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Great Expectations by Pam Mandel

Posted November 16, 2010 @ 5:30pm | by TravelWild

Here is the truth: I’d never considered going to Antarctica.

By nature, I have a more tropical, land-based disposition. But also, by nature, I am adventurous. On our obsessively documented and explored planet, there is no place that says exploration, no place that captures the grand idea of expedition, like Antarctica. There is a great crossing in an icebreaker. There are Wellington boots and dressing for the elements and provisions.  There is polar history, too: Amundson’s race to victory, Scott’s bitter failure, and Shackleton’s crazy combination of both those things—he failed to reach his goal, but ultimately succeeded in something far more important. (Okay, there’s a lot of pre-trip reading, too.) Antarctica. What place says “far, far away” like Antarctica?

Besides, there are penguins. Penguins! Standing around, unfenced, untagged, just being penguins living out their penguin lives. I may have never considered traveling to Antarctica, but who isn’t captivated by penguins! Of course I am going.

I should introduce myself. I’m Pam Mandel,  TravelWild Expedition’s new “blogger in residence.” To kick off this venture, TravelWild is sending me to Antarctica. Some generous crew member on the Polar Star, a refurbished icebreaker, is shoving over to share their cabin with me for ten days while I find out what it’s really like to take an Antarctic cruise. (Here’s the trip I’m taking.)

As I prepare for this adventure, I spend a lot of time looking at maps. Ushuaia, the port where I’ll board the Polar Star to Antarctica, is just short the entire longitude of the planet away from my home in Seattle, Washington. To get to the launch point, I have to travel first to the upside down part of the planet, to the bottom of the globe. I’m already thinking about gravity and the big blue marble of the earth in space in a completely new way. Geography isn’t just a flat paper map anymore, it’s me traveling the length of one of those pale blue lines, from end to end.

I try to travel without expectations. They’re so rarely met and they lead to disappointment. Instead of being bogged down in what I think might happen, I err on the side of preparation and, then, hope for the best. I trust, every time, that my companions will be aces and that the operators want nothing more than for me to have an amazing (and safe, of course) trip. But no matter how I try to keep it quiet, my brain is buzzing with all kinds of rookie questions.

Will I be cold? Will the notorious Drake Passage treat me kindly? What does it sound like to be surrounded by conversational penguins and seals? How close will the penguins come to me? Does something fundamental happen to you when you step foot on the edge of the map? What’s for lunch? Am I going to pack enough socks? Because itineraries change based on weather and ice, where will we go, exactly? Should I wear my boots on the plane? What does a sunrise look like in Antarctica? I’m not wrapped in expectations so much as I’m wrapped in questions.

When I received my confirmation for the Polar Star trip, I got a call from Dennis Mense, a seasoned expedition leader with TravelWild. In addition to suggesting I pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Antarctica and tuck in to reading Shackleton, Dennis spoke to the writer in me. “You’ll have to find a whole new selection of adjectives to describe what you’re going to see.” If I’m not struck speechless, you’ll find those new adjectives here, on the TravelWild blog—along with other interesting bits and pieces related to polar travel.

I hope you’ll join me for this once in a lifetime adventure.

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