Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Reached Larsemann Hills

We reached the Latitude of 69 degree South and Longitude of 76 degree East this morning. This is where Larsemann Hill is.

When I had boarded the ship on the 13th February from Maitri, I thought my days of daily new experiences and excitements were over. I could not have been more wrong. Till our journey so far, the ship has opened new vistas of excitements never experienced before. The ship will not anchor on the coast line of Larsemann Hill. It will continue to move in circles at speed of half or less knot. The scene around us is mind boggling. So many icebergs, all of different shapes and sizes, and each different from the other! I wish I could send you the photographs right away, though the photographs, how vivid they may be, will never be able to capture the awe of these icebergs. And since the ship is circling, each iceberg is presenting its different shape and design with each turn. Any one specializing in the study of ocean (Oceanography) and glaciers (Glaciology) will be delighted for his life time to come here. And it is also a paradise for iceberg climbers. I have been fortunate here to obtain Mariners’ Handbook to know about ice and icebergs. That there will be a nomenclature of icebergs too was a revelation.

About Larsemann Hill

Why: Larsemann Hill presents a very different scenario as compared to the sites of India’s earlier stations, Maitri and Dakshin Gangotri. This area is free of ice and consists of a large number of scattered islands full of rocks and providing very different climate and working environment. The average temperature is 6-7 C higher than that of Maitri and the average wind speed/gust is also lower at 30 knots. Thus, being landlocked it is a safer terrain. It is also closer to Australia (? Approx 1400 km), and India too being at the same longitude.
In any station in Antarctica the major challenge is organizing logistics and managing convoys in all-weather stations. For Maitri, which is approx 120 km from the Indian ice shelf or Indian bay, managing convoys with the help of snow vehicles is a major task for the station commander. This problem will be greatly reduced at Larsemann Hill. The station will be as close to the shore line as 05 km. However, for the ship to come as close to the shore line as possible, bathymetric studies will be required. Bathymetry is the scientific study of the ocean bed. The plan is to design and fabricate a metallic barge measuring 40 ft with self-propelled engine to ferry at least two containers from the ship to the shore line. With the help of cranes, the containers would be hauled up on a track reaching 70 m height and then towed to the Indian station by heavy duty vehicles. The new station will be built at a height of approx 45 m above mean sea level (msl).

Monday, February 25, 2008

100 Days in Antarctica

Today I complete 100 days in Antarctica. Not many summer members achieve this feat. Five of us have achieved this distinction. In the morning I was wondering what story I should write to you people on this occasion. Lot of my experiences I have already shared with you. However, the day itself brought lot of excitement.

Just before noon time, the ship had slowed down quite a bit; she was just crawling. I went to the bridge to investigate. And lo and behold, she had entered zone of pack ice. The ocean was full of only ice and ice till the horizon. I could see white and white only all around me or rather around the ship. The ice was in pieces of size varying from a dinning table to a swimming pool. Pack ice is a stage during the freezing of ocean at the beginning of winter. First there is grease ice, and then it thickens resulting into pancake ice which coalesces to form pack ice. All these pieces of pack ice join together to form an unending sheet, the fast ice; this fast ice is frozen sea. In olden days, during the transformation of pack ice into fast ice, ship would break into pieces if trapped. With the onset of summer the ocean (fast ice) breaks or melts into reverse order. With February nearing its end, ocean will not melt further but will start getting transformed into fast ice from late March. The ship was navigating very slowly. On the bridge there were four crew members instead of usual two. The ice captain, full captain during Antarctica voyage, had also parked himself there constantly looking ahead. The wind speed was just 2-4 knots and ship was cruising at 4 knots or less. Last night she was gaining speed of up to 12 knots. I asked the captain if it was usual to have this much pack ice during this time of the year. He said it is sometimes less dense, sometimes more dense. I asked again what about this year. He replied in two words: TOO MUCH.

I had my first sighting of Emperor Penguins (remember March of Penguins), though it was only a small group and a bit far away. I also saw many small and big groups of Adelie penguins. There were many Weddell seals, lazily basking under the sun. They were mostly single. During mating season they would huddle together.
In the evening there was a party in the dinning hall. The leader gave many reasons for celebrating. I added one more about some of us having completed 100 years. I must go again to the bridge. The ship is having frequent jerks; she is hitting pack ice again and again. Do not worry, no risk. It is an ice class ship.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Seasickness Is No Fun

The sea continues to play truant. It was relatively calm this morning, but again since the afternoon the wave seem to have the grade of Force 8 at least with wind speed going around 35 knots, waves moderately high above 5 m and foam everywhere. There has been considerable rolling and pitching now, more pitching. So far I have felt OK for the entire day, but now I am doubtful if it remains like this for some more time.

This morning no breakfast was prepared. Yesterday lot of food was wasted. Even eggs and fried fish which are favourite items with the members had to be trashed. Hence this morning breakfast was done away with. The hardier ones were requested to help themselves with toast, cereals and whatever hot or cold beverage of their choice.

The ship is literally in the eye of the storm. The storm is building up not so much due to the wind but by three or four systems of sea swells. I am learning new terminology used on the ship. I have already explained the port side and starboard side. Swells are huge sea waves (opposite to currents) caused by the Earth’s magnetic force. There is constant rolling or pitching going on since morning. Right now at 10:30 pm when I am writing this mail, the rolling and pitching have suddenly increased. The water bottle has fallen on the floor. I am sitting tentatively on the chair. I have put all my cameras etc in drawers which fortunately are well secured and should not open just like that. Though I am working on the laptop, yet I am keeping an eye on it too. I can hear the roar of the waves from my room. The nights have finally become dark, so I can not see anything outside. Number of people coming for meals has decreased a little bit. I am holding on so far, but if the rolling and pitching continues with increased intensity, I may bear its impact. The ship will try to navigate away from this swell and storm, but if it is too large, it will have no choice. At the eye of the storm, the impact is least.

Yesterday throughout the journey the passage was littered with icebergs of all shapes and sizes, some upto 1 km long. On our return journey, we shall see much larger icebergs. Today, however, we are in the ice free zone. The icebergs have suddenly disappeared. Some solitary ones are seen at far distance.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some Facts on M.V. Emerald Sea

I got up much better this morning having slept better and getting accustomed to the ship movements. This morning too, the wind speed had remained near 40 knots, considered moderately high, causing lot of currents in the sea and making the ship pitch. I have remained much comfortable.

I gave a big load of laundry for wash to the stewardess against the advice of others. They have complained about their garments getting discolored in the heavy duty washing machine. After trying once and having suffered, they now wash their own clothes in the washing machines meant for the guests. But then, there are no fully automatic washing machines in the wash room meant for the guests. It means to handle three stage operation of washing, rinsing and drying. After being used to the full automatic machine I do not want to spend so much time on three machines. So I am ready to take the risk. In any case, most of my garments are the ones that I use on my treks etc. They have remained faithful to me all these years, so no worries. The white undergarments, even if they get colored, will be under the garments. I have just collected my wash and all my clothes have come back unscathed.

We are moving from the coordinates of latitude 70 South and longitude 11 East to latlong of 69 South and 76 East. Both these coordinates determine position of any place and its time zone respectively. We are now traveling in the longitude of 20 East meaning thereby that we are moving ahead of GMT. The ship which was maintaining GMT so far, will now have time of GMT +1.


Some basic facts about the ship:

The name of the ship is M.V. Emerald Sea. It sails under the flag of Liberia, and its port of registry is Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. Though it is a Greek ship, however, it is registered in Liberia to save on huge taxes. Liberia is a small poor country of Africa, but can boast of a large number of ships registered with it. Similarly, Panama in South America is also a tax haven for the shipping owners. Emerald Sea is registered as a General Cargo ship.

The ship was built in October, 1984 at Finland for the then USSR. After the division of USSR, it was acquired by a Greek company, Eastland Shipping Company. It is operated by Elmira Shipping and Trading S.A. Now it has a Captain from Greece, and one Ice Captain who is Russian. The Ice Captain is a technical person who commands the ship during its Antarctica voyage and stay. It has one Radio Officer who remains on duty from 8 am to 8 pm. The Navigation Room, also called Bridge, is managed round the clock in shifts by a team of two persons. Each team works for four hours and then gets a rest of 8 hours, so works for 8 hours in a day.

Thus, currently the ship has a Captain, an Ice Captain, one Ice Navigator, one Chief Officer, one Second Officer, and one Third Officer. There is one Radio Officer. The Chief Engineer is assisted by four engineers as First, Second, Third, and Fourth engineer. There is one Electric Engineer. The engineers responsible for day to day running of the engine and its maintenance are assisted by one Bosun (you may call him supervisor; he reports directly to the Chief Officer), four ABS (able seamen) and four auxiliaries, one fitter, one tuner, four oilers, one wiper, one cook and four stewards. Thus there is a work force of just 30 men and women. Other than the Captain, all the staff is Russian. In olden days, such a ship would command an all-men crew of hundreds.
The length of the ship is 177 m, breadth 25 m, and height from keel to the mast is 50 m. The weight of the ship is more than 18,000 ton and can carry a load of more than 19,000 ton; more than its own weight.

Emerald Sea is ‘A’ category ice class ship. During Antarctica summer it is, of course, in Antarctica. It has contract with India for three years till March this year.
Ice class ship is different from an ice-breaker. Ice class ship breaks the frozen ice on the sea (fast ice or pack ice) with its movement and weight. The ice breaker, on the other hand, has very powerful blades to cut the fast ice or pack ice.

In calm waters, it notches a speed up to 20 knots; however, in Antarctica with high wind and frequent pack ice and icebergs, its speed remains at 10 knots or below. Even at this low speed, the strong wind and currents make such a heavy ship roll (move side to side) and pitch (move up and down).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Getting Used To the Ship

It is nearly 24 hours now on the ship; I am getting used to the geography of the ship. Zero floor is the engine room, a small gym with swimming pool, and stores; first floor is our kitchen and the dinning hall; on second floor we have our lounge and living rooms; third floor has the washing machines and living rooms; fourth floor is entirely for living rooms of the Russian crew; fifth floor has some living rooms and some restricted area; on top of this are the radio room, navigation hall and observation deck. Hence the radio room (where we make our tele calls) and the observation deck (also called bridge) are very near to my room. By the way, this room has been finally allotted to me for sole occupancy till we reach Goa. Sorry, I got my fact wrong yesterday saying it was on starboard side. No, my room is on the port side meaning that when ship is sailing it is on the left side facing the port. Though there is an elevator, I use stairs for my climbing up and down.

This morning the wind speed had remained 40 knots, usually choppers don’t fly at this speed. However, since another low area is developing over this area which will continue for eight days, these New Zealanders decided to finish the job in the morning: if some job is to be done, it is better done, one of them said. Creditable work ethics. Some men were to be dropped at Maitri, some were to be brought here; loads were to be shifted from the ship to Maitri and the ice shelf. I too participated in this ‘shramdaan’ full time. By lunch it was over. Mr Arun Chaturvedi, leader of the 27th IAE was here and he made a brief ‘thank you and farewell’ speech. I am also getting better in welcome and farewell speeches and made a brief speech myself at the end on behalf of all of us and in response to his thanks. Now our leader is Mr Ajay Dhar from Indian Instt of Geomagnetism (IIG) and veteran of two winters with one as leader.

We should start sailing now towards Larsemann Hill tomorrow morning and will take almost 7-10 days to reach there. The Survey of India team and other scientists will take seven working days to finish off their job. Now it is anyone’s guess how many days this much period will require. Now the time is fast approaching for frequent bad weather. In any case, as per Mr Chaturvedi himself (this is his fourth winter, third as leader), weather has never been so bad like this January and February in his entire experience of Antarctica. Time taken to reach Goa from Larsemann Hill now does not depend on nautical miles or ordinary miles, but entirely on the weather. Though only an ignorant person will hazard a guess, at the risk of proving myself totally wrong this day may be between 5th and 10th April.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Emerald Sea Starboard

Finally, finally, I have landed on the ship. The weather opened up only late evening yesterday when I saw my first star of Antarctica. And only one the most shining one; I am not good at star gazing, so could not identify. But surprisingly even veterans of 2 or 3 winters here could not make a guess what star it could be. I at least suggested venus since it is the most bright star on Indian sky and among the first one to become visible on an evening.

Since the morning it was becoming evident with all the bright sun that choppers would be making a landing. Most of us have shifted on the ship. I am on the 5th floor (top floor) in room 504 right now. In a day or two it will be clear whether I stay in this room and also if I remain the only occupant. Otherwise it has two bunker beds. The room is of OK size with a 6 ft long sofa, study table and chair. There is a small attached toilet cum bath. Once it becomes clear that I would remain the sole occupant then I shall clean it to my satisfaction. Right now it is not to my liking; it had remained unused for last 6 weeks.

I shall gradually tell you more about the ship and its life. But to my mind, it may not match Maitri in terms of experiences and my walks etc. However, it may have its compensation in marine life and ocean in its various forms. My room is on the 5th floor, while kitchen, sitting lounge and gym are on the first second and third floor. So in lieu of my walks I shall have my stair climbing.

The chopper flight was for 45 minutes flying at 500 m. Within a minute of leaving Maitri, it was ice, ice, and ice only, continuous, unbroken, and unending. The patterns on the ice were changing every minute. Any fabric designer will have patterns of unmatched, unparallel designs for his next season’s collections.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


The Waiting Game

Weather has shown some sign of improvement, though it is still not a clear sky. In the morning the wind speed was at 50 knots, not conducive for a chopper flight. Let us see how it turns out tomorrow morning. Waiting like this is very unproductive. No one is doing anything worthwhile. The scientists are having a field day busy in playing cards, game of chess or carom, sipping innumerable cups of tea and coffee. Only people involved in logistics are having a fixed daily schedule. They have to managed generators, boilers, power supply, water supply, heating, sewage, telecommunications, weather monitoring, and cooking every single day throughout the year. And of course, people on galley duty.

Two new wintering members have started sporting a French cut. They might have done for whatever reasons, but I like to think it is their trying to identify with me. There is nothing more flattering than another person trying to imitate you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lord Ganesh Around the Universe

I recently finished reading the book, "Misadventure in a White Desert" by Patrick Woodhead. His team was the youngest and fastest to reach South Pole in 45 days skiing 1100 km in formidable Antarctica interior. On reaching South Pole 90 degrees, he writes, "Just by taking a couple of paces, a person could walk round the world. They would cross every time zone on the planet, traverse every line of longitude. This was the end point, the place where everything converged." That reminded me the story of Lord Ganesha circumambulating the Universe.

We all know Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati have two sons, Karthik and Ganesha. Karthik is agile and powerful, and has a peacock to ride or fly on. Ganesha is obese and comical with a head of an elephant but very intelligent and full of wisdom. During those times too and inspite of being Gods' children they had a sibling rivalry between them. Once they fought over some issue and could not resolve it themselves. They approached their parents for deciding who the winner was. The parents suggested simple solution: to circumambulate the universe! Whosoever completes it first, would be the winner. Karthik, sure of his victory, immediately leaves on his peacock. Ganesha could not match Karthik when it comes to the power game, but he is wise and clever. He puts his both the parents on a spot, circumambulates around them saying that you only are my universe. He is declared the winner. Now, the question is, was Ganesha conversant with the principles of Geography and had he put his parents on the South Pole?

India and the Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty has some very interesting history in its signing in 1959. India's role in the Antarctica is also interesting since 1957 though its expeditions to Antarctica began only in 1981, and it became its voting or consultative member only in 1983.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed on December 1, 1959, and took effect on June 23, 1961.
Twelve nations signed the historic Antarctic Treaty in 1959 soon after the Inernational Geographical Year (IGY): Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States. Germany and Poland attained voting, or consultative status under the treaty from 1961. India and Brazil became the fifteenth and sixteenth nations with full voting treaty parties in September, 1983.

Antarctica had become a zone of conflicts in 1920s only when many countries began to claim large areas of Antarctica as their own. There were instances of armed conflict. Some stations were also burnt down. I have already told you (Naming of Schirmacher) that Hitler also began its ambition of gobbling up large part of Antarctica in 1938 only but was prevented from entering the fray on any serious note with the start of World War II.
Diplomats and politicians of claimant countries began negotiations soon after the WW II to come to some agreement in exploiting the potentials of Antarctica. However, an amicable agreement eluded them till Soviet Union managed to successfully launch its Sputnik, the first orbiting artificial satellite on 4th October, 1957. Sputnik demonstrated to the astonished Allies that the Soviets had the capability to send rockets over intercontinental distances. Besides its impact on Western defense strategy and foreign policy, Sputnik made Southern Hemisphere allies nervous that the Soviets may also exploit desert like conditions of Antarctica for nuclear purposes. Suddenly, their internecine disputes in Antarctica were dwarfed by the common fear of a Soviet military presence there. A formal accord among nations, including the Soviet Union, renouncing military activities there seemed the only way to forestall a costly arms race.

In 1956, and again in 1958, India had suggested that the United Nations take up Antarctica. Indian PM Jawaharlal Lal Nehru had initially proposed, and then dropped, his suggestion that the UN take up the Antarctic question. The claimant states successfully dissuaded India from pursuing the move further.

In September, 1983, the twelfth consultative meeting in Canberra, Australia opened with participation of its 14 consultative members. These 14 parties admitted two more-India and Brazil. These two countries did not share the original treaty nations' historic interests in Antarctica. However, both were considered large and politically influential developing nations which had sent recent expeditions to Antarctica indicating enough scientific interest in the region to meet the requirements of Article IX, the treaty's test for full membership.

In 1981, the government of Indira Gandhi decided to send an expedition to Antarctica, hinting that India also might join the treaty. Although at the time it was not even an acceding party, India's 1981 Antarctic expedition was the first sent by any nation entirely outside of the treaty framework. India leased a Norwegian icebreaker, the Polar Circle, and assembled a team of scientists led by the Department of Ocean Development. They trained in the high altitude of Himalayas known for bad weather. The Polar circle, with a predominantly Indian crew, sailed from Goa to December 6, 1981 and reached the Antarctic coast on January 9, 1982. There the team constructed a weather station, carried out radiation and magnetic surveys, and planed the Indian flag. It called the base Dakshin Gangotri. The following season a second Indian expedition returned to Antarctica, where it collected enough data to enable the setting up of a permanent manned station in its third expedition in 1983.

If the Gandhi government had clear motives, they were not apparent to the outside world. India national pride was apparent in the statement that "the Indian success at the very first attempt is therefore recognized the world over as a remarkable achievement."

The Gandhi government was deliberately ambiguous towards both the treaty group and the developing world. It scored points, however, with the treaty powers by stating that the expedition was "purely scientific", that India had no territorial ambitions in Antarctica, and that India subscribed to the principles of the treaty. But before the expedition left, the Indian government notified other developing nations of its plan-in effect, testing the waters of developing world opinion. Consultative status in the treaty-and an accompanying scientific presence in the region-may offer great prestige value to developing nations.

India's actions, therefore, may foreshadow the future in Antarctica more than all the law papers combined. In 1981, India was the only major nation looking south across the ocean toward Antarctica that had no historic presence there. Nehru tried to introduce the subject of Antarctica in the United Nations at the time treaty was being negotiated. His remarks at the time suggest that he was more concerned with keeping the peace than with elaboration of Third World rights over Antarctica's mineral and oil potential. India's expeditions to Antarctica indicate the government is capable of major scientific undertakings. Its Antarctic programme may be but the latest step in India's efforts to secure recognition as a serious technological power: it has launched its own satellites, detonated nuclear devices, and it has expanded its oceanographic and offshore petroleum explorations.

(Reference: The Seventh Planet: Antarctica in a Resource Age (1985). Deborah Shipley; Resource for the Future Inc; Washington D.C.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A 'Nail Biting' Farewell

I am not lucky even the fourth time. Today I was to have my maiden flight in chopper for going to the ship. The wind speed is not less than 50 knot judging by the jerks my hut is receiving. Weather is worse around the ship. So may be another couple of days here; Maitri ka daana-paani khatam nahin hua hai. Some of the younger lot of the team are quite resentful in not being able to go over the ship. "Why weren't we sent when weather was so clear and we had finished our work here?" they ask indignantly. I am angry on myself. I did not take bath or wash my clothes for last two days leaving it for the ship. I should not have done it believing in Murphy's law. In keeping with this law, may be I shall be able to go tomorrow as I shall bathe today as well as wash some clothes. But it is Antarctica, you never know. One major problem with the delayed departure, if it happens, would be less time for people from Survey of India who were to do detailed study of the topography of Larsemann Hill.
For last three days, there is farewell every evening in small groups on private basis. I am surprised that there was no formal farewell for the ten members of the 26th IAE either by the remaining members or by the 27th team when every now and then cultural evenings are organized. My farewell speech is wasted.

I had told you that I had organized a farewell party for myself with the members of the logistic team of the 27th IAE. I get along with them quite well and we all are members of the Dooda Beta Film Club. We squeezed ourselves in the loft of Annapurna lounge where four members have their beds. My own hut would have been quite inadequate with no extra chair or floor space. I have enough now to go with any evening party, gifted to me by the members who have already left. Why did I think of this get together? Well, I have imbibed it from Chitra. Secondly, there was wine still lying untouched since I bought it in Goa in November before flying in here. I did not know what to do with it. Bringing it back to Goa would be anticlimax. Five of the eleven assembled have done one winter here earlier. They regaled us with some of the stories of their expeditions. For example, Raghunathan had to confine himself in a tiny hut on the ice shelf for three days when blizzard hit unannounced. His worry was not how to survive since where ever IAE has huts, they are equipped with food all the year around. He struggled about his nature calls. He could not venture out as along with the blizzard there was white out too, and in those conditions if you get lost outside you are doomed. Arjun too was holed up in a hut with his colleague during his last expedition for ten days when blizzard hit them. It was a hut with scientific instruments in a little remote area with no toilet facilities inside. Arjun stopped eating or ate very little to save him the ignominy of shitting inside the hut where he conducted his scientific work. His colleague was shameless in this respect. When they were rescued ten days later, Arjun was emaciated and barely able to speak coherently or walk on his own feet. However, what all these men remembered most or still remember are the people with whom they spent their long winters here. They have managed contacts not with all but at least with some of them till date.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Unsung Spouses: The 'Real' Expeditioners

I talked to the members of the 26th IAE individually to know how they prepared themselves, physically, mentally or otherwise, before coming here in November, 2006. I was very keen to know how they prepared their families to weather their absence from home for next 15 months. How did they convince their wives to let them go and not see them for another 15 months? Chitra, please, do not read in between the lines.

I got very interesting answers, so different from my own imagination or expectations.
Most the members I talked to are from the logistic team which is the backbone of the expedition. They are from the Indian Army or the Border Roads Organization serving as technical staff. They are usually posted in difficult remote areas and their families are used to their absence extending for up to 6 months at a stretch. However, expedition to Antarctica was a different ballgame.

The objections of the families were at two levels: family management and personal safety of the expeditioners. Most of them have children who are in the crucial stages of their education. These children are now preparing to enter university. The families are very keen that their children should get good education, since that is the only way for upward mobility. Mothers felt that father's presence was necessary at such a crucial juncture. It is another thing that at such crucial stages, it is the mother who handles situation more logically and rationally. Fathers are always a hindrance. I can vouch for it from my own experience. During my deputation (1997-1999) to the B.P. Koirala Institute for Health Sciences, Dharan (Nepal), Kushagra was working hard to seek admission in a US university and Vasuman was preparing to enter the University for studying Law. It was entirely to Chitra's credit that both of them managed to enter into professions of their choice.

Wives were also worried about the safety of their husbands in the extremely harsh climate and working conditions of Antarctica. Some men in their wisdom advised their families to watch Discovery or National Geographic channels on telly to get some familiarity with the region and appreciate its beauty. However, the unending ice, deep crevasses, severe blizzards had the opposite effect. The petitions were summarily rejected in most cases. The men had to play their trump card then. "It is once in a life time opportunity; it will help in my career; I shall get a choice posting for three years on my return, etc. Men also cited financial remunerations as additional benefit out of this expedition.

"How do they find their wives at this juncture when they are about to end their expedition?" This question elicited most interesting responses. They discovered a new side of their wives. They found that given the challenge or responsibility, they not only rose to the occasion, but also met the challenge satisfactorily and admirably. This is when most of the wives have received only limited education. Thus they could handle the children and their education and their growing demands, manage the family affairs as well as intricacies of extended families. One member was totally surprised on discovering that his wife had managed to convince the Principal of a school for granting admission to her children. One wife managed to get an early allotment of a house for the family from the Army station. Most of them managed to handle affairs such as banking, insurance, payment of bills etc which they had not attended to in their lives.

I could see clearly the sense of pride in men's voice and faces when enumerating the instances where wives managed to accomplish tasks where they themselves would have run into difficulty. They had seen a new side of their wives that would have eluded them if they had not come to the Antarctic expedition. They acknowledged the fact that in managing all these affairs and problems for more than one year, the wives had totally ignored their own exhaustion, boredom, loneliness, empty beds, and worries while they themselves remained busy and excited about their new experiences in Antarctica.

One member put it very succinctly, "I had many new things to look forward to in Antarctica and had the support of an entire nation; however, she back home managed an expedition totally on her own."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Of Subhash and Venu - Two Of My Mates

Subhash is a mason from the Border Road Organization and has been to all difficult terrain and areas of Indian border, for example, J & K, Leh, Siachen, and North Eastern states of India. He is a resident of a small town, Rewari (Haryana) about 50 km from Delhi, on Jaipur Road. Many times he entertains us with interesting stories and anecdotes from his posting to different areas. In Annapurna hut, he would always insist to make tea for me reassuring me that he would put less sugar. He is also a regular member at the Dooda Beta Film Club. While coming back when both of us were talking together ahead of others, I asked him about his family back home. He was willing to talk and I was a patient listener. He comes from a family with modest means. As the only son of his father he inherited only one acre of land and a dilapidated family house. He worked hard and saved hard. He gave good education to his two daughters. The elder one is graduate (B.A.) and is married. And having a graduate daughter in the state of Haryana (where girls are becoming fewer and fewer), he would not settle for any useless brat. So his son in law is M.A. (English), B.Ed and working as teacher. His youngest daughter will be entering university this year. In between the two daughters, he has a son aged 22. Understandably, as the only son he has not done well academically. However, he has managed to get employed at a mobike factory. Soon after reaching India, Subhash will get him married to a girl already selected by the family. He is not worried about the marriage of his youngest daughter. He draws comfort from the fact that she will attract far too many proposals. Subhash has added to his immovable property. He bought another acre of land and has more than doubled the floor area of his house on a bigger plot of land. He did not conceal his pride in telling me that with limited means and education, meager inheritance and a lowly paid job, how he has improved his stature in his clan and society. I marveled at his hard work and planning for his family as well as his financial management. I almost felt ashamed.

Venu is a wintering member of our Team. He is part of the logistic team in capacity of vehicle mechanic. He has wintered here earlier. He is just 42 and has obtained retirement from the Indian Army after completing 20 years. I find very strange; there are many retired technicians from Army this time in the 27th IAE for wintering. They all are in their forties and have retired. Venu is a good natured man and we get along famously. He is always smiling, but is very funny usually in the evening for obvious reasons. Of course, he is fond of his Rum and then his reaction time gets shorter and shorter in cracking one liners. Though he is from Kerala, the 'God's own country', his knowledge about Hindi movies is as good as mine. So when we both are in the summer lounge watching a movie together, we both are cracking jokes or comments. He is fond of dancing and dances well during cultural programme when booze is on the house. He always drags me on such evenings to the dancing floor, not that I mind. On the Republic Day, he came to me to drag me and I just declined for no particular reason. He immediately got angry and disowned me announcing, "This doctor is no friend of mine; if I ever get crazy here, do not let him treat me".

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chandigarh to Delhi - Commute of 'Antarctic' Proportions

I may have taken 18 hours in air to reach Antarctica traveling more than 12,000 km. But can you believe this that Chitra (my wife) took the same amount of time on roads only two days ago to travel from Chandigarh to Delhi, a distance of only 250 km with finest of the roads! We may not tire ourselves in shouting at the top of our voice that India is the largest democracy in the world, but when it comes to settling grievances we adopt most undemocratic means. To lodge their protests, some people descended on the highway and blocked the traffic forgetting the miseries of the commuters. And as luck would have it, Chitra, who was otherwise booked to travel in the evening by a fast train, decided to return by a luxury coach when she finished her work at Chandigarh in the morning itself. When she was less than 100 km away from Delhi, the block was thrust upon the usually heavy traffic between Chandigarh and Delhi. She was caught in between - to wait and move forward when embargo lifts up or return to Chandigarh. Ultimately, she decided to return to Chandigarh only after a futile wait of many hours inside the coach. She returned next day only, 24 hours later of which she spent 18 hours on the road.

Adieu Friends

The scene at Maitri today was of excitement and hectic activity. It almost bordered towards commotion though not in any negative sense. Since they are returning all the way by air to India, they were anxious about the weight of their luggage. They have collected a few things here: souvenirs in form of Antarctica stones, their own pyrographical work on wood, water from the lakes etc. They are discarding now things they had kept with them but find no use for them. I received a bag full of goodies: sweets, namkeen, chocolates, and a bottle of premium brand whiskey. Last night the Maitri lounge was alive till the wee hours of this morning. I had asked some of the departing members how many hours of sleep they had planned for the night. And they had very confidently and nonchalantly assured me of usual seven hours. They were walking like zombie with swollen eyes when I met them this morning at the breakfast. This morning some of them reminisced with me about their time in Antarctica. They shared some funny and a few not so funny tales of their time here. Now they do not care in divulging some sensitive information; they have nothing to lose. Their excitement was almost infectious. I too got into a kind of hyperarousal state. I had just finished reading print-out of the daily news in the lounge when someone asked me what were the headlines or main news. And I just could not recall anything coherently. Only some words stuck like cricket, weather, Thackeray, petrol prices etc. I could not elaborate on any news. There was extended 'bhajan sandhya' at the temple in the late afternoon. In any case, every Tuesday, there is one hour programme at the temple, but today it almost got extended to two hours with reciting of 'Sundar Kand' from Ramayan. It was early dinner this evening as the members were to leave for airport at 7:30 pm for their flight at 10:30 pm for Cape Town by IL-76. They would reach Mumbai on the night of 9th February after a two-night stopover at Cape Town. A large contingent has gone in snow vehicles and choppers to see them off. I was offered a ride in the chopper to go to the airbase, but I declined. I do not find such moments too comfortable for my liking. Right now a kind of emptiness is engulfing me. I have felt closer with the members of the 26th IAE and only with some of members of the 27th IAE who arrived with me here in November, 2007 itself by air. I have now spent nearly three months with them. Now I must also begin winding up here. I should start my preparations to board the ship any day for going towards Larsemann Hill. That excitement will ease the pain of this parting.

BREAKING NEWS: Indian Earth Station at Maitri

The Indian Earth Station at Maitri in Antarctica has been made functional this morning. The to and fro signals between Maitri and the satellite have been established and tested. The strength of the signals is excellent. We had video conference with people at ISRO in India where I also participated. The installation of the Earth Station was a major task for the 27th IAE and I am proud to be a member of this expedition. The logistics of installation were mind boggling. Construction of platform for putting the antenna to track the satellite was a tricky affair given the topography of Schirmacher Oasis. More tricky and risky was transporting the components of platform and the antenna itself from the ship. Since crevasses, deep and shallow, have now appeared in the otherwise frozen blue ice sheet during the ongoing summer season, it is not feasible to run snow vehicles to the coast at a distance of 125 km. The entire equipments and components have been transported by the two helicopters. Hats off to these two pilots of Helicopters New Zealand to have accomplished a great feat. Members of the 26th and 27th expeditions did not shy away from transporting huge and heavy parts from the helipad to the site of construction. Because of the location of Schirmacher Oasis so near to the pole, the positioning of the antenna was a crucial step since there was very little scope for any maneuverability. I do not understand all the technicalities, but Mr S S Waldia, the scientist from ISRO, had sleepless nights here. Finally everything was in place without any major hitch. He was ably assisted by Mr Raju, engineer from Electronics Corp. of India, Sunil Kushwaha (ISRO), and Chaman Lal (ECIL).

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hike to 'Trisuli'

This afternoon I led a party of 5 members to a peak named 'Trishuli', Lord Shiv's trident. It has been given this name by India and is recognized as such by the Antarctica Gazette. At 1000 ft it is the highest peak in the Schirmacher Oasis. Of these other 4 members, three are new entrances to Maitri, while the fourth, Subhash, came with me from Goa. He has not gone much beyond the Maitri area, so I asked him to come along. Today was a perfect day for an outing with no appreciable wind or clouds and day time temperature at 4 C.. Trishuli is a comfortable walk of one hour and I have been there earlier on 2-3 occasions. It is a beautiful area from where you get to see the Shivling, the big lake, the continental ice sheet (if you walk or ski on it southwards for 2500 km, you shall reach South Pole creating a world record) and sastrugi formation. I gave a brief history to the 'tourists' of Schirmacher Oasis and Indian initiatives on Antarctica expedition. When people visit Trishuli, their high point is to climb on the top to get photographed there. Then they would claim to have climbed the highest peak on the Schirmacher Oasis. Back home they would conveniently forget to mention that it is only 1000ft high. I never had such an ambition. To me 'Trishuli' is a kind of sacred peak; so I went around it as a gesture of reverence.

The possibility of my going to Larsmann Hills is becoming more and more certain with each passing day. Since it is Antarctica, no one says anything for certain. An environmental event can either postpone or even prepone any programme. In any case, all of the summer members of 27th IAE who are returning to India will be shifted to the ship by 10th February. I may be asked to shift earlier; the latter sorties will be reserved for members who are yet to complete collection of their scientific data. Since I have finished my second assessment of the winterers, I do not have any scientific work any more. The second and the final assessment of the summerers (I have coined this word) I shall do on the ship. However, I am busy here like any other scientist. Mostly I am busy in talking to people about their experiences in Antarctica. Now that time of my departure is approaching, I am excited but at the same time I also wish that I am accommodated on the chopper at a later date. Suddenly there is now urgency to complete and wind up many things.

Break in Weather

The weather has improved quite remarkably, both at Maitri as well as around the ship which is parked near the Indian bay. It has not anchored yet since the pack ice around the ice shelf (coast) has not yet broken; it has been in that area for four weeks now. It is 7:30 pm now and I can hear the sound of the chopper from my room. It is the first sortie it has made in 9 days. People have been eagerly and anxiously waiting for it for various reasons. First, the four members of the 26th Team who had left on 21st January for an overnight stay on the ship to experience it, since they had arrived in Antarctica all the way by air in November of 2006, and hence wanted a familiarity with it. They must have been anxious to return because they are going back to India all the way by air and their IL flight to Cape Town is on the 5th February. Each extra day on the ship must have increased their anxiety as they must have kept a few things to be done during these days, for example, some photographic sessions, some exchange of photo and video albums, exchanging one another's coordinates, visit to some spots like Shivling etc. One of them said later that with each day on the ship their desperation grew and they were ready to walk all the way to Maitri, a distance of 120 km full of crevasses now. Though there is another flight one week later, but after having lived here for 15 months, they are not ready to spend one extra day in this white desert of Icy Planet. Second group of people anxious for the chopper landing are the ones waiting to board the ship for going to Larsmann Hill. They wish to return as soon as possible to the comforts of the ship and avoid galley duty. Their sense of belongingness to Maitri and its life is not as greater as that of some of us. The third group has been eagerly waiting for the chopper to bring tea bags which have exhausted here a few days ago. People are managing with green label. This does not give the needed colour to the cuppa tea that we Indians are used to. They do not use the green tea as it should be. So far the station had been managing with the stock of the 26th IAE. Chopper's landing will bring relief to a number of people.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Well Earned Return

It is activity time at the Maitri. The first batch of the 26th Indian Antarctic Expedition is getting ready to leave for India on the 6th February, 2008. It's a batch of 10 people from the Corps of Engineers and Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Equipment of the Indian Army. They had come to Antarctica in November, 2006 by air all the way from Goa. They looked after the logistics of the station, namely, maintaining all the snow vehicles and organizing convoys to bring supplies from the sea coast (ice shelf) about 120 km from Maitri, looking after generators, boiler, water and electricity supply, sewage, and all maintenance jobs. The transfer of charge (jobs and responsibilities) has been completed. The inventories have been verified and papers signed. Books and music and film CDs and DVDs are being returned. The polar wears are being deposited back. Coordinates (emails, addresses, telephone numbers) are being exchanged. Last minute photographic sessions are taking place. The telecommunication room operator is having a busy time because these members are now exhausting their unused quota of telephony minutes. The wintering members of the expedition get a free allowance of 20 minutes of telephony time per month. Keeping the traditions of the Indian Army intact in Antarctica also, they have given an exemplary account of their sincerity, hard work, dedication and devotion to their duty during their stay at Maitri. Sadly, the Indian Army is withdrawing from deputing its personnel from Antarctic expeditions for the time being. Hence for the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition there are no Army personnel; however, retired persons from the above two Corps of the Indian Army have been recruited for the job. This arrangement will continue in future if found satisfactory.

These members will leave for Cape Town from the Novo airbase by IL-76 and after a night's halt there, will board Mumbai flight from Johannesburg. They will be received by the Army Chief at the Army Headquarters, Delhi. As a reward for their work in Antarctic expedition, they will get a choice posting of three years. Invariably and understandably, they opt for a posting in home towns.

I salute you, Col Suresh, Gurdeep Saab, Sanjay Saab, Om Dutt Saab, Rajan Saab, Shankar Saab, Rajbir Saab, Ranawat Saab, Rambax Saab, and Tejram Saab. I shall miss you.

This evening our film club at Dooda Beta with limited and exclusive membership screened 'Dhamaal'. After some time I realized it was remake of 'It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world'. Quite silly movie, you could enjoy it only in a setting like Dooda Beta.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


Couple of days ago, one medical officer here took an evening lecture on 'Alcoholism'. He showed some very morbid slides of the consequences of alcohol on various body organs. It has scared some regular users of alcohol and they have been coming to me in private looking for some reassurances. But then, I am also assessing them on the alcohol and tobacco use. That is another matter that most of the regular users do not give correct responses on these self-administered questionnaires.

I am reproducing below one story that was narrated by one member here. I hope I have not already told you.
Many many years ago during the times when boys went to the teacher's (sage) hut for education and learning, one sage wished to test his pupil before he was allowed to return to village. The sage made three cabins and asked his pupil to go into each one by one. The pupil went into the cabins one by one there and was aghast to see what was put into each cabin. In the first there was liquor, second contained non-veg dishes, and there was a young beautiful woman in the third. The pupil did not know how he was being tested. The sage explained that he had to experience one thing of his choice. It was like murder for the pupil. All three things were sinful and hence taboo for him as per the learning from this very teacher. The pupil vehemently protested and expressed his helplessness in carrying out his teacher's wish. However, the sage was unmoved; he repeated that the test was mandatory otherwise his learning would be considered incomplete. The pupil had no choice now. He evaluated pros and cons of each cabin and concluded that liquor perhaps was the least sinful. It was made from fresh fruits and did not hurt anyone, involved no killing. Hence he chose to taste liquor and went into the first cabin. After having a few gulps he waited outside the cabin for its effect to wear off. He was feeling comfortable and confident that he would clear his test with flying colours. However, a little later he sought his teacher's permission to go into the second cabin and experience non-veg dishes. The wish was readily granted. And then he wished to visit the third cabin too. That was the end of the test; he wanted to visit each cabin again and again.
Moral of the story: do I need to tell you!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Blowing away (in the wind)!

There is a kind of general alert at Maitri prohibiting lightweight members to venture outside by themselves. They must be accompanied with an escort. With maximum wind gust going above 60 knots (one knot = 2 km approx), there may be a risk of their flying outside the Schirmacher Oasis. Fortunately, I am a well fed person, so no real risk. However, even better well fed persons will have difficulty in walking in straight line at this wind speed giving them a tipsy gait.