Life on the Orion

It was a wedding gift of sorts. Two months after we married, Ralph sent me on my own to join another TravelQuest eclipse tour, this time on the glamorous expedition ship Orion. The dream itinerary: a private charter flight from Cairns Australia to Papua New Guinea to join the Orion for nine days—a ship small enough to carry passengers to several remote villages—and a grand finale, totality at the Great Barrier Reef.

The intimate Orion (90 passengers, 75 crew) came equipped with kayaks, Zodiac landing craft (many of our ports were “wet landings”), and diving and snorkeling gear. The professional expedition staff included a marine biologist, acclaimed wildlife photographer Sue Flood, a field biologist, meteorologist Jay Anderson, planetary scientist and former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones, and a cultural anthropologist—an Aussie who married into a PNG village and actually became a chief, who knew everyone and all the local customs.

Each day at sea there were workshops and lectures on the flora and fauna of PNG, space travel, photography, and a cultural briefing on the islands we would visit—all accompanied with drinks and traypass hors d’oevres. The food—three squares a day plus high tea and assorted cocktail parties—was exquisitely prepared and, like most cruises, nonstop. I was giddy like a girl asked to the prom when a note addressed to Miss Coleman in Stateroom 310 included an invitation to dine that night at the table of Captain Andrey Domanin, “Master of the Orion”.

One night after dinner the captain took a joy ride past the actively-erupting Manam volcano; red lava flowed down the side and rocks and flames shot out of the top. (As I watched from the deck, a glass of champagne in my hand, I wondered: am I asleep?)

Performers boarded the Orion in our last island port and drummed a farewell before we sailed to the Great Barrier Reef. The last days at sea were rough, literally and figuratively. Barf bags were tucked behind the rail on every deck. The ship’s doctor Doctor Chris administered shots and big blue nausea pills; Dramamine was heaped in a tasteful bowl on the reception counter.

I was one of the few unaffected and had work to do—an article on Burning Man due for Trailer Life magazine. I found an empty bar on the top floor of the ship but my laptop kept sliding off the table what with all the pitching and yawing. (Cruise ship tip: when seas are high, climb down to the level nearest the hull, where it’s calmer.) The dining room was sparsely populated with wan-looking, uncommunicative passengers. The ill-conceived cocktail of the day was banana liqueur and coconut rum—a little warm ginger ale might have been a bigger seller.

(Sound like fun anyway? Get on board for this one: the TravelQuest South Pacific Cruise to totality on the Paul Gauguin with a pre-vacay on Easter Island.)

Above: The Orion

Below:

Commemorative rubber stamps; All aboard; Lounge and meeting room; Stateroom 310; Cairns; Snorkel gear; On deck; From the Zodiak; Manam volcano; What to wear?; Dancers on board; Still waiting for the Green Flash.

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The celebration tent

A giant tapestry-type tent was erected on the beach outside the hotel in Mersa Matruh, and the post-eclipse celebration inside was memorable—woven carpets covered the sand, and table after table was heaped with catered Mediterranean food.

Funny WTF moment: at the cheese and hummus table I pointed to a bowl of chalky grey squares and inquired with a lift of my eyebrows to a man behind the table wearing a chef’s uniform and tall white toque. He just shrugged, so I reached for one and started to put it in my mouth. “No eat!! No eat!!” he screamed, waving me off. I dropped it and ran. I still don’t know what it was.

A dorky DJ spun outdated American records and the frenzied eclipse nerds danced to “YMCA”.

The entire glorious day was a travel memory I wish I could relive, with my Ralph, exactly as it was—except I’d take more photos.

Above: Celebration tent in Mersa Matruh

Below:

Fabulous food

Chasers get down

Eclipse 2006

On March 29 an estimated 8,000 tourists, astronomers, NASA scientists and Egyptian officials gathered in Sallum, a town on the Libyan border usually visited only by workers and truckers entering and exiting Egypt.

The hotel in Mersa Matruh was 2 1/2 hours from the eclipse site and we rose unspeakably early to the pre-dawn rumble of motorcoaches and diesel fumes outside the hotel. “This reminds me of the Marine Corps,” groaned Ralph as we staggered from bed to bus seats in the dark.

At half past noon the moon passed before the sun in a perfect and cloudless sky. I’m now five for five.

I noticed that the shape of the corona—which is different every TSE and has something to do with sunspots and the solar magnetic field—exactly and mysteriously mirrored the design of the winged sun carvings on the back of my chair in the Nile Hilton dining room. I kept this observation to myself.

Above: Shades

Below:

Path of totality, 2006

Back on the bus

Press tent

Observing at Sallum. (Ralph. Get UP.)

Mubarak

The official viewing site for the eclipse was in Sallum at what appeared to be an abandoned air force base under heavy checkpoint surveillance near the Libyan border.

The early waiting and partial phase hours in Egypt were more entertaining than at any other eclipse: an elaborate preparation was underway for the arrival of then-president Hosni Mubarak. Young soldiers in smart parade uniforms were arranged in rank, then in file, then re-aligned. Superior officers inspected and fussed and dusted: tunics were jerked, collars straightened, caps adjusted to the perfect angle. The soldiers finally stood in solemn formation in anticipation of their leader.

A large, multicolored seating area was assembled with gilt furniture, gold-potted plants, and a red carpet stairway leading to a massive portrait of the president’s big ol’ face.

Events took a turn in the minutes before his motorcade pulled up: a team of men in jumpsuits scrambled to dismantle the stage and hustle the red carpet and other decor to a low and modest tent adjacent to the showy grandstand—which I’m assuming was a decoy all along, presumably to deter an assassination attempt (!) Travelers to the site that day, was that your impression?

Mubarak, his wife, and several Ministers, Egyptian officials and various governmental hangers-on soon pulled up in their sleek motorcade and observed the eclipse from the lesser enclosure. Mubarek boarded a black sedan shortly after third contact and waved “wadaeaan” from the window.

Above: That’s him

Below:

Welcome to Salloum—however you spell it

Egyptian military at the ready

Mubarak’s viewing area—not Mubarak’s viewing area—Mubarak’s new viewing area

Bye now, gotta go stand trial

The pink bus

We joined the TravelQuest tour already in progress at the Meridien Pyramids hotel for the bus excursion to the eclipse site.

If you’re thinking about traveling to a TSE, I can’t recommend TravelQuest highly enough. I generally hate the term, “trip of a lifetime” (unless you’re 100 years old, never say “never again,” right?) but a TravelQuest astronomical tour is so unique each time, so outrageously special, that you really will refer to it as a once in a lifetime adventure, just like their website says. Founder and President Aram Kaprielian is the most dedicated, detail oriented travel professional I’ve ever met and a man who really shares the joy of the experience with each traveler on the tour.

Even the grating lady—there’s always one—on our “pink” bus, who broadcast her every movement to no one in particular but for all the bus to hear. “I’m getting a coke from the ice chest now.” “I’m going to use the rest room now.” “Oh my, look at that <whatever outside the window>.” There must be a name for this disorder.

Western Egypt is flat and arid and refreshingly devoid of tourists. The bus stopped at the El Alamein WWII museum and cemetery at Mersa Matruh, the site where Rommel’s German Afrika Korps were smacked by the British and the allies.

In the Time Before Ralph (TBR), I was indifferent to ye olden days, but through him I’ve grown to appreciate the past…a little. Traveling with a history teacher is like having a personal docent at every museum, castle, monument and art gallery, and Ralph knows all the dirt about every world leader. It’s enlightening (and sad) to hear about the scandals and deceits and failures of yesterday that continue to repeat today, over and over, exactly as before.

Military museums like El Alamein and this one provide a historical perspective that can deepen your understanding of a place and its people, and they usually exhibit early attempts at technology (and some flat out crazy items) you won’t see anywhere else.

The bus came to rest in Mersa Matruh the night before the eclipse. It felt heavenly to put a beer in my hand and dig my toes in the sand on the private beach outside the hotel.

Above: Everybody on the bus

Below:

Tour group (and swag)

Historian at large

Egypt!

What a cool destination for a total solar eclipse trip. This time I took Ralph, the current and final husband; a somewhat twitchy traveler but an avid historian who was lured by a scheduled visit to the El Alamein WWII museum, a place of vast interest on the way to totality at the Egypt/Libyan border.

Before hooking up with a tour group for the ride west to the viewing site we hit the must-sees in Cairo: the pyramids of Giza (bigger than you think), the Sphinx (smaller than you think), and the Khan el-Khalili bazaar (home of the world’s scariest public toilet).

The most exhilarating memory of Egypt wasn’t the eclipse: it was crossing the street outside the Nile Hilton, on foot, through four lanes of speeding traffic. It was the only way. We stood pathetically on the curb for what seemed like forever, waiting for a break in the flow of traffic that was never to come. To our right and left we watched in amazed horror as Egyptian pedestrians simply stepped into the oncoming melee and somehow waded safely to the other side. When we could stall no longer we looked at each other with equal parts “let’s do this” and “goodbye”, and I strode forward like Indiana Jones taking his leap of faith on the Path of God. Somehow invincible, we moved in a dissociative fugue state through the honking swirl, cars rushing and lurching inches away, to reach the the opposite curb. The eclipse actually paled in excitement. Oh, that and the time our cab quit running and began rolling backward on the Sixth of October Bridge. That, too.

Above: Giza. (What you don’t see: the photographer is standing with her back to a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The pyramids are just yards from the edge of Cairo, the largest urban area in Africa.)

Below:

View of the Nile from our balcony

Giza pyramid complex