The Sun, the Sand, the Shadow!
Wednesday, 29 March 2006
(28 Safar 1427AH)

31° 34' 4".6 N - 25° 7' 24".2 E

Salloum Plateau, Egypt
(VIP Eclipse Viewing Area)

Totality: 3m55s

A somewhat motley group of mostly American and British tourists, traipsing around a small tourist-starved town in the deserts of central Egypt on a cool Tuesday night in springtime, lugging their bags of hard-won chocolate bars and potato chips, dreaming of the hot shower that would not be forthcoming for at least another day, searching in vain for the ultimate prize that had led them to this remote outpost: Plastic Folding Chairs.

The exact set of circumstances which could have lead to this scenario is quite difficult to imagine, yet there we were. I say "we", because of course, I was there, right along with the others. I had my snacks. I wanted a plastic folding chair, too.

But in the end, only a select few of us ended up with the treasure. Having been first in line at the small roadside plastic-goods merchant's stand, these few succeeded where the rest of us had failed, and left us with only empty cardboard boxes, the pain of unrequited longing, and the strange look on an Egyptian man's face which could only mean that had his inventory been up to snuff on that particular Tuesday evening, his dreams of higher education for his children could at last have been fulfilled.

We'd voted on it, after all. We'd made the decision to be there, searching for the chairs that would accompany us into the cold, remote desert night, while warm beds in a seaside Mediterranean resort that had been opened on this off-season evening just for us, in rooms that had been bought and paid for - lay dormant and unused. Except, that is, for their covers and bedspreads.

Maybe I'd better start at the beginning.

This was a wonderful trip, to a wonderful country that turned out to be the most friendly hosts I could imagine. The excitement of getting to see Egypt with all its historical treasures, combined with an eclipse, was simply too much to pass up. I pestered my wife until she let me go. (Sometimes I wonder if she's not counting the days till the next eclipse just like I do, but for altogether different reasons...)

I need to say one thing about the culture of Egypt, though, just to say that I've said my piece. Westerners have this view of Muslim countries that makes them out to be very backward, very medieval, very disrespectful of women and such. But I have to say, the men in Egypt were anything but "backwards". Even when just walking around the dusty streets, they wore what would be considered every bit of business casual in America. And their personal grooming was quite impeccable. The cars may not have been in pristine shape, but to look at the people walking down the street, these were people who were very proud of who they were, and of the face they presented to those around them. That was very respectable, and I felt the honor and dignity of the place the whole time I was there.

And, I will say something about the women who choose to cover themselves with the veil and other coverings required of their faith. Hardly a prison to contain them, their coverings were a badge of honor they wore very proudly. Our tour guides, for instance, were highly educated, highly articulate and intelligent young ladies who would've been a great complement to the lives of any man who would have found himself in a position to join a life-partnership with them. They were very straightforward about it, too - covering themselves made them feel as though they were the prize they had every right to expect themselves to be, and it would be their privilege to force any man who wanted to look at them twice to have to use his imagination about their outward appearance until he'd proven himself worthy to the parts of them that truly defined who they were. A great lesson for Western women, and further proof that 'different' does by no means imply 'inferior'.

We saw the pyramids, we saw the sphinx, we saw the library at Alexandria (the modern one - I so wanted to get a library card!), and bless their hearts, the tour company we were with did everything they could to whirlwind us around to all the various sights without being too "touristy" about it. But there were only a few first-timers on this trip, and one got the distinct impression that there was not much, even in this magical place, that would keep us from our primary goal.

As we pushed westward into the desert from Alexandria for the half-day journey to our resting place for the night, some real questions came up. Egypt is still a third-world country, and beauracracy certainly continues to hold its share of sway over most of the things that happen there. Our guides were well-connected, and the owner of the travel agency even had a cousin who knew President Mubarak himself. So, if there were a place to see the eclipse from, we would be certain to be there - right? Well, maybe. There had been word that the country had prepared a wonderful place for all the eclipse-chasers from around the world who would choose to converge on the tiny little corner in the northwestern part of the country near Salloum, which was the only spot in Egypt where the path of totality would pass over. They had indeed prepared a wonderful place, but they also knew that as word of that place spread, the onslaught of undesirables (those who hadn't had their reservations made months in advance) would turn the place into a chaotic, hectic nightmare of inhospitability that simply could not be allowed to proceed.

The rumor was that they were going to close down the whole place, and not let anyone in. Yikes...

With only one road to Salloum, and only one road up the side of the huge plateau to the west of town where everyone would be congregating, the prospects of staying in our nice, rented bungalos the night before, followed by a leisurely drive up the mountain to our reserved viewing site the next morning, looked somewhat dim. Once we found that they were indeed going to be closing the road into Salloum early on eclipse morning, it was time to make a choice. The resort we were going to stay in that night before the eclipse had been opened up just for us, and it was very nice. 50 miles or so from the path, but nice nevertheless. One doesn't always think of Egypt as having wonderful beaches, but of course it does - right on the Mediterranean! And my particular cabin was about 200 yards from the beach. Nice and warm, with all the amenities and no one but our group around to disturb the tranquility, and we were faced with having to stay there on eclipse day, or maybe having to view the eclipse from the bus on the side of the road, logjammed into a roadblock in the middle of an otherwise deserted desert road? As I said: Yikes.

We all got together around dinner time and took a vote - we'd be heading out right away, that night, and would get into Salloum before they had the chance to close the road. Nashwa (the travel agency owner) made all the right calls, and was assured that we'd be allowed in if we'd get there ASAP. So, we had an hour to get packed, shower for the only time we'd get to in the next 36 hours or so, pull the blankets off the bed for the cold trip ahead (packing them carefully away so as not to incur the wrath of the resort owner who would've been petrified to see his blankets donned by weird foreigners traipsing off into the night), and reconvene for the long ride to Salloum. My batteries for the camcorders were not fully charged, but I did the best I could. I even packed out a little toy plastic folding chair that had been in my cabin.

We got on the bus, and mostly slept as it trudged rhythmically through the blackness. It was a long drive west to Marsah Matrouh, and we needed to stop there to make sure we had supplies for the long trip and long day ahead. No one knew exactly what kind of accommodations would be awaiting us in the "official" eclipse viewing area, so we assumed the worst. That meant, whatever clothes and blankets and chairs we had on us, was going to be what we had - period. The buses would have to leave us there, and so there would be no "base" to spend the resst of the night in, nor any of the following morning before eclipse time. And it was pretty chilly when we got off that bus in Marsah at 9:30pm or so.

Anyway, we found various little streetside shops to sell us snacks, candy, drinks, etc, for the long bus ride that faced us. No one sold blankets, though, and I remember thinking that in a worst case scenario, the little blanket I'd temporarily pilfered from my bed in the bungalow, combined with the light jacket which was the only outer clothing I'd brought on this trip, would not be nearly enough to keep away the effects of hypothermia. Plus, we all had that excitement of anticipation and adrenaline that keeps you awake long after you know you should rightfully be asleep, and I was very worried that the lack of sleep would render me unable to focus on the next day's critical tasks. Some of our group found beer (the most alcoholic thing you can find in Egypt), and actually drank a couple. This seemed to me to be a bit presumptuous of the quality of "facilities" we'd be likely to encounter over the next few hours, and I graciously abstained.

My fears about lack of sleep were well-founded, because I didn't sleep at all on the bus. As we got closer and closer to the viewing site in the wee hours of eclipse morning, I remember thinking that I was likely to daze my way through the entire event, and that it was a good thing I'd left the intricacies of an Umbraphile setup back home for this eclipse!

We made it through the checkpoint that would be closing in only a few hours' time, and trundled up the side of the high plateau to whatever viewing area awaited us. It was decidedly cold, even in the bus, and we were fearing the worst as the bus made its final turn. We could see hordes of people, though, and huge tents lined up all along both sides of the road. Row after row of buildings, large circus-style tents, port-a-potties, and even telephone stations, all set up by the Egyptian government in preparation for the onslaught of VIPs that it was now becoming obvious that we were! I couldn't believe our luck, and to this day, I'm astounded that so much infrastructure could have been thrown up so efficiently and thoughtfully by the government for us.

It wasn't just for us, though. This was apparently THE official eclipse viewing area for all the scientists, journalists, politicians, military, and any VIP who could make their way west, with whatever entourage they felt compelled to bring along. It was like a gigantic eclipse convention in the middle of nowhere, and we were going to be a part of it.

The official badge we were issued at the eclipse viewing site

The tents would keep away the hypothermia, if for no other reason than to block any wind that might stir up, and to keep in any heat from the many people who were staking out their spots to pass the next few hours. The ground was covered with nice rugs, but they were lying on bare earth, and were quite cold. I found a few chairs, and set them up in a row to act like a very hard bed to stretch out on. Wrapped in my blanket, with nothing but the light jacket and basically a T-shirt underneath, I soon became very cold. Teeth-chatteringly cold. But there was little I could do about it, other than tough it out till morning. Not much sleep at all in that situation, either.

A couple of times, I braved the cold (with the blanket wrapped around me) to head over to a potty. On one of those occasions, as I stumbled through the very foggy morning (and dodged some very die-hard Japanese scientists who had already begun setting up some equipment in the dewy pre-dawn fog), I saw a huge building that looked very official. Some guards were ostensibly in position at the door, but my badge gained me entry to what I thought might have been a heated building, where I could very slowly walk around in a quite official manner, using every available minute they'd allow me to soak up every last bit of warmth.

Well, the building wasn't heated, and it was only slightly warmer than the outside. Some of this was due to the fact that it was a substantial building (though it too had been built solely for the eclipse), but also, there was some heat being generated by the (!) walls full of computers that had been set up for - get this - Internet access! E-mail! And eBay! That was too good to be true, and I availed myself of it immediately. I sent an e-mail to work, letting them know where I was and what I was doing (it was the middle of third shift, Indiana time). I'm sure that went over well. But it did serve to warm my fingers up a little bit, at least.

When I finally shut down, cleared the Internet cache, and got re-wrapped up for the excursion back into the cold, the fog had gotten a lot thicker. Even though dawn was starting to break, the thick fog almost offset the extra light, and so it was still just about as dark outside as it had been an hour before. I made my way back to the tent, though, and started thinking about getting ready the stuff I'd need to watch the eclipse. Stuff? What stuff? I only had one video camera, two regular cameras and the three attendant tripods. It would only take 10 minutes to set that up. Still, I started fumbling with stuff, just to try and determine what I'd forgotten to bring on this trip that I'd have to figure out a way to do without.

Turns out I hadn't forgotten anything, and my setup was actually put together and torn down several times before I finally decided on the right spot.  After dawn broke, we were all treated to a wonderful sunrise, the sun hanging low in the east as a perfect orange ball with most of the edge taken off by the thick layer of fog that shrouded the horizon.  There were some worries of clouds forming from this, but they turned out to be completely unwarranted.  The guards began setting up metal detectors at the tents, I guess for nothing better to do as all the people who were going to show up were already there, and we'd been coming and going into the huge tent for hours.  But no, the tent we'd been staying in was designated as the official staging area for the scientists, and so now anyone who wanted to enter or leave would have to avoid the huge, open sides of the ten and make their way to the one metal-detecting portal at the front - and attended by very fierce looking bomb-sniffing dogs.  Truly a keystone cop scenario, but we soon found out the reasons behind so many precautions when the President arrived.

President Mubarak arrived on a helicopter with a couple of hours to go until totality, and the guards truly snapped to as his motorcade drove past.  Where on earth do they get all these soldiers?  I swear every soldier in Egypt must have been standing within 100 yards of me as they formed a human chain on the sides of the dirt road his limo parade drove down.  The procession made its way to a tent much nicer than ours, about 300 yards or so down the trail a bit.  He would be watching the eclipse in private.

The carnival atmosphere surrounding our tent picked up tremendously, as the more than 1,000 people on hand readied themselves for a spectacular show.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  I worked with the guides to talk to people about the eclipse.  I gave an interview on Egyptian TV, with the obligatory thanks to the locals for having put up such a wonderful viewing area and being such gracious hosts.  Yes, it's a very beautiful country and I'm having a great time and the pyramids were wonderful....  All of which was true.  I handed out eclipse glasses to anyone who wanted them, and that privilege quickly became abused as more people flocked to me.  One of the guides helped me out by shooing everyone away, and admonishing me that I was being just a little too giving - people would take advantage of that.  She was right.

(To be continued...)

I'd like to say one final thing about the people in Egypt, and I don't know where my point was better exemplified than by this little episode I had outside the library at Alexandria. While we were visiting the library, I'd left my bag 'o stuff that I always carry around (a little handbag for my money, passport, wallet, cameras, etc) in the bus. Totally safe, and better there than with me, because I didn't think there'd be any need to have it with me inside. Well, in the library was this gift shop, and I cannot avoid the temptations of a gift shop, no matter the language or the time zone. Anyway, I found some things I wanted to get, and my total came up to a little bit more than I had on me. So, I left the library to go back to the bus, and one of our guides caught my arm and asked where I was going. "Back to the bus to get a little money." It was about four blocks or so, and he said no, not to walk that far, no need to go all that way, "how much do you need?" "Oh, you don't need to do that..." "Sure, sure, no problem. How much? $20?" "Well, yeah, sure, that'd be enough, and I'll pay you back..." He handed me a twenty, and turned me back around to the front door.

Thus financially enabled, I made all my purchases, made it back to the bus, and eventually, we got back to the hotel for the night. It was a very swank hotel, and in the mad luggage rush (accompanied by the lure of additional gift shops), I couldn't find the guy to pay him back before everyone had scattered for the rooms. Oh well, there'd always be the morning.

The next morning, I found him almost immediately, and went into my pocket for a $20 bill. I handed it to him, and he looked at me like I was the second man that hour who'd offered to buy his daughter for a very low price. I told him it was for last night (I didn't put it quite like that, not in a Muslim country...), and as it dawned on him that I was paying him back for his generosity the previous day, he got the biggest smile on his face. I thought I was doing something wrong, literally, as he laughed, put his arm around me and grabbed my shoulder really hard. He pointed at me, and yelled out to everyone around him, that "this is a very good man, right here, you know?" He was smiling ear to ear as he took the money, and even later that day whenever he saw me, he'd chuckle and point a 'you-da-man' finger at me.

This is the difference between business and personal dealings in a country like Egypt. In America, we equate money with business, and it is a sign of a person's uprighteousness (I guess) that they make good on all their debts. (At least, that's the way I feel about it.) If someone loans you money, you should pay it back, right? Well, this man (who kept very dutiful track of every penny owed to his company for all the extras the guests indulged in) had no expectation at all that I was going to pay him back for the personal gesture of assistance he'd given me. I learned later that Egyptians are very proud of their generosity and their hospitality. Giving to someone in their time of need isn't something that's expected to be repaid. You do for your friends when they need you, and they do for you when you need them. It's understood, it's expected, it's one of the things we see as weird and imposing about people from that culture, but it was also the cause of my new friend's amusement. I'd almost offended him by trying to pay him back! It would've been far better for me to buy him lunch or something like that, not as a payback, but just as a simple gesture of "I want to do something for you". He did the cultural double-take when I handed him the twenty, and his laughter was at himself as much as to me, for his having forgotten that my paying him back was as important to my dignity as his not expecting to be paid back was to his.

A very valuable lesson for both of us.

The "sunset on the horizon" during totality. (This gives you an idea of how dark it gets!)

Yours truly being interviewed by Egyptian TV - I'm famous!!!

(Thanks to my travel companion Ben Hu for this picture!!)

My story isn't done yet, as you can see above. But for now, I'll fulfill a couple of promises I made on the trip:

Hello, Alejandro and Jen and Giuseppe and Katarina!

and Nerma and Dalia and Nashwa and Hashem and Hussein and everyone from

(I hope I spelled your names right!)

The day after the eclipse, the large Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram published a nice article along with
these photos of President Mubarak and his wife (viewing the eclipse just up the path from us!)

Go here to read the article

GOES weather satellite photo of the shadow as it approaches the West coast of Africa

The ISS astronauts also saw the shadow. In this picture, SE is up, and that's Cyprus
at the top. The shadow is over the Mediterranean, about to hit Turkey!


© 2006 Dan McGlaun