You know I have had penpals since I was 8 and always imagined how I would see the world and do it cheaply, and I have made the most wonderful friends and visited the most amazing places and learned about real life in so many countries. Well I was particularly lucky that I had been writing to a girl from Uruguay for 15 years and more, and it is always interesting to see how we all grow up and what jobs we have, how we live, and she had an incredible career in radio and journalism, and took several trips to Antarctica and wrote a book about it which was great, and sent me photos and the books, and I always hoped I could go sometime with her. I have been fascinated with Antarctica for many years, but it is a very expensive boat trip, about $7000, and I get so seasick and you can only go to limited places. So when Ana Maria told me that she had been appointed as Press Secretary to the Antarctic bases and we had a year to get down there, I was ecstatic! Of course you can only go to Antarctica in the summer, normally, so we were very anxious, waiting for January to come to confirm it!
I did my usual studying all about Antarctica so I would know what we could see in the area, because it is a huge area, not just the South Pole, there are bases all around the edges of the continent, it is also an actual continent with land, not like the North Pole where it is a big ice sheet with Canadian and Russian islands. One friend have told me that I prepare for a trip like a student for her PhD exam, and I have to get 100%! I guess that is my personality, I need to be totally prepared when I take a trip, I can't imagine just going somewhere blindly with no background or plan.
Finally we got word that we would probably fly from Uruguay on the 11th or 12th of January, which worked out as I had scheduled vacation January 8-24. Ana Maria said we would probably be gone about a week there but you are not in control, the weather is in control there so you have to give lots of time, and of course I didn't just want to go instantly there and back, it is unbelievably far from here; people don't think of that, I didn't think of it either, where it is 11 hours to Japan or England from here, it is 16 hours to Uruguay. So I left right after class on January 8 at 2 pm and arrived in Montevideo about noon on January 9, it is a very long way! I also decided to use some of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles to upgrade to First class, so that was particularly luxurious, no extra money. We also brought a Digital video camera so we could do reports about life there and hopefully put them on the CBS High Definition TV channel and they are always looking for programs.
Diana had to fly separately and so her plane arrived about 2 pm, but when we got there, they had a special sign with our names and a guy picked us up and brought us to the VIP section of the terminal, where a guy takes your passport and your luggage tags and got the bags, got our passport stamped and offered us something to drink, I felt like a rich person! I don't get this treatment at home! When I got off the plane this guy pushed his way in front of me, I thought how rude, and was very surprised that it was Ana Maria's boss who was coming back from a conference, how shocking when she introduced us, he was going to be on the trip to Antarctica with us! But by the end of the trip he liked us a lot, he is the Vice Minister of Defense so is used to always going first and being important!
Then Ana Maria got an official car for us to take things to the house, and we stayed with her, which was great. She has 2 daughters which are so nice and well-raised and a very nice husband, too, and we met her parents and it was really fun. The weather was excellent, being mid-summer there, and of course in Uruguay and Argentina they are famous for their beef, more famous than our cows! So we had a fantastic steak dinner and barbecue, we felt so lucky. One thing we learned about Uruguay, though, is that they eat parts of cows that we do not, so you always have to ask before you ear, a lesson which we kept learning throughout our trip. People also eat very late at night for us, about 10 pm so we had a hard time staying awake, eating, then going to bed! We did wonderful sightseeing in Montevideo, a beautiful city with a beautiful Capitol building called the Palacio Legislativo, and beautiful churches and excellent history, and the Artigas mausoleum for their famous patriot, sort of like the American George Washington. We also took great pictures from their highest building and saw the Rio de la Plata, the river between Uruguay and Argentina which is very beautiful. We saw where Ana Maria works and had a very cute lunch in the old city, and did more sightseeing and shopping and the one thing I noticed is that people smoke everywhere, in stores, buildings, cars, houses, and people don't even notice that you might be offended by it, like the US was in 1955! Of ours, since it is forbidden to smoke in every public building here, office, restaurant, bar, everywhere, it is a horrible, offensive thing, I mean if someone smokes here they know they have to do it far away from you as it is so rude... even Europe seemed to be better, it was the worst I had ever seen in all my extensive travels. But people are very nice except for that, they figure if you don't like the smoking then it's your fault.
Uruguay is a very nice and modern country, with fancy supermarkets and shopping and people have good houses and great food, so I liked it there, and the beaches are beautiful. There used to be a dictatorship and Ana Maria has friends who were tortured by the military during those times, so it is a contrast, now having a democratic government and Ana Maria working with the Defense Dept. and some of the military, like Argentina or Chile, politics in South America can still be a sensitive thing. They also tease me as they have a different accent and some different Spanish words in Uruguay and Argentina, and they say I talk like a Mexican, which of course I do! They alquiler un auto where we rentar un carro! Like the difference between British and American and Australian and Scottish, but of course we can all understand each other.
The next morning we had to get up early and go to the Military airport to take our flight starting to Antarctica, how exciting! So we get our official car, and off we all go, so important, then go into a lounge to wait and many officials, big government people, and Ana Maria is one of them, they all know her, she is one of the team!
We are so impressed and proud and glad to have this opportunity as it would be impossible to fly there otherwise, maybe for thousands of dollars that we don't have, but it is so cool to get on a C-130B to fly down there. We meet Generals and researchers and scientists and we can't figure out any of it but now we know everyone. So we get on the plane, with web seats and very military, in fact after George Bush visited Uruguay in 1991, I think, he made a deal to sell this plane, which was used in the Gulf War and they say also in Vietnam, lots of history! We cannot grasp that we are in such an influential crowd, that is one thing about me, I can meet famous people and do this stuff but I never take it for granted, I am always very impressed by it!
The flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, right at the bottom of South America so you can picture it, is 5 hours from Uruguay, so now we are about 21 hours from home. We walk around and look at the plane, very interesting and we feel like we are on an expedition, not a tourist trip! This is not First Class on United Airlines, but you wouldn't want that, as Ana Maria says, it needs to be hard so you can appreciate it, not everyone can go to Antarctica and we need to understand its importance. I am amazed at how there are so few women, and lots of very handsome military guys, especially the flight navigator and a marine biologist, but they are all so charming and nice. They are also not used to having 2 American girls on their flight, either, so we are just as exotic for them, I am feeling a bit of Antarctica fever ha ha!
We got to sit up in the cockpit of the plane and actually sit in the co-pilot's seat and fly, and we have video and pictures of it, how amazing, a C-130 huge military plane and we are helping to fly a little bit (of course with the pilot right next to us!!) It was so thrilling, one of the most amazing things I have ever done I can tell you that! There are about 50 people flying with us, and all the countries with bases in the area help each other bringing supplies or people, it is interesting.
We stayed overnight in Punta Arenas, and had time to walk around and see the famous Magellan statue, and walk around and see the Straits of Magellan, amazing! It is chilly and windy and we think it is cold, but we have no idea what is coming!! I had lots of information from the Antarctica research news group that I get emailed, since Punta Arenas is the gateway for the ships and planes to Antarctica from this direction, Christchurch, New Zealand being the gateway from the other side. The sun is so interesting here for pictures, it reminds me of the Faeroe Islands in the north Atlantic, how the sun looks on the buildings and the latitude, really beautiful.
The next morning, January 12, we get back on the plane, it is so nice to get on the bus when they tell you and everything is taken care of perfectly, when we are ready, the plane goes, we don't have to wait for a scheduled plane! The water is also very rough here, I could never take a boat trip from here, I would die... so after 2 hrs. and we have photos of flying over Cape Horn, incredible, all we have read about it.
People are starting to put on their big clothes so we figure it must be near, but we cannot really imagine the cold-they lend us clothes as we don't have anything warm enough, I have my Nagano Olympics jacket and Uruguayan Antarctic pants, rolled up about a foot you can imagine they are way too big and long! One important expression that I learned in Spanish is sensacion thermica, wind chill factor, which is extremely important since it is not just the cold but the incredible winds here.
We landed at the Chilean base, and the views are incredible of the icebergs and the water, it is mostly rocks, the snow has melted, but it is still cold, about 37F, 3C and when the wind blows it is really cold. Of course it is Antarctica and we are not expecting beach weather. Then the helicopters take us to Artigas base, the Uruguayan base where we will be staying. We are in the guest barracks, 6 of us to a room with one shower, comfortable for it being a working base, and the food is also very good. They take parts of the Collins glacier that have just broken off and we use them in our drinks since the ice is very clean and melts very slowly, how interesting.
They give us a briefing, on how to not go out alone, when we leave the base area to take a radio and someone from the base as the weather can change very quickly, and that when we are in the zodiac boats, the life jackets are only to pull us out because you die in 2 minutes without protective clothing, so being in Antarctica is something to be taken seriously. The bases are all separate buildings for research, sleeping, eating, etc, so I could remember my childhood growing up back East since you must always put on your heavy clothes just to cross to the next building, then take them off, then in 10 minutes put them all back on again to run across to your room, then take them off. I found this to be true very quickly, as when we arrived it was cloudy and partly sunny and not so bad, then when we walked around the base it started hailing very seriously, cutting my face and all white so I couldn't see in front of me, and this was just between buildings, so you could easily get lost and confused and die quickly outside. They are also very serious about keeping everything in perfect order and not bothering the environment-they recycle everything, they send all the trash back to in ships, and you must not get too close to the wildlife, penguins, birds, seals, you have to keep the human influence off the natural habitat of the area. It is all very interesting, and hard to judge distance as bases that look close together on the map may be a long 4-wheel drive truck away, or even farther, and some must be visited by helicopter or boat as there are no roads.
Everything is more modern than I thought, they have 24 hour Internet service and a local phone line back to Montevideo so people can call their families, and Direct TV satellite service, so they try to make the isolation as comfortable as possible. There are no flights in winter and they don't see outsiders for months at a time. All of the bases have their own specialties of research, studying the ozone layer, earth tides, glaciers, earthquakes, animals, birds, penguins, lots of things and they share the information. Even countries who have had conflicts in the past work closely together in Antarctica, because they only have each other, so Artigas might lend their helicopter for the Russians to unload something, the Chileans have the planes and offer their airstrip. Chile's Frei base also have a town where families live, while other bases might only have a few scientists, and families are not allowed. Frei base also has a school, church, gym, hospital, dentist, post office and bank; they even voted in the Chilean presidential election and sent the results via satellite so they were announced on Chilean TV. There are some good souvenirs to buy on the bases, like cups and T-shirts and things, but since there aren't many things to buy on each base, you don't spend money like on a normal vacation where I want to buy things, and you use dollars to pay for things at every country's base, so that is easy . You also get your passport stamped everywhere which is superb!
In the area are Bellingshausen base, which is Russian, and Great Wall, the Chinese base. The Russian base has an old-style movie theatre with Soviet movies from the 30s and 40s and the Chinese have very interesting research with earthquakes and meteorology. The Chilean base is huge and has about 500 people, the Chinese has about 15, Artigas has about 30 . It was interesting to visit with the base commanders and see the different participation of their governments in the base, and how they live. The Chilean base commander had been stationed in Damascus, so I was shocked when I gave him something and he answered Shokran in Arabic, then I answered back, who could imagine we would be speaking Arabic in Antarctica! Incredible!
The bases have women as much as men, and they all work together professionally, though of course there are a lot more men. It doesn't really get dark there, we are about the same latitude in the south as Fairbanks, Alaska is in the north, or middle Finland, so we stay up late and don't really get the normal cues to sleep and wake up as you would normally. Of course it is almost always dark in June and July and that wouldn't be nice, also the cold and snow are extreme. Really we are very lucky with the weather, which was as high as 40F, or 5C, and low as -4F or -18C. I had some hand and foot chemical warmers from the Rose Parade which I used on the trip, which seemed ridiculous as we think it's cold in Pasadena but this is Antarctica and I could have made a dress out of these warmers and still been cold! You put them in your gloves and socks and they do take the edge off, but it was still cold!
One of the concerns is the possibility of increased tourism, which is a concern if it is only done for economic reasons. The Russians may try to lease some of their buildings for tourists, to support the research, but everyone wants to carefully control it as too many people spoil the environment and it has to be respected. They have great ham radio rooms on the Russian base and the Uruguayan base and I traded CBS ham cards with them, we were both equally excited about it! The Russian base performs a lot of ecological experiments, and has a massive cleanup project of scrap metal and chemicals to return the area to its natural state after some misuse in the past, and everything will be shipped back to Cape Town, where it will be recycled.
Other bases which can only be accessed by helicopter or walking about 15 miles by glacier (I love the helicopter!) Are Arktowski, the Polish base, and Ferraz, the Brazilian base. Countries have bases that you wouldn't expect, like Ecuador and Peru have that are only in use in summer, and there used to be an East German base here, but with the German reunification, the German scientists now use part of the Russian base for their research.
I really enjoyed looking at the various weather stations, which is one of the most important jobs on any base. They are essential to the pilots, with constantly changing winds and snow one minute, sun the next. Especially people who live in Southern California cannot believe the skill of the pilots, where they have extreme winds and storms that pilots would never fly in here; the helicopter pilots are amazing, only a few feet off the ground and navigate like experts. We were so impressed and can never express our appreciation for their skill and for our safety.
Plans change often, so first you think you are flying to a glacier, no, you are going to a base, or you are taking the boat, no, the boat is in rough water and not there yet. For a control freak like I am, this was not easy, but we would do everything eventually, so I had to be patient and let things happen in their order, not my order.
But finally, the ship came and we were scheduled to leave the next morning. One of the highlights was that we had special permission to take the supply ship, Vanguardia, to the peninsula at Uruguay's secondary base Ecare, and Argentina's huge Esperanza research station. We're the only women who had ever stayed on the ship, and they gave us the commanders cabin as they were the only separate facilities on the ship. I mean, the guys are cute but we didn't want to have communal showers with them!
It takes two weeks to sail from Montevideo to Artigas, and another 12 hours from Artigas to Ecare, Uruguay's secondary research station where they study glaciers, and for someone like me who is terrified of seasickness, I was happy to go for 12 hours only, which was enough time to see some of the most amazing scenery I have ever experienced, more than a National Geographic special, and I felt so privileged to look at the these things with my own eyes, not just at a TV screen.
You take a zodiac out to the ship, which can be dangerous by itself, as when you put on the life jacket, they tell you that the water temperature is 34 degrees, so the jacket is really only to pull you out, as you would die in 2 minutes unprotected in these Antarctic waters. We toured the bridge, where they drive the ship, with the modern GPS and radar detectors for icebergs, along with line of sight which is essential for the safety of the ship and its passengers, the Captain keeping a lookout all the time. Some icebergs look like sculptures on the water and some look like long sheets. The blue ice is the oldest, and some of them have been here for hundreds of years. It's not easy to navigate the solid walls of ice, and it takes the commander's full attention for most of the trip.
Penguins on the water, bobbing up and down, and at 63 degrees south, roughly the same as Fairbanks, Alaska in the north, it never gets totally dark and the colors of the sky and water are amazing. To step on the Antarctic continent, my 7th and last continent, was the most incredible feeling, what an accomplishment.
The two bases on the Trinity Peninsula are Argentina's Esperanza Base and Uruguay's Ecare secondary base. Esperanza has had over 12 babies born since 1978, and like the Chilean base on King George, have families living there full time, with the church, school and even a museum. Some of Esperanza's scientific work includes a joint project with the US on earth tides, a joint seismography project with Italy, and both Esperanza and Ecare work on glacial discoveries in the region. One of the guys at Esperanza said he thought Diana was 26 and I was 28, I guess they all have Antarctica fever too ha ha! But we were getting our passports stamped on base and could prove that he was very kind, yet wrong, he was shocked!
It is also where a Swedish expedition became shipwrecked in 1903 and built this stone hut to survive the Antarctic winter until another ship arrived the next year to save them. This is an example of the ingenuity resourcefulness of the early Antarctic pioneers and the same dangers exist today-there is also a penguin colony of over 300 thousand Adelie penguins, some swimming and climbing on the icebergs, some watching from the shore, some waddling down the path and looking like a scene from Funniest Home Videos! This was truly a highlight of our Antarctica trip, one of the very few who have ever been allowed to travel on the ROU Vanguardia and have access to such an amazing place, I am truly so blessed to have seen it personally and to have such a wonderful friend like Ana Maria who made it all possible.
We really had the best weather of the entire ship on our time in the peninsula, and were so fortunate. On the ship trip back (we thought they were going to helicopter us back, but everything changes all the time), it started snowing and blowing and the zodiac trip back to the base was a real adventure. I had a hard time climbing up and down the ship, not because I am too weak but because my legs are too short to fit the steps. So they kept pulling me on and off the ladder which was a little scary for both of us, but the last time they found another ladder and I could climb up and down with no problem. I had done it in Pitcairn and in Tristan da Cunha, but the weather was warmer and you are not in a ton of clothes. Also, if you fell in the water down there, it was warm, here you would die, no pressure!!
When we got back to Artigas, I just rested, it is amazing that things are so relaxed, and I am adjusting fine. Diana doesn't ever want to leave, I am contented, other than the smoking that is really driving me crazy, but you know me, always wondering which place to go next. Of course, now that we have visited the bases and the peninsula, also up to the Drake glacier with the elephant seals, I am not sure what else there is to do and so I am curious when we will go. It is January 15, and the government people and Ana Maria have to be in Montevideo on the afternoon of the 18th for a hearing before Congress, so now we wait. We first thought we would go on the 16th, but they are having an election in Chile and people are pretty nervous, so they say, maybe we will go the 17th and stay just a few hours and fly all the way to Uruguay in one day, but no one knows and I have to wait.
It is interesting to walk around, talk to people, shoot video, and really experience all we have seen and done. I also brought Ana Maria's book to read, because when you are here it is much more real, than reading it in 80 degree California! So we watch the elections on satellite TV, even giving the results of the Chilean base on TV, and the morning of the 17th we tried to go. The weather on the 16th had been fantastic, but it is windy and snowing and blowing on the 17th, so people are checking every hour if the C-130 had taken off from Punta Arenas, or if it does arrive, will it be able to land, or just turn around and go back and we are stuck another day. I had been agonizing, should I change my return ticket from Uruguay to Santiago, Chile, for the 18th, or the 19th, oh well everything turns out as it should so I decided not to worry about it, since I am not in control anyway!
At 8:30 am on the 17th, they say, the plan left Punta Arenas and it on the way, so the clouds broke enough that they could land at the Chilean base, but our helicopter trip from Artigas was unforgettable, it was so windy and blowing and the sea was churning up so much, the 4 minute trip was an incredible adventure! This was the worst weather we'd had on the entire trip. Our pilots would have covered their heads and gone back to sleep by comparison! Even the military guys stationed at Artigas, said "are you sure you are taking the helicopter, are you sure they are flying?", we just follow the others and we get on the C-130 just fine, and go to Punta Arenas where we spend the night. They were a little worried about our landing, in 55 mph (92 kph) winds where they had to side-slip the plane onto the runway to land right, incredible, amazing, believe me they don't do this on United! I am always amazed at their skill. This time I took the bus out to the Zona Franca, which is a huge duty free shopping mall, so modern it is just like our malls, no smoking inside, a food court and every kind of store from cars to jewelry to clothes to toys, really everything! It was just great, then I rested and went to sleep.
I am really tired, so we get up early on the 18th to fly back to Montevideo, where we readjust to hot temperatures, it is about 90, (32C), we get in our official car and run to Ana Maria's were she changes her clothes for her Congressional hearing, we go shopping and just rest, then the 19th we pack and get ready for our trips, Diana returns to LA and I go on to Santiago, the capital of Chile to see it and stay at a Dar lady's house that I know whose husband is working in Chile. We were in the VIP room in Montevideo's airport again and have someone take care of our bags, then they drive me out to the plane and I am the first one on, I will be spoiled for the other flights for the rest of my life having to check in and sit at the gate like I usually do!
So I arrived in Santiago and got to my friend's house which is gorgeous, totally new and spotlessly clean with a bathtub and bubble bath and Diet Coke, quite a change from base life! And no smoking anywhere! I did a full day of sightseeing in Santiago, it was beautiful, there are so many lovely churches and museums, government buildings and great places to walk, it was superb. They also had a modern metro and it was very easy to get around, and I had a great day walking and seeing the sights of downtown and famous places I had seen on TV many times during Chile's political history. I also went by funicular and then by chair lift to the top of the hill where there is a huge Virgin Mary Statue and the zoo and other buildings, playgrounds for kids, sort of like Griffith Park in Los Angeles crossed with the Lady of Lebanon in Jounieh.
Then I flew on Friday to Juan Fernandez Island, also called Robinson Crusoe Island, (perfect day to go, like the name of his assistant named Friday, get it?) about 3 hours out in the Pacific from Santiago. I had been wanting to go there for a long time and was so happy to finally get there, as you can only get there from Santiago and it doesn't fly every day. They have a cute little downtown area, about 500 people live there, and they have Robinson Crusoe's cave, also called Selkirk's lookout which I wanted to climb up to see but was so scared, then a local guy walked buy with his son and offered to help me, God really helped me by having him appear, so I could go and then took a donkey back which was quite an experience, too. They walked up past the lookout to this picnic area where half the island people were, so I got to meet lots of people as the exotic American girl who was too scared to walk down! It was a full day, and several miles, and I stayed in one of the little hotels there and ate fantastic lobster, which is their speciality, and I was the only one at the hotel so I got to have the whole place to myself which was fun-the one thing about the trip to Juan Fdez. is that the plane is small, only 8 seats, and that is fine, but then from the airport you walk about 20 minutes and take a launch (little rowboat!) In the open sea, around the island to the town . To return to the airport you must do the same thing! But I am wearing my seasick patches, of course, I had used them a lot on the ship and in this little boat, so I felt OK, but this is not one of my favorite things. It reminds me of Pitcairn, of course it is on the way to Pitcairn, imagine on the map, there is Chile, then west is Juan Fdez, then Easter Island, then Pitcairn, then Tahiti (we are talking many thousands of miles, but the islands look very, very similar.) I was really struck by it, the similarities, except of course here there are phones and buildings, but it is a big island with a big hill in the middle and you can only go around by ship, and here are 500 people where Pitcairn has about 50!
The final day, Sunday January 23, was my day to fly home then go to work Monday morning after flying all night-let me tell you this was another big adventure! So imagine, at 10 am Sunday I got on the launch for the 1 * hr. boat ride to the airport, then 3 * hrs. flight back to Santiago, then taxi to change airports with a taxi driver who couldn't find the international airport and was asking ME for advice, as if I am a chilena! Then I wait in the smoky nasty Santiago airport for my flight to Buenos Aires, where there is no place to sit in the airport and then Ecuatoriana says they cannot check my bags all the way through to Los Angeles, which is the totally normal way to do it so you don't have to do anything in Argentina, just go to the next gate, but no, mean, rude, no, you cannot, OK, just get my stupid bags to Buenos Aires! They had also lost my reservation on Ecuatoriana but found it and let me on the plane, it was cheap anyway...so we finally get to Buenos Aires, and I have 2 hours for my United flight to Miami, then Los Angeles, but I can't find anyone to tell that they have to get my bags and put them on the next plane, as I cannot go through immigration and customs to get them myself-there is another guy connecting on a flight to Peru and he has the same problem, well the Buenos Aires crew is furious, of course they can check your bags (DUH), but they don't, he writes up a complaint while he is trying to pull our bags, we cut in front of the immigration line with him so they will let us pass for 2 hours to get out of the country! We find my bags and I drag them upstairs to the United line which is very long, but they take pity and put me in the right place and tell me, all is fine now, check my bags, I get my nice seat and then I have to go through immigration again to get out which is a huge line, then they look all over for a stamp in my passport, which of course I don't have, because they only let me in for 2 hours! So I explain all this and they finally believe me, whew I got on the plane for a 11 pm flight and it is totally full, no sleeping here! It is about 9 hours to Miami, where I get my bags and clear US customs, then put my bags back for the flight to Los Angeles. So I walked to the next gate and could fly in First Class back to LA, 5 * hours flight, but I slept a good bit and had a nice breakfast, then I arrived in Los Angeles about 10:30 am and got my car and drove to work, then worked until 8 pm! I can't even believe I did it, I was so tired, but I was the only one at CBS who had flown from Robinson Crusoe Island to get to work that day!! But life is too short to waste a minute, so I wanted to spend every minute on the road...
Photos by Diana and Cristy
Back to Trembly's Travels