I wrote seven columns about my trip to Antarctica, two before and five after the trip.
I wrote with other people in mind, trying to respond to their curiosity about this unusual destination. What did Antarctica look and feel like? What would readers who are considering such a trip want to know?
The more personal question, the one that people ask about travel but rarely answer, is: Did it change me? If so, how? Travel is supposed to do something for us. What is it? How can I tell if it happened?
Maybe it’s too soon for a full answer, but I have noticed things.
The word “Antarctica” jumps out at me now, even when it scrolls past in a jumble of words on the Internet or appears on a big page of newsprint. When a Russian vessel became trapped in ice a week after we returned home, I tracked the incident every day on different news sites.
Last week, in a tape prepared by President Obama for the final night of Jay Leno’s show, he said, “Jay, you’ve made a whole lot of jokes about me over the years — but do not worry, I’m not upset. On a totally unrelated note, I’ve decided to make you my new ambassador to Antarctica — hope you got a warm coat, funny man.”
When someone told me about Obama’s remarks, I laughed hard. Then I thought fondly of my own warm coat. I almost felt its fuzzy hood against my face.
Something similar has happened with penguins. Every morning when I pour my coffee, I have eight animal mugs to choose from. Since we returned from Antarctica, I always pick the penguin. If that mug is in the dishwasher, for a moment I feel lost.
I became inordinately excited when an elderly friend showed me his framed snapshot of penguins from his trip to Argentina. I was able to say immediately, “We didn’t see that kind. Rockhoppers, right?”
I easily recognize the five types of penguins we saw, and I can tell you the color of their feet. I love the sounds of their names, which have become a little song in my mind, perhaps a song for skipping rope.
Chinstrap and King.”
They march across my mind in their little tuxedos, heads forward, wings flapping whenever I say their names.
A similar but more dignified assembly has formed in my head of the explorers whose stories I followed even though they’re long dead. Scott, Amundsen, Shackelton and key associates like Worsley, Crean and Wilson. I’ll forget details of their exploits sooner than I want to, but the names will stick. Anytime anyone says something new to me about Antarctic exploration, I’m ready to sit down and listen.
I also want people to listen to me. I’ve become pompous about polar bears and puffins, for example, saying “they’re only in the Arctic.” Then I explain that Antarctica is a continent and the Arctic mostly water. My audience yawns.
The Arctic, by the way, has gone onto my bucket list. Now that I’ve learned that I can cope with cold weather and rocky seas, I want to see those polar bears and puffins, walruses and wolverines. The rhymes are already forming.
But it’s not all whimsy; Antarctica has been added to my sphere of concern. It’s like having a new grandchild. Climate change in Antarctica is going to trouble me more than in other places, including my own backyard.
Perhaps this is what travel does.
It gives you new “grandchildren” whose successes and failures, whose moments in the news, and whose moments out of the news seize your attention and your heart.
Some people become environmentalists or philanthropists without stepping out of their homes, but others, like me, are moved when they take trips that expose them to world problems.
While in Antarctica, my husband and I contributed to a rat fund. These vermin were accidentally introduced to South Georgia Island many years ago when they arrived on ships as stowaways. They have been wreaking havoc on defenseless native birds, their eggs and their chicks ever since, reducing some populations almost to zero.
Someone has figured out how to get rid of the rats using toxic bait — parts of the island have recently been rendered rat-free–but the only way to restore millions of birds to the island is to eliminate all the rats, which they hope to accomplish by 2015.
This is expensive.
We contributed to the rat fund of the South Georgia Island Heritage Trust and received a certificate which I had made out in the names of our grandchildren.
I probably won’t show it to them now because killing rats might seem mean to them. How old will our grandsons, ages 2 and 4, have to be to understand why we contributed in their names to making South Georgia Island rodent-free?
No matter. I’m bringing my real grandchildren and my new grandchild, Antarctica, together, although I didn’t think of it that way at first.
This is how travel is changing me. I travel and, unexpectedly, I care about more of the world.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org