During the couple of months before I left, I was too engrossed in the preparations to treat being here as part of my real life. I only understood that it would happen once I got on the train to Gdynia, carrying my backpack and the sailor bag. And when I finally arrived, there was little time to ponder upon where I was. Only now am I ready to describe what I experienced during the first months of my stay here.
We set sail from Gdynia on 26 June. Our leaving was accompanied by cameras and official speeches because, as it turned out, our ship, Horizont II, was celebrating her 15th year at sea. We stood in line, next to the crew. It felt strange to look at the people who were watching us. You could tell from the looks on their faces that they did not quite comprehend why we were going there. The fact that we were all grinning and seemed annoyed with the ceremony only made them more perplexed. What scared most of them was that we were living out our dream. Finally, at about 4 p.m., we left the port.
What I remember from that time was the freshness of the air and the sea breeze. It came back to me how much I missed the Portuguese coastline and that I had felt the same way before, when I left Scotland. The 12 months I was to spend besides the Arctic Ocean seemed even more interesting on account of that. There were two things I found especially useful during the voyage: candied ginger which probably saved me from getting sea sick and ear plugs. The latter came in handy due to the constant noise of the hard-working engines, which kept us awake and sometimes gave us nightmares. A friend of mine who slept on the top bunk would often wake up abruptly or talk in his sleep. At times he whistled. He gave me a scare once, when his leg dropped right before my eyes, as I was trying to prepare myself for falling asleep and was hearing little more than my own breathing.
According to tradition, once we passed the Arctic Circle, we took part in the “Arctic Baptism”. That was on 30 June, when I was sleeping through half of each day. Suddenly, I was woken up by noise and shouting. I did not pay much attention until a gang of men rushed into our cabin with one guy dressed as some sort of devil . It was a light-hearted event – I managed to bribe the assailants with throat lozenges, as I had forgotten to bring any liquor on board. Alas, one of my favorite T-shirts was ruined that day. Once white, it was partially dyed pink because of the paint they smeared on my head, hands and even feet.
Starting from early hours of 2 July, there were no more sunsets and the weather conditions were excellent, despite previous forecasts. The sky looked magical. The vastness of the water was both breathtaking and horrifying. For a while a killer whale swam alongside our ship, but afterwards there were only seagulls hovering persistently above our heads. At about 4 p.m. we passed Bear Island. The sun was high above the horizon and scorching, the water looked like emerald and we were surrounded by a great emptiness. The dark line of the horizon was the border between the sky and water. Seeing such an incredible sight, I became really angry with myself for wasting all those years in the office. I promised myself I would never ever return there. On that day we completed the “Baptism” ceremony. That was fun – the name they gave me was Polarus Kabelkus.
After eight days of relatively calm sailing we reached Spitsbergen. Standing on the deck, I could see the archipelago and the majestic foothills. When the ship entered the bay, the landscape seemed otherworldly – at least to someone who had never been so far north. It looked as if someone had tossed huge ice cubes into water as a kind of jest. At about 10 p.m. the unloading began. Two days of hell. It took us 18 hours to finish and once we did, I was exhausted, going to sleep with swollen knees. I would not have believed it either if anyone had told me I could muster that much strength. As we were carrying the goods to shore, a polar bear stopped close by; and for a while we were being watched, from a safe distance, by a reindeer.
On the following days we were busy taking over the duties of the previous team as well as unpacking our things, boxes, pallets and food supplies. We also had to get accustomed to the layout of the site. At the time it seemed impossible that we could handle all that.
When I took my first stroll outside, it felt as if I was on another planet. Because of the bears, one felt a little paranoid. I kept glancing over my shoulder all the time. During a trip to Werenhus, some 18 km further off, a more seasoned colleague confirmed that being on your guard is a very reasonable habit to acquire.
One of staple elements of our life at the Station is the daily duty shifts. Our main task is to monitor channel 16, with other chores being vacuuming, washing floors, cleaning bathrooms and toilets, baking bread, enforcing lights-out, taking out garbage, helping to make breakfast and dinner as well as cleaning up after supper. After a whole day of toiling, we are dead on our feet.
Internet access is, every now and again, problematic. With the connection being overloaded, sometimes one cannot even send an email. I hear this is normal in the summer, when many regional groups arrive. Things will improve in winter, when there will be just eleven of us up here. The wind can also make things worse by moving the antenna around.
Another recurring event is the farewells. People come and go. With some you make friends, and then they go home and we stay here. It can be annoying, on the other hand. It is as if strangers kept coming to your home on a regular basis, seating on sofas and eating at the same table. And you do not even know their names. At least for the first couple of days. And then again, you become friends.
It is funny how you forget what day it is. Just because I keep my diary, I usually know the date. However, I do not realize that a week has passed until I come for breakfast. If there is no cook, and the guy on duty puts on the table whatever he finds in the fridge, it means it is Sunday. Had it not been for the fact that the outside world is governed by time, we would not be aware of its passing. It is actually hard to tell it is breakfast time, so a bell helps a great deal. Its efficiency depends on who is on duty. I do not really suffer from any sleep-related issues, because of the constant daylight, other than having not enough of it. And this is because I am so busy.
When on 12 July I went for a walk around the Station, it occurred to me that I already felt at home. While I did not know the surroundings all that well, they did not seem strange. In fact, I kind of felt… as if I belonged here. However, on 1 August I put this in my diary: “A second ago, through the window in the radio room, I saw a seagull struggling against a strong wind, and in the background there was a reindeer walking about. Funny how scenes like that no longer impress me; they are part of the general landscape. The only thing here that is out of place is us. All these antennas, the electricity and the noise. We do not belong here. Sometimes I think we do not belong on this planet at all.”