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12 October, 2004

How long DOES it take to get to Antarctica?

Getting to the southernmost continent on Earth - over 15,000 kilometers from New York City - is neither simple nor short, but it is fun.

My journey to Antarctica began at noon on Sunday (Rhode Island time).

I left Providence and after two and a half hours, landed in Chicago. I set my watch back one hour when I arrived, since Chicago is on Central Time, and Rhode Island is on Eastern Standard Time.

I boarded my next flight to Los Angeles at 3:00 and arrived at 5:00. This sounds like a two-hour flight, but remember that Los Angeles is on Pacific Time, two hours later than Chicago and three hours later than Eastern Time. So I'd been traveling for 8 hours, even though I left at noon and arrived at 5. Are you confused yet? My body was starting to get a little confused by this time, too.

In Los Angeles, I finally got to meet the scientists: Stacy Kim, Jennifer Fisher, Mike Donnellan, Andrew Thurber, and Bob Zook. Their plane had been delayed and they'd had to run through the airport to make our flight. I was very excited to finally get to meet everyone in person.

We were flying on Qantas, an Australian airline, and they took good care of us. You need to do that on a flight that's 12 and a half hours long or the passengers might start a riot! We had dinner, and they gave us a little bag of snacks, as well as a bag with a toothbrush, a pair of socks, and a mask to cover your eyes so you can sleep. Each seat had an individual television and you could choose from different movies, television shows, radio channels, and other distractions. Plenty to keep you busy, although when you leave the ground at 10 p.m., most people just sleep - for a while anyway. At this point I'd been traveling for 12 hours already, so I had a good long snooze.

We landed in Auckland, on the North Island of New Zealand, at about 6 a.m. Tuesday, October 12. When you go from the U.S. to New Zealand, not long before you reach New Zealand, you cross the International Date Line. On the eastern (U.S) side of the date line, it's midnight on October 11, but on the western (New Zealand) side, it's midnight on October 12. So you "lose" an entire day - at least as far as the calendar is concerned. The good part is, you get it back when you go the other way coming home.

In Auckland, we had to go through customs. New Zealand is very strict about bringing in any fruits, plants, seeds, soil, or animal materials. They don't want to have any "introduced species" - foreign plants or animals that might cause a problem. (Thompson students - you'll learn more about introduced species in your Potter League classes.) They have a little beagle who sniffs your bags to make sure you're not trying to sneak anything into the country. You can get fined if you bring a snack like oranges or apples. I had washed the soles of my boots and sneakers just to be on the safe side, since the last time I was in New Zealand, they wanted to inspect my boots.

Once in New Zealand, we still had to fly to Christchurch, on the South Island, to get to the center for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). It was about 9 a.m. when we flew into Christchurch. Looking out the windows, I could see snowcapped mountains to the west of us, the ocean to the east, and flat land with very green fields in between. It's really beautiful.

We went right away to the USAP center, which is right there at the airport. We went to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) first to get our Extreme Cold Weather Clothing (ECW). Since Mike and I are the only ones who have not been to Antarctica before, we watched an orientation video before getting our ECW. Each person gets two orange bags filled with ECW just for them, based on measurements and sizes sent in advance. You need to try EVERYTHING on, since if it doesn't fit, it may not keep you warm. Here's what I had in my bags:

Thin long underwear (top and bottom)

Expedition weight long underwear (top and bottom)

Fleece overalls

Bib wind pants

Cargo pants

Fleece jacket

Wind jacket

Big red down parka

6 pair of wool sock

Thermal "bunny boots"

Balaclava (fleece face mask)

Fleece hat with chin tie

Fleece neckwarmer

Two pairs of glove liners

Fleece gloves

Fleece mittens

Soft leather gloves

Soft leather mittens

Leather insulated gloves

Leather insulated mittens

Wool mittens

Windproof mittens

Fur-backed "gauntlet" mittens

A few items were very very much much too big for me, but most of it fit fine. Once we had gotten all our ECW issued, we went into town to our hotel, the Windsor. We were met at the Windsor by Winnie, a guard- dachshund who takes her job very seriously except when she's asleep in the sun. After the proper amount of barking and growling, she escorted us inside.

It was still early in the day, so we walked into the center of town and had lunch outside. Because it's spring in Christchurch, the cherry trees are blooming and there are all kinds of flowers and new leaves everywhere. It's very strange to go, in just a few days, from fall to spring! After lunch, we walked around, visited some camping stores, ate ice cream, and spent a lot of time on a mission trying to find a cheese shop. When we finally found the cheese shop, the owner took us into a special, refrigerated room where they keep all the cheese and gave all six of us samples of a bunch of different kinds of cheese. We bought some pieces of the very best ones. Our last stop of the afternoon was a used clothing store where Jennifer was looking for something to be part of her Halloween costume. She bought a pink, psychedelic polyester skirt.

By the end of the afternoon, most of us were a little tired, after having not been to bed for over 24 hours, so we rested and then went out for sushi for dinner. We were excited to learn that we were going to be able to fly out right away the next day, and also that we didn't have to be at the airport until 8 a.m., so we were going to be able to have breakfast at the hotel. I slept well until 6:30 the next morning, when I woke up from a dream that I was about to miss the plane, that I had forgotten to leave anything at school for Miss Thyne, and that some crazy people had somehow gotten into my classroom! I was really happy to wake up, but I have to admit I was so flustered from my dream that I put both my shirt and sweater on backwards!

We arrived back at the airport at 8:00 the next morning and went to the clothing distribution center (CDC) to pack up our things that will be going on the plane. We get one checked bag and one carry-on bag that will fit under the seat on the plane. We have to include a set of regular street clothes in case the plane doesn't go - or worse, if it "boomerangs," meaning that it gets partway there and has to turn back around due to bad weather at McMurdo. One time one of the scientists had to walk around Christchurch barefoot because he hadn't remembered to pack any shoes in his carry-on bag! We are expected to wear a good part of our ECW in the flight, since sometimes it's cold!

We got all dressed up, then had to be weighed with our carry-on bags. After a briefing on Antarctica, we were ready to go....except that the plane was being worked on and we were told to come back in an hour. When we were ready to go, we had another delay. Finally, we took the shuttle bus out to the runway. We got out of the bus, took some pictures of the plane, and were told...that there was another 45-minute delay and we'd have to get back on the bus. So we got back on the bus, sat for a few minutes, and were told that we could get on the plane after all!

The plane is a big Air Force cargo plane and huge inside. There are rows of seats along the outside facing in, and two rows in the front that are in the center facing out. In the center and rear of the plane, cargo is carried in the center. Everyone gets the world's largest bag lunch as they get onto the plane. There are no windows that you can see out of, so it's a little strange.

The flight was very smooth and comfortable and took only about 5 hours. A lot of people took pictures, read, and slept. It's noisy, so you're given earplugs and it's very difficult to talk to anyone. But before we knew it, we were on the ground and ready to get out onto the ice!

I figure it was over 30 hours travel time, not including the overnight in Christchurch. However, it was fun and well worth it!

1. Before......(Providence)

2. ...and After (Clothing Distribution Center, Christchurch, New Zealand)

3. Winnie "lies guard" in front of the Windsor Hotel

4. At last we find the cheese shop! (L to R: Stacy, Andrew, Jennifer and wilting Mike)

5. Ready to board the plane - sweating in ECW gear.

6. Top 10 things to do while your flight is delayed...Jennifer and Stacy hold up the Southern Hemisphere.

10. The inside of the C-17.

8. Waiting on the runway for the plane - Mike tries to use his shark mask to scare the crew into letting us aboard.

9. We are sooo much happier now that we're on the plane with our world's largest bag lunches. Stacy especially likes the chips.

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