By Fung Yu
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The longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century happened last July 22; the duration of totality was a few seconds shy of 7 minutes, making it one of the longest in 300 years; an event that will not be surpassed until June 13, 2132.
The moon's shadow covered most of Southeast Asian countries with the path of totality extending from northern India, central China, and southern Japan. Countries like the Philippines, which lie outside the moon's umbra shadow, witnessed only a partial solar eclipse.
It was during 1995 in Manila that I saw my first solar eclipse, albeit a partial one; it nevertheless rekindled my interest in astronomy, and all things heavenly.
The eclipse in China was the most easily reachable in terms of geographical distance and monetary resource that prompted me to make a spot decision to go.
Joined by a team of like-minded individuals from the UP Astronomical Society, our group of 13 set foot in Shanghai on the 19th, a few days early in preparation for the anticipated celestial event with much enthusiasms and expectations.
The city of Shanghai, situated in the upper northern hemisphere, is subjected to the annual four season cycle of atmospheric conditions. Having arrived at the height of summer, days are excruciatingly hot! The temperature is a few degrees higher than Manila in a sunny day, but the feeling one gets, was probably in the forties Celsius!
It was precisely the heat that prevented me from exploring the city and its myriad of tourist attractions. Public transportation was not a problem really; Shanghai's extensive subway system allows you to travel within the city almost effortlessly. With English translations of each station and stops, one only needs to know where to get off and how to transfer from one subway line to the next.
Armed with a map, and eager to explore the following day after arrival, I took on the challenge of going to LongHwa Temple via the subway as it appeared to be the nearest from where we were staying. Alas, I was gravely mistaken! The site may seem near the subway station on the map, but in actuality, it was far, in fact, several blocks away... and a block in Shanghai can be like the equivalent of 3 to 5 blocks in Manila... add to that the extreme heat, wet shirt and underpants from all the accumulated sweat, you'll understand why I had to give up and forego the rest of my traveling plans; seeking instead, the air-conditioned comforts of the hostel for the remaining duration. Lesson learned? Go during spring or fall, or winter if you relish the cold temperatures.
We stayed in a place called the Shanghai Blue Mountain Youth Hostel, an inexpensive lodge run by the government with pleasant amenities. Catering more to the backpackers, the two-story building is located in front of a subway station, and within easy reach of other public transportations. It has dormitory rooms of up to 8 beds with common toilet and bath to the quieter single-bed rooms with private showers. It has a cozy bar-lounge with free wifi, 3 desktop computers with Internet access (also for free), a pool table, LCD TV & player, a fireplace for winter, popular board games & cards, books and magazines, and relaxing sofas. Friendly English speaking staffs manned the counter 24 hours a day that can assist in all your traveling needs. Groups and couples of mostly European and American backpackers filled the hostel during our stay. The price for a twin room is at US$30/night and a hearty meal at the hostel cost RMB20 (about 150 pesos).
On the day of the eclipse, we hired a van together with three new found friends to Jianshenwei, a coastal city south of Shanghai, roughly 2 hours, 80km away. It supposes to offer better weather conditions than Shanghai, but the predictions the night before were for cloudy skies with rain showers throughout the day.
The sky was already full of clouds when we arrived at Jianshenwei, hoping against hope that weather conditions will improve as the eclipse progresses; but such was not the case. All throughout from first contact to totality, the sun was blocked by thick clouds, it was so covered that you don't even need a solar filter to shoot the sun.
As seconds to totality approaches, I settled to the inevitable fact that my very first total solar eclipse, the one that I journeyed to witness, the grandeur that I envisioned it to be, was stolen from me. I was disappointed, felt cheated, and left wanting. I feel like a mythical dragon out to devour the sun, a promised meal that in this case, was ultimately denied. A psychological emptiness was also created, a void that can only be filled with seeing the next "blacken sun."
The only consolation was the sudden transformation of day into night and back again in that short moment of time, an experience that can almost be describe as akin to being magical.
The next total solar eclipse will be on July 11, 2010 in South America, centering on the Easter Islands. For the Philippines, the next total solar eclipse will be on April 20, 2042; it will pass by most of the Palawan mainland, the Panay Island, Masbate, and the Bicol region. It will have a totality duration of 4 minutes 51 seconds; occurring just right during the dry season, if global warming doesn't change the prevailing weather patterns by then, it shall be truly a sight to behold.