The Beginning of the End

Three months from today, I am scheduled to leave Antarctica.

I don’t put much weight in the redeployment date of 10 October, though, because I’m on the same flight out as the Notorious Josie, our baker, who has the distinction of being delayed, sometimes for more than a week, every redeployment due to bad weather.

Still, it’s a date I’ve seen printed on paper, which makes it more real than the nebulous “oh, I’m leaving sometime in August. Or October.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about it. As you know, if you’ve spent any time at all on this blog, I love Antarctica. I love its scale and its unique character. I love the way the landscape itself seems sentient here–and completely unimpressed with us puny humans.

I love the way it thumbs its nose at conventional wisdom: no, the sun will not rise at dawn and set at dusk to mark the passing of a day. In fact, the sun will not even travel overhead in a neat arc, but rather in a lazy spiral up and spiral down that takes more than six months to complete. Water here remains liquid below freezing. The driest continent on earth can be fogbound for days. Despite the total lack of soil, life thrives. Okay, whacky, weird life, to be sure: monstrous sea sponges, colossal squid, flightless birds that swim and birds that do fly, but only, it seems, to mug the human interlopers.

This may sound strange to say, but I love the feeling that humans are not welcome here. Not a day passes where you, as a puny human, could survive without technology developed to keep you alive in alien environments (think about it… aside from the obvious year-round risk of hypothermia, how would you get fresh water unless you had a stove to melt snow? What would you eat? Good luck foraging. Hope you like the taste of volcanic rock). Even the earliest explorers came with the state-of-the-art survival gear of their day.

No palm trees sway invitingly in a warm breeze. No wildflowers perk up the mountain meadows as if Mother Nature felt the need to accessorize. There is snow and there is ice and there is rock and there is sky and if that’s not enough for you, buddy, well, why don’t you get your butt back on the plane.

I love that Antarctica does not suffer fools. If you do not show it respect, it squashes you flat without a second thought, often in such a way that your body is never found.

One travel writer described the Antarctic landscape as “autistic.” I’m not sure what he meant, but where others see an empty, forbidding, cold, bleak, hostile, harsh place, I see a world of beauty and wonder. And peril, too, sure, but what’s life without a little bit of that?

As much as I love “the harshest continent” and will be sad to leave it, part of me knows it’s getting about time to go. Whether it’s the dry air, the lack of “normal” light, the six-day work schedule or the isolation, I’m starting to feel the unique strains of living here for eleven months and counting–on top of the strains I feel just staying in one place. Think about it. I have lived in Antarctica longer than any other place I’ve called home for the past five years.

I have no regrets–I would come back in a heartbeat–but you know, I would really, really like to walk outside on a surface that is neither ice nor ankle-twisting lumps of volcanic rock, a surface, say, like pavement, preferably in cute shoes.

By the gods, I have so many cute shoes, and they’re all languishing in storage.

I would like to pet a dog. To see what’s on sale at Target. To smell a flower, or even see one growing in the ground. To walk down a street and pass people I have never seen before, do not know by name and will never see again. I would like to drive a car. To go for a walk wearing less than ten pounds of protective clothing. To get Indian takeaway. To eat a mango. To go for a swim. To go grocery shopping and use coupons.

And a little voice inside of me that has been awed into silence the past eleven months has begun to murmur: “what about Afghanistan? You still haven’t seen Afghanistan. When are you going to go swimming with the Great White Sharks in South Africa? What about hiking in Nepal–you’re not getting any younger, you know. You’ve always wanted to see Tasmania, what are you waiting for? When was the last time you laid on a beach and did nothing for a day, or even an hour? They’re filming The Hobbit just a five hour plane ride away from you–think of the stalking possibilities!”

Getting an official albeit tentative redeployment date was in some ways a relief, though a bittersweet one. At the same time, leaving Antarctica requires having a plan, finding a new destination, making–shudder–decisions.

The following is even more self-absorbed and rambly than most of my posts, but I’m throwing it up here because many people have asked me how in the world I end up where I end up, what possible thought process seems to keep getting me from Point A to Point Q. So, if you’re one of those people, keep reading. If you’re not, no worries, just please scroll to the bottom and cast your vote for where I should go after I leave the Ice.

Assuming I make it to New Zealand at least sometime around the 10th, I’ll be spending most of the rest of October swimming in Lake Wakatipu, getting my passport renewed in Auckland and learning how to surf in Piha (yes, “learn to surf” was the clear winner in my “tell me where to go” poll). I may try to sneak in a bit of Hobbit-stalking.

And then? Well, perhaps it’s time for another poll.

Here are my options for November, as I see it:

Hiking in Tasmania. It will be spring, but Tasmania isn’t really affected by snowmelt like many of New Zealand’s best trekking areas. The weather will be cool, the way I like it, and the crowds few, another plus. I have always wanted to see Tasmania, largely for the Tasmanian devils, but also for the Overland Track and Port Arthur. Reading some guides on it, I’ve found enough other interesting stuff that I’m sure I could spend several weeks here. Including cheese factories. Lots of cheese factories. Need I say more?

Seeing a South Pacific Island or Two. I couldn’t spend the entire month doing this. I would either melt or be bored to death. But sitting on a beach in the sun and going for a swim without having to don a wetsuit does have its appeal, at least for a few days. I’ve done some research and am most interested in Niue, the world’s smallest sovereign state and largest raised atoll.

I’m leaning toward Niue because it’s very undeveloped and also has few beaches. It’s mostly rock and cliff and cavern and limestone “chasms.” You can never go wrong with chasms. There are flights to and from Niue only once a week, however, and I don’t know that I’d want to spend a whole week being a beach bum. Or a chasm chick, to be more accurate. One bummer about visiting in November: the humpback whales, which hang out around Niue sometimes a few meters off shore and put up with tourists swimming beside them, will be gone by then. They migrate, coincidentally, to Antarctica for the summer.

I am also still obsessed with Lord Howe Island, off the Australian coast, for obvious reasons (follow the link and just look at the place!). But I couldn’t afford to do both Lord Howe and Niue, never mind to do much of anything else besides. Lounging on a beach doing nothing is surprisingly a lot more expensive than hiking one’s ass off in the wilderness.

Hiking in Nepal. I did some research on this earlier in the year but not enough to focus on the trekking season. I assumed, as in Tajikistan (where I really, really want to go), hiking is pretty much wrapped by November. Au contraire. Turns out October and November are the best and busiest months to hike in Nepal, as the weather is dry and clear and not yet too cold. Late November and early December are even considered the “hidden” trekking season because the weather is still good but the crowds have thinned out. I did some looking around the cool website for the new Great Himalayan Trail and found loads of places I wanted to see.

It’s cheap, too, but for me the big minuses are, in no particular order, bedbugs, the hassle of a woman trekking alone, bedbugs, rampant begging and bedbugs. The bedbug thing is obvious (everyone I know who’s been to Nepal has picked up some “friends” and all the travel forum reviews of hostels say things like “amazing view and fewer bedbugs than most places!”). As for begging, I am sorry there are people with no other means of surviving–though every guide/website I’ve read on Nepal claims the people begging are just doing it because the tourists have taught them to–but I want to be able to walk down a street or stop and stare at a mountain or monastery without a stranger tugging on my sleeve and imploring me. If that makes me cruel, so be it. And, curiously, every guide/website I’ve come across says the same thing about Nepal: it’s such a safe country! So safe! Just don’t hike alone or, if you’re female, travel anywhere alone whatareyoucrazy?!

Hmm. I can’t find any information on why women shouldn’t travel alone, though, especially in such a “safe” country.

I think Nepal would be challenging physically, beautiful and fascinating… and stressful. Right now, trading in the “harshest continent” for a stressful vacation isn’t too appealing.

Doing (Almost) All of South Africa. The time of year would be right to hike in the Drakensberg, another one of those places on earth I’m a little obsessed with, and the wineries are open year-round (Pinotage! Pinotage!). But November is moulting season for the penguins you can swim with in Boulder Bay (so, er, they won’t be swimming) and… this is the big minus… the famous breaching Great Whites are only around May through August. The cage diving shark tours don’t even run in the southern hemisphere summer.

Another minus… South Africa’s high crime statistics largely are due to small pockets of lawlessness in some of the cities. But…… again, every website and guide I’ve read discourages women from traveling alone in the country. This is why we need realistic robots. I don’t want to travel with anyone, but if having a cyborg at my side is the only way people will leave me alone, well, I’m willing to do some field trials with one… can you make the robot look like Karl Urban?

No? Well, Roy Batty, I have a job for you…

(Funny side note: traffic lights, aka traffic signals, are called “robots” in South Africa. Really. So anyone from South Africa who has stumbled on this page is probably really confused right now.)

I could always Spend More Time in New Zealand. When I lived there, I didn’t get to do the Milford, allegedly the country’s greatest hike (which is saying something) or spend much time in the greater Nelson area, which I liked a lot. But New Zealand at this point feels too familar, too easy, as much as I love the place, and as easy as it is to travel as a woman alone, sans cyborg.

And, As Ever, London is Calling. I don’t care if it makes no logistical sense to fly from New Zealand to the US via London. It’s London, and I haven’t been in a long while to my favorite city on earth. It would be expensive, yes, but it’s London. Yes, the weather would make some of the southern England treks I want to do less than pleasant, but it’s London.

And this time I know where Sean Bean lives.

“Look, if she knows where I live, there is zero chance, I mean zero chance, folks, of me escaping. Help me. Vote for her to stay in the Southern Hemisphere.”

One wrinkle in all my plans: my driver’s license expired last month. I didn’t get it renewed before I left the States last August because I never thought I’d still be in Antarctica come June! So renting a car may be impossible, which would be a big minus for Tasmania, which has  an underdeveloped public transportation system, for New Zealand and also South Africa, all for the same reasons. Without a car, Nepal, the South Pacific Islands and London (London!) are the most practical choices.

I suppose, by the way, the “responsible” thing to do is to take the small amount of money I’ve saved working here, fly straight back to the States and sink that money into a small business or self-publishing or hand it over to the jerks on Wall Street to squander while I hit the pavement and look for a “real” job which will, undoubtedly, offer lousy pay, long hours and no benefits.

But we all know I’m about as responsible as Antarctica is hospitable.

Still reading? Wow. Then you might as well vote in my new “Tell Me Where To Go” poll.

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8 thoughts on “The Beginning of the End

  1. Dude, you put an exclamation point after London! That tells you something, doesn’t it? Plus, I think after Antarctica, you kind of need its opposite — a big, exciting city with no volcanic activity. And that Sean Bean picture and caption is just too hilariously funny for you not to follow it up with something, even if, like me, you stroll past his empty house day after day while his neighbor laughs at you. You could stay in his neighborhood, too. Your old B&B doesn’t look that great these days (and the building next door has been a stalled construction site since 2008), but there’s another B&B down the road, closer to Belsize Village, called Dillons — you can see a link to it on Google maps. It looked pretty decent when I walked by it. Unfortunately, Byron and Sharon’s apartment is rented out for the rest of the year (though they haven’t updated the sabbaticalhomes listing) otherwise I’d suggest you contact them. Dillons is about the same per night, though, and you get breakfast.

    Actually, I might have voted for hiking in Tasmania if it weren’t for the lack of transportation issue. That sounds right up your alley.

  2. While not Nepal there is an ex archery person in Bhutan and from what I know I don’t think there’s be a problem with a woman traveling alone there.

  3. i believe london *requires* an exclamation point after it…. thanks for the tip re: B&Bs… i also found a short-term rental place that specializes in the BP/HH area (welby.co.uk) have you heard of it?

    at the same time, i feel like i’m all the way on the other side of the world, i really *should* see some of the nearer places i’ve always wanted to see and have never been to. the original plan was to hit tasmania and then south africa and sidle up north towards london, but if there are no giant great white sharks jumping out of the water in SA, what’s the point?? sigh. hence my dilemma. stay tuned. for now the bean can rest easy.

    for now, lol….

  4. thanks, peter… i looked into bhutan, too, but–at least as i understand it–their tourism industry is highly regulated and *very* expensive because they make tourists pay a fixed fee for every day they spend in the country. the idea is to prevent the country from becoming the free-for-all nepal is (and, let’s face it, to generate revenue).i like that the country is trying to maintain its character and culture and to create a tourist industry that provides real benefits to local communities, but it puts a trip there beyond my budget. but thanks!

  5. Of course I want you to come to London! I will be there (inshallah)! But if you don’t want to do that, go to South Africa. Wish I could join you.

  6. You should talk to my sister and brother-in-law about Nepal. Charlie lived there for six months about 15 years ago, and when my sister visited, people stared at her everywhere she went. People stared in the windows of the house Charlie was staying in. They’d never seen such a tall woman (she’s 5’9″). She said everyone was very kind, just very, very curious.
    Charlie loved Nepal and would like to go back. Want his email address?

  7. halley: so excited for you, and excited too that we might get to hang out together in LONDON!! pls keep me posted and i will do the same… still gripped with indecision. or maybe it’s just indigestion at this point. susan: wow, i didn’t know. that’s very cool… but i have pretty much ruled out nepal. i have no doubt the people are kind–everything i’ve read notes that–but i want to go somewhere where i am not looked upon as a curiosity, even by kind people. that may sound harsh, but the toughest thing about living *here* has been everyone knowing, or at least wanting to know, everyone’s business. i want to go somewhere where i am invisible… especially as i am rapelling down the walls of sean bean’s manse wearing night vision goggles, lol……. thanks tho!

  8. Can you do a week on Niue or Lord Howe, followed by London? Kind of a pre-re-entry. first, adjust to being able to walk outdoors. then the big re-entry of being surrounded by people and buildings. and lush. And having people to stalk.

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