Rarely do I find myself completely taken in by my surroundings to an extent that I get in a trance like state where all things “me” dissolve and disappear (no, I am not talking about being under the influence of psychedelic drugs). I found myself in this state, on an afternoon on one of the islands of the Galapagos archipelago, an island called Floreana.
To get some geographic bearings, the Galapagos are a group of islands straddling the Equator in the Pacific Ocean about 600 nautical miles from the coast of Ecuador in South America. These islands are mostly known to the modern man due to Charles Darwin‘s famed voyage of the Beagle and his eventual inspiration for the greatest discoveries of the past century – The Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection. The Galapagos islands are thus, revered in the scientific community as a laboratory of “life” itself.
It was November of 2013 and I was with a random group of 15 tourists from around the world on a small ship which was taking us from one island to another. Most of these islands are not inhabited by humans and are preserved with great diligence by the National Park Services managed by the Republic of Ecuador. As a result, save for the islands where there is civilization, the rest of them are untouched and lack any facilities that we take for granted that come by default with civilized settlements. Floreana falls in this category. It was late afternoon, and we made a wet-landing (the actual boat/ship is anchored near the shore and people are ferried to the shore on a small motorized raft called ‘Panga’, since the islands have no facilities for harboring large boats) on the northern shore of the island called ‘Punta Cormorant’.
As we waddled in the waters of the Pacific and walked to the dry land, we encountered a number of endemic species that are common to these islands. This was my third day on the trip and the presence of the wildlife had become the new normal, I had started to expect them to be around. It was about 4 PM and the Sun was still fairly high in the sky. It’s rays shining off brilliantly from the gentle waves of the ocean. We walked past the beach and ventured inland. The marked trail that we were walking on was surrounded by plants which were unique to these islands, plants which had adapted to trap as much moisture as they can during the dry season. There was a gentle breeze which combined with the warmth of the Equatorial Sun was making me feel a bit intoxicated. My reverie was broken when our naturalist, JV, started narrating a story of some strange people who had made Floreana their home in the late 1920s.
Dr Fredrich Ritter, a German doctor and one of his patients, Dore, decided to leave their lives in Germany and begin a new life on Floreana. They had occasional visitors who were drawn by a sense of adventure, but then left rather quickly due to the harsh living conditions of these islands. In the early 1930s, a certain Mr Wittmer arrived on the island with his wife and a teenage son. They set up their own place on the island and lived there with little to no contact with the Ritters. This peaceful co-existence was disturbed when a mysterious woman from Austria, who declared herself as a Baroness arrived on Floreana. She was accompanied by her two German lovers and an Ecuadorean lover. The Baroness led a flamboyant lifestyle and anointed herself as the Queen of Floreana. The legend goes that the two lovers had a spat and there was also a feud between the Baroness and the Wittmers. The Wittmer had a pet donkey which was found dead, shot allegedly by one of the Baroness’ lovers. Then mysteriously the Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared from the island, never to be heard from again. The Wittmers claimed that they had left on a boat for Tahiti. There were accusations by Dr Ritter, that the Wittmers with the help of the second lover of the Baroness, murdered the Baroness and her other lover and disposed off their bodies. The strangeness continued, a few months later, Dr Ritter was found dead from apparently eating a sick chicken. This was also considered strange since, the Doctor was known to be a devout vegetarian. Mr Wittmer’s wife, Margaret who died in 2000 and did not shed much light until her dying day on the mysterious disappearances and deaths. She continued to claim that the Baroness had left for Tahiti. The descendants of the Wittmers and Ritters still live on the island. These events were the subject of a documentary called “The Galapagos Affair”.
As JV was narrating these events, I started to view the place in a different light. I started to imagine the lives of these people as they lived on this spectacular and yet inhospitable place. Far from the civilized world, far from any hints of societal rules and dogmas. I imagined living in a place like Floreana, and strangely enough I found myself quite “OK” with that idea. With a smile, I brushed these thoughts away. We continued to walk and arrived at a small beach which is known as the “green beach” due to its green tinted sand crystals. As I descended on the beach and the scenery unfolded in front of me, it was a sight like no other. The water was crystalline blue and the sand a strange shade of green. There were sea lions sleeping on the beach as the gentle waves washed ashore around them. We had walked all the way to the Southern end of the island and the Sun was behind us. The fluffy white clouds were catching the late evening Sun and were glowing all kinds of orange and pink.
I stood still, I had never been in a place of such absolute isolation and such singular beauty, where every single element entirely belonged within itself while being connected harmoniously with every other element. I felt I was an uninvited visitor, I felt like I was a massive disturbance. I made my way to the water, while standing in ankle-deep water I let the lapping water take away the feelings of being an alien. I started to feel less and less aware of myself.
We wanted to go back to the Southern shore before the Sun set, and decided to walk back. After about a 20 minutes walk, we came across a small fresh water lake. It was late in the evening now, and JV said that this lake at this time is usually visited by pink flamingos. At a distance we did see a flock of flamingos feeding themselves by dipping their unique beaks in the waters of the lake. There was nothing to do but stand still and try to be as invisible as possible, and observe them.
As the Sun started its rapid descent into the Ocean, we walked back to the beach where we had landed. Just as we were emerging from the trees, the Sun had touched the water. There were a few mangrove trees dipping their branches and roots into the ocean and under one of these branches a few sea-lions were napping quite contentedly (these sea lions, they don’t do much, than swim and nap – a fine lifestyle if you ask me).
I made my way away from the rest of the folks in our group and stepped into the water. The water had taken in all the gold the setting Sun was throwing at it. I had never felt so inconsequential, so “island of my own” before – I, on an island, on a planet which is an island, looking at a Star which is an island in itself – all of us islands drifting, constantly drifting. There were no thoughts in my usually chaotic mind (those who know me, know that this thoughtlessness is an exceptional rarity), there was no purpose to my standing there, to my breathing in and out, to my being! I had no idea that another friend I made on the trip (JB), was quietly taking pictures of my silhouette, while I stood there for a long time. I think her pictures quite beautifully captured the state of my being and my mind (thanks JB). I was a mere dark outline which had blended into the island, an island which has stood there for millions of years. I was a mere blip (if that) in the celestial certainties of this planet and its universe.
I have come to believe that travel makes me know myself a little more, it helps me understand what I am, and what I have. This was never more truer, than that day on Floreana. I found a bit of myself that evening. A few months back, I was having a conversation with a good friend about what brings each of us “true” happiness. I can very assuredly say, that what brings me true happiness is when I find myself in a place where I do not have to make any effort to feel one with the place – when the place becomes me and I it. That happened on Floreana, and I will be ever grateful for having experienced it.