Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Are there unintended consequences to imaginary travel?

Immersed in an imaginary Galápagos--translating Beyond the Islands--I have been travelling, mentally, for years.  I hope people will read the translation and "travel" as well. And yet, a fragile ecosystem like that of the Galápagos Islands can only support so many visitors. Am I part of the problem? How many people might finish the book and them jump on a plane? What will happen when they get there?
Visitors to the islands marvel at the extraordinary richness of life (and marvel that life survives at all) yet worry about the islands' destruction, a dynamic common to both fiction and travel guides. The numerous guides to the islands' flora, fauna, and tourist accommodations are, to varying degrees, at once advocates for their preservation and promoters of the islands as a unique and desirable destination. The foreword to Pierre Constant's Galápagos: A Natural History Guide extols the islands' beauty, then sounds the alarm, citing rising numbers of visitors and residents, among other threats, and concluding that "the Galápagos must be safeguarded as the innocence of the world. [. . .] The magic of 'Las Encantadas' may one day disappear under the surface of the waves, but by then, humans would have gone long before" (9). The reader is placed at the threshold of Eden, on the verge of expulsion yet, perhaps, with a chance to turn back--Shades of Vonnegut's Galápagos, with its apocalyptic premise and misleading brochures. Overuse of natural resources places the Galápagos at risk, as another guidebook puts it, of "too many tourists 'loving' the islands to death" (Smith 288). The authors of The New Key to Ecuador and the Galápagos write, "We do realize that we are promoting tourism to the Galápagos with this book, while at the same time lamenting the increased numbers of tourists. Our hope is that appropriate quotas are enforced and that tourists to the Galápagos respect the animals and land while contributing to the benefit of the park" (Pearson and Middleton 405).
Ecologically, the threat of looming catastrophe is hardly far-fetched. The islands have seen huge increases in settlement and in visitors, as well as in problems caused by over-fishing. In 2004, some 108,583 people visited the islands (Constant 7). In April of 2007, the government of Rafael Correa declared an emergency in the Galápagos; in June of that year, UNESCO declared the archipelago "endangered." Some 35,000 colonists now live in the Galápagos, more than double the estimated 12,000 living there in 1990 (Bassett 12, 14).
The Galápagos evoked in Alicia Yánez Cossío's Más allá de las islas/Beyond the Islands are both real and unreal. Blending humor and social commentary, Yánez Cossío uses the islands' isolation and the overlapping discourses surrounding them (evolutionary biology, ecotourism, pirate stories) to address issues also present within mainland Ecuador. She draws on the history and folklore surrounding the Galápagos, including varying accounts of their discovery and settlement, their scientific importance, and the place of the archipelago in world tourism. The setting is not accidental, as these specific islands invite readers to think about change and evolution (and about chance and accident) in particular ways. At the same time, the narrative treatment of the islands is not limited to a strictly realistic representation. The name of the islands appears only twice in the novel--one of those times in the Latin name of the Galápagos hawk.
Taken in the context of the multiple threats posed by settlement, tourism, and climate change, the novel's title suggests that tenable, sustainable solutions can be achieved only by somehow reaching beyond present realities and terms of debate. This is perhaps even more true today than when the novel was first published in 1980. Unlike the natural history or tourist literature about the islands, Yánez Cossío's novel focuses on the human population. Pablo Ospina writes that an analysis of photographs in illustrated books or tourist guides reveals that 98% are nature photographs while only 2% include people--generally tourists. This, he argues, creates the impression that the islands are uninhabited and that visitors will find a reserve entirely dedicated to preservation ("islas enteramente consagradas a la protección de la naturaleza" 165). By contrast, the novel links the islands as place of isolation or refuge and eventual renewal with a consideration of the creative process and its importance in individual identity. In Yánez Cossío's rewriting of the archipelago, the greatest destructive force is not environmental degradation but human intolerance.
Whether reading fiction that ranges far from an individual's experience builds global tolerance is an open question. Nor would I ever propose a strictly self-improvement model of reading. I don't read novels just because they're good for me (though my well-being is regularly restored by fiction).
But it's worth underlining: imaginatively, writers--and readers--travel freely, widely, even impossibly, but not necessarily without consequences.

Bassett, Carol Ann. Galápagos at the Crossroads. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.
Constant, Pierre. Galápagos: A Natural History Guide. 7th. ed. Hong Kong: Odyssey, 2006.
Ospina, Pablo. "Región y nación en la formación de las identidades galapagueñas." Procesos: Revista Ecuatoriana de Historia 19 (2002-2003): 151-69.
Pearson, David, and David Middleton. The New Key to Ecuador and the Galápagos. 2nd. ed. Berkeley: Ulysses, 1997.
Smith, Julian. Moon Handbooks Ecuador, Including the Galápagos Islands. 3rd. ed. Emeryville, California: Avalon, 2005.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. 1985. New York: Dell, 1999.
Yánez Cossío, Alicia. Beyond the Islands. Trans. Amalia Gladhart. New Orleans: UNO Press, 2011 (forthcoming).
---. Más allá de las islas. 1st. ed. Quito: Colegio Técnico "Don Bosco," 1980.

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