We travelled to Varkala, a tourist beach on the coast of Kerala in mid-January to find that, quite by chance, we arrived a couple of days before a reasonably rare eclipse.
Now as much as possible when backpacking, we try to stay vaguely up-to-date with the news, so that via the internet and various regional newspapers we knew that this would be happening. However, I am well aware that when travelling it is easy to live in a cocoon, with no real idea of what’s going on in the outside world. I had merry visions of confused holidaymakers stretched out on the sand in their beach gear, wondering why the sun had disappeared in the middle of the day. Total darkness really isn’t an ideal way to get a good tan.
However, my predictions of puzzlement were to be disappointed; it was only an annular eclipse. For those of you who (like me until a day or so before) haven’t a clue what that means, an annular eclipse is one where the moon passes in front of the sun, but because of distance and perspective it has a smaller circumference, so the sun is never completely obscured. We found this out from some friendly scientists who had set up their equipment on a rooftop. They were part of a group called S.P.A.C.E, a society with a rather tenuous acronym which stood for something like Society for the Popularisation of Astrological Communication and Education. They had all kinds of sophisticated gear set up for days beforehand in order to record the event in a proper scientific manner.
However, the rest of us less academically-minded people were reduced to less refined methods of seeing the sun (or lack thereof). I remember experiencing a total eclipse in England when I was younger and for weeks in advance you kept hearing of how important it was to have those little plastic UV glasses if you wanted to look at the sun without serious eye damage.
Naturally, in India, health precautions weren’t quite so obvious a concern. While S.P.A.C.E. did have a couple of pairs of glasses floating around, the barging crowds of Indian tourists made these all but impossible to get hold of. Instead, there was a startling array of improvised eclipse-viewing equipment. We were lucky in that we found someone on the cliff top who had brought some kind of industrial foil. Probably not 100% safe, but when folded three times it gave a pretty good view of the crescent-shaped outline of the sun.
Others were more imaginative with their choice of lens. Instead of one pair of UV spectacles, I saw people layering up three pairs of cheap regular sunglasses to peer up at the sun. CDs – quite possibly cheap pirated DVDs – were suddenly being interposed between eyes and sky. My personal favourites were the old X-rays that suddenly materialised to function as filters; it was hilarious to see people viewing an important astrological occurrence through someone else’s broken fibula.
All in all, it was an entertaining and even vaguely informative diversion in the midst of a relaxing beach break.