by Paul Lowinger
Back from The Ice better known as Antarctica,
we had traveled three thousand miles from Buenos Aires on
a Russian ice breaker. We were the Elderhostel, sixty and
seventy year old tourists, restless and celebratory as we
dined at a faux beer garden on our last night in Argentina.
It was December and we would be home for Christmas.
We had been to the Seventh Continent for five landing
on the Antarctic Peninsula and the offshore islands.
Twenty four hours of light a day was
amazing. We saw maybe 10,000 penguins, mostly Adelies that
dominated the land we visited. Hundreds sat on nests in fields
of guano, their eggs hatching and the young emerging as we
The penguins were all black and white except
for a few Macaronis that had colorful ribbon plumes. I
saw Finn whales blowing. Seals swam by and the others on the
shore looked on. An albatross soared over an iceberg and I
didn't need the biologist to make an identification. Birds
were never out of sight. Small brown skuas wheeled over the
penguin colonies looking for food, an egg or even a baby penguin.
We kept our distance and took pictures.
We wanted the experience of the bright white
land. Slow careful footsteps in high rubber boots took us
onto the shores traveling from our mother ship on inflatable
rafts called Zodiacs. We looked, crunched in the snow and
stood at attention before penguins and seals on the shores.Two
Elderhousers missed a 5:30 am landing but the others were
there, tallied by name on and off the Zodiacs.
The tour leaders and lecturers were Canadian
while the crew of the ship was Russian. The boat was leased
to Marine Expeditions of Toronto for travel in the Antarctic
during the southern summer and then in the Arctic during its
northern summer. It is named the Academik Joffe, after a Soviet
nuclear scientist whose first name, Abraham was omitted because
it sounded too Jewish. The ship itself, 380 feet carrying
80 passengers was built as a research vessel for scientists
studying the underwater transmission of sound from submarines.
It was the kind of spy ship no longer needed after the Soviet
The southward ocean journey from Buenos Aires
took us from the Atlantic shores of Argentina dotted by cities
and ships to the cold and unfriendly seas of the Drake Passage
where generations had rounded the Horn from the Atlantic ports
to the American West. This was a rougher sea although our
voyage was remarkable for its tranquility.
Elderhousers were alike in their hunger for
travel. Some had been on twenty or thirty Elder tours. Most
were retired but some still worked at such things as selling
pillow forms, landlording and counseling. We were a leisure
class, whites and Asians, several couples, more women then
men. One couple came to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Other couples were represented by the one who wanted to visit
The Ice but graciously excused the other because he doesn't
care for boat trips or this isn't her style. Among us were
vegetarians, birders, photographers and seekers.
Excitement mounted and I joined the travelers
who were up for the dawn. The bridge was open to us at all
hours so we were able to see the Excitement mounted and I
joined the travelers who were up for the dawn. The bridge
was open to us at all hours so we were able to see the
We threw snowballs at friends at our first landing.
At another landing we slid down a hill sitting on our waterproof
pants. Underneath them were many layers of insulation leading
to Admiral Byrd's question, "How do you get a four-inch pecker
out of six inches of Antarctic clothing?"
Not everything was cold. The landing at Whaler's
Bay, our third on December 7 was warm when we stood in the
slush of the hot springs from a volcanic vent. There the snow
was mushy and orange with a sulfurous tang and my feet felt
warm through the rubber boots and wool socks.
The grayness of Antarctica mated with the taupe
of the ship. The absence of color was so striking that I looked
to my yellow jacket for succor. The exception was the a sunset
at eleven p.m., a red ribbon that was punctuated by lighted
spots that flashed, reflections from the icebergs.
Academik Joffe was not the love boat but a good
ol' boy from Alabama and a outdoors woman from Illinois had
a discrete shipboard romance. Their signature was a final
tearful smooch in the hotel lobby as they headed home to their
The icebergs were the central feature of the
journey. Some were the size of our vessel and a few were as
big as Connecticut, huge hulks of fresh water from the main
body of the continent. They were solid, smooth, jagged, white
and also pink and black, casting shadows, sparkling in the
light and breaking along fault lines. Surveyed by birds, they
were the deserts, prairies and forests of the Southern Continent.
We cruised at a respectful distance in our icebreaker but
we were close by during our offshore Zodiac tours.
We reached the shore of the continent at the
Antarctic Peninsula where we stood on the soil as we waded
ashore into the ice and snow. We were still 1700 miles from
the South Pole, the center of a continent as large as the
United States and Mexico.
Channel fever was the mood on the way back to
Ushuaia, a Patagonian port at the tip of Argentina. Maybe
we'd see a last whale or dolphin, a final diving penguin or
the Convergence, the watery boundary between the Southern
Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. You are supposed to be able to
see this confluence of waters but it's less visible between
sunset and sunrise. The demarcation between day and night
returned and soon we landed, said goodbye to the crew and
flew north to Buenos Aires.
Was The Ice worth it? Only on a scale of the
spirit. This was the real benefit for all the oil and time
spent on the air and sea travel. The mystical need for personal
ice, snow, cold and an uninhabited continent is a complement
to our vision of Gauguin's sensual green tropics. The Eldermind
needs this contrast for its enlargement.
Buenos Aires offered two unique opportunities:
the tango and a visit to Evita's grave. I went to the city's
fabled cemetery, Recoleta where the mausoleums were rococo,
baroque, Victorian and modern, edifices of marble and wood
with windows looking at the paraphernalia of life and death:
lace, mirrors, clothes, cosmetics, candles, dishes and the
casket itself cast among images of Jesus, Mary, saints, angels
and paradise. Bouquets surrounded Evita's tomb in the Duarte
family crypt whose sculptured metal doors were covered by
fresh flowers. It was a shrine and the onlookers spoke in
We had only two nights to look for the legendary
fin de siecle tango of Buenos Aires' demi monde. The first
night we saw a spectacular tango in a tourist cafe with sexy
and muscular dancers and middle aged musicians. They were
elegant local stars.
An American friend had given me a Buenos Aires phone
number so I called Flora who turned out to be a late fiftyish tango
teacher. I took a cab in a torrential downpour to her apartment building
and kept the taxi so we could go on to a neighborhood tango club where
a disc jockey played ballads on a mediocre sound system. The members
who wore fifties vintage clothes were tango teachers and their students.
She explained the decorum, "If a women wants to dance with a man,
she glances at him distantly."
She looked at a man she wanted to dance with
and he promptly came and asked her. Sometimes I miss nuances
but the glance seemed direct rather then oblique. She amplified,
"Ladies never directly ask a man and the man who asks for
a dance is never refused."
These dancers' movements were uniform and deliberate.
This was not the lush and inventive downtown tango but an
austere ceremony. "How could folk tango be so dull ?" I asked
silently and I closed my eyes to wait for an answer.
Flora said, "You know you can leave anytime
you want to, I'll be fine." I returned to the hotel for the
I took a penguin poster home after I said goodbye
to The Ice. But there was more to come. As I left my dentist's
office a few months later, I walked by a boutique that was
having a going out of business 70% off sale. In the windows
looking at me with black and canary eyes were a dozen model
penguins. No guano here but their fine plastic feathers were
even more perfect then in real life. They stood seventeen
inches on mauve webbed feet with their black beaks at the
ready. I had to have one. I ended up with three and The Ice
was still with me.
© Paul Lowinger 1998