Tuesday, January 17, 2006

last week I went out to Pegasus Field to pick up about fifty passengers who had just flown in from christchurch on a C-17. later, one of the passengers said something like the following to my co-worker sue:

so I get off the plane and look around, and I'm like, wow, man! I'm in
antarctica! then I see this huge orange bus and I'm like, wow! I'm on the moon!
then I see this little tiny asian girl get out of the huge orange bus, and I'm
like, whoa....where the hell am I?

I finished my jewelry course! over five weeks and with the help of the instructor, harry, I cut a flat piece of sterling silver into a one-inch square, rounded off the corners, ground off the hard edges, designed a pattern, cut the pattern out of the middle with a jewelry saw, soldered a loop onto the top, and sanded and polished the whole thing. harry (the bespectacled man in the photo) has been making jewelry for thirty years. down here at mcmurdo he's a pipecutter in the FEMC (facilities, engineering, maintenance and construction) building, but he teaches these jewelry courses several times a season at the amazingly generous price of $10 per student -- materials included. he's one of those adorable old men that wears dusty overalls and bifocals and has those marvelously callused leathery old-man carpenter hands. he owns an opal mine in northern nevada and makes beautiful earrings, rings and pendants out of his opals, crystals from mount erebus, and other findings. he says his wife gets first pick of everything he makes. isn't that cute? yeah...but not as cute as my necklace! check it out!

on the 6th, a congressional delegation of senators and representatives -- including senator and onetime republican presidential-ticket candidate john mccain of arizona -- arrived at mcmurdo for a tour of our facilities. the delegation was representing the congressional science committee, and was taken around the mcmurdo and south pole stations, as well as to some of the field camps, to see what the NSF has been doing with the money they dole out. what this meant for the lay mcmurdoite: everyone was assigned an hour of 'daisy picking' (trash detail) for the week before their arrival; the garbage and recycling bins normally located outside the dorms were taken away to some more obscure location so as not to sully the view with their presence; and an e-mail went out to the entire station notifying us that constituents of these particular congressmen and -women were invited to a special wine reception in the galley. only those with proper identification showing that they were indeed residents of those states would be admitted. apparently, so many people were asking for exceptions that the station manager sent out an e-mail saying that the following were not sufficient reasons to be admitted to the reception:

1. I can spell that state's name.
2. I can find that state on a map.
3. my girlfriend used to live in that state (from 1988 to 1993).
4. I drove through that state on a road trip.
etc., etc.

erica and I were assigned the task of going out to pegasus airfield to pick up the DVs (distinguished visitors) and their handlers, which totaled 28 people. she got the senators in her van and I got the 'secondary' DVs (read: lackeys and other personal assistants) in mine, which was just fine with me. I didn't need the stress of carrying important people up the scott base hill in a bulky airporter van without seat belts. my favorite story from the DV visit was that john mccain was going through the dinner line in the galley, where one of the featured foods that night was falafel. allison, one of the dining assistants, urged him to take some falafel, saying that they were really good. what's a falafel? mccain asked.

my firefighter friend, andre, invited me to a costume party thrown by the firehouse. the theme was 'superheroes and supervillains,' and I racked my brain trying to come up with an idea for a costume. finally, in a flash of sheer unadulterated brilliance, I hit on something. antarctica has been known since the age of exploration as the 'harsh continent,' which is something people like to remind each other of every time they complain. no freshies or package mail for two weeks? yeah, it's a harsh continent. wish you had some two-ply toilet paper? sorry, me too, but it's a harsh continent.

so, my idea for a superhero costume: The Harsh Incontinent, complete with adult diaper.

I wasn't going to be able to attend because I had to work an early shift the next day, but I told andre about my idea and he immediately took it and ran with it. see photo for the results. it was impressive. I think he had used an entire twin-size flat sheet to fashion the diaper, and stuck two water pistols into the waistband. nothin' was gettin' by that thing. word was that it was a big hit at the party.

I've been teaching a bunch of friends how to knit. a lot of people knit down here, and I can see how you would feel left out if you didn't know a seed stitch from your elbow. several guys, in particular, said that they wanted to learn, but were intimidated by the estrogen-fest at the weekly Stitch 'n' Bitch. so I put together a class just for shy guys. I decided to hold it in the galley after dinner, as the galley is well-lit, with big tables and comfy chairs, and has coffee and hot chocolate ready at hand. it was great! five dudes showed up, with needles and yarn that they'd begged, borrowed or stolen from girlfriends, all ready to learn how to cast on, knit and purl. one guy, brandon, hadn't been able to procure a set of knitting needles, so he came armed with two philips-head screwdrivers. I was dubious at first, but damn if he didn't go straight to work knitting with those babies. he gave it a valiant effort and actually made some progress, if not with his knitting then with developing his forearm muscles. here's a picture of john, a fuelie from my dorm, caught on camera as he experiences the magic of knitting. we decided that a good name for a guys' knitting group would be Balls 'n the Hood.

the guys' class went so well that I opened it up to girls the following week. here are erica and helena getting their knit on. I'm like a proud momma.

on january 8, over thirty intrepid souls took part in the annual mcmurdo marathon. a marathon in antarctica, you say? yes, believe it or not -- 28 miles (even longer than the required 26.2) of running or skiing on snow, from pegasus airfield to scott base, back out to williams field and then to the land-ice transition. runners also had the option of running a half-marathon or a 5K on the same route, but amazingly, thirteen of them completed the full marathon -- and for some of them, it was their first marathon ever! conditions were pretty good -- a clear, sunny day, probably 30F, and a light breeze. water and juice boxes were available at strategic points on the route, and a warm-up van followed the runners as they wended their way along the flagged route. apparently, for reasons other than the obvious, running a marathon in antarctica is more difficult than in other locations because distance is very hard to gauge in such an empty landscape. I've experienced this in shuttles. willy field, which is five miles from the land-ice transition, somehow looks much closer. you can drive and drive and drive toward a dot on the horizon and not make any appreciable progress, so I shudder to think how this would affect a runner's psyche -- trying to run that distance past hundreds of nylon flags flapping in the wind, nothing but the giant emptiness of the snow plains, the pitiless sun, the wind whistling past your frozen ears.

then, as if the gluttons for punishment hadn't gotten their fill, this past sunday the yanks took on the kiwis at the annual mcmurdo v. scott base rugby game. two teams of twelve strapping men (and women!) faced off on the pitch for possession of an oblong leather ball. the americans were hoping to break a several-year losing streak with the addition of several huge new players, mostly firefighters. the new zealand team, dressed in black jerseys like their national team the All Blacks, performed a maori haka (a dance intended to fend off an actual confrontation by first scaring off the enemy) before the game to strike fear into the hearts of the yankees. it must have worked, because they beat us 5-0, but not without sustaining several injuries. fingers and noses were broken, ligaments torn, and eyes gouged in what must have been the most pyrrhic victory since fallujah.

the russian icebreaker Krasin was docked at our ice pier for a few days. it had been doing donuts out in the sea ice for a week or so, ramming into the six-foot-thick ice to cut a channel and turning basin for the fuel and supply vessels which will come down next week. the ice pier is constructed of layers of ice and dirt, and floats on top of some surprisingly deep water at the edge of mcmurdo sound (see photo). some of the russian crew came off the boat and were spotted walking around town, shopping in our store, hiking up observation hill, and so forth. I was immediately struck by how similarly russians and mongolians dress. except for the fact that these people were all caucasian, they could have been right at home on peace avenue in ulaanbaatar. the men wore leather jackets, dress slacks, and square-toed dress shoes, and the women were dressed to the nines with coiffed hair, thick makeup, perfume, high-heeled boots and short skirts. I guess if I had just spent the last few months on a diesel-smelling, grimy russian icebreaker ramming its way through sea ice at the bottom of the world, I'd be ready to dress up and go out too.

everyone is all abuzz talking about end-of-season and the beginning of winter. conversations center around whether or not people are wintering, when they are scheduled to redeploy (when they leave the Ice, in other words), and what they plan to do on the way home. since everyone has to pass through new zealand, most folks spend some time there 'tramping' (the kiwi word for backpacking). others use it as a jumping-off point for indonesia, australia, southeast asia or the south pacific. adding hawaii to your itinerary costs less than $100, so some folks do that as well. I'm scheduled to redeploy on one of the last flights, somewhere between 25 february and 1 march, and am planning to spend a couple of weeks in new zealand on both the south and north islands before heading for hawaii and then seattle. it'll be lonely as most of my friends will leave before I do, but I'm looking forward to watching the population dwindle and the sky become increasingly darker as summer gives way to seven months of winter.

not sure yet whether or not I'm returning to the Ice for another season, but it's definitely something I consider more of a possibility now than when I first arrived. living and working in antarctica fulfills my need for daily challenge -- harsh weather, deprivation of all the comforts of home, and a steep learning curve -- and feels like living in a foreign country or exotic remote outpost, but is so much easier than the time I spent in mongolia. everyone speaks english. food is prepared and dishes are washed for you. money is an afterthought. paydays come and go almost unnoticed because all normal expenditures -- food, housing, insurance, even laundry detergent -- are provided. and aside from the usual B.S. associated with working for a gargantuan multinational corporation (a defense contractor at that), much of our time here is uncomplicated by the nuisances of modern american life. no traffic jams. no cell phones. no political campaign signs. no advertising -- in print, on the television or on the radio. no frenzied crowds buying holiday gifts. no soda machines in the workplaces or the galley. there's a lot that I do miss -- people and things -- but knowing that I'm only here for another month or so just makes me excited to go home and see them.

until the next post, I remain --

yours truly --

shuttle cindy!

Monday, January 02, 2006

happy happy happy 2006!

I hope the new year brings you all:

  • the love of family
  • laughter and merriment
  • fulfilling work
  • stimulating art and travels
  • beautiful friendships


  • several new pairs of underwear.

come on, admit it -- you need some.

being on new zealand time, we at mcmurdo station rang in 2006 almost a full day ahead of the rest of you, and let me tell you -- it's been a good year so far. I hopped around to several parties, official and unofficial, on saturday night, before finally crashing at around 3:30 am. my friend sandy had sent me some temporary blue hair dye, which I decided to bust out in the name of being festive -- and it was well-received. (much better than my attempt at blue highlights while living in mongolia, which quickly faded to a sickly greenish tint that made it look like I was growing penicillin molds on my head.) see photo, right, of me and my good friend alison at the scott base party, hosted by our kiwi friends 1.5 miles down the road. alison is from the bay area, but lived in the marshall islands for five years working for a government contractor as a recreation expert. she's got this crazy curly white-girl afro that always makes me happy to see it. and she likes to knit and drink tea. needless to say, we get on like a house on fire.

after the scott base party, a bunch of people went to a semi-secret 'milvan' party held in an empty shipping container. these containers, or milvans, are lined up next to each other in a huge storage yard, and someone had ingeniously wired one to a generator, installed some christmas lights and a sound system, and spread the word. we counted down to 2006, danced our antarctic booties off, and consumed respectable amounts of champagne. here is a photo of me and my friend kirk in front of the milvan. yes, he has a checkerboard pattern shaved into his hair. and he looks like a cross between charles manson and fred durst. yet at home in washington state, he's a golf pro. go figure.

on new year's day, after everyone had recovered a bit from the shenanigans the night before and gotten some brunch, we all went outside to take in some live music at IceStock, the annual outdoor music festival. homegrown bands played from noon 'til 6:00 pm -- everything from mongolian throat-singing (surprisingly authentic-sounding for a white boy!) to bluegrass to reggae to country to metal. the weather was cooperative -- probably around 30F and sunny -- and there was a chili cook-off in progress, so everyone ate little paper cups of warm chili and cheered for the performers. here's a photo of me and my friend jessica in front of the IceStock stage.

last week, I had the opportunity to attend snow survival school, a two-day training run by the Field Safety Training Program. our group of 20 -- mostly grantees headed to the field, but also some galley workers, cargo handlers, heavy-equipment operators, and shuttle drivers -- were taken to a nearby snow field and trained in antarctic survival techniques. we learned how to deal with cold injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia, how to build a snow shelter, how to set up and cook on a white-gas camp stove, and how to use high-frequency (HF) and very high-frequency (VHF) radios. (I realized during the cold injury lecture that I have indeed experienced mild frostbite and hypothermia in the past, in mongolia and japan -- I just didn't know it at the time.)

snow survival school is also popularly known as 'happy camper' school, and for good reason. we had so much fun it shouldn't have been legal. the weather was almost unbelievably cooperative and so warm that we were shoveling snow in single lightweight layers. our trainers, trevor and cece, were super-cool and goofy. and the best part: you can eat CONSTANTLY at happy camper, because you'reshoveling snow, hauling gear and burning calories like mad! I ate my way through slim jims, candy bars, dehydrated camp food, crackers and chips like a gorilla on speed. I even took some food to bed with me.

and here was the other great part about happy camper: our group of 20 worked for several hours on a snow shelter called a 'quinzee', and when it was ready, three friends and I got to sleep in it! a quinzee is constructed by piling all of your gear (in our case, twenty duffels full of sleeping bags) into a mound, the higher the better. then you find several friends with shovels and somehow dupe them into covering the entire pile with several feet of snow (see photo). the snow needs to be at least a foot-and-a-half thick at the top, thickening on the sides to two to three feet thick at the bottom. the snow is tamped down firmly and left to set for a couple of hours, during which the molecules in the snow that were broken by the shoveling re-freeze and harden into a kind of baked alaska. then you dig a little tunnel into the side, pull out all the innards, and groom your quinzee for sleeping.

our quinzee was the taj mahal of snow shelters -- it was big enough for four, high enough that we could sit up in it, relatively light because of the midnight sun shining in through the cracks and thin places, and warm and quiet. we all slept like the dead. here is a photo of me and my co-worker erica inside the quinzee.

because the quinzee was only large enough for four, we also set up several 'scott tents' (tall teepee-like tents similar to the ones used by early antarctic explorers) and regular backpacking-type tents for the rest of the group, and built a wall out of snow blocks to shelter them from the wind. snow blocks are dug out of a 'quarry' using saws and shovels, stacked on top of each other, and chinked with smaller blocks. here is a photo of my friend jeff and his co-worker johannes in the quarry. jeff is clearly not demonstrating proper lifting technique, and johannes is not handling his saw with proper care. very naughty. fortunately, no one was hurt in the making of the snow wall.

last week I mentioned that the russian icebreaker was nearly here. well, it's here, and here's the photo to prove it. the Krasin's job is to break a shipping channel through 600 miles of sea ice in order to make a way for the supply vessels to reach mcmurdo later this month. it's an amazingly strong ship with an ice-reinforced hull, and it goes like this, in slow motion: back back back back stop start moving gather speed RAM into the ice come to a stop back back back. then it would do it all over again. totally hypnotic.

the reason we're employing a russian ship to do the job is because the regular ships, the coast guard's Polar Star and Polar Sea, are pretty dilapidated and in need of repair. plus, the russians need cash. so we hire the russkies for lots of money, the coast guard gets extra time to fix their icebreakers, the supply vessel is able to make it to mcmurdo, and everybody wins.

last week we had our shuttle team holiday party at Hut 10, which is a building reserved for DVs (distinguished visitors) to stay in but which also can be rented for private parties. sam, our boss (kneeling on left in black shirt) made us pizzas, and everyone brought wine and other goodies. we had even trained a bunch of general assistants to drive the shuttles for us for three hours so that we could all party worry-free. and we scheduled it so that the day and night crews could both attend, which was nice because you rarely see the people on the night shift. aren't we a happy bunch? damn skippy we're happy -- we've got the best job on station, and we're full of wine and pizza! by the way, six people in the photo (plus two who aren't in the photo) are over sixty! dad, you wanna come down next season, right?

latest random thing I've learned about Ivan the Terra Bus: when you are transporting fifty-plus passengers that have just flown in from CHCH and are all wearing Big Red, bunny boots and multiple layers of polypro, and it's a sunny day, and everyone is roasting in their polypro because the inside of the TB is as hot as the ninth level of Hades, it's a good thing to pop the escape hatches in the roof so nobody passes out.

the C-17 also brought me lovely care packages last week! thank you, thank you, thank you to:

  • marnie and andy for the beautiful yarn
  • gregory and kam for the magazines and yoga pants
  • sandy and stu for the mug, swizzle sticks, new year's decorations, glow-in-the-dark pigs, and other fun things
  • and my family for the underwear (see? essential), soap, cough drops and lipstick.

and if that wasn't enough excitement: finally, it happened. I saw my first penguin.

I went out to Hut Point Peninsula on friday night with my friend Sam to look at the icebreaker, which was only about a hundred yards from shore. we watched it for a while, and then decided to go to the other side of the hill and look to see if there was any wildlife, as reports had been coming back for a while that adelies and weddell seals were hanging out. there was indeed a seal sunning itself on the ice, but not much else. and then I saw something dark, something upright, where there should have been neither. it was near the edge of one of the meltwater pools. and then it jumped in.

sam and I were all excited. it was an adelie! he readied his camera (I, like a doofus, hadn't brought mine) and we waited. and about a minute later, the penguin jumped right out of the water and landed upright on the snow!

he did this a couple more times, and then did other penguin-y things like preening, waving his flippers, waddling around and shaking his butt. I was in heaven! my very first penguin sighting. (I decided that I should name him, since he was my first. so I named him Sledge. don't ask me why. I think it's because I have a stuffed dragon at home named Percy. Percy and Sledge.) it was a real 'holy schneikies, I'm in antarctica!' moment.

happy 2006 everyone! don't get frostbite!