It’s April 2014 and our week-long trip to the Galapagos is starting, oddly enough, with a full day in Quito, two hours by air and 2,850 metres above our cruise departure point.
Me, I’m ready to head for Darwin’s islands right away, but we spend the morning touring this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s about what you’d expect: striking cathedrals, tripping-hazard but picturesque cobblestone streets, and the central plazas built by the Spaniards throughout South and Central America, and as far north as Santa Fe.
After a lunch with accompanying live music – something opera-like and requiring actual music appreciation skills, unfortunately – we get back into our bus for the afternoon excursion.
Driving across this sprawling third-world city built on what appears to be an endless series of steep ravines, our progress is slow: our 26 km traverse requires about 90 minutes. Along the way, we get a view of the less-historic side of Quito.
Houses built of unadorned concrete and corrugated metal cling to the hillsides. There appear to be no zoning regulations. Families sell fruit, car to car, at corners with traffic lights. On our air-conditioned bus we are in it but not of it.
But our destination – the Equator – is entirely worth it. I mean, how cool is that?
As we arrive, we see that it’s pretty cool. The walkway up to the main 30-metre monument is lined with lesser monuments to the initial surveyors of the equator in this part of the world. They’re mostly engineers, largely French, entirely early 18th century: Louis Godin, Pierre Bouguer, Charles Marie de La Condamine. Not household names, at least not in my household, but immortalized here.
We spend the next hour or so touring the site. I photograph everything worth taking a picture of, and maybe a few things besides.
There’s just one thing. We’re not actually, you know, at the Equator.
Lacking a GPS or, ahem, access to a prehistoric inhabitant of the region, those 18th century French surveyors missed the actual equator by 250 metres. Well, what’s that, you ask. Well, let me tell you:
- It’s roughly the length of two and a half football fields or soccer pitches.
- It’s the world record distance in ski jumping, set just this year in February.
- It’s 136.61202 Mark Harmons, laid head to toe.
I mean, it’s a not-insignificant distance.
Of course, measured against the earth’s pole-to-pole distance of 20,004 km (half of its circumference in that direction), an error of 250 metres is, effectively, a mark of 99.9987503%.
On the other hand, they weren’t playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, stabbing blindly in the dark. Anyone was going to get reasonably close, right? Spatially challenged as I am, even I wouldn’t have placed the equator in, say, Manhattan. Or Miami. So it’s really a judgement call on how much we should spot them.
And, you know, I’m going to leave that with you.
Me, I’m left with two images: one actual, one mental.
The actual one is a picture of myself straddling a line that’s really pretty near the Equator. I mean, how cool is that?
The mental one is of my father, accosting de La Condamine in the Great Hereafter, asking him what the heck happened to the other 0.0012497%. Chuck, old buddy, you’re on your own.