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At the Equator: A tryst with Assange, Darwin and sea lions

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ecuadorEcuador is probably the only country in the world named after a geographical feature – the equator. Crossing over from the Colombian border post near Ipilaes, we took a shared taxi to Tulcan, a small township 20 minutes away, and from there got onto a local bus for the two-hour drive through the scintillating Andean landscape of high mountains, narrow valleys and deep canyons to Otavalo, famous for its ancient, pre-Inca market.

Fortunately, next day was a Saturday, the liveliest day of the market when the highland Indians from seventy surrounding villages bring their farm produce, animals and handicrafts for barter and sale. We weaved through the shuffling masses, all of them sun-baked and deeply wrinkled and attired in their traditional costumes of centuries ago – and containing enough dust to show for it. Women in black skirts and daintily embroidered white blouses, their necks hidden under chains of gold-plated necklaces, and the men in baggy white pants and ponchos, filed past us. Both sexes plait their hair, wear hats and have the matchless fragrance of smoke.

The vegetable market, filled with sacks of farm fresh produce, fruits, herbs and spices, chained our attention for hours. Chunks of flesh carved out of every edible beast hung at the string of butcher shops and every vein, muscle and tendon was studiously examined by the customers. Some distance away was the animal market where ladies stood holding poultry like a handbag. Reluctant, protesting goats, sheep and pigs were being dragged to the dusty compound by their impatient owners. Cows, donkeys, horses and llamas awaited, with sunken hearts, their new masters.

The colourful artisan’s market seems to traverse the entire breadth of the city and has all kinds of jewellery, clothes, woven bags and rugs, woollen shawls and ponchos, ceramic sculptures, stone carvings, Panama hats and paintings. Bidding farewell to the Otavalos, we drove up a rough mountain track to see the condors.

Ecuador’s national bird is the condor – but it is left with only fifty of them. Considering condors as predators, poultry farmers poisoned the big birds to near-extinction. Driving along San Pablo lake, on the foot of Imbabura volcano, we climbed high to the top of a mountain where the Parque Condor lies and touched base with its hawks, eagles, owls and the lone condor, interrupting their daylight dreams.

Uncle Sam and the Dragon

The road from Otavalo to Quito (9,845 ft) was again through the high Andes. In the valley below the white canopies of the greenhouses shimmered like lakes. This region is the principal producer of flowers for the export market. USA is the main market. President Rafael Correa, keen to reduce the dollarised country’s dependency on Uncle Sam, is exploring new markets – and the Russian bear is hugging his country’s flora. China is also being given preference in economic cooperation. The Chinese are financing a $12 billion oil refinery and building a dam for power generation.

Refuge for Julian Assange

Always keen to tweak Uncle Sam’s nose, President Correa has given shelter to Julian Assange of Wikileaks and has offered to give political asylum to the US fugitive, Edward Snowden. The western media has been criticising the Ecuadorian president for portraying himself as a champion of democracy and human rights while he gags the media in his own country. “Ah! See how the western media distorts facts,” retorted Alexandro, our guide in Quito. “The new law restricts the media from making accusations against any person or institution without proof or supportive evidence. It is just to check irresponsible reporting by the media – and that is fair enough.”

At 19,347ft Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Since its first recorded eruption in 1534 this hot-headed volcano has blown up 86 times. It is one of the very few mountains located close to the equator that has a glacier. We climbed to a little over 16,000 feet to the mouth of the receding glacier. According to Bolivar Caceres, an Ecuadorian glaciologist, Cotopaxi has lost 40% of its glacial cap since 1976 due to global warming. The glacier at another nearby mountain, Antisana, has also shrunk to half its length in the last fifty years. Cities that depend partly on glacial melts for their water supply during the dry season will face water shortages.

Caught in crossfire

Next day, on our way to the equator, Alexandro showed us the spot where president Correa, in 2010, had challenged the striking policemen to kill him. In retaliation to his government’s decision to end the practice of policemen being given medals and bonuses with each promotion, the national police attempted a coup d’état, storming the National Assembly, the state television station and seizing the international airport. Not caring for his own security, the president went to reason with the rebels and when they refused to listen he took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and invited them to shoot him because he was not going to take back the measures. Instead, the police took him hostage. The loyalist army units rescued him after a shoot-out with the police. Both parties, being out of firing practice, could not shoot straight and kept missing each other. However, seven civilians got killed in the crossfire.

We whiled away for over an hour at the GPS-certified equator, 23km north of Quito, enjoying the northern hemisphere autumn – and when we had enough of it – stepping over to the southern spring. That evening, back in Quito, while crossing a road, we saw a siren-blazing police escort car stopped at a red light with a convoy of three other officious-looking cars behind him. When the traffic light turned green, they drove past us at a reasonable speed and in an unintimidating manner. We asked the man standing next to us who the VIP was. “Our president,” he said, proudly.  In his third term, Rafael Correa continues to be the darling of the Ecuadorian masses.

Quito, along with Krakow in Poland, was the first city to be declared a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. It has plenty of richly garnished churches, stately buildings and sculptures to hold your interest for a day or two. But our mind was on Galapagos Islands. After another day’s visit to Pappalacta, 80 km east of Quito, in the Eastern cordillera of the Andes, we flew from the capital’s brand new airport that opened in March this year, 1,000km over the Pacific Ocean, landing at SouthSeymour airport on Baltra Island.

Crossing the narrow Itabaca Channel by ferry to Santa Cruz Island, we drove through miles of wild palo santo (Biursera graveolens) forest flourishing on a carpet of volcanic rock and ash. Without waiting to unpack, we followed our guide, Enrique, to the Charles Darwin Station to meet its resident iguanas and giant turtles. On the way we passed the fish market. A fresh catch of lobsters had just come in. Pelicans were strutting around, mingling freely with the customers, taking their chances with the harvest of fish. A sea lion was snoozing under a counter. Another one was shuffling around the market floor, slurping his tongue. Past the bust of an aged Darwin (he was only 22 when he visited Galapagos for five weeks in 1834), the track to the station was lined with iguanas basking in the sun. At the station’s gate we were received by a flock of talkative mockingbirds that hopped around our feet and posed for the camera.

As the day was still young, we trekked through palo santo forest, Darwin’s Finches guiding us, to the white sandy beaches of Tortuga Bay. Pelicans sailed on the gentle surf, taking off now and then into the air, flapping their majestic wings and diving into the water for an evening snack. At the edge of the ocean, on black volcanic rock, lay marine iguanas cuddled in a loving embrace. With black skin and coarse scales they completely matched the rocks they lay on. Adaptation has also sharpened their teeth to scrape the algae off the rocks for food and to spit out the salt from the sea water that they ingest. Stunning reddish-orange crabs provided colour to the lava rocks.

Global warming

A sea lion dropped by and we conversed for a while about climate change. He said that 30 of his friends and relatives had migrated 1,500km to Peru’s Foca Island where, due to global warming, the average sea temperature had increased in the last ten years from 17 Celsius to 23 Celsius. As conditions off the coast of Peru become similar to that of Galapagos, the fur seals were also considering a move. For the time being, the sea turtles are staying firm. When darkness sets in hordes of sea turtles roll in from the sea and walk the sandy breadth of the Tortuga Bay beach to the outlying bushes and scrub to lay eggs. The beach is closed for public at 6 pm to allow the sea turtles to lay their eggs in peace.

Early next morning we boarded a boat for the four-hour sail to Bartholomeu Island.  On the way we sailed past the crater-like Daphe Island, it’s cliffs, ledges and crags populated by pelicans, blue-footed boobies and frigates. The treeless island is famous for the 20-year research conducted by biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant to see if finches could adapt, over generations, their beaks to the environment – as Darwin had hypothesised.  Their results confirmed Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Pinnacle Rock & Lava Iguanas

Anchoring off the 1.2 sq km Isla Bartolome, we got on to a rubber dingy and sped past of a colony of lazing sea lions to climb the 600m trail through sharp volcanic rocks to the top of a summit from where we got magnificent views of Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Daphne major and minor, and of Galapagos’s enduring symbol – the Pinnacle Rock. The tall rock slab was formed when magma was expelled from an underwater volcano. Most of it was destroyed when the US armed forces conducted target practice on it during World War II.

On another part of the island I snorkelled for an hour looking at the underwater life: brightly coloured fish, a lone marine turtle pottering around in a crag, an iguana seeking permission to pass. As we got on the dingy to return to the boat, a band of chattering Galapagos Penguins appeared  from the black rocks, plunged noisily into the water, and swam with clumsy, rapid strokes, chasing fish, bobbing their heads out of the tossing waves every once in a while to catch their breath and take a curious look around.

Pelicans and hawks joined carnage. Endemic to these islands, the penguins are threatened by climate change. Researchers believe that when El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98 ushered in warm water and prevented cold water from reaching the surface, the Galapagos Penguin population declined by 77% and 65% respectively. To survive, the adults went in search of food, leaving their chicks to starve. Only about 2,000 Galapagos Penguins are left today. Climate change is expected to lead to greater El Niño events in the coming years.

In company of Sea Lions

ecuador-lion1Next morning we sailed to North Seymour Island, a less than 2 sq km of real estate created by seismic uplift that brought up the submarine lava formation. The tiny, unpopulated island, a mere flat scrubland, was full of energy, creating life and nurturing it. We got off the dingy on its rocky shore and stepped right into a nursery of infant sea lions, dozens of them waiting for their mothers to return from the ocean with a fish load of lunch. Their dad, while his harem of wives was away fishing, swam along the shore, keeping guard, grunting once in a while to register his presence. We got closer to the baby sea lions, disturbing two pairs of swallowtail gulls that were trying to make babies of their own – in full view of each other. Drawn by our interest in the sea lions, the sociable couples ceased their exertions and stood between our legs, taking a keen interest in our cameras. Some of the baby sea lions that were awake dragged themselves towards us, on strong flippers adapted for a semi-aquatic life, and insisted on being petted – but the strict Galapagos park laws forbade us from doing so. The island was full of blue-footed bobbies and their chicks that had hatched recently into the world. For the frigates (Fregata magnificens) it was mating season and the males were blowing their huge scarlet throat sacks like big red balloons to show the ladies that they were ready to perform. The lady frigates were busy eyeing the males and inspecting the comfort-level of nests they had built for them to deliver. Drowsy Lava iguanas, their yellow colour merging with the lava rocks, lounged in the sun, keeping one lazy eye on us.

Was Charles Darwin a plagiarist?

During the three nights spent on Galapagos, I read Charles Darwin’s autobiography and browsed the internet to research allegations that he had plagiarised the ideas of others, specially his grandfather, without giving them credit. Grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a physician, natural philosopher, inventor and a poet. He was an acknowledged scientist of his time. His principal book, “Zoonomia” or “The Laws Of Organic Life” was translated in three languages. Colliers Encyclopaedia says: “There is scarcely an idea or invention in the modern world that Erasmus Darwin did not originate or foresee, from evolution to eugenics, from airplanes to submarines, from antiseptics to psychoanalysis, from talking-machines to telephones.” He first suggested the theory of evolution in 1770.

Russell Grigg, in his article, Darwinism: All in the Family, writes: “One of Charles’s chief arguments for evolution is based on the shape of the beaks of finches in response to the types of food available that he saw in the Galápagos Islands in 1835. Is it credible to think that he had not been influenced by what Erasmus had written on the subject? Namely: ‘Some birds have acquired harder beaks to crack nuts, as the parrot. Others have acquired beaks adapted to break the harder seeds, as sparrows. Others for the softer seeds of flowers, or the buds of trees, as the finches. Other birds have acquired long beaks … and others broad ones … . All … gradually produced during many generations by the perpetual endeavour of the creatures to supply the want of food.’ Almost every topic discussed, and example given, in Zoonomia reappears in Charles’s Origin of Species (without acknowledgement).” In his autobiography, that I downloaded from Kindle ebooks, Charles Darwin does not even mention his grandfather! The more I read on the subject, the more it seems that Darwin’s ideas were not his own.

Before we could lose our nomadic instincts on these balmy islands and absorb the composed, tranquil pace of life of its birds and animals, we  flew back to Quito and  drove south through the night, across the high Andes, reaching Cuenca in time to attend the city’s very own Independence Day. The vice president of Ecuador was the chief guest at the ceremony held at the town square. While being escorted for the salute, he stepped out to shake Doc Jain’s hand.

Not so Lonely Planet

After reading all the nightmarish reports about the border crossing from Ecuador into Peru from Haiquillas I had a sleepless night. However, things seem to have changed and it was the most safe and secure border crossing we have done so far on our journey. At the new post Ecuadorian and Peruvian immigration officials sit together in the same room. One stamps you out and the other stamps you in.  There are no touts or fake police officers and taxis that way-lay you and wipe you out clean. The entire area is secured by the police and only registered taxis are allowed access. All the online reports we read, including Lonely Planet advisories, were, thankfully, outdated.


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