Isabela, Galapagos: My New Jerusalem
by Nadia Kijanka
While millions of Muslims, Jews and Christians make pilgrimages to Israel in search of spiritual clarity, it was the flora and fauna of Isabela Island, Galapagos, that helped me shed the scales from my eyes. Upon arriving to this volcanic desert, I had felt waves of depression leftover from the loss of my best friend, escalating family feuds, and the quintessential quarter-life crisis that often accompanies recent graduates. But as I walked through the guided tours of the brackish lagoons and lava fields of Los Tintoreras, and snorkeled with the sea lions in the bay, I could feel my heart climbing out of its well of despair, much like how the sandy lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas climb up the lava rocks from the sea. Emerson would agree with me when I say there is nothing more soothing for the soul than to immerse it in nature, and Isabela Island sheds light on the divinity that still exists in this baffling world.
Isabela’s flora whispered a message of perseverance. Like God, these plants don’t reveal their grace so easily. Their symbolic roots lay hidden, their beauty cloaked in dull grays and browns. They are shrubs to the eye but mirrors to the soul.
In the brackish lagoons, flora does not bedazzle, it unfolds. The first plant I encountered, ironically, was the manzanillo tree, or the “poison apple tree.” Just as I was about to touch one of its tiny apples near my toe, I heard the guide say it was covered from bark to fruit in poisonous sap that would burn even upon a light brush. “You don’t want to climb this tree,” Daniela Iglesias, a tour guide with the National Galapagos Park, said.
Likewise, I was surprised when she pointed to a branch that drooped with needle-thin leaves, barren of flowers buds, a measly offering to the eye in comparison with the mangroves busting with leaves, and heralded it the Jerusalem thorn. Like the manzanillo, this plant carries biblical undertones that stirred my memories of faith. I was surprised to bump into such an internationally known plant on my journey through one of the most remote corners of the globe. Legend has it, according to Marion Bowman’s The Holy Thorn Ceremony, that the Romans used this very plant to make Jesus’ crown of thorns. “It is hard to believe,” Bowman says, “that this first flowered in Glastonbury…Somehow it symbolizes not only the Christmas hope of Christ’s incarnation but also the indestructibility.”
Later, I crossed paths with the Palo Santo, or the “holy tree” that hides its fruit more than it bears it. According to Michael H. Jackson’s A Natural History, “during the dry season, it is gaunt and leafless with pale grey bark. Its leaves appear, together with the flagrant flowers, for a brief time during the rainy period.” Despite its appearance while standing, its fallen branches burn like frankincense, a priest’s delicacy for anointing. Isabel’s flora whispered a message of perseverance. Like God, these plants don’t reveal their grace so easily. Their symbolic roots lay hidden, their beauty cloaked in dull grays and browns. They are shrubs to the eye, but mirrors to the soul.
On the lava rocks of Los Tintoreras, a scattering of scenic islets in a pristine bay, I encountered sights of peace and tranquility. Just as the New Testament prophesizes the lions will lie down with the lambs, so do the lava lizards sunbath on the very heads of the marine iguanas. They piled together on the lava rocks, cuddling like lovers. Neither species seems to mind, Daniela told us. “The lizards eat the dead skin off the iguanas. So the iguanas get a cleaning and the lizards get lunch,” she said. White tipped sharks are known to pass on penguins and sea lions. “All the Galapagos animals eat fish, and there’s enough to go around so rarely are they each others’ prey,” Daniela said.
Instead, they play together. Baby sea lions nip at the sharks’ tails, and the sharks shake them off like a frustrated parent does to a child tugging at their pant legs. Down by the bay, yellow warblers prance about the backs of a sleeping sea lions, and blue-footed boobies sit side by side with pelicans. No corner of earth could better resemble the New Jerusalem than the Galapagos. The animals coexist like godly brothers and sister, save the invasive species, like rats, dogs and goats. It’s as if nature is telling us, a balance is possible, an equilibrium attainable. Humans are often the ones who determine the shifts back and forth, for better or for worse.
And so I realized, life unfolds as clandestinely as the flora and fauna of Isabela Island. If you look close enough, if you listen, you will find the natural grace blossoming in every situation. More often than not, the powers that might be present you with a choice—take an easy way out and be depressed, or keep searching, digging, and hoping for the beauty. Though the plants might seem dull and the animals remote, the mysterious life forms on Isabela Island beckon you to peer beyond the surface and find the beauty that does not flaunt itself, but sustains itself in, through subtlety and grace. The unique ecology of this corner made it thus far, what other proof do you need that you can do the same.