Thursday, February 3, 2011

no penguin, no cry

It was bound to happen at some point: a total and complete meltdown.

I love traveling abroad, I do. I have discussed often here my love of being in foreign countries and of speaking other languages, but it’s also really stressful--no matter how much fun you’re having.   
Being completely out of my normal routine for over three weeks: not exercising, not sleeping much, eating a completely different (extremely carnivorous) diet along with the stress of booking and dealing with hotels, trying to get my foreign cell phone to work and the million other details of being abroad have been wearing me thin. And while I’m having a lot of fun learning Spanish and feel I’m making progress, the constant knowledge that I’m missing at least some of the nuances of any given interaction is not exactly calming.

Monday morning I went to see the national park in Ushuaia with a group of some 20 Portuguese retirees. It stuck me as odd how much Ushuaia reminds me of home with the mountains and clear lakes. Monday afternoon was the thing I’d been waiting for: the penguins. My hotel had assured me that all of the penguin tours left between 3 and 3:30 so to just come down a few minutes before 3 and they’d set me up. Being the time-conscious American that I am I went down at 2:30pm at which point the ‘concierge’ let me know that there was a chance the boats wouldn’t be gong out that afternoon because of weather. I looked at him stricken. What? No. The penguins! Once in a lifetime! Not to worry though, he told me, there is another excursion that goes by land. I perked up as I recalled that this was the one my friend had told me about where you could walk with the penguins. Hurray! Oh no, he said when he hung up the phone, they’ve already left but not to worry, the boats probably won’t get cancelled.

I probably don’t have to tell you what happened next. The boats got cancelled. The woman told me I could to go tomorrow. I felt the tears coming on. I’m leaving tomorrow I told her. You can go on the shorter excursion she offered, to see the sea lions and the lighthouse. Sea lions? Lighthouses? Seen those. But what else could I do? It was too late to do anything else with the day. Mortifyingly I burst into tears while buying my ticket.

Once the tears started I just couldn’t seem to compose myself. It wasn’t just the penguins of course. It was all the stress of the trip, the emotional highs and lows, the exhaustion, all of the rumination on the meaning of my life, the exhilarating and alienating feeling of being in a foreign country on my own.

                           a colony of King Cormorants, who are black and white but still not penguins 

So there I was crying my eyes out in the corner of the catamaran getting jostled by tourists and feeling humiliated that I was crying in public; which only made me feel worse and cry more; a bad cycle I think most of us are familiar with. Somewhere deep down I knew that this would be at least a little humorous later on.

One of the guys from the boat kindly brought me some tissues. Later when I finally pulled it together after we set sail I went to get some coffee; he asked me if I was feeling better. I told him I was. Where are you from? He asked (the ubiquitous question). United States, Seattle I told him and his jaw dropped. Seattle? Julia is from Seattle, he said gesturing to the guide. I was completely confused. How could that be? Her Spanish was perfect and she didn’t even speak English with a particularly American sounding accent. She turned out to be from Camano Island, a small place near where my aunt and uncle live.
In between her entertaining and informative explanations of the history of the channel we chatted about home and how she ended up here. She had married an Argentine she’d met while traveling in Mexico. I dabble in traveling and living abroad, but Julia is the real deal: fully expatriated, fluent (and I don’t use that word lightly) in the language, married to one of their own.

                                                        lighthouse at the end of the world

When I asked if she had any good recommendations for dinner that night she asked me if I’d like to come to her house. She and her husband run a small company that makes videos of the boats trips for tourists; she picked me up at my hotel and I went on her rounds with her dropping off the videos from the day. It was clear the two of them worked hard and despite her ex-pat status, she had a recognizably American entrepreneurial spirit. We talked about all the many things we loved about Argentina and the things we missed about the U.S: including vegetables, which are in sparse supply here--this, is particularly tough on her as she’s a vegetarian. Yes, I went on a boat tour in a country famous for its meat, in a city on the opposite end of the world from where I live and my tour guide was a vegetarian from my own backyard.

I had a lovely evening drinking wine and eating torta with her and her husband. Julia and I talked long into the night about her fascinating life in this odd beautiful place. She told me about being a boat guide and which tourists were the worst, she explained to me how the native people of Ushuaia--the Yamanas --lived with no clothing and how they were able to swim in water that would kill your or I in about 5 minutes (the explanation involved a lot of sea lion blubber). She also shared her theory on one of my other burning questions: why the hell are Argentine people so skinny (more on this later).

So I missed the penguins but if I hadn’t missed the penguins I wouldn’t have met Julia. That’s the serendipity of travel for you. 


  1. I started out thinking, Oh no! You poor thing! It's so awful to cry in public, and know there's no way to make it stop.

    But now I think those tears may be a marker of sorts. A way to remember that, no matter how far your travels take you, the kindness of a stranger is often just an arm's length away. (That sounds hopelessly Hallmark-ish, I know, but it can't be helped.)

    I think you're very brave to make this journey on your own, and to be so open in your search for new experiences and friendships. Good rebound, Spring.

  2. Camano Island... where your aunt teaches school! Gosh the world is huge... and yet, so small.
    Hugs. See you soon.

  3. add another yay vote for the bravery column. and there is absolutely nothing that makes me as happy as serendipitous events.

    i'm sorry you missed the penguins and that you ended up crying in public (but really, you have fully lived if you haven't cried in public multiple times), but the trade off was worth it. you would have never enjoyed the conversation with a penguin like the one you got with julia.

  4. Before you came to Doubleday, I went on a trip to the Baltics so that I could photographs of this thing called the "Hill of Crosses" in Lithuania (our bosses thought I was a little wonky, I think). I planned badly and found out later that this hill was not an easy day trip from Vilnius and then ran out of days. I was devastated, bc I wanted to take pics so bad. But when I got home, I took my seven rolls of film from other crap to this place on 58th and Bway and they tell me NONE of the rolls of film caught on the feeder thing--my camera somehow got busted on the trip. So now I have an excuse to go back, and all these mysteries in my mind about what my memory didn't record.

    Glad you're back in the US safe and sound. :-)