Here we are, in the sixth continent, in a strange little place with stranger stories engraved in its history. A place which echoes with tales of rulers, who came from near and far, to possess this land of extraordinary natural beauty! My eyes are yet to see this, as the world outside is still clothed in dark. But my senses are filled with the richness of it all. The breath of life, which dances its way up my nostrils, echoes of an ecologically diverse world. There’s a silence – Not the still-heartbeat-echoing kind I felt in a country in Europe, but one reverberating with the silent submission of human voices before the subtle sounds of nature. The deep and piercing sounds of insects filled the air the night last. Now, it’s the gentlest chirping of birds. I imagine little feathered creatures, shaking their head left and light. The sky is dressed in deep blue, waiting to welcome the sun. There’s the fragrance of leaves and flowers whose names I do not know and smells of foods that my tongue has tasted not.
A cockerel coos loudly at intervals. It may have been brought here by one of the invaders or it could be native fowl. The distinctness of its voice makes me think that it’s the latter. Its note does not blend with the notes of the other birds here, which seem to be in symphony with nature. This cooing sounds like a shocking interlude. It’s the same story of conquest everywhere, isn’t it? Foreigners invade and push the indigenous people to extreme pockets. As I read about the various indigenous people and their practices, it was an amazing insight into the world of the past. Here were a group of humans, who first arrived and found ways to coexist with nature. But then, another invader arrives. First it’s the Incas and they rule for a hundred years. Another, who comes from a faraway world, defeats this invader. And then the indigenous is made ashamed of his practices and his way of life. What if theirs is the right way of seeing this world, the way they naturally evolved with the land and did not let man and his follies dictate their transformation?
The world around me is slowly coming alive. The blue is turning an indigo and lady dawn will smile, any moment. The trees are perfectly still. Not a single leaf moves. There is no breeze or if he is there, he is hiding, slithering about quietly, without touching a thing. The chorus of little birds grows a little louder and the hens too. Through the tree, I can see the city’s lights glimmering. This place evokes a sense of being in the Tamil countryside, where I used to go as a child, a time when I had the privilege of looking at starlit skies in the night. The terracotta roof outside this balcony is the cue for my inner magician to pull those bunny memories out. “Any moment now” – Chirping birds seem to whisper to one another and they get ready to ride the sun. So do I.
This is a new sun I’m welcoming. A sun that ancestors long, long ago saw. How did man arrive here? The migration of the entire human race that took thousands of years to happen, we did it, in a span of 2 days. 27 hours of flight time, yes. But a mere dot in the scale of things. Millions of years, evolution took to happen and tens of thousands of years, man took to come to this continent. I’m remembering the first family, which moved from known shores to explore a new land and call it their own. The entire human race, save a handful of people in Africa, is a family of immigrants. Did life really start at one place and then move on to different regions or did evolution make its mark at all places independently? A fascinating question to ask. I believe in one world. These strange faces that I smile at are long-lost cousins and nephews and nieces. They are me, as much as I am them.
As I sit in this little spot on a faraway corner from the place I call home, I still feel at home only because it was a long-lost ancestor who walked into this land. One who was brave enough to wander and see the beauty of a new land, letting go known faces. This is in tribute to that ancestor who brought man to these shores. Our species will survive only if we learn to hold hands with the ways of nature rather than trying to change nature for one’s own benefits. How can we move away from practices that scar mother nature and how can we lay garlands of love on her body?
DARWIN’S INSPIRATION – IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
A day has gone by. The sights along the way, the unique forests that seemed like out of an alien landscape, with white tentacles extending skyward. Little birds everywhere! Wonder how Darwin’s finches are evolving with all the tourists around. There is plentiful supply of food now. How are they, who are used to fighting a hard battle to procure food, coping with the pain of this abundance? Life’s interesting puzzle! Will they too create art now that their food is guaranteed? Or will they lose the drive to thrive?
Wonderful laughing with a little Ecuadorian boy who would not stop talking, the barrier of language notwithstanding! Spanish met English and Tamil. The walls of unknown languages were scaled with the able limbs of curiosity and universal affection.
CREATURES OF LAND AND SEA – PLAZA ISLAND AND PUNTA CARRION
A memorable day. Red and blue would be the essence of it – The turquoise blue of the Pacific at its shallowest and the red of the Plaza island. The darkness-clad marine iguanas and the sun-clad land iguanas, both magnificent in their evolution in this arid landscape.
The walk of the iguana is something to sit and stare at. The way it moves sends echoes in the air, tom-tomming the long-gone dinosaurs. Playing that ‘stare till you dare’ game, it locks eyes with you now and then and does not move away until it has won.
Birds were moving flowers in the skies. The magnificent frigate birds whose shape when in flight resembles an M, with their giant yet delicate wings spread in air. Seemingly, these are pirates that do not dive deep for that might break the wings. They steal food from other birds that dive deep to fish. There was the exquisite red-billed tropicbird that had such delicate and slender tail feathers, disappearing in a wisp behind it. Then, there was the bright white bird with brown webbed feet – The Nazca booby. And birds that rested in the day and hunted in the night. I stood like a student hungrily devouring all the fascinating things about these bird friends.
To tell you more about the life beneath the land, we went to Punta Carrion in the morning. I was a little scared owing to a lack of extensive snorkeling experience. But then, the guide, gauging my attempts as I was snorkeling, hanging on to the boat, told me that I could possibly try it and that I shouldn’t be scared. So after some practice sessions, I got the hang of it and dared to let go of the boat I was holding on to, to snorkel along the corners of the reef, all the way to the end. I saw a fish with a toothy grin that kept hammering the rocks to peck away its food with a smile. Other members of the underwater movie cast were brilliantly coloured purple fish and dozens of Nemos and Dories. Trailing behind were synchronised schools of fish and a harmless little shark, which was dancing around the reef. When I took a moment to pause and take in everything, it took me to different world entirely. The gentle movements of the creatures beneath, living with the sensuous sea all their life, reminded me of the clumsiness of us, the humans. The way they bend and dance to the waves forever and we, keep fighting the tide of life!
Eating my fear, led by my excited eyes, I kept reaching out to the farther corner of the reef. Snorkeling – This is the thing people come here for. Seeing life underwater! There are many, many pictures and videos of life on land. It’s easy and accessible but to catch a glimpse of the life that thrives and throbs underwater is a special treat for the eyes and mind. It reminded me of the diver we met in Australia who was relating about his many dives and remarking how after too many dives some people lose their senses. It’s the pressure of the sea that lightens you, perhaps a little too much. But snorkeling and being on the surface makes it a little more comfortable. Being close to land that makes us feel safe, whilst exploring our ancient, ancient past. The fish that I saw walking on the rocks could easily be the descendant of the first fish that walked on land and became those magnificent reptiles.
At the Finch Bay hotel where we stayed, I hear the sweet sounds of the eponymous finches that proclaim to the world their story of survival in this arid land. Some with pointed beaks, some with sharp ones and every kind there is. Darwin’s finches flew about, autographing Darwin’s theory of evolution and adaptation. Yesterday I saw a black finch pecking away at the abundant breakfast spread. I again wondered what we humans are doing to the creatures around. A thousand years from now, will our successors consider our actions and nod in disbelief, as we frown upon the actions of those who came before us, who rode the giant tortoises here and ate their meat. What actions of ours will be abhorrent to them, as the supposedly harmless acts of our predecessors appear to us now?
When we were at the Plaza Island, I asked our guide Fabian about why the waters were a turquoise blue on one side of the island and a grey on the other? He replied that where the water is shallow, it’s that colour of blue. I turned to Madhan and said, seems like shallow is pretty and he came back with, ‘pretty and beautiful’ are just what we have trained our eyes to see. It could be the other way. That made me think, how we like to project our lives as beautiful and magnificent to the world but perhaps we are being shallow and the deep sea with its vague grey contains so much mystery and life beneath, that perhaps the world needs to understand our common humanity. That’s what writing is about, I suppose, plumbing into the greys of the mind to show the life hiding there.
THE GOOD OLD LIFE – GIANT TORTOISES FARM AND TORTUGA BAY
Watching giant tortoises so close was a mystical experience. To look at their gentle movements and their take-it-easy life, it was like looking at a wise old person. The eyes seemed to be all knowing. Just like how a good-natured granny’s eyes would crinkle and smile at you. The way they extend their neck and the way they retreat into the shell, pushing out the air within.
Lunch at the farm was sumptuous. Saw what farm life could be at the Manzanillo Ranch. By the way, Manzanillo is a plant endemic to Galapagos, poisonous to humans but tasty to tortoises. Such is life!
The visit to Tortuga Bay started with a half-hour walk ending in a rewarding experience of wildlife. Strolling with marine iguanas; Gazing at the sky to catch a glimpse of the frigate birds; Walking with a yellow eyed cormorant, which at first ran away from me and then kept following me; Smiling at pelicans that kept swooshing and pouncing into the water; Admiring red-throated lava lizards scampering about. The place was teeming with life. On an island born of raging fire, how has so much life bloomed?
Once the wave retreated, holes in the sand spewed out water like lava. I glanced at schools of tiny silvery transparent fish barely a couple of steps from the shore. I have never ever seen this sight in any other beach. True proof that life abounds and thrives here. Perhaps, human footprint is a minimum in a relative scale. Humans have not been here for millennia but just a few hundred years past. Not enough to affect life yet, perhaps. A liberating experience to watch animals in the wild and walk along, smile at them and lock eyes with them.
HARDSHIP AND HEART – FLOREANA
The thing was the two-hour boat ride from Santa Cruz to the island of Floreana was a little too much for Haiku. He kept throwing up. It made him feel sick and angry. But once we landed on the island, he enjoyed the place, running around the maze and climbing the banks. He was his usual self. But, then another two hours of boat ride back to Santa Cruz made him sick for quite some time afterwards. I’m amazed that I was able to face all this without getting pulled down. This was not who I used to be. When even a minor thing went a little awry, I used to feel that everything was a disaster. Now I see it as an opportunity to understand our strength. Yes, it was a difficult crossing but he made it. He showed his spirit in his enjoyment of Floreana. He asked not for mobile phones when in the presence of these creatures of awe, and that’s the best gift we could give him.
The colorful marine iguanas of Floreana were gorgeous models of nature. So dazzling in their red and blue. Reminded me of the moments in Plaza Island – the red algae and the blue Pacific. There’s a pattern weaving itself over and over. I’m glad to be a dot in this pattern – A dot that sees and reflects this pattern.
This island that was first inhabited has the least population. They are descendants of some German immigrants, I heard. Why did these people arrive here? Why did they choose this harsh land? The animals had no other go. They did not choose to arrive here. They were swept by winds and they rode the winds of time and became masters of this land. Millions of years of evolution, of staying still and changing what needs to be changed slowly, steadily and then, passing on the imprints of these lessons to their sons and daughters, they have thrived and flourished here. But, humans?
Why do humans seek out such harsh territories out of their own volition? Why do they move away from the known world and try to settle down in remote corners of the world? That’s not the norm though. Perhaps early men were also pushed to the unknown by changing forces of nature. What is life? Just a game of chance?
CULTURE AND ART – QUITO
Today, we want to soak in Quito. Still trees stand all around me. Not a leaf is fluttering. This is a lot different after the fluttering breeze that was omnipresent in the Galapagos – On Plaza island or Floreana or Santa Cruz, the breeze was always there. Here, not so. Everything is still and calm. Everything echoes with a different feeling.
The day started with a visit to the Intinan Museum. Learnt that ‘Inti’ means ‘Sun’ in Kichwa, the language of the indigenous. It’s a museum located not at the geographic centre but actually 250 m off it. The original 0 degree is on the opposite side of the road, on a hill across the highway. Turns out it was a sacred indigenous site. How did the natives know about the importance of the place without any of the measuring devices and precise scientific equipment of this century? Turns out that reality is not just about measuring and seeing. It’s about feeling, as indigenous cultures have proved time and again.
The museum was great in that, it gave a bird’s eye view of the entire Ecuadorian country. The guides there spoke about the practices of the many tribes such as the skull shrinking tradition of the Shaur, the strength of the Wuarani and stories of an entire house being built in three days. This was the most fascinating part of the day. Must appreciate them for the importance they accord to the indigenous tribes, who have been treated poorly in every part of the world traditionally. The different have always been considered inferior. Have we stopped to ask ourselves why? How can the majority or the powerful dictate the scale of human capability? How much have we lost because we believed that one conquering group was superior to the rest? What human treasures have been lost irrecoverably? How can we recover the knowledge of our ancestors, living this cubicle life? I salute this country for it is recognising the value of indigenous knowledge and culture and making it an integral part of their country.
Then, we went on to the Basilica to be blown away by the architecture and coloured glass paintings. So extraordinary, but bringing to memory the work we found in some Rajasthan forts. Art seems to weave bridges across time. Taking a view of the old town and a walk by the roads, I caught a glimpse of a lot of people lining up to get their nails done. A big queue ran out into the street from the shop. Apparently, a crucial thing here!
All over the streets, the Ecuadorians were getting ready to welcome the new year. Apparently, they have a tradition of burning paper mache dolls of various fictional characters, signifying the burning away of the old and welcoming the new. For fire signifies purity, explained our guide. It is their metaphor for clearing away all the blemishes of the past for a new beginning. Here again, perhaps these cultures draw inspiration from the many volcanoes that abound the land. The fury of which now gives them the rich land they feast on.
Talking about a feast, the fruits here must have dropped straight from heaven! Mangos and bananas make you mesmerised in the richness of flavour. Their mangoes, unlike ours, happen only in one month, that of December and we were so lucky to be there then. Juice of the fruit called banyavana, which looks like wild custard apple, blew our minds with its uniqueness.
As the day coasted to a close, we headed to the La Compania church. The thing I liked about the La Compania Church was what I heard about the Quito school of art. In this form, indigenous artists hide elements of their land in these seemingly distant depictions of another culture. The suppressed express through art!
Be it in the wild of the Galapagos or the art of Quito, this place has taught me to understand a little something of the world. We are victims of our times. The world around seems to force a certain behaviour out of us. And we, like the colourful marine iguanas and the ingenious Quito artists, adapt to the emphasis of that specific brush on the canvas of our life. Still, traces of who we are, tries to shine through it all.
Thus ended a journey that revealed a living lesson on retaining one’s essence whilst surviving the changing tides of time.