Upate

Sorry for the absence in blog posts– I have been actively blogging daily, just not on this blog site.

I realized after the first few weeks of being here, that this experience was going to go way deeper than I had imagined, and I needed to record it on my personal blog before sharing it with the public.

So I’m still planning on sharing all of it, I’m just going to wait to share until I have written my Alaskan experience out in its entirety.

Stop by this blog again in a month or so for daily blog posts retroactively documenting my experience here.

Goodnight from the top of the world, it’s been a full month without darkness. Saluting the midnight sun for another day. But really, it’s just been one long ass day up here. And it’s one long ass story I can’t wait to share with you all.

XXX

When In Barrow…

I was out on the road for a jog, 10 pm at night. As light as it always is out, and fire engines and alarms and dogs and people all over the place as usual. And I slow down and start to walk close to the convenience store, and this little man in front of me slows down, and turns around to talk to me.

He introduces himself as Henry Roy, a 60 year old Indian American man from San Diego wearing a blue parka. He moved here two months ago and is seeking interaction, you can see it in his eyes. And, honestly, my eyes probably look much the same.

He asks me where I’m from, and how long I’ve lived in Barrow. I tell him I’m from Kansas, and am out for a late night snack because there is no food in my apartment. He thinks about it, and offers me the can of mushroom soup at his house. I say that is really nice of him, but I’ll be okay. I’m going to buy a bag of goldfish and make a night of it. When in Barrow. I would never eat like this anywhere else, but when preservative foods are the only things on the shelf, that’s what I’m going to grab. I really need to make lentils, but I just don’t feel like doing that tonight. I will get to it tomorrow. Tonight, goldfish dinner. Going against everything I stand for, but in fact being everything I need tonight.

I exchange numbers with Henry, and say we could do a potluck sometime. We talk about the isolation, and he tells me how he’s lived in isolated areas before, but was always within driving distance of a city. This, this is something entirely different. I ask him if he’s planning on staying, he says “we’ll see.” And he says, “you’re probably wondering why I decided to come here. But I am getting older, and I have to make sure I have job security for myself.”

I ask him where he works, and he points to the building. Because we live in Barrow.

I leave the store with a bag of goldfish, that I eat within ten minutes of getting back to my apartment.

Henry texts me after I finish the goldfish, saying he has rice and Indian curry if I want some. And “the curry might be a little bit spicy, though.” I say that sounds wonderful, and maybe another night. I am unsure if it is creepy or not that I am texting a elderly man, but I am thinking that he’s probably just feeling the same isolation that I feel. Maybe I’ll bring a friend over to his house some night and get to know him.

He texts me back, “No problem, just did not want you to go hungry. It’s the way of the North but I understand.”

There you go, my first street friend in Barrow. Maybe a little sanctuary to escape to, if he isn’t scary.

Flipping Coins for Climate Change


Using my little laptop case as a cushion to sit on the metal grating outside of the boys’ apartment. My apartment for the time being, as well.

It’s a beautiful day outside, I only just realized. And though there is nowhere to really go and sit as everything is muddy, I have devised this genius spot for the meantime. Maybe I’ll even make a friend or two walking past.

Just got back from a jog to the AC store, because George was using the bathroom and I really had to pee. I borrowed the bathroom key from a nice girl at the front counter, and enjoyed reading all of the graffiti on the bathroom walls.

My mp3 player stopped playing music about ten minutes into my jog, so I headed back. Figuring I would take another jog around nine or ten tonight, and stop by the post office as well.

So now I’m sitting outside, listening to ATVs and looking at the violet, purple, blue, turquoise, navy green and beige quonset and box houses in front of me.

I was not in a very good place on Friday evening, so I didn’t get to write about the wonderful day that I had. I’m going to try and do that now.

Friday.

Muktuk.

The whale that I don’t really want to eat, the culture and lifestyle that I want to integrate with and learn about.

Muktuk is the chunk of whale meat served in traditional Inupiat diet. It’s a cube consisting of the black skin of the whale, and the pink blubber.

My new camera broke today. The cold or the sand, something. I guess that means I’ll just have to write it all.

We begin the day by going to Mack Butler’s house, and finding him not there. So Laura shows us the mound houses on the beach across the street. I ask why these are not preserved, and we’re just able to walk on them and destroy them over time. And she said that it has to do with the corporation, and not wanting to spend money to protect it.

“It’s not my culture, so I don’t have any say in it as an anthropologist. Or at least no one is going to pay me to protect it.”

All the trash in rural Alaska. We walk back over into Mack’s yard, because we are not allowed to sit on the beach too long without a permit. And see a soda machine graveyard in the backyard.

“That’s part of the “stop the pop” campaign from a few years back, Laura explains. There are also halves of pidgeon like birds throughout the yard, something has gone to town. And bones, bones, bones. All over. And old sofas, old tools, old wood. Nothing is thrown away here. Trash is dumped in Barrow, and then the only way to dispose of it is to burn it.

Which goes to answer the question of why the CCA wood from the 80s is still sitting in people’s yards— because the worst thing you can do with this wood is burn it. And they know not to burn it. Or at least most people in town do.

We ring the doorbell, and walk in the house even though Mack is not there.

We are offered coffee by a half asleep thirty something man with a hard to come by smile.

Laura pulls homemade chocolate scones out of her purse to share as we wait– it is Mack’s 40th anniversary of being here.

We are still waiting for Mack an hour later. This is Barrow time.

We eat our scones, drink our coffee, and talk about dentists in Barrow, who are apparently top notch.

There are a lot of dental problems in the village, which play into the diet. According to Laura they don’t fill cavities here, they just remove the whole tooth and replace it with a silver one. There are four years olds running around with shinning mouths.

“What are you writing down?” Syd asks me as I scribble dental notes into my notebook.

“I’m just writing ‘the scene,’” I say truthfully and cryptically. And continue writing throughout conversations for the rest of the day.

The day before we left, this guy in the program named Isaac who is from Hawaii walked up to a group of us, and told us that he had lived in Barrow before. His Dad was a dentist there years ago. I thought this odd at the time, but after talking to Laura I realized the benefits of being a medic in Barrow. They give you $10,000 a year, in addition to your salary, to pay off student loans. It’s an effort to bring doctors and dentists out here.

Still waiting for Mack, we take a walk outside to grab our raingear, as we are told we will be going out to the melt ponds to collect samples today. And we run across a big paw print on the way to the van, and are terrified it’s a polar bear print. Who the hell knows.

Meet this local man named Sam while outside, and he inquires what we are doing here? “I am Inupiat. This is my home. What are you doing here?”

I talk too fast for him to understand, and you can tell he is not used to communicating in English.

Mack arrives around 10:30, and we begin work.

“This is a species that I named last night. I could spend the rest of my career naming species. But I don’t want to do that.” Mack comments during a thorough rundown of everything and anything that has to do with the larva in these petri dishes, and his life’s ambition, inspiration and career.

Mack is also interested in the discarded, free wood left around the city. “I just don’t understand it. This is great wood,” he comments, pulling the nails out of it on his makeshift work desk outside.

Reoccurring theme in my life this month, I can already see.

“We’ve just made a huge discovery,” he says, shuffling us back over to the petri dishes. “Regular pupa molt four times, and then turn into a pupa. But these, these molt five times. As far as I’m aware there is no such literature on a fifth molting phase…

“You know what Gondwana is? This species is from there– the southern hemisphere supercontinent. They made their way up the Andes, the Rockies, and then spread out at sea level in the Arctic. They are like opossums– marsupials are primarily from Australia, but that species made its way to the Americas.

“What I want you to be looking for is the mature ones, in the pupal stage. So their lower abdomen will be swollen.

Mack pokes around in the petri dishes to show us an example, but finds none for awhile. We’re just standing there, twiddling our thumbs.

“We’re looking at the timing of the pupal stage, because it’s going to tell us how the ponds thawing faster is having an impact on the species. And if the bugs are not maturing at the right rate, then the birds who migrate here have nothing to eat, and on down the food chain. What you’re looking at in this dish is representative of the pulse of insects that you’ll see soon.

“Mosquitoes don’t really live here, those big bird sized mosquitoes? They’re blown in from the south, from central Alaska near Fairbanks. The native bugs here, midges, swarm around but do not bite. The native people don’t even have a name for the midges, because they can’t eat the bugs, and the bugs don’t bite them. They are unimportant and there is no reason to explain them in great detail.

“The bugs don’t all start the race the same day, the race to become an adult. The bugs take it at different lengths, and rates. We need to determine the starting points, though.

We are then invited to a lunch of Polish food cooked by Alec’s wife, Ewelina. We had been planning on eating delicious Mexican food for lunch at the college that day, and are torn. Alyssa, Syd and I walk behind the truck when everyone walks away, and we flip a coin. Our new method of decision making. Heads is Polish food, tails is Mexican food. We all flip it together, and it lands on heads. Which we knew was the right decision all along. As a general travel rule you should never turn down the offer of dinner from new acquaintances in a new place.

We thanked the coin’s decision later, as we were safely ensconced in the scientist’s house, eating homemade food and making new connections.

“As a scientist I’d like to say that we’re doing this research to help the movement to halt global warming. But if I’m being realistic, I’d say that we’re just documenting the species that live here, until they become extinct from the temperature change. There is nowhere further north for these species to go. As the Earth warms up, they will die out, and species from the south will move on up and take their place, ad infinitum.

Arawak Anchors

The window in this room never closes– found out why no one really wants it. I’ll just wear my parka and embrace the icy Arctic air blowing through the window. It’s a hell of a lot better than my housing situation and state of mind from yesterday.

Had lunch with Carinne at the college today. She is my other. She is about the closest, and the furthest from me that I’ve ever met. We complete each other in this maddening and beautiful way. We are.

She told me she had talked to Tony back in Sacramento last night-

“We’re revolting and creating vagina monologues. Issues of the day include: treated wood, MRSA and cultural tensions.”

She told me I wasn’t alone, and all the girls sans Heather were pissed off and angry about it all.

But I digress.

I don’t want to talk about this today. Or think about this today. I want to dive into romance and Arctic air and creative people and ideas and places and become one with the world and its ever revolving perspectives. I want to tune into my perspective, and my freedom. Carinne told me today that the hardest and the best thing I could ever learn from this program is how to escape without leaving. How I am so good at flying away when I want to, but now I’m learning how to continue on and progress when flying away is not an option.

Clearing my head. Clearing my space. Clearing the world for the revolution of my mind that is going to take place here and now with coffee and parkas and autopilot mindset. Letting it flow to me. Stop directing my thoughts. Stop choosing.

Was reading this book this morning by a psychologist who worked with indigenous cultures all over the world.

His first assignment early in his career is working for the government in Suriname, working with the Arawak people. He was supposed to study the people’s relationship to work, but it turned into a much deeper study of choice. He created questionnaires asking the population a fairly common American question: if you could do anything, what would you like to do with your life?

And he was met with blank stares, a pregnant pause, and a repetitive answer.

“This. Of course I would be doing exactly what I am doing. What else would I do?”

In a study with children, he initiated a standard “draw something, anything” prompt. And the children stared back at him with blank, confused stares. This still happened in following tests with native instructors prompting the children, instead.

He came to the conclusion that the people here were not accustomed to the idea of “choice,” as far as we look at it in Western American culture. And this perception of reality was a lot closer to the mindset of all of our ancestors, in earlier times. Life was not a series of choices, causing anxiety and regret and jealously, but rather just the way things were. You took what came to you. You were a product of everything that had come before you, and everything that existed at this point and time.

Remnants of that can be seen in the Inupiat culture here. This strong tie to family, and a deep connection to what came before. Whenever we meet a native person and they tell us about their life and their culture, they always mention their families, going back generations. The woman we met last night had a picture of her parents on the back of her parka. A man pointed out his mother on the heritage museum wall. I don’t know enough about the people yet, but I would venture to guess that they don’t see themselves as separate entities floating through space alone as we mainstream Americans do, but they see themselves as a continuation of a process already set in motion long, long ago.

Which is a perspective that a highly anxious person has a lot to learn from.

Letting go of the idea that you can control everything, and that things are just the way they are. And events arise the way they will. And then you act in the only way possible for you.

Lovely, beautiful, simple, brilliant.

Standing for Something

I’ve just returned from a 11 hour of day standing out on the cloudy, windy, icy, wet marshy tundra in rubber boots and a rain jacket with scientists from Virginia. I am absolutely exhausted, colder than I’ve ever imagined I’d be in June (20 degrees with windchill), and can barely keep my eyes open to write up this record of it. But I’m going to do my best.

Four scientists in a room. We’re at the BART. I’m not sure what BART stands for, or even if I’m using the right word. All I know is it is the scientific hub of Barrow– right outside of town, by the native college. It’s also close by to/the same as/irrelevant of NARL, the Navy Arctic Research Lab. Walking in you are greeted by a cozy coffee lounge, catching the end of awkward and well meaning conversation between kooky scientists from every corner of the world, all staring at you over their mugs with questioning  eyes, and an adventurous gaze.

We meet a few of them, but none of them are the scientists we are looking for. After settling into a seat and scaring all of the intriguing and antisocial scientists out of the lounge, our contacts arrive.

We walk back to their lab, and I introduce myself to my assigned scientists as an international studies major. They smile, looking up from their makeshift redboards strung across tables, and tell me this must all look like something out of an international intrigue film- huge science lab at the top of the world with homemade computers strung out across the tables, glued to fence posts with cables and wires flying like a bad hair day in all directions.

“Jordan, what’s my number?” Rhett raises his voice from across the room.

“Blue 32, Red 41. Orange 22, on.”

Rhett plugs the wires into the corresponding outlets, and calls for more coordinates, using terms and words that I didn’t know human beings could communicate with.

After setting up their makeshift computers, our day consisted of standing out in the tundra, holding the fence posts with the computers attached to them. There were five fence posts, one a person. We would hold each in place for five minutes, making sure all of the sensors were kept straight and not bent by the tundra below, then move ourselves four feet down to start a countdown for another five minutes. And continue this all day. Eight hours challenging the wind.

We were taking measurements of the polygram area, which is an area of ground surrounded by a moat and used as a spot for birds to make their nests in the Arctic. Taking measurements of the light, humidity, wind and temperature. The project is to determine what it is about the conditions that draw the birds to this patch of ice to claim their own. Birds go through puberty yearly, because staying sexually developed would add too much extra weight onto their migration journey. So the researchers were trying to figure out what about these conditions signaled the birds genitals to develop when they got here.

Their “homebrewed computers” were made in four weeks, something that they really needed a year to fine tune, but made in a rush for grant approval. The computers were made out of $90 of material, whereas you would pay $10,000 for professional instruments that did the same thing.

Towards the middle of the day, a young couple who flew in on the plane with us showed up. Lingering on the outskirts of our plot of land, they take our information and make us famous.

Our scientists take us out to Arctic pizza after work and lay down a hundred bucks on the table for three pizzas. I’m sitting by Rhett, who I feel is a kindred spirit. A theoretical physics professor from North Carolina, he’s got a lot to share, but spends the day asking us questions about our lives.

He tells me my writing pseudonym should be Barrow.

I go home and fall promptly asleep.

When in the Arctic

Polar bears are the only animals in the world that actively hunt human beings.

The biggest bear in the world, and the only one that you cannot scare off.

They have terrible eyesight, so they track you with their sense of smell.

They can smell prey from a mile away.

They’ve never really bothered villages until recently, with global warming happening and their habitat and food supply being destroyed.

Forget going to the library.

Hours later…I have effectively horrified myself. And have just purchased bear spray on Amazon.

I’ve been thinking about it for awhile, but just decided tonight: when in the Arctic Circle, why not try your hand at a can of bear spray?

This will be the only money I spend in Barrow. Everything is being taken care of for us, and there is no coffee shop or pub for me to go and wear scarves, hipster sweaters and throw cash around at.

Just me and my bear spray. With its holster.

Jesus.

Shower and Snow

Tuesday night, and it’s snowing and raining and all around great weather for posting up in the library with a window view, and taking in the ambience.

I got a ride to the library with Heather, and am working through my distaste with our housing location. The boys’ apartment is a two minutes walk from the library and the Arctic Women in Crisis shelter, while we have an entire 45 minute lagoon to traverse, consisting of a huge strip of ice with no houses to run and hide in, no cars to jump in, just me and the unknown world.

And I might have come to terms with it all today. I began to realize that this has got to be the best possible place I could be, somehow. Our apartment reminds me of my sophomore year college apartment with Deb and Jade in Lawrence, and how isolated and lonely we were out there on the edge of town. It feels much the same, and that has been on my mind for the past few days, as I compared the boys’ experience in the heart of town to our own on the outskirts.

But I choose to believe that everything happens for a reason, and this is the best thing that could happen to me. Living in that antisocial apartment complex my sophomore year of college was a big influence on my desire to jump on a plane and leave the country the following year.

It all adds up.

My first night in England has always been metaphorical for me in the way I strive to perceive life. You’ve got to own it, and make it yours before you can truly see beauty.

Twenty years old in a yellow scarf and sweatpants, I got on that plane and was all about it. No turning back.

I arrived in Leicester, and felt immediately at home. All of the study abroad students drank coffee together, and then we gathered for our tour of the campus. As we walked around, we dropped fellow students off at their new housing. I was the last one to be taken to my room on the tour, all the way across campus. And I ended up in this isolated building, right next to a construction zone. The only person in a 100 person complex. I had no way to contact anyone because I didn’t have a phone, or an internet connection. I was the definition of alone.

Unlocking my room in this hidden corner of the world, I took a deep breath. This wasn’t my permanent housing, it was just for the study abroad week before regular classes started. I would be around people again soon. I just had to sleep in an empty dorm by myself for a week. I could do this.

I got out my laptop, laid across the bed, and played my favorite songs loud. And I could almost hear the music over the manic construction drilling happening right outside of my window.

I decided to take a shower.

Walking into the shower, it was super dark, and dirty, and different than any shower I had experienced before. Old style European. I don’t remember quite what it was about this shower that brought me to that low point, but I have a vivid memory of turning on the faucet, and feeling all of my life choices spraying out at me with the cold, metallic water.

And I had a split second of self pity and doubt.

And then I looked straight at the old rusted shower spout, took it all in fully and chose to see the beauty. Fully saw my ownership of the situation, and never looked back after that.

The rest of the year was one of the best years of my life, because I never let myself doubt my decisions again. I just enjoyed them, or learned from them. No regrets, everything was exactly the way it was going to be.

And that is exactly what I feel like I need to accept right now. Something I’ve been flitting back and forth with throughout this entire year of travel. I need to turn that shower on, look at that rusted faucet straight on, and embrace everything single thing that exists at this point and time. How it got me here, where it’s taking me, and where I’m going to take myself.

As I finished my shower that first night in England, I had the biggest smile on my face. This was what I wanted. And now I was able to fucking run with it and make it mine.

I walked out of my sad apartment building later, and my new friends I had met hours earlier were walking around the buildings searching for me. A week later I was moved into a communal house that made for my first family away from home, and the beginning of my life as I know it.

It wasn’t England. It was a chance to face myself.

Today I am stretching my boundaries by coming to the library after work, and realizing this experience is just as atmospheric and conducive to reflection as I had imagined it. My housing this whole year has never really been easy, or in a super safe area. This is just one more thing to put on my list of things to overcome. A love of books over a fear of polar bears.

The view out my library desk window is straight out flat landscape. It’s almost impossible to really see where the landscape ends, and the sky begins. If you look closely you can see that the snow lets off a little bit of a blue light, compared to the white, snowing sky.

And hey, I’m kind of excited to make the solo trek back to my apartment, ice and snow blowing in my face. Make me feel alive again, remind me that I can’t control everything. And when I start to attempt that is when I start to really lose what control I do have.

Books over polar bears. A responsible life of intrigue over a life of fear.

Our workdays here are so long. They are always stunningly thrilling, with new information, and lots of thoughts and engagement. And Laura never runs out of energy. Not ever.

That goes for most people in the city, really. They are out on the beach on the weekends all night, til the morning, then on til the next morning. Time doesn’t really exist here, and it’s a concept that I am falling in love with, and still having a little bit of struggle catching up with.

We are supposed to be ready for work around 8:20 daily, but our ride doesn’t usually get here until twenty to thirty minutes later. And it doesn’t matter, it’s all part of the flow. It’s all perfect. There are no apologies.

But at the end of the day, when you’re super tired and ready to start the countdown on your clock, you realize that there is no countdown. And that things will just keep moving until they stop. There is no timeframe, no real tempo for the day. Just keep going with a loose idea of goals until someone tells you to stop. Or until you crawl back to your van and curl up on a seat, with some not so subtle hints.

So today we started out the morning picking up supplies for our cooking day with Laura. And then setting up the kitchen at the local middle school.

Starting our day of cooking we split up into pairs, and Carinne and I partnered up. We began the morning preparing homemade sourdough bread, and then moved onto making banana walnut muffins with streusel topping for a mid morning snack.

After consuming a great quantity of muffins, we moved on to fixing lunch: lentil soup. We cut up veggies, added spices, rice and lentils, and each pair made their own pot. We then went back to our sourdough bread after it had risen, and prepared it for the oven.

Carinne and I’s bread was hilariously unprofessional, and we trading dough with our teammates whenever they were not looking. Caught in the act awhile later, we had to take ownership of our dough again, and ended up having to make it into biscuits. Everyone was cracking up and calling them our fortune cookie failures.

An hour later we were all sitting down eating fresh sourdough bread and Carinne and I’s biscuits (which turned out to be endearing and lovely, though we were the only ones to venture eating them). I was tearing apart the biscuits and mixing them in with my soup– like little dumplings.

After lunch we were fading fast. We are still so tired up here, a week into the climate. We still had much to do, though. We were making gnocchi from four different types of potatoes, two different sauces, and homemade yogurt made out of powdered milk.

Like I said, Laura and Angela never run out of energy. And maybe it’s just an Alaska, eternal summer day thing, but it is amazing.

The gnocchi was delicious, we decided that it is best with red potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes.

They gave us all the leftovers, the spices, and random food they had stowed away for us during the week. Earlier in the day, when we were loading up for the day at the old hospital, Laura saw a man she knew.

“These are the oppressed,” she said in reference to us and our food situation.

No longer oppressed, you ladies and the city of Barrow are making our food dreams from the year come true.

Tonight we are getting a couch surfer on our couch for the next week. She’s flying in with the 7:30 evening plane from Anchorage. I know she is a masters student with some mission to accomplish in Barrow, but I don’t know her name. Kind of exciting, and chaotic to have one more person in that tiny, stuffy apartment.

Who knows what will happen? I’m going to start giving things back up to chance. I’m much happier when I do that.

And find much more to write about.

Watching the 7:30 plane taking back off into the air through the library window right now. Two planes in and out from Barrow a day. Right in front of you. Can’t miss it regardless of where you are here.

Scripted Story

10:30 at night. I had a goal to have three blog posts by this time of night, but then I walked to the kitchen to make tea two hours ago. And Carinne was making stone soup. And then we just talked about the politics of our project and the politics of the world for the next two hours.

Worth it, but not sure if I can get more than one more blog post in tonight, as my eyes are getting heavy, and the sky is getting cloudy, giving the illusion of a sunset.

After work I wrote a bit, and was frustrated that the words weren’t coming easily. I had so much to say, but it felt like my words and thoughts were not lining up.

So I went for a jog.

I proceeded to depress myself a little more with the jog, as I creeped myself out with the vacant boardwalk by the lagoon, and imagined myself walking this alone every night for the next month.

I could walk with others, but I really like to get away on my own. And so I guess I’ve got to learn how to feel comfortable in this area. Polar bears and all.

That, or I get used to walking with my friends.

Jogging over the boardwalk, the wooden boards swayed with my weight as they floated in the water. The trash, so much trash.

Today, I asked Laura about the fatality rate here among tourists. I could see it being an adventurer’s hotspot– lots of people coming here and doing stupid things on the ice. And around the wildlife.

She said actually there was not really any of that. To come tour Barrow, you really have to have money. It’s $900 to fly from Anchorage to Barrow in the summer. And so all the tourists that do show up here are usually in fancy track suits, and are just here for a day and a half. Just long enough to take the $100 “tundra tour” up to Point Barrow, and back to settle into their $500 hotel.

There’s not many crunchy adventurers that are able to make their ways up here. Thus there are not many crunchy adventurer tales of the area.

Which is pretty cool. We are neither outback adventurers, nor millionaires. Yet we get to experience this place.

Laura was mocking the tourists’ reactions when they get to Barrow, “It’s so gross. So brown. No roads. So much trash. Such a gross town.”

 

I realized as she was saying this the similar sentiment I had held in my blog post from yesterday. A tourist’s reaction that shrugged a shoulder at digging a little deeper. The desperation and despair at no easy answers, and something not seeming as pure and straightforward as one had expected. I guess I had wanted this place to be black and white: either modern, or traditional. I couldn’t just take it as it is. A mix of things. A contradiction of attitudes. A real, beautiful place to slow down and listen to.

On my walk yesterday I saw a little girl pulling a handmade wooden toy boat by a string around a snow puddle in a yard. If I was a photographer, I would have had to snap a picture. No name brands, no plastic, no pressure to be anything other than it was. It was so organic and original and simple and beautiful. Her little brother was sitting on the step behind her, just watching.

And then yesterday at the college, I saw kids driving around in fancy electric toy cars.

“Most people see a scripted Alaska. They don’t see this,” Laura said about the tourists that pop in, and leave with a bad taste in their mouths, but a check mark next to flying to the top of their world.

I would like to learn to see Barrow.

Beach Bears

We look like lazy baseball players in our tan long underwear, lounging around our apartment and stretching into yoga poses mid conversation.

Today began with all the ladies going over to the rehabilitation clinic, and loading up airplane pallets into the back of a truck.

The kids living in the area had made tents out of the pallets, hanging blankets across the wood and creating elaborate homes.

I felt a little bad taking it down, but it looked like it had been out there for quite awhile. There were also old books, games, coats and trash scattered all around. Frozen into the mud, snow and ice. We made a pile of all of the scraps in a corner, so that someone could come pick them up if they wanted.

As we were leaving, a little man, quiet with big red sunglasses and a humbleness to his step, walked by. Laura knew him, and introduced him to us. He had been the “bear guard” at her wedding, up at Point Barrow years ago. He’s been a polar bear guard for the past twenty years, at various events.

On the way back to her house with our truckload of wood,  Laura told us that part of the reason that we are here specifically is because of our experience with organic local farming and the food revolution in Willits.

She also talked about how she had requested us for two weeks in the beginning, but was then told we would only be able to come for ten days. And then we end up showing up for six weeks, with eleven people.

Needless to say, she’s sharing us with the village now.

So much more help than she could have hoped for, she is still figuring out to best utilize all of our power. The woodpile that was estimated to take half a day was finished in twenty minutes, with just a third of our team.

We told her we were fine with relaxing a bit, she shouldn’t feel like we need to have work set up daily. We can begin to create our own work in the village as we get to know it better.

Laura mentioned a pro bono lawyer in the city who was a part of our program in the past. A big part of his job here entails navigating the waters of domestic violence and sexual assault cases, as that is a huge problem in the area.

I asked her what other resources the survivors of violence and assault here had, there probably wasn’t a shelter in a village of 4,000 people, right? And she said actually, there is.

I asked her if there was anyway I could volunteer and help out, and she told me she was going to look into that for me. I’m going to look into it as well.

Could potentially be a part of my contribution to the city? Especially on those days when we are running low on work to do.

Also talked to Laura about the tribal court– how the village of Barrow basically functions like a reservation does in the lower 48. How tribal court is the ruling authority, and mainly deals with child adoption cases, and domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Apparently adoption is a big issue here as well, there are a lot of kids that people just don’t want. And lots of non-native people want to adopt them, but the tribe wants native kids to be raised by native families.

After unloading all of the wood at Laura’s house, we moved a few ridiculously heavy chunks of wood into place to make a barrier around the garden. Real estate is really complicated up here, so the Barrow Test Garden is in Laura’s own yard. A painted bedpost frame against the garden introduces the project, and invites the community to engage in the “grocery garden.”

Laura’s yard is just like all of the yards in the village. Fifteen foot long whalebones just hanging out by her stairs. Odds and ends bones from other large animals that I am not able to identify at this point and time.

Never, never put two whalebones up together in an arch in your yard. This is culturally specific for the graves of distinguished people in the Arctic.

So the approval for the tundra garden is still being processed at the elder’s center, but before lunch we went and took a look around at the site. We will hopefully begin archaeological digging next week if the approval goes through, and dig the dirt plotted out layer by layer, making sure there is nothing of archaeological significance there. If there is, the whole tundra garden project goes out the window for the summer, and we will be helping with excavation process instead. If the tundra garden project can jump through all of these impending hurdles though, we’ll set up a big tent outside for the elders to come sit in while we garden. And we can learn about one another as we slowly break up the frozen ground.

Lunch was provided by the hospital today. We get $25 each, and are expected to use up our entire budget or else the money is wasted. So I’ve figured out that I can get two large garden salads, coffee and a parfait for $24. And also that I can eat it all with gusto.

During lunch we sat in a back room in the hospital and talked with Laura. This woman is intensely interesting, as well as humble, and has an unimaginable amount of stories to tell. She has not lived her life the traditional way, as evidenced that she has found herself living up at the top of the world and pushing for a grassroots tundra garden project.

She told us all about how whales are harvested here, her personal polar bear encounters in Barrow while living in a quonsat hut, and her grizzly bear rendezvous on other solo archaeological digs around Alaska.

“Did I commune with the spirit of the animal? No. I was scared shitless.”

After lunch Carinne, Ricky and I went dumpster diving with Laura. This is the life we are leading right now. It is overwhelmingly stimulating and unpredictable. Laura had been eyeing a life size Spiderman in the dumpster that morning. But when we came out a few hours later, the trash had already been picked up.

“You’ve got to move fast in Barrow.

Then we took a walk around the lagoon, to observe the boardwalks that we are going to be fixing up and building.

“The city of Barrow ran out of money this year already, so nothing will be done about the boardwalk. Or all of this trash around it. Whatever you guys want to do, you have approval from the city to go for it.”

I was walking and talking with Alyssa, and she told me how she had been writing so much since she’s been here. And she refers to Barrow as “her little sanctuary.”

During our walk Laura pointed out various plants, and pulled off leaves for us to try. I have not been brave enough to stick anything in my mouth yet, as I have the soundtrack from “Into the Wild” playing in the back of my mind. I want to learn more about the plants before consuming them.

I’m pretty sure not many poisonous plants can even grow up here, though.

Later in the day, we went to the community center to plot out our tundra garden agenda, and Laura laid out our main objectives, which I will recount later. But I jumped at the chance to take on the composting project, and am now in charge of figuring out if it’s possible to get a compost pile going in her yard in the Arctic Circle.

I’ve got to find a container of a certain size, because if it’s not deep enough, it will not get hot enough inside to function. We’re thinking about doing it in the trunk of a broken down car sitting to the side of her yard.

I’m also going to be in charge of the imported worms, and figuring out if they will be able to survive outside in the Arctic in the summer.

Laura also told us about another project that we’ll be participating in: creating a walking map of Barrow. We will wear a pedometer, and then just go on walks around the village and report how many steps we took.

Also, every Tuesday is a cooking day. Laura is just going to give us cooking lessons for the full workday every week. She thinks that it is an injustice that we are given a food stamp budget, but then not taught how to efficiently and healthily use a food stamp budget. She’s going to help fix that. Lentils and rice all the way.

Last night the boys met some locals as they were walking back from our place. Four kids our age asked them if they wanted to jump in the car and go for a ride. They did, and then were taken around town to get messed up and shoot some things.

Not my idea of a night out. Something that I dislike about Midwestern culture that is here in Alaska as well– all the guns. I will put that one aside on my cultural integration list- I do not need to shoot a gun to understand the people here. There are many other ways to connect with the locals besides holding violent weapons in my hand.

My teammates were talking about places in Barrow being haunted today. And Laura was just like, yeah, most places in Barrow could be considered haunted if you want to run with that train of thought. Someone has died in most houses here. There is a really high rate of suicide here. And lots of guns.

Not something I want to take lightly. I will never take guns lightly.

At the end of the day Laura grabbed a few of us girls, and drove us out to the beach on our side of town. Which was a little disconcerting for me, as I had assumed we were further inland, and further away from the beach than the boys.

Turns out not to be true, there is a beautiful Arctic beach just half mile, or mile behind our house.

As we’re leaving, I told Laura thanks for showing this beach to us, we’re definitely going to come back. And she said, yeah, that’s fine. You just know that if someone says there is a bear, you’ve got to run, right? You can’t just be like, “Oh, I don’t see it.” You need to get out of there. Immediately.

And I said, maybe we won’t go back to the beach.

She said we should just be aware. And it’s safe in town. And what are the probabilities of us seeing a polar bear? She doesn’t really know. You don’t see a bear until you do. There’s definitely a probability.

At the beach we’re hauling buckets of sand up the cliff and back to her truck. We’re mixing the soil bought on Amazon.com with the local Arctic beach soil to make the soil go further.

Back at her house, which is where the test garden is, her kids are yelling out the window at us. They are on the top floor, which means they are in the kitchen. Houses in Barrow are built upside down, with the bedrooms being on the bottom floor, and the kitchens and living rooms on the top floor. It has something to do with the light, and the way it shines in.

Cabin Fever

It’s happened.

And it happened on the most beautiful day we’ve experienced here so far.

Sunny and 48 degrees, the snow is melting, and the little delicate birds are hopping about on the water.

Brunch today was so good, and so filling. But I have this sense of difference between us and the native culture here. And I’m not sure how I feel about it.

I don’t want to be this touristy person who comes into town with a mission to snap pictures and take notes on traditional ways of life. But then again that is exactly part of what I want to do.

The other part of what I want to do is really connect with new people, though. And I sense this hesitation in the vast majority of the population here. I have met some really open people, but I would say that they are probably anomalies in the grand scheme of Barrow.

I love connecting with people instantly, but I feel that the culture here requires a much longer commitment to gain trust and respect. They have tourists, scientists, anthropologists waltzing in here from every corner of the globe every year, begging for insight into the culture. And I feel as if I am a sort of continuation of this. And I want to set my experience with the people here apart from that somehow.

I’m just not sure how, yet.

Which is probably what I’m beating myself up about today.

So now I’m just hiding in my room and trying to make sense of my life.

I think the team is feeling cabin fever a little bit too. There is absolutely nothing open on a Sunday here- the library and exactly all three restaurants that we can’t afford are closed.

I’ve made a makeshift desk on the floor of my room using a coffee table. I have tea and honey and the windows open and my world blanket spread out around me.

After brunch I took a nice two hour nap, awaking right before my alarm went off. I feel like Alaska and the constant daylight has made me more in tune with my internal clock somehow.

But then again not really. It’s eight thirty at night and I still feel like it’s the middle of the afternoon.

We all do.

The boys are over right now, and in our living room. I can hear laughing, but I just don’t really feel like going out there right now.

After my nap, I draped myself over the chair by the living room window facing the cemetery and read a book. Jess checked out some books by Simone de Beauvoir as well as her biography yesterday, and she tossed it to me.

I couldn’t get into it. I felt like I needed to write, or to be meeting people, or to be joining an intense yogic retreat.

But really, I just need to learn how to take time to relax.

My jog was great. I took the road down toward the main part of town, by the seaside. Terrified for my life a few times, I do not think I will be jogging on muddy streets again- ATVs and trucks driven by kids in the single digits seeming to zoom around every corner.

I followed the big gas line to town– raised high above the frozen ground they are a scenic fixture of the city, as well as the signs warning of buried gas lines in front yards, less than a foot below the tundra.

It took me about ten minutes to jog the length of the town, from by the airport where we live to the seaside where the library is. And then I went horizontal along the shoreline, and walked on the boardwalks created to help with the mud and melted ice pools throughout town.

And then I walked back through the center of town– on a dirt path through the middle of the various melting lagoons.

So much trash and pollution in the lagoons, the melted snow and ice forming lakes under houses with trash flowing under as well.

As I said yesterday, this is not your city. This is not your suburb. This is not even your rural town. This is something else entirely. Feel like I’m across the world.

The way I walked back from the lagoon, I had to walk past this big smoking factory that’s to the side of our house, on the face of the lagoon.

I have no idea what is going on in that factory, and I probably don’t want to know. The smell of the pollution filled my mouth as I walked past it, and lingered in my mouth for the next ten minutes or so.

I saw two delicate birds hopping around in the snow doing a mating dance by the factory. The birds here are so full of energy, and like little snow ballerinas. I checked to make sure they didn’t have three heads from the pollution. The birds checked out okay for the time being.

Back at the apartment I saw a pair of ducks waddling through the cemetery before I turned my back to the cloudless, sunny day and unlocked the door to our humid apartment complex.

And now I’m back here, like I said, sitting on the floor of my room with my new coffee table office.

And I’m going to go make coffee now.

Writing has helped with the cabin fever for the time being. It always seems to make the world a little bit bigger and more manageable when you write about it.

Still so thankful to be here, but just realizing the reality of the situation a little more today as I slowly get off the tourist bus and begin to live here.