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Journals from Galapagos, Ecuador

2010-02-08 First Week in the Islands

So get this, I'm currently writing this post from the computer lab of the GAIAS campus, sitting in my still-wet swimsuit because I just ran out of the ocean about 5 minutes ago. Seriously, the campus is across the street from the beach. As in, walk out the doors, look both ways, BEACH. I don't even know where to begin, though probably where we left off is a good place. The day before we boarded the plane to the Galapagos, I went mountain biking down one of the world's largest active volcanos - Cotopaxi. I've never mountain biked before, so you could say it was a bit of an adventure. It was awesome. Even though it's at the equator, this volcano is so high up that it actually has a permanent glacier and cover of snow. It's also a perfect cone - straight out of those 'eye discover' books for kids. The landscape was gorgeous. Once you got low enough that the vegetation could come back, the place was covered in yellow grasses and green shrubs, rolling hills coming up to blue sky. Just incredible, and the biking was excellent - I'm not sure I've ever had so much fun. The top was actually a little terrifying, because the descent was really steep, with these fist-sized rocks littering the road, and the ground is covered in feet of ash, so you'd try to brake and your back tire would fish-tail out from under you and you'd start sliding toward the side of the road, about ready to fall down the volcano. I was trying to keep up with the guys in my group but they were just insane! I'm pretty proud of myself that I managed to stay ~10min behind them the entire time. After it flattened out it was great, though. The mid-bit was probably the best. I finally felt comfortable picking up some real speed, and a friend and I ended up racing across and down a spread of green grass, through the hills, fording streams. Stopped for lunch next to this one stream that, by virtue of optical illusion, totally looks like it's flowing uphill. I have no idea how that worked out - I will still swear to you that the area downstream was a good three feet higher in elevation than upstream. The tour guide packed us lunch, so we got some really good pasta, a Dutch version of a quiche, lacking eggs and cheese, a kind of carrot salad, ginger tea (sooo good!), and fresh-baked brownies. The final leg was a big more like the first - not steep anymore, so I was still going pretty fast, but really rocky and sandy - the rocks were the worst; near the end I thought my arms were about ready to shake off and my hands actually hurt from trying to control the bike. It was so much fun, though. I'm totally gonna start trail riding up on Mt. Hood this summer. Oh man, I got sooo sunburned that day! Needless to say, I spent the plane ride into the Galapagos avoiding the window and wiping a wet napkin over my nose and cheeks. You could say the islands and I had an illustrious beginning. The first day was good, though: we got into the campus and got the whole spiel about safety (aka 'go out whenever you want, it's totally safe here'), transportation (everything's within walking distance, but if you ever want a cab, it should be $1 to go anywhere in the town), and host families (they're all extremely excited to meet you and are looking forward to helping you enjoy your time here). And then we met up with our "primos" - our 'cousins' here, who are GAIAS students from the islands that want to spend an hour a week with us practicing their conversational English. They had a scavenger hunt where our primo/a had to show us around specific places in town and we had to take pictures. Also had to find some endemic species. I've got pictures of sea lions (though they're really a dime a dozen here, and already beginning to lose some of their fascination), blue footed boobies, a brown pelican, some crabs, and lava lizards. I've also since seen a marine iguana get into a territory dispute with a sea lion, which was really funny. More funny, my prima and I actually won the hunt. It's gotta be the first time I've ever won anything outside of an argument in my life. Our fabulous prize? Snow cones on the beach. Awesome. I went snorkeling for the first time on Tuesday - word to the wise, apply sunblock, especially on the backs of your legs. Sitting was very uncomfortable for a day. It was completely worth it, though; I've never really understood the appeal of floating around, looking at the ocean floor, or why it was so difficult to lift your head out of the water like a normal person when you needed to breathe, but I really got wrapped up in it. I simply had no idea how many fish hung around the shoreline. I know it sounds stupid: What? Fish? In the OCEAN you say? Noooo! But it was really amazing. Not just the little silver ones we're used to seeing, either, I saw a fish bigger than my thigh, bright purple and green, and he must have let me get within a hand's breadth of him before he started moving away - even then, it wasn't a frantic dart to get away from me, either. He just moseyed around, eating algae, and I moseyed around above him, watching. He was probably the most spectacular thing I saw that day. I also got to trek around the interpretive center - a park-like area behind the school with a bunch of high points for watching frigate birds. You know, the ones with the massive red balloons that they puff up on their chests when they're trying to attract a mate? They're awesome. You've got two species here, the Magnificent frigate bird, and the Great frigate bird. I want something like Magnificent to go in front of my species name. I can see it now "magnificent thinking ape, Homo Sapiens Magnificens" or however else you put magnificent into Latin. Has a nice ring to it, though, doesn't it? I found out that the diving place I'm going to be learning with also does surfing lessons. I've already taken a couple lessons in the past, but I don't remember much about the mechanics so I thought I might brush up on my knowledge. After that, board rentals for the day are pretty cheap, and since I don't watch TV here and the internet is extremely slow, I'm looking for other ways to kill time on the weekends. Plus, it just sounds like fun. I'm totally turning into a beach bum - my hair's going to start naturally forming dreadlocks because of all the salt water. Went to snorkel at Kicker Rock with the class this Saturday. That was amazing. In the crevice between the two rock formations there are literally hundreds of small sharks - all kinds, too, even hammerheads. There were also rays, and even a Galapagos Fur Seal. The trip was great. The boats were fun, too - if you go, you've gotta sit out on the bow. It's a completely different experience, plus you won't get seasick. I gotta recommend bringing an underwater camera with you down here. Totally worth the money. You wouldn't believe how much of your semester you're going to spend underwater. Well, my class is about to start up. Check back soon!

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