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may 29, 2005 -> the theory of 'devolucion'

In Kurt Vonnegut's hilarious, dark novel Galapagos, the long-dead narrator from the future muses on life “a million years ago.”  Back then (today), humans used to do crazy things like kill themselves, build nuclear weapons, choose not to have children, and lie – all because their “big brains” told them that was the smart thing to do.  Tourists come to the Galapagos to see the isolated environment and the unique fauna that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution.  But I kept thinking about those “big brains” as we chased an idiotic, lying, and probably crazy woman around one of the islands, trying to get our ‘devolucion' (Spanish for repayment) after a disastrous cruise.  How much had we evolved, really? 

Good News first: the islands and their scaly, spiny, web-footed, and blubber-wrapped birds and animals amazed us.  No amount of reading or Nature Channel watching dulls the excitement of actually seeing firsthand marine iguanas spitting super-saline streams out their nostrils, or the gracefully soaring albatrosses doing a face plant when they try to land on an uneven volcanic runway.  We giggled as the male blue-footed boobies swayed like sumo wrestlers, lifting one neon blue foot and then the other.  This is evidently supposed to impress the female blue-footed boobies.  I kept thinking that the males were lucky there were no black-footed boobies on the island; they would probably have a more impressive mating dance.  At the Darwin Research Center, we watched male giant land tortoises lazily mount their ponderously fleeing females.  (The sound a male tortoise makes when he attempts to ‘engage' the female is a loud RATTLE-RATTLE-WHIZZ, exactly like the pneumatic lug-nut removers used in Formula-1 pit stops.)  Some people described the animals as tame, but they were the exact opposite of tame.  They have not learned to fear man (dumb animals!), so they generally ignored us. 

And now the Bad News: during our four days at sea, the main generator did not function.  A portable generator provided sufficient power for dim lights and a morning toilet flush, but not enough for A/C.  If everyone tried to flush at the same time – as happened every morning after breakfast – the generator conked out, forcing some of us to leave for the day's first island landing with an unpleasant package still in the toilet bowl.  The combination of the intense heat, lack of A/C, ripening solid waste, and diesel fumes made the cabins uninhabitable.  Many people chose to sleep on the cushions of the dining room, a few tried to sleep on the top deck.  The “Level II” English-speaking guide spoke only basic English, and rarely understood our questions.  He was also very nervous, which meant that he spoke quickly and excitedly – it was hard not to laugh.  After four days in those conditions, Nori and I decided to leave the boat when it stopped in Puerto Ayora to reprovision.

Despite all these issues, we enjoyed the Galapagos Islands immensely.  The six “new” passengers who had boarded the boat at the same time that we did were determined to keep a positive attitude.  In fact, our optimism annoyed the “old” passengers who had already been on board.  They were miserable and wanted company.  I was shocked when we landed on a beautiful beach, full of sunning sea lions.  “Left on another beach for a few hours, what an amazing wildlife experience!” one of the “old” passengers scoffed.  I couldn't believe it.  The beach was perfect: a long curve of white sand looking out over the clear water towards several islets.  Nori and I walked down the beach and found a species of red-skinned marine iguanas that exist only on that island.  Another “old” passenger had complained about the snorkeling.  “There's nothing to see,” he said.  Yet Nori and I had seen two large reef sharks resting under an overhang, and followed a massive stingray across the sandy sea floor.  It didn't seem so bad to us. 


Once off the boat, our pursuit of the female boat owner – the ‘ladronita' (little thief) – was like a movie scene.  We searched in vain for her on the first day.  That evening, we heard that she was on board the Free Enterprise.  We hired a water taxi to take us out to the boat.  We couldn't find her, but the crew insisted that she was on board, hiding.  I went down to the cabins with my headlamp (the ship remained dark – still no power) and searched in the bathrooms.  I finally found her in a small room behind the bridge.  She refused to admit any wrong-doing, and told us that everything would be fixed in a few hours (it wasn't).  She even denied being the boat's owner, though Johnny (who had boarded with us) told me that she was lying.  Something happened inside me.  I started yelling, then screaming at her.  If I had had a light saber I would have struck her down.  I had gone to the Dark Side and I don't know if I can ever go back. 

The ladronita tried to sneak off the Free Enterprise, but we followed her down the gangplank and jumped into the Zodiac with her.  She screamed at the Zodiac driver to speed away before Johnny could get on too.  Then Nori grabbed the lady's purse and would not let go.  At first I begged Nori to release it, but then I started to laugh.  It kept getting better.  At the wharf, she waited for Nori and me to get off.  When we didn't, she finally gave up and disembarked with us close behind.  We jumped into the same taxi as she did and rode with her and the relief captain to the mechanic's shop.  It was seven o'clock on Saturday night, and she stupidly still believed that she could find someone to fix the problem by midnight.  When the ladronita went inside the shop to find the mechanic, the relief captain advised us to take our complaint to the Capitania (the Naval Police.)  “The ship won't be able to leave the harbor until this issue is taken care of.” 

The ladronita had misjudged us.  We were united, spoke Spanish, and were determined to stay on the island until we got our money back.  We wrote a complaint letter in Spanish, describing what had happened.  We spoke to the Deputy Port Commander, who listened sympathetically and assured us that the Free Enterprise wasn't leaving port – they had evidently had issues with the ladronita before.  As we left the Capitania, a reporter from Galapagos TV interviewed us – again, in Spanish – with the Free Enterprise floating in the background.  We faked sad faces and lamented that “the Galapagos Islands are so beautiful, and the people are so nice.  It is a shame that a woman like this continues to operate.” 

On Monday, accompanied by the Port Commander, we visited the local equivalent of the District Attorney.  We were surprised when the ladronita arrived.  She had decided to settle things before we took her to court.  We asked to be compensated for the three remaining days, plus $10 per person, per day, to recognize the difference between the boat we had paid for and the boat we had got.  She still didn't want to pay anything, but the stern Commander convinced her otherwise.  That afternoon, she cried as she counted out our compensation.  We didn't feel bad at all.  To top it all off, we think that she tried to pass us a few counterfeit US$100 bills.  We knew what series of bills to look out for, so we refused them and made her replace them at the bank.  “These people are crazy!” she sobbed.  A few hours later, we were drinking celebratory rum-and-Cokes.  That evening, our interview aired on TV. 

Postscript: Despite our e-mailed warnings, two of our Antarctica cruising buddies boarded the Free Enterprise a week after we left the Galapagos.  It sounded like things had gotten even worse.  Please see my Rambling “The Free Enterprise Theme Song.”