Friday, February 6, 2009

Back on Land in Punta Arenas

On the morning of February 6th, having completed her passage through the Strait of Magellan, the Laurence M. Gould approached Punta Arenas. Eager to set foot on land again after 4 1/2 days at sea, many of us (especially those who had suffered from seasickness) were once more outside on the decks. I marveled at the rich green hills in the distance, the chaotic jumble of colors and forms that comprised the city, and the fact that we were no longer alone. There were many other ships in the water around us now and a whole urban world awaited onshore. What a change this would be after living in the small, vivid communities of ship and station. I wasn't sure if I was quite ready to be back in the "real world" again, but it was upon me.

Although many people describe their time on the Gould as a kind of grueling purgatory that must be endured in order to get to/from the Antarctic Peninsula, I was happy to have had shipboard segues bookending my time on the Ice. Heading south, these days in transit let me fully relish the unknown, to deliciously wonder what lay in store for me at the bottom of the world. Northbound the Gould granted me precious time in which to savor my experiences before plunging back into regular life. I almost felt sorry for people who travel to McMurdo. These folks access Antarctica from New Zealand via a military cargo plane in a matter of hours. What a rude shock it must be to drop abruptly into such drastically different environments and cultures.
As Oona and I watched, the pier grew closer and closer and then the Gould turned and slowly backed into place alongside the dock. We had finally arrived, and despite my mixed feelings about the impending end of my great Antarctic adventure, I found I really was excited about going ashore.

However, we had to wait just a little longer before we could cross the gangplank, as were not allowed to leave the ship until it was safely tied up and the Chilean immigration agents arrived onboard to stamp our passports and officially grant us reentry into their country. In the meantime I amused myself by peering out the galley portholes at Punta Arenas,
and adding a Laurence M. Gould stamp to my passport alongside the ones I got at Palmer Station. I'm not entirely sure why we are allowed to have stamps from Antarctica and Antarctic research vessels, and they hold no legal significance (remember Antarctica is a whole continent ostensibly not owned by anyone). Still, I am delighted to have passport evidence of my journey.
And then, after an hour or so, we were gleefully strolling down the pier. It was time to set foot on verdant land once again and, perhaps more importantly, to get some fresh lunch!
Stepping back onto land in the midst of "The Most Austral City in the World" my first impressions were of how busy and messy everything was: visually, sonically, aromatically. After the austere, relatively spare world of Palmer Station, and the contained realm of the ship, I was suddenly affronted by too many options. Everything seemed to mirror the confused tangle of cables suspended above our heads as my friends and I wandered up Punta Arenas' sidewalks. Whereas at Palmer there had been one bumpy, gravel "road" that ran for only a couple hundred feet, here a maze of interlaced streets stretched out before me. The city's brightly painted buildings and corrugated rooftops came from a color palate that had expanded exponentially from the whites, grays and blues that dominate Antarctic landscapes. The scents of penguins and elephant seals wafting across the water from nearby islands had been replaced by diesel and gasoline fumes, scrambled restaurant food odors, and the earthy smells of things growing in dirt and a profusion of human and animal life.

As for the soundscape: well cacophony really is the appropriate word. Engines and motors of all kinds surrounded us. Everywhere I looked the world was overrun by people: chatting, arguing, laughing, coughing, and clomping. This incredible layer of "background" noise was punctuated by the occasional doorslam, tolling churchbell, or altercation between street dogs. Even after living with the blaring drone of the ship's engines for days on end this was quite overwhelming at first. Since Punta Arenas is not even all that big of a city (around 130,000 people), I wondered how I was ever going to adapt to hearing San Francisco when I arrived home.

Luckily yummy food awaited us, and the growling of my stomach soon overrode my other senses. Even though I was a vegetarian in a place where people seem to eat a lot of meat, it was thrilling to have so many food options again. And after a month away from freshies, the fact that there were whole stores full of ripe fruit and vegetables seemed nothing short of miraculous!

In the evening, after settling into our hotels, and strolling and eating our way around town (One of my friends had 3 or 4 different lunches. All afternoon he just kept moving from one excellent restaurant to the next.), Oona and I gathered for a beer with some of the researchers from the LTER cruise. Then it was off to a final dinner with our fellow Palmerites. Tomorrow many of them, including my amazing Artboat co-captain Oona, would be jetting north or heading off to other South American adventures. I, on the other hand, would be staying in town for a couple more decompression days before flying home.

I was so excited about our desserts that I couldn't resist photographing them.

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