ECUADOR, EVOLUTION, AND VONNEGUT’S TAKE ON THE HUMAN BRAIN
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:
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.
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 (www.mysachaji.com),
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 (www.sophia-associates.com). Alicia’s husband, who travelled with us, is Bolivar Napoleon Luna Paredes, an Ecuadorian shaman (www.happy-shaman.com). Thanks, too, to Maria Teresa Ponce and all the staff at Sacha Ji (www.mysachaji.com) and all our guides and staff on the Santa Cruz (www.metropolitan-touring.com/galapagos/santa-cruz-cruise). And to my trip mates, Sandra Erbe and Kim Bowmaster, for their photos!