Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mooned

Soloum, Egypt

Last night, we were picked up at our hotel by a driver (name unknown - he don't speak much English) and drove all night to the northwest corner of Egypt to view a solar eclipse. The drive itself was long (eight hours) and unremarkable. We broke up some of the monotony by getting to know the passenger sharing our car. Chris was from Hong Kong and was something of an eclipse nut. This was his fifth outing. He connected the spiritual sustenance he derives from Tai Chi (sp?) to the mystical power (maybe not the right term) of celestial events. He specifically believed that eclipses can successfully sow union in fields formerly reserved for discord and potatoes. He was an earnest man who seemed to take things immediately and thoroughly to heart.

We broke our journey only for the necessities of nature - urination, caffeination, and smokes. Our driver had a worryingly strong appetite for espresso and strong cigarettes. Nonetheless, we arrived safely at the eclipse site sometime around 04:00. There was a small amount of unpleasantness at the entrance to Soloum. I took great exception to being charged 100 Egyptian pounds (20 US dollars - only paid by non-Egyptians) to enter the viewing area. We were essentially getting charged to look at the sky, but we had little choice, so dough was coughed up in phlegmy wads. Even an apparently free resource like heavens can be monopolized if you control the only road. In retrospect, I can hardly blame the locals for cashing in. This eclipse was probably the biggest thing to happen in town since Rommel.

The viewing site was far more organized that I expected. There was a cafe selling tea and simple cold food, a press center, clean bathrooms, a large tent with comfortable chairs, and a snack bar dispensing a variety of packaged foods. I immediately noticed the distinctive blinking lights of a router/switch among a pile of equipment and popped open my laptop. I was rewarded with five full bars of wireless connectivity. I immediately set about bugging people via IM about how I was chatting to them in the middle of a desert. Technology rules. We settled in for a bit and passed the hours pacing around to stay warm and watching other people arrive and get their (sometimes volumnious) gear sorted.

A stubborn fog kept things cold even after the sunrise. I was definitely not winning an fashion awards with my attire - multiple hastily-assembled layers paired with a red fez that I had acquired in Cairo. Jason assured me (and continues to assure me) that I looked very silly indeed. I can only assume that the correspondent from Egypt TV had comedy in mind when she asked us to take part in a live interview. According to her, we were seen by millions of Egyptian TV viewers. Jason got to say a few words about the eclipse. I was (perhaps wisely) denied the opportunity to address the nation and had to be content with smiling awkwardly at the camera. The crew claims that it is not possible to get a tape of the broadcast. We will follow up on this later. The OC has not received this much journalistic attention since we appeared in a Vietnamese communist newspaper way back in the day.

After our television debut, it was warm enough to shed a few layers and break out that most ingenious of all time-wasting devices: the hacky sack. We only managed to attract one other player - a student for the American University of Cairo - before wilting under the disapproving stares of the Egyptian secret service. President Mubarak was nearby (less than 50 meters) to view the eclipse, so security was very tight. There were no fewer than 5 different kinds of police and military running around setting up traffic cones and otherwise trying to look official. As far as I can tell, their efforts were a complete joke. On entering the main tent, you had to pass through a metal detector, but your bags were just put aside to be collected a moment later without inspection. Even the most boneheaded assassin could have beat that system.

Things started to pick up as we approached 11 AM and the first kiss of sun and moon. Bearded nerds fiddled excitedly with their equipment as everybody made a few last minute adjustments. A contingent of legit scientists (including one very animated Ukrainian astronomer in a sheik-style headdress) announced the start and all eyes went skyward. We had managed to score some of those fancy mylar eclipse glasses from an ambiguously European woman and some chairs from the main tent and were thus well equipped for a civilized observation of the event. We shot some stills and a bunch of video using the glasses for filtration and some books to steady the camera. The arrangement (however ghetto) seems to have worked well, but nothing we shot really looked like much up until the time that the moon completely covered the sun.

The moment of "totality" was groin-grabbingly awesome. As the disk of the sun disappeared, the darkening of the sky seemed to accelerate. When the very last sliver of orange slipped away, it felt like somebody had flipped a light switch and the whole world went dark. It was now safe to look directly at the corona of the sun leaking out from behind the moon. For the very first moments there was a pronounced "diamond ring" effect where light spilt through a lunar canyon, making one point on the circumference momentarily more dazzling than the rest. To the naked eye, the ring appeared to be a bright, icy blue/white. Even serially-unimpressed Jason went so far as to say "wow". After a few minutes of slacked-jawed staring, we set about taking photos of The OC with eclipse. We made it just in time. I snapped a last picture of Jason just as the sun started to re-emerge. Two seconds later, somebody flipped the switch back on and the sun started to re-emerge. The assembled crowd gave a little cheer while the devout Muslims present responded to a well-timed call to prayer.

Getting to view the eclipse was a happy coincidence for us. Thanks to Juan for the heads up. He gave us more credit than was due when congratulating our foresight a few weeks back. The long drive into the desert organized at the last minute was well worth it. Our new friend Chris seemed very pleased with his fifth eclipse. Although I did not see any clear evidence of increased peace or brotherhood, I am sure that our appearance on Egyptian television will go a long way towards cementing the bonds among the family of men. I looked damn good in that fez.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm impressed by the quality of the pictures from your jury-rigged apparatus. MacGyvers are roaming everywhere.

-Kevin

3/30/2006 5:14 PM gmt

 
Blogger Mik3 said...

Thanks, Kevin.

We had some mylar solar filter paper (begged off a nerd), but not the means to affix it properly to the camera. The glasses seem to have done the trick, though. I'll see about getting some of the video up, but I reckon things move too slow to really see any movement.

3/30/2006 5:28 PM gmt

 
Blogger Juan C Nuno said...

Yeah, you hear that world!? It was *I* who fucking hooked our guys up with one of the greatest shows the universe has to offer.

I seriously thought they already knew, them being in the prime viewing zone (or close to it) when it was going to happen. I gave them the heads up, just in case, and lookit that. They didn't know.

I get a satisfaction driving the OC from the comfort of my office here in El Segundo.

It even impressed JASON for chrissakes!

3/30/2006 7:25 PM gmt

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like anybody believes in that "eclipse" nonsense. Another science lie. Jesus says that if the moon gets anywhere near the sun, it would catch fire.

By Jesus, I am referring to my gardener, but he knows lots of things.

3/30/2006 9:25 PM gmt

 

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