I left off in my last letter with the hope that I could find time to write to you during my travels. I did make some notes and wrote a few paragraphs on a number of occasions and in different cities – my unfinished letters – but circumstances were such that I had not been able to send you further letters until now.
I am actually in Sydney, the beginning of another trip with a different group of friends who are keen to visit Tasmania for good food, fine dining, good wine and sunshine. I would find it difficult to forgive myself if I stand before the Pearly Gate wondering whether I have had sufficient champagne, caviar and oysters, notwithstanding that I had had the opportunities to marvel at God’s creations, power and might.
Sydney is familiar territory indeed. I have been here a number of times before, all work related, and always alone. A number of my best friends live here, so that I could call them up at short notices and had lunches or dinners with them. I remember having seafood meals in the most odd places before catching a flight home. I also remember telling Rosita that we would visit Sydney and other cities in Australia together after our retirement. Sydney is not as distant from Hong Kong as LA, and she might just make the flight. Rosita never visited Sydney or Down Under. We managed to visit New Zealand back in 2002.
Metropolis Sydney is about four times the size of Hong Kong, but it has also just over four million people. We stayed in the China town area. It began to rain as soon as we arrived; and it has never stopped. Actually, it was warm and fine the first hour we arrived at the hotel. It being Sunday morning, I checked with the hotel reception for the nearest places of worship and was delighted to learn that there was a small Catholic chapel within walking distance, indeed just round the corner. I walked with a friend who also shared the Trinitarian Christian faith – he was actually baptized in the Church of England – and we began to look for this chapel. We could not pin it down from the map we took from the hotel. Then it began to rain; and as it began to rain harder, we found this Anglican Church chapel which had just started a High Mass, so we walked in. God must be in a conciliatory mood, I thought, and besides, I believe that He is everywhere.
The next day, we decided to play golf, but the weather forecast rain and thunderstorms for the entire week. The weatherman was right, so far at least; and we decided to visit our respective friends, in small groups.
Back to my last trip which I talked about in my last letter, and let me share with you some snapshots as I wait for the sky to open up. I would preface by saying that I must have taken close to 2,000 pictures, mostly without people. I am happy to show them to anyone who can stand the boredom of going through 500 pictures with no signs of life except ice, icy waters and icebergs, or pictures after pictures of sunrises and sunsets, blue skies and even bluer seas, or of birds, whales, penguins and other animals in or about the seas. I should add that many of these pictures may not be as esthetically appealing as I would like them to be, but I would stress that they are all dear to me and I must have taken them for good reasons at the time.
Talking of sunrises, I watched one of the most beautiful sunrises from the window of the plane on the flight from Buenos Aires to Paris. The flight attendants had actually requested everyone to close the window shades, for it could get too bright for some people towards daybreak. My friend at the window seat – well, she becomes my friend after we had traveled together in the same group for nearly four weeks – decided to check the clouds outside. Suddenly, a small bright orange spot appeared on the horizon on our right. It became bigger, more yolky and brighter. It rose slowly, but steadily and very confidently until it lit up the sky around. Neither of us spoke. Then it became too bright and she pulled down the shade halfway so that we could watch the remainder of the beautiful sunrise. It was very beautiful – and my heart was filled with joy and hope. I thought of the Little Prince on his small planet and immediately empathized his joy of watching so many sunrises and sunsets each day.
Back to the snapshots, I left home for the last trip on 3 January and returned on 29 January with 11 additional stamps on my passport, although I could only name four or five countries, namely, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile. In terms of cities and landmarks, I visited Rio de Janeiro, Iguaçu and Buenos Aires before spending 16 days on Star Princess, visiting Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, Elephant Island, Esperanza Station, Admiralty Bay, Neumayer Channel, Deception Island, Cape Horn, Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Montervideo and Buenos Aires. The ship did nearly 4,800 nautical miles from Buenos Aires to Buenos Aires, and we were extremely lucky to have had excellent and almost perfect weather most of the time, for which I thank God, knowing at the same time that I can never thank God sufficiently.
We had been briefed and constantly updated by the Ship Captain, his Staff Captain and senior staff, and the Ship lecturers. We had been told many times how lucky we were. For example, after having done over 1,100 nautical miles from Buenos Aires, the Ship made her final approaches to Stanley of the Falkland Islands. It was early in the morning and the manoeuvre appeared to be routine because of the smoothness of the operation. The Ship dropped her anchor and released the tenders which began ferrying passengers ashore. The seas were calm. Once on shore, we experienced the most beautiful and sunny weather, with blue skies and cool breezes. I took off layers after layers of clothing and got my face and arms tanned all over. By the time the last passenger returned on board and the Captain had the anchor heaved up, we learnt that two ships which were ahead of us a few hours had to turn back and hence never anchored and their passengers never got ashore because the sea conditions were too rough and the wind too strong when they called in.
Such is the nature of things that can happen at sea. The landscape and weather of the Antarctic are certainly breathtaking and awesome at the same time and the travelers have no choices. Just as one does not decide what lies ahead of one, those at sea, particularly around the Antarctic seas, will never know what they can expect until it happens, when it happens and in the manner and fashion it happens. It is certainly a lesson in faith and hope, a lesson in humility and an exercise to entrust one’s life and well-being in others in general and in God in particular.
Let me illustrate with another example from our passage around Cape Horn. Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the archipelago of southern Chile and is widely considered to be the southern most tip of South America. It is the most southerly of the great capes, and marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage. Before the Panama Canal was in use, it was a major milestone on the clipper route and it has always been the greatest challenge for sailors. It has been known to be the worst nightmare for seafarers. The waters around the cape are particularly hazardous because of the strong winds and the big waves, and of course the icebergs. These dangers have made Cape Horn notoriously known as a sailors’ graveyard.
After crossing the Drake Passage, the Captain hired two pilots to guide the ship around Cape Horn and on into the fjords towards Ushuaia. The passage round Cape Horn was always momentous and hazardous. Most passengers were out on the deck to watch the process. It was a Saturday afternoon and the Ship had scheduled a Catholic Mass at precisely the same time. The priest made reference to the event during his sermon in English and Spanish, and went on to talk about faith and choices. The Ship then went from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean before going back to the Atlantic Ocean again. It was here that the seas and waves would always be phenomenal and all passengers were duly warned. Waves could be 15 to 20 feet tall and the seas were typically rough. It turned out that we had another uneventful sailing day. None in our group had complained of seasickness or other related ailments. We were all very lucky, according to the Ship Lecturer who said he had crossed Cape Horn 107 times and had only experienced such calm seas the second time.
The Antarctica is the coldest and most inhospitable place on Earth. It is a frozen desert with little precipitation and the South Pole itself receives less than 10 cm per year on average. Temperatures can reach a minimum of between -80 to -90 degrees Celsius in the interior in winter and would reach a maximum of between +5 and +15 degrees Celsius near the coast in summer. The Antarctica is colder than the Arctic for two reasons. First, much of the continent is more than 3 km above sea level, and temperature decreases with elevation. Secondly, the Arctic Ocean covers the north polar zone so that the ocean’s warm currents would warm up the icepack and prevent temperature in the Arctic region from reaching the extreme temperatures typical of the land surface of the Antarctica.
I tried to attend the series of scholastic lectures on various aspects and I learnt new things every time. While we were closing in on a research station around the South Shetland Islands, we were joined by some scientists on board – they came by a zodiac – who shared with us their experience which was so unique and even spiritual in areas. We were reminded, for example, that we had joined a very exclusive and privileged group pf people in the world who had been to the Antarctica – of the seven billion living on Earth, less than 300,000 have been that close to the Antarctic. I should stress that we were close, but not actually on the South Pole itself. We were told that Nature could be extremely harsh and unimaginable – winds could get up to more than 260 nautical miles, volcanoes could erupt, temperatures could reach so low and so on. In such conditions, it is useful to be more spiritual and be mindful of what Nature and the God Almighty can mete out.
I’ll talk to you later.