Deane Rink - December 15, 1996

    From: Deane Rink, Punta Arenas, Chile

(Deane is Video Producer and leader of the LFA 2 field team.)

From McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to Palmer Station, Antarctica -- via New Zealand, LA, Miami and Punta Arenas, Chile!

The American flag carrier rule is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. The rule states that a person such as myself who travels with support from a U.S. Government agency must use an American air carrier whenever possible. In the last few days, I have had to travel from McMurdo, the U.S. research station that serves as gateway to the main continental body of Antarctica, to Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city in the world and gateway to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The quickest route would be to fly direct across the Antarctic polar plateau, but that would involve diverting one of the USAP's valuable leased Twin Otters for over ten days, an unacceptable loss of service time for that small plane. The most direct commercial route would be to fly from McMurdo to Christchurch, New Zealand by military transport, then fly commercially Christchurch to Auckland, Auckland to Santiago, Chile, Santiago to Punta Arenas. But no American flag carrier flies this route, so I had to take the "great circle route" into the Northern Hemisphere (McMurdo-Christchurch-Auckland-Los Angeles-Miami-Santiago-Punta Arenas), a one-day trip stretched into three days. The blessing to this curse was that I'd get to spend one day with my family in L.A. when I had originally thought I'd be separated from them for five months.

But I didn't count on the culture shock of returning to urban civilization after two months of the isolated pressure cooker that is McMurdo. McMurdo is a community of about a thousand souls, almost all of whom work six days a week together in the same cramped assortment of clustered-together buildings, who eat three meals a day together in a galley that is a remnant of the days when Operation Deep Freeze pioneered living on The Ice, who socialize together in the evenings in the same hangouts. A week in MacTown seems like a month, because of the edginess and intensity of living on the fringe of an always-dangerous, icy continent.

All of a sudden, I was experiencing the hustle and bustle of a series of international airports, the inevitable tension of customs inspection (present even if one is sure no laws have been broken or regulations transgressed), the unfamiliar flurry of wrongside traffic in New Zealand and wrong-headed drivers in Southern California, the joy yet shock of seeing family members who have no idea what I have just been through, the grief at having to leave them so soon after reuniting, the sleeplessness of a red-eye flight to Chile, a country where very few people speak English and where the idea of public order is to post a guardsman with a machine gun on every corner.

If I had thought New Zealand or U.S. Customs were bad, it was only because I had yet to experience Chilean scrutiny, where computers have not yet replaced forms in triplicate, where accusatory chatter in Spanish leaves me feeling convicted even when not guilty. As a film crew, LFA 2 travels with some 16 cases of gear and personal effects, and a willful customs agent can delay orderly progress for hours by inspecting every tape box, every mechanical part, every hidden crevice within our very expensive equipment.

Fortunately for us, NSF has had the wisdom to hire local customs brokers in both Santiago and Punta Arenas to do our talking for us. After about an hour's delay in Santiago, we are given a yellow form and waived through. Then it's a mad dash to the domestic terminal, where we will fly from Chile's capital to Punta Arenas on the Chilean National Airline.

After three days of travel hell and six separate plane rides (including one of 14 hours and another of 12 hours), we arrive at Punta Arenas, a city of 200,000 situated on the Straits of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. We have travelled 18,000 miles, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, to arrive at the beginning, our port of embarkation, a nondescript concrete pier jutting southwards, from which we will cross the notoriously choppy Drake Passage in the research vessel Polar Duke, steaming to the Antarctic Peninsula and Palmer Station.

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