I am not a particularly adventurous person. Saying that, and not really knowing what I was in for, I agreed to accompany a good friend on an eight day cruise to the Galapagos Islands last October. Since I had never been on a pleasure cruise before, the experience was eye-opening to say the least.
Every morning we would report to the rear of the ship with our life vests on to board a small zodiac boat to travel to one of the islands with our expert nature guide, Walter. (Many Ecuadorean men have oddly formal English names—Arthur, James, William—not Spanish ones!) No one is allowed on any of the islands without a trained and licensed guide, as Ecuador, which owns the islands, is absolutely passionate about keeping the environment pristine. Take nothing in—take nothing out. Guides are essential to having the best experience, as they are able to point out various birds, nesting sites, other Galapagos creatures, and, of course, the incredible variety of grasses and flowers. You can walk right past nursing sea lions and their babies, large prehistoric-looking marine iguanas (vegetarians), birds like the distinctive blue-footed boobies, and giant tortoises, without them even being afraid, as they know they are safe and protected. Amazing.
Meals aboard the ship were lovely—lots of fresh fruit and freshly caught fish—and our companions at those meals agreeable and very well educated about the area. Many were avid hikers and swimmers, and I wished then that I had prepared for the trip with a bit more physical training, although, as it turned out, it was not too strenuous for an old gal like me!
Shortly after I returned from my cruise, Toni Hetzel, the Penguin/ Random House representative for the bookstore where I am employed, brought by a galley of a novel she thought appropriate for me, as it is based on a true story, set in the islands before and during WWII. Thus my little overview of Galapagos—to set the stage, so to speak, for the coming review of Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend, due to be published this May. I asked permission beforehand to be able to quote and mention passages in describing it to you.
Frances Conway, nee Frankowski, a real person born and raised on a farm in Minnesota, but chafing in its staid, quiet setting and longing for adventure, ran away from home and never looked back. 1934 found her working as a secretary in Washington, DC for the Office of Naval Intelligence, where she was introduced to Ainslie Conway, an intelligence officer ten years her junior (she was 51). Their superiors asked them to take on a mission to the Galapagos Islands as man and wife. To Ainslie, this was just another job, but Frances, who protested that she’d never even been on a camping trip, had to give the idea some real thought. Decision made, the couple married and acquired new identities. Nothing this exciting had ever happened to Frances, and even though this was a marriage of convenience (not only just for the mission—Ainslie was a homosexual), she and Ainslie became good friends, determined to be successful. At a time when fascism was rearing its ugly head in Germany, and since there were a few German residents on the island of Floreana, the government wanted the couple to become acquainted with them and report any useful information via a smuggled radio hidden away in a safe location.
When the couple landed, they had to obtain everything they needed to build a home from scratch, start a vegetable garden, make provisions for the few chickens, and learn how to survive on this bed of lava rock. This was one of the things that intrigued me about these two people, as I had visited the very island where they made their home, and still today, it appears to be a rough, unwelcoming spot to live, in the best of conditions. To be able to construct a life for themselves in this primitive environment, they had to be imaginative and hardy people even to survive. After finding a suitable location for their home and using the materials they had brought (like a piece of corrugated tin for the roof), as well as the natural resources available to them, they finally had a roof over their heads, a makeshift kitchen and a way to get fresh water. Frances describes her new life:
The new year in the Galapagos means the end of the rainy season and the return of abundant sunshine…even with a hat, my brain turned to mush under its rays. All activity had to cease midday for a siesta in the shade…I was reduced to my reptilian brain—breathing, sleeping, blinking.
The neighbors were mostly unfriendly at first but began to warm up to Frances and Ainslie, who had both been learning German. The Conways made an effort to be hospitable to the other residents, as it was crucial to the mission to learn as much as they could about them. It must have been difficult to sit in a home facing an enormous portrait of Hitler, of which the residents were inordinately proud, or to deal with the Austrian comtesse, who arrived on the island with THREE lovers!
Despite living in such a harsh, wild environment, they managed rather well and ended up staying not just for one year, which was the initial agreement, but for four. Although this novel takes liberties about just what it was they actually did during their stay on Galapagos, it’s pretty clear they were there to do a little spying for America, even though Frances Conway’s memoirs do not mention anything about espionage. Amend, the author, used these memoirs as a rough guide, but she assures the reader that the embellishments and storyline are hers alone.
I encourage you to read Amend’s novel for the incredible story of what happened on Floreana all those many years ago and for its descriptions of the unusual animal and marine life, and the incredible birds. The stark beauty of this glorious place is forever etched in my mind from the hundreds of photos I took while there. But I hope you will visit it and see it all for yourself. The Galapagos, once known as “Las Islas Encatadas” (Enchanted Islands), are just waiting for you to make your own discoveries!
Now here’s a question for you to consider: Have you ever read a book about a place you have just visited? Did it enhance or detract from your experience?