The Flight out
Airport - Quito: Metropolitan Touring appeared at the appointed time. One, two,...seventeen. Good. Onto the bus. We piled out at the airport. Our guide disappeared in search of boarding passes. The Quito airport is unpretentious - rather like that of San Antonio Texas as I remember it from my childhood in the sixties. Of course, as the airport is in the middle of Quito, with nowhere to expand, this is understandable. It's replacement, we learned, is under construction north of town. Our flight was supposed to leave around 9:30. We were early. There's time for a coffee. We looked at the departure board. Our departure time was listed as 11:00. Our guide brought us our boarding passes. We only had to hunker down and wait. A student approached. She wanted to go to the arrivals building to change some money. "Oh no," I thought, "Time to herd cats."
"Sorry, I really want everyone to stay here."
Time passed. The students clustered at one end of the lobby while Betty, Nancy, Tom, and I hunkered down at the other. Some time after eleven, an announcement came over the PA system and we were ushered into a boarding lounge, along with other tour groups. Our guide bade us bon voyage and vanished. And there we waited some more. Now, we were meant to board the Corinthian in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal some time that afternoon. The fact that none of our literature had ever indicated when the Corinthian would actually depart had been a source of nagging worry. Now, however, worry was giving way to real apprehension. Would the boat leave without us while we waited in this darned lounge? I asked an airline employee where our airplane was, displaying my phrase book as an all-purpose explanation for my baby-talk Spanish. The plane, an Ecuatoriana flight, had originated in Buenos Aires, I was told, but had been delayed in Santiago Chile by bad weather. It had now departed Santiago and should be here soon.
I couldn't help observing that people in the other tour groups seemed utterly unconcerned. I approached one that consisted, I learned of faculty and AP test evaluators from Presbyterian College in Clinton South Carolina. I was assured that the tour operators were used to unpredictable airline schedules. To pass the time, their leader told stories of horrible mishaps that had befallen his and other Galápagos tours. There was the time about four years ago when he had been scheduled to take his group on the ill-starred Moby Dick only to learn a day before departure that his boat had sunk. Then there was that guy who drowned.......... Eventually, when his store of disaster tales was exhausted and my imagination was fully ripe with images of catastrophe, we turned to the truly inexhaustible topic of biology instruction and the denunciation of creationists. Time, much time, flew.
Flight: We boarded the plane around one. Up the stairs. One, two....seventeen. Good. Guayaquil. We learned that it is impossible for a fully loaded and fueled airliner to take off from Quito's short ten thousand foot high srunways, so they depart with just enough fuel to get to Guayaquil, at sea level, where they fill up. Thirty minutes to Guayaquil. Thirty minutes on the ground. Ninety minutes to San Cristóbal. This easternmost Galápagos island appeared before we had descended significantly. We passed high over it and continued to the west. Could it have been some other island? No. The pilot put the plane through a wide skidding 270 degree turn. San Cristóbal reappeared maybe two hundred feet below us, then the runway. Touchdown. Thrust reversers deployed, and we roared to a stop.
Airport - San Cristóbal: There was no taxi strip or tarmac at this airport, just a runway with a little terminal building next to one end. The building itself had no walls and was really more like a large version of the covered pavilions you might see at a city park. Not that it was cheap. It was new and attractively constructed of native materials. We made our way through a check-in procedure that was, if anything more elaborate than passport control in Quito had been. Bags were inspected for hitchhiking exotic species, passports were examined.
During this process, a gentleman had appeared and introduced himself as Lenin, and explained that he was our naturalist guide from the Corinthian. He had shown up at just the right moment. I had been nervously eyeing the voucher from our travel agency which claimed to be valid for the $100 a head Galápagos National Park entrance fee, wondering if it were really true. As our line approached the payment desk, I became more concerned reading the park's restrictions on how payment was to be made:
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno: In a few minutes, we were on a shuttle bus winding through the streets of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a town arguably without rival for its charmingly intense architectural kitsch. Here simple whitewashed buildings were embellished with prominent murals and sculptures of Galápagos wildlife. Larger buildings sported more extravagant ornament, such as the life size cartoon whale sculpture gracing the entrance to the municipal pier. An attractive retirement destination, I though, if only immigration to the towns of the Galápagos were not prohibited.
As we stepped down from the bus, Lenin instructed us to proceed to the end of the pier. Simple enough, you would think. One foot in front of the other. We started out. Then occurred one of maybe half a dozen moments on the trip that I will never forget. As we stepped away from the street and onto the pier, we entered the world of the wild Galápagos. To the left and right, on piles of rocks, on the boarding ramps of moored boats, on buoys, lay dozens of fat sea lions, as unconcerned as you please. Standing unperturbed on the pier as we approached were brown pelicans, their necks curved, resting their heavy heads on their chests. Above us wheeled black, fork tailed frigate birds, the size of vultures, but buoyant and delicate as kites. Farther out in the harbor, boobies soared and dove. One by one over the course of about ten seconds, our students' steps shortened until they stood frozen with their mouths literally gaping open. An interval passed then suddenly everyone was digging in their day packs for cameras. Click, click, click.
"We need to get on the dinghies!" Lenin called. Gradually, people shook themselves, grabbed their bags, and headed for the steps to the ocean. Life preservers were passed out and Corinthian crew members helped the first boatload onto the dinghy. One, two, three..... The boat backed up, turned, and headed out among the vessels moored in the harbor. A second dinghy appeared. The rest of us climbed on. Eleven, twelve...seventeen. Thank God. We moved out, much slower, I thought, than the boat was capable of. The fiberglass bow scrunched into the low chop, raising a little spray. Lenin, seated in front shouted, "You need to move as far to the back as we can. You'll stay drier that way." We dutifully slid back until we were butt to butt like sardines. Might as well get used to one another.
The dinghy wound past large vessels riding at anchor: a big charter sailing yacht, a freighter with a cheerful blue hull, a gray Ecuadorian naval vessel. We recognized the Corinthian from its images on the web - a big white no-nonsense trawler on the outside. It was farther out in the harbor than anything else, magnificently backlit by the late afternoon sun. The first dinghy moved up to a landing area on its port side. One, two... People were helped off by crew members, one to each arm. We moved in next until the dinghy's bow pressed against the trawler's hull. Bags were passed up, then people. The dinghy's bow pushed and scraped against the Corinthian as it rose and fell in the modest waves. At the crest of each swell a person transferred to the big boat, half under their own power, half hoisted by the crewmen. Aboard, we picked up our day backs and allowed ourselves to be led toward the stern, up some steps and into a corridor that opened into the Corinthian's lounge and library.
Corinthian: Although business-like on the outside, the Corinthian was almost luxurious on the inside. On either side, the wood paneled lounge was flanked by large windows. One half of the end nearest the bow was occupied by a large bookshelf that held a library of field guides, books of Galápagos historical interest, and coffee table picture books of Galápagos and marine wildlife. In the middle of this wall, a door opened onto a corridor. On the other side, a VCR sat on a low table along with an improbably large TV monitor. The end nearest the stern was divided by the corridor through which we had entered. To one side stood a glassed in kiosk containing T-shirts, film, and other items - the ship's store. The other was lined with couches and a table supporting an unending supply of coffee and distilled water. Plush couches lined the side walls and, sitting in the middle of the floor, partitioned the big lounge into separate sitting areas.
A gentleman in a white officer's uniform appeared. He was Ricardo, the ship's purser. After a brief word of welcome, and warning that we should expect an evacuation drill, he assigned us to our rooms and handed out keys. One, two...Wait! They weren't going anywhere. I could quit counting! Although my wife had accompanied us as a chaperone, I was to room with Tom Holtz for various logistical reasons. Probably best for everyone that Tom and I, the group's first class snorers, be segregated. We were shown to our room, one deck down. Wonderful aromas wafted from the kitchen farther down the hall. Our cabin was comfortable, with bunk berths, (the guy on top had the consolation of being able to look out a port hole) a small closet, and a bathroom with a shower.
We were just barely familiar with our quarters when the evacuation alarm sounded. Proceeding to the lounge, we were divided into two evacuation groups, each of which was taken to its designated life raft canister, ten foot cylinders of fiberglass containing - one hoped - an inflatable raft. The ship's second officer explained the deployment procedure in Spanish while our Nicolás translated. Although there were many details, the basic gist would have been intelligible without translation: First one there unhooks the restraining clip and rolls the sucker overboard where it automatically inflates upon contact with water.
Safer and wiser, we dispersed to explore the ship. The deck nearest the waterline, onto which we had first stepped, housed cabins, the kitchen, and dining hall. Above it were more cabins (these with proper windows instead of port holes) and the lounge. Above that were officers' work spaces, the bridge, and toward the stern a sun deck with a bar, deck furniture, and an empty Jacuzzi. The sensation of standing on the deck of a boat was new. A constant breeze blew past us as the vessel faintly rolled beneath our feet. As we leaned against the rail, gazing at the harbor, we realized that the boat was turning. Was it under way? No, still at anchor, but pivoting like a wind vane.
Kicker Rock: By and by, the engine came to life and the boat actually did start moving. An announcement was made that we were making an excursion to Kicker Rock, an eroded palagonite cone off the coast of San Cristóbal. We proceeded to the sun deck to take it in. Kicker Rock appeared and grew, glowing in the sweet early evening sunlight. Truthfully, I think we were more overwhelmed by the frigate birds that hung motionless with respect to the boat, slope soaring on the wave of rising air on the boat's windward side and occasionally touching down on the rigging. We circled the rock and headed back for the harbor. The sun sunk below the horizon.
Dinner: Before long the purser's voice came over the PA. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is 7:30 and you are cordially invited to dinner in the main dining room." The dining room was longer and wider than the lounge. At one end stood a bar, while at the other, was a small dance floor. In front of this, a buffet was set up. The sides were lined with booths sporting deep soft upholstery, while on the floor were three long tables, two for passengers and one for officers. The hall was surrounded on three sides by broad picture windows facing the sides and overlooking the stern. I really don't remember what we ate, but I can assure you that it was good. Dinners usually consisted of salad, vegetables, a choice of red meat or fish, and dessert. Each course often contained what to our North American palates were interesting regional specialties. Because the Andes are the ancestral homeland of the potato, we were treated to several interesting varieties fo these. Unfamiliar breeds of corn were also common. Main courses often featured the region's famous sea bass. In addition, the food was abundant.
After dinner Lenin gave a briefing describing the boat's itinerary and the next day's activities. Española, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Bartolomé Fernandina, Isabela, good. The next day's hike on Española would be difficult, we were told. Okay. By the time we had finished it was dark and the Corinthian was again moored at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We returned to the sun deck. This time, our attention was attracted by activity in the water. Small fish, flying fish, were jumping and skimming along the surface, pursued by something big - sea lions. Lights of the boat attracted the fish, which attracted the pinnipeds, whose speed was a striking contrast with he lethargy they had displayed earlier in the afternoon. Some fish escaped and some didn't. It was late - bed time.
Lying in my bunk I don't think I really went to sleep for a couple of hours. Too much nervous energy. Some time after I did, the boat began its passage to Española and I awoke again. Roll, yaw, and pitch - rotation about all three major axes - were present. I had slept on small boats before, but never a large one. Up here near the bow, every time the vessel pitched my body rose and fell probably ten feet, as if it were on an unpredictable elevator. What was that new sensation? Nausea? "No way," I assured myself, "I don't GET motion sick." I inhaled deeply, thinking good-stomach thoughts, and somehow fell asleep.
Day 3 - Española
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