November & December 2014
Dear Friends and Family,
There is a lot going on here in the Galapagos these days so this letter is a little longer than usual. The bullet points are:
- The Ecuadorean government is going forward with allowing twenty new mega (larger than anything that has ever existed here, 500 room, etc.) hotels in the Galapagos.
- The Charles Darwin Foundation is closing its offices in the Galapagos.
- We had another cargo ship sink. This is a different one than the other cargo ship that drove itself onto the reef at Carola a few months back. So now with two cargo ships “down” there are food shortages and retailers hiking up prices.
- We held the fourth annual Come to Galapagos Marathon Oct. 19.
- I have been advised to invite all of you to join the Come To Galapagos “facebook” page. I’ll be sending out “facebook” invites to you all in the next couple of weeks. These letters will be posted there to make them easier for you to share with your friends.
I’ve written a couple of different versions of this letter regarding the mega hotels. One of them expressed my unfiltered understanding of recent events here in the Galapagos with my obviously biased interpretation of the history and current socio-political reality of Ecuador. I sent this draft to a couple of friends asking their thoughts. Universally their reaction was, “If you want to continue living in Ecuador, don’t post that anywhere.” I’ve settled on a more discreet, un-contextualized effort. I left out my understanding or tragic misunderstanding, depending on who you talk to of the why and how parts.
There are twenty new, government approved “mega” hotels slated to be built in the Galapagos. Naturally some of the sites for these hotels are natural wonders in themselves or will have been. Before I get into that though, it is important you have a firm understanding of the following:
The Galapagos ecosystem has, relative to practically any other location on the planet an extremely small number of species of plants and animals. It was (before man) really tough for any species to get here in the first place. These species had to have specific characteristics to allow them to survive a six hundred mile oceanic voyage on a piece of flotsam and then continue living once they did. Or they had to survive on a bird’s feather or in a bird’s intestine or sea creature’s intestine and then again continue surviving once they did arrive. Very few species have had that ability. Mankind is one of them, though it took us nearly a million years; first we had to figure out what to do with fire. However, long before man, the species that did arrive and reproduce began evolving completely isolated from the rest of the world’s flora, fauna and microbes for literally millions of years; long, long before there was an upright ape stumbling around on the planet. Two significant consequences of this are: an unprecedented large percentage of the flora and fauna are endemic, meaning they exist nowhere else on the planet (there are six species of plants here that have no known relative in the rest of the world, suggesting that their relatives became extinct on the rest of the planet while they survived here) and that these Galapagos species have not evolved the ability to compete with introduced species from the continents, have no resistance to foreign microbes which renders them incredibly susceptible to… well, basically everything.
For more than ten years scientists and economists have been publishing reports regarding unchecked tourism in the Galapagos, all of which conclude that continued annual increases in the numbers of tourists is not sustainable in the Galapagos, that at best it will result in a degradation of the experience to the point where the tourism economy will collapse (economist’s conclusion) or at worst an ecological disaster (scientist’s conclusion).
Four of nearly fifty of these reports written over the past decade are:
- Galapagos at Risk A Socioeconomic Analysis. By Watkins and Cruz (This one is perhaps the most readable and interesting in that it was written in 2005 and everything they predicted has come to pass including the mass land based tours)
- Rethinking the Galapagos Islands As a Complex Social-Ecological system: Implications for Conservation and Management. By Gonzalez and Montes
- Tourism, the Economy, Population Growth, and Conservation in Galapagos by Bruce Epler.
- Social Dimensions of ‘Nature at Risk’ in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador Flora Lu, Gabriela Valdivia, Wendy Wolford
The controlling interests of the country of Ecuador and the Galapagos tourism industry as a whole either ignores the above mentioned reports, hasn’t read them, doesn’t believe them (against all emerging evidence to the contrary) or doesn’t care.
As a tourism interest the fauna is the issue. Very few people come here to look at the plants.
If any one of the “signature” species in the Galapagos, the sea lions, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, penguins, albatross or flightless cormorants become “compromised” due to an introduced pathogen, it will have a sudden and extremely negative impact on tourism. They only have to begin having a significant problem; only have to make the International news to have this effect. No one seems to care about a long and growing list of extinct or endangered “lower case” species. I should mention the Galapagos Penguin as an example number around five-hundred pairs, reduced in El Nino years to two or three-hundred and the flightless cormorants number less than four-hundred pairs, reduced in El Nino years to two hundred. That simply appears to be their naturally occuring numbers. As mentioned above, this is/was an isolated and extremely delicate/fragile ecosystem.
Even if one doesn’t care about the animals or the environment and only about business this should alarm any concern associated with tourism in the Galapagos, unless of course one “conveniently” disregards scientific warnings or is thinking short term.
In the past ten years there has been a three-hundred percent increase in the amount of annual visitors; more than two-hundred thousand arrived here in 2013. In recent years the growth of mass land based packaged tours has kept the number of visitors climbing. Bringing these people and providing for them has created a virtual land bridge between the Galapagos and the mainland; every week more than seventy airline flights touch down (both airports have recently been rebuilt and expanded), six cargo ships dock and two tankers disgorge their “eco” fuel (more on what makes this special fuel “eco” below).
Crossing this land bridge toll free are all kinds of new bugs, microbes, species of dogs and cats (well, the importers pay for the new dog and cat breeds, kind of a status symbol here now to have some exotic dog or cat breed). Everything from swine flu, dengue, distemper, avian flu to new kinds of aphids, lice and ticks are making the trip. A couple of years back all of the foliage on the trees and bushes around our house were suddenly (in six weeks) decimated by a newly landed species of aphid. Those trees and shrubs are barely sticks now. Elsewhere, the snails are going extinct, the finches have lice, the sea lions anemia, ninety-eight percent of the plant mass on the inhabited islands is introduced invasive species, etc.
Should you be alarmed by this when the people that run the place aren’t? I honestly don’t know. First you shouldn’t “should” on yourself and second the Galapagos is pretty small potatoes compared to say global warming as an example. Most people apparently assume we’ll as a species come up with a solution, adapt to circumstances. We might. When I was a kid there was the real threat of a nuclear war, the threat that the world could not produce enough food to feed the growing population. Enter new hybrid corn and wheat and the seduction of the Soviet Union by Levis and Coca Cola. Still, however with regard to the Galapagos; dwarf wheat, hybrid corn, Levis nor Coca Cola are going to do much for the species here.
Mega Hotels: The Ecuadorean government has recently suspended the regulation prohibiting the construction of new hotels in the Galapagos in order to allow for eleven new mega hotels on San Cristobal alone, twenty in total throughout the islands. They were only marginally enforcing the regulation anyway; people were building fifty room “houses” instead.
Should you be alarmed by these new mega hotels? I don’t think so. Relative to the unchecked increases in the number of visitors here, these new hotels will hardly rate a footnote in a history of What Happened To The Galapagos Islands.
Aside from my frustration with the situation, I have a “pet peeve”. It’s silly, I know.
In the Galapagos we have eco-hotels (we ask that you allow us not to change your sheets daily), eco-restaurants (we feed the unfinished food to the pigs), eco-tourism companies (we recycle our paper), eco-boats (we don’t throw trash in the sea), Eco-petrochemical fuel (there hasn’t been a “significant” oil spill in twelve years). In the Galapagos “eco” is short for economy as in the Galapagos tourism economy and “let’s profit!” One of the above mentioned new hotels is called “Carola Eco Estates”, a 500 room hotel/condo/convention center complex. This is the privatization of a gorgeous cove and snorkel site with a world class wave breaking just outside of it. We even have a brand new Eco Airport (oxymoron) on Baltra, though in two years I haven’t once seen the wind turbines that are supposed to power the place spinning; makes you wonder if they’re just put up for show. On the airlines, shortly before you land in the Galapagos, the stewardess’s come by and spray all the over heads with insecticide. This is to demonstrate how thoroughly the Galapagos is being protected from the introduction of pathogens. They don’t of course spray the “carry on” you have stashed under the seat in front of you (the why of which is most people’s first question) or the cargo bay of the plane, nor do they fumigate the cargo ships that arrive here.
But what are you going to do? Write your congressman? Boycott travel to the Galapagos, to Ecuador, Ecuadorean products until the government takes action to protect the Galapagos by limiting the number of visitors rather than actively increasing capacity and access? Of course not.
Interesting side note; when we were soliciting help from universities in the US to build a new school and curriculum particular to kids in the Galapagos, there was a senor professor at a prominent university who rejected the enthusiasm of her colleague in this effort (I had been in communication with this colleague), siting she would do nothing and certainly not advise the university to do anything that would help to support the human population in the Galapagos. Her opinion and actions were from a scientific stand point well grounded; the fewer people in the Galapagos, the better, visitors or residents. My idea had been local kids with a decent education would become able to actively protect their birthright, become eco-warriors.
What am I going to do? Keep slugging it out, keep my head low. This letter is a really bad example of keeping my head low.
My advice, get here as fast as you can with your kids if you have them.
If you are coming, please travel in a way that doesn’t treat these islands as a theme park. This is the real world here. The natural side of it is one of the rarest and most precious on the planet. The eco socio political side is just third world stuff, which to my thinking is also a good thing for people, maybe even kids to understand, along with evolution and ecology. It would be nice if the Galapagos was over seen by some country like Denmark or New Zealand. The eco system might at least have a fighting chance.
The Charles Darwin Foundation is/was mostly a monitoring/advising institution. It has no power concerning how the Galapagos is run. They did get into promoting the use of bicycles, helped with promoting the use of endemic species of plants for landscaping, helped with the writing of the above mentioned reports. They helped us with the endemic species recovery park up on our farm, but as funding dwindled they kept having to scale back their efforts. Way back when the only people visiting the Galapagos where serious naturalist travelers, the Charles Darwin Foundation was largely supported by the donations of these travelers and other wealthy concerned environmentalists. Most of the visitors arriving here these days do so because the Galapagos is on their “bucket list” or because someone has organized a mass tourism itinerary that fits within their budget. There are three times as many visitors arriving to the Galapagos in 2014 as there were in 2004 and donations to the Charles Darwin Foundation have dived almost exactly proportionately to the rise in the amount of people arriving here.
The cargo ship that sunk last month was on its way here from Guayaquil in what were described as “heavy seas”. Very rarely are there heavy seas here. We get no storms or hurricanes, the wind is pretty constant and it takes a particularly large swell to even come close to “heavy seas”. There was no large swell when the ship sank twenty-five miles off the Ecuadorean coast. The ship was old and overloaded, likely more economical to let it sink and collect the insurance than to dry dock and store it.
We held the fourth annual (we missed 2013 for “reason”) marathon here Oct. 19.
The only hick ups we had were some lost luggage (fortunately handled, luggage delivered same day from Baltra thanks to some hard working chaps) and some late entrants who happened to be super athletes. We were lucky in that they were locals and knew the course. They ran a really tough 21.1 K course in one hour and twenty minutes (incredibly fast, they were “training”), which happened to be a little ahead of the schedule for setting up the later stage aid stations, not to mention the finish line. They were sitting on the steps waiting for our people to show up, give them their metals, t-shirts and run times.
The only reason I can smile and I am while writing this is that they didn’t need the aid stations or their running times, were grateful for us setting up the course, getting them up to the start and the t-shirt and medal which was paid for by our visiting runners.
We had a 42k “real” marathon (here the word maraton is used rather loosely. Very few people can relate the word to ancient Greece, any distance can and is called a maraton) and a half marathon. To me, the most important thing is no one needed emergency care and everyone finished the course. The second most important thing is that everyone is/was happy; which we seemed to have accomplished.
We handled this a little different this year than we have in the past. We made this a private event as opposed to public. The visiting runners sponsored local runners. We had all of the visiting runners spend the night in the highlands, close to the start point in a kind of communal setting, spaghetti dinner together, get up early, which saved them an hour to an hour and a half of sleep as they didn’t need to be transported up to the starting line at 4 AM (me too as I was with them).
There were only six people running the full marathon, which allowed me the ability to assign a vehicle to each runner, forego a ton of aid stations, coordinating signs etc. and to know exactly where each of them were and how they were doing at all times. Their “driver” just had to point them in the right direction, drive ahead two kilometers and stop to hydrate them and stop at every intersection where they had to change course, then drive ahead two kilometers to wait for them again until they crossed the finish line. That’s what we’ll do next year.
The half marathon runners had a very simple course and only three aid stations. We showed everyone the course the afternoon before on a bus ride, ending at a sea lion filled beach and the finish line.
The weather did exactly what it was supposed to this time of year; cloudy, light drizzle in the highlands, dry and cloudy at the coast, perfect running weather.
In four tries I’ve never had a more relaxing time managing this event, not that I was relaxed until the last runner finished, but you can imagine the difference between not being sure and knowing exactly where and how everyone of these runners were doing.
The people that were involved in this event are as excited about the next one as am I. It’s pretty fun not only being able to show you guys the Galapagos outside the “tourism envelope” , but also to watch you cross the finish line of a marathon before you even start really getting to know the Galapagos.
The 2015 Come To Galapagos Marathon is on for next Oct. Tell your friends. It’s going to necessarily be a limited field.
Siempre Amor from the Galapagos. Nos vemos en nuestros suenos.
September & October 2014
Dear Friends and Family,
This Aug. a mom and dad with three daughters and a grandmother showed up. What happened with them was a tour operator’s nightmare. The first thing was their guide was suddenly “unavailable” and there was no replacement guide available so I had to step in. I enjoy doing this when it happens, generally; gets me out of the office, I get to spend more real face time with guests, usually all good. With this family I had already been somewhat on standby as the grandmother had broken her ankle a week before the trip, but was coming anyway. I had sort of figured their guide would need some extra help.
Then the interisland airline that was slated to fly them from their arrival in the Galapagos at Baltra to the beginning of their tour here on San Cristobal ran out of fuel for their planes two days prior; turns out that you can’t just fill them up at the gas station; special fuel. We had all these hotel reservations set, tours etc. for them which are near impossible to change last minute. I looked into it, I dug into it in this case and could come up with no better solution than to charter them a boat from Baltra to San Cristobal. I was told unequivocally not to do it. The winds that were blowing and the swell that was running would make that trip from Baltra to San Cristobal a regrettable one. Better to take them from Puerto Ayora: a short ferry crossing and a taxi ride across the island of Santa Cruz that would cut the distance down and provide a better angle for the boat navigating the winds and swell. “Good Christ Reef (reef is as close as many here like to come to my name), you made that crossing a dozen times this time of year when the airport was shut down here in 2006. Don’t you remember?” I did, but didn’t, but then I have a strong stomach and a real talent for “zoning out” on those kinds of crossings. I could not get a boat to charter for them from Puerto Ayora to San Cristobal which seemed my best next option, so this meant that they would have to take one of the commuter boats. Often these boats are packed, just crammed with people and then when one gets sick the others follow and given the seas, people were going to get sick.
So what I did was purchase fourteen spaces for the six of them on one of these boats; seven of us actually as early on the morning of their arrival I took the commuter boat from San Cristobal over to Puerto Ayora, raced myself across the island and the ferry crossing attempting to meet them on Baltra when their plane landed from the mainland. These people were travel smart, checked no bags, were out of the terminal looking around for me before I arrived. The grandmother was in a wheel chair.
The commuter boat that we ended up on was packed to the gills owing to two boats out of service that day, regardless of the spaces I had purchased and had only two motors instead of the usual three.
I had another bit of news for them… We make reservations months in advance, often put down deposits, we’ve been at this for some time and so I’ve learned to always double check everything a few days in advance of people arriving. In this case, the hotel they were supposed to be in had a “glitch” for their first night. They had to stay in a different hotel, no pool and move again the next day.
To tell you the truth I don’t remember if I told them about this glitch before or after the three hour boat ride during which the grandmother was sick the entire way.
Of course it wasn’t enough that the interisland airline had run out of fuel for a couple of days, it had to stretch into a couple more, which meant this family had to spend an extra day here on San Cristobal, which impacted hotels, tours, etc. in the next few days.
I’m certain I have forgotten other hick ups that happened with these guys. It just seemed like anything that could go wrong did, but what did go right was that at the end of the day, they were all really happy. This was not my doing. This was all about them and about the Galapagos. You take yourself with you, where ever you go, even to the Galapagos.
My son had his two week school vacation start last week. Even if you live in the Galapagos you still need to get away now and again. So we headed over to the continent for a week of father son time; two days in the pool at the Sheraton, Guayaquil and four days in Manta, learning how to sail. See attached photos.
Next letter I have to write about the mega hotels they’re planning on building, delicate subject to write about if you live here and wish to continue doing so.
Siempre Amor from the Galapagos
July & August 2014
Dear Friends and Family,
The big news around here, to me anyway and surfers throughout the world is the cargo ship they parked on the reef at Cerola was carted off.
I headed out of the office at dawn one morning and noticed it was gone. I believe they are supposed to carry it outside the Galapagos marine reserve waters and let it sink. I haven’t had the chance to snorkel the reef and see what damage has been done. The ocean will recover, but it is certain the reef will have some changes.
Walking back from the beach the other day, I witnessed my son explaining to the mother of a family why I had told her three sons to stop baiting, provoking sea lion pups as if this were a game of tag. I had explained to these kids that the animals were not their toys, that the kids needed to respect that this beach was the lion’s home, not the kid’s playground. Shortly after this, after the kids complained to their mom, she had come to give me a hard time about telling her sons what they could and could not do. Who was I? And that they had their own national park guide.
“Where is he?” I asked. “Your guide could lose his license for allowing the behavior of your kids, may lose it if I file a complaint”.
The guide had been attempting to romance a young female visitor out of sight of his responsibilities. I had no interest in arguing with this mother, explaining something that was obvious to anyone with any kind of sensibilities about where they were. The behavior of her sons which she had witnessed and done nothing about herself was just bad.
So then there’s my seven year old kid, explaining to this woman about the sea lions and the beach where he’s grown up and why his dad told her kids to stop molesting the pups. I didn’t look at her as my son was speaking or her guide who knew he had been derelict.
My son was absolutely correct in attempting to explain with patience and lack of outrage. I heard a kind note in the voice of the woman/mother as she was responding to him. The next time, maybe, I’ll try to follow his example, not be such a crotchety old man. Most likely not though. I’m not seven years old nor believe this woman deserved the benefit of the doubt. My son appears to be turning out to be a better man than me.
May & June 2014
Dear Friends and Family,
Just a reminder, the Come To Galapagos Marathon will be held Oct. 19, this year. Please encourage your running friends to attend! We’ve received rave reviews for the first three years of the event and a 45 min. special on the ESPN series of “The Best Marathons In the World” (see http://cometogalapagos.com/3rd_Annual_Marathon.asp )
The Captain’s first mate not so much grounded a 8,000 ton cargo ship as basically parked it in the middle of the reef at Cerola. They were headed for Santa Cruz late in the afternoon last May 15 and for some reason made a hard right onto the reef, directly towards the beach (see attached photos). As this is Ecuador the truth of what happened will only be known to a very few. Mechanical error, pilot error… To me the most believable theories have to do with collecting insurance or the competing cargo vessels owners paying off someone to “park” the boat. This was a recently arrived cargo ship competing for traffic/profits with the existing ships. It was captained (not on the bridge at the time of the “crash”) by a man who grew up here in San Cristobal.
Practically concurrent with this event was the failure of a sewage pump which has resulted with the raw sewage of six thousand people being poured directly into the bay here. The beaches haven’t been closed. The locals have been warned not to swim at them. All of the fuel and oil was off loaded from the grounded cargo vessel without incident. They are waiting for some special buoys to drag her off the reef and then either tow her to Guayaquil for repairs or sink her in deep water. The cargo ship crash has been reported in the press as an ecological disaster, no one’s reporting on the raw sewage.
San Cristobal is the sea lion capital of the Galapagos. There are more than five hundred sea lions living in and around the bay in five separate colonies. Scientists last year found the sea lions of San Cristobal to have an inexplicable anemia. Their theories have to do with contact with humans, pollution, perhaps dogs on the beach or human fecal matter. Their fear is the next El Nino year when the sea lion populations takes a severe dive anyway may next time around have a more devastating effect due to this anemia. Now that the bay is practically floating in raw sewage I wonder what will be the response of the sea lion’s immune system? Also, which would you call the real ecological disaster and why do you suppose no one is reporting the raw sewage spill now going on for two weeks and reported to continue for another two (they’re waiting for a new pump and the experts to put it in)?
There is a list of the most stressful things in life which includ, loss of employment, change of residence, loss of a loved one, etc. Vacations are way up there on this list as are weddings, by the way. Goofy list, I’ll grant you.
Vacations as most people take them are traditionally more or less two week affairs. Rarely are they as relaxing as people envision that they might be, especially if there is a lot of travel involved which they do if you are coming here.
On my end of people’s vacations, aside from marketing, coordinating services, accounting, the job is part babysitting/hand holding and part vacation psychologist. All of this with the end goal to make their experience as smooth and stress free as possible.
Over the years I’ve learned two things about stress and vacations. One, some people are naturally more inclined to stress than others and two, the higher the expectations, the higher the stress and the more likely people are to be disappointed. Expectations are stressful so I do everything I can to keep expectations low and still get them to come here/travel with us for their “once in a life time experience”. Fortunately this is the Galapagos which rarely disappoints and we’re not so bad at our work.
Here are some direct quotes from visitors we’ve had over the years who despite our best efforts were somewhat stressed.
“The pillow is too soft and the bed is too hard.”
“There has to be an alternative energy source. You don’t think the aliens are flying around on fossil fuels do you?”
“Get these animals away from me, I’m trying to take a vacation now, please!”
A couple of weeks back I had another odd one, though of a different nature.
After a wonderful day in the Galapagos, I was dinning with a family, mom, dad and their ten and twelve year old daughters, talking about the day and what was on tap for the morning. The mom and the kids were headed back to their hotel. The father wanted to talk to me alone. I assumed this would be about some surprise he wanted me to help him with for one of the kids or his wife. He ordered a beer, asked if I wanted one. That was when I knew this was not going to be about a surprise for a member of his family.
This was a ‘middle aged” guy, fit in a gymnasium way. I imagined him driving a Lexus, wearing tasseled shoes to the law firm he was a partner in. He was currently sockless in leather deck shoes and a collared Ralph Lauren polo shirt. Nice guy though, good dad and husband from what I’d seen. He went through a long preamble, asking me about how I got here, was I happy, nodding at my answers, but he didn’t seem to be really listening.
Then with an estimating look into my eyes accompanied by a tight frown, he launched into what was really on his mind.
“Do you ever say to yourself, ‘You’re going to have to pay for that,’ I mean when you make a mistake sure there’s consequences and generally we learn best from our mistakes, but do you ever say that to yourself when something good happens?”
I never do and so said, “I like what you said about learning best from our mistakes, often enough we do.” To keep it on the light side I added, “You know what else, sometimes you can make a mistake and get a free pass, nothing happens.”
“Okay, but I mean, there are givers and givers who never seem to receive their just due, fair compensation and there are takers and takers who simply do not deserve what they own. We witness this, make judgments about it, feel righteous, indignant and then we make judgment on ourselves, are quick to shame, ‘I am not doing enough’, though we pack our lives, multi task, achieve, realize… There is no end to the euphemisms we use to validate and justify our running around… like, like…” He couldn’t quite find the words so ended with a shrug, “As the saying goes we are the human doings.” The way he accented ‘doings’ made me think of dog doings.”
I identified this as one of those non conversations where some or all of the participants are not practicing any communication involving listening or perhaps even staying on topic. I looked him in the eye, nodded and fingered my cell phone. My idea was, if this continued I would receive a fictitious call requiring my exit.
“Some good things are going to happen to you and you’re going to have to pay for them with bad things happening to you. It is as if there is some ledger and always a net due and always a fear of there not being a net due, a fear you might have taken too much, more than you deserve. Then we neatly tie that little conundrum into self-worth, net worth. We either owe something we can’t afford to pay or have taken more than we justly merit and what are we really worth?”
I or one of our guides can literally ruin someone’s vacation simply by a poor choice of words at an inopportune moment or we can do the opposite which as you might imagine is the side we prefer to error on, but sometimes it is best to simply keep your mouth shut. Sometimes just listening is all that is required to help someone arrive gently to the next moment. Existential angst is a common vacation byproduct and to my mind may even be one of the chief benefits. I gave this man my best pensive nod.
Then he said this, “My question to you is, how much and to whom do I owe for that particular shade of blue the sky had this morning?”
I’m not sure if he felt I was particularly qualified to answer, but I am sure he didn’t feel he was asking a rhetorical question. I do know I loved the question and suddenly him for asking it publicly.
It reminded me of that James Thurber short story, no not the Walter Mitty one, “The Second Tree From the Corner”. Read it, it’s a good one that has stood the test of time.
Siempre Amor From The Galapagos
Dear Friends and Family,
Occasionally visitors point things out to me that they find remarkable and often those things would have seemed remarkable to me too, ten years ago, a few of those below. And of course there also seems to be an endless supply of the simply jaw dropping remarkable waiting to “goose” you the second you settle into not expecting anything, a couple of those below also.
Roosters. It is not legal to have chickens and roosters in town, but anyone who wants to does and not even crowing roosters will bring you to the attention of the authorities. This means that every night around 2:30 AM roosters start crowing. The town is about two square kilometers large so that any rooster anywhere in town can be heard in the predawn stillness. They often wake and then keep visitors awake. For me they remind of a year where I lived in an apartment over a busy city street. I could tell what time it was in the middle of the night or early morning by the traffic noises. Here, if you hear roosters, but no birds it is somewhere between 2:30 and 4:30. If you hear roosters and birds, but it is still completely dark that puts you between 4:30 and 5:30.
People sit on door steps or porches, sometimes entire families, for hours, doing nothing but watching cars and people passing, loose dogs peeing on the corners of buildings and the shadows moving across the street. They don’t have a particularly pleasant view of anything, don’t seem to expect anything extraordinary to happen, but still there they are, watching. About the closest thing I’ve ever come to this is watching sporting events on TV. It is not as if these people don’t have TVs though. They just seem to find watching the world passing by on the street more entertaining and good on them.
Oatmeal here is served as a kind of juice or as a kind of soup with meat, chicken or fish. Nobody excepting ourselves, eats oatmeal as they do in the US.
There are many, many things that people in the US are accustomed to being able to purchase that we simply do not have here. Decent produce, condiments outside of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, canned goods outside of tuna and beans, frozen food. It’s a long list. This is happening less frequently as the years go by, but it is still not uncommon for the island to run out of some basic things; cheese, toilet paper, gas for cooking. I have never seen the island run out of beer or rum.
Our milk comes in plastic bags or boxes. Has a non-refrigerated shelf life of years. It may have some nutritional value, says so on the packaging. Over the past few years our options have expanded, we can now almost rely on being able to purchase at any time “semi de-creamed”, “completely de-creamed”, “de-lactosified” and “chocolated semi de-creamed” milk.
It is not uncommon for us to receive a plastic water jug or pail of “fresh” cow milk from a farmer. Usually as a gesture of appreciation for something we have done. This we generally give to Carina, our house help. Bere might use some to cream her coffee. Carina boils it for hours before taking it home with her.
Chamomile Tea or “Te de Manzanilla” is routinely prescribed and accepted as a cure for headaches, tooth aches, menstrual cramps, colds, fever, indigestion, constipation, loose bowels, brain tumors and broken bones.
I was out with a few of our guests fishing with the local fishermen here. This is not serious fishing, more a meet and greet on their boat, then you catch some fish they cook up for dinner at their house. One of this group hooked into a big fish, I was thinking maybe a forty or fifty pound yellow fin tuna or waho, turned out to be a six foot Black Tip reef shark. The fisherman needed to get his lure back so it wasn’t long before I was holding the shark’s mouth open, one hand on his nose, the other hand on a gaff hooked into the shark’s lower jaw while the fisherman reached in and tried to cut the lure out of deep inside the mouth, “Open wide!” You could fit a football in there. Of course every so often the shark would snap his mouth shut in spite of every ounce of strength I had and start thrashing around. In the end we got the lure back and didn’t lose a single hand or finger. The shark sank away into the deep after we let him go. Sharks are tough. This one might have lived. The lure was worth $30 and apparently for the fisherman risking not only his, but my digits if not actual parts as well.
A couple of days later we saw orcas eating sea turtles. I’d seen them eating sea lions before, but never sea turtles. I imagine it must feel something like eating a fruit filled walnut, whole, crunching through a hard shell for a burst of flavor, then chomping up the shell to clean your teeth. My son and I were on the far side of the boat, letting guests get the best shot at photos and also to keep the boat balanced when suddenly back from behind the boat the mother orca emerged with a five foot sea turtle in her mouth, looked for moment like she was going to jump into the boat with it, these things are the size of a bus, scared my six year old son a little (a lot). I had to explain how proud the orca was and that she just wanted to show us the sea turtle she caught.
Rick, Bere and Roley
February & March 2014
Dear Friends and Family,
This is the time of year when the marine iguanas lay their eggs. The females climb a ways above the high tide line, find some soft dirt or firm sand, dig a burrow and lay their eggs. Often they will fight each other over a particularly choice piece of real estate. Eight years ago there were no marine iguanas around the populated area of San Cristobal, unlike Santa Cruz where they hold up traffic by the wharf or Isabela where the beach that fronts the pueblo is literally crawling in them or Floreana where it is typical when arriving at the pier to have to “shoe” them out of your way. Over the past couple of years the marine iguana population has been expanding near the port of Bazquiezo Morreno, San Cristobal. On the nearby beach at Cerola they have always had a small presence, but this year there are many more. It is now common to see them on the rocks around the pier in town or fighting each other for space in the landscaped areas the town made a few years back which of course they are digging up for their burrows.
Over the past year or two I have occasionally ranted about the proliferation of mass, packaged land based tours and their negative effects on the Galapagos. One of those negative effects happened in spades last week. The bullet points of these rantings, for those who have missed them are:
- The slightly less than one hundred cruise ships that operate at or near capacity here have basically been bringing the same amount of people to the Galapagos for the past ten years (I used to rant about these ships before I was ranting about mass/packaged land based tours, the cruise ships burn fossil fuels 24/7, dump untreated sewage directly into the ocean, rip up reefs with their anchors, etc.). It is the proliferation of mass, packaged land based tours that have pushed the visitor count to nearly 200,000 in 2013 and which account for what has become essentially a land bridge between the mainland and the Galapagos islands of nine cargo ships, two oil tankers and sixty three airline flights a week. Land bridge is a bad thing for flora and fauna that have evolved and survived until recently in complete isolation.
- These tours are designed to have a maximum impact on visitor sites and infrastructure (water, sewage and electricity foremost) and a minimum economic impact.
- The vast majority are marketed by companies outside of the Galapagos.
What happened “in spades” was that a beach where a sea lion colony exists was so over run with tourists, that the male sea lions began attacking/biting the members of one of these mass/packaged land based tours. We have coexisted for years without incident at this beach until it reached this point. It certainly wasn’t the sea lion’s fault. In response the National Park closed the beach for a couple of weeks until the sea lion mating season was over. They posted a guard to keep the people away which simply sent this mass of travelers off to another location.
I have been swimming at this beach for more than ten years, probably have spent more time in the water there than any man in history. I watched the sea lion population increase from a few visiting sea lions in 2003 into a thriving colony today.
I was there one dawn to swim after my morning run and the kid from the National Park who was guarding the beach explained the situation to me, then without my prompting told me to go ahead and swim.
That was nice of him, but also one swimmer generally isn’t going to be a problem and if the swimmer understands the sea lions will know how not to upset them or get himself bitten.
The problem was that the National Park has limited resources/man power and their focus, for political reasons is directed away from the populated areas in the Galapagos. So, there were no guards for several afternoons and the company that handles the mass land based tours which created the problem in the first place was back on the beach ignoring the closure, back in force of fifty teenagers from the continent with kayaks and without the National Park guides the law requires.
On a happier note, my son is getting to be quite the little snorkeler. One day we’re goofing around with the little damsel fish that defend their territory by biting you, feels like a pinch, has never drawn blood. You dangle your hand out in front of their “house” and they come out to try and bite you. Quite good fun for a six year old and his dad, anyway for the past week there has been a new fish frequenting the neighborhood. I have never seen this fish before, about an inch long, bright orange with black stripes, “Tiger Fish” of course my son named him. It took us some time seeking out the experts. Turns out it is a kind of Angel fish. Cute little thing you could easily imagine swimming around a fish bowl.
Live here long enough and you’ll see or experience a lot of things you never conceived of. Killer whales eating sea lions, swimming with Manta Rays, sea horses (we have some big ones eight inches or better), my son got to snorkel up to arm’s length of a couple of penguins, grabbed onto a sea turtle one time (that’s a no-no), getting out of the water after hanging out with the above mentioned “Tiger Fish”, I looked across the bay and saw an eight foot hammer head completely clear the water and splash back in. This is the middle of the bay, midmorning. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Very rare to see sharks at all in the bay, that hammerhead would need something larger than a fish bowl.
Rick, Bere and Roley