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For Sandra Martin, going to the Galapagos was a chance to meditate not on mortality, but longevity

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Saturday, June 30, 2018 – Page O1

Sandra Martin is the author of A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices, which won the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2017 and was a finalist for both the Donner Prize in Public Policy and the J.W. Dafoe Book Prize.

The best birthday presents, I have come to realize, are the ones you give yourself. Let others delight in surprises. I am done with stuff and I already have children, the best gift ever - especially now that mine are grown, out of the house, off the payroll (mostly) and producing grandchildren. Instead of things I don't need, I want to top up my storehouse of experiences before I am too decrepit to appreciate or remember them.

That's why, when I reached the traditional human allotment of three score years and ten last November, older than I ever imagined possible when I was a child, I begged my family to forestall the balloons and the sparklers. I wanted to go to the Galapagos, the volcanic archipelago 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador that sparked naturalist Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory about natural selection.

"Old age is particularly difficult to assume," Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her classic book, The Coming of Age, "because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species." She was 62 at the time, but I feel the same way at 70. And why not, considering that if my luck holds out, I am likely to live until my late 90s?

Nevertheless, the launch of my eighth decade seemed a propitious occasion to hang out with iguanas, pelicans, flamingos and sea lions and, if possible, commune with giant tortoises, the centenarians of the reptile world.

Going to the Galapagos was a chance to meditate not on mortality, but longevity, since I'm not the only one getting older these days.

As an early baby boomer, I am part of that blustering, swaggering cohort that was born between 1946 and 1965. More than 8.2 million children were born in Canada in those two decades - an average of 3.7 babies per woman. Not only are we boomers aging, we are making our disproportionate presence felt. We celebrated more than patriotism on Canada Day 2016. For the first time, there were more Canadians over 65 than under 14, and Statistics Canada predicts that by 2031, one in four Canadians will have surpassed the traditional retirement age.

At the same time, life expectancy is soaring, with centenarians the fastest growing segment of the country's population. Before I was born, death prowled freely, stalking victims of all ages.

Modern medicine may not have vanquished death, but it has certainly pushed it to the sidelines.

As the late British writer Ronald Blythe pointed out in his eloquent book, The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age, "...we place dying in what we take to be its logical position, which is at the close of a long life, whereas our ancestors accepted the futility of placing it in any position at all. In the midst of life we are in death, they said, and they meant it. To them it was a fact; to us it is a metaphor."

Making the most of that newfangled thing - an extended old age - is one of the questions that propelled the Canadian Institute of Health Research to commission a massive 20-year research project on aging. More than 50,000 men and women, aged 45 to 85, from across the country are participating in the $41-million Longitudinal Study on Aging (CSLA). According to the baseline report, which was released last month, approximately 90 per cent of participants, even those 75 and older, describe their health as good, very good or excellent. As Globe and Mail health columnist Andre Picard opined, "85 is the new 65."

Travelling is one way to fill those extra years we seem to be accumulating. Where and how to do it is the issue. I'm not ready for the recliner on the main deck of the cruise ship. I want to test my mettle, my stamina and my spirit by walking the Camino, following the Inca trail to Machu Picchu or sailing, hiking volcanoes and snorkelling with sea turtles in the Galapagos.

Time was the urgency goading my desire. Since Darwin's fiveweek sojourn in the Galapagos aboard HMS Beagle in 1835, the archipelago has become a huge tourist draw. Despite monumental conservation efforts - the islands were annexed by Ecuador in 1832, turned into a National Park in 1959 and declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1978 - the number of visitors increased 39 per cent between 2007 and 2016, to 225,000 visitors from 161,000.

If I waited too long, I feared the Galapagos might be ruined by development or so swamped by ageing boomers that eco-tourism would be drastically curtailed or even extinct. More threatening was the fear that if I didn't go soon, I might have passed my best-before date. My new mantra is: If not this decade, then when? My personal travel agent, a.k.a.

my husband, found a moderately priced ecological tour for us with G Adventures, a Canadian company that specializes in small-group travel, using local guides and resources. We flew to Quito, the capitol of Ecuador and from there to the Galapagos where we lived aboard the Monserrat, a 90-foot yacht with double occupancy for 10 cabins. Our group of travellers, ranged in age from late 20s to mid-70s, and hailed from Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, the United States and Canada.

We were surprisingly congenial, although I did bristle when a thirtysomething Brit explained he was labelling all his photographs so that he could identify them when he was in his 70s and suffering from dementia. We aren't all the same, I wanted to shriek at him, as though once you hit 65, you drop off a ledge into the crevice of infirmity. Nobody lumps newborns, toddlers and adolescents together, so why should we do it for people at the other end of the age spectrum?

Aging is as individual as every other health issue. The oldest member of our group, a tiny woman on the shady side of 70, was a case in point. She was as deaf as the proverbial post when she wasn't wearing her high-tech hearing aids, but that deficit didn't define or limit her. She was quick-witted in conversation and nimble as a mountain goat in clambering over rocks to elbow her telephoto lens in front of other camera buffs. My favourite senior moment occurred when an Australian widow blithely announced she was spending her children's inheritance on our sail through the Galapagos.

We spotted sharks swimming alongside the Monserrat and pelicans dive-bombing for fish, drank desalinated water, tried to remember not to flush paper down the toilets and washed our feet and our shoes whenever we climbed aboard to curtail the spread of soil and seeds from one island to another. The food, prepared in a galley the size of an airplane kitchen and served buffet style, was delicious, aided only partly by our ravenous appetites from four activities a day, including snorkelling, birdwatching, hiking and exploring islands that were remarkably diverse considering their proximity to each other.

I kept up easily, although I was glad of the Galapagos handshake, in which you and a crew member grab each other's upper arm as a supportive boost when climbing in and out of zodiacs. The first morning, clad in our life jackets, we sailed close to a rocky outcrop and there preening themselves on the upper ledges was a cluster of blue-footed boobies. They paid no attention to us, but I was mesmerized by their high-stepping azure-coloured feet, a fashionista strut I had never expected to see outside of a David Attenborough documentary. Suddenly, I was transported through the miasma of experience to myself at 21, looking out a bus window in Morocco at burqa-clad women trudging along the side of the road, stooped from the weight of the firewood they were carrying on their backs. How, I remember wondering, did little Sandra from Montreal end up in the Bible? Seeing the boobies close-up was the

same extraordinary sense of being out of time and place. Snorkelling revealed a magical underwater world, but I was so inept, despite patient tutoring from one of our guides, that I kept spluttering and glugging salt water when I could have been cavorting with seals and fishes. Next time, I kept admonishing myself, if there is a next time, I will prepare before packing my bags.

We saw plenty of sea turtles including one swimming placidly up and down a canal, like an oldster doing laps, and so many different species on our nature walks that it was like wandering through a sophisticated zoo, but these creatures were free, not caged, and showed little if any fear of human interlopers. One morning, we spotted a Galapagos hawk - a beautiful yellow and brown creature, who tolerated our shutter-bursts like a celebrity on the red carpet.

The aspect of the Galapagos that I had anticipated the most - rambling with giant tortoises - was a disappointment. It wasn't their fault. Although these steady but slow creatures are the oldest and biggest tortoises in the world, they face extinction. They were a common sight when the Galapagos, which means tortoise in Spanish, were discovered in 1535, but they became easy prey after whalers and buccaneers sailing the Pacific Ocean realized their gustatory and commercial potential. Varieties on some islands were already extinct by the time Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835.

He described meeting two very large tortoises on the island of San Cristobel. "One was eating a Cactus & then quietly walked away.

The other gave a deep & loud hiss & then drew back his head," he wrote in his Second Journal of Researches. He found more on the island of Santiago. Watching the "huge creatures" with their outstretched necks, "deliberately pacing onwards" on a well-worn path to and from a fresh water pool struck him as "very comical."

Indeed, he sometimes behaved like a kid in an amusement park, hitching a ride by squatting on the back of a tortoise and tapping its shell to prod it forward.

The most famous tortoise of modern times was found on Pinta Island in 1971, the first to be seen since 1906, and transported some months later to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. Thought to be the last of his breed, he was dubbed Lonesome George, ostensibly after a glum-faced comic named George Gobel, but more likely because he was the most isolated of creatures. Probably 80 years old at the time, he appeared to be what was once called a confirmed bachelor.

All attempts to find him a girl friend or to rouse his dormant libido proved futile, as did attempts at artificial insemination.

Lonesome George died of cardiac arrest in 2012 after 40 years in captivity and is now stuffed and on display at the CDRS.

Conservationists have been working since the mid-1960s to breed nine of the remaining 11 tortoise varieties and reintroduce them as five-years-olds into the wild. There were many frustrating struggles, not only against predators, but interlopers such as goats, which were chomping through the vegetation that is the main food source for the herbivore tortoises.

There are three breeding centres in the Galapagos. Visiting one is about as enticing as touring a sausage-making factory. The tortoises are arranged by age in open-air enclosures, duplicating the rocky terrain and vegetation of the wild. They have lots of room to roam around their pen and do whatever comes naturally, given they are captives. We watched a randy male tortoise attempt to mount a female - he approached the wrong end, which apparently is a common problem - and finally gave up and lumbered toward another female who was scuttling away into the underbrush. Not to be deterred, he rammed her shell with about as much finesse as that old joke about foreplay - a poke in the ribs followed by "hey, you awake" - climbed on top and grunted and wheezed loud enough to draw a crowd, until he was finally spent. Even as I watched, I was ashamed of my intrusive presence..

Voyeurism aside, the breeding program seems to be working. By the end of last year, more than 7,000 juvenile tortoises had been returned to their home islands including Espanola, Isabela, Pinzon, San Cristobel, Santa Cruz and Santiago. That bodes well for future visitors, a thought that pricks my conscience. How often can one return to the Galapagos, without trampling its wonder and turning it into a Disneyfied pleasuredome? Should a field-trip to the Galapagos be a once in a life-time adventure, revisited only in memory? After all, Darwin only came once, and look what he made of it.

As I was going on in this solipsistic vein, a veteran of another Galapagos excursion interrupted my spiel. "Of course, you can go back a second time," she said, "but only to show its wonders to your grandchildren." Hey, I thought, greedily swallowing her rationalization, what better way to celebrate my 80th birthday?

Maybe by then I will have improved my snorkelling technique - or 15 other things on my self-improvement list.

I went to the Galapagos seeking inspiration from a creep of ancient tortoises, as they are called in the collective. Instead, I found the remains of a gentle solitary species, whose numbers have been ravaged by human greed and gluttony. Watching the tortoises roam around their enclosures reminded me of visiting an old age home where residents were lined up in their wheelchairs while a well meaning volunteer implored them to clap their hands to the music. That will never happen to me, I vowed, but of course it will, unless we resolve as a society to pay more attention to how we care for our elders.

The trouble with growing older is not just infirmity; it is time.

Whoever thought we would live so long? That is the issue we need to face both individually and collectively as boomers head into retirement and beyond. And the answers, I suspect, are as unique as the individuals who wrestle with them.

Herding baby boomers into institutions to keep us safe as we age is a non-starter. Building more long-term-care homes, only to shutter them after the boomer bulge dies - as we have done with elementary schools - would be a foolish waste of money. We need to find ways to support older people so that they can age in whatever place they call home.

Living in close quarters with a group of strangers, some of them younger than my own children as we sailed around the Galapagos, taught me a valuable lesson in aging. Those smarmy insurance company ads that I watched as a kid about Freedom 55, which promised an endless and affluent future of blissful relaxation, were wrong. Old people need the same things as young people: variety and to keep learning new things by testing their prejudices and their limitations.

Figuring out what to do with the rest of your life is hard - and you need to start doing it while you are lucky enough to be hale and hearty. Humans are not singular creatures like Lonesome George. We crave companionship, but we also want independence to make our own choices. At every stage of our lives, we require, as social animals, fresh experiences not merely to exist, but to flourish - and not just when we blow the candles out on yet another birthday cake.

Associated Graphic

An April 23 photograph taken by NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold depicts the Galapagos islands, seen from more than 300 kilometres above Earth.





CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA; 2016 CENSUS Note: Britain and Italy are from 2011 to 2015


Wednesday, July 04, 2018


A Saturday Opinion article on the Galapagos incorrectly said British writer Ronald Blythe was deceased.

Huh? How did I get here?
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