Goodbye and Good Luck!

We've decided that after South America we're finished with our international travel for the foreseeable future. While we didn't manage to make it to all 7 continents, we did do quite a bit over the course of our 171 days on the road:
Visited 71 cities, towns, or villages
...in 30 different countries
...across 5 continents.

And we used a number of different means of transport:
 - 9 rental cars
 - 3 private vans
 - 8 long distance buses
 - 13 trains
 - 7 car and/or passenger ferries
 - 2 cruise ships
 - 30 airplane flights
 - plus a number of taxis and subways that I'm not going to try and count!
 
We are extremely glad we did it, and we both agree that it had the effect we hoped for when it comes to educating Walter (and ourselves) and expanding his horizons. He has learned about a number of difficult topics like the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the Nazi Holocaust, the European immigrant crisis, poverty in South America, the history of whaling, and the ongoing effects of climate change on different animal populations. We also did notable hikes through places as diverse as Koya, Japan; Bergen, Norway; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Lake Titicaca, Bolivia; Machu Picchu, Peru; Easter Island, Chile; Ushuaia, Argentina; and of course, Antarctica. And on top of that we walked hundreds of miles through cities of all shapes and sizes.

In terms of destinations, my biggest takeaway is how underrated South America seems as a travel destination for Americans. Many of the friendliest and most welcoming people we met on our entire journey were in South America. And while the language barrier does exist, we generally found it far easier to overcome than in a country like Spain, to say nothing of Japan. A little bit of Spanish or Portuguese goes a very long way in South America, and in my opinion language should not at all be a barrier to going. The combination of people and natural wonders are such that I would be hard pressed to consider a trip back to anywhere in Europe before we get another look at Colombia and Ecuador, my two favorites in South America (Chile and Argentina are both great as well, but in many ways feel as Western as Europe.) I know some people worry about crime in South America, but I'll be honest, we never felt uncomfortable throughout the entire trip. If you take the same precautions in South America that you would, say, in Chicago, then you'll be just fine.

Ages ago I shared a few of the things we packed for Europe that were really useful. Things like packing cubes and a 4-outlet power strip. That advice still holds, but I think it's worth mentioning two phone apps that we found invaluable through all of our travel:
 - The android and iphone app Maps with Me is an absolute requirement for all international travel. This app is incredible and will help you find everything from bathrooms to playgrounds, all without using any cellular data as long as you make sure to download the countries you will be visiting in advance (or over hotel wifi).
 - Similarly, take advantage of the feature in the Trip Advisor app that lets you download a city for offline use. That way when you're looking for a lunch place with decent reviews you can easily search within Trip Advisor without using cellular data.

This is the end of the road for the blog, as I don't expect to update any more after this post. We're going to spend the remainder of ski season searching out great snow in Colorado and possibly Utah as well. After that, it will be back to the real world, both in terms of Walter going back to school full time and me returning to work.

Thank you to everyone who followed along as we lived our little adventure! We hope you found it a little bit educational, a whole lot enjoyable, and most of all, that it gave you some ideas for your own travel.

Dry land and photos galore

Well, the cruise is over. I'm going to save my thoughts for a future date when I have more time, as tonight I've been focused on getting all the photos online. But suffice it to say that we had an absolutely incredible time and of all our travels, this is surely the highlight. Not only we did we get to see Antarctica and South Georgia, but we did it in the company of the passengers and crew of the Seabourn Quest, which only amplified the experience. Indeed, today in Buenos Aires we felt community withdrawal, as we've become so accustomed to seeing familiar and friendly faces everywhere we go. We walked around downtown Bs As today for several hours and didn't see a single person we know. How can that be?!?!? A shock to the system after 24 days of cruising.

Regardless, the photos are going up in droves. Right now there are 12 galleries containing 937 photos and 2 videos, though the last couple hundred photos have not completed uploading. Hopefully by the time most of you read this they'll all be complete (unless of course Hyatt shuts me off for uploading well over 4GB...). They are all featured on our smugmug page, http://markandjie.smugmug.com/, right up top as recent galleries, in order and labeled Seabourn 1, 2, 3, etc. for your chronological convenience. I also hope to go back through and add videos as appropriate to the prior blog posts, but we'll see. Anyone who's taken a look over at Walter's blog knows I haven't exactly been on top of things...

Playing out the string

Not much left to the cruise but three days at sea and a day in Montevideo, Uruguay. I meant to blog about our last day in Antarctica a few days back, but we had such an amazing time in South Georgia that I'm only getting to it now, late at night as we head away from South Georgia on the ~1400 mile journey back to the continent. So you'll have to content yourself with this rambling post about our last day in Antarctica, our three days in South Georgia, and a little bit on what I think it all meant to us.

On our last day in Antarctica we spent a few brief hours in Hope Bay near Esperanza Station, an Argentine base. There was no good place for a landing where you could see the wildlife so we were limited to a zodiac tour, and we were very fortunate that we went out with the first group of the day as bad weather forced Seabourn to cancel the rest of the groups. Throughout our cruise we had heard stories of the previous cruise, which went from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso via Antarctica, where one fortunate zodiac had a penguin accidentally jump in the boat. Well, I'm not sure whether it was the stormy seas or our general luck, but for our cruise and for our one group that was able to go out we averaged one penguin PER zodiac. These were Adelie penguins, the smallest, cutest, and generally the craziest of all the penguins. We were one of two zodiacs who had not one but two penguins wind up in our boat (4 others had 1, the last 2 had zero). The first one came over on the bow, right between two people, and flapped around nervously until our driver, Lucciano, was able to help it out. The second one came into the stern, where we were sitting, and anxiously tried to escape out the back right where Jie was sitting, making for a hilarious video that I will post when we have the bandwidth. It was a very memorable day, not just for the two penguins in our zodiac but also for the tens of thousands (no exaggeration!) outside of it.

We then spent two days at sea traveling up to South Georgia, a British island that is in no man's land in the South Atlantic, about 1200 miles due west of Tierra del Fuego. For comparison, Washington, D.C. is slightly less than 1200 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is an extremely nutrient-rich part of the Southern Ocean which leads to very high concentrations of krill, which in turn leads to very high concentrations of things that eat krill, like whales, seals, and, of course, penguins. We spent our first day at Cooper Bay where we first went kayaking and then later had an incredible zodiac tour. On our kayak we were surrounded by fur seals, elephant seals, and king penguins. The fur seals in particular were incredibly curious and, as one of the kayak guides remarked, it was very hard to determine who was being observed and who was doing the observing between the kayakers and the seals. Walter and I had one juvenile fur seal show off for us for a while and then follow us for several hundred yards when we had to move on to the next spot. It was a lot of fun, if nerve wracking at times given that fur seals are known to bite the occasional tourist. On the zodiac tour we were also treated to a colony of macaroni penguins (so named from: "he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni"...I kid you not), which you'll see in the pictures we will one day post. In the afternoon as we moved on to our next spot we also saw dozens of humpback whales. We didn't get as close as our encounter at Yankee Harbor, but it was still pretty neat.

On our second day on South Georgia we went to the main "town," Grytviken. This was originally a Norwegian whaling depot (run by Norwegians who formed an Argentine company yet recognized that Britain had sovereignty over the islands and paid British taxes...only important vis a vis the Falklands War in the 80's). Here we had another beautiful spot, this time with a landing and a walk around close to elephant seals, fur seals, and a few king penguins. We also got to walk around the ruins of a turn-of-the-20th-century whaling station, which were both fascinating and an incredible backdrop to our photos. You'll see what I mean when I upload them. Here we paid our respects at Shackleton's grave and did our best to avoid the hormonal juvenile male fur seals. I'm particularly proud of some of the photos I took on this part of the island, and I think you'll see why. Admittedly, the wildlife did most of the work and all I did was crouch down and capture it. Another amazing place.

Finally, just this morning we went to Salisbury Plain, where we hoped to land among the ~250k king penguins who breed here. Unfortunately, the weather and surf were against us and both our kayak trip and zodiac landing were canceled. We had to content ourselves with a zodiac tour about 30 yards offshore, which while still amazing was also freezing cold and resulted in only a few dozen sub-par photos. There was an incredible amount of wildlife on the beach in front of us, with tons of king penguins and fur seals all along the way. There were also a number of petrels, skua, and other birds, waiting in the wings to feast upon an abandoned fur seal pup or dead penguin. Indeed, on our tour we saw several petrels fighting over a dead fur seal pup, and on the last tour of the day they saw a male fur seal kill a king penguin and then leave the body for the petrels to consume. Apparently it was horrible to witness, though I'll confess we're still hoping to see video of it. It's nature after all, right?

Each night we have a briefing by the expedition team, both to review the day's events and also to cover the following day's activities. Today was the final briefing, capping 9 days of landings and/or zodiac tours, and the final talk today was about what we take home with us. The speaker, one of my favorites, encouraged us to do like the early explorers and take home a journal of our thoughts and feelings rather than merely photos or gifts, as it will be the journals that inspire others, much as many of the expedition team were inspired at an early age by the journals of those early explorers. I think I've done a fair job at representing what we have done or what has happened to us over the last several weeks (and indeed, the last six months), but perhaps not with enough emphasis on how we felt or how this might be affecting us. So I'll attempt to do some of that now, with a specific focus on this cruise around Antarctica and South Georgia. I'll save broader thoughts on our gap year to a future date, though probably not so far away as I think we're done with our international travel (and thus I'll need a new name for the site..."5 continents with a 7 year old" doesn't have quite the same appeal).

First off, I would very strongly encourage anyone considering a trip to Antarctica to go, and go soon. The continent must be seen to be believed and it is a positively incredible experience. Both New Zealand and Norway were similarly impressive scenically, but here you have the scenery and on top of that the wildlife befitting an Africa safari, the combination of which is just incomparable. So if you've been considering a trip to Antarctica or haven't but can afford it, get off your butt and book it. You will not regret it. I would encourage you to also try and find an itinerary that goes to South Georgia, which for Seabourn is only the Christmas itinerary, but I'm sure there are options with other, albeit smaller, boats.

Beyond that, I find myself at a loss for wise words. Those who know me best know that I'm not really a tree hugger, but here I find myself tearing up thinking about the plight of the whales in the early 1900's. Or for the fate of the adorable Adelie penguins today. Whether you admit climate change is man-made or not, there can be little doubt that the world is warming and that it will have a very large (and almost assuredly negative) impact on many of the species we've seen here. And these species are fighters, having learned to adapt and thrive in one of the most difficult environments on the planet. I think they deserve our protection, not to be hunted to extinction for their skins (fur seals), or their oil (whales and elephant seals), or to die as we overfish their food sources (penguins). Further, as we were down here I read an article in the New York Times about how countries are already angling for mineral rights when the Antarctic treaties expire. I can't help think that it's a tragedy, that surely this grandeur is worth more than the oil or diamonds that may be found beneath the ice. If you do agree with my thoughts then you should get down here, see it before it changes further. And if you don't agree then you should also come down, as I can't think of a better way to change your mind than if you witness firsthand the spectacle that is the Antarctic.

A whale of a day!

Our fifth (and second to last) day in Antarctica was spent in a place called Yankee Harbor, which used to be the site of an American whale processing facility. Indeed, we found a number of whale bones (and more than a few penguin bones) as we walked along the peninsula that formed the outer barrier of the harbor. Well, technically it was a moraine, which is more or less a river of rocks that is carried along by a glacier as it moves. This moraine was at the leading edge of the glacier so when the glacier receded the moraine became a peninsula and a bay formed in the depression left by the glacier. More detail than you wanted I'm sure, but at least you know I'm doing something on the cruise aside from eating, drinking, and taking pictures. Wait, I haven't been able to upload pictures, so I suppose I could just be eating, drinking, and getting my learnin' on.

The day started with an 8a kayak trip, which Walter was not overly enthused about. In fact, the only reason he consented to join is because we bribed him with games of Risk the day before. We've now figured out that it's easiest if he doesn't even take a paddle, as they are too long for him and they don't have smaller paddles. That keeps him drier and more comfortable, but also means that about half way through or so he's bored out of his skull. And unfortunately, this was a pretty boring kayak trip. We did see a couple of Weddle seals and an iceberg that rolled around a bit while we were close by, but otherwise it was nothing but clouds and choppy waves. We've come to expect an incredible level of service from the crew on Seabourn, but we were still impressed when we got back on the boat and they told us that given our poor experience they were refunding the cost of the kayaking. Given that half the reason we go is just for the exercise we would have been perfectly fine paying for the excursion, but we're now booked for two more kayak trips in the South Georgia Islands so also nice to get the refund.

The other upside of kayaking is that it allows you to then participate in the shore landing with any of the color groups. Every cabin is assigned a color group so that they always have less than 100 people onshore at any given time. Since we went kayaking at 8a that freed us up to join the 11a shore landing instead of waiting for our group at 12:30, which is right when we normally eat lunch. Walter really wanted to lounge around the boat instead, but we got him a few croissants and forced him back out at 11a.

Normally for the landings you have a couple of options of which you can do some or all depending on your enthusiasm or fitness level, and we always do them all. For this landing there was a choice of a Gentoo penguin rookery on one side or a long hike out along the morraine in the other direction. We started straight out along the morraine, counting whale and penguin bones along the way as well as looking at all the different rocks deposited by the glacier. Some were pretty neat looking, resembling a yam sliced lengthwise far more than a rock.

As we reached the end of the moraine and started talking to one of the guides a woman next to us shouted and pointed...at a whale pup breaching not 100 yards from us. We rushed to the shore on that side of the moraine and I started recording videos. I caught two more breaches on video, a number of surfaces by both the mother and pup, and finally several good dives with great views of the mother's fluke. As the whales moved further away from us and into the harbor itself the expedition crew pulled up three zodiacs right at the end of the moraine and told us that anyone who still had a life jacket with them could get on and ride after the whales. Fortunately, rather than drop off Walter's life jacket I always clip it to my backpack, and Jie and I always wear ours throughout the landing. So off we went, riding through the harbor following this mother and pup at a distance as they dove and surfaced several more times. It was incredible. I've pulled together a video of it, but it's 600mb so no idea when I'll be able to upload it.

After following the whales for a while our time for the landing was up so we were returned straight to the ship. That meant we missed the rookery, but it was well worth it to observe the humpback whales. After lunch that afternoon when the boat was underway to our next location, Jie and I went to the steam room while Walter did his journal and reading in the relaxation room of the spa. Jie got back to the room first and on a whim went outside to look around, and what did she see but 4 more humpback whales!!! When Walter and I came back down the bridge had just seen the whales and started turning towards them. We then spent another 30 minutes or so outside on our balcony, still in our robes from the spa, taking pictures and watching the whales. We didn't see any more breaching, but the whales did get VERY close to the boat and we got some excellent photos of their blowholes and flukes. Again, it was incredible.

Fortunately, our last day in Antarctica was almost as amazing...but more on that tomorrow.