Gail Howard and her sister Terry hop aboard the Cristobal Carrier at the port of Guayaquil in 1961 to head for the Galapagos Islands 632 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They jump ship and for six free-roaming weeks Gail and Terry Howard frolic among the fearless wildlife in these unspoiled islands where birds and sea lions have no fear of man. From seasick fellow passengers, exiled military men, and mail-order brides to strange cultists and myriad exotic non-human creatures, Gail Howard and her sister joyfully explore the famously exotic Pacific isles from the capital island of San Cristobal to the red crab infested Santa Cruz to the moonscape of Bartolome.
They get stranded on Duncan Island, and while the ever adventurous daredevil Gail wisely loses a game of chicken to a less-than-happy-to-share-his-harem bull sea lion on Islas Plazas, she has better luck eliciting juicy gossip from local settlers on Floreana Island about any number of strange doings on islands more famous for Darwin and evolutionary theory than tabloid gossip.
The mysterious disappearance of the notorious Baroness Eloise von Wagner and her two lovers, Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philipson, is a mystery fit for a Hollywood potboiler. Then there is the strange death of the German dentist, Dr. Friedrich Ritter and the departure of his disciple and abused mistress, Dore Strauch. Manuel Augusto Cobos and Lorenzo Tous and their high stakes card game result in a failed expedition for a group of 83 people from Seattle. Despite all the intrigue, Gail is ever the bargain hunter, even when it comes to shopping for panties for a Galapagos Island housewife who had gone without a new pair for five years!
The Galapagos Islands are as amazing now as they were 45 years ago when my sister and I spent six weeks exploring them. Visitors today are accompanied everywhere by guides, but in 1961, we were free to explore the natural wonders on our own.
Back then, there were no hotels or restaurants on any of the islands. Transportation was on foot or by donkey. Visitors were mostly scientists, yachtsmen, and adventurers.
Tourism began in a limited way after 1959, when the Ecuadorian government declared the Galapagos Islands a national park to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
The Cristobal Carrier was the only link with the mainland, bringing mail, supplies, and passengers once a month to the Galapagos from the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, 635 miles away.
My sister, Terry, and I boarded the Cristobal Carrier for what we had thought was going to be a 12-day excursion to the various islands in the Galapagos. Nearly all the passengers were Ecuadorians going to the Galapagos to settle or returning from a rare trip to the mainland. On deck, it was standing room only and a tearful farewell for most.
A young woman stood quietly alone. She was going to see her husband for the first time after a mail-order courtship, a common way for lonely islanders to meet a mate.
A round-faced young Indian stared vacantly ahead, while tears streamed down the face of the scraggly, dirty Indian girl in his embrace. He showed no emotion until the visitors, including his girl, had been ordered off the boat. When she was out of sight, tears spilled from his eyes.
As the port of Guayaquil drifted out of sight, we headed to our cabin, which we were to share with two other women. Visitors were still in our cabin and remained there long after we wanted to go to bed. Finally we asked who was going to be sleeping in the other two bunks.
To our surprise, only the father was not going to sleep with us. His wife, two young sons, two adolescent daughters and a parrot slept below us in two small bunks. When the mother closed the porthole, we protested. The air already smelled acrid from wet pants and unwashed bodies.
We were awakened in the morning by retching sounds. One of our cabin mates was sea sick. His head swayed over a pan that his mother held for him. When the boat heaved, he missed the pan. Then his brother borrowed the pan to sit on. As the boat heaved again, urine mixed with the vomit on the floor of our cabin. We got up and dressed and were out of there as fast as we could go.
Terry was feeling nauseated. I popped a Dramamine pill in her mouth, which she promptly swallowed without water, as was her custom.
The bathroom was full of men, so I went upstairs to the upper deck to use the forbidden bathroom of the privileged Special Class. Then I ducked back into our cabin to pick up a book (the putrid air could be cut with a machete) and ducked out again in a hurry.
I dashed up to the deck of Special Class, chose from the empty deck chairs and settled down to read. An officious man, who seemed to have appeared out of the sea air, ordered me to return immediately to the deck below where I belonged. He informed me that I had paid for First Class passage only. I replied sweetly that I’d be delighted to return to my own cabin if he would accompany me down there and look at the condition of the place.
“As I understand, in First Class there are supposed to be four people to a cabin.” I described the situation in explicit detail, ending with: “And only when you remove all but two passengers from our cabin, will I leave this deck.”
I continued reading. He walked away spluttering in Spanish, shaking his head. That night and for the rest of the trip, Terry and I slept in a private cabin up in Special Class. The Cristobal Carrier staggered on the choppy ocean as if fueled with chicha (a potent brew).