Follow the Equator around the world to Cayenne, Macapa, Booue, Mbandaka, Bukittinggi, Pontianak, Abemama, Bahia de Caraquez, Sumatra, Rwanda, Equador, Kenya and Christmas Island.
Why do maps attract the finger? Who has not run a finger across an atlas or globe 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? Several years ago I picked up a globe, ran my finger around the Equator and decided to follow it around the world. It took me to Cayenne, Macapa, Booue and Mbandaka; to Bukittinggi, Pontianak, Abemama and Bahia de Caraquez; to snow-covered volcanoes in Equador, atolls in the Pacific, savanna in Kenya and jungly mountains in Sumatra. I saw mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the most dangerous snake in French Guiana and, on Christmas Island, the world’s largest colony of sea birds. I traveled the length of the Transgabonaise railway, floated down the Ogooue River in a pirogue, met the King of Abemama and the self-described “Johnny Carson of French Guiana,” dined with Africa’s second-richest dictator and broke a chunk of propeller off a crashed plane said to have belonged to Amelia Earhart. When I returned, my more adventuresome friends asked, “Well, which of those countries did you like the best? . . . . Which had the
best beaches? . . . . The best hotels? . . . . Would you return to any of them for a vacation?”
I had never thought of the Equator as a holiday paradise, but the more I considered it, the more there was to recommend it. In the last decade many countries in the Middle East and the tropical world have become inhospitable to Americans; yet in most equatorial countries Americans are popular and terrorism is unknown. On the Equator there is no danger of traveling thousands of miles to stay in a high-rise hotel surrounded by one’s own countrymen. Except in Kenya, I hardly saw another traveler, I almost never slept in a hotel more than three stories high, and everywhere I met people who still considered a foreign visitor a curiosity or a treat.
IF YOU DECIDE TO GO to the Equator, don’t allow anyone to say you have merely crossed an “imaginary line.” In many ways, the Equator is as much a “natural feature” as any river or chain of mountains. Although you cannot see it, you can sense its presence, and feel its effects. 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, you find the belt of lazy winds and dull seas known as the doldrums. Placid seas spin unpredictable hurricanes into the hemispheres. The powerful equatorial countercurrent forces the captains of even supertankers to adjust their steering and stirs up a feast of plankton that attracts whales, and their killers. Where the Equator crosses land, predictable temperature and rainfall nurture life in sensational variety. On land and sea, it is noted for 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.
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 to the Equator, and connoisseurs of aquavit believe that some alchemy occurs at zero latitude that improves their favorite beverage. Multiple voyages make it still more prized and expensive. I have a bottle of this “Linie (Line) Aquavit.” Its label certifies that on Jan. 19 and July 5, 1985, it 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 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 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 are fooled into “seeing” it. For centuries sailors have pasted a blue thread across spyglasses offered to shipmates for “viewing” the Equator. One 19th- 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 wife laughed. “He can’t resist. 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.”
Like other natural features, the Equator has given its name to the places it touches. As there is an Atlantic City and a Pacific Palisades, and 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 Zaire 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.
HERE ARE SOME recommendations for places to holiday on or near the world’s longest circle. The first two, Cayenne and Muqdisho, are several hundred miles north of the Equator, but Bukittinggi and Abemama are within 50 miles. They are all good places to stop while going to or from one of those equatorial monuments where you can stand with a foot in each hemisphere, or they can be exotic additions to a trip to Martinique, Nairobi or Honolulu.
Cayenne is the capital of French Guiana, an overseas department of France and the largest remaining mainland European colony in the world. It is also the second least densely populated territory or country anywhere--the first being Mongolia-- and has the largest expanses of unexplored and unoccupied jungle in South America. It also claims, although I never learned the reason for this, the highest percentage of middle-aged bachelors and spinsters in the world, making it a good place to find a mate. But it’s a poor choice for anyone who likes to swim, since its coastal waters are thick with mud from the Amazon. The only clear water is found several miles offshore at the “Relais of Devil’s Island,” a hotel and restaurant occupying the former guards barracks of the penal colony.
Besides visiting Devil’s Island, from Cayenne you can make excursions to Cacao, where Hmong refugees from Indochina have constructed a little Southeast Asia Shangri-La of orchards, creamy cows, paddies and long houses, and to Kourou, where on Wednesday mornings you can tour the European Space Center. Kourou’s equatorial location gives it an economic advantage over Cape Canaveral, since the weaker gravitational pull means that missiles can be launched with a quarter less fuel than those of identical weight sent skyward from Florida.
Cayenne itself is a rickety jumble of palms and low buildings that look slightly haunted. Shutters missing slats swing off hinges, gingerbread balconies sag over narrow streets, rust speckles the New Orleans ironwork, and mildew spots statues and monuments. There are louvered windows, slow overhead fans, and a single outdoor cafe with patrons that are as easy to engage in conversation as they are reluctant to explain what they’re doing sitting in a cafe in Cayenne drinking too many mid-morning beers. Since this is France, the public buildings are in good repair. The 17th-Century prefecture is a colonial fantasy of white balconies and colonnades, and more than 100 rare forked palm trees, the tallest in the world, cast long shadows across the Place des Palmistres, providing the only relief from a limitless white sky.
I liked Cayenne for its food and its atmosphere. The Creole, French and Asian restaurants I tried were excellent, and during my week there I never had a bad meal. The atmosphere is that of a colonial Berchtesgaden, a tropical last redoubt that has attracted people who want to live in a hot country, not as technical experts on two-year contracts but forever.
There are Chinese and Lebanese traders, Brazilian and Haitian laborers, pieds noirs driven from Algeria a quarter of a century ago and the descendants of Devil’s Island inmates. There are Eurasians who emigrated from Indonesia to Surinam at independence and then left Surinam when it too became independent. There are French who fled from Indochina in 1954, and Indochinese who fled in 1974. During my stay the newspaper France Guyane reported the election of the new leaders of the Young Farmers of Guiana. Their names were Jean-Rock Hourau, Jean-Albert Chong Pan, Cleante Poco and Tsa Tsiong, and they came from Vietnam, Madagascar, Reunion and Laos.
Two French chains have hotels in Cayenne. The Novotel is new and comfortable but sterile. The older PLM Montabo sits on a hill with a fine view of the city, jungle mountains and ocean. The only way to reach Cayenne from North America is by one of the three weekly Air France flights from Martinique, making it possible to combine a visit with a Caribbean holiday.
Muqdisho, the capital of Somalia, is 90 minutes by air from Nairobi, so you can add it to an East African safari. It is a city impossible to confuse with any other, being the only Italianate, Muslim, nomadic, desert, coastal city in East Africa. Being Muslim, it has crenelated walls, houses with peephole windows, purdah screens rattling in a steady wind, strings of colored lights, and nasal songs booming from radios. Having been Italian, it has twin campaniles on a small cathedral, a triumphal arch dedicated to King Umberto, and houses stuccoed in fading pastels. It is surely the most exotic capital in Africa, a place where narcotic-chewing nomads in skirts mumble “ Ciao " and “ Buona sera " while squatting underneath a sign reading HA DHUMIL , XAQAAGA EE DOORD , an exhortation to vote.
There is a mad, ticktocking market where men wander with rows of wristwatches on their forearms, holding clocks on strings. There is a fine sandy beach several miles north of the city known as the “Lido,” although the practice of dumping blood and offal, from a nearby abattoir, into the surf has attracted sharks, making it a better place for sunbathing than for swimming.
The Croce del Sud is the most romantic and least expensive hotel I found near the Equator. It sits in the Italian city center like a Foreign Legion post, a hulking, thick-walled white fortress with gates front and rear and two floors of rooms surrounding a shady courtyard. The Italian woman who owns it has the high cheekbones, exaggerated mannerisms and weary smile of an aging film star. Once a week, when an Alitalia flight crew checks in, she wears a long dress and jewelry.
The hotel’s restaurant has tile floors, starched tablecloths, red wicker chairs, and lazy fans throwing a shadow play against white walls. At night, diners move outside to a courtyard illuminated by high yellow lamps that glow like moons through the trees. I drank mineral water from Umbria and ate fried squid and stuffed peppers while an ancient waiter shuffled across the flagstones, rattling plates like castanets. I heard the bells of the Cathedral, then an amplified prayer from a mosque; all the while, in the kitchen, someone was whistling opera.
Bukittinggi is in the center of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, less than 50 miles south of the Equator. It is a miraculous little highland city: a university and market town with warm days, cool nights and racing clouds. It has more urban pleasures than American cities 10 times its size: public tennis courts; a panoramic park with cafes and children’s rides; a clock tower capped with a bull’s-horn roof (giving rise to the city’s nickname, “the Big Ben town”); an aquarium you enter through the jaws of a concrete fish; a military museum with an exhibit celebrating a heroic carrier pigeon; a cultural museum displaying a stuffed, two-headed baby buffalo; a market with whole streets selling blue duck eggs, crispy snack foods and goldfish (for eating); and a zoo where the sign over the bear pit begs visitors to take pity on the animals, and they do.
It is a city of reds and pinks. Frangipani and geraniums fill the parks, and poinsettia trees decorate front yards. Pink African violets are sold in the market, children like pink ice-cream cones, women favor red scarfs, and red pompons bob on the heads of the sturdy ponies that pull carriages up streets lined with billboards of smiling teeth and pink gums--advertisements for dentists.
I climbed to the Dutch fort for a view of minarets and mosques mingled with the saddle roofs decorating public offices, a clock tower, the covered market, hotels, schools and the buildings of distant villages.
At sunset, the encircling jungle mountains changed from green to blue to black; volcanoes released fists of clouds, and the scent of cinnamon filled the air. I heard calls to prayer from a loudspeaker mounted in a nearby mosque, and I thought it amazing that Islam could find such enthusiastic adherents in a land already resembling the Muslim heaven of babbling streams, green parks and plenty.
Unlike many tropical cities, there are no slums lining the approaches to Bukittinggi, no police roadblocks and no beggars except the blind and the genuinely infirm. Instead of sewage, you smell coconut; instead of crones lugging water, you see schoolgirls with scrubbed faces and ribboned hair. The streets are washed and swept each night, cart horses jangle with silver ornaments, and when taxis reverse, their chimes warn pedestrians by playing “Turkey in the Straw” or “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Consumer goods at low prices fill stores and customers pack restaurants; women buy ornamental plants and men pursue a favorite Minangkabau pastime, flying kites.
Using Bukittinggi as a base, you can hike through a spectacular green countryside of steep canyons, deep volcanic lakes and prosperous farm villages. You can search for a giant Rafflesia--the largest flower in the world--at the preserve in Batang Palupuh. You can attend one of the weekly bullfights and visit the equatorial monument at Bonjol.
The restaurants of West Sumatra are perfect for travelers who speak little Indonesian. Cooked food sits in enamel bowls in restaurant windows, so you can see at a glance what is available. You sit, and a waiter automatically brings rice and small plates of food from each bowl. Afterwards, he counts the empty plates, and you pay for what you have eaten. The only drawback is that your rejects are returned to the pot, allowing the same goose-pimply chicken wing to visit several tables in the course of a day. The food is famous for its heat and spice, and every buffalo, egg, beef and chicken stew is red with chili or yellow with curry. I never found a restaurant I disliked, nor one that did not provoke waterfalls of perspiration.
The easiest way to reach Bukittinggi is to fly from Singapore or Jakarta to the coastal city of Padang, then travel inland several hours by bus or taxi. There are several good hotels. I can recommend the Damas, where many of the rooms climb a hillside and have terraces with spectacular views of the minarets and volcanoes.
Abemama is one of the coral atolls that make up the nation of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands). The journey there requires hopping down a string of atolls, using progressively smaller airplanes. You go from Honolulu to Majuro in the Marshall Islands on a Continental Airlines jet, from Majuro to Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, on a weekly propjet operated by Marshall Islands Airways, and finally to Abemama on one of Air Tungaru’s propeller-driven planes. You may have to spend at least one might in Majuro and Tarawa. Reservations for the Robert Louis Stevenson Hotel--the only one on the island--can be made via letter or telegram to Brian Orme, Compass Rose Enterprises, Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati.
Stevenson described Abemama as a “splendid nightmare of light and heat,” enjoying “a superb ocean climate, days of blinding sun and bracing wind, nights of a heavenly brightness.” He stayed in Abemama as a guest of the king, living in a small settlement he called “Equator Town.” The hotel named after him is a group of comfortable thatched roof huts bordering a swift channel connecting the ocean and lagoon.
I spent most mornings on the hotel terrace conversing with George, the current King of Abemama and the great-grandson of the king who had entertained Stevenson. With his wide grin, gap teeth, long bony face and bald head, King George resembles a skull--but one of the jolly Halloween ones. He is really closest in type to those cheerful Scandinavian monarchs who ride bicycles everywhere--unmistakably royal but with the common touch. He has tattoos on his arms, enjoys dirty jokes and favors the language of a merchant seaman--which is what he was before retiring to Abemama. He wears inappropriate clothes for a king--shorts, plastic flip-flops and novelty T-shirts--but his posture is superb.
The island’s other attractions include one of the loveliest lagoons in the Pacific, several huge communal meeting houses ( maneabas ) constructed entirely from coconut and pandanus trees, a Catholic mission where the nuns still praise the improvements--electricity, running water, and ice cream--brought about by American Seabees during World War II, the ruins of Equator Town, good snorkeling and swimming in the channel, excellent shrimp and fish dinners and cold beer at the hotel, and a people known throughout Kiribati for their fondness for traditional customs and adherence to elaborate codes of etiquette.
“We are known as the most polite people in Kiribati, perhaps in the Pacific,” the king told me. “You can always pick out people from Abemama in a crowd. They are quiet and patient. In fact, we are famous for being quite harmless.”
I suggest bringing plenty of books to Abemama, because the sights will only take two mornings and, as the king admitted to me, “Quite frankly, there’s not a lot for an educated king to do on Abemama.” Which may be why this island was my favorite place.