A Week in Galapagos

Last month I was lucky enough to spend a week in the Galapagos Islands while leading a walking group in Ecuador.   In fact we didn’t do much walking on Galapagos itself, but spent most of the time on board ship, landing on dinghies at different islands to look at the wildlife.

It was simply one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to.     Herman Melville once described Galapagos as the closest thing on earth to hell, and other visitors during the nineteenth century were similarly unflattering about the islands and the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit them.

Today most visitors see the islands very differently.     Thanks largely to Charles Darwin,   these islands have now come to occupy a unique place in the world’s imagination as a ‘living musem and showcase of evolution’, as UNESCO calls it.

While I was there I wrote a short   piece about conservation on the islands for the New York Times International Supplement, which interested readers can find here.   I’ve also put together some photographs that I took to give you an idea of why Galapagos is a such a special place.

From the moment you land at the former US military base on Baltra Island, you have the feeling that you are stepping through a portal into another dimension.   Even the toilets remind visitors of the ongoing conservation efforts of the Ecuadoran government to balance tourism and human settlement with conservation:



It isn’t long before you realize what all this is intended to protect.   As barren and desolate as some of the islands appear at first sight, they are teeming with incredible, weird and beautiful creatures on land, in the air and underwater, from sea lions:




To frigate birds:



Or the splendid iguanas that Darwin once unkindly called ‘ imps of darkness’:



I mean, there are lots of iguanas, and sometimes you can be in places in Galapagos where you feel transported back to some far off period in the earth’s unwritten history, long before human beings ever got here:


And then there are the giant tortoises, which have taken slow living to an entirely new level:



Melville has a wonderful passage about Galapagos tortoises in The Enchanted Isles, where he describes them as ‘mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, [which] affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere… Such worshipful venerableness of aspect!’

One time I came across that ‘venerableness of aspect’ while snorkeling.       I was admiring the amazing array of fish, some of them ghostly and seemingly transparent, others decked out in the most brilliant and vibrant colours, when suddenly a giant turtle appeared just below me, gnawing away at the weed on the rocks, followed shortly by another.   For a few unforgettable minutes I swam with them.

On another occasion I saw snorkeling when a fairly large shark came zipping back and forth through the water just in front of me.

Normally I don’t really like to spend too much time with sharks, but the ones in Galapagos are harmless, and in any case there is something so disarming about the wildlife in the islands that you don’t expect to be attacked by anything.   Nor, it seems, do the animals themselves.   There aren’t many places in the world where you can find sealions in deckchairs:

WP_20141108_002Or pelicans queuing for scraps by the fishing boats, even though conservation laws say that they shouldn’t be fed:

DSCF3243Or mating frigate birds, which don’t fly away at your approach:

WP_20141105_013Of course the Galapagos aren’t only inhabited by animals.   170,000 tourists visit the archipelago every year, and the numbers are rising.   Some 27,000 Ecuadorans live on the islands, attracted by salaries that are three times higher than those on the mainland.     Human settlement brings with it the risk of commercialisation, urban growth, and invasive species, from rats, cats, and goats to blackberries, all of which have threatened the wildlife and eco-system of Galapagos in various ways.

At the Charles Darwin Research Centre on the island of Santa Cruz, you can still see the compound where scientists tried unsuccessfully to breed ‘Lonesome George’, the last tortoise on Pinta Island, which died in 2012 aged more than a 100 years old:


The Pinta tortoises were wiped out because fishermen brought three goats to Pinta in 1959, which multiplied to the point when they ate all the foliage on the island so that there wasn’t enough for the tortoises to feed on.     Scientists believed that they had become extinct, until Lonesome George was found in the early 70s.     Today this conservationist icon has become a commercial opportunity even in his absence, in the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island:

DSCF3235Despite this kind of nonsense, and despite the risks from the rising numbers of visitors,   tourism actually helps fund the conservation effort.   Galapagos is one of the main tourist attractions in a country whose economy vitally depends on tourism.   The challenge for Ecuador – and the world – is how to balance conservation with sustainable tourism in such a way that both become possible.

It’s a difficult but essential task, and it needs all the help it can get.     Anyone interested in this amazing place ought to check out the Galapagos Conservation Trust.    

But one thing is certain, this amazing place must be preserved.   Because this is the place that told us where we came from, and if we can’t protect it, then it might just tell us where our world is going.

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Catalonia’s human castles

A very good Catalan friend of mine has just sent me a fabulous calendar of one of my favourite Catalan folk traditions: els castellers the castlemakers.  It’s a tradition that was first recorded in the late eighteenth century, though its roots may reach further back than that.

It sounds simple and a little crazy at the same time:  teams known as colles compete with each other to build human towers by standing on each others’ shoulders.  In accordance with tradition they wear white trousers, bandanas, coloured shirts and black sashes wrapped round their waists,  which give them added strength and stability and also provide footholds and handholds for the higher layers as they climb up or down.

The construction of these towers begins with the  solid base known as the pinya  – the base of the castle, made up of stocky men chosen for their strength, which is then given additional  support by a larger group that reach out their arms and  push against the core like a human buttress:


Once the base is formed and stabilised,  another group climbs on top of them, approaching from different directions at exactly the same moment to avoid any risk of overbalancing and lopsidedness, forming another tier and then another, with the top formed by a single child known as the enxaneta (the rider), who raises his or arm to signal that the maximum height has been achieved.  You can see one preparing to go up here, in the red helmet:


And here at the top:


Even then the process isn’t fully complete, since a tower is only considered successful when it has been descarregat – successfully dismantled,  as opposed to carregat (collapsed in dismantling).  These towers can go up eight storeys in the popular quatre de vuit – eight by four:

And even on very rare occasions to nine in the  quatre de nou amb folre four people on each storey and 9 storeys high, which I’ve never seen, performed here by the legendary Castellers de Vilafranca:


Watching  them go up is an incredibly exciting and moving experience.  There are many different possible variations and their construction is a highly technical and intricate process that has been refined and developed over decades, which depends on the exact distribution of weight, height, build, and meticulous coordination between all the members of the team.

The pinya is critical.  The group chief or organizer known as the  cap de colla  and his or her assistants will spend some time calling out names and numbers and instructions until the base is considered sufficiently compact and level to support the next layer.

At this moment musicians begin to play the Catalan flute called the gralla and the drum known as the timbal, which accompany each phase of their construction and also informs the members on the lower levels what is happening above them.

The next layer is lighter and then lighter still, and the speed and agility as they climb onto each others shoulders and get into position, linking arms with their legs trembling is just astounding to watch.   At times it looks as if the whole structure will come crashing down at any minute, and sometimes it does.

But then, almost impossibly, a child who might be as young as six will make the last lonely climb all the way from the bottom to stand on the shoulders of the last two or three people,  and raise their hand to signal that the tower has reached its maximum point.

This element of danger and tension is part of what makes the castellers such a compelling dramatic spectacle.  But the drama also stems from their setting.  They are usually performed on festival days in front of the town hall, in public squares that are filled with people, who are themselves part of the performance.

For Catalans, the castellers are a powerful symbol of Catalan national identity.    But they also symbolise more universal ideals that most human societies aspire toward: solidarity and community, trust, cooperation, mutual collaboration and support, and the human desire to defy boundaries and climb higher.

It’s impossible to watch the castles without sensing this, and it wasn’t for nothing that  UNESCO inscribed the castellers amongst the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2010, because they really are a kind of masterpiece.

Today Catalonia, like the rest of Spain is under the austerity lash.  Unemployment in Spain has just reached an astounding five million and the shambolic performance of Zapatero’s socialists has paved the way for the political comeback of one of the worst right wing parties in Europe, the Partido Popular, whose political lineage reaches back to the Franco dictatorship.

My friend says that “to overcome this difficult 2012 we’ll need a lot of the values of Castellers’: “Força, Equilibri, Valor i Seny” (Strength, Balance,  Courage,  and Common Sense).

Couldn’t agree more – and not only in Catalonia.  But I’d one more thing.   In Chris Marker’s classic film Sans Soleil,  the anonymous narrator quotes from the Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon, the sixteenth century author of The Pillow Book, who wrote of her desire to compile arbitrary lists of ‘ things that quicken the heart.’

A beautiful expression.   In these dismal years of meaningless wars, of waste, greed, corruption, incompetence and monumental  folly, when so many towers are crashing down all around us, we also need to compile our own lists of ‘things that quicken the heart’, and the castellers will always be on mine.

And today, recovering from flu and looking out onto the ice and snow, I can see a crowded square in Barcelona, the city where I spent nine great years, with the brilliant blue sky overhead, and the shrill sound of the gralla and timbal playing the toc de castells: the ‘castles reveille’, and I leave you with this fantastic video from the 2010 castellers festival in Tarragona, which captures something of their magic:


With map and compass

I’ve just spent a fantastic week in the Lake District, doing a course on walk leading and navigation.  It’s not a part of the UK I know at all well, but I now see what Wordsworth and Wainwright were on about.  It’s an amazingly dramatic and compelling landscape, with an endlessly variegated terrain that includes  high mountain passes and ridges, lakes, forests, boggy hillsides, fells and romantic isolated tarns, and tumbling waterfalls and mountain streams.

We were there at the peak of autumn, at just the point when the leaves still held the colour of bronze and burned gold, despite their daily thinning out from the constant buffeting of winds that sometimes reached 100 mph on the mountain tops.   It was a privilege to be out there in that world, watching it all happen as we stomped through bogs and clambered over the hills with our maps and compasses day after day, honing our navigation skills (hopefully) in the wind and occasional drizzle.

I’ve come to the world of maps somewhat late.   For much of my life I never looked at a map unless I had to, and even then it wasn’t to give them more than a cursory glance.  Now I find them fascinating and beautiful, and I’m constantly amazed at their ability to encompass even the slightest variation in the landscape.   Learning to read them is like learning another language and I also have something of a convert’s naive faith in what they reveal, since I tend to expect them to contain every necessary detail, which they don’t always do.   Sometimes they misrepresent things, and older maps don’t always incorporate changes in the landscape.

If maps aren’t always 100 percent reliable however, there is always the compass to get you out of trouble.   It’s such a simple, logical and ingenious instrument, and once again, coming to it as a novice, I’m revelling in the pleasures of taking and following bearings and finding myself (most of the time) in exactly the place where I expected to be.

All this,  and great company, good food and conversation.   It’s been a really magical few days.   During much of that time I had only intermittent Internet contact or no contact at all, and no newspapers, so I wasn’t able to blog.   Now I’m back in  the ‘real’ world, as filtered through newspapers and computer screens, and it really feels like returning from a more serene and orderly dimension to the familiar chaotic madhouse and the sound of the winds rattling my windowpane have been replaced by  the cracking timbers of a failing financial system, the empty pledges of venal politicians and the drumbeat of the next war.

The failed G20 summit, the looming collapse of the eurozone,  the tyranny of the markets, the politicians seeking new ways to chuck good money after bad and reduce other societies to Greek-style penury in the name of ‘reform’, all suggest that our leaders are travelling without a map and with no direction home.

Meanwhile  contingency plans by the UK Ministry of Defence to join in the Imperium and Israel’s planned assault on Iran are a dismal reminder that no matter how much ‘austerity’ is inflicted on their own populations, there will always be enough money for another cruise missile, and that  some governments, more than others,  are flying without any moral compass whatsoever.

Spain is different (2)

Spain may be hovering on the brink of disaster,  but Barcelona is  not the kind of city to allow the prospect of bailouts, cuts and economic collapse to interfere with the essential rituals of the Spanish summer.  On Wednesday night the middle-aged football fans leapt from the couch in the opposite flat and came out onto the balcony to shout ‘gooaaaal’ after a Messi strike against Real Madrid in the second round of the Supercopa.  Soon afterwards the streets were filled with bleeping horns and shouting in celebration of another defeat inflicted by Barca on Mourinho’s not-quite dream team.

In my old neighbourhood in Gracia, the streets have been decked out in their usual finery for the Fiestas de Gracia, the largest and most elaborate Fiesta Major (Neighbourhood Festival) in the city.   Every August Gracia residents drape their streets  in fantastic decorations for a week of street parties.   Some of these guarniments (Catalan: decorations) are amazingly elaborate and creative, transforming entire blocks into fantasy environments populated by aliens, giants and undersea creatures.

Many of them are the result of more than a year’s work by local  residents, and competition for the first prize is so fierce that there have been rumours of sabotage during previous years.  Here’s a photograph of this year’s prizewinner, with a J.M Barrie/Peter Pan theme (not a choice that I agreed with, but I’m often mystified by the criteria of the festival judges):

And another:


These incredibly vibrant fiestas leave Royal Wedding street parties standing.  They are primarily intended for the benefit of the Gracia residents – so much so that their organizers once refused to change their traditional dates to coincide with the 1992 Olympic Games, despite the inducement of a not-inconsiderable sum of money from the city council.   Nowaways the festival is a huge tourist attraction.  Every night tens of thousands of people swarm through the neighbourhood to dance, drink and listen to the array of bands, discos and orchestras blaring from streets and plazas.

For many of Gracia’s residents sleep is impossible until about three or four in the morning, and even then the sound of horns and exploding fireworks is likely to wake people up around eight o’clock.  No one seems to mind, and those who do will at least put up with it for the week. Even young children stay up with the parents and grandparents till way past midnight, and there are activities for all ages,  from lindyhop classes to punk bands and live opera.

Spain’s economic woes are not  entirely absent from the celebrations.   When I was last here three years ago there were clashes between riot police and local anarchos, who argued – somewhat unreasonably in my opinion – that the fiestas were ‘repressive’ because people were only allowed to party until the early hours rather than the whole night.

This year one street has been decorated with rows of anguished theatrical masks and a giant pair of scissors in protest against les retallades (cuts).  Apart from that, and the festival goes on – as in Spain and Catalonia – it always will.   An indispensable component of Catalan neighbourhood festivals is the  Correfoc (fire run), my favourite Catalan tradition, in which processions of devils, and sometimes dragons, parade through the streets dancing and igniting chains of fireworks.

British standards of health and safety are generally absent from these gloriously anarchic processions.  On Wednesday we followed a Correfoc through the twisting alleys and streets of the Barrio Gotico in the San Roc neighbourhood near the old Gothic cathedral.

For an hour or so, devils danced and twirled, holding forks containing fizzing fireworks, and the ancient streets of the Gothic quarter were filled with smoke and fizzing fireworks and deafening explosions,  in a joyous parody of hell, accompanied by the manic rhythms of a local samba band.    I don’t have a camera, but this picture gives you a pretty good idea of the mayhem involved:

It was a hugely enjoyable spectacle – a tribute to the appetite for irreverent mischief-making and unbridled lunacy which has always coexisted seamlessly with the very practical, mercantilist Catalan temperament.  On Sunday we’re going to another one on the last day of the Gracia fiestas and I can’t help thinking these processions would make a terrific accompaniment for a papal visit to Barcelona.  I can see Ratzinger’s dark hooded eyes peering warily from the glass PopeMobile, waving his hand to bless the dancing devils and dragons.

Now that would be a Correfoc to remember.