Currently viewing the category: "Travel Writing"

“The unexpected connections we make might not last, yet stay with us forever”-Sofia Coppola

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.

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.

Zodiac tour

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.

Zodiac tour

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.

Antarctica

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.

Antarctica

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.

“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

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”-Sir Ernest Shackleton

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.

It turns out the Drake Passage is no joke.  It was everything and then some that Julieta said it would be.  We actually got delayed by a full day before we even entered the passage because the Captain deemed the seas too rough to proceed forward like our original itinerary had allotted for.  Reports eventually filtered down to us (the passengers) that the reason for the wait was because the waves in the Drake were topping out at nearly 10 meters high.

The Captain really didn’t have much choice in the matter and so he dropped the Ushuaia’s anchor and we waited out the bad weather.  And then we waited some more.  We helplessly bobbed back and forth a little south of Cape Horn for what felt like forever.  I’ve noticed that when you really want something and you’re super close to getting it, waiting becomes that much more intolerable.  But while I’m willing to take a lot of risks in life, the one thing that I won’t ever step into the ring against is Mother Nature.  She’s got Hagler’s chin, Tyson’s uppercut and Ali’s speed and footwork.  In short, she is and will always be undefeated.

Our big break finally came after 24 hours of worry and wonder.

I was beginning to think that we’d never actually make it to Antarctica but when the ship’s intercom crackled to life, the mood on board quickly lifted.  Julieta announced that we were finally going to attempt to cross the world’s most dangerous sea and that we should all begin to mentally prepare ourselves for the rough road ahead.  At minimum we were warned that it was going to take 36 hours to safely get to the other side of the Passage.

Each cabin on board has been tailored for extreme weather just like this.  Everyone’s bed has big metals bars on each side of it, which is meant to keep us from falling out of it at night.  There are railings in all the hallways and inside each stairwell as well.  Everything in the dining hall and observation lounge is bolted down so I’m sure that the tables, chairs and couches won’t budge regardless of the size of the waves we might encounter.  But as everyone quickly found out, the same couldn’t be said for the human body’s frail and fragile stomachs.

Thankfully, I happened to be one of the few (by few I mean three or four passengers) to have escaped the death grip seasickness took on the ship once we entered the Drake.  It clenched down with all its might and ravaged the ship relentlessly for nearly two straight days.  The angry ocean made just walking around the ship nearly impossible and every time we hit a really big wave all my things flew out of my closet and across my cabin regardless of how much I had secured them.

Now I have no idea why I didn’t get sick, I took one of the seasickness pills that the onboard nurse passed out, but so too did everyone else.  You would have thought that the Ushuaia had turned into a floating quarantine center from the sight of people.  Yellow faces, bloodshot eyes and that deer in headlights look overtook most people.

Everyone pretty much kept to themselves during our time in the passage itself.  Staying in their rooms, and close to their toilets, seemed like most people’s strategy.  Because of my natural desire for solitude I drifted away from the others passengers and hung out in the cabin I was sharing with a perfume salesman from Prague.  Yes, you read that right, my roommate was a perfume salesman from Prague.  Even Doctor Seuss couldn’t have dreamed this unlikely pairing up in his book Oh, The Place’s You’ll Go!

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Antarctica!

Hope you and the perfume salesman enjoy your stay!

Zodiac

But all kidding aside, it was really rough going.  And outside of the small talk with my roommate and the occasional light chatter in the dining hall, there wasn’t much going on.  Only rarely did anyone ever see the really sick ones.  They’d pop up for a second or two at meal time but only to grab some dinner rolls and then run right back to their rooms with their arms full of carbohydrates.

At 7:30AM on the fourth day onboard, the ship’s loudspeaker ripped through our cabin and woke me up.

Julieta’s voice once again crackled, as wanting more sleep fought for my eyes. “Good morning, good morning my dear passengers”, which is how she greeted us each and every morning.  But as she continued her message, it was clear something was different today, “I am happy to announce that we have cleared the Drake Passage and today we will be arriving at Half Moon Island shortly.”

After breakfast I stuffed my long limbs into all the layers of clothes I rented back in Ushuaia, which although was only four days ago felt more like four years ago.

It took me a good fifteen minutes to get dressed. I’m desperately afraid of cold weather so I put on every layer I had with me.  Underneath my waterproof ski pants I wore fleece lined sweat pants and underneath them was a layer of thermal stockings, which were tucked into both pairs of wool socks I had already put on.  Underneath my ski jacket was another only slightly lighter jacket and beneath that was a sweatshirt and a thermal top that matched the bottoms.  Since I haven’t cut my hair in over two years the gigantic size of my bun meant that I’d have to let my hair down if I wanted to get my wool hat down past my ears.  I was so insulated that I could barely bend over to pull on the knee-high rubber boots the expedition team provided us with.

I bounced down the hallway and stairwell like the Michelin Man and once I made it to the back of the ship I finally stepped outside.  An Artic blast of cool air slapped my face as I stepped into a real life snow globe.  The breadth of the winter wonderland immediately sucked all the oxygen out of my lungs.  Snow was falling ever so gently and there was this God-like hush that fell over everything.  I’d never felt so far away.  I don’t just mean far away from the places I once called home like Pennsylvania and Florida, but just so far away from the world I’d grown to know over the past 36 years.

It’s like I’d stepped into a vacuum that’s been sealed off from the rest of the world.  Everything is so peaceful and so calm here; even the ocean water, which tormented us the past four days, is still and lake-like now.  The Ushuaia is moored in the middle of the natural bay that the island’s crescent shape shoreline creates and I can see Half Moon Island off in the distance.  The first zodiac (rubber dinghy) is sliding towards it and the tiny waves it’s making feel like there rippling across all of eternity.

South Shetland Islands

Technically today’s landing is considered to be part of the South Shetland Islands and not Antarctica, but I’m not one to split hairs.  This feels like Antarctica and we’re only 75 miles from it anyway.  After a second zodiac takes eight more passengers, I board the third one to leave with a few other passengers and we skip across the ocean top like a perfectly thrown stone.  With the wind whipping across my face, it quickly becomes the giddiest moment of my life.

My excitement only builds as we close in on land and once I jump off the zodiac I immediately spring into action.  There’s an incredibly photogenic old wooden whaling boat that had wrecked at the south end of the island so I head towards that first.  The cutest Chinstrap Penguins you’ve ever seen are waddling by and as I crouch down to film them in between the snowflakes I’m just so thrilled that my job is to capture exactly this kind of thing.

Each step takes me deeper and deeper into the landscape and also down the well of my own creativity.  I’m finally feeling the way I’d always wanted to feel behind the camera.  I’m not only creating content for myself out of love, but also at the same time this is actually considered work.  I’ve managed to merge the two and blur the lines between love and work, passion and paychecks, art and ego.

And here’s the thing about Half Moon Island.  This place is so much different than anywhere else I’ve ever been.  It’s untouched.  The thing I’ve never liked about going to see all the great wonders of the world like the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or the Roman Coliseum is that there are throngs and throngs of sweaty tourists right there along side you.  And no matter where you go, it’s nearly impossible to find a quiet moment to yourself where you can stop and take in the beauty of your surroundings.  Not to mention that they’ve all become so commercialized that they’ve almost lost their magic altogether.  There’s a ticket you have to buy, a line you have to wait in and rows and rows of souvenir stands that take away from the original ambiance the place undoubtedly once provided, but that’s not the case here.  And since we’re on such a small ship with so few passengers, everyone is spaced out around the island and exploring their own little nook and cranny without a care in the world.

South Shetland Islands

After a short hike to the top of the island to look out over thousands of chinstrap penguins, I board the zodiac for a second time and it zips me across the bay to Cámara Base, which is a scientific research station nestled in the foothills of the Menguante Cove.  It’s Argentinian owned and its only open during the summer season, which is when the research is conducted.  The base itself is comprised of four small buildings, which are surrounded by a couple of satellite towers.  Most recently a Colombian Geologist was here mapping out the region with the use of drones.

After a few hours of exploring, I head back aboard the Ushuaia and I’m shocked by what greeted me.

It’s like a magician was on board because the great distance between myself and the other passengers immediately vanished.  Buoyed by our first landing and woken up by the cold Arctic air and the return of everyone’s stomachs to normal it was like a wave of comradery burst through the ship that I couldn’t help but dive head-first into.

The dining hall, which had otherwise been pretty quiet, was transformed into a rowdy saloon at lunch where everyone was trading stories of not just their morning, but of their lives.  And I swear I could almost see it.  I could almost see this invisible thread being sown through us all as our spoons clanged against the bottom of our bowls of vegetable stew.

My grandmother’s favorite hobby has always been knitting.  She’s sown thousands upon thousands of wool sweaters and as a child I would sit and watch her sow.  She’d sit at the end of her couch with a big ball of yarn in her lap and she’d widdle two long knitting needles effortlessly together without looking.  She’d create these intricate designs and the needlework she used to do reminds me of this lunch.  We’ve been pulled tightly together.  It started at the back end of the dining hall and by the time lunch had ended I could tell that the thread had wound through all of us.

Right then and there I knew that things wouldn’t ever be the same for me again and that we were all in for the trip of our lives.