SALUM: Fascinated by the fact that it would turn dark at noon, driving more than 700 kilometers to Salum and back in one day gradually began to seem doable, or at least not as crazy as it had sounded when the idea was first suggested.
Initial traveling plans that fell apart two days before the total solar eclipse (fully visible in Salum at the Egyptian-Libyan border) were restored less than 24 hours before the astronomical event: we would drive about 740 kilometers to Salum, watch the eclipse and head back to Cairo all in one day.
It turned out to be one of the most eventful and memorable 24 hours in the lives of the couple of enthusiasts who accompanied me on the trip; mine too. Not just because of the enthralling four minutes of total solar eclipse, but the drive back and forth, the warm reception by the Salum locals and our discovery of the charms of the city overlooking the country s western borders were as interesting as they were educational.
Throughout the overnight drive to the western Egyptian borders (mostly on paved but unlit roads), check points were aplenty. At one of them, our casual announcement that we were heading to Salum alarmed the responsible officers.
They are going to Salum, basha, said the soldier, reporting the driver s license and car registration to his superior officer in a worried tone. Suddenly, the routine check wasn t enough and the officer in charge had to check everyone s ID. Obviously we weren t as suspicious as our announcement was and soon we were on the road again and had learned to keep our mouths shut.
The president visited Salum during the eclipse and security measures started more than 400 kilometers before the city s entrance. There was a rumor that the road from the coastal city of Marsa Matrouh to Salum (220 kilometers) would be closed in the early morning to secure the president s trip. We knew we had to either speed or endanger the whole purpose of the trip: watching the eclipse at the borders.
When we reached Salum at dawn, the city entrance was crowded. The town, usually only accustomed to the locals and those crossing the border by land, was buzzing with unusual activity. The buses packed with tourists were an unfamiliar site to the locals. There was even a LE 100 fee to enter the city and watch the solar eclipse.
It was obvious that the city had just been rejuvenated. Parts of the asphalt hadn t even dried and the abundance of street lights contrasted with the darkness of the roads we had taken. The numerous ambulances and the plants lining the streets were clearly new additions to the city.
Due to our early arrival, we managed to get up on the hill that was reserved for tourists, who had booked the trip months in advance, and high profile visitors, including the president.
Just six kilometers off the borders, tents, filled with tables and chairs, were set up on the hill to accommodate visitors; residential areas were far from the tent area.
Gradually the place became crowded, which was followed by a group search for toilets; the tents included mobile bathrooms, but for most of the morning they were locked, so everyone headed to the two local cafeterias that usually cater to travelers.
The once relatively empty cafeterias experienced an influx of visitors and, naturally, the owners capitalized on the unique event and charged LE 1 to use the toilet-less bathrooms. This was the nightmare of the trip; proper toilets were scarce and settling for whatever was available was the only option.
But the cafeteria owners were not the only beneficiaries of the event. A counter was set up to sell shades especially made for watching the eclipse, as well as souvenirs; the special shades were then distributed for free, courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism.
Alexandrian native Mohamed Metwally, an exporter of cotton shirts, printed pictures of the eclipse on t-shirts and sold them during the day. He was aided by college students who wanted to make money and have fun at the same time, he said. By that time, it was obvious that the best feature of the trip was socializing with the locals. Our first encounter was with a group of government employees responsible for selling local products of the area encompassing Siwa and Matrouh. The organic foods and the handmade scarves, bags and carpets were available for moderate prices, starting at LE 2.
Abdel Fattah Abdel Samei, a Matrouh government employee originally from Siwa, volunteered to show us the place and explain how preparations were made in so few days. As his friends and colleagues joined, they invited us for drinks and later insisted that we not pay for the products we wanted to buy.
Baffled by their generosity, and later by the beautiful scenery of the area (flat, blue sea surrounded by hills with wild animals still close to residential areas), we set our minds to going back again. It was probably the first and last time in our lives we would meet people who were genuinely generous.
After one hour in which life froze in the area (no one was supposed to cross the street in preparation for the president s arrival), the solar eclipse began.
People had already set up their telescopes behind the tents; there were scientists, amateur astronomers and interested visitors like us. We then discovered that the distributed shades paled in quality to what other people had. We borrowed some better ones and our view of the sky grew clearer; looking at the sun during an eclipse without protection has many health hazards including blindness.
But nothing could have prepared us for the total eclipse. As the moon covered the sun, it grew darker and darker. The sound of Allahu Akbar rang out from the nearby mosque, the local musicians started playing their drums harder and more merrily and the reactions of those observing ranged from speechless gazing to enthusiastic applauding.
Time seemed to move quicker, with us in the middle of it. It turned from sunny and hot to dark (like late dusk) and cold; temperatures dropped noticeably. During the four minutes of total solar eclipse, it was tempting to sneak a peak at the sky, in spite of warnings.
No camera could accurately represent the sight, not even the ones connected to telescopes: the dark blue sky background for the glaring white rays surrounding the black circle of the moon.
For us, it was beautiful and indescribable. For others, it was an opportunity to collect much needed information for research. Xu Zhi, a Chinese researcher, was aiding Professor Zhang Shu Xin, from the Yun Nan Astronomical Observatory, in collecting and documenting information, each with different research objectives.
Not far off, Tom Chestnut, president and CEO of AAA Western and Central New York, was observing his second solar eclipse as an amateur astronomer; behind him sat a group of students from the American University in Cairo. Their professor Hany Hamroush, geology professor teaching an introductory class in astronomy, couldn t have been happier, or more proud at their excitement.