No, I'm Not Going to Vostok
On the plane down from Cheech I had seen that there were a number of Russians on board, most of them in U.S.-issued ECW clothing. As we stretched and stood and endured the Jonah's ride, I started chatting to them in broken Russian, yelled through the din and earplugs. "OTKUDA VY??" (where ya from?) "PITER" (St. Petersburg) "SYUDA VY??" (where ya goin?) "VOSTOK".
Pronounced 'Vah-stork'. And there is no comeback, no one-upper. There is no reply.
Vostok is certifiably the end of the world. Polies think they're macho but even they wince at the thought of putting in time at Vostok. Vostok is colder, higher, more frighteningly decrepit, more threadbare and hungrier than anywhere else on The Ice. It's at the very center of the 'round' part of Antarctica. The atmospheric altitude at Vostok is over 15000 feet, so try breathing. The wintertime temperature sometimes falls below the sublimation temperature of dry ice. ( So why doesn't it snow CO2? This is an interesting question of physical chemistry that many scientists flunk). Vostok is the place from which the 'World's Lowest Temperature' is plotted on the maps in the Sunday newspaper. Vostok is more absolute than any outpost of the Gulag.
Vostok is a collection of wooden shacks nailed together by the Soviet Union. At this instant as I write, it has run out of fuel and an emergency flight is being staged out of Mactown to stop them from freezing to death: the Russian resupply by overland tractor from the coast is weeks behind schedule. (it's 1000 miles and normally takes 6 to 8 weeks). The food at Vostok is said to consist entirely of starch and fat: visualize canned sardines and potato flakes. All the time. Familiar to Russians but noticed by Americans to be completely devoid of any nutritional content of vitamins or variety. No powdered milk. No communications other than patchy ham radio. No e-mail. In past years, no salaries either: the director of the Arctic-Antarctic Institute is reputed to have staked their building in St. Petersburg as collateral on a personal loan to keep the staff paid occasionally.
And these guys are on their way there, courtesy of international collaboration that transits them through the US Antarctic Program. Most are scientists, some will be there just for the season, others a year or more.
We land at McMurdo, it's a beautiful day. We drive into town - it's a gleaming city, bustling with shiny new trucks. Without going indoors, McMurdo already looks far more orderly and prosperous than most Russian towns. We are informed that the old 'galley' has been completely renovated and is now a brand-new Dining Hall. I take them in for a cup of coffee and we all reel in shock, though for diffeernt reasons.
The new Dining Hall is FABULOUS -
in the most literal sense: as if out of a fable. It is huge.
And new. And bright. And comfortable. Windows.
Actual architectural design. No more segregation into two sides,
'Officers' and 'Enlisted Men' , the legacy of Navy days, paneling versus
formica, scientists versus laborers. The new dining hall astounds
me. It's certainly much nicer than the Cafeteria at LBL in Berkeley.
There are dozens of choices of food. Meat. Fish. Salad
bar. Deli counter. Dessert. Fresh fruit. Varietal
breads. Ice cream. Yogurt. Soup. Nuts.
But what of the Russians? The Dining Hall surpasses all but the fanciest restaurants back in Russia. Everything is free. Yet we're in Antarctica. Politely, they say "It's very nice". .
A passer-by hears us speaking Russian and English and sits down.
After a few moments it transpires that she is working here as a janitor,
but she is a professional lawyer back home in Alaska. An avid
outdoorsperson too, but a lawyer nevertheless, dress-for-success, black
suit and high heels. Here she wears dungarees and pushes a broom
54 hours a week.
My strenuous work continues. Despite great personal hardship, the dictates of international relations oblige me to demonstrate the intrinsic friendliness of Americans in their natural habitat, i.e. the bar. I extend the course to include basic familiarization training in quasi-competitive socialization rituals.
The following day, I take the entire group out to Scott's
Hut. The weather has changed but for these guys it's a spring day.
Heck, the mercury isn't even to 10. (In the Russian winter, the minus sign is not used, it's understood.) The wind is blowing pretty hard but they chat and point.
Back in the Dining Hall, I'm sittting with them in the lap of plenty, talking about this and that. A local comes up to our table and asks "Are you the guys who are going up to Vostok soon?". Hearing just the word Vostok they nod, Da. He makes some fatuous comment about eating good while you can.
As his eyes take in our table, I am not distinguished from any of the others. With beard I am a plausible member of their group. I'd been chatting to them po-russkii. I could be thus mistaken. And if we were in the present anarchy of Russia, I could attach myself to their group and walk on board an Antonov with no-one really caring to count heads or check papers.
I could be going to Vostok.