Libya – A Total Eclipse – An Intergenerational Travel Adventure

With Libya in the news again I’ve been thinking about my trip there in 2006 and how my experience was enhanced by the kindness of ordinary people. Maybe I got special treatment — my travel buddy was my 9-year-old grandson and I’ll go on record to say that there could not be a better duo! A grandma and a cute kid will open doors the world over.

I’m a solar observer and the golden grail is a total solar eclipse. The eclipse of March 29th 2006 path of Totality covered a swath of the North Africa, and Libya was forecast to get around four minutes of totality. Hog heaven.

I signed up for an eclipse tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope Magazine but when I saw the singles supplement cost I had second thoughts; in casual after dinner talk with my daughter and son-in-law I broached the possibility of taking Ben. Their response was a heartening “we trust you and what an awesome experience for him”. It was an awesome experience for both of us.

Ben and I flew out Tucson to Heathrow via BA (direct overnight flight) and despite ample time to make our connecting flight to Milan, horrendous lines at Terminal 4 security meant we missed the connection and did not arrive in Milan until 10 p.m. Six weeks ago, another negative experience at Heathrow served to reaffirm my resolve to avoid Heathrow if at all possible. A hair-raising taxi ride to our hotel — our driver seemed intent on overtaking anything that moved. Always ask an Italian taxi driver to show you his tariff card prior to getting in the cab and avoid surprises at the end of the ride. Set routes such as airports to hotels have a government approved and enforced tariff.

I’d promised Ben that his first night in Italy he could eat pasta and gelato! He held me to that so midnight found us sitting at sidewalk cafe, the Duomo in clear view and this child chowing down on a massive plate of pasta and sausage. He took his gelato to go and we strolled the Duomo Plaza much like seasoned Italians. What fun.

We had to get to Genoa by 4:00p.m. where we were to meet up with our group and the Italian Cruise ship. A quick Internet search in the hotel lobby and I figured the 2:00p.m train would be perfect timing. Italian trains can be a great bargain. Think of all the possible discounts (group, mid day travel) and ask! For Ben and I it was a senior fare and a child fare. Not offered at the ticket window but once I asked, no problem and the discount was around 35% over regular fare. We spent the morning in Milan visiting the Ferrari shop — kid friendly and what boy hasn’t heard of a Ferrari. The salesman was taken by Ben’s enthusiasm and gave him a baseball cap with the Ferrari logo – I didn’t even get a sales pitch. We took the elevator to the roof of the Duomo – he loved it, I hate heights! The views from the rooftops out over Milan were worth conquering my fear for. And of course there was more gelato to sample when we got down.

The train station was replete with it’s own traps. Beware of strangers who approach you, ask if you need help. Tell this seemingly kind stranger what train you are looking for and he’ll grab your suitcase, urge you to run because the train is leaving and then hold your luggage up for ransom when you board the train. I described this experience later to others and found I was not alone. I stood my ground with one of these unauthorized porters and refused the 10 Euros he demanded. The man was increasingly aggressive, blocking my way and refusing to give me the suitcase. My Italian is limited but the few phrases I used calling for help attracted the attention of a policeman and as he approached, the “kind man” took off. As Ben put it, “wrong grandma to pick a fight with”. I’m not so sure, I think without the police intervention I may well have lost my bag. No such thing as trolleys and Skycaps at Italian train stations and there are always steps. Travel light is the order of the day.

Our first port was Naples and we visited Pompeii — what fun for a child. Stray cats and ash entombed mummies were a hit. It was a bit of a zoo — hoards of tour groups shuffling after guides. We broke ranks and used our own guide book to visit areas that I thought would be of greater interest to Ben and it got us out of the shuffle-along line. Naturally the tour ended with a gelato for him courtesy of a charming, older man who complimented me on my “beautiful child”. A little bit of flattery warms a grandma’s heart but I did decline his offer of a tour of Naples!

Next stop was Sicily and we took a bus to Taormina to visit the Roman amphitheater. Spectacular. And then the excitement built during two days at sea. Our liner was one of the first tour ships in some time to dock in Tobruk and we watched with great delight the exchange of bouquets between our portly captain and welcoming dignitaries. Prior to the trip, there had been a lack of clarity about visas and cost involved but on the day that we were to embark for the eclipse site, the Libyan authorities waived surcharges and without exception treated us as treasured guests. We went by bus about two hours into the desert to the eclipse site and found a tent city in place. Vendors of food and drink, bands, boy scout groups performing traditional dances, drummers and of course camels. It was a joyful and colorful scene.

Silence and a stilling of the air enveloped the camp as first contact with the Sun approached, followed by murmurs of delight as the cloudless sky afforded flawless views of the encroaching moon shadow, and then a universal gasp followed by a hush as Totality descended. It was an eerie, rippling light that engulfed us; the temperature drop during Totality was significant; the Shadow Bands were prolonged and obvious on the flat sand. I heard Ben’s voice shouting “diamond ring, see the diamond ring”. As the shadow moved off and the sun reappeared excitement took over and “Awesome” “Amazing” rang out in many languages. It was my first total eclipse that hadn’t been obscured by cloud. I turned to see Ben being interviewed by a Libyan TV crew. He told them that his grandma had made all the gold colored telescopes. They turned and looked at me in my wrinkled linen and obviously thought the child was delusional because they made no effort to interview me! Once again I was playing second fiddle to my grandson. I was told, confess to not seeing this, that most of the Libyans at the camp averted their eyes and knelt in prayer as we approached Totality, that there is a long tradition in the Muslim faith of praying during an eclipse.