For a man who is on a first-name basis with Nathaniel Drinkwater (see author Richard Woodman), Jack Aubrey (see Patrick O’Brian), Horatio Hornblower (see C.S. Forester) and Richard Bolitho (see Alexander Kent), what could be better than sailing to the Galapagos and maybe… just maybe hoisting a sail or two before taking the wheel?
My husband is such a man, and sailing to the Galapagos, he followed in the steps of Captain Jack and Maturin (see Russell Crowe playing Captain Jack in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). We sailed aboard the Mary Anne, a three-masted ship that I found through www.sailingshipadventures.com. What a great ship and crew! And what a personable, well-informed naturalist.
But back to the beginning. We left Denver May first. True to Springtime in the Rockies, we left in a blinding snow storm, and our take-off was delayed for de-icing.
We stayed three days in Quito, the very first city to be granted World Heritage status in 1978. Reputedly, Quito is the best preserved Spanish Colonial city in South America. At 9,000 feet, the city of 2.2 million lies in a narrow valley that runs north and south between two mountain chains. Skyscrapers and up-scale shopping mark the newest parts of the city. The historic district tends to cobbled streets, plazas, and Spanish Colonial architecture.
That said, there is plenty of variety. Some buildings look Moorish; many churches are in the Baroque style – full of reverse curves on the outside and gold within. The ornamentation is over-the-top, and I find myself caught between admiring the artistry and wondering about the gold… the spoils of war… and the destruction of the Inca Empire at the hands of Pizarro and the Spanish Conquest.
I highly recommend Kim MacQuarrie‘s book The Last Days of the Incas. If you have ever wondered how Pizarro could with only 167 men defeat the Inca emperor Atahualpa and eighty thousand of his warriors, you must read this book.
Travel is full of thought-provoking experiences. As an example, I offer up The Story of Juan. Mark and I like to think that we are pretty savvy travelers, but hardly a trip goes by when we aren’t played for “tourists.” We were just about to enter Iglesia de San Francisco, when we were approached by a tour guide who offered to show us the highlights of the church. Juan spoke excellent English and asked us where we were from. When we replied Colorado, Juan beamed and said that as a linguist he had taught at Colorado College. Ah… we were joined at the hip. How could we refuse his services?
In our defense, I will say that we are generous when travelling. In most cases, tourism is a big part of the economy and we don’t mind contributing. And so, dazzling us with facts and figures, Juan zipped us through the cathedral. He was quite keen that I take pictures of everything he pointed out.
At the conclusion of our tour, we should have tipped him and said our good-byes, but… we hesitated… which proved to be the-kiss-of-death. There was the Colorado College connection and his four grandchildren. Our ambivalence made us prey. We were in Juan’s web. Our hands and feet were sticky. We couldn’t seem to extricate ourselves.
On we went. Finally, I begged off. I needed a cup of coffee. Not to worry. Juan knew just the place. Like sheep we followed. And we ended up in an artist’s studio. (Will we ever wake up and smell the coffee?) Yes, the artist was good at painting local scenes on goat skin and burlap, but we didn’t need or want any art. I should have said, “We appreciate your skill, but we are not buying art.” But I didn’t. (Sometimes I just hate myself!)
We ended up buying art that we didn’t want. We don’t want it, and we can’t think of anyone who would want it. Will this expensive bit of goat skin be relegated to being the joke Christmas present… every year being passed from one unsuspecting victim to the next?
I don’t mind contributing to the local economy, but I don’t like being hustled. We parted from Juan. We were unhappy with his asking price. We bargained. We ended up compromising: he mentioned his grandchildren again. Was he a linguist? Had he taught at Colorado College? I don’t think so. That night I dreamed. In the dream I saw Juan sitting by lamplight. Before him lay an open atlas. Silently he mouthed the names of the individual states and their universities: “Michigan… Ann Arbor; California… Berkeley; New York… Columbia…”
As for coffee… you would think that Ecuadoran coffee would be sold on every street corner. It is not. Apparently, they export those lovely beans. How strange that I can buy Ecuadoran coffee at my little mountain market in Westcliffe, but in Ecuador I’m more likely to be served Nescafe. Yuck! The coffee was bad, but the fresh fruit smoothies were to die for. We also liked the fried potato cakes: Mash three varieties of potatoes, and sandwich a slice of cheese between two potato patties. Fry street-side so passers-by will be tempted. Top with an egg – sunny-side-up. Serve with a hot sauce something like Cholula but sweeter and a relish that they called crevice except it just onions and tomatoes pickled in lemon juice. Fabulous!
After three days in Quito (thinking that if one of the active volcanos would erupt I would have a good story), we flew the 600 miles west to the Galapagos. The water was crystal clear. From the Zodiac, I took pictures of golden rays, eagle rays, Green Sea Turtles, Marine Iguanas, and schools of multi-colored fish. I had only to put on my snorkel gear and swim in an endless aquarium. In the water I saw more.
In truth, I wasn’t so keen to snorkel. I’m not one for getting wet. So right away, I had a problem. But given that my husband and youngest daughter are serious divers, the very least I could do was to give it a try. I did. And I’m hooked. I forgot about getting wet. In the aquarium without end, I swam with a White-Tipped shark and a group of sea lions. My life is complete.
Living aboard the ship, our time was quite scheduled. If we weren’t snorkeling, we were hiking. Every day we sailed to another island. All the islands are volcanic, but as Charles Darwin noted, each is dramatically different.
Given oxidation, the older islands are rust-colored. The younger islands are ebony. In 1854, Herman Melville wrote:
Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas.”
The flora and fauna are as distinctive as the islands and many species are specific to/adaptable to just one island. The finches… you know about Darwin and the finches. Officially there are 13 distinct species which are distinguished by their beaks which are sized to match the ecology of the particular island. Depending on the island’s resources, the finches might eat seed, nectar, fruit, or insects. Vampire finches suck blood from the wings of the Boobies.
Because the islands are another UNESCO Heritage Site and home to a number of rare animals no one is allowed on the islands without a licensed national park guide. We are not to approach any animal. We are to keep our distance. Ha! Easier said than done. When the zodiacs take us from the ship to shore, we often have to mind our step. One mis-step and we would step on an Sally Lightfoot Crab, an Iguana, or a seal. The animals have total disregard for man.
As I hopscotch between the female sea lions, I compare it to walking through a barnyard. To the left and right are chickens and ducks. Nearby is a cow mooing and a horse nickering. They are used to being fed. They crowd closer hoping for food. Likewise, these island animals exhibit no fear. The Galapagos are truly The Garden of Eden… before the apple incident.
In addition to the finches, the Blue-footed and Red-footed Boobies, and Nazca Boobies are of interest – particularly to me because I have never been good a bird identification. Blue feet? Got it! Red feet? Got it! A black mask? It’s gotta be a Nazca Boobie. The Nazca’s are particularly interesting in that they lay two eggs. One egg will hatch first and that chick will get a head start. Once the second egg hatches, the first-hatched kills the newborn. (I think it is called “siblicide.”) It is sort of an insurance policy. If one egg is a dud, the parents still have a chick – think of “an heir and a spare.”
The Magnificent Frigate Birds are a hoot. The males have a red, balloon-like sack that they inflate when courting. Apparently, bigger is better. We see a lot of courting going on. The females are looking for the showier of the males.
Courtship is also taking place among the Waved Albatrosses. They wave their necks from side to side and clack with their beaks – a kind of kissing, I guess. They mate for life, so it is important to get it right.
What else? I must say that for a person who can never identify a bird, I did quite well in the Galapagos. Mostly the birds sit and don’t fly away. It is a great advantage for someone with poor eyes. For my bird-fancier friends I saw the Galapagos Penguin, the Flightless Cormorant, Oyster Catchers, Swallow-Tailed Gulls, The Greater Flamingo, Yellow Warblers, Mockingbirds, Short-eared Owls, Brown Pelicans, and others too numerous to mention.
And I guess, because the Giant Tortoise is the Galapagos’ big tourist draw, I should include them too. In short, the tortoises have had a hard time of it. Between the whalers and the sealers who were weary of rancid salt-pork and were eager for fresh meat, the turtles were nearly wiped out during the first half of the 1800s when several hundred ships were harvesting whale oil and seal fur. Caught and brought aboard, the tortoises were stacked upside down. In that position, they could be kept alive without food or water for several months to a year. An estimated 200,000 tortoises taken.
At week’s end, I was ready to leave. I am not used to being so tightly scheduled. That said, if I had not been so tightly scheduled, think of what I would have missed. The landscape, the animals, my travelling companions, the crew, and the ship.
Most of all, I would have missed the innocence of the animals who knew no fear. It was very moving to know that had we wanted to harm them, we could have done so with our bare hands.
We would have had no need of an assault rifle. A large rock or a stout stick would have done the job.
Back in Quito, I write down what I see as the taxi takes us to the airport. My list is a good overview of a big city in Ecuador. I see: a two-room cinderblock slum; larger, one-story houses with re-bar sticking up… awaiting a second story… some day some time; mangy dogs; impatient death-defying drivers; fast food cooking next to the sidewalk; lumber yards, numerous scrap metal dealers, cinderblock sales, adobe, used tires; frozen fruit in the form of popsicles; clothing on wash-lines; billboards, soccer fields, packed green public buses; graffiti; terracotta tiles; Internet; Sherwin Williams; stilt walkers; Easy Credit; Samsung; Turismo; Mazda, McDonalds; skin-tight pants on women; gated houses; glass shards topping cinderblock fencing; feral cats; native dress; shoe shine boys; hi-rise luxury apartments; three, well-worn horses driven in the back of a pick-up truck, women selling penny candy, a mother with two children scavenging trash. Something for everybody.
Too many pictures; too little time.