Around November, the University went on “Spring” break, allowing us a week to adventure to other islands. We began with Isabela, the Galapagos' largest island, and ended on a boat cruise of the entire archipelago.
We traveled to Isabela by boat and arrived after a miserable four hours. So many people got seasick. Luckily, I was one of the few that didn't, but that didn't make the ride any more pleasant. It just meant I was on water fetching/hair holding/back rubbing duty. I have never seen so many relieved faces upon reaching land.
Isabela is so different from San Cristobal (where the University is located). None of the roads are paved, the community is even smaller (almost impossible!) and the beaches stretch forever. San Cristobal has nice beaches also, but not nearly as soft or expansive as those on Isabela. Our beaches are made almost exclusively of coral particles that have been consumed and digested by fish, while those on Isabela are made of volcanic rock slowly being rubbed down by the waves. These are also the kind of beaches we have in Oregon, and even just walking across the sand made me miss home. It was bizarre that I would associate something so minute as how my feet feel in the sand with home, but it was also incredibly powerful.
As soon as we arrived on Isabela, we were off seeing the sites. They have a lagoon that flamingos come to visit each day and we were able to sit and watch them as they marched through the water, knees rising high then piercing back through the murky water. The flip their heads upside down as they feed and fliter the water out once they have a mouthful of what I assume is a delicious lunch to a flamingo. After the flamingos, we jetted off to visit the turtle breeding station. I have never in my life seen as many turtles as I have in the last two months. The island chain has three breeding centers, and I have been to all of them. The Galapagos are trying desperately to save their most famous creature (with possible exception of Darwin's finches) and are trying to repopulate the islands. It was nice to see the process behind it, however. They have pastures and pastures of different aged turtles which climb all over one another seeking the center of the group. Hundreds of baby turtles! We were exhausted that night, though. I think the boat ride just took too much out of us. I collapsed in bed at 9:00, trying to catch up on some sleep before our big hike the next day.
Monday, we hiked a volcano. Literally, straight up it. If there is one thing that Ecuador seems to have in excess (besides spiders and forward young men) it would be climbable volcanoes. This is the third volcano I have managed to climb in my time here. I love to hike, but this was some five-hour trek. Still, completely worth it. The view at the top was incredible. Volcan Chico gave us some of the most amazing views, including stretches across the oceans and out to other islands. The lava fields were spectacular, with so many beautiful shades of burnt reds and oranges. It reminded me a little of Arizona once we got out into the rocky sections. It was so hot and dry, peppered with cacti. Very beautiful. At one point there was fog covering the entire caldera (second largest in the world, we were told) and a rainbow arched through it to make for perfect pictures. Thankfully the fog then lifted and we were able to enjoy both extremes.
That afternoon, we went out to the beach for a short period of recovery from our five-hour hike. It was alternately misting and pouring rain (more proof that this beach was similar to Oregon's) and we didn't stay out too long. Rather, I took a shower, a nap, and (so fitting) watched Finding Nemo with six other University students piled into our two, rather haphazardly jammed together, twin beds.
We have all been excessively tired in the islands and someone proposed an interesting theory. At EVERY meal the majority of our plate is starch: rice, potatoes, rice with potatoes, potatoes over rice. It never ends. Supposedly, starches make you more tired. Still, I don't eat my potatoes (something I've become famous...or rather infamous for on the trip) and rarely finish my rice. I am still just as exhausted as the rest of them. I suppose I'll have to chalk it up to island living, the stresses of travel, or (don't read this part, mom) some unknown, deadly tropical disease that will take my life before I ever see my homeland once again. Probably just the stresses of travel, though.
The next morning we headed out early to see the Wall of Tears, the only evidence of what was once a WWII prison camp. For our entire time in Isabela we struggled with our guides who displayed very little patience and very little tolerance on their part, seemingly unprovoked. At the Wall of Tears I felt very chastised for something which I had no part in, but seemed to be the fault of America (and her people) collectively. I am always the first to admit when our group is being disrespectful and loud, but this day we were neither, partially because it was still early, and partially because, though we are merely college students, we can, on occasion, display the sensitivity necessary for such an emotionally charged location. Still, the presentation given by our guides was less informative and more chastising, displaying, once again, the stereotype that precedes American travelers.
That afternoon we abandoned our guides and piled into a truck, heading out to snorkel in a small cove. It was really nice snorkeling. There were small caves and so many beautiful fish. We swam with rays and there were even sharks resting in the overhangs along the sea walls. We would poke our heads down and watch them as they watched us, completely nonplussed by our presence. They have the most amazingly streamlined bodies, needing only to flick their tail to stay abreast with us as we swam our hardest in the current. Sharks are such beautiful creatures. I've come to appreciate them so much more on this trip, having swum with them so often. We also saw the cutest sea horse I have ever seen. It was spattered black and white and tucked in between pieces of coral. This was also the day that I forgot to change the part in my hair halfway through the day to prevent sun burning it. Even now, if I were to shave my head, there would be a straight line across the right side of my scalp.
Wednesday we woke up early to head out on the water and snorkel again. This snorkeling wasn't as great as a previous location, but we were able to see some very lovely schools of fish. One of my favorite parts about snorkeling with schools is the ability to swim down into them. The fish part to either side of you like the Red Sea parting for Moses. Once you reach the bottom you can turn around and, on all sides and above you, is a carpeting of fish. You can barely tell which way is up.
We also saw penguins on this trip, though only a few and from far away. I saw many more penguins (and from much closer) a few days later.
That afternoon we had free, and many people chose to head out to the beach. I eventually joined them, but first had to register for classes for when I return to Linfield in the spring. Once I finally got to the beach, however, I was able to join a fierce game of beach volleyball. We won every game! I love volleyball! It was so fun to be able to play again...especially in such a beautiful location at sunset. We only stopped playing once it got dark.
After returning to the hotel, I hopped in the shower to wash the sand away. I would say salt water also, but on many of the islands in the Galapagos, the showers and tap water are salt water also. This is the way of things on Isabela as well. Still, it was my first chance at a hot shower in three months, so I didn't care that it was salty. I did care however, when the island lost power and I was covered in soap suds and shampoo. The water is not gas powered, but electric on the islands, and that meant I wandered around in my towel for a while. I went up to the roof with a bunch of others and watched the stars. Eventually, when we realized that this wasn't going to be a quick fix (no surprise, it's Ecuador) my friend Edgar and I, both wrapped in our towels and prepared to scandalize the town, walked down the street to buy jugs of water to "shower" with. Of course, the store was packed full of Galapaganoes who alternately laughed with, and at, us. It was a really funny experience, as was trying to lift a five gallon jug over my head to get the shampoo out of my hair. In the end though, we turned out to be the cleanest, as our "shower" wasn't salty at all.
The power was eventually turned back on that night, just in time for us to go night diving. About five of us suited up and headed out to the cove we had been the previous day and snorkeled at midnight. It was amazing! We weren't well prepared for night diving, with only one underwater flashlight, but we made do, wrapping others in ziplock bags. I had a great time. Every time my light would hit a sea sponge, the creature would contract back to its normal shape. I hadn't realized that they often stretch during the night. We also saw an Eagle ray, one of the most beautiful types of ray. They are completely spotted across their backs and seem to fly through the water with their "wings" flapping to either side. Even the walk to and from our night dive was amazing, as we walked under the brilliant stars showcased above us.