38-yr-old woman defies age, arthritis and apprehension for Antarctica expedition
Empowering women, and breaking the chains of patriarchy have been the prime time discussion for a decade. Over the years women have made their way from home to high profile jobs and rewrote history and stereotypes. Here is a Karnataka braveheart who has made her way to Antarctica.
At the age of 38, Deep J Contractor conquered Antarctica as part of the 2041 Climate Force Antarctica 2022 expedition. This 2011 batch Karnataka Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer happens to be the first woman forest officer and the third forest officer to reach Antarctica.
Deep has opened her heart to The Hindustan Times about her journey, struggles and personal life. Excerpts from the interview:
Ques: How does it feel to become the first woman forest officer and the third overall to reach Antarctica?
Ans: It is actually a very overwhelming feeling. After coming back, a lady officers' group tweeted that there are only three officers including me who have been on this expedition in the past. While going I was okay, I told myself that people have gone before and I was just going for my own personal interest. I had no idea that I was the first Indian woman officer who has been there. Now I feel very good, I can motivate a lot of young women to take up something like this. I am 38 years old and never thought I would be able to physically do something like this. I want to tell people that nothing is impossible. I met various kinds of people there, including students and even a 67 years old man.
Ques: What was your family’s reaction at the starting?
Ans: In the beginning, only my husband knew and he is also in the Forest Service. He was extremely supportive. Many people asked, why didn't your husband travel with you? But I think my husband wanted me to do this for myself. He wanted me to take this journey alone, he said, ‘when you have somebody familiar, you will spend more time with them and be in a comfort zone.’
Ques: What inspired you to be a part of this expedition?
Ans: Actually, I was recommended for this expedition by Charulatha Somal, an IAS officer from the 2012 batch who had participated in it earlier. Just going to Antarctica did not excite me! It was just a place. But I wanted it to be a meaningful experience. So when I started researching I realised that it is not just a normal journey but a climate change awareness expedition.
They wanted us to learn about climate change, see its effects on Antarctica and understand how it is going to affect our own countries. There were 170 people from 36 countries. I realised that it will give a large platform to exchange a lot of ideas, talk about solutions, what was happening in their communities and their countries. That's when it really excited me.
Ques: Often it is believed that travelling, hiking and Mountaineering are difficult particularly for women. Tell us about the challenges you faced throughout the journey from climate to physical and mental health?
Ans: I always believed that my body and my age are things that are not conducive. The expedition was held during the autumn fall climate in Antarctica, before the winter sets. So we didn’t face very extreme temperatures.
The physical and mental part of the expedition was something I had to work really hard on. I started exercising, tried to tone up and get some strength in my muscles. But, I developed arthritis! So I had to take physiotherapy exercises and do a lot of strength training for my legs. While I was doing this I got detected with appendicitis! I had to undergo surgery which knocked me out for almost two months. I started again and then for the next three months I trained continuously. It has given me a lot of confidence in myself.
It was not just the strength of muscles, we had to learn to walk with all that equipment including three to four layers at the bottom, four to five layers on the top, two gloves and muck boots which are knee-high waterproof warm boots that will give very little movement in ankles. The mental strength came from the physical achievement, once that was done now my mind started believing that it can do it.
Women sometimes are called the weaker sex, it’s just that we have to break out of the mental limit that we have set on ourselves.
Ques: Please tell us about the journey and, most importantly, the destination
Ans: The process of selection, giving an online interview, fundraising, preparing for the visa, preparing the COVID protocol and getting the vaccine was a journey in itself.
After we reached South America and before getting onto the ship, they took us for a walk on a glacier, just to check how fit and comfortable we were walking on ice and snow and how good our equipment was. Once we boarded the ship we had to cross drake passage- which is the most difficult to cross in the world. I got seasick and had to take medicines.
After all of this, when we got that first sight of an iceberg floating in the water and of land, the mountain, fighting of whales… it was a very different experience. Completely cut off from phones, email, and social media. It was just us, nature and our own feelings. We absorbed the beauty, uniqueness and enormity of the place.
Our minds were boggled, what if this melts and adds to the water no wonder people are afraid about the sea level rise. It was really fascinating and also heart-breaking, to notice human activities that we do here are affecting the wildlife that lives in Antarctica. Those kinds of things were eye-opening. It humbled us.
At the end of it, none of us wanted to go back. Despite all of us missing our family and friends just the feeling of being there was something so pure, so untouched and so undisturbed. It was just overwhelming and very satisfying.
Ques: What is the 2041 Climate Force, and what is its objective and process? How do you become part of the 2041 Climate Force Antarctica 2022 expedition?
Ans: 2041 is actually the year in which the Madrid convention will come up for discussion. Madrid convention basically talks about Antarctica not being the property of any country and is called the piece of science and peace. In 2041 it is going to come up for a review. It was started by Robert Swan. In his explorations, he realized that Antarctica is an extremely important part of the global climate discussions. As it belongs to no country it is everybody’s responsibility to protect it.
When it comes up for discussion in 2041 we should be able to uphold the convention further and not try to own it. Because now people realize, there are a lot of minerals and oil under Antarctica. We should not start exploiting the continent.
Ques: You are an inspiration to all those who dream wide, especially to women. What do you like to say to the women of our country?
Ans: Women are taught to put a lot of restrictions on themselves. We are taught to think that we are not capable of doing certain things that men can, especially things that require a lot of physical endurance. So the first thing I would like to tell the women of our country is, to stop putting limitations on themselves based on gender, age, position in society, marital status, whether we have children etc. More than 80% of our incapacity is in our minds! The minute we break those barriers in our minds, physical barriers automatically start disappearing and opportunities start opening up. I feel that if I can do it anyone can do it! That is right now my message to everyone.
Don’t say no to yourself before you have even attempted it, just give it a shot, try it once, keep an open mind and then see. Can we fail? of course we can. Is it possible that the first attempt will not succeed? of course, it is possible. But on the other side, it is also possible that we might just succeed with our effort. I think it is always nicer to make the error on the positive side than on the negative side.
Ques: What are your future plans, can we expect more breakthrough events such as this?
Ans: Well, there are some plans but being an officer I do have a lot of responsibilities. So I don’t know how frequently I will be able to do something like this. Of course, I’m very curious to go to the Arctic Circle also. Then there are other small things that I want to do, for example, I have an open water scuba driver’s license, I want to get an advanced license and then eventually become a divemaster. So there are these small goals that I have set for myself.
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