Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tales from Asia

10 Tips for a Porcelain Pit Stop
© 2008 Carol Celeste

Bathroom facilities in China resemble pit stops more than comfort stations. Hotels and attractions catering to foreigners boast western-style toilets but if you venture not-so-far afield eventually you'll encounter a local latrine. The preferred personal receptacle remains, by any other name, a hole in the ground, even if sometimes it is porcelain coated. It takes flexibility, ingenuity and strong leg muscles to achieve a smooth-flowing bathroom visit in China. Based on personal experience I offer these tips to increase the chances of a successful pit stop that keeps you out of the flow.

1. Practice 100 squats daily for 1 month before departure.
2. Leave jumpsuits at home.
3. Wear waterproof shoes.
4. Keep a nose plug handy.
5. Pack skirts and pants no longer than knee-length.
6. If you must wear long pants roll up the cuffs before entering the facility.
7. Carry toilet tissue at all times.
8. Pack a rope to tie to a sturdy fixture for pulling yourself up (check for a sturdy fixture before getting into position).
9. Triple your fiber intake.
10. If you have arthritic knees, stick with western facilities.

Your Favorite Travel Spot

It's a big world with so many places to explore I always have trouble deciding where to go next. I try to add to my list of places visited but sometimes a spot calls me back.

What is your favorite place? Do you try not to repeat or do you often return to a certain place?

I would return to every place I've ventured to, but my favorite country has to be Spain. Maybe because I have studied the history of Spain and colonization of Latin America it holds a special allure.

Share your pet travel destinations and the reasons why.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New Writing Site Design

Don't be fooled by the title Writing to Heal, Writing to Grow. It's all about personal writing, and travel writing is about as personal as writing gets.

I don't mean destination pieces, I mean telling how you feel and what you learn about the places and people of your adventures. The site is newly designed. Click on over and take a look.

If you haven't written about your travels yet, why not start now?

Tales from Antarctica

I see the background map I worked so hard to design drops down with long posts. If anyone knows how to lock a custom background in place, please let me know.

Happy travels!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Travel Tales Antarctica

When I made a goal of setting foot on every continent, the southern ice mass seemed out of reach. In that epoch, only scientists and government workers assigned to the South Pole were favored with access. But tourism invades everyplace eventually and my chance came to actually stay on the ice, not on a cruise ship as a mere spectator with brief bobbles in a Zodiac. This award-winning account has appeared in three anthologies.

This Gentoo pilfers a stone from a neighbor to remodel last year's nest before laying eggs.

Polar Attraction

© Carol Celeste All Rights Reserved.

"Phenomenal." "Fantastic." Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek "Cool." These are the comments I expected when I told people I was going to Antarctica. Instead I heard "Why?"  in tones that suggested an asylum would make a more fitting destination. Sir Charles Wright, a veteran of a Scott expedition, was asked decades later if he believed in an Antarctic addiction. His wistful reply: "Makes you feel as if you've swallowed a rainbow." I wanted to feel for myself. Ignoring baffled looks and more "Whys?" I booked a tour that included five days on the Ice bunking at a Chilean air force station.

Punta Arenas, Chile's springboard to Antarctica, provides a blustery waiting room for anxious travelers venturing south. Weather governs all aspects of the Antarctic visit with no guarantee. The first night in Punta Arenas, we are fitted for polar parkas and imitation fur-lined, water-proof boots, my cocoon for the next few days, with luck. All other clothing is our own responsibility. I bring mountaineering-quality long johns, glove and sock insulators, extreme weather polyester pants and mittens, a combination ski mask/visored cap. The need for this protection must be a message from Antarctica. I briefly wonder Why? myself.
The message board in the hotel lobby proves that Nature defends its territory. Bad weather forces cancellation of the morning's flight. Not until this moment does it occur to me  I might get this close without realizing my goal, an indescribable torture.
Finally, we board an aged, ski-equipped Hercules C-130.  Dressed for the destination, I resemble the Michelin Man and waddle like a penguin. We squeeze against each other on mesh seats suspended from metal rods in the front section of the whale-like plane and stuff our hand baggage at our feet. The back section of the plane holds supplies for the base. Antarctica holds no sustenance for humans, not even potable water in spite of all that ice.

Close quarters, dim light (portholes are too high to see out, perhaps a good thing),  harsh weather and old machinery don't squelch my spirits. I will soon join the ‘chosen few.’

Or will I? Halfway there the plane turns in a wide circle and word passes lip-to-ear over the thunderous engines that wind conditions at the base preclude landing. Antarctica's warning?

A good flying day arrives and we repeat the boarding process. The captain allows passengers into the cockpit mid-flight to observe the ceiling of instruments, the cotton ball view from the window and the radar screen displaying animated green and pink streaks. White fuzz hugging the cockpit obscures the nose of the lummoxy plane.

It isn't until I feel the skis plunk down, see the tail gate open to a fairy tale scene of white mounds and hear my feet crunch on packed ice that I believe I've finally reached my goal. This feeling is "Why" I came. No rainbow in sight, but my stomach flutters.

To say it is cold, windy, barren, white, ethereal, awe inspiring, does not convey the spirit of the place. The meanings of these words in the Antarctic context live in the imagination of those drawn to venture to this defiant land. A land whose artifacts rest in a museum of packed ice, whose architectural forms change with the wind, whose culture consists of outwitting intruders. A land offering an opaque window into the planet's distant past. The wonderland aura gives rise to an extraordinary sensation. Everyone in the group describes a spiritual effect. We are ‘chosen’ to witness the pot of gold.

The one hundred yard trek from the plane to the hotel is my first adventure. Visibility through a drape of ice crystals reaches to the fifth person ahead in our single file. Wind swirls top-ice into the air, dropping it like a snow geyser. I pull the camera from the protection of my Parka and turn back to shoot the plane. In those few seconds the person ahead of me becomes a ghostly shadow. I rush to catch up and avoid getting lost within minutes of arriving. A red stripe painted around the top of the beige "hotel" appears through the haze. A mound of slick ice forms a ramp to the meat freezer-style door. After settling in our rooms we rush to the communal facilities, luxurious compared to those used by trans-Antarctic expeditionists.

The wind dies and the geyser settles, revealing stunning ice mounds that pop against the sky like 3-D images. We fly in a twelve passenger Twin Otter around the rugged coast, over a churning sea speckled with white caps. An occasional ice berg reveals a fraction of its bulk. Not all ice is white. Millennia of pressure forcing air bubbles out of the ice causes light to refract, creating a turquoise tinge in strategic places. Jagged cliffs, rising straight up from the water like colossal mounds of whipping cream gird the dark sea. We pass over glaciers displaying a tangled grid of cracks and open crevasses formed as they inch their way to new topography. This is "Why."

When we land near the hotel, the Polar Star, the C-130 is gone from the air strip--a temporary scar scraped by snow plows. We remain hostage to the Ice until its return.  A helicopter flight takes us over snow-covered crags to a breeding cove inhabited by elephant seals. All the equipment is painted brilliant red, forming SOS beacons against the white. In spite of the dangers, I feel fearless exhilaration. Every blink brings into view sights I never imagined in my preparation and study. And they asked "Why?"

After we debark, the chopper disappears from of sight and sound to pick up the rest of our group. I pull the ski mask over my numbing nose but quickly lower it when breath fogs my eye glasses.

Waves lap a black pebble beach adorned with chunks of ice that form an uncut diamond necklace around the cove. Along the narrow strip of beach, whose snow blanket has already melted in early spring, lolls a harem of twenty elephant seals and a sole harem master. I feel at once like an intruder and an honored guest. Many of the cows have pups at their sides but only the bull reacts to our presence, his supremacy threatened by a pack of colorful bipeds only slightly more agile than he. His mouth opens wide beneath a trunk-like snout while loud warnings belch from a spongy pink throat. People actually wondered why I wanted to come here.

The adult seals are a mottled taupe color, their skin decorated with life's battle scars. The pups are velvety black inviting a cuddle forbidden by the rules of Antarctica. A few of the mothers look up with dark eyes or scratch a rut in coarse raisin sand with their chins as their gaze follows us in curiosity. Mostly they bask. The only excitement we encounter--other than the bull lumbering after one of the group who got too close while taking a picture, and the phantasmagorical sensation of being here--comes from two cows fighting over a pup. One of them has abandoned its own and is trying to pupnap another infant. The issue is settled by barking and chest butting. Legitimacy wins.

Further along the cove, a congregation of krill drifts up to shore. These petite, plankton-eating, crustaceans form the basis of the Antarctic food chain. As go the krill so goes the population of the Antarctic coast. If a krill shortage, either climatic or man-induced, forces the penguins from the area, the seals, whales and birds that feast on penguin chicks and eggs will follow. The waters surrounding the earth’s largest ice berg are not barren at all, but they easily could be.

One of the rules of Antarctica, at my host base, is that everything you bring must leave with you and everything you find must stay. I intend to respect this sensible regulation meant to maintain ecological balance. I want to preserve and protect this wonderland but the jewels  prove too tempting to resist. I stuff some white and rose-tinted quartz specimens along with a few lava pebbles in several of the pockets girding my parka.

Penguins provide entertainment on the second day, and like all other sites on Antarctica, getting to the rookery entails a bit of discomfort that the magic of the place eclipses. We reach the penguin rookery in Zodiacs, 15-foot rubber motorized boats that leave the body exposed from the buttocks up with only a nylon rope strung around the craft's top to grab for leverage. I begin the mile walk from the hotel to the dock wearing plastic fishing pants bought specifically to keep my polar clothing dry on the Zodiac ride. Cold soon turns the plastic brittle and wind crumbles it like potato chips. I stuff the bits in a pocket for later disposal.
When asked about the absence of life jackets, one of the pilots assures us in water this cold death will beat the Zodiac to anyone falling overboard. We all board like insects crawling into a Venus flytrap.

The base is situated in a cove, protected from the heavier winds of the open water. After clearing the relative shelter we bounce for nearly an hour. Our outer clothing collects sea spray. My knuckles ache from gripping the nylon rope. I let loose twice to take pictures; of an angular-shaped ice berg with a perfectly round wind-blown hole through its center, and of a group of penguins porpoising beside the Zodiacs. Our guide says the penguins rush to escape hungry seals. They wait off shore for one of their comrades to be caught, then, while the seal noshes, the others high-tail it, literally, to the safety of land.

It's early in the season; only a few thousand penguins congregate, and no chicks have hatched. Disappointment is overpowered by the magic of what is there. In spite of the urgency and isolation of their lives, these penguins show no interest in us. They seem to regard us as oversized cousins. We certainly waddle like them in our bulky clothing.

On our return, we tour the Chilean installation, more of a scientific than a military post. Meteorology is the primary interest at this base, the search for that illusive ozone layer.

The buildings are metal modules. A greenhouse supplies a few fresh vegetables and the bank presents us with a check for $1 million good only on Antarctica. A souvenir shop sells mementos from the bottom of the world. Proceeds from the shop and tourist lodging help fund the base. They defy nature by inhabiting the uninhabitable. The warning remains unheeded.

Our last night on the Ice, the Chilean Air Force hosts a party, ostensibly for the guests but the hosts benefit more. Officials from the nearby Russian and Chinese stations snowmobile over, and base families entertain with folk dances and songs, followed by a long night of drinking and conversation. We are a tired lot, unaccustomed to the rigors of Antarctic foot travel and another trek is scheduled for morning. Our hosts outlast us by several hours. I hear them party from my room and hope our pilot for the return trip isn't among the revelers.

The last day more than any other answers the "Why?" I've been asked so many times. We hike over pristine snow fields. I convince myself no one else has seen this sight before and I may be right. There are no repeat vistas on Antarctica. Wind and lighting constantly change the topography.

Walking in deep ice is like walking on quicksand. Your legs may sink to mid-calf with one step, knee-deep the next. Or you may sink many feet below the surface and become one of those forbidden things left behind. I step into existing footprints assuming that the ice there has already sunk as far as it will go. It doesn't always work. The most treacherous spots are steely patches of solid ice, dangerous to cross without cleats. Who wouldn't want to experience this?

Anxious to explore, I move ahead of the group. Suddenly my toes rest inches from the edge of a fifty foot drop. The white tones blend from the distance, giving the illusion of a continuous expanse. One more step and I'd have left more than footprints behind. Looking back on my pock marks I wonder how soon the wind will erase the defilement.

I sweat inside my layered packaging, condensation veils my camera lens when I extract it for a frequent shot. Yet the tiny exposed areas of my cheeks turn numb. The ornithologist guide spots a flock of yellow-beaked pintail ducks through his binoculars. It is the first recorded sighting of this bird on the continent, he says, and it belongs to me. The rainbow within shimmers.

As we fly back to Punta Arenas, the back of the C-130 packed with our dirty linen and garbage, I reflect on the experience. The prospect of overdevelopment seems as remote as the continent. How can man conquer this extreme side of nature?

Antarctica presents a dichotomous anachronism. It boasts an awesome splendor at best, a horrifying menace at worst. It beckons with beauty and repels with brawn. It suffers the most violent wind on earth, savors an eerily halcyon aura when still. It holds 70% of the earth's fresh water but gets less rain than the Sahara. It is a sno-cone desert embraced by superbly fertile seas. It nourishes the mind and soul yet defies the body to survive. And they asked me "Why?”

In The Edge of the World, Charles Neider explained the Antarctic addiction: "Even while you're there the place sometimes seems like a fantastic dream. After you've left it you want to return to make sure it really happened to you . . . ."

Antarctica's isolation and wildness forge a spiritual connection between visitor and nature, in spite, or perhaps because, of her efforts to repel us. My footprints remain buried in the ice along with traces of the earth’s climatic history, but something of that special place dwells more permanently within me. Polar attraction still draws. The warning remains unheeded. Only by going there, responsibly, can we learn things from nature’s southern archives that may salvage the earth for human occupation. I am torn between the desire to explore this enigma of nature and to preserve its pristine mantel. The ice age left the rest of the earth millions of years ago. Thankfully, Antarctica hasn't kept up with the times. I long to swallow more ice-crusted rainbows.
© 2010 Carol Celeste All rights reserved.