Friday, February 19, 2010

Antarctica is our Paradise

It may not come as a surprise to you that sadly I am not actually in Antarctica anymore. Right now I am writing from my attic room in Providence, Rhode Island. As I look back, I see life at Palmer station as a little piece of a better world. You can have everything you want, and nothing that you don’t. There are no cars, no traffic, no cell phones, very few of the distractions of modern life. But you can be connected if you wish, by internet or landline. The food is the tastiest I have eaten anywhere. I thought of it as going to a restaurant all the time, but not just any restaurant – my favorite restaurant. Some highlights: moussaka, samosas, olive cheese bread, lamb stew, and not to forget the cinnamon rolls, baklava and flourless chocolate cake. The people are genuine because there is no reason to posture or put on a front in such a small community. One afternoon the boating coordinator announced that there would be a happy hour in the boathouse. I arrived, wine in hand, and joined about 10 people were sitting in chairs or on the rubber pontoons of a boat. When I asked what the occasion was, they looked at each other and someone said, “it’s Wednesday?” this story is not to illustrate that a lot of drinking goes on at Palmer, because it doesn’t. It’s just a really relaxed and welcoming atmosphere where no excuse is needed to have a social event. Hanging out at the bar isn’t a crazy scene at all, it’s just some guys playing ping-pong and enjoying each other’s company. People sit by the fire and read or write, or knit. It is a place where shy or quiet people who might not be accepted elsewhere are included and valued.

Another special aspect of Palmer station is the excitement inherent in its location. Everyone’s priority is to experience Antarctica. Given any opportunity the support staff are out on the water watching wildlife. They may drop what they’re doing, or get probably too close to a whale, but that’s the point – that’s why they’re here. But at the same time everyone works really hard to make the station run as smoothly as possibly; there are no bad attitudes or people avoiding work.

As Hugh said, “The real world will never be the same.” In the beginning I wondered why people live this life – 9 months thousands of miles from their family and friends, then back for 3 months without a real home, only to do it again. But now I see that Antarctica is a refuge from a lot of the ugliness of modern life. Someone drew a little sketch with the caption “Antarctica is our paradise,” and it truly is. Palmer Station is a little utopian community, a small piece of a better life. The natural world appears to mirror this almost like a frozen Garden of Eden, where penguins, seals, birds and whales abound and are fearless of humans. However this special ecosystem that is actually in a state of collapse due to rapid climate change, and that is what brought me there. I am so lucky to have been able to experience this place.

I want to thank everyone who has encouraged me in writing this blog - it has been a revelation and an unexpected source of joy for me. If you enjoyed reading this, please stay tuned for my travels in South Asia beginning in May!

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