Traveling with a SIM card (and tool!)

You know that feeling when you arrive at a foreign airport and pull out the SIM card you’ve purchased for your international travels, and you discover that you don’t have a good way to pop open your phone’s SIM card tray? So you curl up in a corner and cycle through paperclips, earring hooks, pen tips, safety pins, and a variety of other improvised tools until you finally force it open?

No? Just me? Okay.

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Launch with Verity Weaver

Fancy a new science-fiction audio adventure? Maybe one with a female lead and lots of questions about life and purpose and class ethics along with the exploding spaceships and things?

Verity Weaver audio drama spacescape

Let me introduce Verity Weaver, a new sci-fi drama following the tough choices and adventures of the titular Verity Weaver, a space miner given a no-brainer — and yet impossible — decision.

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Travelogue: Argentina & Antarctica! Cape Horn

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Argentina & Antarctica

Today we continue my What I Did On My Winter/Summer Vacation essay, moving south to Cape Horn.

Cape Horn

I’ve known about Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos) for years, the Age of Exploration and how deadly the transit was at the bottom of the world. I’ve read about it so much and always in such a historical context that it was nearly mythical.

And to be fair, it is a place of near legend. One of the, or possibly the, most dangerous ship passages on the planet, the Cape experiences gale force winds nearly 30% of the time in winter, with drifting icebergs and steep waves — including frequent rogue waves of up to 100 feet (30 meters). Winds rushing unchecked across the whole of the Pacific are funneled into the Drake Passage by the Antarctic peninsula and the Andes mountains, just as the massive waves they create come into a shallower stretch of ocean and grow steeper.

At least 800 ships have died here, with over 10,000 mariners. This place did not get its reputation lightly. The Spanish, rather than shipping their gold back to Europe around the Horn, opted instead to carry their extremely heavy loot across the continent through hostile territory, thinking it less difficult and risky.

Having steerage way, the vessel met and rose over the first [wave] unharmed, but, of course, her way was checked; the second deadened her way completely, throwing her off the wind; and the third great sea, taking her right a-beam, turned her so far over, that all the lee bulwark, from the cat-head to the stern davit, was two or three feet under water.
For a moment, our position was critical; but, like a cask, she rolled back again, though with some feet of water over the whole deck.

Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle
The Teeth of Deceit

We came to the Horn in summer, on a day which began rainy but not stormy, but you can still see how the area could be deadly, and even more so in the days before fancy charts and GPS. The Teeth of Deceit (nobody does place names like frustrated sailors) might look in the fog like the Horn itself, and if you completed your turn too soon, that would take you straight into the confluence of the Pacific and Atlantic and the jagged rocks waiting to tear your ship apart.

Not to point out how rough the region was for early explorers, but Cape Horn was known for eight years before anyone realized it was an island rather than part of the mainland. It was just that difficult to navigate. How difficult was it? Well, the HMS Bounty attempted for a full month on her outward voyage before the infamous mutiny to get around the Horn, before just turning around and going all the way around Africa and across the Pacific from the opposite direction as a simpler solution.

Let’s just review that — they determined it was easier to just circumnavigate the long way around most of the planet than to get around those few islands. Wow.

We, on the other hand, were blessed with nearly ideal conditions on this trip, and we could plainly see the passage north of the island and even the visible confluence of the two oceans. (The weather was so mild, in fact, that even the confluence was chill. It’s the darker line of disturbed water just below the horizon in the photo.)

a seacape near Cape Horn showing the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific
a seacape near Cape Horn showing the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific

(When I went to search for a better photo to share of the confluence, I found a whole internet hole of “the two oceans don’t mix!” with some dramatic and misleading images. Of course the oceans mix, there’s not a really big sheet of Plexiglass between them. Saline and temperature differences mean there’s a sort of boundary where the waters meet, because different densities don’t mix well immediately, but they’re all going to blend, thanks to wind and wave action.)

Cape Horn

And then we approached the Horn itself.

On the island is a manned lighthouse, where a Chilean navy sailor earns double pay for this windy duty. On the hills you can see a chapel, a lighthouse, and a sculpture. Yes, there’s art at the end of the world! This is the monument to the albatross and the lost mariners who died in these waters, created by José Balcells and featuring a poem by Sara Vial. It was raised in 1992 by the Cape Horn Captains Brotherhood.

Soy el albatros que te espera
en el final del mundo.
Soy el alma olvidada de los marineros muertos

que cruzaron el Cabo de Hornos
desde todos los mares de la tierra.
Pero ellos no murieron en las furiosas olas,
hoy vuelan en mis alas,
hacia la eternidad,
en la última grieta de los vientos antárticos.


I am the albatross that awaits you
at the end of the world.
I am the forgotten soul of the dead mariners
who passed Cape Horn
from all the seas of the world.
But they did not die in the furious waves,
Today they soar on my wings,
towards eternity
in the last crack of the Antarctic winds.

The albatross monument on Isla Hornos (Cape Horn).
photo: Wikimedia

You can find some truly gorgeous photos of the monument and island in this PDF from the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolumbino. The albatross monument is made of two multi-layered metal wings which form an albatross in the negative space between them. Note that even the metal sculpture has been flattened by the local winds and repaired. (This photo was not taken by me; I’m including it to give you a better idea of the sculpture’s size, as my photo had no people for reference.)

The cape itself sits at the southern tip of Isla Hornos and is roughly a mile from the lighthouse. If you compare the shapes of the cape and the Deceit photo above, even taken from opposite angles, you can see how easy it would be to mistake them in imperfect visibility.

And then at last we crossed to the south and I was able to take this photo proving I had actually passed the infamous Cape Horn:

Fun fact: Cape Horn is not named for any pointy resemblance or shape. Isaac Le Maire and Willem Schouten organized and funded an expedition to seek out an alternate route to the Dutch East India Company’s monopolized Straits of Magellan and Cape of Good Hope. Their ships were the Eendracht and the Hoorn, the latter named for Schouten’s hometown in Holland. The Hoorn was wrecked (all crew saved aboard the Eendracht) but survived in the name of the southernmost point of land.

Next: On to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica!

Chocolate & Classic Literature

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Chocolate.

Last year I helped to fund a Kickstarter for a chocolate company. That makes sense, of course, but it makes even more sense when you realize that it was book chocolate.

Open Book Chocolates makes high-quality, ethically-sourced chocolate (that’s important) themed around classic literature.

sweet loot: chocolate bars, a little notebook, a bookmark, and a temporary tattoo
sweet loot: chocolate bars, a little notebook, a bookmark, and a temporary tattoo

To be honest, they had me right from the beginning, when their first example of food in literature was Mercédès offering Muscat grapes to the Count in The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, that’s a good scene, dripping with text and subtext, and you’re going to add chocolate? I’m in.

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Travelogue: Argentina & Antarctica! Ushuaia

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Argentina & Antarctica

I’m sorry this post has been long in coming — for some reason the paying jobs had to take priority over the blog, silly but true — but I hope it’s worth the wait!

For decades, I’ve spoken of Antarctica as the crazy dream destination, exotic and fascinating and unlike anything else you can just hop in a car or plane and go to visit. In 2009, the Antarctic Treaty signatories agreed to update restrictions on tourism — a concept I understand and endorse, because we’ve seen what unchecked and unregulated tourists can do to places less fragile than Antarctica, and yet I decided that if I were going to go, I should do it.

So two years ago I booked a cruise to Antarctica. And then in February, we went.

“But Laura! You’re always going on about being environmentally conscious, and how can a cruise ship be a good idea in such an environment?”

Hey, good question! But consider this math: If ten boats go into a scenic lagoon each carrying ten people, you’ve got ten boats’ worth of noise, pollution, crowding, etc. If one hundred people go in on one boat, you have a larger boat which does produce more pollution — but much less than ten smaller boats. So fewer larger groups can actually offer less impact than more smaller groups.

This is the case with destinations such as the Galápagos Islands, which limit the number of visitors each year. While smaller boats advertise lower impact per boat, the real key to consider is impact per visitor.

I am not prepared to argue that small boats are irresponsible. But in places where minimal impact is desired, I think it’s fair to say that a larger tour group is something to consider rather than multiple small groups.

So I booked with Celebrity Cruises and packed my bags.

Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego

I’ve posted previously about Iguazú Falls, so I’ll start here with our stop in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the planet. It sits on the Beagle Channel, named for the ship which carried Darwin here.

Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire — originally called the Land of Smoke for all the natives’ cookfires, but that sounded much less impressive back in Europe) is the southernmost part of Argentina. I had originally planned to go into the national park there to hike (and thus was absolutely over-geared for a longer, more solitary outing), but we were talked into an alternate hike to a glacial lake, Laguna Esmeralda.

We hiked through forest and then across one of the largest peat bogs in South America toward the mountains. The ground was gloriously springy and make delightful squish, squelck sounds as you walked. Areas were dangerously soft, and there were places where you had to use boards or branches to pass through, as the peat was knee-deep.

How do I know the depth so exactly? Because on the way back, we encountered a bit of a traffic jam with a lot of hikers all trying to use the same poles across a deep spot in both directions. I thought I’d be clever and go another route, since I could see another single pole a little way off.

It’s wobbly going, on a 4″ wide pole in squishy terrain, but I have decent balance and I’d felt pretty good on the narrow beams all day. My pack was centered and tight, so it wouldn’t shift, so everything was fine except — oh, except my camera, slung around one shoulder and thus well off center when it swung with my movement on a wiggly pole. It pulled me over and I began to flail my arms for recovery.

Only, it’s not my camera. I’d borrowed it from my sister Alena, so smashing it into a mess of peat would be bad, and I didn’t want to lose it so early in the trip. All this went through my mind in that time dilation which occurs in certain crises, and I made the decision to sacrifice my foot to save my torso and camera in case I couldn’t recover.

My leg went in to my knee, and I pulled out my bare sock.

Well, drat. Now how was I going to retrieve my hiking shoe without filling it full of peat?

My friend Mark watched the whole thing and took the absolutely appropriate action of snapping a documentary photo. (Then he came to offer me a steadying hand while I replaced my hiking boot on the wobbly pole.)

I squat on a pole to gently retrieve my hiking boot from the peat.
I squat on a pole to gently retrieve my hiking boot from the peat.

Overall, it was a nice hike, if a bit more crowded than I’d hoped. I’m sure the national park would have been more isolated, but it also was a longer drive and an entrance fee. This scenery was nice, too.

We had a friendly taxi driver, but one awkward moment occurred when someone mentioned the Falklands. “You mean Las Malvinas?” he corrected, in Spanish. There are even metal road signs reminding drivers that Las Malvinas son argentinas; if Argentina had won the war, the islands would be part of Tierra del Fuego. “But let’s not talk about that,” he continued with a smile. “Let’s just enjoy the day.” So we did.

Let’s Take A Break

Oh, I just looked at what I have written to follow, and I’ll break a server if I try to make this a single post. Hey, guys, just like The Hobbit, this post is now a series! But I promise, no silly love triangles to negate all the characterization achievement of previous canon. Tune in next time for Cape Horn!

The Umbrella Academy: A Viewing

The Umbrella Academy Dark Horse comics and Netflix series

Last night I told my husband I was interested in seeing the new Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, about which I’d heard good things. I didn’t know much of the plot, but the teaser trailers had the right mood. The problem was, I said, that it was ten episodes and I was way too busy, behind on lots of things because of my Antarctica trip and in general, to start a series. (I don’t watch a lot of television at all anyway.) I was still working up until ten p.m., when I decided to forcibly reschedule my remaining to-do task and take a break.

So at ten last night Jon and I decided to try The Umbrella Academy. But just one episode. “Two is my absolute limit,” said Jon, who also had some extra commitments to take care of today.

And that is how we went to bed after seven this morning, while the light rose palely through the bare winter trees and the birds sang and the sleepy dogs wondered why we would change locations after spending the night on the couch.

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