We've spent the last couple of days in a place known as "The End of the World." It's actually Tierra del Fuego, which to my surprise is named as such because when Magellan sailed through on his ship they saw no natives directly but did see a number of fires throughout the area, hence the name, land of fire. I always imagined it as some sort of crazy volcanic area, but it's actually much more like Norway around the Arctic Circle, with superlative scenery in an otherwise harsh terrain. After Christmas Day we had two great stops at Punta Arenas and Ushuaia ("ewe-shoe-aye-uh"), which each claim to be the "end of the world" and the southernmost city in the world. Given that Ushuaia is further south it seems like a silly debate, but there are a lot of tourism dollars at stake, so apparently it continues.
In terms of the cruise, it may come as no surprise to some, but Walter has become something of a celebrity on board. And I say this with some objective evidence and not merely because I'm his dad. As the youngest cruiser on board he's been popular throughout the cruise, particularly with the staff, but it hit a whole new level during the Christmas Day magician act (really as much a comedy show as a magician act). The magician had done a prior show a few days back and the next morning we ran into him on the tender to Castro and he spent some time talking to Walter. So during his Christmas Day show he asked for a volunteer and says "I think I saw him when I came in...the little guy," at which point there were quite a few people who started calling for Walter. When the magician heard Walter's name he immediately said "yes, that's it, Walter, come on up to the stage." So despite some embarrassment and hesitation Walter went up there (recall, this is a formal night, so he was wearing a suit...sadly I did not have my camera). Walter helped in a few standard rope-cutting magic tricks, which ended with him holding a small part of the rope. The magician, who has a very dry sense of humor, closed with "ok, thanks, now get lost, kid." Upon hearing that Walter paused a second, then shrugged his shoulders and walked off the stage, nonchalantly (and seemingly disdainfully) throwing the remainder of the rope back over his shoulder. This drew a roar of laughter and applause from the crowd and actually prompted the magician to pick up the rope and throw it back in feigned anger. I don't think you could have scripted it better.
As we walked out of the show that night there were a number of people who congratulated Walter for his performance, and the attention from fellow guests has continued. On excursions or on the ship people often come up to Walter and congratulate him, including one man who actually came up to our table at dinner just to talk to Walter! The restaurant staff go out of their way for him, including the main hostess who seems to have some pull with the staff captain. We missed the kids tour of the bridge yesterday, so the hostess said she would arrange something else for us. Sure enough, as we were re-boarding the ship this evening we were stopped and told we had a phone call. It was none other than the Captain, asking if were free in 15 minutes for a private bridge tour. So we got to spend a full hour with the Second Officer on the bridge while he answered every last question we had about the ship (and believe me, I had a lot of questions!). Walter even got to help out with the rudder tests and was able to (briefly) sound the horn!
The day after Christmas was a very full day, with a 6am departure to the legendary Torres del Paine National Park. We took a bus to the airport and then the group boarded three small planes to fly to Puerto Natales. At that point we boarded another bus and headed into the National Park. It was a pretty neat trip, with plenty of wildlife spotting, but there were two highlights in particular. One is that the weather cleared up in the afternoon long enough for us to get some great views (and pictures) of the legendary peaks. But the biggest highlight occurred right by the bathrooms during a 10 minute pit stop while the tour guide bought our tickets to the park. There was snow on the ground that was just perfect for rolling up and making a snowman. So Walter started one, and with my help in just a few minutes we had a pretty respectable little guy standing right there in front of the bathrooms of Torres del Paine. It was a fun moment.
Today we had a nice little stop in Ushuaia, where we taxied up to a tiny little ski area with only 1 lift and went for a nice hike up towards the glacier. We never saw the glacier itself, but we did have some fantastic views, including of a snowboarder skiing down! Remember, this is the start of SUMMER here, and if that guy (or gal) snowboarded down it also means they hiked their board all the way up!
I have more stories to share (eg, Walter coming back down to the main restaurant, barefoot, wearing normal pants and a pajama shirt, because Jie and I were taking too long to finish our dinner), but they'll have to wait for another time. We are perhaps hours from leaving South America altogether (right now at 55 degrees South) and I want to make sure I post this before we lose our internet access altogether. We'll be in Antarctica for about the next week and I doubt I'll have a good enough connection to post something new on the blog. So this might be it for a while, but when we're back online we should have loads of penguin stories to share!