Sunday, January 4, 2009

Today we got our last "beautiful good morning" wake up call from Anja. We were just about docked at Ushuaia, and it was actually nice outside. We could see a very big (for Antarctica) cruise ship, and also our sister ship, the Professor Molchanov.

In the calm waters, before breakfast, we got cleaned up. Breakfast was quick for most people - everybody was just in a hurry to disembark. After breakfast, we made our last check on our room, then went down to the bar to pick up our passports. At all of the "populated" areas we went, Anja had gotten our passports stamped. So we had stamps from the Falklands, South Georgia, and Port Lockroy. For some reason, Crystal had two different stamps from South Georgia while Justin had only one. Perhaps that was because he was down to only one page left in his passport and the South Georgia folks didn't want to use up that page on a stamp that wasn't necessary. He'll need a new passport before we go to Australia next (well, actually now this) October.

After we got our passports we got our luggage together, and disembarked. It was sort of hectic, and we missed some of the goodbyes we wanted to say. But we do have everyone's email address. And, as we found out later, we saw almost everyone at the airport. We had hardly any pesos, and our plan was to take a cab to the airport, check ourselves and our bags in, and then go back to the city. So Justin walked over to the ATM and got another $100 pesos. We had no problem getting a cab (it was early on a Sunday morning), and got to the airport in no time. At the airport, we got in the LAN line, only to have the lady behind the counter tell us that she wouldn't be checking anyone in until 1:30. It was now 8:30. This pretty much ruined our plans.

We found some solace, however, in the bar. About a half-dozen of our fellow passengers had congregated there - habit we guess. They wanted to know why we still had our luggage - they were all on Aerolineas Argentinas, who was checking in peoples' luggage. They really liked the luggage though, they said it was an "excellent presentation." These were the bags we got in preparation for Africa, from Red Oxx. After three full-on trips with it, plus some travel for work or short weekend trips, we can say it is phenomenal, and - as far as we can tell - totally indestructible. We chatted with Peggy, Lindy, Gordon, Lachlan, Julie, Nick and Leslie for some time, until the table whittled away as people's respective flights were called. At 1:30 we got in line - there were about 100 people. We couldn't figure out why they didn't start checking people in earlier. We saw that they had also moved up the flight - from 4:00 to 3:15. This was much appreciated, as our layover in Santiago was not very long, and we could use a bit more time.

The flight from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas was thankfully uneventful. On the way in, the screaming wind made the plane rock and back and forth on approach - nothing similar this time around. In Punta Arenas, we had to go through entrance immigration, but didn't have to go through customs - that would wait until Santiago. Starting on the flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago, our day got more interesting. In the row in front of us, the kids were loud and obnoxious, and the parents were complicit - all they did was ask the kids if they (the parents) could do anything to make the kids happy. They reclined the seats all of the way (even though their feet didn't even reach the ground), and spent the whole flight fighting with each other, bouncing up and down on the seats, hitting Justin's knees at least every 3-5 minutes. They epitomized the worst of United States travelers. But this was only the beginning.

We had just over two hours in Santiago, but had to grab bags, clear customs, check-in, and go through exit immigration. Only one of these took a while. Our bags came right away - they were 3 of the first 20 off the plane. But check-in was a tremendously long line - probably a lot of families coming back from Christmas and New Year's holiday. Since our flight was the first to leave, they called for LAX people and we jumped at it - straight to the front of the line. We found out then that we were stopping in our favorite place, Lima, on the way back. Just as long as we didn't end up in Guayaquil. The four people on our right were constantly jabbering, bouncing into other people, getting frustrated with ticket agent - Justin commented to Crystal "can we get back on the last plane?"

The people to our left were at least keeping their voice lower, but we could still hear them, and they were badgering the ticket agent when she was there, and when she wasn't there they concocted a theory that LAN was out to delay all of the US passengers because Chile doesn't like the US. Needless to say, we were ecstatic when we got our tickets - first of the three parties, actually, even though we were third in line. Perhaps being polite, courteous, and understanding with the ticket agent helped in that regard.

Justin was starving, so even though our plane was about to board, we stopped at Ruby Tuesday for some takeout fried food. It wasn't good, but he wasn't hungry any more. Coincidentally, we boarded from Gate 20A, just on the other side of the glass wall from where we boarded our flight to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia thee weeks earlier.

When we got on the plane, we saw some (unfortunate) familiar faces. There were the 4-5 people from the PUQ-SCL flight, the 4 people who were on our right at check-in, and - unbelievably - the two groups were together!! We probably shouldn't have been surprised. The people who had been on our left at the check-in line were now on our right, just across the aisle. Also, the family who was sitting next to us while we were waiting for our takeout - who must have said their kid's name 50 times in 5 minutes (perhaps saying "stop," or "sit down" or something similar might have been effective) - was on the flight. Add to that a crying 4-year old just in front of us, and a newborn two rows ahead, and we were thanking our lucky stars that LAN had provided us personal entertainment devices, and that Apple had provided us iPods. Those would be invaluable once the plane took off.

But it had to take off first. Near the back, somehow, someway, feces got all over one of the seats. We really didn't want to know why or how. Anyway, airline Hazmat showed up, delaying things. This had the added "benefit" of giving all of our favorite people to huddle around in the aisle, just feet from us, jabbering loudly. Only the crying kid was louder. But - we were in our seats, on the plane, and after the long day, that was really all that mattered.


So here's our wrap-up. We don't know if we can ever go back. First, 19 days is a really long time on a boat. Really long. Second, 19 days is a really long time on a boat. So if you're going to be on a boat for that long, what you see better be worth it. For us, it definitely was. And therein lies the rub. We hit every single landing on the trip, including South Georgia. From what we heard, this is incredibly unusual. We had rain at only one of our landings, at Salisbury Plain. It was above freezing everywhere we went, and on one of the days in Antarctica (the day we left) it was close to 50 degrees outside. We saw pretty much everything that was advertised (no crabeater seal, but everything else, including leopard seals, whales, and orcas). We had minimal seasickness (Crystal twice, Justin not at all). We had minimal sleep problems (Crystal one night, Justin not at all). The people on our boat were very nice, including the staff and guides. The food was good, especially given that everything had to keep for three weeks.

So basically, our trip went perfectly, so it was worth it. But, as far as we can tell, this is far from the norm. While boats sinking and running aground may be few and far between, there are other things that can go "wrong" that are far more common. On Anja's last cruise, the winds through the Drake Passage were 180 miles an hour, and people had to be locked in their rooms and told not to leave bed. On one we heard about when we got home, someone got sick (and eventually died), and the boat never made it to Antarctica. Then, of course, there are all those cruises where 2-4 landings at South Georgia never happen, where it rains, where it is even colder, and so on. If any of this had happened, odds are we would not have been overall satisfied.

We want to reiterate that the photos herein do not do justice to what we saw. Everyone we've showed seems to like them, but we are lukewarm. One of the reasons may be because to us, they don't capture what we saw, so we think they aren't that great. There are basically only 3 colors in Antarctica (white from the snow and ice, dark brown/black from the rock not covered in snow and ice, and blue for the water and sky). When the sun was behind a cloud, it was like looking at a black and white movie, and everything was in shades of black, white, and grey. But when the sun was out, there were blues and whites that we didn't know existed.

As far as recommendations, we have a couple. Three days in Ushuaia is probably one too many. If your cabin has a fridge, stock up on some stuff in Ushuaia (or Stanley if you're like us and don't know ahead of time). If we had to re-pack (knowing what we know now), we would have two of most things rather than three. Rubber boots with thicker, hiking type soles are a must. A face-warmer of some sort (like a ski-mask) would have been much appreciated. We never were able to keep our hands warm, so puffy ski gloves or some sort of artificial hand-warmer may be warranted. Our waterproof/windproof gear was otherwise good, and in fact is a must. For camera stuff, the wind noise on videos is almost unbearable, so be aware of that. Also, getting video from a moving ship looks as you might expect it to. Our pictures are 100x better than our video. A small (or full-size, if you have room) tripod for a video camera is highly recommended on landings because the wind keeps blowing the camera all over the place. For still shots, just take a ton and only show people your best 5%.

Oh, and Visa really is everywhere you want to be (Ushuaia, Stanley, Grytviken, Port Lockroy).