A Fond Look at the Galapagos Islands, Then and Now

galapagos 4

The Galapagos Islands. Photo credit: luxuryvacationsource.com

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.

Blue-footed Boobies. Photo: dereklow.com

Blue-footed Boobies. Photo: dereklow.com

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 and Ainslie Conway (galapagos.to/EPHERMERA/Conway.HTM)

Frances and Ainslie Conway (galapagos.to/EPHERMERA/Conway.HTM)

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! enchanted islands

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?


14 thoughts on “A Fond Look at the Galapagos Islands, Then and Now

  1. For me, it’s usually the opposite: I like to visit a place after I’ve read about it. My best example is reading Jane Austen’s novels, as well as the excellent biography Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, and then visiting the Austen home where she lived with her mother and sister near the village of Chawton, the town home in Winchester, where she died, and the cathedral there, where she is interred. These places made me feel very close to Austen, my favorite writer.

  2. As Christina mentions, I like to read but. Lace before I visit or even whil there. I read the Killer Angels just before visiting Gettysburg, and then while there, I was reading a biography of Ribert E.Lee. Definitely added color to my travels!

    • Whatever would we do without books? They add such color and
      flavor to our world–especially when traveling!

  3. Certainly a magical place; I loved every minute of my trip there.
    Speaking of Floriana; there is a book by the same name that tells the story of a German couple that settled there in 1932 to escape serving the Nazi machine.. They ran the postal service there, and that book is fascinating too. Not sure if it’s still in print though.

  4. I did a little Googling on this and found your family–turns out the
    woman (and I assume her husband) lived on the island for more
    than 50 years! Can’t even imagine–AND she had two babies
    there to boot! Incredible.

  5. After seeing all your Galapagos photos several months ago and reading this, I’d say you’re more adventurous than you think! Have to admit I never thought that would be a place you’d go, but it sounds like a full, rich experience that sticks with you.

    • I think I surprised myself! It turned out to be a revelation, and I’m
      so glad I went–such a beautiful unspoiled place–and all those
      incredible creatures. Wonderful.

  6. A runaway from Minnesota turned spy on Galapagos Islands—talk about gutsy—fascinating indeed—
    Re: books about places I’ve visited, yes. Wild Swans, after a visit to China, A Year in Provence, recommended by my friendly red-headed bookseller at Tall Tales for a visit to France, and Come on Shore and We Will Kill You and Eat You, during a trip to New Zealand—plus books by New Zealand authors—all of which extended the trips and deepened the understanding of the cultures. Can’t learn enough about a country in a short visit—the readings definitely enhance the experience.

  7. I have a yearning to visit New Zealand after such positive reports
    from you and others–I will have to check in with you for my reading
    material! “We Will Kill You and Eat You” has totally intrigued me!
    Thanks as always for your lovely comments.

  8. I knew you had fun in Ecuador despite the sheer number of iguanas! Nice segway into what sounds like a fascinating book.

    • Thanks for responding–yes, there were lots of iguanas–hard to
      believe they are vegetarians and non-threatening. Look very
      prehistoric! Hope you’ll get to read the book and discover just
      how fascinating the Galapagos are.

  9. I think that those times that we step the farthest beyond our area of comfort and routine, are the times that we learn the most about the world, and about ourselves. My husband and I lived overseas while our son was ages one to four… every trip we took seemed to educate even his young mind (and hopefully ours!) in new and unique ways. I am a huge proponent of travel, and although I don’t covet the rich… I may just a little for the opportunity to do what I love!

    • My father was career military, so I had the wonderful experience of
      graduating from an American high school in Nuremberg, Germany.
      We saw quite a bit of Europe, and I feel so blessed to have had
      that experience. Kids just seem to soak up info wherever they
      are. The Galapagos were a bit out of my comfort zone, but I am
      so very glad I went!

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