In early July, extended family gathered in Maine to celebrate Chuck Hilly’s 100thbirthday. Hale and hearty, Chuck still plays golf several times a week, has a mind as sharp as a tack, and is warm and engaging with both family and friends. It felt like a celebration of all the good that life has to offer, and highlighted the gifts each generation passes on to the next. It was a fitting beginning to a journey to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, where life processes and ecological balance are made so explicit both through the natural world and through efforts by concerned humans to promote this balance.
Peggy’s sister Carol had invited us to join their family as they celebrated our nephew Stuart’s graduation from college. We headed down several days early. After touring Quito, we took local buses south along the Pan American Highway and winding mountain roads to the small Andes town of Chugchilán, elevation 10,500 feet. We stayed in a small eco-friendly inn and enjoyed several days of trekking through the mountains around the Quilotoa caldera. This volcanic crater was formed by an eruption about 800 years ago and is filled with water to an estimated depth of 800 feet. We also hiked up to the alto plano, a high plateau of grassland above Chugchilán, before travelling north again to join Carol, Lindsay, and Stuart.
Guides are required for visiting the Galápagos, and our organized excursion began with a day in Otavalo, a market town north of Quito, and then proceeded to the Galápagos. There we boarded a catamaran that served as our home for the next week, along with a small group of other travelers. Two guides accompanied us and served as excellent interpreters of what we saw and experienced. We visited six or seven islands, often traveling at night so we could maximize our daily explorations on foot, in sea kayaks, and snorkeling. Midweek we spent one night at a rustic lodging on the island of Santa Cruz to enable closer sightings of the giant tortoises that freely roam everywhere.
Our time in the Galápagos was extraordinary. Because of the isolation of the islands, the particular ways that life has evolved there, and the tight regulations and structure placed on visitors, most animals are completely unafraid of humans and do not regard us as predators. Hence, even while observing the strictly enforced 2 meter distance mandated between visitor and animal, one can get very close on foot to wildlife here. Sea lions, land and sea iguanas, tortoises, birds, and lava lizards all may easily be studied in their natural habitat. Snorkeling provides another venue for close encounters with reef sharks, green sea turtles, penguins, and playful sea lions.
We also witnessed much of the subtle variety among closely related species found from island to island, differences that led Darwin to his theories of evolution. The Galápagos is actually a constantly changing archipelago with new volcanic islands rising from the hot spot on the sea floor in the west, and these new islands slowly drift with the oceanic crust towards the east. The older islands have different vegetation and land topographies requiring different forms of adaptation for survival. A classic example of this is the differences between tortoises. Some live on islands with low vegetation; these have short necks and short legs, and their shells come down close to their necks. Others inhabit islands whose main vegetation grow much higher, like cacti, and these tortoises have long legs and necks, and a shell with an arch above the neck permitting a long extended reach skyward.
Being in the Galápagos means being totally immersed in the richness of life. It also means being immersed in the ideas of evolution, ecology, and balance. Life’s processes are present both in one’s surroundings and in the conversations about what we are seeing. There is richness of both experience and discourse about ideas. The stories are familiar to anyone with even just a cursory exposure to Darwin and notions of evolution, but being present in that environment quickly moved me from lingering in intellectual analysis to a place of being acutely attuned to the present through my senses. More important, it brought me to a place of tremendous awe and appreciation of the mystery of life.
Other places in Ecuador evoked similar feelings… and questions. Hiking in the Andes, I witnessed the same power of geology to shape life as I did in the Galápagos. Ancient volcanoes and rugged uplifted mountains profoundly impacted the local ecology. Evident, too, was the human ecology as indigenous people maintained a fine balance that permitted them to survive and thrive in challenging conditions. Social evolution was clear in the Otavalo market, as it slowly transformed from a centuries old local exchange to a thriving tourist market attracting visitors from around the world. This shift brings up parallel questions to issues found in the Galápagos: what happens when foreign (“invasive”) species are introduced to a system, represented in this example by tourists. What are the gains and losses of this type of change? Historically, all species have been “foreign” at one time to the Galápagos. They arrived through the air, in ocean currents, on top of huge mats of floating debris, and through the droppings of birds. But they have become part of the ecosystem now accepted as natural.
Though one can argue that every process – including humans and their impact– is “natural” in the strictest sense, it is more generally accepted that the degree of balance found within large systems is a desirable benchmark for measuring overall health of the system. Ecuador was a great place to observe and reflect on this. Awareness of and managing tourist impact on the natural habitat of the isolated islands of the Galápagos, on the indigenous markets of Otavalo, and on the fragile ecosystems of the Andes was a theme that threaded its way through all of our travels in the country. We saw remarkable efforts to restore balance through a focus on what is popularly described as eco-tourism.
I left Ecuador touched on all levels: my body as I physically experienced a variety of unique environments; my mind as I was stimulated by many questions of the complexities of life in all its forms and manifestations; my spirit as I thrilled to be immersed so viscerally in these processes and acutely felt life flowing through and all around me; and my heart, as I met and interacted with strangers, new friends, and familiar family and felt caring and compassion for this place we call Earth. Uncle Chuck’s birthday helped open me to the experiences that followed by encouraging me to think and feel deeply about this gift we call life, and for that I am grateful.
— Scott McGovern