Antarctica is the most amazing place I’ve visited in all of my travels. It’s been about a week and half since I got back and I think I was hoping the words would come to me, as to how to reflect my feelings for this magical place. I still don’t have them now, but I’m leaving for the Amazon Rainforest in the morning, so it seems like now is a case of what I have now is good enough! 😊
One of the fun things about the Antarctic expedition is that I met many wonderful new people. This won’t surprise the people who’ve survived the years of sharing their highs and lows with me, but I liked to ask people at dinner, what was the best thing about Antarctica. Many people had a hard time finding just one thing, but inevitably they could narrow it down. For me, it seems like everyday it changed. Everything was just so incredible. The glaciers, the snow, the ice, the penguins, the whales, the seals, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, stepping foot on the continent, jumping into the icy waters. They were all amazing and all things. But if I were to describe it to myself before the trip, I would be like, yeah, I’m sure that’s amazing. But like, you can experience that amazingness in other ways.
How is it different than seeing whales in Chatham or Hawaii? How is it different than seeing seals on the pier in San Francisco? How is it different than jumping into the Atlantic in Massachusetts in the winter? Is it more special to step on that this continent than another new continent just because it’s hard to get to? I’m sure it’s great, but I do not give out best there is lightly. I’m happy to hand out praise, but very reluctant to firmly commit to anything.
So why is the bottom of the Earth so great? I think it’s the scale. It’s not a sexy answer, but it’s the best way I have to frame this up. First thing about the scale, is just how expansive it all is. These glaciers are immense and pristine and white, with hints of blue ice which is just majestic, and maybe some lichen or moss for a little pizazz. But they’re like a million years old. That’s not an exaggeration! I went to a lecture on it, and I’ll spare you the details, but its very dry so not much new ice and snow forms each year, and thus it just kind of slooooowly builds up. A million year old ice from a glacier that I touched? But it’s more than that. It’s just so untouched. It’s the opposite of any tourist place you go, there isn’t someone in the backdrop. There’s not graffiti. It wasn’t built up by natives along ago, then exploited by conquistadors or destroyed by bombs in a war. It’s just pristine beauty as far as the eye can see.
I think that’s why I liked Bolivia so much is that it was these colorful mountains and pink lakes and flamingos and llamas, that you had to get to by driving for a day down a dirt road, where you haven’t had cell coverage for a couple of days. It’s why I liked hiking the Quarry Trek because it was just the 4 of us and our guide out in the mountains. Well Antarctica is like that but the extreme! It takes 3 days just to get there by boat.
Ok, but the scale is more than just how big and untouched it all is. It’s also how much you get to be a part of it, and experience it. Why was having the seal swim up to my kayak so much more amazing than seeing the seals in Queenstown, NZ or like I said before, the pier in California? Yeah, it’s pretty amazing when it swims up to you and looks you in the eye, and not because it’s used to being fed by tourists but because humans and boats are rare and it’s just curious. But it’s amazing because you don’t have to take the seal in isolation. You’re not on a whale watching boat with 200 other people when the whale comes 5 feet from you, you’re stand up paddle boarding. And you’re not stand up paddle boarding in the protected bay formed by the high tide in the salt marsh in Sandwich, MA. You’re stand up paddle boarding in a protected bay formed by islands and glaciers. When you see the penguins, it’s not just a handful, it’s a whole colony that has mama or daddy penguins feeding their young, and molting penguins that are just trying to grow their fur and not hate life, and a token chinstrap penguin in a colony of gentoos that you’re like how did you get there? And you can watch them waddle down their formed penguin highway, and if you sit there for a while, one will come up to you because it’s curious. And then later, you see them swimming by your boat/kayak/paddleboard, in little packs, just all the time. They are so close that you can admire the grace and elegance of their swimming, after you’ve just laughed at the waddle which reminds me of trying to walk quickly in high heels and a tight skirt that goes past your knees. If you have been lucky enough to be in a place where you can interact with wildlife with such closeness, please tell me about it! I’d love to experience it. But it’s more than just the sensory overload and how close and real it all is…
It was also just about the experience. The group I went with was awesome. I met so many wonderful people that sincerely made sharing the experience with so much more rich and great. Because when you’re there, in that moment, is when it most amazing. When you cry because of how magnificent it is, someone else cried too and you can share that magic… and the people I had to share the magic with were delightful, funny, kind and smart travelers and adventurers. The other thing about the group is that it was so full of knowledge. On this expedition (not a cruise) the activities are lectures, not napkin folding on the lido deck. I knew that going into it, and I hoped it would be interesting. These Antarctica experts are also driving the boats and on shore and with you while kayaking and paddle boarding, so you can really understand what you’re seeing and what’s going on. It makes it so enriching. But also, it was pretty great to just have someone to ask your question when you were curious. How are these albatross flying out here when we’re so far from land? Is that how whales typically behave? Is that blood from the seal or his prey? Or what brings me to the next point, having a historian on board to tell you about your Great Grandma’s cousin, the first man at the South Pole, Road Amundsen.
I’m not a good writer, but this is the transition to the 2nd part of why it was so amazing in an unexpected way. My mom’s dad’s mom’s cousin, is Roald Amundsen. It’s something I’ve known for a long time. I thought it was cool. In 4th grade we had to do one of those projects where you research a person then dress up as them and give a little speech. I chose Roald. But I’ll be honest, what I remembered going into the trip was that he wanted to go to the North Pole, but someone beat him there, so he decided to go to the South Pole, which I thought was cool because it’s a continent and it was bad ass because the North Pole was in his backyard and then he was like, ok fine, you got me this time, but I’ll travel alllllll the way down and get the other one. I also remembered that when he was a boy, he slept with his window open in the winter to toughen him up because he wanted to be an explorer. Again, pretty bad ass.
Well after one of the talks from the historian about the Antarctic explorers in general, I asked him about Roald. I learned so much, and have since read more about him. But what turned out to be the coolest was just having this historian, Matt, say that Amundsen was amazing and just have someone who knows so much about it tell me things that filled me with such pride for my ancestor. It wasn’t a pride in that those are not my accomplishments and I’m not entitled to them, but I just felt proud. It’s hard to explain, so I’ll go on. It also helped me feel connected to my mom and her family. Her dad passed away when she was 18, so I never met him. And now that my mom has passed away, it was so unexpectedly awesome to be able to learn about and experience parts of the journey that was made by her relatives. Again, I’m not able to put it into words well, but I’m tearing up now. The vastness, the isolation, the cold, the volatile weather… I got to experience it in a wonderful protected excursion, but enough to imagine a little what Roald did.
My mom didn’t get to experience it, my grandpa didn’t get to experience it. Most of my family likely won’t get to experience. I’m the first one and probably the only one, after Roald, to be down there, in this amazing place. And it made it even more special. You know that e.e. cummings poem, “I carry your heart,” I can’t stop thinking about that poem since Antarctica. I always thought it was about romantic love. I mean, it is, but with omitting a couple of lines and taking my own poetic license, I think of Roald and the Stormoens and my mom, I now think of it as her with me. I also listened Malcom Gladwell’s, Revisionist History podcast. The final episode (at least that’s available on Spotify), The basement tapes, contains this excerpt:
What is a child’s obligation to his parent? I took my father’s presence for granted for as long as he was alive. And when he died, the first shocking realization was that I had to find a way to keep him alive in my heart. To honor his memory. How do we do that? Not by honoring our parents’ beliefs. We are different people than they are. Born in different eras. Shaped by different forces. What we are obliged to honor in our parents in their principles. The rules by which they lived their lives.
So between e.e. and Malcom, I feel like my journey has a little more meaning and specialness to me, beyond just an incredible adventure. I get to challenge myself and learn and grow and meet new people and shape my world view. I feel like I was in a coma and I’m awake now, and though I’m unemployed and homeless, wandering the world without a clear vision of what I want to do next, I feel a sense of purpose. My mom had a sense of purpose that was very different than Roald Amundsen’s and different than mine, but somehow through this journey, I feel even more connected. Thanks Antarctica 🙂
Picture disclaimer: some of these pics were taken by other people on the excursion with me. I’m not that good of a photographer, but it’s what I saw with my real eye 🙂