From the islands that fathered our theory of life, comes the magical tale of the never-born boy and the tortoise who died of sadness.
You hop a bus, ferry and then a 4WD taxi from Galapagos airport into the nerve-center of life on Santa Cruz. It is one of the most beautiful rides on Earth.
Terra firma, Galapagos-style, is a heady masala of flavours Africa, Australia, Greece and Sci Fi blended along an undullous ribbon of tarmac that surfs some of the world’s least storied landscape.
The road rides like a dolphin through the gently rolling landscape and Ooo – there! A giant tortoise slowly mows the verge. And Ooo – there! The scrub parts to reveal huge craters glittering with indigo waters in which nymph nor pharaoh, Viking nor tribesman ever saw their own reflection.
This is a land almost free of human history. A land not yoked and laden by empire, legend or myth.
Here – this air unfettered by words – has a glitter about it. A peculiar brightness, like falling in love.
Blazing through the untold wilderness I feel – for one hour of grace – the heavy load of my own stories dissolving. A thrill like that first rush of champagne. An echo, is it, of that translucent state of Life, before the Beginning – the human one, with its Word, and resultant cacophony.
Everything in me wants to just STOP RIGHT HERE. I want to whisper to the driver, “Let me have Galapagos like this.”
Before the petrol stations, shanties, cafes and ports clutter up the innocence of it…“let’s just stop here.
Let me creep out gently into the wild and lay down in it for a month or a year or a lifetime.”
But such things are Not Allowed. The human animal on the Galapagos islands may not walk off into the wild. May not even set a naked foot upon her unless escorted by a guide in those regulated territories set aside for us, at prices set in US Dollar – unless they work for National Parks, or are a scientist.
And so, we barrel on. Into human habitat with its scent of petroleum and barbecued chicken.
The taxi releases me from its air conditioned bubble, and I wilt instantly on the parched cement of Galapagos’ main business district. Puerto Ayora rears out of rippling heat like a building site on the industrial skirts of an Orwellian hell. The town has a heat-haze reminiscent of bridling stallions composed of vipers of cooked air, diesel fume, dollars and desperation.
It thrumps with the heavy, sweaty rhythm of industry as usual in a habitat that is just too hot for this sort of carry on. A chaos of echoes rebounds off every surface and the people melt, shimmer, wobble and seep body fluids into their cheap Chinese lycra as they set about their myriad ways of moving dollars from pocket to pocket – like everywhere else.
I gaze across the shop fronts; pharmacies, burger joints, hardware, beer fridges, ticket vendors for last minute cruising, dive shops and a huge, imposing hospital smack bang before the port, with dozens of people sprawled out around its flanks.
The waterfront is mid-way through a surgical beautification process involving the demolition of its natural visage, and replacement with one whose parts were imported from China. What stretches between me and the shimmering sea is the last naked stretch of undeveloped foreshore, receiving its final nourishment of sunshine, birdsong and breeze.
Ahead, the long boulevard is already buried beneath 10 inches of desiccated sand and brick, bringing Galapagos that suspicious glory known as ‘development’.
The ‘beautified’ malecon will soon look more like the photo-shopped sexy future waterfront property developers have been flogging off to consortiums and other gamblers lately. And less like it has for those wordless Millennia it has been here. Millennia which manged to create and nurture all life as we know it, without any mind, nor mouth having ever conceived that word, ‘progress’.
With one foot on the doomed sand, and the other on the new red paving I can feel in my own flesh the actual reality of that much argued about ‘possibility’ even a half-baked blonde can testify to; climate-change.
The beautification work is having a sort of open-air microwave effect on things. To my right side, new bricks are evidently much, much hotter than the remnant sand road to my left.
The baking sheet of new road roasts the last flesh of an already enfeebled onshore breeze, which has picked up so much sun off the posh glass, and relentless cement along the foreshore that you can just about see the glitter dying in mid-air and falling to the ground in heaps of ash.
On an island where conservationists and biologists have swollen tongues from all their raving on about understanding and conserving the environment it’s kinda kooky, and sortof sickly to witness an entire ecosystem being ploughed into a shopping strip right under the noses of the world’s most noisy NGOs.
Being the optimistic type, I decide not to dwell on all this and dash brightly across the bitumen to feast upon the waters that (allegedly) helped Charles Darwin, and then all humanity change our view of life, the universe and everything.
Ah – the heavenly delight of that rush to the sea!
There she lies… twinkling and rippling in a bright, cool seduction. I lean over the railings to drink the salty nectar of the far, far Pacific, and seek the shapes we all come here for: shape of iguana, shape of penguin, pelican and our own nature-loving selves.
Lovely red crabs skitter about on a mean-looking rubble of black lava. The calm, fizzing waters of wide, wide sea breathe off puffs of redeeming ions and… what’s that? And that? Oh! Shit! They’re Everywhere!
As my eyes adjust to Galapagos frequency iguana, seals, pelicans, rays and other creatures start composing themselves into view… and the weirdness turns up a notch.
My cones and rods adjust their apertures wildly, but no.. it’s actually real – every moving thing, every single living thing larger than an ant on the foreshore of Santa Cruz is attached to an antenna.
Perhaps scientists are comforted by a scene such as this: wild things zipping about here and there with belts, buckles, or bolts driven through them from which transmitters gossip up to satellites and satellites report back to computers key facts about ‘life’.
For me, there is a rage about it, this horror at watching innocent creatures turned into machines by organisations that claims to protect and serve nature, but are in fact the full expression of a Big Brother impulse, practicing on animals, before they get to people.
I’d spit into the water, if it wasn’t filthy already, and am scowling heavily over the railings when the Fates call out CUT! And send in an emergency angel.
Stage right: He arrives on a clapped out bicycle, smelling of Old Spice and deepwater. Mario drops his rickety chariot under a sagging palm with a mortal-ish clatter and flings himself at the view beside me – his heart to the horizon and his arms spread crucifixion.
“Fuckers.” He says. And turns to beam at me deliciously.
I can tell, from the strange radiance of his freshly laundered dive-shirt, his symmetrical grin and luxurious irises, that he is of the Order of Good Men that have forever ridden into my biography on rusted-out chariots – and saved me from too much reality.
The mingled elixirs of a mutual horror, bewilderment and willingness to trip the lightfantastic anyway etch matching symbols across our gaze, mine blue, his brown, as they fuze in a magical helix across the beauty and the beastliness of Mario’s radio-active islands, this Galapagos.
“Passionfruit gelato?” I offer.
We set off, my wilting story-burdened self, and Mario, sizing up visibly under his sudden destiny as confidante, protector and father to my neverborn son.
The best gelato on Galapagos is to be found at Galapagos Deli. About this, at least, there is no doubt.
The owners may be scowly, and serve the most unimaginative scrambled eggs on the enchanted isles, but their gelato is to die for.
He chooses chocolate, and I have passionfruit, of course, while Mario tells me in a bubbly Spanglish how he was born and raised among the mangroves, the mountains, lava fields, rock pools and deep water wonderlands of Galapagos. How he knows and loves the islands but is forbidden now, by the ruling body, National Parks, to visit the places of his youth.
Despite his local knowledge, his life-long passion for nature, biology, diving, exploring and his beautiful, rich mind full of intimate wisdom for the islands he is not allowed to guide here. He is forbidden from making a living telling the stories and sharing the gifts of 45 years as a second generation actual Galapaguano – because he can’t pass the National Parks test.
This seems kinda smelly to me. It reminds me of the hellofatodo I had trying to assist Australian Aboriginal elders to share the meaning of the dreamtime stories their own families had carved into the rock in the Royal National Park near Sydney.
I tell Mario about how there, any rambler can stumble on the sites and chip away at them with a pen-knife if he likes, National Parks guides can lead walkers if they feel like it, but if an Aboriginal wants to tell those stories Rangers will call the cops to get rid of him.
True story. It was me that had to deal with it when Uncle Max Harrison, the last surviving elder of the entire region, dared to share stories on his own ancestral land one day, and all manner of National Park hell came down upon him.
We sigh. We eat ice-cream. And Mario and I pull our focus in around our little cones of gold and brown to share our own stories: about the histories and futures we’d lost.
Mine was a fresh wound. The baby, neverborn in Vilcabamba. Whose father had scarpered off to live with shamanic entrepreneurs and practice Thai boxing and psychedelic journeying further up the Andes when the last ultrasound said, No Longer Viable..
That was a loss, caused by forces cruel, benevolent, selective or whatever… and I had managed it.
I dug the grave myself. In the pretty spiral veggie patch the fleet-footed father had built. It was the only seed ever planted there, while we lived and our love died in Vilcabamba.
I managed it, but did not really survive it in the sense that while I had all the basic signs of life one could send to a satellite, I hadn’t had an actual experience of life other than struggling for nearly a whole year now.
These are things your friends can’t really help with. Perhaps nothing much can. There was only one woman in the town where I lived who hugged me when she saw me afterwards. A man mentioned it once too, not longer after, he said, “Oh, yeah.. I thought you were getting fat!”
Other than that, everybody just ignored it. “Life goes on.” “Onward and upward”. “No use crying over spilled milk…” etc. It was weird. But people are weird – or just frightened of dealing with the losses in life, having been so focused, mainly, on keeping on keeping on.
I had a deep, unshakeable case of Actual Sadness that was not so much about the neverborn baby, but about having been abandoned. About indifference.
Abandoned, I can tell you. Sucks. It is like dancing about in a field of daisies one minute, then falling quite suddenly through a hole in the world and finding yourself in a cement coffin.
That’s what it feels like. And it goes on for aaaages. Ages and ages and eons and suchlike are crammed into minutes and days and weeks when you feel abandoned. Your body, weirdly, keeps doing what needs to be done to keep itself working, but the rest of you (that which may or may not even exist, according to atheists and reasonable types) is in an agony of just wanting to curl up under a flowering tree and dissolve into the soil.
Knowing he has nothing but the slightest grasp of English I feel totally safe to describe all this to Mario at the gelato bar, my passionfruit dripping between my fingers, and chocolate melting on his tongue.
“This feeling, where does it reside?” I ask, feeling sheltered by the language barrier. “How do you measure it?”
“Is it hostile to life, or part of it? Is it slowly killing us, or making us fit for the next round? And is it only humans who feel this? Is that why we’ve never bothered to plot grief or sadness, loss, love or joy on our compass for understanding what we think of as Life – those atoms, and species, those urges and impulses.”
“What do you think, Mario? Those antennae feeding off the pulses and movements of living things on Santa Cruz, do they tell us anything at all about what it is to be alive as iguana, penguin, sea lion or shark? Do animals have Life – as we know it? Or are they wind-up toys we can know by their clockwork?”
It’s a wonderful thing to pour your heart out to a man who doesn’t understand your language. It’s very freeing. I recommend it.
I was basking in the lightness of having just set one story free to the air, when Mario was gripped with a primal shudder and bent over in a crumpled shape across the last of his gooey gelato.
“Lonesome George,” he moaned.
“They kill him also,” he wailed..
And a large chocolaty hiccup announced the arrival of a huge orb of glittering tear-water which exploded itself into smithereens across the last of his ice-cream.
“The National Park. They kill him. They kill all of us here too.”
I’m stunned and afraid to see this bounding man crushed into misery as he tells me of the loss of not a child, but a tortoise, and how it felt for the people who love this, their home, Galapagos.
The story of Lonesome George is a world-famous narrative in devastation, conservation, animal-meddling and human idiocy that inspired, and then saddened the world, leaving an extinct species and lot of merchandise in its wake.
Wiki puts him in a nutshell like this: “Lonesome George (c. 1910 – June 24, 2012) was a male Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) and the last known individual of the subspecies. In his last years, he was known as the rarest creature in the world. George serves as a potent symbol for conservation efforts in the Galápagos Islands and throughout the world.”
George had been rendered Lonesome by human development of his Galapagos homeland, actually, and when said same humans later found him there alone they swiftly agreed they knew just what to do with him and whisked him away from the only thing he had left as the last of his species on Earth – his native land and habitat.
From then on he had been studied in captivity, sampled, used as a tourist attraction and revenue generator by his ‘rescuers’ at the Charles Darwin Research Station and pestered, coaxed and even man-handled into mating for more than 40 years.
All attempts at salvaging George’s species failed dismally, and the last ever Pinta Island tortoise finally died, taking his right to choose non-paternity with him after decades in captivity in a strange land, constantly pestered, bothered and masturbated by the humanity that had wiped out all the others.
After they found his body, National Parks said, “His life-cycle had come to an end”. But many, including David Attenborough sighed, saying that Lonesome George may have died about 100 years before his time. Even if he was one hundred, as Parks claim, wikipedia regrets to sign off on his file, writing that this “is not especially old for a Galápagos tortoise.”
Why environmentalists claim his story as a symbol for their good work is somewhat a mystery.
Mario doesn’t agree though. He says Lonesome George is the perfect symbol for conservationists and the bureaucrats who have muscled in on the local people for control of the islands and custody of its legends.
“And they can be use his grave too!” he says, rallying up to full size. “They kill our last one, the last beautiful baby of Pinta Island! They kill him in their prison, with their sad life they force him to survive.
“His grave is their truth about what they know of life.”
Mario is commanding the space with the passion of a wounded parent. I can see, it’s for real – Lonesome George did not just ‘go extinct’, he was stolen, miss-treated, and died of misery, lost forever as a being, a loved creature and a symbol for the people who fear they too will be destroyed by forces who don’t understand what it is to be a free being, alive on the land.
“They kill him with the depression. All for money!” he shakes his heavy curls.
“The National Park,” he spits out the words. “is only for de money! They, they do not know the nature, they do not know what this is, the beauty of living that is the real nature – that is the everything coming from and where everything just needs to let be.
For them life is only control, for the thinking coming from their books, and nothing de nunca of what this life, she is for. She is about us – together; the living and the land – not this dividing, dividing, dividing into boxes and dollars and how you say? De Facts!
“They know nothing what it means: life – about why a man and an animal, why they must, to survive, be need free on this Earth.”
Mario is angry and sad, he is full of passion and grief. I believe what he says – it’s suddenly obvious to me.
But Lonesome George, I decide not to tell him, has no grave to be worshiped, or sold tickets to.
This was the only act of ‘preservation’ the organisation was to actually achieve. It was not without its problems though. Bitter feuds over custody of the corpse are ongoing.
Lonesome George was never, ever to know the scent or the relief of his native soil – even in death. he was frozen, skinned, disemboweled, polished, petrified, forced into a standing pose that tortoises only rarely assume, and used as the poster-boy for the un-dead by organisations dedicated to the history of human thinking.
George became known as ‘the face of extinction’. But even more horrific to consider is National Geographic’s news in 2012 that, “in an area known as Volcano Wolf—on the secluded northern tip of Isabela, another Galápagos island—the researchers have identified 17 hybrid descendants of C. abingdoni within a population of 1,667 tortoises.”
So that would make the whole Lonesome George story a fiasco of bad science, human ignorance, and bad zoo-keeping.
Is this really the best science can come up with still? And yet claim for itself a status higher than other sorts of knowledge!
To the disgust of some of the locals on Galapagos, George remains a symbol for the islands – both as a National Parks scientific playground, and as a reminder of the rare and wondrous life-forms that lived in this tough habitat, and inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. While they just see him as a sacrifice to the cruelty of the scientific mind.
Darwin’s observation of differences between tortoises on the many islands helped him understand how animals can adapt to their conditions. But he had nothing to say on how they might adapt to being pushed to extinction by ‘progress’, then rescued from the brink by a humanity that thinks it has a grip on the realities of life on Earth.
“Sometimes, I hate the place,” groans Mario.
“The research station, it has made the whole place into their prison, for experiments and torture and disrespect. Life here – this life is a trap made of science!”
We sit in a silence half miserable, half beautiful, until Mario shakes off the spell and calls the waitress for paper and a pen.
“But for you,” he says. “I can make a solution. Here.”
He touches the nib of the biro to his tongue and leans down in earnest over a fresh page in the waitress’ notebook.
“Let’s have a boy,” he smiles. And he draws him. “Your son. And he will be mine.”
“What will we call him? Who have you loved?”
“Michael,” I say.
“Ah, lovely,” he beams. “On his left side we will name him, for me, Javir, and on the right – because of all we know that is beautiful in this life, we call him Momento!” he declares proudly.
“And here, above him, we write the name of his destiny, the gift of his mother: wisdom.”
Mario and I beam at the boy he has made us. ‘Yes, he is fine,” says the happy father. “But he needs muscles. He is strong.” And he sketches in some ample biceps.
“Perfect! An excellent boy.” Mario tears our son from the book, holds him up to the light and hands him to me saying, “I give you our baby – the hope of our Galapagos.”