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Have you ever lost a friend? It is the saddest and most baffling experience. No one sympathizes, unless the friend died, which in my case she did not. I lost my best friend many years ago. She had been my best friend for almost a decade, for more than half of childhood, and then she evaporated, as though she had never really existed at all. Did anyone call me, try to console me, try to find a new friend for me? Yet when my husband left me after six months, I was bathed in sympathy and inappropriate blind dates. For that brief and absurd episode, I received the most tender consideration from all around me, most particularly from my family. Here is the story of my ex-husband: Michael and I were young and stupid; he, being young and stupid, left me for someone equally young and stupid; I, being stupid, cried for three months, and then, being young, woke up in the middle of the night, ate a bowl of cold leftover spaghetti, thought “This is pleasant,” and cried no more.
But my mother had become convinced that I needed to “go abroad” in order to heal, and I did not disabuse her of this quaint notion. Although I was happier without Michael, I did feel regret at no longer being a wife, if only in an abstract sort of way. Going abroad had such a nice amour-propre-restoring ring to it.
“Off you go!” my mother used to say when she pushed me out the door to play, to stop me from moping around the house.
“Off you go!” she said after my divorce. “Off to the Galapagos!”
And so, like many wounded, world-weary souls before me, like Charles Darwin himself, I set sail for the Galapagos Islands. Is a visit to the Galapagos a very odd vacation? It seemed ideal to me the instant my mother suggested the trip. These islands were Darwin’s territory, and my mother recalled my childhood infatuation with the bearded nineteenth-century naturalist. She remembered that I wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands when I was a little girl.
In my biography period, I read an illustrated account of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, which marked the beginning of my fascination with Charles Darwin. What I remember most vividly from that book was, first, that Darwin was seasick for the entire five years of his voyage on the Beagle, and, second, that he had to be very tidy on shipboard. There were pictures of the cabinets used to store specimens, pictures of rows of little bottles and jars and wooden boxes, each labeled in an old-fashioned hand. Life on board ship seemed miniature, like a playhouse full of neatly organized treasures. I’m sure there were pictures in the book of other things as well—birds and volcanoes and ferns—but what I remember most were the boxes and drawers and their orderly tags.
I have had many heroes over the years. But Darwin was one of the earliest. And unlike some of those other early heroes—the Bionic Woman or Pinky Tuscadero, for example—Darwin has aged well. Perhaps because he was so imperfect, because he suffered, because he lived so many lives—a life of physical courage and adventure, a courageous and adventurous life of the mind, a quiet and settled family life. Perhaps because he was such a good gardener. I considered becoming a naturalist, like Darwin. The problem was that once outdoors, I became bored almost immediately. For a while, I persevered, usually by sitting inside thinking I should be a naturalist, sometimes by actually going outside and forcing myself to look at things.
During this time, like all my friends, I also read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. But in addition to blindfolding myself and wandering around the living room to see what it was like to be blind the way we all did, and crouching in the attic with a bologna sandwich, hiding from Nazis, I used to look for fossils. I tired of being blind within a few minutes, and I tired of fossils almost as quickly, particularly because I never found any. I did, however, display and label a row of rocks from the driveway. I didn’t know what they were and was too lazy to find out, so I just labeled them by color. But I still felt a proprietary bond with Darwin. Whenever I hear his name, to this day, I experience a sudden alertness, as if my own name has been spoken.
When Darwin was a young man, he collected beetles and loved to go shooting. He was supposed to be a doctor like his father, but at the first surgical demonstration in medical school, at the first sight of blood, he fainted. In his subsequent studies for the clergy, he spent most of his time carousing and turning over damp logs looking for insects. It was appealing to me to think that I was making the journey to Darwin’s islands much as Darwin had—because the opportunity presented itself and life at home was too confusing. It’s true that his parents did not send him to the Galapagos as mine did. In fact, his father was against the idea. But Darwin convinced his family. And so he sailed far, far away on a ninety-foot boat, just like me.
My mother gave me the restorative trip to the Galapagos as a twenty-fifth birthday present. This generous and extravagant gift was from both my parents, actually, but I knew it was my mother’s idea. It had the scent of whim, and that’s my mother’s scent.
“You need to go far away,” my mother said.
“Why not the Falkland Islands?” my father said. “That’s even farther. And they have sheep.”
“Jane is not interested in sheep, are you, Jane?”
“No, not really.”
“You see? The Galapagos are perfect. There is not a single sheep.”
My mother, a Spanish teacher, found out about this trip through a teachers’ organization she belonged to. My father said perhaps she ought to send me to someplace normal, like Paris, for my birthday.
“No,” I said. “The Galapagos will be far more consoling.”
My father laughed. “I’ve always found you amusing, Jane,” he said, “and so odd.”
I hadn’t thought much about Darwin or the Galapagos in years, but now, suddenly, as an adult, I wanted to go to those volcanic islands more than I ever had. I was no longer a wife. I had been stripped of my category. So where better to go than to the place where Darwin discovered so many new categories, the place where he discovered the very secret of categories? “I’m not a Coco Island finch anymore,” said the little brown bird on the little brown island, “so what am I?” “You’re a Darwin’s finch,” said Darwin. “And you, over there, you’re a long-billed finch, and you’re a vampire finch”—until all thirteen species of Galapagos finches were detected and named.
What exactly is a species? The definition of a species may seem a simple matter to you, but it puzzled and intrigued me whenever I thought about it, which I must admit was not that often until I prepared to visit Darwin’s islands. But once you begin thinking about it, where do you end? I mean, what is it? How do you know? How do you decide? The idea that we all evolved from the same drop of ectoplasmic ooze I have always found to be perfectly reasonable. Nor is it biological diversity itself that alarms me. But look at one mockingbird and look at another. They appear similar, yet they are different species. Look at a Pekingese and a greyhound. They appear different, yet they are the same species.
In my defense, let me point out that the concept of species has changed drastically over the centuries. People have divided up flora and fauna into formal categories since Aristotle—but they keep changing the rules. These days, of course, there are recognized scientific criteria for determining an organism’s species. But when I pored over my guidebook looking at pictures of birds and iguanas, I couldn’t help wondering who decided what those scientific criteria were and, more important, how they decided. The
Galapagos, the islands that had inspired Darwin to find the answers to all my questions, beckoned. I had seen those documentaries of courting blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises chewing cactus. The Galapagos were the frontier of species, and Darwin their pioneer. I was going where Darwin had gone, to see what Darwin had seen.
“You’re searching for your roots,” my father said, “on a dormant volcano?”
“They’re not all dormant.”
“Sturdy shoes!” my mother said. “And a hat!”
I had never gone anywhere with a group before, and I tried to tell myself that my Galapagos pilgrimage with the Natural History Now Society, arranged by my mother, would not be a week on a small boat with an assemblage of strangers, but an enriching apprenticeship. I knew there had to be a reasonable answer to the species question, and I guess I hoped that, traveling with a bunch of nature enthusiasts, I would find it.
The trip was in July, and I spent much of the month of June brooding on the nature of species and, in a less abstract but equally challenging vein, shopping. I had to find just the right backpack. I needed the best special quick-drying nylon shorts. There were microfiber shirts and bras and underpants to be acquired, pants that unzipped into shorts and padded moisture-wicking socks, snorkeling booties, gloves and a hood, a wet suit (long or short? how many milligrams thick?), snorkeling skin to wear beneath the wet suit, a Gore-Tex rain jacket, Tevas, summerweight hiking shoes, water bottles, hats, sunglasses, a strap to keep the sunglasses from falling overboard, and of course insect repellent, Dramamine, ginger pills, aloe lotion, and enormous bottles of mighty, waterproof sunscreen. The shopping was satisfying, even more satisfying than shopping normally is, for each purchase was so specialized, made for a reason. A teleological wardrobe. I sometimes think of shopping as a metaphor for life; that is, one tries so hard, picking and choosing, getting as much as one possibly can within one’s budget, and then most of it goes in the closet, out of style or too tight in the waist. Then I remind myself that it’s the shopping itself that really matters, not the purchases.
“Zen shopping,” I once explained to my brother Andrew.
“You have far too much stray information,” he said.
On July 12, I flew from Kennedy Airport to Guayaquil, a busy, unattractive city on the coast of Ecuador, where I had to change to a smaller plane that could land at Baltra, one of the two Galapagos
Islands that has an airport. There, on Baltra, the Thomas H. Huxley, chartered by the Natural History Now Society, would be waiting.
On the plane to Guayaquil, I continued to read the guidebook my father had given me, a wonderful natural history of the islands written by a naturalist named Michael H. Jackson. According to Michael H., there are thirteen large Galapagos islands and six small ones, and they “straddle,” as he so vividly puts it, the equator at the ninetieth meridian west, six hundred miles west of mainland Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands were first discovered in 1535, first appeared on a map in 1570, and hosted their first
resident in 1807—a shipwrecked Irishman named Patrick Watkins. Watkins was stranded for years before he stole the longboat of a passing whaler, enslaved five of its sailors, and rowed away with them. Herman Melville, too, went there on a whaling ship. Melville said that the “chief sound of life here is a hiss.” I began to wonder if this vacation was such a good idea after all. Yes, I had seen the PBS documentaries on the soaring albatross, the tortoises, and the boobies with their bright feet. But everyone the guidebook quoted, even Darwin, remarked on how ghastly and glum the islands looked, with burnt fields of ash, jagged black lava, the blinding glare of birdlime.
I was very taken by the book, by the harsh drama of the islands it described, and by the author’s name as well. How lucky he was to have a middle name, I thought, under the circumstances. I, too, have a middle name. My middle name is Barlow. Barlow is my mother’s family name. It is also the name of the Connecticut town I grew up in, which, as I read about those desert islands I was headed toward, seemed suddenly such an alluring place, so green and inviting.
At the Guayaquil airport, which was small but as lively as a marketplace, I waited to board a midget propeller plane and thought, Why didn’t I just go to Barlow?
I was told to line up with the other passengers on the tarmac. With our bags on the ground in front of us, we stood facing uniformed men holding automatic weapons, like prisoners facing the firing squad.
“Terrorists?” asked a woman near me.
“Drugs,” said someone else. “Or a coup.”
I entertained the idea of a pogrom. I speculated on the possibility of being killed by a death squad before seeing even one species of tortoise. Then a huge police dog appeared, held tight on a thick leash. The military men remained grim as the big dog wagged his tail gaily and pranced along the line of passengers, poking his wet nose at our bags. I wondered if he was searching for a new species.
When the dog was done with us, we finally boarded the plane. An American family of five—grandmother, I assumed, various grown children, and one girl about ten years old, the granddaughter— stood in the aisle, blocking my way, discussing their seating arrangements.
“You can’t give Grandpa the window seat,” the little girl said with considerable disgust. “He’s dead.”
“Don’t say that,” her mother said. “You’ll hurt Grandma’s feelings.”
A guy about my age, the girl’s uncle, I supposed, gave me a helpless, apologetic smile. A very engaging apologetic smile. I thought he must surely be with the Natural History Now group, for he was dressed in natural history clothes of khaki nylon and Velcro. But then, so was everyone else. “My guidebook says the view from the left is better,” he said. He pointed to an empty seat and I took it. In half an hour I was looking down from the window at a small, dun-colored, flat plateau of volcanic dust surrounded by a flat gray sea.
Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. This is his first impression of the islands: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava is every where covered by a stunted brushwood, which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface, having been heated by the noonday sun, gave the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even the bushes smelt unpleasantly.”
I read this passage from The Journal of the H.M.S. Beagle on that short flight, and when we climbed down the plane’s aluminum stairway onto the runway, I expected to be met by just such a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove.
I stood at the bottom of the stairway. It wasn’t hot at all. It was chilly. I reminded myself that I was there in July, and July was winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Darwin had visited the Galapagos in September, which would have been what? Spring.
Maybe this trip really was a mistake. The sun hung directly overhead. Noon on the equator. I stood beneath the equatorial sun three thousand miles from home, among islands teeming with blue-footed, yellow-scaled, red-throated life, none of it visible, the ground stretching offin cinders. I was traveling with a group of complete strangers. What if they tried to talk to me about the healing powers of crystals? Or Jesus? Or sex addiction? And the islands were ugly—even Darwin said so. And they were
cold. These were the islands the Spanish called the Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands. By enchanted, they meant under a spell, they meant cursed.
It was then that I saw a young woman with a sign for our group.
I knew it was her. I could tell from across the room. I could tell without seeing her face. There are people you recognize by their general presence. Birdwatchers can identify a bird without really
seeing it, by getting just a glimpse, a fleeting movement, the beat of a wing, the flash of a silhouette. The bird flies off, leaving only an impression.
Martha was across the room, obscured by the shade, but I recognized her in just that immediate, intuitive way. I almost expected her to fly off, like a bird, leaving only an impression. Again.
She held a sign that said “Natural History Now.” Every group must have a naturalist guide from the Ecuadorian Parks Department. She was our guide.
She was also the girl who had grown up next door to me, my best friend, the one who didn’t die, the one for whom I received absolutely no sympathy.
Martha Barlow, my cousin and childhood friend, still my cousin, no longer a child, no longer a friend, standing in the little airport of Isla Baltra, Galapagos, Ecuador, waiting for the group from Natural History Now.
She stared at me.
“You look just like someone I used to know,” she said.
“Jane? Is that really you?”
Martha smiled, a pure, involuntary smile that welled up from years and years of friendship. I smiled back. For one moment the simple surprise and fact of recognition hit both of us directly. Then I thought, This is not what I had in mind.
An anonymous vacation with knowledgeable, mildly entertaining, and occasionally enraging strangers was what I’d had in mind. But here was this person who knew me, whom I had once known. Her presence was suddenly not only surprising, but ominous.
“I didn’t know you were here,” I said.
“I’ve been down here for a year. I work here. Well, I live here, too. It’s so amazing to see you. So weird. Are you actually on this tour? You’re in my group! The past rises up and walks upon the earth!”
The friend is dead! Long live the friend!
Martha gave my hand a squeeze. I must admit I was filled with what I can only call joy. Martha, my best friend, among all the strangers and the ashes. But the joy lasted a mere moment. For she was not my best friend, I reminded myself. She had thrown me over, dumped, ditched, cut, cold-shouldered, discarded, shelved, jettisoned, and retired me. I considered asking her right then and there why she’d been so awful so many years ago, so awful that I was reduced to mentally sputtering mixed metaphors. Or not precisely awful, as she had never done anything overtly unkind. She had just stopped being my friend. Stopped, like a clock.
But of course I didn’t say, “Hey, you over there, the disloyal, fickle one holding the sign, what the fuck happened anyway?” as I wanted to. For one thing, I didn’t have a chance. Martha, the group leader, the guide, was quickly surrounded by her charges. There was a young, heavily equipped couple who introduced themselves as Craig and Cindy Gerrard. Then two women—surely they were at least seventy-five years old—greeted her. One was tall and imposing with a brisk and Tyrolean manner, though she spoke in a thick Queens accent. The other woman sported an alarming amount of aged but still coquettish cleavage. I wondered if Martha worried that these elderly ladies would not be up to the trip. I decided that they both, each in her own way, exhibited quite sufficient vigor. Another aged traveler approached Martha, also a septuagenarian, well groomed, well preserved, small and dapper. He kissed her hand and said, “And a little child shall lead them!”
Martha greeted the rest—the family I’d seen on the plane, a middle-aged couple, and a woman wearing a United Nations of ethnic garments and carrying an umbrella—and turned back to me now and then to say, “What a coincidence! I can’t believe it!” I had no idea how Martha had come to be a ranger for the Ecuadorian Parks Department. The last I heard was that she was premed in college.
I said, “I thought you were going to medical school.”
“I’m a botanist, actually.”
“So I guess you never went to medical school.”
“Me? No. Did you?”
“Me? No. You were supposed to go.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t,” I said.
We smiled at each other, both recognizing the comforting, irritable rhythm of a friendship set in its ways. But this intimacy, too, lasted only a moment.
Martha said, “Well!” and resumed her role as guide.
I had successively mourned, demonized, and forgotten Martha, off and on, for quite a few years. Standing in that airport, awkward and uncertain and impatient, I found it hard to believe that now, after so long, Martha could casually greet me, turn easily to the others, nonchalantly turn back again. I don’t know what I thought would have been more appropriate. A massive stroke, perhaps.
“We’re like your little ducklings,” I said. The sound of my voice depressed me. It was forced, lighthearted, one of those voices that have about them a faint echo of desperation.
“Quack,” said the oddly dressed woman, and she shook my hand warmly, another member of the flock.
This is where I ought to tell you why Martha and I stopped being friends. The problem is, I don’t know. There just came a time when she stopped calling, stopped returning my calls, stopped dead. I never knew what it was I’d done. I just knew that I’d lost my best friend. Or perhaps misplaced her, for here she was again, right in front of me.
We climbed into a launch. The wind blew in our faces. The sea was everywhere. It filled every sense. I tried to think of something to say. Ahead, I could see the Huxley, a ninety-foot yacht built especially for ferrying tourists around the Galapagos.
“Our boat is the same size as the Beagle,” I said. Martha nodded.
“The Beagle carried seventy-four passengers for five years. Can you imagine all those people, all those years on such a small boat?”
“Well,” Martha said. “Actually, I forgot to tell you. The trip has been extended! The other sixty people are already on board!”
Our latitude was zero degrees. Martha and I sat in a launch motoring toward a ninety-foot boat at zero degrees. Was that like starting out from zero? Perhaps we could begin all over again, squabbling happily, pretending the last few years had never occurred, ignoring the years of friendship before that. We could meet as if for the first time and proceed from there, from zero degrees latitude. But I saw immediately that Martha was far too familiar to meet for the first time.
The sun was so bright it bleached the sky a pale, pale blue. I put on my sunglasses and watched Martha from behind them. She loved the group already, that was clear. I was sure that she liked all her groups, indulging them, her ducklings waddling all in a row behind her. Martha was not maternal, don’t get me wrong. When she played with dolls as a little girl, they were never her babies—they were her devoted followers. I was sure that the tourists in every one of her groups were as devoted as her dolls. I always had been, and old habits die hard: Martha pushed her sunglasses up on her head, and I felt an awkward urge to do the same.
We climbed a ladder from the panga, as Martha called the launch, to our boat. We were handed up by members of the crew. All of them then assembled in the main cabin, a lounge with a bar. There were ten crew members wearing dress-white uniforms, and as they shook hands and greeted us in smiling, animated Spanish, I thought that, unfriendly as the islands might be, the Huxley, at least, was going to be an amiable place. The cook, fat and bow-legged, wore a stiff, sparkling white chef jacket and a tall sparkling white chef hat that towered officially and absurdly above his white shorts and sneakers.
We had been ferried to the boat in two pangas, and I had gone with the courtly old gentleman and the two older women, the one tall and mighty, the other soft, ripe, and risqué, whose names I instantly forgot, as well as the young couple, who both had the softest traces of Canadian accents, and the person of late middle age in deeply eccentric clothing who had quacked. In the other panga, there was the middle-aged couple and the guy who had advised me about seating in the plane along with his family. Although I was rather skeptical about men just at that point, I did note that he seemed to be single and was good-looking, though short. And I idly speculated what it would be like to have him as
my roommate on the trip. But I knew the eco-bag-lady was somehow meant for my cabin. There was an unaccountable, hideous inevitability to it.
I also thought of the possibility of sharing a cabin with Martha, of course: perhaps forcing the issue of whether we were or were not still friends by cramped, elbow-jostling intimacy, perhaps to punish her for her disloyalty with constant cold companionship, or perhaps just to have an extended sleepover as in the halcyon days of youth. I wasn’t too clear on my motives. But I did realize that Martha probably got to have her own room, like the teacher on a class trip to Washington, D.C. For my hubris in hoping to share a cabin with her, I would be rewarded with the weirdo in the kimono and Ashanti headdress.
I listened almost impassively as Pablo, a very young Ecuadorian with curly black hair and the only crew member who spoke English, gave us our room assignments, and my roommate fears were confirmed.
She waved at me.
I waved back.
Around us rose a confused competitive murmur. Our room was one of only two on an upper deck. Other passengers looked suspiciously at me and the roommate. A silent question rippled through the group: Would our room be better than theirs? Or worse?
It was better. It had windows and a door that opened out onto the deck. The cabins below were prettier, bigger berths, with walls of varnished wood. But they smelled of fuel, and their little portholes were useless. You couldn’t open them for air because they were nailed shut, and they were far too cloudy to let in the sunlight. In my cabin, though my knees bumped my roommate’s if we both sat on the bunks at the same time, the fresh chill of the air blew through, from door to bright, open window. I was grateful for that breeze, for although we had not yet begun to move, the slight swaying of the boat was already making me a little seasick.
“Just like Charles Darwin himself,” said my new roommate, with a reassuring pat on the back.
Our cabin was not much bigger than a train compartment. Pablo ducked his curly head in the open door to tell us we must each take only one shower a day, or two short showers. Martha had the other cabin on the upper deck. I saw her walk by as Pablo added that we should not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but deposit it in the wastebasket, which he would empty frequently. He spoke in a beautiful, lilting English, which I barely listened to, so intent was I on Martha, incongruous, unexpected, out of place, a fossil, my seashell in the Andes.
My roommate introduced herself as “Gloria Steinham, no relation.” I guessed she was about my mother’s age, and I suspected that even in that cramped space, her knees would seldom have a chance to bump mine, so infrequently did she sit still long enough to get in the way. She told me she was a science teacher, which perhaps I should have guessed, as she seemed to be wearing around her neck all the specimens she would need for an entire unit on shells, seedpods, or canine teeth. Then she announced that she was never seasick, and that she did not snore.
“Which is a blessing,” she said.
“My mother’s a teacher, too.”
“She should have come with you!”
I tried to picture my mother on the Huxley.
“Well, if she could be captain, maybe,” I said.