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Bus2Antarctica: Mapping Middle Earth

Traveler contributing editor Andrew Evans finds the “real” Equator in Ecuador.

Attention all map nerds! I am one of you. That means I go nuts about imaginary lines on the Earth–especially the Equator.

Flying over the Equator is both routine and uneventful while a ship that crosses the Equator normally calls for a big party or initiation rituals. So what do you do when your bus crosses the Equator? You jump off and try to memorialize the place. 

In Ecuador, there is already a memorial: La Mitad del Mundo is a monument to the Equator, complete with a stodgy square pillar and a bright orange line on the ground marking the place where the Earth’s latitude is equidistant from the North Pole and South Pole.

La Mitad del Mundo is also Ecuador’s gaudiest tourist trap. On Twitter, I described the place as “overwrought” and “heavily commercialized” because 140 characters fails to encapsulate the great gathering of souvenir stands, trinkets, ice cream parlors, T-shirt shops, cafés, random memorials, unrelated museums, hustlers, blaring loudspeakers, and a stage filled with half-dressed women doing provocative dance moves to a bored crowd. Exactly what cut-off denim hot pants have to do with the Equator, I just can’t say.

Still, I played my part as tourist–I paid my two bucks to get into “The Milddle of the World.” I walked along the Equator and had my smiling picture taken with one foot in either hemisphere. I crossed back and forth between North and South, bought a postcard and watched tourists from all over the world get a kick out of this imaginary line and what it means–how it gives definition to our planet and helps the seemingly infinite space of our planet feel rather finite.

But I wasn’t convinced. That’s because deep down, like most National Geographic devotees, I am a total map nerd.

While standing on the marked Equator, I switched on my phone and got a Google Earth reading of 0° 0′ 4″ S. Now maybe that’s good enough for some–they can go back home and claim they’ve stood on the Equator, but oh no, not me. Four seconds South of the Equator might as well be four thousand miles away . . . and I didn’t come all this way for inaccuracy. I went off in search of the real deal and soon realized it was not inside this crazy amusement park.  A large, impassable wall surrounded La Mitad del Mundo and my phone kept insisting that the real Equator was on the other side. I was happy to take my leave of “the middle of the world” and walk up the road, following the blinking dot of my position on my phone screen and checking it against my GPS.

Back in 1912, Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott used tried-and-true astronomy along with old-school navigation tools (like a sextant)

to take readings about his precise location in order to approximate the South Pole. At the time, his accuracy was within six hundred feet or so–which means wherever they posted the Union Jack “on the South Pole”

was merely a highly educated guess.

98 years later, our technology has developed to the point where my telephone can tell me within a few meters accuracy my exact location and doubled up with my professional GPS, give an almost 100% accurate reading as to my position on the planet. Both tools fit in my right hand as I walked up the road in Ecuador.

Cars and buses blew past me and a few taxis honked for my attention, hoping to pick up a fare and thinking I was a lost foreigner heading in the wrong direction–away from the hubbub. For a minute I stood in the middle of the road, checking my location while dodging traffic. I was definitely getting closer to the Equator–I was now within two seconds, then one second . . . and then I hit a wall, literally.

There are a lot of walls in Latin America. According to my GPS and phone, the real Equator was on the other side of a stone wall that surrounded a masonry yard. Amid the bricks and piles of mortar was a tent and inside the tent sat a daytime security guard. I got the man’s attention by taking pictures of the yard and he came over to hear my explanation. I don’t know what I said in Spanish, but it helped open the door and got me in. I walked into the yard and finally get an accurate reading: 0° 0′ 0″ S, 78° 27′ 12″ W. If I took a big step to the north, my phone flickered to N, and a big step to the south flickered to the S. That was good enough for me.

I began talking to the nonplussed security guard whose Sunday laundry was drying on a line in the masonry yard. He watched me play with all my gadgets and then draw a line in the dirt along the real Equator. His name was Edgar Alejandro and he was my only witness to finding the Equator and the only person who could take my picture, even though he explained that he didn’t know how to use a camera. In a way, Edgar Alejandro was my Tenzing Norgay, except that unlike Edmund Hilary, I decided to take a picture of both of us on the Equator. So here I am, the undaunted explorer, having arrived on the Equator all the way by bus from Washington, DC next to Edgar the day watchman who looks very puzzled because he was very puzzled.

So what’s the Equator really like?  It’s covered in grey sand next to a cinder block wall in a dusty northern suburb of Quito, Ecuador. I stood on the Equator and then straddled it, I reveled in the fact that at that very moment, I had higher velocity than people in either hemisphere, since I was standing on the part of the earth that travels the fastest. I tried explaining all this to Edgar, but he was quite eager for me to get off his property. He quickly locked the gate behind me and I trudged back into the Southern Hemisphere feeling like I had accomplished my mission.

Here’s quick review of the numbers: I left National Geographic headquarters on January 1st, 2010 with a position of 38° 54′ 18.64″ N, 77° 2′ 12.27″ W. Using traditional measures of latitude (69 miles to the degree) I have traveled 2,684.47 miles due south (while my wandering East-West path means I have already covered nearly double that distance).  I am heading to Antarctica, the polar circle of which is 66°33′ 39″ and so in latitudinal distance, that means I have 4,592.73 miles left to go. And there’s the proof–I really am a map nerd.

Andrew has just reached Argentina. Follow his Twitter feed @Bus2Antarctica, and the map of his journey here. Bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans. 

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