Travelogue Day four: Floreana and Santa Cruz Islands

Adam Oaks

I am waking up today feeling truly at home in my cabin for the first time. Rousing slowly to the grating but jovial music playing somewhere in the darkness off to my left, I reach blindly over to turn on the light. As the lamp clicks on, its sudden glaring brightness blazing through my wide-open pupils, I am shocked to wakefulness, and I stumble out of bed.

An hour into this morning and I am glad of the lackadaisical activities predicted in our itinerary. Hiking and swimming hard at both Puerto Egas and Rabida yesterday took its toll, and I am looking forward to a relaxed tour of Isla Floreana and the Santa Cruz highlands. From the deck of the Ambasador I, I gaze across a calm expanse of sea to the shore of Floreana. Clouds obscure and diffuse the light of the climbing sun, its powerful rays giving the sky above the island a hazy glow, even at eight o'clock. Fog and mist lightly shroud the island, its more distant hills fading into the distance, shadows rolling across its surfaces as the clouds pass under the sun.

Breaking my moment with the sun is the harsh call of "FREGATAS!" over the Ambasador's public address system. We are one of the first groups to depart for shore today, and life vests are already being handed out on deck near the stairs leading down to our dinghy. I join my classmates aboard our vessel, grabbing a seat near the front of the boat to aid my blundering attempts at videography. On the way in to our first landing site, the boat's driver cautiously pilots the craft to our guide Luis's careful direction. We travel slowly through rocky narrows, passing a small island known as Isla Lobos. Unable to communicate save through body language, Luis's movements become increasingly spastic as we approach a particularly treacherous area near the Lobos shore. Despite the wildly gesticulating Luis hovering precariously above me, I am unable to ignore the impressive scene unfolding around me. Offshore at the other end of the island is a two-masted schooner reminiscent of a pirate's or an explorer's vessel. Sea lions trail our progress through the narrows and the antique ship crosses the horizon as we approach our landing area. Their shrill barks beseech us to "Stop! Follow us! Avoid the shore! This land is tainted!" By my estimation the hills of Floreana appear to be some of the highest we have encountered thus far (or at least the most imposing); the nearest looms above, its face shrouded in menacing shadow. As we cross this ancient bay, watched by imagined pirate's eyes, I feel something sinister is in the air, something strange and mysterious and twisted.

We reach the shore and begin to follow a short trail that winds its way uphill to an observation deck sitting some several dozens of meters above the beach. I feel like an extra in a bad shipwreck movie, our cruise boat now out of view, and only the increasingly ominous schooner visible on the water below as we ascend the steeply rising land. We pass a worn and rusted beacon lamp, claiming this hill in the name some anonymous Ecuadorian scientific organization. The light does not seem functional or maintained- my mind writes the next line in the B-movie script: "When did humans last set foot here?" Taking the hill, we file slowly, languidly onto the platform (and that, my friends, is a Jim Morrison reference). The vastness of Floreana spreads out before us. It seems vast, anyhow, although it is one of the smaller islands. Somehow the lushness of this place gives it a substance that was missing on our earlier explorations. Gazing across the forested terrain below I see white tropicbirds streaking along the treetops in the distance, their tails streaming out behind them. As I watch their graceful flight, impressively fluid even at this range, Luis begins to tell us some stories.

It seems that Floreana has had its share of interesting human inhabitants. Our guide related the racy tale of an aging (married) German "baroness" and her trio of young suitors. It seems she had a wealth of sexual charisma, keeping these strapping young lads clawing at each other's throats for some time until one left and she and her favorite "disappeared," probably murdered at the hands of the third suitor. Another piece of Floreana's storied past involves a man named Friedrich Ritter and his mistress, who lived on the island together for 15 years, having left their spouses back home. A self-described "Nietzschean superman," Friedrich wanted to test man's limits of resilience and mental toughness. One convenience he decided he and his mistress could do without was that of teeth; he pulled out his own and then hers, though he occasionally allowed her to borrow his steel dentures when the gnawing got really tough. She eventually killed him with a meal of poisoned chicken in the final twist of this true Floreana tragedy.

But I digress, much as Luis has done at this juncture, telling these grandiose tales here among the high hills where the dramatic events actually occurred. Apparently my sense of this place is accurate; these islands bring something out in people, and the history of Floreana is evidence of that. Sin and debauchery abound, there is a rawness to these tales, and to this place; it seems that life clinging to bare rock in the middle of an endless ocean tends to fight just a little dirtier then most of the rest of us. Back on the dinghy, we peruse the various creatures scattered around the craggy Lobos shores. An exceptionally active lava heron struts his stuff for my camera, dashing and leaping among the rocks as he paces the path of our craft. In a small cove, a group of sea lions acknowledge our passing, some of them following our boat as we proceed on our way to another Floreana beach. We are headed for the Post Office, where, if one is so inclined, post cards can be sent to friends and relations back home. Frigates circle and swoop above us as we pass a tiny rock outcropping crowded with penguins. Impossibly varied creatures have become expected, commonplace; it's not a bad thing.

Stepping off the dinghy again, my feet hit the finest sand I can recall. On a slightly sunnier day this spot would approach absolute perfection. The post office is a short stroll down the beach, but I'm not sure I ever want to get there; walking on this beach, on this day, in this atmosphere, may be as good as it gets. I shoot video of our feet as we walk in the sand, our steps pressing so deep into the soft sand, the prints blurring, softening, and disappearing as the azure waters wash over them. Everything about the shore is ethereal. We're all a bit more transparent here, looser, lighter, freer, fading away grain by grain into the gentle but constant tide. The transience of all things weighs on me as we visit the "post office." It is a rickety collection of driftwood and ship parts, carved and marked and draped with mementos of the last few months' visitors. The wood will weather; the marks will fade; the relics will disappear, and left behind will be, well, new wood, new marks, new relics, the old lost and gone and forgotten, a blurring memory of those who left them. With these thoughts in mind we painstakingly carve our initials into a sheltered piece of wood, and I carefully photograph our markings, our small and already fading impression left on this unique spot.

Returning to the beach, I take a moment apart to reflect further, or perhaps to escape these reflections. My eyes wash over the sand and the sea and the shore and the rocks, eventually coming to rest on a group of dragonflies hovering around a short bush. I watch as one lands on a branch, silhouetted against the sky. The creature is delicate and beautiful, its hard body a shiny metallic blue. It seems to be taking these few seconds, an infinitude in the life of an adult dragonfly, to assess the wonders of its surroundings. First motionless, resting, then looking around with a few quick jerks of its tiny head, the dragonfly finally takes off, returning to its tireless search for a mate during these last waning hours of its life.

Finding myself back on board the Ambasador, waking up on the sun deck, having missed a meeting, I settle in for the long midday steam North to Puerto Ayora, our destination on Isla Santa Cruz. Our afternoon activities promise to be equally as interesting as this mornings'; we will be passing through the city of Puerto Ayora and the surrounding neighborhoods, our first look at the human settlements of the Galálapagos Islands-

We ride hard into Academy Bay, passing a small ship of the Ecuadorian Navy. It is slightly more threatening than the pirate ship we saw earlier; its deck guns are an unpleasant reminder of how hard humans can play, even in this harsh environment. Bouncing our way in to the dock, we find that the sea wall is littered with marine iguanas; they really are that tame. As I wait for the rest of our group to arrive, I film the harbor area. Colorful and dilapidated boats are anchored near the dock, bobbing in the strong current that presses through the bay, lapping at the concrete wall on which I stand.

Soon we are scooped up by a bus that will take us to a trail in the Santa Cruz Highlands for a short walking tour. The road winds through Puerto Ayora and two nearby towns, places called Santa Rosa and Bella Vista. Stone and dirt roads flow directly off the main thoroughfare, passing collapsed buildings and construction projects and farm fields and a small soccer stadium. I catch myself about to cheer, for no particular reason, for the green team as they make a strong offensive play. Goats, donkeys, and cattle dot our path up into the hills. Also, a rustic looking man walking along the side of the road with a strand of grain protruding from the corner of his mouth, barefoot, inspecting his toes.

We reach the jumping off point for our hike, walking a short distance to view an enormous hole in the earth called a pit crater. This section of the island is dotted with several of these formations. Their origin is not certain, but their size is impressive. Tall trees grow from the crater's floor and do not approach its rim. Doves glide down into the hole's depths, disappearing into dark shadow. If Floreana was lush, then these highlands are positively verdant. Elevated and large enough to have actual weather, this area is populated by a diversity of plants and animals seen nowhere else on the Islands. Ferns, rather than the more advanced (and more allergenic) grasses we are so familiar with, make up much of the forest's undergrowth. These plants are a throwback to another era, and this junglesque environment suddenly seems dramatically ancient. Moss hangs from trees with names I have never heard and could never remember. I reach the crest of a rocky outcropping, the highest point for a mile in any direction, looking down into an archaic forest, or another time.

Back at the bus we come across an incredible specimen. A caterpillar with a blinking eye on its tail and a snake's head on its back. This creature defies description, and as far as I know, has not been positively identified, at least not in terms more specific then "quite possibly the coolest bug ever."

Totally sweet and awesome caterpillar.

On our return to town we stop to explore a collapsed lava tunnel. As we are forced to descend in small groups, I make my own way off to a less crowded tunnel. Sun filters through dusty air and down into the tunnel. I think that these holes would make a good place to hide something you didn't want found, like a priceless treasure, or a fugitive, or an illicit party. Crossing the collapsed section to join the others, I enter the tunnel and take a seat on a ledge high above the cave's floor. Called suddenly by Luis's yells of "Vamanos!," we prepare to depart. I watch for a moment as April scrambles to recover her mother's sunglasses, then head for the mouth of the tunnel.

Arriving back in Puerto Ayora, I make a quick perusal of the shops near the dock, exploring what could be termed a mall. The art gallery is closed, so I make my way to an upper floor for a quick look around the deserted building. Finding little worth paying money for, I shoot some film of the bay through a broken window on the top floor. The structure's interesting architecture is slighted by sub-par merchandise, in my humble opinion.

After another rough ride through the waters of Academy Bay, we are back on board the Ambasador once again. Dodging the lecherous and the elderly and a few flaming deserts, I survive another day in the Galálapagos, deeply touched but unscathed-

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