You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me The Toilet Paper

Indoor Plumbing-My Personal Preference
Indoor Plumbing-My Personal Preference

I’ve always considered myself as being born too late. In my head I had always romanticized the exploits of explorers from the days of Columbus when falling off the map was considered a high-probability outcome, to the “gentlemen explorers” like Shackelton on his Antarctic quest, to Stanley & Livingstone and other such adventurers seeking the headwaters of the Nile. But now, with middle-age looming on the horizon and enough experience in my rear view mirror to weigh the facts, I’m happy to say: I am soooo over it.

 

Why the change? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s my predilection for indoor plumbing. Or perhaps it’s my deep-seated aversion to malaria. Perhaps it’s even due to my personal preference to not go years without informing my loved ones back home that I’m still alive. Yes, as awesome as it must’ve been to be the first to discover all those empty spaces on the map, I’ll be the first to admit that I like being able to walk onto a plane, sit down, eat a meal of mediocre but generally parasite-free food, ‘ease nature’ at 30,000 feet (while admiring toilet water in that amazing shade of blue!) then stand up again to walk out onto a different continent mere hours after I left. Had such an option been available to Vespucci, I’m inclined to think he’d take it.

 

Yeah, I’ve gone soft. While generations before me were learning valuable survival skills like hunting, navigation, and animal husbandry during their formative years, I spent mine using a controller to guide an Italian plumber from castle to castle in search of a princess held captive by overgrown turtles (“Sorry Mario, but our princess is in another castle”). And now, with leaps in technology, I can do even more than that while being whisked off to exotic locales where basic plumbing and sewage may be lacking but everyone’s got a cell phone. Think of what THAT would have meant to early explorers (Stanley, with his Bluetooth: “Livingstone, can you hear me now?”)

 

While such days of adventures seem really cool now, all it takes is to read up on the realities of such journeys to make the rest of us feel contented that such realities are not ours as we take in the planet from air-conditioned vehicles. As a case in point, narratives such as “The Lost City of Z”, detailing early explorations of the Amazon Basin, and “River of Doubt”, recounting Teddy Roosevelt’s harrowing expedition along the river that now bears his name, do nothing to make me wish I had gone along. Clouds of swarming insects day and night, a lack of food, trudging through territories of hostile natives—I have no problem limiting myself to reading about it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no wuss that can’t handle some deprivations, or is shocked by the underdeveloped conditions of the Third World. Sometimes I even like being stripped of modern (American) comforts so long as the experience immerses me in the culture. But at the end of the day (or week) I am quite content to return to drinkable water that I don’t have to boil first, posting my pictures on Instagram, and the option of having some authentic pad thai within a reasonable drive. It don’t feel like I’m asking for too much.

 

For anyone interested in an entertaining read that echoes the same principles I just expounded, I suggest taking a look at the memoir “First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria,” by Eve Brown-Waite (www.evebrownwaite.com). Not only is it really witty, but her reactions to life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador & Uganda resonate with the best of us, and only go to prove my point.

 

So while I may call upon my own head the ire of hard-core travelers with this post, I just have to be honest. I like the convenience of modern travel. I like the convenience of modern communication. And what I really, really, like, is not having to make in the bushes. For that, I apologize to no one. If you feel the same, leave a comment. It will make for interesting reading in the bathroom…

The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Antarctica

Ah, the joys of summer. Never ending sunshine. Balmy temperatures in the twenties & thirties. The refreshing feel of gale-force winds upon your skin. Such are the perks of spending a summer (i.e. winter for the northern hemisphere) visiting the White Continent. Antarctica, duly nicknamed not so much for its demographics as for the fact that everything is covered in snow and ice, is seeing more visitors than ever before. With the addition of mainstream cruise lines offering visits to this remote wonderland, even people who don’t earn six figures a year can afford passage onboard. For many world travelers that big white spot at the bottom of the map is the last place left to go to complete the continental circuit. But is it worth the time, money and windburn to get there? What can you expect to see?

Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica
Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica

First, let me say that you will not be seeing any polar bears. If for some reason you do, immediately inform the captain that he’s drifted into the wrong hemisphere, yet be polite, as you wouldn’t want him to leave you with the bears. That said, what you will see as far as wildlife goes are whales, albatross, seals and literally thousands of cute little penguins of all sorts swimming, standing around, and in some cases, marching.

 

Gypsy Cove, Stanley, Falkland Islands
Gypsy Cove, Stanley, Falkland Islands

Most cruises leave from the Argentinean ports of Ushuaia or Buenos Aires, which are worthy destinations in themselves if you don’t mind being surrounded by good-looking people. Expeditions departing from the latter generally stop at the charming yet mostly-desolate Falkland Islands—or Islas Malvinas depending on which side of the conflict you’re inclined to support. Here you can take in starkly beautiful desert–like scenery, several penguin colonies, and perhaps the southernmost pub offering fish and chips.

The Overwhelmingly British Flavor of Port Stanley, Falkland Islands
The Overwhelmingly British Flavor of Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

 

From the tip of South America it is about a day’s voyage across the Drake Passage—notorious for its rough seas. Seasickness medicine and/or an iron stomach will likely come in handy here if you’ve brought them. Before stopping at Antarctica proper, you will probably first cruise or visit the South Shetland Islands, including Elephant Island made famous by Ernest Shackleton and his crew. One look at the dreary landscape and you’ll think they were actually sane in attempting to pull off their amazing journey toward rescue.

 

At these latitudes a scan of the horizon will likely yield some stunning views of distinctly-shaped icebergs, ranging from the slushy ‘bergy bits’ that could have run off from anyone’s driveway, to the mammoth tabular bergs that boast dimensions—with no exaggeration—roughly equal to those of Queens, N.Y. No need to fear visions of the Titanic, as bergs of that size are quite easy to see and even more easily avoided. The same cannot be said of Queens.

Across the Bransfield Strait lies the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which rises northward like a cold bony finger. Most cruises will navigate the iceberg-riddled passages of the Gerlache Strait and Neumaier Channel, formed by a line of mountainous islands running parallel to the equally-mountainous coastline. Here the icebergs are predominantly glacial in origin. The bluer the berg the denser it is, and appropriately, the more photogenic it is as well. On the many ice floes drifting by you are likely to find sleeping Weddell seals or Gentoo penguins preening themselves as they float on by, rather undisturbed by your presence. As you stare up at the thousand-foot plus cliffs on each side and breath in the crisp, freezing summer air, there will be no doubt that you are truly in one of the last places on earth you’d ever think to be.

Gentoo Penguins in a queue, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica
Gentoo Penguins in a queue, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

 

The only habitations on the continent are research stations manned by scientists and students from a rainbow coalition of your major developed nations. By all accounts they get along quite well, and I imagine national and racial boundaries blur when you’re huddled together in a building while outside its 200 below. Smaller ships usually offer guests the chance to alight onshore at certain facilities, allowing an in-depth look at Antarctic life and the people crazy enough to live it.

 

If you’re considering an Antarctic cruise, the following are some practical tips. First, dress warmly and in layers. Wind is constantly a factor here, and those balmy temperatures in the twenties can drop quickly with the wind chill. Also, sun block is highly recommended, not only for the sun, but for the strong reflection of the ice and snow. Seeing as this is a summer vacation that should be a no-brainer.

 

As was mentioned earlier, sea conditions can change surprisingly fast, so some motion sickness medicine is a wise investment even if you never use it. Also, a camera with a substantial zoom—preferably in the 200-400 mm. range—can transform that picture of the iceberg with little black spots into the showcase of your album when the black spots are revealed as cute little penguins posing just for you.

 

No doubt about it, a trip to Antarctica is a travel highlight anyone who has the means should not miss. With a little money, time, and sense of adventure, you can experience one of the last true frontiers on earth in a style and comfort far above the early explorers who clued us in to its existence. But if your idea of a summer vacation is lying on a beach somewhere with your feet in the water, you’re better off staying in Northern Hemisphere. I’m sure the polar bears will appreciate the company.