Five Spanish Lessons from the Galapagos Islands
The león marino was the first animal I saw when I arrived on the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos sea lion. I remember thinking I was surely sleep deluded from three long days of flying and the accompanying jetlag. But there they were, these huge seal-like creatures, lying across hot harbours or on port stairs, or snoozing on beaches only twenty feet from busy beach bars. Everywhere I looked, there was a sea lion, wheezing or slumbering or just watching me wearily.
The sea lions never had a real rhyme or rhythm for how they would react to us. Sometimes they would completely ignore us, even when stretched straight across a pathway, and we would have to carefully tiptoe around them;. Sometimes they would wail at us and ‘charge’ if we were unlucky enough to look their way. We were told by locals that one of the surest ways to anger them was to go near their babies. But on more occasions than I can count, the babies would waddle straight towards us, bleating like sheep, while their parents watched us with simmering caution.
Every sunrise, at six o’clock, we would jolt awake to their screams and snarls.
On one of our afternoons off, ten of us clambered into the back of a pick up truck, fingertips clinging to the sides, and went down to an empty beach hidden in the nooks and crannies of the island. Blistering sand spiralled off into the distance. With the beach to ourselves, and with borrowed and battered boards slung in the back, we taught each other how to surf. Of course, seclusion in a myth on the Galapagos Islands, where curious animals are always one step ahead of you. As I caught a wave, and tentatively wobbled up to my feet for the first time, a squawk came from my right hand side. A baby sea lion was surfing the waves, much more naturally than I, looking pleased for itself. Terrified an irate mother sea lion was hot on its tracks, I flipped over backwards and swallowed half a litre of water.
The more we venture away from the populated, the more daring the sea lions become. It’s as if they want to get to know us away from everyone else. At another long stretch of coastline near the centre of the main town, a baby sealion came flapping up the beach, squaking as it crawled over our bags and beach towels, and hid under some beach gorse. It sat and wailed like a baby for half an hour. His mother watched warily from the coastline.
And still their shrieks at sunrise, their grunts and warbles in the midday sun, and their war cries at sunset.
The fields are thick with mora, or blackberry bushes, at the back of our temporary home (read: leaking, three-walled shack) on San Cristobal Island. Tangled thorns stretch away from us, their obstinate stems as thick as pipes, thrust into the earth. We wear firm boots and fat hot gloves. Machetes are handed out, encrusted with mud.
We are on a mission to kill them all. So this is what saving the environment looks like, I think to myself. It is my first, surprised and wide-eyed venture into the intricacies of conservation, and into the difficult questions it poses. Who has the right to the land? What is invasive, and what is native? Is the elimination of some species, plant or animal, more important than preserving the life of a critically endangered few? We trample into the bracken, swinging our heavy weapons at anything thorny and ugly, our clumsy tools that day after day transform into extensions of our sunburned arms. What is the difference between human responsibility and genocide?
Squinting heat spreads across our pale bodies, edges down our back in wet globs.
The blackberry was introduced to the Galapagos Islands in 1968, almost 140 years after Charles Darwin’s visit to the archipelago. Back in England, blackberry bushes prosper on the edges of paths, twist into neat hedgerows, are left to flourish in abandoned wasteland. On the islands, the fruits symbolise a sadder and harder story. Centuries of poor decision making and environmental mismanagement have taken their toll. They are just one of many invasive species to the delicate ecosystem; goats were introduced to the islands two hundred years ago, and they degraded huge numbers of unique species across the islands, both plant and animal, before they were successfully eliminated. The story of Lonesome George, a subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise, is relevant here.
Mora is the plant equivalent of the common goat, and we are its modern day destroyer; we are the saviour that will return the land to what it should be. Or what we think it should be. Uncontaminated. Untouched. Pristine, like a bulldozed Eden sheepishly replanted.
We aim for the bottom of the plant with our curved blade, and strike deep.
Following pathways out into the fields, historical trails in the ecosystem, the team lunges out into swathes of the overgrowth. There is no other plant here to worry about, no plant that we might accidentally behead; mora has choked the ground.
The ‘survival of the fitness’ is certainly at work here, although maybe a different type than Darwin was talking about.
Mora contaminates over thirty thousand hectares of the islands; this is set to rise, rather than fall, with the swell of tourism heading to the Galapagos. We are battling just one large, spreading field behind our hut, deep in the interior of San Cristobal Island. And as quickly as we charge forward and retreat, new seeds settle and curl into the soil. How efficient can we really be?
It takes us time to reach this question, in the midst of a slow meditation of machete blows. In the first few days, we are vicarious in our first battle. The swathes of empty ground grow. We imagine the great tortoises that will stand on this land and the native, endemic plants that will tentatively poke up from the soil.
Still 17, unfit and unfamiliar to physical work, I am ravenous after returning from the field, driven into deep sleep each night. I actually get biceps. The tiny stove in the kitchen was barely enough to cook for all of us; we would have to take it in turns, each lunchtime and each suppertime, watching each other’s bowls longingly.
I ate simply in the Galapagos. My hunger there was formed from a combination of exhaustion and desire for instant satiation, but also from the limited food choices on the islands. Most everything is exported from the mainland of Ecuador and further afield; fresh produce was therefore more limited than we expected, apart from of course what grew on the islands. I’d eat pasta cooked with tomato sauce and onions on most days.
Fresh food, as a result, was highly anticipated. When working around the banana trees, a farmer often cut down a branch for us, and we sat on the ground and feasted. We had to be careful to avoid the creatures that made their home in these fruits. Even writing this, I can feel the sensation of spindly legs across my body; the spiders we used to find curled up in these bananas were immense in size, prehistoric in appearance, like they had also been growing from the root of the plant.
In our breaks, we were grateful for a swig of warm milk straight from the bucket. But most of all we were delighted when farmhands came back with huge buckets full of small, round black spheres, maracuyá: voluptuous fruits full of delicious seeds. We would stand around as long as we could, chatting while cutting these in halves with sharp knives, scooping out seeds and sticky juice. I was disappointed by my first one and its bitterness, until someone advised me to swallow them whole. Eating straight from the tree was always an adventure. Sometimes the biggest of fruits had the smallest of portions inside; sometimes the smallest were the juiciest.
The very word conjures up abundance to me. Maracuyá on the Galapagos Island is everywhere, and cheap. Ironically, passion fruits are also another invasive species, like many fruits on the island. It seems to be put to plenty of good use; maracuya is everywhere, from cold smoothies in the cafés to ice cream.
I try and ask for these back in England, but I don’t get very far. Finally I find them on one lucky trip to the grocers, in their English name. They are, of course, passion fruits. When I buy them, I’m disappointed by the shrivelled peas presented to me, four for a pound.
Decepción, or disappointment: the sensation of being let down.
The Spanish word for disappointment seems too similar to the word ‘deception’, two twists to an ugly coin.
We all came here on some sort of quest, the most positive and naive of us thinking we could make a huge difference in a matter of several weeks, the most shrewd of us looking for a cheap trip. As a teenager, and only slightly more clueless than I am these days, I fell somewhere in between, assured that I would do some positive work, whilst enjoying the opportunity to see more of the islands than I would on my own or in the extravagant cruises.
We knew it would be hard work. At the same time, we expected that the people we worked for, those who led these community initiatives, would know what they were doing, and that they would care for the animals and the plants we were supposed to be helping.
It may be cheap to ‘volunteer’ in the Galápagos, for a hundred dollars or so for a shack in the heartlands in exchange for your time every day in the field. But many volunteers I met there found over time that the dedicated conservation projects were not much more than masquerading farms and plots of land.
Once I left the shack behind me, I found there were other ways we could all, as visitors, vote with our money: local crafts shops and cafés; donations for research, science projects on the islands. For every person looking to profit, there were many more people looking to help.
It was thirty minutes to take off. We thought we’d be through the airport quickly and onto the plane, but my friend’s luggage had been caught up in the outdated scanning equipment. Slowly, a member of the security staff unpacked her large suitcase, and took out a large shell. “You can’t take this,” he said flatly.
I’m not entirely sure why she bothered trying. The warnings are everywhere. The Galapagos Islands remain a National Park and a World Heritage Site. Professional photography equipment must be registered by the Directorate. Camping is allowed barely anywhere, as is smoking or campfires. It is illegal to try and take wood, shells, rock or sand from the island.
Tourists have begun to learn, and the numbers are reducing. Overall education, however, remains lacking. The truth is, the money from tourists speaks louder than intentions, and as best said by Jonathan Tourtellot, “if tourism is a double-edged sword, nowhere do both edges gleam more brightly and sharply than in the Galápagos”. Tourism is the unspoken and begrudging way for conservation areas such as national parks, protected areas and even World Heritage Sites to raise funds. After all, if people come to the islands and see their wonders, they will care more about conserving them.
So this is what we hope for, leaving the island behind us and returning to mainland Ecuador. With the power of tourism and the money involved, comes great responsibility.