What did you do when you were 14?

Malaika Vaz is not your average BBM-addicted, Robert Pattinson-loving 14 year-old. The spunky  Goan has just returned from an expedition to the Antarctic, which she describes as thrilling

It's not unusual for a teenager to harbour a dream so out-of-the-box, it might as well have been taken out of an adventure novel. But for it to come true is a rarity. Fourteen year-old Malaika Vaz from Goa belongs to that rare breed. She was the only Indian chosen to participate in the Students on Ice Antarctic Youth Expedition 2011, and returned home, full of stories, only last week.

Malaika Vaz with penguins in the background, one of the
highlights of her trip Pic Courtesy/ Malaika Vaz

Students on Ice is a Canadian organisation founded by Geoff Green that takes 75 international students, aged 14 to 18 years along with world-renowned scientists, explorers and Polar experts on expeditions to Antarctica. In the course of the programme, research is conducted and seminars are held on topics like the history, geography, flora and fauna of the Antarctic.

Vaz, a national-level windsurfer, applied to the programme online and got selected, she tells us over her father's mobile phone from her Panjim residence. "The director of National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) encouraged me to apply for this programme online. I was excited when I got selected," says Vaz, who is also a certified scuba diver.

Though her parents were initially apprehensive, on being informed that it is a guarded expedition with close to 30 chaperones, they were proud to let their daughter seize the opportunity, she recalls. However, she kept it a secret from her school friends till her return to Goa on January 14. Needless to say, there was palpable excitement and clamouring for stories thereafter.

The 15-day expedition, which started on December 26, had a no-technology rule. "They wanted us to connect with nature without any distractions. We couldn't speak to our parents. For those 15 days, we put up messages on the website, so people at home knew we were fine," she quips.

But it wasn't all easy. "The climatic conditions were a challenge. The temperature was -5 degrees Celsius. Thanks to multiple layers of warm clothing and proper footwear, particularly on the days when we trekked for 2-3kms and did wildlife observations, we managed to brave the cold," she adds.

Little things, like keeping her feet from sinking into the snow while trekking, were important. But she had a comfortable time. "We were served Continental food during the expedition and that's my favourite. Our daily schedules were flexible and depended on the weather. There were generally 2-3 shore landings everyday, from our mother ship M/V Ushaia, hikes, station visits and ship-based explorations and wildlife observations," she says.

Her excitement is palpable when she says, "We spotted penguins, seals and Humpback whales. There were sprawling glaciers and towering mountains, of which I've taken hundreds of pictures. We also did a very exciting activity called ice-core drilling, where you dig a hole in the ground, take a sample of the ice and scientifically study its content. The results act like indicators of climatic conditions existing a few centuries ago."

Vaz, who wants to produce wildlife documentaries when she grows up, said this experience gave her many friends from all over the world and she plans to stay in touch with them through the Internet. "No matter what part of the world you're from, little things you do affect the Antarctic, and what affects the Antarctic today will affect the world tomorrow," says the budding explorer.

"Global warming and melting glaciers will have damaging effects on the planet without exception to any individual or country," she adds. Her proud father, Mac, now feels that that more children should be encouraged to participate in such expeditions. "Encouragement and support must come from home," he says. For now Vaz, a student of class 9, is relaxing at home reading books and writing.

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