What a strange and lovely place this is! The other day I walked several miles down a white sandy beach to a place called Tortuga Bay, where huge marine iguanas sun themselves on the volcanic rocks. These are the creatures that Darwin once called “stupid.” Not so when it comes to territory. As I followed a footpath, two enormous males began stalking each other. The larger iguana suddenly pounced on the other, and they thrashed around in the sand, biting each others’ backs and tails. Then they stopped and stood there nose to nose for a few seconds until the loser backed off one scaly step at a time. The alpha male had reclaimed his territory in a thicket of giant prickly pear cactus.
I spent Christmas Eve with friends at a restaurant across the bay in Puerto Ayora. To get there I had to take a “water taxi.” Stepping into that boat in a dress and high heels felt somewhat exotic, like a scene out of an old Hollywood movie filmed in Singapore. We ate a five-course meal, which included duck in champagne sauce, and watched fireworks burst over the town like electric flowers.
A few days later I took a speedboat to Villamil on Isabela Island, a traditional fishing town on the western side of the archipelago where Volcan Sierra Negra erupted in 2005. The streets are made of sand and it’s possible to walk all over town barefoot. On days when the seas are too rough to fish, the pescadores play checkers with beer bottle caps and bingo with popcorn kernels. I tried my hand at bingo one night, trying to keep up with the announcer, who spit out numbers faster than a lava lizard catching a fly. Thankfully, I lost. The prizes were all made of plastic & probably made in China.
One day I went out in a skiff to a place called Las Tintoreras to look at white-tipped reef sharks and to snorkel with green sea turtles. The turtles have begun nesting, and in February I’ll accompany a sea turtle biologist into the field and camp out for four nights to help monitor the hatchlings. I’m told that for a baby sea turtle to survive here, it must hatch at night. Those that emerge from their nests in daylight become instant breakfast for frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and other hungry predators. The site we’ll visit is a seven-hour walk from Villamil, but we’ll travel there by boat.
New Year’s Eve brought this sleepy town to life. There were traditional contests, like egg tossing, and on every street people had erected effigies of friends, neighbors, and foes (including George W. Bush & Stalin). And then there were the “viudas,” or widows, men who dress as women in black with balloons stuffed in their shirts and the butts of their skirts. They wore wigs, high heels, and fake nails. One viuda was a local policeman with thighs the size of sequoias. On every corner, salsa music blared from loudspeakers. Then at midnight, all those effigies went up in smoke. Flames burst through the eyes of a tall figure in the town square as children watched in awe, way past their bedtime. Young boys set off firecrackers on the sidewalks, people danced on the beach, and young couples found openings in the mangroves & made love. Welcome to 2008 in this endangered paradise!