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Thursday, 24 March 2016

WATCH: Chasing a 3-Minute Total Solar Eclipse Across Molucca Sea


The fifth total solar eclipse I've experienced was a truly remarkable one; clear cloudless skies with a generally perfect weather condition. This time, the total solar eclipse happened in Indonesia and some states of Micronesia. The 5-year weather forecast history looked very promising, so I made a bet on the small islands Ternate and Tidore in North Maluku, Indonesia. During the age of conquistadors, these were previously known as the Spice Islands; an area of rich culture, and of course, spices. The Spice Islands were the planned destination of Ferdinand Magellan's Spanish excursion hundred of years ago, when they accidentally drifted to the Philippine Islands, from which they started a new colony.


Trajectory of the 2016 Eclipse

It took me about a year of careful preparation, and before I knew it, it was time to go. My trip to Indonesia started with a nightmare. Just a few days before my trip I asked my sister to give me a ride to the airport since it was a winter in Russia and I didn't want to take an unnecessary baggage of a heavy coat with me to a tropical country. However, a day before my trip, a horrible blizzard ruined all my plans by causing a major traffic build up in Moscow's streets. The only option to get to the airport was via aeroexpress - a train link connecting airport and city center. My outfit kept on getting attention from other commuters and I think they assumed that I am either a lost tourist or just some crazy who doesn't care about the weather.

Here's a quick snap of Moscow's aeroexpress 

I expected a long journey to Jakarta with a 7-hour layover in Abu Dhabi. Since I usually have difficulties with night flights I decided to try melatonin-based pills to force myself to sleep. I took a pill before the flight, and to my surprise, I was able to sleep for a couple of hours despite of the crying child in the next row (there is almost always a crying child in my night flights btw. Baby boom in Russia, I guess). 

Upon arrival to Jakarta I took an Uber which I regretted later because the driver tried to cheat me for about 10$ by asking for a toll fee that is way over the actual amount. My first day in any country always follows the same routine: checking in to the hotel, resting, buying a local sim-card and toiletries. This time it was a bit different than usual because I had to meet my friend Larc who will be arriving from Singapore. I first met him in Vietnam and in a span of months, we became close friends. He was supposed to arrive at 7:20pm so I booked a taxi for 6pm being naive that 1.5 hours is enough to get to the airport. 




Since there wasn't much traffic early in the morning, we were charged 78,000 rupiah ($6); half of what we were charged on the way to the hotel from the airport. This does not include the 15,000 rupiah ($1.2) toll fee/s (depending on the condition, the driver may opt to take two separate tolls but the total amount would still fall below 20,000 rupiahs ($1.5). If you're coming from the airport, another 5,000 RP ($0.4) will be charged for airport fee). Upon reaching CGK Airport, we parted ways at terminals 1A for Lion Air and 1B for Sriwijaya Air  about a kilometer from each other, so it's a good idea to get off at the right  terminal, especially if you're running late for the flight.

We were able to lower down the total price to 80,000rupiahs ($6), which I would soon find out to still be overcharged. It's rather difficult to bargain with locals if you're a white man due to their extreme fascination (which somehow, is borderline adoration) with Caucasians. There seems to be an instant $$$ price tag floating above my head, so I often let my Asian buddy do the bargaining.

There we found several local journalists, and to my dismay, a Russian tour group. I particularly hate to see other Russians (what we call "Russian tourist syndrome") on my trips since they have this "I-dont-care-about-others" attitude. Not even to other Russians outside their circle of friends. I proved this to Larc by borrowing a pair of scissors from one guy and getting a rather sharp нет/No in return.

However, me and my friend Larc were just a couple of amateurs so we used the whole arsenal of digital toys to make this moment memorable. We both had DSLR cameras with zoom lenses for taking pictures of the eclipse. For shooting video, I had two cameras; a GoPro Hero 4 and my old 1080p handycam-type videocamera on tripod. Solar filters made of special solar film were protecting our cameras from dangerous solar radiation during partial phases. Shooting eclipse is not a big science, there are tons of guides in the internet, It took me a day to learn the whole process when I shot my first eclipse 8 years ago in Novosibirsk, Russia so I easily explained the basics to Larc and we both were ready for the show.

Then it happened.

During that 3-minute wonder, we took several shots under different exposures to capture the sun's different features. Here's a glimpse of my work:





We got early FREE MEAL items from several booths and even a litre of Pocari Sweat that was just perfect to hydrate both of us. Talk about white privilege! Oh well, taking photos and greeting tons of people wasn't that easy anyway. 



Jakarta's traffic situation is quite bad during rush hour. Not as horrible as Manila, but still quite heavy.

From Jakarta, I had a connection flight to Manado via Lion Air then, to Ternate (pronounced 'ter-NAH-teh' and not 'ter-NEIGHT'). Took about half a day in total, including a layover, plus, if you're unlucky like me, you'll be boarding Lion Air's open propeller type, which can be disturbingly noisy throughout the trip.

Those propellers are NOISY!

Larc wasn't able to book a low cost flight so meals, insurance, and baggage are included by default via Sriwijaya Air (this makes his local flight more expensive than any of our international flights from this trip.) Our flights from Jakarta were scheduled at 5am, which means we had to take an Uber from the hotel to the airport as early as 3am.

Monas Tower, Jakarta, Indonesia


At the boarding gate,  we immediately noticed that most foreign passengers were retirees in their 60s. This definitely isn't a party place with much night life that young backpackers enjoy at Siem Reap. The connecting flight, which I later on learned is a usual phenomenon in Indonesian local airlines, is delayed by 45 minutes. I used this time to charge my phone and to get acquainted with some fellow eclipse chasers. Larc on the other hand, soon found out that as a young Asian, it's rather tough to penetrate the "old white men conferences" especially once they get started and formed their groups. 

A lovely couple waiting for their flight at Ternate Airport.

Larc's flight arrived at Ternate earlier than mine, and he was surprised to learn that there wasn't any WiFi available at the airport. This means that it would be tough for him to meet up with me since he didn't get a local SIM card. If Jakarta proved to be rather difficult with communicating in English, Ternate was definitely a lot more challenging. Literally no English at all!

Getting a bus lift to the plane

We eventually met up at the arrivals area, after which, I tried to bargain for a taxi to take us to the central town area. I wasn't able to get a better price other than 100,000 rupiahs ($7.5), which I'm aware, is still a rip-off. We walked a few meters away from the airport (which is always a good thing to do especially if you're on a tight budget) and found several motorcycles parked in one spot (locally called O-jek).


Vantage view of the airport from the o-jek parking.


Excited for the next adventure!

We stayed at Losmen Kita Hotel; a rather worn out and unkempt establishment. It cost us about $27 per night, and the accommodation proved to be rather uncomfortable; prehistoric air conditioning that doesn't even lower the temperature to 30C, disturbingly unclean toilet facilities, and unclean bed sheets that are weathered with years of use.

Losmen Kita is pretty much weathered with old age and lack of maintenance.

Then again we didn't have much choice, unless we go camping, since the eclipse bought hundreds of tourists to the islands, causing a massive overbooking even a year before the phenomenon. The tourism office even arranged cruise ships and other sea-vessel accommodations, but the prices are outrageous for young travelers like us.

One of the many printed tarpaulins spread across the island.

We walked around the town proper, which is entirely coastal since the center of this small island territory is occupied by an active volcano. Here we found a big mosque, and several other interesting sites.

Masjid Al Munawwaroh Mosque

The funny thing about exploring this island on foot is that almost everybody greets white men enthusiastically, to a point that it already became annoying a few days later. Men and women, young and old, as long as you're white, expect to be called "MISTER" and feel like some high profile celebrity with all the attention you're getting. I can still remember a Russian girl's post about how people kept on calling her 'Mister' even though she's obviously a girl.

These people are fond of selfies

On the second day alone of walking around, we were able to count 114 "hello/hi/mister!" greetings and 56 photo/selfie requests especially from prepubescent girls that seem to have exploding ovaries on the sight of a white young man. This went on more significantly on Tidore, where the people seem to be more excited on seeing a huge gathering of white men than seeing the eclipse itself.

Prepare yourself for LOTS of photo requests

We had dinner on a self service type of eatery where they charge based on what you get from the table. Make sure to verify the price of the serving you collected in your plate to avoid excessive charges. We got ripped off on our first meal with 150,000 rupiah ($11) for a simple meal with coke. 


Pardon the blurred pic, but this was f*cking overpriced! It wasnt even that good!

The same meal cost us 65,000 rupiah ($5) on another restaurant that even offered free Wi-Fi. Yes, it pays off to talk with the store owner and to be genuinely interested in knowing about the food and language (a good start is knowing 'berapa' as 'how much?' and the conversation can go on).

Muslims are kindda fond of fried chicken [goreng]


At the ferry station, we were informed that the next day, at 4:30am, tourists will gather at the ferry terminal for a ride to Tidore Island to see the eclipse. After purchasing our 7,500 rupiah ($0.6) ferry tickets, we decided to call it a day.

That small structure directly behind my left shoulder is the ferry ticketing booth.

As early as 3:50 am, we headed to the ferry, only to find it completely empty. Apparently, the guy was talking about a paid tour group that will be arriving by bus and would be carried to Tidore with a paid ferry. We didn't even have smaller bills to pay the 20,000 rupiah ($1.5) ride.

The port feels pretty relaxing at 4:30 AM though. Surprisingly, there are a lot of fish surrounding the ships.

Good thing we met a random guy that paid for our trip and even invited us to stay inside his ferry. We had a short nap in the old, but nevertheless grand-looking ferry. The man, Evan, who turned out to be the captain of the ferry, checked on us every hour or so and gave a very warm feeling to our trip.

The only photo that I personally requested to take. Thanks a lot Evan!

The tour group filled with retirees came in soon and the ferry departed 5:50am instead of 7am. I think we got some special free ride, all thanks to the nice captain.

6 AM view of Tidore Island

Upon reaching Tidore Island, we sort of had no idea how to get to the other side of the island where the eclipse could be seen from the seaside. Apparently, we could've ridden the police buses that were deployed to escort tourists, but we didn't make it on time because we were avoiding high charges.

Thanks for the ride!

We then hailed another O-jek (btw, any single guy with a motorbike is potentially an O-jek driver) and got pretty much ripped off again with 100,000 rupiah ($7.5). It's a bit irritating because before the ride, I specifically showed him 15,000 rupiah on my calculator to show how much I'm willing to pay. The way back only cost both of us 20,000 rupiah ($1.5) via blue van (some sort of public transport that follows a route, similar to jeepnies in the Philippines).


Don't be afraid to hail one of these vans and just follow the ride via Google Maps. The ride will eventually take you close enough to your destination anyway (as long as you're on the right direction) since the entire town just goes around the volcano.

Anyway, the ride was pretty thrilling, not to mention that the O-jek driver took us to a nice spot on top of some tower that overlooks the sea.






Nope! One nudge and off goes that expensive camera over the cliff!


Yep. They pretty much blocked the entire end of the cliff.

Anyway, the sky was in perfect condition, and this unfortunate arrangement won't ruin MY eclipse.

The clouds are pretty much cooperative.

The best thing about solar eclipses is that it they are always different due to the varying solar activities for a certain period. To illustrate, you can see an absolutely calm sun in one eclipse or get a marvelously curved corona with solar prominences/flares on another without the need of any special equipment to see these at all! All you need is your bare eyes! Most professional eclipse chasers don't even bother wasting their time taking  pictures which you could easily find in the internet later. They enjoy the moment and get to feel the entire eclipse experience with full attention. Others have their equipment completely automated to shoot at intervals and to follow the sun. 

Notice the solar activity visible on the left side. These are jets of solar matter that are ejected several kilometers from the sun's surface, until eventually pulled back by gravity.


Looking pretty nerdy here

On first contact, people got excited and started snapping pics. Larc didn't have a remote control so he had to settle with connecting his camera to his phone via Wi-Fi to remotely take pictures without adding vibrations. This though, is a massive battery drain for both devices and he had to stop doing it after the last contact.

Using his phone to remotely take shots

Tidore's local government was considerate enough to give free snacks and water to tourists that headed to main spots, to which, the very starved me was grateful of. Most locals were killing time by testing if some odd items like CDs, old films, and even a welders mask can filter out the sun's strong rays (do NOT do this btw, unless you wish to lose your vision).

They're really fond of these water cup things.




It started with a small bump, very unnoticeable at first. Then gradually, the moon "ate" the sun

Everything turned faint red, like a sudden overcast was impairing our vision. Photographers hurriedly snapped their photos and took bracketed shots of the eclipse, while casual spectators went on staring at the sun with their mouths agape. A few seconds later, a gradual purple filter took over the area. The dark shadow can actually be seen, slowly covering the horizon from our vantage point. Indeed, the 'Day of Silence' as Muslims call it, proved true to its nature.




It felt so odd; so unnatural, yet completely explainable by science. This really made me wonder how prehistoric men would explain this phenomenon.

Magnifico!



Several shots later, the 3 minute eclipse ended with an eruption of applause from everyone who fell silent just a few moments ago. I was annoyed that Larc was fortunate enough to snap a diamond ring photo of the sun's rays peeking out via diffraction, just a few seconds before the harsh sun would burn his unfiltered sensor.

Diamond ring shot of the eclipse

Funny how the eclipse bought people together; just a few minutes ago, the locals were too intimidated to approach the group of Russians who barricaded themselves with their backpacks. Right after the eclipse, they were just mingled and completely astonished enough to forget their differences (or to get over their timidity).

These Russians are equally fond of selfies. Im pretty sure the pics would land somewhere in Instagram

Half an hour later, everyone else packed up and left, leaving me and my buddy still taking photos of the post eclipse phases until the last contact.

Look at this monkey.

We then took a speedboat ride back to Ternate for 10,000rupiah ($0.75) and only realized that we honestly forgot to pay the boat driver about 30 minutes later. Since the speedboat took us close to our hotel, we decided to walk and pass by a festival held at Fort Orange.

10 minute speedboat ride in between islands ($0.75)

The festival showcased different culinary dishes from Java to Sulawesi. Here all the attention I've been getting as a white man finally paid off. 



Sweet stuff! Very Asian indeed

The last few hours of the day was spent talking with some lovely restaurant staff and she ended up teaching us how to speak Bahasa Indonesian. There are actually a lot of words that are similar to Filipino so it didn't sound very foreign to Larc.



Some notable examples are:

 • Tahu         (Tofu)
 • Pintu        (Door)
 • Bangku    (Seat/Stool)
 • Ribu         (Thousand)
 • Lima         (Five)
 • Hari          (Sun. Kindda Similar to Filipino's Haring Araw/Sun King)
 • Kambing  (Goat, but they often mistranslate it as lamb)
 • Susu        (milk)
 • Tolak        (Push)

Tofu and Egg Pancake topped with nuts and a lot of other spices

Ending my Trip



Upon reaching the airport, I learned that my flight back to Jakarta was cancelled. Apparently, it has been cancelled months ago, but I wasn't informed about the situation. I checked my email and haven't received any notification from Lion Air. After much discussion, the staff then booked me a flight on Garuda Airlines, which is way more expensive than the economy flight I booked. 

What a nice upgrade to end my trip!




I hope you guys enjoyed this rather long narrative of our trip. 

For any questions and comments please do leave a comment below. 

I'd highly appreciate seeing your responses and would get back to you as soon as I can.

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