– 9:30pm Panama City Airport
In and out of sleep from Portland to Houston then onward through a frenzied lightening storm to my second layover in Panama City, I have now found some calm. This break from the flight sequence of the day is unexpected— a delay no doubt due to the electrical currents running through the sky above. So here I sit, peering through the thin curtains of my own fuzzy eyes upon an airport that could be any airport. Aside from the intermittent Spanish flight announcements and the slightly nuanced variation on the carpeting here, I could convince myself I am still in Portland. But, a great distance has been covered. It is remarkable, though, how little I have worked, how little I have contributed, to hop from my corner of the world to this new vantage. We take it for granted that, most of all, travel requires periods of waiting and strategic hibernation, often no decisions being made en route from point A to point B aside from contemplation of the second cup of coffee. How much things have changed since the advent of jet fuel, globalism, and online ticketing.
After steeping in the history and lore of the Galapagos over these past months, I am reminded that Darwin had sailed for over three years (carried away with repeated surveying expeditions to map South America) before arriving in the Galapagos. It is silly to be bothered by a few added hours of travel (or by the subsequent subtraction of sleep).
The Galapagos of the now is a world teeming with human visitors by the thousands—all of whom strategically descend upon its remote islands guided by global positioning systems, air traffic control, Lonely planet Guidebooks, or by the vast room in the storehouse of the internet devoted to finding, seeing, and “doing” the Galapagos. Yet, it is worth remembering that the Galapagos Islands were discovered entirely by accident.
The Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, came across the Galapagos much as you might come across a foreign piece of furniture in a dark and unknown room. The story goes that he was sailing to Peru in 1535, when unexpected currents blew him and the crew of his ship westward on the equatorial current into supposedly landless waters. It is here where he stumbled upon the Galapagos and was later marooned without a breath of wind. Berlanga had no kind words to say of this new world. In his journal he wrote that the land was, “dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles.” Little would he know, but such an unassuming place would catalyze within the human mind the keystone of biological understanding…but this would not happen till Charles Darwin landed exactly 300 years later and began putting the clues together. And now, 180 years after that, I will descend, from the sky, one visitor of thousands, guided by satellites and flying in a hunk of metal neither Berlanga or Darwin would have imagined possible. I will have done little along the way in my journey but watch the clouds, look at my eyelids and type away on a computer. Yet I will arrive.
But, for now, here I sit in Panama. In one very small way I am like Berlanga who at one point also waited on this same thin bridge of land awaiting the mysteries of his Galapagos surprise.