Check out this beautiful photo of the dawn horizon reflected in the station windows at South Pole Station. Photo by Freija Descamps.


Little things about Zanzibar and the Long Way Home

When my boyfriend was feeling a little better after our IV drip adventure, drinking his prescription-strength Gatorade and eating a stale cookie or two (bought from a stall vendor, complete with a millimeter thick layer of dust on the package), I went shopping. I was hoping to buy a few kangas, the Tanzanian printed cloths women wear as skirts, turbans and baby holders, printed with proverbs I don’t understand. When I was at one of the shops, haggling over prices, two young men got into a scuffle–not quite a fight– and a fat, strong-looking, grandmotherly lady stood up and went over to one of the men, giving him a full strength whomp in the shoulder with a stick of sugar cane she was chewing before sitting back down. Everyone laughed, even me.

Drinking exotic-tasting spiced coffee, a slight breeze on the backs of our necks.

Daniel looking for a wifi access point, walking around with the netbook like it was a metal detector or a divining rod.

Athletic, sweaty men running with a pushcart in Dar es Salaam, keeping up with car traffic.

We took a long taxi ride to Jambiani beach, watching the land and people go by. Grilled maize, lumber yards and power tools, a boy balancing a stack  of plastic bowls and pitchers taller than himself, tire shops and land rover parts, a funeral procession with men standing on the back of a fenced-in pickup truck.

On Jambiani, we sat on scratchy woven hemp twine chaises, contemplating the unreal turquoise ocean; the fishing dhows were beached twice a day when the tide went way, way out: nearly a quarter mile. You couldn’t even hear it anymore. Kids rolled bike tires along the beach, tires almost as big as they were, laughing and playing, and little blue sandy crabs ran for their lives as if pulled by a string or blown by a little puff of wind. Stormy weather sat out on the horizon like a plateaued mountain, topped with puffy clouds.

Colobus monkeys sat in the trees, preoccupied with something on a particular branch, while we ate the catch of the day and the sun disappeared completely but its evidence remained. The moon, like a spotlight, illuminated the receding tide and the reflective white sand.

On the night that we didn’t order the catch of the day, but rather the beef, Daniel was again so incredibly ill that we were up all night. This time the clockwork vomiting kept us up again, scared and tired, but not quite so afraid as in the previous week. The tide, in at 4 in the morning, lapped literally at the foundations of our little screened cabin, loud, roaring, calming (to me at least)–a reminder of the presence of where we were, despite the food poisoning. Grounded but not grounded. Serene but not serene. Ready to go home, right now.

In the morning, kids played soccer on the beach, a homemade goal set up against the coralline rock, practicing their impressive moves. I remember thinking to myself, I can’t imagine growing up in such a beautiful place, where families live off the ocean. Little fenced in seaweed gardens were exposed when the tide rolled out twice a dayPiles of coral rock lay in the morning arranged at low tide, to be collected and later sold out of the bed of a truck. Fishermen with nets tossed small fish to kids up on shore. The older ones gathered them by handfuls, the youngest one picking up a fish now and then, and when it flopped in the air he would squeal and twirl it around by its tail.

Eventually, we took another taxi ride back to Stone Town, back to the ferry, back across the ocean to Dar es Salaam and started the long journey home. Having gotten some bug or another, I was so sick by that point that I could barely stand in the line for customs, could barely contain my nausea. I thought they would take my illness for nervousness and detain me like a would-be bomber on our flight home. Multiple multiple immodiums and bottles of water later, we landed in MSP, our luggage stranded somewhere in DC. But, one way or another, we were home. Home, home, home.


And now, it’s almost time to leave again. Is it normal to have every year of your life go faster than the last?

Emergency Air Drop, Night Vision Goggles and Barrels of Fire

The folks wintering in Antarctica have had a rough season. In June, right around midwinter, an employee at McMurdo was ill enough that the National Science Foundation had to medevac them to Christchurch for treatment. This is pretty rare, and only carried out in the most extreme of situations. (Read the official news report here and check out a firsthand report by a McMurdo winterover here.)

And now, the US Air Force has performed a successful air drop of “urgently needed medical supplies” for a Pole winterover. This was the first emergency air drop to Pole in almost ten years, and the very first performed with a C-17. The Air Force flew the 800 miles to Pole, and using night vision equipment to spot the drop zone lit by the ground crew with burning 55-gallon drums, they aimed two 200-pound cargo pallets equipped with parachutes and pushed them out of the C-17.

From inside the C-17. Photo credit Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura, antarcticsun.usap.gov
The drop zone in the distance, a few hours after the drop as seen from the station. Photo by Christy Schultz

It goes without saying that we’re crossing our fingers for the crew at South Pole in their dark isolation; the first plane sill won’t be able to land until late October. I’ve heard that it’s easier to mount a rescue expedition to the international space station than it is to get to the South Pole in the winter (but don’t have a source on that, so don’t quote me–does anyone know?). From what I can tell, the combined forces of the South Pole air drop team and the US Air Force was a perfect match, and everything went as well as could possibly have been expected, and the winterovers’ practice during the summer season really paid off.

South Pole air drop ground crew. Photo by Christy Schultz
Dan the Fuelie supervises the burn barrels in a summer air drop practice last season. 12-11-2010

This article in the Antarctic Sun has really interesting information on the logistics of the air drop: “Personnel used GPS coordinates to place each barrel at a precise location for the drop zone, located about two miles from the main station. It took heavy equipment operator Rob Shaw about 30 hours to groom, or flatten, the snow around the drop zone.”

The weather at Pole during the air drop was rather warm according to the article, about -70F; from what I understand, nearly none of our vehicles run at below -80F, and many won’t run under -55 or so. The current temperature is back down to -90F. I’m not sure what they do if they have to perform an air drop in colder temps when the heavy equipment really just won’t run.