May 2008


Like Yousef, I have had a love affair with the Utah desert. I’m jumping on the blog post wagon (even though I haven’t actually left yet for this year’s adventures) because Yousef’s last post totally struck a chord with me.

It has been just about five months since I was last in Utah. Canyon country is, for me, even more than a humbling, stunning wilderness. It’s Mars on Earth. I spent my winter break out there, living in a 24-foot-wide cylinder–half landing pod, half glorified tin can–as a crew member at the Mars Desert Research Station. read about it here | see photos here

Buzz Aldrin famously said about the moon: “Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation.”

Desolation. That’s what excites me. I’m interested in things that might be living in places we once thought inhabitable … including Mars. Astrobiologists study the prospects for and origins of life throughout the universe. Here on Earth, we study the life in extreme environments because those terrains are the most like extraterrestrial environments. By studying what thrives in very cold or very dry areas on Earth, we gain insight into what might be necessary for life elsewhere in the solar system, where it’s even more difficult (by our standards, anyway) to survive.

My interest in astrobiology (along with a desire to wear a spacesuit and cavort around the canyons on ATVs with other space geeks) is what brought me to the Mars Desert Research Station last December. In the next eight months, my passion for studying life at all ends of the Earth will take me on a series of adventures from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In store for me: drunken parties with NASA scientists, nearly two months without a sunset, penguins, glaciers, pirate ships, icebreaker ships, lots of Dramamine.

T-minus two and a half weeks.

Ready as hell and counting down,

Zena Cardman

* * *

Four experiences that inspire inordinate, nearly paralyzing empathy deep in my chest cavity:

1) A middle-aged man on a bicycle without breaks, who has to drag his shoes to stop at the bottom of a hill.

2) The lyrics of an ancient love song when performed in a soulless monotone by a child with a cup and a thousand-yard stare.

3) The unabashedly honest eyes of a smile from the teeth of socialized dental care.

4) Crutches and wheelchairs rigged from household objects for life-time use.

Out in the canyons we talked about two topics: poop and politics.

Before we left Salt Lake City, no one had dared to ask how exactly we would take care of our…er … bodily needs in the wilderness. As we sat in Quality Inn conference room, we talked about most of the other aspects of the trip: the technical challenges we’d encounter, what we needed to pack and our goals as a team. But somehow we failed to ask the most basic of questions: sans civilization how exactly does one take a dump?

Perhaps we were unwilling because long ago our toddler selves had learned to trust the toilet and had not considered the possibility that one day our ivory friend, along with all of his plumbing accoutrements, would desert us.

As we drove south from Salt Lake to Canyon Country, our radio listening options steadily narrowed until we were left with only two…country and Mormon religious broadcast. I think it was at that point we turned off the radio and decided we were willing to let go of some of the trappings of civilization ahead of schedule.

As the road narrowed and traffic thinned out, free range plains gave way to deeply carved canyons and desert scrub. It also started to rain. Rain in the desert? Yes.

We put up our tents and took refuge from the whipping winds in the van. We gobbeled up our final packed meal–a variety of Whole Foods pastas and rotisserie chicken—and bid farewell to processed foods and purified water. From then on, everything we ate we carried on our backs and whatever water we drank came from rain puddles.

The next morning we learned how to cook with our small, gas-fired stoves and were introduced to our rations, which were primarily grains, nuts and lots and lots of butter. For the rest of the trip we ate like I imagine farmers still do: taking in as much as we could to get us through the day. Lots of carbs, lots of fats and still never enough.

It was about this time, as our bowels stirred from two meals out in the wilderness, that we were introduced to the trowel, the small shovel we would use to dig the six-inch-deep holes into which we would deposit our deposits. Feet shifted nervously about and glances were placed downward. “Believe me,” Allison said, “it’s gonna be one of your favorite things to talk about. You’ll even grow to like smooth stones.”

And it was. Trowelling, along with the do-you-think-Barack-will-win-this-state-in-November game came to occupy most of our conversations. There was something liberating about it. More than the rappels, the pack passes and rock climbs there was something about trowelling that made our subconsciouses dance and let out our inner infants: “Anywhere? Anytime? Yipppee!!!”

It was one of the most basic freedoms but it was also one of the most satisfying, the one that reminded me that I could go anywhere and be myself in the wild. And the wild was as empty as it was beautiful. We didn’t see a soul that wasn’t part of our party for ten days. So when the wind whipped across the mesas or we screamed as we swam through the icy water of the narrows, we knew we were the only ones who heard a thing. It was just us out there. Just us.

I’ve been working for the past two weeks-and-change at La Fundacion Paraguaya, one of the oldest microfinance institutions in South America. That’s actually less intimidating than it sounds…

I work primarily with two gentlemen at La Fundacion. Rodrigo is rather serious and incredibly focused, and he is charmingly, perpetually, forever drinking matE. I have it on good authority (or more specifically, I heard once anecdotally from my former roomate, David) that apparently Voltaire drank 72 cups of coffee a day. well Voltaire ain’t got nothin on Rodrigo.

Roberto is also great, and characteristic in his own way. He has taken it upon himself to, every day, teach me something new to say to women in Guarani – the indigenous language – that I might one day fool somebody into thinking I am a local long enough to forget the area code on my cellphone when exchanging numbers.

Both are delightful, and very receptive to my new ideas, which is refreshing after any substantial amount of time spent in academia.

I’m not sure what makes me go through the same useless process every time – the inevitable sleepless night prior to an extended trip. The ritual shouldn’t be attributed to my procrastination habit; though I’m sure there are still innumerable things I must be forgetting. Neither can it be out of pure excitement – as I tend to let things hit me as they come in a calculated effort to never be overcome with some frenzied emotion, be it excitement or terror. My best guess is that the blame should be placed on a desire to squeeze every last moment out of home and its lulling comfort – in these last blessed hours, the Wizard of Oz phrase “there’s no place like home” tugs on a heart-string with a resolve that I rarely feel so acutely. But come on, I live for climbing out of the Bethesda bubble, and the Duke bubble, right?

Passport?

Check.

Underwear?

Check.

Some clear idea of what I’m getting into?

Nope.

But it’s more exciting that way. Lean into discomfort, as they say.

English is a language for talk of Business.
French is a language for talk of Love.
German is a language for talk of War.
Italian is a language for talk of Food.
Spanish is a language for talking to God.

asi lo que dicen…

Australia

I leave for Australia in 49 days, 22 hours and 21 minutes. Unil then, I’ll be completing work for my biomedical engineering class here at Duke. And I’ll also be doing paperwork, which right now is all that I have to document (no pun intended) my study abroad experience.

Since deciding to travel to Australia, I feel that I have signed my life away and filled out more informational forms than ever before in my life, except possibly when applying to college. Key word: possibly. Luckily, I’m positive this will all be worth it. Right now, the current obstacle is my Student Visa.

Let me introduce myself a bit: I am a rising Duke junior, majoring in biomedical engineering (hence my current summer endevor on Duke’s campus) and I love horseback-riding, running and writing for the Chronicle. My favorite hobby is photography, which I hope in include a lot on this blog. In Australia, I’ll be taking classes at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, touring the country and hopefully working a few days a week at the University.

Even now, as I spend time in Durham with friends and classmates, learning about bioelectricity and performing ECG’s on frogs, I look forward to 5 exciting and never-paralleled-in-my-life-thus-far months.

I’m counting down.

49 days, 21 hours and 15 minutes

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