A Star Wars Adventure South of the Equator

Picture 1

Beyond blood ties, families are built around traditions. In my family, it’s tradition to embark on grand adventures together once a year. From driving into the midst of migrating herds in the Serengeti to wandering in the ancient ruins of Ephesus and Pompeii, we’ve created a treasure trove of memories shared through the generations. So last year when my father, our unofficial travel agent, suggested a trip to South America in the spring, I was very excited. I also told him, “Whatever you do, don’t interfere with Star Wars Weekends.” He honored my request, booking a tour that would return us to the US in early May.

In mid-March, Entertainment Weekly announced that Return of the Jedi would be screening at the CapeTown Film Festival. As an intrepid Star Wars blogger, my eyes lit up. This could be really exciting to attend, and on May the 4th no less… That’s when the realization struck: I was going to be in South America on that day, on a tiny touring boat in the middle of the Galapagos Islands. The prospects of Star Wars fun and mayhem, sharing in potentially exciting news breaking, came to a screeching halt.

In situations like these, I like to go old school and consider “What Would Leia Do?” After some consideration, I packed my best GFFA flare — in other words, lots of Star Wars t-shirts — and rolled my hair into Princess Leia buns before departing on my adventure. I might have been missing the festivities, but there was no reason I couldn’t take the celebration with me.

The first day of the tour we visited the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru. One of my fellow tourmates tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Is that Princess Leia on your shirt?”

“Yes,” I replied with a smile.

He said, “Did you see the artifact that looks like Han Solo?” I knew things were looking up on this excursion already. The next day, as we started up the steep steps of the Incan fortress Ollantaytambo, our Peruvian guide, Rolly, offered a cheery, “May the Force be with us!” Later, I asked him if he’d seen the movies. He had, of course, and professed his enthusiasm. He also told me, unprompted, that he watched The Clone Wars with his children.

Picture 2 - Ollantaytambo

The following day as we gathered to enter the Machu Picchu sites, another local guide noticed my Mara Jade Celebration VI shirt and asked if I knew when Darth Vader’s birthday was. I knew I should know this one, so I cleverly delayed by asking if he meant David Prowse or James Earl Jones. “No,” the guide insisted, “Darth Vader.” When I shrugged, he announced with a smile that the villain’s birthday was May 4th — still about a week away on the calendar — and finished with “May the 4th be with you on Star Wars Day.”

I wandered the ruins of Machu Picchu with a big smile. Here was the seat of an ancient civilization built into the side of a mountain, that to this day can still only be accessed by a 90-minute train ride followed by a 20-minute bus ride, or for the more adventurous a four-day hike along the Incan trail. While I didn’t choose the hiking option, I did make the morning climb to the Sun Gate, where the Inca trail passes between two mountain peaks. Up by 6:00 a.m., we beat the sunrise and also greeted the hikers who had risen at 3:00 a.m. to finish their four-day journey into the historic site. I wore my Star Wars cap and put my hair in Leia buns for inspiration to make the daunting high-altitude climb.

Picture 3 - Sun Gate above Machu Picchu

As April drew to a close, we left behind the majesty and diverse culture of Peru for a vastly different setting, one where four different ocean currents converge upon an ever-changing archipelago of volcanic islands. An inhospitable land, it served as a hideaway for pirates and whalers before being made famous by Charles Darwin. While Ecuador believes tourism is necessary for the Galapagos, a tremendous effort is underway to protect the wildlife and vegetation that makes the islands unique. When the pangas tendered us from ship to shore, it quickly became obvious we really were traveling to a world almost beyond imagination. That’s the point in the John Williams score where the music starts picking up tempo and perhaps forebodes a sense of danger.

Genovesa Island is a collapsed volcanic caldera with cliffs rising up all around, and visitors must ascend the Prince Phillip steps to reach the top of the cliff wall. As our naturalist, Socrates, offered his assistance while I climbed from the panga, he noted my Padmé Nouveau shirt. Climbing the steps, he inquired as to whether I was a Star Wars fan, whether I knew about Disney buying the franchise, and if I was excited about the upcoming movies. Of course I gave a resounding “yes!” to all three. When we reached the top of the steps, though, talk turned to the red-footed Booby, a frigate bird — known as the pirate of the Galapagos — and a very rare sighting of a short-ear owl.

Picture 4 - Red footed booby

The next day we visited Buccaneer’s Cove at Santiago Island, where the praying man rock formation spotted from passing ships brought sailors and pirates to shore in search of water and food. Our naturalist Jose noted that some might consider an alternative to the Christian symbolism and find a representation of Buddha. One member of the tour quipped that others might see it as a Jedi in meditation. I have to say, I loved my group! That cove was also my first outing of deep-water snorkeling. Although I’m a decent swimmer, I had passed on the first deep-water option in favor of a beach snorkel due to a childhood fear of sharks. As luck would have it, five reef-tipped sharks made an appearance. After considering WWLD, I decided against thrashing out of the water screaming “shark!” and managed to maintain my serenity. Thankfully, no ominous Jaws soundtrack cued in the background as we made our way past the sharks on patrol of the ocean floor.

Picture 5 - Meditating Jedi Rock Formation

Between the marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, fur seals, and sea lions, May the 4th arrived quickly. Our wake-up call that day was set later than usual, at 7:00 a.m., but I awoke an hour early, allowing me to usher in the day with the soundtrack to A New Hope blasting on my iPod. A wet landing on the black sands of Urbina Bay kicked off a day unlike any other. Some may be lucky to see a giant tortoise on a National Geographic special or perhaps at the zoo. Of the 150,000 people permitted into the Galapagos National Park each year, only a small fraction will encounter the creatures that live to be over 100 years old. On our stroll that day, we encountered a number of them, including this handsome fellow who slowed down long enough for me to pose with him.

Instead of clicking around the Internet looking for the usual May the 4th fandom fun, this year I sat through a lecture on Charles Darwin and braved the challenge of creating a towel sculpture. I needed those distractions to keep my mind off the upcoming deep-water snorkel. It wasn’t the fear of sharks that gave me reason to pause, though, but rather the temperature of the water. The Humboldt Current brings penguins, fur seals, and chilly waters to the western side of the islands. The guides were expecting the water temperatures to be 69 degrees, which for a Florida girl is downright Hoth-like. Still, this was a once in a lifetime chance to see some rare wildlife in their native habitat. By the time most of the other snorkelers had jumped off the panga, only fellow traveler Joe and I were left dipping our toes over the side. Socrates, who visits this spot quite often, was shouting excitedly that these were the best conditions he had ever seen[TB5] . “Penguins in the water! Flightless cormorants in the water!” I ignored my goosebumps and hopped in. Almost immediately, Joe, who had hopped in a second before I did, surfaced next to me and shouted, “Stingray!”

Picture 6 - Penguin in water

Take my fear of sharks and triple it. Then imagine me about as capable of seeing underwater as Han Solo at the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi. Finally I spotted the creature, right under Joe. This is no tall tale of fish fiction: the ray’s body, not including its tail, was as long as Joe! When I tried to focus on what would Leia do, only one scene came to mind. Remember that part in The Empire Strikes Back when she sees the mynocks on the Falcon’s front viewport?

Ear-piercing dramatics aside, I lived to tell about the stingray. And also the penguins swimming in the water with me, the baby sea lion that blew bubbles in my dad’s face, the marine iguana who swam by for a look-see, and the sea turtles by the dozens within an arm’s length. Not many of our group braved the waters that day, and despite numerous jellyfish stings and chattering teeth there were no regrets for the ones who did.

Picture 7 - Seal lion playing

My May the 4th ended curled up in the ship’s lounge, using a spotty internet connection to catch up on the fandom fun. I had missed out on sharing a special day with my friends, but the fantastic memories from the trip made it all worthwhile. That evening one of the ladies in my group sat down on the couch, noted my Darth Vader pajama bottoms and Millennium Falcon t-shirt, and asked sheepishly if she could pose a question. I agreed, and she asked, “What makes Star Wars so special to you?”

And that’s a whole other story about a little girl inspired by a movie in 1977 to dream for the stars…

For more images of my Galapagos adventure check out my album at FANgirl Zone. Underwater photo credits to Tauck Travel.

Tricia Barr writes about Star Wars for FANgirl Blog, Suvudu, Star Wars Insider and also serves as a contributor to Her Universe’s Year of the Fangirl. You can follow her on Twitter @fangirlcantina.

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