June/July/Aug 2013

Polar Extremes

Love and penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula

Victor Lavalle

Click to enlarge

WE FLEW FROM NEW YORK to Buenos Aires and from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego, said to be the southernmost city on earth, but spent only one night there because we had farther south to go. In Ushuaia we boarded the Clipper Adventurer, bound for the Antarctic Peninsula. My girlfriend and I were on a mission. Had asked ourselves to imagine the unlikeliest place we could visit. Antarctica came up quick. We’d planned the journey together, every detail except one. I kept the engagement ring in my coat a secret.

We’d booked ourselves into a lower-deck twin cabin, the only accommodation we could afford. It still cost an assload. Our cabin had one porthole that sat at the waterline, a view of nothing but the sloshing sea; still, I marveled each time I gazed through it. I couldn’t believe we were there. A boy from Queens and a girl from Jersey on a ship to goddamn Antarctica. Plus we were black folks. The only ones on board, passenger or crew. Our presence seemed less likely than alien life. The expedition seemed so unbelievable that sometimes I’d stare at Emily and shout, “Niggas in space!” That phrase seemed to sum up the unreality just right.

We left the calm waters near Ushuaia and entered the Drake Passage, which has a reputation as some of the roughest waters on earth. Seasickness tilted the passengers—hailing from Europe, China, India, and the United States. Motion-sickness meds were ingested. Emily and I slapped scopolamine patches behind our ears. We vomited, felt dizzy, needed to rest, but we got through it. Pride swelled our slightly green heads.

After the Drake Passage we reached the South Shetland Islands, blips of land, like ellipses. The Clipper Adventurer anchored off horseshoe-shaped Deception Island. The crew ferried passengers to shore in Zodiac boats. We walked the black sands of the volcanic island, passing the remains of a whaling station, giant reddish boilers seething with rust. We trekked through the wreckage of a British base, destroyed in a volcanic eruption forty years before. And shuffling past us, everywhere, were the chinstrap penguins. Deception Island supported a breeding colony, more than a hundred thousand of the cartoonish birds. The ship’s crew cautioned us to never bother them: This was their land. A trio of chinstraps waddled toward Emily and me, so we stepped aside. Both of us laughed as they passed. “Niggas in space,” I said.

Off to Paulet Island next. Another penguin colony. Adélie penguins. Bigger, or at least louder. They shit as they walked and they walked through their shit. Their worn paths, up and down the snowy hills, were called “penguin highways.” The highways were a bright magenta from all the penguin guano. From a distance, the face of one hillside looked like a map of the human nervous system.

Emily and I left the penguins and climbed to the summit of a nearby glacier. Its sloping snowy face lay white and undisturbed. This meant the birds didn’t use it. Maybe we could. We wore snow pants and all-weather yellow parkas that had been issued to every passenger on the ship. It was like walking around inside a sleeping bag. Good sledding material. We lay flat on our backs. Our parkas squeaked against the snow. We took two breaths. Then we tobogganed down the fucking glacier. This must be what a bullet feels as it travels the barrel of a gun. The other passengers, even the crew, watched us, horrified. But as soon as we reached the bottom safely, incandescent from the thrill, four young Chinese women—best friends traveling together—plopped down and shot to the bottom. Another dozen passengers followed. Yellow-suited rockets ripping across the snow. This time Emily shouted it.

“Niggas in space!”

The right time for a marriage proposal never came. Not back on the Clipper Adventurer while watching dolphins race our ship. Not when a terrifying leopard seal tried to bite at our Zodiac boat. Not when a third of the passengers, including Emily and me, jumped into the sea, one at a time, wearing nothing but our underwear, the cold so disorienting that the crew tied a line around each diver in case he passed out in the dark water. Not when we finally reached Antarctica and toured the Vernadsky station, a Ukrainian science center that also housed the southernmost bar on earth. Not when Emily traded her bra for a shot, as was bar tradition, the back wall plastered with them. I didn’t forget my proposal; I just never found my wits long enough to interrupt this magnificent world.

After Vernadsky station the cruise ended, and we returned to Argentina. In Buenos Aires I walked Emily to the crowded Plaza de la República, one of the most famous locales in the city. In the shadow of the Obelisk of Buenos Aires I got down and the mass of people around us seemed to fall away. I asked the question.

She didn’t say, “Niggas in space.”

What did she say? You think I’d tell this whole story if she said no?

Victor LaValle's most recent novel is The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012).