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The Great Antarctic Adventure

It’s like freshmen orientation for the coolest university in the world.  The students are older and the focus is neither intellectual nor academic, but on Sunday I looked around and found that I had been returned to the world of classrooms and cliques.  Like freshmen year, I’m on the verge of a new community, watching and observing, learning the acronyms and reading the group’s dynamic, slowly making friends and finding where I fit.  There are misspelled, badly presented PowerPoint slide shows on asbestos and safety procedures.  Guest speakers are brought in to run seminars on “Emotions in the Workplace” and ethics.  The returning students read newspapers and doze in the back of the room, cracking topical jokes when certain topics are being presented, while the FNGs (“fin-gees” – the N and the G stand for New Guys – I’ll let you guess what the F stands for) try not to fidget, take notes and laugh hopefully, a few beats too late, at the jokes of the returners.  There’s much to take in, much to consider, and still, after four days of training, much about which I have no idea what to expect.  Yet, unlike my “fresh meat” days, there is a pervasive and nearly tangible sense of anticipation that runs like a current through the group.  The veterans are aloof only during the class sessions.  Outside the uncomfortably air-conditioned auditorium, they are animated, excited, and I am pulled into one conversation after another, repeating and taking in the same information again and again – name, job, # of years on the Ice, state of origin, *insert helpful insider’s advice here*.

This is great.  I feel like I’m in one of those science documentaries from the seventies that are shown in elementary school.  Chapter 1: preparation; meeting the team, going through the introduction of the project at hand; overview.  I am so excited.  I found it hard to sit through the classroom part.  It’s been more than a year since I’ve had to sit still and be quiet for that long.  My body was screaming for stimulation, my legs bouncing under the table.  I’ve developed a reputation already – everyone knows me as the barefoot yoga girl because I’d be out in the hallway stretching during every break.

I’m writing this from an internet cafe in Christchurch.  Back in NZ!!  Wonderful.  In ways I can’t even begin to explain.  I’m struggling, a bit, as I stretch my mind back to Sunday and work to give you all a sense of the last six days.  There’s too much.  How to tell you all the things I’ve learned?  I’ve stepped into a brand new world and to describe any of it requires reference points and background of which even I have only the faintest idea.

Sunday – flew from NH to Chicago to Denver, and checked into my flash Sheraton king-sized room.  Niiiiice.  Monday – supervisor training.  There were about twenty of us, the “leads” for our various departments.  I met Jennifer and John, my two co-lead dining attendants, both in their mid-thirties.  It’s Jennifer’s second time down, John’s first.  I met Drew and Dave, men in their late forties who have ten years previous experience on the Ice between them.  I went out for an Indian dinner with the two Ds, the conversation easy, fun and enlightening.  Tuesday – everyone else arrives, and orientation begins in ernest.  We’re a group of about one hundred.  This is “Winfly” – the first flight to go down to the continent since April.  There will be three flights after ours, each with another hundred or so staff and scientists, and then that will be it until October, when the “main body” staff deploys.  It’s quite a privilege to be part of the first Winfly group, and camaraderie is high.  Tuesday is hard, because the initial connections I’ve made with fellow supervisors are overwhelmed by the influx of our fellow 1st Winfly-ers.  Everyone knows everyone else and there’s a mad rush to catch up on the events of the last six months.  We newbies (twenty or so in total) stick close together and are slowly introduced around.

Most people are about thirty-five to forty-five, with several well into their fifties and sixties, and a few like me, in our mid-twenties.  The demographic is largely blue collar.  Tradespeople, all knowledgeable, dedicated, enthusiastic, down to earth, hands-on.  The population is split evenly between the aging hippie and the retired military.  This is a group dynamic I’m particularly interested to see played out.  We are, after all, working for a massive corporation which is in turn working for the US government.  Raytheon Polar Services (RPS), my employer, is a branch of the same Raytheon that is headquarted in Massachusetts and is connected to weapons manufacturing.  RPS is employed by the National Science Foundation, and I believe it’s this detail that allows the more liberal of us Ice workers to enjoy the not inconsiderable benefits of the job and still sleep at night.  Corporation, government or no, RPS is there to support the pursuit of science, knowledge, intellectual advancement.  I remind myself of this as I sprawl across my king sized bed and spend the generous per diem I’ve been allotted on sushi, beer, vitamins, noise-canceling headphones, new earrings…

Wednesday the entire crew is antsy, pacing and fidgeting through a morning of human resources information sessions and paperwork.  We want to go.  Shuttles depart for Denver International at noon, and after clearing security, we have several hours to roam the terminal.  Like a herd of caged lions, we pace, gathering randomly in groups of three or five for meals, scattering to write, read, nap, grouping again when we begin to sense that the time for departure is nigh.  It’s the same in LAX, where we breath deeply, stretch, and do what we must to prepare for the twelve-hour flight ahead.  I drift, meeting new people, talking, seeing my excitement mirrored in each new face, multiplying.  Uneventful flight.  Long.  Long long long long loooooooong.  I don’t sleep.  I do, however, watch “March of the Penguins,” which makes me giggle.  When we finally land in Christchurch (Friday), we’re set loose upon the city, and for the next two days the city feels impossibly tiny, as I walk and am able to recognize and name every third person I pass.  Today, Saturday, is ECW Gear day.  Extreme Cold Weather Gear!  Shuttled to the International Antarctic Center, unloaded into a massive warehouse of white insulated boots, red parkas, and enough fleece to comfortably swath the Statue of Liberty several times over, should she ever feel the need to layer.  It’s like Christmas, as we find the bags with our names on them and begin to pull out and try on article after article, a seemingly endless supply of warm, durable gear.  We fly tomorrow.  Sunday, report at 4 AM.

At this point, I’ve seen pictures, heard stories, read info packets, and had time enough to dream the events of the entire next six months…but my ideas of Antarctica remain fuzzy, distant, unreal.  But I’m going.

I am going to Antarctica.

At this time tomorrow, if all goes well, I will have been on the Ice for five hours.  Ready, set, go….


If mailing from the USA:
It’s an APO – so pricing is the same as if I were in the USA (cheap as chips!)

Susan Munroe, RPSC
McMurdo Station
PSC 469 Box 700
APO AP 96599-1035

If mailing from NZ:

Susan Munroe, RPSC
McMurdo Station
Airpost Office
Private Bag 4747

1) Flat mail has priority over packages.  If you’ve got something big to send, put it in a large envelope instead of boxes, otherwise I may not get it til February
2) Do not send aerosols or sprays, styrofoams, packing peanuts, etc.  Only things which can be easily recycled, burned, reused, or carried off the Ice with me – like in the mountains: Pack in, pack out.  Check with me if you’re not certain.

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