an ongoing series by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins  


Essay by Donna Baier Stein
with Photographs by Sandra Erbe and
Kim Bowmaster

A frigate bird over the Galapágos
Photo by Sandra Erbe

A highlight of my recent trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos was listening to an audio version of Kurt Vonnegut’s eponymous novel. What could be better than watching the courtship of two blue-footed boobies the day after I’d “read” a description of this bizarre mating dance by one of my favorite authors:

Blue-footed boobies weren’t my only fascinating wildlife sighting, of course; I also saw Galapágos penguins (endemic to the islands and skinnier than their cold-weather counterparts), frigate birds (the males of which display an inflated red pouch to attract a mate), and giant tortoises. The word galápago means saddle, and the shape of the tortoises’ shells led early Spanish explorers to lend this name to the islands.
      The first day we set foot on one of these islands, a hungry young sea lion moved between my feet, a literal “welcoming party.” I learned how to differentiate a sea lion from a seal: sea lions have little flaps that look like ears, and only sea lions can walk, moving their large flippers along the land. A new breed of sea lion-like creatures play an important role in the world of Vonnegut as well.
Sea lion greeter
Photo by Kim Bowmaster
      Written in1985, Galápagos is a compelling tale of mis-matched travellers who become stranded on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia. I was so immersed in the world of this book that I kept expecting one of our daily excursions to take me there. Alas, Santa Rosalia doesn’t exist on any real map of this chain of volcanic lands. But the events that led the travelling characters there, and the consequences of their isolation, are Vonnegut at his best: zany, poignant, and profound.
      Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilogrammes!” Vonnegut wrote. “There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn't imagine and execute. So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three-kilogramme brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?”

      The theory of evolution loomed large through both my literary and real-life trips. And like our knowledgeable guides, Vonnegut’s novel offered wonderful insights and snippets of history.
      Did you know that Darwin was only 22 when he joined the crew of the H.M.S. Beagle, not as a naturalist but as companion to the ship’s lonely captain? Or that one reason Darwin beat colleague and rival Alfred Russel Wallace to publication was that he had married into the wealthy Wedgewood china family? Not only that, it was because of his future father-in-law’s desire to get him away from Emma Wedgewood that Darwin was even allowed to go on the voyage!
      Unlike the vessel that carried Darwin to these extraordinary rough lands in 1835, our boat, the Santa Cruz, had electricity and inflatable pangas to take us to shore. We stopped at Baltra, North Seymour, Isabela, Floreana, and more—still only a handful of the many islands in the archipelago. We hiked over hardened lava, rocky paths, and sand beaches. We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station where scientists and volunteers run a captive breeding program for giant tortoises. Seeing these animals, some of whom live more than 200 years, was an amazing experience.

Donna Baier Stein with giant tortoise
Photo by Kim Bowmaster

      We also deep-sea snorkeled along the colorful cliffs of Punta Vicente Roca, looking down on dome-shelled green sea turtles, king angelfish, and penguins. Flightless cormorants swam with us; and marine iguanas, gulls, and finches sat on the rocks.

Photo by Sandra Erbe

      Darwin’s intelligent observations of those finches revolutionized scientific understanding. But in his novel, Vonnegut bemoans the damage that can also be done by intelligent thinking, saying in fact that “the only true villain in my story (is) the oversized human brain.”
      Our brains are both unreliable and dangerous, the novel’s narrator claims, and are to be blamed for the financial crises, wars, and other calamities that plague our world.
      So according to the rules of natural selection, Vonnegut’s fantasy suggests, human brains may well change over time, becoming smaller. The narrator of the novel, who in a glorious surprise turns out to be the son of Kilgore Trout (who first appeared in Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), tells his tale from a time one million years past 1986. How Leon Trout, a Vietnam War vet, gets to be there is a secret I don’t want to spoil.
      But I will say that Leon does an admirable job of noting the importance of taking care of our environment. His comment about the travelers and their stay on Santa Rosalia—“Just in the nick of time they realized that it was their own habitat they were wrecking—that they weren't merely visitors”—easily refers to our planet as well.
Vonnegut audio cover
      Fortunately, no one is wrecking the habitat at Sachi Ji, a wellness sanctuary 60 miles north of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. This is where I stayed for the other half of my trip. The hotel/retreat center sits at an altitude of about 10,000 feet, just above San Pablo del Lago and the country’s largest lake, in Imbabura Province. Every room has a gorgeous direct view of towering, cloud-ringed and sometimes snow-capped volcanos, including Imbabura Volcano which is called “Papa” and considered sacred by local residents. This particular volcano hasn’t erupted in 14,000 years, and its slopes are covered with lush sugarcane fields and farmlands.
      Sacha Ji, which means “beloved mountain,” is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. It’s the creation of architect and photographer Maria Teresa Ponce. She designed the retreat using principles of both feng shui and environmental sustainability, so there are many curved walls, green roofs, rainwater collectors, and solar panels that generate both electricity and hot water.

The view from Sacha Ji
Photo by Donna Baier Stein

      According to the website (,
      Sacha Ji prides itself in the materials chosen for its eco-friendly construction. All our structures are constructed from brick made from the earth excavated at the site during construction. Used car tires were placed under the concrete floor slabs as thermal insulation and seismic support. Over 1500 used tires were re-used in Sacha Ji! Solar panels that generate electricity and hot water, non-toxic paint, water efficient toilets, thermal glass, and tiles made of recycled materials, biodegradable soap, energy-efficient heating systems, used-water treatments are some examples what we have carefully chosen to use in our spaces. All our visitors will receive a short tour and explanation of how Sacha Ji was built, so as to promote our concepts and solutions on building with an environmentally friendly approach.
      There are organic gardens and fruit and vegetable orchards, and the delicious meals are made mostly from locally-grown foods, with menus designed by a well-known Ecuadorian chef, Henry Richardson.
      From Sacha Ji, we took a visit to Hacienda Zuleta, a colonial working farm belonging to the family of a past president of Ecuador, Galo Plaza lasso. Outside magazine named Zuleta one of the world’s “Top Ten Finds.” We had a delicious lunch there that included cheeses handmade from the farm’s dairy cows, fresh-caught rainbow trout, and home-churned butter on bread baked from wheat harvested on the hacienda. After eating, some of us rode horseback through the countryside. We passed by earth mounds dating from pre-Incan days. And we visited the Condor Huasi Project, a rescue and breeding program to help re-introduce into the wild a bird that very nearly became extinct.
      It’s not just wildlife, but also humanity that comes close to becoming extinct in Vonnegut’s novel, save for that one last colony on Santa Rosalia. But as Vonnegut points out, the one thing “the trackless sea could never lose, so long as it was made of water, (was) the ability to heal itself.”
      Healing is what Sacha Ji is all about. And ultimately, healing occurs, though in an unexpected way, in Vonnegut’s created world. My own vacation experiences—both at Sacha Ji and while enjoying my audiobook—confirmed Vonnegut’s belief that quieting the mind and avoiding the dangers of over-thinking can be very healing indeed.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This was truly a memorable vacation for me, and I thank Alicia Rodriguez of Sophia Associates for putting the trip together ( Alicia’s husband, who travelled with us, is Bolivar Napoleon Luna Paredes, an Ecuadorian shaman ( Thanks, too, to Maria Teresa Ponce and all the staff at Sacha Ji ( and all our guides and staff on the Santa Cruz ( And to my trip mates, Sandra Erbe and Kim Bowmaster, for their photos!


Donna Baier Stein's poetry and prose have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Kansas Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Washingtonian, and many other journals and anthologies. Her story collection Sympathetic People was published by Serving House Books, and her poetry chapbook Sometimes You Sense the Difference by Finishing Line Press. Donna was a founding editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and currently is the Editor and Publisher of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. Her awards include a Scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers Conference, two awards from the Poetry Societies of Virginia and New Hampshire, a Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and individual fiction and poetry prizes from various journals and anthologies.

                                                    [copyright 2015, Donna Baier Stein]