The Day I Became a Shellback

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SummaryIn Kenya, one does not simply walk to cross the Equator — one must dance

Are you a Pollywog or a trusted Shellback?” Standing bang on the Equator in the dusty Kenyan village of Nanyuki, Fatma Bashir’s question had me flustered. Pollywog? Dressed in green peasant frock and a wide-brim hat, I neither looked like a tadpole nor a crustacean. So, why was Kenya Tourism Board’s Bashir talking baby frogs? At 6,839 ft above sea level, was I losing out to semantics? I raked geography lessons. The Equator runs 40,000 km, cuts through the belly of 14 countries and — if you let myth deceive you — the moon flips upside down once you cross the Equator. I hadn’t really crossed the Equator yet. In Nanyuki, I was straddling two hemispheres — one foot in the north, the other in the southern hemisphere. I could fathom all geography but what does a Pollywog have to do with this zero degree imaginary line?

At the Equator, I had to concede. I am naive, I know nothing of the seafaring tradition wherein all sailors who had never crossed the Equator had to join rituals initiating them into “The Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep”. Upon completion of the ceremony, the Pollywogs (the ones who had never crossed the Equator) joined the legion of “trusted Shellbacks”.

I was still a Pollywog. But I wasn’t mutating into a Shellback by the grimy sidewalk where a yellow signboard with zebra legs and a red band cutting through the map of Africa read: This sign is on the Equator. There stood a man lithe as a hound, spewing geodesic lessons. “You see, water in the southern hemisphere swirls anti clockwise and….” He began with a drawl, holding a pink punched plastic mug in one hand and a blank certificate in another. “Ten dollars. I’ll get you to hop the Equator and the certificate is yours.” The air was rife with temptation but I stood my ground. My hemisphere! I’d cross the Equator with Hollywood heartthrobs!

Well, kinda. I wanted to cross the Equator in the shadow of Mount Kenya, and in the glimmer of Hollywood glitterati. In Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club, which was once the retreat of Hollywood hunk William Holden, who set hearts aflutter in Sunset Boulevard. The Equator cuts through the property. For the golfer, it is a hemispheric delight, for he can cross hemispheres in one fell swoop (read: tee). The first hole is

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