Exploring the effect of tourism on the Galapagos Islands

Times Staff Writer

There are more than 50 Galapagos Islands, and of that territory 97% has been set aside as a wildlife refuge since 1959. The remaining 3% of that Ecuadorean archipelago is populated by people: about 20,000 of them, from poachers to scientists to hookers to hoteliers. It's the lives of those people that this book examines.

The result is an atmospheric and alarming story about the difficulty of sustaining Eden for biologists, told by a journalist who has taken the time to listen to many of the locals.

A reader discovers that the Galapagos stand not only as a microcosm of life on Earth but also demonstrate how tourism can at once enrich and undermine a community. And how government corruption and inefficiency can color daily life on these remote Pacific islands.

The islands' species -- tortoises, finches and iguanas as well as the thousands of nonnative goats and pigs that scientists are eager to exterminate -- come in for mention, of course. But the principal animal under the microscope here is human, such as hotelier Jack Nelson (who has spent more than three decades running a lodging that his father built), island park service director Eliecer Cruz (whose devotion to duty puts him at risk of being attacked by fishermen or betrayed by politicians) and Daniel Fitter, an island-born Jehovah's Witness who divides his time between delivering the Watchtower magazine and leading tours as one of the islands' most respected naturalist guides.

Fitter says, "People ask me all the time, 'How can you be a guide and believe in Creationism as well?' I tell them, yes, I -- we -- believe that there is a Creator. He is the answer to the question of why, not how. The how, the mechanics of life, is left to the scientists, as it should be. At the end of the day, Adam was the first scientist, the first park warden."

Alas, "Plundering Paradise" is not great literature. D'Orso, a past collaborator on autobiographies by such authors as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and sports agent Leigh Steinberg, sometimes reads like a writer in a hurry. He resorts to the same devices too often (for instance, beginning a paragraph with a sentence of a single word). And he suffers occasionally from Wolfe's Syndrome, an affliction of nonfiction writers who, like Tom Wolfe, use exclamation points to underline local color instead of letting it speak for itself.

But D'Orso is also an unpretentious reader's representative as he travels from island to island, spotting human quirks alongside natural wonders. Another writer could have written a book of greater biological detail or deeper analysis of Ecuador's tragicomic politics, but he does have an ear for resonant details.

As sea cucumbers grew popular as an aphrodisiac in Asia, demand for the creatures created a lucrative and mostly illegal trade in the Galapagos. But harvesting them from the depths is dangerous, given that many divers breathe through makeshift sea-to-surface hoses, and Ecuador's only decompression chamber is on the mainland. It's not unusual for a half-dozen divers to die in a year in Villamil, a village of perhaps 1,000.

"And no one," D'Orso writes, "has counted the number of this village's men who lie nearly unconscious in the shade of the town's sun-beaten buildings or who lurch through its streets, their brains addled by the bends and by the oil and gasoline fumes sucked through those dive hoses."

Big Apple's tiny details revealed

This small but stately book offers a different way of seeing the city -- not just Manhattan, but all the boroughs -- and a wealth of details. (The first in-store Santa Claus in America? An innovation of R.H. Macy & Co. in 1870. The supplier of Gen. George Custer's Tilbury toothbrushes and Sarah Bernhardt's Cucumber Cold Cream? Caswell-Massey, founded in 1752 and now found on Lexington Avenue.)

The more than 150 listed businesses range from bakers to boot makers, including plenty of restaurants and bars. And yes, there's an entry for McSorley's Old Ale House, which dates to 1854 and inspired one of Joseph Mitchell's most-loved New Yorker pieces. Entries are brief, but they typically include address, phone, hours and the nearest subway stop. Just one complaint: A map or two would have been helpful.

Skiers' guide to where the snow is

Like surfers, plenty of skiers don't much care where they sleep as long as it puts them near a great ride. Maybe that's why so many ski lodges are so ugly. Anyway, this is a combination coffee-table volume and guidebook for the other skiers -- the ones who want to retreat from the slopes to a shrine of high design.

If there's a drawback for Western readers here, it's that the book tilts toward Europe. Of 40 lodgings included, only nine are in the U.S., including Sundance in Utah and Amangani in Wyoming, along with a handful more in Canada. But it's wonderfully illustrated (511 photos on about 250 pages) and designed.


Times staff writer Christopher Reynolds' books column appears twice monthly.

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