Epilogue

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I was in the middle of my packing marathon when I peered into my dad’s office. An impossibly underweight suitcase lay by the door with his plane outfit, wallet, and passport piled neatly on top.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Sweat dripped from my forehead as I removed a pair of socks to lighten my load.  Now how does a low maintenance dad prepare for a 3-week long trip to the end of the world? By bringing a bindle stick, that’s how.

I was out of my league. How would I get everything to fit? The trauma gauze for my pulverized thumb – my libertine polygamist memoir – my bath loofa – my penguin paraphernalia. It was all…So…Necessary.

Hours later, I decided no more could be done and acknowledged my role as over-packer. A responsible over-packer. I remembered laundry soap.

Before I knew it, we were off to Buenos Aires. For the next few weeks, we would be sailing the notorious seas of the South Atlantic, falling asleep during afternoon birding lectures, growing an affinity for Guinness on tap, waddling alongside penguins, and hiking the grand landscapes of the Falklands and South Georgia. But for now, we were just tourists with airplane insomnia who got lucky with a hard-earned complimentary expedition via Lindblad.

It seems impossible and daunting to summarize such a grandiose trip, so I will instead leave you with photos and a few memorable scenes to give a taste of our journey to the end of the world and back.

Buenos Aires Under Cough Attack:

Dad’s running into the smoke and darkness to get footage, and I can barely see him amidst the rowdy crowd of Women’s Day protesters throwing sparklers past the police barricade. Someone has set a fire in front of the church and I’m wading through the crowd to bring my free-spirited dad back to the comfort of dulce de leche ice cream in our swanky hotel. It has been determined that Dad is more adventuresome than I.

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Sprayed by Dolphin:

After our first stop on Steeple Jason, a hard-to-reach island in Northwest Falklands that is replete with Gentoo’s, black-browed albatross napping contentedly on their muddy thrones, and dive-bombing caracaras, our zodiac heads back to the ship. All of a sudden, Peale dolphins surround the zodiac and dance in the waves at the bow. All of us are soaked as our driver cranks the engine in a paltry attempt to race them.

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Tea Time:

After a 3-hour hike up the steep hills of Carcass Island, Dad and I finally descend to the only settlement on the island and remove our muddy boots for an afternoon tea. With mismatched mugs and an extravagant assortment of jam-filled cookies, butter biscuits, chocolate frosted cakes, bite-sized meringues, and cordial cherry truffles, we sink into our chairs and bask in the English tea’s comforting steam.

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We’re Surrounded by Krill!:

A mere 3 hours from South Georgia, and the bridge is in a flurry over the loud-speaker. Whales! All the whales! A blue whale a mere 15 feet off starboard swimming next to a slightly darker finn! A humpback fluking at 11oclock! A pod of right whales further out! Think of the krill!

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Bowing to Kings:

As we wade to shore in the crashing waves on Right Whale Bay, we look up to see the most spectacular vision: thousands of handsome king penguins waddling along the shoreline, stepping carefully around equally cute piles of baby fur seals. The baby fur seals frolic over, eager to play a game of tag. They all stop abruptly 2-feet from us, suddenly intimidated by our looming height. Now situate this below a waterfall rushing past bright green tussock grasses off a cliff. A cliff that is below even steeper, snowcapped mountains jutting straight out of the turbulent sea.

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Glacier-Gazing:

It is cold. Bitterly cold. The Explorer is anchored next to a glacier; a glacier who’s name I can’t recall because of ice-induced amnesia. But wow. Everything is sky-blue, and the tallest mountain on South Georgia, Mt. Paget, looms in the back. We ride close to the glacier on a zodiac. The driver kills the engine. No birds, no planes, no talking. The only sound is ice-chunks clunking the bottom of the zodiac and the occasional thunderous calving of an ice sheet.

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Escaping the Pack on West Point Island:

During our last landing on the Falklands, we hike a grassy trail to reach the largest and most impressive Rock hopper penguin colony yet. Set upon golden cliffs, the colony stretches thousands of feet. The once-alarming smell of penguins has become as familiar and comforting as the smell of horse manure to a farmer. While everyone settles into their observation nooks, Dad and I hike a bit further and become invisible to the crowd. After finding a nice flat rock to sit on, we enjoy the warm, sunny breeze rustling the dry tussock and reminisce about our crazy adventure coming to an end. In just two days, we will be on our long airplane north to resume the familiarities of life at home.

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Weeks later and the penguins and fur seals already feel so distant. Since our trip, my dad’s resumed carrying for the postal service, and I have been at home; applying to jobs, weeding out knick-knacks I’ve accumulated since I was a little girl, and speculating about which direction I want my life to take. For us, this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s a bit surreal to reflect on now that it’s past. Everything is familiar again, and already the trip has slipped out of our daily conversation. But I still think about it all the time. I do miss traveling with him on the water. I miss all the penguins. I miss being the first in line for tea time at 4pm. I miss the hiking and daily recaps. I miss seeing how happy my dad was when he was talking to the fur seals. These experiences might never materialize again, but somehow it’s all ok. In fact, I find it downright wonderful that only one other person can carry all these memories with me, regardless of what’s to come: Dad.

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Spoke Too Soon

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Learning to pilot the Sea Bird. Thank goodness there are no icebergs in Baja.

Three hours. I had three hours to get through my 6-month contract unscathed by crippling illness or injury before I had to slam my hand in the hinge of a door and writhe in pain until some poor sap got stuck taking me to a hospital in La Paz.

So close.

The doctor examined my absurdly bloody thumb with the nail hanging from a hinge while I got x-rayed. The cut was deep but the bone was also fractured so they couldn’t give me stitches or take off my nail without risking further bone damage. But they also can’t give me a cast because it’s gnarly on the outside. It’s a lose lose situation. Should I be worried that they never really cleaned it out? Nah, it seems cleanish looking. I’m more worried that I’m the one who has to change my gauze every couple hours whilst trying to avoid the horrid spectacle that is my petite pouce.

But here I sit, alive and surprisingly well/expertly self-medicated on a bench in the San Jose Airport, waiting for my flight to Tambor and my shuttle to Santa Teresa, the lovely surfing beach with glossy barrels for days. And I’m not supposed to even get my hand wet or be in any sort of situation that will further fracture my unprotected phalanges. It’s another love-hate kind of day.

But there are worse things. I actually finished six-months of 12 hour days, no weekends, and back pain! I will no longer have people crowding me at 6am, telling me I’m out of coffee while I’m trying to brew the coffee that stands on the other side of those very people. I am going to be sipping mojitos on a tropical beach in several hours. I will be flying to DC in a week to see my sister sworn in as a diplomat to Cabo Verde (a destination with surfing year-round. Well done Gigi, well done) I am going to be I will be heading to South Georgia and the Falklands with my dad in a month for an expedition with Lindblad. Things could definitely be worse.

I would also like point out the wonderful and most fitting irony that my latest blog post was titled, “Let the Thumb Twiddling Commence.” Ha.

 

Let the Thumb Twiddling Commence

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It is nearly February 3rd, and that means I disembark the Sea Bird in nine days. The past six months have been flushed by in a whirlwind, both literally and figuratively. While I am more than thrilled to have a sabbatical from toilet cleaning, I will miss my floating home. I have grown fond of 6am dirty chai’s and caveman grunts that pass for early morning crew greetings. I know I will miss my naps on the lido, being in the foc’sle when hundreds of dolphins are chattering away outside, finding the best fish tacos at roadside stands, and racing friendly sea lions.

But I’m also so tired. I feel 30 years older. I’m not able to play the piano. I have no privacy. Just the other day I had a conversation with the doctor onboard and four crew members separately asked me to elaborate on my current health state. My roommate walked in on me in the bathroom this week. Three times. No one trusts us with locks. I miss my kitties and visiting my friends and family. I miss sleeping with more than 8” clearance. I miss being involved in the issues I cared so much about at college. So while my imminent parting is bittersweet, I know I’m ready to leave.

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Me at the end of my 6-month contract

What scares me most is going forward. I have no idea what the next few months will look like. All I know is that as soon as I get off in La Paz, I have a flight to Costa Rica and a room booking at a surf hostel. Will I survive the cheap, miniscule propeller plane that my suitcase probably won’t fit in? WILL I TURN INTO A CAREER SURF BUM?? Perhaps my lifelong dreams shall materialize after all!

But actually, Costa Rica has an end date. So begins the weeks of thumb-twiddling. Should I renew another contract at Lindblad? Do paralegal work? Find a career in conservation? Work at the local grocery store? Move to Hawaii and live in a tent while I clean more toilets? Pursue photography and writing while I eat bread crusts and ramen for the end of my days? Where do I even begin looking for a job when I don’t have a location in mind? I feel like I might as well be rolling a pair of dice to determine my next move.

But now that I think about it, I don’t even own a pair of dice.

If anyone has any job offers, PM me and I will bake you cookies.

 

Tips for Staying Alive in Baja

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Baja is undeniably beautiful. I have never witnessed a place of such contrasts. One day, you might be trekking through sand dunes as far as the eye can see in search of life. To your despair (and wonder), you can only find bone-dry turtle shells, hollowed-out pelican bones, and the occasional eerie dolphin carcass. The shifting white sands whip beneath your feet as the landscape comes and goes while you stand still. On these days, you feel like you’re living on another planet. Tatooine or Jakku perhaps.

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Give it three more days, and you will be amazed to find the incredible biodiversity of marine life under the surface at Los Islotes. Hundreds of tropical fish scurry away from you (my favorite being the parrotfish) while you free dive 40 feet beneath the surface to find all sorts of starfish and crab going about their merry lives. Because the water is so clear, you can see the itty-bitty snorkelers at the surface while sun rays shine down and you have a moment of calm respite before you ascend. On your way up, 4 or 5 sea lion adolescents might join you while they do barrel rolls around you in an elaborate game of tag.

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Then there are the islands where everything wants to kill you. Take Isla Catalina; a seemingly enchanted island from far away characterized by mountains, a turquoise blue beach, and otherworldly cactus. However, I’m convinced this island has ulterior motives. For example, this island is home to the infamous rattleless rattlesnake. That’s right, they’re just as venomous as normal rattlesnakes but they can’t warn you when they feel threatened in a cruel twist of evolution. Also, narrow cliff tops set by loose, crumbly stones. And when you fall, you will be guaranteed a thorny cushion to make sure you go numb while you spend half an hour plucking inch long needles out of your body.

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Yes, Baja has all of the above, and I have been lucky enough to experience it. However, I wish I had been more prepared for certain longer adventures when things went awry, so I will share my newfound Baja wisdom with you before you make the same mistakes next time you find yourself here:

  1. Wear more sunscreen than you have skin. And a hat. All the time. You’re going to burn. You know, just go ahead and sleep with both.
  2. Bring more than one bottle of water when you leave for an entire day of hiking in the desert. You won’t regret the extra weight and you won’t be hallucinating flamingoes on mountaintops.
  3. Always bring a bandana. These things are life-savers. I use mine for sun protection, wiping the sweat and dirt from my face, picking cactus thorns out of my legs and arms, and quelling bleeding wounds. Also, try to remember to wash it once in a while.
  4. Carry a radio. I go off by myself pretty often, and knowing my track record, I anticipate sticky situations. Especially when there be rattleless rattlesnakes roaming about.
  5. Ditch the snorkel if you’re a good enough swimmer. It’ll slow you down and those sea lions/whale sharks like to swim fast.
  6. Always bring your camera everywhere, but don’t always take pictures.
  7. Try to get yourself marooned on a beach at night. The stars are out of this world (huzzah).

Whale Sharks vs. Leo

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Four days ago, I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of my adult life. In order for me to correctly communicate the gravity of this situation, I must first tell you about my obsession with Titanic. When Titanic first appeared on the big screen in 1997, I fell in love as a mere 4-year old missing half her teeth. I also enjoyed running around the backyard in circles talking to plastic horse statues at this stage. I don’t know why my parents let me watch it at such an impressionable age, but after school, I’d grab my allotted 2 tootsie rolls and settle in for the saga of Rose and Jack.

Titanic soon became my life. When my older sister had play dates with her best friend, I would tag along and make the friend’s older sister play Jack while I lay on the kitchen counter grasping a piece of chandelier glass I fashioned into my own heart of the ocean before letting it fall to the floor. My parents even bought me the CD soundtrack and movie poster for my unfailing commitment.

This story does not end in 1997. Fast forward 16 years, and Titanic was the reason I got written up as a lifeguard. Apparently, some official from New York State Parks was auditing Gilbert Lake State Park, but no one thought to give me a head’s up. Which is why I was stoically standing at the bow of the motor boat with my arms out in Rose’s pose while the boat carried along at full speed. I wouldn’t have pulled a Titanic if I knew he was watching.

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Genuine photograph of Gilbert Lake shenanigans

Fast forward again to 2016. A job opportunity presents itself on a ship. Real life Titanic minus the sinking! Sign me up.

Commence dilemma.

I was having a normal day on December 30, 2016 and wasn’t even thinking about Titanic. It was my day off and we were docked in La Paz, a quaint seaside city in Baja. I got off the boat, took myself to tacos and walked the waterfront until a friend informed me the luscious LEONARDO DICAPRIO was in town. LEO = JACK = THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. Panic.

Apparently Leo was snorkeling with whale sharks and would be back to the dock where the Sea Bird was docked at 2pm. Una problema. I was supposed to leave the dock myself at 1:30pm for my own whale shark adventure. In what world would fate bring Leo and I across the world to a city of 200,000 together and separate us by a mere 30 minutes? Not a kind one, that’s for sure.

So began the next hour of weighing whale sharks against Leonardo. It was the most trying hour of my life. In my deliberation, I considered the following:

  • The potential of false information that Leo would arrive at 2pm to the aforementioned dock. Celebrities use guises to hide from people like yours truly all the time.
  • What if he would be in a bad mood? He might not want to even interact with me, and what would that do to my inner 4-year old counterpart’s self esteem?
  • What if I saw Leo whale sharking? Imagine the underwater selfie of a whale shark, Leo, and moi. I entertained this scenario for far too long.

So with all this in mind, I made the decision to leave on the whale shark adventure. I even brought my wildlife camera lens so I could search for Leo in the other pangas.

Alas, I did not see him, but boy did I see whale sharks. As soon as I jumped off the panga and saw one 9-10 feet long swimming at me with its mouth wide open, I forgot all thoughts of Leo. For the next hour or so, I followed the whale shark around while I got Blair Witchesque footage with a friend’s go-pro. I even got smacked in the tail by one and figured it might have smacked Leo as well – practically a high five between us.

So for now, Leo shall remain a figment of my imagination and perhaps it is better this way. In any case, I’ll never let go. My heart will go on.

(Video footage to come at some point – here’s some photos from last week in the meantime!)

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Bah Humbug from Baja

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Apparently, tomorrow is Christmas. I have a strand of Christmas lights and an envelope of Polish opłatek in the foc’sle as a reminder, but my internal clock is failing me on this fact. A day ago, I was drying my hair in the warm desert breeze after a snorkel session with playful sea lions in Cabo Pulmo. Now, the Sea Bird is sailing into a violet and tangerine Pacific sunset while I lament about my post-day off blues.

So even though my Christmas spirit is lacking this year, I feel the need to come to terms with my holiday FOMO. For the record, let me state that scrubbing dozens of toilets on Christmas Day is a cruel and unusual punishment – not even the Grinch would think to conjure such a fate. That being said, I will begrudgingly and non-festively scrub toilets on Christmas because I care to finish my contract and receive my free expedition. Also I get double pay.

On a completely unrelated note, since so much has happened in the past month and I have no tangible plan to relay my stories in a cohesive entry, I have decided to give several choppy and unrelated vignettes to catch you up on December:

Shipyard:

I put on my yellow hard hat stained with sweat and grease stains. With my bucket of steaming hot water and dozens of frustratingly non-absorbent rags, I head several flights up to the Sea Bird, docked on dry land in Alameda, CA. My days are spent adjusting my respirator to minimize toxic paint fumes, listening to musical soundtracks (Phantom, Wicked, King & I, Sweeney Todd, Les Mis, The Producers, Hair), eating Oreos in the warehouse, going on lengthy bathroom breaks, and avoiding the engineers who are doing real work. Looking fine and biden’ time.

Positioning:

6 looong days at sea. Nausea coming out of San Francisco during rocky weather. I take a shower, only to discover the most unpleasant feeling of the shower head trying to drown me while I bump ungracefully from wall to wall, amassing a new arsenal of impressive bruises. After donning my flannel pajama pants, I stumble into a guest cabin and take refuge on the floor while I try to avoid throwing up.

I awake to sun streaming through the windows and a pod of dolphins chirping away while they race the boat at the bow. I take my coffee and pancakes to the deck. The temperature is warmer and warmer every day.

Nights on the lido were magical. Until I was attacked by frigatebirds with 6-foot wingspans. They carpet bombed my backpack at 2a.m. but I took refuge under the tarp and blankets my friend laid out in one of the zodiacs the previous night. At 6:30am, the sun rose over the Baja peninsula and I began another sleepy day watching dolphins at sea.

Baja:

Much more to come on this subject, so I shall leave you all with photos instead of words to sum up my first week here. Not bad at all. (Also shoutout to friend and undersea specialist Ian Markham for taking such awesome underwater footage this week.)

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(PC: Ian Markham)

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Well since Christmas Eve turns into Christmas in less than an hour, I must go and publish this entry before it becomes irrelevant. Bah humbug and Merry Christmas.

 

Time to Polish

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I’ve passed the two-month mark. It dawned on me while I slithered blindfolded through the narrow escape hatch leading up to the forward lounge settee from my closet down in the foc’sle during a safety drill. With hands smothered in grease during my losing battle with the stubborn metal latch, I used blunt force to shove the heavy door aside and awkwardly lift myself up into the lounge, just to find the entire crew staring blankly at me. My graceful emergence into boat life continues.

So two months later – what’s changed? My lower back aches more than usual, my hands look weathered and wrinkled, and my head throbs from endless clanging of the bow thruster and the low-lying metal beams above my bunk. But as ridiculous as this may sound, I have started wearing these changes as a badge of honor.

And to be quite honest, I secretly enjoy physically and mentally trying circumstances. I will cloak that enjoyment in complaint, but I will enjoy it nevertheless. My Polish professor once joked that Poles always rise to the occasion in times of struggle and foreign conquest. It’s when they don’t have any battles to fight that they become relatively ineffective and bored with life. So for now, I will both equally resent and relish in feeling of chaos and blame that tendency on my Polish ancestral blood.

The one change I’m still resenting is the lack of writing inspiration. Now that each day feels the same, coming up with new entries is easier said than done. This entry alone took my entire afternoon break to write because I couldn’t think of anything new to say. So I will end this here while I go polish some silverware.

The silverware always needs polishing.

 

 

 

 

 

Rough Seas

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Weathered by the Sea

I write to you slightly nauseous somewhere off the Washington coast. The Sea Bird just finished her two week long south-bound trip from Sitka to Seattle through British Columbia and is now guest free for several days as we position to Portland. Yesterday was a whirlwind of saying goodbye to guests and naturalists, scouring rooms to eliminate any lingering disease, and securing the ship for rough seas.

Speaking of which, this is the roughest patch I’ve seen so far. Yesterday the crew voluntarily worked late so we could be seasick in peace this morning. If you’re wondering how to secure a ship heading for rocky seas, here’s a few things the stewards and deckhands took care of last night:

  • Take all the large atlases off the bookshelves and secure them under the beds
  • Close all windows and doors
  • Board the main level windows with metal planks so the waves won’t break the windows
  • Secure the fantail which will likely flood
  • Tie down all outside furniture
  • Pack all the wine cabinets with pillows and towels
  • Lock and tape all the cabinets holding glasses and plates
  • Make sure all surfaces throughout the ship are clear
  • Flush all toilets on board three times so no backlog in the pipes makes an appearance
  • Take advantage of the complimentary meclizine at the bar

And here’s how things have actually gone this morning:

7:19am – Wake up to the thunderous waves hitting right outside my coffin in the foc’sle. Get up to use the bathroom and stumble over all the objects that have fallen off the shelves and onto the floor during the night as the ship rocks up and down over 10’ waves. Put one of the duvets I have hoarded on the floor in case I fall out of bed.

8:20am – Stumble out of bed a second time and prepare for several new bruises while climbing upstairs over fallen wheelchairs and equipment that have tumbled over in the night. Hold onto the railings for dear life to avoid falling down the stairs I am so fervently trying to climb up.

8:25am – Eat crew breakfast and hold onto my plate because it is sliding across the table. Get up for more tea and find that my chair has toppled over while I stumble into a nearby table.

9:00am – Go check out the waves outside from the bow. Hold onto the railings and peer over as the waves crash against the boat and rock it from side to side as the ocean spray mists my face.

9:30am – Go lie down on my stomach in the forward lounge while I write this blog. The seasickness is starting to settle in and staying in the most central part of the boat will help minimize the effects. It appears to be midnight because all the windows are boarded and I can’t see the light of day. Time for another nap.

The Cocoa Boat

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A steward’s free time aboard the Sea Bird is invaluable. Dare to wake up a steward during his/her afternoon nap and you will find you’ve opened a Pandora’s box of every dangerous reaction possible. So the likelihood of volunteering to do extra chores is impossibly small when you consider all of your lazy alternatives. That is, until someone proposes an afternoon on the cocoa boat.

The cocoa boat is without a doubt the most delightful part of this job. In short, the cocoa boat delivers Christmas cheer in the form of hot chocolate and crème de menthe during an afternoon while passengers cruise around the fjords in zodiacs. Last week, the cocoa boat went out for several hours in Endicott Arm during a particularly drizzly and cold day. Embracing drenched clothes and frozen hands gripping the crème de menthe, our crew navigated the icy waters and scraped over bright blue icebergs to get closer to the glaciers. Pretty cool indeed.

Fun fact/Side note: the icebergs are bright blue because the highly pressurized molecules create ice dense enough to absorb every color on the spectrum except for blue. I think. You should probably check wikipedia before you quote me on this.

Anyway, Endicott Arm provided the perfect backdrop for our lovable cocoa boat. Check out the photos below to see for yourself!

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