Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In God We Trust: In Jesus, Chocolate and Art We Thrive

Iglesia de Francisco de Assisi

Monastery Courtyard
The bells tolled early this bright Sunday morning, our last but busy day in Ecuador. The whole city goes to the many masses on the hour in each of the extraordinarily decorated churches. Humble families squeeze together in the pews. 

We set out with plans to visit seven churches within walking distance and by lunch time, Mary and I had heard the gospel read 4 times in Spanish,  prayed the Lord’s prayer in Spanish, listen to 3 sermons in Spanish about the Reign of God and even Romans 7 about having discipline problems because the body wants to do what the mind knows is wrong. We sang Spanish songs I remembered from Uruguay, and saw each priest hold up the round holy wafer as he offered it before the Lord. Mary and I were tempted to share in the Eucharist with the supplicants, no one would know if we were Roman Catholic or Anglican Catholic, but something restrained us. Respect, I guess. Although we all say the same Creeds - about the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church - we could not share the Lord’s supper with each other - because the two of us were not Roman Catholic, and we have been divorced and therefore are in continual sin, - that’s what I was told in Uruguay by a Monsignor who didn’t like that a woman had been ordained to Holy Orders - and therefore it seemed we were not sufficiently clean to share the bread and the wine with the people. It hurts but orders are orders. So, we wandered down the huge aisles along the sides of the nave looking at the various statues of Christ and the Virgins of assorted sorts, which were adorned in petitions, flowers, and glamour and of course the enormous floor to ceiling ornate golden altars in the Baroque style (means over-kill in gold, silver, putti or cherubs, angels, animals,) and always in the cupola a reference to the Inca Sun God. 
Carmelitas Church

A Favorite Diptych

We actually visited the churches/monasteries of the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Dominicans, the Jesuits and the Merceds and finally San Augustinians. But first, across the street from our hotel stands a large church attached to a nunnery. On a balcony nuns were chanting behind a wooden screen, not connecting to those praying below. Depicted along the walls were worshiped saints I have never seen. Most impactful was the Senor de la Justicia figure which shows Jesus in silver sandals sitting on a bench, (a mock throne), holding a cane, his head pierced by the crown of thorns, blood dripping down his face, his hands tied with a rope. The worried pray to this statue for mercy and just solutions to problems. There is also always a large statue of the winged Immaculate Virgin of Quito stomping on the serpent and unique in all my interest in Santos, icons and Christ and Virgin images, was  a large wooden cross on which a very plain young woman in a long brown dress and bared feet had been crucified. We were curious as to who this was, because it was not Joan of Arc or any saint we had seen before. We were told it was  a tribute to Regina, an Ecuadorian saint,  but that is all we could find out, but it was shocking to see a young girl crucified.
Nunnery across from Hotel

El Senor de La Justicia

The huge  cobblestone Franciscan square (with no benches, flowers or sculptures in it) where in the past plays and bullfights were held, is the heart and soul of Quito. The poorest and humblest people enter the giant doors into the golden heaven beyond, one of the most ornate Baroque churches in South America.  There is a legend about the Quitenos stonemason and the devil, the one trying to finish the square, the other trying to stop it from happening, with the devil actually finishing the job for the stonemason but leaving one stone unplaced (by accident) that invalidated their pact so the stonemason would not have to endure the tortures of hell. Well, it’s a legend.  The pulpit features the three enemies of Catholicism - Luther, Calvin and Arius, carrying on their shoulders for eternity the weight of the one true Church. The interior is ornate with its Renaissance-styled mirrored side altars, the Colonial-Romanesque stone columns, and a Moorish choir ceiling and the ample Baroque gold leaf and often gaudy sculptures and Medieval murals are awesome but the Fray Pedro Gocial museum is extraordinary and is found in the hallways around one of the many huge very simple palm filled courtyards where peace and prayer fill the air. 
ceiling of a church

Senor del Buena Esperanza

On another corner a real find was the Museo del Carmen Alto in the Monasterio del Carmen de San Jose and Santa Mariana de Jesus, Ecuador’s only true Saint. It is the order of the Carmelites of Quito and 21 nuns are in constant prayer for us and the world. The monastery was built in1653, but the first class museum has only been restored and open to public a couple of days, when we happened to go up the stairs to see what it was. The images and art work in the museum  planted visuals in our souls that we’ll never forget. Sadly, no photography is allowed in any of the churches during the masses, so I can’t share their beauty with you. Mariana de Jesus was a self flagellating nun who died at age 26. In a setting in the museum, she is laid out on her bed surrounded by all who were at the Last Supper (but the good Judas), two angels and two women whose names I wrote down but cannot read.  This museum with three floors of scenes and galleries was a miracle. 

Considered one of the most beautiful Baroque churches in the Americas is La Compania  de Jesus. It took 160 years to make it what it is today even though for a time it was left to rot. It has an artistic case of Horror Vacui (horror of space), which is an obsession to fill every last nook and cranny with decor  and excessive symbolism such as fertility and joy represented by vines and grapes; open pomegranates for Jesus crown of thorns; seraphims and cherubims to attach the Compania to Heaven. To sit under all the ornate tribute to our Lord is moving. 
Embroidery

At Door of St. Augustin

On the ceiling of the Church of the Dominicans, the story of Jesus is told through the sacred heart - instead of the figure of Jesus occupying the places he normally would, there is just the Sacred Heart.  Here, as in other churches, the most shocking visual was the use of real human hair on Mary and Jesus and other Saints. Apparently it is an honor to have your hair used in this way, after your own death, of course. One artist had tortured his model so that he died, and then he took his skull, added some clay, and put it on one of the Jesus statues. What I had not been familiar with (and trust me, I’ve been a pilgrim of religious art all over the world) is that on crucifixes and other statues of Jesus, look at the back - you see the skin so lashed it is hanging, and blood running down his back. Showing the blood on the back and on Jesus face is big time here in Quito religious art. 

In one of the churches (I cannot remember which), females carried the gospel book down the aisle and were assisting at the altar, although they were acolytes. But that’s a start.  I also learned why people named Joseph are called PePe. The Ps stand for Putative Padre - which is when a Father is not the biological Father, as in Joseph, the putative Father of Jesus. Putative Fathers are part of the conflict in Foster Care Reviews. We also visited the Church of La Merced where the Virgin of the Volcano is honored. Less ornate, its ceilings were still havens of pink and blue and gold. It is a quite gem of the great team of embellished tributes to Christ and the Saints that are around every corner in this city. 
Typical statue of Jesus

Guayasamin's Holy Family

My favorite church was the last one where an African priest held sway and his sermon was sensitive and moving, unlike others which were rather monotonous in tone and crisply dictated. The Church of St. Augustine in Quito grabs your attention with it’s huge doors and they were opened so we went in. This felt more like home, but just as ornate as the other churches. It is dedicated to El Senor de la Buena Esperanza (The Jesus of Good Hope). The central sculpture of the Altar is the figure of this Jesus in a red robe with a wired corn of thorns and the silver sandals again, similar to the Justice statue.  Strange to me was his silver crown from which three large silver fans arose representing, I gather, the Trinity. And a display of amazing velvet robes highly ornate with embroidery showed what the people dress on the figure of El Senor de la Buena Esperanza when he is paraded through the streets on his Saint day. This was our final morning stop for prayer and adoration for our God.

Chocolate Class
After all this religiosity, we wandered into the quaint district  Calle de la Ronda, where there are shops and people dance in the streets and enjoy life. We stopped for a chocolate tasting - and please understand, Ecuador makes the best chocolate in the world, most of it exported and used under popular brands. In this tiny shop, dark chocolate reigns - and we were given an idea of how chocolate is harvested and prepared for our savory enjoyment. We tried 100 per cent dark chocolate with no sugar or butter or additives, the chocolate which is beneficial to our health. It was delicious. So now I believe a chip of 100 per cent dark chocolate a day is a way to keep healthy. We tried truffles filled with blackberries (in season now), passion fruit, macadamia nuts, and little coins with ginger or salt on them. A good meal. I’m convinced.

I Cry Because he doesn't have shoes
 until I see he doesn't have feet.
“When I paint the hand, the mouth, the teeth or the eyes, these are not only plastic forms. I want to express in them more than the plastic in itself. I want to express the crying eye, these teeth that are biting these anguished, vibrating hands
Guayasamin Crucifixion

On this last day, we had to make a visit to the museum and home of Ecuador’s most famous artist, one that even my granddaughter Megan had studied at Harpeth Hall in Nashville. Guyasamin’s work and words - he was extreme leftist and concentrated on depicting the poor in agony - are amazing and worth the trip. His museum is a huge block built in scale to house his enormous paintings. When you leave, you can pay tribute to the artist who said he would never die, that he would be back, at the tree where his ashes are buried. His skill is in depiction of hands and eyes and faces, all in the Cubist style, as he had studied with Picasso in Europe. Guyasamin’s expression of why his art:
“When I paint the hand, the mouth, the teeth or the eyes, these are not only plastic forms. I want to express in them more than the plastic in itself. I want to express the crying eye, these teeth that are biting these anguished, vibrating hands
Profiles






Guayasamin's Museu


We said farewell to the warmth of Quito’s spiritual heart and cerviche, potatoes, popcorn and corn nuts, which we seem to eat every time we sat down for a meal. We’ll be back, I’m sure, God willing.







Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Equators, Otavado Market, Weavers and Cucuruchos

Virgin de Quito with Wings
Eating in High Places
By pickup truck, boat, plane, SUV, it took a day to get from Galapagos back to Quito and our friendly and elegant hotel Plaza Grande overlooking the main plaza of the city. From the afternoon arrival Quito’s very contemporary new airport, traffic jammed as it always did to cross a one-lane bridge  (like pouring a sack of coffee beans into a thimble) and to beat the snake-like curves and bottlenecks that make the trek from the airport tedious. Tired as we were as darkness turned on the city lights, we were able to get to the Restaurant in the Theater National not far from our hotel - a 2nd floor dish of red, white and black, and one of the best meals of my life: tuna tartar with salsa; shrimp ceviche in a  broth of tomato and orange; and then the tester dessert of passion fruit cream and sorbet and white chocolate cream and parfait - all tiny helpings.  We fell into comfortable beds - finally. 

Dessert to scream for
Across the Plaza
Morning came with the usual town bell ringing softly about 6:15 and then loudly and continually at 7 a.m. Got out of bed too fast, Uh-oh - we forgot about the high altitude we had returned to - about 2800 meters high or 9000 feet. The bells tolled probably for morning mass, as there are major Roman Catholic churches in every direction and attending mass is a daily discrepancy for the Ecuadorians.  Directly across the palm-filled Plaza Grande from our hotel is the RC Cathedral, with its gold rooster on top of the cupola, where in 1877 Archbishop Checa y Barba was poisoned by communion wine laced with strychnine, and right under the statue of the Winged Virgin of Quito, or the Dancing Madonna, who has been given silver apocalyptic angel wings (for escape) as she stomps on a serpent (the bad guy, Satan, with the apple of original sin in his mouth) and protects the city. She has the facial features of a Mestiza (mixture of Spanish and Inca Indian). There is no oversleeping in this town. By 7 a.m. the shoe-shiner had set up his
Standing on the Equator
chair, the tired old Mestiza lady  in a thick blue sweater and a green man’s cap yelling shoe-strings for a dollar, and we were finishing up a spicy hot chocolate or a large cup of coffee in the dining room. 

We had a full day scheduled and it entailed a stop at where the equator crossed the road,  a derive to Lago de Saint Paul to get to the famous Oldavaldo Market (about 3 hours from Quito), and lastly, visit a family of weavers.

The miracle of the equator is amazing. We were standing on Monte Catequilla at  Latitude 00”00’00” and Longitud Oeste 78” 25’42”, smack in the middle of the Quitsato or the Middle of the World. The concept is so precise because at the Equator (which means “equal), everything is the same 365 days of the year - the temperature is a
Expert on Equatorism
perfect  15 degrees Celsius  and up the Equator from where we stood is Mt. Cayambe (5719 meters) which is the only mountain with snow along the equator’s entire 40,000 kilometers. Chimborain, 6310 meters, is the tallest mountain on the equator.  Mary and I stood on the line marked in cobblestones, she leaned to the south, I leaned to the north.  And then a young scholar in the studies of the equator and its history gave us a presentation. Much research is being done by Ecuadorians.  It was the equator that proved the world was round. He said, for too long, it had been a toss up of whether it was shaped like an American football or an orange. Take one degree of the meridian and multiply times 360 and you get the circumference. It took eight years to measure it and the equator is a bit over 40,000 kilometers and the longitude line through the North and South poles is somewhat less than 40,000 kilometers, which means the earth, like many of us, is fatter than it is taller.  Measuring the equator is also how the metric system began: one meter is ten millionth part from the equator to the pole. It gets complicated. But where we were standing was a large circle (all of cobblestones) with various lines indicating positions of the sun at certain times of the year and day. When the sun rising and setting seems to move across the sky by many degrees, it’s always the same on the equator, and to boot, it’s how the earth revolves around the sun. 

We had to push on through the extraordinary rose farming country, obvious by the giant plastic greenhouses across the rolling land. The best place in the world to grow roses is right on the equator in Ecuador’s Cayambe Valley - and this is
At Otavado Market

Llama bonding
why their roses have very sturdy straight stems. Flowers follow the sun and here the sun is always straight overhead. Also 85 per cent of the workers in the rose industry are women. When men went to the city for better labor, they left families behind. And when the rose industry began to blossom, women were the ones hired and it now brings in more then 500 million dollars a year. Consequently there are many divorces as women will not follow their husbands into the city and no longer need them for support.  The Rose industry is fourth in Ecuador after oil, bananas and flowers in general.

Weaving through mountains and valleys to reach the famous Otavado Market, the largest in Ecuador, we stopped by a “tourist trap” to sample a “biscuit” ( a dried piece of dough which is cooked twice gussied up by a bit of dulce de leche.) and take a photo with a llama who looked like he hadn’t moved in a decade. When we reached Otavado Market, it was spread down a number of streets and packed with fabrics and crafts and clothing and painted pots and enameled chess sets  and giant wooden spoons. We failed at bargaining, in general because prices seemed cheap to us. Bargaining doesn’t seem so fair for the poor men and
Panama hats made in Ecuador

Fried Pig parts
women who spend the hours to hand sew or weave or crochet or paint their products. We bought hammocks, alpaca scarves, crocheted bags, blankets all of which seem to repeat themselves booth to booth. Were they by hand or machine? I’m no expert. There were booths selling Panama hats (which are made not in Panama but in Ecuador only) and white puffed sleeve blouses embroidered with flowers (so many they surely must have been machine-made.) Best - all transactions in Ecuador are in dollars - and, while remembering it, Ecuador is in the same time zone as Memphis. No jet lag.

The food market confirmed what we had figured - potatoes are THE food in Ecuador - but there are 150 kinds of potatoes,
Peas and Beans at Market

Yarns for sale
and each has a different purpose. Corn is second in favor.  For lunch I had a locro or potato soup made with 3 kinds of potatoes and one little one tasted just like beet.  In the market: lots of peas ad beans, and exotic fruits, and  jellies sold in tiny cups, 10 to a sack. We stayed away from street food and the little cafes with giant portions of pig heads and skin that had been deep fried. But we saw the best looking broccoli I’ve ever seen and learned that it is a major export to the US.  There are not a lot of sweets, but plenty of corn nuts and other peanuts peddled on the streets. Tree tomatoes and guyabana fruits and caca de perro (dog poop peanuts, caramelized) are offered. We had to get out of there and our bags were getting heavy.

backstrap weaving 
As a special ending to this day trip, we were taken to the home of a family of weavers, which is three stories of their hand-made products from belts to the finest of bedspreads that take 2 and a half months to complete one because it’s done on a backstrap loom. The matron of the family explained to us about natural dyes and how tiny bugs that thrive on cactus (cochiniles) when
Natural dyes

Cucucruchos in parade

Los Chagras dance
squashed make a red dye then if lemon is added to it, a copper color, and if bicarbonate of soda, a sharp purple; walnut hulls turn wool brown, and a plant called chilka turns it lime green.  But, the matron admitted, she buys most of the yarn in the marketplace. She showed us the physical strain of working long hours on the backstrap loom, sitting on the floor, counting threads in a complicated pattern. And there were many old style looms to make so many of their products. Her entire family participate in the business and they do not sell their products at the market.


It was a two hour marathon drive around curves and between mountains to get us back to Quito. The hardest part of this trip is we spend most of it getting places in thick traffic or on difficult terrain. On return, we could not get to our hotel because there was a special parade in honor of “Jesus de Gran Poder” (Jesus the Almighty), and his picture was painting on the lead car. There were crude floats and dancing youth, and stilt walkers and the presence of the cucurucho penitents in white satin or red pointed hoods that disturbed me as they reminded me of the KKK. (usually the cucurucho dress in purple and look like monks carrying a cross or a candle.  This is a secret society which is
We love a Parade!
in penitence and is helping others to be penitent for their sins and errors.) The  “disfile” or parade honor each July 19 honors the pride of the Ecuadorian cowboys or Los Chagras of the Andes, who tend fields and cattle in the highlands. The young chagras wear ponchos, chaps, spurs and boots to dance down the street. When Mary and I  reached our third floor room with balcony over the plaza, it sounded as if the entire parade was in our room, but we enjoyed the moment and did a little dance ourselves, or rather Mary did. A good day today. 


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Boobies and Frigates and Cerviche

Baby Sea Line in our path
Landscape on Seymour
I’ve been in the moment in the middle of brush desert with scrawny gray palo santos trees where sticks and branches have woven huge nets that becomes nests for exotic birds  and bird poop paints most of the red and black rocks that you creep over for one of the most fascinating two hours I have ever spent. Seymour Island is something else. It is home to blue footed boobies and great frigate birds and land iguanas and a colony of sea lions. Last time I visited Galapagos in 2007, i missed out on the boobies and the frigates in heat. These, for me, are the stars of the archipelago. Now I am happy. Bucket list check-off.

This day started early with another boat excursion on the “Finch” with Mario the guide over waters that were calmer than last time.  When we arrived at the island - (it’s on the north side of Baltra where the airport lies) it was a bump and grind kind of landing as we exited the dingy. Careful don’t slip on the red rocks. I had my trusty hiker’s stick. It’s not always easy to wield the stick because you tend to look down and don’t see the upcoming bright orange and yellow land iguana right in your path. That’s a heart stopper.
Really Blue Feet

Blue Footed Boobie

We had not walked five minutes, passing a few young lounging sea lions (no seals in Galapagos, we are reminded) until we sneaked up on a blue-footed boobie. Actually we didn’t have to sneak. He was not perturbed that we were there. He was doing the boobie dance - he lifts one foot then the other and shakes and whistles. He was looking for a girl-friend and posing and cleaning himself with his long pointed beak. This one was a young one had lost all of his white baby fuzz, it’s white and blue almost albino eyes piercing us, and his webbed feet were really Grizzlies light blue. I mean it. These are amazing creatures.  And just a few steps down was a baby boobie completely covered with white down fur trying to wobble on his feet sufficiently to get his wings to hold up and maybe catch a breeze. He is on his own already. They will start getting adult feathers about this time and once they are covered with them, then flying is easy.  They compete against the frigate, who often steals the fish the mom’s have brought for their youth. In the feeding moments, you can hear the babies cry out so the parent knows where the chick is, as if they’d forget. But she fights those larger beasts and the fish oil helps the chick to grow quickly. If I have a favorite bird, it’s the boobies by far.
Baby Boobie

Trees alive with Frigates

Then as I looked up at the scrabbly landscape, it was a Wow! moment again. Resting on the nests of sticks (cemented by guana or bird poop) were not only boobies but dozens of Frigate birds - and all the males were in heat. How did I know? There was red balloons-like pouch under their throat about the length of my leg. (It shrinks to a red stripe off-sex-season.) These are really matriarchal societies. Females rule for it’s up to them to choose the most impressive male. Female Frigates are less decorated (they are doing the picking of the males) and have white chests. She does have a red ring around her eye. Frigates in the mating period beat on their red chests with their beaks so it sounds like a drummer hitting the sides of his kettle drum. Once the pair has mated, there is about 20 days courtship when everything is hunk-dory and the female gets all the attention as her mate searches for the best sticks to make the best nest in the neighborhood. This is why older males are preferred. They know what they are doing. The younger guys, tho maybe snappy to look at with redder chests, are bumblers when it comes to nest building. (Yeah, the ornithologists know these things.) then comes the mating and the single egg is laid in a stick nest in a low tree. They share sitting on the egg, the other one hunting for fish, for 55 days. When the chick cracks through, then it’s feeding time and both parents fish and regurgitate the oil from the fish and feeds it to the chick through a strange dance of beaks down the throat. In about 160 days the chick is developed sufficiently to be able to fly and hunt for his own meal and then there is a divorce among his parents and they look for next partners.
My Chests Bigger than Yours

Gotta ya covered, baby

THe Great Frigates are kin to Pelicans and are called “vultures” of the sea. They can live in the heights of the sky and wind without much effort for their wingspand is as wide as an albatross. One happy Frigate who had finally been chosen for his deep red extreme ballooned appearance was protecting his darling and his wing spread was a long as a human bed.  Frigates spend most of their time in the sky gliding in circles not only diving for unsuspecting fish but also robbing the fish of hunting boobies. (It’s a dog eat dog world out there). So these birds are called “cleptoparasitism.” Small fish they can catch by swiping their curved beak across the surface of the water. 

Mom and Babe Boobies

Everything God pre-ordained is so perfect. It’s a shame humans must destroy or damage the animal life for greed, profit and thinking they know better. The best way to understand this beautiful cycle of life is to visit Galapagos, but, yet, is the human contact detrimental to their preservation for the future? Man introduced rats, dogs, cats, g oats, pigs, cows , all of which are detrimental to the natural inhabitants of these islands. And there is the erosion caused by wind, sea and rain, so the worse weather becomes in other parts of the earth, it plays the same tune in Galapagos.

Mario and the Iguana
After tripping over lounging young sea lions who didn’t want to move (like dogs in the middle of the road), and  saluting the excruciatingly ugly old iguanas, one old guy waiting for the prickly pears to drop at the Opuntia cactus that he claims as his territory, we sailed to Bachas on northern part of Santa Cruz to see if we could see, once again, flamingos in the lagoon. But it wasn’t a bummer. Mary and a few of the young kids went snorkeling in the black volcanic rocks on an ideal beach. She saw sea urchins, parrot fish, one stone fish, damsel fish and other gorgeous colorful sea creatures. I wandered the beach trying to catch Ghost crabs that run fast on the beach and as soon as you approach they leap down a hole (a perfect O-hole) with maybe a claw or two still hanging from the top to see if you are going to pass by. Also in the black rocks were marine iguanas but they are so camouflaged unless they move, can’t see them.
Mary ready to snorkel


A great final excursion in Galapagos. Back at the Safari Camp we were able to learn from the chef how to make his terrific cerviche. Cervechi is never the same. Each chef has his secret ingredient, some with broth, some with a soupy sauce, some with just plain lime juice. It is all just delicious.   Living without regular internet has been difficult. One corner of the lounge there is a version of, but everyone is trying to get on it at once. (although there are only about 2 dozen guests in this unique place. ) That and the constant wetness, the never-stop drizzle (only up high in these highlands), were challenges for us. But we survived and are thankful. 


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mist, Sex and Poop in Galapagos

Mist and Sex and Poop are curiosities in Galapagos.
Tortmobile

Road Hog


The climate changes maybe five times in a ten minute drive.  The stars light up the black night sky when you go to dinner, and after a quick meal, showers of rain, as our guide Sandy calls them, are at work when you walk back to the tent.  We dress damp, and wash underwear tho’ it takes two days to dry. But it’s life at it’s basic. No fuss. No muss. Just be in the moment. It’s quiet. No cars. Only pickup trucks are allowed for tourism and police, and they have large numbers on their roofs. Yes, giant buses - or least buses too large for the roads - are given some opportunities to cart tour groups on this island. They are reminders there is the world of making money out there, the terrible human footprint. And at the airport and on the docks, police roam with drug dogs. Apparently they make many arrests at both places.

Today was another Tortoise Day because we are on the island with the most tortoises. They appear everywhere moving at a snail’s pace and chewing bright green grasses as they go. Caramba! if they find a guava tree. That’s the chocolate truffle of their comestibles. Shells of pink guavas in the grass signal that a tortoise has passed this way recently.
Opuntia cactus

Learning Life

In the beginning of today, we passed three giant tortoises in the long muddy driveway of our Safari Camp. Yes there are wire fences, but basically to keep a few friendly cows in place. The tortoises plow right on through them and the long wet elephant grasses that stay moist in the rain. Our guide Sandy is a poop expert, she told us, having worked at Charles Darwin Research Center  on Santa Cruz island for many years before becoming a guide. We were starting the day there absorbing more turtle knowledge than one would ever need.

When tortoises lay their eggs on various islands, the Galapagos Patrol finds them and brings them to one of the centers. These giant reptiles do not sit on or nourish their eggs and babies, therefore survival rates would be low. In the various Darwin centers the eggs are incubated and babies hatched. Each is given a number 1-20 which is painted blue on it’s shell. Tourists cannot interrupt the incubation life, but we were able to wander through the nursery, which is a confined area with plenty of prickly pear Optima cactus and other arid trees and scrub. The various stages of  tortoise childhood are divided into large open pens. When the tortoises reach four years,(about 10-12 inches long) they are put into a more true environmental area with obstacles where climbing, flipping over, falling, etc. are confronted and they must learn how to survive. Then they are released back into the island where they were birthed, so the populations of Giant Galapagos Tortoises never fails. There are 5000 tortoises related to one female who survived the volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. That female’s gene lives on.
Menage a' Trois

Diego on to another

 Although they have few enemies, giant tortoises who contact disease do not live long and they kill each other. When I asked if there is a patrol who goes around even on private ranches filled with these reptiles making sure they are safe and healthy, the answer was no. If a young tortoise falls in a crevice, he needs to learn how to get out. Here we go. Survival of the fittest, a la Darwin.

There are heroic stories - like Lonely George. For a hundred years, George wandered the island  of Espanola and never found a female he liked. He was brought into the center for a few decades as caretakers searched for the most attractive females (much smaller than males), but George was never successful in producing offspring. It was tragic because he apparently had been from the line that Charles Darwin encountered when he first visited Galapagos and catalogued the many finches based on their beaks. George died in 2012. 
Oops, baby

Local Fish Market Customers

Then there is Diego, a long necked - saddle backed Galapagos Tortoise. Ugly as a goblin but this guy is responsible for 80 per cent of the child tortoises (1500) on Espanola Island (making up for poor George’s failures).  We saw Diego, busy at work finishing with one chica and then moving on to another. This breed has an uncanny ability to stand up on their four legs so they are about 12-18 inches of the ground, to move with some speed, and their necks are extremely long and mostly outside their shell.  Now just not to leave anyone out, there was another corral where it looked like a bunch of the boys (about 12)  were whooping it up in a Saloon - three of them were indulging in a menage a’ trois. Something for everyone, I was told they didn’t know the difference?

From here we drove about a half hour to what is called Garapatera Beach (named for the birds that pick ticks off of animals) and which was supposed to have flamingos in the lagoon. No flamingo. It took a half kilometer walk on a man-made path (to stop people from getting lost in the shrubs and palo santos trees) to the very soft white sandy beach.  Sandy explained that this rare beach was not made from sand but from the poop of the Parrot Fish which consumes coral and poops it out. Must have taken a few decades. Yes we walked on it barefooted (so smooth) to the turquoise water.
Mosaic playhouses

Broken Ceramic Mosaics

Sandy also pointed out to us an apple tree which is delicious for the Tortoises but deadly for man. It produces a tiny  dark green apple (about the size of a crab apple) and if you touch it or ingest it, and you don’t get the stomach pumped immediately, it’s death. So goes the law of the jungle. Some things are just for God’s creatures great and small. Galapagos tourists are trained not to touch anything - not a tree, not an animal, not a grass blade. And to stick a piece of white coral in your trousers thinking you will get it off the island is also deadly. You will be discovered and you will be sent to jail.

We had time to shop in the small town and visit  not only the funny fish market where pelicans and sea lions were irritating customers and a school whose outside walls were adorned with mosaics and broken ceramics made into scenes. A woman who died of cancer recently, left the little art filled park for children to enjoy. 

A Giant Tortoise For Sure

Grumpy Dome backed giant

Finally, once more in the dripping drizzle, we stopped by another private farm which opened its arms to the gigantic tortoises (the dome shaped ones, mostly). These are the big guys, some as tall as my waist,  and their personalities began to speak to us. We dug into our galoshes and said no to umbrellas and trod through the mud to see what those big slow moving rocks were doing. They will make a grrrrrunt noise if they don’t want to be disturbed, and most had probably had it after the buses of kids on summer break had come through. The biggest grunted at us. We too were tortoised out so headed back to the Safari Camp, mist and rain following us, and were given a cooking lesson in how to make real Ecuadorian serviche and locro, the common soup made of various potatoes, cheese and avocado. Tonight, finally, I slept as rain drops and moth dancing on the tents sang me to sleep. Amen.
Poop beach