I’ve been back a month now, and it was suggested that it may be interesting to offer a personal reflection on what it’s like returning from such an isolated community: a feeling shared by most of my colleagues is that the contrast is so great that life at Palmer now seems unreal, akin to a dream world, and exposure to the ‘real’ world can be quite a shock.
The changeover was helped by a period of enforced inactivity – 4 1/2 days on ship and 2 1/2 days on 6 flights – which allowed for some reflection and mental adjustment. Relaxation was, however, in short supply. Following a rough crossing of the Drake Passage, all shipping in the area was halted just after we entered the Straits of Magellan for reasons of safety. During a relatively calm period I managed to grab a few snaps, and a video can be seen here (http://youtu.be/JYBd471O-40); even being firmly wedged on the bridge (five stories up) the force of a wave hitting the ship sent me spinning!
I missed my family the most so it was great to spend some time with them again. As I was working hard there was a strong focus that made the time pass quickly on station, but it’s harder for those back home. I’m really grateful I have a very supportive spouse – unfortunately that’s not the case for everyone out there – and for family and friends who have looked out for her while I was away. It took a week or so to regain a good sleeping pattern and feel normal again, but in the meantime it was a great pleasure to see blue skies and feel the warmth of the sun! Simple enjoyments like familiar foods were a real treat, while the sights and smells of the countryside were marvelous after a bleak, odourless landscape.
In common with others returning from remote places, it takes some time to be at ease with large numbers of people – after my first trip I found city centres quite traumatic and parties uncomfortable – and although this improves with repetition, it’s never an easy transition. Conversations about the experience are frustratingly difficult. While most returnees would happily talk for hours, it’s not appropriate to do so in response to a polite query about ‘how was it?’, and in truth difficult to describe to anyone unfamiliar with the lifestyle. How can you convey a sense of wonder at the sights – even the best photographs are a pale imitation of reality – or the emotions involved with research under trying conditions? Best not to try, unless the listener is really interested!
Getting back to my regular job involved a change in mind-set, and it took some time to get to grips with quite a different set of challenges. An obvious issue was the sedentary work pattern that we so easily fall into, staring at a screen most of the day. While standing up in the cold for hours on end was uncomfortable, the regular bouts of physical activity in between kept me in trim – I lost half a stone while away, despite the mountain of food consumed – which will be a challenge to maintain. However, there are fortunately lots of interesting things happening at work, so it’s easy to lose myself in new tasks and this certainly quickened the adjustment. It will take many months to complete the data analysis, and that will inevitably raise some conflict with other duties but it’s a good problem to have! The tissue samples for analysis have arrived, although the scientific equipment is still lumbering through the cargo process and I don’t expect to see that for some time yet. It’s good to be back, and while I look back on the trip with fond memories I am also aware of the great privilege it is to be able to work in such a special place.