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this place

When I speak of my life here, “here” – Antarctica, McMurdo – is simply “this place.”  This Place.  It’s an enigmatic title.  Vague.  Simple, colorless words that fall flat, providing no descriptive imagery, no information.  And yet it’s the only phrase that works – it’s general enough, bland enough to encompass the space that is…this place.  After ten weeks, I don’t have any other words for it.  I have stories, I have images, I have facts.  I have two plus months of experiences that refuse to be translated into any context that is relevant to the world away from the ice.  “This place” is almost an ironic joke.  This place is anything but the helpless, bored shrug of the shoulders that the title suggests.  I just don’t know how else to put it.

Sensory deprivation.  These are a few of my favorite things that I didn’t know were my favorites until they were removed from my world.  Bugs.  Rain.  Outdoor smells.  Green.  Fresh draft beer.  Trees.  It’s the bugs that I miss the most, I think.  Or, they’re the things that are most obviously missing.  I’ll see a dust mote float by and swat it out of the way, thinking it’s a fly, only to remember, with a start, that there aren’t any bugs here.  A speck on the wall is a spider, an odd shadow in the corner is a cobweb – except it’s not.  Seeing rain on TV, reading a description of a wet, stormy night – I’m enthralled.  My uncle mailed me a stack of the Sunday comics, in color (a treasure in themselves!).  One strip showed a family standing in the rain in their soggy front yard, surveying a growing drainage problem.  I was transported.  I could feel the cold, raw moisture in the air, hear the squish of the grass, smell the rotting fall leaves.  Vivid sensations from a comic strip.  I think I stared at the newsprinted page for fifteen minutes.  Little things are treasured; small reminders of the outside world: fake spiders sit glued to window sills, silk ivy crawls around office cubicles, plastic palm trees tower in dorm room corners.  Every bathroom stall on station has a tropical-themed picture taped to the back of the door.  People find ways to inject their white, icy days with shots of sunshine, life, warmth, greenery and bright turquoise water.

Little things…I wish I could describe the sense of humor.  The best I can do is say that it’s all about the little things.  Subtle.  Creative.  Fueled by the inherent madness of subtracting oneself from the real world and moving to a cold, dead place where one lives in too-tight quarters and works too-long hours.  Release happens in the oddest ways.  For example.  This past weekend: The Halloween Party.  Costumes planned for months were pulled out, painted on, and paraded across a stage for the entire community to cheer and jeer.  Little things take on enormous importance.  I have spent hour-long meetings discussing whether or not to put our galley napkins into dispensers on the tables or to leave them in a central location for community members to pick up before sitting down.  When we introduced silverware-sorting at the dish window, there was chaos.  Routines are followed to a T.  Changes incite revolt.  As if we as humans can only bear so much, and living in this place has already stretched the limits.

It’s a community of travelers, adventurers.  Every Monday night someone presents a travelogue – a slide show and talk of their recent journeys.  So far we’ve had people speak about Tibet, Guyana, Suriname, Mongolia.  We’re readers.  There’s a drawer in the dish room that the DAs use for their personal effects; it’s always full of books.  During our breaks we sit two or three at a table and plow through classics, comic books, history, biographies, comedies, tragedies, poetry.  Cribbage is the card game of choice.  Carhart is the fashionable name brand for pants, shirts, and insulated bib overalls.  The more patches, the better.  In any given gathering, heads wearing hats will outnumber the bare ones.  Facial hair for men is an art form: chops, fu manchus, goatees, soul patches, handlebar ‘staches, trimmed beards, wild beards, and the ever-popular two-day stubble.  The community is swollen at the moment – we’re nearly at capacity at 1092 people.  For the last two weeks we’ve been overrun by Polies – a hundred or so Raytheon employees waiting, waiting, waiting to fly to the South Pole.  The temperature has to be above -50C (approx -64F) before the LC130 Hercules planes can fly.  Colder than that and the fuel lines will freeze.  So far the temps at the pole have sat solidly at -60C, -70C.  And so the Polies sit, drinking coffee in the galley, checking their email in the computer kiosk, living out of their carry-on bags, getting up every morning to check the passenger manifests to find out if their flight has been cancelled yet.  But this, this is our community.  Twenty-eight people living in my dorm in transient housing, waiting to make the eight-hour flight to the South Pole.  The South Pole.  Many of them have been volunteering in the kitchen, washing pots to while away the hours, and a few I’ve gotten to know well.  Two weeks now – they’re bored and excited and itching to go; I’m jealous.  Take me with you!!

And, this week’s magic moment…
Visited Scott’s Terra Nova hut, at Cape Evans!  A fifteen mile ride on the sea ice in the back of a big orange delta (flat bed vehicle with a passenger box strapped to the back – bumpy), and then stepping into history.  Walking through the hut where Scott and his polar expedition spent a long, harsh winter, burning seal blubber and planning their ill-fated overland trip to the South Pole.  I was training as a hut tour guide, so it was hard to take the appropriate moments of silent, reverent appreciation that the space deserves.  But.  I’m training as a hut tour guide, so I’ll get to come back.  The highlight of the day, however, came on the drive home.  PENGUINS.  Three Adelies – tiny black and white waddling cuties, flapping and sliding their way across the ice.  Abracadabra – Antarctica.

The sun set for the last time on last Tuesday, October 24, at 1:41 AM.  I stood outside in my pajama pants and watched it sink below the horizon…and then come back up.  There’s an awful lot of light these days…not much warmth.  For all the spring brightness, I’m craving the bone-warming heat of a beach, a park, a grassy lawn.  Just keep my eyes on that golden NZ beach taped to the back of the toilet stall door…

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