May 29, 2008

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Zombies and Vampires

From time to time I'm asked how I endure all the long flights and trains and boats and buses. Here's how.

...well, it's not the only way, but it's a component of my arsenal: Games magazine.

This is one of those puzzles where I pull back and look at the page once I'm done and realize, "Hey, wow. I'm not a very balanced person."

A trance-like state is employed. The pen could be ripped from my hand and I'd finish with the bloody stumps of my fingertips. I took little notice of the nine hour flight to Argentina.

Good thing, too. Once the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign went off, the Argentines onboard declared siesta.

This month's issue had another gem.

Any logic puzzle that involves both zombies and vampires is inherently brilliant. In this one, you are told that each room in a house contains either an aforementioned Z, an aforementioned V, or a two-sided mirror; and that the house contains an equal number of each. You are then told how many combined Z's and V's can be seen from each window of the house, and you must deduce what manner of ghoul is in which room, keeping in mind that each mirror reflects at an angle into another room.

The catch, of course, is that you can't see vampires through mirrors. Only zombies.

In the first puzzle, I'm fairly certain the 4 is a typo and should actually be a 2, as it would be impossible to see all 4 creatures from any window in any combination.

I'd invite you to enjoy this page...but I already ruined them all.

Buenos Aires! Barrio la Boca! Bad dancing!

And another German.

La Boca is an old neighborhood where some artist convinced everybody to paint their houses in really bright colors. They still do it as a tradition, and, one can safely assume, for all the tourist dollars it brings in. Anyway, it was a great backdrop for a clip, especially at sunset.

We went for drinks afterwards. Tangoing happened.

A Swiss expat named Steve invited me for dinner. I usually keep my guard up with invitations like that, but I'm traveling alone on this leg, and after a really anti-social trip through the Middle East I'm happy to have some company.

It was Steve's birthday. He and his friends, Alexandro and Ornella, put together a home-cooked barbecue.

I've finally come to the conclusion that Americans and Argentines differ in a crucial way when judging the quality of our meat. In America, we want a tender, flavorsome, marbled substance that is as abstracted as possible from having ever been a live animal. The Argentine ideal seems to be when you can identify which part of the body you're eating by looking at it.

I'm not criticizing. I admire the honesty in that approach. It's just not one I can easily embrace.

Biting into the sausage, one might say, "Why yes, I believe I am chewing genuine intestinal lining."

In Alexandro's home town, the men cut the heads off chickens, drain the blood, sow up the anuses, and pour wine down the neck. They call it vino de pollo. I call it grounds for a search warrant.

That's Alexandro on the right. He's a saxophone player. In my last post I noted a guy's physical similarity to an American sitcom character. I feel reluctant to do it again, lest I should seem coarse and uncultured, but COME ON...

Ornella, on the left (and up top), is a burlesque dancer. When Steve mentioned this, I assumed he was using polite euphamism, but she made it very clear later on that she does not perform in the nude. Her work is a tasteful throwback to a time when scintillation still held sway.

"Like Betty Page?" I asked.
"Yes! Exactly!"

See? I'm cultured.

Ornella also runs a group called X-Dolls. They do photo shoots of women in unusual settings, such as hospital gurneys and open graves. She directed this video.

I actually kind of like the behind the scenes version even better.

Probably because it features a bunch of women arguing in Spanish in a closet.

The redhead in the glasses is Ornella. She looks stunning in the photos I saw. In real life she looks just fine, but like a normal person. She knows this. I think it's a common thing. I think there are a lot of drop dead gorgeous models who appear fairly plain Jane over dinner.

Another of Ornella's hobbies is making childrens' toys out of dead animal carcasses.

Steve runs a business laminating international books for domestic publication. He uses it as a front to publish his travel novels. He's written three books in German. I think that's fantastic. The world is full of people who say they're going to do stuff and never do it. Steve wrote a novel and put it out by himself. And then he wrote two more!

After dinner, Alexandro and Steve performed tango music for me.

I haven't been sleeping much on this trip. Hardly at all, really. I'm slowly coming to notice that's how my stress tends to manifest. I suppose I'm not very self-aware in that regard.

My stress is that it's time to finish up the video. I'm not worried about the quality. It's the best thing I've ever had anything to do with. I'm not worried about pleasing the thousands of people who took part in it. I think most of them will be pretty happy. I'm not sad to be wrapping up the travel. I've been running on fumes for a while and will be thrilled to stay in one place.

...

I don't surf, but I can vaguely imagine what it must feel like when you see a very big wave moving toward you. You know it's going to be beautiful and amazing, but you also know that it's powerful and it can crush you and you have only a tiny bit of influence over what's going to happen once you're inside of it. You do the best you can, and then you surrender.

Please excuse the tired metaphor. I think that's why I'm not sleeping.

February 13, 2006

Queenstown, New Zealand
Hobbit Regret

We decided to give Argentinean food one last chance before leaving Buenos Aires. Went to Cabaña Las Lilas. The guidebooks point to it emphatically as the top notch place for steak. And they sure cook a lot of it.

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There’s gotta be a hundred tables in there, all full, all occupied by retired Americans. It’s mentioned in that 1000 Places to See Before You Die book, which should really be called: 1000 Places to See SHORTLY Before You Die, as the lion’s share of its pages are devoted to expensive resorts only old people can afford. Anyway, the restaurant seems to be doing well off the mention.

Honestly though, it wasn’t all that spectacular. I could get a better steak in Seattle. I’d have to pay a lot more, but I could get one. Argentinean food is still, to my taste buds, mediocre.

All the same, we did manage to get pretty drunk. With a twelve hour flight ahead of us, it seemed like the right thing to do. And wow, it sure was. Shortest twelve hours I’ve ever spent on a plane. We sat down, passed out, woke up on the runway in Auckland. I had a knee-high stack of junk to keep me occupied – didn’t need any of it. Slept like a hobo.

A few hours of layover in Auckland. Not enough time to leave the airport. I still haven’t seen that place.

Queenstown is much as I left it three years ago, but with a few changes. Prices are higher. Retirees are more abundant. There are more Asian tour groups and more Asian tour group hotels. The locals are grumpier.

They’ve really just about had it down here. Perfectly nice people under other circumstances, but I think they’d like their country back about now. I think they’re having second thoughts about that whole Hobbit business.

Good luck trying to find a room without a reservation. And sorry, they don’t do single-night bookings. You’ve got to stay for at least two. Want to cancel that reservation? Fraid not. They charge you full price for the night if there’s less than 2 days notice, whether you stay or not. No, there aren’t any rental cars available in town – they’re all out. Bed in a shared dorm room? Yeah, that’ll be $70 please. $10 deposit for the key. Oh, you want a towel with that? $2 extra. Soap? I’m sure you can find some on your own.

Where else could you get away with that and stay in business? But people just keep pouring in. No strange religions. No weird food. No deadly diseases. No scary ethnic types. Just a bunch of harmless-looking Caucasians and some pretty scenery. Makes for a great brochure.

The draw in Queenstown is the absurd abundance of “extreme” activities; bungee jumping, jet boat rides, river boarding – none of which anybody does. They all cost upwards of $100 for an experience that lasts a few minutes, tops. The young, nimble backpackers can’t afford it. The geriatric set can’t do any of it without breaking. And the Asians only travel in herds of thirty or more and limit their “extreme” activities to taking pictures of each other.

You can pay to get inside a big plastic ball and roll down the side of a mountain. Unless you’re shooting a Mountain Dew commercial, I don’t know why you’d want to do that, but it’s available.

Despite all my bitching and moaning, there is the oppressive logic of “Well, we’re here. Might as well give it a try.”

We cut our teeth on the luge, which is a far cry from the suicidal olypmic activity, and of course doesn’t really qualify as “extreme.” It is, nevertheless, extremely fun.

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…and dorky. There’s no way to pull it off without looking dorky.

The guy selling the tickets said it’s impossible to only do once. I figured we’d be immune to the implied temptation, but I was wrong. We did it four times in a breathless, hyperactive binge.

The luge is at the top of a steep mountain overlooking Queenstown. You get up the mountain on a cable car.

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That’s a bungee jumping overhang near the center there.

Charged from the initial venture, we agreed to sample one genuinely “extreme” and wallet-breaking activity. Now, adrenaline just isn’t my drug of choice. That kind of stuff simply doesn’t appeal to me. What gets me is wonderment – awe…

Paragliding.

I’ve known a couple avid practitioners. One of those guys still is, the other had a cell collapse and permanently injured his back.

Cell collapse is when the paraglider catches a bad gust of wind and suddenly loses its structure. It takes skill to recover from, and it’s one of those skills that’s hard to learn without dying.

Which is the thing about paragliding; it’s really dangerous. The numbers just aren’t very good. People get seriously injured and die all the time. But surely, if we only do it once, the odds are in our favor.

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…boy, we still look like dorks.

It took me a while to digest the price tag for both of us to go. Evidence to the contrary, I’m not ACTUALLY made of money. But “Well, we’re here” took over. I couldn’t not.

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No windows, no engines, no instruments. You’re just a flying goofball in a comfy reclining chair, mouth agape. It feels impossible. It feels fantastic.

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The lady was pleased. As we walked off the field, she pondered the logistics of her future as a weekend paraglider. Reality eventually settled in, but boy, if it weren’t for my aversion to dying, I’d be selling the farm to buy my own gear.

Aside from that endeavor, we spent most of our day ticking off a checklist to prepare for our 3-day hike along the Routeburn trail. Queenstown is the departure point for several major treks, and as such is dense with suppliers of anything you might need.

And good God, they really know how to screw you. Tourist prices abound. They’re inescapable.

You have to book a seat on a bus to get to the start of the trail, and another bus to get back. Wanna know how much it costs for two people? $200. Let me spell it out. Two…hundred…dollars…for a bus ride.

I spent more that day than on any other in the trip to date.

The good news is: once you’re on the trail, you never touch your wallet.

The aforementioned bus ride took us through the town of Glenorchy and past the location of Isengard from the hairy midget movies. Just past Isengard, near the start of the trail, are the Elven woods of Lothlorien.

How bout that?

And away we went.

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On my last visit to New Zealand, I did the 4-day Milford Trek and wrote about it extensively. For your sake and mine, I’m not going into much detail on this one. It’s a trail. You walk a lot. You see pretty stuff and take pictures.

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There. That was day one. See? We’re moving briskly now.

We hit the first hut, still jet-lagged from our Buenos Aires flight. I fell asleep around 5pm, had a groggy dinner around 9, rose at 7 the next day.

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I woke, along with 30 other people in the cabin, to an interminable chorus of crinkling plastic. There was a group of pre-teens with us from an international school in Taiwan. They were doing their Duke of Edinburgh certification or whatever -- some kooky rite of passage the British thought up that evidently involves hiking, among other things. Any readers from the Commonwealth, feel free to clarify.

In preparation for the journey, someone had handed each kid at least a hundred plastic bags and instructed them to wrap every object in their packs individually. This created a morning ritual of unwrapping and rewrapping that could raise the dead.

A middle-aged Australian guy in the bunk next to us saw no need to hide his irritation. "Are you sure you brought enough plastic bags with you? Have you got everything wrapped up tight. Wouldn't want a drop of moisture to get in there!"

I am quite fond of Australians.

There were other crimes; giggling, flashlight games, girls waking each other so they could go to the bathroom together -- all the stupid stuff kids do that makes grown-ups avoid them. I slept through all of it, but everyone else in the cabin was fuming.

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Day two is the big uphill/downhill day. The Routeburn trail forms a saddle between two high peaks, then drops back down into forest. It rained.

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Try as I might to dissuade her, Melissa insisted on wearing her yellow M&M costume.

More pretty pictures.

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If you look closely above, you can see a few tiny hikers traversing the cliffside.

On long walks, the mind wanders. Mine wandered to, among other things, time. Time is the one thing we pretty much all agree on. A second is a second, a minute a minute, an hour an hour. Why is that? It's a fairly arbitrary measurement. Nothing natural that I know of takes precisely one hour.

It comes from the hour glass, I would assume. An hour is the amount of time it takes a certain amount of sand to fall through an opening of a certain diameter. Amazing that it became a universally accepted standard.

We can't agree on weight, distance, volume, language, religion, electrical outlets, which side of the road to drive on, or how to spell "aluminum," but an hour is always an hour.

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This hut marks the middle of the saddle. From here, you can do the hour-long side trail up to Conical Peak. I was feeling quite keen that day and dragged Melissa to the top, which turned out fairly pointless with all the fog from the rain. We couldn't see squat.

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Walking through the low-brush at the start of the descent. There's a faint rainbow in the distance.

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Rough times ahead. Our moods were grim. A fight happened. I behaved poorly. No need to recount.

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Looking down the ridge at the lake, our destination for the day, I saw something strange and hypnotic. The lake was moving, getting closer, and the hillside farther away. It was like looking down the length of a tunnel at an approaching train. An optical illusion caused by the quickly moving fog, I'd imagine.

Melissa and I weren't speaking at the time, but we both saw it, compared notes later, and our experiences were identical. Never seen anything like it before. There's probably some fancy Latin name for the effect.

Below the tree line, things suddenly turn very, very green.

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A layer of moss covers every surface. Sound changes. It's like you're indoors.

On reaching the second cabin, we met a number of people who were walking the trail in the opposite direction. An older man from the UK cautiously approached us and asked, "are you with the young people?"

"No. They're about an hour behind."

"Good. We've heard about them. We're going to direct them to the far cabin. You can stay with us, if you're quiet."

We thanked him and ran upstairs to claim our beds. We learned it was a collective effort. Everyone was in cahoots. The Duke of Edinburgh brats were shut out.

That night, our cabin was like a very large coffin. When forty people sleep in a room together, you should hear it. I woke in the blackness and thought for a moment I was the only one in the room.

Perfect, joyous, silence.

On day three, the weather improved. Lots of nice mountain views.

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And a waterfall.

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Caught this fleeting moment.

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"Psst! Get out of the shot. This is premium desktop wallpaper."

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We've got a tradition now that whenever we pass an Asian tourist chain gang, I take a snapshot of Melissa posing with them.

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I figured out why they come here en masse. They're crazy about water. Waterfalls, rocky streams, that sort of thing. They eat it up. Japan, surprisingly, doesn't have much in the way of naturally occurring dynamic liquid. But in New Zealand -- not too hard to find.

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Another side trail up to this vista. It looks like the peak in the middle is exhaling smoke in the other peak's face.

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And we're done. End of the trail.

There's no road directly through the park, so the bus had to loop around to Queenstown by way of Te Anau. It's an astonishingly indirect route, but what can you do? I'm all for not carving any new roads.

We're back where we started for one night before flying up to Christchurch, then on to Kaikoura in the hopes of paddling with some dolphins.

After three days of vacuum-sealed, dehydrated camping food, we craved Indian. So we feasted on chicken tikka marsala.

We've both got some miles on us. Here's a fun detail: my inner thighs are grotesquely chafed from walking in wet, sweaty clothes, so to minimize the pain I've got to stagger around like I've got a load in my pants. Of this act, Melissa is...intolerant.

But we're doing okay.

February 07, 2006

Buenos Aires, Argentina
And a Very Good Morning to You, America

...So that happened.

I just got off the phone with Diane Sawyer. She seemed nice.

Every time I'm invited on TV, they put me after some devastatingly handsome superstar. On the Ellen Show it was Matthew McConaughey. This time it was the guy who plays Sawyer on Lost (no relation to Diane). On MSNBC it was Pat Buchanan. How am I supposed to compete with all that beefcake?

I left Melissa asleep in the hotel. This is our last day in South America. Tonight we fly out to New Zealand. It'll be nice interacting with people whose language at least vaguely resembles my own.

Not sure what to do with the day. The sites of Buenos Aires don't seem all that spectacular. The tango thing doesn't quite light my fire, and fortunately it does nothing for the little lady, either.

...there's a megatherium skeleton at the Museum of Natural Science.

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It was one of the largest mammals that ever lived. It took them a little too long to figure out that humans aren't as harmless as they look. We wiped them out within a few minutes of showing up on this continent.

So maybe that, or maybe we'll just sit on our asses until it's time to head to the airport.

Speaking of which, here's some Russian lady's ass at the airport.

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So classy! Obviously this woman is of high social standing. How else could she afford such stylish and clearly-expensive clothing?

Looks like the 13 hour flight from Buenos Aires to Auckland almost takes us over Antarctica. How bout that?

December 20, 2005

Ushuaia, Argentina
No Polar Bears, Just Penguins...Lots of Them

My face fell off in Antarctica. Something to do with that whole “no o-zone” thing combined with me maybe not using as much sunscreen as I should have. I’m in the process of growing a new one. It hurts.

The first day it was just plain old sore. The ship’s doctor said there was nothing I could do and I should let it run its course. On reflection, I don’t think her advice was particularly merciful or well-considered.

When I woke up the next morning, my face felt like wax paper. It was dry and dead and itchy and I had a strong urge to pull the whole thing off. I caved to that urge, and it did in fact peel off in long strips. Remember that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum is yanking off his ears and teeth and storing them in his medicine cabinet? Yeah, just like that.

…it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Once the new skin had enough exposure to the air, I began feeling a constant, excruciating pain all over my face – sort of like it was being pressed against a hot stove. That lasted about a day.

I considered wandering the halls, knocking on cabin doors and asking other passengers if they had any aloe. But I was worried they might mistake me for a zombie.

“Aim for the head! Kill the brain!”

Instead I just hid in my cabin.

After the new layer of skin had adjusted to its external role, the pain went away, and what I’m left with now is a red, swollen, scabby, flaky Halloween mask.

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Sorry, ladies. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m taken.

On the ship, everyone already knew what I normally looked like, so they could shudder in horror with the knowledge that I’d eventually return to my stunningly handsome self. But I’ve just disembarked the ship and out here in the general population, it’s unclear whether or not I have a chronic rotting flesh disease. Folks pretend not to notice, which just makes it more obvious how sickening I appear.

Here's the most grotesque detail of the whole ordeal. Skip this paragraph if you've had enough...ready?...when I still had the dead layer of skin, my sweat could no longer penetrate through the pores, so it formed in boil-like pools along my forehead and dripped out as a viscous, yellow syrup.

Who’s up for a change in subject? You are? Okay, then.

It was only moments after my last post that we spotted our first iceberg. The crew made much hay of this event, and I didn't understand why until it happened.

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As soon as the first one is spotted, things change very quickly.

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We entered a strange new environment that I've never seen in photographs and never knew existed.

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It was as if we'd invaded someone's dream space. An infinite realm of the mind. And we were cutting through it like a butter knife.

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But as any viewer of nature documentaries knows, no desert is barren. This is not a dead place. There are plenty who live quite comfortably out here.

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The blue stuff is glacial ice. It takes that color after thousands of years, once all the air pockets have been squeezed out of it. It's of a purity that is never seen in the seasonal world.

The whiter stuff around it is pack ice, composed largely of frozen salt water.

In a time when you can hop on a plane and reach virtually any place on the planet within two days, it's important to appreciate the Odyssian hurdles that must be overcome in order to reach Antarctica; three grueling days across the Drake Passage followed by miles of thick, pitiless ice. It wasn't challenging for me per se -- the ship did all the work -- but it was a satisfying thing to watch.

Within a few hours, we'd penetrated through and reached Peterman Island; our first landing site and, at 65 degrees latitude, the southernmost point of our trip. From Peterman, we turned around and headed north up the Antarctic coast.

Because of our lost time, it was 9pm when we started the landing, but it didn't look any different from noon. We were far enough down that the sun never set at all.

Peterman Island is filled with penguins.

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These are the first of many penguin pictures, and believe me I'm exhibiting tremendous restraint by not including more. Penguin pictures are very very easy to take, as they're extremely photogenic and completely indifferent to the presence of humans. Up until about a century ago, these birds had never encountered our species before and never been exposed to our thuggish behavior. As a result, they have no instinctive fear of us. We don't look anything like killer whales or leopard seals, so we pretty much don't exist.

The picture-taking orgy was interminable.

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Some of our party broke off and wandered across the island to see what there was to see.

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The expedition staff always landed before us and set down bamboo markers that defined our outer boundaries. We had a couple hours to explore.

I never once regretted wandering around on any of the landings. There was always some amazing mountain or glacier or snow dune to see.

We picked up three researchers. They'd been there for a month, doing pretty much the only thing there is to do on Peterman Island, which is count penguins. Their arranged pick-up hadn't been able to reach them for some reason, so we gave them a ride. One of the researchers was from Portland, a hip town only a couple hours south of where I live in Seattle.

We commiserated about how great Powell's book store is.

Amongst the passengers of our ship was a team of six South Africans led by a guy named Lewis Pugh. Lewis has a thing for swimming in really cold water. He came to Antarctica to break the world record for the southernmost long-distance swim.

He did it...in a Speedo.

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He swam a full kilometer in 0 degree water (Celsius). They estimated that he could last 28 minutes before his body shut down. He did the swim in 18 minutes. Toward the end, his muscles seized up and he could no longer bend them. He crossed the finish line in a state that resembles rigor mortis.

The team accompanying him filmed for a documentary while researchers took measurements of his pulse, his muscle temperature -- and as if the swim weren't unpleasant enough -- his rectal temperature.

It was all very interesting to watch.

I had two roommates in my cabin and I enjoyed them both a great deal.

Xiaonan is from Shanghai, but he lives in DC. He works for the World Bank and has a PhD from Harvard. He speaks with an accent, and if he'll forgive me for saying so, his speech patterns are very similar to those of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles.

I say that not to belittle. It's just that sometimes folks have a way of talking that makes amusing comments even more amusing. Such as:

"Watch out you don't slip on a penguin poop and fall on your face."

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This is the best I can come up with for a picture.

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This is Sandy. Sandy is a law professor. He's thoughtful and wise and he's been just about everywhere. Literally, everywhere. I don't think I've visited a spit of land on this entire planet he hasn't already been to.

Wanna know how cool Sandy is: he went to Antarctica by himself and he didn't bring a camera. He just walked around, looked, read, listened, and took it all in.

Here's a guy who's got things figured out. Here's a guy who knows what's important. Here's a guy who knows where his towel is.

The next morning we went through the Lemaire Channel.

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Way off in the distance, I'm pretty sure I saw Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

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I would've liked them to take us closer, but if they did that, I suppose it wouldn't be much of a Fortress of Solitude, would it?

Our second landing was to be at Port Lockroy. While standing on the deck of the ship, an extremely elderly and hearing impaired couple had this exchange:

"Where are we going next?"
"Port Lockroy."
"Fort Lockerbie?"
"Port Lockroy."
"Port Loverboy?"
"Port Lockroy!"
"Port Lockjoy?"
"Port Lockroy!"

It's the little pleasures, too. Not just the big ones.

The most remarkable thing about Port Lockroy is the tiny manned station near the shore with a working post office so people can send postcards. They also stamp passports. But we couldn't reach it that day because of too much ice on the water.

Instead, they took us out on a 90 minute Zodiac cruise. Sandy instinctively knew to bow out, stay in the cabin and read. I wasn't so sharp. The bottom line is they didn't want to be accused of not giving us our money's worth.

I just can't stand being herded into a vehicle and carted around to look at stuff. It drives me crazy. I need to experience things for myself, or at least be presented with a plausible illusion of such. Instead, we were shown glacier after glacier until we were completely numb to the experience.

We did see this leopard seal, though.

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Leopard seals are surprisingly vicious. Damon, the marine biologist on our expedition staff, had a harrowing encounter with one while he was working in Antarctica. He was diving over a hundred feet down with an air hose when a leopard seal happened upon the tube and started chewing on it. He reached the surface before the air flow was breached and was fine -- but I imagine very shaken.

In 2003, his replacement at the research station had her leg bitten by another leopard seal while diving. She was dragged down until she drowned. This is the only known case of a leopard seal killing a human, and it has caused a sudden, well-founded wariness.

Later in the day we had our second attempt at a landing, this time at Cuverville Island. It was successful.

More penguins.

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The penguins carve little trenches into the snow for themselves. It's not a deliberate thing, just a welcome consequence of having oft-trodden routes between nesting spots.

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Nevertheless, I can't help but be reminded of Empire Strikes Back and wonder if, perhaps, they're preparing for an invasion of AT-ATs.

Here we have a penguin path running directly adjecent to a people path.

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Is there no limit to the adorability of these strange birds? Must everything they do be so agonizingly cute?

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I caught this iceberg doing an impression of our ship to amuse the other icebergs.

"Okay okay, ready? What am I?...Get it? I'm the ship! See with the deck and the bridge and everything? I'm the ship! Pretty good, huh? Okay, your turn."

I purchased a stuffed penguin doll on the ship to give to my niece for Christmas. I promised it to her before leaving, and she's already named it Poopy Pants. I tried integrating it with the penguin population. They were as utterly indifferent to it as they were to us, and to pretty much everything that isn't actively trying to eat them.

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Here's an example of something penguins are not indifferent toward.

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Take pictures all you want, but mess with an egg, and you WILL get pecked to death.

Lest we forget what an alien place this is, here's one of many giant whale vertabrae scattered around on all the beaches.

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At the end of the second day of landings, the ship anchored in the stunningly scenic Paradise Harbor and we marked the halfway point of the cruise with a fabulous outdoor barbecue.

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It felt decadent to be feasting in such a way amidst one of the harshest environments on earth. We should have been hacking off limbs and slaughtering sled dogs to survive. Instead we were hacking off marinated pork ribs and debating whether the salmon or steak was superior.

And Shackleton turns once more in his grave.

Next stop, Danco Island, with a short, steep hike up to 500 feet for an incredible panorama view of the region.

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It doesn't sound like much of an ascent, but when every third step sends you plummeting waist-deep in snow, it's quite a workout. Only a dozen or so passengers met the challenge.

At the top, exhausted, the thought of hauling our asses back down was too much to bare, so most of us just sat down, pushed off, and slid on our asses instead.

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Impromptu sledding down a hill in Anarctica. It's one of those moments that crystallizes in your memory. This world is not all bad. It's worth getting up each day, cause sometimes things like this will happen.

Our afternoon landing on the third day was at Neko Harbor. This was the only stop on our trip that actually took us to the continent of Antarctica proper, rather than an adjacent island. The experience itself wasn't much different, but it was an important distinction to many passengers – myself included. Now we could say we'd actually BEEN to Antarctica.

The shore at Neko immediately gives way to a steep slope of pure, untouched snow.

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It didn’t stay untouched for long. The more spry and nimble among us had caught the sledding bug that morning and we weren’t going to miss another opportunity.

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Many regretted not bringing skis and snowboards.

Up at the top of the hill is a perfect rock outcropping that overlooks the glaciers jutting out along the bay. It being one of the warmest days in the southern hemisphere, the glacial calving was in high gear. A few of us sat on the outcropping and watched as huge chunks of ancient ice crashed into the water, their apocalyptic sounds echoing across the channel.

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I figured this was a pretty good opportunity to do that dancing thing -- capture the grandeur of the setting and all that. But I couldn’t really ask all the people sitting there to go away so I could dance.

Instead I waited, while the unfiltered Antarctic sun beat down on my skin…

…and waited…

…and burned…

Eventually, everyone else sledded their way back down the hill and it was just Jørn, the expedition leader, and myself. I'd shown Jørn the video and he was more than willing to hold the camera for me. I got the clip, and it’s a great clip, but I paid a high price for it.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been so high if I’d thought to wear sunscreen.

By the next morning, I was out of commission. I missed the landing on Deception Island – a submerged volcanic crater with pockets of water that are actually warm enough to swim in. It was an opportunity to strip down to bathing suits and lie in the Jacuzzi-like jets of lava-heated ocean, embracing the geological strangeness. Instead I just stayed in my room and embraced the agony of my stupidity.

I also missed a five kilometer hike around the rim of the volcano. Oh, well.

By the evening, after the burn had settled but before the peeling had begun, I decided I was well enough to go on the last landing at Livingston Island, a good distance north of the Antarctic peninsula and into the South Shetlands.

The ever-present penguins were, as ever, present. We'd seen many nesting atop their eggs in previous days. On occasion, we’d see parents swapping places in a fashion we were all now familiar with from March of the Penguins. We also saw one or two eggs that had frozen, and others that had been broken into by predatory birds. But Livingston Island was the first and only time we saw baby penguin chicks.

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Cute overload…higher functions failing…logic and reason shutting down…must make winsome groaning sounds…

And Livingston had more than just the gentoos and adelies we’d been seeing everywhere else. They share the island with the even-more-grotesquely-adorable chinstraps…

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…and the over-the-top ridiculous, clown-haired macaroni penguins.

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The different penguins live in harmony along with an enormous number of not-at-all-un-enormous elephant seals.

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The seals had come to shore because they needed to molt (incidentally, so did I). To do this, they would pile into massive heaps and, from time to time, roll back and forth to scratch themselves against each other in a mutually beneficial fashion.

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These seals are all male, which explains the belching and farting. They’re young and fairly small for their species. They come here to eat krill and bulk up, so they can head back to their spawning grounds on South Georgia Island and make a bid for a harem.

Only the largest, most powerful male elephant seals are able to reproduce, and those that earn the right can take as many as 60 or 70 brides, while the vast numbers that can't cut it learn to use computers instead and go to work for software companies.

When a male elephant seal is full-sized it weighs as much, if not more, than its namesake.

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These guys are sparring to get ready for the big event. It’s a fairly pathetic display, as neither seal can really do anything to the other. I anticipate that the first seal to develop a stiff uppercut will have a massive evolutionary advantage that soon propagates throughout the species.

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It’s interesting to note that a century ago, sailors looked in the eyes of creatures like this one and thought, “I will go grab a club and beat this thing’s head in until it is dead. Then I will remove its skin, as I am sure there is someone who would like to buy it from me.”

Here is the thing with Krill: it's the favored meal of just about every large animal living in Antarctic waters. It's the bottom of an amazingly flat food chain. You've got some predatory birds feeding on penguin eggs, orcas and leopard seals feeding on full-grown penguins, but aside from that it's pretty much krill for breakfast, krill for lunch, krill for dinner for everyone, forever.

Krill are dull, shrimpish creatures that grow to no more than a few inches in length. They're filled with fluoride, which gives them a taste that is, to human palettes, unbelievably awful. Whales, seals, and penguins obviously feel differently.

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Jørn spotted this fella and picked it up to show us its size. It’s a giant petrel. He deduced that it had died of a neck wound within the last couple days.

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Splattered penguin poop looks remarkably like aboriginal folk art.

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Chinstraps on the left. Gentoos on the right. It's Penguin West Side Story.

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This just reminded me of a bunch of fighter planes on a runway. That’s all I have to say about that.

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I wish I had a video to convey this tragicomic image. The elephant seal is slowly making its way to water, a few feet at a time, then recuperating for several minutes between each lunge. It crawled from one edge of the frame to the other in about as much time as it takes to watch an episode of The Simpsons -- which is, in some circles, a standard unit for the measurement of time.

Small wonder the sealers almost wiped these guys out in the span of a couple decades.

So that was it. After Livingston we headed due north, back across the Drake Passage. It was a much easier and less eventful crossing this time, with swells a small fraction of the twenty foot monsters we’d seen a few days before.

My skin fell off, which you’ve already heard plenty about, and here I am in Ushuaia. My flight to Buenos Aires leaves in the afternoon, then through Dallas and back to Seattle.

Here's a map of the cruise:

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If you're interested, you can see the names of each destination by going to my map page, zooming in close on this region, and clicking on the little red balloons.

I'll be home for the holidays, then at the start of the new year my lady-friend and I are leaving on a much, much longer trip. More on that later.

December 14, 2005

Somewhere Near Antarctica
El Fin Del Mundo

Almost instantly, the ocean temperature drops by several degrees. Pods of humpbacks and orcas start surfacing. The albatross and petrels that circled the ship since launch begin to grow in number. We’re approaching the Antarctic convergence; where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and give way to the distinctly polar region below.

The first icebergs should come into view any time now.

It’s all very exciting.

I stayed up all night packing before heading off to the airport. I was pretty exhausted by the time I got on the first flight to Dallas – but not so exhausted that I actually managed to get any sleep.

Dallas airport is still just as ridiculously huge as it was the first time I passed through. It’s possible it may have grown even larger. At the international terminal, I asked a woman at the information booth for directions to a mailbox, so I could return my unwatched Netflix before leaving the country. She walked me over to it.

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“These halls are incredibly wide,” I said.
“I know. Isn’t it lovely?”

Evidently in Texas, calling something “incredibly wide” can only be interpreted as a compliment.

“Why is there so much empty space?”
“This is the newest terminal. It was only finished a couple months ago. They anticipated an increase in traffic flow.”
“It’s just so…big!”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Well…it’s big, anyway.”

The international terminal of Dallas-Ft. Worth airport is also home to plenty of hideous macro-sculpture.

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I was approaching delirium from lack of sleep, so I sat down and watched some CNN. It was Texas CNN.

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The anchor, Nancy Grace, wears a blonde helmet and barks like a pit bull. She was worked up about a bunch of spoiled celebrities trying to get murderous former gang leader Stanley “Tookie” Williams off of death row.

How dare they? Who do they think they are? He’s a convicted murderer. Give me one good reason why we should allow him to live?

…Hmm. How about the Sermon on the Mount?

Tookie is probably dead now. We don’t have much access to the outside world on this ship, but I know his execution was scheduled for Tuesday and it’s Wednesday now.

I don’t have a strong personal conviction about the death penalty. I think we should be very very sure about a person’s guilt before they’re sentenced to death, but aside from that, I have no major objections to the practice, nor would I be at all upset if we abandoned it.

I’m stumped as to how Christians justify it, though. Jesus gave us a message of mercy and forgiveness, therefore we should murder criminals. I have trouble seeing across that gap.

As CNN went to commercial break, they updated us on our current terror alert level. Everyone set your fear to yellow!

…People are still using this? Didn’t the Department of Homeland Absurdity sheepishly retire the system to avoid further mockery?

I guess it’s still useful in Texas; where terrorists lurk around every corner.

For the packed ten hour flight to Buenos Aires, I got the middle seat in the center row. The seats were, as always, designed for amputee dwarves, so despite my inability to see straight, I couldn’t get any qualitative rest for the duration.

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s new book: Man Without a Country. He keeps promising never to publish again, and he keeps breaking that promise. This one is really just a collection of short essays about how the world – and in particular, the US – is going to hell in a hand basket. You can read the whole thing in an hour or two.

Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite writer. In my mind, he’s a historical figure; someone entirely of another era. To have him alive and commenting on our present circumstances, confirming that they are, in fact, very very screwed up, is quite affecting to me. In a way though, it almost makes it okay, because it puts us on the shelf with other times when things were very very screwed up and we’re not much worse by comparison.

That line about the Sermon on the Mount – I stole it from Vonnegut’s book. But he stole it from Powers Hapgood, so I don’t feel that bad.

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Changing planes in Buenos Aires required a $10 bus ticket and an hour-long ride from the international to the domestic airport. My brief glimpse of the city didn’t inspire me to want to visit for any longer period.

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There was a protest going on at the domestic airport. Some former employees of Aerolineas Argentinas set up tents in the terminal to voice their grievance at having been fired for no good reason. It seemed an unpleasant predicament for the airline, which has its ticket counters only a few feet away.

My last flight was to Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina along the Beagle channel. Many of the other passengers were obviously on my cruise. It was, as anticipated, an older group of people, but there were one or two in my Nielsen demographic and a few kids and grandkids being dragged along as well.

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Ushuaia is a very scenic town, positioned at the base of Tierra del Fuego and surrounded by water and mountains. The mountains are uniquely Patagonian; sharp and pointy and impossible-looking, and the sunlight bounces off the snowcaps, making them shimmer like I've only seen in New Zealand.

But wow, the food is terrible. I'd heard Argentinian beef is great. If it is, I must have been going to the wrong places, cause everything I ate in the country was bland and lumpy.

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They tout themselves as the southernmost city in the world: El Fin del Mundo. It’s a shaky claim. There are one or two towns across the channel in Chile that are farther south. Ushuaia is certainly much bigger than any of them, at 40,000, but by the standards I’m familiar with it takes 100,000 people to even begin to qualify as a city.

At any rate, I checked into my hotel, had a late dinner, and went for a walk around town before sunset hit around 10:30.

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Teenagers! Always tango-ing in public like they own the sidewalk. No respect!

The next day I headed down to the pier to get my first glimpse of the Polar Star.

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And a fine ship she is. The others along the pier were all much bigger and more luxurious, but without the Polar Star’s icebreaking ability, which is crucial in these waters. I’m told it is, in fact, the only commercial icebreaking vessel in the Antarctic, though some have told me otherwise. It is, at least, one of the very few.

The two essential qualities that make an icebreaker an icebreaker are a super-reinforced hull for battering, and an extra pair of giant propellers in front for extra power.

By late afternoon, everyone was onboard and we were ready to shove off. There was a brief welcome meeting with champagne, and then this happened:

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The closest I’ve ever come to a cruise before was my week searching for whale sharks around the Seychelles islands. That was a much smaller vessel, so by my standards, the amenities on the Polar Star are quite satisfactory.

There’s a big dining area serving reasonably good meals:

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The one thing they serve in abundance is cheese. They’ve literally got tons of it. At time of departure, I estimate this ship was about 30% cheese. That percentage is dropping fast.

There’s a very large meeting room/lecture room/observation deck:

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A cozy library full of Dan Brown novels and political thrillers in random languages:

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And a bar that is usually much less populated than this:

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The first few hours of the cruise took us through the Beagle channel; named after the ship Darwin took through to the Galapagos islands and beyond. Shortly after going to bed, we rounded the bend and came out into the Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage constitutes some of the roughest waters in the world. It’s the only latitude in which there is no land the whole way round, so the water can really get swirling. I don’t think any of us fully anticipated what that would mean for us during the thousand mile crossing, though most were smart enough to bring seasickness medication.

Not me. I’ve never been seasick before, so I didn’t give it much thought. Around lunchtime on the second day, I spent a little too long focusing on my GameBoy screen without looking up to regain my bearings. The feeling hit me like a punch in the gut. I ran out to the railing of Deck 5 and hurled all over Deck 4. Five times. It sucked.

I certainly wasn’t alone. I’d guess around half the ship vomited at some point. One of my roommates, Xiaonan, couldn’t make it to the side of the ship, so he let loose on the carpet outside our cabin.

It was an awful, no-good, very bad day. And then it got worse.

After getting the taste out of my mouth with some Altoids, I decided to try to sleep through the rocking. I woke up an hour later to an announcement that we were turning the ship around due to a medical emergency.

The details came out slowly. One of the passengers; a woman in her seventies, had evidently boarded the ship despite knowing full-well that she had emphysema. She didn’t bring her medication, nor did she inform the crew in advance. The rough seas exacerbated her condition until she reached the point where she could no longer breathe on her own. There was oxygen onboard and a ship’s doctor who could look after her, but the oxygen wasn’t going to last forever and they didn’t have the resources to fix her.

The crew arranged a Medevac by helicopter from the nearest safe landing: Cape Horn…”safe” being a relative term.

They held an all-ship meeting and Jørn, the expedition leader, delicately explained the situation. A couple aged passengers of the “I’m an American! Don’t try to rip me off!” variety put up a stink about the lost time, but ethically, there was clearly no alternative.

It was 10 hours back, followed by a hairy procedure of lowering a zodiac boat by crane with the woman onboard, racing to shore, and then carrying her up the rocks to where the helicopter was waiting.

Cape Horn is a landmark of great historical significance and it’s very rare to get to see it up close. Alas, I slept through the whole thing. It went fine, though. The woman was raced off to Punta Arenas, then flown home to the states after a couple days. The report is she’s doing fine.

The gossip mills churned full-blast after the incident. There was a lot of speculation about insurance. The woman was with her daughter, and the rumor was their insurance would only cover the unbelievably expensive Medevac for one of them. As for the ship, someone managed to glean that it burned through a ton of fuel per hour at a cost of $700. For the unanticipated 20 hour roundtrip added to our itinerary, the fuel cost was around $14,000. No one knows who is eating that, but surely there will be some lawyers and insurance agents involved.

With a little less than a day lost, the crew raced across the Drake Passage once again and managed to regain some time. It’s been an uneventful couple days since the Medevac. There’s been lots of bird-watching. We’ve got a resident ornithologist as part of the staff and it’s possible to absorb some of his enthusiasm through osmosis. The albatross, with wing spans up to 12 feet, are pretty incredible. My particular favorite is the wandering albatross, because of its unusually poetic name. But when someone spots a southern sooty snow petrel or whatever, I retire to the ship’s bar and order a tall glass of who-gives-a-crap?

They’ve been filling our days with lectures from the expedition staff. Some of them are quite good, some are boring. All-in-all it’s a great perk to have experts available on every subject relevant to the journey. In addition to Simon the ornithologist, we’ve got a marine biologist and a historian – both of whom lived in bases on the continent. There’s also a geologist, and an expert on marine mammals – which I think might be called a cetologist. They’re a knowledgeable bunch, and it’s apparent that despite their familiarity, they’re as keen about getting to go to Antarctica as we are – if not more so.

There’s a total of 10 expedition staff. And, by the way, a crew of 45. The bridge crew and most of the higher rankings are of Polish origin, while the guys down in the engine room and most of the hotel staff are Filipino. They serve a theoretical limit of 96 passengers, which I think we’re very close to on this cruise – or at least we were before we lost emphysema lady and her daughter.

Anyway, when I'm not bird-watching, listening to lectures, reading, playing videogames, sleeping, or vomiting, I'm spending a whole lot of time looking out at this:

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...which is not such a bad thing.

I've got an idea for an invention. It's a pair of goggles that'll allow me to see through the ocean surface at everything below. Here, in the fertile waters around Antarctica, home of the largest animals ever to exist, there's an assortment of wonders swimming beneath me right now: sperm whales diving into pockets of the ocean unexplored by man, wrestling giant squid, colossal squid, and creatures we've not yet even discovered.

4000 meters underwater sounds like a long way away down, but it's only a short stretch toward the horizon. If I could see through these confounded waves, a simple pair of binoculars would show me giants and monsters as strange as anything Ray Harryhausen ever animated to film.

So I've got the idea for these goggles. That takes care of the hard part, right? Now someone just needs to make them.

Anyway, that about brings me up to speed. Everything about the Antarctica trip not actually related to Antarctica itself. My next post will probably involve a whole lot of penguin pictures and ice.

Brace yourself.