Sunday, June 28, 2009

Life at Palmer Station, Part I

If you can see them, I'm one of the people on the ground in the hard hats. My first week was intense, fast paced, very fun & challenging. Even though there was some familiarity with ship offloads, (USAP folks aren't allowed to work the pier at McMurdo), it was a new experience helping backload milvans & moving them onto the ship. Every muscle in my body was used & stretched and at the end of the day I felt like I'd done a hard days work. All the bits & pieces came together, and the all the people I work with are so helpful & generous that my first week, which could have been hellish, felt very supported aided by the awesome "get it done" mentality here. The food here is amazing, everyone seems to get along well with each other, and it feels nice to be the ones to help clean up our own station. This is truly a magical place, and it does not feel small or claustrophobic as I had feared. There is an air of comeraderie that transcends such feelings, and I feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity to get here. And most important, I get to be in an awesome climate, where there is very little sun, and no direct sun. and in June!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Journey to Palmer Station

Still reeling from the incredible trip to England and Ireland, my usual 10 days or so of processing time was backburnered as I hurried to pack & get myself ready to deploy to the smallest of the Antarctica reasearch stations, Palmer Station (the top photo shows the wee station in the background.) The journey involved three nights in denver for "orientation" - I learned all about scaffolding & how to safely climb ladders, but it was basically back on the payroll for me, with some plush cash thrown in for travel & food. There were 4 of us going down to the station for the remainder of the summer (3 1/2 months) and we bonded in the way strangers do who are going into an exciting and unknown adventure. We ate free hotdogs at the hotel to save our cash, and on the morning we started our 25 hour flying ordeal I was saddled with a 74 pounds steel trunk to check in with my luggage. It caused a lot of flack at the airline counter, not to mention having to push this thing through so many airports that I had a pulled back muscle by the time I was on the boat. Anyway, the plane journey ended with a really fun 2 days in Punta Arenas. I was surprised at how much I liked the city, or maybe it was the buzz we were on, those of us who chose to "plow through" our jet lag and stay awake all day, as we wandered through the city for hours stopping for meals, espressos, shopping, taking photos. The third leg of our adventure started when we boarded the LMG to spend the night while it was docked, for it's 8:30am departure. We were to sail for 4 days until we got to the station. Life on board took on an epically funny life of it's own. Our routine was to sleep through breakfast, watch two movies before lunch, eat lunch and watch movies til dinner or sleep more, then eat dinner, more movies before settling in for our 10 - 12 hour death naps. The movement of the boat was like ambien for me. If I tried to lay in my bed & read I just passed out. The rough seas while crossing the Drake Passage were super comforting  to me, just loving the pitching and rolling of the boat.  On the 5th day we got to station & hit the ground running with orientation, working, and a happy reunion with the Willbaker!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Ireland, Part III, An Daingean

The town of Dingle is on the Dingle Peninsula, the westernmost tip of Ireland, with a stunning view of The Great Basket Islands off the Slea Head tip. With some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, it has been the setting for such films as "Ryan's Daughter" & "Far & Away". The locals always talk with horror of Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman's Irish accents in the latter movie. Despite the fact that it was hotter here than any previous day I'd been in country, I walked around Dingle in a cloud of happy memories. 25 years ago my friends & I drank and sang in these 100 year old pubs until they closed, and I knew that I would return to Co. Kerry again, and have a dream of someday buying a house here, which I think I could actually swing. Since this was the last night of the jeep tour I was just going to go to bed early & not go out in the evening as my days of endless hiking had caught up with me and I was mentally preparing to fly back to the states. As I was lying across my bed in my pajamas at 9:00pm, reading one of those tacky British tabloids, I heard a little knock on my door, and knew it was my travel companions seeing if I wanted to go out & hear music with them. I sighed when I answered the door knowing I wouldn't say no, as it is insane to come to Dingle and not go hear traditional music - which I love tremendously. We went to a pub that was full of tourists & two guys were doing a pretty good job doing traditional ballads, but were doing lots of hokey stuff too...I asked if they took requests & the guitarist looked annoyed as I'm sure he thought I was going to ask him to sing "The Eyes of Texas" or some other such nonsense, but I had been wanting to hear the old Scottish ballad Peggy Gordon for so long, & when I requested it he seemed stunned, and said "I haven't sung that song in twenty years" and looked at his box player & then started in on it & I could tell they were truly enjoying doing it as it is a passionate song & it was sung quite passionately. I couldn't help but get a tear in my eye, as I first heard that song in Dingle on my first trip & never forgot it. Needless to say, I was glad I'd come out. After a few crowd pleasers they asked if anyone wanted to come sing a song with them so of course I wanted to do it, hoping they'd let me pick the song (I was dying to do "Auld Triangle") but we did Molly Malone, which was silly, but I got a few jokes in so it was good craic. We left after a few hours and on the way to our hotel heard some blistering fast jigs coming out of another pub & stopped in for some foot stomping good stuff. These guys weren't trying to please the crowd, but themselves instead, so the music was incredible. I stood outside to cool off while the sweat soaked musicians were taking a break, and had super fun conversations with some locals on the sidewalk. I'd gotten so I could tell a Cork from a Kerry from a Dublin accent, and this one guy didn't seem to have a "tick" one at all, so I asked him where he was from & he said Limerick, which, contrary to it's name, is a rough & gritty place. In Dingle, the first language is Irish so anytime we would go into shops, locals spoke Irish with each other so we couldn't understand them. They also paint over the English versions of their city name on signs (see picture) as there is always some friction over The Gaeltacht purists and those wanting to cater to tourists. I have tried to learn some Irish with online lessons, & it requires a commitment as it is such a bizarre language. It was the perfect end to my Irish experience, and made me feel like I still had plenty of dreams in my pocket to shoot for. I said an emotional goodbye to my travel pals, as they were going on for two more days of touring & I was taking the train from Tralee back to Dublin for my last night before flying to Texas (where I was really looking forward to air conditioning!). Back in Dublin I was giddy again...walked around town until bedtime, and felt sad about leaving Ireland. I have to pack for Palmer Station now, and I'm not sleeping as is my habit when I travel. I am so looking forward to spending the austral winter in place that is guaranteed the hot sun will not follow me...but Ireland has stolen my heart again, as it did 25 years ago. I went again in '92 and 2000, but this trip was more like the first one: magical!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Ireland, Part II

It's really hard to choose pictures to post from this country, as it seems to have been created to make gorgeous postcards from. But I am prejudiced, as this is my favorite country, and it is not just the physical beauty that startles me, but the combination of that with the people, the music, the history, and the passionate intertwining of all of these. This was my 4th trip to Eire, and it reignited some of those first feelings Ihad when I came in 1984 (ie: this is my home!). But first, I was utterly surprised to see that my tour group had only 3 people on it! The 4th person is the driver & tour guide. In a 4X4, we were able to go to places I'd never been to on my own or on the big busses, as these places are off the tourist grid. My travel companions were a mother & daughter from Louisiana, who were so easy and laid back for people who'd never travelled before. We were in a jeep that could carry up to 14 people, and it felt perfectly comfortable with two of us in back, one riding up front with the driver. They were my perfect travel companions as they eat snacks and road food instead of eating in restaurants (which drives me crazy on vacations) as we see food as fuel and not something to spend hours futzing over. This tour was interesting as it was for the more intrepid traveller, but we stayed in quite luxurious lodging. (The place I'm currently in in Dublin is like a flop motel, but I wanted something lower priced on my last nite. I'm so spoiled now that I'll pay extra next time.). Our first day was doing two touristy things but after that never again. We went to Rock of Cashel, which is stunning, and the Blarney Stone (which I skipped cuz I kissed it last time), and then wended our way down to this unbelievably beautiful place called Gougane Barra in West Cork, which was on a lake with an excellent hiking trail that was two hours straight up, and the countriest tiny church in the center of the lake. This was the day when I realized it was going to be hotter than it even was in Texas, we had all packed for chilly weather, and there is no air conditioning in this country. And the sun stays up til 10:30 or so, so I was taking my walks very very late. The group hike would be high noon, and my fellow travellers were sun worshipers, so I went on my own in the evenings, which was better for me in so many ways - mostly that I got to go as fast as I wanted. Full Irish breakfast was included in the package, so we ate with our tour guide, a sweet girl named Jean who was trying to burn her milky white skin as much as possible. They said it had rained everyday for 3 years until the day I came (I am not making this up) and there hadn't been a week like this in years. The tradeoff is we had this tiny group so we got to decide what we wanted to do, it was like we just had a personal driver who took us off roading a bit then asked us if we wanted to do this variety of optional activities. Anne & Kate were beach people, and I'm a town & culture person, so we compromised a bit. I sat in the jeep while they played on the beach, and they tolerated my gushing at the South Pole Inn. The most wrenching decision we had to make was whether to do the Skellig Islands. This is something I have always wanted to do, they were iffy (on some of the things we would all have to do it or it wouldn't go), but in the end I decided all day exposure in this ultra blinding sunshine might make me heatstroke so I didn't go. This would give us more time in Dingle, which I didn't want to have to scrimp on. Most of the towns we stopped in (Portmagee, Glengarriff) were tiny and adorable, but we'd arrive late so no shops would be open and there might be one pub. Dingle is the capital of traditional Irish music, in the Gaeltacht (which is a place I want to spend much more time), and was where I came 25 years ago and have never forgotten. The girls were all for having a day in a sizable town with shops & being on our own after bouncing around in the jeep for 4 days - so it was great to be able to all agree we wanted a day in town. But I am going to save more about Dingle for my "part 3" posting...because it is my heart's mecca. So for 3 days we ate giant breakfasts and loaded up the jeep with our bags in oppressive sunshine, got dropped off on 2-3 hour hikes in the sun (which sometimes I did anyway, because logistically I had to), & survived by jumping into cold streams & soaking my clothes. Found awesome scrambling rocks, and climbed over & down sheer rock faces to the sea, scaring the living daylights out of my new friends. There was no set itinerary, we could do what we wanted, and it was the best of both worlds: freedom & structure. At the end of the sweltering day I pulled off my thick jeans & wool socks & took a cold shower & laid around for the worst (hottest) part of the day (5-8:30pm), and then it was mercifully coolish & I went on a big aimless ramble, which has become something deeply satisfying to me. There was never any pressure to do stuff together....I hiked by myself & the girls moved a lot slower as they wanted to take lots of pix. I liked the more rugged trails & they liked the we were a great team letting each other move at our own pace. Our 4th (and my last) evening were going to be in Dingle. I expected no emotional response other that to be in this beautiful place that I came to 25 years ago & had one of the greatest times of my life. I was to be surprised at how this place affected me yet again.

Ireland, Part I

I had a great time in England and had started feeling so settled in at the country farmhouse that I was a little wistful about leaving & starting my Ireland journey on my own. But I was also excited, as I enjoy they part about having to figure out to get from the airport to the lodging and striking out on that first walk around the city after ditching the bags in the room. The bus from the Dubin airport to the city center was so easy that I was already checked into my hotel room within 45 minutes of the plane landing. My private hostel room was much posher than I'd anticipated (justifying the high price) but so tiny I could barely turn around in it...but to be downtown after a week in the country was heaven. Once I get going in a big walking city it's hard for me to stop...I'll walk until the bottom of my feet are numb. I had my map of downtown & had seen the Temple Bar, O'Connell St, Trinity University, & most other walkable stuff my first evening. I was totally excited about getting up the next day & having the whole day to do whatever I wanted before joining my tour group on Sunday morning. Saturday I went to the Grafton St. area & shopped. It was super sunny that weekend in Dublin so Irish people were flopped out on every available patch of grass or sidewalk just wreaking havoc on their pale skin. The biggest downside of my whole trip thus far was the amount of sunshine - Texas in July style sunshine, and I was ok with it in Dublin as there was a cool breeze, and I knew there was no way it would keep up - that once I got into the jeep & started going West there would be fog, dark clouds, some wonderful wild and short Irish showers (boy was I in for a rude awakening!). Everyone I talked to in town said it would change, and that they loved this weather so much as to be a miracle from God. I convinced myself it would cool off by Sunday, and spent all Saturday walking on the shady side of the street as is my custom. I saw the Guinness brewery, which was amazing, and is this year celebrating it's 250th year, spitting out 4 million pints of day, of which 1.5 million are exported. I didn't go inside & do the big tour, so as not to be tempted to taste the black stuff (which I associate with so many incredible memories). I loved Dublin, and got to know it better than my previous visits. I ended my day regrettably early as I had to be at the downtown spot by 8:30 Sunday morning to catch my tour group. I had been worried that I would feel too aimless and alone in Dublin after being in a family situation in England, but the opposite turned out to be true: I was so in my element in a vibrant city full of character and intensity that every moment sparkled with focus and purpose, and I was only doing aimless things like wandering about, window shopping, and watching buskers. It was solitude amongst the crowds that I'd been craving.