Pesky Plastics

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One of my ongoing goals for 2018 has been to live a more sustainable and plastic-free lifestyle. It’s something that I’ve mostly neglected until now because it’s so much easier and cheaper to carry on with status quo routines. But this week hit me like a sledgehammer. Between the June plastics issue of NGM (pick it up at your local library or visit yours truly for a copy!), the BBC video of the pilot whale carrying her calf’s plastic-laden corpse, and the video of a sea turtle getting a straw removed from its nose, I knew embarking on my goal was long overdue.

That being said, the whole thing seems…so daunting. I started reading zero waste blogs this week and became convinced that I was caught in a lose-lose scenario. I could go crazy eliminating plastics from my life to the point where I spend roughly 90% of my day trying to be self-sufficient. Or I could ignore the problem and continue to live an ignorantly comfortable existence of utmost convenience while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grows larger. And then if I’m anywhere in between those two extremes, I’m a hypocrite.

But I also believe that being a hypocrite shouldn’t keep me from trying to improve my habits. Think about it this way. If I’m walking down a beach and notice a plastic water bottle washed ashore, that’s noticeable trash that could have come from me at some point in my life. I could choose to be all righteous and lecture other people on the beach who are drinking out of plastic water bottles, or I could accept that the bottle might’ve been mine at some point. It won’t stop me from bringing my reusable water bottle on future outings, but I’m not going to grandstand and pretend that I’m not partly to blame for the litter.

So my transition to an eco-friendlier lifestyle will be far less perfect than those 90%ers, but I’m committed to doing something. The more I see it, I’m approaching my sustainable goal the same way I’m approaching the 2018 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge. Is there any way I’m going to accomplish all 50 categories by the end of the year? Unless Apollo strikes me with a stroke of speed-reading genius, absolutely not. I’m already way behind watching my superhero mom lap me week after week. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to read every day and get through as many categories as possible.

Speaking of the Reading Challenge, I better go finish my chapter of The Pillars of the Earth because I’m perpetually behind schedule. I’ll keep you updated on the sustainability front and leave you with a photo of my attempt at grocery shopping with minimal plastic this week:

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Not bad for a newb.

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A Day at National Geographic Learning

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I never anticipated a career in publishing. I was all set to focus my job hunt on the Hawaiian Islands when a posting for National Geographic Learning popped up on LinkedIn. The D.C.-based position required the artistry to wear 50 hats for the dauntingly complicated and lengthy publishing process and an ability to withstand copious amounts of coffee while networking. I started researching the NGL publishing sphere and was subsequently funneled into a universe I never knew existed. It was almost as if I’d stumbled upon this immensely complex puzzle that I didn’t even know how to take out of the box. It was a puzzle I intended to solve.

Six months later and I’m starting to wrap my head around what I actually do. Because each day is so different, I find it challenging to explain. Rather than regurgitate a disjointed summary, let me walk you through a day in the life…

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

I let out a sigh while I drop my tote to the floor and sink deep into my swivel chair. I don’t know how it’s possible, but my tote is getting heavier every day. Maybe it’s the oceanography textbook I’ve started taking home at night. More likely, it’s the dense leftover pasta I packed for lunch.

8:55am. I log into WebEx. Today I’ll be training media researchers and editorial assistants from the UK, India, the UAE, and Singapore on using the National Geographic photo database. I begin my introduction and dive right in, but it’s a large and tricky audience to read. I’m receiving little feedback, so I breeze through penguin workboxes and Mars graphics, worrying that I’ve lulled the entire group to sleep.

I end the eerily quiet training and glance at my wristwatch: 9:45. Aha! I still have time to make it to National Geographic’s campus for the 10:30am matinee. I grab my MacBook and soak in the early spring sunshine as I trot over to 17th Street. Today, an aquanaut is giving a talk on ocean engineering. SO COOL. I want to be an aquanaut. Too bad I nearly failed basic calculus twice.

My colleague and I wait for the aquanaut ‘Under the Stars’ in the M Street lobby after her talk. The three of us head to City Place Café for lunch and chat about areas for potential collaboration in our book programs while we make messes of our greasy paninis (dense pasta is a no-go). Who wouldn’t want to read about what it’s like to live underwater? We also chat about eagle rays, Greenland sharks, and how French cheese becomes even smellier at 2.5 atmospheres underwater.

Before parting ways with the aquanaut, we stop for coffee at Peet’s and feel collectively guilty about forgetting our reusable coffee cups. Single-use plastics and all. We sip our coffees in shame.

My colleague and I leave campus and head back to the bigger office space in DuPont. A new intern will be arriving soon so we’re brainstorming intern tasks as we swerve past aggressive cars and even more aggressive tourists. The fresh air and caffeine take hold and I’m re-energized for a long afternoon of asset clearances, contracts, and emails.

Back at the office, I start brainstorming how we can ‘opt-in’ two photographers who contributed to the NG Magazine’s April issue on race through our preferred content licensing agreement. Our media researcher wants to use the assignment photographs in an English Language Teaching book series. Time to write.

A few minutes later and I’m distracted. There’s a cool NG video circulating about a Japanese puffer fish – I’m mesmerized for 3 minutes. I subsequently discuss having a documentary showcase with the office downstairs and plug Chasing Coral as the preferred selection. I shall plug it to you now. This is that plug.

The rest of my day is a blur. I reserve a spot at the Nat Geo Nights happy hour next Thursday to meet with one of the archaeologists who’ll be in town. I look into the contracts and clear some of the National Geographic texts and graphics that my project teams have asked about permissioning. I send the more complicated texts to the Society for additional clearance. I email and I swivel and I write post-its.

Eventually, my dense pasta calls and I must go.

The Doldrum Days

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It’s been nearly one year since I published my last blog entry. I remember sitting down to write it while my cat paced back and forth over the keyboard. My phrases about the penguins of South Georgia would be broken up by his musings: fdssssjkjsssssssssddddsss.

I stopped writing after that trip. My lifestyle transitioned from exotic travels to the lassitude of tweaking cover letters and stocking shelves. I slept a lot. I was tantalizingly within reach of a dream job in Hawaii, but it fell through. My confidence plummeted as hundreds of job applications were met by the sound of chirping crickets. I moved farther inland in part because my sister was charging $50 less in rent than my parents. I finally found a full time office job and settled down in family oriented, suburban Bethesda. I opened a 401K. I cemented my writer’s slump and filled the void with Netflix.

That slump bothered me this weekend. On Saturday night, I made the abnormal call to leave my apartment and accompany my roommate to a housewarming party. Upon arrival, I gravitated towards the cheese platter and tried to look normal while eating my Uber’s worth in dairy. After my umpteenth cheese cracker, I struck up a conversation with a fellow book worm who asked me if I wrote. I wanted to say yes but conceded that I hadn’t written in a year. I made excuses about having nothing worth writing.

Then came the radical proposal: why not just write about the mundane?

I pondered this one and came to the following conclusion: though I’m no longer gallivanting around the world, I refuse to concede that a 9-5 existence has detracted from my ability to write once in a while. And though I may not work on a Nat Geo expedition ship anymore, I do work in publishing for Nat Geo Learning and I am still a girl who lives for the ocean and encounters buoys enough (debatable) to keep my domain name. It’s a win-win.

I debut the Doldrum Days.

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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