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Moon Shadow

It felt like the rainiest day in the history of rain and days. I sat at breakfast, looking out of the Vira Vira hotel’s enormous windows as a million raindrops machine-gunned into a manmade lake outside. I checked my weather app and hoped for the impossible. There was, of course, no good news. Tomorrow the sun would be unyielding, as it would the day after that, but today the deluge was to be relentless.

The restaurant was mostly empty, the hotel’s rich guests having left for private excursions to try and find a clear spot of sky. Like me, they had come to Pucón in the heart of Chile’s lake district in hope of seeing a total solar eclipse. While I’d found getting here a protracted and occasionally irritating process, others had come from farther away and spent a lot more money. That evening, I heard this included an American family who’d blown almost $500,000 on flying privately to Chile, then hiring an astronomer and meteorologist to drive around with live cloud information being beamed to their iPad in a ridiculous bid to find a break in the firmament. They saw nothing but the big grey sky.

I wish I had known about that as I picked at the eggs on my plate – it would have cheered me up. Was it wise to be here trying at all? Perhaps. By coming to South America two months earlier, I had certainly improved my lot. Unlike billions of others, I had travelled during the carbuncle year 2020. OK, I specifically extended the trip for the eclipse, and of course it was frustrating to have travelled so far to have it ruined by something as boring as cloud cover, but surely even this was better than staring at the walls at home?

And there had been so much staring at so few walls. The first half of the year had seen my itinerant career atrophy from travelling on assignment in Antarctica then India to sitting trapped in a small apartment in Glasgow wholly dependent on government welfare to make rent. It took about a week for my 12-year career as a travel writer and photographer to turn to ashes. Editors lost their minds or their jobs. Titles closed owing me money. Six months of planned work evaporated. More than that, the world became infinitesimally smaller, and suddenly every decision I’d made about living alone, not having pets, choosing a highly irregular job… It all seemed ridiculous.

But when it was clear there would be a second lockdown at home, I realised those same traps could be sprung, even reversed. The lack of a serious anchor could be turned to my advantage and, if I could only get there, South America would offer the chance to escape Britain’s soaring coronavirus rates and explore in the sunshine. I spent two months in Ecuador before flying south to Chile, paying for regular PCR tests to ensure I wasn’t infected as I went. Those nasal invasions aside, the decision to travel had been one of the best of my life. Of that much I was certain.

I kept telling myself that as I opened my umbrella and trudged through puddles on the way back to my room in Vira Vira. Inside I kicked off my boots and thought about what to do, but there was nothing to do, so I huffily sat and watched a couple of black-faced ibis outside on the drenched lawn. It was so wet that the birds’ feathers had clumped together in a way they might in an oil slick.

Pucón is in the heart of the black-faced ibis’ range. Here, worms are plentiful, especially when driving rain tempts them to the surface, and so the birds’ scimitar beaks impassively raided the ground, dealing death as the sky fell ever lower.

Several days earlier, a red-headed girl with sad eyes and good English had pulled me out the queue in Santiago Airport. “It’s impossible,” she said, though I didn’t believe her. “Totally impossible, I’m sorry.” The QR code that represented my health passport had malfunctioned and denied me travel. Turned away at security, I had no option but to have my bag unloaded from the plane and escape on a bus. A local lockdown in Santiago had effectively made me a Covid-19 refugee and to return there would guarantee missing the eclipse, so I bought a ticket to Santa Cruz, two hours south, and began to fret.

Until that point, travelling in Chile in the first weeks since it reopened for tourism had been fairly smooth, even though the entire system hung on that QR code. Mine had worked well right up until it hadn’t. I had been tested. I had no symptoms. Nothing suggested I had Covid, but the schizophrenic app wanted me to quarantine.

From Santa Cruz, Pucón and the eclipse were another eight hours away by road. However, Santa Cruz is also in the heart of some of the country’s best winelands, and so soon a boozy shine began to smooth the turbulence of my situation. Glasses perspired in the hot sun, drops snaking their way inexorably down stems. That was what I needed to do – to move south unencumbered.

Not going – not even trying – seemed ridiculous. That said, I could get stopped halfway for not having an acceptable QR code. Plus, I’d be going into a bustling city already infamous for over-tourism, packed with tourists for the first time in nine months. Checks seemed likely. Success did not. And even if all the needles were threaded, the forecast seemed quite certain: it was going to rain on the day of the eclipse. I decided to solve these conundrums with more wine.

Three days later, with planes out of the question and no cars available to hire, my only affordable option was to take a bus. A decade ago, as a battered backpacker I had used busses to travel the length of South America, from Ushuaia in the extreme south of Argentinian Patagonia all the way to the Colombian city of Cartagena on the shores of the Caribbean. It took six months and it had mostly been comfortable and efficient.

Boarding the coach on a warm Sunday morning in 2020, it was obvious that the vehicles hadn’t changed in those ten years. The express to Pucón didn’t look particularly clean, let alone sanitized, but my fellow passengers wore masks, and no one asked to scan my QR code, so I gelled my hands, opened a book, and let the time run away.

I was perhaps making too much effort for the eclipse, but the closest I’d come previously was in the summer of 1999 when one had touched the very southern coast of England. As a 16-year-old at home in Scotland, it felt like a distant and foreign event, yet even though it was cloudy for the thousands who thronged the English shores, on some level I felt cheated, too. BBC commentators had to rely on shaky footage from a plane flying above the clouds and did their best to sound excited in a staid, British way when “experiencing midnight at midday.”

A little over 21 years later, this one seemed more attainable, so much as celestial bodies spinning around the galaxy ever can. When I thought about it, the whole thing seemed magical – with the sheer vastness of space there are so many reasons for eclipses not to happen. Plus, the sun being 400 times the size of the moon, but 400 times farther away, and so a perfect fit, is almost too strange to believe. Too neat.

The more I considered what was to happen, the more metaphors appeared. In 2020, a huge shadow would pass over humanity, ungovernable and unstoppable. At its darkest and most awesome extent, there would be a corona, branches of fire hundreds of miles long would be seen burning in space. Then, after a time, the darkness would recede, and light would once more stampede across the sky.

Magic and metaphor aside, unlike the uncertainty that comes with meteorology, the science of eclipses is very pure. The trajectories of the sun and moon have been so precisely mapped as to know exactly how many seconds the latter will cover the former. This was true above Pucón, and at every point along the coming eclipse’s easterly run across Chile, the Andes, Argentina and then the Atlantic Ocean, until the shadow peeled off the face of the Earth just before hitting the west coast of Namibia.

Astronomers can calculate these extraordinary details not just about the event I was hoping to see, but thousands of eclipses, past and present. The solar system runs along tracks, like rollercoasters – extraordinary but, barring a cataclysm, calculable and unalterable. Or close to unalterable. The moon is slowly drifting away from the Earth and will one day appear too small for an eclipse. That’s another 563 million years away, though, after which the sun will have another four billion years to scorch Earth unimpeded before the onset of its stellar death. At that point in the far future, it will first become a red giant, then a white dwarf, and finally a relatively gloomy nebula.

Even if it can be calculated, such astronomical scale is impossible to fully comprehend. Thankfully, the numbers around eclipses are much easier for our simian minds to process. The reliability of the galaxy’s tracks means that NASA has 5,000 years’ worth of searchable eclipse data. It shows that there will be 67 total solar events this century, which sounds like a lot, but ignores the 77 partial, 70 annular and 7 hybrid eclipses ­– and says nothing of the 228 lunar eclipses (86 penumbral, 85 total, 57 partial) when Earth’s shadow is cast on the moon.

The data has also told us much about the next total solar eclipse, which will take place on 8 April 2024. It will make land in the western Mexican state of Sinaloa, then Durango, before moving northeast towards the border. By the time it has continued its unstoppable route into the US, it will have passed over the cauterised prairies of the Chihuahuan Desert, and begin to gobble up cities in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and Maine, as well as a series of locations in Canada. For the second time in just seven years, millions of North Americans will turn out for a total solar eclipse.

In Dallas alone, it will tarry for three minutes and 47 secondsa long time to stand in the dark of day, but far from a record. To put that in context, NASA knows that on the 16 July 2186, the longest eclipse in an estimated 10,000 years will cross over the northern reaches of South America, lasting for a monstrous seven minutes and 29 seconds at a point just off the coast of French Guiana. The land may well be known as something else by then, and the coastline conceivably altered by rising seas, but that is speculation and doesn’t seem in keeping with the exactitude of astronomy.

Yet, for all this precision, eclipses have always occupied a greater space in the human psyche, sucking in or spitting out conjecture and mysticism along the way. They have at once been miraculous and portents of doom, heralding the birth of a messiah or the death of an empire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, conflict and religion have long associations with these extra-terrestrial happenstances.

Eclipses were retrospectively attached to the death of Christ and birth of Mohammed, though the evidence is compelling for neither. More verifiable was the event that brought about the abrupt end to the Battle of Halys in ancient Turkey. The Medians and Lydians had been at war for six years, but the arrival of a solar eclipse was so godlike that both warring kings immediately sought peace terms in its aftermath. This account came from the Greek historian Herodotus, whose dates had been unverifiable until astronomers ran their calculations backwards and confirmed that on 28 May 585BC a solar eclipse had indeed passed over the dusty battlefield.

In 1780 during the American Revolutionary War, British forces granted safe passage to Harvard scientists who wanted to study an eclipse close to the Canadian border, a Georgian equivalent of the 1914 Christmas Truce. The nerds duly rode out that October, but perhaps distracted by New England’s beautiful autumnal foliage, or fear that the British wouldn’t stay true to their word, they set up in the wrong place and missed all 120 seconds of totality.

The more I read about eclipses, the easier it was to sympathise with those unfortunate stargazers. Even in the modern age, with incontrovertible data removing much of the mystique, eclipses can have a powerful effect even on reasonable people. The writer and dedicated umbraphile David Baron described feeling his life change the first time he “gaped at an alien sky” and experienced “lunar nirvana.” If I felt pity for the Harvard men, I was flatly jealous of Baron’s experience. “Above me, in the dim vault of the heavens, shone an incomprehensible object,” he wrote in his book American Eclipse. “It looked like an enormous wreath woven from silvery thread, and it hung suspended in the immensity of space, shimmering.”

This mighty effect has long blown the minds of civilizations around the world, many of which have reached for fantastic and often violent explanations for what they saw. The Inuit believe eclipses to be a chase between rival siblings, while in Norse lore, a magical space wolf named Hati occasionally catches and devours the light. Similarly, in Hindu mythology, it is the head of Rahu that eats the sun, though having been decapitated by Lord Vishnu, the demon lacks a stomach in which to hold it. The Mapuche, the indigenous people living in central and southern Chile – including around Pucón – are similarly conflict-minded, holding that eclipses are a battle between the sun and moon, representing the death and magnificent rebirth of the former.

I didn’t believe any of it, of course, but I still wanted to feel something magical. And perhaps seeing the eclipse would somehow show that for all the squalor of 2020, all the inescapable dreadfulness, the galaxy’s tracks were still running, and time still moving forward in the universe, even when it felt like it had stalled on Earth.

But then again, maybe not. I checked my weather app and just 24 hours out it was certain: cloud and rain were guaranteed.

Falling in and out of consciousness on the bus, I remembered that the only food I had with me was a packet of Oreos hastily bought just before boarding. I decided to get something more substantial when we stopped in Chillan, but everything was closed because it was Sunday. I decided to try again in the city of Temuco, but everything was closed because it was Sunday – and because they were in a local lockdown of their own, one being actively enforced by military types holding automatic rifles up where their nipples hid behind flak jackets. I ate another couple of Oreos and stayed in my seat.

The journey was supposed to take eight hours, but not far from Pucón we ran into a long tailback snaking between pine trees. It took 90 minutes before the cause revealed itself: police had set up a checkpoint to inspect the health passport of every person attempting to enter the city.

A great wave of resignation washed over me. It was suddenly clear how futile this was, travelling so far, wasting time and money trying to see an eclipse on a rainy day. Now I wasn’t even going to get that far. Worse, I had no contingency plan. I already knew that swarms of eclipse chasers meant there was no accommodation available anywhere nearby. I stared out the window. Perhaps if I created enough of a scene the police would jail me and at least let me spend the night in a cell?

The bus crept forward and before long I was outside, towering over a policeman who couldn’t have been older than 20, though with his mask it was hard to say for certain. More obvious was his lack of English, and while I can speak a sort of emergency Spanish, I downgraded even that. What happened next was, I know, nothing to be proud of.

He asked to see my documents, so I showed him my hotel reservation and my passport. He explained that, no, he needed to see the other one. I showed him my insurance policy. He explained that, no, he needed to see the other one. I showed him my QR code and knew we’d have a problem.

I garbled a chain of loosely relevant Spanish words: “trabajo” (work) “soy una periodista” (I am a journalist) “tengo esto” (I have this) at which point I showed him a negative PCR test. It was over a week old, but I had cropped out the date. The boy-cop looked at it and focused on the word negativo, then conferred with his boss, who was perhaps one year older and two inches shorter.

It was obvious they wanted to say more, to put up some kind of resistance, but my being so foreign and stupid made communication difficult. Besides, the rest of the passengers were back on the bus, and the driver was giving us a hard stare, and the first honk from the growing queue of traffic had already been heard, and so, with all that awful weight grinding us into the road, the boys waved me on, and I retook my seat, disgusted with myself and the whole desperate ruse.

Soon afterwards, I was in downtown Pucón, sitting outside a greasy diner watching the world go by. And what a world ­– for the first time since February 2020, I was in a place designed for mass tourism, filled with a mass of tourists. Ordinarily they’d be drawn here by the region’s monkey puzzle forests, snow-capped volcanoes, and glittering lakes, but for now the crowds were only interested in the eclipse.

As a backpacker in 2010 I’d come to Pucón for its remarkable landscape. The undoubted highlight was hiking to the peak of the nearby Villarrica volcano. It took three unforgiving hours to make the ascent, an ice axe required close to the top. At the summit we were given time to take in the yawning views of a horizon serrated with other volcanos. The guide told us that he’d once seen a chain eruption from up here, those distant peaks popping like cannons. I had no idea if he was telling the truth, but the view was certainly beautiful. At the rim of Villarrica’s caldera, acrid, sulphurous smoke tore through the alpine air, clawing at my eyes and throat. I was happy to get away from it, more so when the guide told us we could simply slide down on the snow. We were at the bottom in about half an hour, giggling from the ride.

Those in Pucón in 2020 couldn’t repeat that extraordinary day out – the volcano had since grown too active, too unpredictable to permit summiting – but few seemed interested anyway. The majority were there to see the eclipse and leave immediately afterwards, meaning hotels and restaurants that had endured the leanest nine months anyone could remember would soon be quiet once more. In the meantime, despite the weather forecasts, Pucón hummed with excitement.

Here was a rowdy group of Latinas on what looked like carefree, curfew-free night out; there was a pack of young men walking past them, their tongues rolling out of their heads like dropped toilet paper; they paid no attention to a family trying to calm a lunatic four-year-old while their sullen teen disappeared into his phone; across the street a busker annoyed tables of revellers; on the corner there was more tolerance for a hastily assembled bongo band; street dogs were delighted by the bounty of detritus falling from tables they hadn’t seen this full since March; everywhere there were hippies.

Of course there were hippies – and of course they weren’t wearing masks. Why would you believe in the science of the pandemic when you’ve come to observe the cosmos? The next day they would stand hoarded together on the shores of gorgeous Lake Villarrica, getting soaked in the rain while sharing their science-free, half-baked (many looked more baked than this) ideas about the universe and what it all meant. I planned not to join them.

Totality was supposed to start around 1pm so as the clock struck noon, I decided to open one of the complimentary beers from the minibar. The ibis continued to patrol the grass like prison guards. I had a sip of the drink, prepared my camera, and attempted to take some shots of the gluttonous birds. It was so gloomy that the settings on the camera had to be dramatically adjusted to let in enough light and, even with a tripod, none of the photos really seemed worth keeping.

Around 12.40pm I went to get another beer and by the time I got back to the camera, the settings were badly out of sync again. Everything was now far too bright. It wasn’t sunny, but something had changed. There were still droplets falling from the sky, but they were like the last splutterings of a newly strangled shower. The rain was unexpectedly stopping.

I grabbed a pair of cardboard eclipse glasses hotel staff had optimistically placed on my bed and went outside. Unfocussed though the view was, there was no doubt: a black chunk had already been bitten out of the sun. I attached a neutral density filter to my lens and after two or three photos looked in the camera. There was a tear in the sky like an eyehole for a ghost costume; against all forecasts, the cloud had cleared just enough.

By 12.50pm a strange lunar twilight was falling. The animals – including this writer – were unsure about what was happening. Birds squawked in the trees, uneasily flapping from branch to branch. Somewhere a dog barked and a man howled. The world became desaturated, the light source dwindling to a strange and opaque thing. I’d like to be more specific about this peculiar luminescence, about how it confused my eyes and my camera, but I have no point of reference, no handy simile for comparison. I can say only this: it was like an eclipse.

Looking through the glasses again, then the camera, I couldn’t tell if the sky around the sun was exactly clear, but in any case, it was no longer blue. Everything looked strangely sullen and yet the atmosphere was electrified. Wispy clouds seemed to be pushed away from our star, flowing around it like an unconvincing stream around a bright boulder. My hands shook – with just minutes to go, it would only take a slight change in wind direction or fortune for a thick cloud to block it all out.

But still the sky held.

And held some more.

There would be no way back now.

Later, I would hear stories in the hotel of desperately unlucky people who had the opposite experience, their sun and moon obscured at the vital moment. Even where I was, a couple of minutes after totality, rain returned, leaving the sky as dull as it had been all morning. For all the planning and fretting, hoping and guessing, I simply got lucky.

Later still – months later – I spoke to Rosario Colipi, a Mapuche grandmother of 14, about the eclipse. What had been a moment of transcendence for me was something awful for her and her community on the outskirts of the city. “It was nothing to celebrate,” she said. She had no idea if the sky cleared above her, because the Mapuche hid inside traditional homes known as rukas, prayed, sang, and made offerings into the fire. What did it mean for them? “For us, an eclipse is a sign of a bad omen,” said the 68-year-old. “We also had one in 2018 and it told us the pandemic was coming. When the one came in 2020, we knew the problems would not end soon.”

As totality sunk in, reason left me. I recorded a short video when the sun vanished. In it I make ugly, orgasmic noises as I tremble and speak to a god I don’t believe in. My breathing becomes snatched and terrified. I knew I had to try and take photographs, too, but my fingers felt fat and numb, muscle memory suddenly senile.

One hundred and twenty-seven seconds after this moment it would be over, and the returning sunlight would slap my face, though it wouldn’t be enough to stop me weeping. I would turn around and urgently look for someone to talk to, to ask how we could have been so fortunate, but I was all alone.

Before that, as best as I can remember them, these are the things that went through my mind during the 2020 total solar eclipse: it is incredibly dark; I am so vulnerable; I wish I had prepared for this properly; idiot, how could you possibly prepare for this?; it feels like magic but not trickery; science is also magical; I hope the world trusts science when the vaccines come; eclipses must have made people religious in the past; I need to take photos; I have no idea how my camera works; I have no idea how anything works; I don’t know why I’m crying; yes you do – though you have written it many times, for the first time in your life you are truly overwhelmed; they knew, the scientists knew this would happen; they knew about Covid, too and it has already killed millions; it may never end, never truly disappear; science could have saved us already if we’d only let it; faith is useless; but look at the miracle in the sky, smart boy – does that not make you believe in higher powers?; time is running out, focus on the moment; I don’t want this to end; but everything must, good and bad, this eclipse right now but this awful year, too; why did it have to all be so dreadful though?; perhaps only so that these rare and triumphant moments can shine all the brighter; maybe you’re right but – good god – wasn’t it cold in the shadow of the moon?

 



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  1. Jasmin

    Love this piece, the darkness that happens is impossible to describe, except for the darkness of totality. I’m glad you made the effort and the sky cooperated and gave you a gift of momentary clearness.


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