The Starting Point
First thing in the morning two days after I moved out my house – Monday Jan 14, 2013 – I got an email from my mum asking me if I wanted to go to the Antarctic, she needed to know right away. I thought about it for 5 minutes and said yes. I had a year off, nowhere to live, and no plans besides hitting the road sometime soon. And it was my mum’s 70th birthday in February, during the cruise, which I hadn’t wanted to miss.
I said yes to the trip without bothering to apologise for all the times I’d thought to myself that cruises were for old people and windshield tourists – checkmarking the destination without the bother of getting off the bus. Up until then, I hadn’t considered getting catered to or being treated particularly nicely as a valid part of real travel. Navigating public transport, staying in hostels, wearing my luggage and haggling over prices were what authentic travel was made of – sweat and perseverance through challenging conditions.
By mid February, with the South American sun beating down on my head as I sweated and side-stepped through the afternoon Latin Line Dance on one of the last sea days of the cruise, I had to admit a few things had changed. Where Shackleton and other indomitable Antarctic explorers had blazed the trail, I cruised by, enjoying the fruits of their labours, including displays of watermelons ingeniously carved to look like animals and penguins made of vegetables. My travel standards, for better or for worse, are no longer what they once were.
At the start of it, I was confounded by scale on the cruise – the galactic proportions of the ship were second only to the immensity of the landscape we traveled through, and only slightly more overwhelming than the amount of food on offer at every meal. It made me think of the first time I saw a cruise ship up close, in the harbour in St John’s Newfoundland. I was walking toward downtown, catching glimpses and large shadows cast by what appeared at first sight to be a spaceship. On a second look I wasn’t sure how it could have floated into the harbour, towering above the surroundings incomprehensibly like a highrise lodged in a swimming pool. Our ship, the Celebrity Infinity, was equally oversize, requiring a map for the first few days to get around, and me to remind my mum which we direction we were going in most of the days after that.
The ship was like the kind of hotel that I never stay at – fancy enough to have a backlit marble staircase heading up to the martini bar from the reception, two pool decks with long rattan loungers, a spa, a gym, a variety of restaurants, a casino with hieroglyphs on the faux stone walls, shops selling chocolate diamonds (not the edible variety) and art auctions with Miro paintings for sale.
And the people – over 2000 guests and almost half as many crew. There were tables of older Chinese men and women busy playing mahjong as we floated past Elephant Island, next to tables of older Indians playing cards, and older people walking around everywhere with that hunch and slump in the back that has reminded me more than anything that the time to practice better posture is now.
The Things We Did
I spent my time wandering around, meeting up with my mum to sit in lounge chairs near the window by the cafe that had complimentary desserts all day long. I ate too much, every day. Evidence was visible in the progression of photos I had taken for fun by the on board photographers. My mum and I played ping pong badly once, managing a 3-hit rally at our peak. We completed the daily crossword puzzle at least once and came close a few more times. We both felt seasick off and on.
I bird watched, which was fascinating, and I will talk more about later. I resisted the very strong temptation to chuck my Ipad and the rest of my valuables into the ocean. Perhaps compelled by the same urge as the old woman in Titanic pitching her priceless necklace into the depths, a move that I’ve always been irritated by, I really felt like sending it all flying. So much so that I had to remove anything precious from easy reach when sitting near the railing on the upper deck.
The Places We Went
We saw parts of the Antarctic peninsula – the Schollaert Channel and Paradise Bay. We celebrated my mum’s birthday in orbit around Elephant Island. We went to the Falklands and were happy to leave again, we went to Puerto Madryn and saw even more penguins, and we went to Montevideo in Uruguay. We ate probably more than we did anything else, or at least I did. It was a lot of time at sea, but it was with a fond farewell that I left our little floating city behind – our cabin steward Ivan, getting the bed ready every night, Hernando our Head Waiter and our Assistant Waiter, whose name I’ve now forgotten – they all helped me realise change can be wonderful, and I deserve to feel wonderful! Also, chocolates on your pillow beat bedbugs any day of the week – more on that later.