I just finished reading Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Usually I find non-fiction kind of dull. But man, this was different. So different that I had to write about it, because Shackleton’s story is one that all of us wanderers can relate to and learn from, on some level at least. And so, without further ado, welcome to the first edition of the LanguageCorps Book Club!
Heralded as one of the great adventure tales of our time, Endurance is the story of a strange little fella named Ernest Shackleton, and his quest to become the first man to cross the Antarctic continent by foot. His ship, “Endurance” becomes lodged in impassable ice, eventually sinking and forcing the crew to abandon ship. What follows is an incredible story of leadership, willpower, and ultimately, survival, whereby Shackleton leads the entire 28-man crew to rescue without a single casualty, despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Though at times it sounds like it must be fiction, Endurance is an almost entirely factual story, based on interviews and diaries kept by the men aboard. As a result, the writing is fairly dry, and much of the story is made up of the mundane details of surviving an extended period of time in the ferocious Antarctic climate, yet somehow, Endurance manages to be an absolutely fascinating read, and one that I highly recommend.
Throughout much of the book, I found myself thinking “Holy bleep, what would I do in Shackleton’s shoes?” Would I be able to survive that? But what got to me, more so than the incredible courage and heroism displayed, was the unrelenting discomfort endured by the crew for nearly two years straight. Trying to sleep in soaking wet clothes and sleeping bags, in sub zero Antarctic blizzards, with nothing but a flimsy, leaking tent to deflect the snow and wind. Rowing through the night with frost bitten hands in a poorly equipped lifeboat, going without sleep or water for nearly a week, under a constant barrage of icy mist and water from the freezing, unforgiving ocean waves. 22 men sleeping underneath a wooden boat for shelter, on a rocky, barren island that was essentially just a large glacier, for over three months. Those are just a couple examples of the terrible circumstances that Shackleton and his men existed under for most of their journey.
And yet, they rarely, if ever complained. They accepted their situation as reality. It was normal. They made their surroundings as livable as they could, accepted what they couldn’t change, and endured. The men’s diaries remained positive even in the face of almost certain death, and they simply focused on the task at hand and carried on.
And I thought I’ve been uncomfortable while traveling! I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up on a stranger’s floor and complained of a sore back. Or how many times I’ve felt filthy after not being able to shower or shave for a couple days. I’ve had to stretch my money and eat on a budget, sometimes living on a peanut butter and jelly diet for days at a time. I’ve slept in some pretty weird places. In moving vans, outdoors in excessive heat or bitter cold, and in just about every sort of strange hotel imaginable. But, the trials I’ve faced through my own travels are pretty much laughable when compared with what Shackleton and his crew faced in Antarctica.
And so, the point of this long-winded treatise on Endurance is this:
Wherever you are, whether you’re teaching English abroad, traveling for work or pleasure, or even just living your normal life at home, remember Shackleton. Perspective can be a beautiful thing, especially during periods of extended travel. No matter how annoying or uncomfortable your situation may seem, remember how much worse it could be, and have confidence that you can persevere. You can endure the occasional hardship or inconvenience of living abroad. Know that the amazing upsides are more than worth the minor difficulties, things will get better, and YOU’LL be a better person for it. And even if you’re not traveling at the moment, next time you’re in a spat with a co-worker, stuck in traffic, or bored to death at a meeting, remember the 20 some odd men that lived together in boats, tents and icy caves for two years on end with hardly a single quarrel. You’ll be smiling in no time.
We humans are a resilient bunch, and there’s not a whole we can’t survive if we put our minds to it.
PS, I advise against trying to cross the Arctic Ocean in a sailboat during icy season.