Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Between then and now.

Here are a couple of posts I wrote on my computer without internet access. Lots of pictures to share and will try to post about "town" more before I head into the field early next week.

~1 pm, 9 November 2010

Despite promising to become more succinct, this is going to be a long one, so hang on to your britches. I'll try to add in some pretty pictures to keep you entertained. All downtime in Christchurch seemed to be taken up with important matters of recovering after the journey, and I already could feel a shift in priorities. I wonder if it will continue. Three hours into a 5.5 hour flight on a C-17 from New Zealand to Antarctica, here is what I can recall from the past few days, assisted by a couple of notes typed on my ipod. Gone are the days where I diligently hand wrote the day's adventures in a notebook dedicated to whichever country I was traveling through.

The last minute preparations were a whirlwind, only made possible by borrowing a couple of people's cars and begging rides. It took the generosity of more than a few people to enable me to make the insane turnaround time between poles. By my count, only the mailing of some samples was postponed because I chose to wait to mail them until Friday, the very day that the building of the rest of our department was shut down without warning due to the discovery of asbestos. For all the havoc they caused, I do hope it had been knocked into the air supply late the night before and was not simply present in some undisturbed ceiling tile. Although I strongly suspect the latter. At least it was not the building where our lab was located or I might have panicked slightly.

The first couple of flights were relatively standard, and every time I fly over the Utah Rockies, they seem to become more striking. This time, they were topped in a bit of snow and the sunset shown on the smaller hills as if they were painted by Georgia (O'Keefe) herself. Immediately, I regretted bringing pencils instead of paints with me, but the fact was that it had been months since I even picked up a paint brush and my cameras would likely be put into more use than pencils (not to mention the likelihood of paints freezing and the mess they would generate which would then have to be removed from the continent). Fodder for the winter when I return, I suppose.

Arrival into LAX soon turned into weaving through a labyrinth of trying to get from the domestic terminal to the international. Strangely, (or perhaps not) LAX felt like a foreign county, complete with initial disorientation and visitors from all over the globe. Once I finally found where I was supposed to be, with a boarding pass for a middle seat in hand, I discovered that at least that portion of the airport had neither free wi-fi nor easily accessible power plugs. How passé!

The 12.5 hour flight from LAX to Auckland was surprisingly pleasant. Food service took a bit longer than I would have liked as it was about 12:30 am for the last time zone I was in by the time we took off. Just as I was contemplating the sleeping pills my boss had recommended, the plane hit turbulence and with the recent Qantas Airbus incidences, I decided quite irrationally that if something were to happen, I wanted to be conscious. So, the pills stayed in the bag and out came the complimentary eye cover and my trusty ipod.

With a solid 5 hours sleep and many shorter naps, the 6534 miles ticked away on the flight tracker screen. I was either wedged or nestled (depending on my mood) in between two guys on the flight. I knew that there were several of us heading south and I imagined that the one to the right looked to be a contractor while the one on my left I figured was a Kiwi. Turns out I had them backwards. The thin, younger man with longish hair to my left was headed to the South Pole (second trip, as I recall) while the larger, rough looking fellow who slept a solid 11 hours on my right was likely an Aussie, judging from the roughness of his accent.

As we proceeded off of the plane, through baggage claim and customs, and out to look for shuttles, the folks headed to the ice managed to sort out and find each other. People I had figured were on holiday are in fact on the plane with me right this minute, with jobs ranging from kitchen staff to drillers to geophysicists. Funny thing is, we all looking strikingly alike. The majority of the diversity on the plane right now comes from the Air Force crew flying us, cargo, and a kiwi helicopter. Yes, directly in front of me on the plane is a helicopter, bigger than the ones we used to ride in back at Toolik out to field sites. My guess is that once we land in McMurdo, the pilots sitting next to me will fly the bird over to the Scott base, just a few miles away.

Across from me on the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo.

Back to Christchurch. Everything had been quite the production up until that point, but now it was morphing into the machinations of a well-oiled machine. Slowly, the scale of logistics required to move around this herd of sheep became obvious. With a day and half in between flights to ensure that delays stateside did not make anyone miss their "ice flight", we had time to shower, sleep, and roam about town, with only about two hours required the next day for the clothing pull.

Christchurch, New Zealand.

The clothing distribution / computer check / last minute flu shot (yes, they know who you are and will come get you mid-changing of thermals to poke you with a needle) was nothing short of amazing. Two orange bags waited for us on arrival, labeled by name. Apparently, if you have a Ph.D., everything is named "Dr. So and so" and was slightly embarrassing, but still exciting. People's gear was already sorted to be appropriate to your job, so I had an assortment based on working at a field camp. I was a little surprised that nothing other than the infamous big red parka was anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I was a little envious of some of the crew that were issued the lined Carhartts I wear in the Arctic. But, the lighter wind pants are certainly more comfortable (and more adjustable). Unfortunately, the Carhartts vs wind pants also makes it all the more easy to identify the beakers (scientists) if the "Dr" on the name tag wasn't enough. Oh well.

After exchanging sizes, getting poked, and rescuing my computers, we finally headed back to town. The shuttle we hopped on was full of folks from the airport, and it took about an hour to get back to the hotel. The highlight of the trip was the kiwi sitting next to me mumbling about how climate change was due to cycles in the sun and had nothing to do with CO2. So far, that has been one of the only negative interactions I've had with the kiwis, who seem to be amazingly laid back, mellow, and friendly. He and his wife were dropped off at some fancy hotel, so I can pretend I misinterpreted his accent and that he is from some other Commonwealth country.

Children's librarians in New Zealand wear pirate earrings.

New Zealand feels like Scotland. Maybe with a touch of California or Hawaii thrown in. I can't help but wonder if such a first impression will be held up after travels I am planning after the field season in January. But with that, it feels so much like home, possibly the most familiar country I've visited so far. (For my own notation, the list now includes England, Japan, The Netherlands, Tanzania/ Zanzibar, "Kenya", Germany, "Belgium", France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Costa Rica, Panama, Scotland, New Zealand plus Canada (Newfoundland, British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta) and Mexico.) Christchurch even has possibly the best bed and breakfast I've stayed in. The Windsor is actually a bit like a hotel in terms of rooms, but the carpet is spotless, the mattresses comfortable, and the place has charm. Shared water closets of showers, basins, and toilets ensue more privacy than if they had been attached to rooms. Breakfast was delicious, and they are so used to dealing with folks headed to the ice, that they delivered snacks in lieu of breakfast they knew we would be missing today. Town is very walkable and we were very close to the botanic gardens, museums, and art centre.

Springtime at the Botanical gardens.

Last night, while my travel companion opted for a nap, I headed out to dinner with a friend from my Toolik days. It was great to catch up with her and hear not only about grad school and life in New Zealand, but also to see how her time with the Peace Corps in Senegal has changed her. It's funny, but the bravest people you meet, you would often never expect. I have much respect for such people who lack bragging egos and instead quietly lead amazing lives. Even if Biz can still get us lost walking to a restaurant five minutes away from the hotel.

Mt. Erebus is in sight! Time to get ready to land.

View from the flight deck, shortly before arrival.

9 pm, 9 November 2010

I think I have a new candidate for the longest day ever. After a disorienting landing, we all bundled up and headed out onto the ice runway and were greeted by spectacular sunshine and blue skies. Soon, gloves and hats were disappearing as people tried to take the obligatory arrival pictures while being hollered at to get on the bus, “Ivan the terra bus”. Considerably less agile with our big red parkas, we awkwardly squished into seats for the painfully slow and dreadfully hot ride into “town”. After a series of orientations, some of which I remember bits of, we were released to the great gravel expanse. Town is odd, it’s a bit like Prudhoe Bay, a bit like Barrow, a bit like Toolik, but inside the industrial looking buildings, everything is much cleaner and more updated. Still haven’t finished wrapping my head around it, but my British roommate just pointed out that “it’s a bit like being on a school trip”, having just attended a class on where you can and can not hike, along with sleeping in dorms, and set meal times. Of course, without such things there would be mass chaos and people falling into crevasses. Not really a fan of falling down, and I seem to be making it a habit, so I’ll stick to following the green and red flags.

Me on arrival at McMurdo.

There’s far too much to write about tonight, I think things need to marinate and the sharing of it will be a bit more coherent after a good night’s rest. Just as long as I don’t wake up at 4 in the morning again!


Biz said...

Well, some things never change. Like my lack of navigational ability :) It was great to see you too, hope to catch you again on your way back in January. Have fun!

Anonymous said...

Heather, we are really enjoying reading about your journey. It's really something and not meant for a pansy like myself.

Uncle Rich & I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas!

Love you.