Monday, 15 May 2017


Hello and greetings my children! Are you sitting comfortably? Sorry, I’m feeling a bit hyper today. Two cups of coffee and a bar of chocolate and I am wonderfully wired. I’ve had a splendid last couple of weeks though. The science in the Southern Ocean finished about two weeks ago and we swiftly turned north towards Montevideo. Rather amusingly we managed to hit some bad weather on our way back which made the return journey much more fun. I think at certain points we were actually making negative progress!

It was brilliant though. I went up to the navigation bridge a lot and squealed loudly every time we started to tip over into a really deep trough. I must be deeply fun to sail with. Our instruments were recording the waves as being 10-12meters high; just think about that! That’s like being on the top of a 4-5 storey building and then crashing down into the basement every few seconds! It was faintly hypnotising to watch our progress from the bridge; to see the slow gathering of the swell, the delicate veins of white foam criss-crossing the leaden grey-black surface of the waves. Feeling the bow of the ship lifting as it hit the upswell, beginning the climb and then sitting, weightless and poised at the crest, staring down into the depths of the next trough.  Then a sharp descent into the watery maw just before the ship ploughed her way, snout first, into the next wave with billows of white, roiling water crashing and thundering their way onto the deck.

I made my way up to the Monkey Island with two of the scientists to watch our progress on the final day of the big blow. Happily the air temperature was finally warm enough that we could stand outside for hours which felt like a hysteria-inducing luxury after so many weeks of only going outside for essentials. We hung our heads over the parapet, enjoying the rush of fresh air and the steep drops before tumbling to the deck, shrieking with laughter, to avoid the walls of spray that would be wafted up towards us.

And then suddenly we were in Montevideo and it was time to say farewell to all the crew and scientists that I had sailed with. This crew change had a particular piquancy because it was the last time that I would sail with any of them. I finish in August, just as they will be rejoining the ship for the refit (that’s to make the ship ready for sea again after a year of work) and to take her across to Denmark. So it was rather a sorrowful farewell, although I suspect that for them the occasion was coloured by the fact that they were getting home after four months at sea! Still, they’ve been wonderful to sail with and I will miss them every time I trundle down into the hold to do circuits and every time I watch Terminator II!

Montevideo itself was wonderful. It’s the capital city of Uruguay and it sits just where the River Plate disgorges itself into the Atlantic. In my head, it was a land of gauchos, steak, Graham Greene and men wandering around in white suits and panama hats whilst looking shifty. And it really didn’t disappoint. A lot of the architecture is in a lovely Spanish colonial style that looks as though it hasn’t received much in the way of tender loving care in the last decade or so. The doors are tall and narrow and the windows adorned with wooden shutters flaking paint after years of exposure to the sun. Most of the upper stories have iron wrought balconies, with occasional faces of inquisitive cats or dogs poking their heads through the bars.
Faded glories in Montevideo

Like most visitors to Montevideo, I  went to the meat market for many of my meals. Apparently, many years ago, a ship was carrying a pre-fabricated iron wrought railway station to South America. The ship unloaded in Uruguay but the new owners failed to pay their bill so they were never allowed to collect the railway station. So it sat at the dock in Montevideo for years until someone realised that it might not be needed as a railway but it would make a great covered market. So now it sits by the entrance to the port, housing several pop-up restaurants and a few souvenir stands.

 The pop-up restaurants were glorious. They consisted of a central workstation with hot coals and a grill in the center to cook the meat or seafood and a counter for the customers to sit at.  I ate three steaks in two days. I’m actually pretty proud of that although when it came to dinner time on the second day, I just lay in bed whimpering and telling people that I didn’t want to eat anymore. The steak was easily the best that I have ever had; they were deliciously tender and wonderfully flavourful. These were happy and contented cows! And there were these bowls of thyme, chilli, garlic and olive oil standing on the counter tops, which when spread liberally over the steak made it something to die for. Excuse me, I just have to go and dribble a little bit. Seriously, you should go!
The Counter at the one of the MeatMarket Stalls

Meat Market from Above

I made liberal use of the wifi in the coffee shops in order to video call my other half. It was lovely to see his face even if it did come complete with a pang of homesickness! Sadly the dog was resolutely ignoring my voice as it came out of the phone. She knows enough not to be fooled; hearing my voice doesn’t mean I’m there (and therefore no treats will be forthcoming)! I didn’t skype my parents because as my father pointed out with impeccable logic, they already KNOW what I look like. If any of you ever think that I am slightly odd, I would just like to point you towards my parents. Yep. They sent me a lot of chocolate though, so I should probably show them slightly less lip. I love you Mum and Dad!

And I visited a few museums. The first was the Pre-Colombian Museum of Indigenous People which was interesting although regrettably most of the signs were in Spanish so I perhaps didn’t get as much out of it as I could have done (This is my own fault entirely, for not being good enough at Spanish, btw). Still, there was a fantastic display of festival masks on the top floor which were wonderfully creepy, so that was very enjoyable.
Incredibly Spooky Festival Masks

But the best museum by far was the Andes 1972 museum. If you are ever in Montevideo, you MUST go there. I imagine most of you know the story, but in 1972 a team of Uruguayan rugby players went missing when their plane flew into the Andes and vanished in bad weather. Chilean, Argentinian and Uruguayan rescue missions were scrambled to try and find the crash site and/or any survivors but all forty-five people had simply disappeared into the vastness of the Andes. Seventy-two days later a Chilean farmer found two men trying to gain his attention across a river. He threw them a rock with a piece of paper and a pen tied to it. And he received in return a letter explaining that they were some of the survivors of the flight that had crashed. They had walked for ten harrowing days to try get help for the remainder of their friends. The farmer, Sergio Catalan, rode for four hours and then travelled another hour in a truck simply to get to the nearest town with a police station to get help. Shortly after, the survivors were rescued from the crash site, the Valley of Tears, in the Andes. 

At first, it simply seemed miraculous that the sixteen survivors were still alive. And then it hit the news; there was evidence that human remains had been consumed at the crash site.  A huge media conference was called and the survivors told their horrific story. That without food, water and minimal shelter other than what could be fashioned out of the remains of the plane, the survivors had been driven to eat the bodies of their fallen friends. They were out there for seventy-two days; to do anything else would have meant their deaths.
 Certainly, when I read the book “Alive” about their struggle as a fairly grisly (what can I say, I’m a medic!) ten year old, that was the bit that I focused on. But as I walked around the museum, I realised that this was by no means the most remarkable part of their story. Trauma, dehydration and hypothermia would have been the biggest killers in mountains where the night-time temperatures dropped to sub-zero. The fact that they survived at all is the remarkable thing, not what they were driven to eat in their extremis.

And then I reached one of the final information boards. A father of one of the boys who had died soon after the plane crashed had made a statement to the press. I’m paraphrasing, but he said that when he was told that the flight had crashed into the Andes, he had known that there was no way that his son could have survived given the conditions. He then said “...if it had to happen, I am glad that there were forty-five of them. Because it means that sixteen families were able to welcome their sons home tonight...we have nothing to reproach these boys with...” The magnanimity and compassion inherent in those words is astonishing. And I think that is what this museum emphasises; that even in the ugliest and hardest of times we can behave with compassion. Even when things are at their most bleak, there is hope.
Wading birds fishing the fresh water of the River Plate as it empties into the Atlantic

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