The Ice
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 watched.

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 empire dissolved.

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 spouses.

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 hushed tones.

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 flight home.

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