The Antarctica State of Mind
The grandeur and wonder of Antarctica is beyond words. Staring at my screen and not knowing where to start, I took a glance at the dark grey sky and chaotic streets of Shanghai. The messiness of my life now is so far from the empty silence of Antarctica.
After traveling around the world, heading to Antarctica seemed more and more inevitable. Its mystery, isolation and unpredictability hold the greatest allure. My 2016 was a chaotic year and an extended trip was overdue. So 3 flights and more than 40 hours later, I found myself standing at the intoxicating harbor of Ushuaia. China is the farthest country from Argentina, and I have finally crossed the world to witness the magic of Antarctica.
Passing the Drake Passage, I experienced sea sickness for the 1st time, throwing up as if my body was trying to clear out all toxics and get ready for this purest continent. Out of the window at the open sea, albatross and petrels were effortlessly gliding in the sky. I slowly felt asleep in the cradle of the ocean.
Waking up to enormous icebergs out of my window was surreal. Electrified by excitement, I rushed to the bridge for better view.
“Do you remember the first time you saw this?” I asked our expedition leader Andrew Bishop: “Yeah of course. At the beginning I thought it was fog. Our brains are not used to see something so magnificent so they do strange things…”
Standing there in awe, I also found the vastness incomprehensible. We have entered into a new territory constructed by endless ice with neon-blue carvings and crystal clear sky, almost binary yet so rich and intoxicating. I went to the deck and took a big gulp of the air, trying to take this purity and freshness into my body.
Going ashore, my feet touched the cushioning snow and were immediately swallowed by it. Our guide Beau helped me put on snowshoes – the essential companion during our hikes ashore. There were lots and lots of penguins, greeting us with the distinctive smell of their poop. They seemed so oblivious to our presence, reminding me that we are probably trespassing on their property. I watched them nonchalantly walk on their highway: wiggle, wiggle, jump, fall on their bellies, slide, and jump up again to continue their journey. Adorable and clumsy as we perceive them, the penguins hold a great sense of dignity and grace in this harshest environment. One by one they dived into the ocean, swimming so elegantly and effortlessly, as if they were different creatures in the water.
In Antarctica we are completely under the thumb of Mother Nature. Being so out of control felt terrifying and liberating at the same time. Fortunately, she has been welcoming to us. With beautiful sunshine and calm weather, we went ashore twice a day to admire this crystal desert. Paradise Bay is my favorite. Sitting on top of the hill at Brown Station, I almost held my breath to avoid disturbing this soul-quietening beauty. The reflection of the iceberg was decorated by floating ice, like the finest exhibition of crystal, so calm and weightless. My mind started to become clear and uncluttered like the ice, and my messy and colorful life back home was in distant world.
Our fantastic expedition guides kept us busy with all kinds of activities. Louise took as kayaking bring us close encounter with the Antarctic Ocean. Maneuvering through the icebergs with penguins swimming around felt unreal, the splashes of icy water on my hands kept reminding me that I was not in a dream.
Mountaineering in the 80km/hour wind with Cube and Mal reminded me how dangerous Antarctica can be under this calm and peaceful disguise. One slip I could fall into a crevasse or role off the cliff, into oblivion. Our lives were tied together by the harnesses, bringing out the ultimate trust and teamwork. Nothing compares to the gratification and fulfillment at the top, yet the exhibition and anticipation made this sport so appealing and almost addictive.
The most memorable night was camping. Tents were not needed and everyone just dug their own holes, which joked by our guide Nacho as “our own graves”. The sound of the ocean and seabirds was the perfect lullaby, but I didn’t want to close my eyes and miss the picturesque view. The sleeping bags were incredibly warm, in my temporary ice grave I thought about how little procession we need, yet we always crave for more.
After a night of a bit too much Melbec, polar plunge seems to be the best Antarctic hangover cure. Stripping was probably the hardest part, and when I finally jumped in, I felt an immediate frozen shock and the panic thought: “Get Out!” I couldn’t feel my toes for a good 30 minutes, but it was so refreshing and awakening. Of course I didn’t miss the opportunity to do it the second time.
We were incredibly lucky with the wild animals. On Christmas Eve, our own “Caption Fantastic” took us to witness a surprise spectacle of whales bubble net feeding. We saw heaps of humpback whales emerging from the ocean like a slow motion film. Countless birds danced around the blow hole, battling for the leftover nutrients and surrounding our ship with the magnificent performance. We also saw many Weddell seals, elephant seals and leopard seals dozing on the ice and rocky beach; the lonely macaroni penguin spotted by our guide Chris, lost in the chinstrap rookery; and albatross, petrels, shags, sterns dominating the clearest sky on planet. I have the utmost respect and admiration of the Antarctic wild animals, and can only hope the adverse impacts of human activities can be reduced to the minimal.
The end, the beginning
The last night on Plancius is filled with mixed fillings. I tried to hold tears watching our expedition video shared by our photographer Bruce. This journey is intense, the adventure and friendship were magnified on this isolated land, undisrupted by the outside world. We ate, explored, partied and celebrated Christmas together. We bonded by the utmost admiration of Antarctica, and age, gender, nationalities and status all seemed irrelevant. The energy from our expedition guides was contagious. I read their profiles over and over again, inspired by their stories and passion, and envy this lifestyle - the unconventional paths away from the vertical career ladders so many of us are trying to hard to climb.
On our way back to Ushuaia, Drake Passage was a bit moody. I watched the waves pushing and slapping Plancius, and secretly wishing maybe this would keep us from leaving. There was no more whiteness, just the angry sea and audacious albatrosses chasing our ship. I wonder when the last time they touched land was.
On our last Daily Program, I found this quote by T.S Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
I started panicking about my unread emails, the prelude of my chaotic life waiting for me at home. I worry that I will forget this tranquility and peace. And what if after Antarctica, everything becomes so dull and unexciting?
I had been warned of the polar bug, now I get it.
To me Antarctica is very personal expedition, it is so spacious and empty that in a way we see what we take with us. This land is a healing place, my body was purified, my physical wound became insignificant and mind uncluttered. I came to Antarctica to lose myself and to find myself again, but 12 days seems too short to get the conclusion and clarity I hoped to get, only adding more questions to the list.
I hope Antarctica will become the inner place of tranquility during my most overwhelming days.
Without sounding too cliché, Antarctica is a state of mind.