Monday, February 9, 2009

Alaska Has the Greatest Number of People Walking To Work

"When we hunted by kayaks we went in pairs, two boats together, but many boats going out. Sometimes we would catch five seals, put them in the kayaks and paddle back to camp with the kayak very low. Water almost over the deck. Slow paddling! After seal hunting and the drying of the herring, in the middle of the summer, we'd move back to the village. And then, get wood, driftwood for heat. All the time coming and going. I could paddle for many hours and not even get tired."
---Dick Lawrence, Toksook Bay elder, excerpt Always Getting Ready

My first weekend in Bethel was relaxing. The temperature dropped back down to it's normal twenty below-zero, calming the land like a giant atmospheric blanket. The one exception to this seemed to be my roommate, Erik, who was busy triple-checking his luggage. He would leave that afternoon.
Though the temperature might have dipped into it's normal range, the wind had picked up, sending great swirls of snow into the air, bending the shrubs outside and testing the aeronautical ability of the raven, a life form that seems to be able to subsist anywhere--the arctic tundra no exception. Erik looked nervously out the window, no doubt wondering whether or not an airplane could take off in the weather. I suggested the impossible notion our weather was due to Mt. Redoubts eruption, making him cringe. He had been keeping himself updated on the volcano's status for some time, but it had remained the same: possible eruption, time frame unknown, severity unknown. As the morning progressed he became more anxious. When one o'clock came, he had his bags ready to go, wheeling them out the door at almost the same instant I opened it for Mandy, who was taking him to the airport. He shook my hand, and with that, he left Bethel.
Or not quite. For apparently, when he arrived at the airport, the visibility was too bad for a Alaska-inexperienced pilot to try to land. The plane had turned around before it had arrived. He spent some time exploring his options instead of simply waiting for the next flight, even inquiring the possibility of chartering his own. Mandy had left the airport after waiting for him for some time. Erik never returned to the shack we had shared for the week. And so, based on that evidence, he eventually made his way out of Bethel, AK.
I spent the morning cleaning up the small house. Due to it's frequency of temporary tenants, very little had ever been done to ensure a hygienic environment. The material I removed from the bathroom could have made a biohazardous waste employee stagger in shock. After I had upgraded the building's status from "Fallout Zone: Do Not Enter" to "Rehabilitation Area: Proceed With Caution," I set about doing some projects for the day until the evening.
That evening I had planned to go with Beth and Alexis, both pharmacists, to see the Bethel Actor's Guild presentation of The Wizard of Oz, in which Mandy was assigned to be the accompanist and projected several of my other fellow health care workers in various roles in the story. For the $20 admission price, you might expect ushers, stadium seating, and the like, but the performance was held in the Cultural Center, on a staged pieced together with angled platforms and boasting padded folding chairs for the audience. Though by itself it wasn't a fantastic performance, there were a few excellent actors tossed in the mix, the largest value of it being the ability to see one of the recreational options available to the people who lived here. In the end, Toto growled at everyone, the wicked witch had a perfect laugh, and Dorothy delivered all her "oh!"s and "oh my!"s to a T, and was worth the $20.
That evening I made my way to another shack on "prison row" to hang out with some of the other health workers, listened to stories, and learned some interesting things about the town. The next day, I decided to walk into town and buy some more paper towels (I had ran out relatively early in the sanitation work the day before) and a few other necessities. I made my way down and passed raised building after raised building. Upon reaching my destination, I found several chunks of ice frozen to my eyelashes, eyebrows, and unshaven face, despite much of it being covered up.
video
Travel is an important part of life for the people here. Whether or not one lives in an outlying village or not, long distances are traveled both on foot and by vehicle. People so elderly most Americans would be surprised to see them standing are frequently walking miles to do basic tasks. It is a hunting/gathering/nomadic culture, and no one seems to complain. I do think, however, that the majority of people would never expect the kinds of conditions that exist here to be present in the US, much less North America. I found this to be highlighted, to my surprise, on CNN today: http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/02/09/rural.alaska.villages/index.html
It is, without a doubt, a completely different culture, and a valuable one to see. Greg, a pharmacist, stopped by not long ago and delivered the news I'd be traveling to one of the villages on Wednesday to investigate the mysterious disappearance of narcotics from a clinic there. We'll see what happens.

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