By Todd Jarrell, 6/1/2001
We are making way for Galindez Island off the Antarctic coast and, while still miles away Europa’s radio crackles with a warm invitation from Vernadsky Base, the Ukrainian research station there.
A solitary refuge from the harsh polar climate, Vernadsky Base huddles beside a bay, which is frozen much of the year. We lower our boats for the short trip ashore and, once inside we remove our shoes, as requested, and scatter on do-it-yourself tours. Down one corridor, past the medical room, I happen upon the ‘comm shack’ and the racks of gear that keep the base connected to the world.
Radioman Paul Budanov nightly passes weather codes to the British base at Rothera, farther along the coast…
Paul: “That’s all, have a copy over.”
Rothera: “Yeah, roger, thanks for that. That’s all copied and I’ll go back to my wine and you’ll go back to your vodka. Over?”
Paul: “Okay so have an enjoyable evening with your wine. Bye-bye.”
Rothera: “Yeah, likewise have an enjoyable evening with your vodka. This is Rothera again, clear.”
Paul: “So, have a good night. Bye-bye.”Apparently it is Antarctic happy hour. Paul invites us upstairs to the pub.
Those who sail in these waters know about Vernadsky vodka – its reputation precedes it. The proper name is ‘gorilka’ and in it are steeped finger-fat red peppers to bring out a fiery heat to fight the fearsome cold.
Paul: “So, ah, no, nostrovia is usually for Russians and for Ukranians this will be ‘Boudumua’.”
Todd: “Boudumua.”Everyone knows this gorilka is a quality product of Antarctica – moonshined right here on the base. Even so, answers to questions regarding its origins are polite but vague. All other topics are open: the depleted ozone; the warming sea and air; ice fishing; and saunas followed by, unbelievably, swims in the freezing sea. These last are taken only in the absence of leopard seals – these predators are not to be trusted.
Though their approaching homecoming looms large, many of the men talk of returning here someday, or even of their children returning – the raw draw of this continent has captured them. Slavik Skrypnik is a meteorologist who also runs the makeshift gift shop. His parents met in Antarctica in the nineteen-fifties on a whaling factory ship. Victor Omelchenko’s grandfather served as a pony wrangler on Robert Falcon Scott’s famed yet ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1910. Their family roots lie in a land that requires no borders, passports or anthems.
Out in the sharp night beneath the pinwheel of stars some wax nostalgic for this place they have not yet left.
The Ukrainians: “I think these islands must give for whole people only peace without wars between nations, between countries.” “Yea that’s right, that’s good. Very peaceful” “ Antarctica is a very special continent.” “ I think if whole people must come here then go home...it will be ok. No any problems.”Many astronauts say the same. From the dizzying altitude of a spacecraft or the dark isolation of a polar winter many of the world’s differences, as if viewed from the wrong end of the binoculars, must seem decidedly trivial.
Igor Chobotok, a geophysicist, also is planning to return someday. But tonight he sounds less the polar hero than plain, ordinary guy ready to go home after a year on the ice. Igor foresees his homecoming…
Igor: “I will kiss my wife...and children then.”
Todd: "And then?"
Igor: “I will bring my body to my sofa to sleep....I like my sofa best.”Now, happily back in warmer latitudes, for Savvy Traveler, I’m Todd Jarrell
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