Mendel Letters 65 — Galapagos and the Moon Landing

Summer 1969

February 19, 2022

Dear Mendel,

The most exciting things we did it Ecuador was spend a week on the Galapagos Islands. But let me start at the beginning. As we crossed over the border from Colombia to Ecuador we entered the northern end of the pre-Columbus Inca Empire and started to “discover” our first Inca ruins. I confess I am not sure where they were, but a web search says there are Inca ruins located at Rumicucho, about 20 miles north of the capital city of Quito.

Street scene in Quito

Quito was founded by the Spanish in the 1530s and sits on a plateau high in the Andes. Although it is on the equator, the weather in the summer was cool. It is a small city, even today its population is only about two million people. The population of the entire country is only 17 million. In 19769, the population of Quito was probably less than five million people. It is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site because of it surviving colonial era buildings, but I confess, I found Bogotá, Colombia and Lima, Peru more interesting. The best part of Quito was the outdoor indigenous markets and the Otavalo Indians. The Otavalos are famous as weavers and were distinctively dressed in black hats and dark ruanas, a type of poncho.

From Quito, we did four side trips. We visited Otavalo, the home of the Otavalo Indians, about two hours by bus north of Quito, the Chota Valley, and Guayaquil — Galapagos. The Chota Valley in Ecuador has villages where the people and their culture remain largely African. Some of the people were descendants of enslaved Africans who worked on sugar plantations, but we were told there were also communities of free people who escaped to the backcountry when slave ships crashed on the coast.

In Quito, we were able to book inexpensive flights to the Galapagos Islands with a stop over in Guayaquil. In Guayaquil we ended up staying at a cheap hostel in the waterfront area which was a big mistake. One evening as we were wandering around the market area when a kid grabbed Frank’s watch off of his arm. We started to run after him when we were stopped by a police officer. Jean Claude was able to explain what happened and we demanded to know why the cop had stopped us. His answer was simply that if we caught the kid, other criminals in the area would attack us and we would be lucky to not end up dead. We took his advice and retreated back to the hostel, which was another misery. Our rooms were oppressively hot with no air circulation and a barely functioning ceiling fan. Noise from other rooms passed through the walls and with the heat, noise, and insects we were not able to sleep. We were much relieved when we caught our flight to the Galapagos.

The Galapagos were amazing and worth the entire South American adventure. Today, tens of thousands of tourists arrive on the Galapagos Islands on cruise ships and at regular airports and the Ecuadorian government taxes and tries to regulate arrivals. When we went to the Galapagos you flew in on a military flight that landed at an old United States World War II air base on an isolated barren Baltra Island without a water supply, and then had to travel between islands on rental boats, ferries, or cargo vessels. We, of course, were completely unprepared for arrival.

Iguana and Giant Tortuga

We got very lucky when returning priests on our flight gave us a ride on their small boat to the Roman Catholic mission on Ile Isabela, the largest of the equatorial volcanic islands. The eight-hour nighttime boat ride across open-ocean was incredible. There was no visible light so the sky was lit up with stars and dolphins were leaping across the bow of the boat. The only problem was we eventually got severely seasick and the priests gave us aguardiente, sugar whiskey, to settle our stomachs and help us fall asleep.

On Isabela we camped out on a beach with iguanas and swam, went for long coastal walks, and joined up with another group of travelers, a French man and woman and two German men, all in their thirties. I never learned what their relationships were but the French and Germans were constantly bickering and neither group had a very high regard for Americans. I tended to prefer the French, given my residual hatred of Germany. I don’t know if you remember, but you forbade us to buy Volkswagens because it was a German Nazi car.

Quicksand on Isabela

The coastal walk is where I got into trouble. One morning I was on my own and came to a mud flat, stepped in and slowly started to sink. I didn’t panic and was able to reach back for some roots and drag myself out. When I returned to our base everyone was hysterical. I think it one of the Germans had sunk into the “mud” up to his neck before people were able to pull him out. It was lucky he was not alone because the “mud” was quicksand. Ex post facto panic set in and I to just walked away, very carefully, terrified because I might have died.

Something we didn’t even think about when we were on the Galapagos is that they are a volcanic island archipelago. Just last month, Wolf Volcano erupted on Isabela sending a river of orange hot lava pouring down the mountainside and into the Pacific.

While we were on the Galapagos, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I think I spent part of a day and night staring at the sky in wonder. I think people of my generation always remember where they were and their thought on certain days — November 22, 1963, April 4, 1968, July 20, 1969, and September 11, 2001. For you the day to never forget was probably December 7, 1941.

With our new companions we were able to rent a boat to Santa Cruz, the main island, where the Giant Tortugas and Darwin laboratory are located. I don’t know how but one of the newcomers was able to get us permission to say in a beach house and horses and donkeys to ride in search of the turtle nesting area. After this the two groups split and we caught a cargo ferry traveling between islands. There were a few cabins but at night we sleep in hammocks strung over animal holding pens.

One of the most striking things about the Galapagos chain of islands was the different climate zones. Because it was located on the equator and the particularities of the Pacific water and wind currents, there were areas that were desert with cactuses and nearby areas that were tropical jungle. The water was similarly diverse, equatorial warm by some islands and quite cold by others. On our boat trip back to the airport island we stopped at a small island where we went swimming with seals.

Next week I’ll write about Peru and our trip to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was another amazing high point.

Your son

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1

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