Friday, March 30, 2007

Orientation




My Spanish teacher, Oscar, didn’t have time to prepare my lesson for this morning, having stayed up too late for the comedy club performance. So rather than reschedule the lesson, we decided to have a mobile lesson.

He started out by showing me the Montsenor, the café district, where locals like to go out for a couple of coffee. We stopped by an Italian café for a morning drink and pastry. While there, I saw a Mennonite man walk by, dressed in dark navy, neat overalls and a straw hat.

Oscar told me there are Mennonites here from the United States, Mexico, Germany and Canada. I asked about their relations with the local population.

“They used to be very closed and kept themselves separate,” he said. “They couldn’t marry Bolivians. But now there are two types. The conservatives continue as before. The revelados can marry Bolivians. They still maintain the clothing, but the spouse doesn’t have to.”

He also told me about some Japanese colonies near Santa Cruz, where almost the entire population is Japanese. His sister married one of these Japanese men. I’d like to visit one of the villages, as a Japanese world in the middle of Bolivia sounds pretty surreal to me.

We drove around town and Oscar helped me to orient myself a bit more. Santa Cruz is divided into rings. Ring 2 wraps around the center, ring three around ring two, and so on. Each ring is divided into different neighborhoods.

He told me that my neighborhood is called Equipetrol, which is known as a wealthy area. It was the first wealthy barrio in Santa Cruz. Now it’s known as a popular street hangout for young people. On Thursday through Saturday nights, they park trucks along the road and drink beer, blasting music from oversized speakers. It’s the kind of low-cost, 1980s, means of meeting other young people that I saw around the Minneapolis lakes growing up.

We drove across the Pirai river, which separates las Colinas del Urubo, the very wealthiest part of Santa Cruz, from the rest of town. Brown water flowed only through a very narrow part of the wide, brown bed. Oscar said that from December to February, it rained daily and the river was swollen. But now they are expecting a drought to follow and the water has largely dried up.

From the bridge, we could see the fancy white homes with red tiles of Urubo. I asked who lived there and Oscar said mostly owners or employees of petroleum and gas companies, cattle owners and large farmers.

We saw some residents biking on quality mountain bikes and a group of young people driving an open-air 4-wheel vehicle, for the fun of it.

“There are very large class differences here,” Oscar said. “We have both very rich and very poor.”

As we drove down the streets lined by the large-leaved chapeo tree and mango trees, Oscar pointed out to me a few of his favorite restaurants. Then we stopped by the zoo. The zoo has quite a good collection of tropical birds – 150 species and almost 1000 birds. Though the conditions for many are very side – small, square wire cages.

The macaws – the endangered blue-throated macaw, and the rainbow colored scarlet macaw, among others – screeched around us. Their sound couldn’t be contained in the little cages. They needed the vast expanse of a dense jungle to call across and to drown their desperate sounds.

I had to remember that while Santa Cruz is a sunny, plains town, we are actually quite close to the Amazon. Some of the animals were saw were purely fantastic, as though they’d come from a unique world of their own.

The quiet, black and white toucans, with huge, bright yellow beaks, tinged with red, were so perfectly groomed as to appear fake. The harpy eagle looked like a combination of an owl and an eagle, with huge claws of spun golden-brown threads. The Andean Condor was a larger than life-size bird in the vulture family. And my favorite of all was the sloth, a freaky looking creature with a small head, a runted tail, and long arms with strong, curved claws. It looks like a very primitive ape, or an ancient antecedent to the human. Due to its snail’s pace of movement, it was allowed to roam freely on the zoo grounds. Watching this creature move, one slow stretch at a time, disgusting and beautiful and captivating all at once, was the most fascinating thing I’ve seen in Santa Cruz so far.

In the evening, we ate at one of the nicest restaurants in Santa Cruz, el Candelabro. A combination French-sushi-piano bar place, we ate on finely covered tables by candlelight. This was a place where one could feast on gazpacho, grilled seafood, and chocolate cheesecake, the entrees served under platters that resembled medieval caps of armor. A group of waiters gathered around the table to reveal the entrees to the diners all at once, so there could be a collective exhale of awe. Again, not a scene I expected to encounter in Bolivia.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

a day in the life




I spent the first part of the day in a busy, lower-income part of the city called Ramada. The office was surrounded by small shops – selling stationary, glass display cases, party supplies, snacks. Buses, taxis and cars filled the street in a noisy congestion. At 9 in the morning, one man sold cups of red gelatin through the windows of the micro buses to passengers.

The clientele was varied. In contrast to the areas I’ve been spending time so far, here I saw women with dark, lined faces and long black braids, dressed in pleated skirts and aprons. They sat next to a white man and a Hispanic woman, a couple, applying for a debit card. A little girl sat the desk with her mother. Her tiny face so pensive and patient, I felt I could almost see her mind developing.

The staff were young, professional and seemed comfortable and capable. But the air smelt of flour and sex, of the dust of life that collected on the customer’s clothing.

I spent the day with Vanessa, an experienced customer service representative. She had a glamorous photo of herself copied across her computer screen, in 15 repetitions.

Despite what seemed to be an unusually strong interest in herself, she interacted well with the various clients. One middle aged woman came in looking for funding to get a refrigeration storage space at the slaughterhouse where she works. This simple woman carried a cell phone, a sign of the increased access the poor have to technology. She told me she sells trip, heart, and cattle innards.

“Before, we used to give those things away,” she said. “But in the past 30 years, they have become popular.” She works in the largest slaughterhouse in Santa Cruz, the same one that supplies meat for Burger King hamburgers.

“Yes,” Vanessa concurred. “Those parts are really delicious. We’ll have to invite you to try some.”

I feel the strong emphasis on meat here, which makes me feel like I’m in a cowboy-like atmosphere. The love of meat is really no different than in Siberia or in Kyrgyzstan. However, there seem to be less vegetables available here. Inside of the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad served in Kyrgyzstan, here the meat usually comes with potatoes, dehydrated potatoes, and rice – a huge carbohydrate collection. Even the beans, the nice source of fiber so common in other parts of central and south America, are virtually absent here.

I think there are vegetables available in the market. But since I don’t have access to a kitchen, I eat all my meals out. I usually balance it with a full lunch (since that is the main meal of the day here) and a chef salad or soup in the evening from my hotel.

Vanessa took me with her to lunch at a local café. We watched the local news on television. The 309 passengers on the LAB flight to Spain that had still not departed were rioting at the Santa Cruz airport. They were originally told that LAB couldn’t find the funds for jet fuel. Three LAB managers were brought to jail for corruption for diverting the funds collected for this flight. In the meantime, the passengers, stuck at the airport, were going to miss the April 1st deadline for entering Spain without a visa.

A former Miss Bolivia (a single mother of an 11 month old daughter) was arrested for trafficking cocaine and was said to be an addict. And a car accident resulted in two serious injuries. The TV camera showed one of the men being removed from the car, his face streaming blood.

“Poor guy,” Vanessa said.

I instinctively turned my face away from the TV. “How can they show that on TV?” I asked. “How would you feel if you were dying and the world watched.”

“They don’t follow the laws,” she said. But then went on to tell me how she watched the entire video of Americans being beheaded in Afghanistan a few years ago. “It’s quite a process,” she said. “And the sounds they make, it’s just awful. They take a knife and slice all the way through the head, then they put the head on the stomach of the victim.”

“Didn’t you have nightmares after watching that?” I asked. I myself found the still photos just before death, knowing what would happen imminently, disturbing enough.

“No, but I had a real headache, from the extent of the cruelty,” she said.

Vanessa is one of 8 daughters in a family with 8,000 hectares of land. She hates the current government.

“It’s a socialist government that wants everything under its control,” she said. “It’s the worst that could have happened to our country. He wants to get rid of the rich.”

Her dream is to inherit her father’s land, raise cattle and grow the cattle feed. “I don’t make much in the bank,” she said. “But I’m working in order to learn, so that someday I can establish something for myself.”

**

Most employees here have two hour lunch breaks, and the majority go home. The importance of family is clear and I think it works out to be a very nice schedule to allow people to balance work and family. They go to work or school for a few hours in the morning, spend a quality lunchtime together, then go back for several more hours, and then have the evening together. In this way, I think people are more refreshed for the two periods of time they spend at work, and since they are able to see their families throughout the day – in the morning, afternoon, and evening, as well as weekends, there is less conflict in balancing work with family, even with only 3 weeks annual vacation.

In the late afternoon, most employees provide their workers with a snack. The day before yesterday, they brought me a square of yucca with some slivers of meat. Yesterday it was a yogurt and a small package of cookies. This is another tradition that makes the work day pass with more ease and comfort.

I suppose it’s still a matter of learning the local products, but I’m glad to be eating out so much now. Because what I’ve seen in the small supermarket near my hotel and the stalls I’ve gone by, doesn’t appeal to me at all. There are the standard junk-food products – the sodas, the Pringles, and the candies. Chocolate cereal flakes seem to be common as is gelatin. Then there are the local products – the fried plantains that are so greasy they are almost see through, the yogurt in weak packaging that somehow scares me, the juice made from mystery fruits and questionable hygiene, the fried empanadas with a mystery surprise inside. They seem to like sweets, and there are a lot of rolls and cookies, but those I’ve tried so far are pretty dry and not very sweet.

While none of the groceries appeal to me particularly, I do like the entrees they are able to prepare from them. One afternoon, I had lunch with some colleagues at a popular local restaurant, La Casa de la Camba. There, a man dressed in white and wearing a sombrero directed our car into the parking space. And all the servers were similarly dressed in the style of horsemen from the pampas. There we had fried yucca with a tasty, green hot sauce, greasy rice with duck and plantain, chicken, beef and rice with milk and cheese (like rice pudding, but without the sugar).

**

I learned quite a bit more about the city and the country where I’m living. Bolivia is divided into nine departments, the equivalent of states and Santa Cruz is one of these. The rainy season, which continues through April, has been strong this year and a department to the north, Beni, suffered serious floods. During the rainy season, the countryside fills with water, roads are ruined, and entire areas become very difficult to access. The rumor is that this year, the combination of El Nino and La Nina will bring drought after the rain, so farmers are collecting water in tanks and the city of Santa Cruz is relying on its wells.

Bolivia used to be driven by mining. But the main industries in Santa Cruz today are wood, petroleum, agriculture and cattle. There is also a large hill full of iron being exploited by an Indian enterprise, Jindu. It is the most expensive city in Bolivia and the most dangerous. Cochabamba had been developing into the eastern capital of Bolivia, but due to constant political problems and protests, companies started to move to Santa Cruz instead. At the same time, many people migrated to the area for the fertile soil.

“The very rapid growth in Santa Cruz has made development disorganized,” my Spanish teacher Oscar told me. “Five years ago there were three rings. Now there are seven.”

He told me there has also be a large increase in street children in the past few years. These kids sniff shoe glue and are called chuferos. One afternoon we drove past a group of women and children seated on a median. Police circled around them, trying to convince them to move.

Maria told me they were chuferos. They wanted to stay there in order to rob from people to get money for the glue. She said the parents gave the glue to their children.

“I’ve even seen a mother giving her baby glue,” she said. “If the children are high, they don’t feel hunger.”


**

There are two statues in the city that have grabbed my attention. The giant white Christ, with arms outspread in the middle of a rotunda, is a focal reference point. What stands behind him is north, and in front of him is south.

In addition, there is a giant statue of liberty on top of the New York Mall. It’s strange to be driving through a city and suddenly seeing the pointed crown of this icon.

I learned how people who are paid salaries, have to save their receipts for all their purchases in a month, which is subtracted from what they owe.

“Why can’t there just be a simple tax?” I asked my colleague Maria. To avoid people getting fake receipts, one is asked for their last name and ID number every time they buy anything. It’s quite time consuming to repeatedly give that information and then save all the slips.

“They started out with a tax that was simply a percentage of income. But people protested and made blockades,” she said.

So rather than have all my purchases go to naught, I give Maria’s name and ID number every time I make a purchase. And much to her gratitude, I hand her my pile of slips.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

first day in Santa Cruz


Today we passed by the Miss Universe/Miss World office, a nice house surrounded by greenery. The daily local paper contained a two page color spread about the Miss Paraguay competition. Beauty pageants here seem to be considered worthy news – whether they are local, regional, national or international.

I had the chance to move some more through the city today. I noted a lot of fancy, gated condominiums and a lot of SUVs – Nissan, Suzuki, SSR, needed for the dirt roads that surround the city borders. The license plates are white with bright blue letters – Bolivia written above the numbers. Those without cars travel in micros – small buses in between the size of a mini-van and a full-size bus. The fare is 1.5 bolivianos, or less than 25 cents.

I was taken to one of these gated condominiums today. The three-bedroom condo, on the seventh floor, was supposed to be my new home. Not only were there already three people living in this condo, but I was led to a small room with two twin beds and told I’d be sharing it with someone else. That would be four women sharing one bathroom and not a corner of private space to myself. While I wanted to be flexible and was ready to agree to sharing an apartment, I’m too old to share a room for a period of several months. So I moved back into my hotel.

I drove into the center of town today. On the way, we passed the National American University, a Mexican art shop, an architectural art shop, and a whole street of photo shops across from a park. “Help us keep our high school clean,” and “Don’t write or publicize on these walls,” was written right next to “Without a future” scrawled on the wall. We drove past banks guarded by men with guns. I watched a Japanese-looking man get out of an SUV and six young women in colored skirts buy fruit juices from cups being sold atop a cooler.

I spent the day with Cynthia, a young married woman who finished the university in 2001. She was trained as a production engineer and wanted to work in a factory. After applying for several months with no results, she began to become depressed.

“Our society is pretty macho and they only wanted men,” she said. “There are hundreds of men working there and they worry that having a woman would cause them to feel disrespected.”

She saw a listing advertising an opening as an assistant to a regional manager and applied. Among the 120 candidates, she was selected for the job. Two years later she became an analyst, then a manager.

“A lot depends on one’s personality,” she said. “I know that you could put me with any group in a factory and I’d be respected, but they don’t give me the chance to show it.”

She invited me to her house for the two-hour lunch break. Every day, she goes home to eat a meal prepared by her mother. She and her husband live in an annex just behind her parent’s home. We had a traditional local dish made of spiced rice with shredded meat, fried egg and plantain, followed by a small dish of gelatin and a glass of lemonade.

She told me that her employer had recently sent her to Ghana to improve her English. I asked how she liked it. “It was an unforgettable experience of course,” she said. “But was so poor. People here always complain about poverty, but when I got there, I felt we didn’t have any poverty at all.” She told me that the minimum monthly salary is 500 bolivianos ($63) but that the average, lower medium class earned 1000-1500 ($125-200).

In the afternoon I had a Spanish lesson with my teacher, Oscar. Oscar is short, with a friendly, genuine smile, a pot belly and a stunted arm and hand. He is married with two sons, five years old and eight months old. Seeing his children run to him when he gets home makes him happiest. Rush hour traffic and politicians make him most upset.

He told me he lived with his mother until the age of 28, going from being dependent on his mother to being dependent on his wife. Nevertheless, he believes that the man is the head of the family and women can only present their opinions on important decisions. By law, women are named A B de C after marriage, the C being the man’s last name and the de meaning “property of.”

He dated his wife for three years and after the first year, she was ready for marriage. He, however, resisted, until she was pregnant, another thing he says he’s not proud of. However, marriage and children seem to have been good for him, teaching him how to be responsible. He now praises his wife and his face lights up when talking about his sons. He reads books like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The Cash Flow” and takes copious notes. He’s trying hard and working hard to be a responsible, successful person in all areas of his life, and this topic is a major part of our class.

I like him and find him a great person from whom to learn about the local life and culture. He frequently brings up the difference between La Paz (cold and rocky) and Santa Cruz (warm and tropical). He believes that climate influences personality and culture.

“The youth here aren’t interested in books or learning,” he said, with great disappointment. As a person who loves to teach, he likes people who want to learn. “They just want toys and to have fun. This attribute is specific to Santa Cruz.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Arrival in Bolivia




On my American Airlines flight from Miami, most of the passengers looked Hispanic, but well-off. I don’t think I saw any Indians, who are said to make up 80% of the Bolivian population.

After flying through the night, the plane first landed in La Paz, then continued on to Santa Cruz. Taking off from La Paz, I saw basic adobe or brick houses, much simpler and more poor than in Quito. Then I looked out over desolate, sparsely populated mountain peaks, snowcapped in the highest areas. Clouds settled among them, the peaks rising like islands and peninsulas in an ocean.

The most beautiful flight I’ve ever taken was from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. In a country with 90% mountains, the view of the peaks from the sky was spectacular. Bolivia is similarly impressive.

While moving from Kyrgyzstan to Bolivia is truly jumping across the world, I realized that the two countries do have their similarities. Both are land-locked, poor, highly mountainous, and hold a similar number of inhabitants.

For the first time I became excited. It was hard to leave my new husband after three weeks of marriage, my friends and my family. But looking out over the harsh scenery reminded me that travel to the remote and exotic, coming to know foreign lands, is my passion.

Forty minutes later, I looked out over a flat, green terrain with many agricultural plots, brown rivers snaking through the land. I saw a city along a river. It spread out in a large flat mass, like a stain, then dribbled out into villages.

Memories of my short visit to La Paz, five years earlier, caused me stress. I recall extreme altitude sickness, a lack of roads, and my rental car catching fire in an isolated neighborhood. But thoughts of Santa Cruz inspired ideas of romance. Santa Cruz de la Sierra rolled nicely off my tongue. The airport code, VVI, stood for Viru Viru International. That also sounded exotic to me. The greenness, from the air, looked clean, the roads appeared well-tended, the trees thick and bushy. I looked out over banana trees with uplifted fronds and saw sheep or cattle being led across a field, like a small colony of lice. Unlike La Paz, from the air Santa Cruz seemed calm, clean and prosperous.

We landed near a flat field, from where I could see a few billboards, street signs, and buses. The airport staff were friendly. Women, dressed in civilian clothing, served as the passport stampers.

A man named Eduardo picked me up and drove me the 15 minutes into town. He told me Santa Cruz is an important agricultural center. I could see the influence in the number of farm machinery shops we passed along the way – as well as Nissan, Toyota and Suzuki dealerships. Quite a lot of pickups and SUVs drove along the main road – a sign not only off driving country roads, but of wealth.

Eduardo tells me that Santa Cruz is different from anywhere else in Bolivia, that most of the population is descended from Europeans and other foreigners. He himself comes from German ancestors, who came to Bolivia to escape World War I. And it’s green. “I don’t like La Paz,” he said, “because it’s so barren. They don’t have any of this vegetation,” he said, pointing at the green around us, even as we entered the city.

Eduardo told me that drugs made the fortunes in this city. He said the height was in the 1980s and most of the drugs were grown to the U.S. “But now, due to US help, it has been reduced,” he said. “People used to carry around drugs like anything else. Not any more.”

He took me to a fast-food fried chicken joint for lunch (fast food seems prevalent here, as it was in Nicaragua), then to my hotel. At first I thought I was in for luxury when we came to the Royal Lodge Hotel and I saw four stars in the comfortable lobby. But once one leaves the lobby, it becomes dim and shabby. I had to leave my first room due to water dripping constantly from the air conditioner. The second was more comfortable, but 1970s comforters in bright red, orange and yellow covered the beds and the other furniture seems similarly aged. Yet, the stain-glassed window of a fish on the bathroom door, and the balcony step looking out over a small pool are both pleasant.

I looked through one of the two local newspapers, the El Deber, to see what makes up the news. A color photo of Miss Bolivia, Jessica Jordan, covered the first page of the society section. And she had another whole page to herself inside the insert. The beauty pageant news included the information of who won the Miss USA contest, a young woman born in Panama. I doubt I’d come across that easily in a US newspaper. But here, it appeared in color and took up a quarter page.

The obituaries announced “The person who was Luis Mario Roman Justinario,” a baby boy, or other names, “has stopped existing.” The baby’s father’s employer, Weitnauer Bolivia printed their condolences on a subsequent page.

I saw lots of medical ads, promoting assistance with impotence, rheumatism, plastic surgery, and dermatology, among other medical specialties.

In my brief car journeys across town, the city appeared to be flat, open, and relatively safe. I entertained thoughts of buying a bicycle and biking to work. But when I relayed my experience of being attacked in a taxi to Eduardo, he told me that two years ago he was mugged in mid-day. One attacker put a gun to his stomach, the other a knife to his side and they threatened to kill him. Other people on the street could see what was happening, but they didn’t do anything for fear of being attacked next themselves. He gave up his wallet and cell phone.

“But still, compared to Nicaragua or El Salvador, where they went through civil wars, it’s better here. The violence is more randomized, rather than being institutionalized.”

I hope so, because Santa Cruz is my new home and I’d like to be able to feel safe here.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Thanks

In addition to the helpfulness of friends and family, we had several vendors who really helped to make our wedding special. The Lowell Inn in Stillwater provided beautiful accommodations, excellent service and top-notch food. The University Club in Saint Paul was a beautiful setting with great food. Gregg Babb of Seedling Eventful Flowers did a wonderful job with the flowers – and is one of the most polite and accommodating entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. I’d like to thank them all in this public space.

A very special thanks goes to Bill Hermann of Blue Chip Productions, who we hired as our DJ. While he was more expensive than the other options we looked it, it was the best-spent money of the wedding. He went out of his way to help with every aspect of the party, even opening the door during the ceremony. He is incredibly talented at keeping people happy and entertained, even when there are several generations in the group. Even the bartender, who sees weddings all the time, commented on what a great DJ we had.

Bill was kind enough to take photos throughout the reception and he sent us copies on a CD. This in itself was worth much of his fee. We didn’t have a photographer during the reception and none of the guests took the quality and the variety of photos he did. Through these pictures, we were able to relive the entire reception, even parts we’d forgotten. And we were reminded at what a fantastic job he really did. If anyone reading this happens to be planning a party in the Twin Cities area, we’d highly recommend him.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

a short stop in Quito




The honeymoon is over and I’m now in Miami, just having returned from Ecuador, and waiting to head off to my next assignment and adventure in Bolivia.

Mark and I flew from the Galapagos to Quito on Saturday afternoon. We found a room in the Antinea Hotel, a beautifully furnished hotel owned by a French-Ecuadorian couple and listed on the Quito Cultural Heritage Sites. While we liked our beautiful, though chilly, room, the owners seemed to be out of town and the service wasn’t very personable.

We had a full day to spend in Quito on Saturday. I had been there about five years ago, but it seemed much prettier than I imagined. A large and long city, it’s at an altitude of over 9,000 feet, ringed by mountains and low-lying clouds.

We decided to check out the teleferico, a new cable car that transports passengers up the mountain for a beautiful view of the city. During the 15-minute ride, we climbed to 4,100 meters. From there, one can hike another three hours to a mountain peak, but we decided not to try that without acclimatizing first. So we enjoyed the beautiful views, looking down at the clouds and the cluttered, hectic, historical city.

From there, we visited a cultural center and took in some exhibits – photographs of natives of the Andes, a contemporary artist, Quito history told through wax figures.

Driving around the city, we saw young men playing soccer on a narrow strip of land between two freeways, the ball running down the slope into oncoming traffic. I found it hard to get my bearings in the city. The various storefronts, the bus stops, the parks with statues, the multiracial population, all seemed to blend together. After my bad experience in Nicaragua, I was quite nervous taking taxis. Every time we got into one, I imagined the driver pulling a gun on us. Luckily, all of them were OK and the majority seem to work within an official system, in a cooperative, where someone is tracking the taxi’s movement. It was definitely helpful to be traveling together with Mark. I hope that I will have a car and driver in Bolivia so as not to be subject to the taxis on my own.

We found lunch in a little local joint in a commercial center. On the second floor, several small cafeteria owners served up set meals of the day to local vendors and workers. We were the only foreigner there and I was glad to have a little exposure to local life – even if it meant we couldn’t drink the bright pink drink or eat the fresh tomato slice. Our meal, including a drink and soup, cost $1 each.

In the evening, we headed to the Café Libro, a place we’d read had a bohemian atmosphere, as well as dance lessons available that night. For an hour and a half, we studied tango, with two talented and very patient teachers. And while we stumbled quite a bit on our first effort, we managed to get an 8-step routine down. All of the other attendees were Ecuadorian. I enjoyed being in such a mellow environment and participating in an activity together with locals.

And then, morning arrived and it was time to go. We fit a lot into a short period of time, and made lots of lasting memories. But at the same time, it seems to have gone quickly.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Galapagos day 12.5; cruise day 7.5 – end of the trip




When local tour boats advertise 8 day cruises, they count every day you actually set foot on the boat. However, since they usually begin in late morning and end in early morning, it’s really 7 days counting one day as 24 hours.

Our last little outing was a 6 a.m. dinghy ride in Turtle Bay. At that time, the water was clear and still, the sky soft with the colors of early morning. We moved through the dense greenery of mangroves under the low hum of the motor. When the driver turned the motor off, it became so peaceful. We heard only the flapping fish, the buzz of mosquitoes, the swish of the paddles and the tweets of male yellow warblers making territorial calls. We looked out at the misty hills of Santa Cruz Island and watched the sun rise bright yellow-orange in a pink sky.

We watched giant groups of golden stingrays pass by us, their fins sticking up out of the water, appearing like an evil army on its way to attack. Several sea tortoises swam by, including a male with a very long tail. We found baby black tip sharks feeding on mullets. We watched mullets and white salemas jumping out of the water as though in synch with a symphony. We watched a brown noddy following a pelican, trying to catch its food.

The environment around us looked so peaceful, but when we looked closer, everything was struggling and fighting for survival. The mullets jumped so as not to be caught and eaten by the sharks. The pelican risked losing the food it fought hard to catch to the brown noddy.

I realized, as much as we’d like to create an idea and an ideal of human goodness, that we live in the same kind of world, where we fight for resources, for influences and for safety. Some are lucky to live out their lives in a cocoon, without feeling the effects of this fight. But for the majority who come into contact with violence, injustice, and fear, it seemed to me that there is a lesson to be learned from the animals. That while one can hate predators and thieves, happiness will not live in fear, bitterness and regret. Rather, like the animals, the faster one can accept the loss as a natural part of existence and move ahead with the same verve as before, the quicker they can find peace.

Our boat - The Beluga






The crew
















The upper deck











View from our cabin




Thursday, March 22, 2007

Galapagos day 12 – Cruise day 7 – James (Santiago) Island




Our last full day on the boat, today was a jam-packed and enjoyable adventure. We rock up next to a large, forest-covered volcano. Ocean waves hit against the sheer cliffs made of compacted rock, covered with visible soil, then greenery.

We took a dinghy to land at Puerto Egas (James Bay) of James Island (also called Santiago). Again, we came in onto a black sand beach and walked around on lava rock and terracotta tuff cone. Inside the tuff cone, water from the ocean filters in and makes an expensive, good quality salt.

In the 1960s, a man named Salinas opened a salt mine here. The last owner was Hector Egas, who the bay is now named after. He tried to found a settlement in Santiago, but it was hard with little freshwater and few ships. He eventually went broke.

Another change in the island is the disappearance of the 74,000 goats that used to live there. Juan told us how he volunteered with the goat eradication project on a neighboring island. Nineteen hunters, two volunteers, and a chopper with a gunman covered 30 square kilometers. Juan said he did it for the real life ecology experience.

“By participating, you learn there are a lot of things about conservation that aren’t necessarily right. You see how we can screw up nature and it’s too late or too early to do something about it.”

On Santiago, the goat elimination was successful. But the result was the appearance of invasive mallows, which the goats used to control. Juan didn’t consider it a serious problem. He said it’s a low level of vegetation and only during the rainy season, so it’s not taking space for anything else. When dry season comes, they will put on herbicide so the next generation of seeds don’t germinate. It will take five to six years because of the many layers of seeds.

On the beach, we found a few week old sea lion and marine iguanas who had drawn designs in the sand with their tails. We walked on a path through white cordial, thorny fortia, incense trees and shore petunia. Along the path, we found the discarded skeleton of a baby sally lightfoot crab. They grow out of and discard everything, including their eyeballs.

Darwin himself spent nine days on this island, climbing the Sugar Loaf Tuft Cone. As we watched the sea lions, Galapagos fur sea lions, pelicans, dolphins, marine iguanas, oyster catchers, a Galapagos hawk and a ring plover, among other birds and animals, I imaged Darwin seeing the same scenes, but so much more isolated from civilization.

Juan showed us a place along the lava cliffs that is called Darwin’s toilet. It’s a round hole in the rock in which frothy white ocean water builds up, then suddenly “flushes” and drains out, before filling again.

Later in the morning, as we sailed towards Bartolome, on the other side of James Island, we saw the beautiful scenery of rocks shaped as an elephant and a bishop. We passed Bucaneer’s Cove, where Darwin, and many pirates landed for fresh water. The ensconced nature of the cove helped keep the criminals hidden.

Best of all, we saw a couple of bryde whales. Together with one other tourist boat, the Flamingo, which doesn’t treat its waste and emitted a smell like a massive fart, we circled round the whales, allowing us to see them rise out of the water several times, often quite close by. It’s truly amazing to look out over the blue waters and suddenly see a submarine-sized mammal emerge. At the same time, a manta ray glided toward us, a Pacific Green sea turtle paddled by, and a sea lion was swimming unusually far from shore. I felt surrounded by large aquatic life and it was so rewarding to see them in their natural habitat.

In the afternoon we rode up to Bartoleme. Walking across the high sand dune on the inlet, we reached a bay on the other side, where we could see white-tipped sharks floating in the clear water, just a few feet from us.

We returned to the ochre sand beach where we’d landed and went snorkeling around pinnacle point, a large vertical outcropping. Again, the water was murky (the National Park determines which places are allowed for snorkeling, and at least at this time of year, most of them seem to be murky), but we did come across several schools of fish. Most fun was finding a penguin in the water. In the process of fishing, he flitted by me, just a few inches away, at least three times. Given the uniqueness of penguins overall in this region, it was especially nice to get so close to one.

Some of the group came close to white-tipped sharks. I didn’t and was just as glad not to, after one boatmate told us about a tourist getting bit by a bull shark a week before our trip starting. He was diving at dusk (which is the shark’s feeding time) and a bull shark is much more dangerous than a white-tipped. But still, I preferred to not get too close.

Our final activity of the day was to climb up the tall terracotta tuff cone on Bartholeme, to a lighthouse that offered a beautiful overlook. This required climbing 366 stairs, which I ran up as much as possible, trying to give my heart the exertion it has lacked in the past week. At the top, I was able, again, to get a true sense of the volcanic and geologic activity in the area. Looking out over the very small island, I saw a real-life relief map of spatter cones (smaller parasitic cones). It looked like a mars-scape that was formed yesterday. Only a couple of plants grew in that environment, the leather leaf, prickly pear, salt wart, sperch and the beautiful silver great mat plant. We waited up on the overlook until all the other tour groups had left. We watched the sun begin to descend, then walked down into the sunset.

On the boat, we drank a farewell cocktail while saluting the staff. And for dessert, we had a banana-nut cake covered with marshmallow crème and carmelized syrup, fruit and cinnamon (it tasted much better than it sounds). Our final treat was our guide making the mating sounds of a giant tortoise, a request he’d been putting off for the past several days.

And now it’s almost time to go. This evening we have to pack everything up and accept that tomorrow night, another couple will be calling our temporary abode their new home. We have one small morning adventure to go, then it’s on a plane to Quito.

Whales Under Water


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Galapagos day 11 – Cruise day 6 – Isabela and Fernandina Islands




We spent today in some of the most remote and least visited parts of the Galapagos. Again, we saw the world at its early stages. And because it hadn’t had much time to develop, the wildlife concentration was less than elsewhere. But the sense of seeing millions of years of history in the making was there. Not a lot of boats make it to this part of the Galapagos, because the gas expense to motor around the Western side of Isabela is high. It’s nice to be in places with few other tourists in order to truly feel the remoteness.

In the morning we landed on Urbina Bay, a black sand beach on Isabela Island, made from basalt. Walking around, we saw a baby giant tortoise walking through the forest, orange tipped hermit crabs fighting for a shell, and large yellow-gray land iguanas.

Darwin described the land iguanas movements as “lazy and half torpid. When not frightened, they slowly crawl along with their tails and bellies dragging on the ground. They often stop, and doze for a minute with closed eyes, and hind legs spread out on the parched soil.”

My favorite plant was the Galapagos cotton. It had tiny little buds of cotton on the bush, as well as a beautiful, tropical yellow flower with a magenta interior and long, yellow, thick stamen.

During lunch, we sailed north to Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. That pristine island, almost entirely lava, has only one little trail where tourists can visit. We got off the dinghy on a little, hidden staircase in the midst of a mangrove. The trail went along the coastline, where black marine iguanas perched on the black rocks, spitting salt through their nostrils, the many little sneezes alternating with the crashing sounds of the waves.

Darwin described these animals as “hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements.” He said that he repeatedly threw one into the water and it repeatedly returned to the same spot on land. “Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance,” he wrote, “that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks.”

Our feet crunched against the sand full of something like looked like dark purple pretzel sticks. They were the legs of pencil slate sea urchins, which had fallen off when that area was underwater.

We watched flightless cormorants do their mating dance, sea lions, and Sally light foot crabs, whose red color burned against the black lava.

Due to the movements of tides, part of the trail was already underwater by the time we returned and I was glad to have my dual water/land Tevas on.

The evening was one of the most beautiful of our sails. Our guide spotted common dolphins (actually less common than bottle-nosed) and we watched them jump and swim speedily away, an entire little community in the blue, solitary world.

We cruised nearby northern Isabela Island, an area of jutting rock faces reaching up to the stratus and waves crashing so strongly onto shore that white spray flew up along the edges like geysers.

We gathered in the bow around six when we crossed the Equator. Just afterwards, the yellow-red sun dipped quickly and visibly into the horizon, disappearing behind smooth dark-blue waters.

As darkness fell, a thin sliver of a moon glimmered in the sky. The rest of the moon was illuminated around the edges, and a ribbon of yellow reflection extended from the horizon to our boat deck, glimmering in the darkness.

We crossed the equator once again around 10:30, heading back into the southern hemisphere and towards James Island, the final destinations of our visit. While a few days ago, I would have chosen a shorter cruise, now that the trip is nearing its end (and I know that real life awaits), I wish we could extend it a while.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Galapagos day 10 – Cruise day 5 – Western Isabela Island




I asked Juan today about his impressions of how the protest went. He estimated there were 200 people in attendance – tourist guides, employees of the National Park, their families, and average citizens. He said the mayor spoke at the demonstration and is on their side.

He explained that the Ecuadorian air force controls both the Baltra airport on the Galapagos, and they control the gas station, where international and local ships refuel. He says the air force sells gas at the set price to the local ships. But when international ships come in, they sell gas at a higher price. According to Juan, none of this hits the books. Effectively, they are stealing gas and making money from it.

He said that tomorrow, a commission will be going to the Baltra airport and turning over control of the airport and the gas station (la capitania) to the local government. The air force (about 100 members) will remain only for military functions.

“Our constitution doesn’t allow for the military to control anything like an airport or a gas station. All other airports in Ecuador are under local government control. It is only here because Baltra started out as a military base. They got used to controlling it and they have interests tied in with local politicians that has made it hard to take the control away.”

“Will this be a peaceful transfer?” one of our shipmates asked.

“Of course,” Juan said. “There are 15,000 residents of Puerto Ayora and only 100 of them. For their sake, it must be a peaceful transfer.” He of course forgot that those 100 are probably better armed than the 15,000. The members of the commission are courageous people.

But that’s what I like about Juan – his passion for the environment, for the park, and for education of the young. I like his confidence that something can be done and his commitment to playing a role in the changes.

Last night we sailed all night, for over 9 hours, to get to the western side of Isabela Island, the largest island in the archipelago. No more than 30% of the cruise ships reach this region, due to the long cruise. And so we are much more alone in nature here.

Of course, I appreciate the scenery and the ability to see animals. But the newness of seeing the most common species – the sea lions, the crabs, the turtles, the iguanas, the blue-footed boobies, the frigate birds – has worn off. I appreciate greatly the knowledge we receive from the guide. But rather than walking slowly over a short distance, I find myself aching for some kind of a goal, for something a little more strenuous, a little more challenging. While the schedule is relatively busy, I think it’s the lack of initiative and creativity required from me that’s beginning to bore me. I think I would have been better off with a five day, rather than an eight day tour.

What we did see today was marvelous though. We started off at Punta Moreno, walking across a black lava field – one of the most barren environments I’d ever come across. We could see two volcanoes – Sierra Negra, which we’d summitted last week, and Cerro Azul, both contributors to the ropy knots of solidified basalt we were stepping over. The silica in the basalt (40%) gave it a crunchy, glassy sound as we stepped over it.

This was a place to see how life developed from the beginning. There we were, in a most inhospitable environment – lava rock, ocean, and burning equatorial sun. Yet, in the less than 1,000 years since the last major lava flow, life was developing. This was especially evident around the brackish lagoons, green oases amidst a desert of black.

To me, this was a visual lesson, an analogy, of how things could have evolved after a big bang. For the first time, I understood the baby steps that led to an environment of verdant vegetation and abundant wildlife.

Only a few plants are capable of colonizing in such an environment – Galapagos sedge, candelabra cactus, grasses, and mangroves. These pioneer plants survive and create the soil for secondary plants, more complicated growths. Some plants, such as mangroves, attract insects, which then brings small invertebraes that feed on the insects. The lava cactus is another pioneer plant that uses the strategy of use its parts to generate itself. As parts fall off, they become part of the soil. I found it a fascinating and amazing process, so slow, but the effects, when looking at the islands of different ages, are so strong over millions of years.

We paused at a pond of brackish water, green around the edges, where life was concentrated. Another sinkhole, carpeted in green, stood out brilliantly against the harsh pahoehoe and aa lava. There were a few flamingoes in the water. A feral cat, which feeds on fish and lives on the brackish water, darted through the brush. There were flyless cormorant, the Galapagos martin, a more hen, and blue wing teals. In another little pond, we saw a yellow tail mullet. He’d been trapped in there as larvae, when the waves washed up through rock cracks. And now he had outgrown the pond, but had nowhere to go. And the Park policy of non-interference with the natural process (except when doing things like repopulating tortoises and shooting goats, rats and feral cats) means that tourists will pass by and watch as he eventually expires.

This island was fascinating not for the quantity of life, but rather for its scarcity, and the amazing conditions under which that life appeared.

We motored a bit further north during lunch, to Elizabeth Bay. There, we took out the dinghies for a three-hour ride through the mangroves. In the dark, quiet, mangroves, we found a “tree lion,” (a sea lion lying on a mangrove tree), many Great Pacific sea turtles swimming gracefully underwater, several rays, and penguins. Along with the gentle swish of the paddes, we heard the singing of yellow finches, warblers and great blue herons.

One fun scene was watching a group of blue-footed boobies diving together for fish. As soon as one made the move, all the others followed suit. By cooperating in this way, they gave the fish less time to disperse. And they figure that the waves produced from the first bird diving would bring other things to the surface. They nose dive from a substantial height and it was quite remarkable to see the splashes like bangs of a repeatedly fired gun, then the birds skidding across the water as though they were on waterskis. Above, the pirates of the sky, the large, black frigate birds, loomed ominously, looking for someone to intimidate or steal from.

A little ways out into the ocean stood three red rocks, made of terracotta tuff cone. These rock faces, covered with a thick layer of white guano, were teeming with animal life – penguins (the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one to live in a tropical environment), sea lions, iguanas, blue-footed boobies, flyless cormorants. Out in their own remote corner of the world, it was nice to know that once we leave, they will go on with their existence and their role in promulgating the Galapagos ecosystem.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Galapagos day 9 – Cruise day 4 – Santa Cruz Island




As I expected when spending time on the island where we already spent a few nights, this was the least interesting of the cruise days so far. Again, it seemed to be a day off for the majority of the staff, while we were kept away from the boat until evening.

The morning started off nice, with a two-time viewing of a group of 13-14 golden rays off the side of the ship, even though we were anchored in harbor.

What I liked least was all the breaks throughout the day. It seemed to me we were just passing time, 20 minutes for ice cream in the morning, over two hours for lunch, another 20 minutes for a drink in the afternoon. While we have such breaks on the boat and I appreciate the chance to spend a little time in the room, to read or to write to just to relax, on land I had nothing to do and felt bored.

We started out at the Charles Darwin research center, a hot, humid walk across town. And other than seeing the cute baby turtles they breed in captivity, it wasn’t a very interesting exhibition.

One story I enjoyed was that of Lonesome George, the Center’s conservation icon since the 1970s. He is a 90 kilogram giant tortoise who was found on Pinta Island in 1971. A man named Peter Pecker had read has a child that the giant tortoise species on Pinta was extinct. So he was very excited to hear about this discovery.

Scientists tried everything possible to get him to reproduce, including bringing in an Italian specialist to manipulate him by hand. But nothing worked. Juan told us that tortoises probably learn sexual behavior from others or by hormones trigged by watching others. George, left alone as a baby, missed out on that. As a result, he seems unable to develop a sexual interest or to perform, despite being exposed to younger males being sexually active. His plight shows the importance of turtles having behavioral models to learn from in the wild.

Charles Darwin was impressed by both the number and size of giant tortoises when he visited the Galapagos. He wrote about how Spaniards found fresh water by following the tracks that went from the seacoast to wells.

“I could not imagine what animal traveled so methodically along the well-chosen tracks,” he wrote. “Near the springs it was a curious spectacle to behold many of these great monsters; one set eagerly traveling onwards with outstretched necks, and another set returning, after having drunk their fill.”

He compared the tortoise bladder to a frogs, which acts as a reservoir for the moisture it needs to exist. After visiting the springs, the urinary bladder became distended with fluid, gradually decreased in volume and became less pure. The inhabitants, when overcome with thirst, would kill a tortoise. If the bladder was full, it would drink its contents.

“In one I saw killed,” Darwin wrote, “the fluid was quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste.”

They ate the meat, both fresh and salted, and made a “beautifully clear” oil from the fat.

From there, we went to lunch at Juan’s aunt’s house, a hacienda in the green highlands of Santa Cruz. They have a pavilion where they served grilled chicken to tourists, and a pool where we were able to take a dip. I tried cold lemongrass tea there, which tasted like a refreshing mixture of tea and lemonade.

After lunch we took some walks through the highlands. We walked through an escalacia forest, trees that are tally and bushy on time. The Cuban/Spanish cedars had the unique feature of emitting a scent of garlic, making it seem as though something good was cooking in the forest, like we’d soon approach a fresh pot of stew. The two crater holes were impressive. It was like a sinkhole, with the trees and grows growing within as usual, just far down, as though the land had fallen.

Juan took us to a lava tube. It was formed during a lava flow. When it moved like a basaltic river, the part that had contact with the air solidified and the area below kept flowing. There are several such tubes on the island, but some have been modified for tourists, with smoothed over paths and installed lights. This was a natural one. We scampered over damp rocks to get inside the tall arched tunnel, looking at dense greenery growing at either end.

Finally, we walked through the farm of Steven Divine, the owner of Moonrise Travel. His parents sailed here from Washington State in the 1950s and started a farm. He now owns a sizeable tract of land where giant tortoises saunter through, as well as run a successful tour agency. In crossing over his land, we found a giant turtle. The large male was more shy than those we’d seen in captivity at the research center.

For me, the most interesting part of the day had nothing to do with wildlife viewing, but the local political situation. As we returned to town, where we had a little free time before returning to the board, I saw some protestors. I asked Juan what was going on and he explained that he was planning to join the protest.

According to Juan, the Ecuadorian air force, based on the island of Baltra (where the airport is) has been engaged in illegal activities, such as leading kayak trips to places where kayaking shouldn’t occur (and they shouldn’t be involved in tourism activities) and selling gas to boat operators, undercutting local gas suppliers.

Several members of the national park captured some of these illegal activities on video and they planned to report these violations. The air force wanted to get the video from them, so they beat up a national park leader (I think the director), so badly he almost died. Shortly afterwards, the national park representatives went to confront the air force about selling gas to tourist boats. Again, there was a confrontation and the national park representative, a woman, was beaten enough to be hospitalized.

The protest was organized to protest the use of excessive violence by the Ecuadorian air force and they assembled quite a large crowd. While at an internet café near the center of town, we heard the 4x4 come down the street with a loudspeaker. I went outside to take a picture. Policemen in their brown pants and khaki tops walked on either side. Behind the pickup truck came two young woman, carrying a sign that read “Say No to Violence.”

Suddenly, a bedraggled looking man standing in between the pickup and the women holding the banner started to spin wildly and sparks began to fly. Something was exploding and it was just directly across the street from where I was standing. I bent down and ran into the internet café, ducking under the window frame for cover. I was sure shots were ringing out or a bomb or grenade was going to go off. “So this is what it’s like to be the victim of a bomb attack” I thought as I instinctively sought cover and fearfully awaited to see if the building I was in would explode. Another tourist in my group hit the floor.

When I next peeked out, the street was smoky and the women holding the banner looked dazed, but the protestors continued on ahead. I went out and took a few photos.

“I should warn you, this could be violent,” said an Englishwoman who seemed to live in the area. “They are protesting the military.”

I couldn’t believe that the police didn’t react to the explosives and that the man just seemed to disappear. The Englishwoman explained that whenever a meeting is going to be held, the tradition is to set off fireworks to announce that people come down to attend it. So this guy wasn’t trying to blow up the protestors, as I feared, but was announcing the presence of a demonstration. One of our shipmates got a picture on his digital camera. And from that, we can see that the idiot was smoking while holding a handful of firecrackers and a coke bottle. And so they must have accidentally all gone off.

Most of the internet café customers cleared out and I, shaken by the experience, was ready to go too. But once the protest passed by, we decided to stay. The last time I was in Ecuador, in early 2001, my mom and I found ourselves in the midst of a protest by indigenous groups. This caused us to have to raft down a river on inner tubes in order to get out of our jungle lodge and we were even held by the protestors for several hours. It seems to be quite easy to get caught up in civil unrest here, despite the large tourist presence.


By the time we went to the docks for our dinghy ride back to the boat, the protestors were gathered in the central park and a man was making an impassioned speech about the civilians inability to live in an environment where rules are not followed and order is not maintained. Our guide, Juan, skipped dinner in order to participate in the protests himself He is an intelligent, passionate, and caring person, with dreams of creating a school on a boat for local poor children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see the islands. And he cares about the park rules being followed by everyone, even the military.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Galapagos day 8 – Cruise day 3 – Floreana Island




Today was a comparatively slow day. After an eventful morning, we’ve pretty much had the rest of the day off. The focus today is more on the staff – who work 9 weeks in a row before receiving three weeks off. Today they were allowed to play soccer on a field on Floreana island and we spent the afternoon cruising back to our starting point in Puerto Ayora so that they could spend the evening and night with their families.

So I’ll insert some general information about the Galapagos here. The Galapagos islands attracted 146,000 tourists last year. It’s the most diverse marine ecosystem in the Pacific and is full of endemic species, meaning that the species are found only there. Half of the birds and most of the reptiles are endemic. It’s also unique in that there are few predators, meaning that the animals lack the fear they posses in other environments, where they have to worry more about their survival. This makes for easy wildlife watching by visitors.

Remarking on the tameness of the birds, Charles Darwin wrote: “There is not one which will not approach sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I have myself tried, with a cap or hat. A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.”

He told the story of a boy on Floreana sitting by a well with a switch in his hand, which he used to kill doves and finches as they came to drink. He already had a small heap for dinner and said he was in the habit of constantly waiting there for the same purpose.

“We must conclude,” wrote Darwin, “that the birds, not having yet learnt that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise…disregard us, in the same manner as magpies in England do the cows and horses grazing in the fields…I have not not met with any account of the land birds being so tame, in any other quarter of the world, as at the Galapagos and Falkland Islands.”

The islands themselves were first hidden on the sea floor. As lava flows accumulated steadily, they eventually rose above the surface as volcanic cones. What used to be ocean became new islands, empty of life and ready to receive organisms. For Darwin, as well as subsequent naturalist-oriented visitors, it offered the opportunity to look at a new land and watch the development of naturalist history.

At 7 in the morning we took off in our dinghies for Punta Cormorant, Floreana, where we landed on a beautiful half-moon beach. The soil had a slightly greenish tint from the volcanic olivine. Unlike yesterday, where we were among hordes of tourists, only one other boat was at this island with us. And after they left, we were alone. While we saw less animals today, the feeling of being alone in this remote nature made up for it.

We followed a trail to a lagoon, where flamingoes waded in the water. About 50 flamingoes spread out across the large body of water. The adults were dark pink on the head and rear, light in the middle. The juveniles were a uniform light pink. They stirred up the mud with their legs, forcing crustaceans to come up to feed on. Each flamingo could eat over four pounds a day of aquatic insects. Elegant black neck stilts walked along the edge of the shore, looking for small crabs.

Although the wildlife was more limited than on Espanola, the island felt remote, quiet and peaceful. Only one other boat had been there that morning besides us. In the light breeze, and the melodic chirping of the warblers, I could see and feel the quiet tug of earth’s history.

A short distance away, we arrived at a remote and beautiful beach, where turtles lay their eggs. It’s now the season for laying eggs and turtle tracks, moving from the ocean to the high sand, covered the shore. At the top of the sand were several holes, where the turtles laid 80-120 eggs each. Less than one percent of them will make it to adulthood. At one end of the beach, a single fresh track stood out from the rest of the water-smoothed sand. Juan said it probably was made last night. It’s unfortunate that the park doesn’t allow nighttime visits because it would have been spectacular to stay up and watch the turtle come in.

The Green Pacific Sea Turtle is the only one that nests in the Galapagos. Of the 80-120 eggs laid by a female, less than one percent of them make it. The baby turtles come out of the sand holes at night, at the same time their mother left them three months earlier. Then they leave for 20 years, until they return to breed. During those 20 years, the turtles are lost and very little information exists on what happens during those first two decades of life.

We circled around to the other side of the lagoon, looking at birds and plant life along the way. I especially liked the pearlberry, a plant that produces berries looking like shiny, oval pearls.

As we left on our dinghy back to the boat, we passed a lone Galapagos penguin, fishing in the water. This type is the second smallest penguin in the world.

A little while later we went out to snorkel at a nearby spot, Devil’s Ground. While the water was a bit murkier than Juan said it was last week, we were still able to see several white-tipped reef sharks, a brightly colored azure parrotfish, lots of little angelfish and creole fish (which appeared grey, but are really red). Best of all were two Green Pacific Sea Turtles we found swimming underwater, looking prehistoric as they glided under the waves with their fins and massive round bodies.

In the afternoon we had a very short stop at a place called the post office. It’s been made into a tourist destination when I think it’s really an excuse to be at a place where the crew can play soccer. It’s an old wooden barrel where passengers put addressed postcards. Visitors rifle through them and if they find one from their country they take it and mail it free of charge.

The path continued on for 16 kilometers Puerto Velasco Ibarra but unfortunately we weren’t given time to follow it. I’d be very interested in visiting that community of 80, especially after reading the story of its founding.

We had several hours on the boat to spend reading or relaxing. While cruising to the island of Santa Cruz, with the blue waters of the ocean all around us, our guide spotted bottle-nosed dolphins jumping out of the water ahead. He called us all onto the deck and we watched as they swam toward our boat and rode in the wave caused by our bow. Standing on deck, we watched up to eight dolphins at a time swimming underneath and alongside our prow. Some of them were huge – grey and sleek and elegant. Occasionally, they’d come up for air and I could see the large, round blowhole, their version of a nostril, on top of their heads. That was a pretty magical and surreal moment. Juan said that they see dolphins on about one of every two trips across that stretch of water. I’m glad we lucked out.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Galapagos day 7 – Cruise day 2 – Espanola Island




Today was our first full day, and quite a busy one. We started out with a wet landing at Gardner Bay, a beautiful white sand beach lining a bay of teal water. After a stroll along the beach, during which we saw sea lions, lava lizards, marine iguanas, cactus and warbler finches and an oyster catcher, we took a swim, coming very near to the frolicking sea lions. My favorite sighting was of tunikens or annelids. They are similar to an earthworm and live inside of tunnels built on black lava rock, made from sand and mucus excreted from their mouths. They live inside the tunnels and come out to feed. Looking closely at the tunnels, I could see the grains of sand and small rocks that formed them. It was quite impressive.

After a short break, during which the crew prepared us peach juice with ice and an assortment of crackers and cookies, we went snorkeling. Nothing bit me this time, and I had the pleasure of swimming through a school of black, orange and white angelfish. Our guide brought up a starfish from the sea floor for us to examine. It looked black on the sand, but in his hand, it was a bright red. I saw little green sea urchins and a stingray hiding in a cove. While interesting, it still didn’t match the variety and quantity of some other places I’ve snorkeled, such as Belize and the Red Sea.

I left the snorkeling to try out one of the two kayaks we have on boat. I was able to paddle along the coastline of harsh black rock and enjoy the wildlife from a different angle. It was nice to be alone for once, yet have sea lions swimming around and under me, crabs scampering on the rocks, birds going about their activities, and iguanas crawling around. I then paddled myself back to the ship, arriving before the snorkelers.

The food on board is wonderful, healthy, but plentiful, filling and delicious. For lunch the chef served us lasagna with steamed beets in a nice sauce, shredded cabbage in a lemon sauce, canned peach slices and brown tamarind juice. I don’t know whether I’ve ever seen a tamarind. But Juan told us that it has several seeds in a pod and the pulp surrounding the seeds is what is used to make the juice.

After a two-hour siesta, we jetted over in our dinghy to Punta Suarez, a wonderful bird colony. The most populated areas smelled distinctively of guano, a scent of garbage and decomposition. While walking slowly along a 2-mile path, we were able to observe bird life close up. Some of the highlights including watching a juvenile hawk eat a small female iguana she’d recently caught (she had already ingested the brain and was pulling off skin to get the meat further down), watching Nazca boobies feed their young, and watching the marine iguanas squirt water with high concentrations of sat through their nostrils, like a little sneeze.

While Espanola is beautiful and rich with wildlife, it’s unfortunately the most visited island. Throughout the day, there were always a number of cruise ships nearby as well as tour groups ahead of and behind us.

One of the nearby ships was a large cruiser that holds 48 passengers. Apparently, the largest holds almost 100. I’m glad that we have a small boat. Ours holds 16, but we currently have only 13. Our guide, a really educated and high quality guide, said he only wants to work on small boats. Not only do they allow for quicker landings, Juan likes the independence he has a guide with a smaller group, and the ability for everyone to get to know each other better.

In the evening, while waiting for dinner, we watched the sun fall down into the horizon, so quickly we could see it move. Then we watched the sky turn yellow, a beautiful view over the lapis lazuli blue water.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Galapagos day 6 – The cruise begins – North Seymour




Today we began our week-long cruise on the Beluga ship. And at the end of the day, Mark and I are very happy with our choice.

We are on the top of three floors, the only room up here near the sun deck. We have two twin beds that are separated, but it’s better than having bunk beds, which was our other choice at the lower price.

Our companions include an opinionated, well-traveled older British couple, a British human resources and leadership specialist, a proper looking young Irish couple, possibly on honeymoon, a Danish cardiologist in training, an Australian woman who has been traveling for three months, a middle-aged Brazilian couple, and a French couple, one of whom is affiliated with the company who runs this ship. We felt lucky when we found out this travel agent was on board. Because we figured she’d report any problems to whoever is in charge and that the staff would be likely to be on their best behavior.

Taking care of the 13 passengers are 9 staff (an incredible ratio!), all men and all professional and helpful so far. The boat is quite comfortable. We have a beautiful view of the water, a sizeable bathroom, lots of storage space, and a shower with hot water.

Our first stop today was at North Seymour, a small island just north of Baltra, where the airport is located. At the airport, I noticed a plane that said “United States of America.” I wondered what it was. Later I was told that George Bush and his wife were here in the Galapagos for two days. Strange to think I’m cruising the same waters as him. Our international companions on this ship all reacted negatively to Bush when our guide confirmed that he was here in the Galapagos.

“I can’t figure out who voted for him,” the English lady said. “No one I’ve ever met did.”

“It’s going to be tough for him to not believe in evolution after he sees this,” Mark said.

The schedule of events on the ship is nice. It seems to alternate – activity, rest, activity, meal, rest, activity, rest, meal, rest. So we are able to see quite a lot in one day. We also get some exercise. But we actually have more down time than we have in the past few days while we were doing everything independently.

After a very nice lunch of beef with capers, steamed cauliflower, salad, rice and watermelon, we set out for our first excursion – snorkeling off the coast of North Seymour. We went out in two dinghies, small but firm rubber rafts with 15 horsepower motors, then jumped into the water. We saw a white-tailed shark lounging on the bottom of the ocean floor. I hadn’t been too afraid of sharks until our Danish companion, Dirk, (who is also a diver) told us about a Danish man whose arm was bitten by a shark three days ago. He had to be sewn up in Puerto Ayora and flown to Quito.

I had only been in the water a matter of minutes when I felt a sudden stinging on my right hand and my upper lip. I looked and only saw what appeared to be a thin, dark hair. It felt I’d been stung or bitten and those two places pulsed with pain, but I could see neither an attacker nor a mark.

I called out to our guide, Juan. “I think I’ve been stung,” I said.

“It’s probably a jellyfish,” he said. “I got stung too.”

He led me to believe it was no big deal, so I continued on. We saw some striped fish and some bright fish. But the sharks were the best sight. The water was a little murky and the variety and color wasn’t as great as what I’d seen before in places like Belize or the Red Sea. After a while morning, the Brazilian man assumed a shocked looked on his face and began swimming, stricken, towards the dinghy. He’d been stung several times on the back, also by jellyfish. He also hadn’t seen anything.

Juan saw another jellyfish and pushed a tourist out of the way. “There seem to be many more jellyfish than normal,” he said. “If you want to get out of the water, it’s probably a good idea.” He said it was rare for tourists to be stung and that usually they don’t appear in large numbers at this time.

Half the people returned to the dinghies and half continued to snorkel. The dinghy driver kept us entertained by showing us the jellyfish (which did in fact look like a thin, vertical hair, not the more bulbous bodies I’d seen in the U.S.), a red-pouched frigate bird, another bird feeding it’s young, and some sea lions, all alone the shoreline.

After a shower and a rest we returned to the dinghies, which brought us to shore this time. The short path led along the coastline and into the island. But it was so full of wildlife in action that it was among the most impressive encounters with nature I’ve ever had.

We started out crossing paths with sea lions, which lie across the black lava rocks we landed on. We walked on top of volcano barnacles, little creatures that come out at night to feed on organic matter. They live in a hard shell made of silica and calcium carbonate that looks like bubbles in a cauldron of soup atop the black lava rocks. We had close-up views of the fascinating frigate birds. Through sexual selection by females, the male has developed a gigantic red pouch that he puffs up when he wants to demonstrate his good gene quality. Though the bird is only 6-7 pounds, this pouch, when filled with air, can weigh two pounds. It is huge in relation to the rest of its body. He waves his head back and forth, extends his wind and makes a rattling sound. When a female sees that a male can develop a bright and large pouch, and avoid having been captured as prey (since a large red pouch makes them a more obvious target), she is confident that she is selecting good genes for her offspring.

Another attraction there was the blue footed booby, a white and brown bird with bright, pale blue webbed feet. While they mate all year, this is the height of the mating period. So we were able to see many examples of their funny ritual, in which the males lift their feet, one by one, in a type of dance, in order to demonstrate the bright and beautiful color of their feet and thus make themselves attractive to females.

Another highlight was watching the frigate bird feed her young. The baby caws in a persistent begging for food. This imprinted behavior causes the mother to regurgitate her fish and allow the baby to stick it’s beak into her throat to eat it. But she doesn’t do this immediately. First, she needs to look around to see that no other birds are around to steal the fish. Then she needs some time to regurgitate it.

We watched this in process. I thought she was taking much longer than necessary. Of course, the environment was full of birds. But none were in the immediate area. Yet as soon as she brought it up and the baby’s beak entered her mouth to eat it, a frigate bird swooped down and fought with the baby to get the fish. The frigate bird failed and the baby got the fish, although it seemed to choke it down after the fright. The mother squacked a protest at the potential thief, but I don’t think he was ashamed.

The frigate birds lack a preening gland on their backs that, like most other marine birds, would allow them to produce an oil for preening their feathers. Without this, they can’t go into the water because the weight of the water would prevent them from flying. So their method of eating is by stealing. Or by intimidating other birds in flight enough that they will regurgitate the fish, drop it, and the frigate will catch it in mid-air.

Because of the lack of natural predators, the animals on the Galapagos have no fear. We were sometimes just inches away from these animals – sea lions, marine and land iguanas, birds, and they didn’t move. I only got such a sensation of being so close to wildlife during a safari in Tanzania. But then we were within the protection of a jeep. Here we are out right next to the animal. It’s a remarkable experience.

In the evening, after a welcome Baileys and a delicious dinner, Mark and I fell asleep (with our pillows and blankets) on the front deck. The brilliant starry sky rotated above us with the swell of the waves, a live planetarium, complete with shooting stars.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Galapagos days 4 and 5 – Sierra Negra Volcano and Puerto Ayora




We’re back on Puerto Ayora, having returned on the daily 16-passenger fiberglass boat from Isabela. We stopped at the Western oriented café near the dock for a welcome breakfast of whole-grain pancakes with tropical fruit and tea with milk.

Puerto Ayora, the closest thing the Galapagos has to a capital, seems like a center of civilization. It was a treat for us to return to our simple, but air-conditioned room, internet access, laundry service, much as we loved the beauty and isolation of Isabela.

Yesterday was a rough day for us. We’d both become completely fried by the equatorial sun during our 15-kilometer hike on Tuesday. So yesterday we were in pain with the back of our knees scalded bright red by the sun. It would have been nice to rest, but we couldn’t give up the opportunity to see the Sierra Negra volcano, which we’d heard we could ascend by horseback, so we went ahead and joined a tour.

I was surprised when a truck picked us up and the guide who was driving told us to get into the open air back, where two benches lined the flatbed. In our condition, we couldn’t sit out in the open sun for an hour each way, so we asked to cram into the front seat with the driver.

There are only three towns on Isabela, the main beach town of Puerto Villamil (pop. 2200), a farming community of 500 called San Tomas, and a tiny town that I never saw on any maps called Las Mercedtitas. The island is a vast plot of empty land – a fact we were able to appreciate when we climbed up to the observation tower yesterday and saw only ocean, volcanoes, mangroves, lava fields, and scrubby forests extending as far as the eye could see. On this trip, we were heading north to the area of San Tomas.

As we packed the cracked lava strewn earth, prickly cactuses rising from the hard rocky earth, I wondered how and what people farmed. After we’d gone a ways, trees covered with Spanish moss appeared, and then dense greenery, including the upside-down hanging angel trumpet flowers. Our guide explained that the winds blow from south to north. And for that reason, the soil is blown to the north, so that the southern parts remain dry and barren and the areas available for farming (pineapple, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, bananas) are in the north.

I somehow expected there wouldn’t be many people at this remote spot on an isolated island. But I was wrong. We pulled up with a bunch of other trucks filled tourists filling the backs. We gaggled together at the base of a hill, like a flock of chickens, and waited as we were assigned our horses.

The trip was pretty disappointing, as the guides herded us up to the crater, whipping our horses to speed us up. They wanted us to finish up and get on to their next, afternoon, tour. It didn’t matter if some of the horses (including mine) bucked in response to the whipping. They also cut out our planned hike to the Cerro Azul volcano.


But despite the poor guiding, the landscape was beautiful. We rode up green hills to arrive at a vast, black crater – the crater of the volcano Sierra Negra. It’s the second largest crater in the world, after Ngorogoro in Tanzania. I’m lucky to have seen both and what a difference. While Ngorogoro is crawling with giraffes, rhinos and flamingos, the Sierra Negra is pure black basalt, with visible fissues.

The last explosion, at the rim of the crater, happened on October 22nd, 2005. they guides saw small explosions, then bombs. Many of them came up to the crater to watch the pyrotechnics during the 15 day explosion.”

I asked the horse owner, Juan, a cowboy in a red, white, and blue bandanna, weathered skin and gold teeth, whether he was scared. “A little,” he said, “But we have a stronger curiosity. When it erupts we all come up and look.”

He said the eruption brought tourists night and day. “We pray to God for more eruptions so that we’ll have a lot of work,” he said.

On our way back to town, we stopped by the Tortoise Center to learn about the efforts the center is realizing to reproduce and repopulate Isabela Island with tortoises. On the island, each volcano has a different race of giant tortoise. Of the 12 species worldwide, five of them live on Isabela. But with time, they have become more and more rare.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates killed thousands of tortoises for food. After Isabela was colonized in the late 1800s, the first inhabitants also ate tortoise meat and exported their oil to the mainland. As well, they introduced animals, such as pigs, cats, rats, burros and goats, that changed the natural environment. The population steadily decreased. The newborns, with their soft shell vulnerable to attack by cats and rats, had a hard time surviving. So the center opened, to keep newborns in pens, weigh and measure them every three months, and then put them out in the wild when they are able to resist attack.

That evening, the island held the Miss Isabela pageant, the first stage in the journey to become Miss Galapagos, then Miss Ecuador, then Miss Universe. As elsewhere in Latin America, being a beauty queen is a big deal.

There were only four contestants on this small island. But an entire parade was organized in their honor. A young woman who lived in a house next to our hotel was a participant (and the eventual winner). I watched her and her family decorate the back of a pick up truck with stuffed sea lions. Then she put on a banner and took her place.

Residents lined the street as the police led the parade. The four pick-ups came by, each carrying a contestant (they seemed to be 16 or 17 years old). After those initial glances, the entire town seemed to gather in the town hall for the pageant. This was a full-fledge production that took hours to set up, complete with vendors of cold bottled beer and roasted chicken and beef.


We watched the candidates parade out in a variety of skimpy clothing. We watched a young girl dressed in pink, perhaps ten years old, perform sexy dancers with a great confidence in her ability. And we watched the national costume show, in which each contestant came out in a costume she designed that represents Isabela Island. Each was more outlandish and outrageous than the next. Rosita, our neighbor and the eventual winner, came out last, carrying a fishing pole, and wearing a bikini while balancing a giant mackerel that curved from her hips to her head.

When it became clear the contest would last well into the night, we prepared to leave. When a balloon lit by fire was released in the wrong direction of wind, flew up to the center of the covered station, and began to burn, we hastened our exit. Getting trapped in a packed, burning stadium full of beauty pageant enthusiasts wasn’t something we wanted to experience. Luckily, we heard later, the fire went out before the stadium caught aflame. And the pageant went on.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Galapagos day 3 - Isabela Island




Mark and I woke up early this morning, intending to go on a hike. Instead, we were treated to a thunderous rainshower. The sky remained clear as the rain poured out of the sky, pounded down on our tin roof in a cacophonous roar. Morning walkers cleared from the beach, while the sea-green, white-capped waves continued to calmly roll up over the black lava rocks and the soft white sand.

From our balcony, we can look over the curve of the beach, and at a wooden observation deck extending from the shore. We can hear the gentle roar of the ocean, together with the morning chicken caws and the sounds of tropical birds.

The rain would stop briefly, and then pour down again. With time, the sky darkened, the waves grew larger, a small lake formed on our balcony, and water began to seep under our door.

After the rain stopped, we headed on our hike to the Wall of Tears and the western part of this shore. We chose a hike over an opportunity to go snorkeling to nearby islands because we thought we'd have plenty of time for water-based activities on our upcoming cruise. The land barely showed any traces of having been drenched, soaking up the wetness with a parched eagerness.

We followed a narrow roadway, sometimes sand and sometimes crushed volcanic rock (the local gravel). We were treated to views of the beautiful white sand beach that stretched out in crescents, to cool, dark tangled mangroves, to moist wetlands and lagoons, and to dry, desert-like scrubby landscapes with towering cacti.

We passed a beautiful cemetery, marked off with a short wall of black volcanic rocks. The white tombs were very well maintained, covered with plastic flowers, religious statues and prayers. The grave of a 16-year-old girl, who died just one year ago, was at the cemetery entrance, a large photo of her young face in the glass-enclosed case on the headstone.

We visited the Wall of Tears, a sheer walk wall constructed by prisoners who were told to build themselves a prison. In a hot, shadeless, merciless area, one local guide said the reputation of this prison colony made “even the most hardened criminals cry for mercy.”

Our single day in the blistering hot sun resulted in a burn that took several days to heal. While we had to move quickly on the return, we had time to see a flock of blue-footed boobies on a lava peninsula, a lava tube and a wooded pathway scattered with small apples that looked like crabapples, but were in fact poisonous. We tried to take a shortcut by walking along the beach, but when that meant going around a patch of lava, we got stuck on the sharp rocks below and almost lost all our belongings. We decided to turn around and follow the standard path

Throughout the day, we wondered aloud what it must be like to live in a town of 2,200 on an isolated island within an isolated archipelago. Granted, there are must more isolated spots in the world. Boats leave daily at 6 a.m. for the 2-hour trip to Puerto Ayora, from where flights leave daily to Quito and Guayaquil. But for those who don't travel frequently, it's easy here to forgot about the rest of the world, or at least to feel so isolated from it that it doesn't matter too much. Here, one can roll away on the sound of the waves and the beachfront music and feel that yes, everything is going to be alright.

I was able to see a little bit of local life this afternoon when I attended a children's show being put on in celebration of the discovery of Isabela island. We seemed to have timed our visit with the week-long festivities that accompany this celebration. But the festivities in a town this size are only so big. The kid's show was advertised by blasting rock music from a speaker that could be heard almost all the way across town. I approached the sound of the music to see what was going on and I imagine many other attendees did the same.

The MC, dressed in black pants, a black bow tie, and an iridescent jacket, encouraged the children to join him on stage, then led them through a series of games and contests. During the dance contest, the children demonstrated considerable rhythm. Another contest had the kids race to bring back a shoe from their mothers.

When some of the children were reluctant to come onstage, the MC reminded onlookers that they wanted their kids to grow up to be doctors and engineers and people who would do good things. They needed to start by being brave and participatory.

I thought it was nice that the sound of pounding music can unite a community. I certainly envied the children who danced under palm fronds, almost oblivious of the crashing ocean waves behind them – a tropical paradise that was standard, hum-drum living for them. And I was impressed that people seemed to have high goals for their childrens’ futures. What I liked best of all was the calmness and friendliness of people. Quite a few tourists have begun to visit Isabela. Yet no one bothers them and everyone is ready to help. I saw a pair of women lying on the beach. No one selling them anything, no one staring at them, no one bothering them in any way. It’s one of those unique spots where one can find both beauty and peace.