A full eclipse in Saluum, Egypt
Mar 30, 2006
Friends of mine left 10 days ago to take a nice leisurely independent trip out to Saluum to see the eclipse. I had work, then I procrastinated, then suddenly the time for the eclipse was almost upon us. I signed up for a hastily organized tour at the hotel. At 2000 LE / person (US $50) it was too expensive, but with only two days before the eclipse, I'm too lazy to try to rush out there myself.
Our group is planning on leaving at 6am. I hate mornings. Why are we leaving so early? To beat the traffic. I could care less about some traffic, but anyways....
That night there is heavy rain, which is extremely rare for Cairo. I engage in some last minute packing for the trip, then in some last minute drinking with friends. I don't get to bed until late into the night, and even then mosquitoes are keeping me up.
At 5:10am in the morning, there is a loud knocking on my door. The group decided to leave a bit early. What the fuck? 6am was already too early, now we are leaving even earlier. But at this point, I suppose there isn't any point in going back to bed. And so, after only a couple of hours of sleep, I drag myself out of bed and head down towards the waiting van.
I'm in a haze. The day is hazy. We zoom past the pyramids on the way out of town. Not really such a bad way to start an adventure.
At our first roadside food stop, I'm overcharged for breakfast, but I'm just too tired to argue.
We reach the town of Marsa Matruh around midday, which is a nice small, traditional Egyptian town. In the market we order some tea. Egyptians having lunch beside us offer us grilled fish, and won't take no for an answer. A bit later, we drive down to the beach, and it's gorgeous: perfect white sand, and lovely turquoise water. Most of our group strips down to go for a swim. Girls in bathing suits are something that the locals here are most certainly not accustomed to seeing; a crowd of onlookers gathers along the beach walkway.
At our second food stop of the day, they try to charge me 30 LE for a meal that was supposed to be 14. Now I'm more awake, and argue to get the correct price.
An hour before sunset, we arrive at Saluum. Saluum is the very last town in Egypt along the Mediterranean. And it lies very close to the direct path of the upcoming full eclipse. The exact center of the eclipse will be just a few miles further along, across the border into Libya.
On the edge of Saluum, police wearing special eclipse badges want to charge us 100 LE ($2.50) each to enter the town. This creates a big stir among our group, creating a clash a wills and priorities. Some of us want to turn back, some want to go forward. Personally, I'm more interested in the eclipse party than the eclipse itself, so I definitely want to go forward. Gina, our guide, calls friends within the police. Apparently, it's government fees, and not police fees, and we can't work out any sort of discount. In the end, the biggest concern isn't the 100LE, but what else they'll try to chisel us out of in the town - parking, camping, etc.
We are driving away from Saluum. Ty is our eclipse expert. He tells us that in the dead-center path, the eclipse will last for 4 minutes and 30 seconds. For each kilometer we move away from the center, the eclipse will be shorter and shorter.
Opinions start wavering. Ty wants a longer eclipse. I want to hit the party. Some of the girls are concerned about having a safe place to sleep. *sigh* It can be a real pain traveling with groups.
Finally, we reach a reasonable compromise. First we'll find a place to stay, then we'll make a decision if we want to stay there, or turn around again, and go to Saluum.
We pull off the highway, and follow a dirt road towards the beach. For I think almost the entire group, it was love at first sight. Our campsite to be is an empty village, though even "village" is a strong word. A couple of empty buildings sit on a hilltop. Some are securely locked. The building we pull up next to is obviously abandoned, and half in ruins.
Sleeping in an abandoned building on a hilltop in a remote coastal part of Egypt brings back the feeling of real adventure. This is probably even better than the party. I'm happy.
One room has completely caved in, but the other two rooms of the hose are solid. We even find the remains of a broom, and start setting up home. One room becomes a bedroom for all of us (sleeping on the floor), the other room becomes our kitchen.
Andrea, the belly dancer, makes us dinner, and then the group of us keeps drinking, drinking, telling jokes and stories into the night. The night sky is incredible, so I set up my camera and tripod for a while and take pictures of the stars.
In the morning, the group hikes down to the ocean. It's a short, but amazing little trip. First we cross a salt flat, and reach white salt covered hills that look as if they are covered in snow. Then it's over the hill and down to the beach. There we have our own private beach. No one else is around, and there is endless white sand in either direction.
After some swimming and relaxing, we head back to our campsite to watch the eclipse. The eclipse itself is preceded by a sunset. But unlike a normal sunset this sunset happens in all directions at the same time. The sun is far too bright to look at when even one half of one percent is visible around the moon. But we can watch it through special glass, and track its progress by making pinhole camera with our fingers. The light from the sun passes through the holes between your fingers, and makes a projection of the eclipse on the ground.
Suddenly, the sun is completely blocked by the moon. It's as black as night, and you can stare directly at the eclipse. I miss half of this as I desperately try to snap off photos of the eclipse. Sixty seconds in, I realize that infinity focus of my camera isn't quite in focus even with the subject 240,000 miles away. I turn the focus back just a hair, and suddenly, thank god, my pictures are sharp.
The eclipse was pretty damn spectacular. I missed half of it taking pictures, and missing experiences to capture them on film is a compromise to make, but the photos came out spectacular, so I can't say that I have regrets.
After the eclipse, it's time to head back. On the way back, a few of us decide to take a side trip to Alexandria to relax and sightsee for a few days. We pay the taxi driver a bit extra for the detour and are dropped off in Alexandria.
Alexandria is lovely. It has a bit of the same feeling as massive Cairo, but here everything is a bit more laid-back, and slow moving, with a definite Mediterranean feel to it. We find a hotel for a couple of dollars a night right on the waterfront looking down on the promenade and water. The hotel is a bit rickety and wooden, but more than adequate for us. The ambience is perfect, I can't help to think that this would be a perfect place to sit and write a book. Maybe someday.
After a few days of hanging out in Alexandria Jo, Shazz, and I, the last remains of the tour group head back to Cairo.
What a fantastic trip. I give group tours a hard time as compared to solo traveling, but the very few times that I've taken a tour I've had a great time.
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