Monday, March 20, 2017

Landed in the North

Up until the moment I got on the plane, it didn't feel real. I'd spent weeks packing, weeks saying goodbyes and transferring accounts and preparing for the journey, weeks telling people I was moving and then watching their mouths drop when they learned where. But somehow it was still an abstraction even that morning.

And then I was airborne. And then I was here. Three weeks on, the fact of here is still vaguely surprising, but what's more surprising is how quickly "here" has become the same as any other place; just a place. Only this afternoon I caught myself remarking on "what a nice day" it was because the sun was out and the temperature had gotten all the way up to 13 degrees. Wherever you are you fall into a crowd and into a routine. And then very quickly abnormal becomes normal.

That was not, of course, the way I saw things when in the early-morning hours of March 2 I arrived in Iceport, a surreal city perched on a frozen harbor and surrounded for hundreds of miles by wilderness. The nighttime flight out of Coffee City, on the West Coast, was four hours over unbroken darkness. In that black ocean, Iceport glowed like a constellation set in deep space.

My two days in this metropolis, which is far and away Arctic State's largest, were spent gathering critical winter-gear items and enjoying my last taste of urban amenities before I departed for a place with no such things. No Starbucks. No Dunkin Donuts. No fast food or streaming Netflix. No roads.

This transition, though dramatic, was done in gradations: from Iceport to Riverville, a regional center of about 6,000 people; then from Riverville to White Venice, the little village of 400 souls where for the past two weeks I have been working and acclimating.

Acclimating to a lot, by the way. It's hard to explain how different it is here, if only because the differences are so many, both in kind and in quality. There are no grocery stores or pharmacies, which means residents make ample use of online retailers and the bush-delivery services in Riverville. Calling up a supermarket 100 miles away and asking them to deliver your loaf of bread by Cessna is completely normal here. They even have an 800 number for it.

All of the food is frozen. All of the supplies are ordered in bulk. Creative solutions to culinary problems abound, and one's capacity to be delighted by small things greatly expands; within about a week, I had come to appreciate the palette-pleasing nuance of powdered milk and freeze-dried strawberries.

All of this is to say nothing, of course, of the cultural differences I have encountered in this Native community where English is a second tongue, hunting remains the primary means of livelihood, and the only white people are those working for the school system. Differing perspectives on life skills have presented a challenge, as have the lingering effects of what amounts to a colonial presence; issues with poverty and alcohol abuse pack a big punch here, as they do in Native American communities across the United States. A very high number of these children come to school with worldviews shaped by addiction and violence, by the existential crisis of trying to honor an old culture for the sake of tradition while needing to embrace a new one for the sake of survival. That's hard.

All of it has been made a lot less hard, however, by the other teachers, who in an isolated environment have pulled together to create an exceptionally warm community.

I met Auburn-Haired Girl, a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher, when both of us were stuck two nights in Riverville because poor weather delayed our flight into White Venice. We took advantage of the occasion to get drunk together in a surprisingly well apportioned hotel room, then just continued spending time with one another after we made it to White Venice on March 5. I've passed several evenings in her house, petting her dogs and making halfhearted attempts at cooking as Sunrise, a 50-year-old elementary teacher, prepares one warm meal after another in the cozy kitchen she and Auburn-Haired Girl share. Yesterday, Sunrise taught me how to make stew.

Have there been hard moments? You bet. Lugging my things to the school to shower each morning has not been fun (there's no running water in my house), and cultural differences have caused some frustration. I still wrestle with my fears, and on one difficult afternoon I called home crying. Some of that is unavoidable. Overall, though?

I'm doing pretty well. I'm figuring stuff out. And I'm finding that I'm actually equipped to do that.

I worry every single day about my future. Whether I'm being effective at reaching these kids. Whether I can satisfy the needs of my school district. Whether I'll ever meet a man while I'm living in a village on the edge of the Arctic. How I overcome my insecurities if I'm lucky enough to find him. And what does a date look like when the nearest restaurant is reachable only by airplane? I still don't know.

But the view from my kitchen window is stunning.

An open white vista across a mile-long river that's frozen solid, over the frosty face of the tundra and on to the low mountains forty miles away. In the afternoons after I've finished up at work, I cradle a coffee and sit by that window, letting the pale winter sun bathe my face in heat through the pane.

Just then, it feels like everything is going to be okay.


naturgesetz said...

Wow! That must be quite the culture shock. It's interesting: what you say about adapting, and finding powdered milk and frozen strawberries enjoyable. For some reason, I'm reminded about what my brother said about one of his colleagues: "He could be happy in a Siberian labor camp." It's people like you, who can accept what they have (as long as survival is possible) who can tolerate being in places like White Venice. Those who "need" the amenities of contemporary urban life will bail out of places like White Venice at the earliest opportunities. Being able to be content without those amenities is, I think, what Jesus calls being poor in spirit.

I suppose things are expensive, given that they have to be flown in. But I suppose your pay reflects the cost of living.

How many students do you have in your class?

Bijoux said...

It sounds like you are doing remarkably well! I'm especially happy to hear that you've made a few new friends.

Mary Kirkland said...

Wow, that sounds like quite the change. Loved the pictures though. It sure looks like an interesting place.

sage said...

You are on an adventure. Congratulations and I wish you well (and am a little envious).

I'm going to play matchmaker and suggest that you must check out this blog: The author's father took a teaching job in Northern Ontario in the early 1960s and she spent part of her childhood up there (where her siblings were the only non-native children). She's been writing about the experience as she works through her father's letters. The two of you might have a lot in common and a lot of contrast as life in the north has changed in the past 50 years.

nick said...

That sounds like quite a transition and quite a culture shock. But where exactly are Iceport, Riverville and White Venice? I can't find them on any maps of the Arctic Circle. Somewhere off Canada maybe?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fascinating if challenging experience. Best of luck to you on this adventure!

Pixel Peeper said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting, allowing me to find your fascinating blog. I'll have to check it out some more...only read this post so far. I, too, am wondering exactly where the towns are that you mentioned (I'm big on looking things up on maps). And for how long will you teach there?

Arizaphale said...

Ahhhhhh! Catching up! This post brought back so many memories for me. My first year in the bush I was the ONLY teacher at my school of 25 kids! THAT was a hard year. I'm sorry to hear you have no running water though....that would seem a little inadequate if they're expecting people to stay.....