Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Terra Australis

Long before anyone ever went to Antarctica, scholars and yahoos already believed it existed. The thinking was, there’s all this land up in the Northern Hemisphere, but not a lot going on down South—there must be a giant hidden continent down there to balance everything out. In fact, even after Antarctica was located, map makers kept drawing it far larger that it truly is to get the right balance. These people were pretty into balance, I guess.

As we in the States were busy dumping tea into idyllic East Coast harbors and refusing to pay taxes to stuffy old monarchies, Captain James Cook was busy becoming the first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle. His ships, the HMS Resolution and Adventure, came within 75 miles of the coast before being turned back by field ice. In 1820, Antarctica was spotted for the first time by an Estonian-born Russian Naval captain named Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshousen. It would be a year before someone set foot there--American sealer John Davis briefly landed on mainland Antarctica on February 7th, 1821.

In 1839, the United States Exploring Expedition (affectionately called the “Ex Ex”, which I love), sailed from Sydney Australia to do a bit of exploring on the new continent. A few years later, James Clark Ross sailed along a huge wall of ice that was later named the Ross Ice Shelf—Mount Erebus and Mount Terror are named after two ships from his expedition. Another explorer with a great name, Mercator Cooper, landed in and explored East Antarctica in 1853.

These were all minor expeditions compared to the Nimrod Expedition, led by the great Ernest Shackleton in 1907. Shackleton’s crew became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole. They were also the first humans to traverse the Ross Ice Shelf, the first to traverse the Transantarctic Mountain Range, and the first to set foot on the South Polar Plateau. For more on Shackleton (and on why it was called the Nimrod Expedition), talk to my husband.

A few words about the continent itself. It is the fifth-largest continent on the planet (larger than Europe and twice as large as Australia). About 98% of the continent is covered by ice that averages one mile in thickness. West Antarctica resembles the Andes mountain range in South America. East Antarctica is geologically varied. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth. The coldest temperature ever recorded on this planet was -128.6*F at the Vostok Station in July 1983. The entire continent is a desert, although some of the coastal areas are known to get snowfalls of up to 48 inches in 48 hours. Heavy winds (storm-force) are also common.

Antarctica has no permanent residents, but maintains a temporary population of around 1000 in winter and 5000 in summer at a variety of research stations. As of 2009, eleven children had been born in Antarctica. Several bases are now home to families with children attending school on the base.

With no permanent residents, Antarctica also has no government although several countries claim sovereignty over certain regions. New claims on the continent have been suspended since the Antarctic Treating of 1959 which classified the continent as politically neutral. It also set aside Antarctic as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation and environmental protection, and banned military activity (including weapons testing) on the continent. The Madrid Protocol of 1998 bans all mining an Antarctica and designates the continent as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

If you want to go, ships sail from Ushuaia Argentina (mostly to the Antarctic Peninsula, not the mainland). There are also a few commercial flights from Sydney and Melbourne that serve the major research stations. On these flights, passengers in most seating classes rotate their position in the row halfway into the flight to give everyone a window or one-over-from-window seat for half the time. Major landing fields include Williams Field, Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway (really), and Annual Sea-Ice Runway. November-March is the best time to go. If you go, take me with you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

London Update

Okay, so it’s been over four months since my trip to London, but I promised an update and I’ve finally found time and energy to post something. First, the basics: I traveled with my husband, sister, and mom for ten days in April. The reasons for the trip were as follows: a) Travel is Awesome; b) It had been a couple years since my last big international adventure, c) my mom wanted to give traveling a try, but wanted to start with an English-speaking place. London is so huge and there is so much to do, there was no way we could do it all. But we sure did try! Here are some highlights:

*The food! England isn’t known for its cuisine, but we didn’t have a bad meal there. For the duration of the trip, I’d given up my vegivore ways (what’s the point of traveling half-way around the world and not trying the local cuisine?). We tried bangers and mash, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and several varieties of meat pasties (they have become a favorite), as well as a variety of more unusual dishes—always delicious. Some nights we bought food at the local Greenwich market and cooked in our flat. And no meal in London seemed complete without an accompanying traditional beverage! We bought a British cookbook and I try not to drool too much on the pictures when I look through it. Back home, Gordon and I even created an excellent vegetarian version of pot pie that we just can’t get enough of.

*ART! I love original art and London has so much to offer! We spent hours wandering the halls of the National Gallery (da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Velazquez, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet). We also took in the Tate Modern (Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Pollock, Rodin), the Wallace Collection (Rembrandt, Hals, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Gainsborough), the Victoria & Albert Museum (collections of furniture, glass, jewelry, metalwork, paintings, photography, sculpture, textiles, and architecture), the Courtauld Gallery (Rubens, Botticelli, Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec), the Queen’s House (Turner, Hogarth, Gainsborough), and probably a few others I’m forgetting. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is available in London!

*Westminster Abbey. This is a classic part of any London tourist itinerary, so I didn’t expect too much. I thought it would be crowded and a bit underwhelming like some of the other major tourist sites (read: Tower of London). But I LOVED the Abbey. We were there in the off-season and at odd hours, too, so it really felt like we had the place to ourselves and could wander around at will. I’ve never seen a church quite like Westminster Abbey—so many famous historical figures are buried there, it takes your breath away. Poet’s corner--where Chaucer, Tennyson, Browning, and Dickens are buried--was a highlight. And of course, given that we were visiting in mid-April, preparations were well underway for the Royal Wedding just a few days away. Having just been there, it was very cool to watch footage of Catherine walking down the aisle and thinking, “I was just there, I walked right where she is walking!”.

*Our flat in Greenwich. We had struggled to find an affordable flat to rent in London, so we ended up staying a bit out of the city center in Greenwich. It the end, it was a great decision! After a long day in Central London, it was so wonderful to leave the noise and head out to Greenwich. Our flat was right on the Thames, so we were able to take the Thames Clippers to and from the sites most days rather than trying to squeeze into the Tube with the masses. The views from the boat (parliament and big ben, the Eye, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, the Gherkin….) were fabulous. Watching the sun rise and set from our balcony each day was wonderful. The flat itself was cozy and comfortable and perfectly aged—I don’t think I’ve ever slept better away from home.

*One of my favorite places was the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great (“Great St. Bart’s”). There are thousands of awesome churches and cathedrals scattered around Europe, but this one stole my heart in a new way. The church is truly a hidden treasure—you wouldn’t know from the entrance to the courtyard that such an amazing place lies just inside the walls. Inside the church was filled with burning incense and light coming in from high windows shined through the smoke in atmospheric rays. The stone walls were dark and cool and discolored with age. The cloisters were the best part. They had been turned into a small cafĂ©, lined with amazing windows of thick colored glass. We sat in the cloisters for about an hour drinking monastic beer while we chatted with the waitress. It just so happened that she had some extra tickets to a burlesque show in Soho that evening and wondered if we would like to go. Can’t say no to that, right?! Gordon and I went to the show while Mom and Jaima went to see Stomp! in the West End. Walking through Soho after sunset was a cultural experience in and of itself, and the burlesque show was so wonderful and funny and surprising we kept dissolving into fits of giggles all the way home on the long Underground ride back to our flat. Unforgettable.

*The British Library. Inside there is an exhibit of incredibly old and significant manuscripts including original pages from Leonardo DaVinci’s journals, handwritten musical scores from George Frideric Handel, the sole surviving manuscript copy of the poem Beowulf, two 1215 copies of the Magna Carta, two Gutenberg Bibles, and the Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book, printed in 868 during the Tang Dynasty). It was absolutely amazing to see these with my own eyes! Added bonus: John Lennon’s original scrawled lyrics to Yesterday.

I could go on and on, but you’ll just have to go there yourself to experience the rest!