Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The middle of the world isn't where I thought it was

The Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, is probably Ecuador's most-visited tourist attraction. The monument and museum, located a few miles north of Quito, marks the location of the equator. That is, if the equator were several hundred feet south of where it actually is:
The yellow line and sign at the Mitad del Mundo in Ecuador.
Those who visit the Middle of the World, a government-owned park that pays tribute to the Equator, are not drawn by the trinket shops or cafes offering roasted guinea pig. They want to stand on a yellow line painted on the ground here that is said to be precisely at Earth’s midpoint — 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.

Except that it is not.

The Equator is hundreds of feet to the north.

For tourists reveling in the notion of being, for once, at the very center of things, the truth can be a bit of a letdown.
First, let me say that I ate roasted guinea pig, or cuy, at a restaurant near this monument in 1990. I wasn't too impressed. There wasn't a lot of edible meat on the little guy, and it was kind of greasy.

Now that that's out of the way: I had heard rumors that the Mitad del Mundo wasn't in the right place since I first started spending my summers in Ecuador in the late 1980s. I had always thought these rumors were hoaxes concocted by hucksters trying to drum up business for their own "this is where the equator really is" tourist traps. I thought that the Ecuadorian government wouldn't risk their credibility by getting something as critical as the exact location of the equator wrong. After all, they had to have used the best geography and surveying techniques available in order to accurately determine where to place the monument. Right?

Well, maybe not:
Just how the Middle of the World wound up being not quite at the middle of the world is unclear.
Luis Pulgar, an administrator at the park, which is just outside Quito, the capital, said that the nearby land where the Equator runs is traversed by a ravine and that the ground there was not suitable to hold a monument, so the builders chose a different location. The current monument, built in 1979, is almost 100 feet high, topped by a globe five feet across. Raquel Aldaz, the park’s museums chief, said the site first contained a smaller monument, erected in 1936. The builders, she said, believed they were placing the monument in the correct spot, except that measuring techniques at the time were not as accurate as they are today, so they were off by a few hundred feet.
Ramiro Pontón, the head administrator of the park, which is owned by the government of Pichincha Province, said that different GPS technology can result in conflicting measurements, but that according to one of the most commonly used GPS devices, the monument is about 800 feet, or more than two football fields, south of the Equator. 
Indeed, if you find the Mitad del Mundo in Google Earth and place the cursor right over the top of the monument, you'll see that, according to the datum Google Earth uses, the monument is 7.78", or just under 800 feet, south of 0° 0' 0" degrees latitude:
The end result is that the monument marking the equator is, for whatever reason, not where it's supposed to be. And to think about all those times as a teenager that I stood astride that yellow line running through the middle of the monument, believing I had one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other foot in the northern... Alas. 

So now that, thanks to the modern miracle of GPS technology, we know that the Mitad del Mundo is not in the right spot, are there any plans to correct the problem?
That's the monument in the center... and me in the lower right.
Back at the Middle of the World, the local government has plans to set things right in a big way. It has asked the New York architect Rafael Viñoly to come up with a plan for a new monument that would stand exactly astride the Equator. 

Mr. Viñoly’s proposal, unveiled in February, calls for a tapered tower of latticed metal that, at nearly 5,000 feet, would be the tallest man-made structure in the world. The cost, according to a display here, is estimated at $250 million, a vast sum for a poor country like Ecuador. There are no plans to begin the work yet. 
Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen.  But perhaps a more modestly scaled and priced monument, one that hopefully updates and expands the interesting ethnographic museum inside the existing structure, could be built at the correct spot. It could even feature a permanently-installed GPS receiver showing that its location is accurate and house an exhibit explaining how new technology has allowed us to more accurately map and understand our world.

You can be sure I'd come back to visit. I might even give the cuy another try.

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