Eating Grubs and a Death Defying Swim – The Amazon Part II

Why was I swimming in a lake with caiman, electric eels, anacondas, piranhas and arapaima, ginormous 200 pound, 9 feet long fish?

The Final Stretch

The Final Stretch

Because Matt wanted to do it and, if he was going to do it, I wasn’t going to chicken out. The plight of the youngest child.

Rodrigo assured me that it was safe and that all of the aforementioned animals were “shy” and wouldn’t want to eat me. I was skeptical and the fact that I had seen another tourist catch a piranha off the very pier we were swimming to made me question my decision. Matt and I negotiated where we would jump in – Matt wanted to swim half of the lake and I wanted to swim about 10 strokes. Negotiations completed with a mid-point, Matt and I each slid off opposite sides of the canoe and I started swimming like crazy, all the while yelling at Matt to hurry up. I noticed that Rodrigo had an anxious look on his face when we first got in the water, but I just swam faster. Matt apparently thought that I was lagging behind and was swimming leisurely until our friends informed him that I was way ahead and it was a race. We arrived at the pier in a photo finish. I asked Rodrigo why he looked nervous and he said that as I got in the lake one of the arapaima had jumped right in front of me and he was afraid I would panic if I had seen it. How right he was!

The next day we took a picture of where we had started our swim. Pretty impressive distance, I think.

Swim Distance

Swim Distance

Earlier in the day, our excursion was to an indigenous Kichwa community, Sani Isla. I approached the tour with some trepidation because I worry that these types of tours make a spectacle of people, as if they are zoo animals to be observed and oohed over. Matt and I talked about it and he pointed out that his school is now part of such tours and that he and the other teachers and students welcome the tours. That made me feel better.

The women of the community established a cooperative to better their lives and are part of a larger organization that is designed to improve the lives of indigenous women and allow them to continue their traditional way of life. They make jewelry and other trinkets, give tours of their community area and prepare some traditional food for the tourists to enjoy. The cooperative is run by the woman through an elected board. The women rotate the duties at the community area, which can be a couple of hours walk from their homes. When we visited, there was a meeting occurring so there were many woman and children at the site. The site also contains the local elementary school that was even less resourced than Tomas de Berlanga. I wished we had known so we could have brought some books or other items.


We walked around the grounds and saw the plants they raised: papaya, pineapple, yucca, plantain, cocoa, coffee and more. These are the typical plants that each family would have around its house. Rodrigo was intent on showing his indigenous skills and shimmied up the tree to pick us a papaya. While I normally do not like papaya, this one was delicious.

After our papaya snack, we went to the cooking area to see the traditional cooking style and taste some food. Rodrigo explained the various items on the grill: fish with palm hearts cooked in leaves, grilled nut of some kind, plantains and grubs on a stick. Yes, Grubs. He showed us the fat, squirming live grubs

Live Grubs

Live Grubs

Ripped one in two,

Ready to Share a Grub

Ready to Share a Grub

And challenged, er, invited, one of us to share the now-oozing, bloody grub with him. We stood there, aghast, each hoping someone else would be a sport and just when Rodrigo’s eyes lit upon Matt, Sally volunteered. Talk about taking one for the team! I gagged the entire time as I watched her fabulous expressions as she chewed and chewed and finally swallowed the grub.

Sally Taking One for the Team

Sally Taking One for the Team

“I was okay until I got to the bum, which was squishy,” was Sally’s verdict. After that, I felt I would have been a poor sport not to eat a grilled grub, so I quickly grabbed the smallest one on the skewer. Truth be told, it did not taste bad and had a smoky, bacon flavor, but it was hard to get particularly after I had just seen a raw one eaten.

The rest of the food was fine. While Matt and I have grown accustomed to being served fish with its head still attached, we still are squeamish about it. Rodrigo happily ate seconds and thirds of everything we didn’t want, and with more gusto than he ate at any of our meals at the lodge, which confirmed that this was an authentic meal and probably one he preferred over the Western-style food the lodge served.

Our last activity at the community center was a shake down to adopt some turtles and release them into the river. I am not entirely convinced that these same turtles aren’t caught every week to be adopted by some other tourists, but played along all the same. I named my turtle “Wisconsin,” Matt named his “Ky” and Arturo named his “Kerry,” which I chose to see as a compliment regardless of whether it was! Stephen was traumatized when his turtle kept going the wrong way and almost got run over by our boat. Not sure that one is going to make it.

The grub wasn’t the only interesting insect we were offered to eat. The next morning, when Matt and I were the only two in our group until the new tourists arrived, Rodrigo was excited to find these flying ants and encouraged us to pop off the abdomen (back part) and eat it. We declined and he ate them with relish.

Sloth - 1 (52)

Tasty Snack?

We did, however, try the teeny-tiny lemon ants, nicknamed because they taste like lemon. I had eaten ants before when my 9th grade biology teacher, Mr. Alvarez, had a day when we ate ants, worms, bullheads and cattails to show us that what we consider food is subjective. At least I think that was the point. And how to survive if you were lost in the wilderness, I suppose. I thought the ants were delicious and went back for seconds, meaning I walked over to the tree they lived on and waiting for some more to crawl on me before licking them off my arm. When in Rome…

Enjoying Lemon Ants

Enjoying Lemon Ants

The other highlights of the trip included the cool mushrooms:

The search for sloths, which Sally was on a hunt to see. We saw both 2 and 3 toed sloths from a great distances:

Sloth from a Distance

Sloth from a Distance

Cool insects, which we did not eat:

Neat frogs:

And my favorite, the stinky turkey. It’s real name is the hoatzin and its key features are that it is stinky, tastes like a bad turkey, and makes a noise like a labrador retriever panting on a hot day. That said, it is really quite pretty.

The last night this fellow made an appearance in the stockroom under the lodge.

I didn’t sleep very well that night. I had noticed that the pillar holding up our cottage, which was also part of the bed frame, was open around it and all night I imagined a boa constrictor slithering up besides me. While I half-wanted to see an anaconda on the trip, I think the boa constrictor was sufficient.

All in all, a nice getaway from the island. I’m glad we went and had a great time, but once in the Amazon is probably enough for me. Next time, that caiman might just get me!

Welcome to the Jungle – The Amazon Part I

We ran out of time in Peru and never made it to the Amazon, so for Matt’s first scheduled vacation, we booked a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Called the jungle and considered a rainforest, both descriptions are apt. We were in the Amazon basin, but the Ecuadorian lodges are on tributaries of the Amazon, something Matt was disappointed to learn.

Matt in the Jungle

Matt in the Jungle

We wanted comfort, as much as there is comfort in the middle of the jungle, so we stayed at an upscale lodge, La Selva Amazon Ecolodge, just off the Napo River on Lake Garzacocha. After a short flight from Quito to Coca, we took a 2+ hour boat ride down the Napo. The big industry is oil and we saw many drill sites along the way.

After getting drenched in a downpour on the boat ride, welcome to the rainforest, we took a short walk, climbed into canoes and were paddled though creeks and across a lake before reaching the lodge. I was initially uncomfortable with 2 men paddling 6 additional adults around, but got used to it as we traveled that way throughout the trip.

The grounds and accommodations were very nice and about as luxurious as they could be given the journey it takes to get everything there. Shortly after arrival, everyone was put in groups. Like summer camp, your excursions and meals are with the same people. We lucked out and were with a great group: Sally and Clint from England and Stephen and Arturo from the US. Because Matt and I stayed a day longer than the traditional 3-day stay, we were groupless at the end. It quickly became apparent that other guests perceived our group as the “good” group based on the horror stories we heard. We also lucked out with our guides, Rodrigo and Dario. Wildlife viewing in the Amazon is the opposite of wildlife viewing in the Galapagos: the animals hide in the Amazon as opposed to coming within centimeters of you as they do in the Galapagos. Rodrigo was our naturalist and Dario our native guide. However, Rodrigo was also the only naturalist who grew up in the Amazon rainforest. I think his skills in spotting wildlife came from hunting in the forest since he was a young child. He also liked to mention, with a gleam in his eye, how tasty particular species of monkeys are.

The Gang Minus Dario

The Gang Minus Dario

Our first excursion was a night canoe trip across the lake and followed by a hike. Nothing like jumping right into things: tarantulas, a snake and more!

On the way back we stopped to visit this sinister guy:



Matt and I were in the back of the canoe and couldn’t see him very well, but Arturo took a great photo for us.

Day 2 started with a 5 am wake up call to hike to the observation tower for an early morning of birdwatching. It was overcast, but we still saw many brightly colored parrots and other birds. Unfortunately, we saw most through a telescope so no pictures.

After a few hours, we hiked through the rainforest for a couple of hours. It was a peaceful walk through the forest although I could have done without rousing a tarantula from its lair.

We went back to the lodge for relaxation and lunch before our next hike. The highlight of this hike, and my favorite part of our entire visit, were the monkeys. We saw howler, wooly, pygmy marmoset, red titi, capuchin, squirrel, owl night and black mantle monkeys. My favorites were the appropriately named howler monkeys even though they woke us up every morning with their howling (the first morning we had no idea what the racket was) and the “monkey migrations,” particularly of the acrobatic squirrel monkeys, when countless monkeys would stream overhead. They weren’t always easy to spot, but after a few days we learned a little how to read the moving leaves high in the trees to know if it was wind or monkeys. Rodrigo loved the monkeys and made sure we saw the different varieties.

Listen to these with the sound on:

Next Up: Swimming with the piranhas, eating grubs, stinky turkeys and more!

The Kindness of Strangers Part II

The New Stacks

The New Stacks

Amy Torres learned about my library project for the Tomás de Berlanga school on the Galapagos Islands when I placed my blog post on the ALA Think Tank Facebook page. Amy and her husband were spurred into collecting and delivering 500 books to us in the Galapagos, something I wrote about here.

Welcome and Thank You!

Welcome and Thank You!

During their stay in Quito, Amy and Harry met Hector Viela. Although Hector has never visited the Galapagos and has no connection to the school, he was inspired by Amy and Harry’s mission and offered to help us by setting up a GoFundMe page to obtain donations. True to his word, our GoFundMe campaign went live today. If you have read about the library project and want to donate funds to help us, now you can! Any amount – $5, $10, $25 – will help greatly. My previous requests for assistance have resulted in many books being collected for us. Now we need to get the funds to ship them here.

Thanks for any support you can provide. The students love the new books and will greatly appreciate any additional books we can get for them.

The 1/2 Way Mark


St. Paddy's Day

St. Paddy’s Day

Life isn’t fair. If you grew up in my family and didn’t know this by the time you were 4 or 5, you weren’t paying attention. It was my dad’s favorite line. Complain about pretty much anything and you could expect, “Well, kid, life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”

Death isn’t fair either. 23 years ago, when I was 23, my dad died of lung cancer. He was 56.

I’ve been dreading this day, the symbolic halfway point of my life, since his death. In the year after my dad died, I took comfort in the fact that only one year ago, he was still alive. But as that horrible year after his death passed, I couldn’t think “last year he” or “last year we.” The last year was already gone.

Andy's Baptism, Last Family Photo

Andy’s Baptism, Last Family Photo

The immediate pain of death recedes. That’s true. But the loss remains. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my dad. Not. One. Day. 23 years is a long time to miss someone.

And there is a lot to miss. My dad was not perfect, but boy, he was fun, the life of many parties. He would accept any last minute invitation and leave the chores for later. He taught me to swim, fish, ski, golf, shoot a basket (I never really learned that one), swing a bat, and ride a bike. There were family ski trips with the Arpins and, once, an infamous canoe trip with my uncle and cousin. He taught me to play cribbage and gin rummy and that there always needed to be some stakes (1/10 of a penny a point when I was really little) to “keep the game interesting.” He did not let me win. Ever. He taught me Irish songs, many violent or morbid, and was the one to explain to my kindergarten teacher why I sang a song about “sticking a knife in the baby’s head” for show-and-tell. (His excuse was that I spoke [and sang] so quickly he didn’t think anyone would understand me.) He fostered my love for demented Christmas trees  because he and Pat Arpin would bar hop until they finally cut down the trees, leading to some interesting specimens that eventually became a family tradition. He hand wrote letters to me while I lived in Italy, which usually consisted of sports updates of the Brewers, Bucks, Green Bay Packers and the Wisconsin Badgers and a few tidbits of family news. The year between college and law school when I lived at home and waitressed, he would often wait for me to get home from my weekend shifts and have a drink with me while I unwound. When I was in law school, he always took me to the airport when I left and picked me up when I came home.

He loved me and I never doubted that love. I never had an absent or disinterested father. I was his “favorite youngest daughter.”



And now, it’s the 1/2 way mark. After today, I will live more of my life without my dad than I got to live with him. It’s not fair.

Except not really. I did the math: the halfway point is really in another 336 days. So for another 336 days I can take comfort in knowing that I got to enjoy life with my dad longer than I have enjoyed life without him. And after that, I will just have to enjoy life: it’s the only way to honor the memory of someone who loved life like he did.

Adventures in Cooking

I love to cook. Actually, I love to bake because I have a huge sweet tooth, but I enjoy cooking as well.

I told my sister how I was always cooking the same thing here due to fairly limited ingredients – chicken, fish or shrimp with a veggie side dish and the occasional hamburger. When Mick mentioned a chicken and artichoke dish our friend Chris made for her, I was excited because I had seen canned artichokes in the store. Mick passed along along Chris’ recipe that included Chris’ notes on how to improve the recipe: the type of artichokes to buy, additional mushrooms etc. As I made the dish, I thought that my Galapagos recipe notes would look a bit different. Here they are:
1. Take chicken that you had to skin and debone yourself out of the freezer to defrost. Place in microwave so the geckos and microscopic spiders that live in your kitchen don’t taint it. Write a note so you remember you have chicken defrosting in the microwave.
2.  See the note about 5 hours later, place the still-cool chicken in the fridge and pull out the recipe. Note you only have 1 can of artichokes and that you have only seen fresh mushrooms on the island 3 times in 6 months. Take out home-made chicken broth (added benefit of always having to buy bone-in chicken) from freezer to defrost.
3. Walk 3/4 mile to store in search of artichokes and fresh mushrooms. No fresh mushrooms at the store, but you are happy to find a can of artichokes. Snob (pronounced by native Spanish speakers as eh-snōb) brand because it is the only one. Debate over $4.65 can of eh-Snob mushrooms. Pass on it and then go back to get it rationalizing that you ate canned mushrooms on steak until you were about 16 and Mom started buying fresh ones.
4. Walk home 3/4 mile.
5. Start cooking and scream at the gecko you find licking the side of your chicken broth. Chase it around with the dedicated plastic cup and laminated award Matt’s friend gave him for his 2nd place fantasy football win that is now used to catch and “relocate” house geckos. Fail as it executes some incredible last minute leaps and you have been on vacation for a week and your trapping skills have suffered. Kick yourself for not defrosting the broth in the microwave but shrug and wipe down the side of the container.
6. Get out your pyrex from its carrying case. Note that the carrying case now has mold growing on it. Just like your purses, shoes, Matt’s suit jackets and half of the rest of the stuff in your house.
7. Wash the pyrex because even though it had a lid on it and was in its zippered case, what appears to be gecko poop is in it.
8. Turn on oven but look up the damn celsius to fahrenheit conversion that you can never remember.
9. Turn on burner but note that it is flaming oddly. Watch for rogue gecko as singed ones have run out of your burner in the past. No gecko appears. Carry on.
10. Continue cooking, smooshing any microscopic spiders you see because it is a lost cause and you have given up trying to eradicate them.
11. Keep cup and award handy for rogue gecko, but the little shit knows to stay away.
12. Hope that the cake flour, the only type you have been able to find on the island, means you will finally be able to whisk flour into broth without getting lumps. Fail yet again. Blame cake flour.
13. No sherry in town. Find some old white wine in the fridge that was too crappy to drink and kept for cooking. Smell it and add to lumpy sauce.


Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.



Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.



Cruel Side of Nature


We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Open For Business!

Yesterday was the grand opening of the Tomás de Berlanga Open Air Library! In a few short months, we managed to build a new dedicated space for the student library, secure amazing donations of new and gently used books, cull hundreds of unsuitable books and label and index the remaining 900 books for the student library.

We went from this:

Conceptualized this:

To this:

The students were patiently awaiting the new library and getting their hands on the newly donated books. Finally, we were ready to open the English section of the library. (I need to finish sorting and labeling the Spanish books, but they are few in number and in even worse shape than the English ones were.)

I started checking out books right after we opened and had a steady stream of patrons the rest of the day. It was amazing! Students were coming during their recess and, I later realized, slipping out of class to come for a book. There was a lot of borrower’s remorse and requests to change books – I think the kids were so overwhelmed with the great new options that they didn’t know where to start. The cool, donated book marks were a big hit and the kids were amazed to find out they could keep them. We also have a lot of education to do about library procedures: starting with checking out books and not just taking them. As we have no computer for the library, the check out system is old school. It took me several nights to fill out a form for each student – they each have 4 names here and it is not always consistent which ones they use.

The best part of the day was when a few 5th graders came to the library during recess. One boy, Matias, picked The Giving Tree to check out and I told him it was one of my favorite books. Other kids chimed in and Matias started reading it at the checkout table. I asked if he wanted to read it aloud and he happily agreed. The other students gathered around and listened (shushing one boy who started reading his book aloud) and we all enjoyed the first story hour at the open air library.

Impromptu Story Hour

Impromptu Story Hour

A big THANK YOU to everyone who helped on this project, including

  • Matt for securing the funding to build the library
  • Corina Gallardo Nelson for designing the library and securing the contractors
  • Donna Daugherty and John Garate for securing the municipal donation of the lava rocks and machinery and man power to spread them
  • Paola Leguísamo and Martin Hoss for encouragement and assistance in getting the construction completed
  • Jo Browne for help with book labeling
  • Jessi Pfeltz for countless hours spent labeling books, making signs, and weeding books
  • Lisa Dell for giving up her prep time (and spare time) to index, label and weed books
  • Amy and Harry Torres for getting the donation ball rolling with a 500 book donation and Amy’s tireless library advice
  • Patty Wanniger, Sarah Wakefield and Maria Schmidt for wonderful library advice and suggestions


  • Bring a book (or books!) on your trip to the Galapagos or send some books with someone you know who is traveling here. This is the least expensive way to get books here. Book guidelines are listed below.
  • Send books for the school from your home country. For US guests, the United States Postal Service is the most economical way to send books. Contact me for more information and the mailing address. If you are able to collect books for us but do not have the funding to ship them, my brother (in Wisconsin) has generously agreed to accept and coordinate book donations as we seek funding sources for shipping. Please contact me for his information.
  • Donate funds to ship books. US donors have collected books for the school, but the school does not have the funds to pay for shipping costs. For example, previous shipments from the United States were sent via USPS and cost $122 for a box of 40 books that weighed about 27 pounds and $80 for a box of 50 books that weighed about 18 pounds. If you want to donate, contact me and I will connect you with someone who has already collected books for us.

Book Guidelines:

  • Please collect new or gently used books that are interesting to children. Remember that English is a second language for our students. The school has an Amazon wish list with some suggested titles, but donors can ask a child what his or her favorite books are or talk to teachers, librarians or booksellers for ideas. While some books are great classics, many books that libraries are discarding are being discarded for a reason: they are dated and no one wants to read them. Library book sales, your own shelves and second hand stores are great places to look, but not every book needs a home in the Galapagos. The wish list can be found at:
  • The school is pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and books at all levels would be appreciated. We currently have a special need for picture books (no board books please as their small size makes them difficult in the library) early readers and books at a 1-5 grade reading level. Multiple copies of books are welcome, as they would allow for a class to use them for a reading circle.
  • Books in Spanish are also appreciated. While we want to improve the students’ English proficiency, we also want to encourage a love of reading the their native language.
  • Gently used, please! Dust covers are not necessary, but scribbled in, ripped or grimy books are best discarded.
  • Coloring books, workbooks and sticker books are best for your local charity for a single recipient to enjoy, not for a school library.

For more information about the school, visit its Facebook page or its website at

Power of Social Media + Kindness of Strangers = 500 Books!

Welcome and Thank You!

Welcome New Friends!

When I wrote my initial blog post about my quest to create a better library at Matt’s school, I thought that in addition to proving to family and friends that I don’t just go to the beach, it might spur some folks to collect and donate books to the school. Shameless, I know, but many of you have started doing just that. Previously, as I was researching the library project, my librarian cousin Patty suggested that I join the ALA Think Tank Facebook page so I could pose questions or might see other questions similar to mine. I joined the page and subsequently on July 13 posted my blog post on the ALA page with the introductory message:

Hello. I am trying to improve a primitive library at a school on the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador). My husband is the school director and I am the volunteer librarian (no MLIS degree, just a passion for libraries and reading). There are many issues to address, but I am starting with trying to build the collection. Does anyone have any ideas as to how to get books here? I think I can obtain some decent book donations via friends and families, school drives etc., but the cost of shipping and (potentially) taxes makes getting the books here challenging. Are there any organizations that assist with this type of project? If you want to see more, I’m including the link to my blog post about the project. Thanks much!

It was simply a request for information and as librarians are an informing bunch, I soon had 28 comments, all encouraging and many with helpful information. One of the responders, Amy Dahl, also reached out with a FB friend request and message: she wanted to collect books for us and deliver them in person! Amy works in a school library in California and to call her a woman of action is an understatement. Within days she had persuaded her husband Harry that this was an opportunity of a lifetime, obtained permission from her district to miss the opening days of school, and obtained substantial book donations in addition to her own. Amy also provided me with practical advice and encouragement as I continued to struggle with organizing the library’s current collection and advancing the project.

As this excitement was unfolding, Matt was making strides with the library box, or natural library. A school parent who is an architect, Corina Gallardo Nelson, drew up the plans and obtained bids from local tradesmen for the work.


Library Plans

Library Plans

Matt obtained board approval for the project and building commenced about 2 weeks ago. The structure will be attached to an existing classroom building. A concrete base and side walls will hold the wood library “cupboards”. There will be a leveled area in front of the cupboard with a roof overhead – no walls. Once there is funding, there will also be some tables and benches in the area. On-site the project has progressed to the concrete, clearing of the area, and a pile of lava rocks that will be spread to create the floor of the open air library. The carpenter is working on the cupboards and roof in his workshop.

One month to the day after reading my blog post, Amy and Harry landed on the Galapagos with 3 duffle bags – 150 pounds – of books for the Tomás de Berlanga School! Matt and I met them at their hotel and had our first glimpse of the books. Wow! Amy agreed that instead of taking all 500 books to school, we could bring a sampling of about 50 to showcase to the classes we were visiting. She and I could have spent hours selecting those books, but eventually we headed out so we could show them around town and then have dinner. The best part, besides the books, was that they are wonderful, fun people so we had a great time with them.

The next morning after a quick visit to the fish market so they could enjoy watching pelicans and sea lions trying to steal the fresh catch, we headed off to school. What a welcome they received! Matt was giving them a tour of the grounds when a student came up and said “I know who you are: you are Harry and you are Amy. Where are the books?” We assured the student that we would be visiting his classroom later in the day and he could see some of the books.

We began our classroom visits and the students (and teachers) were thrilled. The children oohed and aahed over the books. One of the best overheard remarks was one boy telling another to smell a book and they both inhaled that new book aroma. In the upper level classes, we talked about how a library works, the overall project and proper book care. In the lower classes, Amy showcased some books and read a few stories. The worst part was when we told the children that they couldn’t keep the books because they needed to be labeled and organized. How disappointed the students were!

At the end of the day, Amy and Harry got to enjoy the bus ride home: due to the school’s location slightly outside of town, teachers and students take buses home every night. We visited again Friday night and then took them to the local market on Saturday morning. We all enjoyed a breakfast of delicious empanadas and some live music before they set sail for a week-long cruise.

Buen Viaje!

Buen Viaje!

Matt and I were sad to see them leave – Amy and Harry quickly became friends  – but I had 500 books to keep me busy. Matt helped me sort the books by reading level. By Monday night they were all set for my new volunteer, Jessi Pfeltz Mahauad, a friend and parent at the school, to help with labeling. Another session or two and these books will be ready for the new library.

I also continue to sort and label the books at the school. When Amy reviewed the collection, she agreed with me that many of the current books should not be on the shelves. A basic library premise, which seems counterintuitive to some, is that more is not better. A lot of books that no one ever reads on your shelves is not healthy for a library. It only makes it harder for children to find the “good” books and makes the space less inviting. This, in turn, makes children lose interest. As it currently stands, we probably have books to fill no more than 25% of the new library with recently donated books and the decent books currently on the shelves. I have also been researching and planning the library training for teachers and students and a check out system that will ensure the books are returned. Because it is so hard to get books here, it is imperative that students return them because we cannot simply charge a fine and replace the books. So there is still a lot of work to be done to obtain new books, get the library up and running, and promote a culture of reading in the school. But 500 books is a fantastic start!




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If you are inspired by Amy and Harry’s generosity and action, please help us! This would be a great project for children who have a benevolent spirit or service requirements for school, church confirmation, Scouts etc. because they could also connect with school children on the Galapagos Islands. Books, funds or both would be greatly appreciated. If you are interesting in helping, please contact me directly, but these initial guidelines may assist you:

  • If you know someone traveling to the Galapagos Islands, ask whether they are willing to bring a box of books or even just a few. If you know someone traveling to Ecuador, they can mail the books from the mainland to the islands. We already have many donated books in the US waiting to be sent here.
  • Please collect books that are interesting to children. I am happy to provide a wish list and reading levels, but you  also can ask a child what his or her favorite books are. Non-fiction books about animals (especially sea animals), nature and dinosaurs are always a hit. Series are a good bet too. While some books are great classics, many books that libraries are discarding are being discarded for a reason: they are dated and no one wants to read them. Library book sales, your own shelves and second hand stores are great places to look, but not every book needs a home in the Galapagos.
  • The school is kindergarten through 12th grade and books at all levels would be appreciated. We have a special need for early readers and books at a 1-5 grade level. Multiple copies of books are welcome as they would allow for a class to use them for a reading circle. 
  • Books in Spanish are also appreciated. While we want to improve the students’ English proficiency, we also want to encourage a love of reading in their native language.
  • Gently used, please! Dust covers are not necessary, but scribbled in, ripped or grimy books are best discarded.
  • Coloring books, work books, and sticker books are best for your local charity for a single recipient to enjoy.
  • Funds will need to be raised to get the books here. Unfortunately, this is not within the school’s budget. For example, previous shipments were sent via USPS and cost $122 for a box of 40 books that weighed about 27 pounds and $80 for a box of 50 books that weight about 18 pounds. The value of each box was listed at $10, or resale value for used books, which negated paying an import tax. 
  • Patience, please! The shipped books took 3 months to arrive but were well appreciated when they did.

For more information about the school, visit its Facebook page (courtesy of Matt) or its website at

Weekend Escape to Isabela Island

Two Tuesdays ago Matt called me with exciting news: he was going to be off school the following Monday, providing his first day off since we arrived here. Originally, his school was required to march in a parade on August 10, in commemoration of Quito Independence Day, but on Tuesday the local government cancelled the parade due to road construction. Subsequently, on Thursday, there was some confusion when the parade was reinstated, but on Friday schools were again deemed exempt. A good thing as we had already paid for our non-refundable hotel on Isabela Island.

Apart from our day trips, this was our first opportunity to explore a new island. From Santa Cruz, the two best options for a weekend getaway are San Cristobal or Isabela. We chose Isabela because the túneles (tunnels) snorkeling trip is supposed to be one of the best of the islands and I miss hiking after living in Cajamarca and Isabela has a volcano hiking trip I wanted to do. Both islands are a 2 -2 1/2 hour ferry ride away. “Ferry” is a term used loosely here:

Destiny ferry

Destiny ferry

Yep, that was the boat we and 20 other people were going to crash through waves in during a 2 hour ride just at the time that the weather cooled off a bit and the seas got a little rougher. Lucky us. I prepared with my usual dramamine, acupressure sea bands and soothing music and decided an empty stomach was the way to go. We got to the pier about 6:20 am on Saturday, went through the inspection line to ensure we were not bringing anything organically harmful to another island and caught a water taxi (a blatant, 50¢ shake down, increased to $1 on Isabela) to our ferry and settled in for the ride.

Departure Gate

Departure Gate

And what a ride it was. Tellingly, they hand out barf bags when you embark. Happily, neither Matt nor I used them, and I decided that pounding through waves is actually easier (not easy, mind you) on my stomach than swaying in the waves, but the ride was bone jarring. Not as bone jarring as what was about to come a few days later on our snorkeling trip, but rough on the back. We had a few pukers on board and I realized that an added incentive to not puking was that after you did so, you got to hold your bag of vomit for the rest of the trip.

As we pulled into Isabela we were treated to penguins zooming alongside the boat. That cheered up everyone after the trying ride.

We dropped off our bags at our hotel, the Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge, and walked into town for some breakfast and to shop for tours. The town is loaded with travel agencies all selling the same 3 or 4 tours. We compared prices at 3 of them and then lined up the volcano hike ($35 per person) for Sunday and the Túneles ($85 per person) for Monday morning before our departure back to Isabela. I had read that to dine at the nicer hotels for dinner you need to make a reservation and order your food in advance, so we headed over to the lovely Iguana Crossing hotel to make a dinner reservation. And guess what: we did, indeed, see 4 iguanas crossing the road right at the edge of the hotel property.

We enjoyed the rest of the day hanging out on the hotel patio and snorkeling at the fabulous Concha de Perla. Located near the pier, you head down a wooden walkway through the mangroves to reach the calm bay. On our walk there, 2 young sea lions were napping on the walkway. What a conundrum! In the Galapagos people are required to stay 6 feet away from the animals. We decided the 6 feet rule had exceptions and gingerly walked over the sea lions. Concha de Perla was crowded but well worth the visit. The water was serene and clear and one can easily swim alongside the reef and admire the coral, anemones and striking red-studded starfish.

It was a good thing we relaxed because we were up early for our 7:15 pick up for our Sierra Negra volcano hike. Confusion ensued when a cabbie picked us up, took us to pick up our box lunch only to realize a few blocks later that we weren’t his passengers. We had even showed him our tickets to confirm we were his passengers. He drove us back to the hotel where eventually another cabbie picked us up and took us to get a different box lunch before driving us up to the highlands of the island. Matt and I agreed that the first box lunch looked better than the second.

While we were told that the tour was 16 km, or 10 miles, no one really pointed out that 10 miles up a volcano is a relatively challenging hike. We were fine because we are accustomed to walking, had proper footwear and after hiking at high altitude in Cajamarca, a hike at 3,000 feet isn’t difficult, but others in our group struggled. The first part was through a lush, verdant area. The mist was heavy and the path, muddy.

We got to the rim of the Sierra Negra crater, the second largest in the world, and couldn’t see a thing. The entire crater was covered in fog. We continued hiking along the rim and then left the verdant area and passed through an in-between scrubby area before eventually arriving in a arid area covered by volcanic rock.

Except under this gorgeous tree – it was wet and misty there.

Rainy Respite

Rainy Respite

We hit the volcano field. I had no idea that volcanic rock could be so interesting. Seriously. The colors and patterns were just incredible. Because Sierra Negra is an active volcano, there were many furnaces, which were warm to the touch. We crossed several areas of lava from different eruptions and eventually reached a lookout point where we could see the Isabela coast and Fernandina island.

Well, we could see it momentarily before the fog blew in. We ate lunch at the peak and then began the return to the trailhead via the same path.

Fog Blowing In

Fog Blowing In

Matt, a Portuguese woman, Maria, and I hightailed it in front of the rest of the group. Our guide told us to keep glancing at the crater as we walked alongside it in case the fog lifted, but it never did. Matt and I were feeling pretty proud of our fast pace until we realized that we were in hiking boots and Maria, who was probably a few years older than us, was keeping up with us in Tevas. In any event, the 3 of us beat the rest of the group back to the beginning and were thankful that there was a cab waiting to take us back to town. We were soaked, muddy and ready to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

The next morning was another early start with the same cabbie confusion. Eventually, the right guy came to get us. Our boat was the Capricorn and we went to the boat’s offices to get our wetsuits and snorkeling gear (Matt and I bring our own snorkel and masks but use the fins the tour companies provide. Wetsuits are on the list for our April visit to the US.). There were 8 other passengers: our new Portuguese friend Maria (who also ended up on the same ferry later in the day), an Italian woman with a French guy, an Ecuadorian family with 2 young children and a high-school aged Colombian boy. We got to the Capricorn and set off. Oh. My. God. Crashing through the waves doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. We were slamming through the waves and there were times the boat was airborne. I was happy that our captain was a cheerful fellow because I figured he didn’t have a death wish. At one point, an enormous  wave was coming toward the side of the boat. I think it was big enough to break over us because suddenly our captain turned on a dime and gunned the engine to mount the wave after which we zoomed down the other side. The ocean was our roller coaster.

After 45 minutes of this excitement (and one puker, not us), we approached another boat bobbing in the waves. We stopped and held too. The captains were waiting for the seas to calm enough to continue the journey to the tunnels. They never did and eventually we gave up and went to what was intended to be the second snorkeling stop of the trip, with the assurance that we would try to go the tunnels later.

Once in the water it became apparent that only 3 of us knew how to swim. The other 7 passengers ended up clutching their life vests, which were the huge, old-fashioned kind that would certainly keep you afloat but that you couldn’t swim in, or the round life saver. Our head guide had to tow several of the 7 in a line. The younger guide would swim around scouting for stuff to see and then the head guy would tow the crowd over. Because you are supposed to stick with your group, the non-swimmers made the trip a bit less fun for us. We were missing wildlife! I finally starting swimming along with the scout guide who would point out things along the way. In fact, I was the first passenger initially in the water and he immediately took me to see a huge sea turtle. He had me swim down to it and took a picture but unfortunately didn’t send us that one. All the same, it was an incredible trip because our guides made sure we saw tons of sea creatures.

It was the first time we saw seahorses. They were tricky to see as they are not always in their curled shape so sometimes they just look like a bumpy stick.

After a long time in the water, we boarded the boat. The captain assessed the situation and determined that it wasn’t safe to go to the tunnels, so we headed back to Isabela. It worked out fine because we had 3 hours on shore before we had to board the ferry. The ferry ride was even rougher on the way home than on the way to Isabela, but, once again, we were not the pukers on board. They pulled a bait and switch on us and we ended up crammed in a different boat that I did not think was as nice as the Destiny. But we made it home. Isabela was a great trip and is on our list to visit again despite the ferry ride.

Under the Sea: Snorkeling Trip to Pinzón

A month ago, before our friend Jo returned to England, we went on a snorkeling day trip to Pinzón. While I enjoyed our bird watching trip to North Seymour island, Matt prefers snorkeling to bird watching and this trip was right up his alley because you cannot touch foot on Pinzón without a special permit. Instead this trip entailed 3 snorkeling stops around Pinzón and a visit to a beach on Santa Cruz. First step was taking a water taxi from the Puerto Ayora dock to the boat, the Contagious, which was no-frills compared to the boat from our prior trip. I was glad that I had popped dramamine before we set off as the seas were bumpy.

After about an hour and a half crashing through the waves, we arrived at our first snorkeling destination, a calm bay. Three penguins flopped into the water as we were disembarking but we never saw them afterwards. We jumped off the boat and started swimming. It was like we were in a fish tank. The water was crystal clear and everywhere we looked there were fish and more fish. While many fish were the same types we see at the beach near our house, they were much bigger in the deeper water.

Our guide (whose name escapes me) was a great guy who made sure we saw a lot. He swam with us and pointed out tons of things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. He also stirred things up at times…

Next stop was in a deeper area with a stronger current. The fun continued.

I hate snakes. Eels are simply snakes of the water.

The show-off sea lion was more entertaining.

Then Jo called me over. I thought it was to see a sea turtle, which I had yet to see. I was wrong.


Eeks! White Tipped Reef Shark

Despite my fear, I followed this guy for awhile. Then I decided not to press my luck and went back to viewing tamer animals.

At this stop, Matt and I also had a baby sea lion playfully swim back and forth between us. Happily, we did not see it get eaten by a shark.

Frolicking Sea Lion

Frolicking Sea Lion

Our third snorkeling stop was equally spectacular. As I still hadn’t seen any sea turtles, our guide came and got me when he spotted some. He linked his arm through mine and we swam off after them. Fantastic.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

Then it was shark time once again. Our guide woke up the sharks for our viewing enjoyment. Who the heck wakes up sharks?!

Strangely, being in a group and with a guide made me feel safer. Maybe someone else would look tastier than I? Still, I could only watch them for so long. As we continued swimming there was suddenly this big shadow below me in the water. I instinctively glanced over my shoulder to see what large thing was above me just as a realized that I was seeing a HUGE manta ray beneath me. Matt said he reacted the same way.  We agreed that its wings were 12-15 feet wide. It appeared to float away. Unbelievable.

On the way back to Santa Cruz, we swung by Daphne to check out the animals on shore. Highlights were the masked booby and fur sea lion.

A fantastic trip and one I recommend to any snorkeler. Thank you Jo Browne for the awesome photos! An underwater camera is on the shopping list for our trip to the US next year…