Long Trip, Short Eclipse

Tuesday, 24 Oct 1995

Fatehpur Sikri, India
27° 5' 50"N - 77° 39' 58"E

Totality: 0m52s

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

Click on the picture to see it big.

I made the decision to go to this eclipse come hell or high water immediately after the debacle in Miami. I was bound and determined that I was now going to see as many of these things as I could, and, as travel was now old hat to me, I didn't care that I'd be going almost exactly halfway around the world to get less than a minute of totality. I mean, come on! How can you go to a country like India and not expect to have a great time? The weather prospects were perfect, and I found a pretty good fare after a lot of phone calls ($1600 on Delta). I'd get to see the Taj Mahal, experience an exotic and mysterious culture that really is a world away from what Americans are used to, and, on the way back, I'd get to spend over a week in Germany (to be there for a Berlin Philharmonic performance, which, by the way, was absolutely earth-shatteringly wonderful!). I speak almost fluent German, and I always welcome the chance to get in some practice where it really counts. Turns out I didn't do too badly, and with being able to see the Wall and actually go to what was the old East Germany, well, there were just too many reasons to talk myself into going!

India is a great country. With almost four times the number of people as the US packed into half the area, though, it's got its share of problems. With enough history and culture to last a traveler a lifetime, it's the perfect place to go to if you want to make sure your trip isn't wasted in the event you get clouded out! Of course, that wasn't going to happen on this trip; every indication of the long-range weather forecasts was that India's weather in October is almost guaranteed to be perfect. This proved to be true; in five full days in India, I don't think I saw even one cloud!

The Indian people are wonderful, but you have to remember that, when you travel, you're a stranger in your hosts' world. The locals have got their own ways of doing things, and for you to just show up on their doorstep one day and expect things to be the way you think they should be (for your own comfort) is not only setting yourself up for disappointment, it's downright rude! "When in Rome…" applies nowhere if not to a large, third-world country. I feel very strongly that when you go to a foreign country, you ought to at least know enough of the native language to genuinely convince a native that you're making an effort to assimilate into his culture. Nothing is more fundamental to a person than the language he speaks, and, while all humans have essentially identical thought processes, feelings, dreams and desires, it's the language they've used since birth to shape and express those feelings that comes to be their unconscious identification of themselves as an individual and a culture. When you attempt to learn and use their language, you're giving them a direct, overt validation of the importance of that heritage, and you will almost always find this to be your key to universal acceptance - especially if you need help!

India was occupied and controlled by England for many years, and English still exists in that country to an extent unseen in the rest of Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Before making the trip, I was told by many native Indians here that I didn't need to learn any Hindi, as "everyone there speaks English". I'm not certain how many word-processing programs are designed to be able to use Hindi, but I know it's not many. And some Indians I spoke with said they wouldn't even bother - English was their computing language of choice. I of course had had plenty of time to learn the minimal Hindi I would need to fulfill my requirements ("please", "thank you", counting to ten, and "I don't speak Hindi"), but because of the assurances I'd had, I completely left this item off my list of things to do. That was a mistake. I found that there were so many people I met, and so many situations I got myself into, that knowing some Hindi would have been a great help in enjoying my trip even more. Even my driver, with whom I spent a great deal of time, spoke so little English that I'm sure I missed out on a lot of what he could've been telling me if I'd just taken a little more time to prepare.

Speaking of driving, I will tell you that I can drive a car in Manhattan with not too much difficulty. In a (non-eclipse-related) trip to Mexico I made in 1993, I managed quite well on roads that more resembled a "dodge-the-potholes" video game than an organized effort at actually using a car to get somewhere. In Australia, I learned to drive on the left very quickly, and found it not to be much of a problem, even in downtown Sydney! But India…

[From the journal I kept]

Traffic in India is a doctoral thesis on psychology, anthropology, and physics. There is absolutely no way to describe what driving in an Indian city is like. I could have managed on the so-called "highways", maybe, but the city is just one big…everything, everywhere, all at once. Cars, trucks, bicycles, motor scooters, people walking, pushing carts, camels, elephants, cows, anything you can imagine, literally all over the road. No lanes, no rules, just fill up whatever space there is, coming inches from whatever else just made the space for you. Honk to let them know you're going, then go. To merge in, you both just inch forward until somebody gives way for an instant, and it's done. If someone's coming toward you in your lane, just get to the shoulder. Either one, it doesn't matter. If a cow wants to take a nap in the middle of the road, just go around him. Honk at the bicycles, and they'll get out of the way (just in time). Literally, anything can be anywhere on the street at any time. It's so chaotic, even putting a label like "chaotic" on it makes it seem more orderly than it is. It is not believable.

There's one thing that's no secret - India is a poor country. With so many people, and only so much land to farm, it's inevitable that there will be huge problems making sure the standard of living is up to what is acceptable to humans. India has its problems there, and that's pretty much the reason it gets the label of a third-world country sometimes. But, the way Indians feel about their country and themselves is bit different than what we see on the surface. India has over 5000 years of history, and you can't just brush aside all the contributions that have been made by its people in that staggering amount of time. In all the time I was there, I never saw anything that made me think that these people weren't just the happiest, friendliest, most enjoyable-to-be-around people you could meet. Yes, there are things you see that make you sad, and the food tastes different than what you're used to in America. No, I don't think I could live there, either. But, seeing how happy people can be who really have not too much in the way of material things (by American standards, at least) makes you really think about what's important in your life, and most definitely allows you to put things in their proper perspective when you come back home and the kid at McDonald's forgets to put the cheese on your cheeseburger. And isn't that what traveling is all about? You meet them, they meet you, and you see how different people are, but how much the same they can be. And, if you're lucky, you find out why you're proud to be you, at the same time you're finding something to be envious about in them!

One thing I did really made me feel terrible, though. I took some pictures of these girls, intending to give them some small amount of money, which is a pretty common thing to do the world over. (I think it's how most of those cute kid pictures you see in the magazines get taken.) Anyway, I found out all I had on me was a small bill - about a dollar and a half or so -- not much, right? Well, I gave it to one of the girls, motioning very distinctly and with no question about it that I meant for it to be split among all three girls. Well, I'm not sure if that message got through, and while I was trying to make sure of it, someone saw me give this little bill to this girl, and it was all over. I was almost instantly swamped by at least 25 people who were beggars, and I had to make a quick getaway for the hotel. They followed me, though, and I got into the doorway just in time to see the doorman threatening them with this big stick if they didn't disperse immediately. I couldn't believe what I'd just done, and I apologized up and down to him, but he said it happens all the time. No problem, he said. I couldn't believe how bad I felt, though, and I just went up to my room. I tried to find a pill I could take that would get that "ugly American" disease out of me, but I'd forgotten to pack any....

On to the eclipse, though.

As is my custom, I kept a journal while on this trip. What follows is my entry, in its entirety, from the night of 24 October, describing what I saw at the eclipse site:

The eclipse today was unbelievable. Absolutely incredible. Actually, only about 40 seconds, but much more amazing than I thought. 1991 was the "Big One" for length, and it was beautiful, but today's had personality, and riveting, complex, contrasting textures. Because it was so short, with the moon being farther away from the earth (and therefore covering less area), what it lacked in length was made up for by the masterpiece of pattern and soft and hard light, and even color! Took me totally by surprise. I didn't expect as much as '91, but what we got was wonderful, and proved me wrong!

We went in the car to Fatehpur Sikri, to a beautiful old fortress-like group of buildings from the Moghul times. I think this was a perfect place, because, even though it was 10k or so north of the center line, the atmosphere of the place was very respectful of the fundamentally challenging things you see and feel during an event like this. A man from NYC I met later said that it was great, but he didn't think he'd go halfway around the world to see another one. Too bad. They're all different, all perfect in their own way, and I'm glad for all the local people that were there, who can now say that they've seen the most awesome sight in nature.

We arrived at the site about 7:15, to find it packed. I think even my driver was amazed by the number of people who were there. It had to be a thousand. (They sold a lot of entrance tickets to the fort that day, and no one was taking the tour!) We went inside the gate, and there was a huge courtyard with a perfect view to the southeast. Not a cloud anywhere around! I ran around like a crazy tourist, taking pictures of everyone and everything, and still managed to set up almost completely before Michel [a Belgian eclipser I had met the night before in the hotel] told me he saw first contact. I was the one who yelled "First Contact" as loud as I could, and (though those with telescopes already knew it), the buzz in the crowd started…

I had a snag with one of my autowinders, but got it fixed (I hope). [After getting the film processed, I saw that I didn't get it fixed. Oh well.] Also, I mistakenly opened the back of one of my cameras after l had loaded it! I was getting excited to the point of not being able to think, so I just grabbed a spare roll and reloaded. Played with my focus until it was as good as it was going to be, and counted down. The darkening wasn't noticeable until 15 min. before totality, and really only in the last 5 min. was there a really big buildup. The shadow cone was so narrow, the sky itself didn't ever get really dark! During mid-totality, I think you could almost still read by the light, and the sky was medium dark blue, not purple-dark. Right before second contact, I looked right at the sun, and got the feeling I was looking straight into a pipe. Not dramatic, but definitely a dark shadow area around the sun, tapering to lighter skies around it. A "radial gradient" in Photoshop! Wonderful!

In the half hour before second contact, at least 30 locals came to look through my cameras. They all had questions, so we talked. (I quit talking 5 min. before totality, but before then was open season. Michel wanted me to be careful with my equipment, but no problems.) One man in particular stayed glued to me, wanting to know everything I could tell him about eclipses. He had lived in Houston for a long time, so his English was perfect, but he was from, and now lives in, India. He told me later that my talking before and during the eclipse had made him able to enjoy it ten times more than we otherwise would have. Another convert!

The big moment came. I had no chance of being able to write down exact timings, so I didn't try. I'll get them later [turned out to be 47 sec.]; but, as the last sliver of the sun shrank in the last 15 seconds, I knew it wasn't dark enough. Sure enough, the Diamond Ring came, but it was still too bright. For 5 seconds, I was confused, thinking, "Why?" The sky should be purple, but it was still definitely medium blue. I forgot to take my filters off, so I don't think I have any Diamond Ring pictures. I realized about the filters, and got them off, with a plan to shoot shorter exposures. I bracketed around 1/125th, but I have no clue at this point whether l have any good outer corona shots. [turns out, I don't.] I probably got 30 pictures taken. My goal was 70. Should have done some dry runs, but the brightness of the eclipse crossed my wires for the first five seconds.

As the crescent went, for ten seconds people were yelling, screaming, "Go! Go! Come on! Get out of here! Do it! Go!" It was amazing. Of course, you know it's going to happen, but you get so caught up in the emotion, you can't control it. Group sex is the only analogy I can think of, and I feel very close to everyone who was there at Fatehpur Sikri to see the eclipse that day.

So, I'm very worried about my pictures. I'm sure I got something, but I don't know how usable any of it will be. Even if none of them are OK, though, I did stop for five seconds to burn the image of the eclipsed sun into my brain, and it's there. Just like I can still see '91, I now have a picture of '95 carved into memory, and it'll stay there. What a picture it is, too. The Diamond Ring was incredibly short, maybe a second and a half. Venus was easily visible, though I didn't look for any other stars or planets. This was the quickest 40 seconds you could imagine, and I can account for almost every one of them! All the time, people (probably me, too) were yelling, gasping, staring without moving. The corona just popped into view, but there were two unique things that are the main reasons I think I forgot to take my filters off at first: The shape of the Corona, and The Ring.

This floored me. This eclipse was definitely total; the corona was as obvious as it gets, but we didn't just have Bailey's Beads, we had Bailey's Ring! For the entire eclipse, there was a glowing, pulsating, flickering fiery ring of white around the entire disk of the moon, and the sun was not as dark as I thought it should be. It was like someone had dropped a lid into a pot of boiling water, and the water was bubbling and boiling up around the lid's edge. It was stunning. Also, there was no orange horizon effect. The cone of the shadow was so thin, you could look straight at the eclipsed sun and see the round edges of the shadow itself with one glimpse. Outside that, the sky was a lighter blue, but you could still see the ringed disk, corona, dark halo, and the lighter blue outside, all at once.

Then, the Corona. It's difficult to say what the corona will look like in advance, but it's pretty safe to say it'll be spectacular. This time, because of our low latitude and the fact that the sun had just risen, the ecliptic (sun's path across the sky) was very nearly straight up and down. The corona's main feature was two huge ribbons, one going straight up, the other straight down. Of course, there were lateral features as well, but this up and down piece was VERY dominant. It looked as if the sun were an ebony disk with a shimmering crown, nailed to a pillar of cotton candy and planted in the ground. No adjectives at all to describe it. It surprised me so much, it took a few seconds to be able to think clearly.

So, I don't know how my pictures came out. I know I saw a fantastically short but impossibly gorgeous eclipse that no picture would ever do justice to.

At the Big One in '91, there had been a Public Television documentary filmed in Cabo San Lucas, which (of course!) I watched when it was on TV. I remember them interviewing people on the tape after it was over, and you got to hear the typical comments made by people who are still under the influence of their eclipse adrenaline. The coolest one was when people were bantering back and forth the "When's the next one?" conversations, and India came up. This was over four years away at the time, right? Well, one woman, just nonchalant, matter-of-factly, like she does this kind of thing every day, said, "Oh yeah, India would be nice!" Well, I'm here to tell you, it was!


© 1998-1999 Dan McGlaun