Eclipse Solaire Totale

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

Below:

Locals and travelers wait for totality

Samuel makes an appearance

Eclipse tutorial

C’mon Green Flash

Morombe arrival

The evening before the eclipse we pitched our little tent on the beach in the village of Morombe.

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

Below: 

Main street

A toast: ciel clair!

Approaching the coast

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

Below:

Handmade souvenirs

Do you need a ride?

River crossing

Dignitary crossing

Road trip on Planet Mad

Each day in Madagascar was more freakish than the last.

There are surrealist paintings in disturbing, peculiar hotels, and kooky murals on town walls. Houses are made of red mud—when they eventually melt from the weather, homeowners simply build a new one next door. We saw white wall-eyed chameleons and herds of zebu crossing the road, and otherworldly baobob trees in the spiny forest.

Along the way we left the main two-lane highway to buy gems at a mine, and pressed flower stationery at an artisan shop. We stood among lemurs as they drank from a pool and bounced above our heads through the trees in the Beza Reserve. I observed locals buying wine at the “liquor store”: a wood shack where some kind of red alcohol is fermented in a 55-gallon drum and mouth-siphoned into empty plastic containers held beneath the hose. Candles flickered inside paper lanterns as children carried them in a late night parade. Poor villagers sharpened knives by running with them blade-down in the middle of the asphalt highway. We witnessed a fatal car accident—pedestrians bumble around on the road (and children—children!—play there), though the Malagasy drive like bats out of hell.

It’s impossible to sound out the pronunciation of Malagasy words. Guess how to say the names of following towns: Ambositra? (No. “Am-boosht”.) Ihosy? (“Ee-yoosh.”) Fianarantsoa? (Psych! Just like it looks.) French was also spoken, and I remembered enough from high school to translate “l’eclipse solaire totale” and order in a restaurant. Spoken English was so rare we perked up at the sound of it and searched the surroundings for the source.

Our viewing destination, Morombe, was south of the centerline about 200 miles north of Toliara (“too-lee-ar”— again with the pronunciation) where my slapdick spouse had his wallet and passport stolen (his fault, long story). Have you ever been to an American embassy in the Indian Ocean? Travel Tip 2: Make every effort to avoid this. We wasted several days bouncing keystone cop-like between the embassy and various government agencies, who all extorted money—thirty or sixty cents at a time.

Above: Baobob trees

Below:

Zebu drivers laugh at our photo album

Leapin’ lemurs!

Mud bricks

Drying corn

Quiet time in Isalo National Park

Meet Samuel

I made arrangements for a 7-passenger Isuzu Trooper from Avis at a staggering cost per day, but that included insurance, unlimited mileage, and Samuel, the mandatory Malagasy driver, who slept in the car while we overnighted in hotels along the way.

When asked if he spoke English (in addition to French and Malagasy, the two official languages of the country), he answered “yes”. Travel Tip 1: always ask a follow up question; “yes” was the only English word he knew. I made do from the backseat by reading out loud from a French phrasebook, but my pronunciation was so bad (or so different from Malagasy French) that I usually had to hand him the book and point.

Samuel The Driver became our tour guide, bodyguard, bellhop, and constant companion on the two-week expedition across the country and back. We found out later that he would be paid a tiny fraction of the cost per day of the vehicle. Don’t worry; he earned a big, big tip.

Above: Samuel

Below:

Madagascar journey

Loading (and unloading and loading and unloading) the Isuzu

Tourist vehicle = local attraction

 

The Mad plan

On June 21 the shadow of the “solstice eclipse” raced across southern Africa at 1000+mph, touching Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and where I chose to view it, the island nation of Madagascar.

I made the trip independently with my second husband, a repulsive loser—ask anyone—and all-around impotent jackhole. (I had some self esteem issues back then.) But he did like to travel.

Most of the respected tour groups were full for this popular eclipse, the first TSE of the 21st century. I contacted several travel agents who regretted they were unfamiliar with Madagascar and couldn’t help. When I tried to find an internal flight to the dusty seaside town of Morombe (our viewing destination on the west coast of the country) I received this adorably formal email from Josiane Razafinavalona of the Madagascar tourism department:

“Further to your e-mail we are pleased to send you hereunder our proposal concerning the eclipse totale in Morombe. Due to the importance of queries recorded uptodate, planes are fully booked at this periode and only car is the mean of transportation left.”

So I forged ahead with my own half-cocked plan: fly to the main airport in the capital city of Antananarivo (“Tana”, for short), rent a car, and drive two weeks overland to the coast where weather prospects were brightest.

We flew into dangerous ‘Tana (we heard gunshots at night from our room at the Hilton) and rented a vehicle for the foray west through Antsirabe, Fianarantsoa, Ihosy, Isalo National Park, and Toliara.

I’ve never been anywhere as bizarre as Madagascar.

Above: Boarding Air Mad

Below:

Eclipse path through Africa

Duration, eclipse 2001

Souvenir cloth

Safety signage