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Diamond rings, love and big money: why I follow solar eclipses

John Brecher / NBC News

At right, Namiko Aoki, 84, from Tokyo, Japan, and companions Keiko Nakamura and Kisako Takahara. watch the moon eclipse the sun from Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, Australia on Wednesday Nov. 14, 2012.

By John Brecher, NBC News

The first one got me hooked. June 21, 2001, was a bright sunny day in Lusaka, Zambia, and the only hint of the spectacle to come was a crowd of thousands I'd joined on a soccer field. It began slowly - imperceptibly save for shouts of “First contact!” from those watching the sun with filtered telescopes. It took about an hour for the moon to obscure half the sun’s disk, reducing ambient light by half (that’s one stop, if you play with cameras). If you didn’t know what was happening, you probably wouldn’t notice.

John Brecher

School kids watch the moon's disk begin to cover the sun between first and second contact during a total solar eclipse on June 21, 2001 in Lusaka, Zambia.

The next 20 minutes, though, changed my worldview. The sun faded faster and faster, dropping the ambient light another 12 stops, half of them in the last handful of minutes - a curtain fall from midday to midnight.

Stars came out as the moon's shadow tore away the familiar blanket of blue sky, taking with it a lifetime of up/down perception. Space isn’t out there, far away – it’s here, all around us, all the time. We hover in the abyss. Now I see it.

And then the sun returned with a sparkling flash – called the "diamond ring effect" - and blue sky concealed the void again.

I love to travel. I want to go everywhere, to get a feel for the Earth. Eclipses offer an excuse - not so much for where to go, but when. Sure, I want to go to Turkey - it's part of the Earth! But when would I say, "Now's the time for Turkey?" The answer was March 29, 2006: eclipse #2 in Side, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. (Astronauts aboard the International Space Station saw this one, too).

John Brecher

From left to right, a crowd gathers for a solar eclipse, witnesses totality and leaves an ancient Roman amphitheater in Side, Turkey.

Stacy Kwinn

John Brecher and Lisa Sholley watch a total solar eclipse on July 22, 2009, at Dishui Lake in Shanghai, China.

I proposed to my wife during eclipse #3, near Shanghai on July 22, 2009, a day that began with rain and heavy clouds. Around first contact, on the shores of a circular man-made lake, I looked at the bright area in the clouds where I knew the sun to be and thought: well, if you appear I'll go through with this. Remarkably, as all went dark, the clouds parted to reveal the last sliver of sun disappearing behind the moon. The hole in the clouds held for all six minutes of totality, enough time to stammer a proposal, and of course, see the diamond ring in the sky.

Today I'm in Port Douglas, Australia. It's total solar eclipse #4 for me, and #1 for my seven-month-old son (though he experienced an annular eclipse on May 20 in California). The weather today is partly cloudy, and once again the clouds made way for totality. 

Where to next? Ever since I heard about the big money on the Micronesian Island of Yap, I've wanted to go there. But again: when is the right time to go to Yap? Well, it looks like 2016 is the year, since there's a total solar eclipse passing nearby on March 9.

If you're in North America and want to see a total solar eclipse, you have a great opportunity on Aug. 21, 2017. Crossing the country from Oregon to South Carolina, it should be relatively easy to plan a road trip, especially if you consider that you have five years to do it. Watch out, though, it might be habit-forming.

See more images of eclipses in PhotoBlog.

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John Brecher / NBC News

Glimpse eye-opening scenes from Wednesday's total solar eclipse in the Southern Hemisphere.