Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Quito, Ecuador – Latitude 00° 00’ 00”

Latitude 00 00 00 sign Quito copy

On our way to the Galapagos Islands in the summer of 2007, we stayed in Quito, Ecuador for a few days. There are two equator-related tourist attractions in Quito. The monument at Mitad del Mundo was built before electronic global positioning devices were invented and, unfortunately, it is a few hundred yards away from the actual middle of the earth. Once this was discovered, an enterprising family built an unabashed tourist trap named Museo de Sitio Inti-√Ďan located at the equator, or Latitude 00° 00’ 00”. The museum has a staff of English-speaking guides who take you through the replicas of native houses:

DSC00718 Museo de Sitio Inti-Nan guide

A burial site. The deceased is placed in a tight fetal position in a pot like the one on the right and the remaining artifacts are for the journey:

DSC00703 Museo de Sitio Inti-Nan burial site

Other artifacts:

 DSC00702 Museo  de Sitio Inti-Nan artifacts

A grizzly, shrunken head:

DSC00709 shrunken head

A Castor Bean plant:

 DSC00716 castor bean plant at latitude 00 00 00

I love the sundial indicating when it was morning (tuta manta), noon (pajta), or night (chisi). That would be a welcome brand of time-keeping! The native tribes did not have a numbering system; these numbers are a modern addition. Note how the numbers range from six to six because at the equator the sun always rises and sets at six.

DSC00707 Museo  de Sitio Inti-Nan sundial

There was a sign that claimed: “On the equator your weight is less than in your country because of the bulge of the earth. Thus being farther from the center of the earth, the force of gravity is less.”  And here I thought the earth was round. When I asked how much less my weight would be, they said it was about a kilo. Of course, we will ignore the fact that our mass remains the same. 

The guide then performed an experiment meant to demonstrate the Coriolus force. She placed a sink on the northern hemisphere, where the water drains counter-clockwise and then moved the sink a few feet over to the southern hemispehere where the water drains clockwise.  When placed exactly on the equator, the water drains straight down. She placed a few small leaves to help show the movement of the water.  

DSC00711 Museo de Sitio Inti-Nan coriolis experiment

DSC00713 Museo de Sitio Inti-Nan coriolis experiment

We were invited to balance an egg on a nail, a feat that can only be accomplished twice a year elsewhere on earth:

DSC00784 Equator Balancing Act

DSC00787 Equator Balancing Act

There are plenty of websites refuting the authenticity of these experiments. Regardless, I thought they were very interesting, entertaining and they underscore the unique properties of the equator.

My husband told me an interesting equator story about an aircraft that supposedly had polar confusion when it crossed the equator. The guidance system assumed its orientation to be relative to the North Pole. When it cross the equator, the guidance system thought the plane flipped over, so it “righted” itself into the upside down position. It is probably an urban myth, but at least one source reported that it was rumored that early versions of Microsoft’s F-16 Flight Simulator game had this same “feature” (as we software types like to call bugs). You can read more about it here

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


One of my favorite books that we read in my book club is a memoir by Jeannette Walls named The Glass Castle. The book begins with the author in a New York City taxicab all gussied up to go to a fancy schmancy event. When the cab took a shortcut through an alley, she saw a woman rooting through a dumpster. When she realized that this woman was her own mother, Walls slid down her seat and asked the driver to take her home. The Glass Castle then goes on to explain how her life ended up in this scene of contrasts.


Saturday night I saw Jeannette Walls speak at the Marin Center. By a strange coincidence, I happened to be the one who let her in the building when she arrived one hour before show time. I only had a chance to say that I was pleased as punch to meet her and that I loved her book before the official Marin Center person came to greet her. What I really wanted to do was steal off to have a cup of tea with her. She was already impeccably dressed with full stage make-up. Did she really need a full hour to do a sound check? I knew we would get along because we had so much in common.

Early in The Glass Castle, Walls relates the story about how she burned herself at age three when she was cooking a hot dog for herself. At around age three, I too burned myself. We were living in Lawang on the island of Java in  Indonesia where my parents ran a small satellite factory for my grandmother. The factory produced bottled tropical fruit syrups similar to the Torani fruit syrups used to make Italian sodas. The floor had just been mopped and, while I was running, I slipped and fell into one of the large, low vats of molten sugar that were lined up along the gangway. The right side of my torso, my right arm, and part of my face were immersed. I did not need skin grafts like Walls because I was fortunate that my mother knew of a very good German doctor in Lawang. He gave me a shot, no doubt for the pain, and dispensed a white cream in a tube to rub over my burns. I wish I knew what this salve was because everywhere my mother applied the medicine, there is no trace of the burn. The only place where I have a scar is behind my ear where my hair obscured the wound from my mother. Whenever I go to a new hairdresser I get to explain this story because there is an ugly scar and no hair growing behind my right ear. I often think how different my life would have been if my mother had not known of this doctor.

I dislike author talks that only rehash stories already contained in their book, though I do appreciate hearing a passage or two read in the author's voice. Walls only related stories from her book to give context to her anecdotes. She quickly told the story of her burning accident in order to explain how accepting her husband is of her skin graft scars by referring to them as interesting and textured, not smooth and boring. I now know what to say the next time I see my hair dresser.

Another way my life was like Walls' is that our fathers were both dreamers. Where Walls' father "skedaddled" from city to city and state to state, my father skedaddled us from country to country, continent to continent chasing the dream for a better life. . I was a teenager when my father made noises of pulling up stakes to move to Canada or Australia, but this time we were older and more independent so we told him to go without us.  We were no fools; we knew it didn't get better than California. My father chose to stay.

Like Walls, it was education that catapulted us into a new life. It is doubtful that my sisters and I would have gotten the same quality education as we got at UC Berkeley for $212.50 per quarter had we lived elsewhere.

Walls told of a young reluctant reader who carried The Glass Castle around with him everywhere. When his teacher asked him what it was about that book that he loved, he said, "That there is a fine white trash story." Then she talked about a young privileged cheerleader that she met in the Carribean who said that Walls' book convinced her to never make fun of a classmate again. Walls then exclaimed in her charming Southern drawl, "The Lord can strike me down right now!" because she was able to connect with people from both ends of the spectrum.

I sincerely hope that the Lord will keep you around for lots longer because we like the likes of you and look forward to reading your next book in October.

For a clip of Jeannette and her mother, click below:


For the Simon & Schuster reading guide, click here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kelaya's Story




Please visit lovely tangobaby at her blog. She has opened her heart is doing some important work with a single mother, Kelaya, and her children (nine, seven, and two months old). She has fled from an abusive husband and is looking for permanent shelter and a job. You can learn more about her and her family and how you can help here and more updates about her progress here.

The Bay Area has many outstanding organizations that help women like Kelays but unfortunately they are all running at or beyond their capacity. Here are ways you can help:

  • You can help Kelaya directly via the Paypal button tangobaby’s sidebar or writing her a note here. Tangobaby will personally deliver your note.
  • Donate to one of these excellent San Francisco Bay Area organizations:
Support Network for Battered Women – The mission of the Support Network is to empower our diverse community to live free from domestic violence. Our services include a 24-hour toll-free crisis line, an emergency shelter, counseling, information and referrals, support groups, safety planning, legal services and community education presentations. Staff and volunteers also contact police reported victims of domestic violence to inform them of their rights and resources. All Support Network services are completely confidential, are either free or low-cost and are offered in both Spanish and English. 
Haven Family House in Menlo Park provides safe transitional housing and comprehensive, on-site support services for up to 15 homeless families at a time in one- and two-bedroom apartments. Haven Family House was completely rebuilt in 2000, and includes an internet-connected computer tutoring room where volunteers help children with homework and other learning activities. There are several spaces for parent workshops and volunteer activities. Haven Family House has one of the few free, licensed childcare centers in the nation for toddlers and preschoolers to be housed in a homeless shelter. Adult residents are assigned chores to help maintain a hospitable environment; families prepare their own meals from a fully stocked pantry. Over 80% of program graduates are rapidly and permanently re-housed.  
Raphael House, conceived as the first shelter for children and families experiencing homelessness in Northern California, provides an environment of loving support where families and children are able to restore and strengthen family bonds as they move toward brighter more hopeful futures. More than 17,000 individuals have passed through our doors where they have received the necessary tools to set in motion a cycle of renewal and growth. Today Raphael House provides a spectrum of full family support, including After School, ChildReach and AfterCare services where we partner with parents to engage the hearts and minds of the whole child as they experience the world around them. 
  • Find and support similar organizations near you. Domestic violence is a universal problem that crosses all cultural, social, geograpic, and financial barriers.
Thank you.
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