Meeting Elaine then and now – a VIEW volunteer Antarctica

by ABCCmain on July 21, 2015

18 years on – and Lentil Apricot Soup

A brilliant part of this book project is meeting new people and reconnecting with those we met in Antarctica. What a wonderful surprise to hear from Elaine Mardirosian in Michigan, one of the 54 VIEW Foundation volunteers on the cleanup with us at Bellingshausen Station. Elaine sent us this message out of the blue before an event we had in New York last spring, launching delightful epistolary exchanges between us three:

“Greetings to you both Carol and Wendy–
I was part of the View Foundation’s Project Antarctica in January 1996.  I was absolutely thrilled to discover your publication and, this morning, the March 30 midwinter dinner in NYC.”

Elaine’s message started a flurry of correspondence – a special way to hear what the experience meant to her and for us to reminisce about the good times, the challenges and of course, the food. Elaine wrote, “Thank you so much for this opportunity to revisit an experience that was, in VERY positive way, life changing for me.  The timing of your book release in terms of returning to the Antarctic next January with my husband and now 31 year old daughter is awesome!” Wendy had met Elaine in Antarctica on the project but I didn’t met her as I’d already returned to the VIEW Foundation in Toronto by then. We’d never spoken before as Elaine booked the project through a third party.

Wendy soon shared a photo of a BBQ with the team she’d taken in 1996 asking Elaine, “that is you in green?”

Image: Wendy Trusler, 1996

“Dear Wendy, I still have the same sweater and coat!” Elaine replied.

Lemonade stand for Antarctic stewardship

Elaine sent another message with a photo: “my daughter and her friend’s lemonade stand photo – competes with some icebergs for my very favorite ever iceberg trip photo (s) – my daughter Lauren is the one on the right.  Lauren is who I am returning to the Antarctic with in January 2015.  She also snuck a very sweet and supportive note in my luggage in 1996 (we still send handwritten snail mail to each other now, 18 years later). Wendy, I could also send you some of the notes from my travel journal with all the comments about your wonderful cooking.”

image courtesy Elaine Mardirosian

We loved the photo and story we hadn’t heard before.

Elaine also shared some writing she did after her Antarctic trip and the cleanup project at Bellingshausen station. Here’s a couple excerpts

Then (1996)

“I left for Antarctica on January 19, and returned on February 5. I dreamed about a trip like this for several years, and actually planned this one for almost a year. Although I was physically removed from this continent and my family for just 18 days, I was pretty much out to lunch for several months prior to that! My law practice survived my absence fine, as did Mark and Lauren and Paul.

I know that Antarctica is probably the last place on earth that you would consider going. In fact, the most frequent question people asked me when hearing of my plans was, “Why?” And there were all the pat answers like, “Well, I’m looking for a new area of expansion for my law practice,” or, ” I hear real estate prices are really cheap down there,” or, the ever ubiquitous, “Because it’s there.” Lets get real here – I wanted an adventure with a twist. The idea of assisting in scientific research in a remote station … and the idea of environmental clean up at the Russian Research Base Bellingshausen, identified by Greenpeace as being the most neglected and trashed sites on the entire Antarctic continent also appealed to my ‘do gooder’ instincts. I was a bit nervous about some of the details – like traveling alone, the fear I have of airplane travel, not speaking Spanish or Russian, what roommate would be assigned to me, concerns about sea sickness, etc. 

Antarctica was an adventure with a twist plus more. It took five lights and 48 hours just to get to Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world. By the time I reached there, my nervousness about airplane travel had pretty much dissipated, as had my concern about traveling alone. From Ushuaia, I got on a Russian ice hardened freighter with 38 other passengers and the Russian crew. I discovered that numerous other passengers were traveling without companions, and that pretty much everyone was full of an adventuresome spirit and very friendly. Since I share my Mom’s gift of being able to hold down a conversation even with a rock, loneliness was definitely not a problem.

The age of my ship mates ranged from a fortunate 16 year old girl traveling with her father, to an 82 year old woman traveling with her daughter. I spent a lot of time with a spunky 33 year old international hotel representative from San Francisco who was traveling to her 7th continent, a 42 year old chemical engineer working in pharmaceutics in Philadelphia traveling with her 70 year old father, and a 32 year old mother of two year old twins from Toronto who works for the expedition company I booked with and was sent by her employer for a hands on training experience. There was always someone to climb up a glacier with me, take a photo with me in it, take a hike to any given destination, share a bottle or Argentinean wine or the luscious Chilean Pisco Sour cocktail with, or just watch the wonders of the icebergs, endless ocean, whales, seals and penguins with.

Elaine recounted a few exciting events including the ship’s ballast tasks were damaged when it ran aground on an uncharted rock and an expedition leader was accidentally thrown off his zodiac and drawn under the vessel (but was ok and pulled out of the cold water quickly)

The cold (around 10 degrees), blustery and blizzard conditions which had developed so quickly before our arrival at the Russian Research Station Bellingshausen lasted for almost 48 hours. The station was bleak and depressing as it was, and the severity of the wind and weather reminded us that this was not Disneyland! Even walking from building to building – spaced approximately 25 meters from each other – was a chore. We spent most of our time and ate meals with the three staff members of the View Foundation, which was the sponsor of the environmental clean up effort. The cook was a dream – she baked magical flavours into her homemade breads, rolls, soups, etc. Reminded me of the main character in the novel Like Water For Chocolate, who was able to create emotions through her wonderful cooking. The one disappointing thing about this whole trip was that as a result of the lack of seasickness, and the delicious food everywhere, instead of coming home mean and lean, I came home mellow and 6 pounds heavier!”

“The base was so trashed that cleanup was overwhelming. We basically picked up and gathered debris. Construction materials, nails, broken glass, pieces of wood, discarded cloth, old equipment, etc. etc. The base was built in 1968, and has probably never been properly managed until the 1990s. However, the great food, the camaraderie between our group, the warmth of the Russian scientists in sharing their depressingly modest facilities with us and of course my eternal optimism and positivism kept our spirits up. We took a number of hikes together to a nearby Chinese base (called the Great Wall of China Base, where we were invited for tea), and to the totally modern and well equipped Chilean military base (where 19 children ‘winter over’ and go to school).”

Elaine’s memories also helped shed light on why she and some volunteers were disappointed with aspects of the work and had expectations we couldn’t meet, but none of us really knew where the miscommunication germinated – remember at this time there was no email and in Antarctica we had no phones or cellphones. Some in Elaine’s volunteer group had joined The VIEW Foundation project after another distinct program with a research component  was cancelled. It appears the travel agent made no clear separation from our project and the cancelled trip. We admire those who migrated to our program were troupers and made the most of it and did what was possible.

Wendy’s 1996 journal excepts at the time of Elaine’s visit:

January 29, 1996

Strangely calm. Barnyard smell from the Drake. News that the Multanovskiy bottomed out on a landing – wonder if that group of volunteers will come at all.

More jewellery-making with Sasha Diesel. Today he showed me the original mess and kitchen in the derelict buildings behind Diesel. Tinkering and a little sewing.

Must get to other projects: sketches, photographs, castings with penguin bones.

January 31, 1996

Absolutely outstanding day today. Sun and NO wind. Had our first barbeque at lunch on the barbie the guys made for me. Enjoyed this group of volunteers very much – the larger, the better. Made potato chips with all our different types of potatoes again. Kathy, the engineer, travelling with her dad joined me in the kitchen — helped select seasonings to dust each batch: cumin seed, cracked pepper and rosemary, cayenne and coarse sugar. Everyone else judged our experiments. Petrov late. A shame we just get comfortable with a group and they are gone. New group looks good. Note form Kevin that he couldn’t set sail without my bubble bath. But we re happy to have a tape deck now even if we have only five cassettes among us: Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco, Katherine Wheatley, The Waterboys, Everything But the Girl. The piped-in Radio Moscow option was wearing.

Camp 10 Debris Collection (Jan 27-31)

Bellingshausen Areas 5 and 6: 1 1/2 barrels mixed.

Now (2014 & 2015)

Dear Elaine,

I can’t believe you’re going back to Antarctica and this time with your husband and daughter! That’s incredible – something I’d love to do with family.  I hope you write about the return trip and tell us how it goes.

Thank you for sharing your ‘96 notes.  It’s so cool to read your observations before going and while in Antarctica. It was adventurous of you to go alone, pulled by Antarctic’s magnet. 100% agree what you say about Wendy’s food magic. I appreciate the detail of your fellow travelers, ages 16 to 82, the detail of Antarctic and the voyage itself, the high points and even the disappointments. Much of this I hope you also see expressed in our book. It’s great to hear you found the experience life-changing and positive. For me it was too and still brings new or deeper insight and experiences such as our New York kind-of-expedition and reconnection.

I find it fascinating, your perspective of then and now, those 18 days alone (yet not alone) as an adventurer, mother, professional, global citizen…

I’m relieved you are glad for the experience overall. I love how you note travel surprises, such as the ship hitting an uncharted rock, literally. Admittedly, we were improvising a lot regardless: this was uncharted.

For certain the cleanup part of the trip was disappointing at times and maybe overall was a constant question of utility or futility? Some of the technical challenges could have been prevented before the project, eg better cleaning equipment. Yet the philosophical and geopolitical questions were rich and unfolded along the way. I think Wendy and the VIEW team did brilliantly handling disappointment, expectations, changes and the volunteers such as you adapting gracefully and being so flexible (Wendy mentions a volunteer (unnamed) who wasn’t always so graceful but I can’t give it away!). There was a shared drive to be there and to contribute to Antarctica’s wellbeing. It was a leap of faith by the Russians, VIEW staff, and especially the volunteers such as you that made the project possible.

Antarctica is like the moon in many ways. Each of you on the project were astronauts. I’m humbled. The time capsule you collected is coming to light in waves like the ice cores from glaciers. We see the layers: now to make meaning.

I loved what you said about fellow travelers in 1996, discovering several travelling solo too and kindred spirits.

It’s special be in touch and to know we, Kathy [another VIEW volunteer Elaine keeps in touch with] and others shared something unique. It was (and perhaps still is) a wild and beautiful thing. Like Wendy, I too can’t wait for you to see the book.
Warmest regards, Carol

Dear Carol,

All I can say is WOW.  Thank you so much, Carol, for all that you wrote and shared.  Very interesting to hear ‘the rest of the story’ 18 years hence.  I hope my memory is of any help whatsoever to help unravel any mysteries.  What you and the rest of your team set out to achieve was complicated and phenomenal, and I deeply thank you all these years later for your efforts and what I view as your success. And, by the way, you are a fantastic writer!

I look forward to a continued exchange!

I will try to get to the dinner early to help out with any last minute things you need to accomplish (and/or buy you both a drink!).

With the warmest regards and excitement – Elaine

Wendy’s archive and Elaine’s recipe (Russian Armenian)

In her incomparable archive of treasures she brought home from Antarctica and collected thereafter, Wendy found a recipe Elaine gave her 18 years prior. She scanned and sent it, writing the following:

“Back to the food—look what I just found and scanned. really just moments ago. Some kind of Antarctic synchronicity going on.
Alas Elaine, your recipe never made it into the book as I restricted the ones I developed to those I made on site. I had plenty of dried apricots but no red lentils in my pantry!”

“Wendy, I’m beginning to think you need to open a museum!  I still make this recipe on a regular basis – absolutely delicious!” replied Elaine.

Unfortunately Elaine couldn’t make our NY Midwinter event due to the flu and we really missed having her! We still hope to meet and reunite.

Revisiting the story in book form, revisiting Antarctica: the circle of life

After receiving one of our limited edition books, Elaine said:

“Your book is simply a beauty – I was so excited when I received it and my heart was pounding as I opened it!  It brings back so many great memories.  Thanks for the sweet note too.  My husband will likely incorporate the mailing label in his art work.  I plan to connect with you both somehow sooner than later.  If a Detroit or Chicago book launching is in the works, let me know and I’ll help organize.”

Elaine returned to Antarctica recently with her daughter and husband. At the time she embarked on her Antarctic journey she had children, a busy law practice.  And now years later Wendy and I have families too and can imagine the effort and determination she’d have had to go o this project. We’re enthralled with this full circle and to know Elaine is the same intrepid spirit as she was two decades ago. Thank you Elaine.

Carol and Wendy –
I would like to communicate, especially after my return trip to the Antarctic with my husband and now 32 year old daughter (she fell in love with the ice!!) and literally walking past Bellingshausen base on the way to the ‘airport’ on St George Island (the beach was super clean!).

Elaine W Mardirosian courtesy of Elaine