Last week my close friend Steve Stein (not his real name), a successful talent manager in Hollywood, celebrated his 50th birthday, and the fifth anniversary of his marriage. He might not have made this marker for an adventure trip with me that took a Lost In Translation turn.
It is winter in LA, which is the austral summer below the 60th parallel south. Steve and I travel to the bottom of the Americas to board a ship and cross the Drake Passage (a.k.a. the Drake Shake, stormiest sea patch in the world) to The White Continent, Antarctica. Our vehicle is the Finish-built RV Livonia, with a specially-built ice-strengthened hull, and an Estonian crew. It is a small vessel, one that breeds intimacy.
Some 16 hours into the passage we are all paler shades of white. Patches, Dramamine, years of experience... nothing keeps the wooziness at bay. When finally hunger trumps, Steve and I negotiate our way to the dining room. Waves are smashing against the portholes, and the wet tablecloths have us wondering. The cute Estonian waitress, with gazelle legs and patched micro-shorts, speaks no English, but she uses her hands to explain she'd wet down the tablecloths to keep the plates and glasses from flying off. Then the ship lurches, and the plates and utensils go flying; the waitress tumbles into Steve's lap. She looks embarrassed; Steve clacks a laugh like a rutting moose.
After dinner, as the waitress clears the table, Steve offers his name, and gestures for hers. "Ilona," and she demurely disappears into the kitchen.
Steve and I share a double-decker bunk room, and he comments on Ilona's adorability, before pulling the shades (the sun doesn't set, but rather skims across the horizon) and attempting to sleep in the pitching darkness.
"Did the earth move for you?" is a question at breakfast, a gimpy attempt at humor within this washing machine of a ship caught on rinse. Pale is the color of the day, and shipmates keep excusing themselves in the middle of conversions and rudely running away. Or, backs are turned and out comes a little white bag. Our collective cognitive dissonance is this: we have to earn Antarctica. Steve picks at his eggs, and eyes the kitchen door. No Ilona. Probably not her shift.
Our expedition leader, who has made this crossing 29 times, tells us we are lucky... not many get such a wild ride. Years ago I took a flight with The Blue Angels in an F-14, spinning through the clouds at 7 Gs, doing loop-de-loops and rollovers. I can say with authority that crossing the Drake is worse. The 30 knot wind is a Northwesterly, pounding the ship broadside, bumping and grinding like an Argentine bombshell.
After interminable hours of shippy asynchronous dirty dancing, dinner is called, and we blunder down to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Ilona appears, wearing a sheer t-shirt, and the same micro-shorts, apparel more appropriate to a tropic isle than here. She serves up a plate of carrot and ginger soup, explaining through gestures that ginger is a natural remedy for sea sickness. She could be right, but minutes later, Steve, who had held it together for the whole day, makes the beeline.
Like the first celebratory moments of fresh air after being chained to a hospital bed, we greet the smell of guano on Pelican Island, the smell of adventure. The sky is bright, the glaciers blue, a thousand scoops of vanilla ice cream cover the surrounding hills, and it's colder in San Francisco. Most of us have to peel our onion layers of clothes for the short hike up the caldera.
Along the way we weave between whale bones, planks from long-forgotten stations, spots of grass, lichen, moss, and yes, penguins....thousands upon thousands. Our guide estimates 100 million populate the rim of Antarctica. We see three species: Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo on the ascent, and a surprise king-of-the-hill on top, a lone King Penguin, who doesn't belong this far south.
Back on board, Steve orders an Estonian beer, called a Rock, and as Ilona arrives to serve, Steve whistles to convey his amazement with our first Antarctic encounters. Ilona scolds him....its bad luck, she indicates, to whistle on a ship, as it whistles up the wind.
Next stop, Aitcho Island, where our arrival meets scores of nesting gentoos, some on eggs, others on just-born chicks, and one moves back to let us witness the actual hatching of its brood. In her pebble-rimmed nest an egg cracks, a tiny head peers out, squints at the sun, wriggles a wet body to freedom, and opens its beak to the world.
That night, some officious excuse is tendered, and the boat stays put, snug and sound in the ice. Around midnight music seeps up from the bottom deck. Steve and I and several passengers step downstairs to investigate, and stumble into a full-blown birthday bash, rich with cranberry juice and vodka, dancing, banjo strumming, serenading, and Ilona, standing decorously in the center of it all in a white dress soaking in the spotlight. It is her 25th birthday, and the crew wants to throw her a party, which they couldn't if the ship were moving. The Estonians sing, dance and fete Ilona, who shoots not-so-furtive glances as Steve. As the party rolls Steve asks one of the crew members, who speaks a bit of English, how to say "I love you" in Estonian. "Ma armastan sind," and Steve mouths it to himself several times, committing it to memory.
The morning next we sail farther south through the ice-strangled Lemaire Channel, narrowest passage of our voyage, which until this day had turned back all other vessels attempting its navigation this season. We squeeze through, and on the other side we near Circumcision Point, obliquely named for a "Southern Exposure" incident. It seems a doctor had signed for a year's duty at an Argentine base, but when his time was up, he got a message saying the authorities hadn't found a replacement so he would have to stay another year. A few months into the bad news, the doctor went crazy and burned down the station.
At around 10:00 am we all gather on deck to awe at the sight of endless acres of pack ice on the approach to Palmer Station. Though we had seen on the Internet that Palmer Station might be closed due to the winds, it was now closed to us due to a southwesterly that had blown in a harbor-full of first year sea ice. Only 15 expedition landings are permitted a year to Palmer, and we had applied 6 months ago for one, and received it. Penguins and seals cavort across the ice bergs blocking our way, but our ice-class ship just can't break through. In 1989 the Bahia Paraiso, another expedition ship, sank here in similar conditions. Knowing that, it is with some relief the captain announces we will turn around, and head for safe anchorage at Port Lockroy.
At dinner Ilona seems to shine with an extra layer of make-up, and with the post-repast clean-up Steve grins at her and offers, "Ma armastan sind." She blushes, and undertones, "tänan teid," (thank you), and skitters away like a bird.
All night long the ice groans against the ship...or is that Steve?
After breakfast we venture onto a cold shore under steel skies and wander about among huge, bleached whale bones, tiny Antarctic terns, and the nests of gentoos and blue-eyed cormorants. In the late 1800s this was a popular whaling and sealing spot, as was much of the rim of Antarctica, and hunters who sailed here wantonly killed almost all life encountered, including millions of penguins (not only for food, but for their oil, which sometimes fueled their return voyage) and all other birdlife, using all manner of weapons, including rocks. In fact it could be said these early expeditioneers to Antarctica... left no tern unstoned.
Later in the afternoon we sail north up the Neumayer Channel into the Gerlache Strait, along the little-known Danco coast. At Off Spring Point we let down anchor and set off to explore. We pilot our Zodiacs through brash ice, thousands of small glittering, shattered pieces bobbing along the surface, as though the wreckage of a huge crystal airplane, and crunch towards shore. Then just off an island named Spritely on the maps we find a fjord-like entrance to a landing on an unnamed island, and we set ashore.
It appears there is no record of anyone ever landing here (99% of Antarctica has yet to feel the footsteps of Man). So, it is incumbent upon us to appoint a name for this little isle, which is filled with chinstraps and shags and rounded hills. Steve proposes Ilona Island, and all agree.
Last stop for the day, Bailey's Head on Deception Island, is like storming Coney Island on a sizzling Sunday in August. There are countless Chinstrap penguins milling about, some resting, some bathing, some waddling up the sooty hill. Deception is a volcanic crater about eight miles in diameter, with a summit wall that collapsed some ages ago, allowing sea water to flood in through a portal large enough for our ship.
Our first stop is at a black sand beach on the outer perimeter, rightly famous for the size of its penguin colony. Some estimate over a million penguins make this piece of Deception their summer hangout. The eye plays tricks as it sweeps the horizon: in the middle distance what looks like an overcooked meatloaf generously sprinkled with salt and pepper is really a lava shelf dotted with tens of thousands of penguins.
To get the best overall view we trek up a dirty river, then along a wide throughway with an endless line of white figures marching down one lane, and an equally daunting line of black figures marching up; bellies down, backs up. Though the British occupied a piece of Deception for a time, it is evident colonization never took...the penguins negotiate this highway quite properly and orderly on the right. Also, it is easy to distinguish who had been to the car wash. Those heading down the hill are dirty, dusty and streaked; while those sauntering back up, having taken a dip in the ocean, are shiny and clean, black and white coats seemingly simonized.
At the crest of the caldera we can see three seas: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the sea of penguins who occupy Deception. The caribou migration in the Arctic, the wildebeest in the Serengeti...they pale to the dizzying sight, and smell, of hundreds of thousands Chinstrap penguins doing the Wave.
After a barbecue on the back deck of the ship, with ample servings of beer and vodka, we sail through Neptune's Bellows, the narrow gate to the interior of the caldera. At an old whaling station we drop anchor. As this is our last landing, the crew is invited to join, and Ilona, in heavy fur coat, climbs down the ladder to sit next to Steve on the Zodiac. Onto an ashy beach we debark, just 50 yards from the remains of a Chilean base destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the late 1960's. The posts and framework pieces look like the bones of an animal carcass poking through dead skin. Then, led by Ilona, everyone strips off jackets, peels off the polar wear, thermal underwear, boots and socks, and jumps into the ocean. We are all swimming in the volcano; splashing about in Antarctic waters. Because Deception is still active, this is a shoreline where the water is sufficiently thermally heated for hot tubbing.
And here we are, last day in Antarctica, shrieking, giggling, kicking around naked like kids in a wading pool. Somewhere amidst the splashing, Steve chortles and tosses another "Ma armastan sind" to Ilona, who arches her long bare torso and tosses it back.
On the sail back to Ushuaia, Steve continues his playful dinnertime banter with Ilona with the only Estonian phrase he knows. And she serves up ever larger and spicier portions of nourishment.
When at last we dock, and head to the gangplank to disembark, the crew is lined for final goodbyes. Steve squeezes Ilona a seal hug, says "Ma armastan sind," and hands her his business card. "If you come to LA, please, please visit me," and he leans into a final Hollywood cheek-kiss.
Three months later Steve is fielding calls in his office and he picks up a line and hears a vaguely familiar female voice. "I'm at the airport... here with my 8-year-old girl... will you pick us up?"
"Who is this?" he queries?
"Ilona... I've been practicing English, and I saved my money to come and be with you, my love."
The end of the story has Ilona moving in, with her daughter, much to Steve's, and his girlfriend's, dismay. Steve spends the next weeks seeking a living relative to Ilona, and finally finds an uncle in Toronto who will take her in. He buys her the tickets, drives them to the airport, and as they exchange goodbyes at Security he tenders to Ilona, "Ma armastan sind."