Wednesday, February 28, 2007

you must make this fire very big, Sabu.

I'm just back from a few days visiting friends in western australia, marilyn and allen graham.

marilyn and I met ten years ago at borders books & music in redmond when I was a staff trainer and she was a new bookseller. we quickly discovered we shared a passion for drinking endless cups of tea, stimulating conversation, and quoting the classic film Out of Africa. to this day we call each other Sabu.

a few months before I left for mongolia and the peace corps in 2000, marilyn, a single grandmother who had been footloose and fancy-free for forty years, decided on a whim to post a profile of herself on a dating website. she got a hit from a fellow poster who opted not to put a picture of himself on his profile. he was an erudite, charming e-mail writer. intrigued, she wrote him back. then he wrote back. his name was allen graham, and he was a sixty-year-old widower living near perth, western australia.

soon they were e-mailing or talking on the phone every day. he sent her a charming video of himself shot by his best mate keith, in which he gave her a virtual tour of his small but tidy home. he appeared as a dapper, white-haired gentleman with a mischievous smile. then she flew to western australia to meet him. and returned with an engagement ring on her finger.

I wrote him an e-mail introducing myself, congratulating him on the fine choice of marilyn as fiancee, and cheerfully informing him that if he ever did her wrong, I would hunt him down and break his kneecaps, a memory he fondly recounts out loud and often.

a couple of months after I left for mongolia, they were married in st. margaret's church in bellevue, washington. soon thereafter, she moved to safety bay, western australia to live with her new husband.

I visited them in 2002 on my way home from mongolia. theirs is a cozy, welcoming home on a quiet suburban street, filled with beautiful handicrafts both of marilyn's own making and from her world travels. she is an accomplished craftswoman who spins and dyes wool, knits and crochets and does needlepoint and quilting and cross-stitch. she can knit with her eyes closed. on that visit, we baby-sat a working sheep farm for a week, during which there was nothing more to do than make lemonade from the giant lemons on the tree outside, walk the paddocks with the sheep on the lookout for kangaroos, and read. she taught me to knit, a pasttime I gratefully enjoy to this day.

here is a picture of me and allen trying out a new mp4 player he's just purchased on eBay.

last year, just as I was finishing my first season in antarctica, marilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer. she underwent nine months of procedures -- treatments, surgery and consultations that sapped her energy and made her hair and eyelashes fall out. allen uncomplainingly made her whatever foods she felt she could eat -- usually plain boiled potatoes with butter -- and drove her every day for six weeks to perth for her doctor's appointments.
today her hair has grown back, a lovely silvery gray, she is just as gracious and strong as I remember her.

at the end of Out of Africa, the Baroness Karen von Blixen (Meryl Streep) is getting ready to leave Kenya. her faithful servant Farah assists her in getting her house in order, selling off her assets, and ensuring that the Kikuyu natives who live on her land are relocated to an appropriate location. it is obvious that Farah is saddened and perplexed by the baroness' imminent departure. so she uses a familiar analogy to help him understand.

Karen: Farah, do you remember when we were on safari, and during the day
you would go ahead and find a camp, and build a fire?

Farah: Yes. And you would see the fire and come to this

Karen: Well, it will be like that. Only this time I will go
ahead and build a fire.

Farah: (after a pause) You must make this fire very big, Sabu,
so that I can find you.

while in perth, in between long conversations and trips to the city, marilyn and allen and I watched films. it had been a while since I sat in a movie theatre and I found myself having to sit near the back of the room. the images were too large for me to take in if I sat closer to the screen.
we saw two excellent oscar winners: Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima.

and as an antidote to the grave intensity of those two films, marilyn and allen introduced me to my new personal hero, whose adventures in porta-potty plumbing are the subject of a hilarious homegrown australian mockumentary: Kenny.

seriously. I have never laughed so hard. everyone must see Kenny. this is an order. do what you have to do -- play hooky from work, bribe your local video rental clerk, commit piracy to get a copy. your life will be better for it.

I also finished two excellent books: The Places In Between, an autobiographical account of a Scotsman who walked across Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the fall of the Taliban; and The Last American Man, the story of a modern-day mountain man named Eustace Conway who lives off the land on a thousand-arce parcel called Turtle Island and tries to reconcile his rigid personal beliefs with the modern world and his own need and want for companionship.

when marilyn asked me what I would like to do on my visit, I had only one request: that we visit the pinjarrah parrot sanctuary, where we had gone in 2002. the sanctuary is home to dozens of species of australian bird, including cockatoos, cockatiels, lorikeets, and galahs.

ordinarily I would enjoy a stroll through the walk-in aviaries for its own sake, but on this particular visit I wanted to commune with feathered friends for another reason: my beloved cockatiel, Boba Fett, died last week in bellingham, washington.

my bird-sitters and friends christy and eli noticed that she was having trouble breathing. thinking that she was eggbound, they took her to the local vet, only to discover that she had a large tumor in her uterus.

Boba Fett was ten years old. she had had a great life, due in no small part to the fact that for the last few years, she was mostly under the care of two of the most fanatically healthy and bird-crazy people I've ever met.

here are a couple of pictures of her. wherever she is now, I'm sure she's happily munching on organic millet spray.

the galah in the pictures came right up to me and climbed up on my shoulder. boba fett would approve.

more to come after I arrive in hawaii.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

goodbye christchurch, hello sydney.

I'm at the free computer kiosk in the CDC (clothing distribution center), replying to some last-minute e-mails before I head over to the international terminal at christchurch international airport. in two and a half hours, I should be on a plane to sydney. I'll spend a few days there with belinda, a friend from the Gates Foundation, and her husband doug; and a few days out in perth with my lovely friend marilyn and her husband allen.

the past week has been a whirlwind of greeting ice friends as they come north from mcmurdo, having leisurely meals that don't come on blue trays, people-watching in cathedral square, finalizing travel details, and relaxing in the sun. I went for a short run in the botanical gardens yesterday, surely one of the most beautiful places on earth in which to run. on sunday, delaney and I went north a couple of hours to the natural hot springs at hanmer, where a park-like complex has been built on thermal springs ranging in temperature from 36C to 41C. we lounged like lizards and read our books and soaked in the springs and even took in a local soapbox car race. I also saw stars for the first time since august. in hanmer, without the light pollution of christchurch to obscure them, the stars were absolutely brilliant. delaney is something of an astronomy buff and pointed out a bunch of lovely southern-hemisphere constellations.

I'm excited to start my travels.

hope this finds everyone well and happy.

ciao for now!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

leaving, on a jet plane.

and like john denver, I don't know when I'll be back again.

one year ago, I left mcmurdo station fairly certain that I would be returning in a few short months. and I did. this afternoon I'm sitting in the computer kiosk of building 155, fairly certain that I will not be returning in a few short months, if ever.

the C-17 is in the air. it's scheduled to touch down at 7:42 pm. takeoff is scheduled for 8:30 pm. we'll land in christchurch in the wee hours. which isn't so bad, because that means we get paid for an extra day.

delaney couldn't leave today because of work, so he'll fly on friday. we're planning to take a road trip up the east coast of the south island of new zealand and see if we can get to some hot springs and the artists' haven of nelson before I leave for australia next wednesday.

after new zealand and australia, I'll be in my classmate vicky's wedding in honolulu on march 10. from there, my mom and I will fly to japan to visit relatives in osaka and okinawa. delaney will join us there.

yesterday I gave a travel agency in christchurch the go-ahead to charge my debit card for an around-the-world ticket originating in tokyo. *GULP* it's happening! insh'allah, I'll be on the road for most of this year, ending up back in seattle around november.

the itinerary:

  • tokyo, japan

  • delhi, india (and overland to nepal to hike the annapurna circuit)

  • barcelona, spain

  • cinque terra, italy

  • ** this is where delaney jets off to trek in chile and bolivia before he has to attend a friend's wedding in hawaii himself **

  • camino de santiago, spain (an 800km pilgrimage from the french/spanish border to the atlantic ocean)

  • croatia

  • the netherlands

  • united kingdom

  • NYC

  • dallas

  • phoenix

  • chicago

  • honolulu

  • back to tokyo

  • and back to seattle.
the plan is not to return to mcmurdo for another season. but one can never say never.

it's been an amazing season. I learned more than I thought was humanly possible, and had more fun than should be legal. I met dozens of beautiful new friends and reconnected with old friends. and I fell in love with one of the old friends.

maybe I'll come back somewhere down the road, but for now, life and the real world are calling.

here are a couple of pictures from a new hiking trail that just opened this season, the ob hill loop. great seal views! yes, that's what all those little black dots are.

here are me and my roommate susie, sporting our fleece neck gaiters on our heads like all the cool kids are doing these days.

and here's a pic from the mcmurdo prom, 3 february. sometimes this place really is like high school.

left to right: amber, matt, delaney and me. matt and D look very happy together.

and finally, for my final blog entry from the ice, a glimpse into the inner sanctum of one of mcmurdo's most integral and sacred facilities: the waste water treatment plant.

the WWTP takes all the poopy, soapy, greasy water generated by the good people of mcmurdo and first runs it through something called the Muffin Monster. the Muffin Monster chews it up and makes sure that there aren't any big chunks of. . . stuff left in it. let's call the resulting liquid 'soup,' for lack of a better term. it really isn't soup, and it should not under any circumstances be eaten with a sandwich.

the soup that comes out of the Muffin Monster then goes into a basin filled with all kinds of
friendly, helpful bacteria. this is called the anoxic basin. here, the bacteria go to town on all the waste solids in the soup and break them down and process them until all the smelly stuff is gone. it's really quite amazing. I've stood on the catwalk above the anoxic basin and while the room itself is humid and warm, and smells of something, that something is most definitely not poop. it kind of smells like a greenhouse.

after that, the soup is filtered and the clean water goes back into mcmurdo sound, where orcas and seals swim happily swim around in it.
the waste solids that come out of that filtering
process, the waste solids that came out of people like you and me, are cranked between these heavy rollers, dried, and dropped into big cardboard boxes lined with heavy plastic. this dark-brown, crumbly, soil-smelling organic waste product is lovingly called 'cake.' and this room, the Cake Room, is where it lives until the boxes get taped up and sent back to the united states.

in two weeks, the WWTP produces three triwalls (large square boxes) of cake. that's a lot of poop. two weeks' worth of poop from a thousand people! and it fits in three triwalls.

if you go into the cake room toward the end of the two weeks, just before the boxes get taped up, you can see little green sprouts pushing out of the cake.

here I am, pretending to have a snack of sprouts. don't worry, I didn't actually touch the cake, much less taste it.

okay, on that note, I better go eat dinner and say goodbye to folks.
sorry this last entry was so rushed!
stay tuned for stories from my around-the-world travels.
chalet (formerly shuttle) cindy

Friday, February 02, 2007

morale: up!

it's that time of season when folks are starting to get a little punchy.

we've been working long hours at the same drudging jobs, eating the same lackluster meals, sharing rooms with the same high-maintenance roommates, working out in a dilapidated gym with the same stinky offenders for months now. everyone's dreaming of their off-ice travels, or simply of home and family and good indian food. tempers are a little shorter, everyone looks a little more haggard.

but this past sunday, we got a welcome shot of emotional caffeine when approximately 450 lucky members of the mcmurdo community were treated to a rare and long-awaited event: a cruise up the sea ice channel aboard the USCGC Polar Sea.

in years past, as old mcmurdoites fondly recall, the coast guard icebreakers that make a yearly visit to mcmurdo to break open a channel through the sea ice would also take several hundred people on 'morale cruises' up and down the channel. the waters around mcmurdo teem with wildlife, and sightings of seals, penguins, minke whales, and orcas were not uncommon. these were huge morale boosts for a community that had been working at least six days a week since august or october.

for the last several years, however, a gargantuan iceberg known as B-15 blocked the currents that normally break up the sea ice surrounding mcmurdo station. the ice, instead of flowing out to sea, became thicker and thicker -- much harder to break through than single-year ice. as a result, the icebreakers that came to mcmurdo had their work cut out for them -- breaking a trail to our port. by the time the job was finished, there was no time or fuel to be had for cruises for the community.

but B-15 is no more (see link to scientific article in my earlier post about icebergs), and the sea ice edge this season is less than twenty miles from mcmurdo. for weeks, the buzz around town was: Would the Polar Sea offer morale cruises this season?

on thursday afternoon, I took a bio-break in the ladies' room. when I got back to my desk, my boss said You just got really busy. dave bresnahan, our NSF representative on station, had just approved two morale cruises for the coming sunday. the captain had agreed to take 200 people on each one. mcmurdo's population was at 932. and it was up to my office to select who got to go.
morale trips in general, and morale cruises in particular, are a tricky and controversial subject. boondoggles, as morale trips are familiarly known, are in short supply. supervisors have the ultimate level of decision-making authority when it comes to who gets to go on them, which can be an incentive to perform well at your job in order to be chosen, but can also be the cause of hate and discontent. although the Chalet is not responsible for choosing the individuals who go on the trips, it receives an inordinate share of the community's ire and frustration because it administers the program. my friend dave puts it this way:

  1. for every person who goes on a morale trip, fifteen people whine about it.

  2. people who administer morale trips start to hate the whole thing (see #1)

  3. 'jokes' about morale trips are not funny to people who administer them (see #1 and #2)
it's true. there IS lots of whining about morale trips. so administering this particular mass morale trip was going to be a very delicate process.

my boss and the NSF rep decided, in what was a truly inspired blast of genius, to select the lucky 400 through a random lottery. my original idea had been to give first priority to those on station who had not yet been on a morale trip this season. however, the wide variety in what is considered a morale trip, as well as the types of morale trips offered and the types of folks eliglible for morale trips, meant that the selection process would have been ungainly, messy and ultimately very difficult to put into practice. so the random lottery would have to be it. no one would be able to claim that the Chalet had played favorites or stacked the deck in favor of certain departments.

we had the recreation department (who has lots of experience with this sort of thing) post sign-up sheets outside their office. the sheets were put up at 5:30 pm on thursday. they would come down at 7:30 am on saturday. so folks would have 38 hours to get their name on the list, thereby allowing everyone -- even night workers, who often get overlooked for such activities -- to sign up.

final count at 7:30 saturday morning: 649 names. I typed the names into an Excel spreadsheet and eliminated any duplicate entries (which were more a result of friends unknowingly signing each other up than anyone's nefarious attempt to increase their own chances). our local IT trainer, bill, wrote an Excel macro which would then assign a random number to each name. better living through technology.

the lucky ones were 1 through 400. 401 through 500 were alternates. we posted the manifests in the mail hallway, where they were immediately swarmed. my boss, the station manager, groused a little that he hadn't made the list but said it proved that the process was truly fair.

on sunday morning, I went down to the ice pier at 0730 with jane from the recreation department. she was armed with her trusty bullhorn, and each of us had clipboards, pencils (pens freeze up in the cold) and copies of the manifest. the first cruise was scheduled for 0800. there were already about twenty-five people standing on the ice pier, oogling at the ship. I chased them back across the bailey bridge (a movable bridge connecting the ice pier to land) and had them line up A-K, L-Z. folks were arriving in droves, talking excitedly.

once we got the thumbs-up from our coast guard liaison, we started checking folks in. they streamed across the bailey bridge and up the gangway, where they were swallowed up by the ginormous ship. anchors aweigh at approximately 0820. bon voyage!

I went back to sleep for three hours, then woke up to have brunch and get ready to check in the second group of folks for the 1400 sailing. the dining hall was swarming with folks who had just come back from the first cruise. they were positively glowing. people stopped me left and right to express their thanks for my part in putting together the morale cruise, and several asked me if I was on the manifest myself.

I hadn't put my name into the hat because I knew if I were chosen there would be disgruntled mutterings about town, and I just didn't want to deal with the fallout. folks told me that I should have as much chance as anyone, but frankly, it wasn't that big a deal to me.

after brunch, I went back down to the pier with lisa (another recreation department person) and the bullhorn. we lined everyone up and started checking folks off. in addition to those who were actually on the manifest, and a gaggle of alternates, there were several people who had just walked up hoping that by some miracle of the universe they would get onto the ship. there were lots of no-shows, but there were also lots of alternates present, so it wasn't looking good for the hopeful walk-ons.

at about 1350, we were checking off the last alternate names. nine spots to go, and still about thirty people standing around looking less and less hopeful. lisa herself was so far down on the alternates list that it wasn't looking good, even for her.

then don, the coast guard liaison, walked over the bailey bridge and beckoned to me and lisa. I thought he was going to ask what the holdup was or something. then he leaned in and whispered, The captain just told me that we can take 250 on this sailing.

lisa and I couldn't believe our ears. we had been told for days that the '200' number was unbudgeable. and here they were telling us that it was indeed budgeable -- by fifty.

I wasn't going to question the captain, at least not then!

lisa did a quick count of everyone still standing on the pier. no one breathed. then she took a deep breath and, with great relish, yelled We're all going!

words cannot describe the gorgeousness of the floating blue chunks of frozen sea, the emperor penguins that poked their head out of the water like loons, the smell of seawater, the excitement of my fellow passengers, the gracious and helpful manner of the coasties, the minke whales that spouted and swam next to the boat, the dozens of seals lounging like so many brown slugs on the sea ice, the color of the sky as we steamed away from the station. so I'm including photos.

truly magical.

you can read more about the Polar Sea here:

the icebreaker's job is to open and maintain the channel, as well as a turning basin out in front of the station (where the ice runway used to be). the channel and basin are then used extensively by other, non-icebreaker-class ships that come to mcmurdo. this season, the lineup includes:
  • USAP research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer, essentially a floating research station

  • MV Paul Buck, the fuel tanker that replenishes millions of gallons of fuel used since last february

  • MV American Tern, our yearly cargo vessel, carrying everything from frozen chickens to toilet paper.
approximately 90 personnel that arrived on the last C-17 from christchurch are classified as NAVCHAPs - the US Navy Cargo Handling and Port Group out of williamsburg, virginia. the NAVCHAPs have been described as 'combat stevedores,' and their sole purpose while at mcmurdo is to assist with vessel offload, a gargantuan effort involving the movement of hundreds of containers of incoming and outgoing cargo.

the arrival of the NAVCHAPs is traditionally looked upon with dread and fear by many members of the mcmurdo community. supposedly they are an unruly group of booze-swilling, woman-chasing, crotch-scratching, nose-thumbing, door-trying louts that are sent down here by the navy as sort of a last chance to prove their worth before getting kicked out. (that's the persistent rumor, anyway. I've read that it's a volunteer gig, with many more volunteers than spaces. perhaps the locals just need a scapegoat, and NAVCHAPs are a convenient seasonal target.) mcmurdoites also like to blame them for the fact that during vessel offload, the bars are closed and the store does not sell alcohol.

one of my roommates has strong-armed the rest of us into keeping the door of our room locked 24/7 while the NAVCHAPs are in town. her reasoning is that because many of them are housed in our dorm, her laptop and camera are more likely to go walkabout. I see many flaws in her argument, not the least of which is that thefts occur at mcmurdo every season when the NAVCHAPs are nowhere in sight. the rest of us in the room don't like to live behind locked doors, in distrust of our neighbors, and it rankles us to have to carry our keys around. but in the name of 'shalom in the home,' we'll do it...until the NAVCHAPs leave.

a couple of weeks ago, mcmurdo held its annual marathon. over fifty people signed up to walk, run or ski the half or full marathon, including me. I trained for several months in order to run the half, but my shinsplints kept bothering me. I quit running for the last week prior, hoping they would heal, but when it got to be a few days before and it still hurt to walk, I decided not to risk further injury. I'm planning to do a fair bit of trekking this spring and summer and it just wouldn't be worth it. I was a bit sad at not being able to say I've run a half marathon in antarctica, but it didn't bother me for long.

I did go to the finish line to wait for delaney and amber, who ran the half and full marathons respectively. go team!

here's a picture of delaney and my boss eric (in the blue hat) at the starting line, and a picture of delaney finishing with his friend lucas.

and here are a couple of pictures of a little adelie guy that wandered onto station. he toddled up next to the health & safety building and just hung out for a while. people were taking lots of pictures of and with him and he didn't bat an eyelash. someone must have been afraid that he would get hit by a vehicle, so they erected a little impromptu roadblock for him.

and here's a fairly recent pic of me and delaney up on castle rock, with mt. erebus in the background.

leaving mcmurdo in less than two weeks! wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee