Mi casa, su casa. My house is your house. When you live and breathe by this adage – you inevitably end up hosting people from all over the world.
But a house guest from…Antarctica-ish?
It’s not a place that even the most well-travelled of people get to visit. But I know Rebekah Osgood. She’s an old flatmate of mine. We met at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem seven years ago. Rebekah is one of the most adventurous and spirited people I’ve ever met in my life.
(Rebekah and I celebrating Diwali in Jerusalem in 2009.)
“I’m cold,” I told her last Saturday morning.
Rebekah sniggered and then laughed.
It was 6am. I was grumpy. I didn’t want to get out of my futon. Autumn has officially arrived in the land of the rising sun. It’s err.. 15 degrees Celsius these days. Hey what can I say – I’m from the tropics. Rebekah on the other hand – is visiting me ‘from the ice’.
“As I kid,” Rebekah says, “I wanted to step foot on all seven continents.”
South Pole, included. Just thinking about it is making me feel cold. Brr…
“In elementary school,” Rebekah says, “my teacher said, “Oh, honey – people don’t go to Antarctica.”
It saddens me to hear tales of educators shooting down their kids’ dreams. But Rebekah’s not the kind of girl to give up that easily.
“When I was in pastry school,” she says, “I knew of a friend of a friend who worked in Antarctica. And then when my parents were on a business trip, they met a chef who opened his own restaurant after working down there.”
Oh honey – people do go down there.
The National Science Foundation has been running the United States Antarctic Program (NSF USAP) since the 1950s.
Rebekah applied to the NSF USAP program eight times in two years. On 12 November 2012, she finally got that phone call. You know – the one that changes everything. The next thing she knew she was in Christchurch, getting on a military cargo plane stocked with humans.
“It was a brutal flight,” Rebekah says. “You’re sitting on the outside edges of the airplane and there isn’t much room to move. My bum and feet were going to sleep. It’s also super noisy and you can’t talk to anyone.
“But I did it. I set foot on Antarctica.
“After landing, we drove for 15 miles. Most of the buildings are up on stilts. It’s to make way for the wind and snow. If the wind comes then the snow blows through it.
“When we finally arrive, I walk into a dorm room that’s meant for four people. It was the first time I had to share a room with others.”
(An airplane landing in the middle of winter. Image courtesy of Rebekah Osgood.)
I’m not a fan of roommates either. I need my space. Housemates – yes. Roommates? No, thank you.
“But during winter you get your own room,” Rebekah adds.
There are three American Stations on Antarctica. Rebekah was on McMurdo, which employs 1000 people in summer and 150 in winter. She worked there for two summers and three winters.
“Why winter?” I ask, remembering my aversion to cold weather.
“You can see the milky way 24/7 during winter,” Rebekah says. “It’s epic.”
(The stars in Castle Rock, Antarctica. Image Courtesy of Rebekah Osgood.)
Say…WHAT? Stars 24 hours a day – everyday? My wind wanders back to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: one of my favourite TV shows of all time. Unfortunately, astronomy doesn’t occupy as much space in pop culture as it used to.
“It’s so dark,” Rebekah continues, “and the stars are so bright. Because the atmosphere is colder, the colours of the stars change more so they twinkle more to your eyes.
“The moon also does all kinds of crazy things. You can have a full moon for 4 days. And then you can watch the moon go from a crescent to a half moon – in a day and a half.
“The transition from winter to summer is breathtaking. We get seven hour long sunsets.”
The rhythms of Mother Nature’s cycles that most of us are familiar with, do not apply on the South Pole. Listening to Rebekah talk, I was stumped getting my head around everything she was telling me. I repeated the same question over and over just to make sure I got everything right.
“And what about them auroras?” I ask.
(The rare purple auroras. Image courtesy of Rebekah Osgood.)
“Everyone knows they’re going to see them,” Rebekah says as she smiles, laughs and squeals with glee. Some things just don’t get old.
“Auroras are caused by solar flares,” Rebekah continues. “Winter 2015 was the peak of the solar flares which cause auroras. I was so excited. There were these ribbon curtain things dancing through the sky. White. Green. Intense green, Red. Purple.”
(Image courtesy of Rebekah Osgood.)
Did I mention that Rebekah is an amazing photographer? I reckon I don’t have to. She’s the one who took all these beautiful pictures.
“I also saw nacreous clouds,” she adds. “It looks like an oil slick in the sky. Like the sky is on fire.
“It’s stinking amazing.”
(Nacreous clouds in Antarctica. Image Courtesy of Rebekah Osgood.)
Sounds like it. Her experience seems so far away from most of our ‘daily realities’ that I’m not even sure what to make of it.
“Apart from you guys on the NSF USAP, are there any other living things around?” I ask.
“Emperor Penguins and seals in winter,” Rebekah says. “In summer, we sometimes get whales and skua: these giant mean seagulls that are smart and will attack you and steal your food.”
(Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. Image courtesy of Rebekah Osgood.)
Lovely. Surviving in Antarctica can’t be easy. Speaking of which, what do my fellow humans eat down there?
“I was a cook for two seasons,” Rebekah says. “There’s jello in every meal. You don’t have all the ingredients you want. They only get resupplied once a year. Once, we ran out of coconut milk. So we rehydrated, blended and pressed dried coconut to make coconut curry. Everything is canned, frozen or dehydrated.
“We get ‘freshies’: a fresh food order of 1000 pounds – maybe once a month. That equates to a salad, an apple and a banana per person. Fortunately, the potatoes and onions keep better.
“Someone who works outside needs 1500 calories a meal.”
That’s 4500 calories a day – more than double the daily calorie requirement for the most of us.
“Biggest challenge?” I ask.
“It’s a combination of two things,” Rebekah says. “Having a roommate; on top of having to work a 60 hour week. It’s too close for comfort and you just don’t have room to breathe.”
I concur. And I haven’t even lived on the ice.
“Biggest blessing?” I ask.
“Community and weird friendships,” Rebekah says. “Everyone is stranded in Antarctica. People are amazing at stepping up and doing the cool things they want to do. In summer there is a lot going on. In winter, there are less people, so you get to know them really well.”
After five solid seasons on the ice, Rebekah decided that it was time to move on…
“The adventure part of it died down,” she says. “It became just a job. I don’t consider it ‘real life’ anymore. I started to feel like ‘I’m just existing here’.”
Fair enough. It happens. Rebekah’s big goals have been accomplished – so it’s time for some new ones.
“I want to continue to to see the world,” Rebekah says. “And now I want to live in– not just set foot on – all seven continents.”
And once she’s done with that, I have no doubt that she’ll go on to tackle the moon. In the meantime, she visited my hometown Singapore en route to Japan.
“It was so hot,” she told me.
This time it was my turn to snigger and laugh. The world is a big enough place for all kinds of experiences for all kinds of people.
I don’t know where Rebekah and I will wind up next. But mi casa, su casa. My house is your house.
“So next time,” I say to Rebekah, “you’ll live someplace where I can actually come visit?”
“No promises,” she says.
Hmm… The moon might just be my next destination.