Wednesday, 17 August 2011

In Darwin's Blistered Footsteps

I HAVE NEVER kicked a nun before, but I wanted to upon arrival at the Galápagos Islands. After clearing Immigration and parting with another $100 for the privilege of setting foot on this remote Ecuadorean outpost, there was the bun-fight over baggage collection. Waiting my turn, I felt someone barging me from behind. I ignored it as first, until the offender started trying to squeeze through the gap between me and the next passenger patiently waiting his turn. Turning to deliver a mouthful, I was quite shocked to see a nun next to me. I've never been a fan of religion, and Catholicism particularly gets my goat; a faith which thinks it is fine to take the cash from the poor and use it to build huge gilded churches, effectively rubbing their noses in it, while expecting them to feel guilty about the slightest thing and repent of their sins several times a week. "Can't feed your family and put a roof over your head? Never mind...come into the church and tell this huge golden statue of Mary all about it. Been thinking about tits and fannies again, have you? Dirty get on your knees and beg forgiveness. And give us some more cash while you're at it...these places don't build themselves, you know."

Bag grabbed, we waited paitiently in line to exit. Well, some of us did. The Penguins started blatantly pushing in, jockeying for position, fellow devotees soon joining them in the scrum. If you're not infirm or disabled, then wait your bloody turn? Some of these were in their 30s...using religious carte blanche to jump the queue. I'm an Atheist, so forget it, love. I managed to position myself so as to block a trio of them passing me, giving no quarter. One tried smiling sweetly and stepping around my bag. I smiled sweetly back and shoved the bag with my foot...up against a guard rail, blocking her way. Yes...I win! Take that, you dried-up old husk! It may sound petty to you, but things like this pass the time when waiting in line. Besides, I was striking a blow for mentally-scarred young altarboys, with involuntary centre-partings, worldwide. These paedo-protectors weren't getting on the bus before way.

Ferried across from Baltra island to Santa Cruz, I couldn't believe how clear the water was here, a rich azure; I was looking forward to the diving already. We were bussed into town, and felt almost duty-bound to take a room at the Hotel Sir Francis Drake. I noted that the window in the door to my room opened on a hinge, and that I could reach in from outside and open the locked door. When mentioning this lack of security to the landlady, she laughed and told me that she hadn't had a robbery in 10 years. I pointed out that this was unlikely to wash with my insurance company, and that I didn't want her to be welcoming the next weeks' guests with "We've only had one robbery in 10 years". It was duly nailed shut. I felt a lot better. But I had to laugh when myself, Maxy and Stef stayed here after the dive trip: the boys took this particular room, and I had the "matrimonial" room with a double bed (if you spent your wedding night here, you'd be divorced by morning). We were out on the piss one night, and on returning Maxy managed to lock them out of the room. I went to my lumpy bed chuckling to myself; Stef slept in the landlady's kitchen wrapped up in a tablecloth; Maxy slept upstairs in an unfinished concrete room, atop a pallet and wrapped in cardboard with a piece of wood crowning it to stop the cardboard unravelling and exposing him to the cold night air. Obviously neither had a good night's sleep. But their belongings were safely locked in the room. Every cloud has a silver lining, no?

The town is a sleepy place, especially on a Sunday. It was low-season when we were there, which made it all the quieter. It's also small, and it is possible to cover every street in an hour's walk. The road along the seashore is almost devoid of traffic, and the one-counter fish market is the place to be in the afternoons: seals and pelicans pester the fishmonger for scraps as he sorts the day's catch straight off the amusing sight. Just beyond town is the 2km walk to Playa Tortuga, an amazing stretch of beach which is home to marine iguanas, storks and pelicans as well as the turtles. I've never seen a more pristine place...the fees we pay to be here are obviously well-spent, as the archipelago is spotless.

Darwin was here in 1835 aboard The Beagle, making geological surveys of these 3.5 million year old volcanic islands, 1000km off the coast of South America. He was amazed by the variety of wildlife species here: there are over 9000 who make the islands their home. And nowhere on Earth has more endemic species, creatures unique to this small area. 75% of the animals on Galápagos are not found anywhere else on the planet. The mind boggles. Darwin's certainly did: it prompted his theory of the survival of the fittest by natural selection, the basis of his book The Origin Of The Species (1859). Many of these animals are unchanged since prehistoric times, such as the Marine Iguana...the only swimming lizard in the world. The place has as a strange effect on a you, almost regressing you to a state of childlike wonder. Having kids has been pretty far from my thoughts so far in life, but these islands almost made me broody. Coming back here with children is almost an incentive after my time here.

The human history of Galápagos is also quite fascinating. An Irishman named Henry Watkins was marooned in 1807 to become the first permanent human settler. The Ecuadorean government created penal colonies here, the most notorious of which was Manuel Cabos's El Progreso in 1869. The prisoners in his charge soon became sick of his tyranny and murdered him. Seemed fair. In 1927 a group of journalists persuaded 60 Norwegians that the Enchanted Isles were a paradise waiting to be exploited. The Scandinavians had no idea how hard life could be here on these patches of exposed rock in the Pacific. Many left after the first harsh year. But by far the most interesting tale is that of "The Baroness". Two German families had settled on the island of Floreana around 1929: the Wittmers and Dr Freidrich Ritter and his mistress, Dore Strauch. The two families tolerated each other, but a series of events led to bitterness between them. Feelings were already simmering when Baroness de Bosquet turned up in the 1930s with three men in tow...two of whom were her lovers (filthy minx), Robert Philippson, Rudolf Lorenz...and an Ecuadorean servant named Valdiveseo. She looks to have been the dark cataylst amongst this German community. By all accounts she lorded it over the inhabitants, walking around with bullwhip and pistol like some sort of swashbuckler. Her fellow islanders were unhappy at the stories she told about them to visitors. After several heated disputes, in 1934 she and Philippson disappeared, never to be seen again. Lorenz was found dead on a remote northern island some time later; he'd been the chief suspect in the assumed murders. Dr Witter was the next to die, supposedly from food poisoning after eating chicken...despite being a vegetarian. These mysteries have never been solved, and remain part of the islands' folklore.

And there are rumblings of discontent on modern-day Galápagos. The increasing number of native Ecuadoreans are demaning the right to fish the waters, and some are doing so illegally. The government lacks resources to counter this. Introduced species are also a problem; feral pigs and dogs on some islands are threatening the marine iguana populations. Goats are a surprising problem, and Alcedo island holds an exploded population of around 100,000, despite attempts a number of years ago to eradicate them. A goat was found as far away as Wolf Island, and no-one seems to know how it got there.

But back to kids. The three of us passed the concrete basketball courts of the Ecuadorean Navy the afterno won before boarding our diveboat, and ten or more local youngsters were kicking a football about. "Shall we?" asked Stef. Of coursee shall. So the three of us, and a small be-spectacled boy took on the rest. We played in bare feet, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Maxy kept letting goals in, saying we should give them a fighting chance as they were all around 10 years old...I told him to stop being so bloody Scottish. Honestly. After the game, and my Rooney-like exploits, we sat and chatted with the kids in Spanish. Good practice for me. The girls were trying to set Stef up with an Ecuadorean wife, and he was's the only way you could possibly work as a dive instructor here; probably the only advantage to an Ecuadorean passport, I'd imagine? At this point, I noticed my feet were burning a little; turning them over, I saw there were two 50p-sized blisters on each foot, both bleeding and weeping salty fluid. Oh dear. Raw skin...just what you want before a full week at sea, and saltwater immersion: a classic own-goal...

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