British-born Sikh Preet Chandi always had a taste for adventure. At the age of 14, she moved out of home to play tennis at an academy. Two years later, she went to the Czech Republic to train. At 19, she was back in England to volunteer with the British Army.
At 27, Chandi joined the British Army. Alongside, she is pursuing an MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine at Queen Mary’s University. As if that was not enough, Chandi is also a cross-country skier, ultra-marathon runner and an endurance athlete.
But 33-year-old Preet Chandi’s most remarkable achievement is becoming the first woman of colour to complete a solo expedition to the South Pole. On January 3, she completed her journey of 40 days covering more than 1,110 kilometres, pulling a sledge loaded with her kit and supplies.
As she travelled through one of the most challenging terrains in the world, she recorded audio blogs for every day of her journey. Preet Chandi spoke to Scroll.in about what isolation taught her about human communication.
As you were making your way through Antarctica, what is it about human communication that you missed the most?
I think, being unable to see those closest to me and just give them a hug. I have a very close circle of friends that I talk to often. They are the people I go to for advice, they are the people who help me overcome challenges. I do a lot of travelling and these are the people I generally call during those long journeys. Here I was in Antarctica, on the longest journey I have ever done and not talking to them. I did call my partner on my satellite phone every evening as a check-in call. Sometimes it used to be really quick because I was quite busy out there.
After I’d done my skiing for the day, cooked and eaten my food, I would just want to get to sleep as soon as I could because I needed my sleep, as I had to do everything again the next day. So sometimes it was a very quick call to him: just 10-20 seconds telling him I am okay. Sometimes when I had tougher times I would talk to him for a minute or two. It made me feel I was still in touch. My blogs also helped me in that.
During your time in Antarctica, what did you learn about human connections?
Human connection is really important and with the isolation periods that everybody had due to Covid-19, everyone is realising how important it is for mental health and how much we are lifted by others who are closest to us. Coming back to the UK, it was nice to be back around to the people that supported me through this journey.
I think what I am learning more and more is that you do not need a lot of people in your life, you just need a small number that support you and you get to decide that. Surround yourself with people that support you. You don’t need to be around people who don’t support you or hold you back. I think that is quite important.
When I was younger, I probably wanted lots of people but as I grow older, I have got a good group of friends and my immediate family is super supportive, and these are the people I want to keep around.
In an increasingly hyper-connected world, do you believe we have somehow become more isolated?
I think we can spend so much time in the digital world and it’s nice to switch off from that. It was nice, and different, to not be online while I was on my expedition and not to check my social media and emails. Even now since I have been back, I have my phone with me most of the time and I quickly answer an email in the evening. It can be difficult to separate from it and take a break from being online.
I also think that not everything we see online is real, especially with people’s updates on social media. It has encouraged me to be try as real as possible about the ups and downs of my adventure. I wanted to show the journey it took me to get there. It’s really easy to see me now – a British Army Officer getting to the South Pole.
But the journey was very harsh, and the two-and-a-half years of planning and preparation. I spent my life’s savings on the training trips that I did. I have only just paid my credit card off since being back. It was a difficult journey where I started as a soldier when I was 19 and I didn’t tell my family as they were not supportive of me doing something like that. So that’s why I want to tell my journey and not just the end result so that people can relate to the journey and I want to show people that they can do anything they want and wherever they start from.
Why did you choose to document your journey as audio blogs?
I documented my journey as audio blogs because I wanted to take as many people as possible on this journey with me. I always said that from the beginning that this expedition was so much more than me. The aim was to inspire as many people as possible and show that we don’t have to stay in any box or lane that has been created for us. As I think we are often discouraged from stepping out. I wanted to show that we can and if people could hear me talk step-by-step of my journey.
To be honest, I did not even know how many people were following because obviously when I was out there, I was not online and at one point, I said to my partner, is anybody even following the journey and he said, “Yes, a lot of people are”. You just feel so cut-off when you are there. I wanted people to hear my voice as I am quite a passionate person and I really hope that it came across when I was thanking people in my blog (obviously these were also written up – my sister-in-law and my partner typed them for my different social media accounts and website).
But I wanted these people to hear my voice and hear me thanking them. Obviously, it cannot be a face-to-face connection but I did not even have that in Antarctica. So the next best thing for me was for them to hear my voice.
In your audio blogs, you have thanked your family, friends, sponsors, and well-wishers. Would you consider it a way to communicate with those closest to you during what would’ve been an extremely lonely journey?
This was definitely a way to communicate with those close to me. The journey wasn’t always lonely because I was busy – I was skiing, melting snow to cook food etc. Then I had to eat and do my audio blog, take photos and try to send them back, and get to sleep.
So there were busy times and I had really good audio books. Audio books make you feel like you are part of the story so I was really invested in my audio books. I had a few South Asian authors and I loved that. It felt like I was bringing their voices to Antarctica and I did wonder if anyone would have ever listened to their voices on this continent before, if their voices had ever been there. That was really special to me.
Thanking my friends, family, sponsors, and well-wishers was really important because the journey was about so much more than just me. It’s funny because, two-and-a-half years ago, it started with me. This was just an idea I had in my head. My partner made my website for me. It was so expensive and hard. But people came on board bit by bit. I am so grateful for the support I have now. It’s amazing, too, to do this in the British Army. Six months before the expedition it became an Army expedition. Before that, I was doing things on my leave. So it was great to do something like this with the Army.
When I thanked my family and friends, it did feel like they were with me. When I did my first blog, I thanked my Baba Ji, my granddad. He was 99 and came over from India when I was born and raised me – he’s very special to me. Everybody I thanked was really important to me and I want to say thank you and to say that they supported me. It’s funny that it is called a solo journey when there were so many people there with me.
Can an extended period of loneliness help us become mindful communicators? If so, what are the ways to achieve it? Ideally, without going all the way to the South Pole?
I think there’s a difference here between being alone and being lonely. Being lonely is an emotional state where you might feel disconnected. I don’t think that is necessarily healthy. But, I do think that you can be alone and on your own without feeling too lonely.
Being alone and on my own somewhere was good in some ways as I feel mentally you want to be in a good place. I remember someone saying to me before I left that you want to be mentally in a good place before you leave home because imagine if you’re not, you’re on your own in a remote environment and you are worrying about things going on back at home or you’re not in a good place. That could make things so much more difficult. So I think that’s important.
If anybody would ask me, I would say start in small doses – go for a walk on your own because it is good to have that time. I reflect a lot, I like to think a lot about my experiences – the good and the bad. Both of them have helped me become the person that I am today. I have learnt a lot from them. It’s not that all the good stuff has brought me here. A lot of my negative experiences, I have learnt a lot from them as well. It’s not only our successes, my values have also helped me.
I think after doing the 40 days, I mean I’ve never thought that I have spent that many days on my own and even now it doesn’t feel that long because you break everything down in your mind. I do think that it can be done and people don’t have to go all the way to the South Pole, people can meditate as well just to have that time to themselves and just connect on a deeper level with themselves.