Angels, Turtles and Magic: A Week in the Galápagos

My roommate sleeps with a smile on her face.

We are here, in the Galápagos Islands, for a weeklong retreat. The word “retreat” has never felt more fitting than it does here, where the main attractions are nature and animals and are so far removed from the constant traffic and smog and noise of Los Angeles. This is no City of Angels, but it seems to hold so many of them in the form of sea lions and blue-footed boobies and massive pre-historic looking turtles called tortugas.

My roommate, too. She is an angel. She sleeps in stillness while smiling, on her side, with her hands pressed together underneath her head as if in a silent prayer. She wakes languidly, smile still on her face, the physical embodiment of the lines from one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems:

“Good morning, good morning, good morning. Watch, now, how I wake in happiness, in kindness.”

I wake with the remnants of own night. Jaw sore from permanent clenching, teeth aching from grinding through a plastic mouth guard, muscles oddly tired from some unknown fight while I slept. I asked the dentist how I could stop grinding my teeth so badly, how I could sleep more peacefully. “Have less stress,” she tells me, as if stress were an object I could collect or discard at will, like souvenir t-shirts or expensive shoes. Just have less of them, and I will sleep better and my teeth won’t bite through plastic and my jaw will no longer lock. What if it were that easy? What if I could smile in my sleep too?

Or what if I was a tortuga?

We went to visit them, where they gather in ponds and roam across open land covered in landscaping scraps that looked like perfect little grass and twig houses. It was a surreal place, like we had stumbled upon the Galápagos-themed section of Epcot rather than real life. An amusement park attraction that couldn’t possibly exist in nature. Except that it somehow does.

I crouched down before one of the turtles who was submerged halfway in the mud, his shell making suction-y noises when he tried to lift himself to a new vantage point, detaching himself from the sludge momentarily before sinking back down again. I stared at him silently for what seemed an eternity, the wariness in his eyes never lessening. He opened his mouth as if to talk to me, but remained mute. Instead he kept his eyes trained on me as he slowly retracted his head back into his shell, connection to me lost for good.

I know this turtle. I am this turtle.

I know how to pull my head back into my shell. I know how to disengage. I know how to retreat.

But this retreat is actually not about retreating. It’s not about escaping at all here. It’s about finding yourself in a place, in nature, in animals.

Besides, as Chris Cleave put it his novel Little Bee, “life is not inclined to let us escape.” There is no retreating from the iguana who crosses my path, causing me to pause and admire his vivid yellow coloring. Or from the sea lion cub who stops to sniff my clothing before he flops down on the sand to dry himself, and to rest from the exertion of climbing up the rocks to dry land. Or yet another enormous tortuga, who walks boldly and deliberately towards me, eyes never leaving mine, an unspoken challenge to let him really see me.

The beauty here is both undeniable and inescapable.

At Semilla Verde, the picturesque retreat center where we are staying, the sunrise shines through the trees at 5am, illuminating them the way the brighten button on my camera means to enhance my pictures, but that I can now see fails miserably. Nothing could re-create this filter, this real light that dances across the treetops and peeks through the green.

The yoga studio, with its perfectly smooth wood floors, and dramatic wall of windows, looks out onto the tortoise pond. One night as we are practicing, in the dusk with just a few candles lit, a tortuga crosses the yard, moving slowly towards the setting sun in the distance. We pause in our practice to admire this completely natural, and completely surreal moment.

At that instant, we all believe in magic.

I am trying, desperately, to remember it all, now that it’s over. I’m writing it down and cataloguing pictures and studying our itinerary, because how tragic would it be to experience magic and not remember it?

I hope I never forget the color of the water here, and the multitude of shades of aqua and cerulean and cobalt that I’ve never before seen together. I hope I never forget the vibrant red grass that covers the desert land during the dry season, or the exact shade of the blue-footed boobies’ startlingly blue feet. I hope I never forget the intensity of the gaze of the tortugas, who seemed to see right into my soul.

I hope I never forget the smell of sea lion poop and iguana poop sealed together in the salty air, a smell so vile and distinct that it seems forever burned in my nostrils. I hope I never forget the smell of burning paper in the huge stone fireplace, where we tossed in pages of our journals, newspapers and candy wrappers; everything we hoped to leave behind in the Galápagos: our fears, our flaws and our trash. I hope I never forget the smell of the afternoon rain that fell on Semilla Verde almost daily—cool and earthy and cleansing.

I hope I never forget the sound of the frigate birds flying overhead during mating season, or the sea lion “bull” calling out from the water to his harem of females. I hope I never forget the sound of a little boy giggling as he ran through the house, or the raspy voice of our tour guide Cheche, as he shared his love of Galápagos with us. I hope I never forget our laughter as we recounted tales to each other with catch phrases like “clamp-down”, “wine-in-a-box” and “chef-on-a-boat”.

I hope I never forget the tartness of tamarind sorbet, or the chalkiness of Ecuadorian dark chocolate. I hope I never forget the amazing combination of rice and cheese and corn, fried together to make the perfect breakfast delicacy.

I hope I never forget the softness of the white sand on the beaches beneath our feet, the fine crystals feeling like something else entirely, almost like liquid even. I hope I never forget the rocky terrain we traversed, and the way it felt solid yet sometimes shifted under our slow steps.

I hope to never forget standing in the rain, barefoot in the wet grass, eyes and hearts lifted to the sky in a circle gratitude, feeling so perfectly in the right place at the right time.

I hope I never forget any of it.

Because if I can allow myself to dream of this beauty, to dream of this magic, I, too, may wake up with my hands pressed together under my head, saying a prayer of gratitude. I, too, may stop retreating into my shell. I, too, may awaken as a smiling angel. I may remember it all.

Gracias por los recuerdos Galápagos. Gracias por todo.



Sea Lion

Sea Lion Baby



Sea Turtle!

Sea Turtle!

View on South Plazas Island

View on South Plazas Island (sea lion and bird perched high above the water)

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.


7 thoughts on “Angels, Turtles and Magic: A Week in the Galápagos

  1. Pingback: Angels, Turtles And Magic: A Week In The Galápagos | Thought Catalog

  2. Oh, this is so, so beautiful! And make me even more excited about visiting in March. Thank you so much for these gorgeous words and images. The only thing I’ll say is I think once you’ve experienced magic you will never forget it. xox

  3. I love everything about this post. I just got back from Costa Rica (saw your iguana’s cousin) and am recalling all the magic. It’s genius for when I get stuck on the 405 too…briefly shut my eyes and serenity now!! xx

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