Shadows over the Galapagos


As my plane bumped along a runway edged by cindery black lava, cacti and crooked trees, I wondered if two unscheduled weeks on the Galapagos Islands were a mistake. I’d read Herman Melville’s bleak description of the islands as “a most Plutonian sight,” but decided to go anyway. I wanted to be far from home when my 75th birthday came and the trip would give me time to think about my close friend, Meg, who’d died earlier in the year.

It took a long time for passengers to disembark from the plane, line up, and go through another bag inspection before boarding buses for a short ride to a canal that separated the barren rock where we’d landed from Santa Cruz Island. Another bus chugged up hills into a lush rainforest where the air felt cool and huge ferns, glowing flowers, and banana clumps hung over the road. This felt more like the equator, and as we descended again the sea, now sparkling blue, and a small port came into view. Most tourists would be meeting guides here in Puerto Ayora and launch out on expeditions to outer islands. On the dock, a couple of sea lions occupied benches, intimidating several camera-carrying intruders by growling and waving flippers. After my first few steps on land, I almost ran into three brown and black dinosaurs about the size of large cats – the iconic marine iguanas. Since they didn’t move out of my way, I stepped around the lizards who seemed unconcerned I was so close.

I would have liked to find a place to stow my pack that included two large Elena Ferrante novels, but years of travel had taught me to prolong this special time of arrival when everything is new, when you’re no longer seeing pictures. I hung onto this magical moment, and my own wonder, before following signs to the Charles Darwin Research Station. To start with Darwin – that was right.

The giant tortoises enclosed in pens at the station were grey or dun-colored and peppered with dust. (In Las Encantadas, Melville described them as creatures of “lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness.”) Maybe because they were crammed together in captivity, or because I was seeing them with my own phantom traveler, my friend Meg, waves of sadness filled me. Meg wouldn’t have chosen the Galapagos – she had no use for exotic locales nor what people called their ‘bucket trips’ – even when she knew she had only a year to live. If she’d been able to, she’d have returned to France or Greece to connect with history, culture and myth.

Meg and I had known each other half our lives, since our children were small. She was passionate and perceptive, had exciting and exacting taste in books and films: you had to be sharp-witted and choose words carefully because Meg didn’t suffer fools. Even at the beginning of her illness, she scorned anecdotal stories about alternative treatments. “For pancreatic cancer? I doubt it!” Knowing her odds were bad, she opted for the most brutal chemo, a truly frightening journey.

 

I broke away from the tortoises and followed a sandy path through brush, stepping around iguanas, to reach a beach where children dipped in and out of small waves glowing pink from the sun. Beyond their dark shiny heads, sea lions stared from gentle swells. I found a secluded spot in the mangroves where I changed into my bathing suit, then headed for the water. Though I knew the local marine life was so diverse precisely because of the cold Humboldt Current swelling around the islands, the chilly equatorial waters were still a shock.

After I dried off, I returned to town to find Lola’s Garden Airbnb, my only pre-planned reservation. A friend who traveled frequently to the Galapagos had reassured me, “You’ll find rooms as you go, the way we used to travel.” But my first night – a travel day, with darkness falling quickly – I was glad to find Lola’s room had a hot shower to wash off sea water before I changed and got ready for supper.

At a café-grill with outdoor tables, young waiters appreciated my enthusiasm for their mojitos – fragrant with guava juice and lots of rum. I decided to make this my spot as long as I stayed in Puerto Ayora. Friendly faces welcoming me back to ‘my’ table would offset any awkwardness of arriving alone. Usually on travel-writing trips I made a companion of my notepad or a book, but this evening I only wanted to remember Meg.

I’d accompanied her to early hospital appointments, but the claustrophobic airless office, with the oncologist who seemed more interested in his statistics than his patient, almost made me sick. Fortunately, Meg’s colleagues from the college, and her pregnant daughter Kate who had flown across the country to be with her mother, took over hospital visits while I brought food and ran errands. Meg’s hair started falling out after the first weeks. She buzzed off the rest. She bought a wig but didn’t wear it because she was either sweating or freezing cold. She took walks with friends at the beginning; by the end of the first round of chemo, Meg spent most of her days under a blanket with her cats. We still talked animatedly about reading, movies, our children’s lives. If she went into remission before her grandchild’s birth, Meg thought she could fly to Hawaii to see the Pearl Harbor memorials.

 

My Airbnb hostess, Lola, wore a red hibiscus in her long black hair as she brought the breakfast tray with fresh orange juice, coffee, eggs and toast. She assured me I wouldn’t get lost – I often head off in the wrong direction – on the way to Tortuga Bay. I followed Lola’s instructions out of town to a raised walkway over a desert terrain of twisted plants and lava. Steps away, a scalloped-shaped tropical beach stretched out before me. I saw no other person, only iguanas warming in the sun, pelicans and sea lions fishing at low tide. The shallow aqua water felt warmer than the previous evening, so I rode small waves and floated near sea lions before I found shade under mangroves to open the second novel in Elena Ferrante’s Naples trilogy. Usually when I traveled as a journalist, I had read to inform myself about the landscape and people, but now, with no assignment, I sank into Ferrante’s post-World War II Italy.

Over the next twelve days on three islands, I established a routine. I’d fill up with excellent breakfasts that came with my room, and pack bread and fruit to sustain me while I hiked, visited environmental centers, swam, read, or gazed out to sea. My moods swung from morning elation arriving at an empty beach before anyone else was up, to deep sadness missing Meg who would never again travel nor read Ferrante’s Naples novels. I was sure she’d be caught up in the weave of love, rivalry, and emotional dependence between Elena and Lila, who challenge each other to rise above the poverty, doubt, and limitations the male characters use to keep the women subservient.

As I read on the beach, at my supper table, or in bed late into the night, I imagined heart-to-heart conversations with Meg about competition between writers. When we’d met in the early 1980s, we’d published stories and had agents for novels we were writing. Privately we harbored competitive ambitions for literary recognition, though outwardly we wished each other well. I remembered being terribly envious when Raymond Carver singled out Meg at a writing workshop in Port Townsend. Carver offered to champion Meg’s tough-minded stories, never wanting anything in return, she assured me, though she was at her most attractive, radiating intelligence. I felt as if somehow his interest meant I’d be left behind, as if we couldn’t both get ahead. But before she could finish her novel about Greece, Meg’s husband left her for a woman who paid him more attention. She took custody of their two young children – the older, a son born with neurological problems, who was beginning to show signs of difficulties, and her daughter, thoughtful and bright. Meg returned to college teaching – the writing had to wait.

 

Sea lion colonies seemed to own the beaches on San Cristobal, the second island I visited. I’d heard them barking and roaring under my room the first night, but only the next morning on the beach did I see the extent of their dominion. The females were giving birth, day-old newborns were wriggling across the sand to find their mothers – they often seemed to make the wrong choice – and some juveniles, last year’s pups, were pushing their new siblings away from their mothers. Happily, most silver or gray-black pups got it right and lay in their mothers’ caresses, grunting and snuffling as they nursed, while bull lions bellowed at their harems.

At midday the light beat down too brightly, the sand flies bit, the stench of excrement and placentas drove me away. I could only take so much raw animal life, not to mention the overload of people who ventured too close, their cameras pointing at the animals. I retreated to my balcony room where I began the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga. I’d have to ration the pages to last the remainder of my trip but I couldn’t put it down as conflicts and love between Lila and Elena intensified – graver and more dramatic than mine with Meg; still, I read our lives into their story.

In the first months of her illness, Meg never stopped reading, choosing history, books about World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, rather than fiction. On her own time and summers free from the college, she’d led writing workshops for veterans because she believed in the redemptive power of writing, and felt she understood the men who returned. After the first round of chemo brought her a short remission, she flew to Honolulu; seeing the Pearl Harbor monuments, walking above the USS Arizona, meant a great deal to her.

She came back tired and in pain; she knew even before any tests that the cancer had returned. In the awful week of scans and hospital visits, Meg’s daughter Kate gave birth to grandbaby Lucy. Meg would have only a half year with this sprite whose tuft of red hair, infant giggles, and ignorance of illness enchanted her. Kate, a slender pillar of strength, temporarily left her husband and job to bring the baby to Meg – often sleeping beside her dying mother. Much of the day, Meg’s large bald head rested against Lucy’s fuzzy ginger head.

When Meg slipped into a coma and labored with each breath, I imagined she hadn’t forgiven any of us except Lucy for outliving her. Perhaps I was projecting my own fear of death, of not finishing work, of outliving Meg. She had badly wanted to publish her coming-of-age novel that began with a golden-haired Greek rescuing a young American woman from the Cretan sea. I’d read a first draft, as Meg had read my novel taken from the years in India where I studied classical dance. We gave each other only qualified approval, which I knew now wasn’t objective, and certainly wasn’t as generous as it should have been.
 

I stayed longest on the third island, Isabella, the largest and most topologically diverse in the archipelago. Isabella, shaped like a seahorse with a high volcanic spine down its center, had only one real town, Puerto Villamil, with a dock where supplies and tourists arrived. I easily found a whitewashed room with a balcony just steps from an endless beach. The cafes of Villamil’s small, sandy square sported colored lights and served fresh fish and fruit-infused mojitos – a perfect quiet place for my final week.

In the Galapagos, most travelers arrived on islands with their guides from the Park Service. I’d eavesdropped behind groups and learned from them, but was glad I didn’t have to follow as part of their tour. The guides were unmistakable – almost all lean, tanned men dressed in starched khaki shorts with aviator sunglasses. They reminded me of ski instructors and tennis pros I’d taken lessons from, an elite male group in great shape, flirting with the prettiest girls. On Isabella, I learned, the good snorkeling trips and hiking around the volcanoes were impossible without guides, so I reluctantly signed up for an excursion.

Fifteen of us, of different ages and nationalities, boarded a boat that took an hour motoring up the coast to reach volcanic outcroppings called Los Túneles. Jinny, our official guide, went against type. He wasn’t trim, even flaunted his big-bellied bronze expanse. I shrank back from him and his questions to the passengers. When he circled around to me and discovered I was a journalist, he informed me he was a local celebrity just waiting to be discovered. If I could get him a movie agent, a record contract, he’d become famous. Sorry, I said, I’m retired. He moved on.

We pulled up alongside a volcanic shelf and moored for our first swim. Jinny, waggling a banana-shaped yellow balloon he called his sex toy, told us to follow him into the water and along the edge of dark, submerged caves. Despite the cold water I was so excited about spotting wide-winged rays, sea turtles, flashing bright schools of penguins that I hardly felt the chill. The Galapagos penguins darted like fish in the lava mazes, but on rocks, they shook dry and assumed their tuxedo-clad, straight-backed postures.

Between dives, I warmed up in the sun and watched blue-footed boobies feeding large fuzzy young from their beaks. Jinny said sailors had nicknamed the birds boobies because of their clumsy vulnerability. He kept the group laughing with racy stories about octopi using their third tentacle to procure semen from their head sac, placing the tentacle in the appropriate hole in a female, and then displaying a light show of rainbow colors. “LSD sex,” he chortled. Most people laughed but he hardly needed encouragement. Maybe it was Jinny’s leer as he titillated the group with marine erotica, but I refused his offer of a wet suit before our final dive. The sun had gone behind clouds and a wind whipped the water as I stood in my bathing suit watching others pull on wetsuits.

We started out close together, following sea turtles, small sharks, sea horses – actually a small fish endangered by Asian harvesters – around the strange, lacy volcanic formations. Farther from shore in choppy water, I began struggling to keep up with the group. My legs weren’t kicking strongly enough to hold my head above water and my arms felt like they were no longer attached to me. I began to panic. I could sink into the black caves and no one would know. I couldn’t seem to get any air behind my snorkeling mask. Then I felt a hand grasp mine and I closed my fingers tightly around it. The heat of Jinny’s touch was my lifeline as he swam me back to the boat.

On board, Jinny wrapped me in towels and held a bottle of juice to my mouth. I tried to speak but no words came out. People seated close by seemed far away. I managed to hang onto the side of the launch until the Villamil wharf appeared. A jitney took me to my hotel. In the bathroom, I stripped and stood a long time under a hot shower.

As I lay under covers shivering, I realized how lucky I was to have escaped the consequences of my own prickly stubbornness. Not for the first time. In truth, at 75, I remained the same willful person I’d been since my teens – refusing help, heading off on my own, challenging, even competing with my younger self – but more vulnerable now.

I’d planned to take one more guided excursion into a volcano crater to see tortoises and a species of pink iguanas, but I felt tired, perhaps even a little scared that I might stumble along the crater’s edge. Instead, I walked along beaches, watched swarms of birds circle, darkening the sky as they swooped into the water, which splashed silver with schools of anchovy. A solo egret took infinite time with every step to catch its fish. Large charcoal male iguanas with Wallace Shawn faces sparred for territory on rocks above crashing surf. The fierce battles only ended when one male pushed the other off the rock into the waves and the victor spit out sea water.

That night, I parceled out the last pages of my book. Unquestionably a feminist writer, Ferrante didn’t sanitize anything about her intelligent heroines who fell in love with vain, selfish, even dangerous men, then bore children they endangered by their own recklessness. I thought about the risks I’d taken as an unmarried parent, and the responsibilities Meg had had with her son whose neurological problems worsened as he got older; while her daughter did all she could for Meg to the end, her son stayed away. He was a source of grief and pain to his mother, a terribly sad part of her life.

 

My last day on Isabella, I travelled to Campo Duro, a tortoise rescue campground, where Wilberto Michuy, a stocky mainland Ecuadoran, led me to his young tortoises grazing amidst lush fruit and trees. Their great half-moon shells were darker than any I’d seen. “They’re healthier and more active,” Wilberto explained, “because they eat fruits and vegetables.” At around age twenty, they’d be re-introduced to repopulate volcanic areas where they’d been disappearing. How different these lively creatures were from the dusty captives in the Darwin Station.

I’d hardly taken out my journalist’s notepad, but now as Wilberto spoke, I couldn’t write fast enough, or snap enough pictures. He told me about the dramatic days after a volcano’s eruption on Isabella a decade earlier. Volunteers had arrived from islands and the mainland to carry the tortoises, even the biggest ones weighing 300 to 400 pounds, to waiting boats and planes. Without the rescue teams, the slow-moving tortoises would have been cooked in the lava, possibly to extinction. Although the ancient Galapagos tortoises were legally protected, four of fifteen Galapagos subspecies had already been declared extinct.

 

I didn’t write about Wilberto’s tortoises nor conservation. Others had done that better. So, if I hadn’t gone for work, had I expected a revelation, a vision about the origins of life to calm the primal fear of my own extinction after Meg’s death? I had no revelation, not even after warming back up from my plunge along the lava shelf. I did recognize my vulnerability, so perhaps this admission, and the perception of the beauty in Meg’s precious time with Lucy, her grandbaby with a ginger tuft lying beside her, was solace and knowledge to take away. I can now imagine that with Lucy, Meg didn’t just have her life cut off by illness; I think she captured something of a special light before she was released.

 

 

baerAuthor’s Comment: I still think of my friend Meg whenever I discover a new author and talk about characters with friends, taste seafood she loved but couldn’t eat when she was sick, watch my granddaughter laugh because I’ve already had more time with Hannah than Meg had with her beloved Lucy. I ask myself why Meg is with me so much when the deaths of others I’ve loved longer and more deeply; my mother and my father, and friends since childhood I feel a vague sadness for, while Meg brings up sharp distress. If Meg haunts me, perhaps it’s because she and I were contemporaries, and (mostly unacknowledged, and foolishly) competitors. I hope her daughter Kate will view my Galapagos memoir kindly because I certainly saw much beauty on those islands of “dreadful cinders” (Hermann Melville) where I kept, as I still keep, her mother’s memory close.

 

After college, Barbara Baer’s first teaching job was in Madras (now Chennai) South India, followed by Tashkent, (then U.S.S.R.) Uzbekistan. She kept journals; rereading them now, she meets an eager young woman who seems as foreign to her, her older self, as the countries she visited. After that solo wandering, she has lived nearly half her life with a husband, raising a son, in a little northern California town. She has taught, edited, run a small press, published stories, essays, reviews and a short novel, planted fruit trees and annual gardens. She hopes to have time to initiate her granddaughter in the art of opening a pomegranate.

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2 thoughts on “Shadows over the Galapagos

  1. Jo Anne Simson

    Lovely essay. I’m a biologist and adventurer who always wanted to visit the Galapagos, but somehow never had the chance despite several long overseas adventures. And now my lungs are too bad to attempt the trip. It seems as if your essay and meditations will serve as my vicarious visit. Thank you.

  2. Marilynn Scott

    How wonderfully adventurous of you to go where I’ve been wanting to go since I was in Quito, birding with the Brooklyn Bird club in 1990. Still haven’t gotten there.
    Perfect to go where and when the winds and the sea take you.
    I’m inspired by the freedom of your travels and descriptions of these islands.
    Thanks for this beautiful remembrance of our dear Meg and the wonder of nature – our gorgeous earth!

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