Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Equator...Sort Of

This post is written in honor of the first time I have ever crossed over the equator on the surface of the Earth. And no, that's not me in the photo above; it's a statue. Enjoy!

The equator, that imaginary line which marks the division between the northern and southern hemispheres, runs through 13 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. These thirteen countries are, in alphabetical order, Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Indonesia, Kenya, Kiribati (who knew there was a Kiribati?), the Maldives, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, the Republic of the Congo (yes, there are two Congos) and Uganda. Think of it as the halfway point down the Earth. Or up the Earth if you are from the southern hemisphere.

If there is a country on the planet where the equator has more caché than in any other spot on the globe, it's Ecuador, a nation whose very name is derived from the zero latitude line's name. So it would seem natural that the government of Ecuador would want to build some kind of spectacular edifice to the fact that they, more than any other country in the world, are number one when it comes to the equator, right?

Actually, the notion of any government in the world wanting to build an equator monument strikes me as a little silly and a complete waste of money. Nonetheless, that's just what Ecuador did in 1936 to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of the French Geodesic Mission, an expedition to Ecuador (although it wasn't called Ecuador way back in 1736; it was called the Territory of Quito and it was owned by Spain) to measure the length of a degree of latitude at the equator. I'm not sure Ecuador really cared about the Mission's anniversary all that much; they probably just wanted a tourist attraction, although that is complete speculation on my part.

45 or so years after the original structure was built, the Prefecture of the Province of Pichincha (the province where Ecuador's capital of Quito is located) upped the ante a bit by replacing the 1936 monument with a bigger (and presumably better and more spectacular) monument. The place where this monument is located today is called Ciudad Mitad del Mundo or the City of the Middle of the World. Poetic, right?

Ecuador's equator monument. It was gorgeous the entire day except for the time we had to take this picture.
The 1980s version of the equator monument is pretty grand (see above despite the dark picture). It consists of a very large four sided, tapering podium supporting an enormous globe at the end of a procession of statues of of folks who participated in the original Geodesic Mission. The monument is not the only built item within the site. There are pavilions celebrating the contributions of Spain, France and Ecuador to the mapping of the equator as well as restaurants, stores, a bullring (go figure!) and a line on the ground representing the equator where tourists can put one foot in each hemisphere. It's sort of an all-in celebration of the equator lending its name to the country of Ecuador.

But there's a problem with all this. The actual monument doesn't sit on the equator. 

You are kidding me, right??? 

Nope! I guess the tools they had in 1936 to provide an accurate location of the line weren't good enough because they missed it by about 250 meters, which is a bit more than 800 feet or about three football fields (minus endzones) for those of you who measure distance in football fields. 

Hmm. I know what you are thinking. And just so we have this straight...the government of Ecuador spent a bunch of cash to build something which ultimately the local prefecture knocked down so they could spend even more money on something bigger (and therefore automatically better) and the whole thing is wrong??? That's correct. You got that just right.

The real middle of the world, if you are heading out from Quito to wherever you are headed, is just a bit further up the road. Go past the Mitad del Mundo, drive a bit up the hill and follow the road as it curves to the left and you will see a sign advertising the Intiñan Museum. Take a left here. NOW you have arrived at the equator. I think.

What you find at the Intiñan Museum, depending on your perspective, is a campy museum designed to appeal to foreign tourists who hold the equator and the Amazon jungle in some sort of mythical magical esteem or the most awesome and spectacular $4 attraction on the planet. Put me in the latter camp. I loved this place. We got every cent and more of value out of our 30 minutes to an hour here.

So what does your four bucks get you? Well, not only admission to the place where you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere for real (take THAT Mitad del Mundo!) but you get guided insight into the indigenous tribes and animals of the Amazon and you get to test out the equator's powers for yourself. Want to balance an egg on a nail? Or see water swirl in two different directions based on which side of the equator line you are standing on? Or watch people close their eyes and try to walk a straight line but fail because of the equator? Step right up and lay your money down, folks!! This is the place. You can even get a certificate with your name on it if you manage to make the egg stand upright on the nail (I failed).

Balancing and egg on a nail at the equator. Apparently not one of my superpowers.
OK, so I didn't really fall for all of this in the way it seems. Trying to walk with your eyes closed on a straight line to me seems like pretty much an impossible task whether or not you are on the equator. So it's no surprise that people couldn't do it. The big surprise with this one was that the participants seemed surprised that they failed BECAUSE of the equator. I'm also skeptical of the so called Coriolis effect which causes water to swirl noticeably counterclockwise two feet into the northern hemisphere and noticeably clockwise four feet to the south. Our guide admitted that this effect is only noticeable far away from the equator and pretty much told us she was faking it but challenged us to figure out the ruse. I haven't bothered. It doesn't matter that much to me.

As for the egg on the nail stuff...people with (apparently) greater balancing ability than me achieved what was an impossible task for yours truly. I don't know what that means, although admittedly everyone that I saw succeed at this task used a different nail than I did. Not trying to be a sore loser; I believe my inability to make an egg stand on its end was all mine. But some of the other tricks seems suspect so my usual trusting nature is put to the test here.

The real treat for me at the Intiñan Museum was not the cheap equator-attributed parlor tricks or the fact that I got to put my left foot in the southern hemisphere and my right in the northern hemisphere and get a thumbs up picture with a cheesy grin on my face (see above). Although admittedly, I was pleased with myself for this picture. The real attraction for me was learning a little more about what goes on within the borders of Ecuador, although this was a little hit and miss too.

A live snake, some wooden toucans, a couple of painted parrots and a stuffed cat as a way of showing me the fauna of the Amazon jungle didn't do much for me here although the discussion we had right before that about the local fish that are attracted to ammonia was extremely educational. If I ever go swimming in the Amazon river (and why would I ever do that unless I absolutely had to do it to survive or get away from something dangerous), there's no way I'm urinating while I breast stroke away from whatever's chasing me.

But the best thing here was even more grisly than the fish discussion: SHRUNKEN HEADS!!!

I have never that I can remember seen a shrunken head before visiting Ecuador, although it's quite possible I've blocked that out. According to the Intiñan Museum, the only people in South America that engage in this practice are located in Ecuador and apparently the museum guides have no idea exactly how the locals do it. They have captured the generally macabre process in a very cheerful mural shown in the photograph above. They know the recipe for a mini head involves removing the skull from the wrapping of skin (eek!); followed by some sort of cooking; then sewing the mouth shut; and finally putting some hot rocks inside the cooked envelope. But it's the exact mix of the cooking broth that so effectively preserves the head that they don't understand.

The local tribe shrinks heads both of their slain enemies and their most important deceased fellow tribesmen. The Intiñan Museum showed us two: one on display all the time (seen in the picture above next to the shrunken sloth head, which apparently was used for practice) and one of a former chief which is kept in a wooden box and which we were forbidden to photograph. The heads are for sure tiny but they look more ape-like than human (although I guess we are apes too). The skin has a generally unhealthy sort of purple-gray color and the nose seems more flattened than a human nose. 

The local Amazon tribesmen warriors sometimes wear these things as necklaces to show off their prowess in vanquishing their enemies and apparently at one time there was a hot black market for them which was causing the locals to kill people just to make the heads for sale. I think for my part I'd be good never being near one of these again and I certainly wouldn't ever want a necklace with one on, but I'm glad I got to see a couple. Shrunken heads, cheesy dioramas and stupid equator tricks = four dollars well spent.

I am fairly positive I won't have that many opportunities to cross the equator on the surface of the planet again. Of the 12 other equator countries, only one (Uganda) is on my wish list (Brazil is not, although the wish list keeps changing so you never know...) so this past month could conceivably be it. If it is, I savor this experience and I'm glad the Intiñan Museum was there for me to gorge myself on equator-ness. I also know I got good value for my money while I was there, even if my own two-bit research on the place cast some doubt as to whether I was really at the equator. Do I believe the Museum or Apple? Dilemma!

We checked the Intiñan Museum's equator line with the iPhone. Uh oh...

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