My travel expenses to Antarctica were covered by TravelWild, a Seattle area travel operator specializing in adventure cruises.
I slumped back into my chair, overwhelmed. My seat at the window faced the stern, we were sliding past giant blue glaciers, their cracked faces a wall above the blue black mirror of the Lemaire Channel. I felt oddly sad, all of a sudden, like I might cry, though sad isn’t the right word at all. “What’s the matter?” asked my breakfast companion — she must have seen the shift of emotion on my face, in my body.
“This is the last continent,” I said. “I’ve been to all seven now.
“Charcot was an idiot,” said the doctor. We walked the icy slopes of Petermann Island. French explorer Charcot anchored on the wrong side of the island — the prevailing winds blew ice into the cove, forcing him to winter over. The other side of the island, where the Plancius — “my” ship — was anchored while we were ashore, was free and clear. I looked south at Charcot’s cove. A block of blue ice, vaguely reminiscent of a cowboy hat and the size of a modest house was shifting, gradually, towards the shore. The weather was bad that day, it was raining, hard. The island was a worn down slide of algae covered snow and muddy penguin guano, every now and then my boots would punch through the surface into a puddle of icy water. In two hours, I would be back on the ship. I would be wearing slippers and eating butternut squash soup, I would be uploading photos from my camera to my laptop. Charcot would probably have been listening to the ice crunch up against his ship (a sound I know now) and worrying. Charcot survived the winter — he died later in a shipwreck off the coast of Iceland, something I have no plans to do.
Lately, I consider my travels in historical context. It’s not that I am a great explorer, it’s that I like to put the significance of my travels in the context of those brave humans, those madmen — and in some cases women — who went off the map so they could find out what was there. I like to be taken down a notch or twelve when I think I’m doing something special and I like to keep in mind the absolute privilege I have in being able to — can you believe this — take a ship to Antarctica to see penguins and seals and the wild raw places where nature makes lunch out of all of us, should she be so inclined. Iced in with his crew, Charcot probably had hard tack and seal meat while on the other side of the island, I ate steamed rock cod with asparagus, in a delicate mustard sauce followed by a baked fruit tart and coffee with milk and sugar.
I live in modern times, for that I am grateful. Anyone who has the financial means can go to Antarctica, you need not be all that sturdy, even — many travelers to Antarctica are retirees, gripping the handrails as they wander about the halls of the ship, moving carefully up and down the gangplanks. Not all travelers to Antarctica are wealthy, either, — for example, an Australian couple I met told me how they’d saved for years in order to do this adventure, a lifetime ambition. While wealth and agility are certainly advantageous to seeing the world, I have only a relative amount of both — I’m not a grand physical specimen, and as a freelance writer, my finances are, well, let’s just say they show the effects of choosing travel over security.
If, instead of being born to modern times when a bookish, slightly odd female can step foot on all seven continents without raising an eyebrow, I’d been born in, say, the age of exploration, my world would collapse upon me. To complete my travels, I’d require a past life as the child of missionaries or diplomats. Or a father involved in obscure botanical research for some institute, probably British, and later, back in London or Cambridge, there would be presentations in which I was not involved in any way. I am much luckier to be born curious and to a somewhat open globe, a time when the infrastructure exists in such a way that I can stand looking at Charcot’s badly chosen anchorage and a week or so later, sit on my couch in Seattle writing about it.
It was this sense of historical, geographical whiplash that had me gazing into the middle distance. In the collected lives of travelers, my existence, my adventures, are insignificant. I walked a mountain pass in the Himalayas. I rode a bicycle to see the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. I drove a car to Ayers Rock. I took a tour bus to see the temples of Angkor. I boarded a cruise ship to stand on the frozen ground of the seventh continent, Antarctica. I have accomplished so little — probably you know many people who have done exactly what I’ve done. But now, I hold this unique honor of having visited all seven continents. What times we live in that someone like me, with weak upper body strength and perpetually cold hands, can stand on all seven continents!
I travel in the footsteps of all the great explorers. Sitting on the ship, while my coffee got cold, I again imagined the long blue lines of the planet between where I sat and my home back in Seattle. I wrapped the lines the horizontal way, too, around the belt of the planet to Honolulu, Alice Springs, Saigon, Delhi. There are many places in the world I have not been — I would like to see the churches of Ethiopia, I would like to see elephants in the wild. But as I looked out the window at this last place, I imagined the great blue globe stretching away from our tiny ship floating at the bottom of the planet in the icy still water. I could picture the whole great planet in my mind, for just a moment, I thought I could sense the weight of us all, floating in space.
I pushed my toast away, I wasn’t hungry anymore. “I’ve been to all seven continents,” I said. And I looked out the window and tried not to cry.