Bonus A

There are other places, regions and areas that are not sovereign but have a distinctive nature, culture, governance or identity. We know that countries are diverse and the world is diverse, and the Virtual Nomad does not completely give credit to that diversity by going through a list of only sovereign countries. We recognise this fault and therefore we have decided to introduce a bonus after each letter. 

In the A group there are places like Aruba, Anguilla, American Samoa and many others that are not independent states but have their own identity and flavour. It would take the Virtual Nomads even longer to go through all these places so for the ‘other As’ the Virtual Nomad chooses one place. 

We decided it would be Antarctica

Everyone knows where Antarctica is. A land of snow and ice without native human inhabitants. Antarctica does not really belong to anyone or belongs to everyone, but some states claim their share of the icy cake. 

It never snows in Sydney so in order to have a sense of an icy environment, we opt for ice skating at Ice Zoo. There is a lost penguin on the ice.

Tin can party 

Let’s just say that Antarctica is not a place for foodies. There is no distinctive cuisine or food culture. Farming is not an option meaning food choices are very limited, and most of the food is shipped in by governments. The most ‘popular’ food in Antarctica is seafood, especially shellfish. The isolated winters mean that what has been shipped in is the food that you can consume. Fresh vegetables and fruit quickly deteriorate and packaged food is the most convenient option for the long isolated months.

We decide to do an experiment in order to do homage to the isolated months of canned food. Each of us can bring two tinned cans of food and one other ingredient, and then we will put it all together. 

The selection is hilarious – A (9) brings martini olives, coconut milk and Nutella, L (16) chooses lychees, cheetos and corned beef; JK has opted for tuna, baked beans and dolmades and my choices are organic beans, curry paste and brown rice. FK (13) is away as is the Virtual Nomad Special Adviser CH. 

We then put it all together for a wonderful tinned food dinner that is great for winter and would serve the Antarctica researchers very well.

No landing without a permit

There are tales of Antarctica that include mixtures of mystics and science. The truth is that it is a continent of extreme weather and no permanent human settlement. It is not permitted to land in Antarctica unless you are part of a scientific expedition. It is governed by the Antarctica Treaty System (established in 1959) by ten countries. About 42% of the territory is under the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT), which is more than any other nation. A fun fact is that Antarctica has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world as all 11 babies born there survived. Emilio Palma, born in 1978, was the first child to have been born in Antarctica.

Stranded in the land of snow and ice 

I decide to read two very different books on the experience of being stranded in Antarctica. Both are famous stories, and somewhat tragic. First is the famous tale of the struggles of the Endurance, a doomed expedition to the Antarctic. The other is the story of Dr Jerri Nielsen who discovered a lump in her breast while in Antarctica and had to operate on herself. 

The story of Jerri Nielsen, ghost written by Maryanne Vollers, is fascinating but also unsettling. Dr Jerri is a busy professional at the top of her medical game who decides to go to the South Pole to escape the after effects of a failed marriage. She takes the opportunity to revaluate her life and put some distance between her and an ex-husband, who she describes as manipulative and toxic. But there are also children left behind. This is the unsettling part. Jerri is estranged from her children and accuses her ex-husband of emotional abuse but the relationship with the children is never restored, not even in their adulthood (or around the time of Jerri’s death ten years after the cancer was discovered), so there is a sense of a story left untold. All of this is, of course, speculation on someone’s private life, and the more important – and interesting for an outsider – part of the book is Jerri’s stay in the land of perpetual ice. 

The book strips the reader of any desire to spend the southern winter at the Pole. The South Pole is not an easy ride for Jerri and the penetrating cold is present everywhere, all the time. Jerri is a busy doctor working long hours and making friends with other people who also stay on the Pole during the winter. She describes the customs, the daily routines, the struggles and the joys of working in the land of ice. Life is not easy but it is interesting, and she finds a sense of self purpose. In the middle of winter she discovers a mass in her breast and life at the Pole becomes a different struggle from there. 

It is an interesting book for sure. Winter at the Pole is an intense, life changing experience and Jerri’s story includes many elements from people to emails and conversations. Some of her most meaningful relationships are formed during those winter months and the Pole is a place where she has felt truly herself. The sad post script of this book is, of course, and it is not a spoiler, that Jerri passed away in 2009 after a cancer relapse had invaded her brain and most of her body. Unfortunately it looks like that she never recovered her relationship with her children which is, in my opinion, a bigger tragedy than anything else that happened to her.

While Jerri was very sick with cancer at the Pole, she read the book that I have reserved as my next Antarctica book – Endurance, by Alfred Lansing that promises to be “the true story of Shackleton’s incredible voyage to the Antarctic”. For Jerri, it gave solace in the rapid decline of her health – that there was someone else who survived the polar winter with unbelievable skill and ‘endurance’. 

Ernest Shackleton was a British Antarctic explorer who, at the dawn of the First World War, embarked on a journey with 27 men to the Antarctic. He personally chose the men to accompany him from 5000 candidates (including three girls). The gorgeous vessel, Endurance, got stuck in thick ice and was slowly swallowed by the icy waters during a gruelling month. The men first found refuge on the ice where they camped for months. Then the breaking ice forced them to travel to Elephant Island on small boats, where they were finally rescued after Shackleton’s 16-day journey with three others to George Island. All the men survived. It is an extraordinary tale of resilience and endurance. Shackleton’s ambitious (and somewhat crazy) plan was to walk across the continent from shore to shore but then, of course, the plan went horribly wrong. Shackleton’s leadership, through a period of despair and hardship, was apparently so amazing that his decision making processes are still taught in business schools. 

It’s an extraordinary story worth knowing, even if the whole idea behind the expedition makes you shake your head in disbelief. But an adventurer’s spirit is an adventurer’s spirit. The book itself is skilfully written and relies strongly on real materials – documents and diaries of Shackleton and others. It is an intense, fascinating story of hardship and struggle, but also a testimony to their strength, team spirit and ability to endure. The men survived unbelievable situations from attacks by sea lions to resisting unbearable cold, day after day. 

“Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet, too, and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded, and filthy with blubber soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic he seemed almost on the point of weeping.

Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug. Then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Ker, Orde-Lees, and finally Blackboro. They finished in silence.”

It is an extraordinary tale that drills into the character of the different people, but above all paints Shackleton as a silent unbreakable hero. He manages to get all his men out of the cold, wet, freezing hell to safety, but not without sacrifices. One loses toes, another is forced to shoot his dogs. Shackleton did not live a long life but he surely knew how to put together a team where everyone bought into something special. 

Bad horror on ice 

Only one movie has been filmed in Antarctica and it is a very bad horror movie. Sound of Sanity was filmed entirely in location with an amateur cast and what makes this movie remarkable is that it was filmed in such conditions. The trailer of the movie is available on Youtube, and an interesting article describing the process can be found here.

However, there are several documentaries that are far more interesting. The Youtube rabbit holes on offer vary from travel blogs to conspiracy theories, from science documentaries to national geographic. 

Music in the land of ice and dark 

Nunatak was the house band of the British Rothera Research Service Station. The five member band consisted of a physics engineer, a communications engineer, a marine biologist, a polar guide and a meteorologist – and their instruments. Their song ‘Would you do it again’ was written and performed for Life Earth in 2007. 

And just like that, the As are finally done and Virtual Nomad moves into the B world. 

Next stop is Bahamas