I don’t always see the Southern Cross while in Ecuador because it comes up late at night this time of year, and the sky is often cloudy or bothered by street lights. It’s the most prominent constellation unique to the southern hemisphere, and on the flag of several nations.
When I saw the Southern Cross for the first time (quoting the Crosby Stills & Nash song) I was sitting on a big Volvo bus in Quito, sometime after midnight in February of 1997, waiting for the ride to the south of Ecuador. I was the only gringo aboard because I had signed on to the mission late and they had no ticket for my plane ride to Loja. So the other forty or so went to sleep in a hotel that night after throwing me on the bus with all of the medical supplies, baggage, a half-dozen Ecuadorians and a German woman named Christina who spoke English and Spanish flawlessly. She came in handy as my Spanish was just getting started.
As we waited with the engine idling, Ofelia, one of the Ecuadorian staff, pointed out the window upwards and said, “Es el Cruz del Sur.” (It’s the Southern Cross) and then, for some reason, in broken English, “You…believe…in…God?”
I responded in Spanish, “Sí, soy cristiano.” And I looked up.
That was my first impression of Ecuador, mellow and meaningful, and it got more intense. We left on a wild ride on the Pan-American Highway along the Andes, thrashing back and forth on winding roads, not sleeping (and it didn’t help that Gina, an Ecuadorian woman, wanted to watch “una película de acción!” Action films on a VCR while thrashing through the mountains. Wild.
Daylight broke as we approached Cuenca and we stopped at a roadside truck stop for breakfast at outside tables, shoulder-to-shoulder with locals and drivers. Best breakfast I ever had, fried corvina (sea bass), rice and plátanos (fried plantains, something like banana).
We blew a tire somewhere north of Loja and that delayed us, making our travel time a total of 14 hours (normally about 12) for a distance of about 250 miles as the condor flies. The rest of the team flew in about 40 minutes the next day, but the bus ride made a greater first impression and I’ve always felt sorry for the others (the others, having ridden on buses in Ecuador, appreciate my sorrow but would take the plane).
Besides the Southern Cross, other notable constellations along the Equator include Orion (who oversees both northern and southern hemispheres), rising straight up and standing straight overhead; and Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (Big Dipper and Little Dipper) but they are low in the sky when above the horizon at all (remember that they swing around the North Star, which is at or below the horizon in Ecuador). The Big Dipper, when it’s in the sky at all, can’t hold water because it’s upside-down or half-showing and on its side, rising or setting like a porpoise jumping over the pole star. The Little Dipper, with the North Star on the end of its handle, swings around looking like a kite.
I’ll leave you with Crosby, Stills & Nash in this live performance of their 1982 song “Southern Cross” which has absolutely nothing to do with South America and more to do with Stephen Stills getting on a boat and sailing away to the South Pacific to forget a woman. But it’s catchy.
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a comin’ day.”