The Galapagos has got to be the best summer camp ever, not that I know all that much about summer camps.
I only went to camp once, a present from Aunt Marion, who heard me whining as a 10 year old that I never got to go anyplace or do anything, which, if you didn’t count trips to visit grandma in Archbald, PA, was pretty much true. Off I went to Our Lady of Lourdes summer camp on Skaneateles Lake in upstate New York, a trip I would soon regret. After the swimming instructor tried to to drown me when I struggled with what they called ‘rhythmic breathing’, I became disenchanted with the whole enterprise (though I do admit to enjoying singing sappy songs around the campfire at night).
I didn’t even try to swim for another 20 years, until my mates at our video studio in London took me to the public pool every morning before anyone else was there, and swam alongside me practicing laps across the width, rather than the length, of the pool until I got the hang of it. By the time I left London I could swim lengths, pulling my head out of the water at intervals to breathe. By the time I got to the Galapagos, close enough to 40 years after that, knowing how to swim came in very handy.
Each day presented a unique opportunity to snorkel in a new bay or cove off one of the 6 islands that I visited. What had only been a hint during my 2 days snorkeling in the Caribbean a month earlier, became hard evidence in the Galapagos: when I am snorkeling, there is nothing else. In the Galapagos Marine Reserve, I had more moments of experiencing the sheer joy of being alive than I’d ever had, anywhere.
My first snorkel in the Galapagos was from one of the beaches at Tortuga Bay, on the edge of Puerto Ayora. When the water was just above my waist, I put on the mask that Marcos had lent me, stuck my face in the water and was startled by 3 young manta rays directly beneath me. Happy that I hadn’t bumped into them, I walked back onto the beach to catch my breath and narrowly missed stepping on several black marine iguanas hiding in plain sight among the roots of the mangrove trees.
Hand-written signs to avoid nesting iguanas were posted on the paths to all the beaches near Puerto Aroya. This was much easier said than done. I later learned, at a kind of Lord of the Flies iguana nursery on Las Tintoreras where there are only juveniles (up to about 3 years old) that the mothers don’t hang around after laying their eggs. The hatchlings find other hatchlings and pile on top of each other, or just hang out side by side. With no adult supervision it’s apparently all instinct from birth. No matter where you go, it takes vigilance not to step on iguanas who blend seamlessly with the black volcanic rock that essentially is the Galapagos.
Watching iguanas, looking like like baby godzillas with their spines on the outside of their backs and crusty from sea salt, swim through the shallow water near the beach like eels, and then step out with land legs in formation, one behind the other, was mesmerizing, like the beginning of a horror movie. The only thing missing was ominous music in the background.
I began to take a water taxi for 85 centavos from Puerto Ayora across the bay to Playa Alemagne y Los Grietos. After spending 25 cents to use the most god awful run down ill functioning and filthy toilet on earth, at the far end of a long, dusty path with the equatorial sun directly overhead, I was ready for other options. I started hanging out a restaurant on the deck of a well-heeled hotel, the Angermeyer, overlooking the bay near the water taxi stand. There I could drink coffee, or freshly squeezed maracuya juice, order one of many dishes off the menu for lunch, or eat the house-made ice cream flavor of the day. There were more staff than customers and they didn’t care how long I sat with my laptop, gathering thoughts, writing my latest dispatch, taking advantage of the relatively functional internet service or using the restroom that always had a fresh supply of soft cloth hand towels.
It wasn’t just my experience of the worst toilet ever (at least since outland Turkey in the 70’s) that took me there. I like to think I’m more resilient than that.
My watershed moment started with a great blue heron I saw hanging around the pool of the other fancy hotel near Playa Alemagne. Great blues have symbolic meaning for me and so this heron, out of his element and the only one I would see in the Galapagos, stayed in my mind. As I walked back toward the bay, the cool breeze near the water was refreshing, the Angermeyer deck looked inviting and I thought I’d sit for awhile and enjoy the shade offered by the blue market umbrellas. The deal was clinched when I discovered that Angermeyer took credit cards – an anomaly in the cash economy of the Galapagos. Because of the limit on how much cash a local ATM will give you on any given day and how much you need to pay for day trips, I sometimes had to return to the ATM 2 or 3 days in a row to get enough to secure my place on boats and still have cash for my yucca bread habit and other daily expenses.
What watching iguanas march from the sea lacked in ominous music, sitting at Angermeyer made up for in dippy music that seemed charming for about 3 minutes. The song about coming back to Jamaica, followed by one about Aloha until we meet again were part of a soundtrack of random island music that all had the same catchy beat and quickly became an ear worm, making Despacito, which I’d heard coming out of some speaker or other every day I was in the Galapagos, seem highbrow.
Expensive though it was, day-tripping in the Galapagos was still far less costly than joining a cruise would have been. For the two and a half weeks I was there, I probably spent about a quarter of what cruisers spend for 8 days and was able to customize my trip so that I ended up seeing most of the animales that I had wanted to see. I missed out on a lot of small luxuries by not taking a cruise. On the other hand, there probably were not, in all of the Galapagos, enough of the the little seasickness pills I would have needed to get me through a week or more of living on the water.
Off the coast of North Seymour Island I had my first experience of swimming with marine turtles. We were told, understandably, not to touch them, but not what to do if they touched us. I had two such encounters. Swimming up on me from behind, one’s fin repeatedly touched my arm, as though trying to get my attention. A short time later, another, came up from below me and bumped into the trunk of my body with her shell. It was stunning, alarming, thrilling. I half tried to get out of the way even as I was riveted by this other worldly experience. In a dream, I would have let the turtle carry me through this fantasyland on her shell.
North Seymour, all volcanic rock with some ground cover and a few scraggly trees that look like they survived a recent fire, appears too desolate for the amazing creatures it hosts. There I saw big, burley land iguanas in shades of brown, yellow and orange staring back at me when I stopped to look at them. A red-chested frigate bird, in full mating display, sat in a tree just a few feet from where I stood, and didn’t budge when I stopped to take a picture. It was also here that I saw 2 blue footed boobies doing their mating dance, other boobies nesting and more with white, downy chicks. One booby, sitting in her nest alongside the path, stood up to show me her egg when I walked by.
Later, on Española, the oldest and southernmost island of the Galapagos, an albatross would do the same. Another spread her great wing span as I passed by. Near the cliffs, I saw several more, high up, flying out to sea. Española was also the only place where I saw a Galapagos hawk, nesting in a distant tree, and rose and teal colored sea iguanas (who turn bright red and green in December).
May is not the month for the most spectacularly colored fish but I did see some with sparkly blue electric lights like you see on houses around Christmas, others that were peach-colored inside a magenta outline, some with blue and green fins, and black ones with yellow strips. I saw a lot of eagle rays and a few more mantas. Frequently I saw tiburones (sharks), usually white tipped reef sharks, though also some larger ones that are simply called Galapagos sharks. I didn’t ever see a hammerhead. It was the wrong season for snorkelers to run into them, though if I’d been willing to dive it’s likely I would have found hammerheads deep below the surface at Kicker Rock where I snorkeled off the coast of Isabella.
From time to time, I couldn’t see something that others were seeing because I couldn’t wear my glasses underwater. Some people who snorkel a lot get the window of their masks to match their eyeglass prescription. Several times I’d wished that I had such a mask, not least the time I almost stepped on some baby sharks camouflaged in the sand beneath me in shallow water.
In a bay off Bartolome Island I was entertained by a Galapagos penguin as it got out of the water and waddled up the cliffs. I would see another, on a rock above my head while snorkeling at Las Tunneles off Isabella island.
At a sea lion rookery on Las Tintoreras, also off Isabella, a baby was wailing. Mother sea lions have to go out to sea to fish for 3 or 4 days and leave their babies on the shore. Another mother will only care for her own pup so if a mother doesn’t come back from her fishing expedition her baby will not survive. This pup came toward us, crying for mama. She stopped her plaintive cry when she got quite close to us, and began to pose for our cameras. Mama was forgotten for the moment. Of course, we would soon leave and I hoped that mama would make it back to shore.
I had become used to encountering playful young sea lions in the water, dive bombing in front of my mask, occasionally pausing to look directly into my face while blowing bubbles as if in imitation of my snorkeling self, but this was the only time I witnessed human and sea lion interaction on land. Bull lions occasionally came barreling towards me on a beach, but I was always able to get out of their way.
Something I’d read about in travel blogs but, as an economic measure decided to forego, was having a GoPro or other underwater camera. I’d sort of wished I’d had one while snorkeling in the Caribbean, but in the Galapagos Marine Reserve I truly regretted that I didn’t. Together with amphibious shoes, gallons of sunscreen, 10 bathing suits, 15 sets of shorts and t-shirts – only 20% of which I carried in my backpack – an underwater camera is obligatorio.
Snorkeling around Isabella I saw more sea turtles, clown fish, gold, black, and purple-blue starfish, green and coral colored sea mollusks. Responding to my interest in seeing some red-footed boobies, our handsome and engaging guide, Sebastian, detoured the boat ride home to go past some cliffs full of nesting red-footed boobies. While I could clearly see birds in the distance, they could have been bed-rooted foobies for all I knew. A short while later, we were at first alarmed and then charmed as a flock of these birds came flying overhead, not far above the boat. I asked Sebastian if this was common and he told me he’d never seen anything like it before.
There are small dull-colored birds on all the islands, many of them ‘finches’, though it turns out that Darwin’s finches are not really part of the finch family at all but are now thought likely to be a kind of mockingbird.
On Española our young and newly minted guide, Domenica, who’d had to repeatedly fight, bargain and turn cartwheels to get her father to let her take the 2-year guide’s training, attracted a mocking bird by placing a glass marble in the sand. Mockingbirds are attracted to bright shiny things and came right over to inspect. Domenica then put water into the cap of her bottle for the bird to drink. There is no fresh water on the island.
All the island trips in the Galapagos are accompanied by a Galapagos National Park certified guide, a boat captain and a sailor. The guides, young to middle aged, are generally knowledgeable and personable. The boat crew are typically young and hard-working with athletic bodies in every shade of brown. The guides always speak English. The boat crew may or may not. They all come together to feed you, give you towels and snorkeling gear, frequently remind you to apply sun screen, and everybody touches you a lot. Usually I found this endearing. Occasionally not.
On the day trips there was sometimes another person around my age but I was often the old lady on board. Once in a while, someone was slower than me getting masked and into the water but generally I was the last one overboard, partly because I liked to give everyone else a chance to swim away from the boat before I jumped in.
The captain of the boat to Las Tunnelles was a beautiful young man, charcoal brown, probably little more than half my age. He handled the boat like he’d missed his calling as a race car driver. As I was fussing with my mask to make sure it was sealed tight around my face, the captain, whose unlikely name was Stalin (pronounced Stah’-teen), appeared beside me. He was gruff, but attentive, made sure the mask fit properly and held onto me perched on the ledge of the boat until I signaled I was ready to jump into the bay.
I had developed a tendency, once in the water, to drift away a little bit from the group as a result of one too many flippers in my face when I tried to stay close in. That day’s snorkel was unusual in that there wasanother group not far from us and I somehow ended up with them before realizing my own group was, by now, quite far away.
As I tried to catch up to them, making my way with difficulty through some narrow passages in the rocks, Stalin appeared again, took my hand and started running barefoot over terrain that looked to me too sharp to even stand on while I swam along attached to him like a balloon. He showed me seahorses, langoustines, and baby octopus in crevices that I never would have seen on my own. He gestured for me to stay near a sea turtle we happened upon, indicating that he would be back. Fortunately, turtles swim about as slowly as I do so I hadn’t gone far when he returned a few minutes later with a Go Pro, filmed me swimming with the turtle and steadied me as I repeatedly slipped on the rocks while trying to stand and watch the replay – all of this underwater.
I was ecstatic, exuberant as we swam back to the boat. While I was reaching for the ladder, and still underwater, Stalin took my hand again and put it where, to my mind, it had no business. I tried to pull my hand away and climb onto the boat but he held fast. I felt embarrassed for both of us as I gave him a shove and got my hand back.
Later, replaying the scene in my mind, I wondered what he thought would happen at the side of the boat that was waiting for him to continue the day’s excursion. Did he want me to know what he thought his tip should be for the day’s explorations? Was he trying to tell me he was open to some hanky-panky with this old lady? As I was pondering whether and how to write this part of the story, I had a conversation with another woman who has travelled extensively. She told me about a beach town on the east coast of Africa with a well-known “gigolo” culture. Older German women go there to pick up young Kenyans who are disenfranchised in their own country. I’m sure there are plenty of similar places around the world and maybe the Galapagos is one of them. Even if not well-known as a destination for sexual escapades, the transiency created by the tourist culture certainly generates the right environment for it.
A quick internet search of sex in the Galapagos to see if I could learn any more about this brought up several videos of tortugas and birds (no bees, though).
Crude overtures have never worked on me the way the men who use them think they should. I suppose that Stalin probably thought he had courted me royally that afternoon and it was time to get down to business. Who am I to want something more? I know I am not Katherine Hepburn, nor an African Queen. Nevertheless*.
(*Some of you will recognize this reference. For those who haven’t watched every movie Humphrey Bogart ever made, nevertheless was Katherine Hepburn’s response to the ship’s captain who told her the journey that she and Bogart had just taken in The African Queen was impossible.)
Around this time, even though in many ways I wasn’t ready to come home, I also was. The little irritants of traveling had begun to annoy me. I was becoming tired of being too tired, too hot, too cold or too seasick and the non-stop challenges of understanding another language and culture had begun to wear on me.I was feeling lonely more frequently for people who already knew me. I wanted relief from the backpack that had begun to hurt my neck and I longed to sleep again in my own bed.
In spite of all that, over my breakfast the next morning of yucca pot pie served with jugo de papaya and cafe con leche, all once again seemed well with the world.
I still had two more islands to visit before I would fly to Quito and, days later, back to the US. I went to San Cristobal primarily because it was the only island where I could get a boat to Española. As soon as I arrived in San Cristobal I learned that the engine of the boat I was supposed to take the next day was damaged and the trip was rescheduled for 3 days later when I would be leaving San Cristobal to go back to Santa Cruz. Due to a chain of events surrounding that departure, I could not change my plans without changing everything, including my non-refundable flight from Baltra back to the mainland.
In the Galapagos people often use the name of the island to refer to the main town. Even though San Cristobal’s Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the political capitol of the Islands, I never heard anyone say the name. It reminded me of small beach towns around the Mediterranean as they were when I passed through them in the 70’s, full of backpackers and hostelers.
By the way, my address there, translated from Spanish, was two story house next to vacant lot near Monseñor Hugolino Cerasuolo school.
I spent my first afternoon in town wandering around, in and out of dive shops and booking agencies, looking for a seat on another boat to Española. Boats only go on certain days and my only option was to find a seat on a boat for the next day. Lots of guys in lots of little businesses promised to get back to me. I never heard back from anyone. On San Cristobal I would find a common theme of over-promising and under-delivering, a phenomenon confirmed by Naga, a young Israeli woman I met in one of the dive shops. She was working there in exchange for diving excursions but had become disenchanted with San Cristobal and was leaving soon to try her luck on Isabella.
On the patio of the Galapagan version of a burger joint, I ate an Ecuadorian style hamburger at the only place that was open between the lunch and dinner hours. I listened to rap with a Jamaican beat while the wait staff had fun asking me que es el signifique (what does it mean) of various English expressions (eg, maybe, see you later).
The following morning, in a last ditch effort to get on a boat to Española, I left very early for the dock to see if anyone had an empty seat. Rushed, and groggy from too little sleep, I ran out of the house without my wallet and then couldn’t get back in. I’d only been given a key to my room and not to the front door. After a half hour of knocking on the door and ringing the bell, I finally thought to text Gonzalo, my airbnb host, at which point he came down to let me in.
Thinking it was too late by now, I still ran down the hill to the pier and started asking around to see if there were any boats left that were headed to Española. When it seemed that all the boats had left and I had no more options, Domenica came up to me. She had one seat on her boat. It was the last seat on the last boat out that day.
About a week before I left the Galapagos the night sky was dark and clear enough for me to see the Southern Cross for the first time. I had sporadically looked for it all over South America but there was either too much ambient light, or the night sky was too cloudy or overcast to see it. Here I stood on Isabella Island, millimeters from the Equator, with the Southern Cross above the horizon. There was a kind of peace in that and the thought came to me: “I can go home now”.
Think about how many times I have fallenSouthern Cross written by Michael Curtis / Richard Curtis / Stephen Stills
Spirits are using me, larger voices callin’
What Heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a comin’ day
So I’m sailing for tomorrow my dreams are a-dyin’
And my love is an anchor tied to you (tied with a silver chain)
I have my ship and all her flags are a-flyin’
She is all that I have left and music is her name
I listened to Southern Cross a lot as I was finishing up this dispatch. Last night, as the song ended, I left the house to go to a concert in Santa Barbara and sat behind David Crosby (who recorded Southern Cross with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash). I don’t usually accost celebrities I happen to see out and about but in this case the urge was unstoppable. I leaned over to thank him for all that his music had given me. He was very gracious.