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My clothes are exhausted, thin as silk from being slapped on rocks and scorched by irons heated over charcoal. I slip them on and smell, I think, the equator: sweat, charcoal, and low tide.
Souvenirs litter my rooms. There is a paper clip from Albert Schweitzer's desk, a box with a pop-out snake, and a chunk of propeller from a plane crashed on a Pacific atoll by Amelia Earhart, or so I was told. I have a T-shirt saying Happy Trails, in Indonesian. I won it racing Baptist missionaries up a Borneo hill. I keep pencils in a soapstone box from Somalia, as white and square as the houses of Muqdisho. I weight papers with a gold-flecked rock from a Sumatran mine. My wife says it is fool's gold.
I have become a connoisseur of heat. There is the heat that reflects off coral and scorches and softens the face like a tomato held over a fire. There is the greasy heat of a tropical city, a milky heat that steams a jungle river like a pan of nearly boiled water, a blinding heat that explodes off tin roofs like paparazzi's flashbulbs, and a heat so lazy and intoxicating that all day you feel as though you are waking from a wine-drugged nap.
Letters still come from the equator. Those from the Africans, my best correspondents, have two themes: "Remember me?" or "Remember me!"
A postcard from a Pygmy starts, "Do you recall ..."
Yonda writes, "Greetings from Mbandaka, Zaïre!! How are you doing? I'm sure you're gonna be surprised to receive a letter from somebody you really do not know that well. I don't know if you still remember when you passed by Mbandaka; you met a young man ..."
Edward has found postage to remind me he is "an Orphan and alone. There's no job for me here. I have tried a lot but No Way Out so please don't forget me.... Remember I'm sleeping on a street in front of Bar #6 which operates for 24 hours. Imagine what life I am leading now."
Imagine I can. I have seen where Edward lives, and the word "Orphan" ignites memories—just as someone smoking Benson & Hedges reminds me of tides racing through a Pacific channel while George, king of Abemama, chain-smokes this brand and struggles to reconstruct a family tree, borrowed, but never returned, he says, by a noted anthropologist.
A boy kicks a ball, and I remember the soccer-crazy governor of Macapá and his plan for an equatorial stadium. The equator will be at midfield, with each team defending a hemisphere.
A satellite dish in a suburban yard reminds me of larger equatorial ones, oases of technology encircled by jungle, glowing ghost-white at night and marking the line as surely as crumbling obelisks and rusting signs.
Lazy northern sunsets bring back fast equatorial ones flashing like color slides across a screen. Click: The sun quivers above the horizon. Click: Quick as a guillotine it falls into jungle or ocean. Click: Stars glitter bright and close in a planetarium sky.
Some memory pictures flash without warning: A tornado of bats circles a French war memorial in the jungle; crabs scuttle through the collapsed blast towers of ground zero, Christmas Island; and a spider web of cracks surrounds a bullet hole in the windshield of a Ugandan taxi.
I can order these pictures by consulting my maps. Before a journey a map is an impersonal menu; afterwards, it is intimate as a diary. Before, I had stared at my maps and wondered if there was still a Jardin Botanique in the middle of Zaïre. Did passenger ships sail between Sumatra and Borneo? Tarawa and Abemama? And what should I make of the black dots signaling a "difficult or dangerous" road? Now I know, and these maps have become as comfortable as my canvas boots. I enjoy touching them, imagining I can feel, as if printed in Braille, the mountains, rivers, roads, and railways, all the familiar contours of the longest circular route on earth.
Why do maps attract the finger? Who has not—well, who nearing middle-age has not—run a finger across a page in an atlas and imagined traveling to the end of this highway or that river, sailing to every island in a chain or climbing every mountain in a range? What child has not traveled by spinning a globe? I owned an illuminated one. I switched it on and darkened the room and it became the glowing, revolving planet that introduced travelogues and newsreels. Then I closed my eyes, stabbed at it with a finger, and imagined going wherever I landed.
My journey began this way on a snowy February evening in New York when I grabbed a globe off a friend's bookshelf and spun it into a whirling bouquet of continents and oceans. Then I held it in front of a frosted window and watched places I might never see race past. It stopped and I saw a box in the South Pacific, saying W.A.R. Johnson Ltd., Edinburgh and London, 1898. On a modern globe, Africa and Asia are a patchwork of colors, but on this Victorian model they were piebald, British red and French blue, and my eye was drawn to lines instead of colors: wavy ocean currents throwing tendrils around continents, thin isothermals swooping from Cancer and Capricorn, and a date line zigzagging down the Pacific. Longest and most prominent was a triple-thick, brown-and-yellow-checkered line coiled like a snake around the middle of the earth. The equator.
I traced it with a finger, imagining for the first time a trip along its path. It sliced Borneo and Sumatra in half. It cut across Mount Kenya and the mouth of the Amazon. It brushed Singapore, Nairobi, and Quito, and threaded through the Maldives, the Gilberts, and the Galápagos. There was desert in Somalia, a volcano in Ecuador, savanna in Kenya, and, most of all, jungle.
Along the equator, I learned in the library, you find superlatives: the largest atoll and heaviest rat, the widest river and longest snake, the highest volcanoes, heaviest mammals, biggest flower, stinkiest fruit, and greatest expanse of virgin forest ever destroyed by fire. It is a reassuring line, geometry imposed on nature's seeming anarchy, evidence of a divine intelligence at work in creation. Even the earliest flat-earth cartographers believed in the earth's symmetry and drew equators across the Danube, the Mediterranean, and the Nile. If the earth were stationary and perfectly spherical, any circle would divide it into equal halves, and by now an international conference would have chosen an artificial equator to standardize maps. This is what happened in the case of zero degrees longitude, which can theoretically be any vertical line connecting the poles. For centuries chauvinistic map-makers drew it through Rome, Paris, Washington, Stockholm, and Peking, until finally, fatigued by this chaos and bowing to British sea power, the world agreed at the Washington conference in 1884 that zero degrees longitude, the prime meridian, ran through the Royal Observatory, in Greenwich, England.
But since the earth is an imperfect sphere, rotating about the poles and bulging in the middle, the equator, like a river, desert, or mountain range, can only be exactly where it is: equidistant from the poles and perpendicular to the earth's axis, at 24,901.55 miles the longest circle that can be thrown around the earth. It divides the world into climatic and vegetative mirror images. On the equator at sea level, gravity is weakest, barometric pressure is lowest, and the earth spins fastest. To its north, winds circulate clockwise around zones of high pressure; to its south, counterclockwise. Where it crosses oceans, placid seas spin unpredictable hurricanes into the hemispheres; where it crosses land, predictable temperature and rainfall nurture life in sensational abundance and variety. The Amazon, the Congo, and the Nile rivers have been charted and explored, the Sahara and the Empty Quarter crossed in every direction, but the equator remains a virgin, known in part but not in sum, the longest but least visited, least appreciated, natural feature on earth.
When I proposed the equator as a natural feature, I heard a lot of "Bah, humbug!" It was nothing but a line on a globe, the only line on those little maps fastened to zoo cages that show the habitat of exotic animals. Because no one could "see" the equator, it was unworthy of exploration. Some people, remembering the Coriolis effect from high school physics, said it was where water changed direction as it flowed from a sink or a toilet, clockwise north of the line and counterclockwise to the south, and they saw me traveling around the world, flushing toilets to discover in which hemisphere I stood. Well, "Bah, humbug" to all that. A blind man cannot see mountains, but his ears sense the change in altitude and he becomes light-headed. In a swamp, his pores open and he senses humidity. He feels his nostrils drying in a desert and his skin catching salt from the ocean. We can none of us see the equator, but we can sense it, and feel its effects.
Mariners consider it a dangerous line. At sea, rising warm air produces the belt of lazy winds and dull seas known as the doldrums. The history of tropical trade and exploration is full of ships becalmed for weeks near the equator, of crewmen dying from thirst under drooping sails. Because of the doldrums, a successful crossing of the equator came to be celebrated by a "crossing the line" ceremony, one with strong overtones of rebaptism and thanksgiving. And because of the doldrums, French slavers carried barrels of lime so if they were becalmed in the equatorial "middle passage," they could poison their cargo before tossing it overboard—a more humane solution, they argued, than the despicable Anglo-Saxon practice of throwing live slaves into the sea.
Underneath the oceans' surface, the powerful equatorial countercurrent forces the captains of even the supertankers to adjust their steering as they cross the line. In the Pacific, this current stirs up a feast of plankton that attracts whales, and their killers. The first American whaleboat to reach Honolulu was named The Equator. Captain Ahab tracked Moby Dick into these equatorial hunting grounds, and Melville wrote of his own journey there: "... we spent several weeks chassezing across the Line, to and fro, in unavailing search for our prey. For some of the hunters believe, that whales, like the silver ore in Peru, run in veins through the ocean. So, day after day, daily; and week after week, weekly, we traversed the self-same longitudinal intersection of the self- same Line; till we were almost ready to swear that we felt the ship strike every time her keel crossed that imaginary locality."
On land and sea, the equator is characterized by a consistent absence of twilight and daybreak. Nowhere else do you have less time to adjust between day and night. Nowhere is the sun so high in the sky at midday for so many days of the year. Europeans have traditionally found these extremes of quick darkness and overhead sun unsettling. Into the twentieth century, Europeans living near the equator feared that even a moment's exposure of their bare heads to the sun might cause sunstroke or fatal brain hemorrhage. In a book published between the wars, Doctor Albert Schweitzer wrote, "A white man, working in a store, was resting after dinner with a ray of sunshine falling on his head through a hole in the roof about the size of a half-crown: the result was high fever with delirium."
You cannot feel the lessening of gravity at the equator, but you can see the results. A scale would show you weighing less at sea level in Borneo than in Belgium. A pendulum clock calibrated to mark time at a temperate latitude will slow down if moved nearer to the equator. In 1673, the French astronomer Jean Richer journeyed to Cayenne, in Equinoctial France, to observe the movements of sun and planets near the equator. By chance, he noticed that a pendulum clock he had carried from Paris lost time at the sea-level city of Cayenne. He had stumbled on proof of Sir Isaac Newton's theory that the earth bulges in the middle and flattens out at the poles. Since Cayenne was nearer the equator than Paris, it was further from the center of the earth, and thus gravity exerted less pull on the pendulum.
Like other natural features, the equator has given its name to the places it touches. Just as there is an Atlantic City and a Pacific Palisades, and just as the cities of Erie, Geneva, and Como border their namesake lakes, so too is there an Equator railway station in Africa, an Equator Town, founded by Robert Louis Stevenson, in the Pacific, and an Equatorville (since renamed), where the line crosses the Zaïre River. In South America, there is Ecuador—"equator" in Spanish—and in the Pacific, the Line Islands. Open an atlas or pick up a globe and run your finger along zero degrees longitude. What do you find named after the prime meridian? Nothing.
Nations have tried to profit from the equator, as from any natural resource. One reason the French built a space center in their Guiana colony is because the weaker gravitational pull of the earth there enables missiles to be launched with a quarter less fuel than those of identical weight shot from Cape Canaveral. For centuries, Norwegian packets bound for the southern hemisphere have carried sherry casks filled with aquavit. Connoisseurs of aquavit believe some alchemy occurs at zero latitude that improves their favorite beverage. Multiple voyages make it still more prized and expensive. I tracked down a bottle of this "Linie [or Line] Aquavit." Its label certified that on January 19 and July 5, 1985, it had crossed the equator on the M/S Tourcoing.
Countries touched by the equator have tried claiming national sovereignty for 22,300 miles into space, from their land equators to the necklace of communications satellites hovering exactly overhead in geostationary orbit. These satellites relay telephone calls and television pictures and are positioned over the equator so they can travel at the same rotational speed as the earth. In 1977, some nations attempted to form a cartel to regulate and charge rent for the satellites sitting above their equators. The Colombian delegate to a United Nations conference on broadcast satellites argued that since "parking places" above the equator are limited, the equatorial orbit is a "natural limited resource" over which the equatorial states have "inalienable rights of sovereignty."
Evidence that the equator is a natural feature is so convincing that some people are fooled into "seeing" it. For centuries, sailors have pasted a blue thread across spyglasses offered to shipmates for "viewing" the equator. One nineteenth-century traveler reported cabin boys being "sent aloft to see the line." They came down describing a "blue streak." The missionary pilot who flew me across it in Borneo threw his Cessna into an amusement-park dip and said, "There! You feel it? The equator!" His pretty wife laughed. "He can't resist. Last month the passenger threw up. Most folks believe they're feeling the equator. Some take pictures." And Mark Twain wrote, "Crossed the equator. In the distance it looked like a blue ribbon stretched across the ocean. Several passengers Kodak'd it."
If you found yourself in Colombian or Ugandan airspace, 22,300 miles above the earth and among the equatorial satellites, you would be closer to "seeing" the equator than from any other vantage point. From here you could "Kodak" the gray doldrum clouds that smother the equator at sea and the green band of jungle that marks it on land. Satellite photographs show this terrestrial equator to be slightly moth-eaten, broken by mountains in central Africa and Ecuador, a high plateau in Kenya, and desert in Somalia. There are also human intrusions: slash-and-burn agriculture, cattle ranches, plantations, and logging.
In 1974, American astronauts orbiting the earth in Skylab noticed fire lines flaming across the tropics. At night the fires twinkled; by day, canopies of smoke and dust swirled over eroded land, obscuring burning forests. In Africa, a fire line ran north and parallel to the equator through Cameroon and the Central African Republic; to the south, one cut through central Africa. They had been set by farmers clearing land and herders desperate for pasture, by hunters flushing game and loggers destroying "garbage" trees. Trapped between them were the tropical forests that straddle the equator.
Excerpted from Equator by Thurston Clarke. Copyright © 1988 Thurston Clarke. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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