Floreana, Margret Wittmer

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Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos, Margret Wittmer, Moyer Bell Limited, 1990, 1-55921-001-X

Jill and I are headed to the Galapagos Islands this year, something we’ve wanted to do for several years now. In preparation, we are collecting information on the islands by previous travelers, and this is the first of many books that I intend to read about these isolated islands in the Pacific, roughly 600 miles west of Equador on the South American mainland.

Wittmer, her husband Heinz, and her stepson Harry originally landed on Floreana in 1932. The only other people on Floreana were two fellow German nationals: Dr. Ritter, a self-avowed vegetarian and nudist who was determined to prove his theory that a human could live double their normal span if they followed his ideas on purity of mind and spirit, and his most devoted disciple, Dora. They initially lived in a natural cave previously used by pirates in the 1800s, then built a successive series of homes. Wittmer gives birth to the first human native of Floreana, they battle wild cattle for possession of their garden, encounter the “Empress of Floreana,” ad survive at least three different Equadorian governors, one of which tries to have them evicted. Their visitors include American millionaires on round-the-world cruises, the crew of cargo vessels that kindly stop to deliver and pick up mail in a sort of marine pony express, several scientists and naturalists including the famed explorer Thor Heyerdahl, and presidents of both Equador and the United States.

Wittmer’s account is not so much about the islands than it is about herself and her family’s struggle to survive on the island. That doesn’t mean you don’t come away from Floreana with an understanding of the islands–you do, but the point-of-view is that of the settler, rather than what one has come to expect of from the Galapagos (say, Charles Darwin’s scientific accounts from Voyage of the Beagle).

I’ve often said that travel accounts (even of the sedentary nature as this one) resemble science fiction. Both treat a human encounter with the unknown in a factual nature, one being fiction and the other factual. In Floreana, isolated from normal human civilization, Wittmer and her family experience a true alien encounter with our world and its native creatures.

[Finished 17 January 1996]

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