Thursday, 18 August 2022

The Things People Leave Behind

 

It must be a law of nature that things get left behind in hostels - particularly in hostel drying rooms. Odd socks stuffed down the back of a radiator. Walking boots that have fallen apart. Walking poles that have broken in half. And other such items which cannot be classed as lost exactly, it’s just that their owners have not managed to locate the bin. We also find ourselves retrieving a various selection of shower gel and shampoo bottles from the communal showers, and I’ll not mention the considerably less pleasant things left behind. Most of these items go unclaimed. But every now and then we get a phone call or an email, asking if such and such has been found or handed in. Returning these items to their owners is a job which falls to me. Or rather – it is a task actively selected by me. I have a real love of sending letters and parcels by post, plus I’m passing the Post Office in Eskdale Green on my bike most days.

 

What follows is a description of some of the items which I have returned to guests this year.

 

The first lost item was a Samsung Galaxy tablet with a blue case. It was found in the self-catering kitchen. It belonged to a woman who was in the middle of a walking tour of the Lake District – going from hostel to hostel across the fells. I wrapped it in bubble-wrap, and then created a nest of balled-up scrap paper within an empty Nestle ‘Big Biscuit Box’. I wrote a note explaining that I’d had to eat all 71 biscuits within to free up the box for postal use. I think she must have believed me. A week later a package arrived for me at the hostel – it contained a vast selection of M&S Swiss chocolates as a thank you present for safely returning the tablet.

 

The second item was a teddy bear, left behind after a school residential trip. We found it during the clean-up operation, along with the usual mounds of Haribo and chocolate wrappers dropped down the side of bunks. This one took a while to be claimed – sat on a shelf with other bears in the upstairs laundry cupboard. But eventually we had a phone call, and this teddy bear which their son had had from birth could be returned to him.

 

The next item was a 2012 Olympics towel. Each event from the Games was depicted within its own colourful square. The towel was left in the female dorm. This is the first time since starting work for the YHA in 2016 that I have known a left-behind towel to be claimed. It’s also the only forgotten towel which I’ve hoped wouldn’t be claimed! But that very same day, in the evening time, we received a phone call enquiring after it. And so, I duly parcelled it up in an empty carrier bag and posted it off to an address in Reading. The owner was extremely grateful for its return and explained that while it might seem like a lot of fuss for just a towel – the 2012 Olympic Games was the year and the time that her daughter was born.

 

After that it was a watch. I found it whilst vacuuming under the beds in Room 1. The rooms here are not only numbered; they are also named. They are named after places along the river Esk – from Sea to Source. Room 1 is named ‘Glannoventa’ – the Roman Fort down at Ravenglass. On this occasion, I already knew who the watch belonged to – the guests who had checked out of the room earlier that day. Upon contacting the person in question, I was informed that the watch was a gift from her sister, and that it lights up in the dark. I created a bespoke box to send it in. The boxes that our jam, honey, and marmalade breakfast portions come in have incredibly robust corners. One box on its own would have been far to big for this watch, though. So, I cut off two of the corners and slotted them together to make a much smaller box. I packaged the watch in enough bubble wrap to fill the space. I covered the exterior of the box in brown paper and wrote the address so that it was small enough to leave room for the postage sticker, but neatly and big enough to read. A few days later I received a card in the post with a note inside to cover the cost of posting the watch. The woman in question had been staying with her husband and their grandson. She wrote to say thank you, and to say how much their grandson enjoyed their stay – and that they hope it will set him off wanting to explore more. Then the card finished with this: “We all loved the hospitality we received – the lovely welcome and meal when we arrived, and the friendliness of all the staff. It’s the stuff of memories shared.”

The most recent item that I’ve posted back was just a few days ago in fact. A small men’s Berghaus down jacket in dark grey. This had been left in the drying room a couple of weeks ago. They didn’t realise that they were missing it because the weather had since become so hot. This was one of three jackets that had been left at more or less the same time – all forgotten for the same reason, I suppose.


Friday, 29 October 2021

The Subtle Art of Running in Small Circles

 


We’ve been in the Falklands for 26 days now, and we are still very much here.

 

Onward travel to Antarctica has been delayed due to the runway conditions down on station. We have no choice but to wait for the 6cm layer of consolidated ice to melt out. There’s a sense of irony in the fact that, on this occasion, it’s the ice which isn’t melting that is causing us the problems. We must remain in group/bubble quarantine, but at least we have had a change of scene – we moved out of the hotel a week ago. The ten of us (known as Dash 3) have been split across three houses in Stanley. I’m at 9 McKay Close with Dee and Poppy. The outside space/garden is bigger than the exercise yard at the hotel – we can now run a continuous 100-meter loop. We can also go outside whenever we like, there is no rota, and there is a trampoline. It is a self-catered house, so we get food ordered in and cook for ourselves. Life has the feel of being a little more normal here. Sure enough though we still get looks from the neighbours and passers-by when they see us running and walking in endless circles around the garden. The looks always seem to be somewhere between pity and amusement. They always wave though, and that cheers us up. Everyone waves here – in part because they seem to be friendly folk, and because with an island population of around 3,000 there’s a fair chance you’re going to know the person. It’s a warmth that reminds me of being out and about in Cumbria. We are hoping that the owners of the house don’t mind too much that we have created a new feature – a perimeter garden path. Even after the first 5km run, after 50 laps of the garden, we had made a noticeable dent in the mossy grass. It seems that over the past couple of years I have had to learn to perfect the subtle art of running in small circles. Some of them have been very small indeed. I have now spent 45 days in quarantine in the Falkland Islands, and then there was the 5-week journey home by sea earlier this year. That’s a lot of laps of gardens, exercise yards, and ships. It’s good head space, but it’s not good thinking space. Perhaps that’s the reason why I’m so compelled to push through the monotony of it – because it’s a time to switch our brains off amidst so much time where it’s easy to overthink. I’ll listen to music, I’ll focus on the movement, focus on each step, and count the laps. I usually change direction after every kilometre. If I chose to walk instead of run, then I’ll listen to a podcast. I downloaded a whole selection before leaving the UK. Perhaps my favourite is a podcast called ‘Never Strays Far’ (in all its different guises) by Ned Boulting and David Millar. It follows the world of professional cycling, the Grand Tours, the Classics, the Worlds, etc. You get to hear what the weather is doing in Spain, you get the latest traffic updates from Brittany, and what the hotels are like across Italy. You get to hear about Ned’s dreams, and David’s interpretation of them, and every now and then you’ll even get to find out what has been going on in the bike race. I like the tangents, the segues, I like the observations and details from a world which is currently so different from my own. All those things seem utterly fascinating to me when I’m quarantine, when I’m down on station, when I’m on a ship for days on end. It’s a reminder, and a perspective of a life beyond your own. It’s easy to get caught up in wherever you are, and it’s easy to stop looking - not just outwards but also beyond. In fact, it feels like I’ve reached a point here where it seems easier to stay rather than to go on. It’s hard to imagine life existing in any other way. We were talking about this the other day – that it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, certainly not beyond the realms of imagination, that we might just get forgotten about here. We would carry on much the same, just waiting for updates, and it would only be months later, even years after the travel corridor had opened again, that they remember we are still here. We joked that it would be some big news story, on the same sort of scale and interest as when they discover a human who has been raised by wolves.

While I do miss having more and varied social interactions, while I do miss riding my bike or putting on my running shoes and just taking off somewhere, I wouldn’t say that I’ve been bored. I am quite happy in my own company, happy losing myself in a book, or in a drawing. We’ve also found other ways of keeping ourselves amused. Once we had completed the 14 days self-isolation quarantine at the hotel, we were then able to spend our outside time together as a group of ten. I’d brought a football down with me, which on the slanted, tussocky exercise yard made us all look utterly useless. I’d liked to have seen how Messi would have coped with it – it was worse than a cold, wet night in Stoke. I think there were very few of us, perhaps even just one of us, who would even dare to venture to describe ourselves as a footballer. Catrin, for example, while not lacking in enthusiasm, could frequently be heard saying, “I just can’t work out which leg I should use to kick it with.” It’s something of a miracle that we never lost the ball, broke a window (sorry Hannah, Sam, and Pete), or broke ourselves – although competitive crab football came pretty close. Meanwhile I was there still holding onto the wild dream that someone would walk past and scout me for the Falkland Islands’ international football team. I was fairly certain that I’d been in the country quite long enough to qualify. Hopes and dreams are interesting things, and they come in different forms. For some, hope is bad for they hope but never do, or never say, and so their lives are wished away. Others pin too much on it, they may even build their world on it, but what then when it comes crashing down, and all they are left with is disappointment. For others still, it may be entwined so closely with their breathing you couldn’t say which of the two was keeping them alive. And a hope like this, a hope so enduring, it may do as well to call it love - for what else is there in this world that could never falter? And then there’s the hope, where hope is a luxury, when nothing too much depends on it, but a great joy is found in the belief that just about anything might be possible and you go around with a smile of wonder fixed upon your face.


Wednesday, 27 October 2021

The Quarantine Gallery

 


The story of how the most exclusive art gallery in the Falkland Islands was created.

 

It can quite quickly feel like a soulless place. You get told the number of your hotel room, pick up your bags, walk along the corridor, and shut the door behind you. And save for two 25-minute slots outside in the tiny exercise yard, that’s it for 14 days. There would be people who you travelled down with, people you’d spent 19 hours with on the same MOD flight who you now wouldn’t see for two weeks. The outside time was definitely something to be grateful for, though. It gave a little structure to each day if nothing else. We were buddied up for that time, keeping strictly two metres apart - absolutely forbidden from licking each other. But even that social interaction was short lived – each of us left again to shrink back into our own isolated existence. While of course I can only speak with authority about my own experience – an authority which became murky at best – I think it would be generally true to say that most people had good and bad days, and on the bad days one of the prevalent feelings was that of being disconnected. I find it interesting to think about the fact that there was nothing actually stopping us from walking out of our room, of walking out of that hotel, and finding ourselves down by the sea, saying hello to every passing stranger we meet. The barriers and the walls we put up were therefore effectively all in the mind. We knew that if we broke quarantine, we would have to start the 14 days again, and if we couldn’t face that, then we would have to go home – there could be no onward travel to Antarctica. There was also the added incentive not to break the 5-day test-to-release quarantine imposed by the Falkland Islands Government – that came with a hefty fine, a prison sentence, or possibly both. In our darker moments we wondered if they would knock the days already spent in quarantine off our prison sentence. Any sense of humour we had left to muster became a little warped. It made me think about and question how I defined freedom, and in doing so I was hit by a realisation which I felt physically in my core. What an incredibly fortunate life I have lived that I have not had my freedom impinged upon enough to ever need to really define what freedom is. Of course, the word comes with vague and general ideas – some of which may have become somewhat lazy in their meaning and application. I do not believe that freedom is the same thing as doing whatever we please, or at least not without both accepting and taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions. We are also responsible for how we deal with and cope with the actions of others, and we are responsible for how we respond to external events and things. I suppose it all comes down to the choices that we make, to have the freedom to chose between one thing or another, and sometimes the choice that we make is not the one that makes us feel the most free.

 

I have noticed, over the past 18 months, that the times which have been characterised by unusual levels of isolation and disconnection have brought out a greater need to express myself creatively. It was during the first lockdown of 2020 that I really started drawing, and I would write letters to friends and family with greater frequency than before. I found the communication and connection offered by social media, while not entirely useless – was largely inadequate. But in times of uncertainty, and in times of feeling scared, we reach out for anything, and in social media we get quick and easy words. You’re desperately searching for what you want to hear – something to give a sense of meaning and to restore a sense of place. They are words which are easy to be misinterpreted though, and words which can be misleading. This invariably leaves you feeling just as empty as before - in fact, it sometimes deepens the sense of separation and despair. So, while not abandoning social media entirely, I do find that I am spending less time on it in favour of slower, more thought-out forms of communication - in search of better, and more human ways. The beauty of a handwritten letter for example, is that you have captured a moment of your life on a physical piece of paper, and that moment and that piece of paper ends up in the hands of someone else. It is not hidden behind a screen, it’s not to a world which you can never see or feel; it is a tangible thread which joins two people, and the magic of it is – you just have to pull that thread towards you. It may be as simple as that to regain a sense of our humanity, and our connection to other people.

And so, in reminding myself of this and rediscovering my conviction for it, after a few days had passed in quarantine I unpacked my pens and started drawing. I was also left a whiteboard and a pack of whiteboard pens outside my room for the purpose of writing messages for everyone in quarantine to read. This has become something of a regular fixture down in Antarctica over the past couple of years – and while it is something which on occasion can feel quite time consuming and almost a burden, I know the difference it has made to people, and therefore how important it is. It’s also something which I usually enjoy doing – both the process of doing it, and the conversations and connections it creates. Initially it was just the whiteboard which I planned to leave by the entrance/exit to the exercise yard – the one place where every individual person would get to pass by and see. Gradually though I started to put up some of my drawings as well, and the occasional thought which I had jotted down on a scrap piece of paper. I asked and encouraged other people to get involved, to add and to contribute their own material. I thought that it might help people to feel less disconnected, I hoped that it might bring a little soul to the place. And so, The Quarantine Gallery was formed – perhaps the most exclusive art gallery in the Falkland Islands. It was wonderful to see it develop over the days and weeks; there are drawings, poems, crocheted animals, and the latest addition was a ship made from tin foil (saved up from the meals which are left outside our rooms three times a day). And there’s no end point to it – it is left to grow and develop throughout the Antarctic summer season, something for every person who comes through quarantine in the Falklands to see and to be a part of. Perhaps, it’ll still be there even after we all start to head back north again, as we head home for the northern hemisphere spring.  

 


Tuesday, 19 October 2021

A Return to Spring

 

Day 15: Some thoughts from quarantine

 

Although we have completed our minimum 14-day self-isolation quarantine period and returned 3 negative Covid tests, we have now entered group/bubble quarantine, and this will remain in place until we reach Antarctica. There are 10 of us in this bubble – we travelled down to the Falklands on the same MOD flight.

The thoughts that appear in this post are loosely based on the content of a letter which I recently wrote to a friend. I trust that he will not mind. Sometimes, it is only afterwards that we even begin to understand.

 

It occurred to me recently, that by the time I fly into Rothera this season I will have spent close to, or even just over 40 days in the Falklands during the past two years. It is somewhat strange to have spent so long here and yet seen so little (save for the inside of this hotel room). Or at least, that’s the face value way of looking at it I suppose. The truth is – when viewed in a different light – I have seen a lot, I have seen something that no one else in the world has. I’m aware that, in taking this view, it requires tilting one’s head at such an angle that will almost certainly incur a strain to the neck. And it’s an outlook that on some days has seemed so clear, but for a good proportion of the time I simply haven’t bothered to look.

The view is slightly different from this hotel room to the next, and whoever was here before me and whoever follows after will see a different world, a slightly different time of year. I must admit, that I was fully expecting it to be the same and to feel the same as last year – I was here for 18/19 days then. I even spent Christmas Day here, in hotel room by myself. And to really add to the occasion I had succumbed to food poisoning late on Christmas Eve. Thankfully, it was only a 24-hour bout, and we were able to board the ship on Boxing Day as planned. Not that a 5-day journey which included crossing the Drake Passage did much to improve my stomach. And while I hoped that particular episode would not be repeated, I couldn’t imagine that the oh so small existence of life in quarantine could be any different one year to the next. It had not even crossed my mind as a possibility – there simply could not be the scope for it to change. I came into it this year believing that I knew exactly what to expect. But too many different things and too many different people have passed this way, and I myself have passed through many different days and different places since. It’s not the same world, not the same as I found it then, nor the same as anyone else will find it from now on. If nothing else – we’ve grown a little older, and perhaps a little wiser, too. But what is this wisdom that we speak of – surely, it’s nothing more than the realisation of all that we do not know.

There is always so much to see. From the birds that peck at crumbs in the carpark, to the dandelions which open wide and brightly in the sun. And then there are the daily habits of where people park their cars, and which of them get locked and the many that never seem to worry. Without a doubt though, my favourite thing to look at and watch is the garden across the way - the garden with a few pots of daffodils. I forget most days what time of year it is here having left the U.K. in early October as the first signs of autumn were well underway. In normal, pre-Covid years, we would pretty much be straight down to Antarctica, save perhaps for a night or two in southern Chile. This transformation was easier to make sense of; it made sense to leave in autumn and to head into colder (albeit it much colder) climes. It won’t surprise you to learn that a summer in Antarctica bears absolutely no resemblance to a summer back home. It rains less for starters. Anyway, I keep forgetting that it is spring here, and the daffodils are such a delightful reminder of that. Every year, when the spring unfurls, I say to myself and to those around me that daffodils are my favourites - such a happy looking flower. And while this is the absolute truth, I then say the same thing when the bluebells appear and turn large swathes of woodland and the low reaches of the fells a vibrant purple. My truth changes yet again when the wild poppies and oxeye daisies colour the Eskdale valley road.

The house that the garden belongs to is the house which I picked out last year as being my favourite, and that is still the case. It has walls of a delightful turquoise, and the roof is the colour of warm terracotta earth. Most days, you can usually see the couple who live in the house pottering about in their garden. The man, who has a distinguished white beard, puts on a red coat when the weather turns colder in the wind, and he looks every little bit like Santa Claus. One weekend day will stick with me more than most, though. It was a Saturday morning, and the woman picked a bunch of daffodils and took them back inside the house – to put in a vase on the kitchen table, or on a windowsill, presumably. To me, it seemed as if she was carrying the most valuable treasure in the world – and I could not take my eyes away - not even for just a moment. And although that treasure did not belong to me, to simply witness it felt like treasure enough alone. In fact, I’m thinking now that perhaps true worth is seeing it in the hands of others rather then our own. Possession can seem so incredibly cheap sometimes – the things of greatest worth are, after all, impossible to own.

Friday, 15 October 2021

A Series of Dreams

 

Perhaps by way of a short introduction – rather than simply launching straight into my dreams:

I’m currently on Day 11 of quarantine in the Malvina Hotel, Falkland Islands. I’m here enroute to another summer season down at Rothera Research Station, Antarctica. It’s a 14-day minimum quarantine before heading south onto the continent; the reality (for one reason or another) is going to be more like 23 days. Last year I was here for 18/19 days. It is for that reason perhaps that there has been an 11-day delay in updating this blog – something which I had every good intention of doing from the outset. There seemed to be little new about quarantine life which I felt sufficiently inspired to write about. Or at least, that was what I kept telling myself. In truth, it was likely a combination of two things. The first being that I really struggled with the initial few days here, and all my words and all my thoughts were focused on trying to get my head around this. An internal battle of sorts which leaves no space for the observation of anything else. It’s interesting to me how these kinds of struggles can often surprise us, and how we also usually try everything possible to avoid them. Life is of course a continual process of figuring things out, of getting things wrong, learning how to do better, and how to be better. And while it can hurt like hell, it’s through the tough times, the challenging times, that we learn the most, and grow the most. I would not exchange the first few days (and moments since and yet to come) of this quarantine period for 23 days of untroubled bliss.

The second reason as to why I’m only now getting around to doing some writing is without a doubt the most fundamental reason of the lot – in fact, it’s the only reason every time. In order to write something, you actually have to start writing! I didn’t start; it’s as simple as that. It can be a daunting thing of course – what if you sit down and there are no words to write? But there are always words, and where there are words, the thoughts will follow sometime after. It is perhaps not the way round that we think it should be, but it seems to be the case more often than not. In fact, I don’t think it can happen in any other way. Words precede thought, and we probably need to give ourselves a little time between the two – or at least give ourselves time to consider and get used to something new.

So here are the words that I started to write; an account of the dreams that I have had the last three nights.

 

Dream 1

 

I was at my mum’s house; I woke in the night needing a wee. When I sat down on the toilet, I realised that my mum and stepdad were also in the bathroom, and they were trying to have a conversation. They said it was a good place to have difficult conversations, because conversations generally seem less scary compared to having a wee in front of someone. But if didn’t make me feel brave - I just sat there saying nothing, unable to wee.

 

Then the scene suddenly jumped, and I was up in Scotland somewhere for a running race/event which my friend Dani had convinced me to join her in taking part in. It was very informal, there didn’t seem to be a set start time, and people were just turning up in dribs and drabs and setting off when they pleased. I followed a group of three, and it soon transpired that it was an out and back course along an undulating approach trail. The path was strewn with big rocks, tufts of heather, and there were plenty of lochs dotted about. It was as I was running out that I saw Dani for the first time - she was smiling, and flying, dressed up in the latest top of the range Salomon gear. When I got back to the carpark, a couple had just arrived - they asked me what my time was. I looked at my watch and said, “10.26, but I don’t really understand how this race works?” They told me that I had to do 12 laps of the course, and that each lap was a marathon in length. They asked if I’d really run it in 10 and a half minutes, I replied “don’t be silly, that’s just the time in Peru.”

 

As I headed out for the second lap, I started to notice more and more things. I noticed how happy everyone was, and that there was music coming from somewhere and most people were singing along. I also noticed that a woman, who was clearly not part of the race, had set up camp just off the path. I thought to myself ‘how funny - on any other day of the year this would be a perfectly quiet place to spend a day or two. But as fate would have it, she chose the day of the 12-marathon race.’ She had hung a pair of trousers and a jumper over the low branch of a tree, and I realised that she must have just returned from the nearest loch for a swim or a wash. I took a diversion down to the shore and got my camera out to take a photograph. It was beautiful. A moment later something big appeared above the surface of the water - about 10 metres out from where I was. I couldn’t work out if it was a small whale or a big dolphin. I started yelling to attract the attention of the other runners, and soon a small crowd was gathered. Shouts rang out, 

“It’s a whale!” 

“It’s a dolphin!”

“Welcome to Scotland!” 

And then from a little further away - “It’s a haddock!” 

They were being serious, and everyone else started laughing. But as I was taking photos, the silhouettes of more whales and dolphins started appearing out of the water at the far end of the loch. At one point I was convinced that I saw the long silhouette of a giraffe’s head and neck. This made me wonder if perhaps there was also a haddock in there somewhere, too. 

 

And then I got woken up by a knock on the door, and there was a small pot of cold porridge waiting outside. 

 

 

Dream 2

I was walking to Booths supermarket; it was early evening but already starting to get dark. When I got there, I searched every aisle but all they had in stock were discounted multipacks of Milkybar chocolate, and Ritz cheese biscuits. I didn’t fancy eating either of those, so I rang my mum to tell her that they had nothing suitable in. But when I rang her, it connected me to a phone call that she was already in the middle of, and all I could do was listen to the conversation between her and someone from an energy company about the cost of this month’s electricity meter bill. So, I just hung up and started walking home.

 

 

Dream 3

 

I returned home to the hostel after six months of being away. I was greeted by Mick and the dog, Moss. Moss seemed to have retained all his usual characteristics and mannerisms, but it was inescapably obvious that he had, in fact, turned into a cat.

I had changed rooms, electing this year for the pokey room that was situated on the left just as you go inside the front door. The door to the room didn’t close properly, let alone lock, and it was so small that there was not enough space for a bed except if you assembled it last thing at night. But even then, I knew it would be a struggle, such is my ability to turn even a small number of possessions into an insurmountable mountain of junk within seconds.

The biggest problem with this room though was that everyone thought it was Reception. This meant I had a whole string of people popping by to ask me questions. I explained to one woman that this wasn’t reception and besides I’m not even working. This did not deter her. “Oh, it’s not a question about work, I just wanted to ask you a few questions about the Beijing Wall?” I looked at her for a couple of seconds before replying, “What? What do you even mean by that?”

It was a busy evening; I suspect it might have been the busiest evening on record. There was a seemingly constant flow of people, and I wondered briefly how there could possibly be room for everybody. There were no less than four people staying at the hostel that night who had previously climbed Everest. Not one of them was Kenton Cool, but Kenton Cool was all any of them seemed to talk about, and they were looking for him everywhere, convinced that he must be here, too.

At some point, it must have been the following day, I managed to escape the madness and went out for a bike ride with my friend, Ali.  She punctured on the road between Drigg and Seascale – in my absence they had turned this section of the road into a long strip of cobbled stones. Ali explained to me that this was Cumbria County Council’s idea of re-wilding. They thought it was an innovative way to get on board with the latest trend. Then Ali changed the punctured inner tube quicker than I’ve ever seen – she said the trick was having a little sandstone pebble with a hole drilled through it tucked inside the wheel rim. You’d tie a thin bit of string through it, and that way you could just pull the damaged inner tube out while leaving the outer tyre in place. When she showed me how she had done it, it all made perfect sense.

I knew straightway that I needed to implement a similar system, and I just happened to have a friend who was a world leading expert in drilling holes in tiny sandstone pebbles. I went to him almost immediately to ask for his help. John was very busy with work though and said it would have to wait. He apologised and showed me what he was currently working on – and it looked very complicated indeed. He was having to design these 3D certificates which involved superimposing people’s heads onto the body of Santa Claus. The latest inner tube replacement kit would have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

The Long Journey Home

 

5 weeks at sea. 8,000 nautical miles. Antarctica to Portsmouth.

 

There was a rush to get on the ship. I’d been half ready to leave for a few days. The plans had changed and changed again, all plans hampered by the wind which had picked up and was blowing large bergs into south cove. South station is where the wharf is located, and where the ship was moored. While the ship was moored it was at the mercy of these icebergs and being unable to manoeuvre it was in fact hit by one. But if the ship cast off it would have great difficulty getting back in again. So, what had been planned for the following morning now suddenly became the evening before. We had 15 minutes to get ourselves and all our bags on board. This was not how I had envisaged leaving station having spent the last two and a half months there. I’d been asleep, having a really long afternoon nap, when my roommate came in and told me that it was time for us to leave. It was one of those tired, deep sleeps that can take hours to wake up from, and I was stumbling around trying to get my last bits of kit together – still slightly confused as to what was going on. A few minutes later we were making our way down to south station, not really much of a walk at all, but in the growing darkness and with a bitter wind blowing snow and ice into your pores it felt like quite the expedition. The lights from the ship not so much guided but blinded us, but there it was, and we were welcomed onboard to what would be our home for the next five weeks, for the slow journey home. I remember saying hurried goodbyes to the winter team of 23 who would be staying behind. I remember seeing my friend Katy trying to get enough shelter from the wind to smoke a cigarette – the tiny, bright embers adding a fleeting warmth to the world. It’s a strange place for goodbyes, maybe easier somehow because they are so clear cut for a time. As things turned out, despite the rush, we didn’t actually cast off until the following morning – but at least we had the option if required. In the end it was even slightly delayed – divers were sent down to check what if any damage had been caused to the hull from where the iceberg hit. You don’t want to be heading out to sea, into the Drake Passage least of all if the ship is anything less than sound. Thankfully, it was all ok. I was very much ready to go home even if it was going to take a long time to get there. The first few days were rough, I spent hours curled up on the toilet floor throwing my guts up, hoping for even the briefest moment of relief. We were two days delayed in getting to the Falkland Islands (our first stop to refuel). The weather in the Drake Passage was so bad, the sea state showing ten metre swells, that we took shelter behind the South Shetland Islands for a couple of nights. The sea sickness pills kicked in, think I might have even overdone them, they make you drowsy and I just seemed to be sleeping all the time after that. And in sleep on the ship I would be visited by the most vivid of dreams. I dreamt that I was hurtling around the streets of Seascale in a tractor – in a mad rush to find a dentist so that I could get my covid vaccination. Another time, I was walking around the deck and got thrown overboard as the ship flipped 90° in order to give the starboard side a clean. I was adrift in the water but out of nowhere appeared Foxfield train station, Cumbria. I was able to drag myself up onto the platform from where I radioed the captain of the ship and they turned around to pick me up. The dreams and the sleep made a pleasant change from constantly feeling sick. The first week on board, the first ten days I’d say, were pretty tough at times mentally and physically. I went through periods where I felt utterly alone, and all I could seem to do was sit in my cabin and cry. I rarely cry, and certainly not like that, so I was left to wonder what was going on. Perhaps it was simply the realisation that on this journey there would be no get out, I would have no choice but to go through whatever I was going through. It’s pretty scary to face up to things and to have no option of running away. As it turns out it was all ok and I was ok. Maybe it’s that old saying that the fear of something is worse than the thing itself. I don’t know if that was true in this case, I don’t know if that was what was going on. Maybe we just need to retreat into the shadows from time to time. It’s funny in that respect, the only place we can find to exist when we feel as if there is nowhere in the world that we could possibly be. The feeling of being alone, though – well I think that may always come and go. But, after many days and nights at sea, after so much time that you reasonably come to assume that the world must be made up entirely of ocean and sky, I thought perhaps that it might just be enough that each morning I wake up and that each night I go to sleep that it’s the same endless sky above my head and the same earth somewhere far below my feet as one elsewhere in the world whom I love. It’s not much to hold onto, but what else is there in a world where it’s hard to know what’s real anymore. The longer I spent at sea the less time meant anything to me. I once asked what day it was, and although they said it was Sunday, they could have said any day, they could have even said a made-up word and it would have all been the same to me. There was really nothing I had to think about at all, and often I didn’t. I think I would have given in entirely to just watching an endless amount of mindless TV dramas if it wasn’t for deciding to run/walk a virtual West Highland Way around the deck. This was followed up by a virtual Great Glen Way. The laps of the deck numbered over a thousand by the end of the voyage. But it was something to do. Even just the aspect of counting kept me occupied. And it gave me a sense of movement when the world around me seemed so unchanging. Being outside helped with the seasickness, too.

 

I knew though, that when it was all said and done, there would be something about the ocean that I would miss. And the thing about it which I would miss would be the thing about it which I didn’t understand – which I don’t even think I could try to explain. Perhaps it’s the sheer enormity of it – ocean for as far as you could see, and even if you could see further, it would look no different anyway. And then there was the world beneath you, the world below the surface of the water. A world that we floating above it could neither see nor know nothing about. Occasionally a creature would rise from the depths, a flying fish appearing on the crest of a wave, zooming above the sea for a seemingly impossible amount of time before disappearing once more into the endless blue. Other times we would glimpse a distant whale, and we were welcomed by a pod of dolphins into the English Chanel. These sightings from the world below only added to the mystery of that place and the mystery of the journey as a whole. In a day and age which seems increasingly high speed and instantaneous, where there are so few places on the planet which you couldn’t reach within a day, it made this voyage seem impossibly long. It was a wonderful reminder of just how vast this planet is, of how much there is to treasure and protect. It’s a sense of scale so hard to appreciate unless you’re in the middle of it. I don’t think five weeks of my life have ever been played out in such distinct and stunning isolation. I wouldn’t wish to be at sea for another day, but I wouldn’t wish to take even a single day away from it. It truly was a journey of a lifetime – for all this and for all the people I was lucky enough to share it with.


Monday, 11 January 2021

Letters from the Southern Ocean

 

Letters from the Southern Ocean

 

31st December 2020

 

I’ve been stood at the front of the ship for a couple of hours. The lightest of snow flurries in the air. Watching the sun sink slowly lower in the sky but knowing that it will never set. It is past midnight, and with that comes the somewhat strange realisation that it’s New Year’s Eve. The journey is nearly over, we will reach Rothera later today, we will reach Antarctica.

This will be my third summer season working down at Rothera for the British Antarctic Survey. Each experience has been different from the one before, even though it would be easy to presume that this year is the notable exception. Certain aspects of it may become normalised over time, but perhaps that’s just another way of admitting that we can never get our head around it.

While the past six days have been spent in a largely seasick haze, there have been moments of the surreal and the sublime which I couldn’t fail to notice. It has been to see another world, even if that world has been entirely of the sea. I have seen albatross and petrels, and I have seen whales. This evening, this early morning I have seen them blow, I have seen the tail of a humpback whale appear above the surface of the ocean. It brought a tear to my eye. I wasn’t just seeing this for myself, I was seeing it for my friends back home, especially for Mick and Rachel. We’d spoken of whales before I left, and how excited Mick was that I might see some. The sunsets, the colours in the sky have been vast and indescribable. Photos tell not half the story, and even as we stood there in the growing cold one night, Mags, Pete, Rob, Stewie, and I - it was at times a wordless moment shared.

But this night I found myself alone, alone with my thoughts, both thoughts of the future - where I was going, and thoughts of home. To some degree, Antarctica always feels a little bit like a different world - life on station becomes our entire world. It is intense, and it is focused, right from day one. But it is important to remember that it is not a world in isolation; what happens here has an impact on a global scale. In a year where our attention has understandably been elsewhere, we must not forget that the challenges that face us all, both now and in the future, come to us on many different fronts. It is critical that scientific research in the polar regions has been able to continue.

On a personal level I found myself in a world of mixed emotions. There was the obvious excitement at returning to a place and a job that I love, and the chance to be reunited with friends and colleagues from previous seasons. But it is also a time tinged with sadness, and I suppose a degree of guilt. There’s a part of me that wishes I could be going through the same tough times with friends and family back home. I don’t want to escape their darkness; I want to walk through it with them hand in hand. You want to feel like you can be a comfort to them – but maybe I can shed a little light from here.