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.

 

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.

 

A Tale of Marvels Both Near and Far

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When I found out last August that I would be laid off for a period of 3 weeks during shipyard, I must admit I was a bit disappointed. Where was the romanticism in living on the sea for 6 months if it was actually 5 months and 1 week? 5 months and 1 week does not roll off the tongue nearly as well as 6 months.

In retrospect, this argument could only be one of a naïve, sea-faring postulant. Now that I’m basking on my sunny back porch with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty on my left, freshly brewed Italian coffee steaming on my right, and kitties surrounding me in a prayer circle as if I’m their cult leader, I could not wish to be anywhere else.

These 3 weeks of rejuvenation off the Sea Bird have done a world of wonders. From changing my outfit for the first time in 3 months to sleeping under a Christmas-light canopy in my plush bed cloaked in flamingo sheets and a nostalgic, mom-made quilt, my day has been replete with small wonders. Other wonders have included the baby-grand piano which is practically invisible under sheet music mountains, the bookshelves enveloping my bed with color-coded books, my tray of perfumes and jewelry, and the furry faces which have been so demanding of my attention. Being home never fails to conjure relaxing afternoons and delicious home-cooked meals in cozy environs.

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Color-coded to perfection

Yet there are parts of the job that I won’t mind returning to. Sailing into the horizon away from most of civilization will always be a liberating feeling. The blues, purples, yellows, pinks, crimsons, and oranges of the 180° sky. The realization that thousands of fish, mammals, and other creatures are going about their daily lives right below you. The jolting chill of a polar plunge and the afternoons when you hike up the tallest hill to get a bird’s eye view of your floating home.

This job has also helped me appreciate water in new ways. Just this morning, I went on a walk in the country and was disheartened to see beer can after coffee cup after plastic bag discarded in the stream running behind my house. I’m lucky to have traveled the wild, pristine waters of SE Alaska where you can sail days without seeing human impact on the environment. Maybe it is this break from society that has made me more keen to see how people knowingly and habitually wreak havoc on their surroundings. Those who feign ignorance or apathy are boiling my blood a tad more than ever these days.

If only you could force people to appreciate the beauty of humpback whales bubble-net feeding, a trusting harbor seal fascinated by your camera’s shutter, the dancing Northern Lights, or simply the melting snow trickling down a babbling brook.

 

A Love-Hate Kind of Day

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The Palo Alto Library is swanky. I half-limped here from downtown with my dead electronics and chargers in tow several minutes ago before settling down in a perfectly ergonomically designed chair facing an ultra-modern brick fireplace. Time to RICE and write.

I wasn’t supposed to be writing you from the Palo Alto Library. I was supposed to be writing you from a hole in the wall joint in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was supposed to have my bubble tea in one hand and my memory card full of Golden Gate Bridge pics in the other. Today was my day to explore one of the self-proclaimed greatest cities in America, but I was faced with a tough call at 7am.

You see, tomorrow I’m going surfing. Today I could hardly get out of bed. Now that I’m off the Sea Bird and my limbs have a chance to stretch to their full length again, I’m a tad sore. My knees are inflamed just as they were during my marathon training several years ago. I could have gone to San Francisco but I hear there are hills. Inflamed tissue and grandma joints don’t do well on hills. So instead of taking myself on an adventure, I am enjoying my lovely staycation at the library. Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate. Must heal for surfing.

Surfing has agonized my landlocked soul and body since ’93. It’s a love-hate relationship. I have spent years studying surfing and preparing for the day when I’d make it to the big leagues. I have studied swells, wind conditions, and different beach breaks throughout the country. I have spent years religiously learning tricks on my Indo Board. I have pursued competitive swimming, yoga, and even skateboarding to help me become a better surfer. I have researched Fulbright locations, college campuses, and jobs that would facilitate my surfing career. My bedroom in Norwich, NY looks like a Hawaiian surf shack.

I have only been surfing 7 times. This is unacceptable.

Inflamed knees are unacceptable.

 

 

 

Old Times on the River

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It’s been 49 days on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and my journey throughout Washington and Oregon is drawing to a close. Tonight, we are leaving Portland for Alameda, California. The Sea Bird will spend a month docked in Alameda while she is ripped apart, scoured, and put back together with new bells and whistles for the upcoming year. Where does this leave me? My bank account stagnant for three weeks. My home away from home with holes in her side. My tales of a right sea-faring adventurer put on hold until Baja.

In four short days, I will be kicked off the boat and told to fend for myself. Two of my best friends from Boston College are in the Bay area, so I will be staying with them for a week until I take my free plane ticket back home to Upstate NY for several weeks. Plans/goals? Sleep an absurd amount. Start Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #10. Maybe obtain my open water diver certification. Also buy a camera lens for wildlife photography.

Excusez-moi while go check my bank account again…

Hmmm.

Though I will miss the relaxed pace of river living, I am ready to sail in saltwater once again. There’s something about star-gazing up on the lido deck late into the night while listening to whales’ blowholes that you just can’t recreate on the river. Sure, you get the occasional breaching salmon, but even they seem anxious to finish their trek upstream.

Also being lulled to sleep by the rocking of gentle waves. I miss that.

Speaking of gentle waves, it sounds like conditions our 3-day trip from Portland to Alameda will be, well, not that. Captain held a meeting yesterday in which he declared the upcoming waves high and rough. The stewards are being moved out of the foc’sle (the forward, most bottom part of the boat) to guest cabins above where the motion will be more manageable. Today, the crew is working tirelessly to secure and latch loose objects, board up windows, tape drawers shut, the works. We have been instructed to wear life jackets and bring another person if we venture outside.

But, dare I say, only 9 hour working days for the next 4 days. 8am-5pm. Living the dream.

I will leave you all with some of my favorite pictures from the WA and OR. Thank you, river, for being beautiful, slow-paced, and serene. Perhaps we will see each other again someday.

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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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Beware of Alaskan Trees

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Hanging out on the Lido Deck – Boat in a Boat

I have officially survived one full week in a boat! And considering I’m currently sitting in a boat on a boat I feel like I should get bonus points. Though the days feel endless, I’m surprised by how quickly this week has passed. It feels like I’m a world away from home and I’m only at the beginning of my journey. To give you a little recap of my week, I’ll include my high’s and low’s. This is my initiation week after all and what’s life without a few icebreakers?

Lo’s:

  • I was attacked by an Alaskan tree that stabbed me in the eye with a branch of pine needles on a hike. It took two days for my eye to stop hurting every time I blinked. And the worst part was that I couldn’t even lament to others about my eyeball injury because it’s just not socially acceptable. It has been a long and quiet road to recovery.
  • De-molding the carpet under my bunk with the crew was also a low moment. Armed with a face mask, gloves, flashlight, and a bucket of bleach, I shimmied on my back and ripped out damp carpet during my usual cookie and coffee break. I was not a happy camper to say the least.
    1. *Side Note* This actually just turned into a high because the Captain gave us an internet card for our painstaking effort.
  • Getting used to a radically different lifestyle has been tough and homesick-inducing. I am getting used to less sleep, less introversion, and more physical labor.

High’s:

  • Hiking through Tongass National Forest with the other stewards. The rumbling rivers and vividly green and dense mossy trees engulf you the moment you step past the tree line and you’re on your own. Following bear tracks and your own intuition, you create your own adventure. Don’t forget bear spray.

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  • Joining an afternoon excursion to Red Bluff. The mud came up to my knees as I slugged through the forest to reach a lake in the mountains. The expedition leader had us all put away our cameras as we celebrated a full minute of silence upon arrival.

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  • Grabbing a large Italian vanilla cream soda in Petersburg and calling home.

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  • Kayaking with sea otters and thousands of jellyfish in the Inian Islands. The tide was down and the friendly otters were happy to swim up and put on a show. After coming back ashore, I followed one of group excursions up the river to watch and learn about the salmon migration upstream. Talk about a resilient species!

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  • Seeing my first orca and glacier in the same day. Also getting my National Parks Passport stamped for Glacier National Park and Preserve.

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  • Doing a polar plunge at Glacier National Park. The water was a frigid 45 degrees and I felt stabbed by a thousand needles when I dove in. However, the momentous pride I felt when I walked in to an applauding lounge later that night made it worth the chill and thrill.

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  • Having a group of humpbacks swim right up to the boat for an hour while they fed and dove in greeting.

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  • Sleeping in until 9am on my day off. Reading a good book on the lido deck and enjoying some peace and quiet amidst the breathtaking scenery.

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  • Kayaking in DeGroff Bay all by my lonesome in my double person kayak. Resting my calloused hands in the frigid ice water below while the sun warmed my face.

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So there you have it. Living on the Sea Bird has been demanding, but the high’s certainly outweigh the low’s. Can’t wait to see what next week has in store.