Monday, March 19, 2007

Galapagos day 9 – Cruise day 4 – Santa Cruz Island

As I expected when spending time on the island where we already spent a few nights, this was the least interesting of the cruise days so far. Again, it seemed to be a day off for the majority of the staff, while we were kept away from the boat until evening.

The morning started off nice, with a two-time viewing of a group of 13-14 golden rays off the side of the ship, even though we were anchored in harbor.

What I liked least was all the breaks throughout the day. It seemed to me we were just passing time, 20 minutes for ice cream in the morning, over two hours for lunch, another 20 minutes for a drink in the afternoon. While we have such breaks on the boat and I appreciate the chance to spend a little time in the room, to read or to write to just to relax, on land I had nothing to do and felt bored.

We started out at the Charles Darwin research center, a hot, humid walk across town. And other than seeing the cute baby turtles they breed in captivity, it wasn’t a very interesting exhibition.

One story I enjoyed was that of Lonesome George, the Center’s conservation icon since the 1970s. He is a 90 kilogram giant tortoise who was found on Pinta Island in 1971. A man named Peter Pecker had read has a child that the giant tortoise species on Pinta was extinct. So he was very excited to hear about this discovery.

Scientists tried everything possible to get him to reproduce, including bringing in an Italian specialist to manipulate him by hand. But nothing worked. Juan told us that tortoises probably learn sexual behavior from others or by hormones trigged by watching others. George, left alone as a baby, missed out on that. As a result, he seems unable to develop a sexual interest or to perform, despite being exposed to younger males being sexually active. His plight shows the importance of turtles having behavioral models to learn from in the wild.

Charles Darwin was impressed by both the number and size of giant tortoises when he visited the Galapagos. He wrote about how Spaniards found fresh water by following the tracks that went from the seacoast to wells.

“I could not imagine what animal traveled so methodically along the well-chosen tracks,” he wrote. “Near the springs it was a curious spectacle to behold many of these great monsters; one set eagerly traveling onwards with outstretched necks, and another set returning, after having drunk their fill.”

He compared the tortoise bladder to a frogs, which acts as a reservoir for the moisture it needs to exist. After visiting the springs, the urinary bladder became distended with fluid, gradually decreased in volume and became less pure. The inhabitants, when overcome with thirst, would kill a tortoise. If the bladder was full, it would drink its contents.

“In one I saw killed,” Darwin wrote, “the fluid was quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste.”

They ate the meat, both fresh and salted, and made a “beautifully clear” oil from the fat.

From there, we went to lunch at Juan’s aunt’s house, a hacienda in the green highlands of Santa Cruz. They have a pavilion where they served grilled chicken to tourists, and a pool where we were able to take a dip. I tried cold lemongrass tea there, which tasted like a refreshing mixture of tea and lemonade.

After lunch we took some walks through the highlands. We walked through an escalacia forest, trees that are tally and bushy on time. The Cuban/Spanish cedars had the unique feature of emitting a scent of garlic, making it seem as though something good was cooking in the forest, like we’d soon approach a fresh pot of stew. The two crater holes were impressive. It was like a sinkhole, with the trees and grows growing within as usual, just far down, as though the land had fallen.

Juan took us to a lava tube. It was formed during a lava flow. When it moved like a basaltic river, the part that had contact with the air solidified and the area below kept flowing. There are several such tubes on the island, but some have been modified for tourists, with smoothed over paths and installed lights. This was a natural one. We scampered over damp rocks to get inside the tall arched tunnel, looking at dense greenery growing at either end.

Finally, we walked through the farm of Steven Divine, the owner of Moonrise Travel. His parents sailed here from Washington State in the 1950s and started a farm. He now owns a sizeable tract of land where giant tortoises saunter through, as well as run a successful tour agency. In crossing over his land, we found a giant turtle. The large male was more shy than those we’d seen in captivity at the research center.

For me, the most interesting part of the day had nothing to do with wildlife viewing, but the local political situation. As we returned to town, where we had a little free time before returning to the board, I saw some protestors. I asked Juan what was going on and he explained that he was planning to join the protest.

According to Juan, the Ecuadorian air force, based on the island of Baltra (where the airport is) has been engaged in illegal activities, such as leading kayak trips to places where kayaking shouldn’t occur (and they shouldn’t be involved in tourism activities) and selling gas to boat operators, undercutting local gas suppliers.

Several members of the national park captured some of these illegal activities on video and they planned to report these violations. The air force wanted to get the video from them, so they beat up a national park leader (I think the director), so badly he almost died. Shortly afterwards, the national park representatives went to confront the air force about selling gas to tourist boats. Again, there was a confrontation and the national park representative, a woman, was beaten enough to be hospitalized.

The protest was organized to protest the use of excessive violence by the Ecuadorian air force and they assembled quite a large crowd. While at an internet café near the center of town, we heard the 4x4 come down the street with a loudspeaker. I went outside to take a picture. Policemen in their brown pants and khaki tops walked on either side. Behind the pickup truck came two young woman, carrying a sign that read “Say No to Violence.”

Suddenly, a bedraggled looking man standing in between the pickup and the women holding the banner started to spin wildly and sparks began to fly. Something was exploding and it was just directly across the street from where I was standing. I bent down and ran into the internet café, ducking under the window frame for cover. I was sure shots were ringing out or a bomb or grenade was going to go off. “So this is what it’s like to be the victim of a bomb attack” I thought as I instinctively sought cover and fearfully awaited to see if the building I was in would explode. Another tourist in my group hit the floor.

When I next peeked out, the street was smoky and the women holding the banner looked dazed, but the protestors continued on ahead. I went out and took a few photos.

“I should warn you, this could be violent,” said an Englishwoman who seemed to live in the area. “They are protesting the military.”

I couldn’t believe that the police didn’t react to the explosives and that the man just seemed to disappear. The Englishwoman explained that whenever a meeting is going to be held, the tradition is to set off fireworks to announce that people come down to attend it. So this guy wasn’t trying to blow up the protestors, as I feared, but was announcing the presence of a demonstration. One of our shipmates got a picture on his digital camera. And from that, we can see that the idiot was smoking while holding a handful of firecrackers and a coke bottle. And so they must have accidentally all gone off.

Most of the internet café customers cleared out and I, shaken by the experience, was ready to go too. But once the protest passed by, we decided to stay. The last time I was in Ecuador, in early 2001, my mom and I found ourselves in the midst of a protest by indigenous groups. This caused us to have to raft down a river on inner tubes in order to get out of our jungle lodge and we were even held by the protestors for several hours. It seems to be quite easy to get caught up in civil unrest here, despite the large tourist presence.

By the time we went to the docks for our dinghy ride back to the boat, the protestors were gathered in the central park and a man was making an impassioned speech about the civilians inability to live in an environment where rules are not followed and order is not maintained. Our guide, Juan, skipped dinner in order to participate in the protests himself He is an intelligent, passionate, and caring person, with dreams of creating a school on a boat for local poor children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see the islands. And he cares about the park rules being followed by everyone, even the military.

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