My initial elation on discovering that we were going to see a solar eclipse in Córdoba on 2 July with 99.98% of totality rapidly turned to dissatisfaction. How could we miss out on 0.02%? Happily, on Sunday we discovered that a tourist agency was running a tour: thus on Tuesday morning we find ourselves up long before dawn, heading into the city. The group assembles in the office downtown, wrapped in jackets, hats and scarves; it’s winter here, with clear, dry skies, near-zero morning temperatures and two hours of searing heat every afternoon. Our group includes a seasoned eclipse-observer who has, incredibly thoughtfully, had the presence of mind to order glasses for everyone from the USA, which his small daughter hands out with great solemnity; a determined old lady who has taken her grandchildren out of school for the day; a rather overexcited young tour guide; and a man with a huge camera bag and a worried expression. He tells me his name is Walter, he’s read everything he can on eclipse photography, and has three cameras with different settings, but he doesn’t know if he can do it right.
Our bus takes us up and over the Sierras, with views of mountains, cliffs, aged rock formations and a rather lovely perching grey and white eagle at a coffee stop, to La Poblacion, a picturesque spot popular with wealthy homeowners and hikers. This tiny mountain village has pulled out all the stops. On its sports field above the village, there’s a main stage with a live band in evening dress, dance troupes are performing, a big screen is displaying images of the sun filmed by a man standing on the roof. Stalls are selling ponchos, dream catchers, organic soap, wooden bowls. There’s balloons, and the police are jolly. One woman has made a vast dustbin-sized vat of locro, the Argentinian corn stew, heated over an open fire; the local breweries have barrels set up, and the local sweet-treats factory is selling alfajores and pastelitos from towering piles. It’s a beautiful spot, apparently designed specifically for eclipse-viewing – the Sierra mountains to our right, the sun in the north tracking leftwards through a clear, crisp Argentinian sky, to set eventually over the vast plain that meets the bottom of the cliff to our left.
I’m drawn, naturally, to the field set aside for the photographers, who need to set up and test their equipment ahead of time. I meet a family who’ve pulled their kids out of school and driven for six hours, equipped with welding goggles and optimism, hoping to pick up tips from experts. I meet the expert, who is able to settle the question of ‘where is the moon right now?’ with a couple of hours to go before the eclipse starts. (The answer is ahead of the sun, moving on almost the same trajectory, but a bit slower). I meet a man who’s made his own filter housing out of kitchen foil and metallic gift wrap, since he couldn’t buy one that fitted his massive lens. I meet a French family who’ve bought thick black glass and duct taped it inside a cardboard box: I learn that after six months of Spanish I can now only produce French one painful word at a time, and we all nearly cry laughing. I meet Ivan and Alan, who remind me pleasingly of the Big Bang Theory episode where Leonard and Wolowitz bounce lasers off the moon. They’ve brought their night telescope, which they’ve rigged with a home-made device two years in the making to track the sun’s movement, avoiding the need for readjustments. The sheer size of their telescope attracts a constant crowd, and they are gracious and enthusiastic in sharing knowledge and their amazing pictures from previous events. (Their Instagram feed @mateconestrellas includes a video of Saturn peeping out from behind the moon.)
The organizers had bought glasses for 1000 people, handed out along with stern instructions for safety, and sharing, since the crowd was more than 3000. Even with the glasses, you can’t look for more than a few seconds at a time. First contact at 4.30 nibbled a bite from the lower left edge of the sun, growing steadily over the next hour, the excitement mounting. The last tiny shred of orange sun seemed to linger forever – long after the countdown – and the crowd held its breath, wondering if there’d been a mistake. But then, suddenly, a brief, bright flash of the perfect diamond ring of ‘Baily’s beads’ as the last of the sunlight found its way between mountains on the moon, and – at last! – an abrupt shift in the quality of the light as the moon finally found its spot: totality. A huge gasp went up from the crowd, collectively stunned by the beauty of the corona revealed as the sunlight was blocked, and everyone tore off their glasses to see with the naked eye, ten million times less intense than the sun itself. At the centre, the blackest black; surrounding the moon’s disc, the corona flared bright white in all directions, the tendrils of plasma extending raggedly over a huge area, with a soft, gentle texture and a wispy edge.The sky, having dimmed imperceptibly over the previous hour, turned a deep sapphire, fading at the horizon over the distant plain through yellow and orange to red. A powerful emotion rippled through the audience (suddenly we’re an audience, not a crowd): a profound and strange humility, a sense of gratitude and privilege; the peculiar kind of pride you experience when you watch your child perform on stage and are amazed to see the familiar loved one creating something new, unexpected, and magical.
Two minutes of wondrous totality ended with a reemergence of the Baily’s beads at the opposite edge, with more gasps, glasses hastily reattached, and a spontaneous round of applause. There was hugging, excited comparison of photos, and exchanging of social media addresses. Something interesting has happened within the group: we’re friends now, we lived through this together, we are connected. There’s dancing, and more food, a party atmosphere. Over the next hour, the sun and moon, having met, amble off towards the horizon together, the moon lagging steadily further behind, so that as the sun sinks into the red haze at the horizon they are just about to part company, as if nothing ever happened. Back on the bus, Walter is a happy man. He did it right.
Eagle, Rebecca in glasses, box man, wall – Andy
Pastries, Alan with his telescope, totality – Rebecca
Totality on the screen within the frame – Alan and Ivan, see Instagram @MateConEstrellas
Baily’s beads – Walter Stein, see more of his incredible photos on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/walter.stein.359