“What brings the two of you to US?” asked the immigration officer at Seattle Airport.
It was the first step in a long series of steps we are to take.
“We are doing this little journey from the Arctic to Antarctic,” I replied.
“Ah! Like Michael Palin – Pole to Pole! You know him?”
“No, I don’t,” I admitted. “But… I would like to know him… is he related to Sarah Palin?!”
The immigration officer, who had thus far been officious and reserved, guffawed; his substantial frame created tremors within his glass enclosure. It was ice thawing – we are to see a lot of that in the days to come.
The officer, in good spirits now, pointed to Dr Jain standing beside me. “Is he related to you?”
“No. He is a friend and a doctor – a surgeon,” I said.
“So, you are carrying a surgeon with you!”
“Yes! Just in case I need a hip replacement during these four months of ceaseless traveling.”
More tremors of laughter.
“And what will you, an author, do for him?” the officer persisted.
“Umm…read him bedtime stories,” I said.
And so, amidst rounds of jovial laughter peppered with crumbs of travel-stained humor, we were admitted into the US of A.
The next step was the flight to Fairbanks, Alaska, the last frontier nestling in the south of the Arctic Ocean. Once there, we ran into an aged baggage handler, shouting out directions to passengers in heavily-accented English that could be only vaguely understood at the third attempt.
Taking control of our bags, he bellowed at the top of his voice: “Saare gadhey hain!” (“…a bunch of asses!”)
Instantly, we warmed up to a fellow Indian.
“Where are you guys from?” he wanted to know.
“Dr Jain is from Maharashtra and I am from Gurgaon, Delhi,” I answered.
“Gurgaon is not in Delhi. It is in Haryana. Devi Lal, Bhajan Lal, Aya Ram, Gaya Ram… All bunch of thieves!” he shouted, fisting the air.
And then, turning to Doc Jain, he asked: “How is your chief minister – Prithviraj Chauhan?”
“Good man! Good man!” replied Doc, nodding.
“So he is a small thief. There are small thieves and big thieves. But thieves they all are!” observed the sagacious man. “But I like the great economist prime minister. He may have ruined your economy and sunk the rupee to 69 for a dollar, but he has made me richer.”
Dismissing us, he bellowed: “Vote for Rahul Gandhi!”
“Ok. Will you vote for him too?”
“No, I am a BJP wallah!” he countered, with glee and a toothless smile.
An eerie silence prevailed in the large waiting hall of Alaska Airline as everybody sat absorbed in their smartphones, iPads and iPods – tech tyranny up to the very frontiers of human civilization!
Thirty-six sleep-deprived hours after leaving home, we reached Fairbanks, the gateway to the wilds of Alaska. As we waited for a taxi at 2 am, we scanned the clear sky for the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, that can be seen from Fairbanks eight days out of ten, between mid-August and early April on clear dark nights.
Our cottage on the bank of River Chenna had a fan and a window AC, and was equipped for all kinds of weather.
Later, we went to the University of Alaska to meet Dr Uma Bhatt, a climatologist of Indian origin, working at the International Arctic Research Centre. As we drove up the scenic campus, a squadron of foraging sandhill cranes on their way from northern Alaska to New Mexico, took to the air.
Though born and raised in the US, Dr Bhatt’s family was originally from Bhuj, Gujarat. Her father had come to North America in the 1950s as a Fulbright scholar, and stayed back. After studying engineering, Dr Bhatt worked as a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1985-87 drought in Kenya; that was when she developed an interest in climate change.
Specialising in sea-ice, she has been studying changes in the Arctic tundra over the last 20 years. She showed us satellite pictures clearly indicating that the Arctic is losing its ice cap faster than my head is losing its hair! The thawing permafrost releases large reservoirs of methane, speeding up global warming even further.
But Dr Bhatt is not a prophet of doom. “Good things may still happen,” she insists. A recent study by the Arctic Climate Research Centre, University of Alaska, entitled, ‘The First Decade of the New Century: A Cooling Trend for Most of Alaska’, carries a hopeful message. Nineteen of twenty national weather stations in Alaska reported a temperature fall of 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit during the first decade of the 21st century; a drop of 4.5 degrees F in Western Alaska.
I imagine it’s a good note on which to start our journey to the other end of the globe.
Tomorrow early morning we fly to Dead Horse Creek on the Arctic, and from there, we will roll all the way down to Cape Horn, 35,000 km away.
We will keep you posted on how it goes for us!
(Akhil Bakshi, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and vice-president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, is currently on a 35,000 km trans-America journey from Arctic to Antarctic. He wrote this account from Alaska, the first stop of his epic journey which began at Deadhorse Creek on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and will end at Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America).
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