January 16, 2006

San Cristobal Island, Ecuador
And Then Everything Turned, Unexpectedly, Purple

Wake up at 6:30am, car takes us to the airport, driver hands us our tickets, and we’re on the plane to the Galapagos Islands.

Here’s me geeking out on the PSP.

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We landed in Guayaquil for half an hour and got a quick lesson in why Quito is Ecuador’s capital city: temperature. It may surprise you to learn that Ecuador is on the equator. That means that when other factors are removed, it’s very very hot. The Spanish wisely put their administrative hub for the region way up in the Andes at an altitude of 9000 feet, making the air cool and tolerable all year round.

Low-lying, coastal Guayaquil: not so much.

The city is, however, in the midst of a renaissance. They got themselves a Guliani-esque mayor who’s spent the last several years steamrolling over what came before and replacing it with a cleaner, safer city. In the process, he’s created something unknown to the region for generations: civic pride.

As anyone who spent time in New York during the 90s knows, the sword is double-edged. But down here, it seems the backside is a lot duller than the front.

In 1832, the nation of Ecuador sent a mass email to all the other countries declaring ownership of the Galapagos. The email went directly into the spam folders of most recipients. The few that bothered reading it chuckled to themselves, as if Ecuador had just announced a successful bowel movement. One or two even sent chiding, sarcastic replies, congratulating Ecuador on its bold conquest.

Three years later, a guy named Chuck Darwin paid a visit. He wrote a book called On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or Whatever, which contained many of the observations he’d made on the islands. It was the kind of mental leap forward that happens, at best, once in a century. The book profoundly altered the way humans view themselves and everything around them, and sold almost as many copies as Dr. Phil's Ultimate Weight Solution.

I should specify that the book didn’t alter the views of ALL humans. Its teachings are still eschewed by the thunderously pig-headed and ignorant. By way of rebuttal, they offer up some vague hooha about an “intelligent designer” whose name may or may not begin with the letter ‘G,’ then stick their fingers in their ears and scream, “LA LA LA LA LA!”

Chuck was a Christian. In his youth, he even flirted with joining the clergy (see definition: Irony). Like everyone else, he was brought up to believe that God created all life on Earth just as it was, giving each creature a special purpose and then signing all licensing, merchandising, and ancillary rights over to Man (see Genesis 1:19). But when Chuck got to the Galapagos, he saw one species of finch that held a twig in its beak and dug around in tree holes for food, doing the job of a woodpecker only not as well. He saw another species of finch that pecked tiny wounds in larger animals and sucked the blood out for sustenance, doing the job of a vampire bat only, again, not as well. And he saw giant Galapagos tortoises, so slow and helpless that they could easily be slaughtered to extinction by a rambunctious toddler with a salad fork in an afternoon.

Chuck sat there and wondered: if God made all the animals just as they were and put them where he wanted them, why do all these creatures suck so bad at their jobs? Why aren’t there woodpeckers here, or vampire bats, or anything with the slightest inclination to eat these ridiculous tortoises? It’s as if, he thought, these islands represent some sort of vacuum, and all the organisms here wandered onto the scene to fill the vacuum in their own, half-assed ways, like Adrien Zmed in Grease 2.

And how old was Chuck when he made these historic observations? He was twenty-six. Chew on that.

But in truth, Chuck is only a pawn in this story. The real mastermind is mother nature, who was, at last, sick and tired of God getting the credit for everything. Galapagos is mother nature’s incredibly blatant hint to mankind about what’s really going on.

Here's a short excerpt from Chuck's journal that I find tremendously revealing:

"I'm dying by inches from not having anyone to talk to about insects."

...Nerd!!!

But I digress.

Our plane landed on the tiny island of Baltra; once an Ecuadorian naval station, now an entry port for hordes of marauding tourists.

Given their location, the islands are highly desirable for use as a military base. The US tried for decades to buy it from Ecuador and was turned down time and again. It was only during the Second World War that Ecuador finally caved and allowed the US temporary use of the site. One can assume the thinking was: “Better them than Japan.”

Melissa and I paid our $100 per person park fees and got shuffled into our cruise group, which consisted only of us and a friendly retired couple from Queensland, Australia. We felt surges of excitement as we toyed with the possibility of being the only four on the boat. Hopes later dashed...

They piled us into a bus with everyone else from the flight and drove us across Baltra. A short ferry ride and onto Santa Cruz, the most populous island and home to one of the only real towns in the region, Puerto Ayora.

We were fed lunch and given some time to wander around.

Something I didn’t expect to find in the Galapagos: a castle-themed Karaoke discotek.

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In the afternoon, we were led to the Charles Darwin Research Station. This title is a misnomer. Charles Darwin never did any research here. More to the point; no one does. It’s a zoo.

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That’s Diego on top. Diego has taken it upon himself to repopulate his species, and he’s doing a heck of a job. He’s the Genghis Khan of giant Galapagos tortoises. In a hundred years, half the giant Galapagos tortoises on Earth will call him dad.

...that statistic is idle speculation. In other words, I'm making it up.

In the neighboring pen is Lonesome George. George is from Pinta island to the north. He is the last of his subspecies. That’s why they call him lonesome. They brought him to the zoo in the hopes that he’d breed with tortoises from other islands and keep his genes going. They continue to introduce George to different females, but George just isn’t up to it. It’s possible that George is gay. It’s possible that George suffers from impotence. It’s possible that George is intimidated by Diego’s tortoise-machismo. It’s also possible that George is too old. They think maybe he’s 70, but he could just as easily be 170. Giant Galapagos tortoises live for a very long time and rarely hang on to their birth certificates.

On this particular day, George didn’t feel like coming out into the open, so no George pictures. If you ask me, George is just depressed.

I was depressed too. Zoos do that to me. We didn’t come to the Galapagos to see animals in pens.

Some more wandering around time before departing on our cruise. We were invited to behold the many overpriced knick-knacks on offer; wood-carved turtles, iguana-themed jewelry, obligatory dolphin t-shirts, Dave Chappelle.

…wait, Dave Chappelle?

Yep. Dave Chappelle, disembarking from a cruise with his wife and two young children. He stepped off the panga boat and found himself staring directly at me, as I was seated on a bench a few feet away. He saw the recognition in my eyes and cringed, as if to say, “Not here. Please, not here.”

Despite my demographic, I’m not much of a Dave Chappelle fan. His show strikes me as kind of obvious and one-note. Yes, indeed, black people and white people ARE different. And yes, there are lots of things we think but don’t say and it’s very naughty to point them out.

That said, Charlie Murphy’s Prince story is really funny. And I have lots of respect for Dave Chappelle after he walked away from a $50 million contract because it didn’t feel right. In our society, that’s considered evidence of either drug addiction or outright insanity. In my opinion, it’s evidence of dignity and character.

I have even more respect for Dave Chappelle taking his family on a Galapagos cruise. He could be riding jet skis in the south of France or doing whatever it is that people in his situation are expected to do. Instead he chose to give his kids a taste of the larger world we live in.

Right on, Dave Chappelle!

So we got on our boat, named the Archipel I, and immediately learned that we weren’t the only four passengers. There was a doctor from Long Island who brought his three teenaged children. They’d arrived the night before to spend a full day on Santa Cruz island. I will heretofore refer to them as Swiss Family Robinson. And there were four more elderly couples who were already three days into a longer cruise, making, in all, sixteen. Every cabin was full.

"Elderly retired couple" describes the vast majority of visitors to the islands. The reasons are many:
- It's expensive
- It involves cruises
- It's one of those "places to see before I shrivel up and die" destinations
- Karaoke discoteks aside, it lacks a certain "youth market" appeal
- It's really expensive

We deliberately avoided the larger cruise ships, knowing that it would mean more rigid shepherding by the crew and less freedom to do what we wanted. Unfortunately, our smaller boat didn’t turn out to be much better. And they’d sort of tricked us, as there was a second boat, identical to ours, with another sixteen passengers, and appropriately named Archipel II. It shadowed us everywhere we went.

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We were, effectively, a mob of thirty-two stomping around the delicate shores of the Galapagos islands.

Each boat had a Class III tour guide onboard. Class III is the highest designation of guide, and is very fancy-sounding. To achieve it, each candidate must earn a degree in biology, go through months of training, and speak at least Spanish and English fluently. Another important qualification is they must be citizens of Galapagos. This rule provides the hope of high-wage employment for the locals, and prevents competition from wildly more qualified applicants of other nationalities.

Our guide was named Valentin. He was a good guy and knowledgeable, but his public speaking skills were a bit lacking. His sentences trailed off in a listless, ambling fashion, like he’d forgotten what he was talking about.

“Tomorrow we will see Galapagos penguins…turtles………..iguanas…………….blue-footed boobies………….turtles.”

The next morning we had our first landing. It was on the largest island in the Galapagos; Isabela. Isabela is essentially a string of volcanoes whose lava flows have fused together into a vast wasteland.

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This is where I learned something interesting from Valentin: Galapagos is essentially a baby Hawaii. It burst out of the water naked, four million years ago, like Botticelli’s “Venus in the Half Shell” only ugly. Hawaii pulled a similar stunt some twenty million years prior. The harsh lava rocks of Hawaii have had time to turn into white sandy beaches and lush forests, making it a tropical wonderland. Galapagos is still in the early stages, making it a grim hellscape.

These two archipelagos, along with the Canary islands and a few others, are unique in their origin. They didn’t break off from other continents with pre-existing plant and animal life. They began as bare rocks and slowly acquired life through other means.

That’s mother nature saying, “Hey Chuck, come over here. I got somethin’ I wanna show ya.”

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This is what the underside of the lava rocks look like up close: delicious, gooey chocolate. Ah, if only it were. What an island this would be!

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One of the few organisms able to survive on this part of Isabela, cacti need no moisture from the ground. They collect it from the air with their spines. This fella is rotting slowly from the ground up, while the upper sections prosper.

Tiny lava lizards scurried around on the rocks. They would stop abruptly and perform what appeared to be rhythmic lizard push-ups for no clear reason. I wasn’t able to photograph this phenomena, but I did get my girlfriend doing an impression of it.

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Another thing I didn’t expect to find in the Galapagos: pink flamingoes.

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We walked a pre-marked but seemingly arbitrary loop along the rocks, coming back to the shore where large quantities of fish and a few sharks hung out in tidal pools. Valentin and I were the only ones wearing polarized sunglasses, which gave us the superpower of being able to see through the surface glare like it was a sheet of glass. Neat!

Huge red crabs sidled back and forth across the rocks while we waited for our pick-up.

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On the ride back to the Archipel, we got our first glimpse of marine iguanas basking in the morning sun.

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Chuck Darwin enjoyed goofing off with the iguanas. He writes:

"I watched for a long time until half its body was buried. I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled off to see what was the matter; and then stared at me in the face, as much as to say, 'What made you pull my tail?'"

Here’s a fun game. How many marine iguanas can you spot in this picture?

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Now see if you can find the popsicle, hamburger, and soda bottle.

Want another one?

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This is a terrible picture. I include it only because it contains a marine iguana, two blue-footed boobies, and a Galapagos penguin all in the same frame.

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Here’s another photographic abomination, redeemed only by the presence of a marine iguana, a sea lion, some flightless cormorants, and two big tourist boats.

In the afternoon we went snorkeling in a nearby cove. It was a strange setting, completely devoid of coral. In fact, there's no coral anywhere in the Galapagos. Wanna know why? It all died in 1993 from temperature changes caused by La Niña. There’s something they don’t tell you about on the tour.

In the absence of coral, there were only lava rocks – which, as it turns out, is actually quite hospitable for marine life. Here’s why: lots of nooks and crannies. Dried lava isn’t smooth like normal rocks, it’s jaggy and full of holes for tiny little creatures to hide in. The abundance of these tiny creatures attracts larger ones, who in turn attract larger still until fellas like these show up.

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Several dozen sea turtles circled inside a bowl barely 100 feet in diameter. They didn’t complain when we swam inside to stare at them. They didn’t complain when we started taking pictures. They didn’t even complain when the eldest son of Swiss Family Robinson started grabbing onto their shells for a free ride.

This I found unbearably obnoxious. After witnessing it three times, I had words with the boy. “You’re in the Galapagos Islands. These turtles live here. You’re a guest in their home. Stop fucking with them.”

…I apologize to any young or delicate readers. The language seemed justified.

The Robinson boy sharply denied that he'd touched the turtles. At this, Melissa invoked her big sister superpowers and yelled, "Yes you did! I saw you!"

Her words were unequivocal and damning. Something about the tone struck a chord. He responded as all of us with older sisters cannot help but do; retracting into his shell until no one was looking.

I climbed up onto shore. This is what it looked like.

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This is what it would’ve looked like if I were on Mars.

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The next morning we landed at Bahia Elizabeth, farther north on Isabela island. It was boring. Here’s a land iguana.

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We saw sea shells buried high up on land. The casual observer might take this as evidence that the islands sprung up from the ocean, but an attentive creationist would identify the shells as fakes placed in the ground by God to trick us into believing the Earth is more than 6000 years old, and thereby testing our faith. Cause if there's one thing God loves, it's verisimilitude.

We went snorkeling again.

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In the afternoon we cruised across to Fernandina, the youngest of all the islands and the most unfortunately named. Fernandina -- not a pretty girl.

More marine iguanas.

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A sea lion doing an iguana impression.

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A sea lion doing a whale skeleton impression.

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A pup moments before chomping on this iguana’s back and dragging it across the sand for kicks.

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Sea lion pups are cute.

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Flightless cormorants are birds that gave up their wings so they could dive deeper while hunting for fish. They bring to mind my singular issue with the theory of evolution: how in the world did those guys grow wings in the first place?

So you’ve got some tiny theropod, let’s say it's a compsognathid, in the waning days of the dinosaur age.

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Food is scarce. Life is hard. In a couple million years, by increments, their skinny, frail arms will have developed into broad, feathered wings that will carry them aloft. They’ll be able to scan large areas from above in search of food and have an easy escape from predators.

But here’s what puzzles me: flight is a binary thing. You can pretty much either do it or you can’t. So for the thousands of slowly evolving generations leading up to that one fortunate proto-bird who could leap from the trees and glide to safety, how were their gangly appendages advantageous? How did they justify wings that couldn’t fly?

The flightless cormorant suggests an answer; wings had to have other purposes. And those purposes had to be valid enough that larger and larger wings were desirable in successive generations…but I just don’t buy it. It’s too improbable. Wings are too colossally useful to have happened without some sort of guidance or direction. Somewhere in the design of that first compsognathid with the unusually long arms, there had to be an ultimate goal of fully-realized wings or else it wouldn’t have been worth the trouble.

Now heavens to Betsy, I’m certainly not suggesting we revert to the Garden of Eden “theory” or bring God into the equation. But maybe there’s a more plausible middle ground. Maybe there’s an instruction manual we haven’t learned to read yet.

Our sense of balance is another example that drives me batty. Do you know how our inner ears work? Sheets of jelly with nerve endings suspended inside them. Our nerve endings can tell whether they’re pushing against the jelly from the bottom, the side, the top – any direction. That’s how we know when we’re upside down or lying on our backs or turning in circles.

Don’t try telling me we evolved sheets of jelly in our ears. That didn’t happen by trial and error. That wasn’t some arbitrary development.

Have I strayed off-topic?

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Those are frigate birds up top. That’s a Melissa on the bottom.

Frigate birds love coasting on the updrafts from ships. They stayed with us for hours, rarely flapping their wings. Frigate birds have the lowest weight-to-wingspan ratio of any species. This makes them terrors of the sky – if you’re any other kind of bird.

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Frigate birds steal everything – nests, eggs, fish. William Dampier wrote in his journal of watching a frigate bird knock a fresh catch out of a blue-footed booby’s mouth while it was in flight, then dive down and catch the fish before it hit the water. Pirates identified with them and called them Man-of-War birds.

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William Dampier was a naturalist. He came to the Galapagos Islands a full 150 years before Darwin and wrote the first English-languauge account of the place. Darwin brought Dampier’s journal with him on the Beagle.

Dampier introduced the words: chopstick, cashew, avocado, and barbecue into the language, along with a thousand others.

William Dampier was also a pirate. He robbed and plundered for a living. Science and exploration were his hobbies.

No one remembers the name William Dampier anymore, like they do Columbus or Cook or Magellan. Even among pirates, his reputation is obscure. History didn’t know what to do with him. History found him inconvenient.

Starting our return, we cruised north across the equator to round the top of Isabela island. Valentin said that when we crossed it, we’d feel a bump. This was the funniest thing I ever heard Valentin say.

The next morning we hit the island of Bartolome super-early to beat the other boats.

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We watched the sun rise over an alien landscape.

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If Isla Bartolome was on Mars, it’d look like this.

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We stayed on Bartolome for a morning snorkel. This turned out to be the highpoint of the trip. It left everything else in the dust. Here’s why.

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Of this, there is no doubt: those sea lions were just out having a good time.

They’re incredibly fast. It’s hard enough to follow with them with the naked eye. With a camera, all you can do is snap and hope you caught something.

They followed us on our way, sneaking up from behind, zipping around us in circles, performing acrobatic feats for no particular reason other than to amuse themselves and, perhaps, us.

It was not at all surprising to learn they share a common ancestor with dogs.

A marine iguana swam by.

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We saw blue-footed boobies dive bomb for fish. They’d pause at a height of 100 or so feet, arch suddenly, then drop as fast as gravity would pull them. The instant before hitting the water, they’d pull their wings in and slice through the water. We were able to watch them above and below the surface.

And then, as if we hadn’t gotten enough of a show, a Galapagos penguin torpedoed past my head. He stopped long enough to say, “Dreadful sorry. Would love chat but there’s so much to do. Busy busy busy, go go go!”

We’d been a little disappointed with our cruise up to that point. But after, all was forgiven.

We headed off on our final leg to San Cristobal island, crossing some sort of oceanic superhighway along the way. A pod of a hundred or so dolphins joined us to perform somersaults in our wake.

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Within the next few minutes we saw a Galapagos shark surface, a whale spout, and a manta ray breach fully out of the water. There was obviously some massive supply of food beneath us. We were in the midst of a feast.

And then everything turned, unexpectedly, purple.

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The cruise was over, but there was one very important thing missing: I came here to dance with a giant Galapagos tortoise. The only time we’d seen any was in the zoo at the start, and that wouldn’t do.

Galapagos tortoises are a beleaguered species. Their aforementioned ridiculousness has left them vulnerable to the encroachment of human-introduced animals like feral goats, who graze on their foliage, and rats, who steal their eggs. Conservationists have mounted a ruthless effort to eliminate goats from the islands, picking them off with rifles from helicopters. It’s kept the tortoises from being wiped out entirely -- there are about 14,000 left -- but they can clearly no longer survive without the constant assistance of humans, who made their lives so difficult in the first place.

There are only a few places on the islands where Galapagos tortoises can still be viewed outside captivity. One of them happens to be on San Cristobal island, where we were dumped off at the end of the cruise.

We had a couple hours before our flight. With Valentin’s help, Melissa and I were able to hire a guy with a pick-up truck to take us across to the remote far side of the island.

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Mission accomplished.

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This fella’s got a lot of leaves ahead of him. It’ll take him 25 years to reach maturity.

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I’m told that outside of the Galapagos, there are only three of these tortoises in all the world. That’s fewer than in the above picture.

We left the site, giddy and satisfied.

Back at the airport, I checked out the souvenir shops and found the t-shirts and photo books alarming. “Galapagos: Island Paradise” was how one cover described the place.

Island, yes. But the Galapagos is most definitely not a paradise – unless maybe you’re an iguana.

Here’s my theory: Ecuador has milked the Darwin angle dry. They weren’t getting enough business by touting the science and the history, so they’ve reinvented the place as an alternative to its older sibling, Hawaii. They promise virgin beaches and cruises of leisure and revelry. It’s a load of crap, but it seems to be working. The ships are clogged with passengers who wouldn’t know a booby from a bear, and couldn’t care less.

The Galapagos has a local population of 16,000 humans. They can’t fish for profit. They can barely farm. They’re incredibly isolated and certainly can’t make or grow anything to trade with the mainland. The inhabitants are entirely dependant on tourism. They’re bringing in 100,000 a year and they’ll do anything to keep that number growing.

That’s what it all comes down to. That’s the bottom line. And it’s all that’s keeping these animals from extinction.

Lost my paper ticket back to Quito. The airline claimed they had no “system” for issuing a replacement. I yelled and screamed, but had to buy a new one. I yelled and screamed some more back on the mainland and eventually got reimbursed.

The baggage handlers ripped Melissa’s luggage open. We yelled about that too, but not much came of it.

Back in Quito now, heading down to Peru in a couple days. Next dance: Machu Picchu.

January 11, 2006

Quito, Ecuador
Tarantula Staring Contest

Look, I’m a busy guy. Let’s get straight to the ruins.

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This is one of the main temples at Nakun; the first of the sites we visited. Nakun is 27 kilometers from El Sombrero hotel, where we stayed the night before. The road to Nakun is pure mud; generally not traversable in the wet season, but thanks to relaxed logging policies, moisture is no longer cycling back into the atmosphere, there’s been no rain, and the road can be safely used.

Thanks loggers!

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El Sombrero is owned by an Italian woman named Gabrielle, who we never met. She came over in the early 80s and fell in love with the region. Now she’s a local luminary.

In the middle of the night, during our stay in one of the more remote parts of the empty campsite, I was awoken to the sound of a UFO descending over our roof. Numerous cackling aliens poured out of the ship and surrounded us. They discussed their method of penetrating our cabin through a series of back-and-forth hoots and howls. I let Melissa continue sleeping so as to spare her from the trauma. The aliens continued discussing their plans until I eventually fell back asleep.

In the morning I found out it was just howler monkeys announcing their territory. They sound like this.

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This is one of the residential dwellings at Nakun. With a little work and some carpeting, it could probably fetch $600 a square foot.

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The excavation of Nakun has barely even started. The climbs up many of the ruins are treacherous. Not much more than loose rocks and dry roots with some footholds kicked in.

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A marching line of these ants moved all the way up from ground level to the summit of one temple; a vertical rank hundreds of feet tall. The operation was supervised at checkpoints by ferocious-looking soldier ants, several times larger than the workers, with massive chompers. I managed to get bitten by one on the way up. It hurt.

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Dear Melissa’s mom,
I kind of accidentally almost killed your daughter while we were climbing down this path. She was below me when I placed my foot on what looked like a sturdy rock. It ripped loose and began tumbling. I was so focused on what each of my other limbs was doing that I didn’t even notice. Melissa’s spider-sense tingled in time and she slid to one side as the rock plummeted past where her head had been a moment ago.

Sorry about that. Accident. Honest.

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This I had nothing to do with.

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That’s Juan on the left. He was our guide for the day. Juan’s grandfather moved to Guatemala from Germany to farm bees for honey. The family never left. Juan shares ownership of 30,000 acres with his sisters, who hold silent interests and live in the city.

Juan speaks with a local accent and considers himself Guatemalan. As a young man, he learned some German and visited the fatherland, but had no interest in it.

Gabrielle, the Italian hotelier, is his ex-wife.

Nakun is a fairly small site. We started back to the south and reached Yaxha shortly after noon. Melissa used the bathroom at the site entrance and found a huge, dead tarantula on the floor with its legs in the air.

Upon hearing this, I tried not to cry like a little baby.

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Many of the ruins at Yaxha were similarly buried under tons of dirt. But the maintainers of this site were much better at building stairways up.

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The mound on the left is one of hundreds still untouched. There are, without a doubt, many artifacts still buried all over the place, waiting to be dug up and put in a museum – or, just as likely, smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market.

Juan told a story of once brokering the sale of two hundred horded artifacts to a dealer for $8000. Some of the individual pieces from the collection later went for $30,000.

He told another story of hosting a party for Carlos Santana when he toured Guatemala. Santana noticed a particular artifact in Juan’s possession; a jade mask necklace. Juan gave it to him, and later saw him wearing it on television while accepting a pile of Grammys.

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We followed a long, straight promenade to a remote corner of the city where, presumably, important things were done – or maybe just things that smelled really bad.

The Maya liked their walkways extremely wide, not unlike the Dallas airport.

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This large temple is in mid-excavation; whole root systems clearly visible on its side. It’s amazing what nature can do with a millennia.

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This is up at the top of one temple, with Lake Yaxha shown in the distance. El Sombrero sits on the lake’s east bank. The land to the south of the lake, visible in this picture, belongs to Juan.

Why was a bigshot like Juan carting us around to these ruins? The short answer, it seems, is that he had nothing better to do. He’d recently recovered from stomach cancer; a three year ordeal that left him bald, Auschwitz-thin, and very close to death. He’d been in and out of hospitals in Guatemala City, and had only just returned to the area. He used to lead horseback tours of the ruins with Gabrielle, when they were married. This day was the first time he’d visited the sites in five years. A lot of what we saw was entirely new to him.

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This is one of my favorite photos I've ever shot. I’m craftsman-like in my picture-taking, less concerned with artistic merit and f-stops than the information that is conveyed. This image speaks volumes about the Maya people; their past and their present. It’s staggering in an immediate sense as a work of scale, and it resonates on another level, watching Guatemalan workers dust off the creations of their ancient ancestors.

…How’s that for fancy talk? Never had a day of college!

Avid viewers of Survivor: Guatemala will recognize Yaxha and Nakun as the names of the two tribes the cast members were divided into. This isn’t what inspired us to take the detour, but once we made the connection, it was an amusing perk.

Asking Juan if he was familiar with the show opened the door to a goldmine of information. Not only was he familiar with it, he’d rented the land that the production used to house its crew and equipment. This is the former site, active as recently as a few months ago.

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Unfortunately, Juan’s father had done the rental negotiation by himself and he had no idea what the show was, nor how many gajillions of dollars in revenue it brought in. The producers signed a deal to pay $5000 a month for the above plot, which is an absolute song.

Gabrielle fared much better. She set up a bar in their camp and sold $60,000 worth of booze to the crew in three months.

It was interesting to learn that the production was an enormous boon to the region. They employed hundreds of local workers at fair wages, many of whom came from the town we’d gotten stuck in the day before. That may explain the brand new minivan we rode in and the other nice, new cars we saw along the road. This is just speculation on my part, but it seems likely that the Survivor crew would have needed to bring a large number of vehicles into the area. It also seems likely that they would’ve been perfectly happy to abandon them once the show was complete in exchange for day-labor.

Juan and Gabrielle have three sons together. Two of them worked on the show, and one stayed on as a cameraman for the Panama season. He will soon be heading off to an island near (self-censored for fear of getting my butt sued) for the next one.

Having visited both sites, we paid Juan for his fuel and time and he gave us a ride to El Remate. We stayed at a hotel a mile or so outside of town and arranged for a van to pick us up in the morning and take us to Tikal. The van would come by at 4:30am. To shower, dress, and pack, we had to wake up by 3:30.

When the time came, we walked by headlamp along the hotel’s footpath toward the road where the van was to meet us. A flicker on the ground reflected back the light from my head. I stopped. The flicker moved sideways.

I stepped closer and realized I was staring down a tarantula – one big enough to catch my light with its eyes and reflect it back at me. We were both, the spider and I, frozen with terror.

Melissa, standing to my side, couldn’t see the reflection and thus had no idea where the beast was. I assured her with great confidence that it was a few feet in front of us.

I suppose I should mention, lest I get a bunch of “what’s the big deal?” comments, that I am hysterically arachnophobic; that the reason I’ve resisted South and Central America up to this point was specifically to avoid the situation I was presently in.

The story goes nowhere from here. In my mind, the tarantula had every intention of crawling down my throat and laying eggs in my stomach. In reality, it moved cautiously to one side while I moved cautiously to the other. I led Melissa forward and the three of us crossed paths without incident.

Up on the road, I remained on spider-watch duty until the van finally arrived.

Bus arrives. Bus dumps us off at Tikal. Moving on…

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This is Temple V, one of the highest and most spectacular in Tikal. It’s a bitch to climb.

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That tiny speck on the ladder is me.

Even here, at one of the oldest and most visited Maya sites, there are still massive structures yet to be unearthed.

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If this is any indication, the Maya people looked an awful lot like Gonzo.

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This image should be familiar to anyone with a healthy nerd background. I’ll give you a minute…

…need a hint? Wouldn’t this be a great place for a hideout?...

That’s right, it's the establishing shot of the rebel base at Yavin IV, from which the devastating attack on the first Death Star was launched. We saw this view once as the Millenium Falcon descended, and again in the Special Edition, when squadrons red and blue emerged in their X-wings, followed closely by gold and silver squadrons in their outmoded, lumbering Y-wings.

...sheltered childhood.

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And here are some glamour shots of Temple I, also known as the Grand Jaguar Temple; the most iconic in Tikal, and one of the main symbols of Maya civilization.

…not much I can do but heap superlatives on it, and there isn't much point in that when you can look for yourself.

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This view was taken from atop the slightly shorter Temple II. The two temples face each other head on, and the second seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting great pictures of the first.

On my way down from Temple II, I crossed a small group consisting of two families: one Guatemalan, the other hopelessly American. It was clear that the son in the American family was a Christian proselytizer of some sort, and he had taken one of the local women to be his bride. His parents were visiting their son and meeting their daughter-to-be for the first time.

As I passed, the boy’s father, dressed in hiked-up baby-blue golfing shorts and a WalMart button-down, was trying his best to bond with the girl’s mother. This was difficult, since she spoke not a word of English and he spoke not a word of Spanish. He referred to her, improbably, as Gladys.

“Gladys, did you count the steps on the way down?”
…blank stare.
“DID…YOU…COUNT…THE STEPS?”
…still no answer.
“Tom? What’s the word for ‘count’?”

The father made it clear, through his tone, that the problem was not a language barrier. It was simply that people who don’t speak English are incredibly stupid.

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The public bathroom at Tikal is very progressive. It has stalls for both men and broad-shouldered transvestites.

After leaving the site, we ate lunch at the Hotel Tikal Inn. How could we not, with such an appetizing billboard?

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And away we went. We took an afternoon van back to El Remate and then on to the larger city of Flores, sleeping the whole way. At Flores, we bought plane tickets to Guatemala City so we could catch our morning flight to Quito.

We had a couple hours to kill, so we took a taxi from the airport to the island of Flores itself. Flores is a tiny party island, packed full of bars and carnival rides and the incessant, grating, ear-splitting music that can be heard in much of Latin America, whenever there’s alcohol nearby. We had a drink, then caught a tuk-tuk back to the airport.

Tuk-tuks are small, three-wheeled vehicles that come from Thailand. They hold two passengers, run on low-grade fuel, and are often used as super-cheap taxis. I was surprised to find them in Guatemala.

The plane to Guatemala City was only three years old – practically fresh off the Boeing factory floor. Even in coach, each seat had an electrical socket for plugging in laptops and other devices. I’ve been waiting years for that innovation to hit the US, and I will probably continue waiting for a decade or more, until our ancient relics from the dawn of aviation start sputtering out mid-flight from old age.

The plane was filled to maybe 20% capacity, giving us tons of room to spread out. Our flight attendant was the hippest I’ve ever encountered. He hailed from El Salvador and toted a Sony PSP in his pocket to kill time between flights. Had I known before deplaning, I could’ve switched on my wi-fi and challenged him to some Grand Theft Auto multiplayer en route. Who’d have thunk it?

In Guatemala City we splurged on the luxurious San Pedro hotel, hoping rightly that we’d get our first warm showers since Belize.

For the second day in a row we woke up at 3:30am, this time to get to the airport for our 6am flight to Quito. Getting up at weird hours and sleeping in transit is one of my superpowers, but it’s been tough for Melissa, whose sleep patterns are closer to what one might term ‘normal.’ I’ve said this once already, I will probably say it many more times on this trip: she’s a trooper.

We landed briefly in Nicaragua and were stunned by the string of active volcanoes and massive crater lakes that line its countryside. Might have to go there sometime.

Another stop in Panama to change planes. Gee whiz! Panamanian women sure do get dolled up.

And here we are in Quito and loving it. Neither of us has been able to articulate why yet. The best I can come up with is that it’s just got some kind of vibe that’s really appealing. The food is great, the people are great, the weather is great. The only problem is the altitude -- walking a block leaves me breathless and dazed.

We’d acclimatize in a day or so if we were staying, but we’re continuing on in the morning to the Galapagos Islands for a four day cruise.

…should be interesting.