McMurdo: the weirdest place in America

Do you ever wish that everything was free? Free food, free electricity, free clothes, free rent?

When you just give McMurdo a glance, that what it looks like. Our lifestyles down here are paid for by the American tax payers — and we do pay taxes on our wages — but all our day-to-day needs are met without out-of-pocket expenses. Also, there’s no commuting here. Everyone walks the few hundred yards from their dorm to the food to their work (which I LOVE).

It’s a socialist version of America. It’s like former-Communist Yugoslavia on ice. But really small. Maybe that’s why it works?

Also, the community down here is different than any other small town I’ve ever lived in because we rely on each other for services and company, but we also have access to each other in a way that creates new social parameters.

For example, the food. I, and my fellow stewards, are not paid by those we serve. We have no financial incentive to provide customer service, clean plates or paper towels in the bathrooms. In normal America, the quality of service can be directly related to a paycheck. If you provide exceptional service, you get a big tip. If you do not fulfill the expectations of your job, you get fewer shifts.

But down here, I am not paid by those I serve. I am paid by some government contractor that exists far, far away. If I do not perform the duties expected of me — because, for example, I’m overworked and tired — they can’t take shifts away from me. That would reward the behavior they don’t want. Taking shifts away would still mean that I get free food and free rent and free electricity. Sure, they could send me home, but that would still cost them thousands of dollars.

Now look at medical services. In the U.S., doctors, prescriptions and hospitals are all available, but they exist in a certain context. In order to access them, you must go to a particular place at a particular time and, usually, pay a particular fee.

Also, medical providers have a certain anonymity. If you sat next to a doctor at the movies or passed one in the grocery store, unless they were YOUR doctor, you probably wouldn’t recognize them. From my experience, they don’t walk around with name tags that say “I’m a doctor.” And even if you did recognize them, the public bathroom at a restaurant isn’t the place where they would be willing to treat you.

But at McMurdo, most people know who the medical providers are. (They also know who the U.S. Marshal is and who the janitors are.) Everyone has access to them for free. Because of that access — where there are no boundaries for when and where you can get medical care — the providers here are asked medical questions everywhere. The bathroom, the dining hall, the fitness room and the provider’s own bedrooms. It’s not seen as weird. They’re just around, and when you see them, you ask. Or you know which room is theirs, so you knock and see if they’re home.

It is unlike anywhere else in America. (That’s a generalization, but it’s certainly unlike anywhere else I have ever lived in America.) I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Most aspects of it are very cool. Some aspects certainly take an adjustment. (Like the twinges of jealousy I feel when people come up to my husband for medical advice with the same casualness and familiarity as a family member would. I didn’t recognize those feelings as jealousy, as they were minor, but I think that’s what they were. But now, it makes me really proud that they all like, trust and respect him enough to feel comfortable asking — even if it’s during dinner.)

As far as I can see, the incentive to performing your duties here is the community; the weird, wonderful community. If we all follow the general rule of “don’t be a dick,” then we’ll all get along. You do your work. I’ll do mine. And we’ll both get paid by some bureaucrat’s bank account on the other side of the world.

Is this America? Or is this just what America is like when it's abroad on a continent owned and governed by none (technically, per the Antarctic treaty)?
Is this America? Or is this just what America is like when it’s abroad on a continent owned and governed by none (technically, per the Antarctic treaty)?