Her journey to Antarctica - Anjali Birla

The first time I saw her video of the Antarctic expedition, I got goosebumps, and a swelling wave of envy. Seeing Antarctica through her eyes was an exhilarating experience, and I knew that I had to get the inside story from the woman who has been to one of the most beautiful and formidable parts of our planet.
Gurgaon based Anjali Birla, a 27 years old manager with Tata Teleservices, was selected in November 2014, for the International Antarctic Expedition for Climate Change and Sustainability, 2015. This selection saw the young professional embark on a 13 day expedition in March, to explore the Antarctic’s wildlife and landscape. The expedition itself was organized by 2041, a company founded by Polar explorer Robert Swan. Anjali took out some time to answer a few questions about her experience. Edited excerpts from the interview.

Can you tell us in more detail what this expedition meant to you on a personal level?

To me life has always been about following my heart’s desire. The cause of environment degradation and sustainability have always been close to my heart and by travelling to Antarctica, I have witnessed firsthand the havoc caused by human greed and expropriation of resources. I have come back with an invigorated passion to spark a positive change in society. I feel a much      larger sense of responsibility now that I am among the 0.0001% population in this world to have ever set foot in Antarctica. Prior to being part of this expedition, climate change was something intangible and theoretical. Now, having confronted it face to face, I want to ensure that I pass on the first-hand information that I have gathered to as many people as I can.

Did you and your co-travelers hit upon any unforeseen snags during the expedition? How did you resolve them?

While traversing the seas at Drake Passage, our ship swayed 4-6m each side continuously for 2 days and that made many of the participants sea-sick. A typical         day during the expedition was filled with life lessons on leadership, team building and personal unique wildlife experiences, all while building lifelong relationships with    teammates. We were up by 6 am each morning and disembarked on various rafts to go to the  Antarctic shores. Greeted by plenty of penguins and variety of seals, each day promised an adventure of a lifetime. Two visits lasting 2-3 hours each occupied most part of our day. We spent time on the island understanding the changing landscape and effects of climate change.

On one of the days, our ship got stuck in an ice-floe and we had to spend a many hours stranded, as our captain was trying to chart out a new route. This untimely event was a shock even for our expedition leaders, who have been visiting Antarctica for over 2 decades now – a clear reminder that climate change is closer than we think.

How did you train for it? Where does someone go to learn about what to expect?

Nothing in this world can prepare you for the sights and atmosphere of Antarctica. Sure there are safety instructors and acclimatization drills that you have to undertake in Ushuaia before heading out to the seas. But the sheer expanse of continent is such that it will hit you with a force like you have never experienced before.    
The organizers of expedition take all precautions while prepping the participants for          the expedition. There is a rigorous focus on safety and survival, regular drills and       theoretical exercises for participants to go through.
We were also given books to read and guides on what to expect beforehand so that we would be well prepared mentally and physically – like the warm gear (clothes) and equipment that we needed to have.

Is there a trick to staying warm? What items or clothing help keep you from freezing?

As my instructor used to say “Layers, layers, layers”! There is only one way to survive        in Antarctica. While camping on ice, everything is packed that is needed to stay alive in really low temperatures - lamp, loads of high energy food, synthetic camping mat, and of course lots of layers of very warm clothing. We wrapped up ourselves in layers of clothing. It's very important to cover feet, ankles, hands, wrists and your head. Mainly synthetic fibers these days, not forgetting insulated footwear too. Clothes need to be kept dry and clean to maintain their best insulating qualities.

We also have special snow boots and an overall-snow suit to protect the inner layers from the wind and cold. UV (ultra-violet) radiation is fierce in the summer so wearing wrap-round goggles and sun screen on any exposed skin is just as important as keeping warm in the winter. It can be quite a surprise to get sun burnt under your nose from the light reflected from snow and ice. Survival is largely about not being caught out in the worst weather, not getting lost in whiteout conditions and not taking unnecessary risks. This means you must be well-trained to carry out your activities, careful about how you dress and work in a team where each member watches the others for signs of "frost-nip" and hypothermia. Food is very important too. Clothing keeps the body heat from escaping, plenty of nutritious food feeds the furnace from the inside and helps generate warmth.
Despite what people often assume, the Antarctic is not a place to take risks, but a place where weather extremes are planned for in advance and survival actions are a well-rehearsed drill.

What will you have with you that perhaps isn’t essential to live, but helps make each day more tolerable?

It’s important to understand that the trip to Antarctica is a trip like no other. You can of course carry your music through I Pod or phone but that’s all that you can do. There is no Cell tower so no signal for your cell phone. Battery consumption in Phone I Pod or other devices will restrict their usage to ships. So, only non essential item that you’d like to carry is your camera that will help you capture the breathtaking sites in one click.   

Where does your passion for the outdoors stem from?

The passion started in school and college where I would be part of various social drives like aforestation, etc. I continued working for society, while being part of the Tata    Administrative Service (TAS) as well, where I worked with Aajeevika Bureau in 2012, staying within a tribal village in South Rajasthan for 3 months and working on creating better livelihoods for migrant laborers.
As part of my current deputation, I have worked very closely with some of the finest civil society organizations in the country like SEWA, PRADAN, Swades, etc. in close proximity with international developmental agencies like the World Bank, UNDP on unearthing simple systems of effective participative planning for sustainable development.
I am also a volunteer at various local NGOs (like ZeroWaste, Mission Clean Gurgaon, etc.), and I am even part of the Tata Volunteering Week.

What has been the most memorable moment on your adventures?

Every travel is an adventure in itself. But when you measure on the scale of duration and sheer enormity this trip to Antarctica has to be one of the best. I did everything here, from coming face to face with the whales, to standing atop the mountain cliffs in Ushuaia, spending a night under open Antarctic skies or better still, witnessing formation of a massive Iceberg.   Most memorable moment has to be coming face to face with the Whales, definitely. They are some of the loveliest creatures you will ever come across.

What was your biggest personal challenge on this expedition?

An expedition like this tests you at so many levels; Mental, Emotional and Physical, there are all aspects of this journey. First is the commitment to see it through, the sheer travel across continents can be a drain. 13 days expedition away from family, loved ones, only strangers to accompany you can be emotionally wrenching. No cell phones, Internet or any other means of entertainment just sheer beauty of nature can be troublesome for a few. Then finally comes the physical endurance part, where you need to climb, row and generally have to be fit to survive the 100 Km strong wind gusts. Challenge for me was in particular part of the journey called Drake’s Passage where the Sea was at its tumultuous best. With our boat being hurled about 6 mtrs on each side, the two days of travel from Ushuaia in Argentina to the Mainland Antarctica were nerve wrenching. 

Funding through corporate is obviously critical to making expeditions like these happen. What further role, in your opinion, can they play in promoting adventures like these?

Yes I agree. Corporate funding is a very critical element in making such expeditions possible. However, I felt that the encouragement and support that I received from my seniors and peers at Tata Teleservices and the Tata Group was the biggest driving force for helping me successfully complete the expedition, it just would not have been possible without that. I am glad that both, my employers Tata Teleservices Limited and the Tata Group understand and promote such causes. The mission of this expedition was in line with our corporate philosophy and therefore the senior management and my peers at Tata Teleservices encouraged me to participate in this expedition.

Polar expeditions like this one seek to draw attention to climate change and Antarctica has been dubbed by David Attenborough the “Global Thermometer”. What stance do you take on climate change as a global issue and are explorations like these doing enough to advance discussion on the topic?

Antarctica provides a unique setting for this particular expedition. It brings together people from across the globe to debate, discuss and determine firsthand the effects of climate change. Together with a team of expert lecturers, there were a lot of opportunities to see the effects of temperature rise on this icy and remote continent.   
Explorations like these are a start. Just like I am talking to you after going to Antarctica, I am sure the other participants will be doing the same in their respective countries. Together if we start a conversation we can draw enough people closer to the subject and advance discussion which can then hopefully culminate in a result that’s beneficial for present and future generations.   

Do you have any upcoming trips? If so, where to?

Fortunately for me, Robert Swan has selected me for being an ambassador for another such expedition which will be organized using only renewable resources – the South Pole Energy Challenge. I am looking forward to be a part of it. Focus on building new solutions to meet people’s energy needs and at the same time preserving the health of the planet. I am also looking at the possibility of visiting the 2041 educational base in Ladakh sometime this year – and use those practical learnings for spreading awareness in other regions.

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