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“Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it sure makes the rest of you lonely.”-Charlie Brown

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.

Try to think back to life before Facebook.  Do you remember when MySpace was popular?  Remember Tom and how you had to rank your top eight friends?

Ok good, now think back to when you were first filling out your MySpace profile.  It made you choose your relationship status, which would be displayed on your page for the entire world to see.  Everyone was given six choices, you could either pick: single, in a relationship, engaged, married, it’s complicated or in an open relationship.

Well, that fifth choice sums up Hayma and I.

I’m desperate to see her.  I’m staring at my computer screen so intensely that I might just burn a hole through it. I’ve been in the habit of searching for flights to Amsterdam at least twice a day. A search which usually ends with me closing my browser with an agonizing sigh.  Last week I even bought a new t-shirt and this special anti-acne face scrub in Toronto because I was so close to flying there and I wanted to make sure I looked my best when I saw her. But of course, I never bought the ticket so here I sit again.

But today is different.  Today, I’ve made that choice that I’m actually going to do it.  I’ve got to do it.  I’ve got to see her.

The flight’s a red-eye and leaves later tonight, which would give me just enough time to drive to Dulles airport from my hotel in Virginia Beach.  I’ve already entered in all my credit card information and the flight to Amsterdam is all but booked.

I just have to click on two tiny words in the bottom right hand corner of my computer screen: confirm purchase.

The only thing that’s holding me back is my dream.  My big fat stupid dream.  I’ve never been so mad at it before; this whole thing about trying to make it around the world without using an airplane has never been so frustrating. Sure its sucked at times, like when I had to spend a week freezing on Trans Siberian railroad during the middle of winter or the month I spent on that depressing cargo ship this past summer, but its never chewed me up inside quite like this.

I’d do anything to see Hayma, but if I fly to see her then my dream ends there and all the hard work I’ve put into it is for not.

I guess I should rewind a bit.  Hayma and I have been texting ever since I got off the cargo ship in Oakland four months ago, but I haven’t brought it up until now because well, it’s complicated.  Like really, really complicated.

As soon as I connected to the Wi-Fi in the Port of Oakland, I reached out to her and she reached back tenfold.  It felt so good to have her back in my life again and every time we text it feels like my heart’s going to explode.  It’s like I can feel her head on my chest and my hands in her hair every time my phone buzzes.  Our conversations are deep, like we are not separated by a vast ocean at all.

But we’ve seemed to settle on this awful heart-wrenching cycle lately.  We’ll incessantly text for a few weeks and we’ll get pretty close with one another, then suddenly she’ll think better of the idea and pull the rug out from under us.  She’ll back away seemingly out of the blue and then beg me not to contact her anymore, which destroys me every time.

Then a week will go by and either I’ll miss her or she’ll miss me so much that we’ll begin the whole cycle all over again.

I’m not pointing fingers here, but she’s always the one who pulls away and ends things, never me.  I must admit, it is maddening, but because I’m so incredibly head over heels for her it almost doesn’t matter.  I’ll take anything I can get from her even if it leads to bigger and bigger heartbreak every time we text.  Inevitably somewhere in the middle of that cycle the yearning to hold her in my actual arms gets so deep that I’ll start looking up flights to Amsterdam.

I also always check the prices for her to fly to the United States, which she always graciously turns down.  She isn’t working right now and money is tight for her, but she’s so stubborn that she won’t let me pay for her flight either. Plus, since she lives at home she wouldn’t know what to tell her mother if she just suddenly up and left for the United States for a week or two.  There would be too many questions and too many holes in her story.  Like how did she get the money for such a grandiose trip?  The answer could never be, “from this random man that you’ve never heard me talk about that I met in Australia.”

America Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

Her mother’s expectation is that she does not embark on an intimate relationship with any man, not just me, before marriage.  Then add the fact that I’m not Muslim into the mix, which would surely come up in that conversation as well, and we’re looking at more obstacles than the American Ninja Warrior course.

And so this will always be the square peg in the round hole of our love story.

But love conquers all, right?  Isn’t that a thing?  I mean, it’s said to move mountains and it wouldn’t be a cliché if it wasn’t true, right?

I’m guilty of being an overly idealistic thinker.  Deep down I believe that one day it won’t matter that I’m not a Muslim.  I believe that our love will overpower our avalanche of obstacles and not only will I go to Amsterdam and sweep Hayma off her feet, but her mother, her brothers, her sisters, and all her friends too.  I’ll be so kind and charming and sincere that surely it won’t matter that I’m not a Muslim once they see how well I treat her.  I always fantasize that by the end of my trip to Amsterdam that they’ll all be begging for me to stay.

But I’m sure that even if I did fly there that I wouldn’t get to meet them anyway.  The whole thing would have to be done in secret.

I guess there is some good news though.  By the time each cycle ends we’ve inched a little closer, revealed another layer of our complicated selves to one another.  We are smack dab in the middle of a purple patch right now, and our yearning for one another crept up to an all time high earlier this morning when she begged me to fly there for a long weekend and I texted back, Ok, I’ll do it!, followed by the airplane emoji, the Dutch flag emoji and the smiling emoji.

I move my mouse down until its tiny white arrow is hovering over the words, confirm purchase.

I run both my hands through my hair and I replay the scene in Melbourne where I looked so deeply into her eyes. Then I begin to convince myself to complete the purchase.

It’s just a short 4-day trip to The Netherlands anyway and I’d be right back in the United States before I knew it, before anyone knew it.  I wouldn’t post any pictures online from Amsterdam and I wouldn’t even text Justin about it or tell my parents next time we FaceTimed.  No one would ever know if I flew there and we could keep the whole thing a secret.  Only Hayma and I would ever know and then I could just continue on traveling around the world once I got back as if nothing ever happened.

But even if someone did find out, isn’t that like the most romantic thing ever, to give up my dream for love?

I mean maybe love is just meant to be complicated, and that’s actually what makes it great.  I’ve never once been in love when it was not completely complicated from the word go, but maybe that’s me.  Maybe as my mother likes to remind me of, that I’m the difficult one.  In this instance it’s true.  The only thing stopping me from flying there is me. Who else falls madly in love with someone, but then can’t fly to see the person under any circumstances?  Well actually, I shouldn’t have asked that because of course Hayma is the only other one.  See what I mean, it’s complicated.

Virginia Beach.

The hardest thing for me to deal with though is that just when that window of hope seems to finally be wedged open all the way, she slams it shut.  I hate to talk about her like this, but ever since she finished up her own travels, she’s been struggling a bit.  After her time in Thailand she flew back to Amsterdam and had to face some of the difficult and personal decisions she was struggling to make and had left behind, they were practically waiting for her on her doorstep.

And while she was happy to have returned home and more equipped than ever to take on the decisions she was making it only added distance to our already long distance love affair.

I think that’s one of the most understated parts of traveling is that once you board your flight, hit the beach, or jump in the back of a tuk tuk on the other side of the world your problems back at home suddenly don’t feel quite as real. And while she wasn’t trying to escape the decisions she was in the midst of making I do think it’s taken her some time to get re-acclimated to them.  The issues and decisions she’s facing are nothing new to her, she’s been weighing them for years, but her travels have perhaps brought them to a head.

It’s hard to come back from a three-month trip abroad and return to the life you left behind.

My situation was much different, but I can still relate.  I myself had a hard time returning to the life after my first three-month trip abroad five years ago.  The beauty of traveling is that it exposed me to so many new sights, sounds and smells.  New people brought new ideas and new ideas brought new ways of thinking, but when I returned home after having been exposed to another side of myself, and looked around, I quickly realize that its only me that has changed.  Everyone else had remained the same, which suddenly felt stale and stagnant and it was hard to re-acclimate myself to it all.

I remember how lifted I had felt after that trip and then how hard it was to come back to my old life.  I had taken the three-month leave of absence with the intention of returning to work once I got back to Miami, but when I was set to start back to work again the company had decided to move on and let me go.  Instead of being upset and frustrated about it, I was ecstatic because I couldn’t imagine going back to that god-awful job having just seen the world.  My mind was exploding with new ideas and thoughts about what my life should look like and none of those new thoughts and ideas included anything remotely similar to my old soul-crushing routine.

There’s even a few websites dedicated to this sort of thing.  When I went to a travel blog convention looking for answers after that three-month trip abroad there was a group of girls passing out business cards that said “Reentry” on them, with their website printed on the back.  The term “reentry” seemed a bit excessive.  It’s not like we’re astronauts re-entering earth’s atmosphere, but I can tell you from first hand experience how hard it can be to “reenter” your old life when all your ideas about it have changed.

I’m actually worried about how I’ll cope myself when my journey ends and I decide to return to Miami one day. Forget how much my mind has expanded over the course of my travels, just the fact that I won’t be moving on a bus, boat or a train every few days will be a major adjustment.  But the reason that I bring all this up is that she’s fighting with herself.  Each day is an internal war and she can’t quite figure her new self out just yet, and because of that she can’t figure us out.

It’s so hard to take that next step in life if you don’t even know where the staircase even is.  I think that’s the crux of the problem is that she’s lost like so many of us.  She has a bigger purpose than putting her head down and grinding through the typical work week like her grad school peers, but she can’t quite suss out what that purpose is yet.  I keep trying to tell her that the discomfort she’s dealing with is really a blessing because it’s there reminding her that there’s something bigger for her out there and that all she’s got to do is tap into it.

In all honesty, I’d be more worried if that feeling wasn’t there.  But with all that said, from my own personal experience, tapping into it is the hardest phase to be in.  The answers seem like they’ll never come no matter what you do and it’s excruciating.  It’s like trying to grab a greased watermelon.  Just when you think you have it, it slides out of your hands.

Sometimes you just need to roll up your sleeves and fight those demons alone, which is why I’m trying to give her the space and time to do so.

The scary part for me is the more she pushes me away the more it makes me want her.  Even during the times when we are not speaking I still feel like my love for her grows.

I’ve always known she’s the one for me and that we are destined to be together and I’ve known that ever since I was in that empty elevator way back in Perth.

Decisions…

Jerry McGuire famously said the line; you complete me, and mimed it with his hands as he pointed to Dorothy Boyd (the love of his life).  But I’ve always looked at love the opposite way, in that it takes two complete people to come together and compliment one another’s completeness.  This means that no one person should complete the other, because that seems to lend itself to problems down the road.  However, I’ve started to question my theory lately because of how I desperately want to see her. I’m willing for each of us to be the other’s missing puzzle piece even if that is actually unhealthy.

I set my right hand back on top of the mouse and realize that even though we are an ocean apart that only a single centimeter separates us.  All I have to do is simply press into the right click button until it clicks.  I run my index finger back and forth over the mouse’s smooth plastic coating while I beat myself up over the decision.

Every muscle in my body tenses.  I pull up the only picture I have of the two of us on my phone.  We took it the second before she left the café in Melbourne.  We look so happy and my heart melts.

I’m not hesitating because of the price, even though it’s overpriced and something I haven’t budgeted for.  That’s the last thing I’m concerned about.  I’d spend all of my money just for one minute with her and I truly mean that. The only thing that’s causing me consternation is my dream.  My dream has been the only thing these past few years that’s always been there for me.  It’s been right by my side day in and day out and it’s picked me up when I’ve been down and propelled me forward when I didn’t have the strength to do so on my own.  It’s a living breathing organism inside me now and it has a mind and a work ethic all of its own.  It’s unwilling to compromise and it’s not suited for short cuts.  I know that the second I buy this flight that it will shrivel up and die inside me, so of course it’s putting up one hell of a fight just like it always does.

I ask my dream, “Why can’t I have it all?”

It doesn’t answer, but I already know the answer.  I know that if I fly to Amsterdam that my dream won’t be waiting for me at baggage claim when I get back.  The flame inside will have been extinguished and I know that it won’t let me pretend to just keep traveling around the world like nothing ever happened.  And that the next time the road gets bumpy and the next great challenge appears that it won’t be there to keep pushing me like it’s been.

I know that if I go to Amsterdam that I will have betrayed its trust and that if I pull out now, then there’s no coming back.

I ask it one more question before I make my decision, “Why does it have to be one or the other, why can’t I have the dream and the girl?”

My dream flares up inside me and as sure as day follows night it reminds me that one day I will.

The room is silent as I click my browser closed.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.”-Harriet Tubman

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.

My drive to Pittsburgh this afternoon helped shift my thoughts away from the lingering sadness over the fact that none of the companies that sail to Antarctica have taken me up on my offer.  But instead of thinking about the penguins and orca whales I was hoping to have seen, the whole thing has reminded me about the worst part of traveling alone.

I never have anyone to commiserate with.

Just once I’d like to be able to share something with someone for a change so it will be good to drown my Antarctic sorrows over a few beers with one of my best buds this weekend.

The last time I came to visit Justin he lived on the other side of Pittsburgh, in Wexford to be exact.  His second daughter, Ella, had just been born and his first daughter, Livia, had just turned two.  As I pull into his driveway, his new neighborhood is quite impressive and his house is picture perfect.  It looks like one of those model homes that every American family aspires to have one day.  The only thing missing is the white picket fence.

He told me not to honk the horn or ring the doorbell when I arrive because his daughters might be sleeping, so he bounds out of his front door to greet me the second my headlights hit his house.

He’s tall, slender and his dark hair has receded since my last visit four years ago, which makes me happy in a way that you can only understand when your closest friends begin to slightly lose their hair.

I’d say that I only have three really close friends and I think my phone currently has a whopping total of eight contacts saved in it, but I prefer it that way.  I find a big group of friends to be energy draining and at the end of the day, I don’t think you get to know any of them all that well.  Maybe it’s the only child in me, but I’d rather keep a small circle and get to know the inner workings of a few than the boring minutia of the masses.

Justin’s been inside my inner circle for over 20 years now.  He’s actually the only person I’ve texted with every single day during my travels (Wi-Fi permitting), and ironically we rarely talk about my travels.  It’s usually dumb off the cuff stuff that helps me take my mind of the stresses of my journey.  When we give each other a big bear hug on his front lawn, it hits me how important all those seemingly inconsequential texts have been along the way.  He kept me sane in Sudan and reeled me in in Russia when things seemed destined to completely fall apart.  The ego in me hates to give anyone else the credit for having made it this far around the world, but I honestly don’t know if I’d have made it this far without him.

I’d like to think that he’d vouch for me as well.  When he shockingly got laid off this summer, I brought the photo shoot that I was in the midst of to a halt and told him to call the hotel I was at immediately.  He tends to get stressed easily and I knew he needed to talk it out.  I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he needed to hear me say that he’d find a new and better job by the time I got to Pittsburgh in the fall, which of course he did.

Justin and I met way back in 1994 at an AAU basketball team tryout.  We were both trying to make the Lehigh Valley Blue Devils, which is a local all-star team that selects players from Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.  The team spends the summer traveling around the east coast of the United States playing in prestigious tournaments and it’s really the only way to get recruited by major Universities if you have any hopes of playing at the collegiate level.

About 30 kids showed up at The East Side Youth Center for the tryout from 20 different area high schools.  Neither Justin nor I made the team, but fortunately for us, the coaches decided to start a second team called the Wolfpack with all the players that were not good enough to get selected for the Blue Devils.

I’ve told the story of my AAU team before, but it’s worth repeating.  We were terrible.  We were the castoffs, the Bad News Bears of basketball.  We even had a player we affectionately called “Stone Hands” because he couldn’t even catch the most basic of bounce passes.  Most of the guys on the team were not even good enough to play for their high school teams during the winter, so they had no business even being at the tryout in the first place.  Looking back on it now, I almost think that the coaches of the Blue Devils put the Wolfpack together for their own amusement.  During our first season, we were completely overmatched by every other team we came up against.  They must have known that was going to be the case.

Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

We got pummeled game after game.  I remember one game specifically when we lost by 70 points to a team from South Jersey.  I was only in 8th grade then, but just before the final buzzer sounded, I vividly remember a player on the other team thunderously dunking over one of my teammates, which made my jaw drop.  It was the first time I had ever seen someone do that in an actual game.

Whether we lost by 70 or 7 it didn’t matter, I loved every minute of it.

I loved the instant comradery we formed as oddball teammates and playing practical jokes with my new and goofy friends in the bleachers in between games.  But really it was all of those long weekends away from home that helped spark that wanderlust gene inside me.  We’d pile into a minivan and one of our parents would drive us some 600 miles to a tournament in Maine or Maryland and even though we always knew we were going to lose, it never once mattered.  All the long road trips and looking out the window while my buddies blasted a whoopee cushion or talked about that week’s episode of Seinfeld was intoxicating to me.

I do think that part of the reason that this group of guys was so special to me is because I never really fit in with the other kids that I went to high school with.  I’ll never forget the first time I got subbed into a varsity basketball game for my high school team.  When I got up off the bench and ran to the scorer’s table to check in, I got booed by the student section from my own school.  It was mostly because I was a freshman and I was being subbed in for a popular senior, but still to be booed by your own fans regardless of the reason is something you don’t ever forget.  I never got the sense from the guys I played with in high school that they ever wanted to see me succeed.  In fact, I actually think many of my own high school teammates often rooted against me and purposely didn’t pass me the ball, but I’ll save those stories for another time.

So, the Wolfpack became the ying to my yang.  There was just something special about my teammates.  I knew they wanted me to do well and they encouraged me.  We just clicked as friends and then ultimately as a team.  We stuck together over the next four summers and by the end of our last season together we had raised our level of play so much that we were finally beating the teams that had once crushed us during that first season.

I eventually went on to get a full basketball scholarship because of how much my game developed over the years playing with those guys, which ultimately changed the course of my life.  Had it not been for that scholarship, I wouldn’t have gotten into any colleges because I didn’t have the grades required to get accepted anywhere.  I hate to think about where I’d be now without my college education.

I owe so much of who I am to that Wolfpack team, that a week doesn’t go by that I don’t think about it.

I’ll never forget one summer when the coach of the Blue Devils asked me if I’d change teams and join his team now that I had become a much better basketball player.  I told him he was crazy and that there’s no way I’d ever leave the group of guys that I’d been playing with, even though changing teams would have meant more opportunities for me to be seen by bigger Universities.  Our loyalty to one another has always been there and Justin’s been the guy I can always count on when I’m in a pinch.

Back in high school we would do the normal teenage things besides play basketball even though we attended different high schools.  We’d go to the movies, play video games and have sleep overs.  He’d often spend the weekend at my house or vice versa and his mother famously referred to me as “artsy Eric” way back when I wasn’t “artsy”.  To this day we still think it’s funny that she could see something in me that no one else ever did.

Then, there’s my family’s famous story about Justin.  It’s the one my father always feels compelled to share anytime we all get together.  I roll my eyes now because I’ve heard it a million times, but it’s really the moment our friendship was forged.

It was during the junior year of my high school basketball season.  I had led my team to the District 11 Championship game, which in Pennsylvania is somewhat of a big deal.  And we were playing Justin’s high school team, which was the big bad Central Catholic High School.  They weren’t just our biggest rivals, but they were every school’s biggest rival.  They were a powerful private school and no one liked them because they always won everything and they were cocky about it.  Plus, the rumor was that they recruited the best athletes from middle schools all throughout the district and that once they’d find a young star athlete they’d convince him to transfer to Central Catholic for high school.  They did all this so their sports teams could continue to dominate.  Now if that’s true or not, I don’t know, but regardless, no one ever liked them.

Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

My high school had never beaten them in basketball and we thought this championship game was finally our big chance to do so.  The game was being broadcast live on TV and it was held at Lafayette College because there was more seating for fans there.  Nearly 3,500 people showed up and the gym was packed to the rafters for the big game, but there was one big problem.  Earlier that day in school I had come down with a 102-degree fever and the flu hit me in homeroom like a ton of bricks.  I spent the entire day vomiting in the nurse’s office and I wasn’t able to go home and rest because if I had then I would have been ruled ineligible to play in the game later that night.

Well I don’t need to fill you in on the ugly details, but I tried to play and it ended up being the only game in my whole career I didn’t score a single point.

My team got embarrassed in front of a sold out gymnasium and the worst part was that no one knew I was sick, they all just thought I sucked.

But after the game Justin waited for me outside the locker room and as my parents came to console me, he was there as well.  He put his hand on my shoulder, which none of my actual teammates did, and he said, “That the game would have been much different had you not been sick.  Hang in their buddy, we all know you’re better than that.”

Now I know that maybe that doesn’t seem like much, but for a 16-year old to have the wherewithal to say something like that at the lowest moment of my athletic life, I think it gives you a peak behind the curtain of his character.  He could have just as easily forgotten about me and been celebrating with his teammates, so that moment has always stayed with me.

Our bond has always been brotherly ever since then and I am not surprised in the least that he has gone on to become a husband and a father, and I have not.  For as good of friends as we are, it’s comical how different we actually are from one another.  As he takes me on a tour of his new house, I couldn’t imagine having a mortgage, a wife, two kids and living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  And surely he cringes at the idea of living on the road and out of a backpack like me.

I wander, he plans; I spend, he saves; He’s catholic, I’m not; He’s clean shaven and my hair’s nearly half way down my back now.

This is the classic example of the differences between us.  He enjoys working in his cubical and looking at spreadsheets all day and I couldn’t fathom doing that for even an afternoon.  Our minds just work different.  He’s a numbers guy and I’m an ideas guy, but we’ve always bonded over a ballgame and a beer, which he pours me once we get down into his basement.

He’s created the perfect man cave down here.  There’s a fully stocked bar, a pool table and two rows of movie theater style seats that face a monstrous TV.  He even has a pop-a-shot basketball arcade game down here.  As we sip our beers it’s not like we need to catch up because we text every day, but I fill him in on the whole Antarctica thing and share my disappointment about not being able to go.  I tell him that I emailed all the companies last week and no one’s responded and that it’s actually going to be impossible for me to get there.

I go on to say, “There will always be a big hole in my story for the rest of my life.  Whenever I tell people that I once traveled around the entire world overland they’ll always say, “Even Antarctica?”  I’ll have to reply, “Well, no, not Antarctica.”

Then I say, “This isn’t like when I got to Cairo and couldn’t find a way to get to Europe.  There’s no concierge this time that’s going to help me find a bus to Jordan and then an onward route to Israel so I could eventually catch a cargo ship to Europe.  There are just no more options.”

The basement door creeks open and Justin’s wife calls down to him, “The girls just got out of the bath and its time to put them to bed, can you come up and help me?”

Before Justin runs upstairs he gives me the code for the Wi-Fi.  I haven’t been online all day and I should probably check my email because I’m headed to Toronto after a weekend here with him and hopefully a hotel there has accepted my offer.  I emailed 100 hotels and Bed and Breakfast’s in Toronto before I left Chicago this morning and I’m hoping that one has already replied by now.

I scroll through my Gmail account and delete the junk mail I’ve gotten since the last time I logged in, but unfortunately I don’t see any responses from Toronto yet.

However, as I get to the last email in my inbox it reads: Re: Antarctica.

My heart skips a beat and my eyebrows furrow because it means that one of the companies that sail to Antarctica has at least replied to my offer.  Before I let myself get too excited, I remind myself of the staggering odds against one of these companies actually accepting my offer.  I’m sure its just going to be a short email that ends with thank you for your proposal, but we are not interested at this time.  I’ve gotten similar emails from countless hotels that decided to pass on my hotel offer. In order for me to get just one hotel to agree to my offer I usually have to email around 60 to 70 hotels, and the odds are even worse with this whole Antarctica thing since there are only 12 companies that even sail there.

But even with all that said, I still race to open the email.

Once it loads I read the first line to myself: Eric, we like your proposal and we would like to accept your offer.

My brain is so confused that instead of yelling out yes, yes, yes I call out no, no, no this can’t be true to the empty basement.  As I read on the next line says, Antarpply Expeditions would like to offer you a twin cabin on our voyage – Weddell Sea Quest, January 10 – 21, free of charge.

I scream out, “FREE OF CHARGE!”

My eyes immediately well up and the energy inside my body starts pulsating like giant waves during a winter swell.

“Oh my god.”

It’s hard to get a handle on what I’m feeling.  I feel like I’ve had to scratch and claw for every mile I’ve traveled so far and it’s always been the longest of long shots to get someone to accept my Antarctica offer.  Now that it’s come to fruition it’s even better than I ever expected.

I re-read the email a second and third time through the tears that I can’t stop from forming. I want to make sure that this email is in fact real and not some cruel and twisted practical joke.  Once I confirm that I read everything correctly it hits me that I will actually be going to Antarctica.

I stand there dumbstruck.

I think back to the cornfield in Iowa where this whole idea formed in my mind and my insides scream, go the goddamn distance!

This email has to go down as the most miraculous news of my life.  Not only does it mean I’m going to get to Antarctica, but it means that I’ll now have the chance to complete my dream to make it around the entire world overland and across all 7 continents.  Then I think about how many billions of people have come to this planet over time and what a small select group I’ll join.

I run upstairs into the living room dying to share the news with Justin.  What a perfect time to get incredible news.  This is the first time in all my travels that I’ve had good news to share and someone to share it with.

Once I make my way to the second floor I look down the hallway and directly into his daughter’s bedroom.  Her bedroom door is slightly open and there’s my buddy for over twenty years, tucking his daughter into her pink princess sheets.

It brings a hush over me and neither of them knows I’m there so I just quietly watch one of life’s most precious moments.  The sound of laughter drifts out of the room and he hands her a teddy bear and then kisses her on her forehead. It’s really a thing of beauty.  I don’t exactly know if and when I’ll ever have kids of my own, but watching him, so selfless with his time and energy is inspiring.

As I stand there I can’t help but to think back to the reason we met.  We were the castoffs, the ones who were deemed not good enough.  I think of a great line in a book I read a few years ago called, The Thoughtful Guide to Islam, which always stuck with me.  It goes, “The outcome to any situation will always be the appropriate one.”

Being rejected by the Blue Devils was unequivocally the best thing that ever happened to me.  Not only did it bring me my best friends, ignite my love of travel and get me into college, but it also put a chip on my shoulder.  Sometimes in order to achieve great things you need to be a little pissed off.  You need that special something to fuel your fire when you have nothing left to give and that’s what rejection can do sometimes.

Of course, when I was fourteen I felt like a loser and that I’d never be any good at basketball, but who would have ever thought that the failure nearly 24 years ago would be the moment I could pinpoint as being my greatest gift.

As I watch Justin turn the light off and quietly close his daughter’s bedroom door I can’t help but swell with pride for the both of us.  He’s living out his calling here in Pittsburgh raising a beautiful family and now I’ve got the chance to continue living out mine in, of all places, Antarctica.

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.”-Louis Pasteur

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.

Well I broke one of my golden rules today.  It wasn’t the biggest golden rule.  I didn’t hop on an airplane or anything crazy like that, but it’s almost just as bad.

I turned to Google for travel advice.

I told myself I’d never do this, but since I don’t know anyone who has ever gone to Antarctica or knows the first thing about how one would get there, I broke down and begrudgingly typed in, How would one go about getting to Antarctica?

Up until now I’ve been trying to avoid searching the Internet for travel tips and travel ideas, and I’m pretty proud of myself for never turning to it for help.  I prefer to get my information about where to go and how to get there by asking people I’ve met along the way.  For example, when I was in Shanghai, I sat down with Mrs. Xu, manager of the Yangtze Hotel I bartered a room with.  We looked at a map together and I asked her to point out a couple of areas of interest, which is how I ended up in places I’d never heard of like Guilin and Maoming.  There’s also the time, for example, when I was in Uganda.  I asked Ronald, the owner of City Blue Hotel in Kampala, where to go and he recommended that I head west to Mbarara.

Then, once I have a rough idea of the direction I’m headed, I’ll start emailing all the hotels along that route in hopes that one will take me up on my standard offer, a short film and photos promoting the hotel in exchange for a room. The second a hotel accepts, I head to the bus or train station and book my transportation accordingly.

But instead of holding up my end of the agreement here in Chicago today and doing the photos I’d promised Hotel Felix, I’ve asked them if we could postpone our photo shoot until tomorrow.

Thankfully this wasn’t an issue for them.  I’m spending my entire day with the blinds drawn and my eyes locked on my computer screen.  I’ve been searching for as much information as I can find about traveling to Antarctica.

So far all that’s come back is bad news.  It’s damn near impossible to get there.

I spent the morning tracking down all the companies that take passengers to Antarctica, which is twelve in total.  I then began comparing their rates, some of which are charging as much as $25,000 for just a one-week cruise!  The cheapest ticket that I could find was for a ten-day trip that Antarpply Expeditions offers, but even that was astronomically expensive (for me).

It was close to $10,000, which I clearly can’t afford.

Money’s become an issue again.  Since I’ve been traveling across the United States during the summer months, most hotels along the way have been fully occupied.  Since schools are out for the summer, families of four have been taking up the empty rooms that I’d normally be given in exchange for my work.  I’ve had to scratch and claw just to get hotels to agree to let me stay for two or three nights and I had to use my last remaining Marriott points in South Dakota earlier this week because I couldn’t get a single hotel there to take me up on my offer.  I can barely barter for a room now, so I don’t even think about asking for money on top of it.  Since the money isn’t rolling in like it was in Australia, I’ve had to nervously dip back into my life savings again.

Chicago, Illinois.

Needless to say, shelling out $10,000 for a ten-day cruise, no matter how amazing the cruise looks, is completely out of the question.  Let’s hypothetically say that I did decide to splurge and pay for one of the cruises to Antarctica.  Then I wouldn’t have enough money left to make it the rest of the way around the world, so either way I’m screwed.

I must admit though, I thought it was really cool when I saw that National Geographic is one of the companies that sails to Antarctica.  They have two ships, The Orion and The Explorer that sail there every ten days or so.  As I sit in front of my computer screen and look at the iconic yellow National Geographic logo painted on the blue stern of The Explorer, I can’t help but to fantasize about being on that ship one day.  As I continue to let my thoughts run wild and daydream about walking alongside penguins and spotting orca whales from the bow of the ship, my heart starts beating faster and my palms begin to sweat.  My desperation to get to Antarctica creeps up under my skin until it’s roaring inside me again.  I take this as a cue, because I’ve learned that anything that fills me (or us) with enthusiasm like this is a sign that I (or we) have the ability to pursue it.

And pursue it, I shall!

I stand up and kick my desk chair out, and enthusiastically pace around my hotel room while pumping myself up.  I blast some music and dance like no one’s watching (because no one is watching) and I let out all of the excited energy that’s built up over the morning.  I slide across the hardwood floor in my socks like I’m Tom Cruise in Risky Business and I end up nearly out of breath and in front of my bathroom mirror as the song dies down.  As I look deep into my own eyes I remind myself to go the distance.  If I’m ever going to truly say that I’ve made it around the world, then I’ve got to get to Antarctica somehow, someway.

With blood pumping through me like my hearts sprung a leak, I sit back down and begin to hatch a plan.

It dawns on me that if hotels have been willing to accept my film and photography work for a free room, and if tour companies have also been willing to accept my film and photography work for a free tour, then why wouldn’t a cruise company do the same?

A cruise is just a hotel and a tour company combined into one!

After a little more digging online I find that all the cruise companies set sail from Ushuaia, which is the southern most point in Argentina, and that they all sail during the southern hemisphere’s summer months, which is November to February.  But that in and of itself poses a problem.  It’s already late September and I’m smack dab in the middle of the United States.  Ushuaia is some 10,000 miles away.  Even if I did somehow magically get a free ticket on one of these Antarctica cruise liners it would be next to impossible to get myself there in time.

Hotel Felix, Chicago.

Although maybe not!

Back when I was in California earlier this summer I was close to booking a cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Valparaiso, Chile.  I’ve got to return my Mother’s car to her in Florida in October and when I saw an advertisement for this cruise I thought that it would be a good way for me to get from Florida to South America over land.  Another reason I almost booked the cruise back in California was because of its price; it was super cheap.  It sails the two weeks before Christmas, which isn’t exactly a window of time that people tend to pack up and go on big international vacations.

I can’t remember the whole itinerary, but I do remember that the cruise arrived in Valparaiso on December 25th because the fact that it ended on Christmas Day struck me as strange.  If I could just book myself on that cruise, I’d just need to get from Northern Chile to the southern most point in Argentina before the Antarctica summer cruising season comes to an end.

My shoulders slump forward when I think about all the things that would have to break exactly right in order to make this actually materialize.

This happens so often.  I think of a grandiose idea and then I get all excited and run around my room like it’s already happened, and then when I sit back down, reality sets in and it begins to feel so impossible that I might as well not even try.  But I’m buoyed by one thing.  If my travels around the world have taught me anything it’s that I’d much rather fail at this than succeed at anything else.

I heard some great advice when I was watching a documentary about the comedian Chris Farley’s life the other day. Ironically enough, he got his comedic start in Chicago at an improv studio just down the street called The Second City.  Del Close was his acting coach back then. Del’s also credited with teaching comedy legends such as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi.  His advice to all of his students was to go out and fail on stage as often as possible, which is the opposite of what we were told growing up.

When I think about what he said, it’s truly great advice.  Let’s say I get twelve no’s from all of the companies that sail to Antarctica.  I’m sure that within that failure I’m going to learn something about myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise known.  I mean, I’m trying to get to Antarctica for God’s sake. What a wonderful thing to have failed at! And who knows, maybe just maybe, one of these companies might just take me up on my offer.  So I might as well go for it. I might as well ask these cruise companies if I can tag along to Antarctica for free.  The worst thing that can happen is that they say no.

So I decide to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

I begin by searching for all of the contact information I can find online for each of the twelve companies.  I scour their websites and social media accounts like I’m a detective working the beat. I look for names, emails, addresses and phone numbers of anyone who has ever worked there.  I’m not one for spreadsheets.  In fact, I couldn’t stand them when I worked at my old corporate job, but I decide to put my ill will towards them to the side and I put one together with all the information I’m finding.

The companies I’m tracking down are located all around the world.  Some are based in the United States, a few are in Europe and a handful are South American.

Chicago, Illinois.

Then, as day turns to night, I begin to draft an email of all the things I can offer in exchange for a cabin on one of the cruises to Antarctica.  I promise 100 on board photos, 100 excursion photos, a 3-minute film, 5 30-second films, and also a two-thousand-word story.  All which they will own and can use any way they see fit, such as on their website and/or social media accounts. I also tack on a 2-minute episode about my own personal experience in Antarctica and 2 chapters that I’ll put up on my website in an effort to promote them to the people following my journey.

Now believe me, I know that my offer isn’t anywhere close to $10,000 in value and to be totally honest, I’m not even completely sure if I can deliver on all the promises I’m making.  I’ve never offered a hotel or tour company this much and I have no idea if I even have the right kind of equipment needed to film in harsh Antarctic conditions, but I do know how hard I work and how much pressure I put on myself to create great photos and films for the hotels and tour companies that I’ve already worked with.  So I’d like to think that if I were given the opportunity, that I’d somehow find a way to rise to the occasion.

At the risk of sounding desperate, I decide to include one final offer in the email.

I say that I’d be willing to be considered part of the crew and that I’d be happy to share a cabin with any number of crewmembers if my offer were to be accepted.  I hope this last line doesn’t reek of desperation, but instead it shows my burning desire to get to Antarctica and that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to turn my dream into reality.

Just before bed I send out a personalized email to each one of the contacts on my list.  I pull my bed sheets down and turn off the lights around midnight, feeling pretty good about myself.  Even if no one responds I know that I’ve left no stone unturned.

But instead of climbing into bed right away, I walk over to the window of my room.  Chicago’s energy is palpable tonight.  I can feel it all the way up here on the fourteenth floor of the Felix Hotel.  It’s Friday night and the Cubs must have won.  They’re in the playoffs and are the favorites to win the World Series this year.  Music is thumping against my window from the bars and clubs that line the street below.  I think of how much fun it would be to throw some clothes on and head out on the town for a wild night in the Windy City, but I know that I need to stay focused instead.  The second I start doing that kind of thing is the second I’ll start taking my eye off the prize and begin making mistakes.  I want to keep a clear head, so I tell myself that I’ll celebrate with a bottle of champagne if I ever do actually make it to Antarctica one day.

I press my finger up against the condensation that’s built up in the center of the window and draw the numbers 444 into it.  I know that for this plan to work, I’m going to need a miracle.