Posted by: ktzefr | March 1, 2013

Hiking the lava tubes of Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

DSC00758The recent news coverage of the Pope and pictures from Rome got me to thinking about the Galapagos Islands.  It may seem like a strange association, but the two places are inextricably linked in my mind by religion/spirituality and claustrophobia. 

First, the Galapagos Islands, for the most part, are a string of barren, volcanic rocks straddling the Equator more than 900 kilometers out to sea.  Most of the islands are uninhabited.  They look like a no-man’s-land, the most seemingly godforsaken places I’ve ever been.  But the wildlife is amazing and there is something profoundly spiritual about  getting close enough to look into the eyes of an albatross or an owl or a sea lion that chooses to swim along or sleep beside you on the beach.  The old saying that you are “closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth” comes to mind as these desolate rocks “99 miles from nowhere” are truly a different kind of eden.

One morning we boarded an old recycled school bus and headed for the highlands of Santa Cruz to look for giant tortoises.  Santa Cruz is host to the largest human population in the islands and one of only a few that has a lush, forested interior.  The ride was hot and dusty, but part way on the mountain it started to rain and we let down the windows.  I felt like a kid again with my face in the wind on a school bus headed home, except the driver only spoke Spanish and his set of “wheels” was lavishly decorated…with religious posters, a cross dangling from a chain, and colorful tassels around the “ceiling” that bounced like crazy with every bump in the road.  It was an interesting display of local religious custom juxtaposed with the purely scientific experience we’d had earlier at the island’s Charles Darwin Research Center.

Heading into the lava tubes, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos; Photo:MFawcett

Heading into the lava tubes, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos; Photo:MFawcett

That day we spotted nine giant tortoises on our hike in the forest, and then we went to the lava tubes.  Santa Cruz is known for these tunnels, which were formed by hot liquid rock that created twisting channels through the island.  Over time, the outer channel hardened and cooled as the interior lava continued to flow.  When the flowing lava finally emptied out it left a hollow, cave-like structure.   Hiking through the tubes is a unique experience.  But that’s where the claustrophobia comes in — and a different connection to Rome.

 When we got to the tubes I remembered an earlier experience in Rome.  I had done everything I’d dreamt of doing there — stood shoulder-to-shoulder with hordes of people to gaze at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and toured the Colosseum and Vatican City and the Pantheon.  I sat in the piazzas and ate gelato, drank cappuccino in chic cafes, and tossed coins in the Trevi Fountain.  But I could not go through the catacombs.  These mazes of underground tunnels were a popular site, but I couldn’t do it.  Two minutes into the trek I felt trapped and I headed back toward the light.

"windows" in the tubes, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos; Photo:MFawcett

“windows” in the tubes, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos; Photo:MFawcett

Now, more than 30 years later, I was anxious as I faced the entrance to the lava tubes in the Galapagos.  I hesitated on the stairs, but there were people behind me and no space to turn around.  So I forced myself down the steps and into the tunnel, walked as fast as I could, and kept looking for holes in the surface, holding onto those scattered patches of light.  I was wearing prescription sunglasses when I went into the tunnel as I had left my regular glasses on the bus.  During the whole experience I was either walking with sunglasses in half darkness or without them in fuzzy half-light.  It’s all a bit of a blur to me in hindsight, but perhaps the “blurry” experience is what helped me get through the tubes of Santa Cruz.

Did this give me the courage to head back to Rome and conquer the catacombs?  No. 

**********

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