Gold Award in Cruise Story: Siren Song of the Capybara

By Robin Cerwonka

Why did I go to Antarctica? A good question, considering the warm-weather joys of the world—the thousands of tropical beaches I’d love to lie on and coral reefs I’ve never scuba dived. The list goes on; I have never:

-Seen any of the seven wonders of the world
-Faced a charging rhino on safari
-Bartered for mangos in a foreign bazaar
-Visited the Louvre
-Thrown a shrimp on the barby (not that I would)
-Played slack-key ukulele while fanned with palm leaves by buff, loin-clothed attendants
-Studied the mystery of the Easter Island heads (Pez dispensers of the gods?)
-Smuggled opiumunder a burka
-Rented an under-age sex slave in front of a giant statue of Buddha (not that I would)
-Met James Bond in a upscale casino (or a crappy one)
-Dismantled the Nazis’ cars and sung my way across the Alps to freedom

You name it, I pretty much haven’t done it. So why, with the entire world tempting me with shiny things, did I choose to travel to the absolute end of the world and jump off into the Frozen South?

I went to Antarctica for the lamest yet most compelling reason there is: It was on sale. I threw my winter clothing into a bag and set off for Tierra del Fuego, praying the solemn prayer of the solo traveler: Please don’t let me end up in a ditch without my kidneys. In my mind, Tierra del Fuego existed as its own city-state, and I had to look on a map to find out if it was in Argentina or Chile. (I’ll never tell.) My route took me through Buenos Aires to the launching point of Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world!

I recommend missing your connecting flight in Buenos Aires and having your airline put you up in a swank hotel in the center of town, right near the obelisk commemorating the country’s independence; incredible restaurants; fantastic tango shows; Madonna live at the national stadium; El Ateno, an ornate, gilded theater turned into one of the most remarkable bookstores in the world; and—a mere four blocks away—the capybara store!

The capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is the world’s largest rodent. It looks like a malamute-sized guinea pig with hooves. It is truly a Rodent Of Unusual Size. The carpincho, as it is known in Argentina, is a semiaquatic mammal, spending most of its time afloat in lakes and rivers. Perhaps for this reason, when reports of this unknown creature were sent from the new world back to Europe in the 1500s, the Catholic church proclaimed the capybara to be a fish. This ruling has never changed, and capybara is now a popular South American food eaten during Lent. Because it is a fish. Not, for example, a huge freaking rodent, no. A fish.

I’m not a pelt-wearing person, so I feel ashamed to admit I bought a kick-ass carpincho jockey cap at the capybara store. Capybara leather is soft with dots on the skin. I hope the capybara it came from forgives me. I see myself in cavy purgatory, begging the mercy of biting capybaras while protesting, “But I had guinea pigs as a kid! I gave them baths and blew their hair dry!” I am doomed.

As I wandered the streets, a Porteño (“port dweller,” as B.A. residents call themselves) started up a conversation and bought me a smoothie. He wanted to find out about the United States and complain about Argentina’s government. “My president is crazy!” he said. “You understand? Crazy!” I replied, “We had Bush,” and that seemed to be trump. He wanted to know how America saw Argentina. As far as I can tell, America doesn’t see any countries that don’t have the oil it wants. We don’t even care about the World Cup-winning Argentine futbol team.

Note to anyone with a “This is the United States. Why should I press 1 for English?” t‑shirt: I was so grateful for the number of people in Argentina who spoke at least some English, especially when I missed my flight in the B.A. airport. Cut Spanish speakers in the United States a break. You have to learn somewhere. I saw a family at the lost luggage desk pointing to a dictionary and looking grim. There but for the grace of the bilingual luggage woman went I. All I could say with my bad Spanish was, “Soy una gringa. No comprendo nada.”[1]

I was pleased to begin a collection of fun advertising cards for restaurants in B.A.:

Italian gastronomical culture, a fun place, to see and to be seen, art space constant innovation, indifferent people stay out, high level conversations to be forgotten next morning, music always in general, scarcely recommendable people, the worst part is how well you’ll eat

and

Create a carefull [sic] propose fusing pleasure with comfort in an unique sense environment / With quality and warmth details and tendences [sic] / An armonic space with the music, the breakfast, the lunch, the snack and the Happy Hour / A place where furthermore, we love to have dinner.

Ushuaia, the true end of the world, where the spine of the Andes winds down into the ocean, is gorgeous. Antarctic summer was in full swing there: overcast, spitting snow, everyone in winter jackets. The animals of Ushuaia seemed happy. Many loose dogs cruised the streets and lay in front of their favorite shops. They were glad to be petted as were the cats. My hostel was owned by a three-legged cat who commanded attention, and there’s definitely a local corgi who gets around.

The town of Ushuaia was built by political prisoners and seriously hard-case criminals who had been banished to the end of the earth. The museum displayed a photo of a convict who began killing at age 12, strangling other children with a shoestring. His ears looked like satellite dishes that could suck your thoughts right out of your head. Turns out the prison doctor decided the source of this prisoner’s evil lay in his ears and gave him plastic surgery—the Octomom kind. So, now the guy was a demented child murderer who looked weird. He looked like Prince Charles only worse.

Ushuaia had a great pizza joint with a menu apparently translated through an online application because papas (potatoes) was translated as “dads,” resulting in some fun food options: risoto of fungi and rúcula with dads’ chips, medallions of loin to the pepper and dads to the cream, and chicken to the ancient mustard with dads Spanish women.

At the Ushuaia dock, I boarded M/V Plancius, a Dutch ship carrying an international combo of about 100 tourists and 40 crew members. The ship’s captain was Russian and had obvious megalomaniacal issues because he wouldn’t let me steer, not even for a little bit. The best-represented country onboard was Finland. My cabinmates were from Russia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. A group of 14 breast cancer survivors from Dubai, the “pink ladies,” were on the trip to celebrate life after cancer. Several human subspecies were represented onboard as well: the large transgendered person (Biggus nodickus), the unhappy couple who weren’t talking to each other (Mustbii nofunforus), and the three guys who never left the bar (Liquorus prefericus).

Planciusdeparted South America via the Beagle Channel (named for the dogs of Ushuaia, har). Between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic continent, waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet in what’s called the Antarctic Convergence, cold and warm water mixing in open seas to form some of the most turbulent maritime conditions in the world. This area is known as the Drake Passage—after Sir Francis Drake, who may or may not have sailed it—or, as it is known to southbound tourists, Vomit Central. I awoke smiling to the rhythmic sway of the waves as I lay in my upper bunk, feeling gently rocked in the palm of Neptune. Then I put my feet on the floor. As our expedition leader explained, “Seasickness is an argument your eye has with your inner ear that your stomach wins.” Or as a Brit on the tour put it, for the first two days, Antarctica “looked like the inside of a sick bag.” I spent the day eating crackers in bed with my stuffed capybara, Coco.

But this, too, passed and true Antarctica started with the sighting of our first free-floating iceberg, which had a penguin colony living on it! My cruise took me to see many kinds of penguins; leopard, Weddell, and crabeater seals; humpback, sei, minke, fin, and pilot whales; and albatrosses and other large seabirds who eat the fish that feed on the blooms of phytoplankton stirred up by the mixing waters of the Drake Passage. Cormorants are Antarctic seabirds also known as shags, leading to such subtypes as blue-eyed shags (which sounds like a Blackadder joke) and imperial shags (definitely a Monty Python joke).

Daily adventures began with boarding a Zodiac (inflatable motorized boat) for a day of snowshoeing, mountaineering, or quiet penguin photography. We assisted each other to board using the “seaman’s grip,” if you know what I mean. As we traveled to each destination, swimming penguins would accompany us, leaping free of the water—bloop, bloop, bloop. On land, penguins would toss back their heads and bark and trill.

I saw chinstrap, gentoo, and Adelie penguins. Gentoos are like rats, all over the bloody place. You can tell a penguin colony at a distance because of the noise and birdy barnyard smell and because the area is pink. Penguins poop pink (from the krill they eat) and barf green (the stuff krill eats that penguins don’t digest). Penguins are not afraid of humans because we don’t currently hunt them, and they have right of way over tourists, per Antarctic protocol. The standard distance to keep from penguins is 5 meters to make sure your presence does not upset them although if you sit quietly, they may approach you out of curiosity. Respect the penguins where you go, and don’t you eat that pinkish snow.

Q: What’s a penguin’s favorite lettuce? A: Iceberg

Q: Why do penguins always win car races? A: They start at pole position.

Gentoos nest on exposed rock. The male shows he is a good provider by building a concave pile of small rocks, the female lays one or two eggs in it, and both parents take turns sitting on the eggs to incubate them. But the real point of gentoo life is to STEAL OTHER PENGUINS’ NEST ROCKS. It’s an obsession. Why find your own nest rocks when you can take someone else’s? You could make a penguin soap opera about who’s stealing whose rocks. I watched one nest-sitting parent snap her beak at other gentoos surrounding her on three sides as they darted in to try to swipe her rocks. Oh, the drama! I also watched one gentoo repeatedly, patiently waddle a distance from his nest to lift nicely sized pebbles from the mud and return to add them around his mate as she sat on their eggs. They had the Versailles of penguin nests. Well chosen, Ms. Gentoo!

How are penguins related to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? Macaroni penguins have colorful head feathers and were named for their resemblance to extravagant hats worn by Italianophile Brits of the 18th Century who dressed like dandies and introduced pasta to England. But I didn’t see any macaroni penguins, so never mind.

Antarctica is 1.5 times the size of the United States. My expedition guides were conscientious about keeping the continent pristine: Before our first landing, we vacuumed our clothes and gear that might touch ground to remove any trace of invasive species (seeds stuck to clothes, for example). Before and after each trip ashore, we disinfected our boots. Can I explain how strangely proud I was to be on a trip that ended each quest with me cleaning penguin poo off my boots?

My new Russian friends on the trip were Tatiana (my roommate), Valery, Olga, and expedition guide Andrey. Valery wanted to know the English term for poached eggs because at home in Moscow they are referred to in slang as eggs resembling eyes. He hadn’t had any luck in English-speaking restaurants saying, “Bring me eggs that look like Russian eyes.”

I helped Tatiana kayak for the first time, in a tandem. To encourage her, the kayak leader and I yelled the Russian word for “good,” xoroso, pronounced like “horrorshow.” So, there we were, paddling through unspeakably beautiful Antarctic scenery—an ice bridge connecting two huge icebergs before a white mountain ridge called the Seven Sisters under a strikingly blue sky—with me yelling, “Horrowshow!” as Tatiana caught on. Another kayak trip took me around the circumference of Petermann Island, the southernmost stop on the tour, to shallow coves and towering mountains spiking straight out of the water. Penguins porpoised alongside my kayak—bloop, bloop, bloop—a minke whale crested nearby, and a well-fed Weddell seal hauled out next to me, blubbering up the ice to find a comfy place to nap. It’s official: Kayaking in Antarctica is the coolest thing I have ever done.

One penguin colony we visited was located around the foundation of a former Argentine research station. The medical doctor stationed there had finished his two years in the Antarctic but was told he could not leave because he had no incoming replacement. He said, presumably in Spanish, “Oh, no, I’m outta here.” The officer in charge said, “You’re staying. That’s an order.” The ship left without the doctor, who then arranged his own transportation home by torching the station.

At Deception Island, the ship traveled into the caldera of an active volcano, where I hiked to top of Neptune’s Window, a striking view from the top of a sheer drop into the ocean. Those signed up for mountaineering climbed to the top of Nipple Peak. The early Antarctic explorers who conferred nomenclature on this frozen new world were not only tough, daring, expert navigators and fearless seaman but, above all, they were guys. I said “No, thanks” to two events offered by the expedition team: courting hypothermia by swimming in the water off Deception Island and overnight camping on the Antarctic continent. I didn’t calve off the glacier yesterday, people. I can recognize a miserable experience in the making.

One of my expedition guides confirmed he was a member of the 200 Club, a tradition among U.S. employees overwintering at McMurdo Station: When the temperature outside is ‑100 degrees F., you set the sauna to +100 degrees F. and after steaming yourself up good, run naked around the South Pole. He also told me about the tradition of the “warm aquarium”: The station contained tanks that biologists kept their specimens in, but one of those aquaria always “malfunctioned” to the ideal human soaking temperature of 104 degrees F.

The citizens of Plancius celebrated three individual birthdays onboard as well as Finland’s independence day (December 6) with decorative cakes. One night the ship hosted the crew from a nearby British naval cruiser, resulting in the unlikely event of a barbecue on the aft deck with disco music and open bar. Our British guests told me they were jealous because they could not do what I was in Antarctica to do; they had to stay onboard and work all the time.

Two of our cruise stops were staffed by human employees. My first steps on the Antarctic Peninsula were at a Chilean research station that was topped with a statue of Madonna and child. We were assured the penguins there are Catholic. No word on whether or not they are considered fish. The second site, Port Lockroy, is a preserved historic site, the first British establishment in Antarctica, an old whale-oil processing station that now features a souvenir shop selling cookbooks with a recipe for “Savoury Seal Brains on Toast”—proof that the appeal of British food hasn’t changed in centuries. Near this station, I got to frolic on actual sea ice—floating with no land underneath. The ice looked about an inch thin, which was good for photos, but was closer to four feet. Tell no one.

No Antarctic trip would be complete without taking penguin porn videos. If you’re the male, it’s all about flapping your wings like a madman to stay balanced on the female. Chicks dig it, apparently, but you have to be a male penguin to be conscious of this. If you’re the female, you seem unaware anything’s going on.

My last day of Antarctic exploration included visiting a Weddell seal haulout. Thirteen of these huge, sleek mammals lay dozing and stretching in the sun, lounging like cats on their backs, occasionally raising a head to look at us. Life was clearly good. Weirdest Teeth Award: Crabeater seals have never touched a crab in their lives but eat krill and have crazy teeth with holes in them that act as sieves to strain out the krill.

If I had known enough to have expectations, my Antarctic tour would have exceeded them. I awoke to sunny days in a sparkly wonderland of blues and brilliant white. Craggy snow peaks rose out of the dark grey ocean adorned with phantasmagorical icebergs colored aqua by compressed ice. Antarctic flurries were like being inside a snow globe. The highlight of my trip was turning slowly in a circle each day, reminding myself of the sheer unlikeliness of where I was, and taking in as much as I could in celebration of the inability of photo or video to capture that landscape in a righteous way. I was in Antarctica. How many people are lucky enough to go to Antarctica?

And Antarctica offered the perfect farewell: As we made our way north again, four humpback whales frolicked next to the ship for half an hour. Plancius reversed her course to Tierra del Fuego through the Drake vomitorium, but we passengers did well because, by then, we had adapted to the ship’s motion. Once I left the ship, however, solid land seemed to be swaying, and I walked drunk to my hotel in Ushuaia.

Best Antarctic descriptive word: nunatak. This is a geological term. At no point were we attacked by nuns.

Best Argentine t-shirt on a macho-looking guy: “clouds got in my way”

Best misheard phrase on an airplane: “Flight attendants, please prepare for landing and cross-dress.”

Most mysterious button on the ship’s coffeemaker: “wiener melange”—No one I know had the courage to press this.

Since some countries including the U.S. started requiring visas for Argentine visitors, Argentina said, approximately, “Well, you don’t have to have a visa to come here, but you have to pay the equivalent of a visa fee to enter the country. Suck on that.” However, once an American has paid this “reciprocity fee,” she can revisit for 10 years without paying again. Canadian and Australian tourists have to pay each time they enter Argentina. For once, Americans aren’t the most reviled! We’re #3! We’re #3!

Once back in the B.A. airport, I got to run the gamut of the luggage shrinkwrap guys. U.S. security doesn’t allow this, but other countries’ airports offer the service of shrinkwrapping your luggage for a fee so the baggage handlers don’t help themselves to your stuff, which says it all. You might think that when you say no to the first guy in line, the others might understand you don’t want your luggage shrinkwrapped, but you would be, oh, so wrong.

My humble thanks to all the tolerant Argentines who smiled as I graciased my way through their country. And un GRACIAS grande y feo to my childhood Spanish teacher, Senora Peschel, who told me the best thing you can do in a foreign country is go get lost, forcing you to rely on the kindness of strangers. Chances are the strangers don’t want your kidneys.

[1]“Knock me down and take my kidneys.”


Robin Cerwonka has traveled the roads of North America with her cats, who always know the best places for salmon.

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