Monday, November 21, 2011

November 2011 vacation diary - day 9

The temperature varies a lot in the Galapagos, even within relatively short distance – our hotel is in the “Highlands” where it’s often quite cool (a complaint by some past guests it seems) but on the beaches it’s very hot, and I got burned again yesterday. We stayed in the villa for a few hours last night – the sunset from here might be the largest and yet most intimate I’ve ever seen. Ally went to the gym but unfortunately the equipment wasn’t in such good shape. We tried the jacuzzi although neither of us is really into it. We ate in the hotel restaurant again, all alone, although a group of four came in when we were winding down in the bar afterwards. Unfortunately, a new day didn’t bring the camera back to life, although a forlorn light comes on now when I insert the battery. And sadly, the wireless connection seems insufficiently strong to check in on the Urban Dog webcam. What a sea of complaints! (By the way, today’s pictures were taken with the ipad, which worked OK except it’s difficult to focus with it, and at various times we were shooting videos when we thought we were taking photos).

As we’ve seen in other countries, South America still deploys several people to do a job that would be done by just one back home (assuming it hadn’t been automated). Two people came by around 6 am to collect the breakfast order I’d hung on our door (one to drive the golf cart, one to run up to the door). Three people actually delivered the breakfast. Anyway, today was probably the best day of our trip so far. The guide, Rafael, met us at 9 am and took us in a cab to Puerto Ayora and to the Charles Darwin research centre, which was surprisingly almost deserted. For an hour and a half or so we immersed ourselves in the world of giant tortoises, and what’s wrong with that once in a while? We saw the famous Lonesome George, hanging out with his two girlfriends, and many other tortoises, aged from 6 months old to over 100. Of course, the default mode of the tortoise seems to be to laze around and do very little, but we saw mild activity; some posturing between two females, some contemplative eating. One little guy was stuck on his back – apparently in the wild they sometimes live on in that state for six months. At one point the island was down to its last dozen or so tortoises, but now there are 2,500 (if they flourish much more, they may start to be handed out as parting gifts at the airport). Ally brought a nice hat at the hotel gift shop.

After this we took a short ride to the entrance to Tortuga Bay, walking 4 km through the vegetation and then opening out onto another immaculate, barely occupied beach. We walked almost to the end and found a secluded spot in the shade. The beach itself would be pleasing enough, but it’s made special by the numbers of iguanas who hang out there, along with pelicans and other birds (Galapagos makes you realize how beaches are usually essentially dead, no matter how beautiful). The photo at the top of this entry has me in the background and an iguana in the foreground, and at the time it seems like the most natural thing in the world to be strolling along and to pass an iguana heading in the other direction. Rafael described the island's animals as being fearless, which sounds right, although he put it in the context of El Nino and El Nina, the interaction of which he said culls the species every so often and so instills a certain fatalism in the creatures.

He was a very interesting guide, immensely knowledgeable and often deploying science as a kind of poetry. On several occasions he went after people who were excessively bothering or messing with the animals – the main offenders today, as apparently on numerous other occasions, were Russians (he said the guides also dislike young Israelis who are just out of the army, although older Israelis are fine; in answer to my question, he said they have no strong views about the Irish). He said that back in the 1930’s there were only 35 people on this whole island; when he was growing up it was maybe 400 people, and now it’s more like 20,000. We hadn’t realized that the Galapagos in its current form is such a recent creation (we might have known of course, if we’d done even cursory research before coming here). Contrary to what some people had told us, it seems there’s no inherent restriction on the number of people who can visit the islands each year, although limitations on shipping licenses and hotel building permits provide a practical constraint (and drive up prices of course). And in answer to another question, he said the reason we haven’t seen any fast food joints like Macdonald’s or KFC is simply because the locals don’t want them (by the way, this is yet another trip where Ally misses out by not liking seafood).

Ally went snorkeling again and at one point came face to face with a giant turtle who seemed as surprised at the encounter as she did; otherwise though the water here was pretty cloudy. I didn’t do that but I did swim for a while. Occasionally frigate or other birds swooped down into the water to scoop up fish. We walked and watched the animals and listened to Rafael’s stream of insights (some of them credibly contradicting what we were told yesterday). We only stayed an hour and a half, which was enough time particularly given the temperature, but you feel you could stay there forever. Of course, we had to retain enough of ourselves to manage the 4 km walk back. It was very hot and my neck in particular was all burned and flaking – haven’t been in that state for a long time. We went back into Puerto Ayora where we had lunch, coincidentally at the same restaurant where we ate on the first day. And then we were back in the hotel by 4. Not a long day in the scheme of things, but for once we’d carried out some actual physical activity, and we had some images that will stay with us forever.

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