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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Getting there is half the fun! Really!

Just a little flight out to the Galapagos. Onto the ship and off to visit the islands. What could be simpler, right?

Staying home, actually. But we were already there, so we did the usual airport mambo. We had an escort, which was a good thing, because we had to go to four different places to get out of the darned place. In case you're unaware, you have to pay to leave EVERY airport in South America, domestic (to them) flights included. So you pay, and you check in, and you get a luggage inspection, and you show your ID someplace else, and a guy from the travel agency trots around with you to make sure you hit all the stations in the right order. Thank goodness!

Once we passed through the security station, we found ourselves in an enormous departure lounge. And our flight was cancelled. And then on again, and then off, and then consolidated with another one. Okay. Fine. It still left on time. And it STILL wasn't full. Forty minutes later we were in Guayaquil. I don't know why, but the deal is, all flights to the Galapagos take place in the morning (and so do all flights out of Lima to Cusco). So no matter when you arrive in Ecuador (Quito or Guayaquil) you have to stay there overnight, at least, and fly the following morning again. I suspect it's a way to get tourist dollars, but you know what? I don't care, because we had a great time around Quito, and I don't even LIKE cities. Some people stay in Guayaquil instead, which is a beach town, and supposed to be very nice as well. You can't lose.

Off on time again, another meal and an hour and a half later we arrived in San Cristobal, one of the two airports that serve tourism. They have two others as well. They have, in fact, EIGHT entry points into the Galapagos, which kind of shocked me. It's a lot more populated than I thought. But it's also very restricted, which protects the environment.

The airports are not modern. By this I mean, you climb up and down in and out of the planes and walk across the tarmac into an open-air terminal where your luggage eventually ends up thrown on the concrete floor. They do, however, have the computers needed to check you in and take your money for the National Park, which is, essentially, all the islands. You can't go there and not go to the "Park."

Our guide, Franklin, collected us all in one spot for the bus to the harbor. There we met Candace and Greg and Teresa and Greg. So that made six, and no one else showed up, and the boat, Millenium, carries 16 passengers. He warned us to be prepared to encounter a very unpleasant couple. We thought this was odd, coming from a professional guide, but it turned out to be good advice. Franklin said everyone else was on the boat already so we assumed they had arrived that day on an earlier flight.

Not so. They had arrived four days earlier on a different island, Baltra. Enter the Euro-trash. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The bus with no air conditioning took us through the town to the harbor. I mean, it was very close, like five minutes. And as soon as we got off the bus we saw that, instead of dogs lying around, sea lions were lying around, all over the docks and the sidewalks. Well, better than dogs! Franklin told us not to step on them.

We went down a ramp to where a panga awaited. A panga is the same thing as a Zodiac, or, if you like, a rubber dinghy. The way you get in is, you grab two crewmembers and leap: pier - rubber gunwale - hard step - hard deck. You also get out that way. How much of a leap depends on how calm the water is. Or not. It's not that hard for me, even though I'm heavy. I'm strong and have good balance. The problem is, the crew doesn't get it at first how big I am, and it takes a couple of times before they don't get knocked on their butts.

Here's one of our "hard" landings, which means bow first onto a more or less dry surface.

In this one, you can see there's nothing but other humans to grab onto, and no mooring of any kind. It may not look like much, but it's one of those things you don't think to question in advance. We had already been in and out of Zodiacs, and all landings were wet. The height of the jumps to the various levels weren't an issue then, so we didn't give it any thought when we booked.

For Joyce, the problem is different. She doesn't weigh as much, but she is tall, (and Ecuadorans are shorter by far) and has bad knees. The Zodiacs in the Antarctic didn't pose as much of a problem because they were secured to the boat better and there were things to hold onto. To hold a panga to the boat, you just run the engine real hard in "forward." So that began, basically, a week of terror for her. She was never sure she wouldn't slip between the panga and the Millenium, disappear and be killed. Luckily this never came even close to happening, but when you think it might, that changes how you feel about going ashore.

A wet landing is stern in, and you roll over the side into the water. You get back in the same way. But every landing onto the boat itself is dry. And when the waves are high, you may not be stepping up onto the boat, but down from the panga onto the boat. It's tricky and the timing has to be perfect.

Okay, so we cleared that hurdle, and at the same time, developed a system for disembarking: let everyone else off first. Then Joyce approaches the bow, and when she says "go," I shove her up the step, over the gunwale and onto the deck while the crew catches her. Hope they ate their Wheaties!

Our cabin was right inside the main deck fantail, very handy for when you crawl back aboard. But we didn't go there first, we went to the salon for lunch and a briefing instead. The lunch was an omen. It was small and bland. I ate the pasta out of it. Warm water was served, with paper napkins. And this was supposed to be an upgrade from our original reservation. Only the new people ate, because the ones already on the ship had eaten earlier, and were hanging out in the salon, waiting for us so we could get the briefing. At that point we couldn't really tell who they were.

Here are the dining room and the two sides of the salon/lounge.

The side with the bar has the whiteboard where Franklin draws whatever we're going to do. The seasoned travelers were there, and the rest of us had to sit on the other side where we couldn't see, until Franklin told them to move or make room. This was our hint that we came from different civilizations. And here is a link to some definitions of that other civilization.

At the first briefing we learned two things. The boat was going to a protected reef where the newbies could check out their snorkeling gear, and you can't flush paper down the toilets. On a boat. Hello? Ever heard of marine toilet paper? So that was unpleasant as all hell. Ashore, if we accidentally flushed, we weren't staying there, but if we did it here, the whole boat would be plunged (ha) into chaos. There was a basket, of course, which they said would be emptied twice daily. We immediately said it had better be more often than that.

But first we had to go swimming. and the boat was already under weigh, so we had to run change. There were a lot of other little rules having to do with shoes and the environment and safety and so on, but they're way too numerous and boring to list, and they really didn't have much of an effect on the trip, so forget about those.

Joyce immediately opted out of snorkeling. Said she had tried it and didn't like it and the water was too cold for swimming, so forget it. I said I would at least attempt to snorkle, and the water was not too cold, so I would swim, too. For Joyce, the water has to be giving off steam in order to be warm enough. That changed real fast, but not the first day.

We anchored off Los Lobos Island. I went alone with Franklin to re-learn snorkeling, and I did it. I saw marine tortoises, fish, coral, rocks and starfish. And then the next day or so I came down with a cold. Wonder how well they cleaned that snorkeling gear. As usual, we were carrying an entire pharmacy, so I was able to take care of it until we hit our next port. Anyway, back to the rest of our itinerary.

Here's our cabin, and our two bathrooms, one for showers and one for other ablutions. Guess which is which. We also had a patio, but it was impossible to take a picture of it.

Snazzy, huh? We were lucky. The closet door never fell off till the last day, and I saw only one waterbug. That explained the can of Raid in the salon.

After the snorkeling, we had a hard landing on Los Lobos to see sea lions, blue-footed boobies and a frigate bird rookery. The "landing" was a crumbling chunk of cement, again, with no railings and no means of securing the panga or yourself, after which one was supposed to walk over black lava rocks that looked like irregular bowling balls, and felt just as stable. I managed to jump over a few rocks to a sandy area, and wound along a path with the others, not realizing Joyce wasn't behind me. She couldn't make those jumps, got off the cement, got stuck on the rocks, and eventually managed to get back up. In the meantime, we reached another pile of broken bowing balls with no end in sight, and I said, "I don't care what's on the other end, I'm not wrenching my knees to see it." I mean, there's no doctor or medical facilities on that boat.

So I worked my way back through the sea lions, taking pictures and wondering what had become of Joyce. I was thus able to see her efforts to right herself. She was up before I could reach her, and pretty pissed, too. We had no idea there was no way to land without killing yourself, and that there were no paths that could just be walked on instead of rock-climbed. I even had my walking stick with me, but there were no places to plant it securely to use it.

Here are some of the very first pictures I took in the islands. You can't really see how many, but there are numberless sea lions under the trees and around the rocks. They yell and cough and spit and holler all the time. As one of our traveling companions said, "It sounds like a tuberculoisis ward."

Regardless of their noises, they're very good about posing. People don't bother them at all, as long as they don't feel surrounded or cut off. Then they bite.

So, after that abortive attempt at looking around Los Lobos, we waved to the Millenium and they sent a panga over. We took our beer up to the top of the ship and waited for the others to return. They said the entire hike was like that, very hard to manage your footing. Later we asked Franklin if there were any landings we could actually do and enjoy, and he said yes, especially the wet ones. So we were still game to try going ashore. After all, we were there to see the animals, and there weren't a lot of options.

After the snorkeling and abortive hiking, we were happy to go unpack and go to bed right after dinner. There was another landing the next morning at 8 AM!

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