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Episode 20: Antártida (Antarctica)

By Duolingo on Wed 28 Nov 2018

Federico Bianchini had always dreamt of traveling to Antarctica from his native Argentina. But little did he know that the great white continent had a plan of its own for him once he got there.

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Martina: When Federico Bianchini was a kid growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he remembers the first time he heard about their icy neighbor to the south.

Federico: Un día, un amigo de mi abuelo viajó a la Antártida. Cuando regresó, no podía parar de repetir lo hermoso que era ese lugar.

Martina: Ever since he heard of Antarctica’s indescribable beauty, Federico dreamed of experiencing that very cold and remote place. But when he finally made it to the white continent as a 31-year-old journalist, he would discover that it’s a difficult place to get to, and to leave.

Federico: Descubrí que Antártida es más que un lugar. Es un refugio de la naturaleza que tiene su propio tiempo y sus propias reglas.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and to gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again—and we also offer full transcripts at

Today’s story comes from Buenos Aires, Argentina, by way of Antarctica. It’s called “Antártida”, told by Federico Bianchini. Please note that you’ll be hearing Federico speak in an Argentine accent. They pronounce their double LLs and Ys with a SH sound, as in “aSHer” or “caSHe” instead of “ayer” or “calle”.

Martina: Before embarking on his trip, Federico was required to pass a test about Antarctica’s environment, climate and history. He also received special clothes from the Argentinean government to help him endure temperatures as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Federico: Un suéter, un abrigo polar, lentes de invierno, y dos pantalones especiales para el frío intenso.

Martina: He felt ready for his big trip. Soon, he’d be exploring the glaciers and interviewing scientists in the field for about a week. And then, he’d come home and write an article about the people who work and live in Antarctica. But first, he had to get there.

Federico: Viajé durante siete horas desde una base militar en Buenos Aires hasta Río Gallegos, al sur de Argentina. Por el mal clima, tuvimos que esperar dos días en el aeropuerto. Finalmente, volamos otras seis o siete horas. En total, fueron casi 5 mil kilómetros.

Martina: After a long three-day journey, Federico finally made it to Antarctica. There they landed on a chilean base, one of many established on the continent by countries conducting climate change research. The landscape was more empty and stark than he had imagined.

Federico: Solo veía el cielo gris, el océano oscuro, casi negro, y la nieve blanca.

Martina: The only living thing within sight were some penguins in the distance.

Federico: El viento era muy intenso. Yo lo sentía como pequeños cuchillos en la cara. Casi no podía abrir los ojos.

Martina: From there, they had to take one more mode of transportation—a ship, to get to the Argentinean base. As they disembarked, Federico could see ten or eleven orange structures. This complex would be his home and only shelter over the next several nights.

Federico: El sábado por la mañana, durante el desayuno, me dijeron que había dos cosas muy importantes que tenía que saber. Número uno: nunca salir solo de la base. Número dos: al salir, informar por radio a dónde iba, dónde estaba y cuándo iba a regresar.

Martina: His showers needed to be super quick—no longer than one or two minutes, so as to save warm water for everyone. There were a lot of rules, but they also had fun and got along. On Fridays, everyone gathered to watch a movie and eat popcorn.

Federico: Después de darme las instrucciones, una mujer me dijo: “Tu vuelo a Buenos Aires saldrá en dos días”.

Martina: Federico’s heart sank.

Federico: ¿Tres días para llegar a la base y solo dos antes de irme de la Antártida? Pero me dijeron que tenía otra opción: un vuelo en dos meses.

Martina: But he couldn’t possibly stay there two months, so he accepted the return trip in two days. He’d barely have any time to do his interviews or get to know this place, to see the penguins or elephant seals up close. He was furious!

Federico: Pero intenté ver lo positivo: solo 3.500 personas viajan a la Antártida cada año, y yo era una de ellas. Iba a tener una historia para compartir con mis amigos y, algún día, con mis nietos.

Martina: So he set out to interview as many people as he could. There were about 80 people at the base: biologists, geologists, glaciologists and military personnel who managed the logistics that allowed researchers to work in such a difficult environment.

Federico: Aprendí que en la Antártida, las puertas de las bases y de los refugios siempre están abiertas por si en algún momento llega alguien que necesita protegerse del clima. En la base nadie usaba zapatos; todos caminábamos en medias. También aprendí que en la Antártida no hay dinero porque no hay nada para comprar o vender.

Martina: Federico filled his three days on the base with detailed conversations, but he didn’t get a chance to go outside; weather conditions made it too dangerous.

Federico: El domingo por la mañana, preparé mis maletas para irme al día siguiente.

Martina: But just a few hours later, he was told plans had changed: A snowstorm was coming, and the flight out was cancelled.

Federico: Esa noche, sentí el viento de la tormenta. Era muy intenso.

Martina: When he left his sleeping quarters to go to the dining hall, Federico decided to confront the wind.

Federico: El viento era tan fuerte que cuando intentaba caminar, me caía en el piso de hielo.

Martina: Federico could hear the gusts of wind of more than 100 mph slam up against the shelter. Then came the snow, which didn’t show signs of stopping. Someone said they were not going to be able to leave the shelter for days.

Federico: La naturaleza era un animal salvaje.

Martina: The joy Federico had immediately felt to get to stay a few more days, started to transform into a creeping anxiety.

Federico: Los días siguientes, casi no pude caminar alrededor de la base. El miércoles, después de 5 días, preparé mis cosas de nuevo y fui a hablar con los científicos y los militares.

Martina: But once again, he was told that his flight would be delayed. This time, for another week.

Federico: La tormenta seguía. El viento continuaba siendo agresivo. Algunos decían que el avión estaba en una misión humanitaria. Otros decían que no podíamos salir por el clima.

Martina: By now, he’d been there for almost a week and now he’d be staying for another. He wondered nervously to himself:

Federico: ¿Y si pasaba lo mismo la semana siguiente? ¿Y en dos semanas también? Quizás yo iba a regresar a Buenos Aires en dos meses. Estaba preocupado pero no podía hacer nada.

Martina: Federico has always considered himself a city person—he would complain if he needed to wait in line at the bank or squirm if he found himself stuck in a boring conversation. But in Antarctica there was nowhere to go. So things like time and personal space worked differently there.

Federico: Sabía que debía quedarme tranquilo. Alguien me dijo que en la Antártida, lo más peligroso después del clima era la posibilidad de volverse loco.

Martina: Since he didn’t have much to do, he started to pay more attention to what and who was around him. For example, he was first to arrive at the dining room for every meal. Slowly, he got to know the other people on the base by where they sat to eat.

Federico: En la mesa al lado de la cocina estaban los militares. En la mesa siguiente, los científicos que estudiaban a los mamíferos...

Martina: Mamíferos are mammals…

Federico: Después, los científicos que estudiaban a las aves...

Martina: Aves are birds…

Federico: Finalmente, los buzos…

Martina: The buzos were the scuba divers.

Federico: Estaban en la base desde hacía muchos meses.

Martina: Before traveling to Antarctica, Federico’s friends had asked him if he was afraid of being so isolated and far from civilization. Now that he was there, being alone was much harder than he had imagined.

Federico: En Buenos Aires conversaba con diez o doce personas por día. Pero en la base, le decía “buenos días” a casi sesenta personas, todos los días. También tenía que hablar con más de 30 personas durante el desayuno, el almuerzo y la cena.

Martina: Once a day, Federico would stand in a long line of people waiting to access the satellite phone to talk to their family and friends back home.

Federico: Había internet pero era demasiado lenta: mandar un mail era imposible. Todos los días llamaba a mi novia y, cada vez, ella me preguntaba "¿Cuándo vas a regresar?"

Martina: On his fifteenth day at the base, Federico's boss reached out to him — “When are you coming back?,” he asked. Federico still had no answer.

Federico: Empezaba a desesperarme.

Martina: Federico was desperate to leave but was also settling into the rhythm of life at the base. He slowly started to accept that his departure wasn’t up to him, and he struggled to explain this to his family back home.

Federico: Era difícil explicar mi desesperación a personas que no conocían la Antártida. Nadie podía hacer nada para cambiar las cosas. Llevaba dieciséis días en la base y no sabía cuántos días más me iba a quedar.

Martina: One day, Federico chatted with a group of soldiers at the base who told him they’d been there for 12 months—a whole year! You can come to Antarctica, they told him, but you don’t know when you’ll go back home. Here, they said, you’re nothing more than a speck in a vast white expanse.

Federico: Los científicos y los militares me consideraban un amigo. Era extraño, porque no me conocían.

Martina: This immediate camaraderie among the people at the base was infectious. Over the two weeks Federico spent with everyone, mostly indoors, something had shifted. He was starting to feel something resembling kinship. It’s what the locals call “the Antarctica family.”

Federico: Una noche, un biólogo me dijo: “Después de un tiempo, empiezas a ver que tus compañeros en la base son como tus hermanos”. Y entendí en ese momento que no importaba no conocer muy bien a los compañeros. La mejor manera de vivir en esa parte del mundo es sentir que estás con gente querida.

Martina: Around day 17, the rain and the wind subsided. Finally, Federico could leave the base and walk around.

Federico: Caminando en la nieve me sentía en un lugar mágico.

Martina: His gaze lingered on the black rocks that accentuated the pale vastness beyond. He took in the luminous snow, the stillness of the blocks of ice floating in the deep blue sea. The wind was rough and persistent.

Federico: En el horizonte, el cielo se mezclaba con el océano. No se podía ver dónde empezaba uno y terminaba el otro.

Martina: First, Federico shadowed a couple of biologists who went out to count the dozens of sea lions that slept on the beach. He marveled at the sound and size of these sleeping giants.

Federico: Regresé a la base caminando cerca de la costa, entre algunas rocas negras. Escuché un ruido: no era una roca. ¡Era un lobo marino!

Martina: The biologists had warned Federico about the sea lions—a bite can easily get infected and require evacuation.

Federico: Corrí rápido y con miedo, con el animal detrás. A los pocos metros, se olvidó de mí y decidió volver a su descanso.

Martina: Federico went out another day with a glaciologist to share a mate on the glacier. Mate is a special type of tea Argentinians commonly drink in each other’s company.

Federico: Acompañé a los biólogos a ver a los pingüinos. ¡Toqué un pingüino! Gritaba y se movía mucho. Trataba de picarme. Más tarde, fui en un bote con científicos y encontramos peces muy raros, con cabeza de triángulo y miradas que daban miedo.

Martina: These were full and intense days. Each morning, a member of the military would give Federico the weather report.

Federico: Y yo preguntaba: “¿Cuándo vamos a regresar a Buenos Aires?” Y siempre recibía la misma respuesta: “Paciencia”, me decían. “Todavía no tenemos noticias”.

Martina: By day 20 of his trip, Federico was filling every single moment of his days with activities. He continued his routine of watching movies and reading books, but he added ping pong games and even took salsa dance lessons from one of the biologists.

Federico: En la Antártida, uno no sabe qué va a pasar. Hay pocas cosas garantizadas; la gente es amable, las comidas, la rutina...esas cosas se volvían más necesarias en ese vacío tan enorme. En la base estábamos juntos en la base pero, al mismo tiempo, nos sentíamos solos.

Martina: Even amongst all those people, loneliness was in the air on the base.

Federico: La siguiente mañana, durante el desayuno, un militar nos dio el reporte del clima, como todos los días. Nos dijo: “Hoy, hay buen tiempo. ¡El vuelo va a salir!” Todos gritamos felices.

Martina: Federico went back to his small room. His bag stood next to his bed, neatly packed each night, ready in case the weather changed and he could fly out the next morning. After 25 days in Antarctica, he was finally on his way out.

Federico: Un helicóptero nos llevó a un barco que nos llevó a un aeropuerto militar donde nos dijeron: “Si el clima es bueno, volveremos a Buenos Aires mañana”. Pero yo no podía esperar un día más. Compré un pasaje para salir esa misma noche.

Martina: As Federico saw the skyline of Buenos Aires through his plane window, the traffic and blinking lights below, he thought back to the rhythm of life he had left behind in Antarctica. He would have never settled into it, or embraced it, had he not gotten stuck there.

Federico: Ahora, cada vez que subo al tren, que salgo a correr o tomo un taxi pienso que en ese momento, hay alguien en la Antártida que está tratando de irse de allí.

Martina: But just maybe they'd be better off... if they had stuck around a little longer than they had expected.

Martina: Federico Bianchini is a journalist and author of the book “Antártida: 25 días encerrado en el hielo”. He lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. If you liked this story, we’d love it if you shared it with your friends who are also learning Spanish. Send them a link to There, you can find a transcript of this story and the rest of the episodes. Subscribe at Apple podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss one.

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I'm Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.


This episode includes recordings from and soundmary under the Creative Commons Attribution License. It also includes audio field recordings in Antarctica by Cheryl E. Leonard.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: Federico Bianchini
Script Editor: Ruxandra Guidi, Martina Castro
Sound Designer: Ana Lucia Murillo
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro