Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A very icy Weddell Sea

Due to our late start into the Drake, and the slower crossing to avoid the worst of the waves, we only passed through the South Shetland Islands half way through the day we had expected to be our first full day of landings in Antarctica.  But here the seas calmed and we started to see some of the passengers that we 'lost' during the crossing.
With fine weather and only a gentle sailing motion, we took the opportunity to do a practice with the helicopters.  It seems a strange thing to do, but it is very hard to hear what is being said once the helicopter is going, and people do get hit by turning rotor blades, because they can't see them.  And that is in good conditions.  Mind you, I think that part of the reason is just to give us something else to do and get us anticipating the landings.

We sailed on to the Antarctic Sound, passing through to the colder eastern side of the peninsula and, at last, we made it into the Weddell Sea.

And we hit the ice - though not in the Titanic sense I am pleased to say.  We spent some hours pushing our way through the loose ice floes and up on the bridge, I could hear that the captain was getting concerned about how much ice we would find if ahead we were hitting it already.  We carried on through, watching the beautiful scenery around us, and wondering how far we would get.

It is hard to appreciate just how immense Antarctica is.  We are only on the tip of the peninsula, but on a continent that is twice the size of Australia, and when the peninsula is around 1500km long, that makes for a pretty big 'tip'.

After all, it had just taken us nearly three days to sail here and that was only 1000km.  And all we could see stretched ahead of ice was miles and miles of sea ice and ice bergs.  With a few seals and penguins thrown in of course.

When we were here last, we saw some impressive icebergs, but this is where the really big ice lives. The tabular icebergs are freshwater ice that breaks off the vast ice shelves and floats away. Many of the really big ones that we saw were some miles in the distance, locked into the sea ice.

But if you consider that the above water section of our ship Ortelius is about 18m high excluding the masts, then that may help with a perspective in some photos. Bear in mind that a typical height can be 75m, and then you can see from their shape that this makes them very long and wide. Of course 75m is only the visible part; there will easily be seven or eight times as much underneath.

So during the daytime hours, we were looking out onto great swathes of white, with just a few hints of blue. As the sun set at around ten, we were treated to some beautiful reds, oranges and pinks. Then after that, because this far south in the summer it doesn't get fully dark, we still had a lovely hazy, blue tinged landscape to look at.

At around 1am, with most passengers tucked up in bed, I was back up on the bridge watching our progress. The way these ships work is that they break the ice and push it away. That works all the while there is somewhere to push the ice to. But if the ice is solid for too large an expanse, then it has nowhere to go, so the ship can't get through. The ice we were at now was solid for miles ahead of us.

The captain moved the ship into the ice, cracking it up and forcing it along and behind us, but he soon reached a point where the ice had nowhere to go to, and we were in real danger of being trapped in the ice. He had no choice but to pull back into the more open waters.

We were still a long way out from our destination of Snow Hill Island, and so those few of us that were up knew that our plan to see the emperor penguin rookery was already looking decidedly dodgy.

In the morning, the expedition leader Delphine, the Captain and the helicopter crews spent some time discussing what options were open to us. They tried the ice again, but it was not going to be possible safely to get through.

The next step was a helicopter recce.  This showed that while there were a few pockets of open water which the ship would be able to navigate through, there was no way through or around this large expanse we were already at.  

The emperor penguin rookery was expected to be on the sea ice on the other side of Snow Hill Island, which was over thirty miles away from our current position.  This doesn't sound much but in Antarctica, where the weather can suddenly get very bad, very quickly, you just can't safely do a trip that far.  There would be too much risk of getting stuck too far away from the ship.

So our visit to the rookery was not going to be possible, and this far out, we had no idea whether we would get to see any emperors at all.  Clearly everyone was disappointed, especially a few people who had not realised that there was a genuine risk of not being able to get there, but we knew that the Captain and Delphine had not given up without an effort.  And they were soon telling us about some great alternative plans.

In the meantime, what we did have a lot of though, was the ice.  Our purpose in coming to the Weddell Sea was the emperors and the big ice.  We may not have been getting to the rookery, but we were certainly seeing the ice.
As with many occasions, our photos simply cannot capture the real beauty and magnificence, or the sheer size, of the real thing, but I hope that they at least give you an idea of just what an amazing place this is.

Oh, and we did get to see an emperor.  It was way off in the distance, but if you look carefully at my rather blurry zoomed in photo, you can just about make out the way the black markings drop at the side of the neck, and the little flash of yellow.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Drake Shake

After a calm evening passage through the Beagle Channel, during which we did our lifeboat drill and met some of our fellow passengers, we were ready to hit the Drake again in the early morning. Unfortunately bad weather conditions meant that we were delayed leaving while the helicopters waited for clearance to get onto the ship.
We eventually got underway after lunch, and as last time the Drake quickly claimed a number of passengers, sending down to their cabins for the duration of the crossing.  And on this occasion, Nic joined them.  He wasn't seasick -it started before we hit the rolling waves, so we figured it was a bit of bad shellfish the first night.

In any case, he rejoined us part way through, and in the meantime I went to a few of the lectures and presentations, and spent time watching the albatrosses (black browed, wandering and the very pretty sooty mantled), the petrels (cape and southern giant), southern fulmars, slender billed prions, sooty shearwaters, cormorants and other birds that I lost track of the names of.
We had been expecting a slightly older group of passengers than on our last trip, as that one was quite activity based, whilst this was a bit more sedate and more expensive. And that did prove to be correct.

But what really surprised us was the number of people for whom this was not their first Antarctica trip. There was Sharon, who worked for a travel company specialising in polar tours, so she had been many times, albeit paid for by work, and lots of those on board were on their second or third time.

But Elizabeth, a retired school teacher from Australia goes on multiple trips every year. She told us that she spends next to nothing on anything else, and gets good deals from the firm she books through because she goes so often, but still, we were amazed at how regularly she goes.

I loved Antarctica, and there are lots of different parts of it to see so I can quite understand wanting to back, and of course to the Arctic too, but still I think I would like to travel to a few other places sometimes!
There wasn't really a big group of people that we hung out with this time around, but we soon settled into a pattern of doing our eating and drinking with various people.
In particular we spent much of our time with Sharon, Elizabeth and two other couples. Mark and Tina from Chicago were on their first trip, as were Jeff and Nicky from Madison, Wisconsin.

During the trip we hoovered anything that we would be taking ashore to make sure we didn't introduce any non native seeds etc, and collected our rubber boots, so we were ready for when we reached the Weddell Sea.

Off to the White Continent again

With my sister having been over from Hong Kong for the funeral too, all three of us were flying out on the same day, so my mum drove us up to the airport.  With only going for the couple of weeks this time, we had lighter than usual rucksacks which was rather nice. 

Our route through to Ushuaia was in three stages.  The first was a ten hour flight to Miami.  We arrived there at 16:05 local time, which is 21:05 UK time.  But then we had to get through immigration and customs.  It seemed to take forever to walk from the plane to passport control, but we were pretty lucky once we got there as we got moved over to a shorter queue.  It still took forever, but not quite as long as it might have done.  We went through the rigmarole of fingerprinting and photos being taken, but made it through OK.

We then collected our rucksacks and joined another queue to pass through customs, before making our way outside to try to find the shuttle bus to our hotel.  Just about every hotel's bus passed us at least twice before ours finally turned up, and then it was a good half hour out, so by the time we actually got to our hotel it was about 8pm, or 1am UK time.

The next day was Thanksgiving, but we didn't get to see any of it as we were straight back to the airport for our next leg, a nine hour flight to Buenos Aires.  Because we we flying on a connecting flight the next day, we had a free transfer to our hostel, but it was slow going.  The bus from the airport to town was OK, but then we had to wait quite a while while they ferried us all on to our final destinations in taxis.  So having dropped off our bags and washed up, we were just in time for an argentine time dinner at 10pm.  We decided to hit one of our favourite places from before, so walked the few blocks over to Don Julio and enjoyed a good steak.
In the morning we took a cab to the airport for our very early three and a half hour flight down to Ushuaia.  A quick cab to the Antarctica hostel which we had used before meant we were soon relaxing in the same room that we had last time.
It was a long trip, but it was made much easier by the fact that we knew BsAs and Ushuaia, so we could relax and just fit back in to those places.
We went back to a couple of good places we'd been to before in Ushuaia, a buffet asado and a nice bar, and then in the morning had a long relaxing brunch and a few beers in the hostel before walking down to the docks in the afternoon to pick up the Ortelius.
On board we found we had been upgraded into a suite which was rather nice, and soon discovered that we had three of the same staff on board as last time, Delphine, Jim and Katrine.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A right to die

In my last post I said that after we arrived in Cuba, my mum told me my aunt had passed away.  Whilst a surprise that it happened just then, it wasn't  entirely unexpected that she might die before my return, as she had made it very clear that she wanted her life to end.

I realise that this may seem an odd thing to write about in a travel blog, and it may not be easy to read, but I am writing it because I believe the issue of a person having the right to choose to die is important. It certainly was to my aunt, both on a personal level and in principle, and she was keen to bring the issue to people's attention.

My aunt had a disease called Distonia and as a result became a wheelchair user at the age of twelve, also developing increasing disabilities in the use of her arms and with her speech.  For many years she lived with her parents and was cared for by them; later she moved into a Leonard Cheshire residential home.  This was good, as she was able to take advantage of the activities that the home offered, and so she improved her quality of life somewhat.

As well as participating in arts and crafts, computer studies and therapies in the home, she was able to go on trips to theatres and sporting events, and to take holidays.  She became involved in improvement activities for people with disabilities, representing her peers at national meetings and writing to MPs and the media on issues such as the mobility allowance that she relied upon to enable her to make trips out of the home.  She took the opportunities to live and enjoy her life despite her disabilities.

However those disabilities were gradually making her life more and more difficult particularly as her speech made it harder for her to communicate with people in the way that she would have liked, making her feel isolated and, at times, lonely.  She knew it would only worsen, and a few years ago she made it clear to us that she did not want to go on living.

She started to look into the right to die.  With the help of a solicitor, she drew up documents saying that she did not want to be resuscitated or fed intraveneously, but rather she wished to be allowed to die. Of course that would only work if a life threatening situation arose.

Not wishing to just wait for that, she thought about taking her own life.  She had discussed it with my mum, and we were all very clear that this was not just a bad phase but what she truly wanted.  So we agreed to support her right to decide.

Someone else may have just been able to take their life.  But it was not that simple for my aunt.  She lacked the physical capability that is required for many forms of suicide, and the opportunity for most others.  She could perhaps have driven her wheelchair in front of a train, but understandably that kind of approach that could be dangerous and distressing to others is not one that she would have wanted to use.

And it is not a task that someone else can help you with.  Suicide itself is not illegal in the UK, but assisting someone else still is.  Whilst the Director of Public Prosecutions has given some helpful indications that they will not automatically prosecute someone who they are satisfied was genuinely acting in line with the wishes of the person, at present it would still be an illegal act.  So it would very likely cause significant difficulties even if, in the end, no formal prosecution happened.

So my aunt looked into the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland where, in well defined circumstances, it is legal for a trained nurse to assist you.  It is costly, and my aunt had limited funds, so family would probably have had to help her financially, as well as in getting to the clinic for both the initial consultation and then the act itself.  It is unclear whether even just that help would still have been illegal.

There also was a risk that they may not accept her.  The problem is that the method of suicide is poison, which you have to take by yourself.  My aunt drinks through a straw and had difficulty swallowing quickly, so may have been unable to drink it herself, or worse, may have only managed to drink some, and do herself terrible internal damage but yet not die.

So if she decided to go ahead, this would be a difficult and anxiety ridden route for her to take, but she was actively considering it.

Then three days before we set off for Cuba, I went with my mum to visit my aunt at the residential care home where she lives.  When we arrived, we found that the home had called the GP out to see her, because they were concerned about her.

Without going into a lot of unnecessary detail, it was clear that she was not well, and the GP took it upon themself to call a non-emergency ambulance and have her taken to hospital.  Even though it is especially hard for my aunt to speak when she is ill, while we waited for the transport to arrive, she made it absolutely clear to us that she did not want to be treated if, without treatment, she could die.

When the ambulance came, they told us that even with the documents that she had, they were not permitted to withhold lifesaving treatment should the need arise, and that once at the hospital, a specific form was required, which could be signed only after she had been seen by two doctors.  And the form is only valid for three weeks.  We were astounded firstly that no one had told my aunt this previously, and that secondly the paperwork would have to be renewed so regularly to be valid.

Thankfully we made it to the hospital and got the proper paperwork done, but my mum and I repeatedly had to reiterate to the staff that my aunt was refusing to be treated until we knew whether what she had was life threatening.  

On a couple of occasions it had certainly looked like she was terminally ill, but she rallied.  By the early hours, they had decided that what she had was not life threatening, so we explained this to my aunt.  She was disappointed, but agreed to have the treatment.  We had been assured though that if at any point it became clear that her situation was potentially fatal, treatment could be stopped.

When I left for Cuba, as far as we knew she was not going to die, and in fact they were thinking of releasing her the next day.

Instead, she took a turn for the worse and stronger treatments were required to save her.  At which point my mum had to get into an almighty battle with the doctor to prevent him from treating my aunt against her will.  Despite the paperwork and despite my aunt's wishes, because she could be easily treated, and it was too difficult for my aunt to communicate clearly to him at that time, he was determined that he must save her.

My mum on the other hand, was equally determined that, despite how hard she found it personally, she would ensure that my aunt's wishes were adhered to, and she fought them all the way.  They referred it higher, and eventually decided to respect what my aunt wanted.  They made her comfortable but gave her no treatment, and in due course, she passed away.

So my aunt did get what she wanted, and whilst we are sad that she is no longer with us, we are glad that she did.  It is just a shame that it has to be so hard for someone with full mental competence to be able to do so.

Of course this issue is a complex one, and there will always be dangers that any system could be abused.  I am in no way advocating a system that allows someone to be coerced into ending their own life; it should only be on the clear and tested wishes of the individual.  And it should not be a replacement for good palliative care, just an alternative for those who wish it.  Because for some people, the quality of their life is more important than the quantity, and they are the only people who can judge whether or not they are content with the quality.

It seems wrong to me that we are prepared to let an animal be put to sleep in order to avoid it suffering, but we are reluctant to give people the ability to make that decision for themselves and help them to find a simple, peaceful and dignified way to achieve it.  Had there been a legal process in place in the UK, my aunt could have chosen her time to go, having said her goodbyes to people, and my mum would not have had the horrible situation of having to demand that her sister be allowed to die, when really all she wanted to do was to be able to support and comfort her in her last hours.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Another change of plan

The plan from Havana was to go to the Cayman Islands to spend some time with the same friends that we had met up with in Havana.  They had kindly said they would put us up for a couple of weeks, though when we got the Antarctica trip, we had reduced that down to just the one week with us then going via Miami and Buenos Aires down to Ushuaia.

Then the day after we arrived in Cuba, I got a call to tell me that my aunt had died.  Whilst I had seen her just before I left, and my family would have understood if I had chosen not to, I wanted to go back for the funeral.  Regular readers may recall that I had had a distant relative and a good friend die the previous year and had found it quite hard to come to terms with not attending the funeral, and as this was a close aunt, I felt it was right to return.

We managed to arrange the funeral for the week that we were due to be in Grand Cayman, so we agreed that we would get there as planned, then Nic would stay with our friends, and I would fly via Nassau to the UK for a week, then meet him in Miami en route to Antarctica.

We got to the islands, I checked in for my onward flight, and then Russell collected Nic.  In the downtime, I took advantage of some free wifi to log on and get back up to date after our relatively Internet free existence in Cuba.

Just as well I did, as I soon discovered that our families were trying desperately to contact us.  Rather tragically, Nic's sixteen year old niece had also died that day.  As I am sure you can imagine, a death at that age is especially hard to deal with, so the family were hoping that Nic would be able to come back to the UK too.

What followed was a very frantic hour, during which I eventually managed to contact Nic - people really should answer their mobiles - and get him back to the airport.  After some failed on line attempts, I also managed, with quite literally about thirty seconds to spare, to buy him a ticket on the same flight as me.  We even managed to get him into the seat next to me.

It was a very strange flight back.  Not only was it a journey made for two very sad reasons, but it had all happened in such a rush, and with so little time to think, that neither of really had taken it in.

Of course while we had my aunt's funeral during this week, Nic's niece's would not be for a while.  After much discussion ourselves and with Nic's mother and sister, we decided that we would still leave the UK and go to Antarctica.  Despite the circumstances, I think it is fair to say that no one wanted us to miss such a wonderful opportunity to achieve our desire to get to the Weddell Sea; in fact this very sad situation reminded us all that, even whilst remembering those that we've lost, we should be living and enjoying our lives to the full.

But we decided that rather than continuing on to South America as planned, we would then return once more to the UK, so that we would make it back in time for the funeral, and then stay with family until after Christmas.  We would then head off again in the New Year, and go to the USA and then to Canada.

Did we make the right decision to go back to the UK not once but twice.  Yes I think so.  Obviously it has cost us a lot of money, with additional air fares and insurance, as well as not getting in our cheap stint in South America, but when it comes down to it that wasn't really the point.  Clearly we can't always come back if something happens, and perhaps another time we won't.  But on this occasion, in the particular circumstances that we and our families faced, it was the right thing for us to do.

And of course both of them remain in our thoughts.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Havana - cars, cigars, chocolates and crafts

For our remaining three days in Havana, we reverted to wandering the streets and sitting in cafes.  For us, the charm of Havana is not in the museums, but rather in walking along and seeing the crumbling but still beautiful buildings, the falling apart but fabulous cars and the times-gone-by but still trading counter shops.

Vintage they may be, but most at least are still vibrant in their way.

The evidence of a once very wealthy society is all around, and it is fascinating, sad and yet oddly reassuring to see how little those symbols of wealth have  been so little cared for over time.

I am very glad that they are now working to preserve the architecture that is here but the reality is, had the country continued to develop and build during these post revolution years, many of these lovely building would be long since gone.

Similarly had there not been restrictions on the import and sale of vehicles, Cuba would not have the many Cadillacs, Pontiacs and other vintage cars that we see today.  We were concerned that with restrictions being relaxed, these old cars would be sold to dealers from the States and Europe and replaced by the more efficient but soulless new cars.

Happily, we heard that the UNESCO status recognises that these cars are a part of Cuba's heritage now, and protects them as well as the buildings.

But even we couldn't resist one museum - the museum of chocolate!  Not that it is really a museum.  It is really a cafe and shop,  where you can watch them make the chocolates and see a few cabinets with old chocolate moulds and other paraphanalia.  But the chocolate was quite tasty, so we weren't complaining.

Then of course even as non smokers like us, you can't come to Cuba without visiting a cigar factory.  We had tried the one in Santa Clara, but that was no longer doing tours, so we figured we'd go to the one here.  Except that was closed too.

But at least here there was a lady sat at a workstation in the corner of the shop making the cigars for the benefit of we tourists.  So we did get to see the process and it didn't cost us anything.

We also made it to the Almacenes de San Jose craft market where we spent some hours looking around at the multitude of paintings of old cars.  These are of course slightly kitsch, but I do like them, and we spent some time considering them before finally deciding we don't currently have any walls, and by the time we do again, we will have far too many pictures and photos for this one to get put up.  So instead, I bought a colorful paper mâché boot and Nic bought a Che Guevara wallet, partly because he needed a wallet, and partly because he liked the irony of it.
Beyond that we spent some time in a few bars and restaurants, often with a few rum based drinks and some (usually welcome) musical entertainment. Three places that didn't have any live music, but which we rather liked were La Imprenta, Palador Doña Blanquita and El Chanchullero.

The first, La Imprenta, was a state run restaurant, which was something of a surprise as unlike most, it was really rather slick.  The food was great, they had some good wines, it was good value and the service was impeccable, but the more remarkable thing was the design.  It was an old print works building, and the decor was built around that.  The seats and tables were all carved wooden typeset letters, there were old bits of printing machinery, and many other interesting, slightly unusual, and yet still tasteful touches.  Something of a surprise really.

The second , Palador Doña Blanquita, was not state run, but rather a small restaurant on the second floor of an anonymous looking building.  The food was good, and there was a nice view across the Prado, but what amused us here was that this is so clearly  a place that someone has opened where they live.  We could tell this because at the room at the back we could clearly see the old mum asleep on the sofa.

And the last, El Chanchullero, was a lovely but tiny little bar on Plaza del Christo.  It made great cocktails and although we didn't eat here the food did look good.  But the interesting element for us was that it was very different to what we had come to expect in Cuba.  It had excellent quirky decoration, including a tiny shrine inside and was very simple and cosy.  It was the sort of place that would have gone into whatever city we were in.

Perhaps it seems wrong that some of the places that appeal to us are those that are less traditional.  We do like to go to the traditional places, but we quite like to see what is new about a place as well.

Sometimes as a tourist it can feel like all of the traditional things are a bit false - done for the tourist market rather than because it is what they would still choose to do.

They are still interesting and can tell you a lot about a place's past, but we like to mix in a bit of the more modern culture too, and perhaps get to learn a bit about where the country and it's people are going rather than just where they have already been.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Havana - and the second old car

The next afternoon the four of us hired one of the big old open top Cadillacs for a drive around the city. This car was in somewhat better shape than last nights, although Russell had for some reason picked a bright pink one!

We drove around the old town, seeing as we passed the old churches, the tree that tradition says people have to walk around on a particular day for luck, and the old town fortifications.

We drove along the Malecon and watched people getting wet as the waves splashed over the sea wall onto the pavement. It seemed to be part of the walk to get wet - perhaps because it is hot no one cares about a quick soaking.

Our first stop was the Hotel Nacional, which was USA built in the 1920s with art deco and arabic influences, and was tremendously popular as a casino and hangout for the rich and famous.  The Mafia bosses used this place for meetings.

After the revolution, the US management left and the hotel was state run.  This is one of the few places that you can see any kind of tribute to Fidel Castro as there is a display of pictures in the lobby here. It is interesting as most longstanding unelected leaders have statues of themselves everywhere, but Fidel has none of that. There is one plaque on a wall in Havana which celebrates him but that is it, and even that is small, understated and on a corner of a building.

We stopped for a while in the Plaza de la Revolucion, which is a huge (72,000 square metre) square that is surrounded by state buildings including the office that was Fidel's and is now used by his brother Raul. This is where the big parades happen. The main structure is a 109 metre high monument to Jose Marti, with rather dwarfs the 18 metre statue of him.

Two of the buildings have large faces on them. One is the Ministry of Communications building with the face of Camilo Cienfuegos, the other is the Ministry of the Interior building with Che Guevara. We had half expected that taking photos wouldn't be allowed, but in fact there was no problem at all.

We drove through a leafy area full of big old buildings, one of which was the British Embassy.  It looked quite impressive, but we were amused to see that it was next door to that of North Korea.  Not something that would happen in most countries.

Of course one country that does not have an embassy here is the USA.  But we were surprised to see that it does still have a presence in the form of the United States Interests Section.  But just in case the US should start to feel too comfortable here, Fidel Castro has created the huge Plaza de la Dignidad next to it with a large anti-imperialist stage where the columns bear the names of revolutionary heroes and North Americans who fight for social reform.  About five years ago, around seventy huge flagpoles were erected right in front of the building to hide the anti castro propaganda that President Bush in his usual diplomatic way, was issuing from there.  President Obama stopped it, but the flags remain.

Our last stop was rather less grand. The John Lennon park is small and leafy, with is a wooden bench where you can sit down next to a bronze John for a photo or a rather one sided chat if you feel so inclined. The writing on the ground is the Spanish of 'You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.'

The cadillac trip is a very touristy thing to do, but it was a bit of fun, and with four of us, the price isn't too bad.

After the trip we stopped off at the Hotel Park View and had some of their excellent small plate food and lovely cocktails. The hotel isn't cheap, but the food and drink in the ornate lobby is reasonably priced and very good. They also have a decent wifi connection - though you do have to pay for it.

Appetites satisfied, we went to a nice bar that Nic and I had found the day before. The Monserrate is a fairly small and understated bar, but the drinks are good and they have excellent live music all evening. Another good evening.