I stood on the floor scale at home in no more than a tank top and boy shorts holding my black OGIO suitcase, sucking in my breath as I peered over the top of the bag at the bouncing needle between my feet. It would be close. I was 49 pounds over my own weight, and 50 is my limit.
I had carefully planned the clothes I would need for a month and went over the list of last-minute requested items from my longtime boyfriend who was waiting for me in Russia: a few bottles of our friend’s tequila for a shashlik (a Russian BBQ), sweatpants and no-tie shoelaces. It’s hard to tie your shoes in space.
Scott had left our home two weeks prior for what would be more than a year before he returned. He was leaving the planet on an unprecedented space mission – the longest spaceflight for an American – a stepping stone on the journey to send humans farther into space, maybe to Mars one day. This spaceflight was his fourth, my second to experience from a personal perspective.
I’ve witnessed nearly 20 years of space missions over the course of my career as a NASA public affairs officer. No matter how many rocket launches you’ve seen, none will prepare you for the one on which your life partner will leave you and the planet.
I had visited Russia five times before this trip, and each trip was in conjunction with his flying in space.
I made my first long-duration flight to Russia in early 2010 during a rest week in the middle of Scott’s training schedule. He had given me some advice before this trip knowing I really had not been anywhere, considering my limited travel experience and the size of our world. He’d seen the world on which we live three times already from the unique vantage point of space flying 250 statute miles above Earth, so he has a better perspective on its expanse than most people.
“12 hours is a long time to be on an airplane. Don’t think about when you will get to your destination. Just tell yourself, ‘this is how I’ll spend my day.'”
Without thinking about when I would get there, I arrived at the Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow. The only hours I counted were the two I waited in line to get through customs. I would learn later lines aren’t observed in Russia.
Scott met me just outside baggage claim smiling and holding a single rose. He isn’t particularly showy with his emotions, so I knew this gesture meant something in spite of us despite not verbally expressing the growing deep feelings we had for one another yet.
“Here, this is for you,” he said, handing me the rose and taking my luggage.
He went on to explain it’s bad luck to give someone an even number of flowers in Russia. Also, an uneven number like a single flower was a symbol of a happy occasion.
And that would be my first lesson of travel: know the rules of the road.
Immerse yourself. History, culture, food, textiles, religion, language. A deep dive really is the only way to experience travel. Also embrace the unconventional.
Tourism like Russia is strong in traditions. Visiting iconic tourist attractions is as customary to travelers as receiving an 11-flower bouquet at a celebratory event in Russia.
As traditions go, now on my fifth trip, we would once again visit Red Square and the walled enclosure of the nation’s top governmental offices, a few cathedrals and notable museums of the Kremlin. Roughly three weeks out from launch, Scott, his crewmembers and backup crewmembers will lay flowers at the sites where Russian space icons are interred.
It’s another tradition.
Scott’s rest week generally begins following the Red Square ceremony. This would be our week to enjoy some together time before our pending year-long separation. Soon we would be separated by glass and, eventually, by Earth’s atmosphere.
On past trips, we shared ice cream bought at the GUM, a shopping mall within Red Square that was known as the State Department Store during the Soviet times. We were dazzled with royal treasures, including a 190-carat diamond given to Catherine the Great on a tour of the Armoury. We observed Lenin’s embalmed body inside the mausoleum that was built after his death in 1924.
We posed for photographs in front of St. Basil Cathedral’s brightly colored Willy Wonka lollipop-like onion domes that were ordered for construction by Ivan the Terrible, said to be designed to resemble a bonfire aflame.
With visits to Gorky Park, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Arbat Street, a plethora of museums like the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, the Great Patriotic War, the Pushkin Museum, and the Bolshoi theater, we had covered the top googled sites-to-visit in Moscow.
My brother would be visiting Moscow the next week as Scott departed for Baikonur, his last stop before his departure from the planet. Since it would be my brother’s first trip to Moscow, we decided not to revisit or spend too much time at the traditional tourist attractions. My brother and I would hoof around to these sites the following week.
The third lesson of travel is to embrace the unconventional.
So in lieu of staying at the NASA-contracted Volga hotel, we stayed at the five-star Savoy and began a few new adventures before our biggest adventure yet.
Some non-traditional tourist things to do that now have become a tradition for us include cocktails at the Ritz Carlton’s rooftop bar overlooking Red Square that offers a scenic view of the city, stretching far enough to see several of the Seven Sisters, a group of seven Stalinist-style skyscrapers.
You also can see the Seven Sisters on a tour of the Moscow River. As I floated along the river on a previous trip, I had nicknamed five of the Seven Sisters after my five sisters based on architectural traits that reminded me of the different personalities of my siblings back at home. There is the “Esther,” the bold and strong-like-bull sister. Also the “Kyrstin,” with its yellow cast reminiscent of my youngest sister’s favorite childhood color and her sunny disposition.
Another cherished activity is to spend some time at a Russian banya or bathhouse. We sat in a steamy sauna to open our pores and release any lurking toxins, wearing bell-shaped wool hats that served as insulators. When we could no longer stand the heat, we plunged into an ice bath to invigorate our spirits. Scott plunged; I slowly sank in inches at a time, nearly losing my breath at each inch of submersion.
One time the temperature controls of the ice bath were inoperable, so we ran outside in our bathing suits and stood with bare feet in the snow until the cold was then no longer bearable.
Repeat. And repeat again.
Between sessions of hot-to-cold, we then got an unexpected treatment and were whipped with dried birch branches soaked in the scent of eucalyptus. This treatment is said to dilate capillaries and increase your metabolism. I’m uncertain whether the health merit claims of a banya are legitimate, but I know I felt amazing afterward.
Our most unconventional experience, however, was dinner.
We knew once we arrived in Baikonur, our food choices would be limited to Russian delicacies of a variety of meats, potatoes and slaw salads – all prepared with heaps of dill.
We learned of a unique Indian restaurant during an outing with friends one evening, so we opted for it and made our reservations.
Tightly tucked away in Moscow was this tiny organic vegetarian Indian dining nook. After navigating a dark alley off a dim sparsely populated street, we came to a single-room establishment I liken to a gnome’s bungalow carved from a tree stump.
Walking sideways, we crossed through the threshold thru the half-slip doorway, doffed our shoes at the top of the steep, two-step staircase and sunk into our table for four. It was the only four-top. The other two tables may have been a mixed-and-matched set of low-resting bedside tables for two. The last patron couple took a seat on the floor in the corner with the shoes at the entryway.
About two feet from our table a three-staff crew stirred a kaleidoscope of iron and copper pots on hot plates with powerful hints of ginger root, cardamoms, cumin, and mint wafting through the kitchen’s visible vapors.
A full-course meal that began with a gargle-cup-sized masala chai – a spiced milk tea laced heavily with cloves and cinnamon buds – ensued.
There was coconut milk and basil soup according to the bumps on my tongue, flaky phyllo puffs filled with a meatless savory middle and chutneys for dipping: a red and a green. Warm unleavened flatbread common on tables in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Red rice, lentils and kaddu (Hindi for pumpkin). It ended with something of a lightly charred pancake of pure caramelized sugar and a shot of hot mint tea.
I highly recommend the Moscow Delhi if you’re ever in Moscow. Must be adventurous, and we suggest booking reservations as there is room for about 8, or 10 if you count the floor in the corner at the top of the steps with the shoes.
The week was short but filled with new adventures and new memories. It was soon time to make the trek back to Star City where I would begin a series of goodbyes to Scott leading to our final farewell on Earth.
Lying in bed as we reminisced about our time together in Russia, we talked about what we faced.
Before we drifted into slumber, I reminded Scott of his own advice to me:
“A year is a long time. Don’t think about when you will reach the end. Just tell yourself, ‘this is how I will spend my year.'”