Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cruising the Galapagos Islands

Saturday, July 1, 2000

The alarm went off at 7:00 a.m., very early since I had stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the night before, finishing the very last of the paperwork for the summer school classes I had taught during the last two weeks in June.

Shorts and T-shirts for traveling, check one more time that everything we needed was packed: toothbrush, deodorant, underwear, enough socks, and medicine. Passports, cash, additional identification and a credit card in the concealed waist belt. Mask and snorkel, wet suit; we want to swim with the seals!

Finally everything in the car, and rolling up the driveway by 7:30. We met our group of fellow travelers at the Holiday Inn on Staples Mill Road in Richmond Virginia, consolidated the luggage in one van, and split the passengers between two. We were on the way to Washington, D.C. by 8:30.

The old National Airport, reborn as the Ronald Regan Airport, has also acquired new life during a major upgrading and total renovation during the last few years. Previously flying into or out of the National Airport was like joining herds of unruly cattle, shuffling along long, crowded plywood walled halls to reach temporary gates for boarding. The new facilities are impressive, arched arcades that let in lots of light, polished terrazzo floors, shops and eating establishments so numerous that reaching the departure gates was almost like going shopping at the mall.

Our two hour and forty minute flight to Miami took off right on time. However, when we were approaching for landing, we were waved off due to a huge thunderstorm stalled directly over the airport. All incoming and outgoing flights were delayed until the storm with its extreme danger of microburst activity had moved on. After circling for at least a half hour, we were told that the flight was being diverted to Fort Meyers for refueling. Another fifteen to twenty minutes, and the public address system came on again, this time the pilot told us that there was some faulty instrument landing equipment at Ft. Meyers, and that we were being diverted to Tampa. Another twenty minutes passed, and dodging towering clouds, we finally zigzagged our way down to the runway at Tampa. By now the time of departure for our flight to Guayaquil, Equador had come and gone.

The plane now refueled, we headed into the sky again for Miami. The thunderstorm had finally passed, and we landed there without further incident, at least three hours later than we had expected. Fortunately, all of the other flights had also been delayed, so it was only another hour and forty-five minute wait at another gate until we boarded our flight to Ecuador.

Sunday, July 2, 2000

We landed in Guayaquil sometime around 2:00 a.m. I took 45 minutes to clear immigration and customs, but a bus was waiting to take us to the Hotel OroVerde. Only about 15 minutes drive from the airport, the OroVerde was a pleasant surprise. First class service, cheerful and helpful personnel, everything well maintained. We crashed in bed sometime around 3:30 a.m. and didn’t stir until 8:00 on Sunday morning.

We dressed leisurely, and then strolled downstairs for a sumptuous breakfast at 9:00. We didn’t have much time to look around the city on the way back to the airport. Guayaquil is the biggest city in Ecuador, with a population of over three million. Its primary sources of income are oil and bananas. There is runaway inflation, which often hits over 60% per month. The current exchange rate, more than likely to be considerably different within the week was 25,000 sucres to the U.S. Dollar! The rate of inflation was so astronomically high that about six weeks later, the Equadorian monetary unit of sucres was totally abolished, and the U.S. Dollar was adopted as the official currency for the entire country. It remains that way today.

There was considerable political unrest in Ecuador in the year 2000, and our original plans to stop in Quito for several days on the way here were changed because of the perceived danger in Quito. In Guayaquil, all the streets past the hotel had been blocked by huge concrete planters with flowers in them. There were at least five heavily armed soldiers carrying fully automatic rifles patrolling the block and the corners where to hotel was located.

At the airport, I purchased a finely woven Panama hat for $12. I was glad to have that to protect my bald scalp from the burning rays of the equatorial Sun!

Our flight to the Galapagos was uneventful. It did, however, fool me. After take off, I noted that the Sun was shining directly into my window on the airplane. Since it was only a few minutes after noon, I could tell that we were flying east, away from our destination. As seconds stretched into minutes, and continued after the plane had reached cruising altitude, I began to wonder if the plane were going to Quito before heading west to the islands. It took quite some time before I realized that we were ON the equator! At this time of year, the Sun is always in the NORTH at noon, not south like it always is at noon in Virginia. We were, in fact heading west. The lack of sleep soon caught up with me, and a snooze made the flight time to the island of Baltra in the Galapagos seem very short.

Baltra has an airport because the U.S. armed forces occupied the island of Baltra from 1941 to 1944, using it as a strategic base and as the first line of defense against the Japanese that might have coveted land in South America. It was ceded to Ecuador soon after the end of WWII. Today, about 16,500 people live in the Galapagos Islands, most of them sustained by the growing tourism industry.

After a quick trip through customs, we boarded a waiting bus that took us through desert countryside with much exposed bare volcanic rock, lots of prickly pear cactus and other plants that thrive in an arid land.

We were met at the landing by two large Zodiac boats that transferred us to the 120 foot three masted sailing ship M/S Alta. The d├ęcor aboard is elegant, with a large sitting room on the main deck near the bow, a tastefully decorated dining room, and neat, if small staterooms, each with its own shower.

After the mandatory emergency drill, we all climbed into the two Zodiacs to explore Black Turtle Bay. We spent almost two hours threading our way along channels defined by the ubiquitous mangrove trees with their aerial roots. We saw pelicans, blue-footed boobies, and several kinds of finches, golden warblers, and two different kinds of rays. We saw a six foot white tipped shark cruise by, and watched flights of dive-bombing boobies crash diving for dinner. We finally headed back to the Alta for a marvelous dinner. Although it was only 10:30 p.m. on the clock, everyone was exhausted. I was the last one up. Tomorrow would be another busy day.

Monday, July 3, 2000

M/S Alta weighed anchor around 9:30 p.m. from Santa Cruz Island, headed for Genovesa or Tower Island. Although Alta is a fairly large vessel, 140 feet long, the heavy rolling as we crossed open ocean made it somewhat difficult to sleep. Sometime in the early morning, around 3:00 the crew dropped anchor in Darwin Bay, only about a hundred yards from the steep 100-foot high basaltic cliffs of the flooded volcanic caldera that makes the bay safe anchorage. The cliffs go almost all the way around a circle, with only the seaward side, less than a quarter mile open to the ocean.

After breakfast, we all donned the mandatory life jackets, and scrambled over the side of the ship into the two waiting Zodiacs. They pounded their way across Darwin Bay to the side opposite the anchored ship to a spot dubbed Prince Phillip’s Steps. Presumably they got their name from the route Prince Phillip of England took to climb up the cliff when the royal yacht HMS Britannia visited here many years ago. Our Zodiacs scooted in turn up to the edge of the rocks where there was a small natural platform. Hopping ashore, we clambered up the steep uneven rocks to the top of the cliff, about 70 feet above the ocean.

Our walk on this morning with our guide Alec took us through dry scrubby looking brush for several miles. We stopped frequently for descriptions of the things we were seeing. We saw blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, and masked boobies. It is interesting to note that the blue-footed boobies have red bills, and the red-footed boobies have blue bills. We saw lots of frigate birds. It was fascinating to watch these large birds; with the slightest movement of their forked tails or a minor adjustment of wing angle, the frigate birds are masters of the sky. They floated on the ocean of air effortlessly, often hovering in one place as they balanced their downward glides with the updrafts. We also spotted a Galapagos owl, and Galapagos finches.

Back to the Alta for a snack and a rest, and then off in the Zodiacs again, this time for snorkeling along the flooded walls of the old crater. I was happy to have the wet suit, since the water was quite chilly. Although the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator, ocean currents bring very cold deep-ocean to the surface here. I decided to take some pictures underwater with my Nikonos waterproof camera. Ducking under the surface and rolled over on my back to get some candid shots of the other members of our group in their snorkeling gear. Unfortunately, I miscalculated how far I was from the edge of the underwater cliff, and banged my head on a rock. Very little damage was done, but since it was bleeding a little bit, I hailed the pilot of the Zodiac to come get me out of the water until I could realistically assess the damage. After a few minutes it was apparent to me that the bleeding had stopped completely. I put my mask, fins and snorkel back on and rolled into the water. Our guide Alec was still concerned, though, so he sent me back to the Alta. On arrival at the ship, the captain asked me to go in the Zodiac over to the next tour ship, where they had a doctor. I felt a little silly, but complied. The doctor cleaned the scalp, put a dab of antibiotic ointment on the scrape, and sent me on my way.

Back onboard the Alta, I decided to play with one of the sea kayaks for a while. I paddled along the side of the cliffs toward a white coral sand beach that was perhaps a quarter of a mile away. As I got close, I could see several sea lions dozing in the sun at the water’s edge. They let me get within ten feet of them without showing any signs of alarm, and stay there long enough to snap their pictures.

After lunch and a nap, we got on the Zodiacs again, this time bound for the same beach I had visited before lunch. This was a wet landing, with the Zodiacs pulling in stern first to within a few feet of the beach. Everyone had to jump over the sides and wade ashore. On a short walk we saw a number of sea lions up close to within a few feet, and many of the same kinds of birds we had seen on our earlier walk. We also saw a black lava gull, one of only about 400 left in the world.

Back on Alta, we relaxed on the big thick blue cushions way up in the bow for awhile, before getting ready to attend our nightly lecture and briefing on the next day’s activities. We spent the whole night heading toward our next destination, the island of Fernandina. Open ocean swells have seriously disagreed with at least five members of our party. They abandoned the deck or the dining room tables, feeling miserably worse by the minute. Jane and I were both lucky; no seasickness so far. I’m glad that we got the scopolamine patches before leaving. So far they seemed to be doing the job.

About eight o’clock ten or twelve people gathered on the big blue cushions way up by the bow. I’m not sure how many were there; it’s hard to count in the pitch dark. Jane and I pointed out familiar constellations that you can see from Richmond, except that they all seemed upside-down in the sky, this far south. We also spotted several things in the sky that are too low to be seen from Virginia, such as the Southern Cross, and Alpha Centauri. At a distance of only 4.5 light years away, it's the next closest star to us besides the Sun. We watched a beautiful golden waxing crescent moon sink beneath the waves. A little group singing, accompanied on the harmonica made a pleasant end to a busy day. The last people left the main deck for bed by 9:30. It SEEMS late when it is three hours past sunset. Here, that makes it a little after 9:00 p.m. but in Virginia at this time of year that turns out to be somewhat past 11:30 p.m. That may help explain why everyone is retiring so early. Tomorrow starts early with breakfast at 6:45.

Tuesday, July 4, 2000

The Alta didn’t rock and roll as much last night as the previous night, and I woke up refreshed, ready for adventures. We heard the engines stop in the middle of the night, and assumed that we had reached the island of Fernandina. In about a half hour, however, the engines started up again, and were still running when we made our way up on deck at 6:45 a.m.

The crew said that they stopped to change the fuel filters which had become clogged, and that instead of going ashore at 7:30 we were still a couple of hours away from our destination. Fernandina is a big island, with slopes similar in appearance to Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii. A bulging shield volcano, you could see where many lava flows had poured down the sides of the island and then spread out, making large fan tailed almost flat flows gently sloping down to the water’s edge. It was on one of these low lying aprons that we landed, on Punta Espinoza. This was a dry landing. The zodiacs brought us up right the edge of the lava flow where it dropped a few feet into the sea. The constant wash of waves over these rocks does make them slippery, however, and Alex, our guide, laid an old bath towel down on the rocks to give us extra traction as we scrambled ashore.

The old lava flow we walked on looked in many places as if old rope had been discarded, lying in heaps and piles in every direction. This kind of flow happens when the temperature of the lava is very hot. Because of its decreased viscosity, the lava flows rapidly down the steep slopes of a volcano, often in lava tubes, just underneath the surface crust. When it reaches flat land, the flow slows, but more lava is now pushing it from behind. As the newer lava shoves older lava forward, it tends to wrinkle, producing the ropey textured surface called pahoehoe. There were places on our morning walk where coral and pahoehoe had both been ground together by tidal action, wind and waves eventually wearing the hardest material into gray sand.

We saw lots of sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks and sand, totally unconcerned about our approach. We could walk to within three feet of them, and they might or might not open one eye to look us over. The total disregard for human presence seems to be the rule here in the Galapagos Islands. We walked right up, two or three feet away from nesting blue-footed boobies that were sitting on eggs or on chicks, and they would act as if we were invisible.

We returned to the ship for a big lunch and a short rest. We moved to an anchorage off the shore of Isabella in the early afternoon. Enroute, there was much excitement when we spotted a pod of dolphins converging on our ship. The caught up with us easily, and for the next half hour entertained us and themselves by riding the bow wave of Alta, racing along effortlessly at eight to ten knots.

We anchored in Elizabeth bay at Isla Isabella, and hopped into the two inflatable boats that the people here call pangas for an afternoon of prowling through the mangrove bays. We saw a number of black sea turtles, Galapagos hawks, schools of mullet, and some bright yellow warblers. We also saw a few Galapagos penguins, about a foot and a half tall. This is the only place where penguins, normally associated with Antarctic climates, are found this far north.

On the way back to Alta we diverted to go all the way around two tiny islands, rock outcroppings really, to see the penguins, blue footed boobies, and marine iguanas that were clinging to the jagged rocks and resting in small crevices.

In the tropics, the sunrise and sunset times do not vary much over the course of a year. The sun consistently goes down around 6:00 p.m. and rises again around 6:00 a.m. It is totally dark by 7:00 p.m. every evening. After dinner about ten people gathered again on the bow of the ship to look at stars and sing songs. Tonight we are in a protected anchorage, with large islands all around that block the heavy open ocean swells. Last night as we looked at the stars, the swaying of the boat made the tall masts describe huge arcs across the starry sky, making it seem as if the whole sky was swaying back and forth in rhythm with the waves. Tonight is so still that there is no apparent motion. The next day we were scheduled to get underway early, heading along the coast of Isabella to Urvina Bay, and later in the day to Tagus Cove. It was strange, spending the 4th of July, Independence Day, on a motor-sailer at the equator. It seemed more like a traditional 4th of July though when one of the group broke out a gift they'd brought with them...bright red bill-caps with the name "ALTA" and underneath...July 4th, 2000!

Wednesday, July 5, 2000

The Alta got under way in the middle of the night, or at least it felt like it. I’m not sure what time it was but the engines coming to life with a roar almost directly under our bed woke us with a start. We soon got back to sleep, but woke up early. All engines stopped. Urvina Bay is a spectacular anchorage, not more than a mile across. The water was glassy smooth, reflecting the other boats at anchor.

The two pangas brought us to a gray beach composed of both volcanic and coral sand. A short walk into the brush behind the beach brought us to an area of bare dirt that looked as if it were flooded from time to time. Alex told us to wait, and he went striding off down a bare dirt trail, stopping from time to time to bend over and peer under the leaves. He came back shaking his head; no giant tortoises to be seen. The group followed him along the hot trail. For the first time, it feels like a tropical island. The air was still, hot and humid, and the smell of damp vegetation hung heavy in the air.

As we walked single file along the dusty path, Alex stopped to point out tortoise droppings the size of baseballs. We encountered the Galapagos land iguanas for the first time. They have much less pronounced spines along their backs, are probably about three to four times the weight of the marine iguanas, and are yellowish brown.

Finally I spotted a huge tortoise off the right side of the trail where it had plowed a path through the underbrush. We moved on a few hundred yards farther, and came to a strange open meadow, littered with the old black skeletons of mangrove trees, all covered with morning glory vines. Alex explained that we were standing on the floor of a very recent bay. In 1956 the volcano on Isabela had erupted. Before erupting, however, the pressure of the rising magma had inflated the dome, raising this area from a shallow bay to eighteen feet above sea level. It also made a perfect feeding ground for Galapagos tortoises, who love to eat the morning glory vines. The path branched many different ways through the vines, and all of them were very dusty. The dust itself was about the consistency bath powder, and no matter how carefully we walked, the group raised traveling dust clouds.

We explored the meadow, making our way around clumps of trees, and before long found another giant tortoise. Although this one was smaller than the first we saw, Alex estimated that it was about 35-40 years old. Fifty yards more and we found two juveniles, only about two feet across the carapace, and probably no more than ten years old.

By the time we got back to the beach we were all hot, sweaty, and dusty, and looking forward to our promised time to go snorkeling. We all tugged and wiggled into wet suits, since the cold upwelling currents that make the Galapagos an area for such bio-diversity also make it difficult to swim without additional insulation. Getting into the water was a minor shock, but moving in the water soon made it quite tolerable. We swam together along the side of the bay, peering into the tumbled volcanic rocks, and marveling at the parrot fish, sergeant majors, and brilliant electric blue damsel fish. We were soon joined by several curious sea lions, who seemed to take great delight in zooming past, twisting and rolling and blowing air bubbles as if to show us who were the real masters of this environment.

Back aboard the ship we began another elegantly prepared lunch under the awning at the bow as the Alta began to move to Tagus Cove for the afternoon. Partway through lunch, dolphins joined us again, and we watched in amazement their effortless antics as they rode the pressure wave at the bow of the boat. High, almost sheer cliffs wall in Banks Cove or Tagus Cove, showing layers upon layers of volcanic ash that have hardened into rock. This cove was historically used as an anchorage by pirate ships and whalers. You could see the names of hundreds of ships carved or painted on the layered rocks of the steep cliffs. This is now prohibited.

Three kayaks, each with two people put out to paddle along the cliffs, looking at the sea birds that perch and nest there. The remaining members of the group elected to travel the same route in the larger of the two zodiacs. About a quarter mile from the Alta, one of the kayaks got into trouble, sinking lower and lower in the stern until it capsized in the chilly water. Our boat scooted to the rescue, pulling the two cold paddlers over the side into the boat, and took the leaky kayak under tow. After traveling along the cliffs some distance further, we all turned back to the boat.

After a half hour rest, eight of us elected to hike up the steep path away from the bay. The first part of the hike was steep, up wooden stairs. By the time we got to the top in the hot still air we were all out of breath and soaking wet. What a pleasant surprise; the air got noticeably cooler, and a gentle breeze made it pleasant. We continued up the trail to the top of a cindery hill of scoria for a spectacular view of the huge shield volcano that made this part of the island, and back down to Tagus Cove looking over a salty lagoon lake. We were pretty well worn out by the time we got back to the shore and the waiting panga that brought us back to the boat for dinner.

As soon as we were all aboard, the Alta weighed anchor and headed north again, to skirt the northern end of Isabela and head down the eastern side of the island to James Bay where we would visit on Thursday. A little before sunset at 6:10 p.m., I spotted a school of flying fish skimming the wave tops, rushing away in panic before the ship. Before heading to bed, I headed out to take another look at that mysterious glowing blue bow wave and its blue-spark phosphorescing turbulence. It was nothing short of magical, and I regretted that the light was not bright enough to register on my video camera. It was totally fascinating.

THURSDAY, July 6, 2000

After an overnight passage, the Alta anchored shortly after sunrise in James Bay, also known as Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. From the ship we could see the ruins of a cinder block house, and a hundred yards along the shore, a large old metal water tank. Alex told us that there used to be a commercial salt mining operation here, but it had been abandoned years ago. We made a wet landing, hopping out of the pangas into knee-deep water at the edge of the black sandy beach. Our walk this morning was along the shelving lava formations at the edge of the sea. Lots of tidal pools held small fish, brilliantly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs, and sea urchins. A little further along the shelving coast we came to an area where there were many old lava tubes that had collapsed into the water, leaving strange natural bridges, deep crevasses, and underwater passageways where we saw sea lions and smaller sea lions that are called fur seals here. The light shining through these grottoes made the water surging back and forth inside them appear as green, gray, deep cerulean blue, and pale sky blue. It was beautiful.

Retracing our steps a mile or so back to the beach, some of us wiggled into wet suits and braved the cold water to go snorkeling. Getting into the water was somewhat of a shock, even when it was expected, but as soon as we began moving around it became quite tolerable. I had borrowed another dive mask, since the one I brought from home was leaking so badly the first time I used it that I had to stop every 5-10 seconds to empty the mask of water. The new borrowed mask made the dive pleasant. We floated out around a point of rocks, floating through huge schools of small red fish, colorful damselfish, bright yellow tangs, trigger fish and beautiful angelfish that looked as if an artist had cleaned his paintbrushes on them.

We pulled our tired bodies into the zodiac just in time go spanking across the water back to the boat for yet another sumptuous lunch. This afternoon we dropped anchor offshore of the island of Bartolome. Pinnacle Rock, the highest point on the island, juts like huge rock wedge into the air at the edge of the water. We waded ashore from the pangas with our snorkeling gear, which we dumped on the beach, and immediately followed Alex along a trail across the vegetation covered sand dunes a few hundred yards to the other side of the island. A beautiful long curve of yellow sand rimmed the edge of the water. We waded in about knee deep, and Alex pointed out that this beach was very well patrolled by sharks which cruised along the shore hoping to intercept newly hatched sea turtles as they scrambled from the sandy nests where they hatched toward the deep water. As we stood there we saw sharks passing as if in review on parade. We saw white tipped sharks about four feet long, black tipped sharks six or seven feet long, and Galapagos sharks about the same length. Not too surprisingly, we didn’t see any human swimmers in this bay!

The surprise was that not more than a couple of hundred yards away on the other side of the island, sharks are seldom if ever spotted. We pulled on our wet suits on the beach for one more chance at snorkeling. We saw small flounder, damsel fish, blennies, trigger fish, black sea urchins, pencil sea urchins, green sea urchins, sea anemones, huge schools of sardines and of some little red fish I couldn’t identify.

Back to the boat to shower and change into dry clothes, and then back to another landing, this time a dry landing on the rocks, for a hike up to the top of a cinder cone about 400 feet above sea level. From the top there was an impressive 360-degree view of islands in all directions. We got back to the bottom and ferried to the boat just about the time the sun was disappearing below the horizon at 6:10 p.m. The crew gathered with us in the lounge for a farewell toast.

We will move tonight, traveling to our final anchorage just off the island of Mosquera. Breakfast at 7:00, one last shore excursion – a wet landing on the beach of this tiny island less than a kilometer long, to look at the sea lions here. We’ll be back on board by quarter to ten in the morning, and be pulling in to dock on the island of Baltra around 10:30 a.m. The plane arrives at noon, and we will be departing for Miami at 12:45 in the afternoon.

One of the most memorable moments of the trip was a chance happening in the evening. Just after dinner, when almost everyone was still in the dining room, I stepped out onto the deck to see if there were any stars visible. There were none, but as I looked out across the black water, I saw a tiny streak of blue light, only a few inches long, moving rapidly through the water, followed by a large swirl of phosphorescence. It took me a few seconds to realize that I was looking at a fish, fleeing from a pursuing sea lion. I stood fascinated for several minutes watching the chase, painted in streaks and whirlpools of blue glowing light as the fish and the sea lion darted this way and that, first close to the side of the boat and along its hull, plunging deep, fading out of sight, and exploding back into view. Sometimes within inches of each other, then with a sudden change of direction widening the gap. Several times as the pursuer and the pursued swept through the lights of the boat there would be a sudden glowing jewel of the sea lion’s eye shining back at me like a moving beacon, quickly dimming again to it blue ghostly appearance as the two plunged back into the darkness again. I never did see the end of the chase; they headed straight out away from the Alta, the blue ghostly magic fading with the distance.

FRIDAY, July 7, 2000

Mosquera is barely more than a sandbar: just under a kilometer long, and about 200 meters wide, it is separated by narrow channels at each end from the islands of North Seymour and South Seymour. No trees, no bushes, only some patches of ground-hugging succulent leafed plants that cling to the sandy soil. Still, it is one of the more interesting islands we have visited, because of the number of sea lions that are there. Along the beachfront on the sheltered side of the island, the big bull sea lions have staked out territories of about 50 - 70 meters each. They stay in the water a good deal of the time, patrolling up and down. They bark warnings at all they think may invade their territory to steal the females from them.

They bellowed at our zodiac inflatables as we came in to the beach, but did not bother us once we were ashore. All up and down the slope of the beach were hundreds of sea lions, sleeping in the morning sun. Some were still sleek and black, indicating that they had just recently come from breakfast in the water. Others were the color of coffee with cream, and looked much fluffier. These had been out of the water for some time, and their fur was dried to its natural color. None of them paid any more attention to us than to perhaps open one eye to peer disinterestedly at us for a second or two before drifting off into sea lion slumber again.

Young sea lions lay like overstuffed light brown sausages next to their mothers, sucking milk noisily with great gusto. Adolescent sea lions swam and swirled in barking mobs in the shallow waters, chasing each other in endless games of tag and mock battle. Standing watching on the beach close to the water would indicate intrusion to a bull once in awhile, and he would swim toward us menacingly, barking his challenge. We would back up quickly, and the bull would swim away to resume his patrol against other sea lions. Several times as we stood there, young females, unbelievably curious, would swim to the beach, and humpty hump their way up the sand to have a look at us. As I ran the video camera, one of them stopped only about four feet away, then inched closer and closer, finally reaching out as far as she could with her long-whiskered nose to sniff at my shin. After doing this several times, she gently opened her mouth and slowly reached for my leg as they do with each other in greeting. That was a little too much for me, and I backed up quickly!

Our time was up all too quickly, and we headed back to the Alta for the last time. Soon we were landing at Puerto Ayora on the island of Baltra, piling into the bus for the short trip to the airport. Our bags had been taken ashore ahead of us to be transported to the airport. We were dismayed as we rounded a curve near the airport, and saw the baggage truck overturned next to the road, on top of a great pile of luggage! We drove on past, and checked in at the airport. We could see the wreck in the distance, and watched as ten or fifteen men got on one side of the truck and heaved it right side up again. Within a half hour the luggage truck, one wheel badly bent, but still rotating eccentrically, pulled up and unloaded the luggage, seemingly unharmed by the incident. We could discover no damage to our bags, and after a moderately long wait, finally took off for Guayaquil.

Saturday, January 8, 2000

As we approached the coast of Ecuador, the pilot announced that the plane would not be landing at Guayaquil, as scheduled, but would instead continue inland to Quito. No particular explanation, just the announcement. We could see as the aircraft approached that Quito stretched out in a valley, curving upwards at the edges toward rocky peaks, as if the city were sleeping in a hammock.

That was really all we saw of the city. We waited in the terminal for quite some time before the announcement finally came that boarding was underway for Guayaquil. As we climbed up out of the valley we could see steamy clouds rising from the cinder cone of a dormant volcano at the edge of the city.

On arrival at the Hotel Oro Verde in Guayaquil our bags were unloaded and whisked away to our rooms. A farewell dinner for the group turned out to be an elaborate affair. When I arrived at our private dining room the headwaiter announced that he had a problem with the fact that I was wearing shorts. Fortunately I had, at the last minute, thrown a pair of jeans into my suitcase before leaving home. I almost hadn’t brought them, and I had not worn them once on board the Alta. I returned to the room and changed to long pants. Even though they were denim, the length was acceptable, and I was admitted to the dining room. The banquet was served in courses, each a culinary work of art, served with great decorum. Fabulous!

The flights back to Miami and Regan airport were uneventful, except for the inevitable delays. We flew low over Washington, D.C. just about sunset, sightseeing from the air, spotting the Potomac River at Great Falls, the National Cathedral, the Mall, the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building. By the time we had reclaimed our baggage, gone through customs, and retrieved the vans from the long-term parking area, it was dark. Most of us dozed as we headed back toward Richmond.

No comments:

Post a Comment