We boarded the Panga, starting out Galapagos adventure in a rubber dingy with high spirits and good memories of last year in West Papua, New Guinea. We had joined Larry’s sister, Dale, her son, Logan and Kelly, Logan’s fiancé, as well as Kelly’s parents in Quito several days earlier. There are only 14 people on the cruise, so we constitute half of the larger group. When we arrived at the catamaran, our naturalist introduced himself. He was born in Galapagos, educated as a chemical engineer in Mexico, and had worked all over the world as a diver for a big Mexican oil company. He also earned a master’s degree in something like “ecology and conservation.” His name was Edwin, same as my father. I am an instant fan.
Our quarters are fine, exactly what I expected based on the 360-degree video of the rooms. It included a nearly queen-sized bed up against the wall of the cabin, making it easier to sleep because we one of us does not have to worry about falling out of bed. The shower sprayer hung above the bathroom sink, so you have to take the toilet paper out of the holder when you take a shower. Common arrangement in sailboats. Clean and doable.
Then the engines started up, and our cabin was wracked by the level of noise I imagine you hear when landing in the baggage hold of an old Airbus. And I found out it goes on all night. And, we can’t change cabins. I am began to fear losing my mind. And Larry had a case of tourista and the toilet isn’t working, so I opened the window in the bathroom, allowing hordes of mosquitos to swarm inside. I am crying now and carrying on loudly about the noise because we cannot hear each other if we don’t shout. I slept in the lounge that night with two other guests who tried to sleep in a room on the other side of the motor and one of the staff members. And I was seasick.
I spoke to Edwin about changing cabins, who promised to take it up with the captain. Later, he told Larry that there was no chance of that, even at the small city where half of the passengers leave and a new group of passengers gets on. No chance. Period. I found out there are two more nights that the boat is on the move all night. We can reach other ports during the day. Dale has an extra bed in her cabin and is willing to share. She is away from the motor. Okay. I began to believe I could survive.
Our first stop is Genovese Island. The wake-up bell rang four times, and we all arrive up for breakfast between 7 and 8am. However, it is really only from 7-7:30. Then, we are to be on the Panga for a ride to the island and a hike that lasts until 10. Edwin tells us about adaptation: how tiny changes in lowly creatures inspired Charles Darwin to change our whole view of the universe. It was, in fact, awesome to contemplate. And it was quite hot. And I could not really tell the difference between the small brown finch, the medium brown finch, and the large brown finch. We did see several iguanas and some red-footed boobies.
After the hike, we were free to swim for an hour, blessed relief from the heat, but I missed my floaty board. I didn’t bring it. I’m not a strong swimmer, but I love to float around in the water, thus the floaty board. It is a paddleboard and with a tether. A few of the women on the Panga had floaty board envy when I brought it out the next day.
In the afternoon snorkel, there were the shallow inlets, inhabited by big and small creatures alike. In this season, they seemed fat, fine and happy. The water was cloudy with food, nutrients that bubble up from the bottom of the sea, swept along by the Panama current. Thick schools of gray fish swarmed by, each four to five inches long, oval-shaped, adorned by lemon yellow tails. They swam off, a wall of yellow arrows faded in the gray distance. I turn my facemask around to the left. Good Lord!
It’s a sea lion. A Galapagos sea lion. Not a seal. Definitely not a seal. Seals have no ears, Edwin explains. My whole body jerks away from his ear-toting face. Kelly, in her maroon swimsuit, swoops toward the sea lion in her maroon swimsuit, following his motions in large, loopy back flips and front flips, a graceful dance in a sunlit sea. This is good. This is very, very good. There are hammerhead sharks too and a sea turtle.
After Genovase, there are two days where the motoring is all over by evening. This is a relief and because I have arranged with my sister-in-law to stay with her on two nights when we sail all night, I get some sleep. I needed it because the schedule was hectic. Up at 6:45 every morning. Breakfast at 7am. Hike at 8 am. Swim or snorkel at 10pm. Lunch. Hike at 1 or 2, swim or snorkel at 3 or 4. Briefing at 6:45. Dinner at 7. Logan, Kelly, Dale, Larry, June, and Ralph all found this schedule fabulous, except for Logan, who complained there was not enough swimming. I drop out of the morning slate after a brush with sunstroke while walking over hot lava. A lyric from a Noel Coward song comes to mind, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.”
The Ecuadorian government schedules all excursions so that tourists don’t end up falling all over each other. We often passed the passengers from other boats returning from our destination. All the passengers are white. The only native people tromping across the lava are the naturalists assigned to these groups. Even the iguanas hide in the shade of low-slung brush.
I slept late as I the next day, grabbed some coffee, and sat down to write on the boat. This is how I like to spend my adventure vacations. Taking the morning off to read or write after everyone in the boat (cabin, hut) have gone out hiking (scuba diving, bird watching). Then, I snorkel or swim in the afternoon. I ditch the morning hike twice. Deborah from D.C. joins me. She and I have bonded over the difficulty of the hikes and the heat of the lava. We are the whiners. We also gossip about crew and the passengers that are the “other” group, a family of seven Argentinians who got onboard at mid-week. Deborah is now a part of “our” group.
And then, there are the nights. Quiet nights anchored in some far-flung bay two and a half hours from Quito by plane. On the top deck, a set of wicker couches sported canvas cushions. There is just barely enough room for Larry and me to lie, side by side, on one of the couches, staring up past the unfurled sails to the stars. One night, late in the trip, we crossed the Equator. We had been checking in with Orion every night. You know Orion, right? When you pass the Equator, suddenly (I am not kidding), Orion looks like it is upside down and backward. Neither Larry nor I could conger a reasonable explanation.
We snorkeled around enchanted, remembering, as Edwin warned, to take it slow; let the animals come to us. Out in the open, there were schools of transparent fish that boasted a dark outline around the edge of their bodies and a small black stripe down the middle, purple tropical with gold markings, polka dotted boxfish and huge parrotfish. They vanished in water thick with tiny organisms. Hordes of anonymous gray and black fish scurried below us. Then, all of a sudden, there was a sea turtle the size of a coffee table. Right by my side or three feet below me. He seemed completely oblivious to my presence, but for the sideways glance now and then.
Other hid in the crevasses, like the white ray with the four ray babies. I spot the ray. Logan dove down to check out the babies. Kelly spotted an octopus, pointing to a tentacle poking out from a tiny cave. Some things zipped by us—like a pod of maybe four dolphins. Our guide yelled at us to get in the boat. NOW. We scrambled in and took off to play with dolphins. They acknowledged us, jumping out of the water, but continued their mission. No cavorting with humans today. We turned around, heading back to the rocks, and jumped overboard.
A coupled of penguins dove of the rocks and there were more hammerheads, though I didn’t get to see one and everybody else saw three. On the other hand, I was the first to see the white tipped shark on the final snorkel. He swam around right under me with his skin smooth as satin and silvery gray. I wanted to touch him, but we had taken a vow to stay 6 feet away. This is a good rule, but it is hard to obey because the animals are often closer than that when you see them, like the white fin shark. The white fin almost ran into Logan’s face as Logan ascended from a dive. Startled, Logan spewed bubbles as he gasped and the shark took off in the opposite direction. They are quite timid, actually. Not all sharks are at all like the ones in the movie Jaws.
This is a place where sea animals are welcome. Mammals, birds, turtles, sharks abound and they are not frightened. When we arrived in town on Santa Cruz, the place where my guide grew up, a big sea lion lurched up from the beach, scooted across the plaza and slide into a shady spot on a bench in the plaza. I bought a tiny little beach dress made out of a heavy fabric, allowing me to parade around without a bra on without feeling weird. Life is definitely getting better.
All is nearly forgiven, but I still think I will write a letter to the owners, about my own misery, of course, but also about the misery, this must cause the crew. The noise causes them endless trouble with passengers. I know because our naturalist looks weary when I ask about it and there are many people in the world like Deborah and me who have trouble sleeping. Deborah also asked Edwin if she could move as she was next to the generator. Neither of us got to move. Maybe this was due to the status of the family that boarded mid-week. He was currently the ambassador from Argentina to Chile and had been the Ambassador to the U.S. under Clinton.
This trip challenged me to “make it work,” as Tim Gunn says on Project Runway. I found myself a quiet bed. I figured out how to make the toilet flush and kill mosquitos. I got the cook to make me breakfast in the late morning. I got Edwin to turn off the lights in the lounge because they shone through the glass door to my cabin. I am very happy with myself about that. I am also happy that I took those mornings off to think to write and think.
I am also certain that I am not going to the Amazon with Larry and Dale in the fall. I am going to New York to visit friends and see a Broadway show.