Originally published March 10, 2015
I remember sitting in the dark late one night, a little over a year ago, looking at a map while building the itinerary I was to submit along with my Bonderman Fellowship application. Starting in Central America, my eyes traced downwards into South America, and as my glance moved farther and farther South my imagination grew larger.
“Perhaps I’ll hike Cotopaxi” I thought silently to myself. “I wonder what the Galapagos Islands are like?” Once the wheels started turning, there was no stopping them. I was dreaming of far away places, that if I were lucky enough, I would get to see with my own two eyes. “Machu Picchu.” “Patagonia.” My eyes couldn’t keep up with my mind as it danced around the globe. And then I got to the bottom of South America.
Just a bit further was a large white mass, distorted/elongated by the map: “Antarctica.” The idea almost seemed too crazy. I didn’t even know if it was possible, but the seed had been planted; if granted this amazing opportunity, I was going to find a way to Antarctica. I skimmed madly through old trip advisor posts and scattered travel blogs. All roads pointed to “Ushuaia” which seemed worlds away at the time.
After nearly two weeks of waiting for a ship, I could practically lead a tour around Ushuaia. I even have a good running route mapped out along the water. While the city had really grown on me, I was absolutely giddy walking down to the port. As I climbed the gangway onto the Sea Spirit, my dream, a year or so in the making, was ever closer to becoming reality.
The ship was amazing—I walked down the hallway of the floating hotel, which I would call home for the next 10 days, and found Room 343. Minutes later, one of my roommates walked in.
Dotan is traveling after serving seven years in the Israeli army. He is also one of the smarter, more interesting people I have ever met—the man built a personal 3D printer and brews his own beer. Just then, the door popped back open and Gavin, the final piece of Room 343, strolled through the door. Being that there were two beds and one couch bed, Dotan and I immediately picked up our things off the beds and offered one of them to Gavin. “No, no,” he reassured us in a suave South African accent, “Please, I’m fine on the couch.” And that was that, Room 343: a 49-year-old South African bachelor/banker who lives in Shanghai, a 29-year Israeli engineer/Army captain and me, a 23-year-old kid from Seattle.
Traveling alone definitely has its ups and downs, but by far one of the coolest parts is the opportunity to meet people you otherwise never would have known. Jon (my English buddy from Ushuaia), for example, roomed with Keith, a hilarious 72-year old Australian who works for a hot air balloon company and played cricket all over the world as a Rotarian. As we felt the ship begin to lurch away from the dock, we ran upstairs to the stern deck to bid Ushuaia farewell. We were on our way.
Day 2 was spent entirely at sea, as we had to cross the Drake Passage (the traditionally rough stretch of water between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula). Much of the ship wasn’t feeling too hot, including myself, so I spent the day resting and falling asleep in the various lectures offered onboard (which were really interesting, but lost the battle against the seasickness pills and the long rolling waves rocking the ship to and fro). Being that I didn’t pay for internet on the ship, I decided to take a break from technology (almost) entirely, trading the computer keyboard for a pen and paper. I peeled open my leather journal, which hadn’t seen the light of day since Nicaragua. In the front laid bits and pieces from my study abroad trip. There are plenty of notes in here from the summer of 2012 that if read aloud would sound as if they were written last week:
July 9th—“I came across an interesting quote, ‘Human Beings need dreams the way fish need water’ [note: I have no idea where this quote came from, so if it’s yours, please don’t sue me]. This struck me as interesting because technically speaking, humans don’t need dreams and aspirations to survive, but fish need water to do so. That being said, while we don’t need them to survive, humans do need dreams to live. Living is different then purely surviving. Living implies excitement, passion, emotion. Dreams are what evoke such things. Dreams give us something to strive for, to chase.” July 12th—“If we learned anything…Melun is not Milan.” July 22nd—“I’m realizing more and more that I want to write things when I am older.”
It’s interesting how relevant most of my thoughts still are, and even more interesting to see how my thought process has changed.
The following morning we set foot on land for the first time. It was a comforting feeling, and a nice change from the constant swaying of the ocean and the previously infinite flat blue horizon line. The South Shetland Islands are off the coast from the Antarctic Peninsula, thus we were not yet into the “land of the ice and snow,” but rather on a greenish, rocky bit of earth, home to tons of chinstrap penguins. I absolutely love penguins after this trip—you can’t watch a penguin waddle around on its stumpy webbed feet and not be happy. That said, they are much dirtier than the commercial world of National Geographic makes them out to be—I would imagine a penguin covered in feces doesn’t sell too many copies. Nevertheless, we tromped around the smelly island and spent some time hanging out with the little guys. The next day we explored Half Moon Island to see plenty more penguins, as well as the remnants of an old whaling boat on the shore, which serves as a beautiful reminder of a not-so-distant, ugly past.
That afternoon, we sailed into the protective bay of Deception Island, a kind of crescent shaped land formation that is actually an active volcano caldera. As we disembarked on the beach, a thick layer of steam rose off the water, and with the dilapidated whaling station equipment in the distance, the scene was set for a sci-fi blockbuster.
We followed Phil, a highly entertaining plant pathologist / geologist, turned Antarctic ski guide / climber, up the mountain of volcanic ash. As we reached the top of “Neptune’s Nipple,” we were greeted by a view that can only be described as “epic.” The number one piece of advice I would give to anyone going abroad for any reason is to go without any expectations. In this case, I didn’t necessarily follow my advice, as I envisioned a flat, white, uninhabited continent. Yet here I stood, several hundred meters above sea level, looking out at turquoise water lapping at beautiful cliffs, massive mountains, and an old airplane hanger. [note: For those wondering, the NFC West rivalry is alive and well even in Antarctica, as I received some feedback from a 49ers fan about my Hawks beanie.] The next morning I woke up feeling the best I have felt in about a week, just in time to hop in a zodiac raft and cruise around huge icebergs for our first look at the actual continent. It felt like we were in a flooded mountain range (which I guess technically we kind of were), as black and white peaks jutted straight out of the water all around us.
After boarding the Sea Spirit we continued on through Wilhelmina Bay, en route to our first step on the seventh continent, when something caught the captain’s eye. A big spray of mist came hissing out of the water, followed by the massive, dark back of a humpback whale. Another cloud of mist and another back. Then a tail. Then three.
We were completely surrounded by a dozen or so humpback whales who appeared to have stopped for a mid-afternoon feast. Suddenly, a familiar voice echoed about the ship. “Everyone, get kitted up. We’re getting the boats out,” Shane said excitedly. Everyone ran to their cabins like kids who were just told they were going to the candy store. A trail of large bubbles surrounded the zodiac next to us, and then two giant dark masses emerged at the surface, mere feet away from our raft, close enough to see the rugged barnacles on their faces and backs. One peered at us, took a breath and then, with a slow, powerful flick of its tail, dove deep below us into the frigid depths.
The water was still like a mirror, so we could hear the hiss of the whales’ breaths across the entire bay. Then a low, guttural sound, followed by a distant, higher-pitched trumpet—the whales were talking to each other. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. I cannot begin to express how much my respect for nature has grown throughout these past five months.
Later that afternoon I set foot on the continent for the first time, and man was it special just envisioning where we were standing. I attempted to make a snow angel, but the snow was too icy. That being said, we did manage to make a snowman.
Several years ago in one of my Honors classes at UW, I learned about “watermelon snow,” however, I never imagined I would ever see this type of snow, as the algae that causes the pinkish color only survives in specific environments. On Day 6, as we were zooming around on a zodiac, the guide pointed out the pinkish slopes. My astrobiology class came rushing back, and it hit me—I was experiencing something I had only ever seen in textbooks. It was awesome.
Though speaking of awesome, that night, Phil challenged me to think of 26 synonyms for “awesome,” one starting with every letter of the alphabet, for he and several others I’ve met along the way think Americans use the word to much. Perhaps equally as awesome, we also learned that Phil has a pet fungal colony, named Kiki.
While aboard, I tried to work out as much as I could, partly to combat the rich food, but also to enjoy some alone time and reflect. With my headphones in, I peddled, staring directly out on the icebergs passing me by, as the stationary bike rocked to and fro with the movement of the ship. Sometimes I was riding slightly uphill, then downhill, and then back up again. I felt like an Antarctic version of Owen Wilson in You, Me & Dupree when he is “chasing” Lance Armstrong on TV on his bike in the living room. After my reflective bike ride we visited Port Lacroy, an English fort that is now a museum and a gift shop. I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything, but then I saw a tie patterned with the Antarctic tartan.
I couldn’t not buy a tie in Antarctica, especially later when I learned that Phil actually had a hand in its creation when he worked for the British Antarctic Survey. When I prodded further, his story began, “It was a drunken night in Wales, and there was a bad Scottish band playing in the bar, wearing plaid kilts…” He maintains that he then helped craft an entire tartan pattern, representing all of the elements of Antarctica, as an elaborate, beer-induced joke. Everyone else seemed to think it was actually a good idea, and the rest is history. The sun decided to bless us with its presence the next day, just in time for plenty of leopard seals, icebergs, and the notorious Antarctic Polar Plunge.
The official temperature of the water that day was 1 degree Celsius. As I walked down the gangway, awaiting my self-inflicted fate, several humpbacks surfaced about some 100 yards off the boat. Yes it was really cold. And yes it was worth it. Especially afterwards when we fit 28 people into the hot tub, eclipsing the previous record of 27.
The next morning was to be our last on the continent, so we awoke early to hike to a gentoo penguin colony and then up a snow-covered hill to a rocky point overlooking a glacier and Neko Harbor, a calm, dark bay.
I sat up there for awhile, thinking and reflecting, as a soft snow began to fall and dense fog rolled in. As I thought about how I ended up on the bottom of the world, why I had been chosen for this experience, etc. I kept coming back to the idea of “doing” things when I get home, taking action. I also decided that I want to let go of the little things. Later that afternoon, I was talking to Darrell in the lounge about where he had traveled and where he wanted to go, when an announcement interrupted our conversation. We burst outside just in time to see a pink minke whale breaching perhaps no more than 50 yards from the ship.
The next day as we headed out to sea, I felt sick and spent most of the day lying in bed. Fortunately, this gave Dotan and I time to work on a submission to the Antarctic Poetry Contest (which we ended up winning!). I eventually did get up to attend the Antarctic Charity Auction. I almost bid on a bow tie version of the tie I had purchased, accompanied by a matching hat, though I had figured I was out of my league; turns out I was right, as I later found out that the winning bid belonged to a seasoned auction veteran…who usually buys horses.
I got seasick for the first time ever that day, but fortunately felt well enough to attend Rick’s talk the following morning—the man has filmed great whites for shark week, grizzly bears in Alaska, etc. You name it, he’s done it, so I asked him for some career advice. His response: “Do what you love. And if you push hard enough, doors will open.”
At the charity auction, Martin had won the opportunity to steer the ship, and being that we were ahead of schedule, he was going to get to do it around Cape Horn (the piece of land that separates the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans). As we approached the jagged cliff, frosted with a thin layer of greenery, I realized that I wasn’t ready to move on, to round the Cape. I realized that I was content. Everything about the experience was special, though I didn’t realize how special that moment really was until Shane talked about the first time he rounded Cape Horn with his dad, and how much it had meant to his father. He had read about such a moment hundreds of times, but nothing compared to living it. He then asked us to just listen to a song in peace as Good Riddance, by Green Day began to hum around the still room…”I hope you had the time of your life…” A wave of emotion swept over the crowd, and a few tears were shed.
It sounds silly, that 10 days on a boat can provoke this kind of raw emotion, but traveling is perhaps the most enriching, enlightening force on the planet—not just seeing something new, but living something new. Our last dinner was delicious, but it was not the food that made it so special. Just before dessert, the entire staff lined up around the room. Waiters, bartenders, kitchen prep, dishwashers, laundry attendants—every single person was there and was introduced one by one, as each took a step forward and smiled. It was a magical moment, and hands down the loudest the boat had cheered all week. Yet something inside me, deep down, hurt.
I noticed that nearly everyone sitting down at the tables was from North America, Europe, Australia, etc.—“The First World.” And everyone standing was from everywhere in between—Central/South America, Asia, etc. Most of those sitting were of a lighter complexion, while most standing were not. In the year 2015, the Third World is still serving the First, and often doing so with grace. Perhaps this example is a bit extreme, as I realize that not everyone will be able to go on a cruise to Antarctica. Furthermore, I am not saying that everyone ‘sitting down’ should feel guilty. Rather I’m pointing out that inequality still exists everywhere, but we have the power to change that. Some might think the festivities that followed were not productive in terms of solving such world inequality, but I would argue the contrary. People from Canada, U.S.A., Qatar, India, Israel, South Africa, UK, Italy, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and many more, danced, sang, and reminisced on one of the most amazing weeks of our lives, but more importantly, solidified our bonds of friendship.
As the night drew to a close, Tom came running into the bar, barefoot, for he had been asleep when he heard a loud splash outside his window. Four dolphins were zooming up and down the side of our boat, leaving trails of white bubbles in the dark ocean. As they playfully leaped into the air, the lights of Ushuaia appeared in the distance—it was as if they were guiding us through the Beagle Channel, guiding us home. I gazed up into the night sky, while the Milky Way and the Southern Cross stared back. While I did my best to tell the story of one of the most incredible 10 days of my life, I don’t know if the most eloquent of words can ever do the beauty of Antarctica justice.
Thanks for reading. [note: I apologize for the delay. My computer broke in Argentina, so I am a few posts behind, but it is fixed and I’ll be catching up shortly. On a separate note, thank you to everyone that made those 10 days so amazing. You are all incredible people.]