Waiting to Arrive

Arrivals upon arrivals upon arrivals. Having arrived safely in Santiago, Chile after a 10-hour flight from Atlanta, I passed through customs with only a few suspicious glances from the giggly agent who made a show of inspecting my bags but barely looked at the actual contents once I opened them. Do the energy bars contain honey and dried fruit? Yes. Did I tell that to the agent? Of course not. Nothing was confiscated from the three enormous bags I carted into the domestic bag-drop line, the thousandth such line I had endured over the last 28 hours. I was still high enough from compiled stimulation—chatty flight attendants and aisle neighbors, in-flight movies, fructose-laden snacks—that my senses remained sharp edged and I felt surprisingly good. I was in-country now and there was nothing that could stop me.

Still, I didn’t notice, until I had a full conversation with a sinister airline representative who wanted and succeeded to charge me for extra baggage even though I had already paid the extortive fees in Seattle, that I was speaking Spanish again. The language welled-up from a hidden source that had not been tapped in almost a year and the words that spewed forth were, surprisingly, correct. The brain’s ability to adapt is amazing, and even more so considering that my already strained cortex had been additionally dulled by insufficient rest and overly sufficient nasal decongestants.

By bombarding myself with vitamins I pushed the illness into reclusion, but travel is a germaphobes nightmare and the plane rides reaggravated the cold. There was an unforeseen benefit to this however. Nasal clogging and a mucus-lined throat affected a change to my Spanish accent. The lisp and high-pitched tones that many Americans find so difficult to reproduce were, for my tormented self, impossible to avoid. So although I was struggling to find enough tissue paper to capture my effervescent snot, at least the flight attendant could understand me when I asked her for an extra bag of peanuts.

My arrival in Punta Arenas occurred without fan fare. There was not a limo driver at the airport with a sign that read “Whittaker.” Instead, I chartered a taxi, but after telling him the name of my hotel, I had trouble negotiating a fair price.

I am on the 5th floor with a window that overlooks the ocean. The beach is just across the street and there is a rudimentary soccer pitch there, boundaries marked with white chalk. In the afternoon after I arrived, teenagers donned jerseys and played serious matches with referees, goalies and everything. Watching them sprint reminded me of how tired I felt. Everything was catching up to me. All I wanted to do was eat and sleep, reboot.

Then the phone rang. Dave Hahn called me down to the lobby to meet the crew. There was John, Tim and Sashko. Brent, who would be my roommate, was still in transit and would not be arriving until 3am, an event which I was not overly excited about. The five of us that were present sat down to a leisurely discussion of the upcoming logistics. Dave did most of the talking and the rest of us listened intently. Afterwards, Dave made individual gear checks and answered all my pertinent questions, like: Do I really need hand sanitizer and baby wipes? Is this enough clothing? Should I bring rescue pulleys? And is it absolutely necessary to carry anti-diarrhea drugs? The answer to all except one of these was yes. I’ll let you guess which and it’s probably not the one you think.

After the gear check, I made a mad dash to the supermarket in order to acquire more lunch food. Basically, meat and cheese were the menu. Dave also requested that I purchase some hard candies to help prevent a sore throat, which is caused by the cold dry air on summit day. The supermarket was overflowing with bustling Chileans and I was in a hurry to return to the hotel and meet the crew for dinner. I barged through shoppers and grabbed salami. I reached over other shoppers and loaded my basket with gouda. I pushed children aside and selected some hard candies: caramel and various fruit flavors. My basket was full; I checked out and ran through the door. Literally.

Sprinting ten blocks with groceries in my hands, I still arrived a few minutes late. I was breathing heavily, as if I had just climbed a mountain or something, and my new comrades seemed slightly shocked to see me in this state. The schedule dictated that we might leave as soon as tomorrow, though, and there might be no other time to acquire more food, which I definitely needed. Reeling from lack of sleep, heart pumping from the run, I deposited the perishables in my room, returned to the lobby and joined the crew for the walk to dinner.

I ordered Lomo—sirloin steak—and fries at La Luna restaurant. The place was filled with gringos, climbers and guides from other expeditions. Dave recognized a few friends and greeted them warmly. Our group occupied a table on the second floor. Conversation was exploratory and amicable. Tim, with girlfriend in tow, spoke of his life in New York City. Sashko, tall and dark from Macedonia, was quiet but easy to laughter. John, with white hair and a British accent, was willing to lend us extra gear if we needed it. I contributed my own, more youthful spin to the conversation, but the meat and potatoes in my stomach were quickly sapping what energy my body had left.

I soon realized that I needed sleep badly. I was the only person that had arrived in Punta Arenas today and my comparative exhaustion was becoming alarmingly evident. Apologetically, I left bills to cover my portion of the bill on the table, expressed my pleasure at having met everyone, and returned to the hotel.

When I hit the pillow, it was as if I had fallen right through it. I passed through the mattress, through the floor, down five stories and into the deepest sleep of my life.

*

Brent’s arrival hardly disturbs me. A few hours later, my watch alarm brings me back to the land of the living. I rise, feeling tired and rested at the same time. A shower shears the cobwebs like a gaucho shears sheep.

We attend a presentation about Antarctic logistics. The presenter tells us about landing a Russian Ilyushin on a blue ice runway. He talks about preventing frostbite, shows us gruesome pictures of frozen hands, toes, even thighs. I would describe the meeting in detail if I had more time, but it is late now.

Our bags are already on the Ilyushin; we handed them to the logistics people this afternoon. We are hoping that we will be leaving tomorrow, but there are no certainties. It is 11:21pm here and the sun has finally set. I wish I had more time to write and maybe I will tomorrow, but maybe I won’t. We are involved in a waiting game now. This time we are waiting to arrive in Antarctica. Next time we will be waiting to arrive at Vinson Base Camp. From there, the arrivals take a bit more work. My birthday is the day after tomorrow and the best present I can think of is to start walking.

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