my life on Mars: coffee, Christmas and traditions

Back in 2010, when I heard I was going to go to “Mars” in Utah, after recovering from the shock of joy, my first thought was still “this can’t be real” and my second thought was, “if this is real, I hope I can still get to drink coffee there”.

MDRS (2)
The author at the Mars Desert Research Station MDRS, Utah, 2011

I really love coffee because each sip makes me feel so alive and even after I could not stand the smell of it while I was pregnant with my daughter, I made myself drink it again about two years later. Taste was eww, but I missed how it always brought me back into ‘the moment’. Little that I knew about the American drip coffee but this is for another blog.

Tea is out of question, if you wish to know – you only drank herbal tea in Romania where I grew up and that was only if you were sick. So my reply “no thanks I’m not sick” to the question “would you like some tea?” by this really nice British lady about twenty years ago on my first visit to England, left us both puzzled. Talking about my first ‘cultural’ encounter (read shock) … I kept thinking to myself for years, why can’t they drink coffee like everybody else? (well, except for the Russians, I new that much, that Russians drank tea too). That conversation with the British lady made me feel very awkward and I’ve mulled over it for years trying to figure out what on Earth did I say wrong. It took many more years to properly ‘get it’. Nevertheless, regarding tea and coffee, I recently read somewhere that English people switched to drinking tea after a fungi, the coffee blight, destroyed coffee plantations that were a major supply to England at the time, so even though England is famous for drinking tea, maybe it is about ‘the moment’ after all and not so much about the liquid… And maybe this can be extrapolated to many other things in our lives. It always puzzled me why we do the things we do, sometimes without questioning. At least I never dared question my mum’s heavy winter food that we actually eat … in the middle of summer here in New Zealand for the purposes of “that’s what one traditionally eats at Christmas” until I actually started my career as planetarium starryteller and host.

Yes but why?

I don’t know how many of you have ever been to Romania but let me tell you that we have four seasons in there. Or at least we used to have before the climate change started taking its toll in Europe. So I grew up in a place that had hot summers, where temperatures could rise towards forty degrees Celsius in summer, with autumns that wiped all leaves from the deciduous trees,  winters that would easily drop to minus twenty Celsius and all was covered in white for about three months, and springs that saw all nature coming back to life. This huge difference made me feel like I landed in the middle of “eternal spring” as a friend of mine used to call it when I arrived here in Wellington, New Zealand.

The ‘eternal spring’ – Wellington at Christmas

Just like on Mars where the average summer day temperature at the equator is around 19 degrees Celsius so is in Wellington.

Mars: averages 19 degrees Celsius day – temperature in summer, at the equator, just like Wellington

Back in Romania Christmas is white. Not only that is white but it’s also very cold. It’s in fact so cold that the land freezes underneath the white blanket of snow. I remember as a child people were always unhappy when someone died in wintertime as it was very hard to dig the graves. Digging the earth we tried ourselves many times as children and it always felt like digging in ice inside a refrigerator. You needed a pick. I’d have rather split wood for the fire than dug anything, that’s what I remember. Not to mention that the days were amazingly short, so before you knew it, at about five in the afternoon it was getting dark. The whole show lasted for three months: freezing cold temperatures, darkness and white blanket of snow.


So I was reading the other day some articles written by these astronomy scholars who were trying to explain that my ancestors survived those winters by digging for roots in the forest, and look for tiny berries in the bushes, and thinking to myself, yeah right you have never been there to try, have you… ? Not even the bears do it – which we have plenty in the motherland, but they all for whatever reason hibernate (read sleep) all winter long. Same scholars were swearing by it that my ancestors were planting by the stars too … as if one needs the stars to tell them that the soil has thawed and the leaves are green again. But again this is for another blog.

About thirteen years ago I landed in New Zealand.

2 March 2005, just landed in Wellington. It felt like being on another planet. Photo by Danut Ionescu

It was supposed to be a stint: in, look at the stars, live here for a year, back home. It never works like this :), I’m still here and after twelve Christmases celebrated here I still did not get used to having Christmas (and all that comes with it) in summertime. I just can’t do it! (Christmas in Wellington, below)

Take the food for example: it actually all went well until my mum came to live with us for a few years. First Christmas with her … I understood the real meaning of not being able to say no to your Romanian mum. Not only that the traditionally-prepared food felt way too much and way too heavy even for the cold summer in Wellington but the the way I felt the next day made my entire life go through my mind in the blink of an eye.So what happened to my ancestors that were eating frozen roots and berries?

Did I miss anything? I don’t remember the berries and the roots but I know that the whole country stuffed itself with pork, bread, wine, and cakes all winter long. And I don’t remember suffering from any of these ailments I was experiencing here while I was at home either. But I do remember what my colleague Melanie told me about her trip to Scott Base in Antarctica. She said, “In Antarctica, I ate about 3 times the amount of food that I would normally eat, including lots of steak, bread and sweet things and still lost weight.”

Back on Mars, we landed in the middle of winter.

Winter in Utah is just like winter in Romania, it snows and it’s very cold. Part of the fun of being there, apart of our own experiments, we had to undergo a NASA food study lead by Professor Jean Hunter from Cornell University. Basically we were the guinea pigs for the studies on how to fed the future martian astronauts. So they gave us the food for free, in exchange we had to do a daily report telling how what we thought about it, write down the recipes we used and most importantly, note our daily mood.

The pictures below are from my second mission, KiwiMars2012.

Talking about honesty and food, something I was never able to get away with at home with my folks, yet here was essential. Therefore I did admit in writing that the beef tins felt absolutely disgusting to me, thankfully we only had to eat that once, but on the bright side everyone survived my cooking and not only that they gave us coffee but chocolate and peanut butter too.

Why question everything?

And kept thinking of what would I do if I were really on Mars. It was, to say the least, a life-changing experience to live like this for two weeks of my life. It put things in perspective. What I’ve realised was that in fact, the entire Romanian culture is extremely prescribed when it comes to eating. Twice a week my grandmother would never let anything that had any trace of animal products to ‘contaminate’ our food of the day – that is every Wednesday and Friday – or else we would go straight to hell after we died. Friday was in fact the most pious day of the week, in the Christian Orthodox calendar, which most of Romania observes that is really ironic as only two thousand years ago Friday was the day of Venus, where most non-pious things were happening in the pagan world.

On ‘Mars’ I believe we had a non cooking day on a Wednesday and a cooking day on a Friday. On a non cooking day we would eat canned food that we had to heat up and on a non cooking day we would rehydrate our raw ingredients and then prepare the food. On ‘Mars’, we had instructions from Mission Support to chose anything that would please our heart for our meals from the ingredients provided (see MDRS food programme explanations here) and then count the calories.

In Romania, we had instructions from our ancestors on what to eat for almost every day of the year and God forbid if anyone would comment on the food. The rules were that after the heavy food from winter, spring time came we would undergo a proper cleansing regime, when we would eat most fresh stuff popping out of the ground. I will always carry with me in spirit both my grandmother’s spring nettle dish and my godmother’s dill dish and I must confess that I am very proud that my grandmother’s recipe for flat bread made it to the Mars Cooking Book. Back on Earth, when summer came, there were interdictions for meat or animal proteins everywhere, in fact nobody really ate pork in summertime, I’ve wondered why for many years. Nobody really eats pork in the desert either, at least in Islam, as it is against their teachings, as it is in Judaism. But we eat plenty of fruit, which is in abundance and lean meat like lamb of beef or chicken. So this temperature dependant regime for food is very interesting and I guess it’s a matter of the availability of the food as well.

Back at work I have the chance to observe the New Zealand Food Safety science team in action. More like overhearing them as our teams share the same workspace. Watch out for this, recall that. Keep an eye on the residual level of this ingredient. One day it struck me: It’s all about survival. My ancestors were eating very heavy foods in wintertime because it was the only food that could sustain them through the winter at those freezing temperatures. They were eating lots of cake too, during the winter celebrations. Not so much in summertime (because they had fruit?). They even institutionalised the rules of eating in the now-Christian calendar. They had observed strict cleansing periods throughout the year and had a very balanced diet. This way of eating helped them survive the winter, cleanse their bodies and maintain a healthy balance. Our ancestors have institutionalised eating to such extent that it had been transcribed in most if not all religious calendars. These instructions kept them alive.

Christmas itself was about survival. Where I’m coming from, it was the ancient winter solstice celebration. Why would the winter solstice have such importance? Why would people grow pigs during the year and sacrifice them just around that date? Why not sacrifice cows? Or lambs, or game? And why that date of the sacrifice, which is around the 18th of December should be called Ignat? Like the ancient Sanskrit word for fire, igni. And what’s with the 25th of December when the solstice falls in fact around the 21st? Why the 25th?

These are all good questions and there are many more where they are coming from. We are so entrenched in our rules that kept us alive in certain geographical regions that we forget why we do the things we do. If I asked questions, many times I was told “that’s the way we do things in here. It’s the tradition.” I question tradition, surely my ancestors would not be happy for me to get indigestion year after year during Christmas and New Year celebrations… or maybe they would… Saturnalia, which was the celebration observed before Emperor Constantine celebrated Christmas on the 25th of December in 336,  was in fact a celebration of excess and continuous partying that took place in the ancient world from 17 to 23rd of December. I believe that culture is merely a set of instructions that supported humankind to survive in certain geographical conditions, instructions transmitted from our ancestors to their offspring. Travelling to other parts of the world, or to Mars, most of these instructions become obsolete, yet we keep on doing the same thing over and over without questioning. The same rules that kept us safe for thousands of years can work against us and if only indigestion would be the worse case consequence! I can only hope that we will be able to unpick these traditions and acknowledge, cherish and celebrate them for what they are: our ancestors making sure their offspring would survive but not more than that. Not worth starting wars or building barriers called cultural differences.

Many people who lived and worked at MDRS since 2001 left their names written on the doors. Here is crew 118 KiwiMars

Being at MDRS made me ponder about all these amazing things, looking at the multitude of people who populated the station since 2001, people of all colours, all religions, with an incredible variety of qualifications and training, people who actually wish to see that humankind survives and becomes a spacefaring civilisation. That is possible if we work together to understand the true nature of human evolution.

2012-05-04 at 19-54-45
The flag of Mars, red-blue-green above MDRS

Being at MDRS made me wonder what’s important in life.

Merry belated Christmas and a happy New Year 2018