Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In my previous post I wrote about the legends of Antarctica, of Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen from the heroic age of exploration.
But Antarctica is such a forbidding place, a place unlike anywhere else on earth, not even the Arctic, that even today the men and women who go there are nearly as remarkable as their predecessors. Nowhere else on earth would the commercial traveler — there’s hardly any other kind, given the impossibility of reaching the seventh continent as a backpacker — find himself guided by such uncommon individuals.
And there is self-conscious legacy at work. My expedition leader introduced herself on the first day to us as “Cheli from New Zealand,” where I grew up. Indeed she reminded me distinctly of a New Zealand type, the no-nonsense, pragmatic boarding school mistress, for instance. On the final night of the voyage, I went up to her to say thanks, and I asked her: “Cheli — I noticed that your surname is Larsen. You wouldn’t happen to be related to THE Larsen, would you?” Captain Carl Anton Larsen had sailed along the ice shelf now named after him in 1893. She told me that she was his great-great-granddaughter.
Along for the ride as a guest lecturer on Antarctic history was a tall, gaunt, and elderly Irishman with wispy white hair and a hearing aid in his left ear named Jonathan Shackleton. He was a second cousin of Sir Ernest and the self-professed “family historian.” Tom Hanks once hired him to go along when Hanks chartered a private yacht to go to Antarctica.
And then there were the rest of the remarkable men and women who condescended to serve as guides.
There was Mykolaj, or Myko, a former commander of the Polish Antarctic research station. He gave a wry talk on what life was like when you lived on Antarctica for the year. “People discovered talents they never had. Let’s just say that many of those talents would have been better left undiscovered. We wound up with a lot of bad poetry, a lot of bad paintings.”
When he came back after a year in Antarctica, he went to dinner with a woman he was interested in at a fancy restaurant. They finished a pleasant meal and walked out, “only to be chased by a very angry waiter.” Myko had forgotten to pay. There was no such thing as making a payment in Antarctica. “She couldn’t stop laughing. I was very embarrassed. I went back and gave the waiter a big tip. But then later I thought, to forget that there is such a thing as money — if that’s not freedom, then I don’t know what is.”
There was Noah the bird man from Oregon, the first human being on record to have seen 6,042 species of birds in a single year. At 30, he had authored two books. Even from a mile away he could identify the magnificent albatrosses that circled our ship, the largest flying animals in existence.
There was Colin from Scotland, the ice man, who had written his doctoral dissertation on ice on Mars, and who could tell you more than you ever wanted to know about icebergs and glaciers and ice shelves and ice sheets.
There was Sir Robert Swan, OBE, the first human being to reach both the North and South Poles on foot. He was there leading a group for his environmental advocacy organization. A would-be successor of Shackleton and Scott, even in middle age he had powerful shoulders and a torso thick as a tree trunk. His modesty, however, seemed more of the faux kind, more of a kind of preparation for when he then told you about his exploits in their full glory.
And then there was the couple of John from Australia and Mette from Norway who had been part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. John had worked as a parachute instructor, stuntman, and photojournalist in all your regular hotspots before entering the NGO world. “When they exhibited his photos in Warsaw,” Myko said, “they did it in the old palace, and our first lady was the sponsor.”
Indeed, John and Mette had met in 1990s Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. One evening I happened to sit with them at dinner. At some point in the conversation, I mentioned that I’d traveled there, oblivious of whom I was dining with, before I gathered from the way they spoke of that country that they knew it very well indeed. If people intelligent, accomplished, kind, modest, and self-sacrificing are your idea of the best sort of people, then they were among the best people I ever met.
And you wouldn’t have known it if you simply let them guide you around Antarctica. Spot that orca through the binoculars, by all means. Take a photo of the humpback showing its fluke. But this is the sort of place where the human being standing right next to you looking over the bow may well be infinitely interesting in his or her own right.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."