Saturday, March 15, 2008

Visit to Zhong Shang (Chinese Station)

Originally meant for posting on March 4th.

Today I had a very good day. Though I had my galley duty and I was up and about at 5 am in the morning, the leader asked me at 7 am along with a few others to get ready to leave within half an hour. Of course I was ready within 15 minutes after requesting another member to carry on galley duty. I would do his tomorrow. I did not ask why since I had a feeling that it could be to visit Russian and Chinese stations. He had been trying for last few days to contact them for permission to visit their stations. The third in the Larsemann Hills is the Australian station, Davis, but that is far away at 120 km. We were at our proposed site at 8 am where the leader told us that we might visit these two stations weather permitting. Last night the satellite picture had shown a big system traveling towards the ship quite fast. The temp was -5 C and with wind chill it was -15 C. Right now it is quite desolate place. I have said earlier that looks quite beautiful; however, if I have to stay there all by myself even with the assurance of being picked up half an hour later, I shall get panicky. At about 9:45 am it became quite windy. I had gone out to visit a frozen lake, and when I came back to the igloo hut, one member told me with a sad tone that the proposed visit could be called off. I advised him to learn this lesson to never feel disappointed in Antarctica.

The weather improved after some time and ten of us left in two choppers, first for the Chinese station, Zhong Shan.

China or Chinese always invoked earlier a feeling of being mysterious and secretive, but now they bring about a sense of awe. Power of wealth can change how people look upon you. We were not sure how Chinese would greet us and were ready for a cold and indifferent welcome. However, we could not be more wrong. They greeted us smilingly and warmly. The American culture was clearly visible when they treated us with all kinds of canned soft drinks. The leader immediately sent for an interpreter. This young fellow was an Architect and interior designer who was spending summer here since China is rebuilding its station. The current structures are 18 years old, but to me these also appeared very reasonable and spacious. They had done their landscaping quite imaginatively with stones and boulders. This station has the advantage of a big flat area. It is also very close to the sea. Two more people joined us, one with professional video camera and another young girl with latest Nikon Digital SLR, D80. Both were journalists and working for United News of China or Shanghai News Service. My long flowing hair and goatee perhaps fascinated the young lady, Zhang, and she wanted quite a few of my close ups. I tried asking other Chinese members if the journalists always write flattering and good reports or they could be critical also. I perhaps could not make myself clear, or the deputy was too clever. He said everything is so good about this place like glaciers, icebergs, snow etc. They opened all the laboratories for us to visit and interact with the scientists working there. Normally, 20 members winter there; however, at this time there were about 90 people because of the construction activity. Seven members were women. The station doctor is a surgeon. There is a close cooperation with the close by Russian station, Progress, for medical and other technical assistance. The Antarctic scientific activity of China are organized by China Antarctica Research Expedition (CHINARE).

Some Thoughts and a Visit to Larsemann Hills

Originally meant for posting on March 3rd

I have believed for quite some time that living in Delhi is very stressful, or that, it is no longer a worth-living place. There was a time when I had seriously thought about settling in some small town in the Himalayas away from it all. However, I no longer think that way. In fact, now we do not even wish to settle even in Gurgaon. More central, better it is.

Living and working in the Antarctica may have its own challenges, but then there are no everyday stresses. All stations everywhere in Antarctica have all the modern facilities. In Maitri we enjoyed 24 hour power and hot and cold water supply, no bills to be paid, no shopping lists, no commuting or traffic hassles, no family or social commitments to look after.

Today I was able to visit the Larsemann Hills. It was a ten-minute flight from the ship. So it is very close to the shoreline. I have given you the details of the area in my earlier mail. But what a place during this time of the year! Though it is a rocky area, but with the snow fall of last few days, everything had become very beautiful, the scattered snow breaking the monotony of the rocks. I always thought that the Himalayas was most beautiful because of its tree line and greenery; however, snow does the same thing here in a rocky area with ocean just nearby. From the station site you could see the ocean a little distance away, full of small islands. Since the weather is turning colder inspite of clear sky, I was wearing too many things: on upper half two thermals and one thermal for legs and then polar overall on top of all this; three pairs of gloves and two balaclavas, polar socks etc. All this made me bulky but I was comfortable. After visiting the station site, I joined the two member team of National Hydrographic Organization (NHO, under the Indian Navy, I believe) to visit another island at 5 minute flight. They had to set up an instrument there to collect land data to begin their bathymetric studies (study of ocean bed) next year. I helped them in carrying huge batteries, small and large boulders etc. I also amused them with my silly stories. The landscape around us was just awesome, unlike what all I have seen at Maitri. Each landscape looks different if you looked at it after a few minutes. One skua came over to give us company and watching us working. All three of us chanted loudly ‘Om’ in unison three times. It felt very good.

Like many opportunities in life I learn late, I found about the calling cards being available on the ship which has happy hours and happy weekend. Calling through the card turns out to Rs 48 per minute anywhere in the world. So I made some satisfying calls back home. This calling card is for Inmarsat telecommunications and issued by France Telecom.

Superstitions and Science

Originally meant for posting on March 1st

It is amazing how superstitions can influence the scientific work. After the inaugural chopper flights on 24th itself, we had chalked out the schedule of sorties from 25th with Team A of 5 people in the first sortie. On 25th and 26th the weather remained inclement for sorties. On the evening of 26th, some younger members started making fun of Team A that it was because of them, and implored upon the leader to revise the schedule of sorties. The leader, otherwise very logical and rational, joined the fun and revised the list. I laughed out loud that now superstitions are coming to the rescue of scientific expeditions. But it worked! On 27th the weather became clear and bright. Sorties took off on time. On 28th Team A again became the first to shake off superstitious thinking. No problem. On 29th when I was going to take the lunch sortie, the weather again turned bad; no sorties. This morning, all the sorties had left by 7:30 am. However, within next 90 minutes it started to pack up with snowing. By 10 all were back on the ship. Now it was my turn to be blamed that on two occasions when I was to bring lunch, weather packed up. I retorted that it would happen that way if you give Dr Khandelwal such mundane duties. Allow him to go in the first sortie to lead the pack for the day’s work and then see the result. Of course, it did not move the leader.

Some members wanted to camp there overnight for 1-2 days for starting work there at 6 am itself. Three igloo huts are parked there with arrangements for 10 people. I have volunteered to go and been included. However, it looks people have chickened out; what if the weather turns bad not for a day or two but for several days. I did not try to convince them, but said that ship could not leave without us; just 30 min of clear weather will be enough for choppers to bring us back. It is true, though, that weather can remain bad for several days in continuity as we have witnessed on two occasions in last one month. I can not complain; it was because of bad weather only that I along with some others managed to board the ship for Larsemann Hills. People have started now getting bored. They would not forgive me if because of our stranded camping the ship gets delayed by even a single day. Every day there are discussions at least few times a day calculating tentative dates of departure and possible dates of arrival at Goa.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Shiv Ratri

We celebrated ‘Shiv Ratri’ on the ship today, or in the Antarctic continent.


Other than ‘Kailash-Manasarovar’ it was perhaps the most appropriate place for celebrating this festival. Geographically, Tibet – where both these sacred places are situated – owes its presence to the Antarctica only. To be brief, without taking the risk of boring you, Gondwanaland continent was a supercontinent till 200 million years ago and starting breaking up 190 m years ago. Seventy m years ago, all the breakaway pieces - South America, South Africa, Australia and India - had detached completely from the supercontinent (now reduced to Antarctica continent) and begun to move to their present locations. Twenty million years ago, Indian plate collided with Eurasia plate, and Tibet, which was under the sea, surfaced as one of the highest inhabited plateau. The snow, blizzards, avalanches, isolation, freezing temperatures, awe etc are some other characteristics which define both the places.
A very funny thing has been happening in India lately regarding the day when a particular festival is going to be celebrated. There are invariably two different days in different calendars/almanacs on which a festival is listed. I thought we would be free from this perpetual dilemma in this continent. However, this controversy finally hit us also. On the 4th evening a number of members got emails from their families about ‘Shiv Ratri’ being celebrated on 6th March. I do not understand why the families waited till the last to create this controversy. Anyway, only a few of us were fasting, so we went ahead and observed our fast today itself. I made a power point presentation of my Kailash-Manasarovar expedition to the interested audience in the afternoon.

I did my second galley duty on the ship today. The work is mostly helping the cook in making preparations. However, it gave me chance to observe the cooking, dinning etc of the ship crew. We share the kitchen with the crew (all Russians), but have different working platforms. A single lady handles all the cooking. Another lady comes to help her only at the time of serving food. It is not buffet style (as it is in our case), but food is put on individual plates to be served to each member. Each one gets all the dishes in equal measures. No one barges into the kitchen to find out what is being cooked, no one comes to offer any suggestion to the cook how a dish should be prepared. It is very much unlike what happens on our side. With buffet style, people eat or overeat their choicest dish, sometimes leaving none for the latecomers. Or, if they do not happen to like the food, immediately they would help themselves with maggie, eggs, etc resulting into sinful trashing of cooked food. Barging into the kitchen and giving unsolicited suggestions is a frequent occurrence. You go into the dinning hall at any time of the day, you will find someone or the other eating. I had written earlier about the food fads, but food preoccupation is another dimension. Some members begin their day with eating or for eating only.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

90 Days in Antarctica

(This posting dates to a week back, but could not be made earlier).

Today I complete 90 days in Antarctica staying at the Indian station, Maitri, as summer member of the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition. Normally, the summer members of the IAE get to spend up to six weeks in Antarctica while another 6-8 weeks are spent on ship transportation. Since I had arrived here by air all the way from India, I have managed a kind of feat along with some of my other colleagues here.

I am trying to reflect how it was or what my mental state was just before departure:

The last few days in Delhi were quite anxiety filled with nervousness and apprehensions. I always had this nagging thoughts in my mind that there should be no major flaw in my preparations, esp., what all to pack. I did not wish to carry unnecessarily too many things, but at the same time wanted to ensure that all necessary items were with me. One could not buy anything in Antarctica, though Maitri was well equipped in most of the things.

Last few days, before my departure from Delhi on 10 November 2007, were too busy with the festival of Deewali falling on 9th itself. There were too many farewell dinners and Deewali meals.

Sixteen of us flying to Antarctica had assembled at the NCAOR, Goa for briefing and collecting our polar wear. We had reached Cape Town by Mumbai on 12th November to take our flight to Antarctica on the night of 14th November.

The idea of flying directly into Antarctica was exciting enough, but it was also making me nervous. There was no time to acclimatize to the freezing temperatures. From 35 degree C of Delhi temperature I was landing into minus 5 or 10 within a few days.

The flights from Cape Town are operated by Dronning Maud Land Air Network (DROMLAN) to provide air transportation to participating countries of Belgium, Finland, Germany, India, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden, South Africa and United Kingdom. Cape Town based Antarctica Logistics Cooperation International (ALCI) provides logistics provider under this DROMLAN initiative and operates Ilyushin-76 flights between Cape Town and Novo airbase at the Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica. ALCI also operates feeder flights within Antarctica. Every year ALCI operates its Ilyushin flights between the months of November to February. This summer season it is operating flights ferrying passengers to and fro 28 of whom are Indians.

The Ilyushin parked at the Cape Town airport looked bigger than jumbo jet. It was much taller almost the height of a 2-3 storey high building. The inside of the aircraft was quite disappointing as I have said earlier with cramped seats, closed windows, luggage stored at all the available space, and wires hanging here and there. For viewing outside scene there was an LCD projector with a screen in between passenger area and cockpit. The roar of the engine was deafening and I could not hear any instructions or the security drill. Despite its size the take off of the plane was quite smooth. We all Indians shouted ‘Jai Badri Vishal’ and ‘Jo bole so nihaal’. There were 58 passengers including Swedes, Russians, and Norwegians. Passengers were clicking photographs all the time. I was not too comfortable, not because of any physical discomfort but by all kinds of thoughts and ideas enough to turn a phobic person into a nervous wreck. After crossing the ocean, once the plane entered Antarctic territory, the screen showed ice and ice only continuously for unending miles like an unending ocean. I was welcomed into the cockpit and the pilot was all helpful to explain various navigational instruments and panels which I could not understand much. From a small window there I saw ice and snow only. After flying 4200 km in six and a half hours, the plane started descending. We were told to change into our polar wear which only increased my discomfort. The one piece jerkin made me sweat inside and feel suffocated. The landing on the frozen blue ice was, however, smooth. I must say to my credit that inspite of all my internal anxieties I had not felt sick. Outside at 6 am it was bright sunshine. I was quite scared in getting down through the ladder on to the blue ice tarmac and had put my feet very tentatively. The last thing I wanted here was to slip and break my leg or sacrococcygeal joint, and put again on the plane for return flight. It was windy and cold and some people immediately got busy in photographing themselves with IL as the backdrop. I wanted to get away from the frozen blue ice into the safety of the waiting hall. A team of ten members had come with snow vehicles to take us to our station Maitri. The waiting hall was big, high, and quite spacious where I helped myself with hot coffee and croissant. I did not help in unloading for fear of walking on the ice with a weight on my shoulder. I did not go out again till I was asked to get into the vehicle. I surveyed the airbase carefully only in my next visit when we went there to see off Mr Mervin D’Souza.
The Novolazarevskaya (Novo) airbase consists chiefly of some tents and perhaps some permanent structures. There is a guest house too. I could see the huge IL-76 with its tail open like a big demon opening its mouth to swallow a mountain. On one side a few smaller planes, Antonov-2 (AN-2) and Basler, were parked. At one side, lay the pathetic wreckage of AN-2 broken into two pieces. It was blown last year into the air by a rather severe blizzard and broken. A wind gust of 100 knots builds up enough pressure around such a plane of 5,500 kg making it to fly. Removing the wreckage of such a plane from Antarctica will be a major logistics coup. I walked towards the runaway. As compared to my first visit, I was surer of my movements this time. The runway did not look any different from rest of the area though it was plain with no uneven surface. It must be 2-3 km long marked on either side by black drums dug into ice on either side. Since the area here is wide open with no hills around it, the wind gust was much higher and temperature lower as compared to Maitri. We all had come to see the taking off of an IL-76 and photograph it. Though it is huge, it moved quite smoothly and gracefully. I think it moved for nearly 2 km on the surface to build enough speed to make it airborne. It left behind it a huge pall of snow and ice.

What I have been doing here in last three months I have already narrated in my postings. I have already narrated enough stories on life and experiences of Maitri. Each day has brought new experiences and excitement. I have gained here immensely in terms of human interactions, relationships, and behaviour. This kind of knowledge and insight I could not have obtained from any text book or psychiatric questionnaires. Those stories of Antarctica I will remember most.