Accidental Tourist

No warm feelings for Barrow, Alaska

Jessica Evans visits the northenmost settlement on the Americas - and vows never to return

08 October 2017 - 00:00 By Jessica Evans

Where were you when news of Michael Jackson's death hit television?
I was in an airport called Dead Horse airport in Barrow - the northernmost hole, I mean settlement, on the Americas.
My parents and I were sat on those dreadful cheese grater seats you find so commonly at airports.
An American family were gathered around the airport TV sobbing, "The brother has died, the brother has died."
After seeing the southernmost settlement on the Americas, Ushuaia, my parents, being the intrepid or perhaps OCD travellers they are, decided we needed to see the northernmost.
Ushuaia was perfectly charming. Stray dogs sniffed the streets happily and flower baskets hung from every awning. The people, after realising we were not British or Australian, took to us quite well, too. The meat was other-worldly.
Barrow was the opposite in more than just its location. It had an apocalyptic air about it. It was spring and the sea was frozen. Nobody and nothing roamed the streets - except us.
There was not much to do aside from visit the community centre and walk the town for a good five minutes - it was both too small and too cold to go any longer.In the course of the day, we visited the community centre, where we watched traditional dances and heard traditional songs, which all sounded very much alike to our untrained, South African ears.
Somewhere along the line, when we were admiring some baleen art in a museum, we were taken in by an elderly man who worked at the baleen "factory" there. He had a wiry beard and he reeked of cigarette smoke. He spoke in broken English and took a great liking to my mom for her fascination with the baleen, I hope.
Because of this liking, we got a fantastic behind-the-scenes tour of how they process baleen and make it usable for carvings and decorative objects.Every time I thought the tour was almost done, the poor man eagerly showed us something else, his smoky stench assaulting our olfactory systems all the while.
Aside from all this, the Barrow experience was uneventful. We were told we could do a "polar bear swim", in which we could skinny dip in the frigid ocean. We unanimously declined.Every person we met there, from the bolletjie lady to the baleen man and the traditional singers, carried a sense of insanity.
It would be no surprise to find that their abandoned and frozen-in-time whale town had let them decay to madness.
It was charming but not in the same way as Ushuaia. I would not go back, but I am glad we went.
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