Christmas on Mars

WRITING THIS FROM my room with a beautiful view of Planet Earth in the distance is a numbly surreal experience. I think that goes without saying, but after having spent the last hour and a half in the hotel bar explaining to a couple from Neptune what tax is over a few cocktails, I suppose seeing my home planet all alone in the blackness is quite sedate in comparison. The prospect of spending Christmas on Mars never would have crossed my mind in my early years back in the dark ages of the ‘90s, and even when I booked my flights I didn’t know what to expect. Apprehensive? Yes. I think my apprehensions about spending the festive period on Mars were justified, though: a long flight from home, surrounded by odd-looking people who speak a language I’ve never heard of, and yes – a very long flight from home. But my fears were allayed somewhat by the travel agent at Thomas Cook, who was promoting Mars as the place to spend Christmas these days. ‘Better than Bali,’ she claimed. Several thousand pounds later, I found myself strapped inside rocket on the east coast of Florida, bound for somewhere that I could find no guide book on. My apprehensions were very much justified, thank you.

It was my first Christmas spent away from the UK – and indeed, the first away from Earth – but landing on the Red Planet went more smoothly than I expected. Not in the literal sense (because it was bumpy and very dusty), but immigration on the whole seemed to be far more efficient than its terrestrial counterpart. They don’t have the same stringent rules and regulations on bringing things in from Earth; in fact, a Martian told me that they quite like seeing what Earthlings have brought to their realms, and have been known to seize hairdryers and Dr Pepper for their own analysis. Fortunately my luggage remained intact, and I was rather impressed with their border control, even though a lot of Martians working there were on strike. It was surprisingly well-run, which makes it better than any Italian airport I’ve flown into, and I was soon on my way to the resort.

The Grand Hotel PLT990E is on the outskirts of the Martian North Pole, and so enjoys the magnificent views of the icy landscape on one side, and the swathes of red rock on the other.  If you’ve ever stayed at that Icehotel in Sweden, or you are an Eskimo, then you’ll have a good idea of what this hotel looks like – ice and snow are everywhere. There’s also the nice touch of a giant steaming crater in the middle of the grand dining room, which was apparently “completely safe”, so long as I didn’t fall into it, inhale too much of the steam, and get the hell out of the building if an alarm sounded.

One of the dining rooms at the hotel. The blankets are made from a species of reindeer native to the Asteroid belt. (Image from incredibleengineering.com)

The rooms are very nicely decked out with deep red soft furnishings and candles, minibars (essentially holes in the snow) and handcrafted furniture imported from Venus; I’m told Venusian wardrobes are the best in the galaxy. After admiring the great big ice carving they have in the hotel lobby, and sampling a much-too-acidic-for-a-human-palate ‘Cosmospolitan’ (the house cocktail), I decided to go out and get a feel for the area. Not that there was much a feel to get on Mars: there isn’t a huge amount to do around here unless you like roaming deserted alien landscapes, but the goggle-eyed barman at the hotel suggested I take to the slopes.

I have since concluded that skiing on Mars is probably just as good as skiing in The Maldives. It’s hugely popular here for some reason, even though the Martian way of skiing is a little less organised than the Swiss way. Skis and ski poles are non-existent here: you’re expected to just make do with what you can find drifting around the planet’s magnetic field, which, for me consisted of a couple of broken satellite dishes and a curtain rail. They haven’t yet coined the notion of a ski lift either, and so I had no choice but to copy the other skiers and climb my way back to the top of the slope. Needless to say I only had a couple of runs. The worst part still was that the concept of après ski is alien to Martians (excuse the pun), and I received a number of strange looks from the twenty-six-eyed (and needs-to-be-fired-soon) ski instructor when I asked where I could get some Glühwein.

Back in the hotel bar (which has meteor-fast Wi-Fi), I got chatting to a couple from Wisconsin who’d been coming to Mars since 1998. He recommended off-roading across the Martian craters, and so I booked myself on the tour for the next day. Our driver T0-839M6, whom I simply nicknamed Tom, was ever so keen to show us “all the sights that Mars has to offer” in his Marcedes-Benz 4×4 that I couldn’t help but get excited. Though I warn you: Martian standards of ‘sights’ differ greatly from ours, however.

A snap I took out in the 4x4: Imagine this for three hours. If you look closely you can see a Japanese couple out on a walk. (Image from  http://apilgriminnarnia.files.wordpress.com)

A snap I took out in the 4×4: imagine this for three hours. If you look closely you can see a Japanese couple out on a walk. (apilgriminnarnia.wordpress.com)

To me, the landscape that I was being driven very badly across – or rather, thrown around the back seats across – was impressive for all of five minutes, at which point you realise that there really is nothing else to this planet but miles and miles of orangey-brown rock and the occasional crater, which, despite what Tom said, looked just as crater-like as the last one. On the drive back to the hotel, I suddenly had the irrepressible urge to watch every David Attenborough documentary ever made.

Back to the hotel bar again. I was enjoying what had become my holiday tipple, a Mercurita, when I overheard the barman speaking Portuguese to a couple across the bar. ‘Do you speak Portuguese, too?’ I asked him. He told me ‘yes’ in English, and then began serving a man from Pluto, blabbering away in Plutonian. Once the man from Pluto had been given his quite foul-looking drink, the barman explained that Martians, unlike “simpler Earthlings”, are born with the innate ability to speak every language in the Milky Way, a trait known as Milkylingualism. Now I certainly felt like a “simple Earthling”. On that note, however, he soon made a great big announcement in at least fourteen languages to everybody in the bar that the sun was about to set. For some reason I had missed the grand event that was watching a Martian sunset until then, but joined the crowd that had gathered out back. Martian skies are permanently varying shades of pink, which constantly deceives the naive Earthling into thinking it’s a lot later (or earlier) than it really is, and it soon emerged that a Martian sunset is nothing out of the ordinary. It is just a very slow and unremarkable change from rose to magenta-coloured sky, which, even if it was as awe-inspiring as the Northern Lights, can’t be seen properly because of the low sun lighting up all the dust particles in the air. Nevertheless it seems to be quite an event in the day of a Martian. I returned to the bar, which had become my failsafe haunt, considerably less impressed than the frenzied tourists around me, and nearly cried into another Mercurita.

I’m quite looking forward to returning home. I believe Christmas is well over and that it’s July or August on Earth even though it’s still December here. Mars is a funny place – a bit like Whistler in the middle of the Sahara, but without the good facilities or camels. I was flicking through a holiday brochure for Venus in the hotel shop yesterday, and that planet looks infinitely better: flaming hot summers, beautiful women, a little bit closer than Mars. I also got talking to a princess from some galaxy far, far away who said that Venus will be the place to go for Earthlings come 2022. So perhaps I’ll start persuading Mr Branson to begin holidays there within the next decade or so. Then again, I should know not to listen to extraterrestrials after this holiday. I definitely won’t listen to travel agents anymore either and will be sticking to the South of France next time, at least.

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