Now that we’ve had our two days cruising along the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands, I can’t quite recall what I expected. I do know that as the white lines on the horizon emerged from the grays of the ocean and sky, I was mesmerized. We were fortunate because the first approach of the continent was on the starbord side of the ship, which is where our room is. We sat, wrapped up in all our coats and blankets, on our balcony, focused on the emerging walls of ice and glaciers. The seas were relatively calm, so the ribbon of whites and silvers slid slowly by off in the distance. I felt hypnotized, couldn’t keep my eyes off the view, lulled into tiny reveries; delicious hypnosis.

But the sky was very gray, and the ice was distant. I did wonder if this was all that we’d see. I shouldn’t have worried. We slowly made our way into what they called Paradise Cove. We were surrounded by rocky cliffs and peaks, glacier faces, ribbons of layered ice, icebergs, swirling clouds and cold cold air. The sea, protected by this ring of Antarctic mountains, was very calm. Clouds rolled over the rocks. Vivid azure ice shone through fissures in the ice. Our photos and videos will have to try to show a bit of what we experienced.

I have been wondering what it is that makes this experience so rich and fulfilling — at least for me. It is a combination of the wordless immediacy, the scale, the awe and wonder. No words for that; it is the unfiltered feeling of being in the place, buffeted by what we see, hear and feel in the cold air. This is why I can just stand there and absorb for hours on end: just being with this stark, immense and mysterious landscape.

I wondered what it would be like if the sky had been clear, with blue sky behind the peaks and full sun on the ice and rock. I couldn’t resist going online to find a photo of Paradise Cove on a rare blue-sky day, with the rock and ice reflected in the water; undeniably stunning. But our day included clouds and mist that hid and revealed the black and white of the mountains. During the day, the light shifted subtly, quietly changing the view, adding and taking away depth and vistas. We learned that the weather here is much of the time like this, and very often less accommodating, with fog, storm, wind and thick clouds. So we were fortunate to be able to see a sliver of the Antarctic mainland in its more customary dressing. That online image of blue-sky Paradise Cove showed the naked continent, almost the abstract idea of Antarctica. We, however, experienced an enveloping of the Antarctic environment, full surround, dynamic, alive.

Someone commented that photos of this landscape look like they are just black and white, colorless. They compared that, in Alaska, you see the blue-gray of the sea, the green of the surrounding hills, the white of glaciers and ice; and that is a rich mixture. For me, this tight contrast of many blacks, silvers and whites, with the tiniest edges of sapphire, keeps inviting my eyes and mind in. The patterns are harsh and beautiful. The striations of ice speak to the myriad of piled seasons of ice and snow. The fissures in the banks of ice, still during our short visit, are snapshots of flow and breakage.

I came to Antarctica because of the idea of the place: supremely remote, immense, too large for non-explorers like us to experience more than with this glancing approach, deadly, inexplicably full of sea life, like another planet. As we stood on deck, under the cold clouds, facing this landscape, this idea of Antarctica filled my mind. The awe of the place is immediate in the senses and enriched by our ideas of the place.

Antarctica cruise notes 7 – Watching the ocean go by

The only other cruise that Mike and I have taken before was one from Vancouver to Alaska and back. We almost never were out of sight from land. I recall the pleasure of sitting at dinner, seeing the land slide by in the late evening northern sun. The land excursions were the highlight for me, being out in the landscape. On the other hand, the crowds on the ship, in the buffet lines and even at the large round table of strangers to which we had been assigned, made me want to roll up in a protective blanket.

On this cruise to Antarctica, in order to cover the huge distances between the nearest major port, Buenos Aires, and the Antarctic Peninsula, we have to have many days at sea. I projected from the Alaska experience, and came prepared with strategies to mitigate endless hours of cruise ship and open ocean.

It wasn’t necessary! These days of mesmerizing ocean, no schedule, books to read, friends to play games and dine with, notes to write, sketches to explore, and naps to take are delicious. The time never weighs on us. We alternate being busy with entertainment, with being “busy” reading and watching the sea flow past. We have just finished months of disengaging from Hawaii, packing and planning, followed by long to-do lists in France as we start to set up our new life. All of this busy-ness has been so positive, the process of our fulfilling one of our dreams; but it has been without respite.

Now on At-Sea days, we let ourselves just be with the uncluttered ocean. We let ourselves be carried along by the ship and the cruise activities. More happy to-do lists await us at home, and for now, we watch the ocean go by.

Antarctica cruise notes 6 – Lights on the horizon

We are out in the ocean, out of sight of land, en route from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Last night, when we stepped out of the restaurant, which is on an upper deck, into the open air, we looked at what we expected to be the black midnight horizon. But strung along the edge were clusters of brilliant points of light. It looked like theatrical spotlights pointing at us from the outer wall. It felt like the Truman Show reality of this cruise was suddenly laid bare. We were on a huge water stage.

Turns out these are large fishing boats, shining powerful lights into the water to attract squid along the edge of the continental shelf. The open ocean isn’t empty.

Antarctica cruise notes 5 – Demographics and cheerfulness

I was wondering why it seems that cruise passengers are for the most part from the US. Google reveals that about 59% of cruisers are from North America, and 26% from Europe. Celebrity is English-language centric, with occasional translations to Spanish and German. From some audience participation after a theater presentation, it seems that there are passengers from at least the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, China, Argentina, Japan, but primarily from the US.

Celebrity markets its approach to high-quality service, food and beverages. All crew who meet passengers are unflaggingly cheerful, with full eye contact greetings, and usually a humorous retort to any light conversation. Do non-Americans find this cheerfulness so very American? Is it attractive, part of the cruise experience, or do they roll their eyes?
While I am fully American, dedicated to being positive and cheery myself, being surrounded by people paid to be cheery to me — all the time and everywhere — gives me pause. Where else but the designed and contained world of a cruise ship (and some resorts) do you pay for a fully enveloping fabricated experience? The experience includes the activities and services, like in a city: food, beverages, spa, theater, shopping, casino, trivia games, library and much more. But it includes all the connective tissue between the activities and services too. You leave your wallet in the room safe, carrying only your ship card for ID and virtual payment. Menus (for the most part) don’t have prices on them because you can choose anything you want. You flow into the theater to see what is going on, perhaps with a designer martini in hand (no prohibitions of walking the streets with alcohol). You flow out again if you change your mind; you didn’t specifically pay $105 per seat, which in the conventional world would motivate you to stay from start to finish. (Is this what the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation would be like: no money, all your needs available at request?) Everything is designed to provide you with diversion and pleasure — and to make the cruise line some money as well.

There are naturally 1000 complex and specific reasons why the 1000 or so crew members work on this cruise ship. They come from all over the world, but seem mostly to come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Latin American and Eastern Europe — areas of low wages. Our experience of them so far is that they are remarkably well spoken, and flawlessly polite and positive. The cruise-line hiring process must be very well thought out and deliberate. These people seem predisposed to be both present and of service. I hope that this is good employment for them, and that they take some pleasure in their role in this service industry.

Our role is consumer and experiencer. We have saved our money and chosen to spend it for this enveloping, positive experience to and from Antarctica. I’m delighted that we have the great fortune to be able to travel so far to see such (hopefully) stunning interesting places. But are we a gentler version of the elite in The Hunger Games or any other distopian divided-class story? Everyone here is a willing participant. This have-more / have-less tension fuels most everything in the modern world. We are less fortunate than some; we are more fortunate than many — at least related to ability to travel and live in the world, and enjoy some economic security.

We get to enjoy a couple weeks of pampering and great travel, with the opportunity to be kind to everyone around us, and hope that they all increase their own good fortune as they wish.

Antarctica cruise notes 4 – Theater presentations

I come to all this with prejudice from who knows where that the theatrical productions on cruises are entertaining but cringe-worthy like suburban community theater. All targeting nostalgic boomers. But we are they, we are here, and let’s jump into all the cruise distractions. The production on the first night was a song and dance mélange fueled by 1970’s disco songs. Young enthusiastic cast in all shapes and sizes; one female lead had to sport a tight 70’s onesie that showcased her full middle, while one of the male dancers seemed to be 7 feet tall. Oh well, go with the flow, celebrate diversity. I wondered so much about all the performers’ stories: Is this a great résumé builder? Do you have to be pretty good to land this gig, or is this a way station to nowhere? What is it like to be a tiny ensemble of theater people, away from home, hidden behind the scenes except at show time, performing for an older crowd lulled by massages, cocktails and buffets — at least does it seem that way to them? In fact, the audience is delighted to be here, relaxed, old enough to have shed inhibitions, and probably really supportive of these talented young people.

The songs were all lively and expected (Disco Inferno, Boogie Wonderland…). The plot was appropriately loose: Aspiring singer torn between his high school sweetheart and the flashy established singer (sweetheart wins!). As the numbers rolled along, full of energy and tight choreography, with excellent cruise band backup, the rambunctiousness and joy took over. The performers were very good: great voices, impeccable dancing, endless energy. I hope that this cruise engagement is good for their careers and bank accounts, because they delivered such an enthusiastic and quality performance. (When and where did they rehearse to be so tuned?) Is there something in the water turning me into a cruiser?

Antarctica cruise notes 3 – Trivia games

60s Music Trivia: 20 song snippets from the 60s: Martha Rae and Vandellas, Hermin’s Hermits, The Archies, Build Me Up Buttercup, Bully Wooly… I realize in my music fog that my formative days missed these by a few years, although Mike and all our friends were right in there (sorry about being the “young” one here!). For them, within a few intro bars, snappy recognition, jumping in the seats. Even obscure titles. I’m more like, that sounds familiar; no idea who is singing (except the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash, artists who never go away in popular culture). At one point, the emcee tempts us by offering an extra point for all teams who come up and dance; in light speed, the dance floor is full of enthusiastic baby boomers, moving really well. I’m not that fast or motivated, but: Oh, that’s me too.

Progressive Trivia: 20 questions from all over the trivia spectrum. Our team of 5 is Hawaii France. The room is filled with competing teams. This is the second day; Mike and I missed the first when the team did pretty well: 15 / 20. Now we need to see if we can contribute a little to the team. Luckily, three French related questions: What is the flavor in Cointreau? What is the literal translation of crème brûlée? How do you spell turquoise? (orange, burnt cream, turquoise!). But: How old was Jimmy Hendrix when he died? (Jim knew it: 27.) How many of Santa’s reindeer have names that start with D? (We found only 2, but there are 3: Dasher, Dancer, Donner). Apparently there had been comments the previous day that the questions were too US-centric, so they included this: What is the name of the street on which the neighbors live in the TV show Neighbors? Neighbors, what is that? Turns out to be a popular Australian show, and the street is Ramsay. Oh well. What is the only year that can be expressed in Roman numerals in descending order? My trivial analytical mind, or analytical trivial mind, jumped at it: 1000, 500, 100, 50, 10, 5, 1: MDCLXVI or 1666. Useful knowledge? While I zoned out and felt culturally dumb during the music trivia, this one was great fun because it took our entire team to answer the questions; we balanced each other very well. One question was, On what classic movie was the animated movie Chicken Run loosely based? I remembered having seen Chicken Run, a claymation about chickens that are plotting escape from their coop (what motivated me to see this one?) but had no idea about its inspiration. Jim listened to my spare plot description and said, That sounds like The Great Escape. Correct! 15 / 20. Addicted; more tomorrow.

Antarctica cruise notes 2 – Germs

Berta and Jim had warned us that it is best to be careful in the ship because of the concentration of people and ability for bugs and viruses to spread quickly. Don’t touch the handrails if you can avoid them; wash your hands frequently; use the hand sanitizers that are positioned throughout the ship. This reminded me of warnings I had received once when in Beijing: Touch nothing, never touch your own face and eyes. Disease everywhere!

Among the documents we find in our room is a full page that explains that on the last cruise for this ship, there was an outbreak of something gastrointestinal, perhaps norovirus. The ship has been scrubbed and disinfected top to bottom. But be careful. As we start to explore the ship, we find crew members at the entrances to the food venues, holding sanitizer dispensers, offering every passerby a squirt of cleanliness, and a cheery greeting.

After a couple of days, I can climb multiple flights of stairs, and float independent of the handrails.