Theology, philosophy, math, science, and random other things

A record of the total solar eclipse on 2020-12-14

I returned to Chile this year, for the total solar eclipse on December 14th. I chose to stay in Pucón, which lay near the center of the path of totality.

View from Monasterio Santa Clara de Pucón

I had four major goals for this trip:

  • Gain entry into Chile, and arrive at my destination
  • Have Sunday service with some Chilean Christians
  • Observe the eclipse
  • Don't catch covid

But the covid pandemic added a new layer of difficulty to everything. Combined with the other challenges intrinsic to such an endeavor, I felt like everything was fighting me every step of the way. In fact, I initially conceptualized this trip as a sequence overcoming these difficulties: I was going to impose my will upon the world in the face of these challenges, and bring about my intended results.

We'll see how that turned out.

Entering Chile and arriving in Pucón

The trip was a challenge from the very beginning, even from the planning stages. Initially, I had given up on this eclipse. For a long time, Chilean policy in the face of the pandemic made entering the country difficult or impossible. Then, quite suddenly, Chile started to let in tourists without a quarantine, only a week before the eclipse. That's about how long I had to plan for the trip - a far shorter window of time than I would have liked.

Entry into Chile required a negative result from a covid test. Scheduling the test took several days, and getting the results would take several more - and that was cutting things too close. On the day before my scheduled flight, when I still hadn't receive my result, I decided to schedule a backup test which promised a two-hour turnaround time.

But when I got to the two-hour test site before my flight, they told me "oops, sorry, we don't have any more tests". This was absolutely ridiculous. My plans were collapsing before the plane had even taken off. I spent the next hours frantically checking if my other, original test results had come in yet, looking for other tests I might get on such short notice, and having the test crew tell me "oh wait, maybe we can work something out - oh wait we can't - oh wait yes we can!"

I tested negative. This was expected, but it still felt like a huge relief when I got the results. My other results, from the original test, would come in about a day later, also negative.

But with the results in hand, I was off to Chile. The flight went smoothly until I got to Lima, Peru. There, as I was about to get on the flight to Santiago, they checked a second requirement for entry into Chile - proof of medical insurance that would cover me if I got covid. I was prepared, and presented them with my American medical insurance card - which the airline employees didn't recognize. This caused me to miss my flight.

They wanted to see a specific document that said that I was insured for such and such amount for covid. The next twelve hours were spent trying to log into my insurer's website, and arguing with the airline employees about what constituted "proof of insurance for covid". I could demonstrate that I had insurance. I could demonstrate that it would cover covid. I could demonstrate that it was sufficient for the dollar amount specified. I could demonstrate that it would cover me overseas. They acknowledged all this, but it wasn't enough. They told me that all this had to be presented in a single document, rather than scattered across various identity cards and FAQ pages.

Then they told me that I could buy traveler's insurance which would meet their requirements. Feeling like I had no choice, I purchased the one that they told me about, which turned out to be no good: the necessary information was not present in that very specific format that they wanted. At this point I was feeling very much like the victim of a bait-and-switch-and-switch scam.

All this only got resolved through an improbable chain of connections: there was another passenger who was having the same issue as me, except she was fluent in both English and Spanish. She had met yet another passenger with similar issues, who knew no English. But she apparently knew someone in the insurance company who could provide the insurance, and could format the "proof" document in the required way.

So after making that purchase through that chain, I now had triple insurance against covid and double test results showing that I was negative. I was finally allowed into Chile.

I must say, Chileans are very much taking this pandemic seriously. Mask usages is near 100%. There are temperature sensors and hand sanitizers everywhere. There are even checkpoints, staffed by men with rifles, at entry points to various cities - asking questions about where you're from and checking your temperature. All this is great - unless you're a tourist who's stuck in line for hours behind one of these checkpoints, falling asleep at the wheel because you're exhausted from your travels.

But I eventually made it to my hostel in Pucón. That night I slept in a bed for the first time in more than fifty hours. My first goal, of entering Chile and arriving at my destination, was achieved.

...and breakfast (which was delicious)

Attending Sunday service with some Chilean Christians

Over the next day, I rest up, look around the city, and buy some souvenirs. Pucón is beautiful, and I liked my hostel a lot. The following day was Sunday: my next goal was to find a church I could attend in person.

Needless to say, this was difficult. The coronavirus pandemic meant that most churches were rightly conducting most of their activities online. Still, meeting other Christians and participating in worship with them is one of the major reasons I travel. I wasn't about to give up on this easily and settle for an online service.

Well, after hiking all over town and contacting various churches online, I was ready to give up. But one of my last efforts was to asked the owner of the my hostel about an in-person service. He told me about a monastery, which I had no chance of discovering on my own, as it was 1) a monastery, and 2) had no presence in any of the online platforms I was searching in.

I was too late to the first service: I did not anticipate the short hike required to get to the monastery, and I couldn't find anyone at first when I got there. But I eventually ran into a kind nun who told me to return for a later service. She also told me that I could only listen to mass from the outside, rather than be allowed inside - which I was fine with. I returned at the later time and listened to the mass while enjoying the beautiful view from the monastery, well satisfied with this ending for this particular quest. Two goals down, two more to go.

I was now just waiting for the eclipse itself on Monday. Meanwhile, I explored the city and the surrounding areas some more. As I said before, Pucón and the surrounding areas are beautiful.

Statue of St. Clare at the monastery
Same statue, looking out into the city
View of Volcán Villarrica from Pucón.
I would have climbed it if I were better prepared,
but that was pretty much impossible for this trip
Lake Villarrica
Plaza de Armas for the city of Villarrica,
on the other side of the lake from Pucón
Plaza de Armas Pucón
A random cat and dog outside my hostel.
The cat was very catty, and the dog was very doggy.

Observing the eclipse

On Sunday, the nun that I met told me that they were watching the eclipse from there at the monastery, and invited me to join. I hesitated to accept, because I knew that the weather in Pucón was likely to be a challenge. I told her that I would think about it. She told me that Saint Clare, for whom the monastery is named, would make things clear. And sure enough, I looked her up and she is indeed the patron saint of good weather.

Not accepting the nun's invitation would turn out to be my biggest regret for this trip.

For this eclipse, the path of totality covered over some 10,000 square kilometers of Chilean territory. Virtually the whole area was expecting rain and heavy clouds. I had anticipated this; it was one of the reasons I chose to rent a car. Early in the morning on the day of the eclipse, I looked at the weather forecasts for all the major cities in the area, and decided to go where I had the best chances at clear skies.

As I compared cities, I kept in mind the nun's words about Saint Clare bringing good weather. I knew not to totally reject or totally accept such claims. Somewhat arbitrarily - and in retrospect, quite foolishly - I decided to value that claim at 5% cloud cover on the weather forecasts. That is, another city would have to beat Pucón by more than 5% in the forecasts if I were to decide to head out there. I found such a city, and there was a power outage at my hostel right afterwards. With further research made impossible, I headed out into the rain clouds.

In truth, I had become overly obsessed with accomplishing my goals, in the specific ways that I had planned. I knew that I had come through long odds to get to this point in my trip. Multiple times, I was just one step away from it all turning to dust, but everything had gone my way thus far. I was so close to getting everything, period. So I was going for it, even if it meant 83% cloud cover at my destination. I felt I had to take that shot.

I spent the first half of the day driving from town to town, trying to get good internet signals for weather forecast updates, and going to the most promising cities. I was only looking at two numbers: cloud cover, and chance of precipitation. I was ignoring other things that were much more important. As I was driving, I got very excited when I would catch glimpses of the blue sky, or a ray of sunshine. But I'd grow anxious at the sight of dark clouds.

I'd literally had a nightmare like this three years ago, before the 2017 eclipse in the US. In it, I was running around in the hours before the eclipse, chasing after fair weather underneath an overcast sky. Now, that nightmare was coming true. When I reached my destination - more than 2 hours away from Pucón, in Quele - the weather was not good enough. The clouds were not as thick, and I could see patches of clear skies out in the distance, but there was still no way to see the sun. Worse still, the weather forecasts seemed to not have taken the eclipse itself into account: as the sunlight dwindled during the partial phase of the eclipse, the clouds grew thicker and it began to rain. In desperation I drove out to find any patch of thinning clouds anywhere in the final minutes, but it was all for naught.

That is how I ended up on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, ten minutes before totality, wet and alone and saying to myself, "I regret not watching the eclipse from Pucón".

Would the weather have been better in Pucón? Well, not by much. But as I mentioned above, I was ignoring more important things. If I stayed in Pucón, the view of the surrounding area would have been better, and I wouldn't have wasted 10 hours. Most importantly, I wouldn't have been alone. I would have been with people I had met in Pucón, including the nun who invited me to join her at Monasterio Santa Clara de Pucón, and others in the monastery. If we were disappointed by not being able to see totality, we would have been disappointed together.

Ah, but here's the coup de grâce for my decision: I would not have been disappointed. Yes, Pucón was largely overcast during the eclipse, and many people did not get a good view. But at certain locations, including at the monastery, the clouds cleared up just enough to give people a full view of the eclipse during totality. Meaning that I not only missed out on seeing an eclipse, but on seeing it under one of the rarest and most dramatic conditions possible.

This calls for some reflection. How did I make a mistake of this magnitude?

I feel I had failed to heed the "voice of God" calling me to stay in Pucón. After all, I was invited by a nun to watch the eclipse at her monastery. When I voiced my concern about the weather, I was told that St. Clare - the namesake of the monastery and the patron saint of good weather - would bring a clear sky for the eclipse. Of course, some will simply dismiss anything that suggests that God interacts with humans in any way. But the evidence in this invitation is not a trivial coincidence: the p-value of a random saint being the patron of good weather is about 0.1% - enough to exceed two completely independent, statistically significant results at the standard alpha level of 5%. Of course, one may still reject the claim for other well-evidenced reasons after considering it. But if you simply ignore it, you do so at the cost of your rationality and credibility.

I will try to write a separate blog post fully analyzing the evidence in the nun's invitation, and what it implies. But for now, given that I believe God speaks to individual believers, how much more clearly should he have spoken to me? I was not so foolish as to completely ignore the nun's invitation, but at the same time, I had vastly undervalued it, in multiple ways.

For one, St. Clare being the patron saint of good weather should have been worth far more than 5% in forecasted cloud cover. 5% probably doesn't even cover the margin of error on such forecasts, especially during a solar eclipse. Here, I fell into the common pitfall of overvaluing the quantified, and undervaluing the nebulous: just because "cloud cover" has a numerical value doesn't mean that it should have dominated my decision.

But more importantly, I valued watching the eclipse over watching it with people. I valued the observation over the connections. This is especially egregious, given that the best thing about my last eclipse trip was the connections I made while watching the eclipse together with others. In retrospect, for this trip, it would have been better to be disappointed together with others at the monastery, than to observe the eclipse unhindered by myself.

In this way, all my calculations were not only wrong, but misaimed. I had tunnel-visioned my plans for observing the eclipse, to the detriment of that very goal. I failed to see how my goals connected together to form a greater goal - how "worship together with Chilean Christians" connected with "observe the eclipse". In all these ways, God was telling me to stay in Pucón - and if I listened, I could have known what to do beforehand. But I didn't, and that is how I came to make a mistake of this magnitude.

Am I saying all this only because I failed to see totality? If I had seen it, would I still be saying the same thing? Well, if I accomplished my goal, I don't think I'd have known that I was wrong. That is to say, if I succeeded in seeing totality, I would NOT say that running off to another city was a mistake. I would say that I had accomplished everything I set out to accomplish. And I would never have learned how I might better listen for God's voice, or how to trust in him more rather than to lean on my own understanding. So in this way, this was a perfect mistake, perfectly designed for me to learn from it.

Let it continue to be said that God works in mysterious ways - for I could not have foreseen that my interactions with that nun at the monastery would lead me to this conclusion.

I will add that, despite my mistake, I was not disappointed in the eclipse itself. A total solar eclipse is an awesome event, even when observed under a cloud cover. You focus more on the darkness, and the sudden transition that totality brings. Ten minutes before totality, I was certainly disappointed in my decisions, but all such thoughts were driven from my mind in the experience of totality itself.

Where I found myself, 10 minutes before totality.
A consequences of my mistake is that I don't have
a picture of myself during this trip. But that is my car.
Same location, minutes apart.

Avoiding covid

After I returned home, I was tested for covid two more time - both negative. There is very little chance that I caught covid in Chile.

Some will still say that this trip was irresponsible, that I should have done everything possible to minimize any chance of catching covid. I fundamentally disagree. Such binary thinking is the source of much foolishness in general, and in dealing with this pandemic in particular. Human lives are meant to be lived in powering human activity, and the "lives or economy" question has always been a false dichotomy.

Where, then, is the point of proper balance? From the beginning, my prescription for this pandemic has been to maximize human activity while keeping R0 under 1: that is, to take all due precautions then live to the full. And I've written quite a bit about this pandemic: I was often faster and more correct than the experts in forecasting its course and prescribing remedies. For these reasons, I feel well-qualified to judge the risks associated with my own actions.

I judge my trip to be equivalent in risk to a couple day's work for supermarket workers. This isn't too bad, especially given that I am otherwise in a very low risk group (working from home, going out mostly only for groceries).

Another perspective on this is that much of my risk on this trip came from the very measures meant to reduce covid risk: talking to checkpoint guards, extended airport stays due to covid rules causing missed flights, interactions with workers at the covid testing sites, etc. I'd guess that such risks made up for something like half of the total. So again, it must be that my total risk was not too bad - for to say otherwise would imply that these anti-covid measures are themselves a large source of risk.

Ultimately, the most direct evidence for the safety of my trip are my two negative results afterwards. So we can mark this fourth and last goal as "accomplished" - although this fourth goal as a whole is somewhat anticlimactic after what happened in my attempt to see the eclipse.


So in the end, I accomplished 3 out of my 4 goals. And yet, the one that I missed was arguably the point of the whole trip. Could the trip as whole, then, be considered a failure?

Maybe. And yet, as a failure, it was exceedingly valuable. It was perfectly designed for me to learn from it. I understand that it will come across as gauche to ascribe a metanarrative to my own trip, but I cannot help but think of it that way: a man undertakes a difficult journey, trusting in his preparation and foresight to see him through. These serve him well - but at the crucial moment, his very reliance upon his powers causes his failure, negating the whole point of the journey. And yet, that failure is so perfect that the man learns great lessons from it - attaining to spiritual insight, even.

Is that journey a failure? Perhaps a better question is to ask if I'm glad that I chose to go. And on that front, I have no doubt.

You may next want to read:
A record of the total solar eclipse on 2019-07-02
A record of the total solar eclipse
Another post, from the table of contents

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