In the early hours of Monday morning, in the pitch black English autumn cold, I hauled myself out of bed, and snuck out of my parents’ house (it’s been a while since I did that!)… to witness my first eclipse.
It was ‘only’ a lunar eclipse. Solar eclipse fans will tell me this is a meager event by comparison, but it was pretty spectacular to me and it got me thinking…
Now I am no astronomer, but I have been learning the basics thanks to the astronomy tours client I’ve been working with (The Independent Traveller – shameless plug!). And I’m no astrophotographer, but again I’ve been learning the basics due to my recent writing work with Phil Hart (author of ‘Shooting Stars’) so I persuaded my brother-in-law (a brilliant photographer but also a doctor who was on call the following night – sorry Pete!) to join me and we headed out with our tripods into the night.
I’ll admit to struggling in the darkness to change lenses and get the settings right. Messing about with infinity focus, live view and bulb mode did cause some anxiety in the still, calm of the small hours! But I thoroughly enjoyed the learning and was so focused on taking shots that I failed to notice two things – first, how very cold my hands and feet had become and second what a profound effect the whole thing was having on me. It was only in hindsight that I could really appreciate the whole experience (one of the key reasons why I so love writing and photography – for their ability to freeze time and record a moment I may otherwise struggle to review in years to come. They allow us to be about as close to immortal as we can get, but let’s get back to the eclipse…)
It was so clear, and bright we could hardly believe our luck as the penumbral shadow turned the silvery moon an autumnal red. Silhouetted trees and a zillion stars set the backdrop. An owl hooted from the darkness of the earth as we turned our faces and our lenses to the sky. It was a gentle process; the passing of ships in the night – only this was planets. Huge chunks of universe aligning in such a way that we could actually see the effect. We could see the movement, the rotation. It is enough to make anyone feel small and humble.
It is almost overwhelming. And when you learn some of the statistics it seems so incredible as to be beyond belief. (One of my favourites, recently learned as I write about the solar eclipse coming up over Tanzania next year, is that the Moon is around 400 times smaller than the Sun, but also roughly 400 times closer to Earth, making it possible for the two to align and for the Sun to be completely concealed during a solar eclipse. I’m sure there are equally stunning lunar eclipse facts.) But the common feeling is that we are small and insignificant, the moments are fleeting and that very little matters in this ‘grand scheme.’
The following morning I woke to another day… and Facebook! Now I’ve written about Facebook before and my concerns with it. But today it reminded me of our connections. Far from feeling small and insignificant, I realised our power and unity. Millions of people had watched the eclipse. Thousands had taken incredible photographs of it. We are all trying to play out our roles as best we can in this giant, daunting universe and so many of us all over the world united in this one eerie moment. Imagine what it must have looked like from space to see all those humans scattered around the world peering up at the sky, all focused on the moon. What a powerful energy we directed out there in the middle of the night. How lucky we are to be able to witness such incredible beauty.
These eclipses happen regularly. A stupid statement perhaps, but I find it rather incredible that it has taken me more than thirty years to take the time to see one, and also that our planets align in various formations on a timetable. Eclipses can be predicted for millennium to come! It is reassuring in some way, and also somewhat metaphorical. I have often felt that shift in life when things seem to adjust – for good or bad – and it seems to me it can only be positive when there are occasions, however brief, where everything lines up. Perhaps for others it is more about the light returning after the darkness (certainly ancient cultures saw it that way), but for me it was about being able to physically see the alignment that was so stunning and comforting. An experience I highly recommend. Positive in every respect.
Now how do I get myself to Tanzania to watch the solar eclipse next Sept?!
Power cuts are very much a part of life here in Tanzania and can cause some pretty hectic situations.
Believe it or not there have been days at a time where the entire country has been without power. I can tell you, you’ve never seen anything like the absolute blackness when it all goes down at once. It’s an eerie soot-soft silent blindness that descends, followed almost instantly by the thunderous sound of hundreds of generators all roaring to life at once.
Of course the vast majority of people in this country have neither running water nor electricity, let alone a generator, and so it doesn’t affect them much, but living conditions are improving all the time and the strain on the electricity providers is beyond what they can handle. Suffice to say we have a lot of power cuts.
When a storm brews up over the lake we all know that sudden click is coming, that’s pretty much inevitable, but it’s the one’s you never could have planned for that really create the situations.
For my first example I have to mention the school play. Try as you might to have thought of everything, you cannot anticipate 40 kids on stage in full Lion King costumes, mid-song and accompanying dance routine when the power goes out. We had the generator on standby but someone had to change it over and that person had chosen just that moment to disappear!
It was only a minute, but it felt like twenty and two things stand out for me. First, the audience never flinched. To be fair they tend to talk right through performances here anyway, but no one moved, or panicked or raised their voice, they simply waited – that’s how used to it we all are. And second, the students simply carried on singing! Ask them now, a few years on, and hardly anyone will remember that power cut, but as the director, I do! Thank goodness no one fell off the stage or knocked over a large piece of set (though it would have made a good TIA Tale!).
OK, so for me that was pretty tense. Now imagine you are in the pub watching the finals of the Rugby World Cup with all your mates, everyone’s dressed up in their team’s colours. The action has just begun again after half time and everyone is shouting at the screen. Oh yes, that’s the moment it picked to cut out. The groan went up from everyone in unison and we were forced to rely on updates via magical internet phones for a very stressful 20 minutes before the TV was reinstated via a generator.
I thought that groan was loud, but I had not heard a thing until I heard the same groans echoed from pubs all over town when the power cut during a Man United, Liverpool game. Now I don’t get football, just not a fan at all, but Tanzania loves it and they especially love the British teams so this was really taken seriously. Not least because many of the smaller local pubs would not have access to a generator.
Some of the funnier occasions where the power has dropped (Tanzanian English creeping in!) have included shopping in our tiny supermarket where one second everyone is wandering the little isles and the next some kid has plunged into magazine stand completely disoriented by the sudden blackness! Or the time when a guest of the school was giving an especially long and tedious speech. The power went and an involuntary sigh of relief went up from the assembled students. “I guess that’s my cue to sit down then.” He quipped when the microphone was reinstated. The silence in response was cringe-worthy!
Of course I’ve mentioned the seriousness of power-outages for major hospitals (see my piece on the mystery deaths in TIATales – hospitals) but mostly there are good contingencies. Either a generator is set up to automatically kick in, or the hospital doesn’t have power in the first place!
It’s the little things that often catch you out though. Like putting your phone on charge and going to sleep, then leaving for work to find it’s about to die – the power was out all night. Or recording your favourite TV show, sitting down to watch it and discovering you only have the first ten minutes. Stuff that you know in the grand scheme of things really isn’t important, but you still curse it at the time …and then feel ashamed of yourself afterwards. Actually a lot of the time power cuts just change the course of your day – you can’t do one thing, so you do something else instead – and I quite like the shake up of routine and the fact that everyone accepts your excuse for things you couldn’t get done! It reminds us all of how lucky we are to have electricity at all.