"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Antarctic Journals, Chapter Three

Alfajores and Things Argentine

Ernest Shackleton is Anglo-Irish, born in Ireland in 1874, and destined for a life at sea.  At the age of 16, he apprentices “before the mast” on a square rigged sailing ship, and learns his trade on the job. 

By 1896, he is qualified to command a British ship anywhere in the world,  certified as a Master Mariner.  For several years, he regularly sails between England and Cape Town delivering mail and passengers.

Ernest Shackleton
Through the machinations of acquaintance and friendship, the usual “it’s who you know” thing, Shackleton hires on as third officer for an expedition to the South Pole.  Under the auspices of the Royal Geographic Society and commanded by Robert Falcon Scott, the Discovery Expedition sails from London in July of 1901.  The ship arrives along the Antarctic coast in January of 1902, after calling at Cape Town and New Zealand.

Scott chooses Shackleton and another man to accompany him on an exploratory route towards the pole.  Though they reach farther south than any other attempt to date, 82° 17’, the trip seems doomed.  Food for the sled dogs that hauled the supplies is tainted and all 22 dogs die. 

On the return trip, the three men are afflicted with snow blindness, frostbite, and--the bane of sailing men everywhere--scurvy.  


Amid rumors of contention between Shackleton and Scott, Scott insists that Shackleton leave for health reasons on a relief ship that arrived in McMurdo Sound, January 1904.  He arrives in New Zealand and stays for a while to recuperate.  He is very disappointed with himself, considering his health problems a personal failing.


On the back of the seat in front of me is small television screen.  It features my favorite thing about flying internationally:  the flight path and progress information.  A small airplane icon shows where we are on the flight path, and other information lists air speed, time elapsed, time to destination, and altitude.  It also gives the exterior temperature, which hovers around 50 below Fahrenheit when at altitude.

We are served dinner and most of us settle in to sleep.  Seated beside me is an Argentine man in his late 20s.  For many hours, I don’t think he speaks English, so I remain quiet.  We awake, are served breakfast, and when my seatmate rises for a trip to the restroom, I do so, too.

He is waiting in the aisle when I return.  I say “thanks” and slide into my seat.   “Oh, you’re welcome,” he responds in perfect English.  That opens the floodgates.

Before we land in Buenos Aires, I know that his name is German, his father lives in Spain, his mother in San Diego, and that he is returning home to Buenos Aires after visiting her.  He works in technology.

I learn that beef is the iconic food of Argentina.  I tell him one of my childhood memories is of oddly-shaped cans of corned beef from Argentina, cans that needed a “key” to unwrap the metal seal.*

Canned corned beef, and yes, it's tapered.

He says to be sure to buy Argentine chocolate, not the cheap fakes.

“Try empanadas and milanesas (breaded pan-fried meat),” he says and then tops it all off with a cookie concoction called alfajor.  He even specifies Havanna as the best brand.

 Later in this trip, I encounter two versions of alfajor on the ship.  The first, prepared by the ship’s kitchen, consists of two white cookies filled with caramel filling, then dusted with powdered sugar.  It was tasty.

 The second I find at the Vantage Travel desk (where all things Vantage are dealt with).  The guides have a large, institutional-sized box of the cookies.  Again, two cookies with a sweet filling, but these are coated with a white icing.  I am not impressed.

Near the end of the trip, on LAN Airways flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, we are given a snack pack by the cabin crew.  Among the goodies inside the box is a foil-wrapped Havanna Alfajor.  I eat mine.  It is very, very good and very, very sweet.

Somehow I find myself in possession of two more Havanna Alfajores.  Because they are so sweet, I stuff them in my carry-on bags for later.  I still have them, although by now they are a conglomeration of ingredients mashed into a sweet paste, and the packages look as if it they have been run over by a penguin stampede.  Otherwise, I’d open them and show you what they look like.

Mashed Alfajores packages

The plane lands, taxis to the terminal and the seat belt sign is turned off.  I now have German’s full name, cell phone number, instructions on how to dial his phone number from outside the country, and his e-mail address.  Also, his offer to escort me around town, should I want a guide.  "Anything you need," he says, "you call me."

Before we part, German asks me what is the iconic food of Alaska.  He wants to know how much  two pounds of salmon cost.  I pause, and then say, “I don’t know.  I don’t buy it.  I go out and catch it.”

He is still chuckling and muttering “go out and catch it”  as we struggle down the aisle to disembark in Buenos Aires.

This one's for you, German.   Yes, I caught all those.

*For a fun read about canned corned beef, go here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-2642,00.html 


  1. THANKS for writing of your travels Jeanne, So Amazing, what fun! And intersting lore.

    You need to write more though. Irene

  2. I love that you collected German's cell phone number and email address. The world must seem a smaller place to you considering all the acquaintances you've acquired throughout your travels. I'm sure German was blown away when you told him you don't buy salmon, you go out and catch it yourself. The alfagor sounds like an unusual treat. Too bad your two packages got mushed up.

    Thanks for sharing your trip.