out to be an all-night pharmacy, to ask directions and get somewhere safer than the dark street.
What followed was one of those moments in life that take you off-guard, that pierce you with the miracle of human fellowship, or in this case, passenger fellowship. As soon as I was inside, I heard a familiar voice: “Well, look who it is! It’s the redheaded gal from the ship!” I looked up to see a big loud beer-bellied guy in his late-sixties from Miami, a guy I’d tried to avoid for much of the cruise. And here he was in this forlorn neighbourhood buying Viagra, his ruddy face beaming. “Everything is pennies here compared to Miami! Pennies!” He took out his wallet to pay the shopkeeper, then looked at me again. “You lost? You look lost.” He chuckled. “I’m a bit lost too.”
I felt like hugging him. Suddenly I was sorry that I’d missed out on meeting him earlier, and a lot of other people on the ship too. So what if we were different.
I knew I could have figured out the way back to the ship on my own, could have found a cab eventually, but I knew if I was with this guy, we could be lost together and somehow, that made everything okay. It would be an adventure.
And it was.