NPX-ZCM-CHC…&MSP

I left as the 24 hour rotating shadows were starting to become a little longer at South Pole, the wind getting sharper, the population getting smaller and more saturated with people getting ready to stay for their winter, bonding with each other and letting go, in a way because they have to, of summer contractors.

From the plane, hearing the drone of the props, watching the map underneath us change from flat white nothing to the volcanic soil of the mountains and coast, glacier tongues literally melting into sheer, vast open water, to sea ice. The view, visually overwhelming, seems to elicit poetic thoughts from even the most unlikely of mouths.

Being on McMurdo’s runway, letting comparatively temperate air and sun touch our ears, cheeks, necks, starved for that sensation. We watched firefighters shoo a penguin off the runway.

The stress of work peels away on that plane like a sheath of irrelevance—things that were immensely important just a few days before mean nothing at all now; it’s a blissful release, an absolution but also a kind of sad amnesia, because friends are invested in the same issues for the length of the winter season and it feels like giving up, abandoning them in a way.

Off the aircraft and though customs, the sweet New Zealand night air smelled like grass and flowers and rotten leaves, fresh or perhaps imminent rain (rain!), the sky dark and the moon ringed in a cloudy little rainbow. The group made the motions of the unceremonious chaos, dropping gear off at the CDC and boarding a shuttle, realizing that for the first time in a long time, you’re surrounded entirely by people you’ve never met.

The next day, waiting for and sitting through Daniel’s surgery, wondering at the pigeons outside the windows and the wind agitating the mature trees, wondering what happens if there’s an earthquake and they’re mid-surgery; wondering who was in the middle of surgery during the last earthquake and what happened to them, and then trying not to wonder that. And then it was over and he came rolling back up the hall in his bed and hospital gown. He’s totally fine now, no evidence of anything ever having been wrong.

We spent a week in Wanaka, south of Christchurch, soaking in a hot tub with friends and eating avocados, drinking bloody marys, decompressing from the season.

And here we are at home. It’s good to be back. Keep watching for more photos… there are plenty I want to share with you now that I’m back in the lands of plentiful internet.

Thoughts on Leaving: Soccer, Broken Bones, and a Very Personal MedEvac

As you may know, Sundays are our only day off here in Antarctica, and we have to make the most of them. There are all kinds of community-led activities, writing and photography classes, volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, impromptu craft parties and wine tastings in the greenhouse.

This Sunday, I went to yoga and spent a while in the sauna before heading for dinner, and Daniel went to the first soccer tournament of the year—soccer players practice a few hours every week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and it’s a big part of Daniel’s exercise regime, something I remember him telling me on the phone in 2009 when he first came down to the ice. During the game, Daniel had a collision with another player, both men running full speed and focusing on the ball instead of each other. He fell and got up, and finished out the tournament.

But when he was still in pain later that evening, we decided to call Medical, even though Sunday is their day off too. Something seemed wrong; it looked like there was at least swelling on the left side of Daniel’s face, if not a maybe-different shape than normal. The PA was on call, and after looking for a bit and making sure Daniel wasn’t suffering a concussion or any head injuries, she called in the doctor as well. After poking and prodding and examining and xrays, the prognosis was a broken zygomatic arch, Daniel’s left cheekbone, and he was immediately scheduled for the next flight out. An unresolved fracture is an automatic NPQ (the opposite of PQ, when we are physically qualified to come to the ice at the beginning of each season).

That night, we sat together in bed after packing Daniel’s stuff, dealing with his physical pain, regretting this seemingly small accident, and grappling with our mutual feelings about the season having to end like this, but having flashbacks to food poisoning and malaria scares in third world countries and being grateful that here, at least we speak the language and understand the medical system. We decided together that it made the most sense for me to stay and carry out my contract, since I’d be leaving in a week and a half anyhow.

And then before I could think straight or even realize this was real, he was on the plane and I was crying on the runway. His two sweet coworkers stood on either side of me as we watched taxi and takeoff, the contrail behind the plane like a physical thing, looking as though the runway itself buckled up to assist the plane’s loft.

He is in New Zealand now, getting ready for appointments and maybe a small surgery, and hopefully will be ready for a real vacation in about a week when I get back. I miss him a lot, and it feels weird and hollow and different to be here without him in this big, cold bed, but I know that this is the best way to have a medEvac; finish your soccer game, pack your own bags, walk yourself unescorted onto the plane, and be ready for a kiwi roadtrip in a week. And I know it could have been so much worse, so I’m grateful for that.

And I’m grateful for the community response to this, the support I’ve gotten, the off-ice medical and insurance help that Daniel is and will be getting, and the hugs and offers for help packing and airplane bag lunches from friends. I’m even more ready to go, now that work is getting frantic with things to finish before station close and people, including me, are dirty and cranky and just over being here. The funny thing is though, I know we want to come back.

So here’s to fast healing and minimal pain, to friends who stand beside you when things go wrong, to the end of this season, and perhaps to the beginning of the next one.

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?

On Being Sick in a Foreign Country, and How we Inadvertently Bribed a Tanzanian Pharmacist

Within a week of arriving in Tanzania, I had learned the Swahili words for health clinic (matibabu) and thermometer (tamomita), visited said matibabu, and an hour later had pulled an intravenous drip out of Daniel’s arm, spilling IV fluid everywhere and sending the elderly Tanzanian pharmacist into an angry and confused tizzy.

Let me back up.

We had taken the TAZARA train direct from Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, and arrived late in the evening at Dar es Salaam station. Dar seems like a mixture of Africa and Everywhere Else, with heavy trading port influences, deep and historical, manifesting themselves in the modern city. Muslim men wear flat, intricately embroidered hats, some women wear full coverage robes and scarves despite the heat, women of Indian descent in saris work at their pharmacies. Young men sell flat baskets of cigarettes, SIM cards and small sundries from their left hand, jingling a little silo of shillings in their right, making little kisskisskiss noises to advertise their presence to customers, dodging murky puddles on the street.

There is a whole micro-economy based on cell phones, SIM cards and air time. Even in the smallest, most rural areas we saw on the train, people selling dry beans and bananas from baskets would have cell phones.

We took a ferry to Zanzibar’s Stone Town and explored the fisherman’s market, soggy fishy mud clinging to our feet. We ate grilled meats and rice, french fries and bottled water. We changed guesthouses, having chosen the one we were at in exasperation, touts seeing our backpacks and following us off the ferry, hounding us the whole walk in. I must say, that is perhaps my least favorite thing about traveling.

I still don’t know what caused it, but after a night at our new guesthouse, Daniel came down with a fever and some digestive problems. The fever was coming and going in waves, causing us great unease. And as you know if you’ve been anywhere with endemic malaria threat, one is supposed to treat any fever as malaria; travel health brochures are terrifying when you are slightly ill. We waited a bit, but since the fever was behaving erratically, and Daniel was feeling worse after a few days, we decided to go in for a test. At home, I know how to call 911. Abroad though, you’re suddenly aware that you haven’t any idea how emergency infrastructure works. What do you do if you get sick in the middle of the night, isolated by language barriers (real or imagined) and without a basic understanding of just about how long an ambulance takes, whether there is an ambulance at all, without a mom to call for advice?

We walked out in the direction we thought the health clinic was based on a magazine we had picked up at the ferry dock a few days back. Stone Town is a maze of little alleys and twists, corners and minarets and shops and cafes. Beautiful, sultry, and infuriating if you need to get someplace in a hurry. Lost, we asked a stranger, unasema Kiingereza? Do you speak English? He did, and we asked how far we were from the Mazrui Dispensary. He drew us a map in my planner, at the time agonizingly slow and meticulous (and ultimately very helpful and accurate) and I could feel Daniel starting to get a little sick and panicky beside me.

We walked to the clinic and Daniel was given a finger prick malaria test. As we waited in the lobby for the results, he fended off nausea, stood up as if to step out for a breath of air and, with his hand on the small of his back, very slowly collapsed, face and lips terrifyingly white. A nurse/pharmacist/aide (retrospectively, I’m not sure what sort of training she had), an elderly woman much smaller than Daniel or I, helped me drag him into one of three beds in the back room. The second toe on her bare right foot pointed straight up at my face as we dragged him, and for some reason that very clear image has persisted in my memory of that day. Daniel started to walk a bit and passed out again. When he came to in the little bed, the pharmacist lady put in a saline drip IV the color of Mountain Dew, filled his prescriptions, and sent me in to see the doctor.

The malaria test was negative, most likely Daniel was just severely dehydrated as a result of a stomach bug. On my way back into the back room, the pharmacist intercepted me: “Your bill will be 50,000 shillings,” she said, “but I’ll write 40,000.” Thanks, I said. “You give me the 10,000 shillings.” Oh. The numbers weren’t too bad. I didn’t do the math in my head at the time, but 50,000 TSH is about 30 USD, so the bribe/gift she asked for was about $6. Taken off the original bill. Whatever, just take good care of my boyfriend. Be careful with those needles, lady.

The drip was going pretty slowly, as they tend to do, but the pharmacist was ready for things to move a bit more quickly. She turned a knob on the tube, and things were moving along. Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m pretty paranoid. Here’s something you didn’t know about the IV drip: there was a little air bubble sitting in the tube, not going anywhere, but whose stationary presence I had been monitoring the whole time. All of a sudden, this bubble was quickly bumbling along down the tube, heading right for Daniel’s vein. Now, I might have seen too much CSI, but I imagined Daniel dying of an embolism right there and after frantically trying to alert the pharmacist with the crooked toe to the miniscule bubble’s velocity to no avail, I pulled the needle right out of Daniel’s arm. Crooked-toes yelled at me in shock, saline dribbled everywhere, Daniel stated he was feeling better, and we left.

We looked it up later and small air bubbles entering the body is apparently rather common, and usually doesn’t cause any trouble. Oh.

Madrid, Spain and Fez, Morocco (May 2010)

Daniel and I took the easy, clean and cheap Madrid Metro straight from the airport to the Sol station. We met up with our friend Edward, just in from Minnesota that morning, on the way up to the hostel where he had already made a reservation for the three of us. We spent the afternoon walking around the web of streets, winding out from the Plaza del Sol like spokes on a wheel in the El Centro district–populated by, in addition to the Spaniards and international tourists, monuments of soldiers on horses, angels overlooking the city, stately lions, naked goddess women slaying crustacean enemies, and Colonial style white marble-like buildings overlooking cobblestone plazas. Street performers scatter about the streets, string quartets and human statues (some of whom were deceptively still, others quite wiggly and not very statuelike), life size toy soldiers painted green to the eyelashes, bullfighters, human gargoyles, solitary cellists, and people in random costumes not doing anything (e.g., wearing a gorilla suit and having a cigarette, hoping for tips).

The city is quite lively, but not too noisy, due to the fact that most car traffic is restricted to a few main thouroughfares. The wind was strong and blustery, and the luminous-clouds-on-cerulean-sky contrast so intense, like your vision just got better. The city has a lot of nice parks, including the central Parque el Retiro with vast green spaces (mostly looking like you’re not allowed to sit on them) and a funny little station where pensioner Madrileños can sit on benches with stationary bike pedals planted in the red gravel at their feet and get in their daily exercize. At the heart of El Retiro is the Estanque, a smallish man-made lake with square cement shores and people on rented boats rowing away, teenagers splashing each other with their oars. The city itself doesn’t have a main body of water to it, as Ted pointed out, and it has a feeling like something is missing–there are certain parts of town where we would look out over a hill and expect to see a river or lake, but be greeted with a street instead. We ate picnics in the gardens of the Royal Palace, feeding bits of crusty bread, granny Smith apples and soft, bland queso fresco (fresh cheese) to those sparrows brave enough to approach us.

Madrid unfortunately doesn’t have as many free museums as London–at least, we didn’t know about them– but a lot of the more famous museums have a few hours a week where you can save your nine Euros and get in for free. We saw the Reina Sofia art museum during it’s free hours, which from the outside is a massive modern glass structure that could be a hospital with a lot of money and a creative architect, and from the inside a pleasant juxtaposition of clean windows, black glossy plexiglass and pocked, ancient looking stone floors and moulding. Its collection is impressive and very interesting; we liked the melamine board installation painted red to look like bricks, a clear plastic tube sculpture filled with lights and water looking like an aquatic roadmap on the floor, and a whole room of somber WWII-era ink drawings. The museum houses Picasso’s black and white masterpiece Guernica, flanked by security guards and art-viewers trying to take a good photo from outside the door of the gallery salon. In a glass case nearby are the studies that Picasso created in the making of the huge painting, arguably more interesting than the piece itself. We toured Museo del Prado, a staggeringly large collection of paintings and statues more classical and idealistic than the Reina Sofia’s modern collection, including Velazquez’ Las Meninas, considered by some art scholars to be the best painting in the world. An exciting anomaly in the museum is the room filled with Goya’s Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings), dark and morbid and fascinating.

Four days after arriving, we took the Metro back to the airport and boarded a flight to Morrocco. We arrived in the Fez airport in the afternoon, greeted on the tarmac by palm trees, a clear blue sky, and a mess of people clearing immigration, overwhelming the tiny airport’s staff. We didn’t want to take a taxi and had read that you could take bus 16 to the Medina, where we planned to stay, and walked out to the curb on the side of the road where we hoped the bus stopped, as there weren’t any signs. There was a man with a shaved head, a cream colored scarf and a velour suitjacket slung over his suitcase sitting at the roadside, and we shyly asked him in highschool French if this was the bus stop. He responded in English, and proceeded to give us advice on exactly how to take the bus to the Medina, chatted with Ted for the whole busride and even got off the bus with us at our stop to indicate where we should walk, and that we should turn left at the fountain plaza.

We ended up getting lost anyway, but were helped by numerous people along the way, including two young women and a little girl in full head coverings and floor length robes, policemen who gave me incredibly long and detailed directions in French, complete with hand gestures (of which I understood the words left, red and round), and a man who stopped us on a street to tell us that the road we were walking on didn’t go anywhere. I have to admit, from some of the other experiences we’ve had with advice on the road, my guard was raised and I was a little worried about someone trying to scam us or try and get us to stay somewhere we didn’t want to stay. My worries were totally unfounded though–people were genuine and just generally helpful.

We finally made it to the Medina’s Bab Boujeloud gate, which is cradled by tall limestone walls with hollow windows, punctuated at strategic intervals by minarets. We spent the next few days exploring. The walkways are narrow and winding, with enough curves and switchbacks to be generally counterintuitive, but still fairly relaxing to walk in– it’s actually the largest car-free urban zone in the world. I have heard Fez’ Medina compared to Jerusalem in the way it looks, and it certainly did feel more Middle Eastern than African. Women wore clothing in varying coverage levels, from some women with long shirtdresses but no head coverings to women covered head to toe, including black gloves and a veil.

Wandering the markets of the medina is a pretty intense sensory experience. We were surrounded from every angle by vendors with their fares laid out on the cobblestone walkways–zucchini, cabbage, onions, lemons, carrots, avocados, melons, strawberries, eggplants, oh my. Stalls with dried figs and dates exploding out of burlap sacks, green and black and kalamata olives, pickles, cashews, sunflower seeds, dry grains and beans and pasta. Butchers with huge cuts of meat on display in the open air, a grotesque camel head hanging by a ruff of skin on it’s neck, tongue hanging out, flesh and spine exposed from behind, live chickens and pigeons tied with yarn to their cages, squawking and screeching and generally making a ruckus. Brightly colored leather products everywhere–shoes, bags, pillows for the floor. Stalls with shampoo, soap, instant coffee, water, soda. Jewelry–earrings, ornate bracelets, giant necklaces, rings with colorful stones, even an ivory pistol. Everything apart from the butcher shops smells of ripe fruit, cumin, sandalwood, thyme, fresh mint, donkeys, rose petals and tanned leather. People all around speaking French and velvety Arabic, bits of Spanish and English peppered in. And the cats! There are cats and kittens everywhere, slinking in the streets, camped out on pallets of produce, baskets of garlic, velour pillows originally intended to be jewelry displays, begging for steak tagine and couscous at the tables of the numerous outdoor restaurants. Cats screamed and mewled outside our guesthouse window, prowling the overlapping corrugated metal roofs below our room. A rooster nearby had a broken internal clock, and despite its earnest and persistent cock-a-doodle-dooing attempts, couldn’t make the sun come up at 2:30 in the morning. On one of our last nights in Fez, I woke up at 4:30 am to the eerie cacaphony of the Muslim call to prayer, interspersed with the rooster crowing, dogs baying, and the occasional honk of a truck.

I ended up getting stuck inside floored for three days with food poisoning (I think it was the chicken pastilla, a savory pastry dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon–maybe it was made from one of the forlorn pigeons in the market). Mohammed, the proprietor who worked at Pension el-Kasbah every other day, tried to help me. He checked in on me while I was in our room and face-down in the toilet, advising that I only drink bottled mineral water (um, yes), and even went out to the market for me, coming back with a cone of graphing paper filled with one dirham worth of cumin (approximately the size of one of those green-topped spice jars at eleven cents US). He explained that it was Arabic medicine, which when swallowed dry by the handful and chased with water is apparently supposed to make tummies better (he taught by example, tossing back a handful himself). I was sick enough that it only helped for about an hour and the result was unearthly green when I saw it again.

On the third day I was sick, Mohammed brought me to his home where he lived with his wife, mother, sister, and neices, only a 2 or 3 minute walk from the pension. Through a four foot doorway and up a winding set of stone stairs, we entered a tiny apartment, with a dining room full of a low table covered with a plastic tablecloth, a kitchen, and a lounge with a TV off to the right, which someone thoughtfully changed to an English-language crime show for me. I sat with the littlest girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, with soft curly hair, milky skin, intense big brown eyes and rotten baby teeth. She was brave and friendly, kissing my hand, climbing on the couch next to me, trying to feed me blobs of orange marmelade from her sticky little fingers (I figured, what the hell, I was taking incredibly strong antibiotics anyhow). Mohammed had gone back to the guesthouse and I couldn’t communicate very well with the women–the mother only spoke Arabic and I still couldn’t speak French so I couldn’t understand most of the lively conversation flying back and forth across the table–but the little girl spoke the universal language of Tickle (she started it). For dinner, they fed me corn bread and another, thinly layered bread, olives, marmelade, olive oil and soft cheese, with sweet milk tea and coffee. We ate on the table without plates, them urging me, “Mangez, mangez!” (Eat, eat!) I still couldn’t eat very much, but it was nice to be cared for like that. A little bit of on-the-road, substitute mom time.

We saw our friend from the bus, whose name was Abdel, a few more times. He invited us to contact him if we ever go to Paris, where he lives, and gave us his email address. On the bus on the first day, Abdel told us that while Paris was one of the most beautiful places he had ever been, Fez (his hometown) was the friendliest. And I have to agree with him– the people in Fez were overwhelmingly kind and definitely went out of their way to help us, total strangers. Early on, after we bartered the price of our room down to an affordable price, Mohammed had agreed to the rate on the condition that we give him a souvenir from America. On our last day I shot a photo of him and a few of his family members, and left him with a pen from Jorgensen Financial Services in Tyler, Minnesota before leaving for the airport.

We got back into Spain for a few more days, and got to experience the trademark Madrid bedtime: never. The country had won a world cup finals game (this was in early May), and feisty fútbol fans roared in the streets until about 10 the next morning. We also went to a free midnight showing of a Monet exhibit, which was a perfect way to end the European/North African leg of our trip. The next morning we saw Ted off to Minneapolis and caught our own flight to Lima.