“The unexpected connections we make might not last, yet stay with us forever”-Sofia Coppola
Julieta warmly introduces me and then gives me the floor. I clear the lump from my throat and briefly explain what the first film is about. “I’ve taken all my best footage from the past two plus years of traveling across all 7 continents and put it into one 4-minute film. I hope you guys enjoy it.”
Julieta then quickly pushes play and I see myself appear on the two 40 inch TV screens that are at the front of the observation long. I’m in Africa.
I look out over the crowd. This is the last time we’ll all be together and I can already feel myself starting to get pulled apart inside. The Ushuaia has made its way back into the Beagle Channel and we should be arriving at the port within a few hours, but I don’t want things to end.
I’ve truly had the time of my life.
There was a late night limbo contest, a delicious Argentinean asado out on the main deck one sunny Antarctic afternoon, a blood orange sun that set behind a translucent blue glacier and an endless supply of penguins, whales and laughs. Over the course of our two weeks on board the Ushuaia there were so many stupid and silly sophomoric jokes amongst us all that it felt more like we’ve been away at summer camp than braving the elements in Antarctica.
I met with Julieta late last night in a part of the ship I’d never been too. The expedition team has a modest office below the main deck and so she asked me to meet her there. I wanted to show her the film of Antarctica I’d been putting together the past two weeks. I told her, “I’d really like to be able to share this with everyone on board. I’ve put my heart and soul into it and I want them to see my finished work before we all go our separate ways.”
I also asked her if I could show the film I put together of my around-the-world travels, which is the one we’re currently watching. I just really wanted everyone on board to see what it’s taken for me to have traveled this far overland, especially after having shared so much of myself with everyone these past two weeks.
Thankfully Julieta was impressed with both films. She’s a bit of a tough cookie and so I held my breath as she watched them play across my laptop. She said that I could have about ten minutes at the beginning of our final meeting and that once I finished up that she would begin the closing ceremony. At that point, everyone will receive their official Antarctic Expedition Certificate.
Truth be told though, as a shot of me riding a four-wheeler in Mykonos pops onto the TV screens that are flanking me, the only thing I feel is sadness.
The group has taken on this incredible rhythm recently and I’ve grown extremely close to everyone. I don’t know how I’m going to adjust once we all disembark and go our separate ways. Everyone else will either be leaving with someone or returning home to where they’ll have their friends and family waiting for them. Everyone that is except me. I’ve got to reprise my old role and sink back into the skin of my solo traveling self, which feels like it won’t fit anymore.
Even though I’ve reached Antarctica, my around-the-world journey isn’t quite done just yet. I’ve got to keep grinding if I want to officially complete my lap around the globe. I’ve got to board a bus (by myself) and begin heading north back through Patagonia in just two days time. And having already done the reverse of that once, I know how long and lonely those empty roads can feel. But now I’m afraid that it’s going to be sheer torture because I’m filled to the brim with this wonderfully shared experience.
I’d imagined making exactly this kind of connection with people, but that was way before I began traveling, and the reality of how hard this overland journey would be fully set in. Each leg, regardless of whether it’s a bus, boat or train ride, has been so taxing and challenging that I’ve had to focus and commit to it in a way that I never could have anticipated. But the problem with giving all of myself not just to the travel but also my creative endeavors, means that I’ve subconsciously moved making connections like this to the back burner.
And although I often crave solitude and will surely seek it out again one day in the future, I’m just not quite ready for its cold embrace just yet. And I’ve learned enough about myself these past two weeks in Antarctica to know that should I find myself in a sunken state of isolation again that it might just be too much for me to put my head down and plow through like I’ve done in the past.
A rousing round of applause snaps me back into the moment and after I thank everyone for watching, Julieta quickly starts up my second film, the one I just finished editing this morning about our time in Antarctica. I gave my heart and soul to this project as I promised Antarpply Expeditions I would. I maxed out my ability and I toted my tripod and camera around each of the 12 awe-inspiring landings we made. My fingers froze nearly each time I recorded something because I’d have to take my bulky gloves off so I could adjust the shutter speed and change the camera’s aperture, but I did so with a renewed passion and vigor for creating travel films. And I did all this while finally striking the balance I’d been longing for. I never missed the essence of the moment or the chance to crack an inside joke even while I was in the midst of focusing my camera on something spectacular.
I always tend to get a little fidgety when people watch my work. It’s like hearing the sound of your own voice for the first time in a long while.
I don’t know where to look so I glance around the room and then up at the TV screen again. One of my favorite parts of the film is playing. About half of us stripped down to our bathing suits or boxers three days ago at Deception Island, and then we raced into the ice-cold water to complete the polar plunge.
I sigh under my breath and say to myself, I’m not ready to give all this up.
I think what I’ll miss the most besides the connections I’ve made is just how simple everything’s become. Without access to modern technology, times passed slowly and therefore beautifully. I’m afraid that I’ll get swept right back up in the never-ending blitz social media puts on our senses the second we return. I don’t want to run to the nearest Wi-Fi hot spot in Ushuaia like I’ve always done while traveling and reconnect with that world. It suddenly feels shallow and far less important. It’s like we’ve stepped into a vacuum and without contact from the outside world this whole time, time often felt like it was standing still.
I want to hold onto this feeling for as long as I can.
And while the glaciers, penguins and sunsets were all beyond words, the thing I looked forward to most each day were the shared meals in the dining hall. And the funny thing about all those meals we shared together is that I couldn’t tell you exactly what we talked about, we just talked. No one was checking their phones at the table or posting selfies on their social media accounts. It was just good old fashion banter.
Once Julieta would make the announcement over the ship’s damaged PA system that the dining hall was open, everyone would pile into a seat and the noise level would quickly rise. I probably enjoyed the communal meals more than most but that’s only because I’ve eaten so many meals alone during the course of my travels. To be able to sit and share three meals a day for two straight weeks with so many interesting people from all around the globe is worth the price of admission in and of itself. And the great thing about the communal meals was that no seating map was ever established and I think I’ve broken bread with nearly every person on board at least once.
I think back to a conversation I had the day we disembarked with an American father of two named Buck. He’s traveling with the three travel nurses and the two of us were outside on the main deck, and as Ushuaia was slowly fading from our view he asked me about the NFL. Wild Card weekend had just started and we both really wanted to find out which teams had advanced to the next round. He was even thinking about using the Expedition Team’s emergency-only satellite phone to call home to check, but as the days passed and our connections with nature and one another grew, it became unfathomable to think that we once would have cared about who won a silly football game. Everything outside of our line of sight felt trivial and without access to the news, it also meant that we had a welcomed buffer from all the bad news that’s becoming more and more impossible to escape.
When I think back to the routine that my travels had fallen into before this leg of my trip, it makes me cringe. Although I was traveling and doing all the things I’d technically set out to do, they were often antisocial acts. I was photographing empty hotel rooms and restaurants without patrons, and I was writing alone in the corner of coffee shops.
I turn my eyes back to the sea of people watching the two TV screens up front to see if I can gauge their reaction to my film by the look in their eyes. My eyes stop for a second on a retired couple from New Zealand, Neil and Babe. Yes you read that right, Babe actually goes by Babe. It was a bit awkward at first to call a sixty-year-old woman Babe, but she’s about as sweet as anyone could be and wears the name well. Neil’s great too. He’s always got a one liner that’s comically unfunny. They’re a cute couple and everyone loves them, myself included. Neil’s lugged around one of those old and bulky handheld video cameras from the 90’s the entire trip and it always makes me laugh when I think about the people that are going to have to sit and watch hours and hours of his home videos once he gets back to New Zealand.
As my film continues to play and Penguins waddle across the screen, both Neil and Babe give me the thumbs up when we make eye contact, which reminds me of an important conversation we had.
Oddly enough it was actually about Steven Adams. He’s seven feet tall and two hundred and fifty-five pounds, has long dark hair, a scruffy beard and a series of tattoos that run down his right arm. We are nearly identical looking. The obvious difference between us though, is that Steven plays in the NBA and I of course do not. But since he’s from Rotorua, New Zealand, which is close to where Neil and Babe reside, they know of him and that he plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
About halfway through the trip Neil and I were talking about basketball one night at dinner and he looked over to me and said, “I bet you wish you were Steven Adams.”
Now Neil is one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever come across and he didn’t mean anything malicious by the comment so I’m not out to paint him as the bad guy here. If anything, I’ve heard a comment like this hundreds, if not thousands of times in my life. Since I’m 6’10, people will often stop me on the street or in a store and ask me with excitement in their eyes if I play in the NBA and when I say, “no”, either one of two things happens.
Their shoulders slump and they get disappointed or they tell me that I’m wasting all my height.
So Neil’s comment has grown into a bit of a hot button issue for me lately, especially since I started chasing my deepest dreams. Kurt Cobain’s quote always shoots through me anytime someone says something similar to what Neil said, “To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are.” So I can’t help but scoff at the idea that I would wish I was anyone other than myself. Even if that means that I could play in the NBA or magically become President of the United States.
What I’m currently in the midst of is my dream, and I’d even take it a step further and say that this journey around the world is even deeper than a dream because I can feel that it’s leading me to the cusp of my ultimate calling in life, my destiny.
So even though I harbor no ill will towards Neil, I did feel the need to defend myself. “I played basketball my whole life. I even had a full scholarship in college, but by the time I finished my freshman season I grew to hate the game.”
Before Neil can reply I say, “So why would I want to spend my time doing something I hate?”
Now I’m sure most people would side with Neil. And I’m willing to bet that most people would start by pointing to the money. Steven Adams recently signed a four year, one hundred million dollar contact extension and I’m scratching and clawing to get by, often bartering for a bed and a meal. And I know what you’re thinking, “Eric there is no way you would turn all that money down.”
And what I’m going to say back to you and Neil is that if I was doing this for the money I would have stopped a long time ago because there hasn’t been any. And that you absolutely cannot put a price tag on what I’ve gone through these past few years, the things I’ve seen and experienced, and the depths of myself that I’ve gotten to know.
Before Neil can say anything back I continue, “I actually gave up my basketball scholarship and quit the team after my sophomore season and it was the best decision I ever made.”
“I’ve been chasing my deepest desires, creating and fighting tooth and nail for everything since the seedling of this journey sprouted inside me. Has basketball allowed Steven Adams to do that?” I ask Neil. “That’s rhetorical, so you don’t have to answer it. Only Steven knows, but what I can tell you from having played basketball in college is that it takes nearly all your time and energy and unless you truly love playing the sport then you’re screwed. Because not only does it take up all your time, but also there isn’t any freedom on the basketball court, the coach draws the play up for the offense and defense and you have to go out and execute his vision. Only the best players in the world have the freedom, at times, to go off the script and do what they want out there.”
I start building momentum as I keep explaining my point of view. “I’ve never felt more restricted than when I played basketball and now I’m out here investing my time and energy in all the things that truly matter to me. And I can go in any direction I want at anytime. And while yes some days have been awful, I’ve still loved every minute of it in a way that basketball could never ever come close to replicating. And since neither of us knows if Steven Adams even enjoys playing basketball, then I certainly don’t wish I was him or anyone in the NBA for that matter. For all we know, Steven might actually hate playing basketball. I know many professional athletes fall out of love with the sport and only continue to do it for the paycheck, which isn’t much different then than climbing the corporate ladder if you really stop and think about it.”
Freya Stark, a British-Italian explorer and travel writer once said, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” I recite this quote to Neil and tell him that I get to experience the essence of this sensation every single morning.
Now I’m willing to concede that Steven Adams will undoubtedly make more money than me over the course of our lifetimes. And that what I’m doing might not ever lead me to one hundred million dollars. In fact, it might not provide me with so much as a single dollar ever again, but that’s not the barometer you’ll ever find me measuring myself against.
I’m doing this for the big and little moments of pure joy that each new day brings. Like when I jumped towards the sky at the top of a mountain in Antarctica just a few days ago with Piero. And like when I figured out a way to keep moving forward when the engine of the used car I had just bought exploded in the middle of a scorching hot California highway. And that magical look I saw in Hayma’s eyes and the spellbinding connection we made in Melbourne just after midnight.
So I look over at Neil and laugh as I say, “So if anything Neil, maybe Steven Adams wishes he was me!”
Just at that moment, someone in the dining hall yells, “Whhhhhhallllllleeeeeee!” And everyone jumps up and runs over to the porthole windows. A group of Humpback Whales have decided to swim by. One raises its tail, flukes up and out of the water and slaps at the surface between two massive and God-like glaciers as if to only applaud my point.
By the time my Antarctica film ends, another round of applause rattles me back to the moment. I’m humbled by the enthusiasm for my work. Both films were a slam dunk. I choke back tears and I have to cut short what I wanted to say to the group because my voice begins to crack. Kind words and high fives follow me back to my seat.
Once I sit down it takes a second to compose myself before I can look up and around the room. Julieta begins the certificate ceremony she had planned shortly thereafter. She calls out each passenger’s name, one at a time. Once each name is called, the individual gets up and walks to the makeshift stage at the front of the observation lounge where they’re presented with a certificate that states their accomplishment. Each one is signed by Captain Calle and it reads that we completed our journey to Antarctica on January 16, 2017 at Orne Harbour: 64° 38’S, 62° 33’W.
Thanks to the Antarctica Treaty of 1951, the land we all enjoyed together will remain just that. Fifty-three countries as of 2016 signed the Treaty and it sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve which bans military activity on the entire continent. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not permitted to land their passengers ashore in Antarctica, which will keep the number of visitors down. My favorite part of the Treaty is a provision that states, Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. It’s the only place in the world where there have been no wars and no bloodshed and you can feel that goodness when you’re there. It is untouched, raw and the only place I’d ever recommend one should go. I know I’m a better man for having gone.
The best part of the ceremony is the rousing round of applause that follows each passenger to the front of the observation room. It’s so nice to see everyone get their own special moment in the sun and I can’t help but wish that Julieta’s list of names would run on forever.
After the final name is called, Julieta announces one last surprise.
The waiters buzz through the lounge and deliver a champagne flute to everyone for one final toast.
Its funny now, but looking back at that first champagne toast I thought that that was one of the most special moments of my life. But thinking back on it, I remember the fact that I didn’t actually toast my glass with anyone else, which makes it feel a bit shallow in hindsight. To be fair though, one reason I didn’t toast with anyone was because I was reflecting on what it had taken to get across South America in such a short window of time and the miracle of having been offered a spot on board the Ushuaia, but there was also another reason. My shy side had gotten the better of me and I did what I often do in those kinds of situations. I retreated into my own world and ignored everyone else.
Once everyone has a glass, Julieta says for the second time in two weeks, “to Antarctica!”
This time I make sure I don’t retreat. I dive head first into the experience. I make my way around the room and touch glasses with every single person that’s been on the trip. I even interlock my arms with people and we take silly sips together.
For as amazing as that first toast was two weeks ago, this one is shared and therefore infinitely better.
The next morning we find all of our bags piled outside along the portside of the Ushuaia. A crane connected to a large orange cargo net has lifted them in bunches from the main deck to the dock. After a quick breakfast, everyone begins the painful process of disembarking. We gobble up our bags and say our final goodbyes. Even though I’ve grown accustomed to goodbyes and I’d even go so far as to say I’ve become a master of them, I have to lag behind. This one is just too painful for me. The thought of having to continue on alone quickly becomes soul crushing.
Plus I cannot fathom how I’m going to say goodbye to Annika. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Just the thought of it makes me tense up. I feel it right between my shoulder blades. Like I said, she’s one of the brightest lights I’ve ever come across and aside from Hayma, she’s been the most important person I’ve met along the way. We’ve just had so much sibling-like fun together that I cannot physically walk over to her and say the word goodbye. I just can’t. I know that if I do I’ll end up standing in a puddle of tears.
As I wrap my hand around the handle of my trusty duffel bag, my spirit sags. I can barely get the words out, but I thank Piero for everything and we make a promise to meet for dinner if I ever make it back Miami.
The goodbyes become so taxing that I can’t even allow myself to walk along side the group as they make their way down the dock. I want to hold onto this experience for as long as I can and so I decide that it’s best if I’m the last one to leave.
Eventually I gather the courage to wheel my bag across the splintered wooden planks and then through the tiny one-room port. It starts to rain and I hail a taxi on Av. Prefectura Naval.
I pile in it and as it pulls away I fight the urge to look back. And just like that, everyone’s gone.