When I was about 13 or 14, I discovered Madeleine L’Engle’s series of books featuring the Austin Family. I had already read and loved “A Wrinkle in Time” so it was no surprise to me that I loved her other books as well, but it was a surprise that she chose to set one of those other books in Antarctica. “Troubling a Star” was the first time I had ever encountered the southernmost continent as a place in its own right and I was fascinated. I peripherally knew about the hole in the ozone layer and that there were scientific research stations down there, but I hadn’t ever really thought about Antarctica’s history or politics. I began reading about treaties and territorial claims, about Palmer and Ross and of course Shackleton – a Kildare man, don’t you know. I wanted to go and see it for myself. Badly. Unfortunately, while I may have had some aptitude for biology, I don’t ever think I saw myself becoming a scientist – not in the research sense. So why couldn’t I just go on a cruise, a la L’Engle’s book? Well, it ain’t cheap and it ain’t easy and I didn’t have a wealthy benefactor like Vicky Austin did so it would have to wait until I was earning a decent income…No problem, I’d just save up for a few years after college!
The problem with the kind of wanderlust that runs in my family is that saving up for one big trip when you could be going on so many smaller ones just doesn’t happen. Post-college was – as many of my friends and family know – an amazing, unforgettable experience of wandering through Europe for a year and a half. When I finally touched back down in Boston, I was easily overqualified for the job I landed with STA Travel where I sold adventures by telling stories about my own. But it was a comfy job, I loved the people with whom I worked and the travel perqs were sweet – discounted air tickets, “familiarization” trips (also called FAMs, basically free samples of tours we sold to help us sell them more knowledgeably) and my favorite: “World Experience”. WE was a bonus paid in the form of travel vouchers that could be used to discount the cost of any product we sold. The longer you worked for STA Travel, the more WE you got with each paycheck. And then I discovered the brass ring: through GAP Adventures, we sold an Antarctic cruise. I started costing out tickets to Ushuaia, Argentina (the departure point) about once or twice a month and calculating just how much World Experience/actual savings I would need to make this finally happen. However, before I could get very far in my plotting, my office fell victim to the massive corporate downsizing; it was shut down and we were all laid off and any ideas I’d had for my future beyond STA Travel (read: culinary school) were pushed up by about 6 months. So off I went to London and Le Cordon Bleu, but my Antarctic dreams weren’t forgotten – I gave myself until I was 30 (five years) to save enough money to get there.
Unfortunately, as anyone in this industry will tell you, no one does it for the money. After culinary school, I landed in the Bay Area and landed some great jobs in fairly short order but with each paycheck, it looked less and less likely that I would get there in the time remaining before I hit the big 3-0. When I started my own business, I figured that might be my big, pre-30 achievement and I’d save the frozen continent for later.
Then, about a year ago, a Wellesley Alumna posted on our private Alumnae-only message board about a friend of hers working as a cook in Antarctica. I think it was in response to my posting that I had always wanted to go and why didn’t I look at a support role as a cook? Well, stomp on frogs and shove a crowbar up my nose. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I privately responded with questions about how and where and she sent me some info about Raytheon Polar Services. While it wasn’t exactly the right place to go, it got me started on the trail that eventually led me to the Native Alaskan corporation that serves as a subcontractor for Antarctic food services (amongst other things). I sent in my application in early March 2012. In early June, I checked to make sure my application had been received correctly and I was told it had been. By July, I’d given up: deployment for the Austral Summer was in mid-October, they’d already hired everybody, I was sure! Ah well, maybe next year…better a year late than never, right? But on August 14th, I woke up to an email from the Exec Chef at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station asking me to call him to set up a phone interview: “If you still have an interest in working at either South Pole or McMurdo station, Antarctica.” Ya think?
And now here I am two months later – PQ’d (Physically Qualified) and DQ’d (Deployment Qualified) with one week to pack up my apartment and my life and finally finally finally get to Antarctica. If you had told me at 14 that becoming a cook is what would get me here, I most likely would have laughed in your face. But life sure loves to slap me in the face with how it rarely works out the way I think it will.
Quite a few people have asked me “Why Antarctica?” when I tell them my news. I usually give them the standard “Why not?” and they usually nod thoughtfully. But for those of you who wanted to know more, this is pretty much the full backstory. It also probably didn’t hurt that my high school mascot was a “Fighting Penguin” now that I think about it…which was totally erroneous, by the way, since Moscow is north not south. But that, as Kipling would say…
Anyway, I shall attempt to chronicle all of this childhood-dream-come-true – the good, the bad, AND the ugly – through this blog so friends and family have (relatively) easy access to updates. There will be many posts about packing and shopping in the next week and maybe even some from Christchurch, NZ. Once I’m “on the ice” (as they say) and working 10 hour days and 6 day weeks, I’ll do my best but I’ve heard the altitude and workload can really take its toll.