You may have figured out that I love Antarctica. I love its scale, its wildlife, its surreal and weird and unique character.
How do I top living here for seven months?
Stay for nine more!
Yes, when I realized how special this place is, I applied to winter-over way back in October. I got my contract offer in early December and then had to do a bunch of medical tests, including a psych eval, during which it was decided either that I am not crazy or that I am the right kind of crazy to be here through the winter.
And it’s “through the winter.” Once the last plane of summer people leaves in late February, we will have no planes in or out (and no ships, carrier pigeons, etc.) until mid-August. The population shrinks to about 200 people. The sun, already doing its slow spiral downward in the sky, sets in April and does not show its face again until August.
But all is not bleak. Yes, it will be dark, but it’s still Antarctica, full of beauty and wonder at all times of the year. When I was here for WinFly, I was mesmerized by the Southern Lights and late winter storms but surprisingly not fatigued by the lack of sun.
I also happen to really like the other people staying for winter in my department… perhaps not surprisingly, the quieter, more independent people applied to winter over. The hyperextroverts and clingy sorts are all leaving in February (and to them I say good riddance).
And we get a lot of perks, such as our own room, free wireless Internet and free showings of the Aurora australis when Mother Nature feels like it.
Another perk once you have your winter contract and have been PQ’ed (physically qualified)… you get to go on R&R. Four of us from my department who are wintering were among the 50 folks who boarded a C17 early Tuesday morning for Christchurch.
The trip did not have an auspicious start… Ivan the Terra Bus, the rugged but elderly vehicle that trucks out to the runway daily, caught fire about halfway there. It was not a serious affair, though those of us who all had Happy Camper training were eager to put our skills to use. (At Happy Camper, one of our “survival scenarios” was Ivan catching fire and exploding, and what we would do until help arrived to survive.) Snowcraft was not needed, alas… we just had to wait till back-up vehicles arrived to get us the last seven or so miles.
Despite below-zero Fahrenheit temps and a mean wind, many of us stood outside to watch the C17 arrive from Christchurch. What a fantastic experience to watch this thing, looking for all the world like a monstrous skua, drop out of the low cloud cover, pass overhead towards Mt. Discovery and the wreckage of a crashed Pegasus plane, then turn ever so elegantly and touch down smooth as buttah on the ice runway.
There were only 50 passengers aboard (when I flew down here in August there were more than 100) but it was a crowded flight, loaded with tons of science equipment going back to the States and beyond… I sat in front of more than 13,000 pounds of rock samples collected from around the Beardmore Glacier, where they regularly find petrified wood and dinosaur fossils from the days when this place was a subtropical forest. The samples were heading to the Netherlands to be analyzed.
How cool is that?
The C17 wasn’t heated, so we spent the five hour flight all suited up, many people sleeping. I couldn’t, so I watched a couple episodes of BBC’s “Life on Mars” on my netbook (how awesome is technology that, flying over Antarctica and the Southern Sea, I was in ’70s Manchester… or in the head of a possibly dead or comatose cop who was hallucinating he was in ’70s Manchester… am I mad? In a coma? Or back in time?? Whatever’s happened it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet… Sorry, a little shout-out to my fellow LoM fans.)
About half an hour before we landed in Christchurch, I felt the change in temperature. I could push back the hood of my Big Red and finally take off my gloves. By the time we touched down, I was hot.
We were a little apprehensive about R&R because, a week ago, it was in 90s (Fahrenheit) in Christchurch, or CHC (“Cheech,” a term I hated when I first got on the Ice, but now use just because it’s easier). Would we melt?
Fortunately, there was a change in the weather and it’s only in the 60s (14-18 C). And when I stepped off the plane and onto the stairs, I felt… rain. Oooh. All of us murmured about it. Oooh, rain… Water in liquid form falling from sky!
While waiting to collect our luggage (for me, a near-empty suitcase with an empty duffle bag inside), nature called. And, well, I’ll tell you what I told my friends as I came out of the restroom:
“Guys, they’ve got two-ply toilet paper. Treat yourselves.”
Yes, as much as I love Antarctica, it is a harsh continent in many ways. It certainly makes you appreciate the little luxuries of the real world.
We took a shuttle to our hotel… yes, my beloved Hotel So, though it is now the Hotel Formerly Known as So, having changed its name inexplicably to the All Seasons Cashel (Hotel So was so much cooler).
The four of us from the galley headed out to change money and to lunch, two of us making a sidetrip to Starbucks. As Camille and I stood in line, it hit us… when we arrived in CHC, after getting through customs and stepping outside to walk the short distance to the USAP Center (United States Antarctic Program), I felt the strangeness of it all… green, lush grass. Small brown birds that, unlike skua, were not going to divebomb me and steal anything resembling food. Humidity (my skin immediately went “whoa, what the hell is that on me?? It feels heavy and sticky! Eeew!”). Traffic. People I did not recognize standing really really reallyclose to me (okay, they were about ten feet away, but still…).
But it was not until we were in Starbucks that it really registered. Camille forgot how to stand in line, and was then overwhelmed by the choices. I had, ahem, been planning this moment for months and knew I wanted a trim venti flat white (flat white being a Kiwi thing… espresso with tons of steamed millk). But when it came to negotiating the crowd, it was nerve-wracking.
All four of us headed then to Dimitri’s, a gyro and falafel place with servings the size of your head for cheap. We sat outside to eat. Ooh. Sitting outside. Wow. When little sparrows came over to investigate, Anna threw them pieces of her pita… had a skua been there, it would have swooped down and taken our sandwiches from us.
We people-watched for a while in silence. Finally, unable to take it, I asked the others: “does everyone look weird to you?”
“Oh my God, yes! I’m so glad you said something because I was sitting here freaking out!” came the reply.
Yeah, everything did seem weird, and not just because I hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours. The way people dressed, their faces, their coloring, the way they walked… it seemed not like another culture or an exotic destination, but like the start of a nightmare when you have the feeling things are not quite right.
Here we were, wearing jeans and no coats, sitting outside, eating falafel sandwiches the size of our heads, feeding the nice, non-aggressive birds, the most natural thing in the world. And yet…
Am I mad? In a coma? Whatever’s happened it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet…
One of the things I love most about Antarctica is how surreal a place it is. Everything about the Ice seems different from “the real world.” The air is drier, lighter, crisper, the landscape more immense and fantastic, the sun spiraling about in a way that defies one of the most primal human observations (sun goes up, sun goes down…) … the entire continent seems to be alive like some kind of monstrous, hoary beast, volcanoes steaming, ice cracking and groaning, Fata Morgana changing the shape and size of the mountains.
Camille said that after she was on the Ice for a while, she told a friend back home that she had begun to think she might be completely crazy, and living in an asylum with other crazy people who had all convinced themselves that they were living in this white and black fantasy world of ice and volcanic ash and crazy attack birds.
Well, it’s not pretty when you let the loonies out, or at least send them on R&R to CHC.
As the day went on, the feeling of “those psych eval people were charlatans, I am crazy!” intensified. So many colors… so much stuff… so many vehicles… so many after-Christmas sales (ooh.).
We did a little shopping, including a quick stop at a thrift store where I scored an awesome, well-made jacket that makes me feel like Posh Spice, only with hips and not pregnant, for NZ$5 (about USD$4). Brian went to Lush, but I needed to wait until I was rested, lest I be overwhelmed and end up throwing myself onto the bath ballistics display as if it were a kid’s bouncy bubble room.
We all ended up at New World Supermarket, where I smelled every floral bouquet for sale while Anna spent ten minutes deciding which color grape to buy. I bought good cheese and fresh cherries and real yogurt, and we all bought real milk… even in summer, the only kind of milk available in McMurdo is powdered (they make yogurt from powdered milk, too). Having not just real milk, but real New Zealand milk (they know dairy) was a treat.
I lasted till about 6pm before heading back to my hotel room for a delicious meal of goat cheese on crackers and a Gladstone’s ginger beer. I watched the news until about 8pm, feeling strangely reassured by all the ghastly reports of flooding and shootings and political corruption… ah, yes. I remember this world. I grew up here, and lived here for a while, until I fled to the Land of Ice and Snow and lost touch with reality.
I slept a little while but woke at 3am and knew I wouldn’t get back to bed. So I put on my sneakers and suited up for a run and went outside and…
It’s dark. What the hell?
The concierge raised an eyebrow.
Oh yeah. There’s night here.
So I came back upstairs and surfed online for a bit. Once it was light, I headed out and spent two hours wandering around the Botanical Gardens, sticking my face in flowers and touching trees and grass, winning curious looks from early morning joggers.
Now, you may be wondering what people do for R&R… well, I know some people hurry off to Queenstown and blow all the money they saved on the Ice in a seven-second bungy jump. Others rush off to the beach, or to one of the National Parks.
And there are those of us who shop.
Did I mention that we arrived at the peak of the post-post holiday sales? Deep discounts, my friends. Deep discounts.
I almost wept with joy when I walked into the Lush on Cashel Street and was greeted with the words “because of the Boxing Day earthquake and how it affected our sales, we’ve put a lot of items on 50 percent off.”
50 percent off??? From the place that never has a sale?!?!
Clearly, it’s a sign that God wants me to save the crippled post-earthquake Christchurch retail sector, single-handedly if I must. Well, okay then.
Seeing the earthquake damage itself has been interesting, too… Several stores are closed because the buildings are unstable, many others have moved, and there’s tons of scaffolding and detours around closed streets and sidewalks everywhere.
There was an aftershock the morning after we arrived, checking in around 5 on the Richter. I was awake, online, but didn’t notice, apparently too distracted by the trailer for The King’s Speech. Colin Firth: the man with the power to render the quaking earth unremarkable.
So, other than shopping, gawking at crumbled buildings and wandering around aimlessly while appreciating the luxury of being aimless, at least for a few days, what do people on R&R do?
Though I think all of us got a least a little queasy from gorging on fresh fruit and real milk and proper cheese the first night, by the second night we rallied and went to dinner at Two Fat Indians, a phenomenal restaurant easy walking distance from the Hotel formerly known as So.
I had the Fish Bengali, “Kiwi hot.” They offer mild, medium and hot spice levels, but make a further distinction between “Kiwi” (notorious for their bland food preferences) and “Indian.” So my “Kiwi Hot” was about an “Indian medium”… I call it perfect. Fresh ingredients, perfectly seasoned. Sigh. Burp.
There were also the museums to take in… the Canterbury had an exhibit called “The Heart of the Great Alone,” on Antarctic photography during the expeditions of both Scott and Shackleton. It was beautifully done (no photos allowed, alas) but also a bit surreal to look at places I see every day and read the placards describing them as if they were on, yes, another planet. My favorite were the dog portraits, especially Vida and Osman. I’m happy to report Osman, considered Scott’s top dog, survived the final journey and retired to New Zealand where he lived to a ripe old age for a sled dog.
The art museum had a special exhibit on the work of Ron Mueck, who uses his background as a Hollywood effects guy to create incredibly realisitic silicone and fiberglass sculptures.
Truth be told, my favorite sculpture was not in the museum. It was by the river. I’d noticed it before, but this time it had different meaning to me. It’s a statue of Robert Falcon Scott, sculpted, I learned, by his widow after he died on The Ice. In previous trips to Christchurch I’d walked past it without much thought. This time I stopped and read the inscription, and the plaque which just happened to show the route I’d just flown.
Today I’ll spend some time packing, going to the farmers market and then, if the weather holds, wandering out to the beach at New Brighton before boarding a C17 to return to the Ice late tonight. As much as I enjoyed my R&R (and God knows the retail sector benefited), I can’t wait to get back to McMurdo, where Oden the icebreaker is due to arrive any day, the chance of seeing more penguins and even whales is increasing and the long dark cold is not far off.
Till next time, enjoy another wee montage… (I’m not getting better at moviemaking, I’m just experimenting with pressing more buttons, which is why this one has a few fancier features…)