In the Galapagos by Accident

Maybe Boring to Read, but I Liked It.

July 1, 2007

This is a column about depravity, and the darkness that is in man, and really big-ass turtles.

OK, I was in Quito and planning to pass a week on horseback in remote mountains where trees still outnumber tour buses and there ain’t nobody. Humanity is at its best when it’s somewhere else. Then my plans fell through for boring reasons. Everything else I wanted to do was booked. I figured it was either suicide or spend the week drunk in some hotel. Then I saw a sign in a travel agency’s window: “First Class Galapagos Tours.”

Hell, you can’t book a tour like that less than a year in advance. I knew that. I went in anyway. It was like going to a Ferrari showroom: can’t afford a hubcap but you can drool on the upholstery. Well, seems there was a cancellation, a shifty-eyed agent told me. I’d have to share a room on the cruise ship Santa Cruz, he said, probably with some obese oaf who snored like Godzilla with adenoid problems (that’s not exactly what he said), and it was an inside cabin with no view. Still, it seemed better than suicide.

Though I’ve never tried suicide.

Landed in Galapagos. Got into a Zodiac, which is like an inflatable soap dish with an outboard motor, We bumpbumpbumped over modest waves in a sprawling blue ocean that just lay there and glittered, no ambition whatsoever. That’s the trouble with oceans these days: they lack drive.

The Santa Cruz turned out to be the size of Australia only with more decks. The travel agent had lied to me. The thing wasn’t first class. It was luxury class. He had lied about the obese snoring oaf: I had a private cabin. The truth was not in that agent. The cabin was outside with sliding glass doors and a little private balcony where you could sit and watch diving birds kill small innocent fish.

Nothing the rascal had told me was true. I lost all faith in humanity, I mean, if you can’t trust a squinty-eyed travel agent, what’s left?

Everyday the ship parked somewhere and we hopped up and sprang into the Zodiacs and went to an island, which was always littered with sea lions, They were like confetti after a Shriner’s parade. Lovely blue water, white sands, and every ten feet a sea lion lying there like a dark brown bag of bean curd. I’m not kidding. You had to be alert to avoid stepping on them. If you left your boat unwatched for an hour, you would find three sea lions sleeping on it. They have no sense of property rights. Probably lefties.

So far the Ecuadorian government has resisted efforts by commerce to plunder the islands. I don’t know how long it will last. In the United States I am used to calls from libertarians and conservatives to put all federal lands into the private sector, which would mean logging Yosemite and burying it beneath subdivisions. It would make money for the plunderers, though. In the islands it would mean killing the sea lions to make gloves, turning unused parts into dog food, and installing Lauderdale to make money and the place unlivable. I don’t understand property rights any better than a sea lion does, I guess.

Bird-like something-or-other observing blowhole. Beats being a tax accountant.

Now, the Galapagos are volcanic, big mounds of geologic phlegm hacked up by asthmatic volcanoes. It’s black jagged stuff that still has ripples in it like cake batter. Usually it’s covered with marine iguanas that look like lava, so you have to avoid stepping on them too.

See? The do look like lava. Iguanas.

Our guide was Joanna, a young local woman. Daily the ship’s PA system advised us multiply and firmly, “Please use strong footwear. The lava is jagged and abrasive. Strong footwear. Think Kevlar, rolled homogeneous armor, horse shoes. The ship is not responsible for deaths due to abraded feet.” Or words to that effect.

Joanna, I noticed, went barefoot.

The animal life is perfectly fearless, or maybe “uninterested” is the word. If a sea lion cub wants to waddle over and sniff your ankles, it does. Mommy doesn’t care. The birds are the same way. Doctrine holds that, having evolved away from predators, the animals didn’t grow an instinctive fear. This implies a belief that anything you haven’t seen before must be safe. Maybe. I wouldn’t rely on it with a momma grizzly, no matter how she had evolved.

Now, turtles. You may think you have seen turtles. No. At best you have seen a poor, wan suggestion of a turtle. In the Galapagos it isn’t counted as a turtle unless it is the size of a Volkswagen bug. They sit in pools of green water and don’t do anything. If governments followed this philosophy, the world would be a better place.

Actually the turtles hold still to avoid stepping on sea lions.

Now, you have to understand about sea lions. (Hereabout, everything comes back to sea lions.) They are deep in philosophy. They eat nothing but sushi—well, raw fish, which is close enough—and then they lie on the beach and sun themselves. It’s all they do. In this they are entirely sensible. Usually they look dead. They regard people with placid boredom, perhaps because they know we aren’t going to make gloves out of them for some sordid rich twit in Manhattan. I almost sat on one because I didn’t see it in a shady place.

Sea lion in characteristic state of blind panic. Actually it hasn't croaked. It just doesn't care. Maybe it reads Thoreau. There's no telling with sea lions.

Anyway, after a day of looking at birds with blue feet, we’d return to the ship, surge into the dining room to do the squat-and-gobble, and retire to the bar. Good crowd, highly international: coupla Scots, Argentinians, an Israeli woman, guys running software houses, what have you. Not squalling fat people from Rhode Island. A guy named Lobo, Hispanic out of New York, runs the passenger operation with aplomb and efficiency. I’d almost say he could make a federal program work, but I don’t want to lurch too far from the possible.

Actually, if you want to go to the Galapagos, I recommend the Santa Cruz without reservation. She’s not a cheap date. I paid $1500 plus $350 in airfare from Quito and $100 in Galapagos tax. Good food, good bar, likeable and efficient crew, open upper deck for supervising sunsets if you don’t trust them to manage themselves. I am in the business of bitching about things, but I couldn’t find the most minute pretext on the whole trip. A desert of professional opportunity.

But that travel agent lied to me. It wrenches my soul.