Thanks for visiting, even though I haven’t posted in a while. I skyped my parents Monday, but everyone else may be assuming that I died in a brawl with a rabid sea lion, faced death on a jungle mountainside, or got kidnapped by an insane taxi driver in the middle of the night. Some of which have an element of truth, but I’m still alive.
I ran into a random guy at Tortuga Bay on Tuesday a week-and-a-half ago. He wasn’t actually random, but he was sitting in the shade, wearing a park ranger uniform, so I didn’t recognize him.
Tortuga Bay is the nicest place in the Galapagos. The fine white beach feels like sugar between your toes, and gently lapping waves wash-over tracks left by the iguanas and tortoises, leaving a pristine expanse of soft warm sand. The random guy was sitting beneath some mangrove trees that overlooked the beach. He recognized us. “Hoy dia jugamos”, he told us. “A las siete.”
It clicked. Seven o’clock! I was down.
We showed up and he wasn’t there. I wasn’t surprised–something else must have come up. Plans like these are very much flexible and tentative in Ecuador. There were other guys to play with, so we started a game anyway. I never expected to play basketball in the Galapagos, much less a game more fun than I have ever played before. When I think of the Galapagos, I picture tortoises, sharks, exotic birds. Not basketball. Expectations aside, I have learned from my travels that some bonds are universal, and competition is among the strongest. As I write, I think of the Kenyan kids I would play futbol with every evening in Lela until the big red sun sun sank below the horizon. I think of the game I played in Canoa until my feet blistered. I remember kicking a ball around the town square at midnight in Mindo with some little kids we had just met. Or playing Ecua Volley with other students from around the world during lunch at school. I recall the victorious shouts–“gooooooooal”–and the blast of deflation after missed shots. The fist bumps, high fives, and grins that refuse to abide by cultural barriers.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. You are reading this now and thinking, I was imagining a natural paradise. I was thinking the same thing when I arrived on the sweltering islands, and as we stared at the scenery–noses pressed to the window–on our ride to town. Natural paradise on my mind as I headed for bed, but I glanced out the window and under the streetlights I saw some kids playing basketball. I couldn’t resist.
At first it must have seemed odd to them–a gringo asking to play–but after the first shot swished through the hoop, all differences were aside. The celebratory fist bumps, despair of defeat, and the exhaustion could not discriminate a gringo from an ecuadorian.
Do not worry if you heard of The Galapagos and dreamed of something other than basketball. Tourism industries are always selling stereotypes and exaggerations. The Wallowa Mountains of Oregon become The Alps of America. A temple atop a hill become The Machu Picchu of Ecuador. The list goes on, but The Galapagos is not on it. What you imagined is entirely true–the rare case when reality is better than anything you could make up. Over the next week we snorkeled with penguins and colorful fish. We walked on white sand beaches and befriended archaic two-hundred-year-old tortoises. The Galapagos really are a natural paradise.
Our first excursion was a two-hour ride aboard a Yacht, La Española. We basked in the warm sun, watching legions of albatrosses and tropicbirds sail past, dancing over the sparkling azure seas. At Isla Barolome we climbed a small volcano to see the most gorgeous view in the archipelago. Then we snorkeled with sea turtles and played with sea lions, among schools of colorful fish in the warm shallows of a bay.
I never thought of cactus as cute before, but now I do:
The next day we trekked to Tortuga Bay–the prettiest beach in Ecuador. We swam around a lagoon with friendly sharks, sea turtles and Blue-footed Boobies. Colorful Iguanas basked on rocks while Darwin’s finches fluttered down to the lower branches of a mangrove tree to check me out and land on my head. There was something transfixing about watching the waves crash on the rocks, and wash upon the shore.
Day three involved our only disappointment of the trip, a terrible boat ride to Isla Isabella aboard a stuffy boat. Infamous now, to us at least, “The Gaby” might be the most hated boat in all of Ecuador. Most of us survived without throwing up, but the scariest part came two days later when Gaby herself appeared demanding to know why we had chartered a different boat the next day. “Don’t you like the Gaby? What’s wrong with my boat, caballeros?!?”
Isla Isabella itself, however, is another paradise:
We camped in the woods for a relaxing night. After others went to bed, I stayed up around the campfire talking with an Ecuadorian.
We left the camp behind in the morning, headed to the Sierra Negra Highlands for some hiking around a giant caldera. It is the world’s second largest active crater; areas are still steaming. Our hike took us through mist-laden cloud-forests, lava fields, and lush hillsides.
After returning to Isla Santa Cruz, we tour Isla Floreana for a day. Thank goodness the boat was better than The Gaby. Here we learned about mutinous pirates, endemic birds, and volcanic eruptions that do, or once did, grace the island.
We made the most of our last day. The night before had been a late one. After dinner of fresh seafood (fish, lobster, shrimp, and fish sums up the Galapagueño diet), we headed to the muelle–the public pier–to watch nocturnal sea creatures. Pier lights cast bright florescence into the clear water, illuminating bizarre nocturnal creatures. For an hour we watched. Schools of minnows darted back and forth in amazing synchronicity, parting for giant fish and scattering before a white-tipped shark slunk through. Out of the darkness a giant shadow appeared, flapping slowly. The creature was black, spotted above, with wings spreading ten feet across like a spaceship. It was a massive ray, out of the past, floating by and back into the darkness.
Our last morning started at the dock again, and it seemed like another world yet equally mesmerizing. We watched the sun rise.
Our last morning was one to remember. We ran out to Tortuga Bay at first light, for a final swim off the beach and to watch the ancient tortoises for the last time.
The Galapagos are known for provoking great revelations: By the powerful Incas who were said to have visited. By the legendary Charles Darwin aboard the SS Beagle. By scientists, journalists, and writers who come for inspiration.
I had my own revelations. Pondering two-hundred-year-old tortoises. Observing animals. And playing basketball under the streetlights.