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.


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