We hope you enjoy Part 3 of the blog by Dr Stijn Thoolen, an ESA-sponsored medical doctor who is spending 12 months at the Concordia research station in Antarctica conducting experiments. Do take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 in his series of blogs, talking about his great adventure to the world's southernmost continent.
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
The end of our world is full of surprises…
November 13, 2019, East-Antarctic plateau
My arm has gotten tired now of wiping the freshly formed ice from my airplane window every two minutes, but I am too excited to stop. I almost can’t believe it. Everywhere I look is ice. We have been flying over this ice sheet at 5000 meters altitude for about three hours now, with just nothing at all on the horizon. Completely nothing. And even the horizon seems to disappear at times, thanks to the surrealistic way in which the ever-present sunlight melts the white clouds and the ice together. An endless, motionless ocean of ice, that almost makes us disappear as well. I am just wondering if the pilots have a better idea of where we are, when suddenly two familiar towers appear in the distance. Concordia! My new home! And if I already had any expectations from all those preparations of the last months (years), they were now considerably exceeded for sure. What a special and bizarre place, on the middle of that ice sheet, out of nothing: that people live here!
Can you really prepare for a journey to the end of the world? I just hope that all those efforts of the past months haven’t been for nothing, but with all these surprises the past few days I am starting to doubt it. Since our arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand three days earlier it all went so terribly fast again. We hadn’t even left the airport yet, badly jetlagged and craving for a nice bed, when the IPEV/PNRA reception committee cheerfully told us that our next flight to Mario Zucchelli station was taking off sooner due to rising katabatic winds (I had to look it up as well). Here is your bag with polar gear, the key of your hotel room which you will never use, briefing in two hours, boarding in four, good luck!
Another one of those confrontations with reality, which seemed to unfold a little differently than I had perhaps wanted. And somehow I was reassured when I saw my four crewmates looking around just as lost as I was. The fatigue didn’t make the situation any clearer, and perhaps it is not so bad then that you don’t control the situation anyway. “C’est l’Antarctique”, they said. In other words, don’t complain. You better deal with it. So there we go again. Quickly shovel in some of the welcome refreshments, nervously improvise a set of warm clothing for our arrival in the cold, one more picture with a stranger who thinks I am a polar hero (I have no clue myself anymore), and then at full speed, eyes shut towards Hercules C130 for a third night on a plane.
It all feels quite strange to me. Everywhere I look reality forces itself upon me, and everywhere around me I see Antarctica: Antartica hotel, Antartica terminal, Antarctica posters and Antarctica pictures complete with Antarctica quotes, and even Antarctica as a bus destination (but how?). At the same time, the entire scene feels unreal (everything is so new, that I have difficulty processing it). In the dark, in the rain, in my polar suit: as if I am part of a movie again. Just like all those other red and blue polar suits I let myself be pushed into the cargo plane by Italian military personnel.
After a six hour-high in that plane I look outside, and am surprised by the ‘mountains’ below that rise above the clouds. When I recover my wits (I am not the fastest anymore at this point), I realize that there aren’t supposed to be any mountains or clouds out here all. We are flying over ice, and this is (really) Antarctica.
It was all so different from anything I had ever seen before, and I was constantly feeling pleasantly surprised. Amazed. I tried to absorb all these wonderful new impressions the best I could, and in Mario Zucchelli we were lucky to have two days to do so, before we would continue our journey to Concordia. Ecstatic from the pristine, unprecedented, almost out-of-this-world nature and the realization that we had arrived at such a special place, also these days our expectations were blown out of the water.
December 29, 2019, Concordia
I have been at this special place for one and a half month now. Back home, family and friends are interested: is all this what I expected it to be? And I realize that I am struggling to answer that question. What were my expectations anyway? Did I really have those, or was it just plain curiosity? Or has the Antarctic already put a stop to it all?
That is something the time here as taught me by now. Things don’t really go the way you are used to, or the way you would perhaps want. Ideas and plans constantly changing. Too many factors (weather, logistics, culture, you name it) have more to say here than you do, and that is something you better accept. The frequently used “C’est l’Antarcqtique” is the beautiful way of reminding you that it is better to leave your expectations behind, that you better don’t try to stick to your old ways of thinking too much. That way you won’t be so disappointed either. In any case, it definitely makes the surprises at the end of our world a whole lot more beautiful.
Maybe that alone is already worth this whole adventure. One of the positive psychological effects that polar sojourners can experience is being described in the literature by the term ‘salutogenesis’. In other words, you learn to think in a way that promotes your physical and mental well-being, based on an increased sense of understanding of the world around you, and trust that things will work out positively. Exposure to all these surprises and the positive stress they induce teaches us to cope better with new, sometimes difficult situations, and we become better at solving problems. It makes us flexible. The challenges of a new world can help us to grow.
Perhaps the same thing applies to us as a crew this year. Expectations seem high sometimes, about what food should be served, what we can and cannot say to each other, or how we should spend our time to become a coherent crew. I like to think that such high expectations can only fill our thoughts, and make us less receptive to anything new, less tolerant of the differences between us. And if then it doesn’t really work out the way we had planned (as long as there are not 12 Stijns living in this station, I suppose that is inevitable), chances are high we get disappointed. But this way we would miss al the beautiful things we can learn from each other. If we are open to those surprises at the end of our world and allow ourselves to learn - after all that is the reason I got on that plane - I am sure it will be wonderful year. C’est, after all, l’Antarctique.
Note: this article was originally posted on the ESA blog website (LINK) and permission has been obtained to republish it here.