A spokesman from the recent Australasian expedition to Antarctica that got stuck in ice remarked, “Surprisingly, all the passengers seem to be considering it the adventure of a lifetime.”
I get that.
Antarctica does something to you. I don’t know what it is for other people, but I know something about what it was for me.
Antarctica is the first place I’ve ever been where I did not have the emotional capacity to take it all in. There have been places I’ve traveled where I’ve kept an emotional distance — painful, impoverished places — but on the Antarctic ice or in the Antarctic sea in my kayak, the only pain came from my freezing fingers.
Everything else was wonderful: whales close to our ship, seals in great piles farting on the beach, huge albatrosses trailing the boat, thousands of penguins waddling and nesting within a few feet of us, and a landscape that was serene and stunning.
I would stand there, staring, or perhaps holding up my point-and-shoot camera, stymied at the impossibility of taking it all in. Antarctica refused to go into my camera or into my memory the way I wanted. Everything was too new, too amazing, too vast.
The heavy jacket we were issued against cold and wind had a part in my experience. The warm hood narrowed the opening around my face to almost nothing, leaving only my eyes exposed.
Because I could see forward and nowhere else, my hood created its own little world. Everything I saw was condensed and somehow heightened, and even so I was never sure where to look.
Each moment felt so precious that I was constantly thinking, “Should I take a photo now? Would it be better to sit here and watch that penguin? Should I be raising my eyes to the glacier? Turning my face to the sea?”
I chastised myself. Come on! Decide!
In the meantime, ordinary life clicked along the way it does, with incidents both funny and serious. On the fourth day, a costume party was announced. I wore my white silk underwear as an outer layer, hung a pair of black pants over my back, tied a white sock around my face, and topped it all with a billed hat — black, of course.
I practiced walking with my legs close together and only my feet and ankles moving. In this restricted clothing, with this restricted movement, I won the contest, a first for me.
The part that’s hard to explain is how much I enjoyed being unable to speak during the party because of my sock mask. I waddled around, peering at faces, saying nothing. I not only looked like a penguin, I felt like one.
I fell similarly mute in the presence of real penguins, which we saw in greatest quantity at our first stop at South Georgia Island. We stood on a hill and gazed down on nothing but king penguins, hundreds of thousands of them, huddled so close together that they looked like a berber rug, yet each had its individual occupation: finding a mate, flapping wings at a mate, or swimming across a stream from one clique of penguins to another.
Should I sit? Should I stand? Should I photograph? Should I just look?
Maybe it’s like when someone sees a baby born. Life. Too close and too astounding for the human psyche to absorb in full. I am convinced that all I was meant to do was to watch and soak it in, but the experience was so enormous and unique that I didn’t know how.
Maybe the time I spent on the boat, preparing my gear, eating great meals, lying in bed when seasickness threatened, was all designed to keep me “ordinary” and grounded when every trip off the boat was so extraordinary that I couldn’t believe I was there.
One special day I looked at a mountain side where chinstrap penguins were skidding on new snow, then dropping to their stomachs and swimming across it with tiny awkward strokes. They were clumsy, eager, delightful.
“I know more about God now,” I said to whoever was standing next to me. “God likes cute.”
“Your jaw will drop,” said one of the expedition leaders on the second day of our voyage, as he told us about the penguin colony on South Georgia Island. “I can never tell visitors too much ahead of time,” he continued. “I can never spoil it. Jaws will still drop.”
He was right.
Here’s something else that happened, unexpectedly, on our last day.
We disembarked via a gangplank and transferred into buses for the short ride to “downtown” Ushuaia, Argentina. I settled in next to my husband. The bus was slow in departing so we sat there for a few moments making small talk with other passengers. Then the bus jerked to life and we started moving away from the ship.
Our voyage was truly over.
Suddenly, amid the murmur of conversation, the noise of the engine, and some words my husband was saying that I wasn’t hearing, I began to cry.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org