Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Countdown to Antarctica!

I'm counting the hours....making my final "to-do" list, and almost literally hopping from one foot to the other with excitement!

I leave Thursday am for St. Louis via the BART (Bootheel Area Regional Transport), since I refuse to drive any longer in the city. In St. Louis I will board a plane for Miami, and after a two-hour layover transfer to a plane bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina. That's an overnight flight, and I sure hope I can grab some sleep, since we have a full day and evening planned the next day in Buenos Aires.

After I clear customs in Buenos Aires, I will hire a cab to take me the 21 miles into the city to our hotel, the Hotel Colon, where I will meet the lady who will be my cabin mate on the cruise. After lunch we plan to do some sight seeing. At around 8 pm a limo will meet us at the hotel for transport to El Querandi, a restaurant/theater, where we have reservations for a Tango Dinner Show. El Querandi comes highly recommended, so I think we're in for a treat. Since the show doesn't start until 10 pm, it will be late when the transport service returns us to our hotel. I'm hoping there is going to be time in the afternoon for a brief "siesta"!

Our plane leaves the next morning around 8:30 am for Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Partially because of businesses generated by tourists and researchers headed for Antarctica, Ushuaia has grown from a small village nestled under a mountain to a thriving city of around 50,000. The tour company has activities planned for the afternoon and evening, and the following day we will board our ship, the Orlova.

The cruise will last for 10 days, and our itinerary will depend on the ice and sea conditions near the Antarctic Peninsula. Lots of people have asked me if I will be going to the "South Pole". The answer, of course, is no, since this trip includes only the peninsula at the northwestern tip of the continent, hundreds of miles from the Pole. No problem, as there will be plenty to see and do on the peninsula. If weather and sea conditions permit, we'll stop at Deception Island in the South Shetlands, where, if I'm brave enough, I may take a dip in the bay, portions of which are warmed by volcanic vents. Since only the water is warm, not the air, I anticipate goose bumps the size of hen eggs!!!

Since I'm not sure exactly where the ship will be going, I can't say too much about the rest of the cruise, other than to say that the first leg of the cruise, the 2-day trip through the Drake Passage, is likely to be, uh, shall we say, interesting. The Drake Passage is known as the roughest patch of ocean in the world! It is the area which gave 18th and 19th century sailors on wooden ships sailing "'round the horn" of South America such cause for concern. Even on modern vessels, the rough water has a reputation for making some seasoned sailors seasick to the max. I'm taking ginger capsules, ginger tea, crystalized ginger, dramamine tablets and a wrist band--more than that I can't do. I've never been seasick in the past, so we'll see how it goes.

For the past several years I've taken a major (over a week long) trip somewhere at least every six months or so. My refrigerator also gets a good cleaning out every six months or so. This is not a coincidence. If I didn't travel, no telling how long I would let languish the sticky spills and moldy jars of whatever that have been pushed to the back unnoticed. Since I would be embarrassed for my house sitter to see my refrigerator in its normal state, the fridge gets a good cleaning at least every six months. I did that-not-so-little job this afternoon, and crossed it off my list with a flourish!

In addition to cleaning out the refrigerator, I'm trying to use up as much perishable food as I can. This has resulted in some strange, if still nutritious, meals, such as peanut butter and jelly on pita bread and Harvard-style beets, which I had for lunch one day last week. That was the last of the pita bread and the beets. Now I'm down to four meals remaining. Since I'm taking my Mom out for lunch tomorrow, that leaves two breakfasts and one supper. My cereal and fruit for both breakfasts will use up most of the soy milk on hand. I plan a large salad of mixed greens, cheese, and fruit for tomorrow evening, which will empty out the produce and meat keeper bins. I'll tell the house sitter to help herself to the rest of the clementines and any milk that's left. There will probably be about a half loaf of bread I won't be able to use up, so I'll pop that into the freezer to use for toast when I get back.

This will be my last blog post before I leave, since I think tomorrow will be hectic with last minute chores. I've been asked if I can blog from the ship and post pictures, and I frankly doubt I'll be able to. I'll be lucky to get some email out so my friends and family will know I haven't fallen into the Southern Ocean and/or been eaten by a killer whale! (They aren't really whales and don't eat people, but you get my point.) I'll be back Feb. 14, and after a rest, maybe a day or two, I'll pull the best pictures together and blog away!!! Tune in later!

*Something I omitted from my post about Sir Earnest Shackleton was a recommendation for two TV programs based on his adventures. "Shackleton", a four-part A&E mini series filmed in 2001, is excellent. I saw it a couple of years ago on TV. Kenneth Branagh plays the title roll marvelously well, and he even resembles pictures I've seen of the explorer. The other is a PBS NOVA program, produced in 2002, also entitled, "Shackleton". Neither was available at my local Family Video store, but they are probably both available on Netflix or Blockbuster online

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge

Today's blog title is also the title of a book by Kim Heacox. This book too was on the recommended reading list for travelers headed to the Antarctic, but I heartily recommend it to any person who enjoys an exciting and fascinating story, regardless of whether or not you ever plan to go anywhere near the white continent. The foreward to the book was written by Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of the great Irish-born explorer. The book is not just a well written account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's adventures in the Antarctic, but is chock full of amazing pictures , many of which were taken on the most famous of his expeditions, the voyage of the ill-fated Endurance.

Shackleton's first expedition to Antarctica was in 1901 as a member of the British merchant navy with the voyage led by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. In 1907 Shackleton mounted the first of his own expeditions, the first announced attempt to reach the geographic South Pole. He got very close, within a record-breaking 97 miles, but illness and harsh conditions forced a heartbreaking retreat. His efforts gained him a knighthood, but he was determined to achieve another major first--a trek from the Weddell Sea, an extension of the southern Atlantic Ocean, across the entire Antarctic continent to the Ross Sea, an almost opposite arm in the southern Pacific Ocean. That expedition sailed from the island of South Georgia in 1914, and regardling its fate, the entry in my obsolete hardcover encyclopedia simply states, "...the expedition was unsuccessful." But oh, what an amazing story of courage, determination, supreme leadership and sheer guts lies behind those few words.

Although Shackleton's ship, Endurance, was eventually caught in the drafting ice--crushed, slowly ground apart, and ultimately sunk--Shackleton managed to lead his entire crew to safety. And, like the encyclopedia entry, that is a massive understatement. Reaching "safety" initially involved pulling long boats loaded with supplies many miles across the ice, man-hauling the boats, since all the expedition's dogs had died by this time. They eventually reached uninhabited "Elephant Island" on April 15, 1916 the first landfall since sailing from South Georgia on December 5, 1914. A temporary encampment was made for the majority of the crew, many of whom were too ill for further travel. Fearful that some of them could not survive another oncoming winter in the Antarctic, Shackleton and his men outfitted one of the boats, a whaling long boat called the James Caird, and prepared to sail for help back to the island of South Georgia, 800 miles across open ocean. That daunting journey began on April 24, 1916, with Shackleton and five others manning the open boat with its single short mast and sail. Incredibly the tiny boat made landfall on South Georgia on May 10, 1916 after a harrowing 16-day ordeal. They soon realized they had landed on the opposite end of the island from the inhabited whaling station of Stromness. Shackleton decided neither the battered long boat nor the exhausted men could face the 130 mile sail around the island. Therefore, he reloaded the boat and they sailed a short distance to a more sheltered cove, where the boat was turned over to make a temporary shelter for three of the men, one of whom was now too ill to move. Shackelton and two others then began the as-the-crow-flies 20 mile overland hike to the whaling station. Crows, of course, are able to fly over mountains and glaciers; Shackleton's group had to climb them, seeking a pass through to the other side. It took four tries to find the pass, four exhausting climbs up to 5000 feet above sea level and back down, before they finally were able to look down from a ridge to the bustling activity in Stromness Bay. When they stumbled into the station, looking like some sort of frightful ice demons with their long hair, red-rimmed eyes and clothes now disintegrated nearly to rags, several of the sturdy whalers ran from the sight! The following day, Shackleton insisted on accompanying a whaling vessel back to Elephant Island to rescue the 25 castaways from the James Caird. On May 23, only three days after arriving at Stromness, Shackleton set out for Elephant Island to rescue the remaining crew. After multiple frustrations, dreadful winter sailing conditions, and other delays, Shackleton finally reached the island on August 30, 1916, the 137th day for the stranded crew. Miraculously,every man was alive, although one had lost a couple of toes to frostbite.

Although the expedition was technically a failure, Shackleton's amazing feats of leadership and endurance during the two year ordeal were a thrilling distraction for a world torn apart by a bloody war.

To me the words "Shackleton" and "Antarctica" will be forever linked in fascination.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The race to the white continent...

The title of this blog entry is also the title of a book I read recently, "The Race to the White Continent: Voyages to the Antarctic" by Alan Gurney. This book was one of the dozen or so on the suggested reading list I received with my first set of travel documents. Several of the books were under a heading marked "Essential Reading". Hmmm. I wonder what happens if one doesn't read all of these? Do you get smacked by an angry penguin?

In any case, I obtained and read as many of the books as I could locate in the relatively short time I had to prepare for this journey. Since I signed on in November, I am a johnny-come-lately to the group, most of the others having signed up in the spring or summer. Better late than never, but not much time to waste if I wanted to read many of those books.

"Race" chronicles the tale of three major sailing expeditions to Antarctica, all taking place in the late 1830's. The three expeditions launched almost simultaneously from the United States, Great Britain, and France, each nation trying to be the first to reach the Pole and venture further south than any previous voyages to the unexplored and mysterious territory of the Antarctic. The French were led by the seasoned explorer Dumont d'Urville. Royal Navy captain James Clark Ross, a veteran of several Arctic voyages, headed the British flotilla, and the American expedition was led by U.S Navy officer Charles Wilkes, a comparative novice when it came to sailing in uncharted, icy waters.

Wilkes had experienced twenty years in the American Navy, but very little of that time had been spent at sea, and most of that in the Mediterranean! He did have extensive scientific and surveying expertise, and, according to Gurney, boundless "energy, determination, ruthlessness, ambition, and an even greater sense of his 'consequence' " than that of some of his more seasoned crew. In addtion he was apparently of a very suspicious nature, almost to the point of paranoia.

While it would be lovely to be able to say the American expedition accomplished great things, the truth is considerably disappointing to anyone who thinks Americans are and always have been the best at everything. Wilkes' limited seamanship, rancorous personality and harsh disciplinary measures resulted in a difficult voyage that accomplished only a small part of the intended goals, and actually surveyed and mapped several islands that were proven not to exist when Ross's expedition later sailed directly through the coordinates where Wilkes had supposedly documented land. Wilkes' career ultimately ended in a court marshall in 1864, after which he was retired and later commissioned to the rank of rear admiral. Leave it to us Americans to make the best of a bad thing.

Sir James Clark Ross had accompanied his uncle Captain John Ross on several historic Arctic voyages, including the discovery of the magnetic North Pole. During the British Antarctic expedition, which lasted from 1839 until 1843, a number of important geographical discoveries were made and correctly charted, but Ross, confronted by the massive eastern Antarctic ice shelf that now bears his name, was unable to achieve his dream of reaching both Poles. His discovery that Wilkes' coordinates for several "land masses" were, in fact, incorrect, led to a bitter transoceanic rivalry between the two explorers that lasted throughout their lifetimes. Although Ross charitably commented publicly that the fog and icebergs, which often combined to present the illusion of land, made Wilkes' errors understandable, Wilkes reacted in typical fashion, taking the corrected and more accurate British charts as a personal affront. He never forgave Ross for exposing the errors.

Leader of the French expedition, d'Urville is described as "an aloof, serious, clever young man", born to a family of minor aristocrats who were fortunate to escape the guillotine. He later married Adele Pepin, an action which infuriated d'Urville's mother, who felt he had married beneath his station. I found it interesting to note that among his earlier accomplishments in life, d'Urville was responsible for the French purchase of a marble statue that had been dug up by a Greek peasant. Having experienced a classical education, D'Urville recognized the subject of the statue as Aphrodite/Venus, and persisted in convincing the French ambassador to purchase the artifact--which now resides in the Louvre and is known as the "Venus de Milo"!

D'Urville's ships were the first of the three groups to sail in September, 1837. D'Urville's goals included attempting to sail his primary vessel, the Astrolabe, as far south as possible, particulary trying to best the previous mark of 75 degrees south achieved by American sealer James Weddell. Sailing with its sister ship, the Zelee, Astrolabe made two probes into the Antarctic from 1837 to 1842. The expedition accomplished multiple important chartings, and on the second trip was successful in reaching the South Magnetic Pole. With both crews diminished by dysentary (from rotten canned French meat!) and scurvy and d'Urville himself suffering with gout and stomach pains, the French expedition was forced to return home sooner than planned, but was still considered a rousing success. Upon his return to France, D'Urville was also commissioned a rear admiral. He died, along with his wife and children, in a fiery train deraillment in France a few years later.

A bit here about the "South Pole". The South Magnetic Pole is a wandering compass point where the Earth's geomagnetic field lines are directed vertically upwards. It changes due to changes in the Earth's magnetic field and appears to be moving northwest by about 10 to 15 kilometers a year. The South Magnetic Pole is not to be confused with the South Geomagnetic Pole, a different point, which is also "wandering" for the same reason. Furthermore, these two are not to be confused with the Geographic South Pole, the southernmost point on the surface of the earth. This one is fixed (thank goodness!) and lies somewhat southwest of the center of the Antarctic continent. It is the site of the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

(Got all that? There will be a test.)

Early explorers in the Antarctic were keen on locating all these poles and other reference points, since the far southern latitudes remained the only uncharted places on the earth. These were unquestionably brave individuals, sailing in wooden ships through poorly charted or uncharted waters, struggling through rough seas, churning ice and cutting winds to forge further and further south, each nation trying to be first to claim "The Pole" and describe as accurately as possible the characteristics of the bottom of the world. Their efforts resulted in detailed new maps, replacing maps that since Captain Cook's voyages in the 1780's had only shown detail to 72 degrees south, with a notation below saying "The Antarctic Ocean: Many Isles & firm fields of Ice; Islands of Ice innumerable; Firm Field and Vast Mountains of Ice."

Next time: Shackleton: the stuff heroes are made of.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Riddle: How many pairs of fleece pants can you stuff...

...into a duffle bag? Answer: Way more than you might think!

Instructions from the Antarctic tour company were to bring "soft-sided" luggage due to storage limitations in the cabins. I presume that implies these cabins will be smaller than those I'm accustomed to on larger cruise ships such as Carnival, Holland America, and Princess. That stands to reason, since the Orlova is much smaller than those trendy liners. The maximum passenger load is 110, and with crew and staff, I'm guessing there will be fewer than 200 people on board. Althought she's relatively small, 90 meters in length, the Orlova is a double hulled, ice-strengthened ship, originally builtin 1976, with refurbishing and upgrades in 1999 and 2002. Pictures in the travel documents show what appear to be comfortable chairs in a relatively spacious diningroom and well-appointed lounge, bar and promenade areas.

I received an impressive list of the tour staff who will accompany our group. They include several naturalists, a marine biologist, a geologist, an ornithologist, a physician, and an artist. I found it interesting that four of them, including the Expedition Leader, are women. Yay! There will be numerous lecture programs to prepare us for what we will see on shore and from the decks.

I've been reading up on Antarctic wildlife, but without an expert I'm certain I would be unable to differentiate between multiple species of albatross and petrels. The penguins, on the other hand, seem to have fairly identifiable characteristics, so I'm pretty sure that if I can see the birdies well enough, I can tell if they are chinstraps, macaronis, or Adelies. Royals and kings could be a little tougher, since they are similar except for size. The largest and most readily identifiable penguin species, the regal emperors, will probably not be seen, since their rookeries are located on the oppposite side of the continent from the Peninsula, where our excursion is headed. Once in a while a lone emperor is spotted that far north, but I really don't expect to see any of the denizens portrayed in "Happy Feet".

Whale spotting will be interesting, and I hope we'll be fortunate enough to see some. The tragic truth is that some of the whale species that swim in Antarctic waters were hunted nearly to extinction from the 19th to the late 20th century. Although most whale species are now protected by international agreements, some nations still send factory boats, thinly disguised as "research vessels", to slaughter them by the thousands. The Japanese in particular have a fondness for whale meat, and continue to harvest thousands of whales each year, despite the protective regulations. Notably, the largest of the whales, the blue whale, are reduced in numbers to the point where scientists speculate the species may become extinct simply because there are not enough of them left to be able to locate mates in the vast oceans. How sad it is to think of these huge, gentle creatures, roaming the world, seeking in vain another of their kind in order to procreate. It makes me want to weep.

Back to packing. The luggage I'm accustomed to using on lengthy trips is not soft-sided, so I hauled out two duffle bags and proceeded to determine whether or not I could cram all the items I deemed to be essential into these two bags plus a carry on backpack. After much packing and repacking, eliminating this and that, and pressing thick fleecy pants and sweaters into compressible plastic packing bags (thank heaven for those!), I think I have it licked. Except for the few last minute items to be added, I'm essentially ready to go.

One knotty packing problem centered around the 24 hour stay in Buenos Aires during the first leg of the journey. It's summertime there also, and the temperature, according to internet sources, is in the balmy high 80's. Obviously I wouldn't be comfortable in fleece pants and sweaters. In addition, I'm meeting my cabin mate, and we have plans to attend a Tango Dinner Theater that evening, which calld for a dressy, fairly lightweight outfit. I hate taking any item of clothing to wear only one time, but I compromised by choosing a silky pantsuit that will fold to almost nothing. I'll roll it up in tissue paper at the last possible moment, but I hope I can scrounge up an iron in the hotel in Buenos Aires!

Thank goodness there are no "formal nights" on this cruise. They made it clear in the tour info that casual, comfortable clothing is in order for the entire trip. My kind of travel!

More coming up on getting ready to encounter the white continent!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

So many things to do....so little time...

I've done a lot of traveling, therefore I've done my share of packing suitcases, and pretty much had it down to a science. Going to Ireland or England? Take a raincoat and umbrella. Going to Germany or Switzerland? Be sure to have an extra pair of hiking shoes. Going to Mexico or Thailand? Remember to keep your mouth closed while you take a shower and don't forget the immodium. Going to Australia? Be prepared to ask for a translation even though they ostensibly speak "English".

However, packing for a trip to Antarctica is quite different than preparing for any other trip I've ever taken. I've never been anywhere before where, if I forgot some essential item, I wouldn't be able to make a quick dash to a store to get what I forgot. I've never been anywhere before where it will be so cold that I have to remember to take chemical handwarmers to keep my freshly charged camera batteries from losing power in only a few moments. I've never been anywhere before where we will be required to wash our footwear before leaving the ship and before getting back on--to avoid contaminating the various areas with non-indigenous seeds, spores, or bacteria. I've never been anywhere before where I won't be able to bring so much as a pebble back to add to my worldwide rock collection--unless I can remember to grab one up from South America on the return trip.

Antarctica has no permanent population and no "government" per se. While several nations have claimed "ownership" of various sections of the continent, none of the claims are recognized by the world in general. Therefore, Antarctica is the only place on earth where a number of nations of the world have managed to cobble together an agreement on how to manage and protect the continent. The Antarctic Treaty was created in December, 1959 in Washington , D.C., and as of 2001, 45 nations, including most of the "heavy hitters", have ratified it. It's a remarkably short document, containing only 14 fairly brief articles, the first of which is probably the most significant: "Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons." Considering the treaty was developed during the height of the cold war, it is notable that both the United States and the then USSR ratified the treaty in 1960. (With the dissolution of the USSR, the Republic of Russia assumed the rights and obligations of being a party to the treaty.)

Additional articles in the Treaty provide for "freedom of scientific investigation" and require cooperation and sharing of all knowledge among the nations which glean scientific data from their research activities. (Wouldn't it be great if we could operate the rest of the world on the same principles?)

Anyway, inspection personnel are maintained by the treaty signatories to check that all the research stations and tourist companies are abiding by the rules. We have already been told--and doubtless will be told several times again--that we are not to remove so much as a pebble or a feather or piece of driftwood from the areas where we will be landing. We have also been told to be very careful that we leave nothing behind, not so much as a scrap of paper, let alone a cigarette butt or dead camera battery. There aren't even accomodations made for "privy calls" while on shore. Suggested plan: go before you land and then hold it or ask a Zodiac raft driver to take you back to the ship if you have to answer an urgent call of nature. Obviously the shore excusions will be of relatively short duration, partly because of that and partly because of the cold.

While it's currently "summertime" in Antarctica, all things are relative, and summer means temperatures can range from 5 to 40 degree F. A significant factor in dealing with the environment ashore is the wind. Antarctica is the windiest continent on earth. The infamous"katabatic winds", caused by denser, colder air rushing down off the polar plateau, can achieve velocities of up to 199 mph! That's greater than hurricane force wind and it's cold air! Talk about your wind chill factor! No wonder we've been told to bring water and windproof parkas, pants, hats, gloves, and scarves and plan to dress in multiple layers.

Much of the information in this post is coming from a little book called, "Antarctica", published by Lonely Planet. The book is chocked full of interesting facts, pictures, and general information of use to the traveler bound for the white continent. Most of the information has wheted my appetite even more to see and experience the area below 60 degrees S latitude. However, there are a few comments that give me pause. One in particular has to do with the unique hazards of life aboard ship in the Antarctic waters. Lurching through floating ice can result in sudden movements of the ship, resulting in falls, doors being slammed onto unwary fingers, and even the occasional man overboard. Here's an interesting quote: "If you fall overboard, you will die--simple as that." The 4 degree C water of the Southern Ocean doesn't allow for more than a few moments survival, and yes, there are accounts of tourists who have fallen overboard and been seen no more. I plan to heed the warnings to "always keep one hand for the ship" to hold on in case it rolls in the sometimes turbulent seas.

By now I expect some of you, dear readers, are shaking your heads and muttering, "This woman is undoubtedly out of her mind to want to make this trip." Perhaps so. But I'm willing to take the risks to take part in what I consider the experience of a lifetime.

More later on preparing for Antarctica.

Monday, January 21, 2008

(singing) "I'm leaving, on a jet plane.....

...don't know when I'll be back again..." Well, I hope to be back on February 14, but since we've been told to pack an extra week's supply of medications or other essentials, who knows? After all, I'm going soon to a place where one doesn't run out to the nearest pharmacy or grocery or convenience store ...a place so remote the only roads are the ones used by scientists at their mostly tiny research stations...a place so remote the number of humans setting foot on it still only numbers in the thousands, not the millions...a place so remote there are no souvenir shops, no monuments for tourists to gawk at, no famous buildings or bridges or ritzy restaurants, no traffic, no smog, and, other than those associated with the natural world, no sounds...virtually total silence. I wish I could also add there is no pollution, but alas, mankind has managed to pollute to some degree even the remotest place on earth.

Yep, you guessed it, I'm heading down under, waaaaayyyy down under, all the way to Antarctica!

For many years I've been fascinated by the thought of enormous icebergs, ice shelves extending as far as the eye can see, penguins tame enough to touch (except you must NOT touch), and all the other interesting and unique phenomena associated with the great icy continent, one and a half times as large as the United States and uninhabited, except for the intrepid scientists who come and go. I had checked out trips on line and found them either prohibitively expensive and/or too lengthy, extending to three or four weeks or longer.

Then, unexpectedly, early last November a newsletter from an organization called Natural Habitat came into my hands: "Classic Antarctica Expedition--Small group expedition of the Last Frontier!" Sounded interesting so I called the 800 number. The time was right, the money was right, and when I said, "Sign me up!", the tour coordinator informed me I was booking the last female double cabin on the ship! It was as if it were meant to be!

I called my local pet travel agent to book the requisite flights, and lo and behold, I got the last coach seats on the flights to and from Miami/Buenos Aires, the first and last legs of the journey. Now I knew it was meant to be!

The tour coordinator put me in touch with my future cabin mate, who happens to be a woman my daughter's age who is a professional astronomer and amateur thespian! I was charmed before I ever heard from her, and even more charmed after I did. I think we'll be excellent cabin mates. In addition, prior to heading further south, we're sharing a room for one evening in Buenos Aires, planning to "do the town" that night. We already have reservations at a Tango Dinner Theater club! Whoo hoo!

I leave for Miami January 31st, and I'm already nearly packed. I had to start packing early to be certain I could squeeze in all the fluffy fleece garments I'm taking. There are still a few items to add, plus the last minute things, and then I'll be ready to roll.

More later on getting ready to go south.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Who ARE these people?

Tony is a fireman and kind of cute in a rough sort of way. Jack is a world-traveling rogue, with an inflated ego to go with his chisled features. Jasper is from the islands, and speaks with an accent, using terms I'm not famliar with. Rhett is a redneck cowboy from Texas, with a low opinion of Marlon Brando. Chloe, the personal trainer, is so perky that some mornings I can barley stand her! Hedda speaks with a strong Germanic accent and reminds me of somebody's cruel governess in a Dickens novel. Tasha is a cute chick, but strikes me a just a little light in the brain department. Elaine is a definite bubble head, a blonde from New York, whose nasal whine annoys me so much I avoid spending much time with her.

Then there are those who are somewhat unusual. Marvin is a tyrannosaurus rex, who doesn't like to lose and threatens to eat the competition. Harley is a bear who likes garbage cans and can't sing worth a hoot. Captain Scurvy is a parrot, who apparently belonged at one time to a sea-going pirate; I suspect the patch over his eye is just for show, but since I don't like his gutteral tone of voice or his briney witticisms, he's also not one of my favorites. Roswell, the proverbial big headed little green man with slanty dark eyes, claims to have been stranded for years in the desert after his spacecraft crashed, and sounds like he's talking from the bottom of a well.

That's the weird crew with whom I spend part of nearly day. They're the characters dreamed up by the folks at Hoyles Games, and can be chosen as partners for card and board games, including, poker, hearts, dominoes, and gin, to name some of my favorites. I also like double cross, which is a scrabble-like game involving four players.

Passing time with these "folks" is one of the ways I employ to try to keep my brain from turning to mush. I have other means to keep my mind active, but few I enjoy as much as my morning session with the gang from Hoyle. I talk back to them (don't tell anyone) and chortle with glee when I defeat them in a game. They play for keeps and always go by the rules, so I know if I win, it's fair and square. (Can't always say that about some of our off line acquaintances, can we?)

Some people may think that, like Kix, games are for kids. I don't mind, since I see nothing amiss with letting my inner child play a little every day. I'd way rather commune with Tony, Harley, and Hedda than watch the gratuitous violence and sometimes just plain nasty sex that turns up on TV and in the movies these days. Call me a stick-in-the mud. (Just don't call me "matey", like that stupid one-eyed parrot does!)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mea Culpa--and baking bread

My apologies to those of you who perservered in trying to read the last post. Lesson learned: proof reading isn't enough. I have to check the "preview" before I post. As soon as I saw it, I groaned, knowing part of it was impossible to read. I'm really sorry.

I'm hoping until I can figure out how to get a different background in place, this color will show up better. I'll definitely preview it before I post this time.

I took a letter from my friend Kathryn's book and bought a bread machine. This afternoon I'm making my first loaf of bread. My unsuspecting nephew will be here for supper and doesn't know yet that he's the "guinea pig" for my first bread making experience. I followed the directions carefully, but didn't notice that "bread machine yeast" is measured differently from regular active yeast, so I may have put in too much. If the loaf falls or is too coarse, I'll know that's the problem.

I've never been much of a baker, so this is a totally new project for me. I plan to try several different recipes, including whole wheat, poppy seed, and some sweet breads recipes to see which ones I like best. When I got the machine (on eBay--of course!), I went to one of my other favorite shopping venues, amazon.com, and bought several used bread machine cookbooks at a really good price.

Speaking of eBay, I'd like to make a request of those of you who do a lot of on line shopping on eBay, amazon, overstock, Barnes & Noble and several other sites. My daughter Kim has a webpage (kimbear.com) and on the web page is a link for "shopping". That takes you to a shopping consulting page where you can log onto the above sites and others. If you purchase an item after you've logged on through her website, she eventually gets a small rebate from that site. This is kind of important to her just now, since she recently lost a long-term writing gig. She had been doing a column a week for an online journal, and the journal stopped publishing, so her income dropped. It's not excactly a disaster, but she's feeling the pinch, so I try to log onto the shopping sites I use through her website. I've got the link bookmarked, so it's only one extra step. If you care to participate, it will be appreciated, and thanks.

I keep running in periodically to look at the bread. It seems to be nicely risen, and soon will begin the baking cycle. That's when the wonderful smell will fill the house--I hope! It was that wonderful smell when I sniffed Kathryn's machine during a loaf in progress that sent me dashing to eBay to get my own machine. If I get nice bread to eat, that will be good too, but, oh, that smell!

To go with the bread I'm making chicken noodle soup from scratch, and I have the makings for a caesar salad. I bought some clementines for dessert--also an idea I got recently from Kathryn. What a good influence she is on me!

(Well, I previewed, and the background in preview is still white, so that's no help at all. I guess I'll just have to work with light colors to see what is easiest to read. Hopefully I can change the background soon.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Scuba Dooba Doo

About a year before he died my husband Wendell decided he wanted to take up scuba diving.
Although, dear readers, you probably already know this, scuba is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. For well over a hundred years man had been developing primitive ways and means to explore the world underwater. However, it wasn't until Jacques Cousteau co-developed and pioneered the use of the "aqua lung" in the 1940's that modern scuba diving came into being. For many years scuba was the purview of young, mostly male, daring and hardy individuals. In more recent years scuba training has become widely available, and many middle aged duffers, like my husband and me, have taken up the sport.

Learning scuba was Wendell's idea, and I wasn't 100% sure I would be able to do it. I've always loved to swim. My mother tells me as I youngster swimming in the city pool and friends' home pools I spent more time under the water than on top. Nevertheless, I always came up to breathe! I just wasn't certain I could master the technique of scuba breathing.

We found a place to take lessons not far from home and began in the instructor's backyard pool. As it happened I took to it like the proverbial duck. Wendell struggled with the first hurdle every novice scuba diver must overcome--not panicking when your entire body is submerged in water and you keep on breathing. Mirabile dictu it seemed to come naturally to me, and there I was, skimming around on the bottom of the deep end, while Wendell bobbed up and down in the shallow end, trying to get used to keeping his head under the water. After a few weeks we decided the instructor was not being as helpful to Wendell as he could be and we switched to a different instructor.

Glen Faith, a state police patrolman living in a nearby town, had leased a mined out, flooded quarry pit and was building a scuba diving and training business. We both immediately liked Glen, and his disciplined but easy going style was perfect for calming Wendell's case of underwater nerves. Soon we both passed the basic IDEA (International Diving Educator's Association) open water certification and proudly posed for our cert card pictures. (Here I apologize for my current lack of skill and inability to upload pictures that weren't taken with my own digital camera and also for not yet knowing how to add appropriate links to my text. Hopefully, I'll learn to do both of these soon. )

Our first "real dive", outside the sheltered confines of the quarry pit, was in a fresh water spring in Florida. We had been to New Orleans and made a swing over to the panhandle specifically to dive in this spring. Having never dived in a fresh water spring, and figuring that in late summer Florida would be warm, we didn't bring our heavy neoprene dive suits. As we prepared to enter the water in our thin dive skins, other divers made comments, such as, "Boy, you guys are tough." Hmmmm. What in the world could they mean by that? We soon found out! Fresh water springs in Florida are chilly! I'm not certain what the water temperature was, but it was way too cold to be diving in a "skin". We swam around for 20 minutes or so, and when we realized we were both turning blue, we surfaced and got out. Lesson learned. Check out the water temperature before you dive.

Soon I was itching to get into the big blue ocean and see something other than rocks and fresh water fish. When we got married 12 years before, we didn't have an actual honeymoon, so we decided to treat ourselves to a trip late that fall to Grand Cayman, one of the great scuba diving meccas of the world. Being an optometrist, my husband had specific ideas about the kind of lenses that should be in our dive masks. He did some research and found a company that made prescription dive mask lenses for both of us. In addition to being formatted to our prescriptions, the lenses were designed to compensate for the loss of color at depth. At a depth of 60 feet or so and beyond even brightly colored items viewed without additional lighting appear gray or dull blue because of the small amount of UV light that penetrates to that depth. The special lenses in our custom made masks promised brilliant color up to 120 feet!

When we arrived in Grand Cayman, Wendell seemed tired and irritable. He'd been working long hours, and I presumed he just needed a good rest and a break from routine. We set up a schedule of dives and arranged equipment rental. The next morning I hopped out of bed raring to get started on our ocean adventure! Wendell informed me he didn't feel like going, but that I should go and enjoy the dives. I offered to stay and keep him company since he wasn't feeling well, but he insisted I should do the dives. I admit thinking at the time that perhaps he was afraid to dive in the open ocean, since he had never achieved the same comfort level I had, even in the quarry pit. I agreed to go ahead with the scheduled dives, and arrived at the boat to explain that my dive buddy wouldn't be coming along this time. The divemaster paired me off with another "single", a young man from Chicago, who also was a first time ocean diver. Good, I thought. At least he won't be bored with my novice skill level.

I could tell my new dive buddy was nearly as nervous as I was. After we got out to sea, the divemaster explained how the dives would be conducted. We would do our deepest dive first, going to 100 feet, he explained calmly. 100 feet! I'd never been deeper than 65 feet in the quarry and then there was a "bottom" under my feet. We would be doing our first dive on a coral reef "wall", in "blue water", meaning don't even think about how deep it is to the bottom--you don't want to know. I was pretty savvy at controlling my bouyancy, another tricky hurdle for novice divers, but hanging at 60 feet, adjusting your up and down movements with tiny spurts of compressed air let into or out of your bouyancy vest is one thing if you know there is a solid rock bottom 40 feet under your toes. Doing it when making a mistake can mean sinking into what could be 1000's of feet of water is quite another!

We lined up to move to the edge of the boat, scooting sideways in our fins to take turns walking forward into the blue ocean. It reminded me a bit of watching movies where people are preparing to do parachute jumps. When my turn came I closed my eyes, held onto my regulator with one hand (to keep it from being knocked out of my mouth), and put the other hand against my mask at my forehead (again to keep it from being knocked askew)--and took a giant step into space.

The water was warm--bathtub warm--and as expected I popped to the surface immediately, since we all had put extra air into our vests to be sure we would bob right up. The divemaster counted heads and gave the signal to dive! That meant pressing the valve that would release air from my vest. I pressed it tentatively at first, then in short spurts as I felt the water close over my head. We were directly in front of the reef wall and when I turned my head and saw it, suddenly I was too awestruck to be afraid. As I drifted lower, the weights in my weight belt slowly pulling me down, I gazed at the most amazing array of colors and shapes I had ever seen. Coral, sponges, waving fans, brilliantly colored tiny fish darting in and out of a multicolored garden that seemed to be something from another world. Nothing I'd seen in pictures in dive books or magazines prepared me for this breathtaking spectacle! Bright red lacy fronds undulating with the current, orange and yellow sponges clinging to the reef face, dangling purple anemone with tiny bright red and white clownfish taking refuge among the stinging tentacles.

All of a sudden the divemaster appeared in front of me. He pointed to his depth gage. I looked at mine and realized I was at 104 feet! How did that happen? I had automatically been clearing my ears to equalize the pressure as I descended, and I was so compelled by the sight of the reef that I totally forgot to look at my gauges--a real no-no in diving! I nodded and puffed a slight amount of air into my vest. I drifted up a couple of feet and the divemaster gave me the diving OK signal of index finger to thumb. I saw him turn to check on the others in the group. Eventually he herded us into a line in front of him, and indicated we were to follow him. He began a lazy horizontal forward movement, propelling himself primarily with his fins. For the next 35 minutes we went where he went, through coral arches, over enormous brain corals, under the cliff-like edges of the reef. When I felt the need to clear my ears again I checked my gauge and realized he was very gradually swimming us up.

When we reached 60 feet or so, he paused and we hung suspended for a few moments allowing our bodies to accomodate. We swam again, ever so slowly moving toward the surface. Even most non-divers have heard of "the bends", another term for decompression sickness, caused from ascending too rapidly from depth. During rapid ascent deadly nitrogen bubbles don't have time to go back into solution in the bloodstream, and serious damage, even death, can occur. Our skilled divemaster was making sure none of us lost control of our bouyancy. We did another decompression stop at 30 feet for 3 minutes and again at 15 feet. By this time we could look up and clearly see the boat above us, the anchor line, and the bright sun easily penetrating to this level. My husband's foresight in equipping us with custom made masks paid off, since I never lost true colors throughout the dive.

We reached the surface and clamored aboard the ship, talking excitedly about the dive. "Did you see that enormous turtle?" (I had.) "How about that brain coral, isn't that something!" (It is.)
"Did you see the barracuda?" (I hadn't, but probably just as well on the first dive!) "How long before we can go down again?" The answer was at least an hour. We rested, ate fresh fruit and drank ice cold water. I couldn't believe how good they tasted. The boat cruised to a new dive site, and the crew prepared fresh tanks, checked weight belts, and got us ready for the second dive. The second dive would be on a sand flat at a depth of 45 to 60 feet, sounding somewhat tame now to those of us who had just been to 100 feet or more. We were advised how to dive on the sand--avoid kicking the bottom so as not to stir up silt or stingrays; stay above the coral, since touching it kills the animals and can leave you with a nasty scrape or worse (some coral is toxic); try to hover quietly as much as possible above or in front of coral formations, allowing the fish and other animals to relax and move so you can spot them. All good advice that paid off. The second dive was very different from the first but just as much fun. I knew I was hooked! The quarry would never be much fun again after this.

I returned to our hotel room bubbling over with stories to tell about the dives. Wendell listened patiently, but didn't ask many questions. After I showered and changed clothes we went out for dinner, but he ate very little. I realized he really was feeling ill, and figured it was some kind of bug.

The week passed quickly. I went on at least two dives every day. Wendell never went into the ocean. He spent a lot of time sleeping, and in the evenings we would pull beach chairs up to the tide line and hold hands, watching pinpoints of light from ships far out to sea. Neither of us suspected it, but he had less than a month to live.

When I lost my best dive buddy, I wasn't sure if I'd ever want to dive again. But the following summer my daughter and son in law persuaded me to go on a week long live aboard dive trip to the Bahamas. Living on a small boat, diving several times a day, eating fresh fish and lobster, and crusing the islands proved to be a pleasant experience that I enjoyed more than I had thought I could. Since then I've had the privilege of diving on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. I've enjoyed drift diving in the currents near Cozumel, and done many dives with my daughter and son in law off the Florida Gulf Coast. Two years ago I returned to Grand Cayman, this time on a cruise with friends. I didn't dive on that trip, but did snorkel with the stingrays again at the famous Sting Ray City sand bar. (I had dived with them in the same location on the first trip.) The island is still as beautiful as it was in 1997.

Anyone who has ever dived in the ocean on scuba has to come away with an increased respect for the ocean environment, it's beauty and it's vulnerability. As divemasters often tell their students, "Take nothing but pictures and memories; leave nothing but bubbles."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The cat in the hat, and in the bed, and in the garage...

T.S. Eliot has nothing on me. I have five cats in my household. When I acquired the fifth one my daughter warned me I could become known as "the crazy old woman with all the cats". Hmmmm. I wonder if that sobriquet depends on a critical number of cats or the owner's behavior or age or a combination of all these. That remains to be seen. I plan to acquire no additional cats at this time, but historically, felines have a way of inserting themselves into my life when I have other plans. So as not to be discriminatory I also have one dog, who is large enough to more than equal the weight of the entire cat population. He's extremely tolerant of the cats, who by turns harass or ignore him or try to play with his plumey tail.

The little girl reclining on the couch is "Princess Buttercup", the baby of the family. I was sitting in the beauty shop, having my hair cut and minding my own business, when a young man entered with a fluffy kitten in his coat. "She's the last of the litter," he said, as he showed her around the room, "and if I can't find her a home, I'm going to have to take her to the shelter." (shudder) Needless to say, I said the magic words, "Can I hold her?" and that, as they say, was that. That was two years ago, and Miss Buttercup has been my special baby ever since. She's the most loving, cuddly cat I've ever owned and is Miss Personality when visitors come to call--unless they are accompanied by strange canines.

This handsome fellow is "Charlie", at three years old, the next youngest of the pride. A good friend had a very sick, elderly Yorkie whose time had come. I accompanied my friend to the vet for the final visit, and while we were waiting, a mutual friend who works there said, "Have you seen our baby?" We said we hadn't, so she brought in a large carrier with a very small kitten inside. "My next door neighbor found him yesterday in her goldfish pond, hanging onto a lily pad for dear life." "Oh," I cooed, "Can I hold him?" (sigh) I left with "the baby" in the carrier and a promise to return the carrier at his next vet visit in 2 weeks. Charlie is very vocal and very much the master of his little "harem". He bullies the two oldest cats, who are getting up in years, but Buttercup is able to hold her own. Everyone is spayed or neutered, so it's strictly a dominence issue. He's jealous if I pet the dog or other cats, and, like most males, wants to be the center of attention.

This adorably squishy face belongs to Princess Margaret Ann, aka "Meggie", who is the only true blue-blood in the house, and the only one for which I plunked down hard earned cash to make her my own. Perhaps it's because she's the "middle child", now five years old, that she is a real scaredy cat. She essentially lives in my heated/cooled attached garage, although every few days she will grudgingly allow me to carry her into the livingroom where I can plop her down on the couch in order to groom her obviously long and luxurious coat, which snarls dreadfully at the drop of a hat. I say grudgingly because she frowns throughout the entire procedure, frowning as only a purebred Persian cat can frown. Meggie was for sale, along with her litter mate, at a cat show in Carbondale, where I went with a friend just to see lots of beautiful cats, having absolutely no intention of buying one. IMHO, there is simply nothing in the world cuter than a Persian kitten, so I asked the lady, "Can I hold one of them?" (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Once the little flame point tortie ball of fluff was in my arms and purring under my chin there was no going back.

Next comes Jennie, whose full name is Jennyanydots, a name familiar to lovers of the poem/musical "Cats". Actually, Wendell, my late husband, is responsible for Jennie joining the household. He came home from work one evening to tell me I had a "patient" on the front porch. I went to look, and there was a tiny calico kitten, holding up an obviously injured paw. Off to the vet we went to find that all the toes in that foot were broken. The vet said it was as if something heavy stepped on her. Since there was a cow pasture right behind our property, that may have been the source of the injury. At any rate, all the toes on her foot were broken, and since she has polydactyly, a condition defined as having more than the normal number of digits, that was a lot of little broken toes. The two "extra" toes had to be amputated, since they were not normally formed and couldn't be set properly. As for the other toes, four tiny pins were inserted, and the toes healed nicely after a time of rest and recuperation.

It was during the time of Jennie's rest and recuperation in a large cage my husband built just for that purpose, that my world tilted on its axis. At the age of 54 my husband Wendell died after a two week illness. Four days after the funeral I took Jennie to the vet to have the pins removed from her foot. Life and all it entails goes on and sweet, demure Jennie holds a very special place in my heart.

The eldest member of the family, at age 13, is Whitey, aptly named by Wendell, who also was responsible for her becoming an Anderson cat. In fact he carried her back to the house after finding her wandering about in the field he was mowing. Our neighbor said he had just seen her around that morning and was pretty sure someone had dumped her the night before. (Don't get me started on the subject of people who dump unwanted animals--it makes my blood boil!) Whitey is truely totally white, but is not deaf as are many completely white cats. Her eyes are a gorgeous deep green, and someday I'm going to paint her portrait!

That's my cat family.

Last, but certainly not least, is Madison. Madison is my wonderfully special dog, a Golden Retriever mix, whose only "mix" shows in his tail which turns upward in an enormous plume.
His personality and the rest of his appearance is all Golden, and he is the love of my life. Madison was also a foundling, found in Madison, Co, Florida by my daughter and her husband who were scuba diving in a fresh water spring in the area. They saw him wandering the area, and apparently he was a mess--filthy, sick, emaciated, full of fleas and ticks (and heartworms, which of course weren't apparent at the time), but trying his best to make friends. The site manager told them the dog had been wandering around the area for several days and he was worried a car would hit him. That's all it took for my tender hearted daughter, who never met a non-human critter she didn't like. They hauled him home and to their vet, got him healthy and back to normal weight--and neutered--and when I came to visit a few months later, I fell like a ton of bricks. I had flown to Florida, so I couldn't take him home with me right away, but I came home and had my fairly large back yard securely fenced in and bought a spacious doghouse to prepare for his arrival when the kids drove up to visit over Labor Day. That was four years ago, and since the vet estimated his age at two years when Kim and Ron found him, he's now approximately six years old. I hope we have many more years together, my red-haired boy and I.

So, that's my household. All the cats are strictly indoors and Madison is spending more and more time inside as he gets older. They are my friends, my companions, and truly my little family. And do I talk to them? Of course I do! And occasionally they talk back in their own language. I've read that having pets is good for your health. Here's to a long life for all of us!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Here We go!

Well, it wasn't that difficult after all, as my friends assured me. I'm now the proud owner of a real, live blog. Be gentle, dear readers, as this is my first time, and I'm clearly a novice. Perhaps I should start small and work up to longer posts.

Today seems to be some sort of watershed for me. I had an interesting discussion with myself in the shower this morning and determined that the direction of my path must change to improve my health and well being. So, I'm off on my new trail, which is not really new at all, since I have traveled it before. Hopefully, the journey this time will not be as long to reach my goal weight and a renewed sense of wellness and energy. I feel better just thinking about it!

Apparently somewhere on this site I'm to write some information about myself for those who care to know. I shall see if I can locate that place.

Tune in again another time for more musings and mutterings and other general stuff.