Life on the ship in Antarctica

This post on our Homeward Bound voyage in Antarctica is about our life on the ship (see previous posts on learnings from Antarctica and the leadership program).

I won’t spend time describing the facilities on the ship. Let me just say that we were provided with every comfort exceeding the wildest expectations. The crew was taking care of us in the best possible way. The food was incredibly good. As to my knowledge, there were no serious health issues on board. Instead of going into the details of it all, I’d like to focus on the social aspects of being in a relatively confined space with 100+ strangers with little connection to the outside world and going though an intense and emotional learning process.

When still in Ushuaia, before embarking on the ship, we’ve done several socializing exercises led by Fern Wickson, our Lead Facilitator during the voyage. Fern describes it in detail in her blog. One of these exercises was on establishing our group norms for the next 3 weeks given the diversity of our cohort. This process was extremely important for the following journey. The participants formulated the group norms themselves without directives from the faculty and as a result truly embraced them. For example, some of the norms were about suspending judgement, enabling each others growth, respecting boundaries. I believe that the process of formulating these norms contributed greatly to the supportive, inclusive, and non-judgemental culture on the ship.

For example, the respect for boundaries and openness made sharing cabins very easy, so that sharing felt more comfortable for me than having it for myself. The non-judgemental and inclusive culture allowed us to create a truly safe space. For me personally, one important indicator of it was the absence of any gossip. There was no single moment during the 3 weeks when I heard people discussing those who were not present during the conversation.

Self-reflection and focus make it possible to suspend explicit judgement, however we all have unconscious biases. Controlling implicit biased reactions is much more difficult. When we meet a stranger, we rather quickly jump to a conclusion on whether we can get along with this person or not based on fairly superficial characteristics. It was interesting to observe how my unconscious biases were challenged during our Symposium at Sea where people were talking about their STEMM journeys and passions in 3 minutes (see my previous post for more details). In some cases, 3 minutes were enough to turn my idea about a person completely upside down.

The faculty encouraged us to get to know as many participants as possible and to avoid creating isolated cliques with people connecting to whom was easier. For example, before each new session they would ask us to change seats and sit next to someone else. Sometimes it was annoying, because you had to pick up all your belongings and squeeze through the room of 100 people moving in all directions, but it totally served the purpose. Sitting next to different people each time became our habit. By the end of the voyage I had a chance to speak to almost every participant and faculty member and would feel comfortable with any of them even if we had to share a desert island for a while. However, this approach also had drawbacks for me personally.

Joining Homeward Bound, I was expecting to find new collaborations among like-minded people in both science and activism. And I was also hoping to make new friends. When our cohort first met in Ushuaia and the faculty members shared what brought them to HB, I was completely blown away by their personalities and life stories. The same was happening during our voyage when I was getting to know the participants and learning about their expertise, stories, and passions.

However, creating deep connections during our voyage happened to be challenging for me. To do so I need one-on-one time; bonding in a group has always been difficult. The faculty has never discouraged us from spending one-on-one time, but I was discouraging myself constantly keeping in mind the “meeting new people” principle.

You meet someone with whom you click, but then you literally can’t predict when you bump into them next time during a session or at lunch or in a zodiac. Maybe it won’t happen for quite a while, unless you are actively looking to spend time with them. I was not doing so, because I didn’t want to keep them from meeting someone else. As a result, after the first third of the voyage I felt exhausted from attempting to connect through group conversations. Everyone else seemed to be happy and making friends, while I was gradually feeling more and more alone, invisible and not belonging.

One evening when I felt particularly down, the situation got unexpectedly resolved. First, I had a meaningful one-on-one conversation over dinner. Second, an expedition crew member lent me his guitar and after dinner I played and sang quietly by myself. Both these things allowed me to finally relax and express my thoughts and emotions. I realized that trying to fit didn’t do me well. I accepted the situation and since that evening I was just going with a flow without any expectations and feeling comfortable with everything.

Interestingly, later on I learned that a few other people were feeling the same way or struggling with something else and not sharing it. Our daily Open Frame sessions were meant for the participants to raise issues, but people hardly talked about anything negative. One reason for it might be that the overall mood and language of the voyage was set to be overly positive. Talking about things that were not great or amazing felt like spoiling it for everyone else.

This experience taught me many valuable lessons about socializing practices and confirmed that expectations and efforts to fit can ruin it. But most importantly, by the end of the voyage I was happy to discover that I did develop new prospective collaborations and hopefully was even lucky to start up long-lasting friendships.

My last post will be about the carbon footprint of our voyage, privilege, and Antarctic tourism.

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