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

 

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

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

Close call

White puffy clouds filled the blue sky on eclipse day, and we eyed them nervously. The odds of the eclipse being obscured looked higher than 50-50, and prompted much discussion among the organizers.

Ashore, chances for good weather were fair—but if cumulus clouds formed, we were SOL unless it was sufficiently windy. Those on land would at least be ensured a fun day playing on the beach, or we could shop in the clean, touristy, Netherlandic town while we waited for totality.

Option 2: remain aboard the maneuverable ship that could be positioned under a cloudless patch in the sky at 2:09. The downside was a drag, though: no special area was reserved by the tour group—meaning jostling for position with the 2000 non-astronomers also on board—and there would be fewer diversions during the long hours of partiality.

I pitted out over this decision, and in the end Susan and I decided to roll the dice and accept the offer to stake out a section of beach in Oranjestad, Aruba, where we could snorkel DePalm Island. At 7:30 a.m. we waved goodbye to the Fascination, sailing south toward improved chances (and a longer TSE near the centerline).

It was definitely a nail-biter with clouds overhead all day, but the sky cleared beautifully for totality. There were happy smiles all around when the ship docked to pick us up; skies were clear at sea as well.

Above: Ominous clouds (cue the theme from Jaws)

Below:

Welcome to have fun at DePalm Island

Partial viewing

Three for three!