The editor asked, "How would you like to fly around the equator?" It was the early '90s, computers were just coming into their own and digital cameras clunky things. Getting at the essence of countries in line, in only a couple of days before moving on, was presumptuous. And, oh yes, there was another problem...)
One: The Prospect
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel the equator, where the world is thickest and most fecund, a middle-aged spread roughly 25,000 miles in circumference, suffused with limpid greens and cobalt blues. I have imagined horizons riotous with chlorophyll, deep oceans and salt breezes, damp heat, unrecorded creatures, and people wild either by nature or disposition, all of them equidistant from the poles and from my experience.
I'm going to do this in less than a month. It's a task that requires, ideally, the knowledge of a jet-lagged Magellan and the talent of an on-line Twain, but my more modest talents will have to suffice. I have crossed the equator before, and been around the world but I have never - and neither has anyone else, as far as I can tell - taken on such an accelerated linear mission, armed with a lap-top, two power packs, and a digital camera that transforms light and objects into images that can be squeezed through telephone lines, projected into space, and bounced back by satellite.
The equator projects its coordinates upward into what astronomers call the celestial vault. There, an imaginary circle drawn at right angles to the earth's axis divides it, too, into northern and southern spheres, and twice a year the sun crosses this celestial equator at the equinoxes. Several times within the next few weeks I will create mini-equinoxes of my own, stitching the equator by air in order to follow it.
There is no such thing as a direct commercial route. The equator is less on the way to anywhere than at cross purposes with the hemispheric competitions of the age: one reason it appeals to me. I will have to travel 50,000 miles, tacking back and forth, watching the water in bathroom basins swirl down first one way and then the other, to cover half that distance.
I fear getting cut - wounds do not fare well on the equator - or inhabited by a relentlessly Darwinian microbe, or missing a plane. My schedule, I can modestly say, makes the Secretary of State's look leisurely. Fifty thousand miles in a little over three weeks, with road and river travel thrown in, seems to me the protean recipe for disorientation and mettle fatigue, among other hazards of travel.
We will see. The journey encompasses, if I include the stopovers and connecting links, airports being the caravansaries of the contemporary world, fourteen cities, half a dozen islands and as many rivers, three oceans, several continents but only one planet, ours, nestled in the mesh of longitude and latitude, a terrestrial melon in the shopping bag of cartographical ingenuity.
This fruit is like no other, still promising adventure and the opportunity to see the world from an inch away or from 35,000 feet, as well as to taste, touch, and breathe it. On the equator I will supposedly weigh less because of the diminished power of gravity. The sun will be more powerful, being directly overhead, the weather violent when not too hot, and always it will be wet in the lungs if not underfoot.
I will travel westward, against the earth's rotation but with the sun, the traditional direction of exploration. I hope to meet people who share some common, as yet undetermined, qualities; I hope to find out something of myself - of stamina and imagination - and to encounter an equinoctial world both unpredictable, and enduring.
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