I’m on my way home to Texas from the Galapagos Islands, where I spent eight days with a group of teenage students and two other teachers. At home, my husband and parents took care of my 14-month old son, Graham, who was my only hesitation about accepting the offer to chaperone a fully funded school trip. The islands so inspired and confounded me that I’m working on a long-form essay about them, one involving research and time, but here I am on a five hour overnight flight in row 30 of a plane with the tiniest seats ever made. My foot’s asleep and Ford Young’s head hits my shoulder every few minutes and I can’t drink wine in front of the young’uns, so why not blog too?
We traveled to Quito first, a mountainous and handsome city, and one that made sense to me given my extensive travels to Latin America when I was a younger woman. A new city for me, but somehow, a familiar one. From Quito, we flew to Guayaquil on the coast and then to the islands. When we arrived, we descended a stairwell from the plane’s back doors and stepped onto a landing strip carved into the arid zone of the island: small cacti were the only plant, lava rocks were strewn about the dusty ground. But an ocean wind whipped up from the water in the near distance and dispelled the heat. Turquoise water, so crystalline blue-green against the desert landscape that I was momentarily knocked off-kilter. It was uncanny, the juxtaposition of arid stillness and wet undulation, the rust color and the blue, bone and flesh. My brain couldn’t get a grasp on things. But in my heart, faint echoes of my former self sung into my chest cavity, and filled it with ache, something like nostalgia or de ja vu but more erotic than that, more primal. Deep parts of my inner body vibrated that I hadn’t felt in years. The paradox of the place unhinged me. I felt…bewitched.
The Galapagos Islands are one long string of paradoxes. Paradox is a literary device employed by many a postcolonial writer, since by definition it juxtaposes two seemingly opposing ideas or feelings that, when placed in close proximity to each other, reveal a deep truth about life. Paradox makes hybrid what were once separate beasts. Beauty and pain. Love and hate. Individualism and community. Rich and poor. Colonizer and colonized. And like all of the Americas, Ecuador has its colonial story, its postcolonial growing pains that make easy binaries impossible.
One day we traveled two hours on a boat to Sante Fe Island, an island full of sea lions and iguanas with a bay so beautiful it seems lifted straight out of some mystical fairy tale. During our voyage, the students piled on top of each other and sank into sun-soaked cushions at the front of the boat much like the furry sea mammals we hoped to observe snuggled together on hot rocks or sand. A freshman student, clad only in a black string bikini, cocked her hip and said, “Ms. Fleming, this must be what Odysseus felt like on Calypso’s island.”
“Yeah, yeah,” another student of mine said. “Penelope was doing just fine on her own—why leave a place like this?”
Then another student, a junior boy—all naked chest and knobby legs in his long swim trunks—one who had a different teacher his freshman year and so didn’t learn the Odyssey from me, chimed in, “Yeah, who needs Penelope? Leave her with her loom.”
(The creatures, when you least expect it, talk intelligently about literature on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I die. Of course, their attention shifted quickly to other more important topics like Kanye and breakfast tacos.)
They were referring, of course, to Greek literature, the seven years Odysseus spends on the lush and dreamlike island of Ogygia with the lustruous nymph, Calypso. Seven years. When back in his native Ithaca he has a beautiful wife and a young son. My freshman boys LOVE to talk about Calypso trapping our hero in her “deep arching caverns,” a euphemism they never grow tired of, ever. Homer characterizes Calypso as a sorceress, an enchantress who seduces Odysseus, forestalling his homecoming. But many scholars read Calypso as the archetypal lover whose womb protects the wounded man so that he may be restored and travel home. The paradox: in order to arrive home, he must rest for a while in the arms of a numinous and dazzling goddess. He must succumb to the postponement. He must let himself be enchanted.
One Spanish name for the Galapagos (Literal translation: saddles, because the giant tortoises’ pocked shells so resembled them) is Las Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands. It’s odd, actually, this name, since before Charles Darwin made the isles famous by researching finches and using that research to help cohere his theory of evolution, most people who encountered the islands—whalers and pirates—found it uninhabitable, hostile, a real hellhole. Herman Melville was so unimpressed he wrote, “In no world but a fallen one could such a place exist.” These visitors used the word “enchanted” as a warning. Rumor had it that one “enchantment” turned wicked sea captains into tortoises, so that they lived long Sisyphean afterlives of toil in the scorching netherworld of the Galapagos as punishment for their mortal cruelty.
My impression? It’s not an easy place. I’ve never stepped onto any island that was easy, actually. And I love islands, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog. Baby sea lions die when El Nino reduces the number of fish their mothers can offer them. Frigates and boobies and finches reproduce and survive, as do iguanas and spiders and mangroves and Spanish cedars and hogfish and crabs and whimbrels and mockingbirds and pelicans. Humans too. People work to reduce the number of invasive species and plants. Goats, blueberries, now dogs. But even conservation is tricky, maybe not to ecologically-minded foreigners for whom the island is an abstraction, but certainly for locals for whom the island is—or was—their home. Their situation, complicated by corruption and economic reality, is as precarious as any lesser creature’s. The Galapagos teaches us: that an organism remains unaware of his predators does not make them any less dangerous. In the place that birthed evolutionary theory, evangelical churches prey on people’s misfortune and hope, charm them into devotion, so that even some tour guides reject the science they recite in tortured English to happy travelers. Islanders everywhere, circled in by the sea, (think Ireland, Cuba, Crete, the Phillipines, Palau, Haiti, Newfoundland…) perhaps understand better than any of us that the human condition, if a wonder, is also a trap. Paradoxes abound.
For example: I missed my son and my husband like hell, and still, on my last morning I lingered in my stilted tent at the Safari Camp and stared into the scalesia trees, and beyond them, where the humid zone merged into the arid zone which merged into the coastal zone, and beyond that, out past the sand and shore, to Daphne Major and Daphne Minor, sister islands on the horizon, and beyond them too, into the blue water, the blue sky, into a past that taught me how to be a woman alone. I listened to the sound of all that life around me. Cows, insects, winged things, the high-pitched squeals of adolescent girls. And all that death. Let’s say I longed for home, and I also ached to stay, for caverns to hide in, cool and dank like the lava tunnel through which we stumbled earlier in the week until we all stood in a pool of grassy light that shined through a giant hole in the earth. Let’s say I’ve been enchanted. La encantada. Everything glistens: the sunken ledges and rock shelves in my snorkel’s mask, the pink-orange petals of sunburn blooming on my exposed skin, the archipelago of freckles across the bridge of a beautiful nose, the smooth back of a well-loved female tortoise, the glint of wet fur on a sea lion who waddles into the tide, the twitching knee of a 14 year old boy seated next to his crush on the bus, the sound of Graham’s blind humming through my iPhone, the male frigate’s red and swollen throat, all our carnal desire to live, goddamnit, live. Driven by our souls or our DNA—or I don’t know what—we burn and burn and burn and burn, all over the world we burn, but maybe most strongly here at the middle latitude, face to face as we are to the tender fire of our closest star.