Voyage to the middle of the world
Quito: Flat-Earthers had, by the 18th century, been relegated to the loony fringe of scientific discussion(which today accommodates everyone from Creationists to Climate Skeptics), however there remained much debate, particularly in France, about whether the globe was perfectly round or bulged more at the poles or at the equator. In order to settle the conundrum, King Louis XV commissioned two scientific expeditions to measure the Earth’s circumference: one to Lapland (close to the North Pole) and one to Quito, then in Spanish Peru. A degree of longitude would be calculated from each measurement and the results would be compared.
In 1736, some time after the Lapland group had confirmed that the Earth is flatter at the poles, the equatorial contingent of the French Geodesic Mission – who had been embroiled in various adventures, including infighting and deaths, and the ‘serendipitous’ possession of Incan gold – reported their findings: the earth does indeed bulge at the equator.
The scientists had selected their Equatorial marker, a few kilometres north of Quito, after finding that all the logical longitudinal points of reference from the Greenwich Meridian were either in an ocean or on an inconvenient rock in the Galapagos.
Ecuador, the Spanish for ‘equator’, got its name from the scientific expedition, and it was also the source of the new metric system – 1 metre was calculated as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole.
It was a highly valuable calculation to cartographers, even if it turns out to be 300 metres further north than the French positioned it, and we visit the marker, some 20 kilometres north of Quito. There’s something quite magical about hopping between the north and south hemispheres, of knowing you are standing in the middle of the earth.
We experiment with the Coriolis effect, watching water evacuate a basin without the usual plughole vortex when on the equator, but spiralling clockwise and counterclockwise just a metre into either hemisphere.
It’s great fun, but we suspect there may be more to Quito than its geography. We navigate the dangerous streets with caution – every traveller we speak to has some gruesome tale of muggings or worse – and among the impressive colonial buildings and plazas, we discover the Chapel of Mankind (Capilla del Hombre). The beautiful building is, I realise, the first memorial we’ve seen on the continent that is dedicated to the misery and suffering of the indigenous population.
The incredible museum perfectly complements the paintings it displays by celebrated Ecuadorian indigenous artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. The cubist styled paintings show the AmerIndian it his most wrought and we leave the gallery heavy with the sorrow of millions.
The altitude, continual rain and chill combine to create a rather depressing experience. The leaden skies, similar to Lima’s panza de burro ( donkey’s belly grey), make me long for relief. It’s not far off: tomorrow we fly to the Galapagos.