Author: Martha Barron Barrett, G ‘68
[The following are memories from a Penn Alumni Travel trip Ms. Barrett took in 2010 to Antarctica.]
These excerpts are adapted from my recently published travel memoir: Slow Travel: Two Women of a Certain Age-and Modest Means-Leave Home.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 11, 2010 Marriott Plaza Hotel, Buenos Aires
The bus tour of the city was fine. We used our room service privileges again–just like the movies of my youth.
(Sandy Lawson, my partner and the photographer, and I had been in Argentina since January 1. After selling our winter home in 2007, we had spent each January, February, and March traveling independently: New Zealand, South Africa, now Argentina. This would be our first tour. The Penn brochure with a sleek ship, the Deluxe M.S. Le Diamant, floating in an ice-littered sea had arrived Memorial Day weekend. Monday after our guests left Sandy and I agreed this tour had everything we ever dreamed of. Tuesday morning I was on the phone to Thomas Gohagan Tours reserving a stateroom to Antarctica.)
We are to be downstairs at 5 a.m. to grab coffee and a snack, then it’s into the air southward. To the ends of the earth, as I wrote to the family. Indeed. High Adventure. At seventy-seven.
FRIDAY M.S. Diamant Room #303
I strode between rows of white-suited sailors toward an open door. A tall, handsome young man with sufficient braid to be the captain shook my hand and said, Welcome. Inside someone pressed a warm washcloth into my hand–which I found still there when I entered our cabin. A queen bed under two big portholes. I was delighted.
Others had informed us that the passenger lists had only three from Penn and one of those had canceled because their flight was caught up in the Philadelphia snowstorm. So much for the notion of “alumni groupies.” The economy is worse than anyone is letting on.
Outside Le Club, one floor-deck-up, we tried on gift parkas …
At dinner, Sandy and I, the bewildered first-timers, were gently moved toward a partially filled round table of six, to be soon joined by Nicholas, our Russian leader who had told us at the briefing to knock the adjective “soft” off the word “expedition.”
The menu let us know what we would be having for the various courses: soup, salad, fish, meat, dessert. Bottles of wine, French, of course, hovered and we chose either red or white; thereafter our glasses were never empty. Sandy commented on the amazing efficiencies of the huge staff of waiters who presented the food, impeccably, at the perfect temperature, be it hot or cold. …
With a seasickness patch pasted firmly behind my ear, I dropped into a dead sleep.
SUNDAY Southern Shetland Islands, Sunrise 4 a.m. Sunset 10:50 p.m.
Noon position Deception Is., where I set foot–both–on the ashy sands of Antarctica, the last or lost, continent.
Wind: Nil force 0
Air Temp: 2C (36F)
Water: .5C (33F)
Landings: Baily Head 1:50 p.m. and Whaler’s Bay 4:30 p.m.
Instructions by the voice of our tour guide drilled through the PA system into our room. At 1:40 he finished with the Green Group and started into the Yellows (us), screwing into our heads the idea that we simultaneously must hurry and suit up yet not arrive in the club lounge too early. I tried to be methodical. Life jacket. How the hell does this thing— Yellow Group! Yellow Group, go to the club. Blue Group, get dressed.
The hall was empty. Blue group, go to club now. Dear god. Sandy and I ran down the hall, up two flights of stairs, through the blur of red and out onto the landing. Yellows. We slumped in sweaty relief. No one looked calm. My mouth was dry as a bone.
The line shuffled forward. ID swiped. A flight of perhaps twenty-five white metal steps, railing on both sides, so many things to consider: steepness in these untried boots, grip of silk gloves on railing, plastic tub of disinfectant at the bottom step, rope guide across to the outdoors, and another flight down to the Zodiac. I could see there were two men helping people step up on the side of it and two more inside helping them down. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Okay. Down. Too slow-keep up. Now. Step up. Grab those strong wrists. Down and in. Sit. I reached back and gripped the rope looped along the side. Takeoff might be rough.
Nothing was rough. Not the trip over, not getting out with two competent arms on the other side to steady me. Not walking up the rise. I planted myself like a flag and gazed around at the largest rookery of chinstrap penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula: some 200,000 who stood like small figurines arranged from the black sand beach to the high ridge. …
Boots in hand I entered Le Club and was handed a cup of hot beef bouillion.
MONDAY off Gourdin Islan
I suspect my remaining life will be divided into pre- and post-Antarctica segments.
Our evening expedition took us out into the ice pack where I actually disembarked the Zodiac to stand on the flat surface of a “table” ice floe. It was moving with the sea and rotating, and the ice pack was thickening; the horizon resembled a city of white and gray block buildings, a nature city. But we are not residents, merely red penguins tromping about on this temporary bit of real estate, taking photos for alumni magazines, driving snow golf balls, shouting like kids at recess. Like the sea the ice will bear no memory of our passing: wind and snow will quickly cover every trace.
TUESDAY Noon Livingston Is.
Mountains tower beyond a shingle beach. The sky’s responsibility is special effects and it puts on a great show. I could have sat there for hours.
The walk this afternoon (single file) was probably a mile in black sand along the side of a two-thousand-foot high dune. I could not raise my eyes for fear of slipping. We met a line of Greens marching our way and I happened to be first in line. Should I take a step up or take a step down? I stepped up; at least someone would have a chance to grab me on the way by. I made it without falling, but also without grace.
WEDNESDAY Wilhelmina Bay
Zodiacs. These sturdy, inflatable hard-floored boats have become my favorite way of seeing the shore, up close where my aging eyes could catch the details without having to watch my footing every second. We happily putted along the shore, the guide giving fascinating details about the snow algae and birds and seals. We were riding across the surface of their dining table that held their live eats: fish, krill …
Just finished a room service dinner American style. Our earlier lunch had been a surprise! What a scene for a “barbeque” of sirloin with twenty other dishes. I had two glasses of wine and one of our pastry chef’s beyond-this-world desserts.
THURSDAY Port Charcot
I feel like a molting penguin today, helpless until my protective coat is restored. It is about nine-thirty and the ship is deserted. I crave the familiar and silence. This hour up here in the little library surrounded by books, lulled by the orderly passage of time, is untangling knots and loops.
Outside icebergs roam. A small one with the head of a seahorse rides like a forgotten toy in a fancy pool. Inside, a jolt when I see on the stairs men of color on their knees furiously polishing every inch of brass. For me an unresolved enigma. Shouldn’t I be helping?
LATER. Probably overload happens on tours of art, architecture, and poets-of-the-lake-district too-and not only to the elderly. And maybe us older folk have a viewpoint on all this stark and ancient scenery that surpasses the value of what a forty- or fifty-year-old sees and feels. More kinship with the eternity presented by this vast and ageless land.
FRIDAY Neko Harbor
A nook of perfection stashed off to one side of a fjord lined with sheer ice-covered mountain ridges. Everyone (including Sandy) trudged on up the slope. Penguins, as idled by the sun as I, stood silent on ice patches or in run-off streams like retirees cooling their feet on a too hot Florida day. Creaks and groans issued from deep inside the glacier. A penguin came and stood beside me.
SUNDAY Beagle Channel
Placid seas allowed us to land on Cape Horn and I stood atop this storied island gazing toward Antarctica: a fitting exclamation point to a journey to the bottom of the globe. The trip had not been about the ship, the food, the people we met, but what lay over the horizon. Even when I was actually looking at it, or walking on it, a sense of disbelief hovered. What mind can conceive of the earth’s rotation slowing and slowing until it disappears? Who believes in zero?
[For more information about Penn Alumni Travel and our entire 2015 schedule, click here. Although we will not be traveling to Antarctica in 2015, we will be journeying to Patagonia and Cape Horn, January 21-February 7, 2015. Click here for more details.]