It was our last day in Antarctica in January 2011. I was part of the expedition staff with Students on Ice (SOI), and what a day it was.
Early that morning we landed via zodiac on the Kronner Ice Cap and hiked up to a location where the SOI expedition from the previous February had left a device to record the weather conditions at the site. After some considerable digging down through roughly six feet of snow and ice, the device was located.
Geoff Green, the expedition leader, gave a short talk on the Kronner Ice Cap and the weather monitoring program; after group photos were taken, we headed back to the ship.
Under a sunny, clear, blue Antarctic sky, we headed to Couverville Island, for what was to be the final landing for the roughly 65 international students we had on board.
While half the students and staff participated in a variety of workshops on shore, the other half were toured around the icebergs and glacial faces of the area. Some, including those riding in my zodiac, got up close, maybe a little closer than we intended, to three humpback whales feeding in the area.
Before loading everyone back aboard the ship there was a little event on shore where the students posed for a group photo with the World Peace Flame, which the expedition had brought to Antarctica.
Needless to say, participating in an SOI expedition is cost prohibitive for most of the students on board. With the price tag running at around $13,000 per student, only a handful of those who participate pay their own way. For most students, the cost is covered in whole or in part by donations from corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations or wealthy, private individuals.
Such was the case for two Middle Eastern students.
A wealthy benefactor, whose name escapes me now, sponsors two students for the SOI Antarctic expedition each year. His only requirement is that one is an Israeli Jew and the other a Palestinian.
So, today, as many reflect on the life of one of the most galvanizing figures in recent Israeli and Palestinian history, as many mourn and many others celebrate the death of Ariel Sharon, I think back to those days in Antarctica with a 15-year-old Jewish boy from Tel Aviv and a 17-year-old Palestinian girl from Ramallah.
They hit it off, they did a joint presentation to the expedition, they had their photo taken together on the beach at Couverville, holding the World Peace Flame. They were as you would expect two teenagers to be with each other.
But it could only be in Antarctica, or at least somewhere outside Israel or Palestine.
Instead of travelling back to Canada with the rest of the Canadian group, I was asked by the expedition leader to stay behind in Buenos Aires for a night. Someone had to ensure that Yoav, the Israeli boy, got on his flight the next morning. So as we hung out in Buenos Aires, we talked, and being the political and historical junkie that I am, we talked about the Middle East.
To say he was wise beyond his young years would be putting it mildly. He accepted the fact that in two years he would have to do his mandatory three-year stint in the Israeli army; he knew the volatility of the region could see him on the front line at some point, but it was his duty. Maybe he would even stay on and look to become a fighter pilot.
Who could blame him, if you know anything about the Israeli Air Force?
Land is the cause of the fighting, not religion, he maintained. I suppose that is believable, since most fights are characteristically about one thing and characterized as being about another. Religion and politics — need I say more.
Toward the end of the evening, I asked naively whether he would visit Razan, the Palestinian girl, or she him. They seemed to be friendly enough; one could even see the embers of a teenage crush.
But no, that would not be wise, possible yes, but very unwise for both of them. With security checks, his obligatory service in the army and both their personal career aspirations, a visit across the border to see a friend was out of the question.
While the mourning and the celebrating of Sharon’s death passes half a world away from us, viewed mostly through the medium of television, it is easy to forget that amongst the chaos and sometimes carnage, there are mostly just ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives.
Trevor Taylor is a former cabinetminister under the Danny Williams administration. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.