Eclipse in Paradise

Thursday, 26 Feb 1998

12° 24' 51"N - 69° 52' 54"W

Totality: 3m 34s

Recreation of the eclipse in Adobe Photoshop. The banding is due to the number of colors displayable by web browsers. At the bottom are captions in Papiamento and Dutch, the two official languages of Aruba. The original is beautiful, with every element sharp and visible. E-mail me if you'd like one!
But, please, read
this first, describing why I have to charge what it costs me.

Click on the picture to see it big.

I would recommend that everyone go to this link to read Fred Espenak's wonderful account of this eclipse, and the weather problems he experienced on a different part of the island. It's a great story! In satellite pictures of the Caribbean, you can clearly see the two sets of clouds that built over Aruba, then dissipated as if by magic right before totality!

Ah, Aruba! Everyone I talked to about this trip before I went on it seemed jealous. The place seems so exotic, so romantic, such a wonderful place to go on vacation, that these people would be shocked when they found out I was only going for four days, without my wife, with the main focus being to see an eclipse. Huh? Oh well, just another plane ride to the shadow, I figured. At least it would be warm.

A personal aside:

The most notable non-eclipse-related thing about this trip that sticks out in my mind is the fact that I had just quit my job before I went on it. I had been at this job for a while, but since getting married, the hours had begun to take their toll, and the boss and I weren't getting along like we had before. The week before eclipse week, our relationship deteriorated rapidly to the point where, on Friday the 20th, I walked out, never to return. I was to go to Aruba on Tuesday, with no job to come back to, and a wife who was five months pregnant (and having some complications). Hmmmmm.

Fortunately, I met someone on the intervening Sunday who put me onto a lead that eventually panned out, so my job transition was pretty seamless. But, as I boarded that plane, as I watched that eclipse, and as I came back home, it was completely without the knowledge of where my next paycheck would be coming from. The fact that this didn't stress me to the point of incapacitation is proof of the power of eclipses!

This was a good trip. I mean, how can you possibly go wrong if you're going to head to the Caribbean in the middle of winter, right? Aruba was only one of the many places this eclipse would be visible from, and some people decided to make this the time they would do the whole thing from a ship. Not me. My main thing is to get some pictures, and I really believe the process of photographing an eclipse is made more difficult by attempting it from a rolling ship's deck.

I found a tour company in 1996 who was planning to go to Aruba, and starting sending my payments in. This trip wouldn't be as expensive as the one to Peru, so I was in business from the beginning. I also pulled off a major coup: My dad - who thought that all this running around the world (to see something that couldn't possibly be more exciting than watching the sun rise in the morning) was stupid - let me talk him into going with me! He'd take his wife, and they could then have some time in Aruba, and we'd all have a good time.

Well, there aren't too many horror stories here. Going with the tour group really made it a lot easier than it could have been. For starters, every hotel on the island is outrageously expensive. I know that they have no natural resources (they have to ship everything in; milk was about $6 a gallon!), very little land area (the whole island is only about 5 miles by 20 miles), and they depend on tourism for their livelihood, but I don't think there is one single hotel room to be found for under $150/night. Combine that with the once-in-a-lifetime tourist gouge possibilities of an eclipse, and you have the makings of a financial nightmare for the foolhardy tour-groupless traveler.

We had a very nice trip, though. The flight down was a little long, because I wanted to take the same airline from Indy to Miami as the tour company was taking from Miami to Oranjestad. That meant I'd have to fly on a certain type of airplane from Indy to Chicago that had previously been involved in a pretty famous accident, and I wouldn't do that. So, we took the long way through Dallas. Also, because of the times of the flights between Miami and O-stad, we were forced to spend a night in Miami on each end. That added to the expense, but was a nice buffer between home and the completely different world that any resort island necessarily is.

Aruba is a different world. When you think of Caribbean islands, you think of tropical breezes blowing through palm trees, and a completely lazy atmosphere where you can do nothing if you feel like it. That's not quite how it is in Aruba. First of all, an almost constant 25-30 mph wind blows from the northeast. This is a challenge to your comfort at times, let alone to the prospect of trying to set up a stable eclipse viewing instrument! Also, there are no palm trees to be found anywhere. The whole island is basically desert, and there is actually cactus growing on the beach! It's dry, and there are no areas of green grass anywhere. It's really true that they have to ship everything in; we didn't see anything except tourism that you could call a natural resource. Not farming, especially! I'm sure there were fishermen, and we happened to view the eclipse in reasonably close proximity to a huge power station and a jail. Well, it's somewhat of an industry....

The language barrier wasn't too bad for me, either. Of course, like everywhere in the world, if they want your money they speak English. Those that didn't almost always spoke Spanish, because of all the South Americans who come to Aruba to work. (Aruba is only 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela). The native language of Aruba is Papiamento, a pidgin that alternately reminds one of Spanish, some unknown hodgepodge Caribbean language, and Dutch. The latter is actually the official language of the island, though the authorities have relaxed restrictions on its use. It used to be that if you wanted to have any dealing with the government at all, you had to do it in Dutch. This has been eased, and Papiamento is now seen on TV, in the newspapers, and on bilingual signage on the roads. It's also possible to hear Papiamento being used in the schools.

The tour company had everything mapped out, but the McGlaun clan was true to form in its rejection of all things touristy. We rented our own vehicle, and trekked alone around the entire island. (Heck, it only takes a half hour to drive it from top to bottom!) We found our own attractions, our own meals, our own parking spaces next to the hotel (this was the biggest challenge). This gave us all the freedom we needed, while having been with the group in the first place took off our shoulders the responsibility of finding accomodations and a suitable eclipse viewing site. Fortunately, I had reserved the rental car ahead of time, because there were none to be had without a reservation on our arrival! (Even with a rez, it can sometimes be hard to talk them into giving you a vehicle! In this case, all they had left were 4x4 Suzuki Samurais.)

Most of what we wanted to see could be done on foot anyway. The entire tourist area of Oranjestad lies within a six-block strip on the main road, and our hotel was smack dab in the middle of it. This made it pretty easy to go out and do whatever you wanted to do - walk on the beach, have a sit-down meal, have a fast-food meal, go shopping, gamble, drink, whatever.

It had been since 1993 that I'd seen the Southern Cross, so I renewed my relationship with it from the hotel's open-air second-floor pool area one late night. As I always do, I put mine and my wife's names on something I thought would be semi-permanent (in this case, the wall of a Mexican restaurant that had a wall expressly for this purpose). I also took off by myself at one point, and navigated the Samurai effortlessly (?) through the mars-like rock and sand garden that is the island's northernmost beach.

But the main reason for our visit was the eclipse. (That's all the transition you get, with apologies to my High School English teacher!) I hadn't prepared or gotten as excited for this one as much as I had before. Until we got there, at least. It was a madhouse at the airport, then it took several hours to get the rental car we'd reserved, then we got lost a couple of times trying to stay on the main road up north into town, and finally, we were in our hotel, with little time to get our bearings and relax before it was time to think about food.

We tried to eat out every night. Fortunately, with everything being right together as it was, this wasn't too hard to do. We could walk to everything except the Outback Steakhouse and Wendy's. One restaurant that disappointed me was one I'd read a lot about before we left - Bunununu's. That's right, Bu-nu-nu-nu's. Small accent on the first syllable, big one on the third. (Just like tourists to put the beat on one and three, eh?) This place was fancy enough, but the service was really awful, even by the laid-back standards of the islands. We left and went to a Mexican place instead. The margaritas were much better!

Before I get into the activities of eclipse day, though, I need to share something with you. Something embarrassing. Something that, if it got out, would pretty much destroy my reputation as a tried-and-true, veteran eclipser who has all of his ducks in a row. It's really badů.

You know how, when you realize you've done something really bonehead, how for just a split second your brain goes through that litany of feelings that only take a second, but seem like forever? You get that helpless feeling, where you know there's really nothing you can do, and you may have really screwed up bad this time? Well, I got that feeling on this trip. Me! Mr. Preparedness, Mr. Checklist, Mr. I-know-exactly-what-I'm-doing. I got this strange feeling, just as our plane was leaving the runway in Indy, that something was really wrong, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then, as the plane circled, the sun hit my eyes, I thought about my sunglasses, and then it hit me - my mylar filters, the ones that you use to cover your camera and telescope lenses during the partial phases of the eclipse, the ones I'd meticulously ordered the material for, made, tested, and made a mental note not to forget at any cost, were at that moment still sitting on my desk at home.

You have no idea how helpless I felt for the fraction of a second it took me to realize that I was going to have a much bigger challenge at this eclipse! Without those filters, there's no way you can get your cameras set up, focused, or tested, because you can't very well set them up pointing into the sun. You'd go blind trying to look through them, and the lenses themselves would crack under the intense heat build-up they'd undergo. What was I going to do? I thought seriously about having my wife next-day them to me, but discounted that pretty quick. They'd never make it, even though there was still a couple of days left till the eclipse. Things just have a way of not making it in time when international travel is involved, and I didn't want to have to put her through that anyway. It wasn't her fault!

I confessed all this to my dad, who wasn't real impressed with my carelessness. I then had to come up with an alternate plan - something feasible that would get the job done, and could be scrounged in the two days I had left. As it turned out, I was OK, though. I had only brought two lenses and one video camera that I was going to use. While in Aruba, I found a few of those cheap little eclipse glasses (that are distributed to people wanting to eyeball the partial phases), and cannibalized them with some tape (which I'd also forgotten to bring). At the pre-eclipse dinner on Wednesday night, I had asked the speaker to please mention my plight in his
post-lecture comments, and someone actually gave me a piece of his mylar to improvise with. That stuff isn't cheap, and I sure appreciated it. Another guy came up to me, and gave the coolest suggestion I'd heard of in a while - a pop-tart wrapper. I hadn't yet read about all the crazy things people have started using lately (like CDs, floppy-disk cookies, certain kinds of exposed film, welder's glass, etc.), and this seemed a little strange. But you know what? Even though they're not really safe for visual viewing, a double thickness of pop-tart wrapper was just the thing for what I needed. And I didn't even have to buy it - I found one on the ground....

Waking up on eclipse morning, I knew that there was no way I was going to get anything accomplished, from being so excited. The eclipse wasn't until early afternoon, but I had no desire to do anything but head right out to the eclipse site. We had our place already scouted, and were happy yet again that we'd come with a tour group. The southern tip of the island (a place called Baby Beach) was off limits unless you had a pass which, of course, the tour companies had been given.) There were to be no logistical challenges like I'd faced in 1994, but other things ended up getting in the way. Do I dare say it? Shhhhhh... come real close, and I'll whisper it to you....We had a real...problem...with.....C..l..o..u..d..s....

Clouds? What do you mean, clouds? This is Aruba! The weather was supposed to be perfect, and people who had been on the island for days before the eclipse said that there had not been any problems at all around eclipse time. So what were we worried about? Well, I'll tell you. We got to the site in wonderful sunshine, absolutely nothing to worry about. Well, around 10:00 or so, this layer of altostratus we'd been watching form started turning a little foul. The more I watched it, the worse it got, till you couldn't even see the sun through it. My dad was a weather forecaster in the Air Force, and I'm an instrument-rated pilot, and everything we knew about weather told us this situation was not going well.

I thought that the irony of the situation was terrible. I'd spent so long trying to convince my dad that eclipses really were cool enough to justify traveling around the world to see them, and had thought that now, for sure, he was at last going to get to see what I'd been raving about for so long. I had actually managed to get him there, to a location that was almost guaranteed to have good weather, and would probably never have that opportunity again. And now, just a couple of hours before first contact, here we were watching this layer of stratus get thicker and thicker. The lifting action caused by the island's terrain as the wind blew in was not
helping the situation. The clouds actually built up into well-formed cumulus, and a slight amount of rain eventually began to fall. I was devastated.

Of course, the story has a happy ending, because we saw the eclipse. But I swear, I didn't think we were going to get to until about half an hour before totality! That's right, we missed most of the partial phases, and so the normal huge build-up of excitement you have just wasn't there. Well, it was, but having been condensed into about 30 minutes, the effect just wasn't the same. We had a very clear sky for totality, and I was very happy. But a couple of miles north, back at our hotel, the clouds were a real problem. They didn't magically go away for the people who had chosen to stay there, and, as I saw on the videotapes later, those individuals had missed quite a bit of totality.

There were a couple of other things that happened which are worth mentioning. Everything was going great for me during totality (except for the fact that I'd forgotten to remove the mylar filter from in front of my video camera lens, which was OK, because I found out about it and removed it before 3rd contact, and because the audio was still classic!), but there was this lady who came up to me during totality and started asking me about which planets those were. In my excitement, I completely forgot to be rude to her and tell her to get the heck out of my space NOW, and I started talking to her about, yeah, that's Venus, and, oh yeah, that black one in the middle, that's the sun (du-huh, du-huh). I didn't miss my quiet time where I just look and remember, but I got to thinking afterward about how rude that was of her to do. Maybe it didn't seem that way at the time, and I really think that her action was unintentional, but forgive me - coming up to me during totality and starting up a conversation? You might as well walk in on someone while they're having sex, or in confessional, or meditating, or giving birth. I can't explain that feeling, and I don't have anything against her, but it just know, wrong.

The other thing that hit me about my eclipse experience this time was the airliner that took off from Oranjestad airport just after first contact. Excuse me? I can't even imagine coming to such an overpriced, windswept desert island for anything but an eclipse (unless you have family who live there or something), and to see people who came there for a trip, and left a couple of hours before what would have been one of the most exciting experiences of their lives, well, just what in the hell were they thinking?? I was videotaping at the time, and my offhand comment pretty much sums it all up perfectly. Go here to hear what I said. Yes, those are waves crashing on the beach in the background!

Space shuttle view of the island; it's only 20 miles or so from NW to SE! For the eclipse, we were on the far southeastern tip.

Stamps issued in honor of the eclipse

Storm clouds an hour before first contact. Yes, that stuff is rain!

GOES-10 satellite view of the shadow's movement

My dad doing the eclipse thing

Other pictures in the travel page on Aruba.


© 1998-1999 Dan McGlaun