In 2007 I received a contract from National Geographic Books to document this transformation and moved to the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. I rented a little bungalow just off Academy Bay, a five-minute walk from Galapagos National Park headquarters and the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station. It was a private house, surrounded by a white stucco wall, an almond tree, and a feathery acacia with blossoms the color of fire. An alarm clock wasn’t needed here: Every morning at dawn, yellow warblers whistled down through the trees.
The patio consisted of black volcanic cinder mined from a cone on the other side of the island. In the morning I would sit in my yard and watch lava lizards do pushups, or Darwin’s finches so unfazed by my presence they would alight on the table and peck at my toast. From my upstairs terrace I could watch magnificent frigatebirds circle the bay, snatching sardines from each other in mid-air like pirates. Blue-footed boobies dove beak first into the turquoise waves, their bodies outstretched like daggers.
During mating season, marine iguanas would sometimes emerge from the bay and waddle like toy-sized dinosaurs into the street, forcing taxi drivers on Avenida Charles Darwin to slam on their brakes. On several occasions while walking down the avenida, I’d notice a marine iguana or two trying to cross the street and would flap my skirt at them as though herding geese, back towards Academy Bay.
My house had tiled floors, a beamed ceiling, and oval-shaped windows whose wooden frames opened out into the yard. Their odd design meant they could not be screened. I must admit that I have a life-long aversion to mosquitoes: Their stings welt into the size of a dime and the itching can last up to ten days. To my horror, during my first few weeks in town, mosquitoes invaded my house and seemed bent on devouring me. Then the first rains came, and with them an onslaught of other insects. Tiny ants marched single file up my walls, hauling the lacey green wing of a beetle. Cockroaches the size of B-52s sometimes emerged from nowhere. When darkness fell, flying ants entered my unscreened windows by the hundreds, attracted to the lights.
They didn’t sting, so I watched in fascination as whole colonies clacked around in my rice paper lanterns. But when they began dive-bombing my computer and its lighted keyboard, I freaked. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a can of odorless insecticide that the owner had left beneath the sink. As I blasted away, winged ants fell in heaps onto the floor. I plopped down on the couch with my head in my hands, surveying the carnage. Then, looking up, I saw a small gecko emerge from a crack in the wall. I tried to shoo it away, but it was too late. The round-toed reptile had just nabbed a few ants with its lightning quick tongue before vanishing, probably to die of liver failure.
What had I just done, and how was I supposed to behave as a member of Homo sapiens in the world famous Galápagos Islands? I’d been here less than a month and I was already at war with nature. The irony is that all these unwelcome “house guests” were invasive species brought here from elsewhere, and they now pose one of the greatest threats to the islands. But wasn’t I also an intruder?