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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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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.

Which is not to say that it doesn't exist. Of course it exists. Hey, we're not a bunch of flat-earth fanatics trying to convince you that all those big-blue-marble NASA photos are part of some Trilateral Commission conspiracy. Sure, it's there, and you don't need a degree in astrophysics to figure out where it is. Go down to Ecuador (a country whose very name means equator), go to Mitad del Mundo (a place whose very name means Middle of the World) and find the 90-foot-tall obelisk that stands there. Shinny on up and sit on the globe that's on top of that monument and you're smack dab on the equator, pal.

But of course it's not there. You can't see it, touch it, smell it, taste it or slap a Nike logo on it. But it's there all the same. Need proof? Say you're vacationing at a nice hotel in Costa Rica. Feeling restless, you go for a walk, heading in a generally southern direction. After a few days and a few beverages of your choice, you stop at an appropriate facility and do what you do whenever nature calls. When you flush, you note that the water whirls down the bowl in a counterclockwise direction. Now resume your walk. Go far enough south, and the next time you hit the head, the water will spin clockwise down the drain. And then it hits you: Somewhere back there you crossed the equator!

There. Not there. Puzzled? Well don't get too flustered, because there's plenty more where that did—or did not—come from. The equator is the home of There, Not There.

Take El Niño, a weather phenomenon that originates in the Pacific, near the equator. Meteorologists from Seattle to St. Petersburg, Fla., have been talking about it in terms usually reserved for the apocalypse, but El Nino has, thus far, not quite lived up to the hype. Sure there were inside-out umbrellas during the PGA's Pebble Beach stop, some marlin sighted near Washington State and mudslides along the West Coast in early February that killed at least 15 people. So, yes, El Niño is there. But nobody has reported seeing any New Age Noahs putting Black & Decker to timber and building an ark, so, no, El Niño is not there—not as advertised, at least.

In the Maldives, an Indian Ocean country comprising nearly 1,192 islands (on the equator at latitude 3°15'N, longitude 73°0'E), some criminals are banished to one of the many uninhabited islands: The bad guys are there, but not there. In Indonesia, the Toraja people believe that life and death are a continuum. When someone dies, no one thinks of him as gone forever—he's just, well, not well, and he's kept around for days, sometimes months, until all the relatives have been assembled and the money for a blowout funeral has been scraped together. In the meantime the departed is there, but not there as well. Final example: Abdala Bucaram, the president of Ecuador (on the equator at latitude o°30'S, longitude 78°26'W), has called Mein Kampf his favorite book He's there, but clearly he's not all there.

The guy who gets credit for figuring out that there was such a thing as an equator is the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes, who in the third century B.C. calculated the circumference of the world. His numbers were surprisingly good—only 400 miles off—though not everybody was smart enough to know it. Christopher Columbus, for one, used a different set of measurements, which estimated the distance around the world to be about 6,000 miles less than what Eratosthenes calculated. This is why Columbus had such a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that he was in the Dominican Republic, not Calcutta, back in 1492, and why he then insisted on calling the local residents Indians. So he was there, but not there.

While the Greeks were able to posit the existence of the equator without actually going there, they fared a lot less well when it came to speculating on what life on the equator must be like. In fact, they thought life would be impossible, that the heat from the sun's rays would be so intense that people would be burned to a cinder and that the seas would boil and that the very air would catch fire. "One writer allowed that certain physiological attributes might save you," Jerry Pitzl, a professor of geography at Macalester College explains. "It was thought that there might be people with enormous feet, who could use them—if they lay down on the ground—to shade themselves. They never explained why the feet wouldn't burn up." The proposition that life on the equator was an oxymoron had legs until 1473, when the Portuguese explorer Gonçgalves sailed all the way down to the equator and back without being parboiled. After that, it was just a short leap to the realization that, by golly, the region had always been inhabited. In other words, people were not not there, but there!

While the equator has clearly been important to our understanding of the world—one might even call it central—it hasn't received the recognition in popular culture that one might expect. (Acknowledgement: there. Real respect: not there.) Mark Twain wrote a book called Following the Equator, but the truth of the matter is that once he got across the line, he spent almost all his time in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In short, he said he was there, but he was not there... much. A look through The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits shows that since 1955 no bands have been called The Equators, nor have any songs with the word equator in the title been recorded. (And if there were any before 1955, we sure aren't humming them today.) Leonard Matins Movie Guide doesn't even list a movie with equator in the tide. When it comes to the equator and books, songs and movies, then, the verdict is: not there, not there and not there.

When it comes to a strange and nearly perverse folk custom practiced all over the world, however, the survey says: there!

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