One lawyer’s meandering journey to Antarctica and back
Published in 2024 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Rebecca Mariscal on December 13, 2023
By the time Ben Pri-Tal found out he was accepted to Tulane Law School, he was on a ship headed for Antarctica. He had to find a satellite phone to call back to defer. “I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll take another year before I get back,’” he recalls.
He’d already been traveling for a few months by then. Pri-Tal was no stranger to the road, having visited Europe and Asia and lived in South Africa and the Middle East. This trip was prompted by his decision to switch career paths from biology to law. “I got a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires,” he says. “And got off the plane not knowing how long the trip was going to take or where it was going to go, just that I was planning on going all around South and Central America until time or money ran out.”
Despite his experience, this particular trip was daunting. “Once you start doing it, you just go, ‘Oh yeah, of course. What was I even thinking,’” he says. “Not only in travel, but kind of in everything—starting a new hobby, walking into a courtroom and starting to argue—sitting there waiting is the worst part. Once you get going, it’s like your sea legs.”
Antarctica had always been a dream, and he decided to make it happen. After making his way through Argentina to Ushuaia, the country’s southernmost point, he spent time at bars frequented by seafarers until he found a tourist vessel that needed an extra hand. He went to the docks, waiting in the cold until he was hired as a zodiac driver and camp master and shoved off on his first of several trips to the continent.
“There’s nowhere on Earth like Antarctica,” Pri-Tal says. “It almost feels untouched.” He saw leopard seals and whales, and took visitors kayaking and camping on the ice. Then the weather began to turn. “You point the nose of the ship against the waves and hope your engines stay, because if you lose them you’ve got 16, 18-meter swells going up and down.” Thankfully, the season ended without incident, and he resumed his travels.
He stopped in Brazil to meet extended family before returning to Northern Argentina and then Chile’s Atacama Desert. A Jeep took him through the salt flats of Bolivia, and he rode a bicycle down the country’s Death Road—a path the width of a single car that descends from the 5,000-meter Andes peaks into the jungle. “I had it in my head that I really wanted to race the guide down this thing, and I ended up beating him down to the bottom,” he says. “I got him in the last stretch.”
Next came Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru; Colca Canyon to see the condors; and a journey through the jungle to Machu Picchu.
From there, he continued north, surfing at beaches and climbing mountains before crossing into Ecuador. He hurried on to Colombia, one of the spots he was most excited to visit. “The people are great, the food is great, the music is great,” he says. He went rafting, hiking, dancing and learned to play tejo. “You throw a leaded weight at a target, but the target has gunpowder or snapping caps on it, so when you hit it, it blows up,” Pri-Tal says. “There are tons of these cafes where, instead of just sitting at a bar, you’re just drinking, throwing heavy pieces of metal to blow up a target.” He went diving in Barranquilla and spent nights in Cartagena, which he’s dubbed the “New Orleans of the South” for its heat and old Spanish architecture.
Getting to Panama was difficult. The inter-American highway stops at Darién Gap, a dangerous spot with smugglers, drug runners and paramilitaries. Rather than risk the road, Pri-Tal hired a boat to take him on a four-day route through the San Blas Islands. He made it, only to get caught in a riot in Panama City. He was watching on the street when police and rioters clashed, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and throwing rocks. He holed up in a shop until the street cleared. “I sometimes put my better judgment aside because I like to do things that are interesting,” he says.
After a month in Phoenix to say goodbye to his dog, which was staying with his parents and had terminal cancer, he flew into Nicaragua to resume his travels. He dove in Lago Cocibolca and went volcano boarding. At the border between Honduras and El Salvador, not wanting to pay $20 for a room, he was walking darkened streets in search of another option when someone said, “They’re going to shoot you, man.” He turned around and paid the $20.
In Guatemala he climbed the highest volcano in Central America. “Then I got on a rock on top of it, and so there was a brief moment when I was, in fact, the tallest thing in all of Central America,” he says.
By now he was getting tired. In Mexico, which he’d visited several times, Pri-Tal made a few stops before taking a long bus ride to his family’s place in Puerto Peñasco. After three weeks on the beach, he returned to the U.S., concluding a year and a half of travel that stretched across 13 countries and three continents.
The trip expanded his understanding of those around him. “A lot of what we do [in commercial litigation] is just reading people, knowing how people react, knowing what people’s position is,” Pri-Tal says. “And you can do that in any language, even if you don’t speak the language.”
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