The Carnival Cruise eclipse

The “Millennium Eclipse” over the central Pacific and Atlantic oceans on Feb 26, 1998 promised to be a “tropical festival of science” (reported the AP). After the hardships of Bolivia an easy cruise sounded nice—and the Caribbean, in February? Escape rainy Portland? Heck yeah.

The 93-mile wide umbra was to pass over a string of Caribbean islands, including Aruba, Curacao, Guadeloupe and Antigua. I chose travel coordinator Gary Spears’ Astronomical League Eclipse Cruise on the Carnival ship Fascination for my next TSE, and conned my poor friend Susan to come along.

Hey, Carnival haters! I know you’re there. KMA. If you can’t have fun on a cruise, no matter the accommodations, you simply don’t know how to have a good time.

My second Astronomical League tour was again organized by Ken Willcox (may he rest in peace; Ken passed from cancer exactly one year after the Caribbean eclipse). Also in attendance was Mr. Eclipse himself, Fred Espenak of the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and Mark Littman, author of Totality, Eclipses of the Sun.

Susan, poised and pretty and definitely a non-nerd, was a good sport and a blast to travel with. She stuck out like a hothouse orchid during all the corny ship activities, though—and in the dining room, surrounded by astronomy geeks in polo shirts, patiently listening to their chatter about lens grinding.

The Fascination carried us from San Juan Puerto Rico to six ports of call. In St. Thomas we sunbathed on the beach with a three-foot iguana under our chairs. In Guadeloupe we tasted rum and bought spice necklaces; in Grenada we hiked in the rain forest. We were afraid to disembark in Caracas, Venezuela—and totality occurred over Aruba (where the group was scheduled to be deposited ashore for an eclipse viewing beach party).

You know the Caribbean drill: touring the rum factory, booze cruising, steel drum bands. Except for the eclipse, the most exhilarating event was renting a car on the island of Guadeloupe and driving it out to hike to a waterfall where Susan and I lost track of time and distance. Running critically late for re-embarkation with no time to return the car, we simply abandoned it at the dock, keys in the ignition, and ran laughing up the gangplank as the ship sounded its deafening horn. (Astonishingly, my credit card statement later showed a debit for the car rental, no extra charges, no penalty. Some benevolent Guadeloupian must have returned it.)

Above: Dames at Sea


Path of totality, 1998 (via NASA)


Formal night. Are you in this photo? Drop me a line!




Before totality (viewed from the Bolivian Altiplano, the sunniest location on the eclipse track in 1994) we were taken on a whirlwind tour of, like, the whole country—a basic, barren nation with pockets of jaw dropping scenic and cultural beauty and colorful people. The women dress in native fashions: full pleated skirts and thick shawls with a cholita bowler hat worn rakishly on the head. Luis, one of the guides, explained that Bolivia is “simple and poor”, and because of the climate the residents “crave sugar and pork lard, so all the women are huge,” (his word). To their men, that’s a sign of strength and beauty.

The tour group was put up in a familiar, ultranice Radisson in the big-city capital of La Paz. Throughout the trip Spears Travel made sure we were treated to the very best accommodations Bolivia had to offer. (Read between the lines.) I poked around town, bargaining for alpaca textiles and visiting the spooky witches market to buy lucky totem figures blessed by the brujas with yarn.

I climbed off a bus (after a ride so bumpy that water splashed out of a half-full Nalgene bottle) to explore the ruins at Tiwanaku and stand before the stone Gate of the Sun, believed to be an ancient observatory.

I watched my tour mates heaving over the rail of the hydrofoil jet boat that flew across Lake Titicaca on the way to the fountain of youth on the sacred Isla del Sol. At the car cha’lla blessing at Dark Virgin of Copacabana shrine, vehicles decorated with red, yellow and green flowers—the colors of the Bolivian flag—waited in rows for the priest to sprinkle them with holy water. Beer, champagne and colas were also on hand to acknowledge the earth goddess, Pachamama. (Bolivians believe that our planet is a being to share with and thank—and when you have a drink, you pour a splash on the ground for Mother Earth.) Afterwards, I took part in a little sacred ceremony—a sort of baptism by flowers dipped in the water of Lake Titicaca—and was ordered to repeat, “I will not lie, I will not steal, I will not be lazy,” (the three worst Incan sins). A pisca and gingerale toast sealed the oath.

I had my fortune told by a Kallawalla mystic using “guinea pig x-ray” magic, with dubious results. We gathered in a dark tent late at night; a wizened nut-brown gentleman in robes sat cross-legged in the center. “Who has a question or concern for the mystic?” announced the guide. Of course no one stepped up, so I took one for the team and raised my hand. I was escorted to a place on the ground before the seer and quietly posed a question about my work (how 90s was that). The mystic ruminated and finally said through an interpreter, “you are very worried, but everything will be okay.” The next person stepped up and asked their question. The answer? “You are very worried, but everything will be okay.” Ha! And so on, to everyone.

In Potosi, the worlds highest city, I went into a catacomb piled high with the skulls and bones of the faithful. I saw wild vicuña and flamingoes on the plains. I visited a cemetery by myself on All Souls Day and walked among families restoring the above-ground grave dioramas, strumming guitars and placing flowers for the spirits to enjoy. (“Were the dead grateful?” asked David, the videographer in our group. “I’m sure they were,” I stupidly answered. I got the joke about five minutes later.)

It was an honor to be in the presence of the late Ken Willcox, eclipse coordinator on the tour. Ken made it his business to circulate through our train to the eclipse viewing area and collect small items and anything that we could offer as a school supply—paper, pens, pencils, decks of cards—and distribute them to the children who came running when we stopped on the tracks in the poor villages.

By our final destination in the town of Sucre, the nerds looked less nerdy. Those once pasty and dandruffy and afflicted with altitude sickness at the beginning of the tour were now stronger, buoyant. The men became vital and scruffy, wearing Indiana Jones-style fedoras they found in a market somewhere. Faces were tanned and spirits were high as the travelers joyfully licked ice cream cones while sauntering around Plaza 25 de Mayo square. That night, all enjoyed a fancy farewell dinner, served in a Euro-style restaurant with white linen tablecloths.

Was it the asparagus with cream sauce served at dinner? The ice cream in the square? (Probably not the ubiquitous pollo and jojos, served piping hot from street vendors.) Whatever it was, I would learn that anyone who wasn’t flattened by altitude sickness at the beginning of the journey later contracted a frightening intestinal illness. One unfortunate dude hosted an amoeba so debilitating that he had to be a Boy in a Bubble and underwent a complete immune replacement—a process that took a year from his life.

I fell viciously and unexpectedly ill with dysentery on the flight home. The airline crew allowed me to lay on the floor of the bathroom during the last hour of the flight including WHILE THE PLANE LANDED. I was removed from the airport in a wheelchair, and was bedridden and delirious for two solid weeks.

It was worth it.

Above: Chasers at the mint 


(Photography in Bolivia was difficult in 1994; it was generally verboten to take a picture of anything living, not just people and animals. A photo of a potato would take its soul, too—the next day it would surely be rotten inside. I couldn’t resist selfishly capturing certain memories for myself while trying to keep a respectful distance, and I still got in trouble. Once, three teenage girls in yellow and white school uniforms were sitting beneath a statue at the end of a town square; a breathtaking photo opp. They saw me trying to sneak a long shot from the other end of the square—from all that distance away!—and ran. When I put my camera away, they returned. Lesson learned.)

Path of totality 1994

Lake Titicaca 

Bonafied by King Manco Kapac

City scenes

Above-ground cemetery tombs

Remote village

Ken and the kids

Boliviano converter

Shop lady

Witches market

Cerveza nacional

Climbing toward the Altiplano

(Do you see yourself in these or any photos on this website? I’d love to hear from you.)

The AstroNASAcal League

The Astronomical League tour group convened in El Alto International Airport with our nerdy, overweight luggage filled with telescopes and camera equipment. We towered over the airport personnel, tiny people in riot gear. No photos were allowed. We boarded a bus to our first destination, and immediately noticed the lack of air in the air.

“Remember, when you land there will be 20% less oxygen,” stated the itinerary notes. Miami lies at (duh) sea level; La Paz, at nearly 12,000 feet, is almost twice the height of Denver (with more than 3500 feet in elevation we’d yet to gain that week). “For many visitors, the most challenging aspect to this eclipse will be coping with the significant, if not downright extreme, altitudes they will encounter,” wrote Joel Harris in an article for Astronomy.

I prepared by taking Diamox, the ascent medication acetazolamide. It combats the dangerous and uncomfortable symptoms of altitude sickness, but not the gasping feeling of struggling for oxygen. Coca leaf (the key ingredient in COCAINE) is the local remedy, and travelers are encouraged to chew and/or brew the leaves that can be found piled high in hotel lobbies and offered with elegant silver service teapots and cups to make mate de coca.

Unrelated: According to local documentation, we were present in Bolivia during the Age of Aquarius, when the source of power shifted from the male Himalayas to the female source and central vertex of cosmic energy, Lake Titicaca, where “from now on, the positive energy of the world will be generated.” I knew I felt something other than altitude sickness. (The way this year is going Lake Titicaca better step up her game.)

During the tour were were allowed to see and do things ordinary tourists weren’t allowed to see and do. Public officials appeared out of nowhere to give Ken Willcox, the group astronomer, a laurel and hearty handshake. In Sucre, for instance, the director of the mint delivered a gracious welcome address through an interpreter. He informed Ken that as an honored guest he must autograph “the book of important persons,” a very old and precious registry signed by world leaders and royalty. Ken does—and we discover later that a misunderstanding led them to believe we were from NASA, of which Ken was president.

Above: Welcome to La Paz


Astronomical League tour

Coca leaf tea