The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway: Antarctica, Part 2

Actually the cold does bother me – I’m not Elsa. But you can’t pass up the opportunity for Frozen references, right? Maybe I can squeeze in some more for you.


Fortunately, it was not too cold on our trip down south. It is summer, after all. Now that I am back, I feel like I am going through withdrawal. I just can’t let it go. It has been rough coming back from the high of all the beauty we saw. But I am excited to be in Buenos Aires now, which is more my natural element. And I was REALLY happy to call my mom after not talking to her for over a week.

Now that I’ve done that, it’s time for some reflecting on the last few days of the trip to Antarctica. I was able to check off two of the three items on my wish list at the end of the last post.

Our second landing day, we did get spectacularly blue skies. It was spectacular to see the frozen fractals all around glistening in the sun. We were able to hike to the top of a little hill on Danco Island where we were treated to spectacular views of the bay and whales. Did I want to build a snowman? You bet! I made my own little Olaf  up top, although I found out later that this was against one of the many rules we were told about at the beginning. (I can’t see how it was that much different than having a snowball fight, but I have been wracked with guilt since, barely able to function.) Coming down, we opted for the bum-slide option, and got up to pretty high speeds. People had to watch out for my butt!

I also got to check off the polar plunge from my list. We got back on board, put on bathing suits (well, some of us – there were a handful of hardcore polar plungers who did it in their birthday suits) and jumped off the side of the ship into the frigid Antarctic waters. I was nervous. But they say “have courage” and I’m trying to. I jumped in, got out as quick as I could, and downed my free shot of vodka with rapidity. I’m proud that I did it. Some of my new friends cheered me on from a few decks above. I’m told that I was the most vocal, and the only one that audibly cursed.

Much to my dissatisfaction, I did not see my orca. Anyone who grew up watching Free Willy or the amazing Sea World shows (before they were tainted by Blackfish) knows that some whales are worth melting for. I did have a heart-crushing orca fake-out when one of the guides said he’d *thought* he’d seen an orca, but it was just another humpback (“just another humpback” – I’m the worst). I guess that old saying is true: “never trust a birdman to do a whaleman’s job.”

Orca or no, the whole trip was perfect. If you get the chance to go, do it. It is worth it. It’s unique. It’s an eternal winter everywhere… I didn’t know winter could be so beautiful!

Ice, Ice Baby: Antarctica, Part 1

Since we did not have  internet on board (or rather, I was too cheap to pay for internet on board – and honestly the 8 day digital detox was not so bad) I couldn’t post in real time. But I did sit down while on the ship and jot down some thoughts. Here are my reflections on the experience after we did our first day of landings.


Guys… I made it!!

antarctica 6

Right now, I am sitting in my cabin (which I somehow lucked into having by myself) aboard the Ocean Atlantic where we have just finished our first day of expedition landing. It is hard for me to put into words how I feel right now. Just a few days into the cruise and I feel like I have already seen so many amazing things that have made this experience beyond invaluable.

Here’s a list of five things I have seen in done on the cruise so far

  1. Seen multiple whale tales – I was majorly bummed at first because I missed the first whale sighting when we were still in the Beagle Channel off the coast of Ushuaia. For me, in addition to the spectacular icy scenery and landscapes, whale watching for multiple days on end was what drew me here. But we are sailing through a veritable whale soup, and since then we have sighted many whales – both from the cruise ship and from the zodiacs, where we are able to get in much closer. These majestic giants of the oceans are somehow the most graceful creatures on earth, and seeing them swim among the ice is truly mild-blowing.
  2. Been hunted by a seal – In addition to the Orca, the king predator here is a rather large seal with a very menacing toothy grin that is called the leopard seal. One got very close to our zodiac boat, and was eyeing us quite suspiciously. We got to see him very well, but I am glad we did not have a swimming with the seals experience in this case. One zodiac got a little too up close and personal with him: the seal bit the boat a few times and the resulting puncture wounds took that zodiac out of commission for the rest of the day. But this is apparently something they tend to do, so nothing to worry about!
  3. Sighted an Iceberg, dead ahead – Rather disturbingly, there have been quite a few mentions of the Titanic on board. No one seems to be superstitious that this will bring bad luck, so hopefully our reinforced hull is strong enough to battle all the ice we are seeing. We have travelled through some pretty dense ice fields, and as we are headed into colder water it is only expected to get icier. Some of the icebergs are easily larger than the ship we are on, which provides a nice menacing beauty to our journey.
  4. Walked through a mess of penguins – Our two landings so far have involved very close visits to penguin colonies. We are not supposed to get within five meters of wildlife, but they do not follow the same rule. Curious penguins will come up quite close to you. A mess is a perfect way to describe it, as the snow turns a sickening color of greenish yellow and brown from all the little deposits the hundreds of penguins have made. And the smell is fierce. But I think if you get tired of watching penguins awkwardly waddle about, then you are tired of life.
  5. Had a snowball fight in Antarctica – for myself and many on board, setting foot on the Antarctic continent is the primary driver of this journey. We accomplished this goal at the Argentinian Brown Station. From here we got to climb up to a scenic viewpoint overlooking Paradise Bay and frolic through the snow. When a snowball flew my way, I joined in on the snowball fight, which is probably the first snowball I have made in quite a few years. The snow was less like snow and more like little granules of ice, but you could pack it into a ball alright. It was less effective for snow angels.

And, just for balance, here are five things I have not done so far.

  1. Vomited – The waves in the Drake Passage are notoriously rough, and about half the ship’s passengers were down for two days with seasickness. Fortunately, I felt totally fine. I got to walk around the ship, staggering like a drunkard with its tossing and turning, but enjoying relatively empty observation areas… and buffet lines.
  2. Become a criminal mastermind – The second night at dinner, a couple organized a version of “Clue.” About twenty of us drew slips of paper out of a hat that told us who our target was, what murder weapon we had to use, and where the incident must take place. The game began at dawn, and by day’s end I had taken out a nice Danish man in the Bistro with a cookie. But I was not the game-winning assassin, as I was struck down while casually strolling by reception.
  3. Kidnapped a Penguin – As both common sense and the various briefings from the expedition team will tell you, visitors should not take any ice, plants, soil, animals, pieces of buildings, or anything from Antarctica. But a lot of people don’t think the rules apply to them, of course. Horrifyingly, I heard there once was a passenger who smuggled a penguin chick onto the ship. The room cleaning staff found the chick, alerted the captain, and attempted to bring the chick home… but from what I heard a reunion was not possible. A penguin family was destroyed, and most probably the penguin chick did not survive, all because people are idiots. I’m sticking by the sage advice given to us by our expedition leader: take nothing but photos and memories.
  4. Become a fan of Chinese karaoke – I am on a Chinese charter cruise, which features some nice Chinese food on board but also means we have been subjected to Chinese karaoke. We have a number of enthusiastic karaokers on board, and most are not blessed with beautiful singing voices. What they lack in skill they make up for in volume. I have to admit that hearing the loud, off-key screeching in a language that I find very harsh to begin with (although I am sure many people feel the same about English), is an experience that I have no desire to repeat again in my life. Ever. The accompanying music videos are pretty dope though.
  5. Cried – Every time I get on a zodiac or even look out the window, I am so incredibly moved by the scenery, the immense beauty of it all, and the fact that I have the opportunity to be here that I feel on the verge of tears. However, they would likely freeze on my face outside so fortunately they have not fallen. But I am often left dumbstruck, speechless, and completely astounded by the experience I am having in this beautiful frozen world.

For now we are continuing further south, attempting to cross the Antarctic circle and get to areas that are colder and full of sea ice. If we sailed home today I would be completely satisfied with my journey, but there are a few things I hope we get the chance to experience in the next few days: orca viewing, a sunny day with blue skies that will throw this world into a totally different light, and perhaps a polar plunge?

Going North to Go South

I left Coyhaique on a 9-hour bus to Chaitén, to the north. Now, it may seem strange that I was heading north in order to eventually go south so let me explain my route a little bit. I am due in Ushuaia February 2 to depart for Antarctica. I wanted to use the two weeks before the cruise to explore the Carretera Austral, Chile’s famous route 7 that travels the central part of Chilean Patagonia. Flights from Chile to Argentinian Patagonia are tricky, so I will take a bus from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Ushuaia.

But of course, nothing in Patagonia is ever that easy. The road does not go all the way to Punta Arenas, so I will have to fly there, and flights to PA were cheaper from Puerto Montt (at the northern end of the Carretera) than from Balmaceda (at the southern end of the Carretera). Hence, I started further south and am making my way north to catch my flight even further south. My route has left many people looking very confused, but whatever. It seems to be working out.

So I found myself in Chaitén not having any idea what to do or where to go next. Naturally, I booked two nights in a hostel in town and set off to go figure it out. Before long, I had a transfer scheduled for the next day to a national park offering a challenging hike up a volcano with a lively international group, including a German fellow that I had met previously at my hostel in Santiago. Small world. The hike offered spectacular views of the outlying islands towards the Pacific Ocean on the way up, and at the top a nice smoking caldera. But it was straight up. With I don’t even know how many stairs. I honestly did not think I was going to make it, but am pretty proud of myself that I did (although I believe experienced hikers qualify this hike as only easy to moderate).

After that grueling experience, I took advantage of the opportunity to head to some hot springs nearby. Boy did that hot water feel good, and probably helped me avoid sore muscles the next day. I also chatted with a Chilean family that vacationed in a small town to the north last year, and loved it so much they came back this year. What was this small town, I asked: Hornopiren. Sounds good to me, so I planned to take a bus there the next day, spend a day there, and then continue on to Puerto Montt. The plan was done.

Or so I thought. When I went to buy a bus ticket, the bus was already full. That is how life goes sometimes when you are making last minute plans on the road. I quickly had to recalibrate and figure out what I was going to do, where I would sleep, etc. Fortunately I could stay at the same hostel for one more night, and I enjoyed a day of laziness: getting laundry done, organizing my stuff, and walking around the town of Chaitén for one more day.

Everything has a way of working out, I’m learning. Hornopiren was super cute. I went to yet another hot springs, took a solo wander on a semi-path beside a river, and found some really great ice cream and chocolate. Lodging there was cheaper than in Puerto Montt, and somehow I managed to save on the bus too (Chaiten to Puerto Montt directly was 20,000 CLP, but inexplicably it was 10,000 from Chaiten to Hornopiren and then 5,000 from Hornopiren to Puerto Montt which saved about $7.50). I’m due for quick one-night stays in Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, and then Ushuaia (after a 12-hour-long bus ride that I cannot say I am really looking forward to). By the time you read this I’ll be in Antarctica!

Patagonia the Sequel: The Adventure Continues

While I was visiting Casablanca, I was trying to figure out what to do next, and I came across a deal to Antarctica that I couldn’t pass up. On February 2 I will embark on a cruise to the white continent! But what to do until then? My new friend Paulina said she had always wanted to go to the marble caves located in the Aysen region of Chile in the heart of Chilean Patagonia. They were on my list of things to see in Chile as well, and I needed to head south anyway, so we made a plan to go see them. And by “made a plan” I mean we bought a ticket to fly to Balmaceda the next day and booked a room for one night in some lady’s house and nothing more. I have never travelled so spontaneously, but so far I have really been enjoying the adventure.

We arrived in Coyhaique and made it to Maria Elena’s house. I took it as a good sign that her name was Maria Elena, just like my mining town in the north. Since she immediately offered tea upon arrival, my streak of being well taken care of by Chilean Maria Elenas continues. Coyhaique is the regional capital, and is a good base for exploring the surroundings if, like me, your definition of adventure doesn’t include camping and trekking. There were a few companies in town offering day trips, and the town itself was worth walking around. We decided to stick around town and since we liked Maria Elena we asked if we could stay a few more nights. No problem!

We went on two day trips from Coyhaique, one to the marble caves of course and one to Queulat National Park. I had never heard about this park before, but it had a beautiful hanging glacier with a waterfall over a lake. We opted for the less strenuous hike (which was a path that looked like it passed through Hobbiton), took the boat ride on the lake, and watched as a few giant pieces of ice fell off the glacier. The marble caves were equally spectacular and well worth the trip down here. You have to cross a pretty tempestuous portion of Carrera Lake (the second largest lake in South America) to get there. The ride back was like a roller coaster, with the small boat jumping and tossing and turning in the waves. But that is the price you pay to see all the beautiful rock formations and colors in these caves.

In Coyhaique, we found a wonderful lookout point that offered beautiful views of the river below, passed by the Indian rock, and did a tasting at a brewery on the edge of town. Another nearby national park had us hiking all day, passing by many lagoons and peaceful forests. To cap off all this adventure, I got a little taste of something I had always wanted to do but had never tried: hitchhiking. Hitchhiking, is a fairly typical method of transport here where buses are infrequent and few connections exist up and down the Carretera Austral.

The park was only a few miles outside of town, so we did not hitchhike far, but boy did it feel strange. First of all, just standing by the side of the road waiting for a car to pass can take a while. It is so disheartening when you see a car and you hold out your thumb and they pass by without stopping or even looking at you. Do I look particularly dangerous or dirty??!! Some hitchhikers wait hours for a ride, which does not seem to me like the best way to spend the day. You really have to have time and be flexible in your schedule (and willing to wait…and wait) if you are going to try and travel the entire Carretera Austral “a dedo.” But many people do it.

Fortunately for us, after just a few attempts, Nelson stopped and gave us a ride back to Coyhaique! We immediately engorged ourselves on pizza and beer as a way to celebrate a job well done and the end of this leg of the adventure. Pauli returned to Santiago and I continued up the Carretera for a few days.

Casablanca: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

After summer camp, I went to the home of my new friend Paulina’s house on a whim. Upon learning that I did not have any particular plan of what to do after summer camp, she immediately invited to come out to Casablanca to stay with her at her parents’ house for a few days (Chileans are the best, y’all). She lured me with promises of wine and beach, and after spending all week in bustling Santiago it was an easy sell.

So we went out to Casablanca, which I probably would have never made it to on my own because getting a bus to stop there on the way from Santiago is a disaster. You would think no one ever goes there, but by the end of our hunt for tickets we had formed a little pack of people looking to get off there. Apparently all the buses head straight to Valparaiso or Vina del Mar and don’t want to be bothered with stopping on the way (and they did not seem excited that I would be bringing a suitcase that would need to be unloaded either). But we found someone who would leave us on the side of the road and we finally made it after “un taco terrible” – taco, as I have learned, is the Chilean term for traffic jam. Much less appealing than my understanding of tacos.

I spent five days enjoying the small town of Casablanca. We went for some lovely walks in town and around the countryside, hung out drinking beer in the square, and went out for some lazing on the beach at Algarobbo.  I also got to hang out with her parents, and we would have lunch or tea together every day. Her parents seem totally fine with her bringing strangers home, and in fact probably prefer it. They just finished hosting a Japanese foreign exchange student into their home for a year, and have been known to welcome couchsurfers into their home as well, so they seem to enjoy the international flavor.

Fortunately for me, Casablanca is also home to vineyards and wineries. I am a lover of all things wine, and Chilean wine is known to be some of the best in the world. You can go to any supermarket or store here in Chile and get a good bottle of wine for less than $5. However, I would have to say that the Chilean winery experience leaves some to be desired. Although Virginia is far from being the world-famous wine producer that Chile is, I would say our wineries offer a better experience. I love going to wineries at home. You show up and get a tasting to sample everything (sometimes with a cheese or chocolate pairing), then buy a bottle and sit and sit and enjoy live music, play some cornhole, or otherwise enjoy the environment.

This is not the case in Chile. From the first moment their wineries are not particularly welcoming. You have to pass through a guard at a gate to enter. We went to three wineries near Casablanca, and they all had a guard. You want to do a tasting? Well, that isn’t really all that possible here. You have to make reservations to do a tasting, and it lasts like an hour and costs a small fortune to taste four wines. If you just show up, they do not seem that interested in helping you.

Kingston vineyards were not able to help us at all – they only offered us the option to buy wines by the glass. We tried to order one off their menu… and they didn’t have it. So we just left. Vinamar had a couple of “tastings” by which I mean you could order a set of three or four full glasses of wine, most of which were not produced by Vinamar. We got the only tasting set that included Vinamar wines, and it ended up being free since all the staff just left. At Casas del Bosque we were finally greeted by a welcoming staff that hosted us for a free tasting of a few wines in the shop and told us about their process. All three had spectacular grounds, though.

Even worse, I even tried to go to a winery in Santiago because I was intrigued that there were wineries you could access on the metro. I checked the website for the hours before I left, and they were supposed to be open and welcoming visitors. Well I went all the way out there to be turned away by the guards at the gate saying the winery was closed. When I asked why, the answer was because everyone left. Ok…

But enough whining about wine. The five days I spent in Casablanca were amazing, the scenery gorgeous, and the company couldn’t be better. I feel really lucky to have a new friend in Paulina, who I am traveling with in Patagonia for a few days after I spent a few days in Santiago. More on that in the next post!

casablanca grapes

“I Just Wanna Go Back – Back to English Summer Camp!”

I am sitting in Casablanca, Chile right now at the home of a new friend. Casablanca is a small town in one of Chile’s wine producing valleys, and it is the perfect place to sit and ponder what my next move should be. I literally have no plan for where I go next and it is causing me some angina, but I’m trying to pull an Elsa and let it go because it is also incredibly freeing and exciting to just see what comes my way.

But before figuring out what is next, I need to reflect on the week that was. Last week I volunteered at an English summer camp here in Santiago. The camps are also run by the English Opens Doors Program, which offers free summer and winter camps for students around Chile. The camps are staffed by a mix of Chilean facilitators (which is how I met my new friend, Paulina) and international native English-speaking volunteers. We had folks from the UK, New Zealand, Cameroon, Nigeria, India, and more working in the camps in Santiago.

My camp was Conchalí, and we were a team of seven and a small group of about 26 students. You could tell right away that it was a special group of students. They immediately took to each other on the first day, becoming fast friends with the other campers. This in and of itself was impressive, as I remember being in high school and being terrified of meeting new people (I still am!) But they quickly connected through their love of English, and singing and dancing a long to all the latest pop hits… and High School Musical.

During the week we had so much fun playing games, dancing, singing, telling stories, and working on group projects. The theme of the camps was movies, so the students worked on a couple of short films of their own during the week. I helped groups of students put together an adorable film about going to a magic school and a story about friendship being the key value to preventing bullying.

The main feature of the camps is the lipdub, where all the camps across Chile competed to put together a music video to the song 1999 by Charli XCX. The day was at times crazy, hectic, and frustrating but in the end we put together something really cute (even though we didn’t win). At the end, the campers all sang “I just wanna go back, back to English Summer Camp” to the beat of the song (which had the original lyric “I just wanna go back, back to 1999”).

On the last day of camp, the kids banded together and took over. We were a little nervous at first, but they ended up being better facilitators than we were! They decided what activities they were going to do, and also worked together to put together a nice surprise farewell message for us. At the end, we held a little graduation ceremony, complete with certificates, snacks, and farewell speeches. Even though I am exhausted, it was definitely a week that I will never forget.

It’s Like Coming Home

Just as a new year was dawning, I got myself on a flight back to Chile. And I was confronted immediately with this weird sensation. For me home has usually meant being with my biological family – and it has always meant Virginia. Home is a place that makes me happy and is where I feel comfortable. I am always sad to leave home and excited to return to it. So as you can imagine, I felt quite a conflict of emotion when I was both leaving home AND coming home at the same time.

Because regardless of the fact that I have not mastered the language and there are plenty of things about life here that baffle and frustrate me, Chile has become home as well. Part of that is because I feel like I have come to intimately know Chile. That relationship only grows as I learn more about Chile’s geography, history, current events, writers, musicians, food, dances… all the culture that makes Chile, well, Chile.

But of course, the largest part of feeling at home is the people. I spent the first few days of my return hanging out with friends in Quilpue, exploring Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. I got to stay in their family’s home and engorge myself on homecooked meals that were entirely too delicious (including finally FINALLY eating pastel de choclo). I spent four days hanging with the fam – and I mean the ENTIRE fam, because its parents and grandparents and kids and nieces and nephews and uncles and aunts all hanging out with each other. I feel so strange not knowing when… or if… I might see them again.

Es asi cuando dejas tu corazon por todos lados. I have travelled many places in my life, and I am fortunate that I have been able to spend solid chunks of time in a few places. Pieces of my heart are scattered around this world. My heart is rooted in Alexandria, but Florence will always have a big piece of it. I definitely left some behind in London. And now Chile has staked its claim. Home is where the heart is, after all. And it feels good to be back.