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In The Shadow

By Peter Rashkin

There are people who follow eclipses like groupies follow a band. Wherever the next show is, they will be there. And they keep a record of how many minutes and seconds they've spent "in the shadow." I met one guy in Guadalajara when I went down for the '91 eclipse, and he had a pretty good story about skirting the Finland-Soviet border to find the right spot without having to cross illegally. Waiting for the redeye to Buenos Aires I met another one-such, bare-shouldered, army surplus vest with lots of great pockets. "I'm heading for the Bolivian highland desert," he told me. "Cloud cover over Paraguay. Not Paraguay."

Well, I'm not one of THOSE eclipse chasers. And Ian and I were going to Paraguay to see the Nov. 3 eclipse. With luck, we would have clear skies; if not, we would have an adventure in Paraguay.

Nov. 1. We land in Asuncion after a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires. The passengers applaud. We get a cab and find a hotel, then wander around.

Founded in 1537, Asuncion is the oldest colonial city in South America. For awhile it was important, but when it turned out not to be a port of entry to the rich Inca lands, it became a backwater. Paraguay was the first South American country to declare independence from Spain. Since 1989, the country has been governed by an elected president and congress, but for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was virtual one-man rule under a series of military dictators. War in the 1860s against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and in the 1930s against Bolivia twice decimated the male population. European immigrants came, not to extend western civilization, but to escape it.

I don't know what I expected, but I'm not finding it. More colonial architecture...ANY colonial architecture! People speaking Guarani. Mate. I was sure we would find mate, the high caffeine brew popular in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. "The tea of the mate awakens sleep, activates the lazy and makes brothers and sisters of people who don't know each other." (Eduardo Galeano, Genesis).

We finally find it, in the park, and after that we see it everywhere, not in restaurants but in the plaza, the street or the bus depot. People carry their fixings with them: an ornate cup made of wood, gourd or horn, a metal straw with a spoon-shaped sieve at one end, a package of powdered leaves from the mate tree and a thermos of hot or cold water.

In the plaza, Indian women sell terere. For mil Guarani--about half a buck--you get a guampa full of powdery mate and a bombilla, as they call the metal straw. In a wooden mortar the woman crushes some fresh leaves, which she then adds to a plastic quart pitcher of ice and water, which she scoops from a barrel. Typically, a couple of people share a cup; each in turn sips the strong tea until the water is gone, refills the guampa and passes it to his companion. It's a leisurely, social drink. When you've finished, you run around the city like Roadrunner for a couple of hours. Good stuff.

My plan, if you can call it that, was to find a place around Asuncion to watch the eclipse, and then try to find boat passage down the Paraguay River to Entre Rios, Argentina, where I wanted to visit my cousins. The trouble with that was that Asuncion was on the edge of the path of totality, and the full eclipse would last less than a minute. At the center of the path, 70 or 80 miles north, totality would last more than three minutes. I hoped to find a taxi driver who would take us out of town early that morning and bring us back after the eclipse.

Nov. 2. Beautiful clear skies! Dare we hope that it will last until tomorrow? The taxista is supposed to call me this afternoon...I don't know if I can rely on him, or if he will be able to reach me. I ask the fella at the desk about boat passage down the river. No, he says, they stopped that a couple of years ago. There are local excursions and, wait...this might be just the thing...an eclipse cruise!

Yes! He makes the arrangements for us. "You will really like this," he tells us. "The place they are going for the eclipse is very near the town I come from." We have to be at the boat at 2:30, so we have a couple of hours for mate, souvenirs, picture-taking. And today Asuncion is perfect and we begin to love Paraguay. It is, as they say again and again, tranquilo!

We lugged our stuff down to the port; we were early so we stopped for plates of spaghetti and mandioca and large bottles of local beer at an open-to-the-street restaurant. Half the signs were in Korean, and I figured the people behind the counter had come to Paraguay to escape eastern civilization. After awhile we got on the boat, the Presidente Antonio Lopez, named after the man who led Paraguay from 1840 to 1862. He was succeeded by his son, Francisco Solano Lopez, who led the country into the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance.

Finding this cruise was a great stroke of luck. Not only did we get to chug up the river in an old diesel boat--it reminded me of the African Queen, except that it slept 150 and had continental dinners and dancing to live music--and see the eclipse with an astrophysicist leader in a beautiful rustic setting, followed by a day-long fiesta, but we got to meet some people and hear their stories, which to me is the best part of travel.

We spoke Spanish, of course, and so we sometimes would come to a point where we couldn't understand, or make ourselves understood. Then it was like playing charades until we got it. Three other passengers spoke English.

Paula, who has a travel agency in Asuncion, had been invited on the trip to assist any English- or German- speakers. She told me she was born in the Mennonite Colonies in the Gran Chaco, Paraguay's remote and unfriendly wilderness. Her parents' parents had immigrated from Russia via Canada. Paula learned three languages--German Dialect, German and English--before Spanish.

Another multi-linguist was Margarita, a Swedish-born economist who left a marriage and life in Switzerland almost 20 years ago and came to Paraguay to, you know, get away from civilization for a while. She never went back. At the fiesta, Margarita and Gordo (an engineer at the great hydroelectric project that Paraguay shares with Brazil) won the dance contest. For a prize they got a live sheep, which was loaded onto the boat and taken back to Asuncion. I still wonder about that sheep. Did Gordo sell it at the market and split the money with M? Did one of them keep it as a pet?

Andreus also spoke nearly perfect English, and I gather his Spanish was just as good. He was a medical student from Germany who had decided to spend some time in Paraguay...I'm not sure why. My guess: to give a relationship a little time and space. He was working in a clinic in Asuncion; he told me it served the poor, and that Guarani was the main language. He hoped to learn it and travel some in the hinterlands. He got a little loaded at the fiesta and for a while he couldn't remember which language to speak to whom.

Raquel spoke a little, too. At dinner she helped Ian get some vegetarian food--not always the easiest thing in South America--and after dinner invited us to have some champagne with her friends. That was so cool!

Nov. 3. Wakening at dawn, I think I hear rain and rush out on the deck. But it is just boat noise...the brightening sky is clear!

The eclipse was perfect...a few passing clouds during the first partial stage, when you had to look through a filter to see the sun gradually come to resemble a waning moon, waning over 45 minutes, from a fat banana to a tiny sliver to

TOTALITY! "Now!" Miguel yelled. "No filter!" The sky was an indescribable dark deep purple, not as dark as full night, not dark enough for stars, but Jupiter and Venus were spectacular, and the moon-blocked sun...you've seen photos, but to be there, in the shadow, is unforgettable.

The fiesta was a great lazy day of food, drink, music and conversation. Marcelito and the two other engineers were drinking a very nice Argentine red wine...$13/bottle in Argentina, $6/bottle in Paraguay. Margarita tried to explain the Paraguayan economy, which I gathered is almost entirely based on smuggling. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying. It was tranquilo. It was Alfredo Stroessner's birthday. He came to power in a military coup in 1954 and was overthrown by a coup in 1989. I asked Paula if it was better now; she said maybe, but she's not sure...now the poor can say what they want, but they don't have enough to eat. (Later, in Ciudad del Este, guide Mario told me that some people wanted to rename that bustling smugglers' hub after Stroessner, but some were against it. "What do you want?" I asked. He laughed. "Politically, I'm neutral." After a while he added: "But democracy is better.") The band struck up a song. "It's for Stroessner's birthday," Margarita told me. "The anthem of the Colorado Party." Then they played the anthem of the Liberal Party, so nobody would be offended.

After food and beer, dancing, speeches by the captain and several members of the family whose guests we were, it was time to leave. The captain gave me an abrazo. "Eso es el corazon de Paraguay," he said, his gesture embracing the farm, the food, the family, the river and the Chaco wilderness on the far side. "Tranquilo."

That night, on the boat going back, Andreus asked me if it was really worth it to go so far for such a short event. We were on top of the cabin, the sunset reflected off the river, a flock of pink geese rose up from the bank. It was tranquilo.

But I don't know. Oct. 25, 1995. India. The path of totality passes within 20 miles of the Taj Mahal. Weather conditions are expected to be good, although they might be even better earlier in the day in central Afghanistan. Totality will only last a little over a minute, and it is so far away. Still, you've got to see India sometime, right? When better? And let's see...5 minutes 50 seconds in '91, 3 minutes 34 seconds in '94...if I got, say, another minute this year, that would make it 10 minutes 24 seconds in the shadow!

India, anyone?

POSTSCRIPT: India came and went. I couldn't go. The Black Sea coast, border of Romania and Bulgaria, August 11, 1999. Two minutes.

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