The author celebrates a birthday on the islands that symbolize change and renewal.
"Don’t trip over the iguanas,” warned Carlos.
Our guide’s advice wasn’t flippant. Coming ashore on North Seymour Island, the animals were so thick and well camouflaged that it was easy to stub your toe on a resting reptile or blunder into a sleeping sea lion. Squawking and grunting filled the air, but the resident birds, lizards, and pin-nipped appeared oblivious to our arrival.
We’d arrived in the Galápagos Islands in late May. The cool Humboldt and Cromwell currents were stirring the sea, inspiring a breeze and enriching the ocean with nutrients. “Now it is the romantic season,” cooed Victoria Mediavilla, another of our expert guides, if prone to anthropomorphisms. “When the birds feel the wind, they start the mating season. It is the time for love!”
It was a good time for me too. I’d just turned 60 and was fascinated by the widespread Eastern belief that if one reaches that milestone, one’s life enters a new phase. Here is the reasoning: In Chinese astrology, there are 12 animals and five elements. After 60 years (12 times five), you’ve experienced every possible combination. When that cycle is complete, I’ve heard it said, one’s worldly obligations are settled; your life is your own. The Galápagos, a hotbed of change and renewal that I’d long dreamed of visiting, would be a perfect place to celebrate this passage.
My only concern was that while I’d certainly encounter the five elements—earth, fire, air (or metal), water, and wood—I might not see 12 animals. But as I ventured out on my first excursion, I recalled the gentle mockery of a well-traveled friend: “I could blindfold you in the Galápagos,” she’d told me, “and you’d see 12 animals.”
One can explore the Galápagos in several ways: via day trips from one of the inhabited islands (there are four with hotels), or live-aboard boats of various sizes. Our craft—the 48-passenger La Pinta—stopped at seven islands during its weeklong voyage.
Galápagos National Park, 600 miles off the Ecuadoran coast, lives up to its documentaries. The many animals we encountered—from blue-footed boobies to giant tortoises—were not simply “tame.” We seemed utterly invisible to some, and objects of bored curiosity to others. Coming from San Francisco, where birds and lizards scurry out of my way, I found myself wary of every stone on the beach. “At a certain point,” our lead guide, Carlos King, agreed, “everything starts to look like an iguana.”
There are few places on our planet where landscape and genetics have merged as visibly as in the Galápagos. Nearly two centuries after the 24-year-old Charles Darwin stepped onto the islands, they’re still a global laboratory for the study of adaptation. I had a strange feeling when my own foot touched the sand of North Seymour’s coast. It was the realization that everything about our planet—even its position in space—is in constant flux, moving toward an unknown destiny. When I was 24 there was no Internet or digital music. When Darwin was 24, there was only one known galaxy (ours), and life on Earth was viewed as pretty much fixed. No species had ever—to use the root meaning of the word evolve—“unfolded.” But this planet is in a continual state of unfolding, from the drift of the continents to the progress of our lives. And with a map of the islands flattened on my stateroom bed, I was ready to see what this particular journey might disclose.