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Friday, May 24, 2019

Jason Ransom

What’s on your travel bucket list?

Personally, I don’t have one. I am content shuttling back and forth to Israel and Denver to visit my grandchildren, with an occasional organized trip suggested by a friend.

But, in July, when Dan Eleff (of DansDeals) and his buddy Moishie Hersko spilled the beans that they were arranging a totally kosher cruise to Antarctica, replete with his postings of photos of people trekking with poles among penguins surrounded by magnificent glaciers and icebergs, I was blown away; I simply had to join this group. The voyage did not disappoint.

My cabin-mate and I arrived in Buenos Aires a few days early, toured the city and ate Shabbat meals at one of the many Chabads there, Chabad Recoleta. Fourteen of us with the Antarctica expedition had the same idea, which allowed us to get to know each other before the actual journey. We were a microcosm of the ultimate makeup of our group – assorted chassidim, yeshivish, modern Orthodox and everything in between; women wore sheitels, tichels and nothing covering their hair. We were from more than half a dozen North American states, Israel, Europe and Canada; married couples, a few singles, widows and married guys whose wives were home watching the kids. Agewise, we ranged from 20s to 70s. We were a varied and mixed bag, yet we quickly became friends.

Sunday night we all gathered in a hotel in Ushuaia, meeting as a group over supper, playing Jewish geography, sharing travel-related stories of the past few days and then, lighting about 30 menorahs on the last night of Chanukah, facing a picture window overlooking the Beagle Channel. It was a moving and inspirational scene.

Alas, upon boarding the RCGS Resolute of One Ocean Expeditions on Monday, the rumors we had heard were confirmed; we received a notice indicating, “…an alteration to the planned start of the itinerary. Due to an overall and unexpected shortage of fuel available in Ushuaia … alternate supply in Stanley, Falkland Islands.”

The collective moan of the passengers was mitigated somewhat by our being afforded the ability to tour the Falklands and view some amazing vistas and get our first ‘in person’ photo-ops with penguins and other wildlife. For many, the realization of a new stamp on their passports was an unexpected, mitigating bonus.

Our group of 51 comprised more than 1/3 of the passengers on this relatively small expedition ship. We had our own section of the dining room but mingled with everyone else for all other activities including zodiac cruising, kayaking, happy hour, game night, daily briefing sessions and reviews, etc. Many took ‘selfies’ with Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister, who happened to be on board.

On Tuesday afternoon, having refueled, we finally began sailing towards the raison d’etre of our trip, Antarctica. Along the route, the wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, as well as us regular folk were rewarded with sightings of amazing birds including albatrosses and a few bonus whales. The awesome Drake Passage behaved like a calm lake.

Finally, on Friday, we reached the penguins and icebergs of the Antarctic! Regrettably, no one was allowed off the ship at Penguin Island because the winds were too strong for the zodiacs to operate properly, but our cameras clicked away from the decks. Of course, our group also stayed on board on Shabbos but other passengers who had gone off told us that the winds made the real-feel temperature very cold. When we finally did go on land on Sunday, the Arctic summer air was relatively warm and the powerful sun reflected so strongly off the snow that we returned sunburned and sweaty.

Ships cannot pull up to shore and dock at the Antarctica ‘ports of call’ like those on ‘regular’ cruises. Rather, we stop somewhat near the shore, get into zodiacs (inflated rubber boats) in groups of 12, then climb out of the zodiacs at the ‘shore,’ traversing through water and pebbles till we get to land, which is generally snow covered ice. There are no carved-out hiking paths; just the previous person’s footsteps in the snow. Sunday and Monday we enjoyed two disembarkations per day from our ship. Our experience included staggering onto and exploring islands around Antarctica as well as walking the actual continent. We were also given the option to take an Arctic plunge, hike among penguins, cruise in the zodiac and visit a Chilean science station.. On one zodiac cruise, we heard the explosive sounds and witnessed the calving of an iceberg – large chunks of ice breaking off and shattering into the water. For me, the zodiac cruises were the most magnificent experiences. Observing stunning landscapes of icebergs and glaciers, surrounded by brilliant tones of blue shadows on their curves and the azure waters was staggeringly breathtaking. No photos can do justice to such scenery.

About a dozen of our heartiest (read craziest) souls participated in an Arctic plunge. (Yes, they prepared with swimwear on.) They now claim the water was colder than that experienced by members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club this year. When we traversed the area of a Chilean science station, we davened mincha on the snow. Then, our mashgiach, Rabbi Moshe Paskesz, made an outdoor siyum for our entire group and hundreds of attentive penguins.

As we had much time on our ship, we did not let it go to waste. There were daily daf yomi shiurim, a shiur about how ‘zmanim’ (times for prayer, for candle lighting, etc.) are calculated when there is barely a sunset at the time of the summer solstice and assorted other learning opportunities. Women learned a lesson a day from the Chofetz Chaim and mishnayot from Pirkei Avot daily. Moishie Hersko taught us novices a little about photography settings for wildlife and, of course, Dan gave a few ‘shiurim’ on cards, miles, etc. The delicious catered meals were elegantly plated, making us feel like we were at a simcha daily. Kabbalat Shabbat was unique with singing, dancing and streimels representing at least six chassidic groups.

For some, a passport stamp after we were on shore in Antarctica indicated the seventh continent they had walked on; others were happy to check off one more item from their bucket list. For me, this was simply a trip of a lifetime!

By Debby Stepelman