Few people, when asked why they want to go to Antarctica, will cheerfully cry out, "To shop!" Yet shop they do once on the ice, almost as though the very dearth of shops makes them that much more essential.
We go places and buy things and advertise we've been -- my hometown of San Francisco is a great place for a mini study of this convention. Around the wharf or Ghirardelli, the legions of voyageurs wandering around in fleece jackets and caps that say, Molokai'i, Los Angeles, Yosemite, New York, Cabo San Lucas.
My husband took his children to Spain, to the Dali museum and the Costa Brava, and spent the next three months wearing a tee-shirt announcing this visit. That is to say, we may wind up wearing these destination threads much longer than we actually spend in the destination. And yet we laugh at our aging aunts who collect spoons and kitsch from their weekend drives. Why don't you ask me about where I've been?" seems to be the general message. But guess what? If the current trends in museum keeping continue, these very fleeces and hats will greet your grandchildren when they enter the museums of their times. They will seem quaint.
But let's get back to Antarctica, where all of this stands in brilliant relief against the towering blue ice and grey skies.
Gift shops in Antarctica take a couple forms -- I was in a British one on the Peninsula and they went for an "old timey" effect -- as though they had taken a page from Colonial Williamsburg. They had restored a mid-century hut and offered a variety of diaries, postcards, and notecards -- as well as magnets and key chains. The shopkeeper was a woman who worked as a doctor in the U.K. but came to Antarctica to be anything but a doctor.
At Scott Base, the New Zealand outpost in the Ross Dependency, the shop resembles something from a hotel lobby in New York, or Kansas City, or Des Moines. Pringles, watches, chocolate, fleece jackets celebrating the locals -- rather than I love New York! we see the ubiquitous penguin motif.
(As an aside, when I interviewed the buyer for these shops, he said if you embroidered penguins on pretty much anything, it could be sold.)
I wanted to know what their number-one bestseller was? The shopkeeper did not pause: Ladies' knickers -- panties -- with the words "Scott Base Antarctica" on the bum.
He showed me his inventory in the supply closet: Sure enough, panties piled high, melon, lime, black, purple. Next to them on the shelves, coffee table books about The Ice -- dazzling images of pancake ice floating on clear blue seas. I wanted to know how the books sold.
Poorly, he added. "You can get those anywhere. Now, the same is simply not true with these knickers..."
Causes Leslie Roberts Supports
Environmental causes of all stripes