Spring break has come to an end, but just as I hadn’t anticipated its onset, I am not lamenting its finish. It was a great time, but we’re leaving for the coast the day after tomorrow (St. Patrick’s Day!) for a few days, and then we go to the Galápagos.
I spent spring break with Eric, Teal, and Melissa (we realized later that it was the same group of four who travelled to la Mitad del Mundo together during the first weekend of our stay in Ecuador), and we arrived in Cuenca after a ten-hour-long night bus. However, due to some miscommunication with the woman from whom we bought our bus tickets, our names changed to “Brick, Chal, Vanesa, and Sbam” for the remainder of the trip (those were the names written on the tickets… although I don’t know how the woman made those mistakes since Eric spelled out everyone’s names clearly). Unsurprisingly, I was able to fall asleep quickly and feel comfortable most of the way to Cuenca, but I always manage to sit directly behind passengers who make it a point to ride with their seat completely declined, so my legs felt a bit cramped at times.
Upon arriving in Cuenca, we found a cheap hostel (and shared a room among the four of us that was no larger than my single dorm room last year in Tripp Hall) and set out to look for breakfast. Since it was Sunday, 99% of everything in the town was closed, but we eventually found a market consisting of many aisles of fresh fruit and many aisles of huge slabs of raw meat. With most stores and restaurants closed and barely anybody outside on the streets, we were able to admire the city’s tranquility and external appearance. Our hostel was just two blocks from the central plaza, which was complete with tall trees (monkey puzzle, possibly?), park benches, and a fountain, and two cathedrals sat on either side of the square. Cuenca was one of the first cities in present-day Ecuador to become controlled by the Incas (sometime around 1500, I think), and it definitely has retained its cultural heritage. Much smaller than Quito, it was very easy and enjoyable to walk around (after doing the red titi monkey study, I keep wanting to say “locomote” instead of “walk”), and the lack of air and noise pollution, the crystal-clear river (except for an occasional dead dog rotting on a protruding rock) that separates the older section of town from the newer section, and the colonial architecture and cobblestone roads made me feel like we actually were living in the 1500s.
Although all of the museums were closed, we were able to see some ruins which were part of the Museo del Banco Central. The ruins consisted of some bath houses, large ovens, and agricultural terracing, and were at the site of the actual Tomebamba excavations. We also visited another set of ruins the next day at Ingapirca, and according to my guidebook, these two sites were “the hub of the northern part of the Inca empire.” After a two-hour bus ride through the bumpiest, curviest, seasickness-inducingest path I’ve ever ridden on, we arrived at Ingapirca and had an hour and a half before the bus had to take us back. It was interesting, but I feel like I may have enjoyed it more if our guide’s words hadn’t poured out of her mouth at an ungodly rapid rate, and if she had acted like she was actually enjoying her job. The main things I learned were that the Incas worshipped the sun and the moon, trapezoidal windows and doors were used to prevent destruction from earthquakes, and Inca is sometimes spelled with a “k” (Inka). I also learned how to say pebble, boulder, and cliff in Spanish during the bus ride home, since Teal (Chal) and I were teaching each other words with a geological theme.
The food in Cuenca was exceptional. Aside from the fresh fruit and bread that we bought in the market and various panaderías for breakfast and lunch, the dinners we ate were equally amazing. The first night, we ate at an Indian restaurant where we had the whole top floor to ourselves (I’m beginning to wonder if everyone hibernates on Sundays). We were directed to a lowered table that was just about one foot off the ground, and sat on cushions surrounding it. Magenta curtains dangled from the ceiling and draped across the room, and a glass chandelier hung from the ceiling above our table. We spent almost ten minutes admiring the room before even glancing at the menu. I had forgotten how much I missed Indian food, and when it arrived at our table it was as delicious or even better than I had remembered. I ordered a type of masala with many vegetables, but we all shared each other’s food (which may have been one of the reasons both Eric and I got a cold that started that night, and that hasn’t gone away yet. Another reason could be that we shared a bed for the two nights we stayed in Cuenca). The next night we ate at a Colombian restaurant and we all ordered arepas, a type of thick tortilla topped with vegetables, meat, or a mix of both. The arepa, plus the banana shake, plus the piece of chocolate cake I ordered from a nearby French café, made for a great multicultural meal.
The next morning we left for Peru. Everything appeared to be running smoothly until we got to the actual border. Filled with bustling people, colorful tents, noisy chickens, and persistent taxis, the border seemed kind of like Otavalo but without its charm or feeling of safety. After filling out immigration forms on the Ecuadorian side, we were directed to a side street and told to enter a car, which would take us to the Peruvian immigration building. We deliberated for a while and eventually decided to get into the car since we could all stay together this way, and we did arrive at Peruvian immigration and later the town of Tumbes (the first town after the border), but we paid way more than we were supposed to (including costs for gas for the driver) and afterwards we felt as if we couldn’t trust anyone. One minute we were told the cost would be a certain amount for everyone combined, and then later we were told that the cost was individual, per person. The driver tried to make us stay in the car longer than we wanted, and kept repeating how dangerous every other form of transportation was. After getting out in Tumbes, however, we were able to find a more trustworthy van that would take us to Máncora. We had heard from guidebooks and host parents that we were supposed to take a bus from one site to another, but we never saw any bus and this car seemed to be our only hope.
We finally arrived in Máncora around 8pm, about four hours later than expected, mostly in bad moods and dreading what the rest of our Peru experience would entail. This initial disenchantment disappeared, however, after that first night. Máncora is an obvious tourist town, catered to surfers and beach-goers from throughout the country and internationally. It consisted of one main street running north to south, lined with restaurants, hostels, souvenir shops, internet cafes, and various street vending stands. Mototaxis—small three-wheeled vehicles that seemed like a mix between mopeds and bike buddies—dominated the street. After our trouble at the border, it was refreshing to have locals willing to point us in the direction of recommended hostels and restaurants. We ended up choosing a hostel that was a five-minute walk from the beach (we decided not to stay in the beachside hostel whose owner had trouble answering our questions because his eyes and mind kept drifting back to The Simpsons on his TV screen). Aside from the dog, rooster, and mosquito that kept me awake for most nights, the hostel we stayed at was comfortable and accommodating. It was also a bit unnerving to wake up every morning to discover scores (I need to use that word more often) of red, nickel-sized insect bites all over our bodies, but luckily these never developed into anything more serious than a mild itch.
Waves on the beach were perfect for body surfing, and sometimes I would roll up well into the shore, only to be carried back down by the receding water into the foam of another wave. I was expecting the beach to be more crowded, being such a tourist destination, but I guess we arrived during the off-season because the sand and water were only sparsely-populated with other people. On our last day we travelled to Punta Sal, a beach forty-five minutes to the north of Máncora, which is supposed to be the “better” beach due to it being less well-known and less touristy. However, the waves were the same, the water was still warm (it was almost not refreshing to jump in…a few degrees colder would have been prime), and the sand was still ideal for digging holes and burying people. Spending a few days at the Peruvian beaches have made me realize a few things:
-No matter how much sunscreen (SPF 50!) I apply, I will get burned. I have accepted the imminence of skin cancer, and will try not to complain too much when it happens.
-Sunsets on the beach are one of the coolest things ever.
-Sitting on the sand makes me feel lazy, and even though I read a book during spring break (a rare feat for me since I’m pretty sure my reading speed is decreasing at a negative exponential pace) I felt like my body and my strength were slowly withering away. This is one of the only spring breaks in which I haven’t gone skiing in the Rockies, and I definitely missed it.
-Being sick sucks.
-Pelicans are cool.
-Avocado sandwiches, mangoes, and bananas are great lunch foods to eat on the beach.
-I need to double check that my swimsuit is tied tightly before attempting to ride a wave.
Vanesa had heard that northern Peru was known for its mud baths, so we planned on spending one of our days at one of these exquisite exfoliation sites. After a 30-minute mototaxi ride through rough, rocky terrain, we walked for another half an hour through thigh-deep streams and arid grassland until arriving at a small rectangular hole in the ground filled with dirty bubbling water. Our initial disappointment upon trekking so far just to come to a tiny hot springs was overturned when we realized that the bottom of the “pool” was composed solely of soft mud. We spent the next couple of hours covering ourselves in the mud and letting it dry- it felt liberating to sit in the sun without fear of worsening my sunburns that day. And of course a mud fight ensued.
The return to Ecuador from Peru proved to be much easier, since we talked with our hostel owners who set us up with reliable guides and transportation. We left our hostel at 7am yesterday, and I didn’t arrive at my house in Quito until 1:30am this morning. If I felt like sitting at the beach all day constituted laziness, then sitting on a bus for seventeen hours seemed like death. I probably move more in my sleep than I did during that day of travel- I burned so little energy that I wasn’t hungry at all the entire day. After a small breakfast, I ate a couple of bananas and about three potato chips throughout the day, and didn’t feel famished at all. The most eventful happening of the day occurred in the morning, when a man entered the bus to speak (actually, more like shout) to us about the harm of modern medicine, and how herbal medicine and eating better foods could cure such maladies as cancer, diabetes, baldness, and male sexual impotence. He was shouting for about forty-five minutes nonstop, using his handkerchief to wipe away sweat after the first five minutes, and I was confused since usually people try to sell a product or ask for money when they give speeches on buses. It seemed like a Snowball-esque propaganda speech from Animal Farm. Finally he pulled boxes of Viagra-like remedies out of his suitcase to pass around.
When I returned home to Quito, it was tricky at first to fall asleep since I had been in a state of rest for the past entire day, but I was able to obtain a few hours of sleep before waking up to catch a bus with the majority of the other students in my program to travel to Cotopaxi. The last time Cotopaxi erupted was in the late 1800s, and its peak towers as the highest in Ecuador at just under 5800m. In fact, the peak is the “highest” point on earth, due to the widening of the planet at the equator. I brought my guidebook on the bus to the volcano and enjoyed reading the part that urged travelers NOT to visit Cotopaxi if they have just arrived from lowland areas, such as the coast. The book recommended staying in Quito for at least a week before attempting to visit or climb Cotopaxi in order to adjust to the altitude…so I was hoping that my seven hours spent in Quito the night before (after having spent most of the previous week at sea level) would suffice.
Although Cotopaxi’s summit revealed itself through the intense cloud cover for only a few seconds at a time, the rest of the volcano and surrounding páramo countryside was muy chévere. The bus took us up to about 4500m, and then we hiked up the steep slope to around 4900 or 5000m. It was extremely satisfying to be able to wear a winter coat and touch snow, and we had fun sledding down parts of the mountain on our backs. The altitude was clearly causing me to move very slowly- I couldn’t move more than a few inches with each step, and I began to feel slightly dizzy if I moved too far without stopping to rest. I began to think some rocks in the soil were sparkly until I realized that the sparkles were actually all in my head. However, when I wasn’t moving, I felt fine. To summit Cotopaxi we would have needed to bring more professional equipment, and we also would have needed to start the trek at 1 in the morning (when the ice is more sturdy). Climbing only a few hundred meters was exhausting, and later in the evening, after we returned to Quito, my legs felt like they had just run three cross country races in one day.
Not only is today Good Friday, but it is also Emily’s Birthday Eve, as well as the first day in almost a score of days spent in the absence of sea lions. In effect, I am filled with mixed emotions: indifference, intense anticipation, and utter desolation, respectively. However, returning to Quito had its benefits- I missed my host family and dogs, and the climate here is much more sympathetic to my fair-skinned morphology. Although I have had so many homes this past semester, I still feel rooted in Quito. And Tiputini. Also, it was refreshing to wake up to my alarm clock instead of arising to the noise of the hoarsest, most piercing and persistent rooster that exists on this planet. (Seriously…I’ve never desired to kill an animal before, but my ideology may have changed last week.) But more on that later.
According to Carla, my host sister, eating meat and bathing oneself are forbidden during Holy Week, because apparently anyone who breaks these rules will turn into fish (I’ve committed one of those offenses already today and I don’t have gills yet, but after snorkeling through reefs almost every day for the past 2.5 weeks, I wouldn’t mind becoming a cool colorful fish). My religious ignorance has caused me to never observe Good Friday as a holiday, but I had heard that a huge procession would take place in Centro Histórico today. After accidentally forcing my host siblings Carla and Nicolás and their novios to accompany me downtown (I asked if I could go with them, even though they were never initially going to go), we drove
***By the way, my breakfast this morning may quite possibly rank as the number one breakfast I’ve had in Quito: a glass of naranjilla juice and a glass of a syrupy, mouthwatering banana milkshake, topped with a layer of thick foam. Although not the largest of breakfasts, the banana drink (almost more like an ice-less smoothie) epitomized all things banana, and almost brought tears of joy to my eyes. I quickly gulped down the naranjilla juice so that I’d have more time to enjoy the divine banana ambrosia.
--to the parade site and observed the strangest procession I’ve ever seen. The annual event draws thousands of people to Quito, both to participate and to watch. After struggling to maze through the hordes of observers on the narrow side streets and sidewalks of the Centro Histórico, we eventually found an area near the curb not yet congested with people. Watching the procession on the street was interesting in a “slightly less than horrifying” type of way. Participants dressed in long purple robes and cone-shaped headdresses that covered their faces (except for two eyeholes) marched slowly in groups of about thirty, some holding candles, others with crosses or pictures of Jesus. If it weren’t for the purple, I would have been convinced that the KKK was at large in Quito, but even though I was able to maintain my composure, their headdresses and blank stares seemed to suck out some of my initial excitement. In between groups of these cucurachos (I think that’s the right word…it kind of sounds like the Spanish word for cockroach) were men dragging wooden crosses on their shoulders. For over three kilometers, these men appeared to be mimicking Jesus’ suffering as close as possible- as if the crosses weren’t heavy enough (some required four people to inch it up the street, each person with sweat pouring down his face and a look of despair in his eyes) and the carriers’ backs weren’t strained enough (their torsos were parallel with the ground, and we could see the pain in their faces), some participants had chained their feet together so that their movement was further impeded. Supposedly, those who have sinned the most over the past year try to induce higher degrees of suffering during the Good Friday procession, and indeed some people had donned actual crowns of thorns and looped barbed wire around their bodies, tight enough to draw blood. One man was crawling on his knees, so exhausted that he couldn’t move over a few feet without stopping to rest. Others laboriously lumbered up the street, every few steps whipping themselves on the back with a stinging plant. As they passed by us, their raw, red-tainted backs, polka-dotted with welts, showed evidence from continual whippings. However, not everyone in the procession appeared to suffer- the street was also interspersed with small bands playing religious melodies, veiled women singing songs of penitence, and many normally-dressed men, women, and children who were participating just to complete the 3K walk.
After watching for a little over an hour, we decided to go eat ice cream and stuff ourselves with seafood (seriously, I counted 13 plates of food on our table at one point. For five of us). Just a bit ironic.
Now onto the happenings of the past 3 weeks (some of which I am still trying to grasp in my head):
Almost three and a half weeks ago, I woke up at 4:30am to fly to Manta, a city near the coast. The great thing about all flights that we’ve taken in Ecuador is that they always serve food (even for the twenty minute flight to Coca, when we were heading to the rainforest). From Manta we chartered a bus to Alándaluz, an ecolodge near the coastal fishing town Puerto Lopez. As the bus squeezed itself through the narrow entryway to the lodge, palms and other lushly green plants greeted us, and Alándaluz would soon become one of my favorite living quarters in Ecuador. The buildings were interspersed along the beach (further inland from the sand, but not so far that we couldn’t see or hear the waves), allowing space for gardens of various beach plants between the connecting boardwalks. The bamboo buildings complemented the landscape, looking completely natural next to the palms that towered above; some of the rooms jutted out from tree trunks or under branches, appearing as giant tree houses. We students, however, camped in tents outside the lodges (I’m still not sure why we camped on the hard dirt ground instead of the soft sandy beach which was about a ten second walk away). Overall, Alándaluz exuded a feeling of modern primitiveness (that makes no sense), and it is a place I will definitely visit when I return to Ecuador (not sure when that will be). Most importantly, the lodge owned a ping pong table, and I enjoyed learning first-hand that playing table tennis can actually provide a workout. For a couple of hours one night, I busied myself playing against another student, our bus driver (who I could swear holds the rank of Ecuador’s National Champion), and another lodge patron (who was dripping with sweat and begging for mercy after our match…just kidding).
Actually, the most important feature of Alándaluz was the beach itself. Previously, I had never considered myself a beach person- I’m not a big fan of heat, and they make me feel lazy. After a walk along the beach with our professors, however, my attitude toward beaches began to change and I now cherish a new appreciation and awe for both sandy and rocky coastlines. The diversity of life that beaches support and each organism’s adaptations to the stressful beach environment have caused me to respect beaches and coastlines as unique ecosystems. Each plant has a unique survival method to help cope with rooting problems, excessive sun exposure, and salt. Wandering through sandy shores and clambering along rocky intertidal zones, I was impressed with the amounts of snails, crabs, polychaete worms, barnacles, limpets, and anemones that colonized the areas, and regretted being so unobservant prior to this trip. Life is everywhere. The first night at the lodge, I sat on the sand under sky laden with thousands of stars, inhaling the warm salty sea breeze, watching the ghost crabs scuttling and foraging along the coastline, and listening to the cyclical ebb and flow of waves softly pushing themselves into the shore before the crabs chased them back. I felt guilty for thinking so negatively about beaches before.
During our three-day stay at Alándaluz, we visited many nearby beaches to explore their intertidal zones. The rocky intertidal zones at Montañita and Los Piqueros de Patas Azules proved exciting because at low tide, a rogue wave would appear every so often, causing jets of water to suddenly spray upward from the cracks between rocks. We sometimes left these sites nearly as wet as when we would leave beaches after a day of swimming. Among other sites we visited included Machalilla National Park, a dry forest adjacent to a sandy beach, and the Puerto Lopez fish market. After learning about the plight of fishery conservation in a lecture the previous day, wandering around the fish market seemed a bit disheartening. A few sharks were lined up along the shore as bycatch, but they were valuable nonetheless. In no more than thirty seconds, we watched in awe as a fisherman gutted one of the sharks in its entirety. One of the thresher sharks was pregnant, and sadly a few unborn sharks were found inside. Most of the world’s fisheries are unsustainable, and even in a small town like Puerto Lopez it was difficult to imagine how the community would be affected once fish levels decrease so much as to make them impossible to find. So many of the town’s inhabitants depend on fishing as their livelihoods, yet at the rate that fish are being taken out of the ocean, these men will be jobless relatively soon.
Back at Alándaluz, our time was usually occupied with less demoralizing activities. Aside from sitting on the beach at night or playing volleyball or ping pong, one night was spent trying to exorcize a botfly from Christine. Mosquitoes act as vectors for botfly eggs, and Christine must have gotten bitten by one during our stay in Lalo Loor because they generally develop into large enough larvae to notice in about four weeks (Eric, AKA Brick, also had two botflies, which he named Winston and Taña, but he refused to try to extract them until a few days ago, when he decided it was time for Taña to leave. He is still enjoying a coexistent friendship with Winston, who is slowly eating his leg). Botflies establish themselves by hatching on the skin and burrowing inside as a maggot covered in tiny backwards-pointing spines which allow penetration but not extraction. So, before the maggot pupates it must be killed in order for it to lose its spines (so that it can be squeezed out of the skin). For a good two hours one night, some students and Cath smoked a total of seventeen cigarettes and blew the smoke onto Christine’s leg, sometimes focusing the airstream with a straw, trying to smoke the botfly to death (apparently, this technique worked with only five cigarettes on a student in last year’s program). However, Christine’s maggot was a tough one, and refused to die. Even with four people squeezing on every side of the wound, it wouldn’t budge. So, after coating the mosquito bite with nail polish remover and then applying duct tape for a day in order to suffocate it, we determined that the botfly had died, but it was un-removable because it had broken into a few pieces during the squeezing episode the night before. Unfortunately for Christine, the remains may have to be surgically removed when she returns to the U.S. to prevent infection.
After three nights at the ecolodge, we bussed south to Guayaquil, where we stayed in a friendly hostel near the airport, but removed from the crowded dangerous mass of people and buildings that make up the center of city. Murders are not uncommon and theft is frequent, and most Ecuadorians who don’t live in Guayaquil hate it. However, judging from our hostel (Hostal Iguanazú) and the one-block radius around it that I observed, it seemed pleasant enough to spend a couple of nights. The hostel was actually very enjoyable and if I ever return to Guayaquil, I wouldn’t risk going anywhere else. Complete with a ping pong table and a pool, Iguanazú gave us no qualms about staying inside both nights. After riveting rounds of the Animal Game (which consisted of jumping off a short rock overhang into the pool and acting out an animal called out by someone in the pool…eventually less animal-like nouns were shouted out, such as “slice of pie” and “Fourth of July”) and Jenga, we watched Sweeney Todd and Babel, the latter of which I will add to my top five favorite movies. A very thought-provoking film, it enhanced my slight scorn for American tourists, and Americans in general. In such problematic situations that straddle national borders, it is impossible to place the blame on any one person, yet Americans are quick to identify themselves as the main victims, and efforts to solve the problems seem to place too much importance on the U.S.
The first morning after we arrived at the hostel, we took a bus to La Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, a mangrove reserve. Our guides were local Ecuadorians who were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, eager to answer any questions we had. In general, ecotourism guides here seem to be friendlier than guides in any other field (such as that guide who gave us a halfhearted tour of Ingapirca, outside of Cuenca). Along the river in the reserve, prop roots and pneumatophores—pencil-like roots of black mangroves that stick out of the ground—lined the coast, and even though I had never experienced a mangrove ecosystem, I was expecting even larger, more tangled thickets of roots. Mangroves are definitely interesting to learn about because of their ecological and economical implications, and I will admit for the first time this semester that learning about them in lecture was more interesting than seeing and experiencing them (by the way, lectures in Ecuador are different in so many ways from lectures in Madison. I’ve felt drowsy a couple of times here, but I haven’t fallen asleep once during class [whereas in Madison, I’d feel accomplished if I went a day without falling asleep in a lecture]. A note was passed around during a fish lecture here that described some differences between class disruptions in the two countries: in Madison, class would occasionally be disrupted by fire alarms, power outages, or bad weather, whereas in Ecuador class has been disrupted by monkeys, geckos, sunsets, and not power outages [after a two second pause when the power went out in Alándaluz, Joe shone a flashlight on the whiteboard and Cath continued her lecture as if nothing happened]).
Perhaps the tour dragged on because of my position in the back of the canoe near the motor, where I couldn’t hear the guide or Cath speaking. To assuage our boredom, my bench partner (Jamie Rose) and I played Categories with the theme of transportation. We spent the rest of the canoe ride, as well as the bus ride back to our hostel, coming up with any type of method to transport a human from one location to another, and we’re pretty sure we mentioned all of them. Some of the best include pole vaulting, riding a shopping cart, barhopping, an explosive volcano, snowballing, and plate tectonics.
The following day, we left for the Galápagos. What a great place. Just like with Tiputini, the islands are 100 times more amazing than any way I try to describe them. Although the morning began terribly (the cereal ran out at Iguanazú, and the cheesecake at the airport tasted rubbery), anticipation of our proximate destination filled our minds with nothing but excitement. As our plane descended to land, the bright blue ocean contrasted heavily with the dark orange barren land of Baltra Island, which the U.S. used as an air base during WWII. Almost completely opposite from the rainforest, black lava rocks and desert-like soil covered the arid land in the Galápagos. Upon exiting the plane, I immediately noticed the higher intensity of heat from the sun, roasting my face and beckoning for me to wear a hat.
As we descended the steps on the bay to a dinghy, which would take us to our tour boat, two sea lions and an iguana lazily lounging on a bench greeted us. As I recall this image, it seems funny how amazed we were at this sight (no one wanted to get into the dinghy and leave these animals behind. We fervently took photos, as if we would never see a sea lion again), since we would see literally hundreds of these animals over the next weeks.
Once on our boat (the Guantanamera, but half of the students were on the Eden), we realized that it was a first-class yacht and couldn’t wait for the week-long tour of the islands to begin. Aside from the bed-sized rooms, life in the yacht made me feel aristocratic, as it was definitely catered to wealthy old whites. Welcome cocktails were handed to everyone later that night, our towels and bathroom cloths were washed and folded (sometimes into animal or landscape forms) every day, and the bartender laid out intricate hors d’voeurs (how do you spell that?) on top of garnish-laden silver plates every morning and afternoon. However, we made sure to discourage ourselves from turning into these rich American stereotypes by frequently taking naps on the floor of the upper deck (even though lounge chairs and our beds sat nearby), playing the Animal Game off of the decks on the boat, and refusing to sleep in our air-conditioned cabins (sleeping outside under the stars was much more enjoyable) or shower much (after all, trillions of gallons of saltwater surrounded the yacht).
Our guide first took us to Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. As my brother Jeff had warned, wildlife flourished everywhere on the islands. Just as an insect occupied almost every leaf at Tiputini, every rock in the Galápagos contained an animal. Bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs and the black juveniles scurried and jumped from rock to rock, hiding in tiny crevasses whenever one of us would approach. Black, scaly marine iguanas lounged on any open rocks, taking in the sun and occasionally slipping into the water to feed on algae. Smaller lava lizards scampered across the sand and rocks, further inland than the iguanas, and so abundant that I feared stepping on them if I didn’t place my feet carefully. Seabirds stood still on the rocks or trotted along the waterline along the beach, occasionally poking their bills into the sand whenever they found something tasty. And the sea lions deserve their own paragraph.
Many beaches (probably the majority) in the Galápagos were coated with colonies of sea lions, consisting of a beach master and his harem (and many juveniles, too). As gray or dark brown bulges of blubber, they would bask in the sunlight with their eyes closed and whiskers pressed against their cheeks, almost always in contact with others in their colony. Every once in a while, they would lift up their head and lazily look around, checking out the rest of their neighbors, and emit a noise that sounded like a mix between a deep growl, a bark, and a belch (when the infants and juveniles vocalized, it sounded more like a lamb bleating). Often the sea lions would lean on their front flippers and stick out their chests (the seal stretch!), and either sit still and look smug, or appear to test the flexibility of their necks by rolling them backwards until the tops of their heads touched their backs. Sea lions are perhaps the most awkward creatures to watch on land- after returning from a hunt in the ocean, they would scramble out of the water and seem to inchworm (more like “meterworm”) themselves to their destination, usually trampling over any who were sprawled in the sand in their way (the trampled ones would sometimes raise their head and produce an irritated bark, then promptly return to the same position and continue resting). They would clamber over jagged rocks on the shoreline, wiggling their entire bodies and using their front flippers to stretch and grasp rocks ahead, and waddle their hind flippers forward until their backs curved (the cat stretch!) before moving forward again.
However, when sea lions entered the water they became different animals, filled with acrobatic grace and agility. They soared through the water with slight undulations, flipping and spinning, and sometimes jumping out of the water and immediately diving back in without a splash. Their sideways-balloon-shaped heads and long, rounded muzzles, combined with their lazy yet regal attitudes on the beach, combined with their extremely playful, curious personalities in the water make me believe that they are related to dogs. It was difficult to restrain myself from scratching one behind its ears (we had to maintain a distance of 2m from all wildlife on the islands, but we often infringed on this restriction, and often the sea lions would approach us). Snorkelling with the sea lions will remain as one of my favorite memories of my study abroad experience, as they often inquisitively approached us with the clear intention of playing. Sometimes they would propel themselves straight at me, and right before collision they would dart to either side or dive below. When we would mimic their actions by diving down and performing flips, or swimming upside down, they became even more excited and performed more flips and twirls underwater (by the way, only the females and juveniles were “playable”- if I saw a male swimming directly at me, I would probably pee my pants—which wouldn’t be noticeable in the ocean—and try to sprint for shore, since they are humongous and territorial). Often, a small group of sea lions would follow our class around as we performed marine field activities.
Aside from sea lions, numerous colorful fish and marine invertebrates also entertained us while snorkeling. I had never been a big fan of fishing (I opted to continue reading a book and eat grapes instead of help my dad and brother reel in a monster musky when I was a wee little boy), and although I still prefer most other activities to fishing, snorkeling with the fish was truly eye-opening. I’m pretty sure that some boasted colors that I didn’t know even existed, some so bright that they appeared electrically activated. Light penetration often affected the perceived color of many organisms- a sea star on the bottom of the ocean floor looked black until we brought it to the surface, where its body was actually crimson with white dots (red light cannot penetrate very far after touching the surface of the water). Too bad my camera wasn’t waterproof. After just two days in the islands, we made species lists of everything we had seen and it was well over two pages. Swimming with white-tipped reef sharks and golden cownose rays was a grounding experience, as both are enormous and beautiful creatures. I was disappointed not to see any hammerheads, though, so I bought a T-shirt with one on it instead.
But back to Bachas. Interspersed with thickets of tiny crushed shells and exoskeletons, the sand felt floury beneath my feet and pleasantly warm. Looking out to sea, either from the beach or from the Guantanamera, something continually caught my eye- boobies dive-bombing the water, flying fish skimming the surface, pelicans floating on the waves, sea lions hunting/playing/dancing elegantly, pufferfish blankly drifting about, frigatebirds riding the air waves from the boat just three meters above. That evening, we anchored in a channel between two small islands, both basically untouched by humans since their creation five million years ago. We were seeing what Darwin saw.
In all, our tour introduced us to ten islands of the archipelago, each surprisingly starkly different from the others. The landscape color varied among islands (green sand, orange clay, black lava rocks) as did the vegetation and animal life. Large prickly pear trees with their fat brown trunks and wide, rounded pads dotted the blood-colored Sesuvium-rich Plazas Island, while green sand lined with black mangroves blanketed the otherwise rocky cliffs of Floreana Island. As with other environments I’ve visited this semester, many of these islands appeared to have the potential to host dinosaur life- often, I would eagerly glance up from my field notebook and hope to see a pterodactyl soaring above with the frigates, or groups of raptors trotting through the prickly pears. While looking for pterodactyls, I had to be careful not to step on any organism- the creatures have virtually no fear of humans, since there has been no need for fear. Conservation efforts have been protecting life on the islands for about fifty years, and even before then human contact has been minimal. People are only allowed to walk on clearly marked trails, and each time we re-entered our tour boat, we had to wash our sandals/shoes in order to prevent the spread of sand/seeds/invasive species between islands. These strict policies contrasted greatly with Tiputini, where I think I spent more time off-trail than on (after all, titi monkeys don’t observe human trail systems, so why should I?).
A note on boat life- waves kept the boat rocking almost continually, so self-stability became an issue, especially when walking through the open, uncluttered upper deck where only chairs and tables could break a fall. While trying to walk from one side of the boat to the other, everyone appeared to be walking exactly like Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean. A couple normal, forward steps would all of the sudden be followed by a slow sideways step, then a few short and fast backwards steps. Even on land, we could still feel the swelling of the ocean, and often had trouble balancing motionless on two feet. By the end of the week, we had become so accustomed to this swaying motion that we felt awkward on land, like turtles on their backs. Boat life did allow us to bond as a group, however.Our boat became “the pirate ship,” and consequently we each had a pirate name (mine was Bootleg Thirds, since I apparently return to the food counter to receive third helpings very often), while the other boat became “the billionaire yacht.” A couple of nights into the cruise, the boats converged for a party, and without planning, members on each boat dressed up as their namesakes.
As the number of days in the boat drew to an end, the sites increased in coolness. Bartolomé Island provided some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen, with its volcanic slopes and craters, and its towering, stark rocky outcropping. Genovesa Island used to be the top of a volcano until the sides collapsed, so now it is a horseshoe-shaped island with steep rocky slopes and very deep water in the middle (along with a family of dolphins). At Rábida we swam with White-tipped Reef sharks.
Our week of boat life (which felt more like a month, since we had experienced so much of the Galápagos) finally came to an end, and our homestays on San Cristóbal Island were about to begin. After three boat rides and four bus rides, we arrived at GAIAS, the university formed by USFQ. With beaches enclosing the town and the rest of the island from all sides, San Cristóbal exuded a feeling of tranquility unmatched by any of the other islands. In general, the island’s inhabitants were kinder and led simpler lives than people from the mainland. I immediately felt more comfortable with my Galápagos host family (consisting of a mom, dad, an 11-year-old sister, and two sharpies [correct spelling?]) at a much faster rate than I was able to become comfortable with my Quito family. For example, during the second night on San Cristóbal, I arrived to the dinner table shirtless without feeling any embarrassment (partially because of the heat, and partially because my host mom had taken all of my laundry the day before and left me with only my swimming suit [unfortunately it rained for the next 4 days after my clothes were taken, so I could only wear my swimming suit during that time]), whereas in Quito, I still feel like I should be fully-dressed and wear shoes and socks to every meal.
Crime rate is clearly low on an island of such small size, and my host mom told me that she always keeps the door to the house unlocked. At first, I was concerned when I saw runners out at night, but then I realized how incredibly safe the island was. Walking home from GAIAS (about 20 minutes) at night without any safety concerns felt refreshing. Speaking of running, I finally found a low-altitude area to run. Although I had to wake up early enough for the temperature to be cool enough to run (there was no such temperature), the low altitude made my lungs feel enormous- no longer did I have to inch my way up hills and gasp for breath at the top. However, the diminutive size of the island prevented me from finding any new routes after the first two days.
After a week without lectures on the pirate ship (we did learn how to identify fish, though), the learning began en masse at GAIAS. With our research projects and one to two 2-hour lectures every day, we barely had any free time. Unfortunately, that meant that I only saw my host family for one or two hours every night at dinnertime. However, the marine biology and conservation lectures were extremely interesting, and my research project (we studied the effect of wave exposure on urchin spine length) allowed me to snorkel every day (although, one of our snorkeling sites was also the site of the sewage pipeline, which apparently had a leak during our data collection times. The water did seem a bit mucky). During our first time snorkeling in the other, “cleaner” site, I felt a lump in my pocket about two minutes after hopping in, and with horror pulled out the Ziploc bag that held my camera. Unfortunately the bag contained a hole. I spent the next week trying to dry out the camera as much as possible by leaving it under a light bulb and covering it with rice, but the damage was too great and it no longer works. At least the memory card still works, though, so the pictures from the boat tour were salvaged. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt stupider in my entire life.
One of my favorite parts of the island was the panadería a few blocks down the hill from my house. With fresh, sweet bread baked daily, the panadería beckoned me to stop there every night. Eventually, the owner began to expect Dave and I (the other student who shared a room with me in the house), and invited us into his home to see his humongous collection of Emelec (Guayaquil’s soccer team) paraphernalia. A true fútbol fan, he had his favorite team’s name inscribed on his gold-plated teeth, and every square inch of his house was covered with Emelec T-shirts, posters, mugs, or even beer cans. Everyone on the island knows of him, and he has hence adopted the name “Emelec.” Dave and I were definitely his most valuable customers that week.
One of my least favorite parts of the island was the roosters with altered biological clocks. We could never sleep past 6am without being woken up by quite possibly the most annoying noise ever, and sometimes we were woken up as early as 3am. One night, a rooster who seemed to be two inches outside our window decided it would be a good idea to blast his vocal cords at 9pm.
Just as we had a free day after the exam at Tiputini, we had an extra, stress-less day in San Cristóbal in which Joe and Cath took us snorkeling at León Dormido, a huge rocky cliff structure about an hour off the coast of the island. Hands-down the best snorkeling we had experienced. The vertical cliff dropped straight down into the water, and was covered by corals of every color. Fish abundance was not as high as in previous sites, but the fish complemented the radiance of the underwater rock walls. Hopefully I will be able to return to the Galápagos someday, and visiting San Cristóbal and León Dormido will be my priority