to the Letty
Sunday, December 27 2015
location: Marriott Courtyard Hotel, Guayaquil, Ecuador
After another breakfast of toast, mediocre coffee, and fruit juice, we hustled with all our luggage into a shuttle into which all 16 of us (and a driver) managed to fit, though this required that some of the children sat in the laps of some of the adults. While Gretchen and I had come (as always) with no checked luggage and just a single carry-on backpack each, there were others who had brought vast amounts of stuff. Somehow Andrea required three items of checked luggage all to himself. And Jeff & Leah's family had something like eleven items of checked luggage. As for Gretchen's brother's family, they'd felt the need to pack a large assortment of duct tape (among other things of dubious utility in the Galapagos). My only extravagance was a 40 by 4 character LCD screen and an Arduino Nano, though these occupied less space than a pack of cigarettes.
At the Guayaquil airport, we spent most of our time waiting outside a gift shop in a place where there were no open WiFi hot spots (though one of the secure ones was tauntingly named "No Hay WiFi"). I'd brought my older Compaq 2510p laptop (so it would be less of a loss if I dropped it in the ocean), loading it with lots of pirated books. I still had about 60 pages left to read of The Master Algorithm, so as we waited I read a few pages in PDF form. The Master Algorithm is not an especially well-written book, and features a lot of undefined or poorly-defined jargon and hurried explanations, but every now and then there is a chapter of material that brings the mind back from its wandering.
Gretchen and I were seated apart in the plane; the two others beside me on my side of the aisle looked to be a lesbian couple, both of them relatively butch. One finds out a lot about others when one flies in an airplane, and over the course of the two-hour flight, I learned that only one of these lesbians is a vegetarian. The opportunity for this reveal came when sandwiches were handed out somewhere over the Pacific. Evidently Gretchen's parents had alert the airline that some members of our contingent are vegan, and for us the stewardesses (wearing no-nonsense red dresses) fetched us shrink-wrapped packs of fruit. But two pieces of fruit is too much of a gluten-free commitment for me, so I waved them away.
As had happened the last time Gretchen and I came to the Galapagos, there was another layer of customs waiting for us once we landed. This was mostly to ferret out possible sources of biological contamination. Luckily my medicine bottle full of kratom powder (a plant of dubious legality) went undiscovered.
It wasn't immediately apparent that we'd landed at a different Galapagos airport than the one we'd flown into and out of ten years ago. That one had been on the island of Baltra off the north coast of Santa Cruz. Today we'd landed at a similarly-sized airport on the southwest end of the island of San Cristobal, some 55 miles across the ocean to the southwest. We hadn't even visited this island on our last Galapagos vacation.
The guys who would serve as our Galapagos guides were waiting for us at the airport, led by tall, thin no-nonsense Hernan, who would play bad-cop to the good cop of the other guide, James, who was a bit doughier and significantly less of a shutterbug. They got us into our shuttle that would take us for the short drive down to the nearby harbor where our boat, the Letty, lay at anchor. At this point, we met the four strangers who would round out the Letty's 20-person passenger manifest. These were Emily, a plump severely-blond girl of about 13, Josh, Emily's somewhat-less plump 14 year old cousin, Emily's mother Ariana (who was about our age and looked like she was somewhat into healthy living), and Helen, the kids' grandmother. Though nobody in this group looked particularly Jewish, these kids had been given Galapagos vacations as Bar/Bat Mitzvah presents.
As we walked out to the pier, we were treated to our first sights of wildlife: sea lions on the docks and steps, red Sally Lightfoot Crabs, and even a sea turtle swimming lethargically in the surf. For some reason, though, there were no Marine Iguanas whatsoever.
The small boats ("pangas") that took us to the Letty were inflatable Zodiacs, unlike the banged-up aluminum pangas we'd ridden in ten years ago during our stay on the Golondrina (a boat we still refer to as having been "punk rock"). Inside, the Letty was obviously much more spacious than the cramped Golondrina had been. The main floor featured a long dining area with seating for more than 20 people and a lounge area with ample seating and two big-screen monitors for watching movies and computer-aided briefings regarding what we'd be doing the next day. Our first such briefing happened soon after boarding the boat, when we were given a long list of rules regarding things like maintaining distance from animals, boarding the pangas, wet and dry landings, and staying on trails. Unlike our last trip to the Galapagos, there would be no petting baby sea lions, no giving water to thirsty mockingbirds, and no touching sea turtles. Eventually we were assigned our rooms, and Gretchen and I went to check it out. Our room was about twice the size as the one we'd had on the Golondrina, and our beds were side-by-side. Initially they'd been put together to make us a full mattress, though Gretchen had Claudia (the multi-talented woman who could both drive the boat and clean the rooms) separate the beds to make it easier for us to get to the bathroom. We had our own private bathroom complete with a shower, and the only real problem we would have with it was that occasionally it would burp the fragrance of sewer gas into our space.
Next we sat down to a buffet-style lunch that, despite repeated assurances, failed to provide all that much that was suitable for a vegan. It wasn't hard to get carbohydrates, but protein was more of a challenge.
After lunch, we all climbed up to the sun deck on the boat's roof, which is partly covered by a tarp. There, our guides fitted us for flippers and, if we needed them, snorkels (Gretchen and I had brought our own). There were also wet suits available if we wanted them. Initially I didn't think I did, but Hernan told us that the wet suits would provide increased buoyancy, and I also realized one could help shield me from the intense equatorial sun. So I decided to be fitted for one. Hernan was being his usual no-nonsense self throughout the fitting process, rudely telling Jeff to go sit down when he staggered over on nascent sea legs and attempted to crack a joke.
My first attempt to put on my wet suit resulted in me putting it on backwards. What with all their adhesive stretchiness, they're not easy to get into and out of, and they smell like a dirty sock. But once on you, they firm-up your body and make you look like a superhero.
Those of us who decided to wear them kept our wetsuits on for our first activity on this Galapagos adventure: deep water snorkeling in the next cove to the northeast, accessible via a short ride in the pangas.
After I jumped off the panga in the cove, I swam frantically for the rocks, since I always feel most secure when there is a place to haul myself out of the water. There were some glitches with my equipment that immediately became apparent: my huge flippers were so wide that they tended to collide when I flapped them, and I didn't like the range of motion afforded by the wet suit. But I was noticeably more buoyant, which significantly helped me keep my snorkle in the air. Still, salt water found its way into my mask (particularly around my nose), causing me problems that I would have to swim to a rock to address (I was unable to fix my mask unless I could stabilize my head above the water). At one point, one of the guides saw me doing this and whistled for me to get off the rocks. Evidently, it's a no-no to touch the shore while snorkeling in the Galapagos, though occasionally touching the shore is the only way I can snorkel. I resolved to be more secretive about my rock grabbing in the future. I also swam out to the panga a couple times and used its ladder as an anchor while I fixed my equipment. I had to piss at least once while in the water, and the dirty secret about wet suits is that, when the time comes, you just have to piss in them.
As for the snorkeling, it was gorgeous, though I didn't see anything of note aside from fish. Somehow I managed to use the entire hour allotted to snorkeling and was the last person back in my panga. Once there, someone pointed out that I was bleeding from my right leg. Evidently I'd cut myself on one of those rocks that I shouldn't have been near.
We had a briefing before dinner about tomorrow's adventure, which would be on the other end of San Cristobal. And then came dinner. It turned out that there were only four vegans on our boat: Gretchen, me, and Gretchen's parents. (Gretchen's belief that her brother was now "99% vegan" soon proved to be an illusion as he helped himself to cheese and meat at nearly every meal.) It was best for us vegans to stick together so that our waiter Marcos (who spoke little English) knew where to bring our special foods. Today, though, there were no special foods, and we had to make do with whatever sides had been prepared as topiary to ornament slabs of formerly-living beasts. As vegans, we find ourselves repeatedly having the same conversations with the less-enlightened. No, we don't even eat chicken. No, not even fish! And, I know this is a pain, but can you somehow leave off the cheese? Fortunately, vegans do drink wine, which was provided as a matter of course with dinner. It's not something I normally have with dinner prepare at home, though it would be great if I did. For a vegan, I'm uncharacteristically blasé about cooked vegetables, especially when segregated into discrete piles. My strategy is to cut them all into pieces and mix them together, as I usually find combinations of foods taste better than the sums of their parts.
After dinner, I went up to the sun deck to continue reading the PDF of The Master Algorithm. But it wasn't long before I was interrupted by Jeff, who apparently isn't keen on the quietly hanging out in public space thing. He struck up a conversation with me that covered a range of topics, including the business strategy of large proprietary social networks. Jeff didn't really know much about the subject matter other than the fact that his 14 year old daughter considers Facebook lame and uses Snapchat instead (which, to me, sounded like thinking bicycles lame and scooting around on Big Wheels instead).
As night fell, a number of the other Greeks showed up, and then the nearly-full moon began to rise over the lights of the harbor. It was gorgeous, and the experience would have been nearly perfect had the smell of burning plastic not been wafting our way from the shore. Someone was using that smartphone app that tells you what the constellations are, though they thought it worked by perhaps interpreting data using the camera. I explained that, no, it knows where you are, the time of day, and the part of the sky the camera is covering and uses that data to concentrate on a stored map of the heavens. [As I would explain later in conversation with the ship's captain, it uses the principle of the astrolabe, which the captain would understand, in reverse.]
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