Southern Exposure: Brazil

The cruise out of Buenos Aires began on  Saturday, November 14  at 6:00 p.m.  In  early morning, Sunday, November 17, we  arrived at the port city of Santos, Brazil. The two days at sea were stressful as always—having to choose between  so many breakfast and lunch options, which events and activities to attend, the terrible choice between whether to order a cappuccino or latte, or a donut or muffin, Cutty on the rocks or a martini before dinner, and what to say to someone at dinner whom you have never met and will never see again, without mentioning Trump or Brexit. I mean it is tough, but we are slogging through it.

Brazil is the Big Kahuna of the South American Continent. It is slightly larger in land area than the U.S. and has a population of over 200 million and is larger than all the other countries in South America combined. It is also the home of the engine that pumps oxygen into the air we breathe. No nation will be more important than Brazil in determining the future of life on this planet.

Coming into Santos at sunrise was quite a treat with the bright sun casting long shadows and creating a dreamy atmosphere as the Zaandam glided along a narrowing channel leading into one of the largest ports in South America. Santos is only about 70 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city with over 12 million, and is its closest port. The city of Santos has a  population of only around a half million but seems a lot larger. It wraps around the base of several tall, green mountains that experience rain forest conditions during the rainy season, which is happening now. Luxury, high rise apartments and expensive hotels line the longest urban beach in Brazil (considerably longer than Rio’s Copa Cabana or Ipanema). Behind those impressive buildings there are some fancy single family neighborhoods and then on the mountainsides, informal settlements and make-shift neighborhoods decorated by colorful graffiti with streets lined with trash and houses made of decaying wood and tin roofs, stacked on top of one another. 

The excursion for the day was a bit disappointing, I suppose largely because there are few typical tourists attractions and few tourists go there. We saw  an aquarium, a coffee exchange, and the soccer stadium/museum of the Santos futbol team, which Pele played for and is considered one of the consistently best teams in the world. On the way back in the bus, our guide apologized for taking us to the soccer stadium since apparently several in the group had complained but went on to add that while you might not like futbol, you can’t appreciate Brazil or South America without understanding how much futbol means to the culture in this part of the world. She added that times are especially hard right now in Brazil; and while she did not want to get into politics, the politics in her country  now, she feels, are very scary. She was referring to Jair Bolsonaro, the Trump-like president who was elected in 2018 on a populist platform and among other things has encouraged massive development in the rain forest. Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a climate change denier. You could say that Bolsonaro  holds the whole cards on the climate front. So goes the rain forest goes the planet Earth.

Since Brazil became a republic in 1889 due to a military coup against Emperor Pedro II, it has had three dictatorships and three democratic periods. Some are afraid that Brazil is moving toward another dictatorship.

The  Zaandam cast off late afternoon just as the sun was setting and we were treated to the most stunning sunset of the entire cruise. We arose at 4:30 a.m. the next day on Monday, November 18– Embry’s birthday– so we could witness arriving at Rio de Janeiro, considered by Kevin, the tour director on the ship, to be the most dramatic and most beautiful city in the world. As we got our first glimpse at dawn, the silhouette of the city appeared below the towering peaks—Sugar Loaf, the Christ Redeemer statue, Copa Cobana and Ipanema beaches—there it all was in front of us like a dream.

November 18 was important for another reason: This was the last day of the cruise. At 7:30 the Zaandam was tied up, and we passengers departed to go our separate ways. We were told that Brits accounted for almost 35 percent of the passengers, Canadians 30 percent, Americans 25 percent, and the rest from Australia, New Zealand, and other countries but mainly Germans. We found the 30 or 40 people we dined or conversed with to be interesting, engaged and polite. Most had cruised a lot more than we had, and most seemed older than us though it is hard to tell about age. Also there were a whole bunch who appeared to me by the size of their girth  to have eaten their way through too many cruises, but, hey, what do I know?

The odds of seeing any of them again are low.

We said good bye to the two Indonesian young men who had taken such good care of our room. It felt almost like the end of a summer camp experience.

So did it feel good for the cruise to end or were we anxious for more? 

The former, thank you, but I will have to say that I do not think it could have been much better. The downside of a trip like this is that during the days at sea, cabin fever can set in—which if truth be told, is probably the main motivation behind my blog posts. Also the exposure to the different countries is too short and impressionistic. The best you can hope for is a taste and perhaps an insight here and there. But what are the alternatives? At our ages, trying to see this extraordinary continent by car is out of the question. So a small taste is better than no taste. And I seem to have developed an interest in this continent far exceeding anything I anticipated. It has been sitting here right under our noses and has a history so different from ours. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What is going to happen next? These are the questions that I am asking after 35  days at sea, eight countries, and  covering  over eight thousand nautical miles. 

But the adventure is not over. Four days on our own in Rio, two  at Iguazu Falls and then three more in Buenos Aires still to come.

Next post: Rio.

Southern Exposure 17: Argentina, First Stop

The Zaandam docked in the massive container port in Buenos Aries before dawn on  November 14. Since we will be here only a day, we  plan to fly back to Buenos Aries after the cruise is over for a few more days. It is kind of hard to learn everything you need to know about a city in one day with an urban core of over 4 million and a metro area of 14 million. It will take two days, maybe even three. Which, of course, points to the principle dilemma of a tour like this. In a best case situation you are skimming the surface. One who suggests that you can even begin to grasp the significance of a country, any country, in one or two days, of course, is a fool. This personality type is illustrated  in the “Howell Personality Matrix,” which demonstrates that there are really only four personality types: smart and arrogant, dumb and humble, smart and humble and dumb and arrogant. The world traveler that thinks he or she can figure out a country in a day or two is Category Four in spades: dumb and arrogant. Count me in.

But on the other hand I recall an experienced world traveler make this comment when we were touring India a decade ago: “You can spend a day or two in India, maybe a week, and conclude that you have a pretty good idea of what the country is all about. You can spend a month or two in  India and start to have doubts. You can spend a year or two and realize you are on shaky ground, or a decade or two and have no earthly idea what this country they call India is all about.”

Now that you have been forewarned, you can put my first impressions in context: Buenos Aires is world class. As Hank’s comments point out in my last post, the city feels more European than any other city in the Americas, North or South. It boasts the world’s widest boulevard with 24 lanes, many separated by slim, green promenades. Some have estimated it takes the average pedestrian over an hour to get from one side to the other, a bit exaggerated but impressive just the same. The city has its green parks and lush gardens with the blue-blossomed jacaranda trees in full bloom, plazas, its “Obelisk,” which looks like the Washington Monument, monumental government buildings, luxury hotels, ancient, elegant apartment buildings with fancy shops on the ground level, restaurants, cafes, museums, and the bumper-to-bumper traffic you would expect. The sidewalks are packed with pedestrians. Clusters of 50 and 60-story, sparkling skyscrapers now dot the skyline. Energy and vitality are ubiquitous. 

Its mix of old and new remind me a bit of  Melbourne or Sydney or Barcelona.

There is a heavy Italian presence here due to immigration and a passion for the tango and for futbol, the two national pastimes. 

Like all of the other countries in Latin America, Argentina has had its ups and downs. The two eras you hear most about are the Peron Era—especially the importance of  Evita—and the oppressive dictatorship that followed when thousands of artists, journalists, intellectuals, professors, clergy and supporters of the opposition disappeared, never to be seen again. This period—from 1976 to 1983 marked a low point in the country’s rich history.   Financial issues and near bankruptcy doomed the country following that in the early 2000s, but were resolved by 2010. Recent years have been strong by comparison with a fairly robust economy and an expansion of the social safety net. Storm clouds, however, appear to be forming again on the horizon, as inflation is running rampant, and concerns mount as to whether the country can afford to  continue to provide generous social benefits. Issues of income disparities are surfacing here as elsewhere.  International finance experts  probably have Argentina on their Watch List. More will follow when we return to the country in about a week.

The story of the day was the drug deal. Well, it was not really a drug deal, but it sure felt like one. We worked out an arrangement with the owner of the Airbnb where we will be staying when we return for us to leave one big piece of luggage with him now so that we could travel light in Brazil. That meant we had to go through customs with the bag, then flag a cab to take us to the apartment. When we got to the customs area, a workman pointed us to a door to the right, which opened into a huge, dark warehouse area with no one present. So there we were standing alone in a vast, deserted area wondering what to do next. It was exactly the kind of setting where two guys in trench coats, wearing fedoras and dark glasses, and carrying concealed weapons come out of the woodwork with a suitcase full of cash. 

We looked around, spotted an exit sign in the distance and bolted for it before the gangsters could catch up with us. We thought we had made it out until apprehended by the authorities, handcuffed and interrogated in the police department. No, this is fake news, but it sure felt like that could have happened. All that did happen is that the port patrol guys ran our bags through the x-ray machine, smiled and wished us luck.

As they say here in Argentina, no problema.

And speaking of fake news, yes, we are following, when we can, on the ship’s fuzzy television, the live impeachment drama on MSNBC where we know we can get totally unbiased news (also the only network available to us that is carrying it). When you follow Mr. Trump, you can’t help making the comparison to the scores of dictators that have left their mark of tyranny and oppression on every single country on this continent. You ask how could this could have happened?   How could a continent which is so close to the U.S. have had such an unstable, tragic, and different history from our  own? Why have we in the U.S. never had to deal with anything like the dictators and scoundrels that they have had?

 Well, guess what, we may not be so different after all. Trump is made out of the same cloth as these South American despots and if successful could make us part of the club. The Republican Party has caved, having morphed into a personality cult. The big question is whether our Constitution—and our voting public– will prevent  Trump from taking us down the road to disaster that has plagued so many nations to our south. 

Jury out.

Stay tuned. On to Brazil! 

Southern Exposure 16: Uruguay

After two days in chilly weather and fresh breezes the Zaandam arrived in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, on November 13, docking at seven a.m. When we opened the door to our balcony to welcome in the early morning sun, it felt balmy. At last, back to mild weather!

Now to be honest, I knew little about Uruguay before we arrived. Actually that is incorrect. I knew nothing about Uruguay except that it was located somewhere  in Latin America. After almost a full month at sea, covering several thousand miles and visiting so far some seven countries, I am embarrassed to admit how I ignorant I have been not only not to know anything about South America, but, frankly, not to care. In that regard I suppose I am not all that different from most “Americans,” as we call ourselves, an arrogant term we use to describe  the United States, which accounts for only a portion of the Americas and not even a majority. Carly Simon’s song, “You’re So Vain” immediately comes to mind. We in the U.S. tend to think that every song is about us.

Uruguay poses a particular challenge because it is so small, the second smallest in South America, with a population of only 3.5 million or about half as many as live in the Washington metro area. And more than half the population—over 2 million people– live in  in Montevideo. The country is noted for its lush, mostly flat interior and its beautiful beeches along the shore of the Rio de la Plata, where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. A little over a hundred miles upstream is Buenos Aires, our destination the next day. Our excursion took us into the town center, the old town, and along a vast ocean front with white beaches lined with fancy high rise apartment buildings. We also spent time inching our way along narrow roads through single family neighborhoods with large houses and manicured lawns. While parts of the city are showing their age, dating back into the 1700s, overall it was in pretty good shape and definitely has a charm. The street  life seemed more European than, say Lima, or Valparaiso, but  it is hard to say exactly why. One reason may be that over 88% of the population is considered white, in contrast to countries like Peru or Ecuador where it is much lower. After the bus tour Embry and I ate our first meal of (delicious) Argentine/Uruguayan beef and walked through the old town area with its small shops, cobblestone streets, street art and, of course, graffiti. 

What is most instructive is the country’s reputation as the most progressive and stable in South America. Excuse me? As I scan its history on line, I note the same period of Spanish oppression, then a period of brief independence in the early Nineteenth Century, then a period of authoritarian rule, then a long period of stability and democracy from the early 1900s to 1973 when there was a coup, martial law, curtailment of the press, and jail for dissenters, lasting until the mid 1980s. Does this sound like an enlightened, progressive historical past? The answer is that compared to most of the other Latin American countries, well, yes. There have been fewer killings, less brutality; and since the mid 1980s, the country has been able to hang on to its fragile democracy and pass a lot of progressive legislation. Everyone is required to vote, freedom of the press is guaranteed, gay marriage is allowed, the social safety net is pretty strong, and selling cannabis is legal. The fruits of the most liberal democracy in Latin America have been a relatively large middle class, reduced income inequality, and robust dialogue on national issues. The country has won a bunch of awards from the United Nations. So let’s hear it for Uruguay!

But what also stands out about the Uruguay story is the relatively low bar it has jumped over. It has experienced the same ups and downs as every other Latin American country-just not as extreme and for the time being it is holding it own. You definitely get the idea that  what it is holding onto is a gentle  thread which could snap at any time.

So what is it about these countries located not all that far south of us that have had unrelenting changes of fortune, that have experienced ups and downs often resulting in thousands of deaths and suffering beyond anything experienced in the U.S. except for our Civil War?

While we from the U.S. don’t pay much attention to what happens in South America, one good friend does—Hank  Ackerman, a retired journalist,   whose career with the Associated Press took him all over South America as bureau chief in Lima, Buenos Aires, and Caracas. Here are some comments he made  regarding my question to  him as to what to expect in Uruguay and Argentina:

The history of Argentina and Uruguay is much different from the rest of South America. Boiling it down, Argentina and Uruguay were an afterthought to the Spaniard conquistadores since neither had gold or silver — just a vast amount of agricultural land and a small population of natives. So, the two countries only became of importance when wheat and later beef could be profitably produced for the European markets.

 Starting in the 1850s, railroads largely financed by European concerns, principally the British, began to be pushed across the Pampas opening up the market for exports. The railroads were largely built by Italian labor, accounting for the extraordinary influence of Italian language and culture in Argentina. Argentines speak Spanish with a decidedly Italian flavor, and Argentines for all of the above reasons were viewed in the rest of South America as being different. And, with the huge volumes of exports in the 1890’s, the phrase “rich as an Argentine” became widespread. As the nation grew wealthier, its ties to Europe ( and certainly to Great Britain) became stronger such that Buenos Aires looks and feels like a European city more than any other metropolis in the New World. 
When you get to Brazil, you’ll see why it under the Dutch and then Portugal developed in a different way largely based on the huge import of slaves to work the massive sugar cane and cotton planta
tions in the northeast. 

Thanks, Hank. Hope there is more where this came from.

Next stop: Buenos Aires.

Southern Exposure 15: Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands

Ah, Cape Horn, the southern most tip of Tierra del Fuego, the Holy Grail of long distance sailing and circumnavigation! The Zaandam rounded the Horn on November 9 at just after seven in the morning under gray skies, drizzle, and near freezing temperatures. Winds were not howling—only around 20 knots, and the waves of the following seas were manageable compared to what we had experienced a few days before. Just as we passed the tip of the cape, the ship’s horn sounded a long blast, and in the crowded Crow’s Nest the hundreds of passengers who had gotten up early to witness this historic moment, watched in reverent silence.

 So just how big a deal was this?

Short answer: not much. Just anther big, gray rock with jagged edges, rising just over a thousand feet into the sky. A small house and chapel are positioned at one end where there is also a famous statue of an albatross. The island is on Chilean land, not Argentine, and it is staffed 24/7/365 where a lighthouse attendant is on duty for three months at a time. If the island was not at the end of the Earth, few would even know that it existed.

But wait: Being at the end of the Earth is what this is all about. Starting shortly after the time when the elusive passage to the Far East was discovered and rounded by a Dutchman in 1616 , it  transformed world trade. Between that time and 1914 when the Panama Canal first opened, it was the preferred route for trade between the East and West and safer than the Straight of Magellan, which is too narrow for a vessel under sail to manage easily. Over a thousand ships have been lost trying to make the rounding. Over 1,500 sailors have perished. This is a sailor’s graveyard. You tell  someone who has rounded under sail that it is not a big deal and see how far you get.

Tradition has it that any sailor who makes the rounding earns the right to wear an earring in whichever ear was closest to the Horn (East to West–the right ear– is the upwind and more challenging rounding.) and to eat dinner with one leg resting on the table. If he (or she) rounds both Cape  Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, it is two earrings and two legs on the table.

So yes, this is a big deal—even for us docile passengers sipping our morning coffee and seated in the cozy Crow’s Nest, peering out the window. And we actually were lucky to be able to round in fairly decent weather, not the experience of many vessels. Gales are present about ten percent of the time in summer and a third of the time in winter when it is not unusual to experience wave heights of over 100 feet. You try telling anyone on any vessel that has crossed under those conditions that it is no big deal and see how far you get. We passengers aboard the Zaandam were lucky on November 9, 2019.

When the horn of the Zaandam blasted, we were suddenly in the Atlantic Ocean. Good bye to those huge Pacific swells and frigid currents and as far as I was concerned, good riddance—except, of course, there was no magical change in conditions as the ship changed course and headed northeast toward the Falkland Islands.   After another full day at sea we arrived at Port Stanley– the capital of the Falkland Islands and its only settlement– anchoring almost alone except for one other cruise ship about our size.

Talk about isolated! The Falkland Islands consist of two larger islands and several hundred smaller ones. Antarctica is 800 miles to the south, Argentina about 350 miles to the west. The total local population is under 3,000, the vast majority living in Port Stanley. If there is a tree on this lonely, desolate island, I did not see it. Outside the port area where several hundred modest houses are clustered, there are rocky mountains, most under a thousand feet, and vast areas of open tundra and grasslands—perfect for sheep and, as it turns out, penguins. The Falklands is home to over 500,000 of the former and more than a million of the latter.

I have never been to Scotland but imagine that part of the world to look a lot like what we saw in the Falkland Islands, which may explain why the island is part of the British Commonwealth.  It was not until the early Nineteenth Century before anyone lived on the island; but as shipping grew, it was  ideally positioned to assist, provision, and repair  vessels coming to and from Cape Horn. People started moving there, mainly from Great Britain. 

During the early years several countries claimed sovereignty over the islands including Argentina and the U.K. This dispute went on for decades as both stubbornly claimed sovereignty  even though the people who settled there were English speakers. If you did not know where you were, you would swear you were in an English or Scottish village. The dispute continued on again and off again for more decades until the famous war of 1982 when the Argentine navy invaded the Falklands on April 2 and occupied the islands, declaring the Falklands belonged  solely to Argentina. That lasted for only 74 days, the time it took for the British to get down to the territory and retaliate. In a matter of days the Brits arrived with superior air support, British warships, and several thousand British troops. Two and a half months later the Argentines surrendered and withdrew, their tail between their legs.  Several civilians and almost a thousand military personnel had lost their lives—two times as many Argentines as Brits. 

The worst part of the legacy of this war were the  more than thirty thousand land mines that the Argentines buried in an effort to halt the British invasion. Though most land mines have now been removed or disarmed, some remain including  mines still buried on some of the island’s most beautiful, white sand beeches, making them off limits.

The 1982 war continues to be a very big deal for the residents of the islands. Several statues and memorials have been erected  in Stanley, and there was much talk about it from people we talked with or listened to while we were on land. Several years ago when there was a referendum in the Falklands regarding preference for rule by the U.K. versus Argentina, sticking with the  Brits won 99.8% of the vote. Following the vote, two of the three who voted for Argentina later recanted explaining that they did not understand the question. Case closed, at least for now, or so it appears. Argentina, however, still refuses to acknowledge the validity of the Falklands as a British territory, and U.N. resolutions continue to call for negotiations between the two countries. There are 1,500 British military permanently stationed on the islands just in case.

Despite its starkness, there is a beauty about this place, and you definitely get the idea that people who live here love it. Though it is hundreds of miles north of where we were at the southern tip of South America, the climate is similar with high temperatures the day we visited not getting above the mid 40s. So the decisive factor would surely not appear to be the weather. Perhaps there is something appealing about the isolation and being part a small but stalwart community, hunkering down and surviving the challenging conditions. Wimps need not apply.

And they have a role model: the penguins! There are over a million of these stoical creatures on the island. While Embry  went on a hike,  I joined one of the many penguin tours, this one to a remote location accessible only via four wheel drive vehicles.  I boarded a minibus with about 20 other tourists (Most were Brits from the other cruise ship anchored in the harbor.). We rode for about a half hour  along vast, empty fields of rock and tundra and then turned onto a dirt road where we hopped off and piled into five Land Rovers, which sloshed and bounced along through pastures where sheep were grazing alongside their small lambs. About fifteen minutes later we arrived at Bluff Cove, where there were several Gentoo Penguin rookeries and one King Penguin rookery. All totaled I would guess there  were several hundred birds nesting and half again as many standing. The ones standing would occasionally poke their beaks into the air, make a kind of gasping noise, flap their arm-like wings, then calm down and wobble around a bit, before returning to their position next to their mate, awaiting their turn on the nest. 

Now is this a hard life or what? Sitting or standing there in the  cold  waiting for an egg to hatch and then risking your life in the frigid  ocean searching for fish to bring home to your mate, while realizing you could be lunch for a hungry sea lion just waiting for you to jump in? Are they having a good time? Do they actually enjoy this? What about when the gale force winds come or when it starts to snow? How do they do this, day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime?

Well, hats off to them! Like the human residents of the Falkland Islands, they tough it out, hunker down and live the life they were programmed to live as best as they can. In that regard you could say they are kind of like us humans—except a whole lot cuter.

At the end of the day, the Zaandam weighed anchor and headed west. In two days we will arrive in Montevideo, Uruguay. We are now on the last leg—only a week left on the cruise.

Southern Exposure 14: Ushuaia, Argentina

Around noon on Friday, November 8, under mostly blue skies, and with chilly temperatures and strong, gusty winds, we pulled into the port of Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost  town on the planet Earth. At a latitude of about 60 degrees, Ushuaia is about the same distance from the equator as southern Alaska or Iceland. The remote town has a population of a little over 100,000  and is situated on a hill below a snowy mountain towering over 5,000 feet above the  Beagle Channel, leading to the Pacific Ocean and Cape Horn, over a hundred  miles due south. The town, which has a definite alpine feel to it, seems more European than the Chilean cities we have visited, with its colorful, mid-rise buildings and few overt signs of poverty. The closest port to the South Pole, Ushuaia is where many expeditions to Antarctica originate, and two of these smaller cruising ships were docked near us. 

The highlight of the afternoon was our excursion aboard a large catamaran to several tiny islands– more like very large, desolate rocks– to observe scores of sea lions basking in the sun, and one large colony of Imperial Cormorants. The scenery was stunning with snow-covered mountains all around us and whitecaps decorating the choppy, blue waters. The last few days have been all about extraordinary natural beauty and pristine wilderness. The Beagle Channel was a fitting conclusion to almost a week of wonder.

The highlight of the evening was Che Guevara. Remember him? The infamous South American revolutionary from Argentina, who was a key participant in the Cuban Communist Revolution in the 1950s, and in the 1960s was killed, according to most reports, by the CIA. The Motorcycle Diaries, a 2004-acclaimed, coming-of-age film, was the ship’s movie of the day. Based on the journal that Che wrote when he was a 23-year old medical student about a motorcycle adventure, riding with his buddy through several South American countries in 1952, it is not the typical movie you would expect to see on a cruise ship. More of an art flick than a popular movie, it paints a very sympathetic portrait of Che, who grew up in a comfortable, middle class family and became a revolutionary mainly because of the glaring societal inequities he witnessed on the road trip. 

The big takeaway for me was how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The inequities that made such an impression on Che are still present throughout South America and the world. In fact in some respects they are getting worse. Communism is no longer the silver bullet it was thought to be by some intellectuals and idealists in the early part of the last century. In fact you could argue that   Communism not only failed to deliver, it made things worse. And the inequities remain.  Life is just not fair. There is too much suffering. Yet there are big question marks as to where we go from here. 

And you don’t have to go far to see glaring inequities. Just look in the mirror.  Here we are on a fancy cruise ship, in what could easily be described as Exhibit A of  over-the-top, self-indulgent living. I would argue that few of us passengers on this cruise ship “deserve” this experience. Few  have “earned” it. It is not our “reward for success.” It is due mostly to luck and circumstance—what country we were born in, what kind of family we were born into, how we were treated as infants and toddlers and what kind of support we got growing up. It is due to the education we received, who our friends were,  the mentors we had, the status  of our physical  and mental health , the kinds of jobs available to us, and the opportunities that came our way. Sure, we had to make something of these opportunities, but still….

Now take a look at the 500 persons on this ship who are not passengers but are here to take care of the 1,400 people who are—to keep us safe, entertained, enriched, comfortable, and happy.

When Embry attended the captain’s talk today, there were a bunch of questions to the captain about the treatment of the crew, especially the line employees at the bottom of the food chain—those who clean our rooms, prepare our food, serve it to us, and keep the ship going. They are mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines with a sprinkling from other, mostly Asian countries. These people are courteous and polite, always greet you with a smile and also, as far as I can tell, do what they are supposed to do and do it well. How much they get paid was not disclosed, but surely it is not a lot. What was disclosed is that a 70-hour workweek for them is not unusual. (Apparently there are international regulations that prevent workweeks over 90 hours. Yes, that’s 90!) And the irony is that most of these workers on this ship will tell you they are the lucky ones.

This, of course, is just one example of  low hanging fruit on the inequity scale. But if you think about it, the low hanging fruit is everywhere, all the time. For Che Guevara the answer was a revolution, in fact a violent revolution. Some today may continue to argue that only a violent revolution will level the playing field. As one  who vigorously  would not agree, I also have to admit that I do not have a simple or compelling answer. And if I am honest, I will admit that while I should probably feel guilty about being among the privileged few who   are able to go on a cruise like this, I am enjoying myself immensely. It takes a movie like Motorcycle Diaries to remind me of the way the world really is and that looking the other way is not the answer either.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Southern Exposure 13: Chilean Fiords, Part 2

It is now Friday, November 8, and this marks our 23rd day aboard the Zaandam. For the past five days we have been coasting along in the fiords  except for one brief stopover at Punta Arenas, the southernmost town in Chile at the 52nd parallel or about where Winnipeg, Canada, is in the Northern Hemisphere. The weather has been pretty consistently inconsistent the whole time. One minute you are fogged in and can only see silhouettes of mountains at best. The next minute the sun peaks through, the water sparkles, and snowcapped peaks tower into the heavens above you. Then a rain shower comes, then a snow shower, and then suddenly the sky is blue again, and the cycle repeats itself. It was like this  the entire time. The experience is mesmerizing. The spectacular scenery  is never the same, always changing, always surprising you. In fact over the entire fiord experience I have spent most of the time just marveling and taking photographs as we cruise along. The big decisions are do I  marvel from our balcony or the library with wide windows or the Crow’s Nest or the open aft deck. Tough choices. About the only thing that remains constant are the chilly temperatures—highs in the low 40s—and the brisk winds at 25 knots with higher gusts but ameliorated by the protection we have in the narrow channel. 

Why doesn’t the word get out about this extraordinary natural wonder? Why isn’t it on the Top 10 List? Why isn’t it high on everyone’s bucket list?

One of the most amazing things is just how isolated this space is. There is no sign anywhere of any human activity—no houses, no boat docks, no visible paths or roads, no indication than any human has ever set foot on the steep slopes at the edge of the channel. Except for the passage through the Straight of Magellan leading into the town of Punta Arenas, we have seen a total of only six vessels—two tramp steamers, two fishing boats and one partially sunken freighter.  We have seen a few seagulls, cormorants, and a few albatross, but not as many as you might expect. So where is everybody, you ask. You get the feeling that time has been rolled back eons, to a time before there was any human life on the planet, even before there was any animal life. So, you think, this is the way it all looked way back when, way back before we humans had our opportunity to leave our mark. Or perhaps it is a scene out of the future, when we humans are long gone, having left behind a mixed legacy.

Besides peering out of the ship’s windows or shivering on our balcony or the aft deck, we have continued to do the things people do on cruises—enjoying the food and meeting interesting fellow passengers at  the evening dinners from all over the U.S. or Canada or the UK or Germany or wherever, doing our walks around the deck when weather permits, enjoying a cocktail at one of the ship’s many bars, attending the daily, classical music concerts by two gifted, young musicians, a pianist and a violist, or taking in a movie or a show or a lecture about what we will be seeing. Getting cabin fever is a bit of a risk on a long cruise, but on this leg we have been saved by the views.

At Punta Arenas, a back woods port of around 120,000, the Zaandam  paused long enough to  permit excursions during the day. Via a speedy catamaran, we joined an excursion to a small, flat island with over 30,000 Magdela Penguins (of which we saw maybe a hundred) and probably even more huge seagulls. Quite impressive cute little fellows and nice to get off the ship and stretch our legs. Late in the day, the ship departed again, headed toward Argentina where we will anchor at the world’s southernmost town, and then on to Cape Horn, which we should arrive at around six a.m. tomorrow, then toward the Falkland Islands.

Guest Blog by Embry

Joe has kindly offered me the opportunity to do a “guest blog,” while we are going through the Chilean Fjords.  I’m sure he will soon be writing to you about the beauty of this remote part of the world.

In the meantime, I am going to write about the thing that impressed me most soon after we got on the ship. That is the prevalence of older couples.  It immediately struck me that we were surrounded by people who looked a lot like us.  This is not what I am used to in Washington, D.C. or most other places we go these days.  I was shocked!  Where did all these people come from?  At the risk of sounding totally politically incorrect, the preponderance of people on the ship look to be older “plain vanilla” types (ie. heterosexual, white couples). They walk around just like we do, holding hands and (looking to be) comfortable just being together for 33 days with not much to do. 

Quite a few years ago Joe and I were invited to the Washington Cathedral to have our marriage blessed among others who had been married 25+ years or more.  At that time (at about age 60) I felt very young, and expected to be surrounded by really old people who had been married for ages and ages. To my shock and surprise, Joe and I (who had at that time been married about 40 years) were called up among the longest marriages in the Cathedral.  That really set me to thinking about what the ingredients of a long marriage consist of.  I concluded it involves lot of luck (to have found the right person, and persevered through some hard times together), to have been blessed with good health, and to have married young.  We were in our early twenties when we married, and during our generation many of those early marriages did not survive. I came away from that service feeling both blessed by the Bishop and blessed by our God-given fortune to have such a (generally) happy and long-lived marriage.  Now, over 10 years later, we will soon celebrate 54 years together.

As I got acclimated to the boat and thought about our fellow shipmates, I began to realize that we were among a lot of people who look and act a lot like we do. It is not surprising that folks who want to spend a fair amount of money to be with someone for 33+ days must be:  retired with the time to do it (therefore aged 60+); relatively prosperous; and happily partnered.  So there was a selection process going that lead to this situation.  Still, it also made me forecast that we were to have some boring times ahead when we met and talked to our fellow shipmates over dinner.  

I am happy to report that the conversations we have over dinner are anything but boring. While many of the couples we sit with are in the “plain vanilla” category, they come from many countries and walks of life.  We have heard fascinating stories of their travels and their past experiences pursuing a variety of occupations.  They come from many countries (mostly the U.S., Canada and Europe).  And, while you have to look a little harder for them, we have met people of a variety of skin colors, some gay couples, and lots of single people (mainly older women). 

Two books I am reading on the trip have given me insights into what makes up a long and happy marriage.  In Don Quixote (LONG but good), written at a time when most marriages were arranged, Cervantes says, “Love and natural inclination readily blind those eyes of the mind that are so necessary in making life’s important decisions; and when it comes to choosing a mate, there is especial danger of going astray, and great caution and the grace of Heaven are needed if one is to be guided aright.“ So true!  I am also reading First Family:  Abigail and John Adams by Joe Ellis. He says he wrote this dual biography to explore the “…startling capacity for a man and a woman—husband and wife—to sustain their love other a lifetime filled with daunting challenges.”  It is reassuring to me to learn that, in our secular world where marriages do not receive as much support from society as they did in the past, we are not alone in this quest to sustain a long-term partnership throughout a lifetime.  Did I mention that I have proposed a voyage around Africa (taking two months)?  Joe is skeptical, but thinking about it.

Southern Exposure 12: The Chilean Fiords, Part 1

On Sunday, November 3, the Zaandam departed the San Antonio harbor in the late afternoon in brisk winds and heavy seas. Our latitude was about 45 degrees, right in the middle of what sailors call the Roaring Forties, where the wind howls most of the time– the kind of weather we were expecting. The sun was out, however, and the sea was sparkling. As the huge rollers hit the cliffs near the harbor, their spray reached 40 or 50 feet. 

When we woke up the following morning, seas appeared calm with  towering cliffs  on both sides, not far from the ship. Overnight we had entered the northernmost part of the Chilean fiords, the first day of what would be three days meandering in these protected waters. As the depth of the channel permitted, the Zaandam coasted along.  I positioned  myself on the  aft deck for almost the entire day taking photographs and marveling at what ranks among the best that Mother Nature has to offer.  The Chilean fiords are right up there with Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Yellow Mountains in China, Lake Baikal in Russia and Mount Fuji in Japan. Bucket list material for sure.

Unfortunately, it  was not too long before we made a sharp right turn, taking us due west toward the ocean. As we turned into the wind, white caps started to form, and we could begin to feel the strong breeze. The captain’s somber voice came on the ship’s public address system alerting us to a change in plans. Our original course had us headed out of the channel the next day  in the direction of a major storm to the south, producing gale force winds and seas of over 30 feet high. In order to avert extremely difficult cruising conditions, he had made the decision to cancel our first stop in the fiord in order to get a jump on the storm in order to  make it back  into the fiords before the worst of the storm hit. 

It did not take long to understand why he had made that decision. When the Zaandam  left the protected waters and entered the Pacific, we were slammed by howling winds and huge waves. White caps were everywhere making the sea look like a giant cappuccino. Suddenly it was not all that easy to keep your balance. Sea sickness bags began appearing in common areas, and the captain came on the address system again  to announce that for safety reasons, all doors to the outside decks had been locked and the elevators shut down. All the water had been drained out of both swimming pools.  The captain said that the temperature outside was 46 degrees and the sustained winds were 42 knots gusting to over 50 knots.  Keeping on your feet required holding on to railings.

All morning Embry and I sat in the Crow’s Nest, a bar and gathering area on Deck 9, the top deck, peering out the window through the fog and rain, watching monster waves crash across the bow of the ship with spray at times reaching the window in front of us, some 90 feet above the sea, 

We did finally get some relief from the rocking and rolling in the afternoon when we were able to make the next passage  back into the fiords, just missing the  predicted storm waves of  30 or more feet, almost twice the size of what we had been plowing through. Unfortunately, however, in the afternoon the rain and mist settled in again. All we could  see were eerie, gray silhouettes of mountains and an occasional fleeting glimpse of a towering snow capped peak and  waterfalls draining melting snow into the ocean. 

Then close to five pm as if on cue, the rain stopped, the mist began to rise, blue patches of sky appeared, and the snowcapped peaks showed off their full glory.

About an hour later, the ship paused in front of a glacier, a bluish ice pack about 50 feet deep beginning at the top of a large mountain and extending all the way down to the sea. Even though the rain had started up again and the mist had returned, the aft deck was crowded with fellow travelers snapping photos of the glacier, the snowcapped mountains and the blue fiord. Despite the frigid temperatures and  howling wind, they were asking, I suppose, the same question I was asking: When will we ever see anything quite like this again?

Southern Exposure 11: Day 16, Chile.

On Thursday evening, October 31, Halloween, the Zaandam, escorted by tugs, inched its way into the crowded harbor of San Antonio, Chile’s largest port, located about 70 miles from Santiago and 50 miles from Valparaiso. We were supposed to stop in another port a few hundred miles to the north, but that was considered too dangerous due to the violence sweeping the country. As soon as we docked  in San Antonia, we learned that every excursion the next day had been cancelled for security reasons, and passengers were encouraged to remain on the ship at all times.

So what is happening in Chile? For more than two weeks, massive demonstrations have been occurring all over the country but especially in the two largest cities, both close to us, Santiago with a population of almost five million and Valparaiso with over 800,000. Over 2,800 people have been arrested and 2,500 injured. As of today, 19 protestors have been killed. The country is in a state of emergency with the army called out to restore order. Martial law is in effect. 

Welcome to Chile!

Over the years Chile has had its up and downs. We old folks from the US probably  remember Allende, the Socialist leader who in the 1970s  was overthrown by a military junta, possibly with help from our CIA, ushering in the 20-year dictatorship of Pinochet when thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured or simply vanished in what then was one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But those days are long past; and for the past 20 years, leaders have been elected democratically, and the country has been relatively stable producing one of the strongest economies in South America.

So what went wrong? It is the same old, same old story that we are now witnessing all over the planet and in the U.S.– globalism’s winners and losers. While Chili’s economy was growing due in part to world trade, income disparities were increasing. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, and the size of the middle class was shrinking. What initially sparked the unrest was a transit fare hike in Santiago, which ignited demonstrations. It did not help that the president of the country, Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire, was photographed eating at a fancy restaurant when the first demonstrators were being shot. The demonstrations quickly spread to other areas of the country, and the issues broadened from transit fares to economic justice. No one knows where this is headed or how it will end. 

All I can say is that they have a lot of nerve to start a revolution just when we arrive and are ready to see the sights.

But does a violent revolution deter one Embry Martin Howell, who only three weeks ago was herself in Mali where just yesterday another 40 or 50 innocent civilizations were murdered by revolutionaries? Hey, compared to Mali, Chili is a cakewalk. In less than an hour she had been on the internet and arranged for a private guide to take us around. My only question was whether she knew if he was armed.

So as it turned out, we got our own private tour to the area around San  Antonio after all. A few of the other frustrated–and brave –passengers apparently found local guides also since as we left the heavily guarded port, we noticed a bunch of drivers holding cards with their client’s name on them. 

So the next morning at eight a smiling Gabriel, a man probably in his early 40s and a pretty good English speaker, met us. Hiring your own guard—pardon, “guide”—is a bit expensive, but it does provide some opportunities that you can’t get on a group excursion with 25 or 30 other passengers. Probably most important is that it gives you a chance to meet  local people and to find out a lot about them and their lives. This was for me the best part of our around–the-world-trip in 2015 during our one-month tour of China when we visited 11 cities with a different, local, private guide each time, often spending two or three days with them. That gives you a lot of time to talk, listen and learn.

Gabriel spoke good English because he had  lived in New York City for several years when his wife, a lawyer, was part of the Chilean delegation to the U.N. She tragically died from breast cancer a few years ago, and now Gabriel has remarried, has a two-year-old daughter, and lives with his family in an apartment in Santiago. Being a tour guide is not the best job you can have in Chile, but you would have to call him solidly middle class. He is college educated, smart, and entrepreneurial. However, he is not a happy camper. He sides with the protestors and believes that life in Chili has been rigged to benefit the rich and hurt the middle class. He points to the same problems that we have in the U.S. and believes you need a strong leader to bring about justice and fairness. And who might that leader be in the U.S.? You got it: Donald Trump.

Now Gabriel is not stupid. He is not prejudiced. His values are solid.  He is a loving husband and proud father. He has experienced personal suffering. He is, quite simply, a nice guy and was a delight to be with. Yet he sees Trump as the solution to the economic disparities and divisions affecting the world, not part of the problem. Bottom line: we (bleeding heart liberals and progressives) don’t get it. I don’t get it. Until we do get it, however, we are not going to be able to heal the divisions that divide us.

The time with Gabriel was special. On a splendid day with sunny skies, temperatures in the low 70s, and low humidity, he drove us through the beautiful, peaceful countryside with hills dotted with olive and eucalyptus tress, then along vast vineyards, and finally to Valparaiso, the port city about 50 miles to the north, described as the San Francisco of South America. Since a lot of the protests and demonstrations have occurred here, when we got to the downtown area, we were relieved to see very little evidence of it, perhaps because it was still early on a Saturday morning. The old Colonial city is compared to San Francisco because  of the steep hills covered with houses that seem to be stacked on top of each other. 

Other similarities are its dynamic port, its prestigious colleges and universities, and its hip culture of artists and intellectuals. 

What Valparaiso has that San Francisco does not have are  its famous murals. Gabriel informed us that Valparaiso has more murals than any city in the world except Sao Paulo and by far the most on a per capita basis. That would appear to be true, but what is even more impressive is its street graffiti that surpasses anything I have ever seen. To say every building in the city is covered with graffiti is an overstatement by not by much. And a lot of it is actually quite good. As one who basically thinks graffiti is hideous and is best described as urban kudzu, I was surprised to find myself actually enthralled by a lot of it. Seeing this graffiti was by itself worth the visit. 

And then there were the dogs. Stray dogs, fat stray dogs. Not on every corner but surely on a lot of them. These animals run wild, lounge in the middle of sidewalks as they please, chase cars for fun, and poop when and where they want. The signs directing owners to clean up after their pets fall on deaf ears. Who feeds these animals anyway, and why are they all either black or yellow?  And why do they mainly run around or sprawl  on sidewalks in pairs?

After lunch with Gabriel, we drove back through wine country stopping for a tour and wine tasting at one of the smaller vineyards, specializing in traditional wine making techniques. The area to us looked a lot like California and I suppose that was no surprise since our  guide at the winery observed that the equivalent location of the Chilean wine country we were visiting in Chile in the Northern Hemisphere would be Sonoma County in California.

 All in all a great day and a safe one despite the dire predictions and precautions regarding mob or police violence. It also marked the mid point of the cruise when about two-thirds of the passengers departed and were replaced by new ones who flew  to Santiago to join the cruise.

The new fear has to do with the weather. A major storm is predicted to affect us and to bring with it gale force winds and waves of 30 feet and higher with even taller swells. This dire forecast  has forced the captain to cancel going to the  next port (and all planned excursions there) in an effort to dodge the bullet of this monster, but at this stage it is not clear how that will happen,  where we are going instead, or what it will mean. Stay tuned.

Southern Exposure 10: Typical Tough Day At Sea

So how do travelers manage to get through a day cruising along in ships like the Zaandam? It is true that there is a lot of stress. So many decisions to make. First there is breakfast. Do you want to eat in the elegant, full service dining room or in the casual buffet venue on the top deck? And how do you begin to choose between all the food selections available? 

After you have managed to make a decision and have finished a sumptuous breakfast, then you are faced with what to do next. You can sit in one of the dozen or so venues looking out at the vast  sea, but which one? The library? The pool area? The main lounge or mini lounge or maxi lounge or aft deck?

But maybe you don’t want to sit and look out at the sparkling blue waters decorated with whitecaps.  Maybe you want something more. Every hour there are about a dozen choices: baking classes, classes on preparing desserts, another on appetizers or one on fish recipes. There is always an option of learning about how eating more translates to losing pounds or why calories don’t count. Just thinking about these options makes you hungry, so it is time for your first cappuccino and an oversized, freshly-baked donut or croissant  at the Deck 4 café. Now fortified you are ready for a game of competitive bridge or mahjong or chess or a lesson on how to play one of these games. But you don’t want to miss the talk about how to buy the perfect diamond or how to use Microsoft products or a class in chocolate tasting. These tough choices cause more stress, which can  be ameliorated  only with another cappuccino and croissant.

You look at your watch and realize it is time for the first major presentation of the day in the large theater, a lecture on what to eat on board. You rush to get a seat only to find that this lecture is SRO, so it is back to the café. Now you are ready for something more serious, so it is time to finish your coffee and sweetroll in the salon area where a classical pianist and violinist are playing Mozart sonatas. After the concert you wander up to the pool where people are sunning and splashing around in a small pool and order a Bloody Mary to calm your nerves before lunch.

There are so many lunch options  you don’t know where to start. Of course you could try the main dining room or perhaps the exclusive, extra cost, gourmet restaurant, but you are not really dressed properly. You could do the buffet, but that tends to be crowded at lunch time. So you settle on the café in the pool area and get a plate full of tacos and a large salad, followed by an ice cream Sunday. 

Now it is time for a nap, but that will mean missing your favorite activity, the trivia quiz contest, next to bingo,  the most popular of all the activities on the ship. So you sign up to be on a team and do pretty well, but not so well as to reduce all the stress, so it is time  to calm your nerves by attending  high tea, followed by a lecture in the main theater about the culinary delights of Central Asia. After this you have to decide between a class in ballroom dancing or  learning the tango, a stressful decision, so you decide to order a gin and tonic and relax in one of the lounge chairs by the enclosed pool on the top deck before returning to your room to dress for dinner where you will be seated with nice, well-traveled people  from all over the world, whom you don’t know and  may never talk to again.  The conversation at dinner is about mutual interests associated with travel, avoiding any mention of politics, as you sip wine and think about whether you want to take in the evening song and dance act or to watch the ship’s movie or stop in the bar with the jazz singer. This choice, of course, leads to more stress but not enough to spoil your delicious three-course meal followed by a scrumptious dessert. After dinner, you decide you have time to try one or two hands of blackjack in the casino, which is stressful because you lose fifty bucks and can’t  decide whether after  attending the evening entertainment in the main theater, you want to take in the bar scene on the upper deck or call it quits for the day.

So yeah, it is tough being on these cruises. There is just too much stress, but not so much as to spoil the experience or keep you from repeating the cycle the next day.