Monday, August 10, 2009

The battle for middle earth.

Somewhere on the bus from Otavalo to Quito we made the jump from the northern hemisphere to the southern. We’d missed the opportunity to celebrate this event. Fortunately for us, the canny Ecuadoran government had built a theme park on the equator called Mital del Mundo or the middle of the world. So today that was where we were headed. But first we had to do something about our accommodations. It wasn’t that we were staying in squalor. But the complete lack of atmosphere made the less-than-pristine condition seem worse. And surrounded by hostels we knew we had a better choice. Our first stop was the Blue House Hostel, yup the same hostel that had yanked our reservation out from under our noses. It was still booked solid. But we took advantage of their resources and hospitality to get a reco tour company for the Galapagos Islands. Then walked around the corner to Crossroads, another Hola hostel (the chain that we got a discount at). It had a lot of things our current one didn’t: common areas with tv and videos, restaurant and bar, non-saggy beds, clean bathrooms, attentive staff, people, a lovable dog, and most importantly they had a room with private bath that was $10 cheaper than where we were currently staying. So we grabbed it and then headed back to the other place to pack up and check out.

As soon as we dumped our bags in our new room, we felt 100 times better. We needed that boost because our next stop was the Galamountain tour company. Rather than a cruise, they offered an island hopping tour. Instead of sleeping on a boat you sleep on the islands and take a speed boat between them. The itinerary was full of fun activities: snorkeling, horseback riding, mountain biking and, of course, nature treks. But as fun as it all sounded the price knocked the wind out of us. 6 days for $810US or 8 for $1100US. Each. Oh and that didn’t include the airfare ($400US return. Each.) or the national park entrance fee ($100US. Each.). All together 6 days in the island would cost us $1310US. Each. Gulp. We needed to think about that. As we walked towards the Ecovia station, we passed a lot of tour companies offering the traditional cruises. The cheapest price posted was $530US for a 3-day cruise which meant we would probably be paying way more than that (plus the airfare and park fee). August was high season for travel to the islands and the more prices we saw posted the more it seemed like this island hopping tour was a good buy. Now the question we asked each other was, is a week in the Galapagos worth more than a month of our budget? Good question.

We were staring at the pavement pondering this question when we were greeted by Jo and Lauren, our white water rafting buddies from San Gil. They had just arrived in Quito too and were also debating going to the Galapagos. And they were also heading out to the Mital del Mundo today as well. The backpacker trail is a well-worn one. But first they had to go meet friends. We said see you later (never goodbye when you’re backpacking) and then walked through some slightly dodgy and empty streets to get to the right Ecovia station. We’d have to find a different route back as it didn’t feel like it would be very safe later in the day.

The bus-trolley arrived and we took it to the end of the line where we transferred to another bus. In total the ride took us 1.5 hours but cost us about 40 cents letting us off right in front of the entrance to the park. Ecuador, I love your transportation prices. The park was as tacky as it sounded on paper but we paid our entrance fee for the opportunity to take pictures of ourselves standing straddling the equator. Our ticket also included entrance to five pavilions which would help us draw out our visit and make the 3-hour return trip worth it. The park itself reminded me of Disneyland or Wonderland – minus the rides. There was a village with a main square where live music happened, around it various streets were fanned out like faux-authentic calles. One contained restaurants and bars, another souvenir stalls, and yes there were even a street where you could get photos of yourself taken in faux-authentic costumes or your caricature. We weren’t quite ready for all that faux-authenticness so we set off to visit the pavilions. They were a mixed bag of displays. The first was filled with prints by a famous Ecuador artist, another one was full of insects and butterflies, and the next contained miniature versions of Quito and Cuenca. Interesting, but what this had to do with being on the equator I wasn’t sure. Finally, the last pavilion, the one sponsored and maintained by the French government, provided some substance. It was an exhibit on cartography and astronomy relating to the equator with a particular bias towards the French contribution (of course). Weird that the foreign pavilion would provide the most info in this local attraction.

The only place left to visit was the giant ball on the pedestal (photo above) that marked the equator. However, we could now hear music coming from the faux town so we headed over to check it out. The band was good and fronted by two guys I’ll call the two tenors. Although they were singing popular Ecuadorian folk songs, they were belting them out like Pavarotti and Domingo. It would have been great except for the fact that the volume was about 30% too loud making it uncomfortable to stand and watch them. It must have been our sensitive Canadian ears because the locals were right up at the speakers getting into the music, many of them dancing. Or it could be because they were all drinking and we weren’t. We tried to stay until the end of the act but before the eardrums started bleeding we had to exit and head to the ball and pedestal.

Painted on the sidewalk leading up to the monument from the town square was a yellow line marking 0º 0' 0" latitude. We embraced the cheesiness of it and took many photos of ourselves in the Northern Hemisphere and then in the South and then straddling both. I'm still not sure which is my better side - the northern? or the southern? Next we headed up the elevator to the top of the ball for a view of the equator from above. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the monument was actually a museum but not about the equator but about the different indigenous groups in the country. So we took the elevator up took in the great views of the clouds rolling over the mountains and then walked down the 6 stories through the ethnographic displays of clothing and crafts (no photos allowed). They were really interesting and informative. But Ecuador has at least two dozen different indigenous groups making it all a bit overwhelming. My apologies to the people of the Northern highlands, we kinda ran through your floors.

With that we were done with the official Mital del Mundo Park but from the observation deck on the tower we’d spotted another series of displays just next door to the park. This was the unofficial park Inti-Nan, we’d read about and we had to check it out. To get there we had to exit the park and follow the wall down the highway then it was another 200 metres down a dusty path and across a rickety foot bridge where we were greeted by a guy who took our money and then became our guide. The Inti-Nan museum was set up like an indigenous village built around an 175 year old hut that was found there. Inside there was a weird collection of displays, anacondas in formaldehyde, authentic shrunken heads with instructions on how to make your own, totem poles from cultures around the world. But the highlight of the tour was the real equator. You see, for eons, the local indigenous folk had marked the equator on the site of the now museum. Centuries later, European explorers marked it where the ball and pedestal monument now stood in Mital del Mundo. But the local folks stood their ground and built their own museum. Some time in the last few years they were vindicated by GPS. It was official: their equator was the real equator. So for the second time that day we got photos of us demonstrating a long distance, dual-hemisphere relationship . It was just as fun the second time around.

Then it was time for lots of fun experiments that can only be performed at the equator. Supposedly. I was highly skeptical by what they showed us but was so thoroughly entertained by them that I was able to ignore my inner voice. We were shown how water drains counterclockwise in one hemisphere, clockwise in the other, and straight down directly over it. We were taught how to read ancient sun clocks. We were encouraged to balance an egg on the head of a nail. Then challenged to walk the equator with our eyes closed. It was all silly fun but at least it was fun. In fact it was much better than the official museum and was worth the three hour round trip. I declare the Inti-Nan museum the winner in the battle for middle earth.

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