Escape to Santiago

My brother invited me to join him in Santiago. The total solar eclipse on July 2 held promise to be a life changing event. Well I’d seen my share of partial eclipses. The real opportunity for me was travel to an exotic place and hang out with Rick, my brother.

(Left to Right) Rick and Tim exploring the streets of Santiago

July is Winter in South America. Short cold days. Turns out Santiago is around 10C (50F) during the day and 0C (32F) at night. Slightly colder than San Francisco winters.

Chile is not a backward country at all. Sure back in the 70’s there was Pinochet and some notably bad politics. That was a long time ago. United Nations ranks its 180 member nations according to transparency (lack of corruption). Chile ranks 27th place from the best. US is 22. Chile has a population of about 14 million and 45% of that population is in Santiago, a modern city with a good subway / bus system. Serious earthquakes are frequent. The architecture in Santiago is built to take it, modern buildings have world class seismic tolerant design. Oddly there are also ancient structures that are still standing despite the tectonic activity that leaves California in the dust.

Out beyond Santiago, the country is predominantly rural. Many small villages, resorts dot the landscape. We went north of Santiago along the Pan American Highway. It was high desert. Fresh water was scarce. I learned there were active desalination plants somewhere in the north. South of Santiago, there was more water, even farming of crops.

Santiago nestled in the Andes Mountains

Palace and Cathedral in Santiago

Rick and I rented bikes for the weekend. These were good 29 inch wheel mountain bikes with front suspension. These were available from the Sheraton Hotel we were staying. They were more than adequate for touring the city. Saturday was our warmup adventure. It was raining on and off. We pedaled randomly, looking for cozy neighborhoods out of the main flow of traffic. We found them, cobblestones and outdoor cafes. We spotted a cable car crossing the sky and found the base station. This was at the base of San Cristobal hill. It was a easy climb up by bike, with a great view of the city at the top. There I t started raining continuously. We rode down without fenders and got the classic mud stripe up our backsides. On the way back to the hotel, we found an excellent restaurant / wine bar. Had a great meal which included duck ham and an amazing Chilean Cabernet. No matter that we were soaking wet. We rode back to the hotel and got out of our wet clothes.

View from the top of San Cristobal Hill

On Sunday, we decided to get organized in our path through the city. I have Komoot, a German app for mapping out bike friendly routes. One thing I like about Komoot is that you don’t need to watch the iPhone screen. You simply listen to the audio to get directions. The iPhone can be in your pocket with the earphone plugged into one ear. Rick and I punched in some good candidate destinations, got the route, and took off on bike. It was going well. We’d found our first destination and were headed for the second. We found one of the major streets through town was closed to motor vehicles. It was dedicated to bikes and runners for the day, with flag men at the intersections, and juice and water available for the asking. So, we followed this major street which was not part of the route Komoot had found. It was suggesting corrections to get us back on the route. I followed these suggestions and eventually Komoot reported that we are on route. Good! I thought.

Traffic photographed from our protected shelf

That’s where the trouble started. We were actually on an entrance ramp for a major highway. My audio feed was reporting that I was ‘following the route’. My blind faith is the root cause of this near catastrophe. I watched the shoulder disappear as we descended down into a tunnel. This route was a limited access roadway with no means of escape, speed limit 80km/hr (50mph). I realized the error. The safest thing to do is keep my speed and look for an exit. I did not panic, I saw the international symbol for escape route and a shelf in the wall to my right. I braked to a stop and quickly pulled my bike up on the shelf. Rick was right behind me and did the same.

There we were. Two of us with our bikes on a shelf, safe from the traffic whizzing by but with no obvious place to go. Three buttons two red one green, with labels in Spanish. On closer inspection, there was also a hinged plate in the floor of our shelf. Rick had an app on his phone that translates signs. The app worked well enough. Before pressing the button, Rick said to me, ‘just don’t crush us’. I pressed. The hinged plate opened revealing a stairway leading down below the road level. It led to a tunnel we crossed under the roadway to find a staircase on the other side that led up to a manually operated trap door. We popped out into a public park next to the river. Big sigh of relief.

Tim descending through the escape hatch
Once inside the tunnel the hatch door closed

We spent the rest of the day calming our frazzled nerves, thankful to be alive. It was unanimously decided that Rick should navigate. We rode through a city park and visited an Art Museum. We ate at an outdoor tables at a cafe in the park. By the time we had finished eating we were cold. We went inside and ordered Brandy and a Latte which we drank while sitting on a couch in the restaurant lobby. There were propane heaters running inside the restaurant. I would have liked a fireplace. We made do, then cycled on.

That evening we attended a cocktail party hosted by our tour company, Twilight Tours. The group was dominated by uber nerds, artists, and their companions. Rick and I fit right in. Most of the people there had witnessed total eclipses before, and were returning for another experience. I had great conversations learning about stuff from all fields. Some were experts in Astronomy which the group made good use of.

We left the party, still in progress to go meet up with Danny Feyler, our step-nephew who was finishing up his semester abroad here in Santiago. Danny was a good tour guide as well as superb command of Spanish. He confirmed my estimations of Chilean cuisine. Do not come to Chile expecting good coffee or good beer. Do expect amazing wine. They also have amazing seafood. Rick and I drank ‘pisco sours’, which were roughly equivalent to a margarita. Pisco is distilled wine made from the pisco grape, which is grown in this region.

(Left to Right) Rick, Danny, Tim catching the last subway to east Santiago

The next morning we headed north along the Pan American Highway by tour bus. About 300 miles north of Santiago is a small fishing village called Tongoy. A tiny resort called Playa Blanca (White Beach) at the end of a 5Km dirt road, was where the tour hunkered down for the week. It is remote Chile. WiFi was hard to find. I hadn’t bought a SIM card for the country. So, here I put down the phone and enjoy life the way we used to.

Our resort in rural Chile, north of Santiago. Quite beautiful, but clearly off season; the place is directly on the beach.

Once settled in our new suites, the group assembled for a briefing on eclipse viewing. While we are a group of only 40 or so. There are untold thousands that will be in the narrow band in the middle of the Andes to view this amazing event. In fact, we needed to leave very early in the morning to beat the traffic up there.

Our group had much experience, and at least one professional Ph.D. astronomer from NASA. Some carried expensive telescopes with equatorial drive systems. I carried my iPhone with a tripod. Yet the group was accessible and had valuable recommendations for getting what I could with such limited equipment. Including a filter membrane and a lesson on how to attenuate the sensitivity of the iPhone for best results.

The group was educated in so many different fields, many highly educated. The common thing I found, most or all had easy access to their inner child. Projections of pomp and stature were nowhere to be found.

I had great conversations with Martin, a mathematician from Toronto, and his wife Colleen, an artist in her own right and also working with NASA scientists to think outside the box. She thought me about nano aerogels which I learned are lighter than air and can be machined into shapes, that would float, of course. We talked about plans to create a large dragon shaped object, anchored to float over San Francisco some time in future years when the supply of this material is sufficient.

Scott, and his wife Cathy were tour volunteers and friends with Joel Harris, the founding member of Twilight Tours. They have seen many eclipses. Scott was a chemist at Merck, now retired. His interest have wandered far from his formal training. Scott was at the time of our meeting, building a computer from scratch (placing wire by wire at the transistor level). His goal was not to compete in any way with modern computers. He simply wanted to understand in detail what the issues are with implementation. We had great discussions about fan out and clock speed. He relished the problem solving, for the sake of problem solving.

Scott reminded me of my own brother, who was fascinated with biochemistry and the need to understand molecular orbital hybridization, so that he could understand protein folding, so that he could understand deeply the virology lectures he was downloading from Harvard and other places.

Kathy, Scott’s wife was a Texas gal living with Scott in Boston, but with plans to move to Texas. Kathy had a great personality and I so enjoyed being around the two of them. It completely reshaped my image of Texas women. Too small a sample set to draw conclusions you say? Maybe so. Collecting a larger sample set would be an enjoyable mission, I think. Scott and Kathy have a blog about their interests, I learned. Check it out.

Mike was a school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a teenager, he learned to speak Spanish in the streets of Los Angeles. Bilingual people were valuable. The unique thing about Mike is that he had completed law school, and a sophisticated charm that one would not expect from his Spanish vernacular. He was traveling with his father, a retired physicist from Grumman Fairchild.

Crescent Sun over Elqui Valley

Up before 5am, we climbed into two buses and headed up. From our resort at sea level, we climbed almost 4000ft into a high desert in the Andes. It was cold when first arrived in the early morning ~0C (30F). Calling this place an observatory was confusing to me. I expected to find an establishment with staff scientists, etc. But, this was our place selected for our observation. So, I guess it’s OK to call it an observatory. We had several hours to wait before the eclipse. But it was fun hanging out with our group.

Rick napping in a beanbag chair in our observatory camp.
Panorama of the observation site. 3650 ft. Above sea level in the Andes
Amateurs of many levels set up for the big event

Joel Harris, Founder of twilight tours got some exceptional images

As the big moment approached, folks are all buzzing with preparations and general excitement. There was a window of about 90 minutes in which everything happened. The majority of this period was no different than a partial eclipse. The point of first contact was where the moon’s image first impinged on the sun’s image. This occurred precisely when it was predicted. I found the iPhone could be coaxed to take photos that showed this, but it was not easy, nor were the pictures very good. The best instrument at my disposal was my own eyes, protected, of course, with a cheap Mylar filter.

The excitement peaked at the transition to totality. The last sun’s beams peaking out from the moon’s obscuration is called ‘diamond ring’. This was followed by bailey’s beads, where the moon’s irregular edge creates multiple points of light. Other effects people were looking for was the moon’s shadow which sweeps across the ground, and shadow bands which are an interaction with atmospheric schlieren effects during the transition to totality. I saw diamond ring myself. We got confirmed reports of bailey’s beads. I don’t recall any reports of shadow bands. I don’t think the moon’s shadow was observed sweeping across the ground.

Late in the afternoon (4:38pm), the weather was most enjoyable. I could sit comfortably in a T-shirt and long pants. No jacket needed. The sky was blue, no clouds at all. Venus and some of the brighter stars were becoming visible in the last minutes before totality. Nearing totality we saw at least 3 jets in the sky. Apparently, one can get a prolonged observation of the eclipse from a jet window. There are a number of people that do this. I guess that’s one way to avoid the traffic jam issue we were about to face.

Partial phase of the eclipse, photographed with my iPhone (6s)

Most folks were elated at how good this turned out. “No weather drama”, was frequently heard. I’m guessing that after all the preparation, a cloudy day would be a major bummer. After the period of totality, there was much rejoicing. The sun set in the rocky horizon as a partial eclipse. It was fun to see the perfect circle of the sun being obscured from opposite sides at the same time.

The plan now was to hang out while the traffic slowly ebbed. We shared a toast and group photo. There was a meal served, I didn’t get in line until it was all gone. But I did not feel deprived, I was busy feasting on wonderful conversations with my new found friends. We let a few hours pass before getting on the bus for the ride home. It took about 5 hours to cover a about 100km. I reclined my bus seat to a comfortable position and slept most of the way. No complaints here, though it was a relief to finally arrive back at our hotel at 1:30am and get fully horizontal. The next morning, I heard other’s reports that did not fare as well.

Exploring Tongoy

Wednesday morning, the plan was to take the bus back up to Elqui Valley and visit a distillery where they make Pisco. I decided to explore Tongoy, a local fishing village instead. The hotel provided a shuttle for me and another family that had overslept the bus departure.

Tongoy was a fun little place. It had a bank and a pharmacy, and many restaurants set up for tourists. The major business in town was fishing. The grey pelicans were actively hunting fish in the harbor. They had what looks like a fish market which was set up for retail and perhaps also wholesale. The language barrier got in the way of thorough investigation.

I found no signs in English. I could not get anyone there to speak English either. But I could invent sign language enough to make myself understood. I would walk up to a restaurant point to my cell phone and say “WiFi?”. That worked with everyone I tried it on. The answer was mostly ‘No’. I did finally get a ‘Si’. However, the restaurant could not find a password that worked. I got three versions, all hand written. Nothing worked. I shook my head and said “no bueno”, paid for my coffee and left.

My second attempt was successful. I found that if you slowly walk down the sidewalk examining the names of the WiFi radios that popped onto the list, eventually you will find a name that matches a restaurant name. Asking that restaurant for the password got me success. I spent the majority of my time in Tongoy camped out at this restaurant table. The menu had no English on it at all. I chose Empenada Loco y uno cervesa. I was happy with what I got. The little family restaurant had almost no business at noon. At 3:30 the place was very busy. The head waiter (owner perhaps?) was charging out of the kitchen to deliver food to tables. He had a persistent urgency about him. I didn’t think it was a good idea to ask him for a check. I just went to the cashier and described my meal. She asked for 10,000 pesos ($15). I paid and left.

I shared the ride home with the family I drove out there with. They had one child with them. They were mildly OK with their experience in Tongoy.

A Real Observatory

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