The Foreign Places an Eclipse Can Take You

One of the great joys of an eclipse is when it pushes you out of your way.

A girl looks through eclipse glasses.
Zimbabwean schoolgirls line up to look view the solar eclipse of June 21, 2001. (Howard Burditt / Reuters)

On Monday, the moon will block out the sun across a band of America roughly 70 miles wide, from Oregon in the west to South Carolina in the east. Nashville, Lincoln, and Kansas City all get a few moments of darkness, as will several smaller cities. But what thrills the heart of this eclipse-watcher is how the shadow seems to prefer the back roads, shunning the big cities in favor of places where cityfolk fear to tread.

My heart beats with little romance for what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life.” I live in a city—and a city whose main virtue, according to some, is that it is within commuting distance of an even bigger city. But I love when nature or circumstance force us to go somewhere we would otherwise overlook, either because of urban snobbery or convenience or good taste. I will be thousands of miles from this eclipse. The last one I saw, however, took me well out of my way, and I doubt I would have appreciated it as much if I could have seen it from my bedroom window.

In June 2001, I was traveling around Zimbabwe. I was a student then, without much money, and as the Zimbabwean economy cratered, hyperinflation added zeroes to the local currency. I found that my U.S. currency bought me more and better food and lodging with every day, and for about five dollars a day I could live comfortably, if indolently, while the country destroyed itself around me. (I watched this suffering with at most one eye. “How everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster,” as the Auden poem goes.)

One distraction from the suffering that all could relish, even those without hard currency, was an eclipse on June 21, cutting directly through the center of the country. Zimbabwean radio discussed little else, and babies were born with names like “Eclipse Glasses Banda” to commemorate the event. I figured I’d go to the most convenient place along the path of totality.

Then came the Rainbow People. In Harare, the capital, I began to notice a new class of traveler. They were friendly and gregarious, and they shared their food and music freely, although one got the sneaking suspicion that by partaking, one might be signing up for a whole way of life. I didn’t mind sharing my own stuff, but not if it meant I also had to grow dreads and wear sleeveless tie-dyes. These travelers, it turned out, were converging on northeast Zimbabwe for a “Rainbow Gathering,” a roving jamboree of unwashed Western backpackers. They often chose full moons for their parties, and they recognized no man-made border. They were a sort of nomadic version of Burning Man, and if you converted their net worth into Zimbabwean currency, they might even have a similar proportion of billionaires.

Anyone who has spent time in rural Africa will know that this assignment is an impossible one, especially for a foreigner. Those empty, beautiful spaces are not empty at all, and when you feel alone, except for the vultures and the trees and the elephants, you almost never are. Humans are everywhere. Whenever I have stopped by the roadside to admire a view, have a drink from an ice chest, or fix a flat, no matter how remote the roadside, eventually the forest on its edge has spat out a local bystander, curious what a mzungu or foreigner is doing stopped so near his home.

The solution, I decided, was to use political boundaries to my advantage. The eclipse passed through Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique, exactly at the legal crossing point near the town of Nyamapanda. It was not a heavily trafficked route, and according the map, there was a small no-man’s-land between the border posts. I would leave Zimbabwe, walk halfway, find a tree, and sit under it until the sun disappeared from the sky. My only company would be those who happened, at the moment of the eclipse, to be midway through border formalities, plus whatever other weirdoes or misanthropes decided this would be a nice place for watching astronomical events.

I arrived in Nyamapanda the previous day and stayed in what I think was the only hotel near the border. The eclipse wasn’t for some hours, so I passed the time by getting a haircut. The barber had never cut non-African hair, and the selfie I took with him, after collaboratively shearing my head, is the only photo I have of that day.

The Zimbabweans let me through without drama. I walked a few minutes, just out of sight of their post, and found a friendly tree, with a grand view of the landscape around. The light shone through its leaves, and although the moon had begun taking its bite out of the sun, the pinholes of light that it cast on the dirt road still looked like fat Pac-Mans, and not yet like sharp-horned crescents.

No one bothered me for about half an hour. I read a book of short stories by Margaret Atwood, bought in Mutare for five U.S. cents. Then a Mozambican border guard walked over to ask what I was doing. I explained, leaving out the part about the tripping backpackers, and he shrugged and went back inside. He came back out to ask if I had candles, since he had paperwork to do, and had heard it would get dark. I explained that the darkness would be brief, and that it would be more interesting than his paperwork.

By the time the light started to change perceptibly, I was surrounded by three Mozambican border guards, and we marveled together at the surreal light, and the hundreds of glowing crescents cast between the same tree’s leaves. Traffic across the border stopped, and we were alone under clear skies, except for the flora and fauna of southern Africa.

I wonder what I would have heard in denser human company, with whirrs of camera shutters and hippies yelling “Duuuude! It’s getting darker!”—as if to confirm that no, it wasn’t just the shrooms. Instead I heard insects reacting to the only practical joke the universe ever plays on them, a very false sunset. They became loud and excited, roused from their daytime slumber and ready to yell at each other. Chickens made noises in the distance.

Then came the darkness, very fast, but draping the landscape from west to east. What I recall most clearly is the stars, and a burning hole in the sky. The sun’s corona looked angry and menacing, and I could see how primitive man might have taken the scene not as a joke but a threat. Then it passed, and the animals were let in on the joke. The roosters crowed. It was probably my imagination, but the insects seemed like they were milling around, confused, before tucking themselves back in for the afternoon.

The border guards took my passport and stamped me through. I had learned to expect a request for a bribe in Mozambique, but they didn’t want to trouble me, after sharing the eclipse experience.

Better still, they decided to trouble someone else on my behalf. I put my thumb out, trying to hitchhike to the next city, Tete. After an hour, no one had picked me up, and the border guards promised to help me out. They found a trader headed to Tete with a brand new mattress loaded on his covered flatbed. “You look tired,” one said to me, then strongly suggested to the trader that he let me sleep on his mattress for the rest of the journey.

I got in, passed out, and woke up hours later in Tete, under a real night sky.