I knew this one would be one I’d remember for a lifetime. It’s a strange feeling.
Because sometimes big things happen and we have no idea or find out how important they were later. But to know that one of the most memorable and perhaps influential things in your life is happening. I have to choose a good theme song for this one. Yes, all memories have theme songs in my book. That’s what I was thinking about on the bus ride on 20th November 2022. After much joyous introduction and networking with everyone, we passed ample supplies of red scotch tape around while going over the Astrotour rules. The sun was slowly setting by now, and I remember spotting the Umbra between the mountains. It reminded me of another long ride out of town with my favorite Starmus people. Michael Bakich, former senior editor at Astronomy Magizine, among them, told me about it the first time. I should have remembered it from high school, but it’s actually embarrassing that I just brushed it off as pollution for the longest time. I’ll just blame it on growing up in Tehran with it’s everlasting metropolitan air pollution for dulling my sharpness in Umbra detection, yes. We started a little Astronomy trivia with the SpaceShop42 guys. I surprised myself by answering 88% of the questions that were translated for me. That 12% were about how the American astronauts were surprised by “Vodka” being written on a pack of borsch handed to them by the Russian cosmonauts. And more borsch related questions! Russian cosmonauts love themselves some borsch. By the night it was dark and we were well on our way into the mountains, I had forgotten about the music just like you probably have right now. I scrambled to find my playlist and start playing it. I should have played it at the right moment. Because as we were climbing the particularly crumpled bumpy narrow road with our car, whose driver insisted on revving each U turn, I asked myself a funny question. Can I actually die here? There is a possibility. Well, I should focus on the music to distract myself. Right in that moment the second song from the playlist, Fourth of July, by Sufjan Stevens was playing. Through some twisted sense of humor, the universe had, he sang: Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn? Or the Fourth of July? We’re all gonna die. Thanks Sufjan. I spent the next 20 minutes or so in adrenaline overdrive. We were already so far from the village I could make out individual bright stars from behind my foggy shaded window. Oh this will be good. Yet it wasn’t good. It was better than anything I had imagined. That night when I emerged from the toasty warm cozy seats, I was punched by the rush of subzero air hitting my face. But I didn’t care. Because there it was. This is not real.
And I didn’t mean it in a poet way. I had seen a lame starless sky for so long that this twinkling perfection seemed unreal to me. It looked like someone had trapped me in a snow globe and then threw a deep dark blue drape over it, with light seeping through its seems and holes. I am also thankful for the pitch blackness of our surroundings. Since I’m sure my mouth was embarrassingly agape in awe for a good few minutes. I only noticed it when my chin starting to shake from the cold. As Gloria Laing was singing Why can’t I have you from my playlist, I hurried to put on extra layers of clothing I had brought with me and buried my face in my mug of hot tea. I saw a satellite pass before my eyes, a shooting star a little farther from it. There was so much going on, so much to look at my brain was having hard time absorbing it all. I just stared with a smile and dizzied myself from turning my head around in all directions. We all started eating our first dinner, and more hot tea. I felt my jaw relax a little and eyes adapt a lot. I could see faint stars where there was nothing before. There it was a dazzling sea of stars. Then it occurred to me. The freakin’ cavemen got to see this every damn night!? The merchants from centuries ago got to watch this every night and use it?? I am so jealous. Cheeks puffed and eyes squinting in annoyance I was blowing my tea when I heard the call to look at the Pleiades. I could see them using only my eyes too, placed kind of close to Mars which was glowing with a distinct orange glow as it emerged from behind the distant mountain range. We ran back and forth between telescopes to see Nebulas and planets. So this is what he meant. Well I think I just made MY good life-changing mistake of observing with the scopes. And it was true. The sensation of seeing those objects millions of miles away should have been closest to what David Eicher, Editor-in-Chief of the Astronomy Magazine, had described when he saw Saturn for the first time when he was a teenager which set him up for his career in Astronomy. But for me it was the Andromeda galaxy that did it. I had seen it and studied it so many times. But there it was. We had just pointed a laser at it, maneuvered the Dobsonian, and there it was! In all its fuzzy glowing glory. I was so absorbed in all of these activities that I didn’t notice the gradual frostbite setting in my distal extremities. I reached to grab the telescope and felt a sharp pain in my fingers. Shoot! They’re falling off. I face palmed at my carelessness and grumbled all the way to our magical bonfire to warm my fingers and toes. There I made a second good mistake.
As I had my legs near the fire, sitting and extending my arms, I bent backwards to stretch my back and fell all the way. Lying there I probably looked a bit stupid but the sky overhead looked too mesmerizing to care for anything else in the world. A shooting star! I should make a wish. Oh show me another one! And about 12 seconds later came another. I bounced back and headed to the telescopes. More observing, laughter ensued. While waiting to see the Veil nebula I was tricked into trying an ultra spicy MRE by I-don’t-know-who at the time. It was a strange experience in that way too. We wanted to avoid light at all costs, so it was like being on a literal blind date with a bunch friends and the heavens to laugh at you. I stopped counting the number of times I ate my gloves instead of the food in my hand or asked “Oh haha but wait who were you?.” It was funny. At some point we heard the noise of an approaching motorcycle, shining its headlights over us. “EVEYONE CLOSE YOUR EYES AND LOOK AWAY.” Yes, we were not going to waste all those 30 minutes spent to let our eyes adapt. But I couldn’t help giggle while I covered my eyes with my hands. Imagining the confusion the bike rider must have felt seeing 23 people facing away and closing their eyes in absolute darkness. At the end we all gathered around our magical bonfire for Tiezerk Band to play for us with their velvety voices and whimsical music. I rode back earlier that night because of my early morning. Hematology cycle at the National Hematology and Oncology center. That place is painful. The thought mostly stemmed from memory of being poked and stabbed with needles to run blood tests and the fact that I had to leave that exquisite magical hemisphere sky earlier. But I soon forgot that bitterness because I was deep into discussion with my riding mates. About the geopolitical situation, Democracy, our favorite observations and future resolutions. Back home I felt like a wounded animal. My relatively recently operated eyes had received a handful of smoke, the new tattoo I had gotten burned and ached on my chest, and the bruises from a minor accident 2 days before felt like fresh punches. That said, I was so hyped from the experience all night that I couldn’t sleep until 5 am! and was late the next day to my class, by a mortifying 20 minutes! But hell, it was completely worth it. I am addicted to this, aren’t I? Indeed. I can’t imagine my life without it, without knowing what’s going on there so far out of reach, nor without learning about it. How terrifyingly exciting.