LETTER FROM GALAPAGOS
Communicating by shoving bits of paper through a red slot is now almost as quaint as travelling by stagecoach; snail mail has become a relic of the past. The post office on Floreana Island is even more basic, just a simple wooden box covered in a colourful array of strange adverts: ‘Halfmoon Outfitters’; ‘Aus.NAZ. Alpini’; ‘Space Cowboy’.
A clue to its origins is a date etched in the wood: 1792. This was when European whalers, far from home, first suggested simply dropping any communication into a box. In return, everyone was expected to browse through what was lying there, extract anything with an address close to where they lived and hand it in personally when they got back. Stamps had not been invented and delivery could vary from a few months to never, but it was better than nothing.
The centuries rolled on. Travel progressed from sailing at six knots, if winds were favourable, to steaming at maybe twenty knots, to jetting at five hundred. The Floreana Post Office remained open, roasting in the tropical sun, eventually becoming merely a tourist attraction.
Although these letters can today be forwarded in the usual way when reaching civilisation, the whole point now is to bring travellers together; to meet others with a similar interest. In that box on a Pacific beach I’d happened upon a letter with an address only five minutes from my home; the name on the envelope ‘Debbi Fingest’. This could be anyone from a teenager to someone in their nineties, but the expense of Galapagos travel can be a barrier to those of tender years, while distance deters many oldies. A mature lady was the most likely, which meant Debbi might be worth a visit. Better luck this time, because my Galapagos trip, while fabulous for the wildlife, had been a disaster for the supposedly tame life. My girlfriend, Brenda, and the local animals had swapped roles, the sea lions, iguanas and birds all vying to be best mates, while my human partner had been a wild pain in the backside. As an attempt to repair a rocky relationship, the trip had been an abject failure.
But Brenda was history and Debbi beckoned. Or so I told myself. She might be an octogenarian; or lesbian; or married to a seven-foot hulk with six children. Ladbrokes would offer odds of a hundred to one against her being an unattached person of interest. But unless you tried…
Rejecting the idea of turning up on her doorstep, I made a preliminary call, timed at 7.30pm, on the assumption she would have a job.
The phone was answered by a female.
“Yes?” She sounded suspicious.
Most cold calls are quickly terminated, so I gabbled: “I have a letter for you from the Galapagos.”
No immediate answer, but the line remained open. Then: “From the Galapagos? Who are you?”
“My name is Tom Wells. I’ve just come back from the islands. You know that post box on Floreana…”
“Never been there.”
Silly me. I was talking to the letter’s recipient, not the sender. But she was still listening.
“There’s a box where you can put letters, without any stamps…” I was explaining it badly, scrambling to retain her attention.
“Don’t they have a proper post office?”
“Of course. This place is more a tourist gimmick.”
“You’re having me on…”
“Look, I’m just Postman Pat.”
“You said your name was Tom.”
Dear God! Had this woman never heard of Postman Pat?
“My name is Tom Wells,” I said again, beginning to wish I’d never started. “On Floreana Island in the Galapagos they have this box for letters. Not a proper post office, just a bit of fun. You drop in your own letter, then see if there’s anything addressed to near where you live. I picked up this one because you happen to be just around the corner from here.”
“Hmm… I see. I think.” Now definitely curious.
“I can easily put a stamp on it, pop it in the post the usual way.”
“No, no. Sorry if I’ve been rude. You see, I’m puzzled. And anxious. My husband Harry stopped off in the Galapagos recently but has now gone all quiet. Although he can’t send wish-you-were-here cards from the wilds of the Pacific, he can communicate, and it must be ten days since I last heard from him. That letter might be a clue to what he’s up to. So don’t post it. Can you come over and bring it with you?”
“Unless you’re too busy.”
“No, I’ve eaten. And there’s nothing much on the telly.”
“You did say you lived nearby, so see you in five. Or however long it takes.”