Retired teacher pays Christmas visit to Antarctica

Ross Thomas has visited five continents in the past six years.

Oops, make that six. He spent part of December in Antarctica.

The East Texan says he has many a tale to tell from that trip. Like the incident when he lost his passport.

“I lost it while I was in Chile,” he says, pausing for a moment to think back. “Well, actually it was in Miami, Florida, before I got to Chile.

“I had checked in at the airport in Chile but had not yet cleared the gate when I think I lost it. Somewhere in those few moments.” So, his passport that saw the world with him, Thomas says, is lost. All that he has now is an almost brand new passport.

Though he was able to get on the flight, when Thomas reached Santiago, he says he was not allowed to leave the airport or even the secure area. He was then told he would be put on the next flight back to the United States.

“I don’t know what happened, but after a couple of hours the police softened and said if an airline employee would accompany me to the U.S. embassy, I could go there and get a duplicate passport.” Which he did.

A retired school teacher, Thomas says he spent his Christmas in Antarctica. “It was one of the most beautiful Christmases ever. Just beautiful.”

The ship that took him to Antarctica was the Nordnorge. It had 177 passengers aboard.

On Christmas Eve, he recalls, the crew and passengers gathered in the lounge for a “cup of hot wine, wassail and caroling.” The sun shines for about 22 to 23 hours in December in that part of the hemisphere. “It was not really eve, even though it was Christmas Eve.”

The passengers sang “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and other carols. Then they gathered around for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner, but not before hearing the captain read the Christmas story. White Antarctic landscape — “truly picturesque,” Thomas says — passed by them as they sang.

“It was a very emotional experience for me.”

One of the reasons he chose to sail the Nordnorge, he says, is because it has smaller boats which allow its passengers to actually go ashore and walk on the Antarctic continent. “The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators allows only 100 non-scientific personnel ashore at any one time, and that’s the reason larger ships don’t allow their passengers ashore. The Nordnorge does, and that’s the reason I chose it,” Thomas says.

The tourists were not allowed to pick up anything, explains Thomas. “There are strict rules about picking up penguin feathers or rocks.”

Having said that, Thomas chuckles. “But I did manage to get a golf-ball sized rock as well as penguin feathers from there.”

The rock is now part of his son’s water-rock garden, he confesses.

Thomas says there is no one favorite place amongst those he visited. “The places I’ve been to are so pretty. I don’t want to compare one against the other. In Alaska, every day was prettier than the other.”

One of these days, he predicts, Antarctica will be a major tourist destination.

He says he is not against mining in that continent, like some of the others are, but he still wants them to maintain its beauty.

All his travels, he says, have taught him to appreciate other people.

Australia is the only continent, Thomas says, he has not visited. But he plans to do it soon — sometime before he turns 79, which means he has 11 years left. “That’s because a person has to be less than 79 years of age to travel on a freight ship,” he says.

Thomas prefers traveling either by water or by road, where he can see what he’s passing by. “You cannot see much if you are squeezed into a tube and in the air.”

So he would like to travel to Australia by ship.

“But it’s expensive,” Thomas says, adding that he takes up odd jobs in the places he visits to pay for his expenses. For instance, he worked as a cab driver in Alaska, he says. But he otherwise pays for his trips from his savings.

It was his mother whom he credits for his love of traveling. “She was a well-educated woman who traveled quite a bit,” he says of her. Thomas says she ran one of the first travel agencies in Lufkin.

And as he dreams of his next trip, he hums a melody: “Far away places, With strange sounding names, Far away over the sea.”

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