Sunday, January 29, 2006

Video Gallery: Iguazu Falls

Niagara Falls. I mean, Iguazu Falls... Iguazu Falls.

Jungle Bound

Iguazu, Argentina

Today we will cross the border into Brazil. The plan is to head inland by bus as far as the roads go, then switch to river boat for the rest of the journey into and back out of the heart of the Amazon basin. Once we reach the Atlantic, we'll switch back to buses and work our way down the coast to Rio in time for Carnival. I am feeling a bit of trepidation about this voyage on serveral fronts.

Iguazu is our first taste of South American jungle and it is one seriously sweaty place. I work up a lather just walking across the road. The jungle contains gigantic versions of otherwise normal animals and regular-sized versions of abnormal animals. We have already seen some gigante ants like you would not believe and the critters will only get bigger and meaner from here on in. I never realized just how thick and impassable jungle is. We took a ride through some national park yesterday and the vegetation on either side of the road was like a solid wall of plant. This is not somewhere you want to get lost.

Once we cross the border, we will be back into a world where we do not speak the language. Jason's Spanish will doubtless be helpful, but communication difficulties are bound to abound. The biggest potential problem here is my own big mouth. Misunderstandings in the past have led to sumo showdowns on the streets of Tokyo. I reckon that confrontations in the Amazon may not be as light-hearted.

Lastly, I am bit unsettled by the simple fact that we are going to Brazil. The country does not enjoy an entirely safe reputation in the popular media, especially because of the success of the film "City of God". I do not have a particular phobia of street crime, but this is one hood in which extra vigilance is certainly called upon. Also, despite my mostly-successful tanning regime, I have a funny feeling that I am going to stick out like a sore thumb among the locals. Sometimes it is hard to be the white man.

I am not writing this to cause alarm among the OC readership. I am just making a record of my pre-trip unease so as to more effectively laugh at it in the future. As long as we stick to the roads, rivers, and paths, be careful about what we say to who, and keep our passports strapped securely to our asses, there is little cause for concern. Tell Kurtz to keep the beer cold, because here we come.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Fall On Me

Igaucu Falls, Argentina

Her Majesty Miss Karen,

The OC cut out of Buenos Aires by overnight bus the day after wishing a fond farewell to the Briceno clan. We made straight for the city of Iguacu with the intention of viewing the frickin' huge waterfalls nearby and then crossing the border into Brazil. We spent our first day in town relaxing over an extended lunch with a young Scot by the name of Claire. She lost a bet over the nationality of birth of one Mr. Tony Blair (Scottish) and agreed to join us the next day at the falls. We also made friends with our waitress who recommended a little salsa joint for evening entertainment. It was a jumping place with some serious dancers. I was personally too scared to set foot on the dancefloor for fear of serious embarrassment. We turned in around one to get an early start on the falls.

The OC was out of bed and at the bus station at 08:00, but no Claire. The Scot had welshed. Undeterred by this treachery, we jumped the next shuttle and were at the park for about 09:00. We were not the only ones. It being a weekend during peak travel season, the place was crawling with other foreign tourists and Argentine families. The facilities were first rate and everything very well organized, though, so the crowds were not that much of a bother. Following the advice of a ticket vendor at the bus station, we hopped immediately on a little train up the river then followed a series of steel catwalks over the water. The path ended in a large platform with a stunning view over the edge of the falls. The noise drowned out conversation and the mist sometimes drowned out vision. It was quite a site. The falls straddle the border, so this was also our first glimpse of Brazil.

After a quick lunch, we started the "adventure tour" part of the program. This came in two parts. The first bit was a jungle safari on the back of a truck. We did not see any animals of note, but we did get a first look at the high density of plant life and plant diversity in the jungle. The growth on either side of the road was in places like a green wall of competing trees and bushes, each growing on top of another. At the terminus of the safari, we walked down some steps to a little dock and boarded a speedy little boat. It took us up river and directly into the spray, noise, and churn at the base of the smaller falls. It was good, wet fun.

The speed boat dropped us off near another little dock where we caught a free shuttle to an island strategically located in the middle of the river. We spent some time on a little beach swimming (Jason) and drying out (Mike) before climbing up steep stairs to check out the views from higher up. At the main vantage point, we ran into some folks that had been on the same Navimag ferry as The OC in Chile. This is the second time in so many weeks. There is a lot of itinerary inbreeding among the Patagonian backpacker set it seems. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring more catwalks and walking paths providing views of the falls from every conceivable angle. We finally gave up and headed back when my resistance to the heat and mosquitoes failed. It is hot in the jungle.

The next day, we crossed into Brazil as planned. There is another park on that side of the falls, but we decided to give it a miss. There is such a thing as too much waterfall.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Photo Album: Estancia

We're not rich brats. To prove this, I will share with you our rough and tumble stay at an Argentinian estancia.


Somewhere Between Buenos Aires and Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

I'm on the bus, heading 18 hours northwards towards Iguazu Falls, and I just wanted to say one thing: Goodbye, BA. We loved ya.

I must admit, I wasn't expecting too much from Buenos Aires. I had never heard that much about it, and, up to that point, none of the South American cities had been that great. Santiago was my favorite, but it there was something missing. I couldn't really imagine myself living there. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, has definitely made its way onto that short list of places I would want to hang my hat.
It's not so much the city itself that's the draw. It looks like any other major metropolis. It has a waterfront and nice neighborhoods with ample shopping, along with some not-so-nice neighborhoods, parks, an airport, clubs, etc... Everything you would expect from the biggest city in the country.
The real shining point about BA for me was the people. I had heard from multiple sources that portenos (folks from the city) could be rude, obnoxious, stuck-up assholes. I guess that's a common world-wide complaint about most big-city folk. But, I found that the people in Buenos Aires were pretty much the same as the rest of the peeps in Argentina. They are a relaxed, fun-loving people. They don't take themselves too seriously, and they're quick to smile. In a way, they had a lot of the qualities that I liked in Thai folk.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Drum and Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Note: For most of our stay in Buenos Aires (BA), the OC was joined by Louis (Jason's Dad), Erik (Jason's brother), and Karen (Erik's betrothed).

Karen Dearest,

There was a hard rhythm to life in Buenos Aires. I would greet each new day by sitting up in bed, flipping open my laptop, and bathing in the healing glow of The Internet for an hour or two. Our phat pad at the top of the Prince Hotel was happily within range of an open wifi network. There is nothing worse for OC productivity than easy access to the web. Having caught up on email, Fark, and the BBC, it was usually about time for lunch.

Like Peru and Chile, lunch is the big meal in Argentina. It is consumed with equal parts gusto and wine in three courses. Dinner is only slightly lighter, but it is more likely followed by coffee than siesta for cultural reasons that are obscure. I was rarely up for breakfast, but I have on good account that it is always of the bread and jam rather than the egg and bacon variety.

The traditional Argentine diet is heavy on beef and heavy wine and we felt no reason to fight the trend. We were all eating at least one steak a day, sometimes two. My one encounter with an order of seafood left me feeling foolish for my otherwise-mindedness and grateful of my regular inheritance of Karen's leftovers - in this case half of a perfectly cooked fillet. Bless her heart and her tiny stomach.

After lunch, an effort was generally made to "do" something or another. Buenos Aires is full of parks, monuments, and beautiful old buildings. Its broad, noisy avenues and leafy sidestreets easily recall European capitals. Public art is more of the "dead guy on a horse" than the "brightly-colored steel eyesore" variety that is heavily favored in LA. The city cemetery was unlike any I have ever seen. It is like a very densely packed block of zombie apartments. Mausoleums are shoulder to shoulder - each trying to out Christian the last and up the ante on ancestor glorification.

Many of BAs museums are closed for January, but we did get to see two collections of note. The arms and armaments museum was really worth the time. They have everything from fifteenth century pikes to 20th century tanks. Most memorable was a room of meticulously recreated uniforms from times past worn by a battalion of precisely arranged dolls. The national fine art museum was set to disappoint until I got up the stairs to the works by Argentine artists. The last 30 years seem to have evolved a unique style in this part of the world which is maybe best described as fun.

Shopping was also often high on the agenda. Karen helped Jason sort out a few holes in his wardrobe. She also took advantage of the happy pairing of the weak peso and a strong will to consume to get a few odds and ends for herself. The artesenal goods on display at a Sunday market staged in a downtown park seemed to be singled out for unique praise. Erik got himself a smart new suit (tailoring included) and Louis went out of his way to get just the right gifts for special people back home.

BA is not all monuments, galleries, and modern shops. However little we saw it, there does exist another side to the tracks. Our exposure was limited to trips to and from the airport and one poorly-planned outing to the suburbs west of the center in search of a phantom market. The outskirts of BA are circled by familiar collections of crumbling apartment buildings broken up by the odd shanty town. I'm not talking about a Bombay-esque level of total destitution, but you do not have to go far before you realize that not everybody in town shops at Prada.

The effects of lunch often had a diminishing effect on afternoon ambition. The activity de jour wound down early in favor of a return to the hotel and a siesta. Energy was at a low ebb from about 5 to about 8. After the rest, it was about time to start thinking about dinner. We tended to do our thinking over drinks and snacks. Since supper does not really start until 10, there was usually enough time for at least two or three glasses of beer or wine.

Dinner in BA is a lot like lunch, with the important exception that wine dosages are higher. Having filled up with even more beef, the OC tended to retire to a local bar (the Oasis was a popular choice) or cafe for a bit more drink and, in Erik's case, a fine cigar.

Despite best intentions, we never hit BA's clubs in force. Jason and I did manage to take in two nights of drum and bass hosted by Argentine DnB luminary Bad Boy Orange. Clubs do not get started until about 3, so our outings were prefaced by periods of quiet reflection and napping. I was impressed by the local scene. The kids are into the drum and have a more than passing interest in the bass. They are not the finely-honed hip hoppers that you get in LA and London, but it is important to set expectations too high on an island of urban dance surrounded by an ocean of salsa.

The instructions say to wash, rinse, and repeat, and so we did. The "up late / big lunch / indulgent afternoon / siesta / big dinner / drinks and conversation cycle" is a good pace - especially because I mostly managed to avoid the often correlated "drink like an idiot / wish I was dead" cycle. The rhythm in BA is not substantially different form elsewhere in the OC's South American travels, but all the details are done that much better. I am not sure if that is because of Argentine wealth or style or something else. Whichever the cause, the pleasant rhythm of latin life combined with high quality in the details of the rhythm earn BA a shiny entry on my list of places I might live in the post-OC universe.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Selling Out

I just put some ads into the OC Blogger template and they are now proudly displayed on the site's main page at the bottom of the sidebar. We have sold out for three reasons:
  1. Eileen WH developed this thing so it must be good.
  2. It helps me stay abreast of developments in online advertising.
  3. You can never have enough Benjamins.
Click away, suckers.

Video Gallery: Puppy vs. Big Nuts

AKA David vs. Goliath.

Gaucho Madness

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We're back from our weekend excursion to a real life estancia, and boy does my ass hurt.
A day after Erik (my bro) and Karen (his fiance) arrived in BA, we set off for the long green pastures of las pampas. The estancia was a scant two hour bus ride and fifteen minute taxi ride away from the big city, but the atmosphere there was decidedly different. Where Buenos Aires is a bustling center for Argentinean business and nightlife, the La Bamba estancia is a cool, quiet country hamlet that becomes positively deserted after midnight. Very relaxing.
Except, of course, for the horse-riding. I'm sure for those experienced in the process, the horse-back ride is a blissful canter through the gaucho countryside. But, for a first-time gringo like me, it was a bit stressful.
Horses are huge. If they were to kick you, you would surely die. If you were to fall from their backs while galloping, you would surely die. If they decided to dash under a tree branch while cruising at 60 km/h, you would surely die. Also, they poop a lot. And then there's the obvious discomfort involved in bouncing up and down in the saddle, being forced to drop the entirety of your body weight onto your own external gonads. There's a lot to be worried about while trotting along on top of one of these things.
But, despite all the worries, I did actually have a good time on the horse-rides. The scenery around the estancia was hard to beat, and I learned enough to keep myself alive. By the third ride (with some patient help from Emma) I was galloping along and making the horse go where I wanted him to, instead of just wherever he felt like taking me.
We also managed some swimming, eating and sleeping on the ranch. There were plenty of dogs to play with, a croquet set, and a soccer ball. Overall, it was a nice family vacation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Video Gallery: Beach Soccer

Argentinians are football-crazy. Damn.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Getting Shit on in BA

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We arrived in BA on Saturday and made contact with Don Briceno (Jason's Dad) the following morning after an extended and memorable evening on the town (more on that later). We spent today eating, drinking, and enjoying the sights of what is proving to be a very exciting city. Everything was going very well up until the point where I got shit on. We were hanging out near La Florida watching a band of street-performing bluesmen and generally enjoying life. I put my shoulder against an ornate stone wall and immediately paid the price. Some villainous bird nailed me sniper-style from the ledge above. After suffering Jason's predictably enthusiastic chuckle at my expense, I set about cleaning myself, my shirt, and my newly shit-laminated backpack.

At any rate, we are safe in BA with a proper adult to watch over our antics.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Back To The Beach

Puerto Madryn, Argentina

After our return to Ushuaia (U), the OC was presented with some choices. We had to be in Buenos Aires (BA) on or about the 15th, but how we were to get there was an open question. Two likely routes presented themselves. The first was to travel inland along the Argentine side of the Andes. This route afforded lots of opportunities to trek, admire glaciers, and be bumped around in crappy buses on semi-paved roads. The second was to follow the good road along the coast and stop somewhere that the water is warm and the beer is cold. Since we had seen enough ice to last for quite some time, we opted to thaw our toes in the warm sands of Puerto Madryn (PM) rather than further their transition into carbonite in the mountains.

All buses out of U were booked until well in the next week, so we were forced to opt for a convenient and competitively priced flight/bus combo. The OC left early in the morning, spent an afternoon kicking around in the somewhat spooky town of Rio Gallegos, then jumped on an overnight bus to PM in the afternoon. We arrived to gloriously warm sunshine and checked into a fusty (according to Lonely Planet) little place 2 minutes from the shore. Rather than go straight for the sun and sand, various errands were pursued. I had a very intense need for a haircut. My short-cropped travel-do was just about at honkey-afro status. In addition, Jason had let his hair go so long that he was starting to look a bit normal. After a unsuccessful random search, I inquired in desperation at the tourist information bureau. Surprisingly, they presented us with the precise location of three options in easy walking distance. That is some good tourist info.

We stumbled into option #1 and hastily announced our desires. Jason was looking to go blond. I was just looking to stop looking like Kramer all the damn time. Jason got his turn first in the big chair. This particular hair-cuttery was tailor-made for the OC. Owned and operated by a youngish mom called Natalia, it was apparently HQ for a group of well-coifed young hipster girls that came and went among an avalanche of kisses, hugs, and mobile phone bleeps. I dozed off for a bit and woke to find a hastily drawn "no sleeping" sign posted conspicuously before my eyes. The staff pumped us full of mate (see Argentine food article to come), bought us coffee, and were generally a good laugh all around. Jason's color job went well and I took my place for a very quick "#2 all around" cut with a beard-trimming to match. I look like a reasonable man again.

After the cuts, we hung out for a bit chatting with Natalia over cigarettes. I got her to sign my neck so I could be a legitimate piece of hair art. Jason took a few photos of the three of us in questionable poses. After some resistance, we convinced Hair Captain N to join us for supper. She led the way to a nearby parilla joint and did the ordering on our behalf. A mighty all-Spanish conversation erupted over a pile of grilled lamb, a nice salad, and a bottle of distinctively Argentine wine. I stuggled a bit to understand the goings on, but I believe that Jason and Natalia were arguing the relative merits of life in big cities and smaller towns. Jason was avowedly in the former camp. I busied myself scarfing down chimichurri-enhanced lamb. It was damn good.

We spent at least one full afternoon chilling on the beach. We were joined by a mixed group heavy on the kids and light on the (non-South American) tourists. The number of children and pregnant women in PM stood out like a knocked-up belly. There is a lot of birthing going on in these parts. It is not yet clear if this is a pan-Argentine issue or something localized to the Patagonian coast. We made the long-ish walk up to the "Ecocenter" - a sort of natural history museum focused on life in the Patagonian sea. I learned some interesting bits about sea lions and admired the view from the observation tower. This part of Argentina is famous for sea birds and mammals, kayaking, scuba, windsurfing, and other adventure sports. I am somewhat confused to report that the OC indulged in exactly none of these offerings. After Antarctica, rest trumped adventure and nature pretty soundly.

We made an effort to go out our last night in town, but pool with the local teenagers and lonely beers in a nice but hardly active DJ bar were all the action we could scrape up. Night life in this hood starts on the late side and we had to be up early. Lame, I know, but I am tired of traveling drunk, then sleepy, then hungover. It is hard to count the number of times I have boarded a bus or plane in this state - not in small part because I can not remember many of those instances at all. We left town thoroughly thawed, in good health, and ready for the bright lights of BA. I gotta side with Jason on this one, big cities are where it's at.

Blast From The Recent Past

As you dedicated readers out there already know, Mike and I were extras in the Bollywood movie Neal N' Nikki, where we played the tortured and complex roles of Random Gringos #7 and #16. It has just come to my attention that this cinematic masterpiece has already been released on DVD, and can be purchased, via the interweb, at If you are interested in a slice of OC history, you should definitely pick this bad boy up.

If you can see your way to getting a copy for us in the meantime, that would also rock. I'm keen to see my debut.

Wayward Son

Completos and Conversation is a video that I "uploaded" over a month ago. We have had some flaky connection issues recently, so I haven't really been able to fully complete the upload.
Now, it is finally complete.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Photo Album: Antarctica

In 2005, we took a journey into the heart of darkness (er... light). We didn't return until 2006.

The Motherload

What did we see in Antarctica? A whole buncha shiz:

Zodiac Attack
Three Blind Penguins
Snowman Massacre
Even Seals Scratch
Antarctic Plunge

With compliments.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I Likes Me The Young Wimmens

Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Somewhere around Chile, I think, someone told us that Argentina and Brazil are duking it out for the title of The Most Beautiful Women in South America, aka The Hotties. In Ushuaia, I was quite impressed with the beauties on display. Even in the cold climates, the were wearing the most revealing fashions, and they had a lot to be proud of. However, I was wary, because I almost fell for a similar trap in Chile. Arica was a haven for heavenly ladies, but the rest of Chile turned out to be a disappointment in comparison. So far, Argentina has lived up to the Ushuaia hype, and I haven't even gotten to Buenos Aires.

Brazil has a lot of work to do if it wants to win that Golden Gam.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Happy New Year!

We're back in Ushuaia, and we're alive. Barely.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On The Way In

Ushuaia, Argentina

We're back from the White Continent, and I'm sad. I didn't think Antarctica would have as much of an effect on me as it did. I figured it would be like pretty much any other wilderness-based excursion we've had here on the OC. It would be pretty, and diverting, but I would ultimately long to be back in civilization's welcoming embrace. But, there was something comforting about Antarctica.
It's hard for me to explain exactly what I'm missing. I just noticed it as everyone was disembarking the Orlova. A surprisingly heavy sense of loss and nostalgia, like I was leaving behind a school full of friends. It was unexpected.

Maybe it was the stark, untouched beauty of Antarctica itself. I've never been in a place that felt so separated from the rest of the world. The landscapes were just... overpowering, and every landing showed an utterly different side of the continent. And the scenery stretched out forever, like you could travel for months in any direction without escape. Even when we ran into the occasional permanent human base or radio tower, it always seemed like an insignificant combatant against the inescapable forces of the nature around it.
The population of creatures spending their summers on Antarctica only added to the sense of alienation. In most other places in the world, you can always feel the influence of human presence. Animals are tucked away into there ever-shrinking parcels of land, and they are forever wary of us. They avoid us when they can, and keep a careful distance when they can't.
In Antarctica, humans are definitely the outsiders. There were times when we were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of penguins, all going about their daily routine of feeding their newborns and ceaselessly waddling to and from the freezing oceans. They could care less that there were a few dozen humans on the land with them. They pretty much just ignored us. I ended up spending a large portion of my time squatting down in the snow in the hopes that a nearby penguin would get curious enough to walk over and check me out. And on occasion, they did. A couple of times, a penguin would come to within a few feet of me and stare at me for a bit before remembering that he had better things to do and waddle off. It was a bit humbling.

On the other hand, it could have been the atmosphere aboard the ship itself. It's been a while since Mike and I spent any significant time around the same group of people. Aboard the Orlova, we got to spend almost two weeks with an interesting bunch.
Out of the hundred or so customers with us, there were a few standouts. There was gravelly-voiced Giovanni, the Italian playboy from Milan, and The Admiral, a grizzled WWII vet who was visiting Antarctica for the first time with his two college-age grandsons. The Shouting Lady kept us all entertained in the commissary with her high-volume stories, and The Edelsteins made sure we stayed well-informed about the substandard bagel technology outside of NYC.
The staff were also a funny bunch. Everyone's favorite Zodiac driver, Christian, was keeping it real for the Maple Leaf crew. Our ornithologist, Akos, and his wife, the Lovely Rita were a cool hungarian couple whom we may end up meeting in Botswana when the OC shoots over to the Dark Continent.
Then there was the on-board population of Russians who rarely showed up above decks, but kept our ship powered with their sweat and blood. I never got to know them very well, but both Jarah and Mike had some interesting vodka-based encounters. If you ask real nice, maybe they'll tell you more about them.

Ultimately, we spent every waking moment on small boats and alien beaches with these folk, so we got to know them fairly well. I guess that's what I'm missing. When you get to know a group of people under those conditions, it's hard not to develop a sort of familial bond. And I'll probably never see most of them again. It's kind of a depressing thought.

The Deep Deep South

Antarctic Peninsula

Our journey to the bottom of the world started around five o'clock in the evening when our boat, the Lyubov Orlova, departed from Ushuaia, Argentina out the Beagle Channel. The ship was built in Yugoslavia in the early 80s, carried a Maltese flag, was owned by Russians, and was rented out to the British expedition company. The folks aboard were a good match for the mixed pedigree of the vessel. We had a full complement of 110 passengers, some 60 Russian crew, and maybe 15 expedition staff including naturalists, a historian, and a medical doctor. Most passengers were from the US or Europe and all lectures and announcements were made in English only, but there were also people from Brazil, Japan, and Oceania aboard. The average age was pretty high. I sometimes felt like a kid among adults.

It did not take long to settle into the rhythm of life on board and meals were the key daily waypoints. All passengers ate at the same time at tables of 6 or more so you got to meet somebody new each time. Breakfast was served buffet-style around eight. All the bacon that one could eat was repeatedly eaten. Lunch and dinner where waited 4 course affairs (salad, soup, main, dessert) with daily options of seafood, terrestrial animal, or vegetarian muck. The chefs managed a surprising variety of dishes and everything was complemented nicely by the services of a full bar and respectable wine list. I never suffered from hunger, boredom, or sobriety.

The first two days at sea were taken up crossing the Drake Passage. This stretch of water is known for its rough seas, but we were blessed by relative calm. The staff put on a series of lectures about Antarctic landforms, the history of human settlement and exploration in the region, and animal life. I divided my time between standing around on the deck watching for albatross, hanging out on the bridge with Jarah wondering what all the instruments might do, and rolling about unconsciously in my bunk - motion sickness pills may me very sleepy indeed. Towards the end of the crossing, we started to see pieces of ice, then full of icebergs, and finally bits of snow-covered rock.

Trips off of the Orlova were made via 10 passenger inflatables called Zodiacs. The crew lifted them from the bowels of the ship and dropped them over the side (with driver aboard) using a crane on the bow. Passengers were loaded via a steep gangway. There were only enough Zodiacs for half the passengers, but it only took 20 minutes to get everyone ashore in shifts. On the night of our arrival, we took the first of many cruises among the icebergs and little bays. It was then that we got our first glimpse of penguins and the extremely blue ice that characterizes glacial flows. Exploration by Zodiac is particularly good for studying the ice as you can move all around it easily and cover a lot of ground.

The next morning we made first landfall on the continent. As at all such landings, the crew ran the Zodiacs halfway onto the sand or rock and we jumped out of the front in our Wellington boots and warm clothes. It was not nearly as cold down there as I thought it would be. Air temperature varied no more than 2 Celsius degrees from freezing, so you only felt really cold in high winds. In addition to rubber boots, we easily got by in long-Johns (thermal underwear), waterproofs, and a decent coat or thick jumper. Gloves and something to cover the face were also nice for the particularly breezing outings.

Most landings were made with the intent of siting specific animals. Penguins were often the target as their mating season was in full effect. It is great fun to sit next to a "Penguin highway" (established paths from nests to the sea) and watch them saunter back and forth in little groups, sometimes no more than a few feet away, or check out the action around the nests where mom and Dad take turns sitting on the chicks, howling at the sky, and stealing rocks from the neighbors. We saw many other seabird species, but none nearly as fun as the penguins. The presence of so many birds in such a small area had the predictable side effect of an intense and sometimes overpowering odor. Those little buggers poop all over the place.

We were also lucky enough to sea a few ocean mammals. Killer, minke, and humpback whales were seen from the water while a variety of seal species were spotted on the land. In one especially notable incident, I was chased out of the water by the sudden arrival of a gigantic elephant seal. That was the only time I saw a seal actually in the water. In all other sightings, they were lolling about on the ice, apparently taking an extended siesta. The onboard marine biologist claimed that they need a lot of rest to recover from the rigors of their deep-diving to feed. If you watch closely, they do this thing which makes them look like they are scratching their belly with a flipper. Add a couch, a TV and a nacho hat and you could easily transform one of these lazy critters into a middle-American football fan.

A few landing sites were notable not just for their wildlife. Deception Island was a nearly complete circle of land around a small bay formed by a volcano - the perfect site for a Cobra base or Bond villain lair. Here we saw the remains of several bases damaged by eruptions. At one point near the shore, the beach and water are heated to something a bit higher than the normal temperature of "damn cold" and passengers were invited to take a dip. At another spot, we visited an active Argentine military base and research station. Most of these stations are manned only during the summer and are heavy on the military and light on the research. Various interested countries are trying to stake their claim to any resources that might be found in Antarctica in anticipation of the ban on drilling and mining imposed by the Antarctic Treaty.

The northward passage was only a little bumpier than what we had on the way out and the time was passed in much the same way. There were a few more presentations, a bunch of good meals, and several fun evenings in the ship's bar. Jarah managed to ingratiate himself enough with the Russian crew that we were invited below for drinks after hours a few times. The potential for motion sickness prevented us from throwing down an serious D20, but that was the only down note on an otherwise total result of a expedition.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Very OC New Year

Paradise Harbor, Antarctica

Back in Thailand, Jarah and I threw around some ideas for our Antarctic New Year. Jarah suggested that a beach party was the least probable and therefore most desirable theme. I put a brief fight in favor of black tie, but Jarah easily won out. We had some supplies delivered to Jarah's parents in Connecticut for him to pick up at Christmas and haul down to Ushuaia by plane. The goods arrived as planned and we took delivery of 50 silk flower lais, 3 Hawaiian shirts, and a big box of cocktail umbrellas.

The festivities kicked off in the afternoon during our second landing on Antarctica. We got some good photos of Jarah and I in our Hawaiian get-up and had a spirited snowman building contest with the expedition staff. Our experimental design (complete with snow dog) was the clear winner against the more conventional offering cobbled together by the opposition. Rolling snow into balls is harder than it looks. So as to leave the natural environment undisturbed, we were asked to destroy our creation. The resultant video is a hoot.

For reasons that are obscure, I decided that it was very important to win the hat contest being held at the party that evening. Jarah and I worked out a plan. I would nab a big piece of ice and hew it into the shape of a hat. Jarah would make a model of the Titantic. The resultant iceberg vs. Titanic battle could not possibly lose. We spent the better part of the hours before the party taping and scraping things into shape. Our attempt at naval architecture was not a good one, but we cleared things up for the inevitably confused observer by writing "Titanic" all over Jarah's chapeau.

Dinner that evening was a very tasty barbecue on the back deck. We attended in full tropical costume. Jarah and Jason proved resistant to the windy conditions. I was freezing my little tookus off. Afterward there was a slightly drunken zodiac cruise among the icebergs of Paradise Harbor, then it was back to the boat for the party proper. Jason handed out flower lais while I distributed cocktail umbrellas far and wide. We cracked open the long-suffering bottle of tequila from Jason's Dad and enjoyed some of its 60-year-old goodness. I also started in on the last bottle of pisco from our distillery tour in Chile and the bottles of vodka and whiskey that we bought in Argentina. The hat contest was easily won by public acclamation and the victory secured us one voucher for a bottle of sparkling wine and the status of minor celebrities. Booze was definitely in long supply.

Just before midnight, the staff again ushered us out onto the back deck for a countdown, glasses of champagne, and Cuban cigars among the icy Antarctic scenery. It started snowing just as I finished an extended round of hugs, toasts, and best wishes. We gradually moved back inside to rejoin the party, but all that remained of the once-promising group was a few college-aged kids slobbering over the one girl in attendance, several drunken and mostly elderly Europeans shaking their groove thang on the largely vacant dance floor, and us.

Word on the street was that there was a separate party for the boat's Russian crew and the expedition staff going on. Circumstance compelled us to find it. Jason and I armed ourselves with all remaining alcohol and set out below. Somehow we managed to leave Jarah behind. Sorry J, It was a confusing time for us all. Several "authorized personnel only" doors and a brief conversation with some sailors in broken Russian later, we found what we were looking for. The crew were putting on a very well choreographed play to the enthusiastic delight of the assembled onlookers. Afterward, there was saucy dancing. Jason managed to find himself a very attractive boogie partner. I busied myself chatting it up crazy-style with any poor soul that presented himself.

Eventually, somebody came around and politely asked Jason and I to split, explaining that the party was for crew only. I was disappointed. We had heard that there was to be some sort of strip show later on. Naked womens would have been just the icing on my New Year cake, but we relented. There was no sense in ending an otherwise lovely New Year with a solid beating by some drunken Russian sailors. Instead, I decided to end it up on the bow with the bottles of whiskey and tequila. On my way back, I took a mighty slip and landed ass-first on the deck - much to the delight of the bridge crew. Anything else that may have gone down is forever lost in alcohol fog. I suspect it ain't much. I woke up the next day with a nasty bump on my elbow and a monster hangover.

All told, it was a good New Year, but far from the best. In the end, an adventurous and memorable location is no substitute for the company of family and old friends. A big OC hug and kiss (tongue optional) out to the masses.