Chapter 3: Romanians in the Dark

Wednesday, August 11, 1999: eclipse day. The Moon was rapidly zooming to a spot in space where it would slide in front of the Sun and cast a 49 km-wide swath of total shadow across much of Europe. In all the world, there would be exactly one spot where the duration of totality would be at its maximum, 2 minutes, 23 seconds.

And at four in the morning, we were still 200 km north of that place. AND it had been raining all night, so the sky was completely clouded over.

But we had come 16,000 km to see this, and each spent over a thousand dollars for this ONE event. We were determined to get there or die trying...and just at that moment, the latter seemed a real possibility.

We dragged our tired butts out of bed around four a.m. and when Radu and Didina showed up with the cars, we loaded up our luggage once again, and headed south. Everyone was bleary-eyed and grumpy. However, we made reasonably good time, and around nine, we had made it to Sibiu, a nice little town I had visited briefly the last trip. We had no time to stop, however, and we headed on. Sibiu was the last big town north of the totality zone. Another few kilometers, and we would at least be in the band of totality. The clouds were now patchy, giving rise to some hope that we might actually get clear-ish skies up in the mountains at Ramnicu Valcea.

It's rarely wise to get TOO optimistic about things, though, because it hurts worse when everything goes to hell.

Just south of Sibiu, traffic slowed down. Then stopped. And STAYED stopped. After 10 minutes or so, people were shutting off their engines and getting out and walking around. Eventually, we found that there had been a nasty truck accident some kilometers up the road, and it had blocked a narrow pass. The minutes turned into half an hour, then an hour. The clock was ticking, and traffic wasn't moving. I began to get as gloomy as the sky, which was rapidly filling up with clouds again.

Occasionally, a lone truck or car would come northward, and we would hear news of the mess up ahead. It didn't sound like it would be cleared up anytime soon. After awhile, some fools decided that stopped traffic shouldn't slow them down, and pulled off into the left lane and went zooming off there was anyplace for them to go. At one point, an 18-wheeler decided he was heading south regardless, and came rolling up past us in the left lane...just as ANOTHER big truck showed up from the north. The first guy tried to ease over on the shoulder, and came dangerously close to tipping over.

Two trucks play chicken
Photo by Kathy Lindquist
Tempers were short, and several people began yelling at the people trying to drive in the wrong lane. Eventually, Radu, Didina, and Lucy actually took to standing in the road and trying to block the cars. There was a great deal of spirited conversation exchanged, they type of Romanian they DON'T teach in Berlitz courses. Radu even kicked the bumper of one car. I was convinced that somebody was going to get killed here eventually.

Didina, Radu, and Lucy block the way, as Pam looks on
Photo by Kathy Lindquist

And still the time dragged on. After an hour or so, I just quietly resigned myself to the fact that we were not going to see the eclipse, and we might as well just get on with the rest of the trip.

Finally, after about two hours, traffic began to inch forward. After some time of this, we made it to the accident site, and then got past. However, we only had an hour or two before the eclipse started, and we still had over 25 km to go, over winding mountain roads. The clouds weren't cooperating, either. But the roads were reasonably clear, and we began to make decent time again. When we came around a bend and found ourselves at Cozia monastery (which I had visited last trip), I actually began to think we might make it. Cozia is not too far from Ramnicu Valcea. On the other hand, the clouds were still a little heavy. Then we made RV itself. The town was crowded with eclipse watchers, and the city had set up a festival with entertainment and food. We thought for sure we would find eclipse souvenirs here. Yeah, we were still that naive...

But the clouds were still a bit thick, and we decided to go a little ways further. Just outside of town, there was a large field on the banks of the Olt River, and we pulled off there to watch which way the clouds were moving. After a few minutes, it appeared that the clouds were moving away and no new ones were coming, so I decided that the field would be the ideal spot. We made it with only about half an hour or so to I thought. I began to haul out all that expensive and heavy camera gear I'd been lugging around. Other people started pulling over into the field, and soon we had quite a little crowd.

The sight of a total solar eclipse tends to change people. Many people who see one become "shadow chasers," dedicated eclipse followers who will travel all over the world for a couple minutes of this experience, which is unlike any other. And there, out in the middle-of-nowhere, Romania, away from the towns where most eclipse watchers were gathering, we ran into no less than four other people from the LA area, two couples, Jon & Debra and Moises & Bonita.

I'd brought along mylar eclipse viewing glasses for everyone in our group, so they could watch the partial phase of the eclipse without going blind. Once the eclipse is total, it's safe to view with the naked eye. But every time there's an eclipse over a populated area, a few people who think it's OK to stare at the Sun if it's mostly covered wind up with eye damage.

I set up my Nikon FM2 on a sturdy Bogen tripod, and fit a solar filter on the Vivitar 600 mm lens, and waited for the Moon to start swallowing the Sun. The time came for "first contact," the moment when the Moon first begins to slide across the face of the Sun...and nothing happened. I looked at my watch. Yeah, it was the right time. I looked through my camera. Nothing. Uh oh...A lot of people started looking at me, Mr. Know-it-all-astronomer. OK, so the Romanians aren't that worked up about this eclipse, but it has to happen on schedule anyway...doesn't it?

Waiting for the shadow
Shortly, the mystery was solved. It seems there was a local daylight savings time that put local time an extra hour off of Universal Time, which is what astronomers use. We still had another hour. Even though we were up in the mountains and had left the really miserable heat behind, it was still starting to get a little warm, so we retired to the only shade available, under a beer billboard.

"Yes, I'm sure the eclipse is in Romania, not Rome..."
Photo by Pam Bloxham

An hour later, I was all set up again, and this time, the Moon didn't let me down. Right on schedule, a little dark bite disappeared from the Sun, and the shadow chase was on. A few scattered clouds had appeared, but it didn't look like they would be a serious problem. Bonita had had the foresight to stop at the McDonald's in Ramnicu Valcea and fill up a cooler with ice, so we at least had the luxury of having a cold drink in the still-considerable heat.

At first, you needed the mylar eclipse glasses to tell anything was happening, but as the moment of totality, second contact, approached, it became more and more obvious that something was up. I let people come up and peek through my telephoto lens, pointing out to them the sunspots that were visible. I also made of point of telling everyone that they should not come within three meters of me during totality, because I needed literally every second to make photos. As more and more of the Sun disappeared, most of the people there got more excited. As a solar eclipse progresses, it doesn't just get dark, the light gets...weird..that's the best I can describe it. But many of the Romanians there just didn't seem to get it. They shrugged their shoulders with a look like, "crazy Americans..."

Going, going, ...
A few sunspots are visible in the larger image, just below right-center

The big moment approached, and people were shouting and cheering. And then, just seconds before the last of the Sun disappeared, a Romanian guy's cel phone rang. He answered the phone, and talked casually to the person on the other end. Although he was speaking Romanian, you could just imagine him saying, "...hi. Oh, nothing. Just watching this eclipse thing. Yeah, it's getting pretty dark. What are you doing?"

And then the Sun vanished from the sky, and everybody's life changed.

Click here for more images of totality

Some people shouted, some went dead silent. Some even wept. A total eclipse is unlike anything else in life, and there are no words that can adequately describe it. The Sun goes out, and is replaced by a big glowing black hole in the sky. Fish in the river start jumping, thinking it's evening when the bugs come out. The birds and animals start settling down.

Lucy and David look at a hole in the sky
Photo by Kathy Lindquist

But I had--literally--a different view of the eclipse. I was busy firing off pictures, and was watching it through the viewfinder of my camera. Through the 600 mm lens, I had a view others didn't: I could see the spectacular red prominences around the edge of the Sun. These are huge ejections of glowing gas, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of kilometers long. They were too small to see clearly with the naked eye, but I was getting quite a show through my long lens. What I wasn't getting was a look at the eclipse with my own eyes. In the entire 2 minutes and 23 seconds of totality, I didn't get the chance to just tilt my head back and look at the damn thing even once, I was too busy photographing.

All too soon, third contact came around, the moment when totality ends, and the Sun blazes forth again. This was accompanied by my traditional anguished cry of "NOOOOOOO! Not yet!" You can never get enough totality.

The Los Angeles delegation, halfway around the world,
in Middle-of-Nowhere, Romania
Front: Debra, Jon. Back: David, Kathy, Dave, Pam, Bonita, Moises.
Photo by Some Guy

As it got light again, people were cheering, hugging, wiping away tears, just standing there saying, "wow." I was drained. Bonita had also put a bottle of champagne in her cooler, and she cracked it open and passed it around.

She also told us of a mountain spring "just up the road" that had clear, clean, ice-cold water. There are many such springs in the mountains of Romania, and they have been built up into fountain-like structures, usually a stone wall with a pipe sticking out, gushing water that has flowed for miles underground through rock. Ever since we hit Romania, we had been carrying several big 2-liter soda bottles that we refilled with water at every opportunity. This was a challenge, because the country had had severe floods shortly before we arrived, and the water supplies in many areas were contaminated. Radu did his best to advise us when we could drink the water, but he wasn't always sure. However, these underground springs were safe from such things. We resolved to find the spring and fill up our bottles.

Although the partial eclipse was still going on, a replay of the first part, but in reverse, Radu was anxious to press on, and so we loaded up and headed on. We tried to find the spring that was "just up the road," and after a few wrong turns and a little backtracking, we finally found it. It was everything we had heard, icy-cold water gushing endlessly out of a stone wall by the road. Those of us from drought-wracked California felt a little uneasy about this, we were looking for the spigot to turn it off when we were done.

Then it was back to Ramnicu Valcea to hunt down eclipse souvenirs. Of all the places in Romania where we should have found them, this was the place where we were sure somebody would have gotten a clue about all the tourists with money burning holes in their pockets. Wrong. We did find ONE enterprising group of people who were selling some nice eclipse T-shirts, but that was it.

And so we were over the "eclipse hump." It was time to see Romania.


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