Monday, December 26, 2005

holidays on ice.

on the twelfth day of christmas, a penguin gave to me:

twelve blazin' redfish*,
eleven flights cancelled**,
a ten-minute shower,
nine GAs shoveling,
eight kiwis drinking***,
seven hours resting,
six days a-working,
five skua eggs!
four free meals,
three roommates,
two bunny boots,
and a flight on a C-130.

* crumbed and deep-fried spicy fish, usually served in the galley when they're out of other meats. not a particular favorite, except among skuas.
** a common occurrence, especially around the holidays when everyone is hoping to receive christmas package mail from the states. a C-17 loaded with package mail was scheduled to arrive last week wednesday but was cancelled due to 'mechanical and weather issues.' many tears were shed.
*** the kiwis (new zealanders, not flightless birds) that live at nearby scott base are legendary for their drinking fortitude. sometimes spotted running around naked, indoors and outdoors, in the wee hours.

happy holidays from the bottom of the world!

christmas has come and gone on the seventh continent, and a lovely time it was. with the help of volunteers, the galley served up an astounding meal featuring huge trays of shrimp cocktail, loads of freshies that had arrived at the 11th hour from christchurch, homemade pies and cookies, beef tenderloin, seasoned-tofu puff pastries, and a tower made of cappuccino-flavored frozen heavy cream. wine and conversation flowed freely, and everyone was happy, clean and in a festive mood.

I was lucky enough to have both saturday and sunday off, so on friday night I went all-out at the town christmas party. the heavy shop at the vehicle maintenance facility had been emptied of all forklifts, drums of grease, and sweaty coveralled mechanics and filled with trays of hors d'oeuvres, shiny decorations, and canned christmas music. photos of peoples' friends, families, and pets sent from home were projected onto a giant screen in a continuously looping slide show. my family sent me a photo of Tate (see above) that garnered several appreciative comments to the effect of 'your nephew is so cute!' (who would dress their nephew in that outfit is beyond me, but hey -- different strokes.)

our christmas choir performed a forty-five-minute set at the party, and in spite of technical snafus too numerous to mention, the crowd seemed appreciative and sang along with gusto. later, after the instruments had been put away and I'd fortified myself with some olives and chocolate-covered peanut butter balls, I danced my booty off until approximately 1:30 am. brian, one of the airfield supervisors (the people we radio for permission to approach the planes on the ramp), was DJing, and played some excellent tunage. brian says that the difference between a bad DJ and a good DJ is that the bad DJ plays what he likes to hear, whereas a good DJ plays what everyone wants to hear -- such favorite ditties as Dancing Queen by ABBA, Celebrate by Kool and the Gang, and Love Shack by the B-52s. by that measure alone, brian is one helluva good DJ.

speaking of DJing, last week I was featured as a guest DJ on the local AFN (Armed Forces Network) radio affiliate, 104.5 FM. people from the mcmurdo community are allowed to sign up to DJ during weekly two-hour slots. my friend jeff has a slot every tuesday afternoon from 4:00 to 6:00, and I often sit in the studio and knit while he plays music and talks. he and I decided that we should have an ongoing 'Shuttle Cindy as guest DJ' spot during the show, so for my inaugural session I played two shuttle-themed songs: 'Go Faster' by the Black Crowes and 'Hitch A Ride' by Boston.

being a radio DJ is a funny thing. here you are, in this little room without windows, surrounded by shelves crammed full of CDs and records, talking into a little mic and sending your thoughts out over the airwaves. it's enjoyable for purely selfish reasons, and entirely possible to forget that people are out there listening to your drivel -- until someone calls in to comment on your last selection or to request something else. I actually got a call from a listener who appreciated the Boston tune. jeff's show is also great in that he features such ongoing highlights as Parse That '80s Song (in which he play something cryptic like We Built This City by Starship and then deconstructs the lyrics) and the Poem of the Week. and now Shuttle Cindy.

but the highlight of my holiday was christmas caroling at mac ops, which is the communications center for all american stations and field sites in antarctica. the choir, complete with keyboard and two guitars, crammed into the comms room and sang over the high-frequency radio to the south pole station and the WAIS (western antarctic ice sheet) and fosdick mountains field camps. better than singing was hearing them respond over the radio with thanks and caroling of their own!

crackle crackle mac ops, mac ops, this is WAIS. copy?
we copy you, WAIS, on 11335. go ahead.
feedback crackle thank you for the singing. it was much appreciated. pause crackle stand by for the WAIS holiday choir.

and then there would be the faint sound of vigorous, slightly off-key singing. a bunch of people, who for the last month had been sleeping in tents and going without showers, sang The First Noel back to us. and all of a sudden it really felt like christmas.

tomorrow is going to be awesome. the russian icebreaker is scheduled to arrive at our ice dock, and I'm off to snow survival school. more on those later, as it's bedtime for me.

merry christmas / happy hanukkah / kwanzaa wishes to all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

on-ice gender dynamics.

this past saturday night, I co-emceed the annual women's soiree, which showcases the amazing talents of the better-looking 35% of the mcmurdo population. tons of volunteers (men and women) put on a great event, including a pre-event wine social (where servers dressed as greek goddesses circulated with trays of cheese and biscotti) and the raffling off of more than $1800 worth of donated goods and services (everything from bottles of bailey's to handmade knitted items and jewelry to gift certificates for massages and restaurants in CHCH). the raffle raised over $3000 for the canterbury breast-cancer society in new zealand, which was chosen as this year's charity in honor of a nancy farrell, an old-time Ice gal who was diagnosed with cancer and was unable to come to antarctica this year. because our shuttles boss, samantha, is so involved in the soiree, she asked three of her employees -- me, kris, and amanda (see above) -- if we would like to co-MC. I was really nervous about it, all the way up till it actually started, but then somehow powered through on straight bravada, and everyone said it went really well. I only included one deliberate joke -- a cargo gal was going to play the bassoon, so I said she was going to play a baboon. seemed to go over because people laughed. if you're going to tell a joke, anything involving a primate is usually a good bet, because monkeys are inherently funny. so are those big plastic cone-shaped collars that dogs wear when they come back from the vet, but I couldn't figure out a way to gracefully incorporate one into my script.

the talent on this station is amazing! there were three belly-dancing acts (including a solo performance by shuttle sam), tap-dancing, the aforementioned bassoon, guitar playing, a homemade video about ice fishing, storytelling, and poetry. it was really cool to see people out of their dirty carhartts and dressed up for the occasion. I sometimes get embarrassed when someone says hello to me in the dining hall or computer lab and I don't recognize them, but it's because they're not wearing their work clothes. you get really used to seeing air national guardsmen in green coveralls and carpenters in bibs and firefighters in...uh...firefighting garb.

as part of the belly-dancing intro, I taught the audience some traditional means of encouraging the dancers:

1. the zaghareet. if you've seen any movies taking place in the middle east or north africa, there is probably a scene where all the women make a high-pitched lalalalalalala sound all together (there's a good example of this in Three Kings, where Spike Jonze does the lalala and is ridiculed because only women are supposed to do it). this can be used in any place where you would normally clap or cheer.
2. hissing. if you see something slow and sensuous during the bellydance, you let out a long hissssss. kind of like the air brakes on the terra bus.
3. ya habibi and yalla. these are endearments to be shouted whenever you see something you like. ya habibi is roughly translated as 'you're fabulous, darling!' and yalla as 'you go, girl!'

there's a strange kind of gender dynamic on station. it's almost like being in mongolia. mongolian men and women are pretty much on equal footing and have near-equal social standing, and it has to do with the fact that mongolia is such a survival culture that everyone has to work together at everything, or you'd freeze and starve and die. it's kind of the same here. everyone works at the same jobs -- there are women cargo handlers / firefighters / load planners / skier (c130) maintenance / utility technicians / chefs / carpenters / plumbers / painters / fuelies / wasties / drillers / heavy equipment operators / janitors / couriers and more. women pretty much do everything that men do. and they look damn good and kick ass while they're doing it. (see my fuelie friends wendy and jodi, right.)

so, that made me wonder about good old-fashioned chivalry. I noticed that it doesn't really exist in the workplace; my workplace, anyway. the men don't jump up and offer to check the fluids on the womens' vehicles on cold days, or drag their ECW gear up the ladders on the deltas for them (and a number of our lady drivers are well over 60 years old!). and I've heard from other women on station that their work responsibilities are always evenly distributed, with no consideration or concern that some jobs are gender-specific. which is just as it should be. but outside the workplace, there seems to be a bit more of the door-opening, drink-buying type of behavior, which is kind of nice.

the other strange aspect of being a woman here is that there are relatively few of them, and each woman is thus subjected to more than her normal share of male attention. (one woman reportedly compared being female at mcmurdo to like 'being a bone in a pack of dogs.') some women kind of go a little nuts from the constant stream of pickup lines and end up being really, uh, friendly with the guys. others choose the 'if you fear me, maybe you'll respect me' route and just act aloof and distant. as for myself, I've learned that if I'm friendly to the air national guardsmen, they'll give me the snickers bars from their flight lunches. (I have also suggested that they start referring to me as code name OFA: Operation Fat Ass.)

ya habibi!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

the world's largest ambulance.

we had an injury accident today.

this morning, I was on duty to transport a bunch of people from town out to williams field airstrip in Ivan the Terra Bus. on board were a couple of grantees and several firefighters. the grantees were on their way out to the airstrip to load some atmospheric-measurement devices in a twin otter aircraft, and the firefighters were on duty at the firehouse out there. we arrived at 'willy town' and I let the mechanized stairwell down, and the passengers got off. some of them went to the side of the bus to get their baggage out of the luggage compartments there. the doors to the compartments are made out of heavy steel, and need to be lifted upward and secured by propping them on a metal prop, sort of like your car hood. well, one of the grantees was lifting the door up, and thought he'd propped it -- but he hadn't, and the edge of it came crashing down on his head, splitting open his scalp and causing profuse bleeding. (mind you, these doors are freakishly heavy -- I've witnessed several people dropping them closed instead of lowering them, and it was sickening to think of that weight falling on someone's head.)

I was still inside the bus while this happened, and was none the wiser until I went down to see if anyone needed to go back to mcmurdo on the next run and saw a bunch of firefighters gathered around the man. he had blood running down his face and into his collar. however, he seemed lucid and alert, and was able to answer all their questions. the airfield ambulance pulled up a minute later, and first aid was applied. medical and fire dispatch were notified. the firefighters helped him back onto the Terra Bus (why not? it was warm, and there were places to sit), and I drove everyone back to mcmurdo hospital. a firefighter went in and got a spray bottle of disinfectant and a paper towel, and wiped the blood off the hatch door. and I was due for another run, so Ivan and I went back to work.

the thing that most impressed me (besides the victim's ability to stay calm and cooperative while bleeding out of a nasty head wound) was the utter professionalism, warmth and humor of the firefighters that attended the scene. they made the injuree, a young man from south korea, as comfortable as possible and kept up a casual banter all the way back to town -- a 35-minute drive. they joked about how I was now the driver of the world's largest ambulance, and how easy it is to find firefighters to put out fires or help heart-attack victims but difficult to find anyone to fill out incident reports.

I later saw the grantee in the dining hall. he thanked me for the speedy ride to the hospital and assured me that he felt fine. they had stapled his wound shut. I, for one, would have been in bed popping analgesics.

Ivan: 1
pax: 0

Friday, December 02, 2005

ice fishing, seal poop and christmas carols.

sorry I haven't posted in a while! I have no excuses -- not good ones, anyway.

hmmmm. update by the numbers:

1. I've somehow suckered myself into accompanying the christmas choir. every year, someone with directorial aspiration puts a choir together to sing carols at the town christmas party (held in the heavy-equipment shop at the vehicle maintenance facility, the only venue on station large enough to hold 1000+ people), as well as caroling outside scott base and singing over the radio to the south pole station and the ships at sea. I showed up at rehearsals last thursday hoping to merely lend my dulcet tones to the tenor section, ha ha ha. however, a few minutes into rehearsal, it became apparent that the accompanist, who could read chord progressions and riff on them beautifully, could not read a single note of sheet music....and therefore could not rehearse singing parts. the director then tried to direct and play parts at the same time, which was just too painful to watch, so...I offered to help out. and of course this turned into my somehow agreeing to be the accompanist for every rehearsal and performance between now and the 25th. boundaries, cindy, boundaries.

2. ran over my first victim last week. a co-worker and I were outside on the low line (the 'hitching post' area where the terra bus, the airporter buses, and the extra vans are plugged in to keep the engines warm overnight). we were scheduled to take two airporters to pick up several passengers and take them out to the runway, and we were checking their fluids, warming them up, and so forth. he forgot something in the office and ran back inside to get it, leaving his extreme-cold-weather gear and stainless-steel travel mug on the ground. my airporter was warmed up and ready to go, so I got in, threw it into reverse, and rolled backward. I felt a faint bump and thought, hmmm...that ain't right. I got out and looked. I had just rolled over the bag and the mug, leaving a big brown tire track on the orange bag and completely flattening the mug. there was hot peppermint tea steaming up from the cold ground and the bag looked really dejected. I apologized profusely to mike and bought him a new mug on my lunch break. luckily I hadn't broken anything in his ECW bag except a granola bar. mike now likes to say that his cup got runneth over.

3. last tuesday, I had the opportunity to accompany a grantee on an ice-fishing trip -- my first boondoggle! jill petzel and her sister ann are field assistants for their father, who is studying the antifreeze and sodium-regulating properties in the gills of a certain species of arctic fish (which I don't really know how to spell, but it sounded something like bernacii). they regularly take volunteers along with them to help them fish at their little fish hut (see photo above), which is located on the sea ice out near cape evans and ernest shackleton's historic (and much older) hut. (for those of you who don't know, shackleton was a heroic-age british explorer who was attempting to reach the south pole, but whose ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the sea ice; he and his men walked over 700 miles, and then some of them sailed much further than that, to reach civilization...none of the men died, which sent shackleton down in history as one of the greatest leaders in the age of exploration.) I was down in the galley getting hot water for my tea and ran into my friend tim, who had gone out with the petzels a week before and was recruiting people for their next trip. tim instructed me to show up at Crary Lab at 1150 with my extreme-weather gear and a sandwich.

jill met the five of us -- two shuttle drivers and three dining assistants, all quite excited at the prospect of getting out of town -- at the lab, and we piled into a piston-bully (a box vehicle on tracks) and chugged off. we followed a flagged snow-road along the coastline, going north past castle rock and toward mt. erebus. an hour and a half later, we pulled up at a little orange hut. a few hundred feet away was an enormous seal, slumbering on the ice (also in photo above). it was making little seal snoring sounds and occasionally waving its flippers. I think it was dreaming about fish. there was a pile of seal poop too, which ben, one of the dining assistants, bravely went over to inspect. he said it didn't smell like anything, which is probably a good thing since it was pretty huge.

the fish hut was a simple wooden affair, outfitted with a heater and a couple of folding chairs and a table. it was a beautiful sunny day with no wind, and the sun was pouring through the windows, making it so warm inside that I had to take off most of my outer layers of clothing. a square hole in the floor of the hut was situated directly over a round hole drilled through the sea ice, which looked to be about six feet thick. we looked down and could see all the way to the sea floor, about twenty feet down -- and, faintly, myriad little brown fish swimming around. these were the bernacii that the petzels had come to catch.

I had expected high-tech titanium fishing poles outfitted with rifle scopes or something equally impressive, but instead we had blocks of styrofoam with fishing line wrapped around them. jill baited the hooks with bits of bernacii tail and we unwound the fishing lines, letting the weights drift the hooks down to the bottom. the fish and the sea floor were the same dirt-brown color, so it was difficult to see the fish moving around -- but when the bait disappeared, that was the signal to jerk hard on the line, and more often than not your line would come up with a little slimy fish thrashing around on the hook. being squeamish about such things, I let jill unhook the fish I'd caught and throw it into the cooler for me. I caught four. within a half hour, we'd caught eight bernacii and one other type of fish, which we threw back.

the five of us helpers we were hoping to take the 'polar plunge,' which is sort of a rite of antarctic passage -- taking off all of one's clothes and jumping into the water (which, being salty, is actually 28F -- colder than ice). word on the street was that the petzels regularly let their helpers do the plunge, making for a great photo opportunity; I had even brought a towel. but jill seemed to be in a hurry, and didn't offer, so we didn't push it. oh well. there's a capital-P Polar Plunge on new year's day, but it's considerably more well-attended and official in tone (read: no nudity).

4. my life lately has been suffused with preparations for the annual Women's Soiree, a talent show featuring dancing, spoken-word performances, singing, and lots of door prizes that benefits a breast-cancer-research charity in new zealand. today I collected money for raffle tickets at the table during lunch, and I'll also be co-MCing the event itself on saturday night. according to the old-timers, it's usually a very well-attended thing, with lots of people (men and women alike) turning out to see their friends perform. there's also a pre-event social at which wine is served, where I hope to become completely oblivious to the fact that I am soon to co-MC the event itself.

5. I start a five-week jewelry-making class tomorrow. yay.

6. Thing I've Learned In Antarctica #572: Ten percent relative humidity doesn't necessarily mean you don't get zits.

bye for now! XO c.