Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   WiFi and beer in Puerto Ayora
Thursday, December 31 2015

location: Academy Bay, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

All today's activities would be on Santa Cruz Island and none would involve immersion in water. This morning after breakfast, we were were pangaed into Puerto Ayora and then bused to nearby Darwin Station, the research station/outreach center where tourists customarily get to see Galapagos Tortoises. Visiting it was by far the dullest part of the Galapagos tour Gretchen and I did ten years ago. From what most people see of it, it's like a zoo with only a handful of species. And there's only so much that is interesting in a data dump about the relationship of shell shapes to grazing style. Tourists typically focus on the individuals such as Lonesome George (1910-2012). George died since our last visit, and the new star at Darwin Station is Diego, a tortoise from Española who had been in the San Diego Zoo (thus his name). Diego has been a prolific father, siring something like 2000 offspring. We actually got to see Diego today. He was in a lava-walled pen along one of the main walkways, and we came upon him as he was unsuccessfully romancing a female of his species. She hurried away quickly at the start of his advances. Quickly, that is, for a giant tortoise. At about that point Diego began passing a fist-like bolus of wadded-up plant material from his cloaca. His digestive system had extracted everything it could from it. Also in the zoo were some land iguanas and numerous wild lava lizards scurrying around on the rocks. One of the lava lizards had recently lost his or her tail and had begun growing a shiny new replacement, though it was now only about an inch long and covered with tiny scales that were noticeably darker than the rest of the lizard.
Hernan had been doing most of the lecturing, but he never touched on the most interesting thing about Darwin Station, which I'd learned this past summer in an episode of the Radiolab podcast. According to that story, a bunch of fisherman in the Galapagos became enraged at all the restrictions of living in an environmental wonderland and eventually siezed the station, killed a number of giant tortoises, and even released goats on some of the islands to thwart goat erradication efforts. [A couple days later, Gretchen would ask Hernan about this and he would say that the story wasn't true. It would turn out my memory was a little garbled; there had been a fisherman takeover of a research station in the Galapagos, but it had happened on the big seahorse-shaped island of Isabella, not in Puerto Ayora. Unfortunately, the angry fisherman had indeed killed some tortoises.]
Eventually our guides dropped us off at the official Darwin Station gift shop, whose air conditioning drew us in even if the official Darwin Station logos on their teeshirts and coffee mugs didn't. James had told us about the WiFi available down at another gift shop ("Re-Evolution") at the entrance to the station, so, having not brought her own smartphone from the Letty, Gretchen borrowed her father's enormous iPhone 6S plus. We don't have much experience with the latest version of iOS, so we found its interface hard to work with. How, for example, does one get rid of all that navigational noise taking up half the screen when the phone is showing a web browser in landscape mode? The solution to this problem was neither obvious nor discoverable. But at least it doesn't make you type in a WiFi password twice, an infuriating Windows XP interface detail that has been irking me again of late (the laptop I brought on this vacation still runs XP). Nevertheless, Gretchen managed to get to her email and login to her Facebook account (though she first had to answer a face identification quiz for that latter, since her father's phone was evidently flagged as a suspicious platform). There they were, lots of pictures of our happy animals posted or PM'd by our house sitter Tamsyn. Not only was our house not the smoking ruin it could have theoretically been, but Tamsyn hadn't even ripped the copper pipes from our walls and sold them as scrap to P&T Surplus!
In addition to the WiFi and air conditioning in this other gift shop, there were also lots of teeshirts, hats, and things that might break if improperly carried. Gretchen's father was taking orders for teeshirts, so I threw a shirt on the pile that featured Darwin's head encircled by the heads of the finches that helped him arrive at his theory of evolution through natural selection. On the back, the shirt had this Darwin-attributed quote: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." Gretchen liked this quote, but I quickly realized that it's not among the most brilliant statements Charles Darwin ever made. In, for example, a climax ecosystem in equilibrium, there is little advantage to being responsive to change. This is why Norway Rats and English Sparrows (very flexible species that follow humans around the globe) aren't found in old-growth forests, but sensitive species like Flying Squirrels and Scarlet Tanagers are. [REDACTED]

To get to our next activity, our bus drove us up out of the cities past ever larger farms into the Santa Cruz highlands. Eventually we came to a checkpoint, where a couple young men in black dresses and colorful wigs boarded our bus and made a flamboyant spectacle of themselves. My seat was folded out into the aisle, blocking the way back, so one of the men focused his attention on me. I posed with him for photographs and squeezed the doll he was carrying, which had a little sign on it that said (in English) "Squeeze me." Our guides told us that there is a tradition in Ecuador where, on New Year's Eve, men dress up as widows "mourning" the death of the year. According to Hernan, these men are neither gay nor transvestites. In their widows' dresses and wigs, they accost people and try to get them to give them money, which they then use to buy booze to help celebrate the New Year. (This was not a cause which Gretchen felt any compulsion to contribute to.) Another tradition is to buy a paper maché doll and burn it, symbolically destroying the troubles of the previous year. We would see lots of these dolls as we drove around. (Hernan kept referring to the dolls as "toys," which was confusing at first.)
The landscape in the highlands was far lusher than it had been on any of the islands we're recently visited. That lushness seemed to begin at the harbor in Puerto Ayora itself, but it intensify as we climbed up into the cloud-brushing highlands. Fences up there are built using live sections of tree trunks that sprout and eventually turn into orderly rows of trees whose canopies form a dendritic archway over any adjacent road. One such road leading to our destination was muddy and narrow, and we kept having to back up to find a place wide enough to allow a departing bus to get past. Along the way, we kept seeing wild giant tortoises in the adjacent fields.
We arrived at a private farm having several tourist attractions: a number of live giant tortoises, a lava tunnel illuminated with electric light, and free coffee served beneath a roofed seating area having a few carapaces and bones from deceased tortoises. We'd been told to bring socks for this activity, and the reason for this was that we would need to be wearing rubber boots. Not only were the grounds and paths of the farm muddy, but they were also thickly-settled by fire ants. There might be some who get excited by standing around in a field looking at an enormous tortoise, but I'm not one of them. In any case, this activity seemed to be more about getting photographs than learning what little we hadn't already been told. At some point, Jeff said he'd been bitten by a fire ant. But they never got to me.
Next, those of us with better knees walked down a staircase into a rupture in the roof of a large lava tunnel that extended for a couple hundred feet under ground. Amusingly, I noticed there were weeds growing in a little patch beneath each CF bulb that lit the pathway.
Young Peter! had been amusing us by repeatedly saying how much he wanted "some old-fashioned chips and salsa." This sounded like a resampling of something funny his father Jeff might've said, suggesting a cultural component to a good sense of humor. Unfortunately, there were no chips and salsa to be had at the coffee place. Like Peter!, I was hungry, and I could have used some old-fashioned chips and salsa myself. There were empanadas, but those are never vegan. This fact would not have bothered Peter!, but, as he kept saying, what he really wanted was some old-fashioned chips and salsa.
Our bus took us back to the harbor, and then pangas took us back to the Letty. Gretchen's parents decided to stay in Puerto Ayora for lunch, which might not have been a great idea for a pair of vegans.
For the first time on this trip, us vegans were offered a huge vat of beans during lunch, providing some much-desired protein to go with our carbs and fat. It would have been great to be offered beans at every meal, but it turns seems that Ecuadorians are just not that into beans, a dislike they might project on visitors to their beautiful nation. In hopes of dispelling such misperceptions, Gretchen and I dived into those beans with gusto and, with the help of others less-committed to vegetarianism than ourselves, managed to eat the whole thing. As I've said, our vegan options have been getting better over the week as the cook and waiter have become more familiar with our desires. At some point, for example, "soy cheese" and "soy ham" (which looked indistinguishable from raw tofu) appeared in the breakfast buffet. And there have been steadily-improving vegan options brought out for us vegans at dinner time (when, in an effort to maintain sufficient levels of classiness, the buffet is replaced with waiter service). The first indication of what the cook was capable of had been a weirdly-good chana masala, which I think was served for dinner only to us vegans back on Monday. Still, even on this supposed "eco-cruise," meat-eaters can always rest assured that the meat they crave will be available at every meal. Because anything less might appear low-rent and insufficiently classy.
On several occasions today, I went up to the sun deck to see if I could reach an open WiFi hotspot somewhere Puerto Ayora. The list of hotspots was enormous, and there were a few open ones. But these were either too weak to attach to or required web logins.
But I was going to be getting WiFi today one way or another. We'd been scheduled two hours of self-guided tourism in Puerto Ayora, and I'd be bringing the laptop. It might seem off for us to have an activity scheduled for us in which all we'd be doing would be going into shops and restaurants and spending money. But, though the guides didn't say, this activity serves an important political purpose. If the people of the Galapagos' biggest port see that eco-tourism brings money to their shops and restaurants, they'll be more supportive of it as a foundation for their economy. Hopefully this will lead to fewer occasions where molotov-cocktail-throwing mobs sieze biological stations and slit the throats of giant tortoises.
Before we boarded the pangas to Puerto Ayora, I drank a recreational dose of kratom. I knew I soon would be drinking an ice-cold beer, and that experience is even better if one has kratom in one's system.
Not long after landing, Gretchen and I found a bar/restaurant called The Rock that claimed to have WiFi. It also had french fries, and a weird mural based on Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," but instead of humans, the creatures being created appeared to be humanoid tortoises (perhaps of the Mutant Ninja kind). In the lower right of the mural, Charles Darwin appeared to be floating on a massive hoverboard with other curiosities from the Galapagos.
We were soon joined by Gretchen's brother, who was carrying a massive laptop computer in a bubblewrap envelope. We all ordered drinks (in my case, a Blue Booby Margarita, which had the color of a toilet bowl cleaner). Unfortunately, the Rock's internet was terrible and tended to sieze up entirely. But at least I was able to download all my email, ssh into a server and check on something that had been nagging at me, and download all my old journal entries from ten years ago, the last time Gretchen and I came to the Galapagos. I was less successful downloading version 1.0.5 of the Arduino IDE, which (according to some quickly-done research) contained a version of a file called id.exe that would no longer crash when compiling certain sketches on Windows XP. If I could have just downloaded id.exe, this would have been easy. But it was always tied up in some huge .zip or installation file. (If I'd used my brain a little better, I would have realized I that could download the zip file to one of the servers I control, unzip it there, and get a copy of id.exe from that.).
I also checked the news, assuming there would have been at least a couple Donald Trump outrages during our multiday news blackout. But it seems he'd been lying low since Christmas.
Our waitress at the Rock must have had some sort of memory disorder, because she proved incapable of remembering a single item long enough to get someone started on making it for us. But the dreadfulness of the service really kicks in if one wants something after doing the initial ordering. Gretchen had to accost one of the staff, who had been studiously ignoring us. And, vegans beware, the french fries were presented with a little tray that was half ketchup and half mayonnaise, and the amount of ketchup was nowhere near enough for the number of fries. I managed to flag down a waiter and ask for a ketchup refill, and he assured me it was coming. But then he just went behind the drink dispenser and seemed to bank on my having poor object permanence skills, hoping I would think he was someone else on the other side. That ketchup never came. All of this can be explained by the fact that the Rock adds in the gratuity automatically, so the staff is under no incentive to give their customers quality service. (The customers they seemed to like the most were the several men in black dresses who came in to make use of the money they'd begged.)
Back on the Letty, I read Gretchen some entries from our last trip to the Galapagos. I was unexpectedly delighted with the quality of my writing, though occasional lapses of grammar and other little errors had me wanting to make corrections. We'd been wanting to remember the name of our old boat, which turned out to be the Golondrina. Down in the dining area, we found James and told him some of the things we'd just reminded ourselves about from ten years ago. He said the Golondrina still sails, and that it's run by a company based in the Galapagos (the Letty is operated by EcoVentura, which is based in Guayaquil).
I showed up a little late for the evening briefing, and so ended up sitting with Emily, Ariana, and Helen (three of the four passengers who are not part of my sixteen-person contingent). The staff passed out little party hats, masks (for the women), plastic "neckties," glow sticks, and drinks (which, for the adults, were mildly alcoholic). Then we were wished a happy New Years. From there, several individuals wished us all "Happy New Years" according to their various traditions. The boat's electrician did the thing with his glass where he held it up, down, in the middle, and then swallowed its contents while saying, "Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa dentro!" Then the Greeks answered with a beautiful little song, and the Jews joked about the self-critical incantation they offer on Yom Kippur (though Rosh Hashanah is technically the Jewish New Year's day). I might have been the only person on the boat whose New Year's tradition wasn't consulted, which was just as well. I have no New Year's tradition.
The kitchen staff of the Letty had prepared a special New Year's Eve dinner whose centerpiece was a large dead turkey. While things had been looking up for us vegans in recent days, this meal was something of a setback; nothing special had been prepared for us at all, and we had to make do with side vegetables.
In an effort to spread the love around, tonight Gretchen and I would be dining with Jeff and Leah. The meal began on a sour note, with Leah apologizing for eating turkey in front of us and Jeff saying he wasn't making any such apologies. Things went downhill from there, as Jeff engaged Gretchen in a contentious dialog on the subject of food morality. Jeff said that he accepts the tenets of his Greek Orthodox faith, which states that only humans have souls, with the implication being that it's fine to eat animals. "Do you believe they can suffer?" Gretchen asked. Jeff allowed that they could suffer, but that wasn't going to stop him from eating them. It wasn't long before the topic had moved to the subject of gay marriage, which Jeff said the Greek Orthodox church would never accept, something he was fine with. He seemed to be fine with gay marriage outside the Greek Orthodox church, but, as one of the leaders of his local church, he was sure it didn't belong in his religion. From there, the topic moved on to what is and is not done in war. Jeff had been trained at West Point and served as a field doctor in Iraq, and his war experience still divided the world into "good guys" and "bad guys," categories that probably make sense as a worldview for a soldier on the ground in a war. But it still infuriated Gretchen, whose experience working in the prison system had showed her that many of the people behind bars are there because they happened to be unlucky in the context of bad circumstances. In a wide-ranging discussion of the ills of the world, the subject of genital mutilation came up, and Jeff said that, though he didn't agree with it, if other cultures want to practice it, there's not much he can do about it. Gretchen thought such views were akin to countenancing pedophilia.
During all of this, Leah would occasionally jump in and try to moderate her husband. She said she didn't agree with him about gay marriage and other issues related to strict religious orthodoxy. She was clearly uncomfortable with how quickly things had devolved into acrimony, though she's familiar enough with Jeff's personality to know that he delights in pushing people's buttons. As for me, I didn't really see the use of wading into an argument across such a large difference of worldviews. But I did offer at one point that the incident that had made my formerly Roman-Catholic father into an atheist was the news from his priest that his cat would not be getting into Heaven.
At some point in the conversation, a gradual easing of tensions took place. Evidently Gretchen and Jeff slowly decided that the fruitless arguing was unpleasant, and it was better to find common ground. Though Jeff is a big out-of-shape goofus (we've been referring to him behind his back as a "galoot") with reactionary politics1 and an inability to understand the value of downtime, he's generous, he can be hilariously funny, and he and his wife have raised a great brood of children. Both his style of humor and his manner of talking (he speaks with a hard-to-place urban-East-coast-inflected Great Lakes accent) reminded me of my old Oberlin friend Alex G., who famously drew graffiti about feces all over the Harkness kitchen, deliciously riling all the joyless politically-correct types.

Our guides had told us there would be fireworks over the harbor tonight at midnight local time (1:00am under the Guayaquil time we'd been using), and they even offered to send a panga to Puerto Ayora if anyone wanted to check out New Year's Eve nightlife in the town (though nobody wanted to go). Later, when I was awaken by the sound of fireworks, I got up enough to peer out our cabin's window, which overlooked the stern of the boat. In the distance, I saw a rather ordinary firework exploding against the sky. It didn't seem worth getting out of bed about, so I went back to sleep.

The mural in The Rock, that restaurant with bad WiFi and worse service. (I found this picture somewhere online.)

Me today at the Rock with a sunburned nose and no glasses. After my margarita, I drank a Club beer, which is better than Pilsener.

Things get festive during the evening briefing aboard the Letty.

1The other day I had a conversation with Jeff about Obama, whose face happened to be on one of my teeshirts. Jeff said that, as a doctor, Obamacare was a nightmare. But he didn't really go into that part about why he didn't like it. His chief complaint was that Obamacare required men to pay for insurance that provides obstetric care. But that made no sense to Jeff; men don't get pregnant. This is a classic argument of the right, and fundamentally misunderstands the role health insurance provides our society. It is supposed to pool our resources so those who are unfortunate enough to become ill are not financially ruined by necessary treatment. Why should women have to pay more for health insurance because they have the burden of carrying a child to term? All of us are here by virtue of someone having been pregnant. My response to this Obamacare criticism was a simple, "But you were born of a woman!"

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