Thursday, July 24, 2014

Antarctica: Peace, Cold And Penguins

Antonina Machado /
Giant icebergs are part of the beauty of Antarctica

By Antonina Machado
Junior Reporter
ANTARCTICA – A few months ago, my parents invited me to go on an expedition to Antarctica – it was my mom’s dream.
Antonina Machado /
Whales were the first animals encountered
on a journey to Antarctica.
To get me interested, my father gave me a book about the discovery of the seventh continent, explaining the expeditions of Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who was the first to reach the South Pole, and an earlier Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Both traveled more than a century ago.
The vessel we traveled in had the same name the Amundsen’s, MV FRAM.
I’m glad I decided to go, because the journey never stopped surprising me.

Antonina Machado /
A view of our ship from the shore, where
we spent our days.
One of my first experiences there were the three whales. They were right in front of the ship, but no one saw them at first.
Only when the captain started talking did we passengers realize the whales were sleeping, just there, floating in the water. 
All of us rushed to take pictures out on the frosty deck.

The captain whispered, so as not to wake them, but continued to tell us curiosities. 
Between the splashes from the penguins swimming around, and the clicks from the cameras of the astonished tourists, I didn’t know how they could be sleeping.

Beyond Expectations
Antonina Machado in Antarctica
with the ship in the background.
Usually, when you go on a trip, you have expectations in mind and ideas about what it’s going to be like.
Antarctica exceeded all of mine.
When I started telling people where I was going for vacation the expression that filled the faces of every single one of them was surprise.
They asked me questions like, “How are you getting there?” or, “Where are you going to stay?” and finally, “Why are you going?”
This last one was definitely the winner, but I can’t blame people for wondering. It’s not every day you talk to someone who is going to such a place.
When I think back, the three words that pop into my head are peace, cold and penguins. Well, maybe whales, too.
Antonina Machado /
A penguin at rest.

Harmony and Adventure
What really caught me off-guard, though, was the harmony between all the animals, and in the place itself.
Antonina Machado after making camp
on Cuverville Island, Antarctica. 
There was no sound pollution, no cars, no malls, just pure nature. Even city lovers may find themselves delighted with the white quiet experienced there.
During the 11 days I spent going from island to island on the continent, I found myself faced with the opportunity to do something special: spend one night camping at Cuverville Island with some of the expedition leaders, a few other people from the boat and the gentoo penguins as neighbors.
We called it the Amundsen experience, but with thermic sleeping bags and tents.
Fortunately for us, that day was the warmest one. It was summer there then, so we got lucky enough to have two degrees Celsius above zero, and sun!
To celebrate the rare event, we went kayaking around the island, alongside the joyous penguins and sleepy wales. Some people even thought it was warm enough to go for a swim – in totally normal, non-thermic bathing suits – a crazy idea.
YJI reporter Antonina Machado, in the front seat of the nearest kayak, takes to the icy water on a warm day in Antarctica.
At dusk, we started setting up camp, followed by some free time to explore.

Penguins are curious animals. If you just sit on a rock and wait a couple of minutes, you will find yourself surrounded by those cute, fat, cold-loving creatures, coming to check you out and bite your boots, like they were asking you to play.
Antonina Machado /
Penguins are curious, friendly animals who interact with visitors to Antarctica.
Nevertheless, an interesting fact about penguins is their strict bedtime. About 11 o’clock they start gathering and heading into the land.
Then the calm, quiet environment gets a negative feel and you finally perceive you are in the middle of nowhere and even the animals are gone.
Antonina Machado /
From their camp on Cuverville Island, travelers - and penguins - can see the lights of their ship as darkness descends on Antarctica.
It’s a moment of sad loneliness but it goes away as soon as you look up and realize you’ve never actually seen the sky. There are no lights whatsoever and yet it blinds you.
It’s impossible to notice the darkness behind when you can’t take your eyes of all the stars, shining so bright, looking like thousands of fireflies, dancing in front of you, bringing back the magic feel that the place had before.
Unfortunately, the mornings aren’t as wondrous as the nights. There is no need to set your alarm clock there, since you have penguins trying to invade your tent at the first glances of sunlight.
Antonina Machado /
Penguins on Cuverville Island, Antarctica
Antonina Machado /
Three gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Global Science Presence
Antonina Machado /
After leaving the camp, we set off to a place where all the scientific bases were. There were bases belonging to Chile and Argentina and I even got a stamp on my passport from the Russian one. 
We were able to go inside them, but not allowed to see any of the special equipment they keep.
Another really amazing place we saw was a Russian Catholic Orthodox church on the top of a hill, there, in Antarctica.
Antonina Machado /
Antarctica is home to scientific bases from many
countries. This island hosted bases 
for Chile, 
Argentina and Russia.
It may be a remote continent, but it’s definitely not forgotten. The scientists and workers there run their own little village. There is a schedule for visitations and souvenirs shops, so you can actually buy a postcard from Antarctica to send to your friends.It may be a remote continent, but it’s definitely not forgotten. 
Our next destination was a place they called the whales bay, and what a big surprise it was when the captain told us it was actually a volcano.
Antonina Machado /
An abandoned building from an old whale
oil factory in Antarctica.
Many decades ago, in its last eruption, the walls collapsed, leaving only a narrow passage to allow ships to go inside it.
There, besides the dazzling surroundings, we were still able to see ancient constructions – whale oil factories and houses and a ghost town, still preserved after all those years.
My journey to Antarctica gave me a roller coaster of emotions. With breathtaking views as our constant scenery, we stopped in places only seen in films. I got to climb a mountain and roll back down, kayak in the frozen sea and now, share this unique experiences with people from all over the world.
My advice to anyone who is planning a trip is to go to Antarctica. It will blow your mind.
Antonina Machado /
One gentoo penguin, alone on the ice of Antarctica

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Flight MH17 Is A Stark Reminder Of The Dangers Of Living In A Violent World

Caroline Nelissen /

The windmill in the Dutch town of Harderwijk, where residents, like their fellow citizens across the Netherlands, are mourning the terrible loss of life after the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last week. About two-thirds of the 298 people on board were Dutch.
By Caroline Nelissen
Senior Correspondent
TORONTO, Ontario, Canada – As a Dutch person temporarily living abroad, I usually don’t follow news from home very closely. That changed when flight MH17 was shot out of the air, killing all 298 passengers on board. As soon as I read that 193 of the  passengers were from the Netherlands, I turned to the Dutch media for more information.
I probably don’t even fully feel the weight of this tragedy because I am so far away from my home country, but despair leaps at me from the Dutch newspaper websites.
They’re filled with endless reports on grieving family members, friends and communities and stories of people who were going on a simple trip, unaware it would be their last.
News sites meticulously track developments, with the only unequivocal certainty that all of these 298 people are dead.
As I scan through the passenger list, many of the Dutch last names carry the familiarity of home and I can easily imagine the kinds of lives these people led,  the kind of towns they’re from.
They could very well have been my family, friends or acquaintances.
It horrifies and disgusts me how many people lost their lives in a single instant and how many more lives have been ripped apart by the loss of loved ones.
Of course I have always been aware that people die like this every single day, as I scan over the headlines announcing the death toll in yet another war.
People get caught up in conflicts that aren’t theirs and their lives are wiped away in a matter of minutes. From one second to the next, families and communities will never be the same.
Myah Guild /

A silent march in Amsterdam Wednesday
evening paid tribute to the memory of those
who perished on the plane.
Most of the time, these people are not from my own country. I don’t know what they look like, what their plans for the future were and how many people will miss them for the rest of their lives.
It feels different when it hits so close to home, but it’s not.
So when I think of the pain the communities around those aboard flight MH17 feel right now, I also think with horror of the countless people who have been through the same thing, and all the people who will in the future.
There are people who are alive right now, who won’t be tomorrow because they will get  caught up in a conflict they did not start and one that they have no control over.
People will lose dear friends and neighbors, children and parents. Because they find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because we live in such a violent world.
It’s most people’s worst nightmare to lose the ones they love, yet we can’t seem to escape from the eternal cycle of violence and destruction we find ourselves in.
It is all so pointless and it is so hard to know what to do to make any of it better.
So I just want take a moment to contemplate the  gravity of the death tolls we have had to read about every single day.
Because it’s the only thing I can think of doing.  

*** Your tax-deductible contribution can help support this nonprofit at

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thousands Mourn MH 17 Crash Victims With Silent March In Streets Of Amsterdam

Myah Guild /
A crowd marches silently in tribute to the victims of the MH 17 plane crash.
By Myah Guild
Senior Reporter
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands – A large crowd took to the streets in Amsterdam this evening in tribute to those who died aboard the Malaysian Airlines MH 17 plane that was shot down over Ukraine last week.
Today, as the first bodies arrived from Ukraine, was a National Day of Mourning in the Netherlands. Of the 298 who perished on the passenger plane, 193 of them – about two-thirds – were Dutch.
A silent march in memory of the dead took place at the Dam starting at 8 p.m., according to information posted on the event’s facebook page. Organizers asked people to wear white and said balloons would be released at the end of the march.
The crowd, which numbered about 5,000 people, included many wearing white and carrying white balloons.

Myah Guild /

Myah Guild /

Myah Guild /

Bears Go Hungry, But Mosquitos Make A Feast Of Tasty First-Time Campers

Mugdha Gurram /
The sunset at Wesley Island State Park

By Yelena Samofalova and Mugdha Gurram
WESLEY ISLAND STATE PARK, New York, U.S.A. – As first-time campers, we were a bit wary of what to expect the first time we spent the night in the woods.
Mary Majerus-Collins /
The Toronto Tour 2014  logo
Of course, we’d heard about all the usual stuff: sleeping in tents, roasting marshmallows, eating dinner by the fire and all that.
We anticipated an authentic camping experience and felt prepared. And while we knew we were in good hands, there was also that one concerning camping stereotype where the bear comes and eats all the food.
Mugdha Gurram
Canadian wildlife spotted 
in a New York state park! 
(Click on photo to enlarge.)
Luckily, we avoided this particular cliché.
We arrived at the campsite just in time to see the sunset, which we had a beautiful view of from our spot by the river. We would have had a beautiful view of the sunrise as well, if we’d been able to get up early enough.
Our site was right on the bank, with a postcard-worthy view of the water filled with fishing boats and sailboats, surrounded on all sides by trees.
Mugdha Gurram /
YJI reporters and advisors set up camp.

We couldn’t help but stand and stare out at the water at times. In the morning we went down to the river’s edge, getting a scenic view of the water unobscured by trees.
One of the best parts of the night was going out to a field near our campsite to look at the stars – something we don’t get to see often in suburban Connecticut, where city lights never let the sky get too dark.
Craning our necks, we tried to find the different constellations and planets. We could even see the Milky Way in one part of the sky.
Of course, no camping trip would be complete without those pesky mosquitoes. We waged a furious and courageous battle against those blood-suckers, and ended up victorious in the end.
And by victorious, we mean our legs became buffets.
Mugdha Gurram /
A view of the water from the bank near the campsite.

Beautiful Boldt Castle And Its Sad Love Story

Mugdha Gurram /
The view of the St. Lawrence River from Boldt Castle.

By Mugdha Gurram and Yelena Samofalova
THOUSAND ISLANDS, New York, U.S.A. – On the border between Canada and the United States, the St. Lawrence River is filled with tons of small islands, some with vacation homes on them and others just covered in trees.
One of the biggest attractions in the Thousand Islands area is the vacation home and nearby yacht house of early-1900s millionaire George Boldt.
Boldt’s yacht house is on Wellesley Island and contains a small portion of the estimated 60 boats he owned in his lifetime, including some of his racing boats and others he just rode out on the lake. Nearby on Heart Island, which visitors can get to by ferry, stands the vacation home he had begun to build for himself and his family.
A view of Heart Island and Boldt Castle from the ferry that brings visitors between the castle and the yacht house.
The Boldt Castle consists of four floors of elaborately decorated rooms, small rooms covered in graffiti, and even a secret passage down in the cellar, which – as some of us figured out the hard way – is not for the weak of heart.
Mugdha Gurram /
The billiard room at Boldt Castle.
Mugdha Gurram /

Some of the walls inside
Boldt Castle are defaced.
In many of the rooms, the walls are completely covered with the signatures of guests over the years, despite the warning of criminal prosecution for property defacement. People left dates – some going back to 1970 – along with their names.
Throughout the house, pieces such as plaster, imported marble, and construction tools from the original building are on display.
There’s a stark contrast between the first two floors and the ones above them. When we walked in, we saw a fancy billiard room and reception area, average rooms for a mansion like this.
At the center of the first floor there’s a great staircase leading to the second floor, where a balcony overlooks the marble floors and various gold and white-themed decorations. Looking up, we could see the elaborate, dome-shaped, stained glass ceiling. On the second floor, the circular hallway leads off into the grand rooms where Boldt and his family would have stayed.
Mugdha Gurram /
The oval-shaped, stained glass skylight over the grand staircase at Boldt Castle.
However, on the next few floors, visitors see only deteriorating walls of broken brick, wooden floors and small, vandalized rooms. A saving feature of this part of the house is a stone balcony on the third floor overlooking the water and the rest of the island.
An interesting, yet uncompleted part of the house is the basement. Although it was above ground, with grand windows all around the room, it was cool and somewhat dark.
Mugdha Gurram /
Some places inside Boldt Castle
aren't yet restored.
This floor of the castle is comprised of a large stone room with a small pool in the corner. Leading away from the room is a long winding hallway with a dirt floor, almost like a secret passage. Of course, we followed the path from the creepy cellar back to the beautiful grounds outside.
The castle is an incomplete remnant of the summer home that Boldt, a wealthy hotel proprietor, had hoped to give to his wife on Valentine’s Day in 1904. There are hearts built into the architecture all over the house.
But Louise Boldt died mysteriously that January – just a month before she would have received her Valentine’s Day gift.
George Boldt ordered all halted. He never went back to the island.
The house was left to deteriorate for more than 70 years.
In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority began restoring the castle. So far, $35 million has been spent. The work began as an effort to bring the castle back to the condition it was in when Louise Boldt died, but the restoration process has far surpassed that and is moving toward finishing many of the original grand plans.
Today, tourists enjoy what the Boldt family, despite its vast wealth, never could.
Mugdha Gurram /
George Boldt's yacht house on Wellesley Island, a short boat ride from Heart Island, where Boldt Castle is located.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sand In Our Shoes: Hiking The Dunes Trail

Mugdha Gurram /
Part of the Sand Dune Trail at Sandbanks Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.

By Yelena Samofalova, Mugdha Gurram
and Mary Majerus-Collins
SANDBANKS PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario, Canada – A circular, winding path leads through the dunes next to Lake Ontario.
Gravel, boardwalk and sand compose the path and each step onto the loose wooden planks sends your feet dipping down into the sand.
The path leads through and around the dunes, through many trees and past a few ponds and marshes with unique flora, though there wasn’t much fauna to be seen.

Mugdha Gurram /
The wetlands around the sand dunes provide habitat for many creatures.
Along the trail, we stopped at a couple boarded platforms that overlooked beautiful views. Some of them let us see extraordinary views of marshes, surrounded by trees with small grass growing out of them.
We could even hear bullfrogs if we listened carefully.
Mugdha Gurram /
A view of a sand dune, covered with footprints, and the walkers hiking along the top of it.
From others, we saw sand all around us. At one point along the trail, there was a great view of dunes from the side.
Mugdha Gurram /
A clear view of water, sand dunes and trees 
The dunes aren’t the graceful peaks of sand like those shown in photographs or movies. Instead, they’re subtle hills of sand covered in patches of grass and trees.
As we walked, we could see footprints in the sand of those who had walked the path before us.
After a while, the sand started to gather in our shoes. We probably looked ridiculous as we tried to walk without flicking sand up.
All in all, it was a very pleasant experience walking along the Sand Dune Path, enjoying the beautiful views around us.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Toronto's Harbourfront Has Plenty For All

Mugdha Gurram /
A fire eater performs before a crowd on Toronto's Harbourfront

TORONTO, Canada – Toronto’s Harbourfront draws young people for its views, food and atmosphere.
All sorts of people showed up one recent sunny Saturday.
Yiqing Zhai, who is 22 and attends Seneca College, said although she lives in Scarporoat, a nearby town, she comes to Toronto often.
She usually comes for shopping and going out to different eateries in the city. That day, she was there for the Harbourfront festival.
Debra Solsis
Arman Zadeh, who is 10, attends Finch Public School in Toronto. On his second trip to the Harbourfront, he said, he was “just hanging out with family.”
Debra Solsis, a 16-year-old who attends Loretto Abbey school, said she visits the Harbourfront about once a week with her family.
“I like walking around here,” Solsis said. “I like all the tractions and the view.”
“I love it,” said Patricia Estrella, 21, who goes to Ryerson School in the nearby town of Mississauga. “There’s always really good food.”
The best part about the Harbourfront, Zadeh said, is watching Lake Ontario.
 “Toronto is big,” Zadeh said, when asked to describe his home.
YJI reporter Mehran Shamit interviews
 Arman Zadeh on the Harbourfront
He’s not swayed by Toronto’s cuisine, however.
If he didn’t live in Toronto, Zadeh said, he’d choose Montreal, in Quebec.
“Montreal is better, because the food is good,” he said.
Reporting by Mehran Shamit, Lubaba Samin, Mugdha Gurram, Mary Majerus-Collins and Yelena Samofalova