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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Antarctica through the kitchen door

Paluch hitchhiking a ship in Antarctica
The house was empty when I woke up, it was eleven and Pancho was already with kids in a summer school he was working at. A spare key was left on the table, though I didn't use it too much the first day, I was really enjoying the view of snowy peaks while sitting inside on a comfy couch and sipping coffee surrounded by warm tunes. But, I knew I couldn't be lazy for too long, two little marinas of Ushuaia were waiting and I soon realised they weren't waiting only for me.

The first thing I saw when I arrived at the marina office was a note left by two Argentine girls. They offered their company and cooking skills in the exchange for a trip to Antarctica. The note was hanging there for nearly two weeks. I had a competition!
'Did they have any luck?' I asked a blond girl sitting behind the desk.
'No, no luck so far. And they are still here, they live in Ushuaia'
'Can I leave my note as well?
'Yes of course, but you might be better off chatting with the sailors, these girls don't show up almost at all.'
My chances were slightly higher, I was alone and what was more important I had some experience in sailing and to prove it I wanted to put a screenshot of the video from my first passage. It was in French but it could help, at least half the boats I saw the first day were from France and half in that case meant maybe six.
'Oh, and check this website' the girl showed me a link. 'It's a Polish boat that organises charters for tourists. They already left but will go again.' Trips for tourists probably meant costs, but it was always worth trying.

After a few hours of hanging around the cold and windy centre it was nice to go back to the warm house of Pancho. The first few days we were alone there, but other couchsurfers were already on their way. He usually didn't host many people, as his girlfriend Aymi was a quiet person who liked her privacy. But at that time she was on holidays in Uruguay, so talkative and extrovert Pancho decided to open his door for travellers.

Soon after my arrival I received a reply from Andreas, a Swedish sailor whom I contacted through CS and he invited me aboard his sloop for a glass of lager. Unfortunately he was not going to Antarctica, he did the trip last year and told me there were maybe twice as many boats that time. Was the global crisis hitting the sailors' community? He also told me how boat hitchhiking popularity was growing and what side effects it had. The majority of hitchhikers were looking for a lift to Puerto Williams on the other side of Beagle Channel to avoid ridiculous ferry price and some of them were fucking things up. He heard many stories of people setting things up and coming late or not showing up at all and ruining captain's plans. These disrespectful people were making it harder for me and others. Before sailing off to the Falklands, or Malvinas as Argentines called these islands, Andreas gave me a few links to check out as well. The movement in the marina was low, but I had something to start from.

A few days passed, my inbox was empty, every new boat arriving in Ushuaia was either full or not going to Antarctica, so on Saturday I decided to join Pancho and have a day off. We were invited for a trip outside town by his friend who's duty was to drive through forest paths and check if anglers had a permission to fish in the rivers and lakes of Tierra del Fuego. Nice job. We saw many beautiful places with little bays, rapids and hidden campsites full of tents. Most of the people were Argentines and it seemed they had really strong travelling culture in their country, something probably started by Ernesto Guevara - the famous Che. Pancho himself made a fantastic trip with Aymi driving his 1965 Estanciera* all the way to Alaska a few years ago.

When we came back I received a text from Pablo, my road companion from Patagonia, which started from the words: 'Find Distribuidora Waldesi in Ushuaia on the corner of...' and finished with: 'they look for people to work on ships going to Antarctica and they pay!' I quickly asked Pancho if he ever heard of that and he actually knew a cousin of the owner. He explained me where it was exactly and whom I should ask. Working on a ship? I never tried that. Getting to Antarctica and improving my finances in the same time sounded actually unreal.

When I arrived there and explained myself I was told by Laura who was a co-owner to prepare a CV. Her company was organising supplies for ships arriving in Ushuaia and had many contacts. Sometimes a pair of extra hands was needed, especially when a crew member got sick or injured. Somebody's bad luck could be my good luck, that's life. I asked Pancho for help in preparing my CV in Spanish, just in case, as I had English version ready. When I clicked send I started to laugh, I never used a CV to find a lift before.

After the weekend the house started to fill up with couchsurfers. First there was a French couple who was just starting their trip around Latin America. Then Enora arrived, a crazy chick from Switzerland who wanted to stay for a bit and make trips to the national park. Then another couple arrived, this time from Croatia who was travelling with their six months son Mak. Everyone was actually coming to see some nature around and I was asked to join, and though I was tempted I had more important task. Every day I was spending at least a couple of hours around marinas, even though there was nothing really to do. There were days without any new boats coming, but I was still there to show myself and others that I was stubborn, that I really wanted to get there.

On Wednesday I received an email from Selma, the Polish boat, saying that hitchhikers were welcome in case there was a space. It was fully booked, but if something changed they would let me know. There was a hope as they wanted to make two more expeditions and it was a big ketch designed to take even twelve people on board. But I couldn't just wait, I had to make my chances higher, so with high spirits I marched to the city centre again.

Every evening the house was full of joy, laugh and yummy smell. One night Pancho prepared a barbecue and after a few bottles of wine our hips started to move to the rhythms of salsa and samba. He was a real entertainer who loved to make jokes and in his place it was very easy to just be yourself. For the upcoming weekend I decided to join him and Enora and go hiking up the mountains. The plan was to spend one night in a refuge where we could make a fire.

On Saturday morning we started to pack for the trip.
'Hey something is vibrating here' Pancho noted when organising a mess we made in the living room. 'Paluch is it your phone?
'Oh shit, yeah! Hello?'
'Hi, Laura speaking. I received your CV, are you still in Ushuaia?
'Cool. There is a French ship and they need a worker. You have an interview in one hour.'
'Yeah. Dress nicely. We'll see in my office, I will get you to the port, you can't enter without a pass.'
'Wow, great! Thanks.'
I looked at the guys, they looked at me and I started to repeat: I have an interview, I have an interview! I took out the only shirt I had and Pancho straight away offered me his own, mine hadn't seen an iron for a year. After trimming my beard I began to run to not be late.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica
Gentoo penguins
The port was full of pallets with supplies ready to be loaded, the air smelled of fruits. Laura brought me aboard a huge cruise liner looking like a floating, luxury hotel. I sat in front of a mid-age man in a captain-like uniform. He was a hotel manager.
'I see that you were working in pubs serving food.'
'Yeah that's true.'
'Well, one of the boys from the galley is sick, so you would be working as a galley utility.'
'Which means?'
'That's how we call kitchen work here. You would be doing some cleaning. Are you okay with that?'
'Well, as long as I can see Antarctica.'
'But we would need you for two cruises. One is ten days.'
'Twenty days...' I thought for a second.' Will I have a chance to go ashore?'
'Yes of course. I will speak with the chef, he will be your manager, to make sure you can go out. You studied geography, right? So you will visit Antarctica and we will have a worker we need. We can give each other a favour. Okay?'
'Fair enough.'
'Cool, we're leaving tonight. I want you to be here at 5 p.m.'

I had four hours to pack my stuff, not much. They took my passport and gave me a pass so I could re-enter the port. In the centre I saw Pancho and Enora ready for the hiking trip, and they gave me a lift back to the house, which saved me some time. I received a big hug from them both, they were happy seeing me so excited. When I came back to the ship I was given an ugly white uniform, uncomfortable shoes and a magnetic card to my cabin. Inside there was a bunk bed, a bathroom, TV screen showing announcements and our position and no windows whatsoever. I was going to share it with one guy from Mauritius.

Already half an hour after starting my work I wasn't sure what the fuck I was doing there. I always hated kitchen jobs even though I worked on a dishwasher only for two or three days in my entire life, but it always seemed like one of the worst jobs on the planet. And there in that kitchen I was just a part of the machine. My partner Julius was putting dirty plates to a huge dishwasher and I was taking them hot and burning and putting in a right place. I had to learn quickly where the right place was. One part of my head was getting pissed off and the other one was calming it down by repeating one name: Antarctica! I wanted to see it, so I had to earn it, I had to turn into a robot.

My kitchen colleagues were Filipinos and actually most of the workers were from Asia. The salary was so bad that Europeans didn't want to do it, of course beside more prestigious jobs like captain or chef. One of them, a pastry chef was French but his both parents were Polish and he spoke it pretty well. The new IT specialist was also a Pole, but lived in France for years. The ship which was called Le Boreal was a new cruiser with seven decks, two restaurants, a swimming pool and spa. It could accommodate up to two hundred and sixty passengers and more than hundred crew members. It was like a labyrinth.

The first two days were terrible. My hands were burnt and cut by plates that broke easily on a rocking ship, even though the infamous Drake Passage wasn't too furious. I already started to feel tired because there was a lot of work, which was split into three shifts. During breakfast I worked between six or six thirty even until eleven, than for lunch from twelve thirty till three or half three and finally during the dinner I started at seven thirty and finished at eleven or even later. Morning and midday shifts were slower more human-like as I was working in a smaller restaurant on the deck six, but the last one on the deck two was madness. Beside work there were also safety trainings and drills. By mistake I was registered as a proper crew member, not as a passenger which was usually happening with temporary workers, so in case of emergency I was a part of a medical team and had to learn a lot about safety and security measures.

When we arrived in South Shetlands and I could go ashore for the first time, it felt like a blow of a fresh breeze after being locked in a cellar. And the breeze in Half Moon Island was fresh, but not as cold as I expected. The amount of ice was unbelievable. The penguins colony which consisted of thousands of individuals was producing a lot of guano, we were basically walking in it. There were at least two excursions scheduled for every day, but I already knew I wouldn't be able to go out all the time, the morning break was definitely too short. When I went for another landing I was probably the only crew member beside the guys operating dinghies, everyone else preferred to go for a nap. Nights were too short for a good sleep.

The only thing I liked on this ship, beside the fact it brought me to the White Continent was food. We had three meals a day in a buffet located in a crew mess and the Filipinos were taking care of me by non-stop asking if I was hungry and bringing some goodies. The food we had was the same as served for the passengers, which wasn't so obvious for me after I was told I couldn't use the guest areas after work and could enter there only in my uniform. The crew had its own bar to grab a beer, but it wasn't too cheap. One night I got drunk without spending a penny though. My colleagues got lots of wine that was ordered by passengers and not drunk so we made ourselves a party with karaoke.

Whaler's grave on Deception Island Antarctica
Whaler's grave on Deception Island
Every day I couldn't wait to go for another excursion and leave all that dirty plates behind. We were visiting fantastic places, most of the time going ashore, but sometimes also navigating between icebergs in which cracks and chinks were bleeding with light blue. I saw different species of penguins, whales, killer whales and sea lions. I visited Neko Harbour and Petermann Island with fantastically shaped icebergs, Paradise Bay and Port Lockroy with the British museum and southernmost post office. One of the last places scheduled was Deception Island, an active volcano, but I couldn't go ashore that day because we finished too late. There was a chance I would do it the next time, but thinking about it didn't make me feel too good. My first seven days seemed like seven weeks in front of this fucking machine and a lack of sleep already turned me into a half zombie. What humans could do to make their dreams come true was amazing.

After two days at the Drake Passage we arrived back in Ushuaia. Half the contract was behind me. After finishing work I went out with captains, some of the chefs and dancers. That night I could see that seamen life didn't change much for centuries. They work like crazy and then arrive in a port to get drunk in a local pub and end up in a brothel! I woke up with a massive headache really late for work. Luckily I had half a day off, unlike the guys I worked with. When the ship was in a port for one day they had even more work with supplies and garbage. They didn't have a day off since they started they contracts, contracts that usually last for ten months. Fucked up!

For the second cruise we had a new crew member, who just like me wanted to see Antarctica. Carlos was from Colombia and they made us work together, which was cool because I could practice my Spanish again. He hated this job more than me, especially when we were crossing the Drake which this time was showing its real face. He was really affected by the seasickness, repeating often with his angry voice: 'Platos, platitos, platititos...' Somehow for me days started to feel like days again, the sense of time changed completely. Maybe the fact that it was my last cruise was making such miracles.

We were going out with Carlos for every possible excursion and beside the places I saw before I could see a few new ones. On the Deception Island I visited ruins of a British military and later scientific base destroyed by the eruption. The island was a caldera of the active volcano and Le Boreal sailed inside it. Sea lions were sleeping there on a warm beach. That place was so inhospitable, it had a feel of a catastrophe, like some kind of natural Chernobyl, especially with the view of whalers' graves. Yet the best trip was at the end. The last day in Antarctica we sailed with zodiacs** to the broken ice floating at open sea and climbed on top of it. Our legs were sinking knee deep and the crackling sounds could be heard all around. It was fantastic feeling to walk on a little piece of something that was melting constantly in the summer sun. Suddenly one penguin jumped out of the water and landed close to me, his eyes looked like he was thinking: 'what the hell are you doing on my ice?'

Two days before the end of my Antarctic adventure I was called to the purser's office.
'Have I told you that we registered you as a crew member?'
'Yes, you mentioned.'
'I'm afraid there might be problems because of that.'
'You left Argentina as a crew member, which means as a worker and we have to get you back to Argentina as a crew member. That means you won't be entering like if you were a tourist. You can use Argentine territory for transit only and leave as soon as possible. So we are thinking of buying you a bus ticket to some city in Chile. With the ticket you should be fine.
'Can I re-enter Argentina after?'
'You will be entering again as a tourist and you don't need a visa for that.'
'Okay. I think the best option is Punta Arenas then.'
'I'll contact our agent in Ushuaia, we'll let you know.'
Borders loved to bring me troubles.

That day the sea was so rough that we were all walking on the walls and at the end of the night I broke more than twenty plates. The trolley I used to put them on just flipped. The manager was furious, but chef explained him that the brakes were on and it wasn't my fault. We were on a ship after all.

After arriving in Ushuaia I finished my work earlier so I could visit Pancho and take some stuff I left in his house. I met Aymi and we had a litle chat, they were curious how it went. I was hoping I could stay in their place after for a day or two to take a rest, see what I still hadn't seen, send postcards and so on, but it seemed impossible. They bought me the ticket for the next morning. I gave Pancho really big hug, he helped me so much and we agreed to meet up somewhere else the other time, maybe in northern Argentina which they were planning to visit.

I was woken up fifteen minutes before the bus, bastards told me the wrong time. I was also charged the bus fare, they didn't feel obliged. But I didn't care, I was happy to leave that floating labour camp. The mission was complete, I went to Antarctica and made a few quid, but if someone asked me if I would do it again I would say no, at least that's what I thought at that moment. I looked back for a second at the city disappearing behind me and than looked forward again trying to see what's in front of me, trying to spot another challenge. So, maybe Alaska? Maybe a nap first.

* Estanciera - Argentine off-road car produced under the licence of Willys-Overland, inventor of Jeep.
** Zodiac - popular name for a small inflatable boats that were invented by a French company Zodiac Marine & Pool.