2010年7月29日 星期四

Filling the mind with good things in the Antartica

The painting :
We were 46 people from 15 countries ( including the country of Antartica where the penguins come from), but got on amazingly well .
In the Antartica I saw the Southern Cross for the first time in my life .
My photo technique's so bad I have to resort to painting to record my trips, but at least in my painting, you can touch everything !

A few years ago while touring in the USA , I, together with my cousin and her family, visited a posh shop in Michigan specialising in crystalline artifacts with a strict " You break you buy " policy . After a few minutes in the shop my niece Carolyn , then aged 8, pulled a long face . " Can I please be excused to go outside ? " she wailed , " There's nothing in here that I can touch !"

In the Antartica trip I fully appreciated her frustration . The first warning we got after we set sail was No Touching and to keep a good 5 feets away from all wildlife. All backpacks and outdoor gear were vacumed by the expedition staff prior to the first landing in South Georgia to remove any plant matter . I was impressed . " My backpack was never this clean even when it was new !" I said to Jonathan as I watched him vigorously went through all the pockets and pryed open each seam for the chance presence of an elusive seed . We were instructed to wash and disinfect our boots thoroughly going to and from shore , and take care of all personal functional needs before all landings . All these rules are necessary to keep the Antartica pristine and away from contaminations , albeit instituted a hundred years too late .

While we were not allowed to go near the wildlife , there's nothing we could do to keep them from approaching us, as when a king penguin attempted to swallow my foot . Nevertheless just sitting quietly watching the penguins was more fun than I could ever imagine. Even at the risk of being accused of anthropomorphizing the penguins , I swear these birds have facial expressions and the most transparent body language of any animal I've seen !

From the first encounter it was Penguin Soap Opera grande tiempo : A scrawny little rock hopper in front of me was working hard constructing his nest when everyone else had already paired up and settled in theirs . I took a look at his nest and it was empty; he had nobody ! The poor penguin loser looked so desperate as he peered around frantically as though pleading " If I build a really really big house, would you come and live with me ?" The counselor in me wished I could tell him straight " It's not the house ! You're just too needy, that's what's scaring all the chicks away !" Right next door was a couple with a different problem. The wife was busy tidying the nest while the big fat husband loafed about flapping his wings. She gave him THE look which sent him scurrying off pretending to be busy with the gravel . A minute later he returned and nudged her with his empty beak" Honey, why did you send me out ? There's no work out there !" Apparently domestic life is the same whichever world one lives in !

The Antartic Quest expedition was 18 days going through the Falklands, South Georgia, South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula , making Zodiac landings whenever the weather permitted .
Sea sickness was foremost on everybody's mind but we were blessed with amazing good weather and reasonable calm seas, which made my problem even more absurd . Due to the faulty design and malalignment of my bed in the boat, I kept being thrown off the bed even in moderate waves. No solution was forthcoming from the boat crew so I installed my own innovation . I took the luggage strap from my suitcase , wrapped it round the mattress and strapped myself in everynight like a piece of luggage . The rolling was still bad but at least I didn't end up on the floor .
When asked by friends after I got home what Antartica's like , my first word is always a resounding "COLD !" It's my bad luck I generally don't do very well in Cold Climate. Cold wind makes my skin break down and I had the worst windburn on my face ever in my life while on this trip. I was so envious of the men their moustaches and beards, finally I know what they're good for : skincare ! After the agonising icy-windy episode at the Right Whale Bay I took to wearing 5 pairs of trousers ( including one pair of down which I had had specially made in Shenzhen) everytime we went onshore . But my fingers and toes were still cold even with double gloves and triple socks , painful when they freezed and when they thawed . We were advised always to carry extra clothes in our backpacks. The weather could change very quickly in the Antartica, and with little warning the waves could become too dangerous for the Zodiac- transfer back to the boat . " What's the longest time people had been stranded on the beach in your experience ? " We asked Dr John Davies , the ship's doctor . " 13 hours. " Came the chilling reply !

I've been asked many times why with my love of travels I didn't become a ship doc. Well, I don't know about other boats but I'd never cut it on the Akademik Shokalskiy . Here the doc's expected to multi-task like everybody else : besides the medical work, I'd have to be able to drive a Zodiac, and accompany strenuous hikes , neither feat falls remotely within the reign of my capability this lifetime .

Most of the landings involved some walking, occasionally against gusty winds and on icy grounds , which brought forth my other problems ; I couldn't keep up with the pace, and I kept slipping on the rocks . I was in worse physical shape in this trip than I'd been in any other trip to date, and the fact that I had no ankles didn't help. "The ligaments in my right ankle're completely torn, and the left ankle has second degree tear " I explained carefully to the expedition leaders lest they think I'm naturally clumsy. " Like the penguins I'm better in water than on land. " Three courses of Polotherapy and weeks of pain, bruising and swelling did nothing to amend the situation. The ankles were damaged from multiple sprains in basketball in my distant youth ( maybe I AM naturally clumsy afterall ! ) , when I was fed the misinformation that the sport would make me taller. The sad fact is I'm exactly the same height today as I was at 13, when my growth gene switched off . I was quite relieved then to find apparently the expedition staff kept mixing me up with Lay Chin, a Singaporean lady . This is one time I'm quite happy that all Chinese look alike !
In contrast to the cold outside, the boat was toastingly warm. When we reached Neko Harbor we were offered the option of camping out in the snow for one night . After a great deal of struggle I took the plunge ; at least I'd be on solid ground and there's no strapping in for the night .
" Don't think you're going to get any sleep " Jamie the camping expedition leader warned us " It'll be very cold and very noisy with the penguins aquabbling all night. " Ahhh..... I smiled inwardly. Obviously he had no inkling of my secret weapon : 2 rums and a whisky, single malt ! Not to mention TWO sleeping bags . Judging from the picture I took after the drinks, I might have been swaying a little more than I thought I was doing. I either slept or passed out , I couldn't be sure, because the next I knew Jamie was at the tent hurrying us to pack up. I would have recommended this secret weapon to all future campers except that I had a rather rotten day the next day .

Two weeks before we left for Argentina, Joyce, the principle organiser of this trip , decreed that we should kayak in the Antartica. " But I don't kayak !" I panicked . " You'd better get some class before we set off " So on X'mas Eve I dutifully attended the Basic Course in Kayaking , all of three hours , during which I managed to distinguish myself by being able to blithly go round in circles even when I didn't want to .
The day before we hit the water in the Antartica I discovered that Joyce and Fei Fei , both with vast kayaking experiences, had already teamed up. I was the little fat boy in the playground nobody wanted to team with ! In desperation I beseeched Dan, the Kayak Master," Can you put me with Ken, but make it like it's your idea ?" I wasn't taking anymore rejections . Poor Ken was picked because I was told he's triathlon, so I reckoned should the kayak capsize he'd be best able to fish me out. Turned out the kayak sessions were tamer than the one I had in Wong Shek Water Centre, and I was restless . Ken was an easy-going partner, what with my nervous energy and his good-natured compliance we ended up mostly at the front of the fleet ; and at every challenge big or small I would chant incessantly, " Yes we can ! Yes we can ! Let's do it ! let's do it !" Who'd have guessed though the little fat boy might be fumpy and dumpy, but would also be at the same time fearless, even borderline manic !

Shokalskiy was a Russian geographer and the boat was named Akademik Shokalskiy for a reason. It was originally designed and built for polar and oceanographic research , somehow over the years the teaching tradition has spilled over to include the paying passengers, and the hapless stuff was given the mammoth task of educating us in all things relevant to the Antartica, from the wildlife ( birds, seals, penguins, whales ...etc ) to glaciers; geology ;
ocean currents of the Antartic Convergence; marine ecosystem ; the warm house effect and the ozone layer , up to the current research taking place in various Antartica Stations ; and the history of the Antartica right from how and when it was formed millions of years ago down to the more recent history of its conquest by the early pioneers, as well as the whaling and sealing history.
The staff was knowledgeable and the lectures, slide shows and documentaries were all extremely interesting, and I walked into each session with the full intention of learning EVERYTHING, but invariably I'd fall asleep half way through. I tried different tactic to stay awake : sitting in the front row, taking notes , pinching myself .... but nothing worked . Fortunately the most vital information mangaged to penetrate the snoozes, and at least I got the message the Antartica's in trouble . While most people are aware of the rapid melting and the whaling problem, less known to the wider public is the number of introduced species both on land and in the sea over the past hundred years and their devastating effect on the Antartica , as well as the mystery of the disappearing krill . Though the factual knowledge passed me by, the love and passion of the expedition staff for this Icy Continent and its inhabitants seeped through and left longlasting reverberations .

Why go to the Antartica ? People have asked me and I never could give a good enough answer . Since my return I've also tried to recapitulate what I've gained from this trip.

I started reading "Through the Embers of chaos - Balkan Journey" by Dervla Murphy while on this trip , and was brought to tears by a passage in the book . Miss Murphy visited Beograd in 1999, after the dismemberment of Yugoslavia , and met Vojislava, a security guard . Vojislava was thin and pale , and had sores on his scalp - the sort associated with malnutrition . He was at the university studying Classics and English Literature when his grant was cut off after sanctions were imposed . Now he was doing three jobs a day, striving to save enough to continue his studies .
He explained to Murphy why he did this : " For the love of learning, not to earn a living. When my mind is full of good things I would be able to work at something dull without getting bored "
I gasped . This has to be the most beautiful description of Education at its best - " filling the mind with good things " ! And I was profoundly touched by this young man, who had no country, no money, little prospect or future, was hungry and tired , yet possessed such deep wisdom and rich spiritual life, far far beyond his years

It'd be easy to fill my mind with good things from the Antartica trip , and not just the splendor of Nature , but also the little acts of kindness from my fellow travellers : Roy slowing down to wait for me as I fell farther and farther behind in the hike ; Gordon helping with setting up camp in the snow, as did Wayne ; Ken taking on the little fat boy and Dan organising it ; Chuck acting as human wind shield; Hannah taking the trouble to inspect my bed ......... and the list goes on ; a nod, a smile, a caring word..... Per, the Oncologist from Sweden, was right when he said 95% of the people in the world are decent and good, we just have to watch out for the 5% .

If there is any regret it would be the lack of time to get to know everybody better, my being so tired all the time ( on account of less than 3 hours sleep each night) definitely made it more difficult ! Only on viewing the DVD of the photos on the last day that I realised there're so many talents amongst us ! The beautiful pictures were further enhanced by the expert arrangement by Jamine. So I was right to follow my instinct when giving out souveniors, in giving him the Theatre Mask, it was not for a pretty face , it was Art for the Artist !