November 13, 2012
2 minutes, 5 seconds
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A dorky DJ spun outdated American records and the frenzied eclipse nerds danced to “YMCA”.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
Chasers get down
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.
Path of totality, 2006
Back on the bus
Observing at Sallum. (Ralph. Get UP.)
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
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
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
Tour group (and swag)
Historian at large
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.)
View of the Nile from our balcony
Giza pyramid complex
The morning of totality was clear and cool, and sunny beach weather prevailed all day. Locals arrived and chilled, propped against a stick fence on the sand. In broken French, using my souvenir cloth that showed the partial phases, I tried to explain the use and timing of the eclipse shades to some curious Malagasy guys.
Totality, as always, was sublime.
Sadly, a prime viewing site that attracted 15,000 people—the village near Isalo National Park—was clouded out on June 21. Bam! I’m four for four. (And, I don’t know how I missed it, but the Green Flash was observed as the sun set just minutes from fourth contact. I’ve been watching for the elusive Flash since I lived in San Diego in the 70s, and I’m still zero for zero.)
Above: Late afternoon partial phase
Locals and travelers wait for totality
Samuel makes an appearance
C’mon Green Flash
The French kids— Arianne and the two Xaviers (sounds like a band)—set up camp beside us. A kindly couple appeared, spoke animatedly, and insistently gestured to all of us to follow. “We’re going to their house,” said Arianne.
As far as we could tell we received the invitation by default. The mother must have been watching our evening preparations from the window, Gladys Kravitz-style, and was appalled that a young woman was preparing to sleep in a tent with two young men. We were all compelled indoors for dinner, and Arianne was made to stay overnight in their home.
Their modest wooden house had a thatched roof, soccer posters on the wall, and a statue of the Virgin by the fridge. Dinner was Rice-A-Roni, bread and butter, soft cheese and Ritz crackers; we contributed a bottle of Bailey’s we’d been hoarding since the duty free shop in the airport.
In silence after dinner we all watched a VERY weird TV show in Malagasay on their black and white set. When we left, the mom gifted us with handmade place mats, and a kiss on each cheek.
Above: Beach camp, Morombe
A toast: ciel clair!
We saw more and more eclipse travelers as we got closer to Morombe (and the centerline town of Ambahikily) on the westbound highway—they’re easy to identify from their awkward gear on roof mount luggage racks.
Children surrounded us at every stop asking for money for their coin collections. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s true. They showed us: a penny here, a five-centime there, small change received from the rare travelers to the villages, crudely taped to index cards. I watched as they traded each other for the US coins they didn’t have; a quarter swapped for a nickel. (The “coin collector” scammers typically target Euro or Japanese tourists whose coins hold a higher value, and bill collector scammers are even more prevalent. Just saying.) Older kids and adults sold their hand-painted or colored pencil souvenir drawings.
People lined the road to watch the parade of 4WD vehicles making their way to the coast. Schoolchildren held up their hands, making the sign of the sun (similar to the University of Oregon O-gesture) and shouted “faza!” as we passed. (“Faza!” we call in return, waving. Later we were informed that meant “white people.”)
Hoping to offset the exorbitant daily cost of the vehicle we hatched a plan to rideshare the remaining miles to the coast, and taped a sign to the window reading “Comment vais-je a Morombe? Eclipse Solaire Total (USA)…do you need a ride?” (I didn’t know how to say that last part.) It worked; we hooked up with three young French students at Isalo National Park, all prepared, as we were, to camp on the beach. Their translation services were a welcome addition, and at rest stops they chatted happily in French with Samuel.
“The road from Toliara to Morombe is slow and grating being composed of the broken remains of a formerly paved highway that has aged into a mixture of sandy potholes and abrupt edges,” wrote Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson in their NASA prospect report on the Madagascar eclipse. Getting to Morombe on the final stretch of red “piste” (dirt road) was quite an ordeal.
We weren’t sure if we would make it to the viewing site, right up until the last minute. From our final launch point before eclipse day we heard rumors it would take anywhere from eight hours to two days to reach Morombe. (We kept an eye on our map of totality, and cheered when we reached a town in the shadow—if we couldn’t get to the coast, we’d at least see totality from that point on.) An official motorcade conveying, I don’t know, Jacques Chirac or somebody, was ahead of us and made progress worse by blocking the streets in every town we came to.
We reached Morombe after only twelve hours of lurching and bumping along a road so rough I couldn’t open my mouth to talk, afraid the jolting would cause me to chomp down on my tongue. Into huge ditches we dropped, up and over sand dunes, and through villages with chickens and pigs and children and zebu carts scattering as we blew through town in the Trooper. We even had to navigate a full-on river crossing, with water up to the doors, past a stranded old Citroen and taxi-brousses that were being winched out of the mud. I had the time of my life.
In Morombe Samuel dumped us on the beach and disappeared with the car. We made it.
Above: Stuck in the mud
Do you need a ride?