I left Canton about 6 A.M. on Saturday, December 13. I met my colleague Caroline Collins at the 18 Wheeler Restaurant and we car pooled down to the airport in St. Louis. A few students were already there, and the rest trickled in, except one latecomer. I waited for her while the others went through security. When she arrived, I got her checked in, which had been tricky for the first of us. We went through security to the gate. There was a screaming kid on the plane all the way to Atlanta. After a layover of a couple hours, we took the long flight to Quito, Ecuador. We met our guide, Jorge Pineiros. He has a Portuguese last name, like me. The bus took us to the San Francisco Hotel in downtown, the old part of Quito. I had my first Pilsener in a year. Delicious! We stayed up talking for a bit, and got to bed at about 2 A.M.
Sunday morning we had breakfast at the hotel and took the bus to the Inti-Nan museum, which is on the actual equator. This is distinct from the Mitad del Mundo, the big tourist trap that is about 300 meters off. The Inti-Nan emphasizes native culture. Our guide, Natali, showed us the native huts, monuments, and various “experiments” (mostly pseudoscientific) illustrating the unique properties at the equator. A dude in native costume danced with some of the students. There was a shop of native handicrafts there, very inexpensive.
Nikki walks the equatorial line.
Kevin and Kyle dance with the costumed dude.
On the bus ride we had to stop for a crew that was clearing a landslide that had blocked the road. While we were waiting a guy came around selling ice cream. We must have made his day because we bought him out. Blackberry (mora) ice cream is awesome. I had many milkshakes and juices of mora in the coming days. We bussed up to Mindo and had lunch in a local cafe. A short distance away we went to Sachatamia, land of the hummingbirds. We hiked a trail in the mist and rain through the cloud forest. It was gorgeous and lush. We saw many types of vegetation, flowers, a lizard and a caterpillar. There was a pool formed by dammed creek. Some of the students wanted to swim. The guide said it was OK, and I didn’t have a problem with it. The water was cold and they were mostly soaked for the rest of the day. Some had not come prepared for swimming. None had any regrets, however.
A hummingbird at Sachatamia.
Crazy kids splash down.
When we got back to Quito, it was Sunday night and all the shops were closed. For safety, we went as one group to a sort of mall on the Grand Plaza and found a restaurant. I had a fritada, a traditional dish of pork and boiled corn. It was yummy. While we were there, one of the guys practically became engaged to a cute local girl. Some bought stuff at a gift shop. On the way back to the hotel, some of us saw what was apparently a drug deal going down. One thing I learned was that they don’t insulate the walls in the tropics. So hotels are noisy. My room was adjacent to the street, and I heard every truck that rumbled down it.
I got up at 5 A.M. Monday, December 15. We were bussed to the airport , where I got a ham sandwich and blackberry juice. We met a couple who worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden, did research in Ecuador, and were vacationing in Galapagos. From Quito we flew to Guayaquil, and on to the Galapagos. For lunch we were served…ham sandwiches. Upon landing in Baltra, we met our guides, Geoconda and Maria Fernanda. We took the short bus ride across Baltra to the Strait of Itabaca, the ferry across that, then the bus ride to Puerto Ayora. Half way there, we stopped at the big pit craters, Los Gemelos. We checked in to the Fernandina Hotel, which was a bit better than our hotel last year, but not as close to the downtown area. We toured the Darwin station and had lunch at La Garrapata. I think I had a burger. We walked to the dive shop and were fitted for wetsuits, except for three of us that had brought our own snorkeling gear. And one student who we lost on the way. We found her later at the hotel. We swam in the pool and some of the students tried snorkeling there. We got in the hot tub, which was barely luke warm to start, but eventually got too hot to stay in (how do you say “thermostat” in Spanish?). Kevin and Kyle were doing crude somersaults off the edge of the pool and repeating “No flippies off the dock!” I don’t know what movie that comes from. So I decided to show them how it’s done, being a former varsity diver. The edge of the pool had a funny rounded edge to it, but I was not that bothered by it. I got plenty of height and rotation and held a good tuck. I completed the back somersault thinking it was going great, felt my feet and lower body enter the water…then my chin hit the edge of the pool. It was kind of like getting kicked in the head in karate, and I’d had plenty of that in the past (explains a lot, I know). Kyle said I cut my chin, but I didn’t think so. Further inspection proved him right. I didn’t really want to go to the emergency room that late, so I taped it shut with bandaids. I didn’t sleep well, thinking I was not going to be able to snorkel the next day.
Sea lion on a buoy in the Strait of Itabaca.
Female lava lizard.
Galapagos mockingbird–very tame.
Tuesday I woke up with some blood on my pillow and sheets where it had soaked through my bandaids. I had our student nurse, Jennie-Rebecca, bandage it in the morning. Kyle taped it for good measure. We departed via bus at 8 A.M., and returned immediately for Anele, who is normally so quiet we did not even notice she was missing. The bus took us over Santa Cruz Island to the Strait again, where we boarded our boat, the Northstar and headed for Daphne Major. We met our boat guide, David, the captain, Guillermo, and the first mate, Armando. We motored around Daphne Major and saw a lot of birds up close, as well as sea lions and turtles. At one point, a big manta ray jumped right next to the boat. It jumped once more, but I only saw the ripples after it entered. We continued to Daphne minor, and saw some baby sea lions. We stopped off of Mosquera for our first snorkel. The waves were high, and the water was cold and deep–just how I didn’t want it to start! We only had one student panic. Kyle, a lifeguard, pulled Anita back to the boat. She did rejoin us for snorkeling later. The incredible density of fish was far above anything we saw last year. I saw a really cool eel with strikingly contrasting lateral stripes. I couldn’t stop to photograph it because I was so far behind the rest of the group. This was the maiden voyage of the underwater camera. I was having some trouble seeing anything at all on the LCD display anyway. I thought, “Man, this camera is crap.” Then I discovered that it wasn’t turned on. Results were decidedly better after t
hat. The bandage was barely hanging off my chin by that point. I pulled it off and stuck it in my wetsuit. Note: next time take waterproof bandages. We saw a stingray, turtles, a shark, and numerous invertebrates. It was a long stretch of good snorkeling. We motored over to the opposite shore, which I think was Baltra, and snorkeled a bit more. Lots of bat stars there, and these little red fish in schools up close to the rocks. There were also schools of tiny fish fry in the water. Reproduction is a good thing! We motored to a calm bay on Baltra. Some snorkeled there, but I was too cold at that point. Next time I bring the full length wet suit. We ate lunch in the bay right on the boat–hot fish and rice. It was damn good. We were motoring around the Northeast side of Santa Cruz when whales were spotted. We followed them around for about an hour, and got some good views of orcas up close. This was a real bonus, as whales are rarely sighted. We motored over to Gordon Rocks, a well known SCUBA spot. We saw a couple of Galapagos fur seals, also uncommon. Almost everyone slept during the remaining hour ride back to Puerto Ayora. When we got off the boat, Geoconda met us and took me straight to the ER. It happened to be a busy night. When I finally saw the physician. He looked at my chin for about 5 seconds and said, “Esta cerrado.” It’s closed. A nurse cleaned it with alcohol and iodine, then sent me on my way. No charge. After returning to the hotel we went back downtown for shopping and dinner. I had ceviche, a kind of seafood salad, also a very traditional Ecuadoran dish.
Baby sea lion–it’s pupping season…
…which may be why orcas are on the prowl.
A little gecko on the wall of the hotel.
Wednesday morning we walked down to the docks and got on our boat again. The Northstar took us to Santa Fe in about an hour, but the ride was rough, with the wind-driven swells causing large amplitude rolling of the boat. I stared at the horizon to avoid sea sickness, but it’s a good thing the ride wasn’t another hour longer. As I was staring into the distance I saw a splash. I looked at the spot for a minute and a manta ray jumped. I’m sure I was the only one to see it. We cruised around the island, seeing many boobies, baby sea lions, and plunge diving birds. Every time a booby would fold its wings and pierce the water, we’d yell, “Skadoosh!” Not sure what it means, but it sounds good. Along the steep-walled cliffs we saw the Galapagos Hawk, another species we had not seen last year. We started snorkeling in a nice, warm bay, but the stinkin’ bull sea lions kept patrolling the coast and making me nervous. There were bazillions of fish in this spot. We swam out of the bay into the open ocean to see more and larger fish. So cool. We took the boat to a small island off Santa Cruz where last year one student had been washed up on the rocks and cut up pretty badly. It’s about the only place to swim with marine iguanas and the best for snorkel with sea lions, but I was rather wary. I did see an iguana underwater, and even got the shot, but was soon occupied by pulling our girls out of the rocks. The sea lions (usually friendly juveniles and females) didn’t show.
Blue-footed booby, with actual blue feet.
Galapagos hawk, a juvenile.
We motored back to Tortuga Bay, a calm, sunny beach that we had had to hike to last year. As we pulled in, I saw the kayak guy go ashore, lock up his kayaks and leave. No kayaking for us! Didn’t matter. We saw rays, turtles and many sharks. Just when we arrived, we saw sharks mating. Our guide had only seen it twice in his lifetime. This was one of many lucky events in this trip. We ate lunch on the boat and played soccer on the beach. I didn’t make much of a contribution, but we had many able players including the guide, Miki (a former college player), Anele, Nikki, and Collins on our team. We won 3-2. I rested in the shade while some students played a game of chicken. Anele and Anita won. The students made a sandman and took a group photo. We hiked the peninsula, seeing many iguanas, the American oystercatcher and a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron. When we got back to Puerto Ayora I bought a white T shirt with Charles Darwin on the front. I had an idea to have all the students sign it, and I happened to have a permanent marker. I also had them put funny quotes on it, which I will collect here later. We all had dinner at The Rock. It was quite fun, as they played videos from 1970s era musicals (Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing) and the kids sang along. Anele left early, feeling a bit ill. We all went back to the hotel later. I had one beer in the hotel bar. I met some locals and heard a good Spanish pun. The guy said the girl’s eyes were the color of miel-da. This sounds like honey (miel), but also poo (mierda). Ha ha.
Kyle spots a white-tipped shark.
Nikki and Miki show their enthusiasm for the beach.
Thursday we loaded up into 5 pick-up trucks. A white pick-up is the standard cab in Puerto Ayora, double cab, usually a Toyota. The beds were full of mountain bikes and we drove a few miles out of town to begin our mountain bike ride. I helped get people fitted to their bikes and their seats adjusted. I had been led to believe we were going to start at the top of the island and coast downhill to the beach. It didn’t work out that way. There were lots of hills, some of them steep. Shifting difficulties took out a few people, and the hills many more. The trucks followed behind and picked up those that dropped out. Good thing I ride a lot of hills around Canton. By the time I caught up to the lead group, Miki had fallen and scratched her knee. We stopped at a little store, where I rinsed off her leg, cleaned it as well as I could, and coated it with neosporin. While we rested, a torrential rain came down for a few minutes, the hardest I’ve seen in the Galapagos. It was a good example of the rainshadow effect, given our location. From there it was mostly downhill. We passed a donkey, which brayed at Miki, and some chickens that crossed the road. Anele almost ran one over. The leaders stopped at a point with a nice view of the ocean. I watched as, almost in slow motion, Miki rolled up behind them and locked her brakes. The bike skidded and she rolled off of it. I should mention that, while short segments were paved, most of the route was covered in volcanic rock and cinder. It cuts. When she came up, her shoulder was scraped over a large area and her other knee was thoroughly cut up, including a dime-sized hole. I again pulled out the first aid kit (new Spanish word of the day: botiquin). I patched her up as best I could, but had no way to scrub the dirt out of her wounds. She never sh
owed a sign of pain. Tough kid. She rode in the truck after that, and those riding bikes coasted down to the parking area. They were doing road work and I had to wait for a track hoe to get out of the road.
Fiddler crab about an inch long.
White-cheeked pintails in a row.
We hiked the short trail down to the beach. It was low tide, and we saw many little fiddler crabs in one area. There were no flamingoes in the lagoon this year, but several white-cheeked pintails. The Darwin’s finches were everywhere. It had been a wet year, and lots of vegetation to show for it. Finches reproduce well under those conditions. Many were very tame, landing on our packs, feet, and even heads, especially when we had food. Little beggars. Some students swam, but not much or for very long. We found a dead sea turtle on the beach, reduced to mostly bones. Anele had done the ride, but lay in the shade most of the time. We walked or rode back to the trucks, where all but Kyle got in and were driven to the lunch site. I could have ridden it, but not as fast as Kyle. He’s a 6 foot 6 inch superman. Lunch was at a beautiful villa/plantation kind of affair, where the students lounged in hammocks and we enjoyed a huge lunch of chicken. Kyle and Nikki played volleyball with the locals for a bit. Both of them are varsity players. Anele wasn’t feeling well, and sat in the truck. The kitchen staff made a bowl of chicken soup just for her. Kari sat with her while she ate it. She felt like she had a fever to me, so she, Miki and I rode in one vehicle to the hospital. Neither wanted to go, but I insisted. I take care of my kids. They cleaned and disinfected Miki’s wounds, and gave her a shot in the butt. They gave Anele prescriptions for some pills. She didn’t have a fever, apparently. It was a relatively early end to our scheduled activities that day, so we took a cab back to the hotel for naps and showers. Another student had diarrhea pretty badly. I gave her some Imodium, which seemed to get it under control. So if you’re keeping track, we totaled three visits to the doctor, just like last year.
Lava heron in the toxic manzanillo tree, I believe.
Friday I knew we had a two-hour boat ride, and I took a Dramamine accordingly. I felt great and fell asleep after one hour. Armando the deckhand was quite a singer, and he serenaded us (well, mostly Laura) much of the time. When we arrived at Floreana, a small panga ferried us to the dock. We took the bus to the highlands and hiked up to the place where they put all the tortoises that are hybrids or of unknown origin. The native subspecies is extinct; that’s why I call it the Island of Misfit Tortoises. The students had a great time hand feeding them stalks of corn. We saw the pirate caves, evidence of early settlements, the spring and the look-out. The bus took us back down to the coast, where we had lunch at the Wittmer’s, descendents of early German settlers. They had the most awesome soup, followed by fish and more. We poked around on the beach some, then got into the boat. We cruised east on the coast to a little bay, where we saw for the first time the endemic Galapagos Penguin. There were just a pair of them sitting on the rocks, but we were very excited (we didn’t see these last year). The guide took the boat really close so that we could get a good view and pictures. We snorkeled around one shore of Floreana, seeing sharks, many fish and sea stars. We moved to the coast of the small island of Champion, where a long snorkel through the shallows provided the best snorkeling of the trip. The colorful fish let us approach closely, and there were many invertebrates. At one point I came up to see red-billed tropicbirds flying overhead. It doesn’t get any better. The battery died on my underwater camera just before the end, but that’s OK. We got back in the boat and cruised around Enderbee, which provided good views of courtship dances in Nazca boobies and displays of magnificent frigate birds (the ones with the big inflatable red throat pouch). This was a dream come true for me, having seen these behaviours on TV, but never thinking I’d ever see them in person. On the trip back to Santa Cruz, Armando sung us some tunes, mostly gospel and love songs, and all in Spanish. But his efforts were interspersed by those of our own Kari, who it turns out, can sing like a bird. She did some favorites from Disney movies (Little Mermaid, Pocahontas), and when she ran out we made requests. Then we started joining in. Never in my life would I have guessed that we would all sing for two hours all the way back to port. Even I sang, which I normally only do in the car. Alone.
Courting Nazca boobies.
Magnificent frigate bird.
Big, bad marine iguana.
On our return, we shopped a bit, and some of us ate chicken on a stick for $1.50. We returned to the hotel, showered, and went out walking around. At one point the students all shared in a toast–to me. It was touching. We went to a disco, where everybody danced. Some of the girls danced with the locals, which worked well until their grinding became a little too intimate. I’ve seen golden retrievers that were more subtle. Outside, we had more chicken on a stick, and walked back to the hotel for cake.
At this point I must back up and describe the purpose of the cake. On the flight down earlier in the week, Anna asked Laura how to say curse words in Spanish. Laura, being very savvy and commonsensical, told her that the Spanish for the F-word was peluche. Peluche is short for osita de peluche, or teddy bear. So Anna goes around all week saying peluche this and peluche that. All the rest of us know what it really means. Even the boat captain and hotel bartender are in on it. It’s hilarious. I’ve never been party to a practical joke of such magnitude that worked so well. So, to the cake. Kyle bought it and had them put “Peluche, G Crew 2008” on it. We presented it to Anna in a ceremony in a hotel room, and Kyle told her what peluche really means. It was said later that we never saw a black person turn red before. She said, “That’s not cool.” But took it with a smile.” If she didn’t love teddy bears so much, she might have been mad. In a striking coincidence, she loves teddy bears, has a large collection, and even a tattoo of one on her shoulder. I think Brian got this all on film.
It was with heavy hearts that we got up on Saturday morning and got on the bus. Nobody wanted to leave. it was a sad bus ride across the island. It was then I learned that our guide (spelled Geoconda, not Yocanda) had had a C-section 20 days earlier. She would have done everything with us otherwise. I had wondered why we had her, plus another guide on land (Maria Fernanda) and another on the boat (David). She walked
us all the way through to check-in. Last year’s guide had left us to fend for ourselves at the ferry. We got some last minute shopping in at the airport. The flight to Guayaquil and Quito was uneventful. Our Quito Guide, Jorge, was there actually waiting for a different group, as he thought our flight was two hours later. Fortunately, he had a bus waiting, which took us straight to the hotel. Sort of. Everyone was out Christmas shopping and traffic was thick. What a contrast to the previous week, where all was deserted. We walked downtown to the municipal theater square. A live band was playing a benefit for an environmental group trying to stop mining in Ecuador. We sat at an outdoor cafe and had dinner. Well, I had a banana split, as I didn’t think my stomach was ready for meat. Some of us bought blank T shirts at a nearby shop and had the environmentalists iron on their propaganda. The percussion band was AWESOME. Too bad they weren’t selling a CD. The next band was rock/ska, and they were great too. Meanwhile, jugglers and acrobats were performing. Pretty good deal for free. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at a couple of soccer shops, where many of us bought $5 soccer jerseys. Let’s say they were probably not officially licensed merchandise. I went up on top of the hotel and took photos of various churches and El Panecillo. We hung out in the hotel lounge and watched a video of Indian songs and dances that Laura had bought. We watched a part of Kung Fu Panda in Spanish too. We talked Kari into singing again. She did “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid. She sounds a lot better without twin 200 hp Yamahas in the background. She has one of those voices that bring a tear to your eye. I had my last Pilsener.
Jugglers and acrobats.
A big church in Quito at night.
The percussion band.
An early wake-up, and we took the bus to the airport. We checked in and paid our $40.80 fee to exit the country. Most people got some food before the final check in and search of our carry-ons. Miki was chosen for the random search of her checked bag. Poor thing; she was a little nervous. I waited while everyone else got on the plane. Finally, Miki came back and we boarded. There was a slight delay, then we flew out of Quito. It was pretty cloudy, and we couldn’t see much from the plane. After it cleared, I was able to see the Panama Canal, Cuba and Florida. After landing in Atlanta, we had to go through four steps to our next gate. At the baggage claim, Laura’s back pack did not show up. They wouldn’t let her file a claim until we got to St. Louis. At security, Brian was flagged for an outstanding warrant and taken aside. I wasn’t there to see it. They said he had a DUI in New Mexico. He was nowhere near New Mexico at the time, but someone had stolen his wallet prior to that. They said that “they were coming to take him away” and they wouldn’t let him call me. Fortunately, they discovered it was a case of mistaken identity and let him go. Meanwhile, everyone else had made it to the gate. I waited for them to collect there. They guy across from me gave me two meal vouchers. I gave one to Laura and we ate at a hot dog place. Our flight was delayed about an hour. The plane was kind of small; Kyle couldn’t stand up all the way and walk down the aisle without bending at the neck. The flight attendant had to shush us almost immediately (she should see this group when they’re really wound up!). At the baggage claim, Anna’s main bag didn’t show up. We said our goodbyes, broke into groups and went our separate ways. Kari, Caroline and I caught a shuttle to the parking lot. I drove and dropped them off at the 18-Wheeler two hours later.
A peninsula off the west coast of the Panama Canal.
A blue lagoon in Cuba.
I have to say this was a truly outstanding trip. We saw an amazing diversity of wildlife, some of which was quite rare. We had excellent snorkeling, and plenty of it. Moreover, our group had a certain chemistry. We went almost everywhere together, not because we had to, but because we wanted to. We all bonded with each other. Everyone was included in the constant festive atmosphere. It was sunny and warm every day. No one was seriously hurt or ill. It could only have been better for me if I had not been slightly sick almost every day and if my family could have been there. Most of the students are trying to figure out how they’re going to go back. Some might make it, but it won’t be the same. Our MVP was Laura, whose command of Spanish was extremely useful, and whose efforts to take care of everyone were so appreciated. If you want to see more of my photos, get on Facebook and friend me, as I have posted many there. Here are a few more, taken with the underwater camera.
Yellow-bellied trigger and king angel.
Chocolate chip sea star and pencil urchin.