Antigua Celebrates Celestial Event

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Senior editor Kristin O'Meara visited Antigua in time for a solar eclipse. Her report follows:

SHIRLEY HEIGHTS, Antigua -- When it came to promoting February's solar eclipse, Antigua was the land that hype forgot.

Unlike Aruba and Curacao, which were coronated as eclipse central by NASA, Antigua never promoted itself as a prime viewing point.

The eclipse, nonetheless, turned into a big-time event that captured the interest and imagination of tourists and locals alike.

From the day of my arrival, there was a palpable sense of festivity.

People who had done their homework knew the island would experience at least three minutes of total eclipse and had flocked there from all over the world. Scientific-looking types arrived lugging weird skywatching equipment in clunky metal boxes that were covered with logos of past eclipses.

Once on island, these eclipse-chasers spent a good deal of time stalking the perfect viewing spot. Some were so obsessed that they camped out on their territory for days in advance.

Low-tech folks like me hunkered down in our hotels or headed for St. Johns instead, where we sought out cheapo eclipse-viewing glasses and tacky T-shirts.

The island's residents were pretty excited, too. An Antiguan TV station carried a program on the eclipse.

A panel of local educators took calls from the population and answered questions about the best and safest ways to watch the event. Apparently, the show was a good idea because even when compared with a slew of cute, earnest calls from school kids, the adults' questions really took the cake.

One caller was quite worried and wondered if she could be blinded by malevolent, people-seeking rays even if she stayed inside with the blinds closed. Another woman complained that the event resembled a pagan festival, and she vowed not to take part.

I switched off the set just as the world's-end people got their two cents in. "What hogwash," I thought.

The day of the eclipse dawned hot, with a mixture of clouds and sun, and when I arrived at Shirley Heights, a scenic overlook that is one of Antigua's prime historical sites, there was some hand-wringing amid the skywatchers.

Would the clouds break?
Would photographic equipment work?
Would the barbecue line ever move?
Fortunately, the answer to all three questions was yes.

While downing some hot dogs, my cohorts and I noticed that our surroundings had taken on a curiously grayish cast despite the fact that the sky was now mostly blue.

We glanced at our watches: 1:30 p.m. The festivities had begun.

We picked a rocky perch just below a fenced-in pavilion from which to watch the proceedings.

A buzz began to work its way through the crowd as people detected the sky's changing hue and began to herd toward the peaks and edges of the mountaintop overlook. Little by little, people donned their special glasses or peered through smoked glass -- and even welder's masks -- at the sun.

As the sky grew darker, it took on a surreal shade of silvery purple that gradually descended as the excited conversation of onlookers grew to a crescendo.

Finally, the sky grew eerily dark, as an ash cloud over Montserrat and passing ships stood out in bold relief against the horizon. As the moon planted itself firmly in front of the sun, an unholy, unbridled whoop went up from the crowd. In the strange, silver shadow of the moon, people screamed, applauded, cried and hugged.

One solo onlooker who waved a Puerto Rican flag throughout the proceedings screamed and did a frenzied dance when the sun disappeared, euphorically whipping off his protective glasses to stare at the sun.

The three-plus minutes of total eclipse slid past in what felt like seconds, and when I took a look back at the sweaty, ecstatic group around me, it was nearly impossible to find a face that wasn't plastered in a face-bending smile.

As the sunlight started streaming down again, my companions and I looked at each other in amazement. For a moment, we agreed, some tiny corners of our minds had wondered: "Could this be the end of the world?"

None of the scientific articles I'd read or the reasoned explanations on CNN had been able to bury that strange, primordial jolt.

"Titanic" be damned, I tell you. Who needs special effects? Mother Nature still puts on the best shows of all.

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