“Bueno, these things I do not know, pues I am not scientific. But in this way they informed me.” Doña Julia is intent over her grill, carefully corralling residues into the grease trap with a scraper.
“But are you sure, señora?” I say, holding up my fork. “Two Equators? Right here in Quito?”
“Please, eat your llapingachos.” The bespectacled matron nods disapprovingly at my plate, with its load of potato-cheese pancakes on wax paper. “Two, yes. Or more. All the world knows this.”
“But…there must be a mistake, Doña Julia. Everywhere on the planet, the Equator is only one.”
“Please, my son. God—God is one. Everything else in this world is multiple. You want other jugo de piña? I make fresh, right now.”
“Yes, thank you.” I contemplate for a moment the oneness of God, from this breakfast stand outside my Quito hostel. “But please, returning to this topic of the Equators, how is it that there are two? And where are they? Can I see them?”
“Tranquilo, nene. You need to go with calm. Probably it’s only a locura of the government, nothing more.”
“A government locura? How is that?”
“Please, eat your llapingachos.”
“I am eating.”
“You eat more,” she says, piling on more slices of avocado. “It’s very simple, nene. Obviously, the government made one Equator, and then changed its idea. This happens all the time here in Ecuador. Look at the many constitutions we have. Why so many? The answer: locuras of the government. All people know this to be the case.”
“But, señora…forgive me, but I think these people do not understand the nature of the Equator.”
“And I tell you, you are a gringo, and you do not understand the nature of our government!”
Fifteen minutes later, I’m on a blue northbound bus marked Mitad del Mundo, determined to solve the enigma posed by my sibylline hostess. Like just about everyone who visits Quito, I have it on my agenda to get my photo snapped with one foot in each hemisphere, but if what Doña Julia has told me is correct, pinpointing the real latitude zero might take a bit of doing.
The reason is, in fact, the government. Or partly the government. Or a locura to which the government is party. What I’ve been able to ascertain so far is, in the hills north of Ecuador’s capital, there exist several claimants to the title of Big Line, the geophysical abstraction from which the Andean nation takes its name. One is on state property, an official Ministry of Tourism destination. But in recent years, private competition has sprung up, with several new locales purporting to be the true Equator, thus disputing the state’s monopoly.
Who’s telling the truth? Big, bad bureaucracy? Little-guy private enterprise? Both? Neither? Is it possible to have a monopoly on truth? It’s my self-appointed task to find out, here in this crazy land where “everything is multiple.”
I gaze out the bus window. Blocks of unfinished brick houses flash past, re-bar still sticking up. Street dogs give chase to the bus, then desist, barking as they recede.
After snaking through interminable suburbs, we at last pull into a traffic circle. Ciudad del Mitad del Mundo: City at the Middle of the World, otherwise known as San Antonio de Pichincha. This is the government’s official tourist village, and the authorities have all the bases covered: overpriced eateries, historical dioramas, pavilions with danzas folklóricas, musicians frolicking with the Andean flute and guitar-like charango. A pint-sized World’s Fair for the souvenir crowd.
I approach one of the black-pantsuited official guides, a smiling quiteña with a red, blue, and yellow neckerchief.
“Buenos días, amiga. One question: is this the site of the real Equator?”
“Of course, la Mitad del Mundo,” she beams.
“Yes? One hundred percent certain? Because in Quito they told me there are multiple Equators.”
The girl confers with her colleague, then confirms. “Claro, the real Equator. Originally they were going to build it uphill, but there was a ravine, so they located it here.”
“So…the true Equator is up there, arriba?”
“No, it’s here!” The girl is still beaming. Her friend nods her head in corroboration.
The park’s centerpiece is nearby, so I walk over. What confronts me is a 100-foot stone monument, topped by an iron globe 15 feet in diameter. A lopped-off obelisk, like a temple to the god of bowling. Bisecting it is a yellow line that signs proclaim to be “Latitude 0°-0’-0”,” along which numerous backpackers are snapping V-for-victory selfies. Are they aware of the possible inauthenticity of their experience? If so, they seem unperturbed.
I spy another docent. He seems promising: formal in that conservative Andean way, sweater vest and tie, neck badge with his tour-guide’s license.
“Oye, amigo, one question. Is this the real Equator?”
“Bueno…in what sense?”
“In the sense that…well, I don’t know.” Is the question ambiguous? “Just…real. You know…zero degrees latitude.”
“Ah, that’s the question, my friend. They say”—here my guide grows confidential—“that no, that the real Equator is in another place. But you see? The people, they still come here.” He grins broadly.
“Yes, but are the people mistaken?”
“My friend, many times there are two ways to see things. Like in English, you say Equator, no? But in Spanish it’s Ecuador. Equator/Ecuador, you see? Two words, one thing.”
“It’s very interesting what you say, but for me still it’s not clear if this is the real Equator.”
“You have GPS, no? Why don’t you check?”
I shrug my shoulders, displaying empty palms.
“A gringo without GPS? Ha, very good, my friend, very good,” he says, slapping me on the back. “I wish you luck.”
Curiouser and curiouser, this excursion to the Middle of the World.
After more wandering, I spot the park manager’s office and decide to seek enlightenment in more official quarters.
“Buenos días, señora. Is it possible for someone to tell me, is this the site of the true Equator?”
Standing to greet me is Raquel Aldaz, the Head of Museums at Mitad del Mundo. She too is pantsuited, professional.
“Here many people ask that question. And the answer, unfortunately, is no. The true equator is located to the north.”
I feel I’m getting somewhere. “How many meters, more or less? Do you know?”
“Bueno, 300, maybe 400. The scientists give different numbers.”
An assistant pipes in from behind a partition. “More like 800.”
Aldaz pays no attention. I continue my questions.
“And this error of the government, how did it occur?”
A pause. “I think the problem was the technology of the time. The park was first built in 1936, you see, to commemorate the French mission. And the builders believed they were putting it in the correct place. But today, with GPS and other devices, we have more precise measurements. So today if we were to build the park, obviously it would be in another place.”
“The French mission?”
“Claro, a group of French surveyors. They came in 1736, to see if the Earth was wider at the Equator or at the poles. They made a geodesic mission. The park here was built in honor of them.”
“And they passed through here? Through Quito?”
“Bueno…sadly, there’s no evidence they were here, in this exact place.”
“So what’s the connection between the expedition and the location of the park?”
“Es que…there is no connection, properly speaking. But the honor is very great.”
I feel confusion returning. “So, the problem wasn’t a ditch up the hill? When they built Mitad del Mundo?”
“I too have heard that story.”
A throwing up of hands.
“And what can you tell me about the other Equators in the area?”
“Really, it’s not for me to say. But possibly they’re not correct either.”
On the way out, I get a couple of millennials to take shots of me and the line and the monument. For what it’s worth, before heading back to the traffic circle.
There are no buses in sight, so I decide to wander further up the road. A liver-colored dog trots suicidally across, just ahead of a sputtering moto-taxi. Then I spot the sign: “Inti Ñan Solar Museum, Lat. 00.00.00°, Test Water and Egg, Calculated with GPS.”
“Test Water and Egg” is open to speculation. But the rest is clear. Here, the capitalist competition has thrown its hat into the equatorial ring. Perhaps at this alternate Line, I can get some solid answers. I follow the dirt path to the entrance.
The spectacle that greets me is, if possible, even more touristy than the government’s theme park. For four dollars, the visitor is regaled with thatched-roof huts, shrunken heads, mannequins of indigenous tribesmen, llamas, creepy robot-like sculptures of pre-Colombian deities, you name it, the cumulative effect being somewhere between a wax museum and a miniature golf course.
Virgilio, our guide, takes charge of our tour group. He has a sweet-talker’s roguish smile, tight black curls, a Cuzqueña T-shirt.
“Please, here we have the true Equator, measured with GPS,” he says, after blowing through the park’s lesser attractions. “Now you can appreciate these scientific proofs.” He then proceeds to the demonstrations—Water and Egg—that will give us faith in the red stripe we’re now straddling.
Water, it turns out, involves pouring said liquid into a copper sink poised directly on the putative latitude zero. When the plug is pulled, the liquid drains straight down into a bucket. However, when Virgilio repeats the experiment on either side of the Equator, marvel of marvels, the liquid circles in opposite directions: clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the southern.
“The Coriolis effect, the scientifics call this,” Virgilio smilingly explains, lifting and replacing his cap, as though to air his curls. He goes on to state this is why hurricanes rotate in one direction up north, and another down south.
I’m no scientific. But do huge geophysical forces really vary so much across a stretch of a few centimeters? I wonder if Virgilio has a background in sales.
Meanwhile, as for Egg, it involves balancing a large brown Rhode Island Red on a nail. All the tour-group members line up to try their luck at the task, which turns out to be relatively easy on the Line, almost impossible off of it. There are laughs, broken ova, certificates for the successful. I don’t get one: my egg wobbles uncontrollably, perversely stymieing my every effort.
Virgilio has his arms encircling a pretty morena, helping her with her egg, when two Baby Boomer guys in Panama hats come up. They have runners’ watches with the latest GPS technology, and the readouts are not showing exactly 00.00.00. They politely question him about it.
“Es que…you know not all the technology is equally correct.” Virgilio glances furtively at the morena. “The GPS, it shows different depending on how is calibrated.”
“But what technology was used to make this line, then?” The older, mustached partner in the couple has his hands on his hips.
“Very accurate, very accurate,” Virgilio assures them. “Here we use only the best GPS.” There follows a spiel about why Inti Ñan’s red line is the genuine article, unlike the fraudulent yellow pretender a few hundred meters away. Midway through, I wander off, my thoughts gravitating towards lunch.
As I arrive at the traffic circle, the last batch of tourists appears to have gone. The place is deserted. I spy a rangy adolescent in a checked shirt, sitting in the dust by the roadside. I walk over.
“Oye, maestro, is there a place to eat here that’s good?”
The dark-skinned lad looks up, shielding his eyes against the sun. He grins.
“Sí, down the way. I can take you. But can you collaborate with me, jefe?”
I look up the road. Big hills loom to the north.
“Bueno, you show me the place, and lunch is on me. ¿Te parece?”
Minutes later, we’re greedily devouring empanadas de morocho in an upstairs menú just down the highway. As the waitress lays out tins of hot sauce on the table, I ask the kid, Hugo, what he knows about the two Equators in the parks.
“That? That’s an old criollada,” he laughs. A scam, characteristic of Latin America’s local, criollo culture. “They do that trick for years. If you want, I take you to another place, a scientific one where is the real Equator.”
I look him over. “You wouldn’t do me a criollada of your own, would you, maestro?”
He laughs. “No, jefe, I swear. I take you free. Since you invited me the lunch. My cousin, he has a pickup. I call him.”
The kid whips out a stylishly flat smartphone and makes the call.
“Oye, ¡qué viveza!…How come you let me pay for lunch, amigo, if you’ve got equipment like that?”
“Bueno,” he smiles, “I didn’t ask you invite me. How I going to refuse a free lunch?”
Forty minutes later, we’re barreling down the blacktop, crammed three abreast in the cab of the cousin’s battered 1983 C/K. Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” is on the radio. Staring ahead at the asphalt, I pause to reflect. I’ve just spent the better part of a day running all over Quito, in search of an experience I knew in advance I wouldn’t be able to see, feel, touch, taste, or smell. An experience so impalpable as to be almost Zen-like, and yet for which nothing less than total authenticity, as defined by waves bouncing off satellites, would suffice. What’s more, there are millions of people just like me, who make the pilgrimage to Ecuador, hoping to stand at a non-place—a geophysical abstraction that, scientists say, continually shifts its position with the earth’s crust anyway.
Crusaders looking for the site of the True Cross, hadjis hoping to touch the Kaaba in Mecca. The primordial travel impulses haven’t disappeared, even in our globetrotting, Lonely Planet-toting age.
At the town of San Luis de Cuachalá, on the Panamericana Norte Highway, we make a sharp turnoff. “We’ve arrived,” says Hugo.
The parking lot where we get out is small, with a single orange van in one corner. No fanfare greets us, no touts or locals in Andean garb. As we climb a small rise, a single stone structure appears on the left. Then, cresting the hill, we see it.
At the center, slender as a pencil, is a gnomon, a 30-foot orange column whose shadow is the main event. Tracing on the ground the hours, days, and months of the year, it stands at the center of a visionary diagram, an eight-pointed star whose lines represent the solstices and equinoxes, and which is inscribed in a huge disc of intricately patterned black and white pebbles.
The Quitsato Solar Clock, it’s called, and it’s as un-touristy as Mitad del Mundo was over-the-top.
We stand surveying it from the slope, watching the handful of visitors staring off at the distant mountains. As the sun starts to dip, the impression is one of being at some weird pagan earthworks, sacred to the gods of the sky.
It’s a point not lost on Alex, the volunteer who strides out to meet us. He’s short, pencil-mustached, clad in a fleece polar jacket. He says the platform’s design renders homage to the chacana, the ancient Andean cross used not just by the Incas, but by the even older Kayambi people who once lived in this valley.
“They seem to have had a fairly advanced knowledge of the Equator and the movements of the stars. And obviously, the sun was sacred for them, because it was life itself.”
He takes us to the orange pillar and pulls out a GPS. He holds it up. It reads exactly 00.00.00.
I clutch at the palm-sized marvel. “Oye, these numbers are real, no?”
“And it’s calibrated correctly, this device?”
“Margin of error, less than one millimeter.”
I eye him warily. “¿Nada de criolladas?”
Alex laughs. “Nada que ver.”
Something in me relaxes, is gratified.
Minutes later, Alex is telling us how standing on the Equator affords a strange double view of the night sky.
“You can actually see the constellations of both hemispheres simultaneously. North/south—like looking through bifocals. Here on the Equator, you get multiple constellations, multiple everything.”
But is everything really multiple, here in this sublunary world?
I peer at the star chart Alex is pointing to. Dualism may be bracing, but I’m also looking forward to telling to Doña Julia about the truth I’ve found that’s one, here under the orange column, among the mystifications and multiple locuras of Equator/Ecuador.