Barkın Ozdemir: The Youngest Turk Who Stepped into Seven Continents
Barkın Özdemir got the title of “the youngest Turk who stepped into seven continents” after his Antarctic trip. As a globetrotter, he continues to inspire especially the youth -but also everyone else- to take the control of their life into their hands…
“I would like to take a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and then hop on the Trans-Siberian Express to get to the Pacific coast, and then cross over to Japan by ferry. I would like to surf on Okinawa Island there.”
How old were you when you stepped on Antarctica?
I was 22 years old, three years ago.
How did you manage to travel to six continents before? I guess, it is not all about money. You have to change your way of thinking and being…
I would never imagine things to come to this point. I believed that my trips would be limited to a few visits to Europe and a few more to the U.S. Things have started to change after I entered college. That was when I started taking the control of my life and put travel in the middle of it. I was actually living to travel. When I was about to buy something -be it a mobile, clothes or a drink at a bar- I used to start thinking: “If I don’t buy this, I could save money and go on my next trip.” In Turkey, the state supports students with a credit system, making them monthly payments during the years they study. I was getting my loans, and working at the university at the same time. At the beginning of each month, I was giving one of these payments directly to my mother and she used to convert them into Euros and accumulate. After eight months of saving, I went on an Interrail during the summer break.
At what point did your family start saying, “Should this kid stand still a bit?”
When I decided of taking a year off from school… I am lucky with my family, by the way. They have always supported me and welcomed my travels enthusiastically. But at that point, they said: “What do you think you are doing? You can travel as you wish, after you finish school!” I am the son of a retired military officer and a mother who devoted her life to her child. They were the kind of people most difficult to persuade. Being an only child did not help it either. When I went to South America, my father sent me crime index reports every single day!
How much did you spend a day, on your travels?
It varied a lot, but my budget for South America was between $10-15. At that time, this amounted to 30-35 TRY. I had a very tight budget. If I didn’t get full at lunch, I would never get another plate. I had lost weight. After the 25th-26th of each month, I was having a hard time financially. During my stay in the U.S., I had realized how valuable 25 cents could be. I used to save them, and they would amount to $30 at the end of the month, which was pretty good to me.
FINDING YOUR ‘DREAM PARTNERS’
Let’s get back to your Antarctic journey… You set out with the money you collected through crowdfunding. Some supported you, and some hindered you during the process. It made me smile to learn that someone had actually opened a parallel project page on the same crowdfunding platform, just to make fun of your project. It went like this: “I want to be the youngest Turk to buy 2000 Gucci sweaters!” What was this Antarctic trip all about? Was it just a personal whim or ambition?
It all goes back to my childhood. When I learned to read and write, my aunt, who was a teacher, gave me a red-capped world atlas. It has always been my favorite book. I used to dream before going to bed at night; I would memorize the countries and their flags one by one. Back then, I wanted to be an archaeologist or an explorer. When I looked on the world map, Antarctica seemed as the most unexplored place on earth. At the end of my last trip to South America, when I was in Brazil, I said to myself: “Oh boy, you have miraculously traveled to six continents. Why not go a little further?” It was not easy to make that decision as a person who spent $10 a day, as Antarctica tours averaged around $10,000. Then I decided to try crowdfunding which was not very common in Turkey. “What would I lose?” I said. In the worst-case scenario, I would have to accept the failure. It was one of the most interesting periods of my life. On the one hand, people I didn’t know gave me incredible support. Some of my acquaintances, on the other hand, told me: “Hey bro, are you a beggar?” Actually, the amount donated is not the issue here. The important thing is that people share your dream. They could give any amount between 20 – 5,000 TRY. The goal was to touch more hearts. Instead of getting 20,000 TRY from one person, I aimed at getting 1 TRY from 20,000 people. I felt that I would have more “dream partners” that way. We had 60 days, but collected all the money in 21 days.
So, in what way did your supporters benefit from this project? Was it just to make Barkın happy, or help a young person realize his dream? There must be something beyond that.
Exactly! Although the focus of crowdfunding seems to be personal, you should be able to answer how you will contribute to society once you realize your dream. I stated three reasons in my announcement. First of all, I wanted to hearten the Turkish youth by visiting the world’s most extreme destination and say: “Travel is not luxury! You can travel by creating your own opportunities.” Secondly, I wanted to send a serious message against global warming. Thirdly, I was going to have the title of “the youngest Turk to set foot on all seven continents”. The first two were goals with a social cause. Currently, I still continue giving speeches to inspire young people in different parts of Turkey, as well as of the world. I encourage them to make their own discoveries. Before Corona, I was getting several messages via Instagram: “I have convinced my family to join the Erasmus program. Finally, I issued a passport and I am on my way to Serbia right now.” It’s such a beautiful thing!
ANTARCTICA BELONGS TO NOBODY
You went to Antarctica on a 20-day cruise. Meanwhile, you also published a book titled “Antarctica Belongs to Nobody, but Everybody”. You have blended your travel diary with engaging stories and information that not many know about the continent. Why did you name your book as it is?
Three years ago, there were hardly any resources about Antarctica in Turkish. Nasuh Mahruki had written a few pages about its history. The number of resources has increased ever since, as TÜBİTAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) has been making scientific expeditions to the continent for the last three years. People always think that parts of Antarctica belong to England, Chile and Argentina. That’s far from the truth! During the Cold War, there was an escalation of conflict between the U.S. and Russia over the control of Antarctica. In fact, mines were laid around some islands of Antarctica. Then, something unexpected happened and the countries united against the threat of war, signing an agreement on December 1, 1959. In fact, that day is still celebrated as “Antarctica Day”. It was decided that Antarctica would not belong to anyone and would be open to the world for scientific research and touristic excursions.
How would one get to Antarctica?
The majority of people board on ships departing from Ushuaia in Argentina. You reach Antarctica after passing the Drake Passage -one of the roughest seas around the world, since it is located where three oceans converge. Crossing the strait takes about three days.
You went on a 20-day cruise. How was the vibe on the ship? It probably didn’t have anything to do with other luxury cruises…
Partially yes and partially no. Ours was an old Russian scientific research ship. You could tell it, when you looked at it. After leaving Ushuaia, we headed to South Georgia Island and then to Antarctica. The ship was not posh at all, but there was a selection of three menus at each meal. Although it sounds tragicomic, we ate duck meat, or threw a barbecue party as well (inside the ship, of course, never outside!). A wide selection of alcoholic beverages was offered at the bar. Besides that, I stayed on the bunk bed. Of course, there were more luxurious room options according to your budget as well.
LOOKING UP THE MILKY WAY FROM ANTARCTICA
There is a saying in the book that I liked a lot: “You think that you would get used to surprises on the road, but you never do. What surprised you most on this trip?
So many things… One of the things hardest to forget was our visit to the world’s second-largest penguin colony in South Georgia. 250,000 penguins together! Tears came down my eyes. Besides that, the Milky Way was incredible. Antarctica is the best place for stargazing. It is the cleanest place in the world in terms of sky, because there is no light whatsoever. I couldn’t believe the way the Milky Way looked. “We are really in space!” I said.
Do you see a part of space there that cannot be observed here? They say some celestial bodies are visible only from the Southern Hemisphere. For example, in Chile, giant telescopes of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have been installed in the Atacama Desert.
I’m not sure about that, but the light pollution is less in the Southern Hemisphere, as the surface area of all the land is less compared to the seas there. Atacama Desert is also a place isolated by the mountains surrounding it. So it makes sense to me.
You had limited WiFi access for 20 days during the trip. As an Instagram influencer using social media very actively, how did you feel to have a digital detox?
Without this social media detox, the book wouldn’t have come out at all. Time is a very interesting concept. The three weeks there felt like three months. You cannot hear from your beloved ones. Anything can happen any second around the world, especially in Turkey, while you are disconnected from the world!
We are now going through a pandemic. As someone who takes his life energy from his travels, what course will you take in the future? Will you continue from where you left? Or will you be “the man of your house” for a while?
I guess I’ll never be the man of my house. Although I am a very extroverted person, the pandemic has indeed made me a little introverted and domestic. I’ve never spent so much time at home in my life. It was an interesting experience for me. Of course, a lot will change in the real estate, travel, healthcare sectors, but human beings need to be hugged, touched, entertained and we will continue to do so. So I believe that even if some things change, some things will never change. On the contrary, people have realized that having fun is a basic human need. Even those with a stable life will say: “Wait! What is life all about? I have to travel; I have to explore more.”
You haven’t stopped for long anywhere for the last couple of years, like the sailors of old times. Would you say that globetrotting and relationships go well together?
I mention this in my book a bit. While I was very close with my family and friends in Istanbul, I left them to go to the U.S. After spending a few months there, just as we started to understand each other with my friends, I said: “I’m going to South America.” You connect to people, then you have to say “Bye!” I stayed in a hostel in Peru for two months, before saying “Bye!” again. I passed to Chile to stay for four months. Just as I was getting used to it, I had to depart again. You cannot live life crying and complaining, though. Somehow, you need to become independent. Actually, you feel like turning into a stone-hearted person, but you live your longing inside, rather than reflecting it. Sometimes you recognize your true friends. Those are your true friends, who you could connect to, wherever in the world, in what time zone you are.
You are right… I have been on the road during the last years too and my friends are now scattered around like a global tribe. One in Australia, another in Bulgaria, France and Uruguay. Living outside your homeland for a while makes you a global citizen in the end.
I agree absolutely!
A WORLD TOUR IN SEVEN STEPS
If I asked you to quickly summarize the seven continents, what experiences would you highlight at each?
A difficult question. I am starting from Africa. We were shooting a GoPro movie from 30-meter cliffs looking over the ocean in Cape Town. Then my GoPro dropped down to the bottom of the ocean, as its container shattered. Normally, it was supposed to surface again. I had bought it with borrowed money from my grandmother, and was just paying its first installment! I haven’t got a GoPro ever since. We searched for it in the ocean for an hour or so. Then I said: “It’s gone!” There was a perfect sunset at the time, and a pod of 100 dolphins just passed through our group. They were jumping just a meter away from us and it was definitely one of the greatest moments of my life. I lost something, but gained something at the same time. I remember saying: “The universe is trying to give me a message!”
In Asia, I think I would mention Japan. I was there for only 72 hours, but every hour felt very strange. I was like on Mars. In Australia, we had decided to camp under thousands of stars on the Great Ocean Road and it was an excellent experience. Then we went on a whale tour nearby and it was unforgettable to see the whales jump around us with their babies. In Europe, I remember staying homeless in Budapest, and spending a night on a bench! Then in Murano, we stayed with an Italian family and I remember the mother preparing an excellent handmade pasta for us.
In North America, visiting the Antelope Canyon in Sedona was a spiritual experience. In South America, there are a lot of places to mention. All of Brazil was incredible! In Peru, I stayed in a hotel made of glass capsules hanged on a rock wall in the Sacred Valley. You have to do rock climbing to check in to your room. Antarctica is a weird place all in all! I don’t even put it in the category of continent as it is an otherworldly place.
What is missing on your list of “things to do before you die”?
There’s a lot more to do… The more you travel around the world, the bigger it starts to feel. For example, I visited South America three times, but I make plans to see new places each time. The more you discover, the more you would like to discover.
Where would you like to go, as soon as the pandemic is over?
It will be a cliché, but I still haven’t been to Iceland. Another place that I am really curious about is Mongolia. Normally, I was not very interested in visiting Russia, but I’ve read a lot of books and watched documentaries about the Tsardom of Russia during the lockdown. I would like to take a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and then hop on the Trans-Siberian Express to get to the Pacific coast, and then cross over to Japan by ferry. I would like to surf on Okinawa Island there. I am curious about Hawaii too! I have not visited the depths of the Amazons as well. I would love to travel the Amazons without internet, cutting the cord a few weeks or a month. My list goes on and on like this!
BARKIN’S GALATA FAVORITES
Let us get back to Istanbul… You live in a magnificent apartment right next to Galata Tower, at a centric point. You could easily be nominated as the headman of the neighborhood of Galata. How does it feel like living in Galata? Which corners of the neighborhood do you like most (even though we won’t be able to sit at cafes and restaurants for a while)?
I moved into my Galata house about a year ago, but I haven’t been actually able to discover the real face of Galata yet. Still, I am very happy about living here. I really feel like living in the heart of Istanbul. There are several cafes where the residents of the famous Doğan Apartment hang out. Mavra is one of them, It is a sweet place with nice coffee. I also love Galata Kitchen for its fresh cold appetizers cooked in olive oil. Although it is touristy, I love Güney as well. It is a home-cooking-style restaurant with good service that has not lost its sincerity.
I wish for the days when we would get together around those tables again!
Absolutely, looking forward to it!
To follow Barkın Özdemir on Instagram: @barkinozdemir