Saturday, December 29, 2007

Members of the 26th Indian Antarctic Expedition

You already know that I am member of the 27th IAE. However, the previous batch, 26th, is also here and is on the verge of finishing its winter period. It, 24 of them, came here exactly 390 days ago and still has 75 more days to go. Its leader and Station Commander is Mr. D Jaypaul, Director, Geological Survey of India, Logistics leader is Col Suresh Kumar of Corps of Engineers, Indian Army, and it has 2 doctors, namely, Dr Ganesh Chaudhry and Dr Udaya Uthappa. There are 4 scientists (one each from GSI, IIG, NGRI, SASE), 2 doctors as above (one surgeon and one anaesthetist), two experts from the Indian Meteorological Deptt (to record weather related data and make forecasts on weather esp. on low pressure, wind speed, and possibility of a blizzard), 2 communication experts, and 16 members of the logistics team. What an important and crucial role the Logistics Team plays in the success of the Expedition and the Station, I shall tell you some other day. Cook is Mr. Ram Das from Indo-Tibetan Border Police and fulfils perhaps one of the most important roles of the Team. Everybody tries to keep him in good humour because their health and mood depends on him.

Currently this is the transition period when the Logistics members of the both the Teams will work together in cooperation for final handover. Since, the entire Team of 27th IAE is yet to arrive by ship (by end of December), that's why this long transition. I am one of the early birds of our Team.

Contrary to my expectations, I found the members of 26th Team in very cheerful mood, high spirits and full energy levels. We were given a very warm reception. The team members get along with one another very well. They all look fit with no obesity or apparent weight loss. A number of them have developed and acquired new hobbies and skills. Ram Das who had not played Carom in his life and did not know how to hold or move striker, now challenges other accomplished players of the game, no matter if he loses. Many have discovered their singing talents under the watchful eye of Mr. Jeeva who himself is an accomplished piano-accordion player. Hence S K Singh, Rajbir Singh, Virender Bisht, Pankaj, Ganesh are the frontline singers of any cultural evening. Ganesh has now a thick note book full of songs that he has mastered. At other times he can be found in the gym developing his biceps and triceps. Rajan, Gurdeep, Om Dutt can dance to their music the whole night. Gosain and Sanjay have turned out to be expert masters of ceremony who would enthrall the audience with their own 'shaayari' (Urdu poetry). Pyrography is the new art which most of the members like Om Dutt, Ram Baksh, Suresh, GS Rao, Virender, Tej Ram, Shankar et al have mastered. They produce a piece of art on wood with a hot wire. Good quality wood is available in plenty from the boxes which bring equipment. Many have handled computer for the first time in life and acquired skills to write emails and keeping their journal as a new mode of communication. Sriniwas provides IT solutions to all.

Virender has become an expert in Adobe Photoshop and is always in demand for giving finishing touches to members' photographic efforts. Tripathi and others will give Kapoors and Khannas a run for their money when it comes to trying new dishes and recipes. I am sure once they reach home, they will put their wives and mothers to shame in kitchen, not only by making delicious dishes but keeping the kitchen and kitchenware neat and tidy. Niyas is an expert hairdresser now and all the members depend on him for their hairstyles. He can start a successful salon back home. Udaya is an outdoor man and is a regular member of any short or long distance convoy. He has done a survey of animal life all by himself driving a snowmobile and going around the ice-shelves holding a GPS. He did it with the advice/suggestion/request of Secretary, and has received a letter of appreciation for his work.

Fortunately, there have been no health hazards during one year stay of this team. The usual health problems have been dental, mild rise of BP, or aches and pains.

Tobacco consumption and increased alcoholism have been described as a few of the health hazards of Antarctic wintering. Most of the smokers of this Team have given up smoking, and only 5 of the 25 now take alcohol that too on functions only. At the time of arrival in Antarctic nearly half were regular or social drinkers. The station quota of whiskey and beer is still lying unused.

This is not to say that there have never been any problems. Like any other groups this batch also had its lows and highs. The period of polar nights was especially stressful when members were confined within the station only with no or only very limited outdoor activity. People tended to become easily irritable or took offense easily. For example, 'you did not wish me when you saw me' or 'you said you were going to toilet but you are sitting in the lounge' etc. However, even if there were sparks flying many times, there was never any physical fisticuffs. There was no reporting of any increase in alcohol or tobacco consumption. On directly enquiring the 2 doctors, it did not appear that anybody suffered from any detectable depression, leave alone psychotic phenomena. All these behavioural changes have been reported in the literature, and also periodically from different batches of IAE. The 26th IAE Team has put a big challenge to the team of the 27th IAE. How the wintering members of 27th IAE will behave? I am sure they will accept the challenge to equal them, if not surpass them, and rise to the occasion.

Dessert, Trading, and Pranayama

Dessert in White Desert

With every evening meal there is dessert. There is more variety than the choice of vegetables. Of course, the most favourite remains the ice cream. People fill their bowl from party pack till it starts spilling over. It is, Frosty, some brand from Goa. I am usually cautious in taking ice cream from unheard brands, but more than that it is the flavours that are available here. There is vanilla, which I can take only if it has been tempered by Chitra with chocolate sauce and caramelized walnuts. The other brand, strawberry, I do not like. Then there is some orange looking flavour called malta-orange which I find quite unappealing. Fresh hot gulab-jamun (made from Gits) is another favourite dessert, and I know at least one whose appetite for it is not less than15-20. My favourite desserts here remain very traditional ones, daal-halwa, besan-ki-burfi or laddoo, and chikki. Of course, the most favourite for me remains jalebi which a Bihari babu has convinced me to take with yoghurt.

Trading in White Desert

Strange but true. And trading is not in snow, ice, or fresh sweet pure water which is available in plenty. Trading is also not for future resources of oil and gas or other precious minerals. In Maitri a brisk but covert trading is going on among the members of 26th and 27th team members. It is in cigarettes, bidi (traditional Indian cigarette), rum or whiskey, and blank CDs. It has so happened that the tobacco and alcohol using members of 26th IAE brought their individual stocks of these items to tide over the winter period. However, a number of them gave up use of tobacco and alcohol here, and have with them unused stocks of these items. Many members of 27th IAE perhaps overestimated their resolve to give up on these habits at Antarctica, and hence brought very limited stocks with them which has exhausted long ago. Though alcohol is served on house on celebrations and functions, some people crave more often. The members of 26th Team have found a ready market for their wares. Members willingly part with or share other items very happily, but some things are more precious and in short supply than the others. (no prizes for guessing what goods) Some still having a few to spare are doing a brisk business.

Pranayama, the Breathing Exercises

Many of us have been here initiated into Pranayama. Every morning there are two groups practicing it, one in the Maitri station and the other in the summer camp. I have also begun on it with the fond hope that it takes care of my chronic sinusitis (which I suffer mostly in Delhi and not in Himalayas). The leader of our group is Sundar who is an accomplished practitioner and can continue to do these exercises for 2 hours at stretch with no sign of boredom or fatigue. He advises us that pranayama should become a part of all our daily activities. I have seen him dancing here, and his movements follow the rhythm of his pranayama breathing rather than the music. One morning I was stupefied while having my bath when I heard his characteristic breathing synchronizing with his pouring water on himself. I have a mind to ask him some day if he makes love in sync with his pranayama.

Christmas Celebrations

Of course it is X-mas and first of all I must wish you a very Merry Christmas. I hope you all had a good time. I have just come back to my hut after the Christmas celebrations in the Maitri lounge.

The Maitri Lounge was decorated with posters, star, Christmas trees (of course, artificial), lights and small figurines of Virgin Mary and Christ. Ten people came from the Russian station bringing a boxful of fresh vegetables (valuable gift), and a Canadian couple also joined. This couple runs the tourist agency, White Desert, and has just entertained a group of 10 tourists. Another 2 groups are awaited. We began the programme with the prayer, "ae maalik tere bande hum" and since I had suggested and given the lyric I was asked to lead it. And then I also became the MC by default. I also read out the Christmas message from Bible in Hindi and English. We sang 4 carols: Joy to the World; Sing Nowell, Nowell; We Long to See the so; and finally, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, when Santa Claus made his grand appearance bringing gifts for all of us.

Shiv & Uma blessed with a baby

Yes, that is how I have named the skua pair. One egg has hatched; the other is still under Uma's warmth waiting to hatch. News came a couple of days ago, but I could manage to go to that area yesterday only. Once I was in that area Shiv made a few sorties in the air to investigate and warn me. I normally keep away so as to not disturb them, particularly Uma whose body warmth is so essential for the nest. From a distance without alarming them I could manage to see white head of the newly born chick with black bill and eyes protruding underneath Uma's belly. Since I have now a powerful zoom, I could manage some good shots. Shiv was in the background making noises all this while. Suddenly I saw that Uma also stood up on her legs exposing the chick and making shrill calls, and before I could realize what was happening she was airborne. I realized it soon enough when I saw Shiv and Uma chasing another pair of skua which had intruded into their airspace posing a threat to their nest. She could trust me to leave her chick fully exposed to fight the threatening intruders. Within a few minutes they had successfully chased away the intruders and came back to the nest. The scene of the reunion of the three in the nest was so touching with Shiv and Uma spreading their wings touching each other and giving very reassuring calls to the young one. I was very lucky with my reflexes to start my Sony as well as Canon on time to capture live footage of the nest, dogfights in the air, and the reunion. That was perhaps the best Christmas gift I could have asked for.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Solstice

Today is 23rd December. This day carries the same significance in Antarctica as elsewhere. That is, the Sun now will travel from East to West northwards. Practically this means that in the northern hemisphere the days will start getting longer, while in Antarctica, the days will start getting shorter. Though there will still be 24-hour day, but one may look forward to nights, stars and moon in days to come. The Sun will set completely towards the end of January to have night for 4 minutes only.

The northbound Sun, Uttarayan, has other significance too in India. People attain 'nirvana' if they leave this world during this period of 6 months. In the great Indian epic, Mahabharat, the great warrior, Bhishm, was gifted in postponing death till the time of his choice. During the final battle when he falls down with Arjun's arrows all over his body, he keeps away death since he wished to leave for his heavenly abode only after the start of Uttarayan to achieve nirvana or moksha.

I have just finished reading 'A Mountain in Tibet. The Search for Mount Kailash and the Sources of the Great Rivers of India' by Charles Allen. It is very informative and tells us about the British explorations in Tibet to trace the sources and paths of great rivers of India which originate in the Kailash-Manasarovar region, namely, Indus, Brahmputra, Sutlej, and Karnali (of which Alaknanda is a main branch and in turn one of the two major tributaries of Ganga, the other being Bhagirathi). It narrates exploration of one Swede, Sven Hedin, a bold and most ambitious explorer. Once he had made up his mind to attain a particular object no consideration of other people's feelings, conveniences or even safety was ever allowed to deflect him. I quote from his own book, 'My Life as An Explorer', "Happy is the boy who discovers the bent of his lifework during childhood. At the age of twelve my goal was fairly clear". It is a very different matter, though, that in 1952 he at 87 died a lonely, friendless and neglected man in his own country because of his unorthodox and at times unethical methods and his supporting Adolf Hitler.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Some photographs

Please enjoy the following photographs. I'm not very good with my new camera as yet, however hope this gives you some idea of my journey, and the Antarctica landscape.





Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Antarctica - the India connection

In all our great epics like various Puranas (Vishnu Puran, Shiv Puran) or Shri Mad-Bhagwat or Vedas written 3000-5000 years ago, there is uniform mention of seven continents in this universe. During my schooling days 45 years ago, our books and teachers taught us the Earth consisting of five continents only, while at home mother read the stories from these epics telling us of seven continents. Finally now the world recognizes the Earth to have seven continents with America now divided into two continents, South and North, and Antarctica being recognized as the seventh. So, Indian sages recognized Antarctica even in the ancient times! You all have read the story of Kumbh Karan, the younger brother of demon king Ravan in the famous India epic Ramayan. Kumbh Karan was known for many things, the most important being his sleep pattern of sleeping for 6 months and remaining awake for the next 6 months. Was he living or ruling over Antarctica?

Antarctica has many kinds of snow and ice. Only some of them have been named and described. One such formation is 'sastrugi' in which for miles there are dunes like formation of ice as sand-dunes in deserts. These ice-dunes or sastrugi can be as tall as 10 meters. Mr Arun Chaturvedi, a senior scientist at Geological Survey of India, narrates interestingly the possible origin of this name in his book 'Antarctica: rochak and romantic'. He once met a European sailor who had been working in Antarctica for 20 years. He had searched in many languages including that of Eskimos to find out origin this word 'sastrugi'. He wanted to know if any Indian language had a similar word. Mr Chaturvedi recollected the name of a demon in Indian epics, 'Sahastra Tung' meaning thousands summits. Did his word, sahastra, gradually become sastrugi?
India and Antarctica are connected to each other otherwise also.

Around 200 million years ago, Antarctica was joined with Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand in the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Ten million years later, Gondwanaland began the enormously slow process of breaking into the pieces we recognize today, and continents, subcontinents and islands began moving into their present positions. By 70 million years ago, the continents were becoming widely separated, the Drake Passage opened, and Antarctica made its final detachment from another continents and, Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand went their own ways. By about 45 million years ago, Antarctica had settled into its present polar position and began to cool dramatically. There is theory and prediction that in distant future running into billions of years all the detached pieces of Gondwanaland will unite together once again. (Refer to United States Geological Survey website).

German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, noticing the shapes of the continents bordering the Atlantic, was the first to suggest (c1800) that they might once have been joined. Austrian Eduard Suess, in 1885, was the first to propose that there had been a southern supercontinent. Suess gave it the name Gondwanaland, derived from Gondwana, the historic region in central India (occupied by the Gond people) where fossil strata similar to that of other widely removed continents was found - and thus supporting the supercontinent theory. The Godavari basin between the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra has many features similar to Antarctica.

India once again reestablished its relationship with Antarctica when Late Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, founded Department of Ocean Development in 1981 and launched Operation Gangotri to work out logistics for Antarctic Expedition. In December 1981, the first expedition of 21 members sailed from Goa and stepped on Antarctica on 9 January, 1982. In 1983, India established its first station, Dakshin Gangotri which allowed the expeditions to spend the entire year at Antarctica. However, being on an ice-shelf, it gradually sunk into ice, and then in 1988 new and present station, Maitri, was built on Schirmachor hills (an oasis of rocks in midst of ice and snow). India is soon launching its third station at Larsmann Hills.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Difficulties of Day Excursion

Though the day excursions are always welcome and I am always looking for an opportunity to tag along with any party going for field work, there are many inconveniences one has to face and handled. First is putting on a few layers of clothing. Then one has to wear thick polar gloves which make handling cameras or any other activity difficult. Then there is balaclava and the snow glasses (like the one used in skiing) etc. And then I carry two cameras. They also prove heavy if you are negotiating a glacier or walking on a frozen lake or descending or ascending through big uneven boulders. I have to carry cameras in thick protective cases so that the battery compartment remains warm enough to prevent malfunctioning and early discharge. In midst of all this it is very easy to lose any article. I have to take off gloves or snow glasses repeatedly to handle camera, or remove balaclava when it gets too warm. I have already lost a pair of gloves but for no fault of mine.

Though my constant wear eye-glasses are fully UV safe, I put on big snow glasses too on top of them as they provide good shield to eyes, nose and forehead against wind. The moisture freezes frequently on my glasses. To wipe them clean means taking off gloves, snow glasses and balaclava too. Quite a task! Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better with contact lenses or having a laser surgery done to get rid of glasses completely and save all this bother. I can see Ishu smiling.

I no longer carry cameras in the cases. Instead I hang both the cameras around my neck on either side of sternum underneath my polar jacket or jerkin. This keeps them warm and they remain handy. However, it gives me a funny look which becomes funnier if I stuff my gloves also there to avoid losing them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Bird Attack!

It had remained quite windy yesterday, but today late morning it started getting better, and now at 7 pm there is no wind. I went out for a walk with NK (a colleague) and then a skua tried attacking us. Perhaps we had gone very near its nest. I had seen its shadow hovering over us, but suddenly I realized this shadow was right near my feet, small and dark. I realized immediately it was right over my head. I saw it just 1 ft away from my head with menacing eyes and open claws. Its beak is like that of eagle or kite since it is a hunter and scavenger. Its pet birds for hunting are snow petrel and young Adelie penguins. I tried to shoo it away by sound and moving my hand. But it was not to be scared. I had my camera with me and I started rotating it above my head vigorously since I did not want to be attacked on my face. I was not wearing big snow glasses. NK tried to protect himself with a screw-driver that he was carrying. It attacked the screw-driver a few times, and then flew away. By this time we had also moved away from its supposed nest.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Visit to a Russian Station

ANTARCTICA ON 05.12.2007:

Today six of us walked to the Russian station, Novo. It is about 5 km away surrounded on 3 sides by ice-shelf, so the minimum temperature goes much below as compared to the Indian station. As per protocol, our leader, Mr. D. Jay Paul, had informed telephonically the leader of the Russian station about our arrival. Today there has been no sun, it is cloudy all over and has been snowing intermittently. So walk of one and a half hour was not exhausting at all. On the way we met a penguin, Adelie, who was on the frozen part of the lake and swam across on seeing us to welcome us. Since they are not used to human presence, they are not shy of us humans.
We were received by the Russian leader, Mr. Eugene Savchenko, an oenologist. Basically he is a veteran of Arctic for last 30 years. This is his first time in Antarctica and has joined the team as its leader since February, 2007 and will depart only in March, 2008 taking 45 days to reach St Petersburg. He himself is not carrying out any scientific project. He is with a team of 30 persons, and on my asking specifically on the gender ratio, I was surprised to learn that it is also all-man station. No woman! I had thought that it was basically an Indian-station phenomenon, though in past a few women have done summer period as well as wintering too at Maitri. At Russian station once they allowed the leader to bring his wife; however, observing other members' frustrations and resentments, it was never repeated. The current Russian team has its oldest person at 60 and youngest at 26, with majority falling between 30-40. I asked him about his experiences as a leader. He finds managing a big scientific project much easier that managing 30 men in closed proximity. The time of the polar nights between May 22 to June 23 is the hardest on people when they tend to get touchy and easily irritable. People get annoyed easily. Then how does he handle them? He tries to talk to them and tries to assuage their feelings saying that it is a question of another 6 months now. 'Six months! the person screams and gives him a look that would kill a faint-hearted leader. Very seldom members come to him to share personal problems or unload their emotions. He too avoids touching on their raw nerves.

This Russian station, Novo, was established in 1961, and now Russia has 5 stations for wintering (meaning active all the year around) and 3 stations for the summer season only. They have one, Vostok, at the South Pole itself. Some other CIS countries, like Ukraine, Estonia and perhaps Kazakhstan, have one summer station each.

A Bird's Nest

A pair of skua has built a nest in the vicinity. To call it a nest would be a joke. When people told me about it, I thought it would be under some rocks or boulders. But no, it is right there in the open ground with no shade or cushion. Many birds that we know of back home, also make nests in the ground but use grass and twigs for cushioning. Of course, there is no grass or any twig in Antarctica. It would be fascinating to follow the hatching and growing of chicks. Before the winter sets in March, they will fly away to warmer islands.

By Antarctican standards, it is all summer now. The max temp is hovering around 0 degree. The size of the frozen blue lakes is shrinking, I mean, the ice is fast melting into water. I also do not have to wear too many layers of clothing. Though balaclava and hand gloves are still needed when I go for walks. But for shorter walks of 10-15 min, just one jacket over normal clothing is OK.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Getting up in the middle of the night

I have already written about 24-hour day here that continues day after day, or month after month during summer time. This in itself is a very unique and strange experience initially. The funniest feeling I get when I get up in middle of the night at about 2 am to pee. The summer team lives in the 'living module' and toilets are situated outside. Expecting dead of the night, you feel very strange when you find bright sunshine outside. The first though that strikes you is that you are late for the day, but then you remind yourself that just now you saw the time as 2 am. The stranger feeling is when I compare it with my getting up in middle of the night while on treks in the Himalayas. On those treks we usually stay in the tents and for peeing we have to walk a little distance away from the living area. The darkness is at its maximum as there is no source of light near or far that could provide even some psychological satisfaction. The small torch lights up only a small area in front of you. The wind, its sound, and swaying of trees and bushes make the whole scene a bit scary. Even if you do not believe in ghosts, all invisible ghosts come alive. When you succeed in driving away this fear, the reality of your stepping on a crawling object (read snake/scorpion) with disastrous consequences is always there. Or the possibilities of a Himalayan bear suddenly coming out from behind the bush to give you a hug like a long lost friend. However, in Antarctica there is no such fear. Even with a wind of 100 kmph there is not a blade of grass to shake, no crawling objects, and no ghosts. And no bear here, the famous white polar bear lives in North Pole (Arctic) and not in Antarctica.