On 13. March 2008 I will be embarking, together with 12 of my colleagues, on an expedition to Antarctica, sponsored Akzo Nobel, and led by the famed polar explorer Robert Swan.

This is my story – not only of the expedition and its aftermath, but also of the journey that culminated in this amazing opportunity...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mission Antarctica – the lessons

The Antarctica expedition was the most unrushed time of my life since my early teenage years. The uninterrupted time to myself, away from cell-phones, emails, deadlines and all worries, gave me ample time to think things through. I came away with a lot of lessons. Some of the lessons were reconfirmation of the old. Many of them gave new perspectives on myself and the world around me. Some of the lessons require me to make new commitments – some personal and some not so personal. On the subject of global warming and climate change, seeing a giant iceberg disintegrate right in front of your eyes at Charlotte Bay in a thunderous noise knocked the wax out of my ears and the cataracts out of my eyes. Seeing the lights at Robert Swan’s E-Base in Bellingshausen station powered out of wind and solar energy makes you wonder out loud why on earth can’t we use the same technology in the more hospitable settings we have in rest of the world. Seeing the abandoned remnants of human activity at Whaler’s Cove makes you promise yourself that you will never be part of any such short sighted and gluttonous mission, plans or business models. At the end of it all, I came away with my own simple definition on sustainability – a word my archaic brain has failed to decipher completely before. For me it means, ‘Balance’. Balancing what we consume today against the self healing and self replenishing capacity of mother-nature. Balancing the profits of today versus the profits of tomorrow. Balancing the needs of an organization, its shareholders, the communities it touches AND ever forgotten mother-nature. Balance!

The expedition also gave me a chance to connect with eleven top caliber people from the various business groups of the diverse company I work for. I learned a lot from them. I learned a lot more about my own company from them. Is there a better way to learn about the diverse and large company I work for than to get to know and understand eleven other individuals representing the different sides of the company? Through them I learned how teams can come together in adversity. I enjoyed their company. I made great new friends. Through our interactions we sharpened each other; like iron sharpens iron. We came together as 12 individuals, shared 12 days in a unique adventure to the edge of the world, and we have returned to 12 different worlds, more aware of ourselves, our company, our world, and our responsibilities. We want to share our experience, our learnings, our stories (and our pictures) with everyone and anyone who wants to listen. Through the sharing we acknowledge the company that send us on this unique journey – Akzo Nobel, the organization that led the expedition and is committed to engaging the world about Antarctica – 2041, the many faces that graced our lives during the expedition, and the majestic land and its rightful inhabitants that hosted us and inspired us – amazing Antarctica.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mission Antarctica – A great Adventure

I have always been a dreamer. Going to Antarctica, however, was not part of any dreams or any random thoughts I ever had. But, when I heard about the chance of going to Antarctica on a company sponsored expedition I knew at once that it was once in a lifetime opportunity. Beyond my geography lessons in my school years, I did not know, and did not care, much about the frozen tundra so far south. In the initial spurt of excitement after finding about the expedition, and in my attempt to hide my lack of general knowledge about the continent, I even misspelled ‘Antarctica’ as I tried to google about the continent. Now with the expedition behind me, I am coming to terms with the rare privilege I had and slowly recognizing the wider impact the experience is making on me.

Mission Antarctica for me was an adventure. It was an adventure that stoked all the senses of my body. It was an adventure that allowed me to find more about myself. It was an adventure that has inspired me about the environment around us, and as far as Antarctica. It was an adventure thickened with eleven others from the diverse and dynamic company I work for. What an amazing adventure it was! Like your favorite movie, it allows you to play it scene by scene, over and over again, without ever approaching boredom. Everyday it reveals something new. Every time it teaches something different. At each reiteration, it inspires new ideas. I rode some of the roughest seas. I climbed some of the treacherous slopes at the bottom of the world. I camped out in the cold wilderness of Antarctica. I saw wildlife in the sanctuary of Antarctic waters and Antarctic soil. I experienced first hand the effects of rising temperature of our planet. I enjoyed sceneries that neither words, pictures nor videos can do justice. I felt the cold wind that pierces through layers of clothing. I felt my own sweat freeze against my body. I munched on some of the freshest snow in the world. I drank the purest water right at its origin. I played Ultimate Frisbee on the windiest continent of the world. I went to sleep under the stars, just after listening to the tales from a man who crossed both poles of the world for the first time in human history – from the devil himself. I saw for myself the scene of scattered whale bones, and human bones abandoned together -- an unforgettable imagery reflecting the dreary end to a human enterprise that plundered nature with no regards for tomorrow. I experienced the raw beauty and the raw fury of mother-nature, both in the same breath.

I am so pleased with how well the plot of my adventure came together. The setting for it was purely enchanting. It was set in the far, far land with white powder sands, blue rich waters, floating glass rocks, split tailed water monsters that joyfully spouts water plumes into air, strange birds that won’t fly, but skip around in neatly pressed butler uniforms, and ever elusive warmth that swings between freezing and frozen. Like a generous host, Antarctica welcomed me well and served me a feast of experiences that exceeded my expectations. Through them it communicated. Sometimes in a wild explosion that is so hard to keep it to yourself. But, mostly in a subtle way, like a secret look exchanged between two good friends; a lot communicated, but hardly any words uttered. As a result of it all I left the continent mesmerized, inspired, changed and committed. At the same time, I left feeling apprehensive, wondering what will happen to this unspoiled, but fragile, land in the coming years. Would humankind raid the last cupboard of the world in desperation as we dry up the resources elsewhere or would we correct our ways long before and thus preserve the last wilderness of the world for the generations to come.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Back Home

Got back home! Chicago winter is still in its full glory – still zero degrees Celsius at the approach of April! But, some how zero feels warmer than before. On the way home the taxi driver asked where I am flying in from. I had to think about it for a second before I could answer. I unpacked! There is a stench mountain in the corner of the bedroom. Everything I took with me has been used and used again during the expedition. During the trip home I wore the freshest set of clothes – which was relative at that point – I had with me.

The pictures and some random memories tell me I had an amazing last couple of weeks. But, the mind is not so sure. I feel a hole in the timeframe. I find myself roaming around the house, with no known purpose, from one room to another, sitting on the couch, the bed, the study chair or the floor. At each place I try to convince myself the whereabouts of the last two weeks. I almost achieve it, before the grandeur of the experience reasons with my mind and question its sanity. I am still in the expedition mode. My phone is off and still liking it. Only made couple of calls to the dearest ones. Feels very tired! I could sleep for hours. I don’t know why! I am longing for some uninterrupted sleep. No wake-up calls, no excursions, no sightings I don’t want to miss, no hikes I dare not avoid. All I want now is just 24 hours of pure boredom that could justify a long sleep. Is that too much to ask for? Occasionally you feel the floor swaying beneath you. You brace yourself against the wall and wonder how strong is the wind outside. I feel under-dressed just wearing one layer of clothing. My feet tinkles as my barefoot, which have been in a pair of shoes around the clock for the last two weeks, rub against the carpet. Amazing how I never noticed before the soothing therapeutic effect of my carpet. The rooms and the walls feel so closed in. I looked around for the button that opens the roof up, to no avail. The water from the refrigerator feels unusually warm. I checked to make sure that the knob is turned to the right spot, and it was. Few minutes ago I experienced the feeling of déjà vu, trying to put the jacket in the closet. I thought for a few moments why that feeling was absent for the last two weeks. The TV looks shockingly unappealing and useless! I don’t even reach for the remote. Note to myself – see a doctor if the symptom persists. Thought about checking my email couple of times. Pounding headache, each time! I saved the drudgery for a more lucid day. I am slowly becoming aware of complex information such as what day and date it is. Today is Sunday and tomorrow is Moan-day. But, looking on the bright side, I will have a chance then to torment my poor colleagues with repeat stories of glaciers, whales, penguins, icebergs, hiking, camping, rough seas and “Last week at this time I was…..” Oh God, I can’t wait for Moanday.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ambush in the Drake Passage

On the way back to Ushuaia we ran into the mighty fury of the Drake Passage. We were expecting a rough passage with 30 knots winds and 5 meter waves. We were served with 60-70 knots wind and 8-10 meter waves. Hurricane class winds and waves at Force 11 to 12! On the first day, the waves came head on, making the ship pitch from front to back. Then the wind changed direction and started coming in from the side, forcing the ship to roll from side to side, as well. From the bridge you can see the ship’s bow arching up and then plunge deep into the wave, while the ship is rolling from left to right. The resulting effect is a white plume of water spray about 30 meters into the air, all around the ship.

The waves were crashing all around the ship. The waves from the side were the worst. They were forcing the ship to roll at 45 degree angle. At 48 degree angle, the ship would tip over!!! Walking around the ship was near impossible without crashing into something. Everyone was forbidden from going out on the deck. One of the 10 meter wave that came in from the side scared the hell out of us. It crashed onto the deck with great force, and everyone that was sitting in the lounge got thrown from the chair and squashed into the opposite wall, along with the furniture.

None of us could sleep, as the violent rolling of the ship almost forced all of us from our beds. I barely stayed on the top bunk of my cabin by pushing myself against the ceiling with one hand and holding on to the side rail of the bed with my other hand. Many tried to sleep on the floor, to avoid being thrown from the bed. They were thrown around the four corners of the room as Drake put on a full fledged show of might. The rough seas lasted over 36 hours, keeping many of my team mates in their cabins. One member on the expedition team broke her angle as she got thrown across the lounge. The captain told us that it was the second worst Drake Passage he ever had, with the worst Drake passage coming 6 years ago. I am glad for the memorable experience, but I don’t want to experience that again.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Last landing

This morning we went to Deception Island. Deception Island is a dormant volcano that erupted most recently in 1991. Because of the volcanic activity in the island, the water next to the beach is luke warm. Few among us went for a swim in the water and then hiked up to a steep rocky ledge with a great view called the ‘Neptune’s Window’. From there we could see a wide ocean open in front of us, as far as the eye can see. The weather, with clear winds and no clouds, was ideal today for the uninterrupted view.

Deception Bay is one of the few places where we came we could see remnants of human activity. Deception bay, with the most naturally protected harbor in the world, offered itself as an ideal location as a whaling station in the past. They slaughtered over 1 million whales in that region decimating the whale population in less than 25 years and bringing them to the brink of extinction. No whales, no whaling stations needed. The whole beach is now littered with remains of once thriving industry. Abandoned ships & planes, corroding tents & tanks, and decaying whale bones! A classic case on sustainable business practices.

In the afternoon we went to Half Moon Island, where an Argentinean bases exists. I walked around the beach alone, enjoying the sights of shy penguins and their colonies, angry seals, low flying birds, and the arch shaped beach. This was going to be our last land excursion in Antarctica. I wanted that time for myself.

Once back onboard the ship, we all gathered on the top deck of the ship. The 2041 expedition leaders gathered at the bow of the bridge, ringing the ship’s bell 3 times in salute to the great wilderness of Antarctica, the expedition team and the ship’s crew. The captain blasted the ship’s horn two times as we bid adieu to Antarctica. The sun was near setting. The snow banks was lit in orange glow. The sky was shades of orange and blue. The wind was blowing hard. Still many remained on the deck, mingling with each other, taking pictures, enjoying the bitter-sweet moment of bidding farewell to Antarctica. I took one more last look at the majestic snow covered peaks, as the sun disappeared behind the mountains into the ocean, and went below deck.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Feeling Top at the Bottom of the World

Today we went for a long hike on land. It was a 2km hike to about 1000 meter height. It was an arduous climb and turned out to be a defining point of the expedition for me.

The three in the front of our hiking team was tethered to each other with a rope. The first person in the front made sure our path was clear of crevasses and unstable snow, while the ones tied to him acted as his safety incase he fell through. The ones behind the three had to walk up the slope in a single file, in the foot step of the ones in front. One misstep and you can slide down the steep slope onto the rocks on one side or the chilly water on the other side. By the time we got to the top, we were trudging through snow that was knee deep. But, we got to the top for an amazing view and feeling.

I learned an important thing myself in that hike and I also learned something about teamwork in that hike. I realized that I live for that one spectacular view, for that one accomplishment, for that special spot on the ledge. For that I can walk miles, month, years. I can block out everything else and zoom in on that one thing that I treasure and I want. In terms of teamwork, the whole hike took the entire team. The one in the front made sure our path was safe for the climb. The ones tethered to him made sure he was safe. The ones behind made sure we kept the pace and we didn’t leave anyone behind. We didn’t stop or delay for personal wants or needs, like stopping to take pictures, or taking breaks at each and every turn. That would have slowed down the entire team and would have possibly kept us reaching the top in the narrow window we had to finish the climb before the sunset. At the end all of us got to the top and got to enjoy the fruit of our labor together. The view we shared was breath taking. The bay with our ship was straight below us. Across the bay was high mountains and glaciers as far as the eyes can see. To the right of us was the most unstable glacier in Antarctica with so many cracks. It looked like a large cake, with white frosting, cut into many pieces at a birthday party. But I was most mesmerized by the long, single file trail that we made coming up the narrow ledge of the snow bank. That single foot trail, along with our determination, our discipline, our trust is what got us all safe to the top. The same trail and characters took us back to the ship in safety.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Leave only foot prints behind

One of the peculiar things I found out during our expedition is the extra attention that goes into keeping Antarctic unspoiled by our expedition leaders and by the ship’s crew. Every time we go ashore we are reminded to wash our boots in disinfecting solution before we board the zodiacs. We are reminded all the time not to leave anything behind in Antarctic and not to leave with anything from Antarctic (except for the experiences and memories). We are not allowed to bring any food on land, except for the rations for the camping night and no drinks other than water. Every time I took the Frisbee with me, the ship’s crew made sure I brought it back with me. Our ‘Leaving Nothing Behind’ commitment was very much tested during the camping out. All of our waste, no matter in what shape or form, had to be bagged and brought back to the ship.

In another incident, when James hit 3 golf balls during his attempt for the longest drive in Antarctica, we couldn’t find one of the balls he hit. We rummaged around the snow slope and the rocky beach for over an hour, with no success. We then called off the search, to avoid delays to the activities scheduled for rest of the day. But, at the end of the day, right before sun set, three of us came back to the same spot. We conducted another hour of search in the cold, wind and snow before we found the missing ball. We kept on looking against all odds and all hope. You wouldn’t believe the excitement and pride onboard amongst us, among the crew and especially with Robert Swan. In finding the ball against all odds, we shared and met his lifelong commitment to leave nothing behind in Antarctica, even if it was just a golf ball. We knew that was important to him and we also realized it has become important for us as well.