Saturday, March 21, 2015
Our last full day on the boat began with a stunning sunrise.
We had a nice lunch and then a long break with time to pack and nap. All of our clothes were wet and/or dirty, so it was probably time to bring the trip to a close.
We returned to Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora at 3:30 to see some of the scientific endeavors that are underway to ensure the survival of the several unique species of the Galapagos. We went to the land tortoise breeding center and saw baby and juvenile tortoises.
We saw the habitat area of Lonesome George, who was the last of the Pinta Island saddleback tortoises. The story of Lonesome George is fascinating and ultimately sad. Pinta Island is one of the smaller islands. It’s not visited by tourists and not inhabited by humans. Pinta Island’s ecosystem had been ravaged by a population of feral goats that had been originally introduced by pirates centuries ago. Tortoises need green grass and shade and condensation pools to survive, and the hardy goats mowed all of that down. By the mid 1950’s, the Pinta Island tortoise was declared extinct….or so it was thought. In 1971, a man visiting Pinta Island to collect shells observed a lone tortoise lumbering around near the beach. A Pinta Island tortoise! Alive! An exhaustive search of the island was made, but George was all alone, the last of his kind. He was brought to the breeding center in Santa Cruz in hopes that he would mate with a similar land tortoise from a neighboring island. The scientists introduced him to Georgina and Georgetta, but George wasn’t too interested. At one point, there were some eggs, but none hatched. Lonesome George died in 2012, devasting his handler of more than 40 years and the rest of the scientific world, all of whom had gone to great lengths to try to preserve the species. (In an interesting footnote, scientists have discovered tortoises on other islands in the Galapagos with small amounts of Pinta DNA. They theorize that human activity is likely responsible. The pirates may have moved tortoises from island to island, where they mated with the “locals,” and some hybrids survived. In any event, the Pinta tortoise in its “purebred” form died with George.) There is something particularly poignant about being able to pinpoint the exact time and place when a species ceases to exist. Who wrote it down for the dinosaurs? Who will write it down for us?
Lonesome George was preserved with loving attention to detail by a taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Lonesome George was displayed at the museum, and we even got the chance to see him back in October. The Galapagos National Park is trying to raise funding for a proper display for him, but I believe that he is heading to mainland Ecuador for now.
Flashback to October 2014. I wish we had seen him alive in Santa Cruz.
After we completed our tour of the breeding center, the guides gave us some souvenir shopping time in Puerto Ayora town. We got some t-shirts and art work and generally strolled around.
James, proud resident of Santa Cruz, asked his wife to bring the twins down to meet us. We got to see James in a different role, that of proud father.
We ate our snacks, went back to our rooms and showered off so that we could attend the captain’s farewell cocktail. We met in the main muster area, and the champagne was flowing. The captain had put on his dress white top with crisply starched black pants, and his face was freshly clean-shaven. Perhaps he wanted a change of look for his birthday. He cut an impressive figure. (Can you tell that I liked the captain?) He thanked us all for being a good group, and we thanked the crew in return. We raised our glasses in toast. The crew told us they had a little surprise for us: Hernan and James had been photographing US while we were out on excursions, and they had put together a video montage of our week’s activities. They had made a concerted effort to get several pictures of each family, and everyone was fairly represented. (Almost every picture of me showed me with a camera up to my face. Surprise!) It was such a sweet gesture, and we all cheered and laughed at each other’s photos. There were also some spectacular wildlife photos in the lineup. Hernan is a very talented photographer. They told us that if we brought an SD card to the main muster area later, they would copy it for each of us at no charge. I got my copy and proudly added it to my photo collection. We got our tip envelopes and comment cards, and James and Hernan announced to us for the last time, “Dinner is served.” We enjoyed one last delicious supper together. We laughed heartily, but I think there was a hint of wistful melancholy in the air. Everyone was sad to have to leave these enchanting islands and each other. After dessert and drinks, we all headed off our separate ways to pack and get ready to depart in the morning.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
The guides told us it would be a pretty short trip to get back to San Cristobal and they were right. The engines started up at 11:00 PM or so on Saturday night, and we motored along until about 3:30 in the morning. I always woke up when the boat stopped. The absence of the “white noise” was just disruptive enough to bring me to the surface. I sat and listened to the sounds of the boat and the men. I heard the sound of the winch lowering the pangas down to water level. I heard the men’s voices as they worked together to get the boat anchored. Soon I drifted back to sleep.
One last “wake up, wake up” and we gathered for breakfast aboard the ship. There was no white board. The crew could not spend a lot of time moping with us. They were making the ship ready for the next guests, who will arrive in the afternoon. They have only a few hours to make the boat ready for the next set of adventurers. Will they be as fun as we were? No way!
We met on the deck for our last panga ride together. We had all become professionals at getting in and out of our life preservers and loading into the boats.
We spent an hour or so at an interpretation center. I got this nice shot from the deck.
We flew from San Cristobal to Guayaquil on the mainland, and all of our boat mates except Ian, Buffy and Sean got off. Some of them were continuing their vacation adventures, while others were headed home. We hugged the ones who were close enough to hug and waved enthusiastically at those who were too far away. Melanie ran backwards two rows on the plane to give me a last squeeze, a sweet gesture that I will always remember. She and I both had tears in our eyes. Strangers on the plane wanted to know what cruise we had been on and whether we had all known each other before. We told them, “We are from the Flamingo touring with Ecoventura. We did not know each other before, but we are all friends now!” It was a peculiar thing to have this special bond with all of these fabulous people who had shared our lives and our adventure. Can you make friends for life in a week’s time? I think so.
We got to Quito in the late afternoon and had to recover all of our bags, which were only checked through to Quito. We would have to go to the international terminal with all of them and go through security again. Our layover was about 5 hours, which is a brutal amount of time to spend sitting around in an airport. At first we thought about dropping our bags at a paid locker station, but they wanted $11 per bag, which we thought was exorbitant. I was feeling so grubby and desperately wanted a hot shower and a few minutes of rest. We found an information booth and asked the lady if there was a hotel very near the airport where we could get a day room. She knew just the place. She told us transportation was included and the man would be there in “10 minutes.” We should have known that was 10 minutes Ecuadorian, which means 30 minutes USA time. After half an hour, she apologized and said that the hotel owner was having a snafu with someone else’s bag and asked us if we cared to take a prepaid taxi to the hotel. We took a chance and said okay, and in 10 minutes we were there. But where was there?
It seemed a little odd at first, because the town seemed nothing more than a collection of tall, metal walls. The cab driver went to the appointed address and honked, and the solid metal gate, too tall to see beyond, opened. At first I wondered if we had been sent on a boondoggle. Were we about to go inside the wall and be robbed or fleeced? We were met by the owner, who grabbed our bags and escorted us into a nice little hacienda style hotel. Thanks to the internet, we were soon able to research the hotel and found that it got good reviews on TripAdvisor, particularly as a resting spot near the airport. Whew!
We stuffed our bags into the room and took turns standing under the hot, steamy, ROOMY shower. It was so nice to stand in a shower that didn’t sway. We laid on the bed until suppertime and went to the main dining hall, where we had the best $7 supper I’ve ever had: a hearty soup, chicken, rice and vegetables, and homemade dessert. The dining room was sparsely populated, which seemed a shame with such delightful meal. There was one couple in the place and a girl in the back corner plugged into her iPhone. We struck up a conversation with the couple. They wanted to know where we had been and what we had done. They were Canadians who had been in-country for 42 days and had many tales to tell. They were professional travelers and told us of their many adventures in Ecuador and throughout the years. They were the kind of people who delight in finding a $25 bargain hostel. I like to think that I might be more like them if I were retired and had no time constraints. I tend to plan my entire trip in advance and pay a premium to have certainty about where I am staying and what I am doing. Perhaps when I retire….. Anyway, the man said he was in India while they were filming the Ben Kingsley movie “Ghandi” and was an extra. He told us exactly where to find him in the movie…for all three seconds. He also told us a long involved story about how he once stepped on Mother Theresa’s toe. Most interestingly, he told us how he asked his wife to marry him at the conclusion of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) pilgrimage walk in Spain. He later went back and did the pilgrimage again with his grown daughter. He said the experience was “sublime”, and of course, Greg and I were intrigued. Genene yawned into her dessert. So many places. So little time. We parted company and wished each other safe and wonderful travels.
Greg, Genene and I returned hand in hand in hand to our room, and we got to see a stunning sunset.
We had a few more minutes to relax on the bed before heading back to the airport at 9:15 PM. The hotel’s driver took us by van, and the return trip took only 10 minutes. It was easy to get checked in on United, and we were glad that we had taken the chance on the hotel. We reunited with Austinites Buffy, Ian and Sean, and we all sat at the airport gate companionably. Turns out they were seated right across from us in the airplane (we all sprang for those extra legroom seats), but we were exhausted so we didn’t say much. The flight got in the air at 15 minutes past midnight, and I was asleep before the plane leveled off.
We arrived in Houston at 5:30 AM on Monday morning, and through the magic of Global Entry we were through immigration before our bags got on the carousel. Buffy, Ian and Sean were not too far behind, and we gathered our gear. They had to catch a connecting flight to Austin, so we were finally parted. The adults all hugged. Adhering to the age-old rule that boys and girls of a certain age can’t touch or act as if they might like each other, Genene and Sean simply made hand gestures and slapped at each other without touching. I hope we will see them again soon. Austin is only a three hour drive from Houston.
We were waved through customs without a problem and got in a cab. We were at our front doorstep by 7:00 AM. Greg and Genene crashed down hard, but I could not afford to because I had to be at work. I put on a load of laundry and unpacked some bags. I was at the office well before a client board meeting at noon. I was able to announce proudly to the board that “last night at midnight, I was in Quito, Ecuador.” I am not sure if they were impressed or mortified.
RANDOM, PARTING THOUGHTS:
It took me until Thursday to lose the sensation of movement, which was quite disconcerting. The patch was a godsend, and as I mentioned, I experienced no seasickness while on board the ship. I found it odd that it was only AFTER disembarking that I felt bad. After a couple of days, I began researching and through the power of internet self-diagnosis managed to frighten myself into thinking I had some kind of rare disorder called mal de debarquement. I read posts from people who went on a cruise and never quit moving for years. Thankfully, I found my land legs by the week’s end and was able to quit fretting. The internet has really transformed life. There is so much information at our fingertips. Too bad so much of it is frightening or wrong. The internet must be a hypochondriac’s dream.
We loved our guides, our tour operator and our boat. First, a shout-out to our guides: Hernan and James were marvelous. They were patient with the kids, and they seemed to genuinely enjoy their vocation. Guides in the Galapagos are all required to be certified as Class I, II and III, with III having the most training and formal education as naturalists. Our guides were Class III and it showed. There was no reptile or bird they could not identify. Or maybe they just followed the cheater’s rules they laid out for us: if you do not know its name, start with Darwin, lava or Galapagos. And we will never forget their explanations of the marine iguana snot-rockets and the land tortoise and cormorant coochie-coochie. The old adage holds true: a bad guide can ruin a trip and a good guide can make one. Hernan and James were superb.
The Flamingo was a beauty. Her cabins were small, but that was to be expected. We were cozy, and the important things (to me) were taken care of. Bed linens were soft and comfy. The rooms were clean. The sun deck was perfect for reading and napping, and the bar was fully stocked. (Priorities!) We ate gourmet meals and wanted for nothing. And did I mention her captain was cute?
Our tour operator was Ecoventura, which is privately owned by Ecuadorian family. They have been in business since 1990, and they know their stuff. They were the first Galapagos touring company to earn the Smart Voyager designation, a program developed by the Rainforest Alliance to promote ecological conservation. Their fleet operates to strict standards to avoid impact to the islands. In fact, one of the sister yachts–Eric–has been fitted with wind turbines and solar panels, making it the first hybrid yacht in the Galapagos. Ecoventura takes their charge to protect the islands seriously, and we felt good about cruising with them. As an aside, our guides told us that each year, all the representatives from all the tour operator companies get together with the national park to negotiate the terms of their respective park uses, including itineraries. Apparently there is a lot of horsetrading involved in those meetings. “We want to be able to go to Rabida.” “Okay, you must trade me a day on Genovesa.” “No way. You’re not getting Genovesa for Rabida.” And so on. I would enjoy being a fly on the wall in those negotiations. All I can say is this: The Ecoventura family must have some serious stroke or have some formidable negotiating powers because our itinerary was first class. If you want to cruise with the pros, check them out. Here’s the link (I think; I’m still learning this blog platform): Galapagos Islands Cruises & Tours, Scuba Diving, Cruise Ship, Yacht Charter To Galapagos Islands
A word about Ecuador (I warned you these observations were random.) Ecuador adopted a new constitution in 2008. It is the first constitution IN THE WORLD to give rights to nature. Its translated Article 71 says, “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature. To enforce and interpret these rights, the principles set forth in the Constitution shall be observed, as appropriate. The State shall give incentives to natural persons and legal entities and to communities to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements comprising an ecosystem.”
Think about that for a moment–constitutional rights…for nature! What a radical thought. In a world where human rights are not even close to being realized, Ecuador has the audacity to grant rights to nature. Is this hopeless, maybe even a fool’s errand? Probably. But if we save nature, will we possibly save ourselves?
If you have an hour to kill in the car, as I often do, I commend your attention to a Radiolab production about the Galapagos. You can listen to it on your smartphone (handsfree, of course) as you drive, and I guarantee you will be enthralled. Did you ever wonder how to eliminate 200,000 goats from an island chain and thus restore its ecosystem to the tortoises? I’ll give you a few hints: it involves several million dollars, helicopters, sharp shooters, and “Judas goats” with radio collars. Perhaps most importantly, it requires the Ecuadorian government and the national park to have a strong constitution and a willingness to do something bold and controversial to reclaim the islands. To make an omelette, one must break some eggs. Click here: Galapagos – Radiolab and hit the play button. You can ponder questions about how far mankind is willing to go to put back what we have had a part in destroying and how far we are willing to go to bring back what is already gone. It’s fascinating.
On a personal note, I loved the experience of the Galapagos for other, more selfish and less lofty reasons. Genene had an absolute blast with the kids on board, and as a mother, I am happy when she is happy. We all got to listen to the girls’ songs in the back seat of the buses, in the pangas, on the walks. I now know what The viper does, the story of the lady with long, skinny fingers and ruby red lips, the peanut butter sandwich, and ants on a log. Not everything we learned was edifying, but it was fun. At the beginning of the journey, I was worried that she might make “a friend” and leave us all alone. She made seven friends, and we made many more.
Every parent can groan with me as you listen to 13 seconds of “Cow Go, Cow Go Moo!”
When you are in that car or bus, it can be annoying, but I realize that Genene is growing up very fast, and these days will be a distant, happy memory all too soon. I would like to hold onto these times, and I am doing it with this blog.
Another thing I enjoyed was the absolute lack of cell phone service after we left the inhabited islands on the first day of the cruise. I do have a rule about turning off my work emails on vacations, but I still habitually check my personal email, my text messages, Facebook, etc. None of it worked! (I was able to get cell service in the middle of the Serengeti and throughout Peru so I am always surprised at how connected the world is.) After a day or so, when I realized that we were not going to get service, I left the phone plugged into the wall in the closet in my cabin and quit looking at it. I only twitched with withdrawal pangs for a little while, and then, I rediscovered the world. I love Facebook and how it keeps me connected to friends all over the world, but turning it off gave me the chance to get to know the people right beside me on the boat.
Our guides Hernan and James gave us all copies of the video they made for us, and Melanie downloaded it to youtube for all of us to share. (Thanks, Melanie!) In almost every shot of me, I have a camera up to my face. It must have frustrated James and Hernan, who were trying to sneak all these pictures of us. There are also some beautiful wildlife photos mixed in. If you were not on the trip, it might not hold your interest for all 13 minutes, but I shall treasure it forever. It’s a reminder of all the wonderful friends we made “on the road.”
On our last night on the Flamingo, the captain gave us all autographed maps of our journey. We traveled 502 nautical miles together. We saw the wonders of Darwin’s world and came unplugged from our busy day-to-day affairs. I cherish the trip and the people we met on it.
I have struggled to finish this blog. I think part of it may have been intentional on my part. As long as I was still writing, researching, editing…a part of me was still there. I didn’t ride my first airplane until a callback interview in law school, but I’ve been making up for lost time. I love to go to exotic places, and I have a daughter who can compare the cuy in Peru to the cuy in Ecuador. She wants to know when she will get to go to Disneyworld. She told me once, “Mom, I would like to go there before I get too old to enjoy it.” I guess we will have to put it on the list. Our next trip is already planned. We are going to Thailand and Cambodia for two weeks this summer, and we will have new adventures and hopefully make new friends. Another blog!
The Galapagos are the Enchanted Islands, and for a short week, we enjoyed their magic. I do believe we got some “good karma” along the way, and even the night of the rough seas makes for a good story (after the fact). I could go on and on. In fact, I already have. Time to stop dreaming, finish my income taxes and do all the real world tasks that make our travels possible. Genene had a blast and told me she wants to return to the Galapagos (maybe after Disneyworld or Universal Studios). James and Hernan, if you are listening, “Cue the booby!”