Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I'm Famous!

To see me in my film debut (I play "Mean Librarian") click below!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

South America Day 17: A Day in Uruguay, or Meandering Through Montevideo

Note from the present day: Still doing catch-up on South America; trying to clear this out so I can write about Alaska this September!

December 5, 2009

Since this is our only day in Uruguay, we decided to make the most of it. We went ashore at 11:30 or so, and this time we didn't need to use tenders - the Sun had the first spot on the dock, right at the edge of the Ciudad Vieja (the Old Town). As you can see by the Bridge Cam

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we were practically parked on land.

At the end of the gangplank, someone handed us a map with a very nice walking tour which we followed to see the sites of interest. The first one was very easy to locate - we had to go right through it to get to the actual streets.

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The German pocket battleship Graf Spee was scuttled in Montevideo's harbor during World War II, and a fair part of the ship is still underwater just off shore. Uruguay has been in the process of raising the wreck for several years - the thing is less than 40 yards underwater and is a hazard to navigation - and some of her salvaged parts are on display right here by the cruise ship docks. Dad was most impressed with the enormous range-finding telemeter

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which is the biggest single piece of Graf Spee debris to have been salvaged. The anchor and some massive gears are also displayed:

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We followed our map past the Mercado al Puerto and found a nice pedestrian mall lined with market stalls

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and flea-market stands selling antiques and collectibles (I think South America has decided that all weekends are Flea Market Day).

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Dad was struck by one seller's collection of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro merchandise. I think I've figured out how all those free-range South American dogs stay alive, too - one vendor had packs of dog kibble for sale. I guess you can feed them like you'd feed pigeons.

A few blocks up and over, we arrived at the Plaza Zabala, a square-block-sized park  furnished with lovely benches where we parked ourselves for a few moments.

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To one side of the plaza (far left, below) they were setting up either a wedding reception or some kind of floating restaurant operation:

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The centerpiece of this plaza is a large statue of Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, the founder of the city of Montevideo.

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As you can see, grateful Montevideans have improved the statue by personalizing it with attractive red spray paint.

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We zigged and zagged on our way out of the Plaza to arrive on a long pedestrians-only street

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lined with more commercial emporia than we had seen earlier, including some familiar friends.

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Hey - I could get Buster's prescription kibble here!

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Despite the Coke signs and fast-fooderies, this area has a real old-world feel, and the mall eventually led us to the Plaza Constitución, the oldest part of the Old Town. The cathedral is built at one corner of the Plaza, and since I love church architecture I left Dad for a few moments to go in and try to take some pictures.

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Apparently I took quite a while - Dad asked me if I'd been to Mass when I came out. And to top it off, almost all of my tripodless efforts were sadly out of focus. Sigh.

Dad had plenty to amuse himself while waiting for me, though, because this Plaza too was chock-full of flea-marketeers,

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plus he had a band to listen to!

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By this point we were getting hungry, so we started working our way back through town. On the way we observed that Montevideo is home to some accomplished graffiti artists

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with strong opinions on national economic issues.

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Our lunchtime goal was the Mercado del Puerto back near the cruise ship docks. The Mercado consists of an indoor maze of lunch counters, sellers of souvenirs and local crafts, and more lunch counters, housed in a single building a city block on a side. (Okay, I exaggerate - the short end of the building is only half a city block.)

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You walk in and instantly start to salivate, because you can smell this:

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MEAT! This is no place for vegetarians; the entire air is pervaded with the delicious aroma of the grill. It was a bit chaotic, and very crowded - we thought the lunch rush would be over by 2 PM, but I guess not - but Dad and I thought we'd figured out the system. Would-be diners would stand behind people who looked like they were almost done, then slip onto their stools when they got off them, kinda like when you follow somebody to their car to snag their parking spot when they leave. We were waiting behind four people who were in the process of paying up, and the counterman had caught our eye so he knew we were there. Everything seemed to be good. Then the diners got up - and this Swedish tourist guy from off to the side slipped in there with two other folks in tow. Dad was so mad I thought he was going to pop them one, but since we had no language in common there seemed to be no way to address the issue.

There was no way we were starting that game again, and besides the crowds were kind of getting to us, so we decided to go back to a sidewalk restaurant we'd seen earlier - a bit more expensive but nobody would poach our seats. We were seated almost immediately by a cute little hostess

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and we ordered a skewer of tenderloin to split between us. I tried to order the beef medium, but it arrived rather rare; I don't know if it was my Spanish that caused the trouble, but I gave Dad all the cooked bits and ate the others myself - I like them better that way anyhow. We were entertained during our meal by a passing street performance:

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The little hostess and I chatted in my bad Spanish and her bad English: I told her la comida esta deliciosa, and asked if I could take her picture, she hugged me and said I was "beautiful person" and we parted, all mutual appreciation.

Back at the pier, we discovered an internet cafe right in the looming shadow of the Norwegian Sun,

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so we delightedly spent $4 emailing John and Arlene and looking up a new sock knitting pattern for me before returning to the ship for our final evening aboard. As you might expect, we spent ages getting all packed up, and I actually succeeded in getting everything I'd need for Buenos Aires into my wheeled carry-on and my day bag; the big suitcase contains only dirty laundry. It has to be outside the cabin door before we go to bed. Sigh - tomorrow starts early.

Friday, December 4, 2009

South America Day 16: The Last Sea Day

December 4, 2009

We discovered almost too late that the Pacific Heights restaurant,

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healthy by night, is a full-on waffle house at breakfast time!



They have four waffle makers going full tilt, plus giant tubs full to the brim with softened butter and whipped cream and warmed syrup with which to slather and drench  your breakfast. Ah, had we found you earlier! I am getting far too used to this sort of thing.

Since the penguins were safely "in the can" I no longer felt obliged to save camera space for anything, and I spent a fair part of the day rambling around the ship filming things like the ship's library



the Observation Lounge, where I met with the little knitting group we developed,



the Sun Deck (there's finally some sun!)



and the glass elevators in the Atrium that Dad found endlessly fascinating.



I tried to film the casino,



but for some reason they made me stop. (Although one of my very favorite books, Last Call by Tim Powers, is all about Vegas, I actually have very little interest in casinos. I'm cheap, and I hate losing money far more than I'd like winning it, if I ever won any!)

Later we had a presentation from Eduardo, which was supposed to cover disembarkation procedures for day after tomorrow and what to expect in Buenos Aires. Sadly, it turned out to be very repetitive (put colored ribbons on all your luggage, match the color to your bus color, watch out for criminals, buses, ribbons, ribbons, buses) so after half an hour or so Dad and I decided we'd got the gist, and went off to get in line for dinner. It is Lobster Night in the main dining room, and since NCL is a little stingy with the crustaceans outside of the specialty restaurants, we didn't want to miss. In fact, they were still being a little stingy - my "lobster" consisted of half a small lobster tail - but there were a lot of scallops in there and they were tasty.

Nine-thirty found us at the best show we saw on the cruise: "Encore". It was a revue of songs from Broadway musicals including Hairspray, The Producers, Aida (a pair of fabulous ballet dancers complemented the song), In the Heights (an unfamiliar Latino-barrio star-crossed romance story), Wicked, Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia. The dancers and singers were a lot of fun, and they wound up with a soppy "NCL Loves You" song where employees from all the departments, including the Captain, the chefs, people from housekeeping, etc, came on stage. I spotted one of our room stewards, Ferdinand, and we all clapped till our hands were sore. The chefs got a standing ovation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

South America Day 15: Chocolate Extravaganza

12/3/09

We had to turn back eventually, though Dad found one last photo op:

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We were back at the bus well before all the stragglers, then almost immediately got off again to take a photo of a group of guanacos.

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While admiring them I was chatting with our guide and mentioned that there was guanaco yarn available on the Web. She was extremely excited because she'd heard that there was a project to support guanaco conservation by selling yarn, but she didn't know the yarn was on the market yet. I must say that just by observation there seem to be a lot of guanacos out there, so the conservation efforts seem to be working.

The return drive was less entertaining than the drive out, mostly because the air conditioning in the bus broke. Faint cries from the soft American tourists went unheeded as the driver pushed all the buttons without effect. The blower was kaput. I slept as much as possible to get through the time faster. An hour out of Puerto Madryn they had a brainstorm: How about if we open the roof vents? (The passengers' earlier efforts to open the bus windows had been stymied by industrial sealant and impervious locking mechanisms. Hey, they warned us right on the NCL website that for Patagonian buses, working AC and microphones were the exception, not the rule!)

We were back on board the Sun in plenty of time, much to the chagrin of us thwarted penguin lovers - we could easily have had another half hour at Punta Tombo. I can't really blame our guide, though - I imagine NCL gets a bit cranky if they have to delay sailing because a tour bus isn't back yet.

We stayed up till 10:30 that night because there was a Chocolate Extravaganza in the main dining room from 10:30 to 11:30. There was a long line - we should have gone down early - but once in it was very pretty, with ice sculptures and beautifully arranged platters of delicacies everywhere. (Drat! I forgot to bring my camera.) I had to wake Dad up to come down for it, but he thought it was worth it!

South America Day 15: Penguins!

12/3/09

After three hours plus of bus-time, we negotiated the last leg of out trip over a very dusty road marked "Drive Slow", which we were assured represented a vast improvement over the previous unimproved gravel road. At least now we have pavement.

We arrived at the Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery just after noon and we were told to be back on the bus by ten to one. We were a little miffed to have our penguin encounter cut so short, having paid muchos dólares to come, but what can you do? The ship sails when it sails, and we still have to drive three hours back.

We walked up a hill covered with the same kind of scrub that we'd been looking at all along, but all of a sudden I noticed that most of the bushes have holes or scrapes dug under them, and every hole contains penguins!

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These are Magellanic Penguins, one of the smaller sorts (around 18" tall) with a lot of bold black-and-white striping on their heads and around their bellies and a pink circle around their red, beady eyes.

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The penguins in or near the holes are usually preoccupied with tending a pair of chicks:

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There's no telling if this is the mom or the dad; the two sexes take equal turns in child raising. The chicks hatched about a month ago, and from then on the parents are on an endless rotating shift: one stays with the babies and the other goes in the ocean after fish, then comes back and feeds them to the chicks (regurgitates, actually - yick!). Then they switch shifts and the other parent goes fishing. This is why tourists are restricted to the path between some white stones (visible in the upper left, below)

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while the penguins have the right of way. They go back and forth to the ocean a lot!

We learned a number of interesting penguin-raising facts from our guide on the drive down.
  • Magellanic penguins mate for life, but it's really more like they buy a house for life and the mate just comes along with. At the age of five, they choose a nest site that's within 100 yards or so of the nest they were born in, and they come back to that same nest - and the same mate - for the next fifteen years.
  • If the parents die before the eggs hatch, another penguin will adopt the eggs. However, if the chicks have already hatched they are not adopted.
  • During chick-raising season the parents don't eat for themselves at all. They just feed the babies until the babies molt at age 6-8 months. They grow adult feathers (solid black and white, with no stripes) which lets them swim, and they're on their own.
  • Next, the parents molt (Analise says they are so thin by then you can see their wishbones) and when they finally grow their feathers back they go to sea and eat for three months straight. The males come ashore then (in September) and get the nests ready, while the females keep eating until October, when they come to land, mate and lay their two eggs. 
  • You'll note that one chick is a lot larger than the other. That one hatched first and has a head start from there on; the other one is a backup chick and sooner or later it'll get crowded out of being fed at all. Only if Big Chick meets with an accident - like getting eaten by a gull or a skua
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 - does Little Chick get to grow up. Nature red in tooth and claw, I guess.
  • Adolescents between the ages of one and five come back home and hang around their parents' nest while they molt. Annalise said in February the beaches are just crammed with penguins: parents, chicks, adolescents molting - like half a million individuals. Even though there aren't that many here yet, there are still plenty!
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There are also a lot of penguins who aren't tending nests. I assume these are mostly the 2-4 year olds; they don't have much to do with their time except preen,

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bask,

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stand around,

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 and practice adult behaviors:

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(It's the wrong season for real mating; these two are just fooling around.)

Those wooden bridge-looking things above are elevated walkways the parks service has built for the tourists, that the penguins just scoot right under. They're a favorite hangout for the unattached, who are extremely curious and like to investigate these odd creatures who keep pointing shiny glass objects toward them. One of them got almost close enough for me to touch:



Warning: If you are at all susceptible to motion sickness you may want to skip the rest of the videos. I'm not exactly a steadicam operator.

Preening Penguin



Cheeping Chicks



I'm Following You



Fall Down Go Boom

South America Day 15: In which we see wildlife

Penguins today, but first sea lions: I was up early and went out on the balcony to look at the bay, and out of the water popped a sea lion head! He came up several times but I was totally unable to get a photo.

We went up to the Garden Cafe but it was too full. We ended up on deck at the Great Outdoor Cafe - it was pleasant in the sun. We scarfed down rolls, sausage and melon as fast as possible then scurried to the Stardust Lounge to wait.

We waited nervously because of being turned away from the Falklands, but I guess Argentina isn't so picky - we were eventually given our identifying stickers. They needed them because there are five buses worth of people going on our tour to the Punta Tombo penguin rookery alone! One of the ship's tour-coordinators, Olga, was telling us the rules, which boil down to not bothering the penguins, and she was really funny. For one thing, she's a Russian, and she sort of had that Boris Badenov syntax going, plus whenever she talked about the penguins she called them Pingwins. She'd say things like, "Don't worry to seeing every pingwin. Dey're EVERYVERE."

Once we had our stickers we were freed to...wait in an endless line, which snaked all through Deck 6, down the stairs in the Atrium and out to the gangplanks. The bottleneck was explained once we saw the gangplanks - they were sloping at about a 45 degree angle!

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The young and agile descended without trouble, but most folks went down agonizingly slowly.

Once on our bus, we waited for ages to get off the pier and then drove through Puerto Madryn. [By the way, Puerto Madryn is not a very Spanish sounding name. There's a good reason for that - the town was named by Welsh immigrants who settled in Patagonia in 1865. The nearest big town to here is called Trelew! Apparently there are still between 1500 and 5000 Welsh speakers in Argentina today.] In any case, when we reached its outskirts,
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we lost half an hour to an idiot governmental checkpoint. Once we were finally on the road, we rejoiced!

Too soon. Maybe 20 minutes later we pulled over for a bathroom break. I also think this is where they picked up our box lunches, or maybe pulled them out of the boot. Shortly after returning to the road the guide, Amalia? Analise? passed out the lunch boxes and one bottle of water each. The lunches were extremely generous (a chicken sandwich six inches across?!) and we decided we'd be fools to try to eat it all while trapped on a bus. I did manage to finish the dessert, something like a Spanish Ding-Dong only much higher class. It had dulce de leche in it!

When not eating, I watched the passing landscape like a hawk, looking for guanacos. I love guanacos - they are one of several South American camel-like critters, related to alpacas and llamas. Guanacos have coats that are supposed to be softer than cashmere - I wanted to find some yarn, but no luck. However, I did see several little family clusters of guanacos:

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The land is mostly covered with scrub brush - low growing, water conserving, dusty sage green. This part of Argentina is in the rain shadow of the Andes and gets maybe 8 inches of rain a year; hence the roads, the sheep and probably the guanacos are dusty too.

It was maybe 40 miles on the map from Puerto Madryn to Punta Tomba but it took at least three hours to get there. We went the opposite of a straight line!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

South America Day 14: The Southern Cross

We are slowly proceeding toward Puerto Madryn in Argentina, through moderate seas and strong winds. It's another lazy day at sea. I think it's Wednesday.

10:35 PM:

Dad and I indulged a desire to see the Southern Cross. For days he's been asking anyone from the Southern hemisphere what it looked like and where to find it in the sky, but no dice. Finally he got out his compass - yes, he carries one, are you surprised? - and he figured out approximately where South is. We went up on the Sun Deck and located what seems to be the right constellation - about the right height above the horizon, in the Milky Way (according to the Encyclopedia this is correct) - it's good enough for me. This:

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is more or less what we were looking at (except the red lines!)

Since we were out in the middle of the Atlantic at the time, there was none of that light pollution you get in the suburbs - the only competition the stars had was from the ship's own lights. I think cruise ships should offer a Star-Watching Night where they leave out the uppermost deck's chaise lounges after dark and turn off all possible ships lights for an hour or so. I bet there would be a lot of takers!

We tried for awhile to find the Southern Cross again from our balcony. Dad finally looked at the waves and realized our cabin was looking North at the time. Oops!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

South America Day 13: Plague Ship

I was up bright and early, showered and breakfasted and ready for the Falklands! I've been looking forward to today since we planned this trip, because the Falklands are cool.

1. Their money has penguins on it. I plan to collect some.

2. The islands are populated by about 2500 people and about 500,000 sheep. I want some of that wool!

Dad gave me a brilliant idea: I went to the Shore Excursion desk to see if anyone had cancelled the Rockhopper Penguin tour. Rockhopper Penguins are jaunty, petite penguins

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Photo : © Samuel Blanc / www.sblanc.com

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Photo : © Samuel Blanc / www.sblanc.com

who - as their name implies - hop around over rocks, crags, etc. on their windblown islands. Back home in Ohio when we were planning the trip, the price for the Rockhopper tour seemed a bit steep, but it seems much more reasonable today for some reason.

In any case, I checked with the desk, which wasn't open. I located a crew member, who sent me to the Stardust Lounge to wait and see if someone failed to show up - maybe I could get in on standby. The call for the penguin tour was for 8:45. I was there at around 8:15. I watched my odds shorten as the room slowly filled up, with passengers claiming their numbered tender tickets. At 9:15, there were six no-shows for the Rockhoppers! At 9:20 - sinking heart - all six wandered in. Drat and blast!

Disappointed, I went off to find Dad and located him hanging around the Atrium. We figured we'd just get tender tickets and go walk around the town, take in the landscape, have tea in a tea shop, etc. Then...

The captain came on the loudspeaker with an announcement: The Falkland Islands decline to let us land, due to the ongoing epidemic of gastroenteritis on board. I can't really blame them for not wanting to suffer through it - it was pretty nasty - but they are sacrificing about $40,000 in port fees not to mention all the ca$h we were planning to drop on tours, souvenirs, etc. Our only option was to put back out to sea, taking our contagion with us, and sail - slowly! - in the direction of Argentina, two days hence. We have become the Flying Dutchman.

These:

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represent our closest approach to the Falkland Islands. See those tiny, little black specks on the beaches? D'you think they could be penguins?