The carols began playing over the ship's public-address system on the day before Christmas, which somehow seemed just right, so far from home. As usual with those holiday tapes, every fifth tune was "Little Drummer Boy."
I sat alone by a window in the ship's lounge and, over the top of my Shackleton book, stared at the ice of Antarctica. It was the most peaceful Christmas Eve I'd ever known--quiet, cozy, uncomplicated. No rushing. No shopping. No open houses. And too cold to go outside and play.
Across the lounge, three white-haired fellows were swapping travel tales. The odd, exotic words drifted my way: Borneo, Sherpa, Xian. I saw that they were listening to each other. There is time for such luxury at sea.
A Christmas Eve without parades, just a line of crystal fog that drew an opaque curtain around our ship, there near the bottom of the world. Soon we were trailing streamers of albatrosses, wanderers with crosses on their backs. Cape petrels joined in, soaring on the updrafts like black-and-white confetti. I pushed my book aside and wrapped up in a blanket.
In the library an Australian rancher was busy with watercolors. The ship's doctor studied an atlas. A woman from the island of Sark scratched happily at post cards, which would not be mailed for two weeks. ("Of course you may post them at the Polish station on the day after Christmas," our leader, Lars-Eric Lindblad, had said. "But they might not leave Antarctica until a supply ship comes in six months.")
Simple decisions, if any at all, create an upwelling of peace.
In my cabin I cleared a space by the porthole and arranged five blue limpet shells that I had collected in the Falkland Islands. They were keyhole limpets and I had found a beach littered with them, in lavender, rose and blue.
The fog pulled closer. We were the center of a small ring of ocean. We were the keyhole in the blue limpet. We were the most people for thousands of miles, the 80 of us on that ship.
An Errand to Run
But enough of drifting dreams. I did have a Christmas errand. I wanted to find four snips of tape so that I could attach a spray of Russell lupine to a sack from the Falklands Islands Co. store.
The lupine was from the garden of a child named Poppy whom I met on tiny West Point Island. She handed me a nosegay as I left to sail farther south. Packages adorned with blue petals and green stalks. It seemed wondrous in this world of icebergs and glaciers.
The fog was blinding bright in the porthole, and when I turned away, white circles followed, full moons that bounced on the walls and into the mirror, like the blue dots that burn in your eyes after a flash-bulb pops.
As I left for dinner I saw that a California couple had come prepared. Printed cards on each door said: "From our cabin to yours, Merry Christmas." A fir tree had been decorated in the lounge and flickered with green and red lights. I wondered if it had traveled with us from Uruguay where we began this journey; I had not seen many trees since.
Muffins and Fruit
We had breakfast in our cabin on Christmas Day: coffee and hot chocolate, bran muffins and orange marmalade, a ripe banana and pears. We traded gifts. I gave him a glacial-blue marker pen and two linen towels showing Falklands maps and penguins. I gave him a fisherman's sweater, knit by the wives of Port Stanley.
He gave me snow-white long underwear, trimmed at the neckline with lace. Far too fancy for the Falklands general store, I said, and then saw the Nordstrom label.
Christmas lunch was a feast of Smithfield ham and roast turkey, baked yams and pumpkin pie, homemade ice cream and baklava. It was borne by a Greek named Babis, who had brought our breakfast tray.
After the last hearty toast we put on red parkas and walked out on the deck for fresh air. It was warmer now, and snow was beginning to fall. Fat flakes stuck to our hair and wool gloves.
Music began booming from the loudspeaker.