Quiet lessons in life in quiet, distant islands
John Leeson has a hooked nose, bald head, and sunken cheekbones. He cranes his neck out the airplane window at the distant cliffs, rocks and sloping volcanos of the Galapagos Islands. He’s hogging the view, and his wife, Terry, puts a hand on his shoulder to pull him back. He turns, smiles and laughs. They’re in the Galapagos, according to Terry, “for an adventure. It’s another place to see, another place to go while we’ve still got the time.”
The Leesons are a Scottish couple who decided to take a year off from their jobs to travel after Terry’s mother became ill and passed away in early 2013. “It made us realize that we shouldn’t really put this kind of thing off anymore,” John explained in a lowlands brogue. There’s so much these islands offer: heavenly scenery, silver-and-sapphire beaches and of course, the wildlife and natural history which has made these islands most famous.
Roslyn Cameron is one of the deepest pools of knowledge in the Galapagos, a sandy blonde-haired, salty bronze-skinned, sweet-hearted Australian who was ensnared by the islands’ splendor 24 years ago and hasn’t left. She is the Galapagos Development Officer of the Galapagos Conservancy and has served as the Public Support and Outreach Coordinator and teacher for the renowned Charles Darwin Research Center.
Having met more tourists than she can count, Cameron’s says that many people who come to the Galapagos, “have an ‘Ah-hah!’ moment,” and that that moment, “usually comes from the animals.” The moment usually happens when somebody isn’t expecting it. She described how these moments can’t really be explained because they instill a unique sense of unity and separation at the same time.
People realize, she said, “that these islands, and nature as a whole, don’t really need them.”
The islands and the animals, she said, “go on without them and around them. They can observe them and appreciate them, but they are still somehow separate from them.”
Robert Georg and Maureen Bähr are German colleagues who work in airport design and construction, Georg in engineering, Bähr in avionics and radar systems. They had just finished a two-year job in Lima. During that time, they traveled throughout Latin America. The Galapagos was their final spree before returning home to Frankfurt.
They spent their first night in the Galapagos on the island of Santa Cruz in the town of Puerto Ayora, the largest and most developed town in the Galapagos with a population of about 12,000 people. They were heading out the next day on a two-week cruise through the islands on a 16-passenger boat. That type of cruise is the most popular way for foreigners to visit the Galapagos, accounting for 57 percent of the foreign tourists who visited the islands in 2013. Ecuadorian tourists, on the other hand, predominantly stay in hotels, guest houses and hostels.
Like the Scottish couple, Georg and Bähr knew what they were looking for. Georg told me between ice cream mouthfuls that he wanted “to see the wildlife.” They had seen plenty of pictures and TV shows about the Islands and had learned about Darwin and his theories of evolution that grew partly from his experiences in the Galapagos. But Bähr said she expected the real thing to be even better. Some things, she said, just “can’t be captured,” A picture doesn’t do justice to a volcanic caldera or a neon parrotfish. No screen compares to the perception of two eyes, so they came to give full credence.
Later, the two of them told me they had a great experience on the islands. Bähr said she enjoyed the sea lions the most. Colonies of Galapagos sea lions, a distinct and endemic species, congregate on the beaches of the islands. The animals are incredibly social. Pups call for their mothers. Friends and family spoon at night to sleep. Males fight and bark and display dominance. To Bähr, this behavior seemed human.
While wildlife occupies most of the daytime for tourists, a nightlife scene in Galapagos towns has recently grown to accommodate after-hours entertainment. Clubs, bars, and restaurants line Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora’s main drag. The cruise ships and boats offload in the evening and tourists wander into establishments like Panga, a discotheque, or Bongo, the bar that sits above it in a two-story building near the center of town. It is a melting pot of Americans, Canadians, Australians, all manner of Europeans, and plenty of people of the Galapagos. They all go to the clubs to drink and be merry.
One night at Bongo, things got a little heated. “That singer was awful!” a massive Aussie yells. He had mistaken a member of my group for the performer that he evidently didn’t approve, and was ready to start swinging. “I was this close to having a go at him,” he said.
“Excuse my rowdy friend,” his newfound American friend told me, “he’s had a lot” to drink.
Getting to know this guy, Jimmy, (I never caught his last name), it was clear that he was trying to strike a balance between classic, Saturday night fun, and the Galapagos experience. He wanted to get back to his bed on the boat because the next morning, he was headed for North Seymour Island where blue-footed boobies and frigate birds mate, nest, and brood.
The birds on the island seem curious about their human visitors, but more than anything they are detached from their guests’ activities. They stare down long beaks at strangers. Even veteran National Park guide, Washington Paredes could hardly get their attention with his mock bird calls.
On San Cristobal, the westernmost isle of the archipelago, the sun dives vertically from its noontime high, down an arching slope of blue sky towards the deeper blue sea. Tourists at Playa Mann, a small local beach fringed by porous volcanic stone and overlooking the small port, park their butts to watch the descent. Sea lions play in the waves. Tar-black marine iguanas cling to the volcanic rocks, basking in the final streaks of bronze. The sun splashes into the water right next to the distant Santa Cruz Island, and the stars dance out onto the nighttime stage, one by one; stage left, stage right, stage right overhead. The Milky Way condenses as a splotchy streak above. Groups of friends, families and lovers pick up their things, one by one, and head back into town for dinner.
The iguanas seem patient, slow, eternal. The sea lions lazily continue to swim or wallow or chat in raucous tones. They’re not waiting for anything and they’ve got nowhere to go, no one to meet, no obligations to uphold. Though the tourists come and watch and try to appreciate, the Galapagos move on with or without them. #