Contrary to Mr. Petty’s claims, the waiting is not the hardest part.
It is the packing.
At least for me, anyway. Despite the amount I travel, I am the world’s worst packer. My record for stupendously bad packing remains the time I traveled across eight time zones for a business meeting with only pajamas, Velcro hair curlers and my Rollerblades.
I have not improved much with age.
So it will not surprise you to learn that packing for seven months in Antarctica was less than enjoyable. What would have been a difficult task to begin with was made more challenging by my storage unit in Milwaukee flooding a couple weeks before I left, requiring me to spend hours sorting through moldy clothes and soggy boxes. Those were hours I could have spent… uhm… thinking about how I should be packing.
In the end, I pulled an all-nighter and ended up zipping my last suitcase shut exactly three minutes before the shuttle arrived.
And since then, I’ve been having a BLAST.
I headed first to orientation in Denver, where I met the other people crazy enough to think going to the world’s most hostile continent to live sounds like fun. Our two and a half days of classes focused on safety… food safety, fire safety, fall safety and, my favorite seminar, on the various heavy equipment, chemicals and fuels lying about the base, informally titled “What It Is and How It Can Kill You.”
In addition to moving one step forward to Penguinistan, meeting the cool people I’ll be living and working with and yes, getting my kick-ass “United States Antarctic Program” luggage tags, the highlight of my time in Denver was seeing my high school friend Joanna again. We fell out of touch for years but reconnected on Facebook recently. How great is it, after not seeing someone for more than 20 years (!), to fall into conversation as if you just had coffee yesterday? It was also great to meet her awesome husband and adorable children, to be chauffered about and fed delicious meals… but the most exciting moment of the visit for me was when I asked Joanna to do a triathlon with me next year and she said “yes” immediately! Hah! To all my other friends I’ve asked who have responded with “I can’t swim/bike/run and/or I fear water/bicycles/motion,” I challenge you to join us!
After leaving Denver, we flew to LAX for a six hour layover… that turned into more like eight hours. Finally, after midnight, we boarded our flight to Auckland. Thirteen hours later, we were going through customs, scores of weary-looking people with huge duffle bags. Many of us had hiking and camping gear with us and had to pass through Biosecurity.
New Zealand is pretty tough on bringing foreign dirt, seeds, vegetation and animal products into the country, and I have no problem with that. When you see the devastation wrought by invasive species to this isolated island nation, you can understand why they get testy about it. After they inspected every bit of my tent and cleaned my boots (for free!), I rejoined the Ice Crowd for our flight to Christchurch.
By the time we touched down in CHCH a couple hours later, we’d been traveling for nearly 36 hours. Normally I would have collapsed onto my hotel bed and not cared about anything for the rest of the day but instead… I took a purple shower, chose the “tropical surf mood channel” on my flat-screen tv and stretched out (nearly) on my nest-like bed. Because I am staying at Hotel So.
If you come to Christchurch, you must experience Hotel So. It is centrally located and impossibly hip, but in a funky, slightly crazy way. You can change the lighting in the shower of your “bathroom pod” (you have a choice of five colors) and select various “mood channels” on the tv in your micro-room, but my absolute favorite thing about Hotel So is the alarm clock. You set the time and, five minutes before, your room begins to fill with soft light that grows in intensity, simulating dawn. When it gets to the time you selected, your tv automatically switches on to the “wake-up channel,” showing a live roofcam shot accompanied by the jolliest of reggae bands singing “Wake up! Wake up! Time to get movin’! Today is your day!”
Today I woke up twice just to enjoy the absurd goofiness of it all.
Returning to New Zealand has been surprisingly strange, by the way. It feels like coming home. It’s been only four months since I left, and I didn’t realize until I came back how comfortable I felt living here. Finally, people are driving on the side of the road that makes sense again! And yes, as I type this I am eating a raspberry Lamington. Yum. For dinner my first night I bought roasted kumara and pumpkin hummus to eat with New Zealand carrots (the best in the world… their carrots are incredibly sweet and crunchy, even the huge ones) and Whitestone Dansey’s Pass goat cheese. Yum, yum, yum. Oh kumara, how I’ve missed you. You too, Whitestone cheese.
Our first full day in Christchurch began with ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear issuing. I brought my camera to capture the inaugural moment I slung my Carhartt Wind Pants suspenders over my shoulders, but alas the batteries ran out before I could do so. No worries… I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities to capture the stylish lines of my puffy pants and padded parka and bunny boots. Yes, they’re called bunny boots. We’re issued enormous, hideously ugly white boots that automatically fill with air basically to insulate our feet and prevent them from freezing which would be, no pun intended, not cool at all.
Next: flu shot! Ouch!
We were supposed to leave tonight, but this morning learned that weather at McMurdo was “condition one,” which means you’re not even allowed to leave whatever building you’re in. People have been stuck in the gym or lab or cafeteria for hours when this happens.
So we spent an extra day in Christchurch, not a bad place to be. Wherever I go, I run into other people from my group (there are more than a hundred of us). And what keeps impressing me is how cool everyone is. The other first-timers are as giddy and excited as I am, and the people who have been coming back year after year (one guy has been down there 17 seasons, another 13, several others I’ve talked to have gone down ten or more seasons) have been super at giving us newbies tips, whether it’s where to find the best souvlaki (Dimitri’s on Cashel… OMG, a falafel souvlaki the size of my head that was utterly scrumptious) or showing us how to test for proper bunny boot fit.
Meeting other people going to the Ice has been a huge relief for me. I was worried about being in a remote place, living in close quarters with people I didn’t know. Hey, I’ve seen “The Thing.” Fortunately, everyone I’ve met has been great, interesting and totally unpretentious. I’m sure there will be days when I am ready to climb the walls (fortunately, the gym has a climbing wall. How convenient.) but at least things are starting off well.
Tomorrow we’ll pack, say farewell for now to Hotel So (I’ll miss you, jolly wake-up reggae band!) and set off for the airport and our military flight south. Maybe. They can make the call to cancel the flight all the way up to take-off, depending on weather. And even if we take off, we may not land at McMurdo. Instead we may do the dreaded “boomerang”… the plane can get all the way to the icestrip at McMurdo, a five to eight hour flight, and, if the conditions are not safe, turn around and fly back to Christchurch.
So, next time I post, it will either be from Penguinistan or… well, Christchurch. Stay tuned.