Black Sun Odyssey

It’s that time of year again. (It’s not—that time of year would be September, if I hadn’t skipped it last year, for reasons.) The travel itch has overtaken me. (The travel itch never really goes away—what does overtake me is available money and time.) I’m about to go somewhere I’ve never been, see something I’ve never seen, and tell the story of it all here. (Those bits are true enough at least.) So sit back and let me explain what’s going to be.

A bit more than a year ago, one of the podcasts I follow, the ESOcast, flagged up something interesting. A total solar eclipse was due to pass over Chile in 2019, more specifically directly over one of ESO’s mountaintop observatories in the Atacama Desert. More relevantly, they were going to sell tickets to this event. My travel plans for 2018 having fallen through, the combination of viewing an eclipse, venturing into the southern hemisphere for the first time, and getting to visit and perhaps cross South America was too tempting to resist.

From darkness into light. A tale of two mountains.
A map of my own folly.

This time though, I did something unusual for me when travel planning. I reached out to a couple of friends who I knew to be astronomy buffs and suggested a joint trip. When I got positive responses, I booked three tickets. A year ahead of time, I was locked into a big trip. It was the longest lead time I’d ever had for a trip like this. The only question is what shape the entire trip would take. The result is the shape on the map above.

Santiago in Chile is the starting point, where myself, the Doctor and the Lawyer will congregate. Chile’s an awkwardly shaped country, thin as a ribbon and stretching across a good portion of the world’s latitude, north to south. The eclipse event is due to happen at a mountaintop site called La Silla, at the southern end of the Atacama Desert, so we’ll be driving (or to be more precise I will) five hours north, first to La Serena on the Pacific coast and then a further two hours north on the day itself to La Silla. As the Atacama is one of the driest spots on earth, this is as close as possible to a sure thing as regards eclipse watching, but either way it’ll be a unique experience.

After this, things don’t get any less interesting on the trip. Another night on the Pacific coast and a few more in Santiago, and then the Doctor and the Lawyer depart for European shores, whereas I go on my merry way. Once again, road and rail are my carriers, but South America’s rail system being as disconnected as it is, there’s only one rail section of this trip, from Cordoba to Buenos Aires in Argentina. To get there, I’ll be hopping two buses, crossing the Andes to the wine district of Mendoza before reaching Cordoba itself.

Buenos Aires comes highly recommended, so it should be a highlight on the trip, and I’ve set aside several days to explore it. Plus, it’s only a ferry trip away from another goal on this journey—the less-visited country of Uruguay and its capital of Montevideo. Like Moldova and Mongolia on earlier trips, Montevideo is an inexplicably personal requirement for a place to visit. Maybe I have a thing for locations starting with “Mo”?

Anyway, if things were otherwise, the trip might end there. I’ll have crossed another continent to add to Europe, Asia, and North America (and I have plans for two of the remaining three), and Pacific to Atlantic would be enough for me. Except that when I was booking flights, departures from Montevideo or even Buenos Aires were prohibitively expensive. So I made a somewhat rash decision that gave birth to the ludicrous-looking line on the map that runs north from Montevideo to the metropolis of São Paulo.

It’ll be the middle of winter when I hit Brazil, but a 29-hour bus trip will drop me into heat matching anything that an Irish summer can muster. For this last part of my trip, I don’t know how much time I’ll spend in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro (from whence my relatively cheap flight departs), but for my mum’s sake I’ll at least try to climb the hill overlooking the city to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue.

So that’s the plan. Another continent-spanning, mostly land-based odyssey, with a lot of freedom to improvise around some pre-booked fixed points. It’s been too long since I’ve been on one of these trips, and it’s going to be a novelty to be kicking it off in company for a change. My Spanish being as limited as it is, and the prevalence of English speakers being probably less than you’d find in Europe, I’m expecting to face a few more challenges than I have before, but challenging myself is part of the reason why I like to travel solo. You don’t learn anything new by doing the same old thing, again and again.

As always, I’ll fire up travel highlights here as often as I can, and more detailed travel journals will follow in their own good time. There’ll be photos and maybe even some videos, especially of the eclipse. I hope you enjoy it all. I know I will.

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Remembrance

If you must remember me when I am gone,

Let it not be with graven stone,

Before a plot of earth,

Over a mouldering form. 

Let the fire consume me,

The winds carry me,

The fields receive me,

The waves cover me. 

And if more is still needed,

Take a stone,

Sea smoothed,

And carve my words upon it. 

Take it to a mountain,

Glacier carved,

And lay it there,

The words hidden.

And maybe in some far off day,

Someone will turn that stone,

Read those words,

And wonder. 

And that will be my remembrance.

 11/11/2014

Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

We’re only a few hours away from the finale of Game of Thrones. Having long ago outstripped the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it was based on, the series is now delivering an ending that author George R.R. Martin may not match for years. However, season 8 has already met with a mixed reception, so the odds that the last episode will leave viewers happy, or even satisfied, are not as good as they were. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the runners and riders for the Iron Throne and how they’ve been served by the last few episodes.

(Spoilers, obviously.)

Continue reading Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.

Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.

(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)

Continue reading Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Game of Thrones—In Praise of the Little People

Game of Thrones returned to our screens last weekend, in an opening episode to the final series that harked back to the very first episode. Once again, the major players were manoeuvring around one another, some of them meeting after years apart and others encountering each other for the first time. The Starks and Lannisters, together with Daenerys Targaryen, face the existential threat of the White Walkers and the Night King, while all around them everyone else just tries to survive.

Except that’s not really true, is it? One of the joys of Game of Thrones, both in televisual and novel form, is that its rich cast of minor characters don’t just exist to survive and support the actions of the major players. They have their own lives, their own lusts and drives, and they’re often just as entertaining as, if not more so than, the tragic Starks or the debauched Lannisters.

(There’ll be some spoilers below, but not too many. This is all about celebrating the characters who have enlivened and enriched the tapestry of Westeros for viewers and readers.)

Continue reading Game of Thrones—In Praise of the Little People

A Tale of Two Captains

The history of the comics industry, with all its twists and turns, contains fewer stories more convoluted than that of Captain Marvel. A plethora of characters have held that title across multiple publishers, and there’s no way to tell the tale in a straightforward fashion. There’s even an extension to the Captain Marvel story that ropes in a British copy called Marvelman, comics’ greatest writer, and a slew of hard-fought court cases.

Given all of this complication, there must be some cosmic synchronicity at work in two versions of this storied character having their movie debut within a month of each other, in the form of Marvel/Disney’s Captain Marvel and DC/Warner’s Shazam! It might be a little spurious to compare the two movies, but it might also be a little fun and tell us something about the seemingly bloated state of the superhero movie genre right now.

Besides, when has being spurious ever stopped this blog before?

Continue reading A Tale of Two Captains

The Fringe of the City Beast

I’ve completely let updating this blog slip, haven’t I? I’m not going to pretend it’s not my fault either. I had a big piece planned on revolutions—how they happen and why we might be staring down the barrel of a few of them—but the subject slipped away as I got distracted, and it’s still lurking in my drafts folder, far from finished. It’ll have to lurk there for a while yet, as I’ve not the time to devote to making it worth showing to the masses.*

In the meantime, here’s something more ephemeral but personal for your delectation. After an extended period of joblessness and temporary work, I am once more gainfully employed. (I ensured this would come to pass by such actions as renewing my library card, which I’ll now never use, and taking up time-consuming hobbies like, oh, keeping this blog filled with content.) This job is a bit of a departure for me in one specific way though: after many years of working within walking distance of home and the city centre, I am now out in the wilds. Not quite outside the city of Dublin, but not quite inside it either.

This has wreaked merry hell on my previously relaxed commuting habits. (As opposed to my even more relaxed non-commuting habits of the past few months.) A four-hour walk to work is clearly untenable, a one-hour-plus cycle might work if it didn’t route me through the horror that is Dublin city centre traffic, and a two hour bus trip was only acceptable for the first few weeks. Which means that after years and years of avoiding it, I now have a car.

But it’s not the new experience of driving to and from work, or the multitudinous indignities of trying to get a used car insured, that I’m writing about. No, this post is about the things I’m seeing on that commute, out where the city meets the countryside.

Dublin’s geography is pretty traditional, by and large. The city centre, which clusters around the River Liffey, is surrounded by neighbourhoods that were once towns and villages in their own right, before ravenous Dublin swallowed them up. The further out you go, the larger the spaces between those neighbourhood centres, and into those space have grown suburban sprawls and small industrial estates, served by buses and the occasional tram (if you’re lucky). Beyond those lies the ring of the M50, alternately artery and car park, depending on traffic conditions.

And beyond the M50? Well, that’s where I am now.

This is very much the edge of the city, the place where its tendrils have stretched out but not yet taken over. The new and the old rub shoulders, and green spaces have been marked off for future use but not yet inhabited. I’ve spotted hawks and pheasants around the fields near work, fitting into ever smaller spaces as their living space becomes someone else’s. Country houses with ample space can now see massive warehouses and data centres from their back doors, and ruined and abandoned buildings stand ready for reuse or demolition, as fate or fashion require.

Cities grow not just not just in extent but in time. The collision between a city and the spaces it expands into is a collision between two different eras. All around my new workplace, roads are being ripped up and resurfaced, provided with ample pavements and cycle lanes, as current trends require. Of course, the trend now may not have been the trend during an earlier era, and so those cycleways tend to disappear as the reach the inner, older city. In time, those more interior, older areas may catch up with the fresher outer, but here and now, this is where things are newest.

The idea of cities as living things, growing organisms, whether benevolent or parasitic, is not a new one. There’s a lot of evidence for it, if you look. Imagine hanging a camera high in the sky above Dublin and taking a time-lapse video spanning months and years. Humans would disappear from the city organism, which would itself be seen to expand in pulses. Like a tree, the heart of the city would change little, and instead all the activity would be seen on the edges, as economic factors drive the need to swallow up more space.

Is this a good thing? Cities are necessary to the way the world works now. Population has grown and civilisation has grown complex to the point where a return to rural life is only an option for a few. Even so, the way that cities swallow up the green spaces and quiet villages around them is naturally unsettling. Speed and a lack of planning leaves a sense that the process is out of balance. Dublin’s a particular case in point. A combination of planning restrictions and the presence of major multinational companies have made life in the city unbearably expensive for many, and that expense and those multinationals have pushed that sprawl out further and further.

A pile of tree roots and pieces sits behind a prefab stone and metal fence.
Uprooted hedgerows replaced by prefab fences. Not a better outcome.

I’ve been lucky up to now in not having to confront the results of this. The first few weeks saw me spending four hours a day commuting by bus, into town and out to my new employer, then back in the evening. Getting a car was close to a necessity, as it is for many others, but in doing that I’ve just added to the congestion that strangles routes into, out of, and around the city at different times of the day. In the meantime, the city continues to grow, and I’ll be far from the last to hop on this treadmill.

The living fringe of city isn’t a place I’ve ever worked or lived before, so it’s interesting to see how it works. Whether you count it as growing into or devouring the space around it, it’s a process that’s going to continue. We need to get better at managing it, and at using the space the city already occupies. Both so we can move around them and so we can live in them. The city beast is one we have to live with—it’s up to us whether or not it runs wild.


*By which I mean however many of you actually read these occasional sound bites from my brain.

Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings