Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

SCIENCE-VENEZUELA: The Total Solar Eclipse ‘Happening’

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Feb 25 1998 (IPS) - Curiosity, myth, science, business, entertainment and technology have combined to draw thousands of visitors from all over the world to the northeastern coast of Venezuela to observe Thursday the last total solar eclipse visible this century in South America.

The dozen pages on the eclipse to be found on the Internet say the path of the moon’s umbral will begin in the Pacific Ocean southeast of Hawaii, continue through northern South America and the Caribbean, and end – after tracing a path of 14,000 kms – along the Atlantic coast of Africa, between the Canary Islands and Morocco.

The shadow will reach Venezuela after passing through neighbouring Colombia. It will then continue on over the Dutch West Indies.

The total solar eclipse will be the second seen from Venezuela this century. The first took place on Feb. 3, 1916. The best areas for viewing the phenomenon will be the states of Zulia, Falcon and Carabobo. The eclipse will be visible for around three hours in Venezuela, starting at noon local time (16:00 GMT).

People surfing the Internet will also be able to watch the eclipse, in real time.

The total obscuring of the sun will be observable for 13 minutes from several sites in Zulia and Falcon, starting at 14:01 local time (18:01 GMT), astrophysicist Marcos Penaloza explained.

But the party already started Saturday on Patanemo bay in Carabobo, where famous bands and disc jockeys from Europe and the United States have been participating in the Total Eclipse festival of techno music, to run through Mar. 1. The festival has drawn young people from all over the world, including Japan.

But the total eclipse of the sun, when the moon, 400 times closer to earth, obscures the sun, 400 times its size – “a happy cosmic coincidence,” in the words of astronomer Jorge Vergabacci with Venezuela’s leading Cajigal Observatory – will not be visible from the festival.

It will be observable at lake Sinamaica, however, in the oil- producing state of Zulia along the Colombian border. The state – where the darkness will be most complete and last the longest on Thursday – is home to the Anu indigenous group, whose preparations have been very different.

The more than 17,000 Anus constitute Venezuela’s fourth largest indigenous community. In fact, the country indirectly obtained its name from the group, because the huts on stilts in lake Maracaibo and the use of canoes reminded discovers Alonso de Ojeda and Americo Vespucio of Venice in 1499.

The Anus have two myths regarding the brief “night” caused by the eclipse. The first belief is that pregnant women must hide to keep the moon from stealing the lives of their children, who will either be stillborn or born full of spots in the shape of the moon, if the moon’s attempt is unsuccessful.

The Anus also believe that children are the light, and thus it is up to them to scare the darkness off with the greatest possible noise.

Over the past few days, the indigenous elders of Sinamaica have been teaching the children to make as much noise as possible Thursday, with canoes, paddles and sticks, in order to bring the sun back – which will take place nearly four minutes later.

The children will be free to scare off the darkness because schools will be closed Thursday in the state of Zulia and part of the neighbouring state of Falcon. A similar measure is being considered in other areas of northern Venezuela, including Caracas, where the sun will be 90 percent obscured.

The Venezuelan Total Solar Eclipse Committee (Covesol 98) reports that 25 leading scientists will fly in from Asia, the United States and Europe to observe the phenomenon. But the governors of Zulia and Falcon say hundreds of experts have already arrived.

Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia, has been touted these days as “the world capital of the solar eclipse.” A wide range of souvenirs can be found there, as well as special observation glasses.

Governor Francisco Arias has asked the armed forces to help prevent people from gazing at the eclipse without protection. Arias explained his aim to avoid what happened in Mexico City, where some 5,000 people were reportedly blinded by looking at an earlier eclipse.

The Zulia state government has spent 100,000 dollars on 800,000 protective glasses, out of a total investment of 400,000 dollars, which included the preparation of tourist installations for the 5,000 people expected to visit the city to observe the eclipse.

In the state of Falcon, where a similiar number of visitors is expected, a comparable amount has been invested to condition the Paraguana peninsula, which along with Maracaibo and Sinamaica will have the best view of the eclipse.

Local authorities in Falcon have struck a deal with a team of Japanese scientists, who will leave part of their observation equipment as a donation in exchange for permission to figure among a select group of 600 people allowed to spend Wednesday night, and set up their mobile observatories, at the best site, El Pico.

At the Caracas international airport, several information booths have been set up to orient the thousands of visitors trying to reach the Total Eclipse centres. Package tours – complete with cruises and “star parties” – especially arranged for the occasion have been completely sold out. “No Vacancy” signs are one of the most frequent sights in resort areas along the coasts of Zulia and Falcon.

Many Venezuelans, meanwhile, especially the young, scheduled their holidays to take in both carnival and the eclipse, starting off at the Total Eclipse festival in Patanemo bay.

Every year, from two to seven solar eclipses take place around the world, but many of them are not visible from land, said Verbagacci, who added that all the eclipses to occur over the next 4,000 years have already been calculated.

The extraordinary thing, he underlined, is that a total solar eclipse will be visible twice from the same country in the same century.

Astrologers have also made predictions on an eclipse that takes place when the sun is in Pisces. But they disagree on its consequences. While Pedro Gonzalez Silva says the changes for which Venezuelans have been longing will come with the eclipse, Antonio Polito says the phenomenon will only feed the chaos.

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