“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.”-Hugh Prather

Disclaimer: The chapters are meant to be read in order for better understanding, but with that said, each chapter can also be read on its own.

There’s a reality show-worthy obstetrician named Jim, whose thick Scottish accent always takes me an extra second to process.  He’s traveling with his smiley 17-year-old Australian daughter Annika, who’s quickly become like the little sister I never had.  Then there’s Mendi. She’s 26 years old and from San Francisco.  She’s kissed her corporate job goodbye for six months so she can reassess some of life’s more important things and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Victor, who’s as cute as a button.  He’s seven years old, speaks three different languages and looks like a miniature version of Ricky Riccardo.  He’s come on the trip with his mother and father from Sao Paulo.

There’s a big barrel-chested Alaskan named Dustin who clears landmines that have been long left behind from WWII in Palau, which is a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  And believe it or not, there’s a group of giggly college co-eds.  They’re here as part of a study abroad program from Seattle and their Professor, slash chaperone, has got his own interesting story to tell.  He’s been on a twenty-year quest to photograph every species of Penguin in the wild and he only has one left.  The life of the party award goes to three best friends from the United States that have spent the past ten years traveling the world as nurses, who I quickly found out are either doing one of two things; saving lives or living theirs to the fullest.

There’s even a satellite-phone-carrying, gun-selling Russian onboard whose chiseled chin and buzzed blonde hair reminds me of Ivan Drago.  And then there’s Piero.  He’s a fifty-something lion-like lawyer with a thick Italian accent that has the uncanny ability to light up a room like no one I’ve ever seen.  Oddly enough, he happens to reside in Miami Beach now, just a few blocks away from where my old apartment was.

Fred and Elizabeth’s story is as captivating as anyone else’s.  They’re a retired Kiwi couple and they’ve traveled nearly 90,000 miles around the Americas in a 1957 Mercedes Benz.

I could go on and on and on.  Each of the 70 people onboard is more eclectic and interesting than the next and it’s almost incomprehensible that I missed all these wonderful people our first four days together.  In truth, I actually don’t know how I did it, but I guess I was just so locked into my own dream and so focused on getting to Antarctica that I put my blinders on and forgot to look up.

In my defense though I was expecting a group of people much like the two cruises I’ve been on so far; retired, slow moving and that I’m just here for the all you can eat buffet vibe.  I’m only half kidding when I say that, but the reality is that this cruise is quite pricy and because of that I didn’t expect that people around my age could afford it.  Just the cruise alone is setting everyone back nearly ten thousand dollars, and that’s not to mention the hotels and airfare required to get all the way to Ushuaia from the far flung places everyone’s come from.  There’s even a woman onboard that’s come all the way from China.

And I can tell you from first hand experience that getting to Antarctica doesn’t just happen accidentally.

Regardless of who you are and where you’re coming from, it’s hard work.  It takes months if not years of planning, saving and plotting.  And so what I learned over the wonderfully Wi-Fi-free meals where there isn’t a cell phone in sight, is that it’s everyone’s dream on board to get to Antarctica.  For many, this will be their 7th and final continent, the last checkmark on their bucket list after years and years of travel.

Many onboard have saved this winter wonderland for last and so the energy that’s buzzing around the ship’s shared spaces is palpable.  The amazing thing about that is that when you get 70 or so people together for two weeks that are all pursuing a deep dream that they’ve worked hard to attain, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi into the air.  A deeper gratitude emerges and a more authentic side of each person begins to show itself, and I know this because I can feel it happening inside my own skin.

The past few days have changed me.

Antarctica

Ever since I returned to the Ushuaia after our first landing at Half Moon Island, I’ve found myself mysteriously wanting to be part of the group instead of exclude myself from it like I normally do.

One criticism I’ve always had of myself since I started traveling is that I haven’t been able to find a way to include others as much as I would have liked.  I’ve always had the tendency to draw a line in the sand between myself and others, and that part of my personality has been accentuated over the past two plus years.

It feels like I’ve been down nearly every dirty and dusty road this world has to offer, and I’ve gone down all those roads alone.  While its taught me wonderful things like perseverance and how to rely on no one but myself, it’s also built walls around me.  Throw in all the language barriers, the fact that I’m still a touch on the shy side, and that writers themselves tend to be in search of solitude more than most, and it’s like I’ve been traveling down a path of extreme isolation at times.  I mean take just last week for example.  I was the only passenger on a bus for over ten hours.  And if that’s not enough of an example, then think of Hayma.  She’s stuck inside my cell phone, meaning that the deepest connection I share with another person exists only in the form of a text message.

And these long stretches of isolation take their toll on me, as they would anyone.  I’d even go so far as to say that at times on my journey I’ve become too self sufficient.  This easily lends itself to a social awkwardness that I’ve been developing.  I find myself immediately plotting ways to escape conversations once they actually do begin, which I’m sure doesn’t go unnoticed and it’s had to add an air of dislike-ability to me at times.  And I’ll be honest, that stinks.  I don’t care how much anyone likes their own solitude, no one wants to feel like they’re not liked by others.

But that’s the great thing about this trip so far.  The collective energy from everyone on board has done the trick and it’s hit me like a tidal wave and washed away most of the walls I’ve built up.  We’ve made landings at Robert Point, Hydrurga Rocks and we’ve sailed past the Weddell Sea’s big, beautiful and blue icebergs together.  We’ve taken zodiac tours right up to the mammoth edge of said icebergs and each landing has been more remarkable and bonding than the last.  All of these incredible experiences have allowed me to open myself up more and more and I’m feeling the most vulnerable I’ve been in years.

However, there’s still one very important thing left to do, which is for all of us to step foot on the actual continent of Antarctica.

We’ve been kind of skirting around it because of the weather and visiting islands along its peninsula, but today’s finally the day.  Julieta woke us up through the ship’s loudspeaker at 7:30AM with the same line she always does, “good morning, good morning my dear passengers”, and then she announced that one group of passengers will go on a zodiac tour of Foyn Harbor and that the other group will go to Orne Harbor.  Orne Harbor is where we’ll disembark and actually step foot on the continent for the first time.  Then after two hours the two groups will switch.

Antarctica

In Andrew McCarthy’s book, The Longest Way Home, he describes his first sight of the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is in Chile.  He wrote, “The suddenness and surprise of the view has filled me with such a feeling of being alive that in this instant I tell myself it is worth any cost I have to pay to ensure the continuing possibility of such moments.”

And that’s exactly how I feel when the zodiac tour I’m on in Foyn Harbor comes to an end and slides across the glass-like water and towards the shoreline of Orne Harbor.  All the struggle, sacrifice and loneliness is well worth the price of admission and in truth, it actually makes this moment that much sweeter.

The closer we get, the wider my eyes become and about a hundred yards out my pulse begins to quicken.  Orne Harbor sends my soul spilling out.  It is hands down the most beautiful place on the planet that I’ve ever laid my eyes on.  The blue sky above is endless, the sun is as bright as I’ve ever seen it and there isn’t the faintest trace of a cloud anywhere.  The view of the jagged snow-covered peaks that cup the one-mile wide cove that we’ve just pulled into is intoxicating.  If you told me that the tops of the snow-covered peaks themselves were the fabled pearly gates, I’d likely believe you.

As we wind through a cove and around a few small and scattered icebergs, the other half of the group that arrived at Orne Harbor two hours ago comes into view.  Some people are boarding the zodiacs and pulling away for their tour of Foyn Harbor, but a few are still scattered on a series of switchbacks that run up the side of the mountain that juts up from the base of the shoreline.  Their red and yellow jackets pop against the bright white snow.

All the way at the top of the mountain I see the familiar pink jacket and white ski pants combination that Annika always wears.  I would say that you should keep an eye out for this girl one day and that she’s going to be something special, but she already is.  She’s only 17, but I’ve never seen anyone mix and mingle so genuinely and effortlessly with so many people of different ages, races and backgrounds.  She’s just got “it”, that magical quality that’s so indescribable and so rare that if I talked any more about “it”, it wouldn’t do her justice.  She’s inspiring and I can’t help but watch her in awe sometimes on the ship.  As I watch her plop down in the snow, I can’t help but feel this incredible joy burst in my chest.  Rarely do I feel this kind of happiness for others, but I think that’s what comes along with the territory, and by territory I mean the fact that I’m investing in others instead of only myself for a change.

Switchbacks

I keep my eyes on Annika because I feel as though something special’s about to happen.  And sure enough, a second later she lifts her black rubber boots up out of the snow and leans back with her legs pointed up toward the sun.  Then she pulls her hands out of the snow and when she does she slides from the top of the mountain all the way down to the very bottom on just the back of her ski pants.  She bounces back and forth like a mogul skier and the widest smile I’ve ever seen rips across her rosy red cheeks.

Un-freaking-believable I think to myself.

By the time I hop off my zodiac and step foot onto Antarctica, the sun has warmed up the afternoon even more to the point where its’ got to be nearly 40 degrees out.  Everyone in my group has peeled off their layers and thrown their jackets, hats and gloves into a pile at the bottom of the mountain.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I look over at Piero and say, “I’m hot!”

I hike up the same series of switchbacks I saw from my zodiac, stopping every fifty feet or so to film the view down below.  The higher I hike the more incredible it becomes.  The Ushuaia is moored out in the middle of the cove and a more photogenic site I have not seen.  The water is still and mirror-like, like a Zamboni has driven across it and cleaned it for the photos I’m about to take.  I can’t decide on where to look first.  The vista suggests that everything, yet nothing we do matters.

By the time I get to the crest of the ridge I’m officially drunk on life.  I fall back into the soft snow next to Piero and we just look out over what feels like the beginning and end of the world without saying a word.  The air is all but still, there’s barely a breeze.  Thunder of a collapsing iceberg somewhere nearby breaks the silence, but only for a few seconds.  A more impressive sound I have not heard.

Our breaths are still heavy from the climb, but our bodies take on an incredible rhythm.  Joseph Campbell wrote, “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”

This is the closest I’ve ever come to reaching that goal.  Simply put, both Piero and I are vibrating at a higher frequency and I can feel it in every cell inside me.

We’ve grown close over the past few days.  Piero’s become somewhat of a mentor to me and offered advice in areas I’ve needed it.

After a few minutes his Italian accent cuts across the sky, “Eric, everyone really likes you”, he says.

I reach for what he says, wanting to process it because it’s so rare that we as humans tell each other nice things like this out of the blue.  I have this list of intentions that I read through nearly every day, and one of the lines I wrote down states that I want to tell people how much they mean to me, yet for some strange reason I never ever do it.

And no one’s ever pulled me aside since I’ve started my journey, if ever in my entire life, to say such a simple, but meaningful thing.  Even my own mother told me I was a pill to be around during my time in Florida just a little over a month ago, and she wasn’t wrong when she said that.  I was struggling creatively and when that happens I’m one hundred percent closed off and prickly to the touch.

But like I’ve said, this trip has changed me.  And while I’ve never been one to do things for other people’s approval, I will say that since I’ve been so open and genuine with everyone I’ve met on board that it gives his words that much more weight.  I don’t know exactly why Piero’s chosen to tell me this and of all times right now, but where others would chalk this up coincidence, I feel its deeper meaning.

His words are something I desperately needed to hear and I take satisfaction and comfort in them.

My favorite photo

Piero then says, “I want a jumping picture”.  I’m not exactly sure what he means so he stands up and shows me.  He jumps in the air and kicks his legs back and throws his arms up towards the bright yellow hue of the sun.  When he lands he says, “When I’m at the top of my jump, you take the photo.”

At first I scoff at the idea because it seems a bit touristy and this has got to be the least touristy place on the planet.  But out of the deep respect that I have for the man I decide to play along.  Plus, he’s so enthusiastic about his idea too that it’s impossible to not get swept up in his energy.  That’s how he lights up every room he walks into.  I bet he could sell ice to an Eskimo.

I grab my camera and lie down in the snow on my stomach.  Once I get my lens into focus, I tell Piero that I’m going to count backwards from three and that when I say one, that that’s his cue to jump as high as he can.

He does and then I pull the picture up on my camera’s LCD screen so I can show him the photo.  It’s the same screen I captured the Milky Way with in Australia and all those sunrises with way back in Miami Beach.  And now this, the jumping photo in Antarctica.  Piero’s ecstatic when he sees the photo and he’s so thrilled by it that I decide that I need one of myself doing the same thing. But just as I’m about to set the timer on my camera, we hear the crunch of snow beneath rubber boots.  Others have come to join us.

A happy young couple from Spain has made it to the top of the ridge as well as Carlyon, a thirty-something chiropractor from Australia with long blonde hair.  The fact that they joined us at this moment is that final little nudge I need.  The last reminder that I’m not alone and that moments like this are not only meant to be shared, but also made better by doing so.

So I tell everyone the plan for the group picture like a quarterback in the huddle and then prop my camera up in the snow and set it’s ten-second timer.  Once it starts beeping I run around to join the group.

The five of us count backwards together like its New Year’s Eve and we’re in the middle of Time Square and then once we all scream “one”, we jump towards the cloudless blue sky in unison.

Happiness is often a thing you feel in retrospect, meaning that sometimes it can be hard to know exactly how happy you are in the actual moment.  But this is not one of those times.  The height of my jump becomes the happiest moment I’ve ever spent on this planet.

There’s a hurricane in my heart and a joy spreads across my face that lets me know that I’m willing to spend the rest of my life chasing moments just like this.  It may seem like such a simple thing, but at the top of that jump with my arms opened wide to the world I learned maybe my most important life lesson of all.

I learned how to let love in, and who would have thought that the coldest place on the planet would wind up being the warmest.

Orne Harbour

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