Jan 22

The 30 minute warning for breakfast sounded and I awoke to Jaime with his pinkie in his ear. After our landing yesterday he mentioned that his ear was sore. Overnight, though, it had gone from "sore" to "throbbing." We went to breakfast where it only got worse. After my last spoonful of oatmeal I went back to bed and Jaime went to the ship doctor who was rumored to speak no English. Half hour later Jaime came in and explained that a doctor would be making a room call at any minute. In a flash I recalled a guy in scrubs going from room to room our first day on The Drake, presumably handing out seasick pills. I only noticed because Natasha was with him. Then it occurred to me, if the doctor speaks no English, and Natasha does, that most likely meantó

I threw everything remotely stinky under the bed and raced into the bathroom. I rinsed the last of the toothpaste out of my mouth just as the doctor entered the room, Natasha in tow. We gave each other a familiar Hey! and I tried not to act too, you know, stupid. I have a habit of that.

Ailments were explained, medicine was prescribed, and the doctor left. I caught Natasha on her way out and invited her to our party tonight. She accepted with a smile but as an afterthought added that she had no idea when she would be done working. I explained that it was likely our shindig would be extending late into the night and that she was welcomed at any time. She thanked me again in her irresistible Russian dialect but did not turn to walk out, as traditional group dynamics would have me expect.

I seized the opportunity and asked her sit down while I fished out my notebook. She sat on my bunk next to me as I flipped through my notebook looking for an empty page. She asked what my book was and I told her. I also told her that her name written backwards spells, "Ah Satan," before I realized that was probably a window into my obsessiveness that should not have been revealed. There was no obvious reason why I would ask her to sit down and look at my travel diary, and her confused face showed that, so I explained I was actually looking for help with Russian translations. She obliged with another award-winning smile.

I found an empty page and wrote down some common words and phrases, like "sorry" (pro-STEE-tay), "hello" (pri-VIET), "thank you" (spah-SEE-bo), and "silly" (GLU-pee). I tried coming up with new phrases for her to translate but the stretches between speaking were uncomfortable, to say the least. I was totally spellbound by her as it was, but to place her on my bed inches away was incapacitating. Jaime was passed out on his bunk facing the wall, unable to hear me struggle. She still chimed in with questions and suggestions, but I still felt like a jackass. Breaking my stream of incoherent mumblings, Natasha told me of three Russian phrases one needs to know. She wrote them down in my notebook:

1 Ė Where is the toilet?

2 Ė Two beers, please.

3 Ė Give me a kiss.

Wanting desperately to read into that last one, but knowing better, I thanked her for taking the time to help me and stood up. She stood too and said she would try hard to make it to our party. As she walked out, I turned back to see Jaime propped up on his elbow with a smile on his face. I thanked his earache and vowed never to wash my notebook again.

The weather was getting hairy. We were set to land on Danco Island but a ship just leaving told tales of extreme inclemency, thereby thwarting our plans. Instead we headed for Cuverville Island and set anchorage amidst snowflakes the size of tennis balls. It was absolutely beautiful. Our zodiac landed on rough shores and, again, I got soaked, but the overwhelming splendor of the weather and scenery pushed fears of frostbite and hypothermia to the far back of my mind. I was overrun with excitement and Yipee!-ed and Woohoo!-ed the whole way to the island. Shane helped me out of the zodiac and I distinctly recognized a glare on his face as he did. The other Naked Shackeltons reported similarly.

The Naked Shackeltons strayed from the bulk of people and walked along the coast, escorted by Bo, the birdman. He lectured us along the way on all the wildlife we were spotting. His insights were incredibly interesting, but I had to pretend otherwise because I donít think it was anything he hadnít already said in his onboard lecture yesterday where I was fast asleep on the floor.

One little-known fact about penguins is their unique pooping style. Their bowels and sphincter can easily be compared to a squirtgun, one with the ability to hit a target from five feet away. Yesterday I noticed a spot on the island where a flat rock rose slightly above the mossy ground. From it, in every direction, extended pink, beige, and white streaks. It looked like a very large pink, beige and white candle had been placed there and burnt to the ground, itís wax running down in all directions. But today I realized it was actually a penguin perch, and a penguin, or several penguins over time, sat there and pooped while rotating throughout their tenure on the rock.


Like a candle.

It didnít matter that the penguins were in such tight packs, they just pooped wherever they were standing, whichever way they were facing. It was not uncommon to see penguin chicks saturated in krill-colored feces because they were standing too close to another penguinís behind. The adults regularly went into the water and cleaned off, but the smaller penguins just waddled around encrusted in poop. It was exciting to watch a stream of poop jet out and ricochet off a rock and splatter all over multiple penguins. For those with an undeveloped sense of maturity (like myself, the rest of the Naked Shackeltons, and everyone on my momís side of the family) the sight of poop forcibly shooting out of a penguinís butt provided endless entertainment.

Another little known fact about these two-foot tall cuties is that they wreak. The first time I got close to a rookery the stench very nearly knocked me out. If you crossed rancid seafood with an unflushed toilet (as Iím sure so many of you do) youíve come close to the smell of a penguin rookery. Penguins can only nest on rock so anywhere thereís rock, thereís penguin. And anywhere thereís penguin, thereís probably rock, only you canít see it underneath all the poop. You get used to it in that you learn how to breathe half through your mouth/half through your nose.


Look at all that poop...

Bo led us over a small hill where we spied a distant figure wearing a wetsuit that stopped six inches above his flimsy water booties. Bo called out and Dude actually stopped and turned around. We all caught up in time to hear Bo reprimand Dude for straying too far off. I peered over Dudeís shoulder at the maps he had in his ungloved hand, maps which he carries with him at all times. Finally close enough to see them I noticed the one on top was a topography map of this particular island. This island isnít listed in either my Cadogan or Lonely Planet guides so how he got a map specific to this little chunk of land is beyond me, especially since it wasnít even on our original itinerary. Different areas on the map were thickly highlighted and illegible notes had been jotted all over it. He got in an argument with Bo over which side of the island we were on but it was difficult for Bo to argue with a man who doesnít ask questions.

"That is northeast," Dude said with his finger pointed towards another island across the bay.

Was that a question?

Bo wrinkled his forehead and finally said, "No, I think that is more southeast."

"This is Cuverville. We will head southeast. That is northeast."

"Maybe it is just plain east," Bo compromised.

"This is Cuverville. We will head southeast. That is northeast."

Dude then did a Farmerís Blow onto his upper sleeve and walked straight up a mountain face. Bo, recognizing the futility of enforced boundaries, half-heartedly yelled after him, "Last zodiac leaves at 1!"

Steve came strolling up to see what was going on with Dude because everybody likes to get regular updates on the group murderer. His first encounter with Dude was back at the Hotel Presidente. After he was issued his room and given a key-card, he slid it through the door, stepped in, and found himself face-to-face with a tall man with a weird haircut, funny smell and snot smeared across his sleeve and pant seat.

"Hey, how ya doing?" Steve asked in his typical Canadian-stoner sort of way.

The man mumbled something back, moved about the room awkwardly, then locked himself in the bathroom. Steve hadnít even dropped his bags before he was back at the front desk asking for a new room.

We all caught the last zodiac off the island (without Dude, maybe he swam back, I dunnoÖ), but instead of going straight back to the ship we got a tour of the bay. By this time the sky was throwing snowballs at us so I was sketchy about cruising out into the middle of the bay, especially after our motor regularly stalled when ever we got caught in the floating ice. But we got to scoot right up close to some of the smaller icebergs. We had all sorts of questions about the varying sizes, shapes and colors (yup, colors) of the bergs but our driver was a Russkie so we made up our own answers, most of which contained metaphors to bodily functions.

Lunch was waiting for us back on the ship. Another lecture ensued but I opted to sleep in my bunk, rather than on the hardwood floor of the Lethargy Room. I woke up just in time for the dayís second landing Ė Paradise Bay. Not only is Paradise Bay regarded as one of the most photogenic locales on the continent, but it was also our first landing on the continent itself!

As soon as our zodiac landed I got out and kissed the ground.

A snowball hit me in the back of the head and a long chase landed me high on the side of a hill with a magnificent view of the Bay.

I took a couple pictures until the cold sucked the remaining life out of my camera battery. In the span of five minutes I saw two ice-calvings (where large chunks of glaciated ice break off into the water, creating thunderous noise, big waves, and an iceberg).




I also witnessed a Skua viciously attack Steve because he was unknowingly too close to itís eggs and then an MEI staff member angrily chastizing Steve for doing so (minus another point for the Naked Shackeltons).


Stay away from that bird.

 

The Japanese man with the snorkel set took off all his clothes and posed in the snow wearing only flip flops and a Sumo drape. We ran over and got pictures with him thereby taking the first step in bridging the gap between the Japanese and everybody else. When the photos were over, Naked Japanese Man ran and took a flying leap down the hill on his stomach, like a lazy penguin. Language barrier or no, this man was definitely one of us.

Dude (unfortunately not one of us) was never spotted at Paradise Bay. This was relieving because we were afraid, now that we were actually on the Antarctic continent, he might make his move and off someone.

All the hikers scaling the hill created a nice body-wide pipe that went from the top of the hill all the way down to the zodiacs, so we made our way back down to the zodiacs via our butts then returned to the ship.

Over snacks (I just love all these foodings) Bob discreetly pointed to the old man in the Buccaneers parka and asked if he was the one who hit on me. I had only told Hilary, Jeremy and the Naked Shackeltons about the incident, and I purposely left out who the guy was when relating the story. Sure, he was sleazy and gross, but who was I to tarnish his reputation? Before saying Yes I asked why Bob wanted to know. Earlier today, he said, he had an experience with the man in the Buccaneers parka almost identical to mine. The guy approached Bob and talked in hush tones about this, that, and private parties. Confused, Bob consented to hang out with him and his friend down in their cabin. Bob walked away and 60 seconds later realized what had just taken place.

Speaking of unrequited love:

I have to admit, if one has affections, but one is floating at sea with nothing else to do but hang out and think, one can get mighty obsessive. Itís no wonder some of the most romantic, eloquent words ever written were penned by seaman to their loves back home. So sitting in the library on a ship with little to do but think, I prepared for Natasha a poem.

But first, let me share a little on my own history with regards to poetryÖ

I have long battled poetry. Anything outside of Go Dog Go is a challenge. Iíve just never had the capacity or knack for absorbing symbolism or fancy word-arrangement. And if it doesnít rhyme, forget about it... During my second year of college I decided to tackle the subject head-on by taking a poetry-only class. For months I struggled with Poe, Bly, Pushkin, Cummings, PlathÖ whatever was thrown at me. I eventually started to get the hang of it, but only as much as a luddite would a computer if forced to use one. I had no passion for it, I was just acquiring a general understanding of it through repetition and submersion. Two months into the semester we were surprised with an in-class test. Our job was to spend the entire day interpreting the poem written on the board. I worked right up until the very end of class, excited because I was able to write on and on, applying all that I had learned throughout the course. I turned it in thinking something had finally clicked, like I was finally catching on. A week later I got the test back. Scrawled, in blood red ink, was "F Ė I can only assume this is a joke." My already waning appreciation for poetry ended right then and there and I treated the rest of his course as a joke.

All this said, I wrote a "poem" that I ultimately saw as trite-sounding and Dr. Seuss-ish. But Jaime suckered me into thinking that if it came from the heart (which it did), then regardless, it was beautiful (still up for debate). To doctor it up (read: mask the actual poem itself) I wrote it on the back of a map and burnt the edges, giving it a weathered, rugged, adventurous aura Ė you know, like my shoes.

After dinner Jaime and I set out to stock up for our party. Weíd been inviting most everyone under the age of 40 and figured at least the rest of Naked Shackeltons would show up. We went to the bar where Natasha the Bartender was busy serving and intermittently consulting a bartenderís recipe book under the counter. We walked up and asked for a dozen beers. Everyone looked up, saw it was us, then resumed whatever they were doing. At this point, "acting reserved" would be the only thing we could do to surprise anyone on this ship. With pockets full of beer, Spriteís for Jaimeís Absolut, munchies, and a bag of ice an unnamed staff person swiped from the kitchen, we converted our pigsty into a swank party pad.

Angela, the staff person least likely to throw us overboard, was the first to show up. She regaled us with a tale of sweetness as romantic as the high seas themselves. She is the assistant expedition leader, which means she is directly under the "Shane" of whatever ship sheís on. On the expedition before ours she was assigned to work under a guy named Geoff. She only knew about him what the tourist catalog said Ė namely, that he runs expeditions from pole to pole with over 50 trips to Antarctica alone. He was also an avid outdoorsman, taught skiing in Switzerland, captained a yacht in the Mediterranean, and lectured about the environment across the U.S. and Canada. While at the airport on her way to the ship she saw the familiar MEI shirt and recognized the face of her next boss. They sat together on the plane and arrived at the next airport the best of buds. They spent the day tooling around Ushuaia and by nightfall they were smitten. The relationship was consummated that very night Ė and every few hours for the rest of their assignment. By the end of the expedition Geoff had gotten one of the Russian ship-dwellers to fashion a ring out of miscellaneous scrap metal and some seafaring tools. Ten days after meeting each other they were engaged. The bouquet of flowers I saw being delivered when we arrived to the ship were for her, and they have been proudly crisping in her cabin ever since.

As she told her story Unmarried Gay Couple showed up. We decided a fitting entrance fee for our party was some anecdote involving the removal of someoneís pants. Angela had set a good standard and the rest of us followed suit. As more people showed up the stories got better and eventually there were multiple conversations and people spilling out into the hallway. It also started getting really loud, but since we were so close to the engine it didnít really matter. If our neighbors could last through Jaimeís snoring, we figured this party could last through the night. Gary, the other staff member who didnít show obvious contempt for us, showed up con cerveza.

Recognizably absent from our soirée were Michael and Sharon. But as the evening progressed it was obvious there were other friends to be made. Melanie, the maroon/black-haired girl who will probably never visit another Estancia as long as she lives, had not yet previously been seen on the ship without her mother. From a spectators perspective one might assume it was her against the world. But given a couple beers and a younger social environment she turned out to be a hoot. A 15 year-old named Stewart showed up and waxed life on an almost equally mythical body of land, Tasmania.


Karen, Robert (with mustache), Jeremy, Hilary, Angela.

Chicks dig Canadian stoner harmonica players.

My position on my bunk did not allow me to see out of our door. Every time someone new would show up I could see heads careen over to look and say Hi. And every time my heart leapt thinking it was Natasha. It never was. Angela picked up on my anticipation. "Yeah," she confided, "sheís beautiful. She getís asked to marry at least once on every trip."

Two hours after we left the dining room I went back up to see if everything was okay. I had some heart-illery to fire and I was getting anxious. Plus I had a few beers in me and for someone who drinks alcohol maybe once every nine months I donít always know my limits. Donít get me wrong, I was far from out-of-hand, but I definitely had a bit of liquid courage running through me. When I got to the dining room I saw Natasha and the others setting tables. She saw me and came over. She asked how the party was going and I said something cheesy like, "Not as good as if you were there." It didnít come out that lame, or maybe it did, but I pressed on to see if she was still interested in coming down. She was, but she wasnít sure how long she would be working. I offered to help wash dishes, clean tables, squeegee windows, slay dragons, whatever it took to get her out of there. She said to come back at midnight when sheíd hopefully be done. It was 11pm.

I returned to the party in time to see Sharon and Michael show up, together. Sharon stood by the door while Michael grabbed some beers. Then they left. That settled it, they were out of the group. Effigies will begin tomorrow.

Our first complaint came just before midnight. Being that we had both Gary and Angela in our assemblage meant that we had to respect the other passengers will to sleep. We all packed up and headed to the bar, but not before stopping on the top deck for some more naked pictures.

I seem to have grown impervious to the cold. Maybe itís the excitement of such fantastic new experiences, or maybe itís my body acclimating itself to the cold. Whether Iím soaked to the bone and wandering through snow and penguin guano, or naked on the top deck of a Russian Icebreaker for a Kodak moment, the cold seems to have little effect on me anymore.

Come 12am, everyone went to the bar while I stole away to the dining room to see how Natasha was coming along. The lights were out when I showed up and Natasha and Vika were sitting at a table talking. Natasha came to meet me and Vika disappeared. I asked if she was ready to go but she gave me a disappointed face and said her boss wouldnít let her go down to the passengerís cabins. I told her that was fine as we were all in the bar now anyway. She amended her answer by saying in no uncertain terms that her boss wasnít keen on the kitchen staff fraternizing with the passengers. Instead, she offered me up a seat at one of the tables and sat opposite me. Before saying anything I handed her the folded, burnt piece of paper bearing my adolescent heart and told her not to read it until later. She stuffed it into her pocket and we sat looking at each other.

I was content gazing at her from across the table, and would have readily spent the rest of the evening doing so, but I doubt she would have found as much pleasure in it. So I started asking questions. Whenever Iím strapped for something to say I ask questions. Itís a bad habit I picked up from my mom. She asks questions all day. She is constantly seeking information. It sounds good in theory, but in reality, she doesnít remember any of the answers, and half the time sheís asking just to bide time until she figures out what she really wants to ask.

I am no different, except when Iím truly interested. And never was I more interested to hear (and retain) answers than right then. To prove my point: Natasha lives in St. Petersburg (used to be Leningrad) in western Russia, on the coast of the Gulf of Finland. Her full name is Natasha Nikolina and she was born in August of 1978, on the 28th if Iím not mistaken. She enjoys poetry and knows more about the heavy metal band Gorky Park than I do. She got the job as head waitress on this ship through a friend of the family. She starts work early each morning and continues till the wee hours of the following morning, seven days a week, for eight months. She says she will never do this again. Ever. She has a German Shepherd whom she loves very much and who got sick the day she left and vanished from her grandparents house in the country, only to be found at her parents house in the city some days later completely exhausted. Her aspirations are to be a tour guide for one of the many museums in and around St. Petersburg and to get married and have children. She currently has no boyfriend.

I caught all this when I was drunk, mind you.

She asked all the same questions of me but I made the mistake of saying I played in a rockíníroll band and had no job. Any girl who is attracted to that is simply Bad News because most people fitting that description, and who are stupid enough to brag about it, are complete scumbags. I, however, am only a partial scumbag. I tried to validate my seemingly slack-only life by explaining that I am in a band that actually works but I think it just came across as, "I am in a band and they do all the work." In any event, she kept listening and I kept talking (another bad habit of mine). The rest of the conversation went smoothly considering the language barrier and my inexperience at "chatting up" someone I didnít know.

Shane popped in at one point. Without looking at me once he had an entire conversation with Natasha about the weather, the state of the dining room, and tomorrowís breakfast. I tried to interject at the part about the weather, saying how exciting it was for me, but my voice missed him by an easy foot and splattered unacknowledged on the wall behind him. Natasha rolled her eyes as he left. I looked up at the clock and realized she had to wake up in three hours for work. I thanked her for talking with me and let her know how nothing would make me happier than meeting up again before the end of the trip, like maybe tomorrow. She said she wasnít sure about being able to meet again because the unpredictability of mealtimes are subject to our ability to reach land. If weíre on land till 9pm and donít eat till 10pm, then she works till 2am. And if we file in the dining room the next morning for a 7am breakfast she only gets a couple hours sleep before having to prepare for our demanding asses. Feeling somewhat guilty, I told her that anytime she was accessible, so would I be.

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