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Galapagos (Sep. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 6:14 PM by Gerick Bergsma   [ updated Nov 19, 2008, 7:11 PM ]

It is sometimes interesting to stop and ponder the chain of events that lead to a particular moment in your life.  The millions of decisions you must make daily, the infinite events that are out of your control, all leading to a particular instant when you become aware of the pinball game we call life.  I found myself in such an instant, walking over an enormous lava flow on Santiago (aka James) Island in the Galapagos.  As I nimbly navigated the cracks and intricate folds of the Pahoehoe lava, I was talking to Rodrigo, a class III naturalist guide, and 26 year veteran of the islands.  Having read in my omniscient guidebook that all class III guides must have a biological degree and speak three languages, I was curious to hear his stories. 


"So Rodrigo, what is your degree in?"


"Literature," was the surprising response.


A little befuddled, I asked, "But I thought that Class III guides had to have a degree in biology?"


He replied, "Normally, yes, but since I have been guiding for 26 years, they let me take the level III test."


It certainly made no difference to me.  I was already in great respect for his biological knowledge, and had no idea that he did not have a degree in a biological field.  I was curious how a person versed in literature became a naturalist guide.


He explained, "Oh, I taught at a University for a while, but my ideas were a little revolutionary, and so I left.  I love the islands, and wanted to help improve my country.  Sometimes I wish I had a more useful degree for my field," and then added with a smile, "but I enjoy writing, and women LOVE poetry."


I certainly did not doubt him, I had personally seen him pick up three women at once a couple of nights before, but his mention of revolutionary ideas only piqued my interests more.  We stopped to watch some feral goats high on the volcano ahead of us, and turned around to a spectacular view of the cinder cones of Bartolome Island rising out of the bay and forming a lovely backdrop to the black plane we were traversing.  He continued to relate his story.  Growing up, he had never thought about working in tourism or studying literature.  He wanted to be a soldier.  He signed up for the army, and trained to be a commando for the very elite customs enforcement arm of the military.  He trained, and was, apparently, quite good at soldiering, for he made it to the final selection for the elite squad.  That is where one of those unavoidable and uncontrollable events altered his life.  He was eliminated from the final roster to make room for a general's son.  He was devastated.  Somewhat resentful, he was persuaded by a friend to join a militant anti-government group.  Rodrigo, a trained soldier, was now a revolutionary.  He was a little hazy in relating the details of what he did as a revolutionary, but it apparently was not looked favorable upon by the Ecuadorian government of the time.  The army hunted the group down, and his best friend (along with his entire family) was gunned down during a nighttime raid.  Having lost several friends in that manner, Rodrigo decided that perhaps being a soldier was not quite what he wanted to continue doing.


"All the great social movements," he explained to me, "were always championed by great writers."  So he decided that studying literature could help him promote the revolutionary cause.  The writings of Juan Leon Mera, he told me, were the principle cause for the upheaval that lead to the death of a former Ecuadorian president - a fine example of how the pen can truly be mightier than any sword ("my pen killed him," Mera would later write).  "The only problem is that all the great writers were exiled from their country, and when my mother told me 'don't do anything stupid' I decided to switch to poetry instead."


So now he finds himself on a century old lava plain, talking to an American student of zoology who feigns to know a thing or two about geophysics (I haven't picked up many women with that): two disparate paths leading to a singular moment.  I bent over to examine the glassine rock of a driblet cone, a bubble of lava frozen in time, a random, 100 year old event that added more to the depth of my experience.


I continued to ponder my own path and the paths of others later that evening as I skimmed across the oily midnight waters on the panga (dinghy).  The crew was taking me lobster fishing (poaching, rather, as I later learned), and as the celestial glow of the milkyway battled for my attention with the phosphorescent glow of the panga's wake, I wondered how each of the crew members had come to share this night with me.  Daniel, the captain, was regally posed on the bow, his strong features silhouted by the vault of stars, Chepo, the bartender, and Emilio, the engineer were jovially deriding Chino, the cook, whose lack of wetsuit and previous inability to catch lobster made him the center of much ridicule.  Finally there was Choclo, the dedicated panga driver.  I am not even sure he knew how to swim, as he never entered the water, but was quite adept at maneuvering around rocks in high surf even in the middle of the night.  They were joined by Napoleon, the first mate, and Juan Carlos, the cabin boy, who remained on the ship.  What an entertaining group that attended us onboard, and what stories they must also have to tell.


What I observed that night truly bordered on lunacy.  The divers, armed with nothing more than a mask, snorkel, and light dove into the churning waters, and darting around the many rocks foaming in the surf would dive down as deep as six meters to find their quarry.  When they caught one, they would shine their flashlight at the panga, and when we neared, they would throw the lobster into the boat.  My job that night was to catch the lobster and throw them into a bin on board.  About all I can say is that if you have never been hit by a flying lobster, try to avoid it, it rather hurts.  They swam, constantly diving, for over three hours.  As the night wore on, the wind picked up, and a light mist enveloped the island.  As the moon rose, I witnessed something incredible, a rainbow created by the moonlight!  It was beautiful, with subtle shades of silver-gray replacing the traditional array of colors.  With the increasing wind, however, came increasing surf, and the diving became even more treacherous.  Emilio was washed up on some rocks, and skinned his leg, and all of the divers had unfortunate run-ins with the poisonous black urchins.  Emilio and Chino came up with their arms riddled with black spines, and Chepo and Daniel had several spines on their head.  After returning to the boat, we spent an hour pulling out spines and burning the wounds with a candle (which supposedly eased the pain of the sting).  The suffering was apparently worthwhile, as we brought in over eighty lobsters that night.  As I administered Ibuprofen to the infirmed and listened to their accounts of reef sharks and manta rays encountered in the midnight sea, I again thought, what an odd chain of events that have lead each of us to this moment.


For me, the proximate path that lead to the islands involved a short flight from Quito, and an even shorter bus ride to Baltra Island's harbor, where I first caught site of the Sullivan, the 85 foot yacht that would be home for the next eight days.  I met the 15 other passengers that I would be living with, five Germans, four Dutch, two Swiss, a Norwegian, an Israeli, a French woman and finally Wes, the unspeaking American of Polish decent (five days in, we traded three Dutch, the Israeli, the French and the American for two more Dutch, three more Israelis, and a Belgian, effectively leaving me as the sole American).  Fortunately, they all spoke a little English, and some a little less Spanish, so when needed we could all communicate.  German, Dutch and Hebrew were most commonly spoken on board, and I never thought that I, speaking English and Spanish, would ever find myself in the minority in South American conversation.  They were a wonderful group, though, and I enjoyed getting to know them all.  More randomly converging paths; the passengers of the Sullivan were doctors, lawyers, reporters, translators, bank clerks, pharmacists, students, yet we all came together to share the islands, and explore one of nature's great wonders.


I quickly established myself as the ship's naturalist and translator.  I think that many had trouble understanding Rodrigo's accent, so they would often ask me their zoology, geology, or cultural questions (most of which I simply related to Rodrigo, who knew far more than I).  Being the most fluent in Spanish, I also quickly befriended the crew, whose stories and banter kept me very entertained.


For the sake of brevity, as well as to keep me from developing carpal tunnel syndrome too early into the trip, I will forgo the island by island recount.  In the eight days I was onboard, we visited Baltra, South Plaza, San Cristobal, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Bartolome, Santiago, and North Seymour Islands.  Each was unique and absolutely incredible.  On the islands, I saw innumerable sealions, dolphin, whale, frigatebirds, boobies, gulls, albatrosses, storm petrels, flamingos, penguins, herons, hawks, finches, iguanas, sea turtles, tortoises, lava lizards, snakes, crabs, giant centipedes, locusts, spiders and lots of other things.  I also went snorkeling at least twice a day, and say countless angelfish, parrotfish, pufferfish, surgeonfish, moorish idols, blennies, damselfish, triggerfish, coronet fish, bacalao, grunts, hawkfish, wrasse, scorpionfish, flounder, stingrays, golden rays, moray eels, octopus, conches, rock snails, cowries, cone snails (for the FHL folks, Conus brunneus and C. lucidus, Alan would be proud), littorines, oysters, mussels, barnacles, lobster, crabs, seastars, urchins, cucumbers, sand dollars, coral, jellies, sponges and the occasional sea turtle, penguin or marine iguana.  Basically, I was in heaven.  I must say, though, despite my sincerest attempt, I never saw a shark (they are supposed to be everywhere) while snorkeling.  Mr. Bernal, I think I have proven it was MY luck that prevented us from catching many sharks this summer (Although Heather, have you looked into adding four-eyed blennies to your study?  They are all over the rocks in some places here!  I think it might be a good collection site in addition to Australia.).  No chitons or foraminifera either (not that I was really looking for forams, sorry Peter), perhaps I should only study animals I don't wish to find later.


The cruise went wonderfully, though, and over the course of the eight days, I explored volcanic craters and lava tubes, coral beaches and spectacular reefs.  I was only too sad when we returned to Baltra Island, and I had to say goodbye to all of my new friends.  I returned to Santa Cruz, though, as I was going to stay a couple days in Puerto Ayora, the major city in the islands, and go scuba diving.  Most of the diving in the Galapagos is pretty technical, and due to my lack of experience, the dive shop recommended that I stay in Academy Bay, near the town.  I made two dives, both on a seamount called El Bajo.  Of the group I dove with, I was by far the least experienced.  One of the girls who dove with us, a local who worked at the dive shop, had only made about 15 dives, but had descended several times on El Bajo.  A Belgian lady who also came with us was nearing her 200th dive, and our French guide, Sevrik, was quite experienced with over 3000 logged dives.  Even his experience was usurped by the final member of our party, an American who owned a dive shop in Maui with well over 7000 logged dives.  Oddly, Jeff, the American, was originally from the San Juan Islands, and owns part of Spydel Island (the one with the African animals on it).  In fact, he told me he used to work at a dive shop in Friday Harbor (I'm not sure how many dive shops there are in Friday Harbor, but I suspect it is the one where you used to work, Cynthia), and told me how he worked putting in the pilings for the Edmond's ferry dock.  What a small world.  Anyways, the dives went wonderfully, and I saw tons of fish and inverts.  Sevrik was great at pointing out lots of interesting things, and we saw octopus, eels, rays, and the highlight for me, we got to swim with several sea turtles.  It was terrific.


The next day I met a biologist who told me that she would give me a tour of the labs at the Darwin Research Center.  I walked along with Rosemary, when she stopped at the fisherman's pier to talk to one of her colleagues.  It turned out that she was needed there to help monitor the fishermen's catches, and so I spent the morning with her sorting through that day's lobster harvest.  She explained the fishing regulations, and how locals were still allowed limited fishing within the marine reserve.  I refrained from comment as she mentioned that that the daily catch limit was 20 lobster, and actually felt quite self conscious when she showed me a map with a bright pink band, an area where fishing is restricted, right where I had been catching the lobster thrown at me a few nights before.  She was very friendly, though, and I learned a lot about the conservation efforts trying to maintain a sustainable fishery.  I assure all of my conservation minded friends at home that my poaching days are over, and I spent much of my afternoon picking garbage off of a beach near Puerto Ayora. 


After spending the rest of the day relaxing on the beach, my final adventure would come with trying to get back to the mainland.  It started with a visit to the TAME office, the only airline that services the Galapagos.  Run by the Ecuadorian military, TAME is the national airline, and a model for inefficiency.  I arrived at the office at 11:00 AM to reserve a seat for the flight back.  After waiting for an hour, I was notified that the office would be closing for lunch, and that we would have to return at 1.  No problem, I thought, I would come back at one.  One o'clock came, and after the office opened late, I was the first person in line.  The lady at the reservation desk was very helpful and told me that I had my spot reserved from the Galapagos through to Quito, but that I would have to pay a little extra for the Guayaquil-Quito leg of my trip.  No problem, I thought, as I handed her my credit card.  She then informed me that she could not accept payment, and that I would have to come back at two o'clock, when the ticket sales agent returned.  I returned later, and after waiting another hour in line, I finally paid for my ticket.  All I had to do was show up at the airport and have them issue me a boarding pass. 


Ten in the morning the day of my departure, I get on the bus that takes me to the ferry that takes me to the bus that takes me to the airport.  I arrive at the ferry to find that several bus loads of people were in line ahead of me and that only one small ferry was crossing to Baltra.  I had to wait another hour before I could cross the narrow channel and load onto the crowded bus that finally took me to the airport.  By noon, I was finally at the airport, waiting in line for my boarding pass and to check my luggage.  Lots of time for my one o'clock departure.  I get to the front of the line, and lady looks at my ticket.  "Where is your boarding pass?" she asks me, and when I informed her that the TAME office told me that I would be issued one at the airport, she points me to the ticket sales counter, and tells me that they will have to issue the pass.  I wait in line again.  I get to talk to the ticket sales lady who tells me that I have already purchased my ticket, and that I have to go back to the check-in counter and talk to a different agent than had originally helped me.  By this time I was ready to cut in line, but the guard carrying the machine gun gave me a rather stern look when I tried to advance to the counter.  I waited in line again.  Fifteen minutes to one and I finally get to the agent.  He looks at my ticket and then at his list, and tells me, "You don't have a reservation."  I assured him that I did, and that I had gone to the office in Puerto Ayora to be sure I had my reservation.  He looked at his list again, and told me to wait.  I waited until all the other passengers had checked in, after which, he finally issued me my boarding pass.  The flight was already boarding when I returned to the original agent, gave her my boarding pass and checked my baggage.  Rather frustrating, but I got onboard, and rather enjoyed the chicken nuggets and chicken wings they served as lunch on the plane ride back.


So now I am back in Quito, and will soon be heading south to Baños and Cuenca. 


Gerick Bergsma