Eclipsed

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I saw my first total solar eclipse on a hilltop in Germany 18 years ago. It took place on Steve’s 50th birthday. Months earlier, when I had heard that the two events would coincide, I had worked to arrange a house (and car) trade with a family in Bavaria, and on the big day, Steve and Michael and Elliot (then 14 and 10) and I piled into the Bauer’s little Ford and headed out, seeking a viewing site. It was a stormy day, and we had a wild time, trying to find clearer skies and a well-situated town from which to witness the spectacle. We found a town but had a terrible time parking. Still, we managed to work our way to a spot within the throng that had gathered to watch the sun disappearing between the passing storm clouds. The clouds parted right before the astronomical climax, and my family’s shouts of amazement and gasps of pleasure joined in the general chorus.

It felt electrifying, and when it was over, I vowed to travel to every other total solar eclipse viewable on the planet in my lifetime. That impulse was sincere but impractical, and my resolve was short-lived. Total eclipses aren’t that infrequent, but they’re far-flung and expensive to get to. I hadn’t made it to a single additional one when I heard about the coast-to-coast extravaganza that would take place in the United States on August 21st this year. That fired me up again.

It occurred to me that if I used our frequent-flier miles to transport us home from Europe to Portland, instead of San Diego, we could snag inexpensive tickets home to San Diego the day after the eclipse. Also, I have a niece who lives in Portland, a city I’d never visited. So we set eclipse-viewing plans in motion.

We refined them a bit in the late spring and early summer. Our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie decided to fly in from Reno to join us. We also began to rethink my original plan for where to view the event. Portland was just outside the zone of totality, and I knew that clear skies on the Oregon coast were not a sure thing. At first I reasoned that, if necessary, we could get up early and drive over the mountains to the hot, dry side of the state. But in June we began to hear stories about the huge crowds that would be flooding in. Authorities warned about the need to stockpile food and fuel and even water. Envisioning the nightmare of being stuck in a massive traffic jam on a small road through the Cascades, we resigned ourselves to accepting whatever the weather gods delivered for Salem (well within the totality zone and only a 75-minute freeway drive from Shannon and Jimmy’s house). As Steve and I traveled in Europe over the past few weeks, I sneaked peeks now and then at the upcoming Salem weather; mostly I found jolly yellow balls predicting sun, but at other times, partial clouds were forecast. That was depressing; by the time we landed in Portland Saturday night, I had decided to just stop thinking about it.

Sunday the skies in Portland teased us — clear part of the day but obscured by light clouds and haze at other times. The prediction for Monday in Salem, however, continued to be a bright yellow ball. When we walked outside around 5 am on Monday morning, Venus, shone brightly, almost directly overhead.

We started driving south at 5:30 and hit patches of traffic. Despite it, we reached Salem under azure skies by 7:15 — three solid hours before Totality. While driving, we’d read online that a huge eclipse party would be taking place at the state fairgrounds — but the tickets were all sold out. Another recommended spot, however, was a park not far from the center of town. We headed there.

Now that I’ve experienced two total eclipses, I have a pretty clear idea of my dream viewing spot for any future ones. It’s on a hilltop crowded with festive fellow eclipse-watchers, some playing guitars and clapping as the color drains almost imperceptibly from the landscape. The sweeping view of the surrounding countryside offers the chance of sensing the shadow of the moon streaking toward one at 1800 miles an hour, in the last fraction of a second before the sky turns black.

Our park in Salem wasn’t quite like that. It was flat, encompassing a couple of huge grassy meadows, but signs warned visitors against walking out on them. Instead people strolled in and arranged folding chairs or picnic blankets along the edges of the open areas. They chatted quietly within their little groups, relaxed as holiday-goers soaking up rays on a beach. I whooped loudly when, a little after 9, my eclipse glasses revealed the first small bite out of the disk, but if anyone else cheered, I didn’t hear them.

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Not exactly a mob scene.
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The shape of the sun, reduced by the moon to a slim crescent, captured through the pinholes cameras created by the tree leaves.

Tension built only slowly. By 9:40, the four of us agreed that the light had shifted into some subtly otherworldly spectrum: colder, weaker. Stephanie noticed that the chirr of insects was growing louder. By 10, a portly older man dragged his wife up the embankment next to us to show her a patch of the pavement where sunlight was filtering through the leaves. He couldn’t resist coming up to us to ask if we too had noticed the splatter of crescent shapes: the shape of the sun’s image projected on the ground. We hadn’t and thanked him for sharing the insight.

 

More people around us rose to their feet; more voiced comments addressed at large. Anticipation coiled us tighter and tighter as the light grew more surreal with every passing second.

Then it happened. Better writers than me have commented that the difference between experiencing any partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between riding in an airplane and falling out of an airplane. Or like the difference between seeing a lightning bug and seeing lightning. At the instant that the moon obliterates the sun, people shout, cry out. Tears sprang into Stephanie’s eyes. I know I screamed. Steve, more level-headed, was trying to capture it on his phone. Here’s what he recorded starting just before totality:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/230680395″>Eclipse 2017</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user25079241″>Jeannette De Wyze</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

It lasted only a bit over two minutes. Then we gathered our things and straggled out of the park and slogged through almost four hours of horrific traffic, back to Portland. But we talked about those two minutes, off and on, the rest of the day and evening.

There’s another total eclipse coming in 2023 and another one in South America the following year. I’m wiser now, I’ve already put them on my calendar.

The bonobos of Texas

Steve and I are mad at American Airlines. We’ve been frequent fliers with them for almost three decades, and our loyalty has enabled us to fly free to countless destinations, both domestic and abroad. But in recent years, it’s become harder and harder to use our miles to go where we want. The most recent example is my effort to use miles to get us to Europe for Paul-Louis’s wedding.

I started trying to find passage back in late December, but all I saw were flights that required us to fly through London’s Heathrow Airport. The problem with this routing is that Heathrow charges hundreds of dollars per passenger in taxes. In contrast, if we fly direct from a US airport to Paris, we pay only about $11 per person.

But the only choice the new (mean and stingy) American Airlines was offering me was to fly from San Diego to Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport one day, then continue on to Paris at 5:50 pm the next day. Repulsive as this choice was, I booked it.

I hoped that eventually better flights would become available (ones that wouldn’t require the Texas sleepover.) At one point, I was checking the AA website two or three times daily. But nothing opened up. Then one day it occurred to me that I had a good reason to spend a day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area: Ft. Worth is one of the only zoos in the US that includes bonobos in its collection!

In recent years, I’ve become a fan of bonobos — our highly endangered primate cousins, so much more likable than chimpanzees. (We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with both.) Matriarchal in their social organization, bonobos are far more peaceful and sexy in their social interactions. This spring I wrote a cover story for the Reader about the colony at the San Diego Zoo — the first place bonobos were brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, and the place where the vast majority of groundbreaking research has occurred.

That reporting was a great experience, and it whetted my appetite to see the other bonobos in captivity in America. The Ft. Worth Zoo is one. So Friday after taking our flight to DFW, we rented an inexpensive car, slept at a cheap hotel, then set out Saturday morning for Ft. Worth (about 30 minutes west of the airport.)

It was instructive. Admission to the Ft. Worth institution only cost $24 for the two of us. (I think it’s close to $100 in San Diego.) Although the temperature was in the high 80s (and headed to the high 90s), the zoo was pleasant, shaded by mature trees.

It’s much smaller than the San Diego Zoo, and it seems much more fearless about promoting its ape collection. The great ape compound was highlighted at the entrance, where the Texans boasted that their primate center includes “all the great apes” — gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos (who are mentioned by name. In contrast, for reasons that never were clear to me, the San Diego Zoo seems intent on almost hiding its bonobo collection.)

Despite the weird reticence of the San Diegans, I can now tell you this: if you want to have a close encounter with one of our closest animal relatives on the planet, the San Diego Zoo is a better place to do it than Ft. Worth. In San Diego, the bonobos enjoy a huge enclosure, and there are three or four windows into it that enable a lot of up close and personal interaction with these charming animals. We saw six bonobos at the Ft. Worth facility. Two were in an indoor enclosure, the size of which made me cringe. Steve had to remind me that the alternative for bonobos (living wild and free in the Congo) carries the constant risk of being killed and smoked by poachers.

In the Ft. Worth Zoo’s outdoor viewing area, we were able to catch a glimpse of four more bonobos (two females adults, one male, and a baby). Then, to my delight, the mother and baby moved right next to the only viewing window, near where we were standing.

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The baby looked very young — less than a year? The mother settled into the corner near the glass, and the baby began nursing. We were inches away, albeit viewing all this through scratched, milky windows that made it hard to take good pictures. The baby sucked at one of its mother’s breasts. It moved to the other side and gazed at its mother adoringly, but also periodically focused its attention on Steve and me. We stared back. I tried to communicate some sense of solidarity with the pair, to project my respect and admiration.

I don’t think they got it. But I’m still glad we went.

Is France Too Boring to Blog About?

If there had been blogs back in 1974, and if I had been writing about my travels back then, I would have rapturously recounted my first trip to Paris. Everything on that trip was new and thrilling. Every day introduced me to things that charmed me. Steve and I loved it all so much we’ve broken our travel rule for France; we haven’t been able to resist returning. We did our first-ever home-exchange in Paris in 1990, and we’ve gone back on many other occasions.

We’ve never been to the south of France however. We wanted to go there some day but never, ever in August — the month when hordes of French people leave behind Paris, despite the sky-high temperatures that are common in the south then. But we’re about to start such a journey. What changed our minds was an invitation to a wedding in Avignon. The groom is the son of one of our closest and longest-tenured friends. Olivia and I were pregnant at the same time, and Paul-Louis traveled from Paris to San Diego to spend a month with us when he was only 10. Both his (younger) sisters followed suit. This feels in many ways like a family wedding.

I’ve never been interested in blogging just to report my location. I like sharing interesting things I’m learning. Also recounting adventures. I think this trip may not be jam-packed with either of those experiences, so I’m going to be restrained in what I write about. But I also don’t expect to be completely off the radar.

(Our new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards give us free access to a number of airport lounges. We tried out two of them at DFW, where we had a five-hour wait before our plane to Paris boarded, The “Minute Suites” option was kind of interesting: a very small private room with a work desk, wifi, and space to stretch out and snooze. Much nicer than the public gates!)

My kind of lama

Steve and I had never seen the Dalai Lama in person, so when someone offered us tickets to his appearance on the UCSD campus yesterday, we couldn’t resist. In Tibet, which we visited not once but twice over the last 18 months, you can be thrown in jail for having his picture on your cell phone. Many Tibetans consider him a living god. Even if he’s not divine (and he says he isn’t), he indisputably was the ruler of the country until fleeing into exile in advance of the Chinese occupation. He’ll turn 82 this year, and we didn’t want to miss the chance to see him while he’s still on the planet.

Our tickets said the event would start at 9 a.m, and they warned that everyone would have to go through strict security checks. So shortly after 8:30, we took our place among the thousands of folks lined up to have their bags and backpacks inspected and their water bottles emptied. 061717 DL1

At a certain point, I noticed that the couple in front of me was eying a small group of monks milling off to the side of the crowds queuing up to be inspected. Eventually, I realized that they seemed to think one of those monks was the Dalai Lama himself — a notion I dismissed as ridiculous. But the man was persistent. “We should go over and ask,” he declared. He looked at me. “Will you guys hold our place in line?”

“Go for it!” I encouraged them, thinking they’d soon be back, embarrassed by their error.

Minutes passed, and they returned — exultant.

“Yup,” they confirmed. “We shook his hand and thanked him for being here. He was great!”

Stunned, I slipped out of line myself and inched close to the monks.

 

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I felt too shy to try for a selfie or otherwise intrude on his holiness. But comparing the man 15 feet away from me with the picture of the Dalai Lama on my ticket, the two indeed looked identical. And the gesture matched even better the Buddhist leader’s mischievous sense of humor. What could be more fun than to slip out and turn your back on the huge apparatus of Security — guards and metal detectors and searches and tedious lines — and hang out with the folks?

A moment later he slipped away, to meet with the press and finally (around 10) get up before a crowd that may have exceeded 20,000. His speech was good. But I appreciated his actions even more.