DE GUSTIBUS

Halfway Around the World--Ultimate Sun Block
A total eclipse of the sun, as seen from a small Turkish town.

BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Friday, August 13, 1999

KASTAMONU, Turkey--When I arrived here early Wednesday afternoon, the sky was clear and blue: perfect weather for watching a total solar eclipse. About halfway to totality, however, the clouds started rolling in and obscuring the sun. I anxiously turned to the Israeli tourist on the next bench and lamented this ominous turn of events.

"An eclipse is like an action thriller--full of suspense," he said.

I corrected him: "But in the movies, there's always a happy ending." In real life, we had to worry that we'd be cheated out of the show nature had promised, a show he had come from Jerusalem to see, and I from New York.

My journey had begun a week ago, when I flew overnight to Istanbul, sharing a pair of Lufthansa flights with a 100-strong contingent of eclipse enthusiasts. My seatmate on the connecting flight explained that they were part of a tour arranged by an amateur astronomers' organization; their destination was Elazig, in southeastern Turkey. They appeared to be about 80% male, mostly older men along with a handful of twenty- and thirtysomethings who looked as if they'd probably belonged to the math club in high school.

I'm superior to these people, I thought. After all, I dropped out of high school. Besides, I had family to see and personal business to conduct in Turkey. It's not as if I was going solely for two minutes and 17 seconds of benightedness.

On Wednesday morning, however, I had to admit I was fooling myself. I too had become an eclipse nerd. I left my Ankara hotel at 7:30 a.m., nearly seven hours before totality was due in Kastamonu, just in case traffic was bad on the normally 3-hour, 150-mile drive from the Turkish capital to this fortunately situated city just south of the Black Sea. And although I began the day thoroughly exhausted from a three-day bout of severe jetlagged insomnia, there was no way this was going to deter me from braving the twisting mountain road or the notoriously aggressive Turkish drivers with whom I'd be sharing it.

Having arrived safely at my destination, and now sitting powerless as the astronomical clock ticked away and the crescent sun lurked behind the clouds like a hidden Turkish flag, I began to rationalize again. Clouds or not, I'd still get to see two minutes of darkness at the height of the afternoon--that's not much, but it's something. I could always catch Turkey's next total eclipse. And at least I'd had a chance to see Kastamonu.

This last observation really was a saving grace, for the people of Kastamonu charmed me. Having visited Istanbul three times, I had learned to be wary. Tourists at the major sites in Istanbul are swarmed by hard-sell men offering rugs and travel advice, street urchins peddling shoe shines and Kleenex packages, and confidence artists looking to take advantage of tourists. On my first trip to Istanbul, one such con man lured me into a nightclub and ordered us each a beer. When I became uncomfortable enough to leave, I was met by six thugs demanding four million Turkish liras (then about $25) for the beers I hadn't ordered. I made my way out the door and ran away. Those in the know say I'm lucky the goons didn't give chase.

Istanbul's pests and predators are unfailingly friendly, so learning to avoid them entails a loss of innocence. But in Kastamonu, a sleepy burg of 57,000, one can regain that innocence. The Turkish gregariousness that lures suckers in Istanbul here takes the form of genuine kindness. Strangers, many of whom spoke but a few words of English, were constantly offering me cigarettes, tea, even food from their plates; I reciprocated with Davidoff cigarillos. A pair of tourists from Istanbul, getting into the spirit of the place, paid for my lunch then disappeared from the restaurant before I could learn of their generosity. So disarmed was I by the ubiquitous kindheartedness that I gave an old beggar a bit of change, something I steadfastly refuse to do back home, never mind in Istanbul. The beggar informed me, if I understood him correctly, that Allah approved of my benevolence.

So I encountered some lovely people, and that made the trip worthwhile. Still, I wanted to see the eclipse--and in the end I did. For a substantial portion of that fateful two minutes and 17 seconds, the sun somehow peeked out from behind the clouds to expose its corona, the flares of light above the sun's surface that are visible only during a total eclipse. And for part of the time, the sun was behind thin clouds that diffused the corona's light, making it look even more spectacular.

Whether it was just luck or Allah making good on his appreciation, nature turned out to have written a fine script. At the risk of reinforcing my image as an eclipse nerd, I'm looking forward to the sequel, opening in Turkey in 2006.

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