Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Patagonia (with apologies to Bruce Chatwin)

I'm typing this in Puerto Natales, Chile, where the great unexpected benefit of South American travelling continues: free wi-fi at every hostel! Saves a fortune in internet cafe fees, let me tell you, especially since (as I've discovered) it takes hours upon hours to upload a few hundred pictures. (And I'm not even finished those yet ... can't figure out what the problem is, but some pictures stubbornly refuse to upload.)

So this netbook may pay for itself by the end of the trip at the rate I'm going. Or at least that's what I'm going to tell myself.

And all my security worries before deciding to bring it along were probably for nothing -- the majority of other travellers I've encountered also seem to have a laptop or netbook along, usually nicer than mine. So the odds of mine getting stolen in a hostel are pretty small. I still sleep with it, though, just because I love it.

Anyway ... in Patagonia. I borrow the title from Bruce Chatwin's iconic book, which I'm currently reading. To hear him tell it, Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina) is a wild and windswept land full of oddball characters, mostly on the run from the law, or just too pig-headed and independent to ever live anywhere else.

Wild and windswept I can attest to. I don`t think the wind has stopped blowing since I set foot here, and as for `wild`, I think that Patagonia -- particularly the Argentine part -- is South America`s answer to the American Wild West, all barren, craggy mountains and dusty plains, an endless expanse of land broken only by an occasional gate for an unseen and faraway estancia (ranch). And the big, big sky that has been full of light since I left Ushuaia, with nary a drop of rain.

Ushuaia itself was a nice enough little town, but I wouldn`t rush out of my way to get there unless you`re on the way to Antarctica. The days I spent there were cold, damp and rainy until late on my final afternoon, when the clouds finally rolled away and I saw for the first time the snow-capped peaks that surround the town and the harbour. So it`s a pretty place, when the sun`s out ... just don`t expect to be able to tell through the fog and the rain.

I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, Argentina next -- opting not to spend two full days on the bus just yet, although I`m sure I`ll be doing that later in this trip -- and have now added El Calafate to the list of places I could live. For anyone who hasn`t been keeping track, the list is currently this:

1. New Zealand: anywhere. Gorgeous country, environmental light-years ahead of North America, friendly people, adorable Kiwi men. What more could you need ?

2. Norway: also anywhere. Well, maybe not the far northern bits where the sun doesn`t shine at all in the winter, but otherwise good. Like NZ, way ahead of us lazy North Americans on the green front.

(those are my top two, in that order. the rest that follow are in no particular order)

3. Key West, Florida
4. San Cristobal, Mexico
5. Port Douglas, Australia
6. Marrakesh, Morocco
7. Barcelona, Spain
8. Havana, Cuba
9. Roatan, Honduras
10. Newfoundland

What did I like so much about El Calafate? Well, this part of Patagonia is spectacularly beautiful - vast expanses of arid land with not a tree in sight, jagged mountains, a turquoise lake fed by glacier water and that big, big sky. My hostel (called I Keu Ken) had some of the best vibes of any hostel I've been in (it didn’t hurt that the charming Federico with the dreadlocks at the front desk welcomed me with a hug and kiss on both cheeks) ... and it’s set up on a hill so it looks out over the whole town, and the lake, and the mountains, and the big sky. There's a couch parked right in front of their big common room window that looks out over it all -- perfect spot to sit and type or read, or chat and drink a cheap Argentine beer.

It’s laidback, friendly and cool, and there’s a clean, crisp wind blowing dust through the unpaved streets, adding to the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. I also really liked the kind of backpackers that seemed to go there. None of the attempts to one-up each other with the most exotic place they’ve travelled, the most remote destination they’ve reached, the longest they’ve been on the road, or any of the other backpacker snobbery that you can sometimes encounter. (If I do run into that again, though, I’ll play my Antarctica card and win the travel stakes -- that`ll shut them all up.)

I went there primarily to see the Perito Merino glacier, which is in the Parque Nacionale Los Glaciares about 80 km outside of town. (Not to be confused with the Parque Nacional Perito Merino, or the town of Perito Merino, both of which are further north. I must find out who this Perito Merino guy was, and what he did to deserve all these namesakes.) There are many rivers of ice running down from the Patagonian Icefield, which is the 3rd largest expanse of ice in the world, after, of course, Antarctica and Greenland. But Perito Merino is by far the star.

Carol at the Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate
It’s unbelievably vast – something like 250 square kilometres , which is greater than the size of Buenos Aires city – and it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that isn’t retreating. Global warming hasn’t yet seemed to take a toll, as the glacier has been stable since 1920.

And it seems almost alive when you strap on crampons (as I did) and go for a trek atop that river of ice. It isn’t a smooth, flat surface of ice – it’s sharp-toothed and splintered in places, and in others, undulating swells of ice. Imagine a vast surging river, frozen for a moment in time; that’s how the glacier seemed, as if it could decide to ‘wake up’ at any moment and continue on its way. It does move, of course, just not quickly enough to be perceptible to the casual observer; the ice travels down from 3,000 metres above sea level, high in the Andes, down to the lakes near El Calafate, where chunks break off with a thunderous clap to form new icebergs. Unlike Antarctica, the icebergs don’t last long; it’s rarely below zero here, even in winter.

I took an extra day, after visiting the glacier, just to hang out in town and enjoy it. It isn’t often I find somewhere new to add to my “where I might like to live” list, so I had to soak it up while I had the chance. And I discovered something interesting while I did; you may know that my dating life has been almost non-existent in the past few years (aside from Work Guy, who shall remain nameless), and that’s mostly because I’ve had no interest. Well, I discovered in El Calafate that my interest in the opposite sex appears to be back, with a vengeance; for the first time in a long time, I looked at someone and found him quite delicious. This was the afore-mentioned Federico: age, almost definitely younger than me; hair, sun-bleached dreadlocks; eyes, turquoise-blue like the glacier lake; style, bohemian hippie/poet. And he played guitar, and sang. And spoke a delightful English in an Argentine accent (I don’t have to tell you that Spanish accents can be very sexy.)

I’m not saying I did anything about it (hey, my parents could be reading this). But I was very pleased to note yet another part of my non-work personality is coming back to life! (What’s that, you say? You thought I had a thing for guys in suits with banker haircuts? Think again, my friend. Give me a guitar-playing hippie poet any day.)

I moved on to Puerto Natales today, as I am catching the ferry from here on Monday, to travel up the Chilean coast through what are promised to be spectacular fjords. I had debated about taking next week’s instead, as the low season starts in April and prices drop by 30-40%, but I discovered that there are benefits to booking at the last-minute as the ferry company offers steep discounts to fill the remaining beds. So I set sail on Tuesday (after boarding the night before), and arrive in Puerto Montt, Chile on Friday. From there, I’m heading to Bariloche, Argentina, where I want to stop for at least a couple of weeks and study Spanish; their language school is supposed to be very good, and the town itself very beautiful and lots of fun.

So I’ll probably talk to you again after I get off the ferry. Have fun in the meantime, and don’t forget to keep in touch!

Oh ... and if you’re ever in El Calafate, give Federico a hug for me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting a Sunburn in Antarctica

I did, really. I was at a barbecue at the time. I´ll tell you all about it, later on ... you have to keep reading.

So ... Antarctica. How to describe it? Grand. Awe-inspiring. Dazzling. Stunning. Sublime. Breathtaking. Astonishing. Overwhelming. Beautiful.

Pick your favourite superlative -- it was all of the above, and more. And really, really funny, thanks mostly to the penguins. But that was the subject of another post.

There are few places in the world you can go where you feel completely, utterly removed from civilization, but Antarctica is definitely one of those. It doesn´t involve the hardships it used to, as I travelled on a very comfortable 120-passenger cruise ship, instead of suffering hunger, deprivation and exposure as so many explorers and whalers did in Antarctica´s early human history. (I´ve never understood, actually, why so many of them went back again, and again, after suffering horrendously in their previous attempts. Perhaps it´s a testosterone thing -- I don´t think there were any women in the early days.)

As you already know, I flew down to Ushuaia March 9th, and spent a couple of days hanging out there before joining my group for the cruise. I was relieved when I saw the ship for the first time -- it looked suitably big and seaworthy, and unlikely to capsize or sink or have any other terrible thing happen to it. Just as long as we didn´t hit an iceberg.

I had a shared cabin, with one roommate who fortunately turned out to be very nice, and not a snorer. I was also relieved to see when I met some of the other passengers that it wasn´t going to be a ship full of couples, and me¡ there were a lot of other single travellers, and many of those travelling on their own as I was.

It takes a full two days in the Drake Passage to get to Antarctica, normally, but we had exceptionally favourable conditions with a sea as calm as glass and no winds, so we made it in half a day less. ´The Drake¨, as it´s affectionately known, isn´t usually so kind, but I seem to have generally good luck on boats. My ferry crossing way back when to Norway from the north of England, across the North Sea, was similarly calm, as was the Italy to Greece crossing. (The only rough seas I remember, actually, were those we encountered one ferry trip to Newfoundland -- however, while all around us suffered from seasickness, I and my sisters went straight to sleep. Perhaps Mom doctored our food with Gravol.)

Our luck held as we reached Antarctica and cruised among the islands, eventually landing on the mainland at Neko Harbour. Sunny, warm, calm, gentle breeze -- well, the ´warm´ is relative, but it was probably warmer than either Toronto or Vancouver was at that time. Definitely above zero on at least a couple of days.

Possibly it wasn´t Antarctica at all, but a giant stage set. It did seem entirely too good to be true. I´ll have to investigate that later.

We had a couple of landings every day, and returned each night to the ship to sleep. Because we made such good time through the Drake, we had an extra stop at one of the South Shetland Islands first -- Barrientos Island -- with its reception committee of thousands of penguins, all eager to come see us. It was green, too, which threw me for a loop (grass? This far south?) till I realized that it was the mosses and lichens lending the ground that colour.

Next day was a cruise in the Zodiacs among the Melchior Islands in the morning, and on land at Danco Island in the afternoon for a hike to the top of the mountain (I use the term ´mountain´ loosely, but it was at least as big as what Ontario likes to call ´mountains´ i.e. Blue). We started to get the hang of the getting on / getting off the boat procedures by the end of the day: don all appropriate layers of clothing and waterproof gear in case weather changes (which it can, without warning, in that part of the world), pull on big ugly rubber boots and wade through disinfectant tray, turn tag with your assigned number (facedown when you´re off the ship, right side up when you´re back on), manoeuvre self down gangway to bobbing Zodiac and hang on for dear life till arriving at destination.

The ´tag´ thing, especially, kept being hammered into our heads, with particular reminders to ONLY TURN OUR OWN TAG. They´d had a previous cruise where a wife had turned her husband´s tag right side up, as well as her own, which indicated to the crew that they were both back on the ship. Turns out that hubby wasn´t, actually -- they´d left him behind on an island, shivering in the near blizzard that had sprung up by the time they returned for him eight hours later. The wife only noticed he was missing when he didn´t show up for dinner or to go to sleep that night.

Or so she said. Perhaps it was all really a devious scheme to get rid of him without any suspicion attaching to her. (Note to self: could be excellent plot for murder mystery.)

On St. Paddy´s Day, we cruised through the appropriately nicknamed ¨Kodak Gap¨ (official name Lemaire Strait) in the early morning as the sun rose, surrounded by icebergs reflecting all the colours of the dawn. I had brief Titanic-related worries, but we sailed through without incident and hit nothing.

In the morning, we stopped first at the site of a 1940´s-era British research station called Wordie House, still left as it was then and stocked with all the essentials for winter survival -- at least if you´re British -- of Cadbury´s drinking chocolate and cans of McEwan´s lager. Then we headed on to the new research station, which also used to be British but was handed over for the princely sum of 1 pound to the Ukraine about ten years ago.

It is no doubt due to its British heritage that the station contains two things that no other research station can claim: a post office, and a pub. (What self-respecting Brit would try to weather an Antarctic winter without those?) I mailed off postcards to parents and sisters, which will arrive in whatever time it takes for them to be picked up by a supply ship, sailed back to the Ukraine, and mailed onward from there. Possibly some time in 2011.

And of course, we had to hit the pub. The Ukrainians had added a new twist of their own, by producing homemade vodka on the premises. Yowza! That moonshine had a kick to it as it went down, but I can see how it would help in 60 below temperatures.

The Ukrainians had also added a display to which women visitors were encouraged to donate, but I declined. I only have two bras with me this trip, so I can´t afford to give one to them, thank you very much.

That afternoon we had the barbecue, on the aft deck of the ship. It´s very surreal to sit at a picnic table, eating a burger and drinking a beer, slathering on sunscreen (too late, which is how I got sunburnt), wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, as you look at the icebergs and deep, deep blue water of Antarctica all around you.

Thursday (the 18th) brought the mainland at Neko Harbour. More penguins, seals and predatory birds; I saw the circle of life in action as a hungry skua (a large gull-like bird with the hunting skills of a hawk) swooped down to nab a tiny, late-born penguin chick who was barely half a foot tall. One of our guides explained that the chick probably had first-time parents, who didn´t get the timing right -- he´d been born too late in the season anyway to survive, and probably would have been abandoned by his parents when they had to go back to sea. So I decided to forgive that skua -- I suppose he´s got to eat, too -- but was still quite relieved when another friendly penguin who´d come over to say hello to me escaped from another skua´s attack. (I remembered that my camera has a video function and caught some of it -- if I can manage it, I´ll upload the video to shutterfly too.)

In the afternoon, we went whale-watching in Wilhemina Bay, heading back north. Humpback whales apparently like to congregate in groups, and spend some time just hanging out; for no reason that any scientist understands, they also like to do full body rolls in the water, slapping their fins with a tremendous splash as they turn.

Friday morning brought us Deception Island, and the first non-sunny day we´d encountered all trip. In mist, snow and cold temperatures, we wandered around what is actually the caldera of an active volcano, which last blew in 1970. Many of the originally whaling structures still survive -- whaling used to be big business in the Antarctic, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when whale oil was used as fuel. The site has been left to its own devices, not maintained in any way, so it´s eerie walking around in the silence and fog, thinking about what used to happen way back when. There´s also a small graveyard on Deception Island. which adds to the eerieness. It isn´t the original -- that one was swept out to sea in the 1970 eruption -- but it´s quite haunting nonetheless. It´s all about atmosphere, and you can´t beat a windswept Antarctic beach for that.

We finished up that landing with a swim, for those souls foolhardy enough to plunge it. I settled for stripping off my boots and socks and wading in, but declined the full-body experience (not in the least because the thought of me in a bikini is still just too scary!).

What was supposed to be our final landing at Half Moon Island was cancelled as the wind picked up and the sea started to swell. We did see our first Orcas of the trip, though, so I was still happy.

So we turned north, again, and set out across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. That´s where we saw the real Drake: thirteen-metre waves, 120 kilometre per hour winds (that´s 60 knots, if you want to know), and a ship that rolled like a drunken sailor. Anything that wasn´t fastened down went with it, back and forth as the ship plunged through the waves -- my mattress included, which made for an interesting night´s sleep!

But I STILL didn´t get seasick so my perfect record remains unblemished. I can attest to the effectiveness of Gravol and will swear by it every time I travel to the Antarctic from here on out.

So that´s six continents down ... one more to go. Asia, here I come ... well, in a few months anyway!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Five Things You Never Knew About Penguins

1. They stink. God almighty, do they stink. (Especially when congregated in large numbers, as they usually are. ) Something about all the krill they eat, which turns their guano bright pink.

2. They are very, very loud. And despite the cute, comical appearance (Disney couldn’t design a more appealing character), they don’t have sweet, musical voices – think donkeys braying, or rusty screen doors screeching.

3. They are very, very curious and completely unafraid of humans. Stay still long enough, and a penguin will come up to you to investigate this strange new creature. And beware if you leave anything sitting on the ice – an inquisitive penguin may snap it up before you realize. I nearly lost a glove this way, but fortunately penguins don’t move very fast on land.

4. If walking – make that waddling – around upright becomes too much of a chore, they may choose to just flop over on their bellies and propel themselves along the snow like toboggans. Sometimes they end up doing this when they trip over their own feet; they`re not the most graceful birds on land! But they move astonishingly fast in the water, and ``porpoise` out of the water like dolphins doing tricks. Some would occasionally swim alongside the ship, and they could keep up for short stretches.

5. They range in size from tiny fairy penguins at just over a foot tall, to the gigantic Emperor penguin (of the March of the Penguins fame), that can grow as tall as 1.2 metres. That’s almost as tall as my little sister! (Shelley ... just kidding, of course ...)

Antarctica isn`t ONLY about the penguins, but they were definitely a highlight. I think I could (actually, I think I did) watch them for hours without getting bored; they are social, gregarious, comically constructed and quarrelsome little birds whose behaviour just makes you smile. In a bad mood? Feeling a little down? Watch a penguin ... you may just find yourself giggling uncontrollably.

They are completely fearless on land, as there are no land-based predators in the Antarctic (no, there are no polar bears), and they have never had reason to learn a fear of humans, so they will shuffle up to you inquisitively, squawking as if to say, `Who are you and why are you here? And do you have any food for me?`. Penguin chicks in particular – even the nearly full-grown ones that we saw – are fixated on the `food`question, and will beg humans or adult penguins indiscriminately for just one more free meal, before they have to go fish for themselves. That`s too much like hard work!

Of course, they`re probably worried about the seals, too. Fur seals abound in the Antarctic (at least where I was), and while they`ll cosy up to penguins on land in a friendly fashion, in the sea it`s all about the next meal – seals, too, are comical on land, but in the water they`re lean, mean hunting machines. So they save their penguin chases for the water.

Fur seals can be pretty aggressive towards humans, too, I learned. I didn`t actually get charged – just growled at loudly and threateningly – but one of my fellow cruise passengers did. Advice, should you ever find yourself being charged by a fur seal (who have wickedly sharp teeth): stand your ground, make lots of noise, and try to look as large and intimidating as possible. Basically what you`re also told to do if encountering a bear ... although I think in that situation, I might not have the presence of mind to stay calm!

But leopard seals are the ones you really have to watch. While fur seals might occasionally get a little cantankerous, they still look cute and goofy; but leopard seals look evil, menacing ... reptilian, almost, with a body that is sleeker and leaner than other seals, and a huge head with immensely powerful jaws. When a leopard seal catches a penguin, it flings that enormous head from side to side, thrashing the bird against the water till the skin is loosened and the blubber ready for those teeth to tear into.

They don`t actively prey on humans – of course, that could be just that they haven`t encountered enough of us to get a taste – but they have killed at least one scientist working in the Antarctic. She was walking innocently along the ice, doing whatever it is that science boffins do, when she was seized by a leopard seal`s fearsome teeth and dragged 300 feet under water.

I saw a few of those, from a safe distance. I was happy to leave it that way.

Since I seem to be on a wildlife kick in this post, I think I`ll carry on. We also saw an enormous variety of whales and dolphins – Minke, fin, and humpback whales; hourglass and bottlenose dolphins, and killer whales (who, you may already know, are actually dolphins, not whales). The orcas were only visible as fins cutting the water in the distance, but we got up close and personal with some of the other creatures. At one point, a humpback whale swam alongside the ship just below the surface of the water, so we could see the entire beast from nose to tail; he was approximately the size of a bus, and wasn`t even considered a `large`humpback whale according to our on-board marine mammal expert.

We went cruising in Zodiacs one afternoon, following around random wildlife. We passed over the spot where a humpback whale has just surface to breathe, and take it from me they`ve got nasty breath. The smell of rotting fish lingered in the air long after the whale had re-submerged. But they`re majestic and stately animals, and a little fish odour never hurt anyone.

And the other birds! As well as the ever-present penguins, Antarctica`s birdlife is abundant and fascinating ... everything from tiny swallow-like birds, who look like the first puff of wind should knock them out of the air yet manage to stay at sea for years at a time without ever going back to lands, to the gargantuan wandering albatross with a wingspan of about 3.5 metres.

But, much as I loved watching the whales and the seals and the dolphins and the flying birds, it was the penguins that stole my heart. Now, if I can just figure out how to smuggle one back to Toronto ...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

El Fin del Mundo

Well, I'm here! I am in a much better mood today than yesterday, despite the rain and mist that hide any view of the mountains and the sea.

Yesterday was not a good day. Well, it was, in the sense that it got me here in one piece, but really ... it wasn't. My 25 hours of travel started out promisingly enough -- I checked in, and got through U.S. customs and airport security in an astonishing 45 minutes, after Dad dropped me off at the airport. (Oh, yeah, while I think of it -- Dad, I promise to double-check the terminal next time around, but hey, we got to ride the monorail, which I'd never done before.)

The rest of it went smoothly enough, with no major hiccups along the way; it just seemed so unbearably LONG. It went something like this:

Arrive at Toronto 3 hours early for flight. Clear customs, security, etc and kill remaining 2 hours and 15 minutes reading half a novel.

Arrive in Houston, Texas, on time, and race for connecting flight as I thought I'd left it pretty tight with only 53 minutes in between. Kill remaining 40 minutes before flight boards reading more of novel.

Arrive in Buenos Aires, Argentina the next morning at 10 a.m. after 11 hours sitting upright, as I was in a row where the seats had no room to recline. Having only dozed sporadically and never actually slept (partly thanks to my seatmate who kept poking me awake to get out for the bathroom), feel half-stoned and intellectually impaired. Find my way to shuttle in this condition, somehow, and get to other airport in B.A. (where the domestic flights leave) after 1 1/2 hours. B.A. appears to be very beautiful, Paris-like city but not fully awake enough to appreciate. Kill remaining four hours till connecting flight reading all but last 3 chapters of novel.

Arrive in Trelew, Argentina for (supposedly) brief stop en route to Ushuaia. Approximately 70 minutes later, in the air again and on the way. Lower half of body starting to go numb as there is only enough leg room for someone 4'6". Or my sister Shelley.

Arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina -- the end of the world -- at 9:20 p.m. local time (two hours ahead of Toronto). Have lost all feeling in legs and feet, and have developed a migraine that may actually split my head in two. Stumble to taxi and bark out name of hostel.

Arrive at FreeStyle Hostel, Ushuaia, and am ushered immediately to room with friendly Australian dorm mates. Receive big hug from hostel worker guy to make me feel better (cute Kiwi, very nice). Dash off quickie email to family to say "hey, I'm alive" and update Facebook status. Then make bed somewhat haphazardly and go to sleep. In Toronto time, it's about 8:30 p.m.


So I suppose you won't be surprised that I saw nothing of the town yesterday. I slept in this morning and woke up feeling much, much better. Went out for a stroll, and discovered that I was probably the only person in town who thought it was warm: I was wearing Tevas, T shirt and capris, everyone else was bundled up in anoraks and sturdy boots. It's not that warm, actually, and the T-shirt was probably pushing it a little; but it's not below zero, there's no snow on the ground, and I felt like pretending it was summer.

It's more like late summer, or early fall, depending on how you define these things. Kind of the equivalent of Toronto in September -- but with Vancouver-style mist currently blocking the supposedly spectacular views. Am now chilling in the hostel, where I think I'm staying for the evening. I've finished the last 3 chapters of my book, but as I came prepared with several others (that's why my backpack is so heavy at the moment!), I have another to curl up with tonight (diving into Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia"), and my previous book is on its way back to Buenos Aires (and thence on to Australia) with one of the friendly Aussie dorm mates.

Tomorrow I move to the Hotel Ushuaia, where I join my group for the Antarctica cruise. The boat (ship?) actually pulls out on the 13th. I'm now fully prepared, as I found a place to rent unattractive but very serviceable wellies today, and you can expect lots of pictures when I get back on the 22nd. Till then, I'll probably be out of touch.

Keep in touch and let me know how you're doing too -- I don't want to feel completely forgotten, down here at the Fin del Mundo ...

Monday, March 1, 2010

And so it begins ...

I'm off!

On Tuesday, March 9th ... I head down south to the very tip of South America, for a couple of days in Ushuaia, Argentina before cruising to Antarctica the following Saturday. Getting there WON'T be half the fun this time, as I am pinballing around the continent 3 or 4 times before I finally get to my destination after 24 hours of travel. But then ... I'm footloose and fancy-free, so does it really matter how long it takes me to get anywhere?

Ushuaia is, almost literally, the end of the world, and apparently very beautiful (if you happen to like snow-capped mountains and fjords, anyway). There is also a language school that I am going to check out before my cruise, with a view to studying Spanish for a bit when I get back from Antarctica.

(Wow, how gloating does THAT sounds? "When I get back from Antarctica ...")

Beyond a lot of penguins and a lot of ice, I have no real picture of what it will be like to go to Antarctica. I know that I have to spend a few days in a small cabin on a boat to get there ... but I can't envison the actual experience of stepping on Antarctic ice. I promise to try to describe it once I've been there and done that.

After Ushuaia, I'm going to work my way up the continent, ultimately ending up in Quito, Ecuador on or about the end of June, with a short hope over to Panama before I head home to Toronto the beginning of July. I have lots of ideas of where I'd like to go and what I'd like to do, but I haven't booked anything yet ... I want to make it up as I go along. My life while at work was always overly-planned and overly-scheduled, so I'm looking forward to just going where I feel like, when I feel like it. And NOT deciding everything right now, ahead of time ... just letting it unfold as I go.

(I realize this will distress some of my more planning-happy friends, who would probably be a lot happier if I had an exact itinerary mapped out with every port of call and number of days in each place. Rest assured I will book ahead of time where I have to -- like the Inca Trail -- but for the rest, you're just going to have to accept that I DON'T WANT TO PLAN.)

Now begins the fun of packing: it is always a challenge to find the perfect balance between a backpack that is lightly-enough packed (so as to be able to carry it readily and swing it on and off buses) without being so lightly-packed as to not actually have anything useful with me. One thing I do love about travel, though -- at least, the backpacking kind of travel -- is that you re-learn very quickly how to strip your life down to just the essentials. And how little really counts as "essential" ... really, if you've got a passport, and a credit card, everything else is a bonus. (I don't plan to travel QUITE that light, though!)

But I'll figure it out, and in about two weeks I'll be stepping on the ice of Antarctica to say hello to a few friendly penguins. A friend of mine had always wanted to go to Antarctica, so I'm taking along "Mia Bear" in her memory -- she passed away before Christmas, and this travelling toy bear is going all the places on her "top 10" list that she never got to go. So far Mia Bear has been to Bali, and I'm sure will rack up a lot more travel miles as Mia's friends continue to trot around the globe.

So Mia ... this one's for you :)