It is difficult to describe such a multi-talented person as Izabela Shopova. Being a Bulgarian who lived in New Zealand and now lives in Australia, she mixes her Bulgarian identity with the culture and possibilities that her new homeland gives her in kaleidoscopic activities, all of them done with inspiring enthusiasm and great results. I interviewed her about her expedition to Antarctica, a dream she had since her childhood.
This interview was first published on my previous blog When Woman Travels in 2016.
Photos by Izabela Shopova, Iglika Trifonova & Denitsa Apostolova
Isabela Shopova is an engineer by education and a writer by vocation. Her endless curiosity and passion for travel, together with her inimitable humour, are the essence of her books: “East in Eden”, “West of Paradise” and “Tutorial for the deliberate murder of boredom”. The last two can be found only in Bulgarian, for now.
To make her childhood dream come true, Izabela joined the 24th Bulgarian Antarctic Expedition on Livingston Island where the Bulgarian Antarctic base is situated. Bulgaria has been present on the White Continent for a long time. Its polar activities started back in 1967 as a partner of the Soviet Union. Since 1993, when the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute was founded, every year scientific expeditions are sent to the continent to work on geological, biological, medical and other projects.
As part of the researchers’ team, Izabela had the opportunity to see how the scientists work together, to assist them and to test her abilities to survive and adapt in unconventional circumstances.
Following are her confessions about the difficulties and the lessons she learned during her stay in Antarctica.
Hello, Izabela Shopova! In recent years, we followed closely your adventures Down Under through your wonderful travelogues and books. But this time you surprised us. Antarctica! Tell us more about how you got there and how did you prepare for this trip to the White Continent.
Antarctica has always fascinated and attracted me just as anything unfamiliar, distant and inaccessible. One thing I remember from the books and black-and-white photographs of the pioneers of the Southern continent, which I absorbed tirelessly as a child, was the remarkable absence of women on the Ice Continent.
In the late twentieth century, when women were already flying in space, Antarctica seemed still inaccessible and even banned for the owners of the X chromosomes. And because I never believed and I have dedicated my life to denying the phrase “girls don’t do this “, naturally, consciously and subconsciously all my life I have been looking for an opportunity to get to the forbidden continent.
So, when in the early 21st century it became clear that journey and life in Antarctica are by no means unattainable, and so many women actually have already been there, I decided that it was time to find a way to achieve my dream.
For several years I was trying different ways – without success – and finally applied for the Arts fellowship of the Australian Antarctic, which in turn led to my meeting with Professor Christo Pimpirev, Chairman of the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute and he invited me to realize my project at the Bulgarian Antarctic base on Livingstone Island.
Preparation was frantic. I had to overcome personal fears, reorganise my life, to deal with health, financial and other issues. But when a person has a strong motivation solutions are easy to find. A year later I landed on the Antarctic coast. And I came back alive and in one piece to talk about my adventures there.
As a woman what was the biggest challenge for you during your stay at the base in Antarctica?
The Russians say that “There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
When you are adequately prepared for the conditions it isn’t too big a challenge to survive and work even in extreme circumstances. Astronauts and residents of Siberia prove it daily.
In this sense, the challenges for me came not from where I expected them. I thought the savage nature, cold climate, isolation, the dangers of the unknown terrain and environment would be the most difficult to tackle. But those were the things that I prepared for as best I could. I was equipped with modern winter clothing, adhering to safety rules and following the instructions of the people who were responsible for my survival, I had books and a notebook – to deal with any emotional and psychological effects of isolation. And so none of these factors seemed super tough to overcome.
A challenge however proved to be the extreme remoteness of the place. Somehow I wasn’t mentally prepared for such a long, long trip and had no idea how tremendously complicated and convoluted is the Antarctic logistics.
A challenge was to some extent the lack of privacy and the forced intimacy with strangers in the small habitable space. The living conditions at the Bulgarian Antarctic base are very good (considering the extreme circumstances), but the base is small – people live and work, relax and cook, eat and socialize in one common room. For a withdrawn introvert like me, it was a challenge. But also the most unexpected gift because in such conditions good friendships are forged.
What did you learn during your stay there – for yourself, the people and the world in general?
I was surprised to discover that the world is actually very, very big. My regular trips from Down Under to Europe and back had left me with the wrong impression that the planet is just one big village. The voyage to Antarctica reminded me how vast our world is and how little we know about it. Civilization has concurred a little corner of it and arrogantly believes that it has conquered nature. Not even nearly close!
Once again I found out that you can meet interesting, exceptional people anywhere. Even in Antarctica. And not only in Antarctica. That people everywhere are good and have a strong instinct to help each other. It was a great pleasure for me to be part of the close-knit family of the international Antarctic community and I have witnessed incredible acts of compassion, collaboration, and instant warm friendships between recent strangers.
As for myself – I found out that I’m not as fragile and unsuitable for Antarctic conditions as I had convinced myself previously. Now I have more courage to take on other adventures.
What was the most important personal quality that helped you survive such unusual and difficult conditions?
I’m not sure, probably adaptability. The conscious effort not to get locked in your own habits and mindset, and to accept the different way of life in unfamiliar surroundings. Daily life at the Antarctic base is quite different from our normal urban routines and it forces everyone to change their behaviour and adjust their expectations to be able to make the most of the adventure. A sense of humour also helps. Always. As well as readiness to join in and help with the daily duties and the work tasks of the scientists and the people who maintain the base.
What would you like to say to all women who stay home and convince themselves that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make your dreams come true?
I will quote two interesting men: Henry Ford, who said that “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” For as long as we tell ourselves that we can’t, that it simply isn’t possible, then we really can’t. And no one would be able to help us. But if however, we say that maybe we could, then … well, then it gets scary, but also interesting.
And the second quote is from my favourite Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do.” It took me years, decades even to understand how absolutely right he was. The things we tried, even painful setbacks and failures are simply lessons of life.
Once they are over you get up, brush off the dust from your clothes and go on again, stronger and more experienced. But the missed opportunities are the ones that haunt us and hurt us for a long time. Forever. Unless we decide one day that it is never too late to try …
What other adventures have you planned for the future?
To be honest I don’t know yet. For the moment I am trying to be quieter than water, lower than the grass. I need some time to reanimate and also have a book to write. And writing sadly happens by patiently pick-and-shovel slogging over the keyboard, not by chasing after the wind.
Will there be “South in Antarctica” or similar? Many of us want to read it.
For now, the working title is “South of Reason”. It is baking. Slowly.
I hope that Izabela Shopova’s book about her adventures in Antarctica will be ready soon and will be available in English too.
Izabela Shopova’s books
Since this interview, Izabela’s book about her expedition to Antarctica has been published under the title To the South of Sanity. In 2018, she travelled to South America and her latest book Following the Shadow of the Condor was published in 2022. See the list of all her books here.