Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Dam ships

     Today, January 1st, saw our first visit this season of one of the massive cruise ships that ply our waters; the Veendam, who's sister ship the Princendam will be visiting in a couple weeks.  The ships that we've had visit so far this season, the Nat Geo Explorer and the Le Boreal, have been fairly small ships, carrying less than 200 passangers, few enough that we can bring them ashore and give tours.

     The Veendamn, however, carries just over 2,000 people; there's no possible way we could ever have that many cycle through our station (also, per the Antarctic treaty, tourist ships of more than 500 passengers are no allowed to go ashore, for fear of large numbers of people causing irreparable harm to the wildlife).  So to give these ships and their passengers a view of what, uh, "native" Antarcticans are like, about half the station ferries out to the ship in Zodiacs, and spends the whole day aboard.

     The words "massive", "colossal", and "enormous" don't begin to convey the scale of this freaking ship.

Let us all observe Sean's awesome hat with it's built-in face warmer/fake beard.  He actually got it as a Christmas present, someone on station knitted it for him as consolation that he can't grow anything close to a beard naturally
See that little pipe dispersing brown water in the lower left?  That's one of the sewage outflows.  Don't fall in.
     In rougher seas/crappier weather, such as we had today,  they can't open the sea level doors, so we have to make do with a rope ladder leading into the cargo loading areas.

     After peeling off our float coats and storm gear (it's a half-hour zodiac boat ride out to the deeper waters where these huge ships can actually park, and it was raining the whole way), we were greeted by some of the ship's directors and managers.  They gave us our visitor badges, as well as our . . . room keys?

I've been living in an 8'x10' room with a room mate for the last four months, and now all THIS is just for ME?

     The upside the the economy not doing so well is that these massive expensive cruise ships have a plethora of un-used state rooms, to which we were each given our own for the duration of our 9 hour stay.

     In exchange for this temporary luxury, and a fairly liberal mostly-open bar policy to us, we were expected to participate in at least one of two presentations given in the ship's theater. 

Trotting us out on stage, so everyone can get a better look at "the natives"

     Our manager gave a ten-minute talk about the USAP, and Palmer Station in general, and then our Lab Manager talked breifly about the science projects we're doing, before they brought the rest of us up on stage for some Q&A time.  Most of the questions were actually science related, although we did the inevitable "What do you do with your free time/what do you miss about the real world/what do you do with your waste?" questions that we seem to get EVERY time.  Not that we really mind answering them (at least, I don't), but sometimes it's hard to bite my tongue and give the polite and proper answer, rather than what I actually want to say.  Although someone did ask if we'd ever eaten any of the local animals, to which I replied "If penguins taste anything like they smell, we've got no interest in trying them!"

     So, our polite obligations completed, we were let lose to prowl the ship.  Being ice-people, our first stop was the buffet restraunt where we attacked the salad bar (GREEN THINGS!  FRESHIES!), and after that I said "Yes." to the desert bar.

One of everything, please.
     While many of my co-workers headed to the bar, or to explore the other facilities, I had a pretty specific destination in mind.

     I went for what they termed a "hot stone massage", which basically involved a deep tissue massage with the lady also placing these heavy super-heated stones on me.  An hour and a half later, after being kneaded, worked over, basted and crushed, I made extensive use of their crazy showers (WTF, five shower heads for one person?  A guy could drown standing up in those) and then went for a wander around the rest of the ship.

Aw man, I didn't bring my bathing suit.
Because you can make anything classy by scattering random faux-marble status about.

Apparently this is the sort of thing that civilized, sophisticated people like.  I wouldn't know for sure.
      A vast majority of the ship, far more than on the smaller vessels, seemed to be devoted to either eating, shopping, or gambling.  There were at least five completely separate restaurants, eight bars, ten snack stands, a taco cart (seriously, it was by the pool for some reason), and three jewelry stores that ranged from kinda-cheap-but-at-least-it's-sparkly to "ARE YOU CRAZY!?".  Prices at that last one started at $20k, and went up quickly.

     Wandering around this ship lead to a sensation I'm getting regularly acquainted with; feeling hilariously out of place.  I work for a living; I fix toilets, I mop up gross messes, I carry heavy things from A to B.  I don't belong in a place like this, and I reveled in the absurdity of it all.  I swaggered around wearing boat boots and carharts and soaked in it.  Soon I'd go back to station, and the bizarre would be normal again, but for now I was one of "those strange people".  People pointed and stared, took pictures and murmured as I walked past.  Freaks on parade, as fascinating and strange as the penguins outside.

     However no one had told the ship's crew that we were a group of unsophisticated louts.  They'd reserved an entire private dining room for our dinner.

 I'm not sure if it was more italian or french, but there was lots of silverware, gigantic plates and itty-bitty food.

This was a salad.  Seriously.
Their smartest move was not trusting us with actual fire.  Instead, we get flickering LEDs in glass cups.

     Dinner was nice.  Not brilliant, but nice.  Truth be told, I don't feel the food was much better than we get at Palmer.  Certainly better presented and with a wider availability of ingredients, but I don't think it was actually any better.   Could it be that I'm actually developing some sort of pallet in my old age?  Or are my food snob friends just rubbing off on me?

"What would you like off our desert menu?"  "YES."
     Of the whole ship in all it's grandeur, what amused me the most was their automatic hand washing stations, which I'm now petitioning our station manager to buy for us.  It's like a car-wash for your hands!  You stick 'em in these holes and motion sensors activate a whole slew of pressurized jets that spin around your hands, spraying them with hot soapy water from all angles.  If they could have incorporated an automatic drying feature, I think humanity would have to throw in the town and end it; clearly, civilization would have reached it's peak and could progress no farther.

The maintenance guy in me was still thinking "Man, I bet these things are a pain to fix"

     We'd boarded the ship at 11am, and as 8pm rolled around we made our ways back into the guts of the ship to get ready to leave.  Back down here in these areas, this is where I feel more comfortable, this is where I feel at home.  With the machines, the ugly and functional lighting, the crates and pallets stacked about.  People doing actual work, fixing doohickies and doohicky parts.

     This was the third cruise ship I've been on so far this season, and while I enjoyed the experience tremendously and early await it's return, I don't ever see myself paying for a cruise for myself.  It's only after we got back into the zodiacs to head back to station that I realized the ships are floating palaces of consumption; you don't actually do anything on them.  You sit around, and you eat, and you drink, and you are serviced and catered to.  Some people like that, apparently a lot of people.  Maybe it's an age thing, but right now that's just not me. 

     Then again, I don't think I'm their target demographic, anyway.  I don't think they'll miss my lack of patronage.