Galápagos, the name is familiar to hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of this planet's inhabitants. Indeed, pretty much anyone you ask could tell you something they feel they know about this place, something they read, were taught in school, or saw in a wildlife documentary. It's one of those odd kind of places though, a place that everyone seems to be familiar with but very few have actually visited. This remote group of small parched islands six hundred miles off the coast of their mother country Ecuador. A sizzling hot patch of volcanic rocks covered in cactus and low scrub and inhabited by a strange and unique group of animals who managed to chisel themselves into this place in order to keep from frying to death under an equatorial sun.
As I tramp my way up a volcanic gravel path, roasting as it were, under that same equatorial sun I can't help but to think how out of proportion this place is, how remarkably odd, and most of all, how artificially sustained it has now become, like some crumbling museum artifact the curators just can't bear to lose. On this particular day, we are visiting the famous giant tortoise community. Probably the most recognizable of those bizarre endemic creatures everyone goes all goo-goo over, and yes, they are fantastic to see in person. Weighing as much as a hundred kilos, able to live without food or water for as long as a year, and living, in some cases, for more than one hundred and fifty. The first two qualities being irresistible to the myriad whaling, merchant, military, and pirate vessels who used this place as an essential stopping off point for centuries. As I look upon the blank reptilian expressions of the tortoises, I can't help imagining their kinfolk being loaded by the hundreds onto countless wooden sailing vessels, and stacked up like cordwood in the hold of the ship for later consumption by its human workforce....ah it's turtle soup again then is it?
Yes, it's all very sad to ponder but isn't that what surviving is all about? Isn't that the point of this place? A nondescript accountant, aboard a nondescript merchant ship in the employ of the venerable British East India Company, happens upon this place during its heyday of commercial activity and has an epiphany of sorts, the rest is history. The cat was long out of the bag by the time dear Charles arrived but no matter, he saw something here that no one else had bothered to notice and decided it could be his path to fame and fortune, like so many others before him who used this place to leverage commercial success.
Of course what so often goes unmentioned in the conventional, convenience-driven histories is the fact that Darwin's own grandfather, one Erasmus Darwin, was an early proponent of the burgeoning theory of evolution that had been smoldering, in various forms, inside the minds of scientists since the sixteen hundreds. Ideas that were common knowledge amongst the Enlightenment's elite long before young Charles was even out of diapers. A physician, poet, and naturalist in his own right, the elder Darwin published a two volume text on the subject in 1796, a text young Charles was no doubt familiar with. So one only needs to exercise a modicum of scrutiny to determine that the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, legendary naturalist and pillar of modern science, is as much an exaggeration as the rest of this place.
I awoke this morning to the heavy odor of diesel fuel. A nondescript merchant ship, this one made of steel and carrying, apparently, a load of fresh meat from the mainland, how apropos. This particular unfortunate vessel managed to ground herself in the relentless rolling swell that masquerades as a harbor here. She's been resting on the rocks and slowly leaking fuel ever since, for going on a month and a half according to the local reports. She's the third supply ship to ground in such a manner in the past nine months, so in fact, not an uncommon event around these parts. I've been told as well that the diesel smell is actually much better now that the cleanup has been underway, and that before the cargo could be off loaded, the rotting stench of spoiled meat was much worse.
It's all part in parcel of the irony, the near schizophrenic caricature the twenty-first century Galápagos has evolved into. We spent months planning our voyage here, with what seemed like endless exchanges between ourselves, the handler we hired and government authorities. The rules and requirements are daunting indeed, we were told for example, that on arrival the hull of our sailboat would be carefully inspected by a team of government employed divers who, upon discovering the tiniest of marine inhabitants would immediately send us packing back to where we came from.
A long list of forbidden food stores, rules and tedious regulations was sent along to sweeten the deal. Needless to say, we were all filled with marvelous anticipation when we arrived. It was two in the morning, after an eight hundred mile passage, that we did in fact make our tenuous approach into the island of San Cristobal. A sizable swell was pounding the harbor at the time which made anchoring difficult and trying to sleep afterwords nearly impossible. The next day we waited as instructed, rocking and rolling in the swell, sweating under that equatorial sun, unable to go ashore under penalty of law, waiting and waiting for the customs and immigration inspection party to arrive. It was late in the afternoon when a boat from shore did finally approach. A full-on boarding party of inspectors, their underlings, our handler's personal representative, and an armed police guardsman came aboard with much official fanfare, something South Americans seem to be quite adept at.
A diver did indeed look briefly under our boat, but after a few minutes inspection seemed satisfied our bottom passed muster. The inspectors on board were a different matter, they took their time, carefully opening compartments and examining everything they recognized and demanding explanations of the things they didn't. They looked for the expected stuff, the items that had appeared on the banned produce list, all the fruits and vegetables considered an environmental danger to the island's fragile constitution. The stuff on the list of "biological hazards" we received via email shortly after leaving Panama, and made sure we'd tossed overboard prior to arrival. Fruits and vegetables we will need to restock at the local market here on the island...how convenient.
The inspection team also seemed preoccupied with other odd bits such as the expiration dates of canned goods, and how tidy our engine room was. They were also quite pleased to make a full tour of our boat's aesthetic features, walking all around the deck and interior cabins wearing the dirty shoes they refused to remove. An assistant carried an elaborately designed, electrically powered insect capturing device, and upon discovering a tiny beetle, long dead and dried mummy-like, laying on its back at the bottom of our bilge, seemed satisfied when it was duly apprehended. All of this careful environmental stewardship taking place just a couple hundred meters away from that hapless, afore mentioned leaky cargo vessel of rotting meat.
Back to the tortoises. On San Cristobal at least, there are very few of them left who get to run free as it were. Their entire existence is now excruciatingly managed by human hands. They live inside a protected compound, their every need met right down to their daily meals and personal wading pool. Once a pair of them manages to copulate, which I'm sure is also watched over by staff, and lay a clutch of eggs, the delicate prize is immediately whisked away to a separate building constructed especially for the purpose of incubating and producing tiny giant tortoises. Even the sex of the hatchlings is controlled via the temperature at which the precious eggs are kept warm and safe. Once hatched, each baby tortoise is numbered and cataloged, and for the rest of its life it will be studied, tracked, and recorded by a team of humans especially trained for the purpose. A kind of wildlife reparations of sorts, payback for all that turtle soup.
Travel changes a person, yes, I am repeating myself, but only to reaffirm the point. I pity the individual who has never had the opportunity to leave his home country and have a peek at what the rest of the world is up to. And as for those who have the ability to travel but refuse to do so out of ignorance or worse, hubris, and then portend to make expert claims about the places they have in fact never seen, I can only describe with contempt. Reading books is an admirable activity, but reading a million pages written about a particular location can never replace the experience of actually being their, yes, I'm doing it again.
Travel requires a sizable investment, there is often pain and suffering involved in transit, and the costs in time and money depending on where a person desires to go can be inhibiting. Disappointment upon arrival is perhaps one of the largest risks. That depressing realization that the destination journey you've spent months planning turns out to be not at all what you were expecting. Personal knowledge, the expansion of one's own mental parameters is the real reason to travel of course, not in fact to simply reaffirm someone else's experience. But human nature is powerful, people don't like to admit they follow the crowd, but to resist the relentless tide of human group-think is nearly impossible. So often I feel, bewildered travelers overwhelmed by disappointment, will never the less put on a brave face and make the best of it. After all, look how far we came and look at where we are, we are actually standing in the place...ah yes, the Galápagos, it was fabulous, it was everything I was hoping it would be.
This too I'm afraid is missing the point, especially when we are discussing a destination of remarkable notoriety and such significant historical importance assigned to it by the scholarly crowd. Perhaps the best course is simply to see things as they are, as they truly are at that particular point in time that you happen to be there in person. The experience you have is yours and yours alone, and if its knowledge you seek then have at it, good or bad. Once you've gone on, those experiences will stay with you, supporting every future conversation one may encounter on the subject...ah yes, the Galápagos, we were there of course, a fabulous place, absolutely remarkable....yes, indeed.
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