22 August 2010

my first antarctic days

Today is my sixth day here on the ice, and it already feels like a lifetime ago that I was strapped into the side of a C17 cargo plane, listening to the obscure punk rock provided by the guy sitting next to me, trying to imagine what it would be like when we landed.  I've already acquired such a new, bizarre wealth of knowledge, and yet  still feel like I have no idea what's going on.
I'll start back where I left off.  After the wonderful two days in Christchurch, we all boarded the shuttles and headed to the CDC, where we would be gearing up in our big red jackets, checking in with military personnel, and boarding a gigantic cargo plane.  We had a few hours of waiting around, as the companies who run the program seem to think that six hours early is necessary for all of the just in case scenarios.  One of the military guys who worked there offered to give me and a few other ladies a ride in a haglund, this jointed vehicle used on the ice.  It's basically two different boxes connected, with seats lining the edges.  They have a course at the CDC where I guess people learn how to drive them?  But anyways, it involves a large pond, steep hills, and sharp turns.  And like most men that I've come across so far on this journey, our driver decided to put on a show to impress us.  It was like riding the most rickety rollercoaster ever, but not being able to see ahead and anticipate what was coming next.  I spent most of that ride in the air, being constrained from catapulting by one little strap across my waist.  I almost threw up and felt woozy until halfway through the five hour flight.
While there were lots of airline type seats in the middle of the cargo plane, I opted for the true experience and sat strapped onto the side.  It was not the most comfortable decision, as the seat is just a strip of canvas between two bars.  Ouch.  But I sat next to a 30 year old who had been to the ice before, so he was a good distraction, and volunteered to play DJ for me with his brand new headphones.  So I was entertained the whole way down, and it is quite the experience to ride in one of those things. 
We were the last of three night flights, meaning we arrived at around 8pm that first night, whereas usually people arrive in the early afternoon.  The military were getting trained using night goggles while flying.  After a remarkably smooth landing, the plane kept sliding along the ice for a good 5 or 6 minutes, and then suddenly my lungs felt a sharp burst of frigid air and everyone immediately had large clouds of breath above their heads.  Stepping off the plane was one of the most overwhelming feelings.  It was dark, but you could just sense the emptiness of the environment, and there were large vehicles and people herding you towards Ivan the Terra Bus, where all 60 of us crammed on and rode the forty five minutes to McMurdo.  The windows of the bus were instantly iced over from our breath and some people spent most of the ride trying to scratch out a little view hole.  The driver was also constantly scratching at the windshield, which I was too tired to be alarmed about.  The man driving the bus had a wild look in his eyes and a bright pink beard - clearly a winter-over, somebody who had remained on the ice through the long dark winter.  You can tell winter-overs immediately just by looking at them… extremely pale, sullen, almost vampire-like, and the majority of them are not friendly, and not happy to be encroached upon by all of us arriving for winfly.
The rest of that night was not pleasant.  It involved walking across town in the dark, a town that I have no familiarity with, finding building 140, getting my 130+ lbs of luggage, trying to find a shuttle, and then hauling them up two flights of stairs to try and find my room.  I've really lucked out bc I still don't have a roommate, and I will be getting 4.  A lot of people already have at least 2 or 3, and at first I was really jealous because I was so lonely, but now that I have some friends, my room has been good for pre-party celebrations.
Work is exhausting, but being a janitor turns out to be one of the best jobs down here.  I am going to be assigned my own dorm and work building to clean, where I am left to do as I please, as long as I get the job done.  It is extremely laid-back, and the people I work with are incredibly cool.  Most of them are returnees, so it was hard to infiltrate their inner circle, but I've definitely made friends with at least half of them now.  It's difficult to make friends here because there's a lot of small talk at this point, since everyone is settling in, and it really is mostly men.  And it turns out men aren't as interested in being friends, and if they invite you to go listen to music in their room, that's not what they actually mean.  I learned that the hard way.  Awkward.  I haven't had to buy myself a single drink so far, which is fairly convenient on the old wallet.  
I've had some really gross happenings at work.  Like my first day, when I was going through a skua bin (where people put stuff they don't want anymore, and other people can take it), and picked up a wet pee bottle with my bare hands, and then went on to find a wrapped up pillow case which was holding a vibrator.  I asked the girl training me if I should put it in the non-recyclable bin, and said no, that somebody would want it so keep it in skua.  There are about 12 different trash categories that everything must be sorted into, and it gets really complicated.
I've been forcing myself to get out and about… I've taken the shuttle over the Scott Base, which is the New Zealand station down here.  I've gone to karaoke, which was incredibly depressing, as it was mostly winter-overs moaning really sad songs.  And then last night, the carpenter shop put on a huge party which most of the station went to, and there were a bunch of different live bands and lots of dancing.  It was such a blast, and by far the high point of my time so far.  Next Saturday night, the janos are having a hut10 party, and that should be really fun. 
I haven't had the chance to get outside much yet, especially since it's been in the negative 30s, but walking between buildings for work, I've had the chance to see some cool stuff.  The first official sunrise was three days ago, and it was incredibly anticlimactic, since there was a mountain blocking it.  But it did add some nice oranges and pinks to the sky.
The next morning there was an incredible hot pink nacreus cloud, but I didn't have my camera with me.  I did manage to snap a picture of a couple of nacreus clouds that looked like opals with different pinks, purples and blues… the colors were much brighter than pictured here… they were like nothing I had ever seen before. 
Phew, that was a lot longer than I planned on, sorry if it was really boring.  I've been too tired and busy to take many pictures, but I'll get on that this week.  I still feel like I'm walking around lost all the time, and like I have no real friends, but I've only cried once, and I'm definitely sinking in a little more each day.  It's getting better and better, and I can already tell that this place has the potential to be amazing. 
More soon.


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  2. Love it.
    Love it.
    Love it.

  3. Wow. It must take a lot to get settled in. Beautiful pictures already! I can't wait to hear more about your adventure there!

  4. You are one brave woman! I know you'll just keep getting more and more comfortable and have an amazing adventure :)

  5. "..sense the emptiness of the environment." fantastic phrase. tangible indeed, dear liz. what is so incredible about travel and exploration stories is their reminder that the exotic exists within the mundane.

  6. how exciting it's been for me to read about the start of your incredible adventure. fantastic photos too.

    how brave you are!



  7. those clouds are awesome! i like hearing about whats going on, and i hope things keep getting better. stay warm ;]

  8. I think I would have cried more than once by now, but it seems things are looking up. Cheers to steering clear of those winter-overs and more music and dancing with the carpenter shop.

  9. oh!! i hope everything keeps gettin better everyday!! keep us updated!!

    take care!

  10. Boring? I THINK NOT!!!! Also, I sent you something before I left NJ...so get excited!

  11. I can't believe you are really there. Looking at that photo of the storm made me feel claustrophobic. Does it seem that way? What an adventure. I told some one the other day that you had gone to Antarctica and they just looked at me awestruck! xxoo


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