Friends: Old, New…and Lost

Traveling isn’t just about the local people you meet, the tour guides, the shop keepers, taxi drivers, the woman on the street corner selling you baskets, or the kind shop owner who serves you tea. If’s about your fellow countrymen whom you may encounter along the way or, if you’re traveling in a tour group, your fellow group members. It’s about the things you share: curiosity about the world, appreciation for learning new things, or excitement upon jointly experiencing a unique event.

From the small moments of “Hey – I’m from that city too!” when the girls behind me in line at the Heathrow airport overhear the Customs agent remark upon the birthplace listed on my passport, to the camaraderie which develops after many days of togetherness.

There were the palpable feelings of satisfaction and happiness emanating from every person standing on the deck of the National Geographic Endeavor as a wild polar bear trundled away after spending an hour studying us from the Norwegian ice floes surrounding our ship.  Or the admiration showered upon the lucky photographers who captured the moments of our only Orca encounter in Antarctica, and their willingness to share their photos and videos. And, speaking of photos, there are those thoughtful individuals who don’t miss the opportunity to snap some shots of others because they know that everyone appreciates pictures of themselves, especially ones they can use to re-create that experience back home for their friends and family.

Then there are the “it’s a small world moments” (like the Heathrow encounter): the time I walked into my veterinarian’s office two months after returning from the Galapagos Islands only to recognize the man standing next to me at the reception desk as a fellow passenger on that cruise. Or traveling all the way to the Seychelles Islands (in the Indian Ocean, 1400 miles off the coast of Tanzania) and learning that the woman I’m eating dinner with lives in my city, only a mile away.

But most importantly, it’s the aggregate of moments which make you realize how much you like the person trudging next to you across a glacier or lava field, how much you admire them, or simply how interesting you find them. Maybe they have a really cool job back home, maybe they’ve been to places you’ve only dreamed of going, maybe they’re really skilled at something you hope to learn yourself. Heck, maybe they not only surprise you, but put you to shame (though not a bad way), like Skip, who, at the age of 80, was the only group member walking up the stairs in the Dubai airport while the rest of us – all younger – were exhaustedly drooping over the railings of the escalator.

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Or maybe they’re just really nice, like Corrie, a warm, welcoming 70-year-old retired music teacher I met in Antarctica. I couldn’t help but like Corrie, who could? Despite being on crutches due to what she believed to be a sprained hip, and missing out on many ship activities, the smile never left her face and she never complained, even when she was obviously in pain. She was just happy to be there. She had an energy, an enthusiasm, which was contagious.

It was those qualities that Corrie exuded which made it so disappointing, so upsetting, despite having known her for only twenty days, to learn that it was not a sprain which plagued her, but a tumor in her hip joint, and myeloma eating away at her bone marrow.

The doctors said they could heal her. It would take time, of course, but they had confidence she would be back on her feet in a year or so, and able to continue her world travels. Until late summer, that is. The myeloma returned, much more aggressive than before, and a prognosis of complete recovery changed to six to nine months survival, to – heartbreakingly – six to nine days when she took a sudden turn for the worse. Corrie passed away on August 25th.

As sad as that made me, I’m glad I met her. I’m glad I took the opportunity to snap some “action” shots of Corrie in one of her rare outings on a zodiac ride to share with her and her sister (who had accompanied her on the trip) and, ultimately, with those who attended her memorial service. I was flattered to hear that one of the photos I had taken was chosen for the slideshow played for the attendees. She will remain one of my lasting memories of the Frozen Continent.

I hope that I will meet more people like her, whether it’s complete strangers I’m encountering for the first time, or friends and relatives I’m traveling with for the umpteenth time while learning new things about them, meeting them all over again.

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