12 July 2000
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A photo of me with sea lions on Santa Fe Island
Let's just say that my transition back to American life has been less than complete.
The culture shock that I suffered upon entering that 7-11 in Santa Monica -- racks and racks of glossy magazines, piles of ready carbohydrates, sullen store clerk amidst the excess yet still managing to be bitter about life -- has not dissapated. My country changed during my time away.
Suddenly, everyone has a cell phone. When did this happen? It enables Americans to talk less to the people next to them than they already did. If there was one thing that would enable Americans to talk louder than they already do, that was it. It takes some getting used to. People also have no sense of proportion anymore. Everyone is abuzz about the new Web society. It's gonna transform commerce, everyone's gonna be wired, soon books are going to read themselves, la la la! Don't Americans realize that a goodly proportion of the world's inhabitants don't even have electricity, let alone a dial-up ISP account? Let alone a clock, let alone more than a single naked bulb? Who's gonna shop online at CDNow and Amazon when they're busy chasing the rats from the rice? It's all hooey. I'm perpetually amazed at the fog of hype in which my countrymen live.
Upper-class arrogance. It's America's mental disease. I see it now in Time magazine, in Newsweek, and in their zeitgeist-propaganda bretheren. All written by upper-class, educated people in offices. Offices! What a luxury, when you think about it -- you have TWO homes! And you're not sleeping six to a room in either of them! (Come to think of it, how many Americans even have offices? Certainly not the nuts-and-bolts people who make the country run.)
I was away during Monica. I was away during the bombings in Sudan and Belgrade. Unbelievably, now that I'm back, my country seems to have gotten even stupider. And it's coming from within.
The last straw came in the produce aisle of the 23rd Street D'Agostino's, which is a New York City supermarket chain. I was standing by the lettuce, selecting a package of soy hot dogs. (Very privileged. I know. I see the irony already.) I'm standing there, relishing my newfound slow pace, and I hear the sound of thunder. Thunder in the produce aisle! And then I see flashes of lightning. What they hey, I think, where is that coming from? Then comes the mist. I look over at the lettuce. A fine cloud of mist is settling lazily over it. It looks so leafy and redolent, gathering dew there on the shelf, waiting to be picked as if for the first time. Then I look above, where the thunder sounds are coming from. There's a little white reflector light, the kind that you see on those golf carts in the airport, mounted above the lettuce, flashing irregularly. Simulating lightning.
The refrigerator is acting like a thunderstorm.
Now, under normal circumstances, that might not be enough to upset me. No, if you really want to get me upset, you ask me "Why." Because there is no acceptable answer. All I could think about was some patronizing refrigerator engineer, or his fat middle-manager boss, who sat around a table one day and decided that the thing that would convince the American shopper to buy more lettuce would be to build crispers that act like rainstorms. That they think I'm so dumb -- that' we're so dumb -- that we would respond with wonder, appreciation, and ultimate consumption. And we just may be as dumb as they think, because no one seems even slightly piqued by this patronizing development.
Have I lost my mind? Maybe so. But so have you -- deep in the heart of your city, your crispers are mimicking nature, even as they're plugged into the wall socket. A refrigerator is not a rainstorm! The fact that they're so different only serves to remind me, once again, how far removed our everyday lives are from the realities of the world. That lettuce came from real nature, and grew under real thunderstorms, and now it's sitting dead on an indoor shelf under a fake rainstorm, making electronic overtures to tempt me into eating it. How, how, how can we live in a society that considers this invention anything but bizarre? This is not normal!
It was time to take a pill. Better yet, it was time to get back to nature.
Fortunately, my new job was about to take me there.
After I returned from the final phase of my World Tour, which was hiking in the Lake District with my friend Alan and returning to Edinbugh alone, I immediately went about landing a job. Ever wily, I sent out a few Dream Job resumes to the likes of Lonely Planet, Arthur Frommer, and Fodors -- not expecting to hear anything, of course, but willing to spend 33 cents in the off chance I might.
As usual, my life's plan is moot. Things just happen to me. This time, despite the passive job search I'd undertaken through the Postal Service (in between video rentals), my next option came to me. As I returned from London, my World Tour finally over, there was a message on my voicemail from the people at "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." They needed researchers for the questions.
Now, at this point, everyone knows what "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is. Even the Naked Light Bulb brigade in dimmest India. But hark back to 10 months ago. It was new. The show had only been on 14 times before being sent to gear up for a longer, indefinite run (which it's now enjoying). I knew the show had been big, but I didn't have a clue how gigantic it was going to become. Basically, I needed a job, and I liked the idea of giving TV a go, and I liked the idea that it was for a prime-time network show. And working on a game show would be fun!
So I did that for a while. Because I signed about sixty muzzle papers beforehand, I can't write anything about it without feeling the legal repercussions later. But I will say that besides being sworn to secrecy, we were sequestered in a locked room the entire time. While all of America -- and those aforementioned newsmagazines I detest -- chattered and celebrated my show, I felt none of it. We were utterly buffered from the mayhem. That kind of bit. It's weird reading about the mad success of your glamourous job in USA Today, put down the paper, and be told to get back to work now.
I spent a somewhat stir-crazy winter there, feeling testy and snappish as a caged monkey, and feeling in danger of losing all the wisdom I had learned on my trip. When the spring comes, I thought, I'll move to Portland.
One day in April, all the clouds of doubt lifted. (Cue sounds of the lettuce thunder.) I got a call from one of the places I'd sent my resume several months earlier. It was Arthur Frommer, the famous guidebook author and editor. He runs his own magazine now, Arthur Frommer's Budget Trav el, and the corresponding Web site, www.frommers.com. It was the Betty Crocker of travel, the guy who beat Tony Wheeler to the budget travel game some 20 years earlier. And he wanted me to work for him!
I became a travel writer.
I am a travel writer!
Can you imagine that? After all those months of backpacking, and all that wondering if I'd screwed up my life by doing it? After all those people implored me to keep my backpacking trip off my resume, because it makes me look like a shiftless slacker? Turns out all that wandering brought me here.
Let that be a lesson to you as well as to me. If you do what you feel is right for yourself, you can't go wrong. I could never have designed my life so that I became a travel writer. It would have never worked. But by doing what I wanted to do -- traveling -- I became one. I've been told that moving sideways toward a goal is a principal quality of a Cancer. I think that it's just a true tenet of life. Fate is everything. Plans aren't squat.
My first assignment came down quickly upon my installation in the Frommer offices. I would be sent to the Galápagos Islands to write a story about how to book last-minute tours there. Someone else had written an earlier draft, but there were holes that needed filling.
By the end of June, I was on a plane for Quito. It was to be my first trip to South America.
Let me say how mentally exahusting it is to know that you've now been on every inhabited continent. As the American Airlines jet slid over Cuba, I felt as if an invisible threshhold had broken over me. Although I'd grown up partially in Fort Lauderdale and Key West, Cuba was like the other side of the planet. At night, off the southern end of the island, you could see the lights of Havana glowing from 90 miles away, but seeing them up close was forbidden by our government. (That, too, looks set to change.)
Now, to see it from above, and to see the ocean on the other side of it, gave me the feeling that the world truly had opened up for me. For no matter how far I traveled before -- Africa, Asia, Australia, the South Pacific -- I always sensed there was a huge block. There was a large part of the world I had not been to, and had no sense of, and worse, had no immediate plans to see. When would I ever get to South America? It had taken so much work to see everything else I saw; how would I find the time or the money? It turned out that I didn't need either. They would be given to me.
So it was late evening, and Quito was dark, as the plane lowered itself closer to the tarmac in Ecuador. There's always that delicious moment before touchdown. Once the tires hit, you think, no one can ever take this away from me. I will have been here.The eagerness is exponentially heighented when you know you're about to touch your final continent. After this, it's all repeats. There is only one Earth.
All of them!
(Immediate thought: Now how do I get to Antarctica?)
The black slabs of the Andes, shadows against the mountain sky, rose higher around us -- I had to wonder how dangerous it was to be flying among these mountains; surely planes have flown into them? -- as the web of orange lights in Quito rose to enfold us. With both mountainsides and valley floors developed by city sprawl, I got the sense of being lowered into something. The longer we desceded, the more city the valley revealed to us, until finally the wheels of the plane squelched the annoucement of my arrival and we were so swaddled in mountains the sky peered over us as if through the lid of a tin can.
Quito itself reminded me, to a great degree, of countless other nameless cities in the world. All the hallmarks are there: half-finished cinder-block buildings, that cinder-dust smell in the little concrete shops, the populous that is darker and shorter than you are.
What I didn't like about Quito was the feeling of being watched. In race and height, I stood out a bit, but in wealth, I felt like a target. In some places in the world, I have felt truly unsettled by the staring. Children, especially. The wide-eyed staring deeply perturbs me. You smile back. You get no response. The stare continues. That's when the exchange stops feeling human, and you feel that the core of your cultural exchange is dead inside. Perhaps that's just my American proclivity toward unnecessary smiles and niceties. But when I smile or wave at someone who stares at me, corpselike, I start to feel like they want something besides a connection. I start to sense jealousy, or resentment, or simple confusion. I start to realize that they're seeing me more as a thing and less as another person with feelings and thoughts. And I start to feel uneasy.
Of course, Quito's reputation as a crime capital grows by the minute. The collapse of the currency and the influx of immigrants from neighboring Colombia has created a culture of panic in town. All the guidebooks, even the ones printed before things got so bad, warn travelers not to go out at night, to avoid certain parts of town (alas, the prettiest and oldest ones), and to dress down. Quito, I read, was sometimes dangerous.
My first full night there, I learned that was an understatement.
It was about 6:30 in the evening, and I was just coming back from dinner with a young Dutch backpacker named Joost. We were in the New Town, which is the heart of the tourist district. Restaurants, Internet cafes, and trinket shops. Nothing seedy in character. Well lit, well trafficked.
I have street smarts. Partly from living in New York, where I've rarely had to use them, and partly from traveling as much as I have in unfamiliar cities. And right away, as Joost and I turned onto Av. 6 de Diciembre, which is a very busy multi-lane street being readied for a trolley line, I noticed two guys on the opposite curb who stepped off and started traveling behind us in the same direction. But they were dressed well, looked nice enough, and it was a busy street, so I merely noted it as Joost and I walked on.
Two blocks later, Joost was wrapped up in telling me something when I felt people right behind us. So near, in fact, that I whirled around, backed up, and said "Sorry," as if I was getting in their way. Instinctively, I whisked my backpack around to my chest and clutched it close. It was, of course, those same guys, and they stepped in front of us and held out knives.
"Give us money," one of them said quietly.
Oh, great, I thought. My first magazine assignment as a travel writer, with hundreds of Arthur Frommer's personal dollars in my money belt, and I'm about to get mugged.
While my brain waxed neurotic about that, my reflexes ended the dithering. Because I'd whirled around, I had already put about three feet between them and me. I saw what I should do, and I did it.
I ran like a little girl.
I scampered into the street, shouting "NO! NO!" I guess I was hoping I'd attract attention, and in the fire of the moment, my rudimentary Spanish turned into even more rudimentary English. "Stop this!" I called to the oncoming traffic, holding out my hands and appearing frantic.
Joost, being Dutch, had no street smarts. I guess I expected him to run as well, but instead, he became compliant. He found himself pressed into obedience by our shrimpy attackers. In between dodging cars (whose drivers obviously saw what what happening and elected to avoid intervention), I could see him fumble over a wallet to the guys. Once they got it, they also ran like little girls (so I guess I shouldn't feel so nelly).
Unburdened, Joost joined me, somewhat inadvisedly, in the middle of the oncoming traffic, and together we were substantial enough to finally stop a taxi. We made quick use of it. We took stock of ourselves inside. Joost's hand had been scratched by one of the blades when we pushed one of the muggers away. It wasn't serious, but it was still scary. Whenever you're attacked by a stranger, you always feel anguished and vulnerable, sometimes for days afterward. It's even less fun when it happens in a strange South American city, and you know that you're not being paranoid -- you really ARE a target.
As the driver took us to my hotel (Sierra Madre, if you care), an equally shaken Joost told me he'd only given them a fake wallet with $6 in it -- the rest of his money was locked up at his hostel. So I take back what I said about the Dutch not being very clever urbanites.
Unfortunately, the attack colored my stay in Quito. I may not have lost any money, but I lost my courage, and moreover, my interest in exploring what I have heard is a magnificent colonial city. At the South American Explorer's Club (which I heartily recommend for incoming travellers who need information and instant coffee), I heard tales far more harrowing than what had happened to me: bricks in the face during daylight hours, complete body stripping in dark nightclub alleys, and casual stabbings. All because you're white and Western.
I don't care if this comes across as impolite: Christian countries suck. You so rarely encounter this kind of one-to-one violent crime in Hindu and Buddhist countries. Those countries, while more populous and certainly poorer, have an understanding of both social class and kismet. If you are poor, it is because nature has willed it to be so. Therefore, the main ways tourists get plundered in countries like that is through their own folly. You partake of food from a stranger, you willingly hand over your credit card in a bogus jewel-trading scheme, you wander eagerly into a den of whores. You're very rarely attacked because their cultures have no tolerance for it. But Christian countries only care about one thing: money. It's all about how much you can make and what class status you have. The envy created by Christian culture is extreme. It creates poverty where there should be none, as in the bountiful but gun-packing wilderness America.
You can go to India and sense only the bounty of the human spirit. But where people worship Christ, watch your ass. I blame that new god of Western culture: consumerism.
The next day, I made a foray to the market town of Otavalo, in the hills north of the city. As we boarded at the bus station, a Kiwi girl had her backpack stolen. The town itself, a lovely jumble of churches, markets, and a cowhide-colored town square full of idle dogs exposing their bellies to the sun, was dusted with a light sense of threat. My journey was being poisoned.
It was a relief to be on the TAME plane to the Galápagos Islands. No crime, no petty theft beyond the exhorbitant surcharges for foreign tourists -- just nature in its gentlest evolutions.
The flights traversed the pretty Pacific from Guayaquil before landing on the island of Baltra, which is the main airport gateway to the Galápagos. As soon as you step off the jetstairs, government officials smile and collect US$100 cash from you as a mandatory entrance fee. In the islands, government custody of nature has finally become a priority. But this is Latin America, and how much of those funds are actually diverted to the luckless wildlife will forever be a matter shrouded in mystery.
Most of the freespending tourists to the Galápagos are met by their solicitous tour guides at the airport and whisked directly to their yachts. But my job was to scour the tourist haunts for cheap deals, so passed by the Spanish-speaking porters and did an easy bus-boat-bus combo to cross the highlands of the island of Santa Cruz. On the southern side is Puerto Ayora, which is the main town of the islands. I pretty much got off the bus -- there were only locals, and me -- and headed for a hotel. I suppose behavior like that shocks the Ecuadorians a little bit, since the majority of the 80,000 or so annual tourists are toted directly to their paid luxury.
See, that's how the Galápagos have tended to operate. Since the whole area is a national park, there are strict limitations placed of traffic. You have to pay that US$100 just to enter the airport (and let me tell you, they inspect those greenbacks with a magnifying glass), and the flights there are controlled by the government, wiith prices set at about $385 in high season. So already, the islands aren't exactly inviting backpackers. And since you have to be accompanied by a guide whenever you want to strike out beyond the main island, people end up buying trips on small boats, with cooks, crew, cabins, and other niceties. The lowdown is that to book from America, which most people do, can cost you around $2,000 for a week-long cruise. Pricy!
It was my assignment to run around Puerto Ayora to find out how to book last-minute cruise spaces for less. Which meant a lot of time in a town that has, to put it as my South African friends might, fokall to do.
It boils down to a small grid of streets pressed against Academy Bay. I poured myself into the Lobo de Mar hotel for $8, which is on the water, and walked up and down the main drag of town to collect information for my story. I felt a little like a stalker, since I must have gone up and down Avenue Darwin about 30 times. Although there are many stores and shops geared for foreign tourists, the majority seemed closed. It was a puzzle I never quite solved.
While there, I walked east of town to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which isn't devoted to studying the poor Brit's bones, but to raising tortoises from hatchlings until they're ready to be released in the wild. (Strange to think of tortoises running wild, isn't it?)
The tortoise tale is a sad one. They were doing all right for a long time there, roaming around the islands --each species on its own land mass -- with no natural enemies. They didn't spend their time doing much besides eating, sleeping, screwing, pooping, and evolving (which is one more activity than the human race is currently doing). Then, one day, Westerners showed up.
Why do so many horrible nature tales pivot upon that line?
Anyway, Westerners showed up. And so did rats, which greedily scurried down anchor lines, swam to shore, and began feasting on the tortoise eggs. Goats, too, showed up in the charge of farmers and travelers, and started nuzzling around for the little treats. And then, of course, there was man. For a long time, sailors would make a pit stop in the Galápagos to stock up on tortoises. Seems that if you're going to take a sea journey of many months -- as many did, since the Galápagos are the last thing between Central America and Ecuador and the long, dark Pacific -- you'd do well to have some tortoises downstairs, since they can go as much as a year without food or water. So all the ships in the area would make a pit stop to stack one tortoise upon another in the holds. When you got hungry, you'd just totter below deck and slaughter another one of the poor things. Turns out they also make for delicious soup.
Darwin himself wrote about the proper method for slaughtering them, and noted that tortoises produced "a beautifully clear oil." He also drank the liquid from their bladders, pronouncing the flavor was "quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste." He also tried to ride one: "I found it very difficult to keep my balance," he wrote.
I'm afraid the effects can never be undone. Ships would cart off hundreds in one go, while the rats they left behind scarfed the future generations. Rather quickly, islands that were once chockablock with tortoise (and lizards, and marine iguanas, once so populous that visitors couldn't find enough space to pitch their tents ) were completely bereft of them. Four (of 14) varieties of Galápagos land tortoise are now lost to zoology and gastronomy alike. Which is why the Research Station works so diligently to raise them. One of the tenants there is called Lonesome George. He's the last surviving tortoise of his kind, or at least, so it's thought. Biologists have tried pairing him with a female tortoise that's close to his genetic makeup, but tortoises are fickle things. They can go years without having sex (sounds familiar) and, in fact, no one's even sure how long they live. People die before tortoises do, of course, so keeping track has proved sticky. They keep living, and we keep dying, generations of us, while they sit there munching lettuce. We do know they can live over 165 years, because that's about when we started counting. (If you read my first Australian dispatch, "Hip As Heck," you read about Harriett, kept by "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin at the Australia Zoo. She is thought to have been collected as a baby by Darwin himself, and she lives in Beerwah, near Brisbane, today. I saw her with my own eyes. For her part, she just glanced at me as if she was impatient for pantaloons to come to come back in style.)
The tortoises, which look unnervingly like burn victims, or like E.T. pinned under a heavy rock, are ready to be released into nature at about three years; that's when their shells are too big for predators (which also include feral cats and dogs) to harm. In the meantime, they're corralled in giant holding pens, sorted by age. There are the cute little hatchlings in one pen, adolescents in another, and some rare old timers in another few. You can go in, but you're asked not to touch the creatures. The day I was there, a family of Ecuadorians was sitting on one of them as if they were waiting for a bus. The minute they saw me, they leapt to their feet and pretended to be absorbed by something in some faraway trees. (Once again, I am convinced that it's not tourists who cause the most damage -- it's uneducated locals.)
And the Asians. I don't want to be xenophobic and Yankeecentric here, but once again, the current crowned bastards of nature are the Japanese, who illegally farm the waters around the Galápagos for sea cucumbers, dolphin, and the like. In the past two years, eight million sea cucumbers, or two thirds of the population, have been heisted from the reefs around the islands and shipped back to Asia for immediate consumption. For their part, Korean fishermen long-line fish the seas nearby, sending 70-mile-long nets underwater are killing everything in their path -- dolphins, sharks, whales, and other creatures are killed and discarded for the sake of the few fish the sailors are actually trying to catch. Granted, in the 1930s, American interests, emboldened by Ecuadorian government contracts, raped the Galápagos quite beyond redeption for millions of tons of fish, so we're not off the hook, either (so to speak). But it's another example how skyrocketing Asian demand for extaneous consumer products, such as rhino horns, are causing endless tragedy in the last virgin fields of the world.
But there's also major trouble concerning the local fishermen. They don't care about the ecology as much as they do their livelihoods, and many of them -- particularly the ones who live on the island of San Cristóbal, away from the tourist money circulating on Santa Cruz -- are increasingly frustrated with Ecuador's tightening fishing regulations. There are murmurings of rebellion. In Puerto Ayora, citizens are also getting frustrated, since there is a building moratorium imposed on the town yet is nonetheless subject to an influx of thousands of mainlanders every few years. Right now, the city planners, who meet upstairs in a civic building right along Av. Darwin in town, have things in check, but all it will take is a few corrupt politicians to open the door to the Hyatts and Hiltons and send more species scurrying into oblivion.
And the Galápagos are virgin! I can't tell you how incredible they are. The animals aren't very big -- tortoises are the largest creatures on land -- and there are no native mammals to speak of. But for crazy birds and outlandish fish, they can't be beaten. You might be familiar with the conjecture behind how the islands were populated, put forth by Darwin and expanded by countless biolgists since. Basically, they're equidistant from the west coast of South America and the south coast of the land bridge that includes Panama. The creatures that made it to the Galápagos somehow traversed about 1,000 miles of open ocean to get there. When they arrived, they found a rather inhospitable volcanic moonscape, pulled up a patch of lava, and called it home. Curiously, most of the animals stayed on the same island, where they gradually evolved into their own species. The famous example is the finch (read Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch). In the islands, several varieties exist, each with beaks that are uniquely shaped to cope with the specific demands of their native isle. Even vegetation is in on the act; on islands were tortoises evolved with long necks, for example, the cactuses stopped growing buds within a few feet of the ground. On other islands, where the tortoises couldn't reach as far, the buds grow lower.
It sounds crazy, especially since they're all within sight of each other, but each island has its own distinct personality which manifests itself through topography, vegetation, and animal life. It's baffling.
Equally baffling is the fact that the animals just don't give a flip. You can march right up to a hawk and give him a good talking to, and he'll just swivel his head around to wait for lizards. You can sit among a pile of salt-spitting marine iguanas (the only iguanas that swim and eat underwater) and they'll just slither over to make room for you. Or you can pull up a spot of beach next to a 300-pound sea lion, and it will only glance blearily up from its nap like a sleepy golden retriever before collapsing back into dreamland with a snort.
How come? Basically, they've never had a reason to fear man. There is something known as genetic memory, in which the things your parents learn are somehow transmitted to you. I think it accounts for my affection for chrome-finned automobiles. In the Galápagos, tourists don't frighten the animals because people haven't posed a persistent enough threat over time for the animals to perceive them as villains. Folks may troop down the carefully delinated paths on the islands, but they don't stray and above all, they never touch.
I heard a story about a guy (American, of course) who, after a week in the islands observing the miracles of nature, couldn't resist petting one of the big stinky sea lions. No sooner did he lay a hand on the hapless thing than it screamed in terror and hustled away, braying as it went. So while it doesn't mind sharing its space with us, to be touched is a novel and not pleasant experience for them. To the animals, we're merely ghosts passing through, and that's the way the guardians of the islands like to keep it.
Here's how a tour of the islands makes that possible: Your boat will be smallish (mine was about 70 feet) and your group will number about 20 (mine, the Beagle III, was 10, since we were on a small boat that wasn't fully booked). In the morning, you're wakened before dawn by the drone of the engines as the crew powers you to your next visitation site. At about 6:30 or 7, you are served breakfast and fetid coffee made from treated salt water, and then you get into a dinghy to hit the first island site of the day. Sometimes the afternoon is spent at another island. Sometimes there's time for a dive or a snorkel.
A few of the boats are large, but none as gargantuan as the cruise ships you might see in places such as the Caribbean. The government has been cracking down on the violence such vessels do against nature. A few years ago the Galápagos Explorer, one of the plusher multimillion-dollar ships became part of the islands when a group of partying girls, heavily friendly but lightly sober, burst into the wheelhouse and diverted the crew. Unguided, the ship met the razory rocks of the sea floor first with its prow, and then with her whole hull. Everyone survived, but not necessarily as employees. There is now a glitzy replacement to that foundered ship, but the extreme wealth of her clientele, as well as her outsize presence in those pastoral inlets, still earn her the locally ascribed nickname Galápagos Exploiter.
The other passengers on my well proportioned and prudently staffed boat were three teenaged sisters and their parents, who live in the dark wilds of rural Norway. They were accompanied by another teenager, who was their former exchange student. He was Ecuadorian (why he wanted to go to freezing Norway is beyond me -- and in his retrospect, it seemed beyond him as well) and his aunt owned our delightful vessel, the Beagle III. It once was the official boat of the tortoise Research Station before being sold for private use and outfitted for tourists. For the trip after ours, the owners were hosting a group of hunters, who pay big bucks for the privilege of cruising to Isla Isabela and shooting at goats. Sounds shocking, but since goats are not native, those hunters are actually helping the delicate ecology by culling the invaders.
I had a cabin to myself and chose the top bunk so I could look out the window at the angry-looking waves. I grew to be unafraid. After Greece, the Zambezi, the Perhentian Islands, and countless other hair-raising excursions, my terror of water has finally abated. (Now that my guard is down, I'm sure I'll drown.)
All my meals were taken at a table with our guide, Luis. We got along like a house afire, which is just a figure of speech since we were on a boat. We spent hours and hours railing against world consumerism, the tyrrany of the WTO, the monster of corporatism, and the metaphoric flatulence of American politics. I also let him read my copy of FHM, which he heartily enjoyed, since his girlfriend was back in Puerto Ayora. Just seven days at sea, and he was already retiring to his cabin with a pin-up magazine. I felt like I oughtta be mooning over my clipping of Betty Grable.
The laundry list of my adventures in the islands may excite me, but it doesn't make for absorbing reading. My experience swimming with sea lions and penguins and marine turtles, or my witnessing the flapping-and-snapping mating ritual of the enormous waved albatross (in its only habitat), or our boat's rolling with the sidelong pitch of 10-foot seas -- they're all personal experiences and I could relate them, but it wouldn't be worthwhile for you. The animals are unique and tame. The sounds of whistling blue-footed boobies and the smells of the afterbirth of a baby sea lion cannot be described to language's satisfaction. If you'd like to read about the wildlife on the various islands, just about everyone agrees that the simplest and the best is Michael H. Jackson's Galápagos: A Natural History, which is published by the University of Calgary Press. I bought one when I got home and it's still interesting.
One of my favorite islands was Floreana, where our guide, Luis, took us to Post Office Bay. That's where, for generations, people have left unstamped mail for loved ones and passing boats agreed to deliver whatever they could. I left two postcards. One was for myself in New York City, which found its way to my mailbox in a week. The other was for my mother in Key West, which to this day has not arrived. I also delivered one for a girl in Greenwich Village, but didn't leave my name. I thought the mystery was very satisfying.
The other favorite island was North Seymour, which is home to a field of blue-footed boobies -- a goofy bird, spraying rings of guano around their nests, nasty things -- and the red-throated frigate bird. They're the ones whose males have those enormous inflatable red sacs under their necks. It's the bird world's equivalent of a red corvette, I guess, because they both look pretty silly but still attract the chicks. Incidentally, if you paint a blue-footed booby's feet green, it won't get laid -- so neither will any eggs.
One night in the middle of the trip, we stopped again in Puerto Ayora. Luis invited me over to his house to hang out with him and his girlfriend (and smoke) and I also dropped by a nightclub in town -- open air, of course -- where one of the male stars of Felicity was said to be stopping by later on. Turned out he was only in town, not guaranteed to stop by, but you know how club promoters stretch truth like taffy. ("Sure, there's a whole shot of vodka in that!") And I never did find out if it was Scott Speedman or Foley. I hope Speedman. He's much better looking, don't you agree?
My trip concluded with another quick pass through Quito. It was supposed to be a few days longer than it was, but the attempted mugging made me twice shy and I wanted to hotfoot it back to Miami so I could visit my mother in Key West while I had a few days. That last night in Ecuador, I followed on a tip of Luis' and stayed at a fantastic hilltop lodge called La Casa de Guápulo, which was in the hills overlooking Quito but nowhere near the traditional tourist zone. Feeling perfectly safe, I strolled up and down the steep moutainside roads, bought Rica crackers at curbside shops, and peeked into mustard-colored cathedrals so God could tell me that not all of his children are so bad. That night, the inn was packed with precocious American high schoolers who were on a group tours for gifted/wealthy students. The self-proclaimed lesbian took a shine to me, and her clearly curious boy companion pried into my life story. They were nice kids, and lucky to be chaperoned in this crazy city. Their next stop were the islands, where they were going to board one of the larger cruise vessels for their tour.
That was how I found myself leaving Quito early on a Friday morning, hurtling down a long, long runway in my jet's attempt to get an upper hand on the thin mountain air. And it was how I found myself in Key West again.
In a way, that was where my whole World Tour began over two years before, when I flew down to bid farewell to my mother. I stood at the southernmost point in America, looking south over the ocean at the corona of lights emanating from forbidden Havana, and I considered the journey that stretched ahead. Just there, all around the dark waters of the island, lay invisible borders yet uncrossed. I remember that day in March of 1998, when I acknowledged that the coming journey would change me forever. And I remember taking one last breath there on the dock -- my last gasp of murky self-image and fear and ignorance -- before turning on my heel and walking north, the only direction I could go. From that point, every footstep was another push deeper into my journey.
Now today, in July of 2000, the night after my Galápagos adventure, I had just arrived from a journey over that mysterious horizon. I had just come from the far side of Havana, and beyond. I had just visited the last remaining continent on my list, and been through the experience of a lifetime. And I had just taken my first leap as a professional traveller.
My formal World Tour was over, but it took until this moment, watching the pale glow of still-forbidden Havana across the silent waters, to know that my journey was really only beginning.
If you want to read my article about booking a megacheap Galápagos boat tour, it's in the November/December 2000 issue of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine. There is also an article about seeking land-based bargains in Puerto Ayora at Frommers.com; that story is at www.frommers.com/supplement/galapagos.html, and I touch on lots of other adventures there that I don't discuss here.
And for the Charles Darwin Research Station on Puerto Ayora, which has
all sorts of useful Galápagos links, go to www.darwinfoundation.org.