Asuncion, Paraguay–7 June 2013, just after 4 days on the Galapagos Islands
It is Friday night and I am trying hard not to get sucked into daily routine too fast after my amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience on the Galapagos Islands. 4 short days, yet so intense, so moving—-sometimes reducing me to tears of joy, sometimes making me burst out laughing at a bird or a sea lion going about its daily business. It is hard to sum up what these four days have meant to me —maybe I will not even be fully able to reflect what was and is still in my heart, but I want to at least try until such a day as you, too, can travel to this very special place, even if it is only for as short and spontaneous a stay as mine was.
My time in Galapagos has been one perpetual discovery—and even at night or in the wee hours of the morning, I would receive sudden surprises like an outburst of birdsong outside my hotel window or the chuckling sound of a tiny gecko in my room ridding me of nibbling mosquitoes.
I went there with only few expectations and have been rewarded constantly with little surprises: in Tortuga bay, I could not snorkel as the water was murky but instead was able to swim at 2m distance from a pelican and watch him dive while he caught his lunch—and as I walked out of the water, smiling all over, I looked into the water by my feet only to see a shark. For a brief few seconds we coexisted silently –—and then he swam away gracefully off into the mystery darkness of the mangroves that resound with birdsong and teem with marine iguanas. As I sat on the beach, I tried to picture the marine turtles as they come out of the water at night to lay their eggs in the dunes, tucked away in safety and covered in bird song while different types of finches approached my feet with a curious look.
At the Darwin Research Station where efforts are made to breed all species of tortoise that remain on the various islands and then to repatriate them into the wild (sadly “Lonesome George” died in June 2012 and left no offspring as he refused to mate with any of the females who the rangers introduced him to), I saw not only the tiniest little tortoises, but also multi-coloured iguanas, an intricately made wasp’s nests and zillions of colourful birds, each more glorious and unique than the next.
I will never forget the experience of hiking up the volcanic peak of Bartolome Island, gazing into the underwater crater covered in turquoise water, only to look up and see a Galapagos hawk circling above us, his wings coloured in shades of brown.
I marvelled at the lava surfaces that look like caramel or dark chocolate and joked about it with a member of our group, a cook who specialises in gluten free food; took in the sights of multi coloured and multi-shaped cactuses thriving in remnants of lava and bent down to distinguish the bright colouring of tiny lava lizards scurrying by.
Swimming with sea lions, watching their gracious, fast and playful movements as they glide by at 1m distance and comparing that to their funny waddling and rather rude sounding communications out of the water as they laze about on the beach, roll about in the sand, or play with each other was a once in a life time experience, as was being less than 30cm away from a penguin as it shot past my face as I was snorkelling, only to hop out of the water a short while later and pose for a prolonged period of time on the rocks.
Even on the journey home, when we thought we had already had our day’s dose of wonderful sightings, our boat was suddenly surrounded by a school of 50+ dolphins, which sped through the waters alongside our boat, played and jumped out gracefully, beating the speed of our boat at all times. Our continuous gazing at the dark water also paid off when we saw rays throwing themselves out of the water into the air—they are like giant pancakes and I still do not understand how they jump and flip so gracefully.
On North Seymour Island, I was both amused and moved by the rituals of the blue footed boobies, who show their blue feet to the females to woo them (the blue feet later needed for warming their eggs, a task which male and females share with one another); or the magnificent frigates, whose males produce a balloon sized red pouch when they fall in love—sometimes several of them posing at the same time, with the females circling above at their leisure, playing hard to get and taking their pick of the most impressive red breast available.
I watched white fluffy frigate chicks sit in their nests right next to the nests of these excited bachelors, saw the switchover process of a male and female frigate bird who equally take it in turn to sit and guard the eggs, and realised that animals, too, exchange tenderness with one another, despite what we may think.
Even as I sat seasick on the front of the boat after snorkelling in rough seas, remembering the schools of multi coloured fish and the shark I had been privileged to share the rough waters with, I was blessed with a parade of frigates flying in formation just above our boat, accompanying us for a good 30 minutes on our journey back to Santa Cruz.
I spent 2 hours laughing my head off on Puerto Ayora’s fish market, watching sea lions and an enormous amount of pelicans hang about as the fishermen washed and cut their catch into pieces, occasionally shoeing away the little rascals, leading to the pelicans almost flying into the heads of curious bystanders before eagerly returning, prior to eating some delicious fresh fish at the little stall by the fish market, chatting to a father and his son, both of whom make their money from Galapagos tourism, one of them on a cruise ship, the other on firm land.
Many of the people are incredible, provided you take time to get to know them. There was Diego, our knowledgeable guide on Bartolome, who joked about being “San Diego with only six children”, who knew so much about the animals, who went out of his way to drive the dingy back past the rocks where the boobies were sitting just because I wanted to see them again and who took some photos with my camera while I was snorkelling just so that I would have a picture of a booby lifting its feet.
There was Sergio, a half indigenous man with long hair and a white goatee who spoke with pride of his indigenous mother and was angry at the lies reporters had told about his family after interviewing him. He spent 2 hours with us at the Darwin Research station and is only a volunteer and was genuinely surprised when we gave him some money at the end—what we paid nowhere near compensated him for what the time with him had meant to us. And there was David who was a difficult character at first and made no effort to hide his irritation at some of the tourist’s lack of awareness of their surroundings but who really opened up and told me a lot of interesting things once he warmed to me. It was also him who made me lie on the ground not knowing what the heck I was doing just so that he could try and produce a photo montage of me nose to nose with an iguana.
Now I am in Asuncion and work reality is back: the Plan workshop starts next week; we are working on proposals, and I am dealing with the effects of Plan International’s recent restructure which has really demotivated some of our Plan Paraguay staff.
But I am trying to cling on to what I have seen and experienced with every part of my mind, soul and heart.
Because Galapagos is one of the places in the world where I feel God’s presence with every breath, every sight and sound.
Because it is a place to feel at peace with the world; a place to feel at rest knowing that we will never understand everything that happens in the world and that that is actually okay, too.
Because ever animal, every plant, every new tune sung by a little bird tucked away in the trees, every cactus growing on these volcanic islands and every one of Darwin’s finches is a sign of the resilience of the world we live in; and we have a responsibility to protect what we have been given with our own efforts, to live responsibly alongside other creatures, rather than destroy them.
And –last but not least—because I have been reminded that there are things in this life that are stronger and bigger than us and that will outlive us, like those tortoises moving slowly around green pastures.