Saturday, February 25, 2006

twelve hours from civilization.

it's saturday morning, february 25. the C-17 that will take me to new zealand this afternoon is somewhere in the air between christchurch and mcmurdo. it is estimating pegasus field at 1228. weather and other circumstances permitting, I should be in new zealand by this evening, relaxing with friends over a glass of wine at the dux de luxe restaurant and asking myself, was I really, truly in antarctica for the last five months?

I arrived october 11 of last year on an overcast tuesday afternoon. the plane touched down softly on six feet of frozen seawater and rolled to a stop. there were no windows through which we could catch a glimpse of the frozen waste that awaited us, that would be our home for the next half year. the huge, powerful jet engines droned as the pilot slowly lowered the cargo ramp. we stood facing backward in our bunny boots, parkas and mittens. some people held their cameras high over our heads. a first blast of frigid air swept through the cargo hold. we were breathing the cleanest, coldest, driest air in the world. it smelled of nothing.

the signal was given for us to walk down the cargo ramp and off the plane to the waiting buses. the sky was overcast. I remember thinking, it's not as cold as I thought it would be. rad.

five and a half months later, I'm sitting in the computer lab of my dorm. people come up to me sporadically to say their goodbyes. there are only a few hundred people left on station these days: those who are flying out today and next monday, and those who are hunkering down for the winter. on monday, the last C-17 will depart pegasus field and waggle its wings in a farewell as it flies north over mcmurdo and mt. erebus. the sun will soon dip below the horizon, not to come up again until september.

life at mcmurdo has been both easier and tougher than I imagined it would be. in certain respects, the tasks of daily living are almost mindlessly simple. no shopping for groceries. no paying bills. no watching the fuel gauge on your car and worrying about having to plunk down $40 for your next tank of gas. no buying dog food. no arranging carpools or childcare. no watching your cell phone minutes. no cleaning the bathroom.

but other things were very difficult for me. the stress of walking into the dining area with my fully loaded tray, hoping to god that I don't trip and fall in front of the cool kids -- the multi-season ice folks. the sheer physical exhaustion that comes from working a sixty-hour week, month after month. trying to make real, enduring connections with people when interactions usually last for a few minutes at a time -- during meals, shuttle rides, conversations at the computer kiosk. saying goodbye to those friends I was lucky enough to make after spending five months working, playing, dining, commiserating, laughing, and living with them. that was the hardest part. none of the difficulties stemmed from antarctica being the coldest, driest, highest, emptiest, windiest place on earth.

antarctica is a crazy, gorgeous, barren place, full of beautifully insane people. as nicholas johnson points out, everyone here has mileage points; no one has wisdom teeth. and everyone has come here seeking something different. money. adventure. romance. new marketable skills. escape from a difficult situation. the opportunity to see penguins. some of those wants have been fulfilled; others have not.

my season was tiring, exhilarating and all too short.

I drove a 67,000-pound vehicle in a blinding snowstorm.
I co-emceed a charity event that raised over $3000 for a breast-cancer organization.
I accompanied a choir that brought christmas cheer to remote field camps.
I saw a penguin and named him sledge.
I slept in a snow shelter.
I applied sunscreen before going out at night.
I slept in a bunkbed.
I served as a go-between for a doctor on a russian cruise ship and the station doctor at mcmurdo in order to get a cruise passenger medevac-ed.
I drove the world's largest ambulance.
I never caught the crud.
I became known affectionately as Snickers Girl, Operation Fat Ass, and Barbed Wire to the air guard guys.
I learned how to operate three kinds of forklifts.
I tolerated the few co-workers that irritated me.
I showered in a communal shower room, something I haven't done since high school.
I walked across town to a halloween party dressed only in a grass skirt and bikini top.
I climbed Castle Rock and Ob Hill twice each.
I made guacamole with the midrats galley crew.
I gave a presentation on mongolia and the peace corps.
I taught many people to knit.
I drove a fire engine.
I called in a report of a smoking cigarette canister to the fire station.
I learned several new yoga poses.
I managed not to get any vehicles stuck in the snow.
I never filmed a skua attacking someone.
I was a DJ on the local FM radio station.
I ran over a co-worker's bag and travel mug with one of our vans.
I caught four fish for scientific research, using fishing line wrapped around a styrofoam block.
I made a necklace in jewelry class.
I went through four tubes of skin lotion.

it's been a great season. thanks for reading.

shuttle cindy, over and out.

in the depth of winter, I finally realized that within me there lay an
invincible summer. -- albert camus

Thursday, February 23, 2006

northward bound.

a quite unexpected and welcome update this week: I am no longer leaving for new zealand on march 1. I am leaving this coming saturday.

one of the perks of working for the ATO (antarctic terminal operations) department, under which shuttles operates: they control the movement of pax and cargo, inter- and intra-continental. all it took was my boss going in to ask her boss if there were any empty seats on this saturday's flight. and there were. so helena (my co-worker, with whom I was tasked with closing down the shuttles office for the winter) and I get to leave four days early. four extra days of good restaurants, green grass and trees, pretty birds that sing songs and don't dive-bomb you for the contents of your galley tray, children and old people, and all the other things that I've been missing for the last five months.

not that it hasn't been a great season. I still contend that I had one of the best jobs any FNG could ask for (for an explanation of FNG, see the 'Ice Glossary' posting from a few months back). I met all kinds of supa-rad people from almost every department, departments that most people never interact with -- plumbers, painters, engineers, fuelies, wasties, supply peeps, pilots and loadmasters, galley workers, weather observers, techies. I left station every day to drive on several hundred feet of frozen sea. the drive was different every time -- the cloud formations, the light, the road conditions and company were unique to each discrete leg. I was lucky enough to make a few really good friends and lots of friendly acquaintances. and, best of all, I got to drive Ivan the Terra Bus.

I tried to document my own experience and to gather off-ice contact information at the same time by having people fill out this green book. the central supply department is directly upstairs from our shuttles office, and they always have cool free things to give away -- old hard hats, cloth rock bags, mechanical pencils and such. one day I went up there and they had a bunch of these blank green 'record' books -- so awesome! as my late grandpa used to say, if it's free, take two. so I did.

inside the front cover, I wrote the following questions:

1. name
2. job at mcmurdo, and why you're here in the first place
3. number of seasons in antarctica
4. are you coming back next season? if so, as what?
5. best thing about your job
6. worst thing about your job
7. favorite mcmurdo event
8. favorite mcmurdo memory from this season
9. favorite spot to hang out in mcmurdo
10. your best skua find
11. one thing you wish the store would stock
12. one policy you wish the Chalet would change
13. person who has most inspired you at mcmurdo
14. favorite galley food
15. thing you regret not having done this season
16. what you miss most from home
17. what you miss least from home
18. hometown
19. job at home (if any)
20. permanent / personal e-mail address
21. draw your self-portrait

here are my answers:

2. shuttle drivin' mama, token asian, pink boot model, knitting instructor. I needed a new adventure after a few years of being back in the real world post-mongolia.
3. one
4. keeping an open mind about coming back, if things work out that way with my job in seattle and a good bird-sitter
5. I get to be outdoors, but sheltered,with my iPod and NPR and knitting during downtimes, and I get to meet just about everyone on station and get their life story in 5- to 30-minute increments. also, working five 12s means I get two days off a week.
6. the five 12s start at 5:30 in the morning.
7. snow school, hikes to castle rock
8. the new year's eve milvan party or the waste barn dance party
9. my room (the social hub ofBuilding 155), or the galley during non-meal times for knitting (it's got huge windows and an endless supply of tea)
10. the empty ten-pound Clabber Girl Baking Powder bucket that I use as a shower caddy.
11. yarn, rubber slippers (yes, I know that's two things)
12. let us play as hard as we work, because we work damn hard 55+ hours/week...give out more boondoggles as morale boosters, especially to those that are stuck working indoors
13. the person who most inspired me in a bad way was john booth, who was unnecessarily and extraordinarily mean, but he's gone now. the over-60 crew on the night shift are just the opposite...I hope I'm that energetic, spry, sassy, fashionable, and comfortable with myself when I get to be that age.
14. chocolate ganache bars, cherry tomatoes when the freshy flight comes in
15. learning to use the bouldering cave
16. good food (especially korean soft tofu stew, for some reason), shopping for lipstick when I'm depressed, thrift stores, netflix, animals that I'm allowed to touch, stick shift vehicles, my beautiful and sassy and brilliant two-year-old niece Tate.
17. politics, advertising, SUVs, rain and darkness
18. grew up in mililani, hawaii. now store my stuff in seattle.
19. last job was a support role at a philanthropic organization.

and somehow I convinced seventy(!) people to sign it!
a few of their more memorable answers:

why are you here in the first place?
I needed to see how such a nimbly-bimbly planet could have such a sweet, cold ass.

are you coming back next season?
the answer changes every time I talk to my boss.

what's the best part of your job?
ripping donuts in a 42,000 tank in a snowstorm. (this guy is a firefighter.)
beautifying mcmurdo and painting boxes that asteroids go in. (this one is a painter.)

what's the worst part of your job?
cleaning up after stinking, filthy pigs of men. (this one is a janitor.)

what's your favorite mcmurdo event?
seeing my name on the package list.

favorite mcmurdo memory from this season?
the skua that ate a hot dog.

your best skua find?
a towel. never forget your towel.

one thing you wish the store would stock?
furry man-thongs.
skittles. god help me, I love the fruity little bastards.
facial moisturizer that doesn't smell like spoiled milk.

one policy you wish the Chalet would change? (the Chalet is slang for the NSF's offices on station. their policies are sometimes overly controlling, unreasonable and/or just plain ridiculous.)
release the obsessive stranglehold on boondoggles.
the whole "no personal explosive devices" thing. dumb.

favorite galley food?
frosty boy. (this was the most frequent answer. frosty boy is soft-serve ice cream from a machine.)

thing you miss most from home?
beer on a screened-in porch with the song of cicadas.
dog and hummus.

thing you miss least from home?
paying for gas.
mowing the lawn.
flying leeches.

draw your self-portrait.
you know what tom cruise looks like? I look nothing like him.

I recently re-read Big Dead Place, a book written a guy who spent seven seasons in antarctica, in which he (among other things) exposes the rather seamy underbelly of life in the harshest environment on earth. he's done an impressive amount of homework on the heroic age of exploration (including accounts of madness, dog-eating, and other historical minutiae), and he gives proper dues to the unique scientific and just plain aesthetic value of this marvelous continent; but he also sees the sometimes absurd quality of our lives on the Ice. the tiny, insular community setting that incubates rumors like germs; the epic struggle with HR and finance; gender and race dynamics. I'd picked it up last summer and read it on the way down here, and it was interesting, but it was only after I'd spent a season at mcmurdo and was able to identify with many of the author's points and arguments that it became relevant as well. he's got a website also -- check it out if you're not afraid to read a somewhat jaded but refreshingly unvarnished view of life down here.

and, to be fair, a couple of other, more official websites:

the United States Antarctic Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation:

Raytheon Polar Services Company, the company that hires most of the personnel that run the stations:

The Antarctic Sun, an NSF-funded newspaper that focuses mostly on grantee (scientist) work:

a couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation and slide show on my experience in mongolia with the peace corps, 2000 - 2002. every thursday night during the summer season, someone will give a talk on their travels during 'travelogue night' in the galley. the galley is equipped with comfy chairs, coffee, and a large screen on which to project powerpoint slides. others this season showed their photos from bolivia, china, bhutan, the appalachian trail, their hitchhiking adventures on six continents, and so forth. in january, a man named bob showed his photos from a one-month trip he'd taken to mongolia in 2002 and it was like he'd thrown chum to a bunch of ravenous sharks. people went crazy. everyone seemed to want to know more about mongolia. friends who knew I'd spent two years there urged me to put together a presentation, which I did. most of it centered on my personal experiences as a peace corps volunteer, but I also threw in some history, politics, religion, culture, useful phrases, and travel tips to round things out. and I even made up a batch of salty milk tea, which people actually lined up to try!

all season, I've been knitting and crocheting things like crazy. obviously, antarctica is a good place in which to unload handmade woolly things. some folks offered to pay me cash money for my projects, but I asked them to instead make me something in return. for example, I made the beehive-shaped hat at left for a cargo gal named michelle. she is an accomplished potter, so she made me a beautiful green teacup. how happy am I?

okay, off to pack and clean!

Friday, February 17, 2006

condition fun...but not for everyone.

when I walked to work at 0515 this morning, the sky was a murky swirl of opaque gray. the wind was gusting out of the south-southeast, blowing snow and dust over the road and into the drifts. I had forgotten my hat, so I pulled my parka hood up over my head and buttoned it closed.

I checked in at the office, picked up my log and my radio, grabbed my ECW gear and got into the 18-passenger airporter van that the night crew had left running for me in the alley behind Building 140. the steering wheel was still so cold to the touch that I had to put my insulated leather work gloves on to drive.

the dash clock read 0525. I motored slowly down to DJ to pick up my first pax -- five cargo handlers, three weather observers, three airfield ground equipment techs -- and we drove out of town and down the hill toward scott base and willy field. I could just make out five or six flags at a time for the blowing snow. we were going barely thirty miles per hour, but the van fishtailed and swayed in the wind.

I arrived at willy town, let my pax off, and drove to the staging area. I still had about twenty minutes to wait before my scheduled departure, so I opened a book -- Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson. I was glad for some reading time. I was slated to drive pax to pegasus field this afternoon for a C-17 flight to christchurch. the station is dwindling in increments of 140 people at a time, the galley emptying out, the streets and bars drained of all but the most intrepid souls before the polar sun sets for good. today's flight would carry people away from the frozen continent, due north to lands full of trees, children, non-canned foods and water sports.

but it was not to be. as I sat reading, the following announcement came over the radio:

attention all stations. this is mac weather with the following severe weather update. condition one is set for the following areas: pegasus field, road to pegasus field. condition two is set for the following locations: williams field, road to williams field, scott base, and arrival heights. all other locations remain at condition three. please call mac weather with any questions at 2523.

condition one means that no one except 'mission critical' departments are allowed to continue working. condition two means that work is allowed, but not recreation, and anyone leaving the confines of the station needs to check in and out with the firehouse before each leg of their trip. the checkout protocol is as follows:

firehouse, firehouse. this is shuttle cindy on channel 1. copy?
firehouse copies, shuttle cindy. go ahead.
van 210 is departing willy field for mactown. there are two souls on board.
driver's last name is ogasawara, point of contact is shuttles at 2264, and ETA
is 0830. copy?
firehouse copies all, van 210.

and then, on the heels of that announcement, came another, which ensured the temporary frustration of 140 unlucky would-be travelers:

attention all stations. this is mac center with an aircraft movement cancellation. the C-17 from christchurch is on 24-hour weather delay. repeat: the C-17 from christchurch is on 24-hour weather delay. will the following stations please acknowledge when called. mac ops. MCC. raven ops. firehouse.

140 people, bound for christchurch on today's flight, went through a process last night known familiarly as 'bag drag'. bag dragging involves packing everything you plan to take to CHCH, and, like its name implies, dragging those items to Building 140, the MCC (movement control center). the bags and the pax are weighed to ensure that they fall within guidelines, all those numbers are added up, and the total weight given to the loadmasters so that they can plot the amount of cargo and fuel the C-17 will carry. it's a grueling process, and once your bags are checked in with the MCC, you do not have access to them until you arrive in CHCH. everyone is urged to have at least one change of street clothing in their carry-on, as well as toiletries and other essentials, because a cancelled flight is as common in antarctica as a casserole is at a baptist fellowship. by the same token, only a fool would make solid travel plans for new zealand that start the day after their scheduled landing, but some people inevitably do just that.

so, there were 140 frustrated and anxious people still on station today, living out of their carry-on bags, making phone calls and e-mailing like crazy. and rumor has it that today's condition one was merely a precursor to the real storm, which is apparently on the horizon and is going to mess things up even further. the end of an antarctic summer season is completely weather-dependent, and the harbinger and deciding factor is the Day the Pole Closes. once the temperature at the south pole drops to below -50F, the air national guard cannot safely fly their C-130 hercules aircraft there because the jet fuel becomes gelatinous. a few days ago, I asked some pilots what the temperature was. it was -45F.

once the pole is closed and flights there stop, there is little reason for many mcmurdoites to be here. no cargo pallets are built, no fuelies are needed to fuel the planes, no aircraft ground equipment needs to be hauled around. all these people are now technically superfluous. however, there is but one C-17 for our pax transportation needs to CHCH, and it holds 140 people at a time. so between passenger services, the air force (who flies the C-17), and other departments such as housing, finance and HR, there begins a delicate dance whose purpose is to get people off the continent in as timely a manner as possible -- if the weather permits.

I am scheduled to leave on the last flight out before winter. as of right now, that date is set for march 1. however, if pole closes on monday (as some have speculated it will), I could be out of here much sooner than that.

anyway, on to happier thoughts. here is a rather jolly picture of me and my friend kaya, who flew out on wednesday, at williams field. kaya was a vegetarian production cook in the galley who also lived in the same building he worked in. in other words, he hardly ever went outside. I took him and his co-worker doug (a baker) out to willy field with me on a shuttle run. you would have thought I'd taken them to mars. they were like two little kids set loose in a petting zoo. they ran around in the snow, took photos of each other doing silly things, and exclaimed over such (to me) mundane objects as the airfield outhouse and the garbage bins. happiness.

and here is a photo of me with two good girlfriends, erin and alison. alison has already left the continent for new zealand, where I hope to catch her on or around march 1. erin is a salad prep cook. they're awesome. they both have blogs, too. check them out:

a picture of mt. terror, on a mostly clear day, with some strange high wispy clouds that looked like smeared thumbprints. you gotta feel sorry for the poor souls that were the first to set foot on terra australis incognito, or the unknown southern land. when you're naming gorgeous topographical features things like 'mount terror,' you're almost certainly not having a very good day.

me at the 'golf ball,' which is a NASA weather tracking device placed high up on a hill overlooking mcmurdo. we commonly get taxi requests to take NASA employees up to the golf ball. it's a good place to sit and waste a couple of moments with the camera. it looks like a giant beach ball is coming to run me over.

me and my delta, as taken by a guardsman who wanted to show his young son what he had to ride back and forth from work.

and finally, #4 in the series "Cindy and Some Impossibly Large Diesel-Fueled Snow-Tracked Vehicles". this is Red 4, one of the fire engines kept out at Station 2, the willy field firehouse. I have no idea why they named a green vehicle Red 4. one of my firefighter friends was taking it to the fuel pumps and let me drive around in it for a couple of minutes. here's the hero shot, which only shows the front half of this green beast:


Thursday, February 09, 2006

countdown to the end.

it's gotten colder in the last few days. in antarctica, this means the difference between lightweight long underwear and expedition-weight long underwear, and the difference between no-gloves and two-pairs-of-gloves-with-handwarmer-inside. neck gaiters are again de rigueur. today is clear and sunny, but -20F with the wind chill.

here's a photo of me at pegasus field, on a day I spent volunteering with the fuels department. a fuelie named Lisa and I were tasked with emptying a 5,000-gallon tank of diesel fuel using a pump-equipped delta and ferrying it, load by load, to another empty tank. it was SO Condition Fun out there. the wind was a-gustin' and the snow was a-flyin', and I was completely chilled through. made for a good photo, though -- very nanook-of-the-northish.

if the firefighters are the football team of McMurdo High, the fuelies are sort of the tough cool kids on campus. you know, the ones that listened to heavy metal and always wore black clothing held together with oversized safety pins. their battered carhartts smell like fuel, they're always weighed down with various hand tools sticking out of their pockets, and they're all completely ripped because they have a very physically taxing job. aside from having to haul heavy two-inch hoses, metal couplings and 55-gallon steel drums around, a lot of their work takes place outdoors, where they are exposed to the elements. after a relatively cushy season as a shuttle driver, I wasn't quite prepared for the level of grunting, lifting, crawling and hauling I would encounter that day. a good experience, though -- even if my gloves smell like airplane fuel now.

one of the best things about mcmurdo is the fact that, owing to the number of talented and generous people on station, you can learn how to do any of a bazillion things -- pretty much anything you'd be interested in -- for absolutely free. interested in learning how to weld? use a bandsaw? fix leaky pipes? refine your downward dog? bake elaborate pies and tarts? rock climb? throw a pot on the wheel? I've heard of people doing all of those things, and a lot more, just by asking around and acting interested. all I did was e-mail the fuels department scheduler and ask him if I could come in on my day off for a bit of volunteering, and *wham* I was in.

having always wanted to know how to drive a forklift, I was pretty thrilled to find out that I could also spend a half day volunteering with the cargo people and learn how to do just that. here's a photo of me with a Caterpillar 950G, one of the largest loaders used on station -- it can lift 12,500 pounds without breaking a sweat. among its more genteel charms is the fact that it has a CD player and is painted a cheery yellow. these behemoths are used to magically whisk pallets of cargo, giant spools of hose and cable, or dumpsters of waste around the station and onto the planes.

here's the Cat again, doing its monstrous thing on the airfield. the plane (in this case, a C-130) lets down its cargo door and the Cat pulls right up to the back of it with a pallet o' stuff. the loadmaster (one of the flight crew) deftly guides the driver into place, using a set of precise hand signals to mean stop, go, turn left or right, forks up or down, and boom up or down. like Jack Handey says, it's like a little ballet between the loadmaster and the driver and the plane and the Cat, except there's no music and the dancers are wearing insulated boots. then they roll the pallet onto the plane, put the door back up, and fly away. I wasn't ready to put stuff on a plane, but they let me drive some pallets around (picture, if you will, tiny me at the wheel, pieces of cargo being flung around, and people fleeing in fright). supa dupa rad. the Cat, which is articulated in the middle and blessed with great visibility because of the high seat and wraparound windows, is actually pretty easy to drive once you get the hang of the gear shift sticking out of the left-hand side of the steering column. I wonder if cargo handlers get into regular cars and accidentally turn on the windshield wipers every time they try to change gears.

sad news about the seahawks losing the superbowl. pretending to be a football fan for a few minutes got me in the seattle post-intelligencer, though -- see right. jay johnson (the guy in the middle), an aircraft ground equipment tech from kingston, made up the cardboard sign while working out at willy field. alan shaw (far right), a heavy-equipment operator, and I -- also both seattleites -- happened to be nearby, so the three of us drove out onto the ramp and hurriedly snapped some photos before a C-130 could come roaring by and grind us into little bits. jay e-mailed the photo to the P-I and they stuck it in the sports section. it was there for a few days, under the heading 'this just in from antarctica.' fifteen minutes of online fame.

and now for something completely different, here's a photo of me and my co-worker mike all dolled up for a 'white trash' party. some co-workers found me the shirt in the skua bins, which I think we can all agree is pretty tawdry. I painted my toenails a lurid hot pink and wore high-heeled silver sandals. and I tried for the visibly-lined-lip look, but the lipliner wasn't dark enough. so I piled on the blue eye shadow and ended up looking like a mafia wife. final verdict? trashy: yes. white: not so much. mike, on the other hand, was greasily resplendent in a wife-beater tank top, high-waisted jeans with a homemade belt buckle, aviator glasses, and the ol' bandanna-and-wig combo.

sorry for the long radio silence. I'll write more soon, I promise!