Thursday, August 30, 2007

Baby's first McMurdo drag, and FAQ's, part 1

Well, they say you really haven't arrived at McMurdo until you've seen someone in drag, and I got my initiation last night. Apparently, the boys here loooooove to dress up, and do so often and with gusto, and fortunately for me, a few friends dressed up last night for some sauna hijinks. Man, they looked purty. I'm promised that this will be the first of many many McMurdo drag sightings, and so I'm looking forward to a good year. That's life in Antarctica.

Speaking of life in Antarctica, let's get to a few of your questions. These have built up over many many months, and we'll just call this part one of my FAQs. (And when you go to Antarctica, and people find out, there are a lot of questions that are frequently asked.) So here we go...

1. What the (*%#% are you doing in Antarctica?

Good question, and eloquently stated here by friend Greg ....

I am here doing the glamorous work of sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, vacuuming hallways and cleaning up the dust and detritus of this crazy little town. That's right, I'm a janitor here. Actually, a LEAD janitor, for all you title snobs, but basically, call me a jano, and very very happy to be one.

2. Why did you want to go to Antarctica in the first place?

Before you read my answer, ask yourself, now that you know you can get here, why don't YOU want to go to Antarctica?

I think it's pretty cool that you can hop on a plane and get to this place that, when I was a kid in elementary school, never even dreamed I could get to. I think it's awesome that I, with very few useful skills, can live in this environment that very brave and skilled men died getting to. I think that this community is the first community since my days at Northwestern that has really stimulated me, and it's the most unique society of which I've ever been privileged to be a part. I wanted to come here for the adventure, and for the community, and because I want to visit all of the continents in my lifetime, and because it comes with a free trip to New Zealand, and because I could. So that's why I wanted to go. You should think about trying to get here too.

3. How do you get to Antarctica?

Couple of ways to answer this question.

Physically, I traveled to Denver for a few days of orientation, and then hopped a plane to Los Angeles, where I connected with a plane to Auckland, New Zealand, and then (after a very long layover, and ultimately cancelled flight) hopped a plane to Christchurch, New Zealand. I spent a few days in Christchurch (and stayed, for the first time, at the YMCA! It was awesome!) and got fit with Extreme Cold Weather gear (that's ECW, for short) and hopped a plane for McMurdo Station! Total air time? Mmmmm... about 3 hours to LA, 12 or 13 to Auckland, 1 more to Christchurch and about 5 hours to the base. So there you go! That's how I got to Antarctica.

Now really, how did I get the chance to be here? Really really really wanted to go, and bought a ticket to Denver in April to attend THE job fair you go to to get hired here. I waited in very long lines, and worked the room like I've never worked a room before. I handed out many resumes and did my best to convince everyone I met that they wanted to hire me. Ultimately, I was offered three jobs -- I could have been a dining attendant at the South Pole, a lead janitor here at McMurdo, or a fire dispatcher at McMurdo. After a lot of thought, I accepted the janitor position, because janos get to get outside all the time, and see the entire town, whereas dispatchers sit in isolation. Also, I think I would rather clean pee off of porcelain toilets than burnt cheese off of aluminum pans. That's just me. It's a personal decision we all have to make.

I was thrilled to have those choices, because it's honestly very difficult to procure a job here. This year, 70% of the people working here have been here before. There are PhDs scraping dishes, and airplane pilots scrubbing floors, and even former TV reporter/nurses scrubbing toilets. I know, because that's me! We all do it for the adventure and privilege of being here.

4. Why did you want to give up nursing to be a janitor?

First of all, giving up nursing was easy. Nuf said. Of course, I will probably end up doing it once again in my lifetime, but it's sure nice to have a break! Giving up working in TV news was much much much more difficult than giving up nursing, which I did without a second thought. (Nurses do enough janitor work anyway. Ever repeatedly cleaned up a bed full of poo?)

I would have done just about any job to get here. So, janitor it is.

5. What's it like there?

Let's see... freaking beautiful comes to mind, for a start. Every day, I step outside and am greeted by the most amazing vista of pure white mountains. Then, when we get a glimpse of sunlight (not the sun, because we can't see that here yet) the mountains turn pink and orange and yellow and they just glow. They're pretty far away, but they look like magic. I have to pinch myself because I just can't believe I'm here. Sometimes I picture myself standing on the globe and feel like I'm upside-down! Ha!

I live in a dorm, and eat in a cafeteria, which really reminds me very much of my freshman year in college. I have a roommate (and will soon have two more!) and life progresses very much like college life except I work instead of taking classes. We work 10 hour days, six days a week, and for this, I get paid less in a week than I made in a day travel nursing. Almost everyone has Sunday off.

McMurdo Station is like a town, with all of the things that make a town tick. Three bars, a post office, a chapel, waste management, a sewage facility, wastewater facility, dorms, a cafeteria, a carpenter shop, a heavy machinery shop, warehouses, a fire house, a little hospital/clinic. But mostly, it's here for science, and the support of scientists. It is the only official reason the U.S. Antarctica bases exist (there are three, this one, one at the South Pole, and one directly below Chile, called Palmer Station.) All of the places I mentioned here exist (officially) to support the efforts of peace and science. (One might argue that most of the countries that have bases down here also wouldn't mind getting a piece of the oil action that may or may not exist here too, but that's another debate.) But in reality, right now, McMurdo really is all about the science. Geology, climatology, weather balloons, ice core drilling, Antarctic wildlife ... I am here to clean the station that supports the scientists. All of this is managed by the National Science Foundation. (I work for NANA, which is subcontracted by Raytheon, which is subcontracted by the NSF, blah blah blah.)

Right now, I am here at a time the Antarctic program calls Winfly. Think of it like the Antarctic spring. The program flies three planes of people here to get ready for Mainbody, which is when this little town gets swamped with people. There are about 300 of us here now. In October, that number will grow to 1000+, in a matter of weeks. So there's a lot of elbow room here now, and we are mix of new people and winter-overs (people who stayed here for the Antarctic winter, which is summer for the US.)

Alright, that's enough for now. Tune in next time for answers to other great questions, like, what's the weather like here? What's a FNG? Do penguins taste like chicken? And please, keep your questions coming, because it gives me something to talk about!

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