Imagine the most rickety roller coaster ever. Now give it some drugs and Froot Loops. Now take away all it’s sense of direction and safety and suspension and brakes. Now I want you to imagine that the ride lasts 2.5 hours each way. And now I want you to imagine that you are riding it with a bickering family of three from Mexico, who can’t decide if they’re going to speak English or Spanish. But they can decide they are familiar enough with you to announce “it’s a good thing we’re all so thick here in the backseat, otherwise we’d be sliding all over the place!” as his wide hips slam against your child-bearing ones for the umpteenth time.
And yes, you are seated in the back. Next to the son, who is holding on to his mom, who is screaming for every minute of the 4×4 ride you are taking “ay! papi! ay! dios mio! ay! ay no! ay!” in a manner that is somehow amusing and yet painful and yet mostly painful. Son, meanwhile, is saying “I got you, Mami! I got you in a tight grip!” every three or four minutes, while Papi in the front films the whole thing on one of three devices, yells “SHUT UP ALREADY!” or laughs and says “oh shit, lady! you really know how to drive! show those assholes how it’s done!”* to our driver, a petite Brit named Naomi who wore a beret and exchanged several over the shoulder eye rolls with me as we puttered along the backroads swamp to see the penguins we were all so anxious to see.
‘Welcome to the Falkland Islands,’ the sign said. Although it’s also referred to as the Stanley Islands or the Malvinas, as three countries have been fighting claim to her for some time. I meant to read more about it before we went, I did, but I didn’t. I asked Gma why countries as civilized as the UK were still fighting over small spits of land thousands of miles away in the 20-whatever centuries. “Men,” she said, flatly. “It’s always men.”
We finally arrived to the small beach and fell out of the cars, awestruck. Three colonies of penguins – gentoo, adelie, KING! spread out over the beaches and peat moss bogs. It was freezing and windy and pouring rain, but nothing like penguins, the silliest creatures God ever created, to strike 100 adults dumb. They are curious creatures, and will approach you and nudge you if you stand still long enough, which I tried. My animal selfie game went up leaps and bounds that day. I wandered down to the beach with them, watched as they argued over directions, watched as they explosively pooped all over each other (no elementary science textbook covers that tidbit, which was hilarious). I listened to their donkey-like braying and laughed and the teenagers – awkward and embarrassed in their mid-fur state.
Penguins are weird. We could see a lot just from our verandah – swimming away from the boat, waddling up the hills to tend to their young, perched on glaciers. The videos I have of them are hilarious and will be a week or so to come, but every time I get stressed about some element of this trip, carting my grandma all over God’s creation, I remember that I sat on the beach next to a penguin and talked to it about it’s day. I will have that for the rest of my life.
After the Falklands it was a straight sailing day to get to the mainland. Turns out I am not and will never be a sailor – the open water plays a massive mind game on me. Our captain announced it as “now we will have some adventures!” with the swells. I just looked out at the waves and felt them roll beneath me and literally had to stay in bed the entire time and watch ‘Downton Abbey’ to pretend I wasn’t scared to death. I alternate between wanting to stand on the forward bow and “I’m the King of the World!” it and worrying if my body will throw itself over the edge just for fun. This happens to me on car rides, tall buildings, etc. Is that stupid? I don’t know. But we room-serviced and Crawley family-ed it through a few sea days, finally landing in southern Argentina.
Puerto Madryn is a tourist stop. Nothing natural occurs here except some sea lion colonies. I was blessed to see a sea lion birth and then, I kid you not, watch seagulls fight over the placenta. I nearly vomited. Then we visited a sheep farm – these lands are where Merino wool comes from. We learned a lot about geology and sheep-farming, probably too much, watched a sheep-shearing demonstration and ate some snacks but mostly I fell in love with the adopted guanaco, Julie. I also found a cafe with fairly decent coffee and blessedly free wifi. Pretty sure I didn’t blink for the two hours I was there, just browsing instagram and finally seeing people’s Christmas and New Years pics!!! I hope everyone had a great time!!
After Puerto Madryn, we had another perilous day at sea before Uruguay. This was spent in calmer waters, thank God, and I got to spend time with some of my friends on board. I think if I had to list highlights of the cruise, it would be the scenery, the wildlife, and then just talking to random people. I met an ex-Air Force turned car salesman from Scotland, a print shop owner from Holland (who offered me his basement to live in!), an ex-undercover FBI agent and his tech teacher wife from D.C., a professor of linguistics from Houston, a realtor from Camarillo, an administrator for the family business of commercial insulation from Newcastle, England, and retired physicists from Austria, just to name a few.
We played (terribly) at trivia together every night, danced to the pretend Motown hits, shared plates of Nachos in the afternoons and pretended the hot tub was hot enough to tempt us. It was so fun. I love people. People are great.
And sometimes I just hang out by myself. As a teacher, you kind of need that alone time to recharge, I think. To not answer any questions, to answer any asked exactly how you feel. To wander. To just be “Rachel.”
I’ve finished six books on this trip, and I’m pretty sure set the record for tea consumption and most consecutive games lost of solitaire. How much can one lose to one’s self? How many games until it’s really sad? Is this a metaphor for the greater picture of my life? It just makes me throw things, then laugh, then order more wine. Then I make my friends try and play a game with the same deck of cards so we can decide if it’s cursed or not. Or I make them learn how to play Arizona Golf with me. Now my diary has entries of games played from people all over the world and it makes me smile. Collect memories.
Uruguay, I’m sad to say, was a disappointment. We just had bad luck with our cruise excursion. So bad, the cruise actually refunded us for half the tour price. The only highlight was finding a decent restaurant with intermittent rounds of wifi so we could let our family know we were alive. I’m sad, too, because I don’t think I will have the time to let the country redeem itself before I leave South America for good in June.
We landed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 9th and did a day trip out to las Pampas to a gaucho farm for a demonstration (read: this is now a tourist destination and not actually still run as a gaucho farm, but I immediately thought how cool it would be to marry the one in the red beret and have our wedding there) of how the gauchos controlled their horses, the games they played in the old days, a tour of the old clothes and chapel, a traditional Argentine asado and of course, tango and dancing. I was
destined by being the youngest there lucky enough to be asked by the famous “besame mucho!” cowboy to dance with him in front of all 300 people. Gma got video. Yay.
And we left the ship yesterday. I’ve nearly accustomed myself to walking straight. I miss my friends terribly and am upset that so many old people still reject Facebook as a legitimate form of staying-in-touchness. Gma met someone who said an elderly German woman actually passed away while we were still at sea, but she didn’t know her name, and I’m desperate to make sure it weren’t someone I know, but have no way to check on that. I hate it.
But we’re in Buenos Aires – indulging in Malbec and steakhouses, balconies and potted plants and cobblestone, tango and late nights. And here I sit in a bar called “Camping” where the servers are dressed like sexy boy scouts. Can’t decide how inappropriate I feel. There is cigarette smoke everywhere and I literally just kicked – made contact! – a pigeon who wanted a piece of the caesar salad I’ve been steadily plowing through in an effort to get as much Caesar and Ranch dressing in before returning to Brazil, where we don’t have such luxuries.
I’m still processing the reality of the cruise – I went to Antarctica, I saw penguins in their natural, I saw so many whales I couldn’t count them, I saw a sun that never set, glaciers and global warming and the end of the world and legitimately feared that we might just spin right off it after a closer look at a globe. I woke up and looked outside and felt the biting cold of an Antarctic summer on my face and saw shipwrecks, and spoke to sailors, and made friends from around the world, and held my hand out to albatrosses that floated on our slow, scenic crawl through glacier alleys and ice bergs and penguin colonies.
I celebrated Christmas off Chilean fjords, New Years Eve in Drakes passage (I think?) while singing Elton John harmonies at a piano bar.
What a lovely and surreal life I lead sometimes. God knows I don’t deserve it; I can only hope to represent it well.
Thank you to Grandma Jackie who has let me be her translator and tour guide and porter for these last three weeks, and I’m so excited to take you home to Brazil for the next few days to meet the friends and places that have made it the wonder it is to me!
If you haven’t heard it today and you need to, as wondrous as penguins are to me, you are to me and to the one who made you. Waddle on as you may. You make life good.
*I apologize to my gentle readers, but I am an honest quotationer.
**I haven’t even uploaded my nice camera photos yet, that will come in a week or so, so . . . look forward to a lot of pics of water in different forms then. and penguins. PENGUINS!!!!
*&&!@#!@(#*!)@(#* = for those who want to know, we went on Holland America cruise, the 21 day trip from Valparaiso, Chile to Buenos Aires, Chile. I have a lot to say about all of it, that doesn’t seem appropriate here, but if you want to talk, use the “contact me” part of this blog, please.