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Zero Latitude
Jamie Malanowski
February 20, 1998
Forget every one of those fascinating facts you've learned in grade school geography classes and since—there's only one thing about the equator that you really have to know. You don't have to know that it's 24,902 miles long or that it crosses three oceans and nearly a dozen countries. You don't have to know that 534 million people—Achenese, Arab, Badui, Balinese, Batak, Bugis, Chinese, Dayak, English, Huaorani, Javinese, Maasai, Minihasa, Minagkabau, Portuguese, Sudanese, Torajanese and Yanomami, among many other—live on or near it, or that it cuts through rain forests, savannas, volcanoes and seas. No, the only thing about the equator that you have to know is this: It isn't there. It's imaginary.
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February 20, 1998

Zero Latitude

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That custom, as the seafarers among you no doubt know, is the shellback ceremony. It's an initiation rite performed whenever a ship crosses the equator; sailors who have not yet crossed that line—known as polliwogs—undergo a hazing ritual conducted by those who have (shellbacks). The tradition may have had its origins in sacrificial rites undertaken to appease the sea gods. More recently, it seems to be a flimsy excuse to cut loose with a nautical version of Animal House.

While there are many ways to turn polliwogs into shellbacks, several elements seem to be constant. One key part of the routine involves having someone dressed up as King Neptune. (Since no photographs of Neptune are available, there is a great deal of latitude here regarding suitable costuming.) Another essential element seems to entail making the polliwog very sorry he wore his brand-new blazer to the ceremony.

In 1954, Klaus Hueneke was a 10-year-old German emigrant on a ship heading for his new home in Australia. "The fun started with the procession to the foredeck, led by an all-in-white King Neptune and his Nordic goddess mermaid," he wrote years later, "and ended with everyone being dunked in a canvas tub of seawater." Klaus called this event the highlight of his trip. A couple of years ago Maurice and Mavis Kelly, a retired couple from New Zealand, took a cruise on a Filipino cargo ship. When it came time for the big ceremony, they were selected to play the parts of King and Lady Neptune. A young German couple got stuck in the polliwog roles—they were shackled, covered with grease, locked in a steel crane, tied to a cross and used for target practice. The Kellys thought this ceremony was the highlight of their trip, and claim that the young German couple took the abuse without complaint. During a round-the-world race in 1993, yachtsman-polliwog Michael Calvin reports that he was "smeared liberally with a disgusting mixture of raw eggs, porridge, mashed potato, herbs and water," and that his mustache, which he had worn for 14 years, was cut off. He claims that he took it all good-naturedly. He does not, however, say that it was the highlight of his trip.

All in all, the ritual doesn't seem to have changed much since Mark Twain wrote about it (in one of the few things he actually wrote about the equator in Following the Equator): "In old times, a sailor dressed as Neptune used to come in over the bows...and lather up and shave everybody who was crossing the equator for the first time, and then cleanse these unfortunates by swinging them from the yard-arm and dunking them into the sea. This was considered funny. Nobody knows why. No, that is not true. We do know why. Such a thing could never be funny on land; no part of the old-time grotesque performances could ever be funny on shore—they would seem dreary and witless to shore people. But the shore people would change their minds about it at sea, on a long voyage. On such a voyage, with its eternal monotonies, people's intellects deteriorate....

The mind gradually becomes inert, dull, blunted...nothing but horse-play can rouse it, nothing but wild and foolish grotesqueries can entertain it."

To sum up: on land, stupid; at sea, fun!

In other words, not there; there.

Which brings us full circle, back to this swimsuit issue. Like the equator, it has always had a There, Not There quality: We cover sports 52 weeks a year but have supermodels in exotic locations only once a year. Every year you look at these impossibly (not real) beautiful women (real) posed against impossibly vivid backgrounds. And so we thought it made sense to take this year's incarnation to the Home of There, Not There.

For example, look at the provocative photograph of Laetitia Casta on page 42, taken on the savanna in Kenya—what you see is a creature with wild hair and long limbs, and you ask yourself, Is this a woman of rare allure or a feral animal previously unknown to man? Then there is that photo of a woman swimming underwater off the coast of the Maldives, a near-nymph so slithery you cannot help but think of mermaids. Lovely ladies loll with sea lions in the tidal pools of the Galapagos Islands, mountain goddesses scale the volcanic cliffs of Ecuador, a Valkyrie in a bikini confronts the warriors of the Maasai....

Can any of these apparitions be real?

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