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!

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…

Happy Two Year (and a Day) Ex-pat Anniversary!

Two years ago yesterday, Matt and I landed in Peru and began our international living adventure.

Last Hurrah!

In the past two years we have:

  • Lived in 2 countries
  • Learned Spanish
  • Trekked to Machu Picchu
  • Acquired a donkey jaw as a musical instrument
  • Ate guinea pig
  • Swum with sharks, manta rays, sea lions and sea turtles

and so much more!

While the there will always be challenges and we miss our stateside family and friends, this adventure has been incredible. We have made new friendships that will stand the test of time and distance and had experiences we will never forget.

You only get one life, so live the life YOU want to live!

Young, wild and free

Young, wild and free

PS. This is my 100th blog post – thanks for reading!

One Book At A Time

I love libraries. It started before I could read: my mom would take us to the library and it seemed like the biggest treat to sit and “read” the picture books while she selected her own books. When we moved to Watertown, my dad’s office was a block from the public library where I spent many after school hours waiting for a ride home. My sister worked there and our mom and her friend started a PALS program for the library that raised funds and awareness that ultimately led to a new building. As an English major in college, I spent plenty of time in the stacks and as a new lawyer, research was still done by books so I was a frequent visitor to the law library. Once, on a business trip to Pittsburg, the attorney entertaining me took me to see the public library that had been recently renovated and the amazing Seattle library was on the sightseeing list when Matt and I vacationed there. In Washington D.C. we visited the Library of Congress and left with reading cards.

I was appalled when I saw the library at Matt’s new school. Three bookcases crammed into the back of the small music room.

How can a child gain a love of reading if there are inadequate books and no inviting space? How can a child learn if they are not reading? There is a town library in Puerto Ayora, but I have never seen it open. Culturally, there doesn’t appear to be a tradition of reading for pleasure. I read to 6th and 7th graders and they love the picture books I bring to class. When I asked them whether their parents read bedtime stories to them, their faces were blank. I had found my project.

First step was to determine what was there. I quickly realized that the majority of the books were out of use textbooks, teachers manuals, used workbooks, and pretty much any English book that someone – tourist or resident – left behind. Some gems included:

That is not to say that these are bad books or that the donor’s intent was not good. But these are not books that would catch a child’s interest, particularly one learning a second language. The Spanish collection is even more limited.

My next few visits were spent moving all of the teacher resources and textbooks to one stack and the less accessible shelves of the other stacks and sorting the Spanish from the English books. Every week, I felt like Sisyphus – the shelves were back in disarray, more crap from teachers’ classrooms cluttered the shelves and random bins and used 20 liter water bottles (which I later learned are the school’s percussion instruments) blocked access to the stacks.

At the same time, I was researching how to categorize the books. While someone had labeled many of the books using the Dewey Decimal system, that system is fairly meaningless without a cataloging system (which is also lacking) and not intended for fiction. I called on Sarah, our friend who was the librarian in Peru, my cousin Patty, a veteran librarian, and Maria, my childhood friend who is currently obtaining her MLIS. With their input and that of the teachers, I determined that a simple categorization process for fiction was appropriate: 1-4 reading levels, color coded and divided into Spanish and English. I would have liked to have more reading level differentiation, but it look me several trips to the local stores and my visit to Quito to find 8 colors of stickers to label the books. There is so little non-fiction that it will likely end up on one shelf.

Supplies

Supplies

After segregating most of the undesired content and realizing that my weekly efforts to reorganize the shelves would be easier once the books were marked, I started the labeling phase. About this time, the school received 2 boxes of donated books from the US from a tourist who visited the school and saw the need to improve the resources. She collected gently used books and her church raised funds to mail the books here. Oh Happy Day! The quality of the donations was excellent and I was thrilled to add these books to the collection. This week I completed labeling the first three levels of English books. We only have about 2 1/2 shelves of picture books and less than a shelf each of books at beginning and low reading levels. Next week I will start on the 5th grade and higher levels and have seen some decent books there though no contemporary kid favorites like Harry Potter, Divergent, Twilight, Percy Jackson or the like.

Fantastic Update! This evening Matt and I met the lovely Madabushi family from Houston, Texas, who came to the Galapagos with a suitcase full of books, friendship bracelets, sign language messages and fantastic science games and projects to donate to the school. The low level books they brought just about doubled the volume on that shelf and the upper level books greatly improve the quality of that collection as well. Thank you!

Matt and I promote the library project to anyone who will listen. Matt’s ultimate goal is a dedicated space for the library and he has designed a library “box” that would essentially be bookshelves with doors and a internal ventilation system located under a pavilion. The classrooms here are basically open air, so this would be keeping with the environment and, while not ideal for books, better than the current conditions. 

As we have talked about the need, other people have expressed interest in building an actual library, which would be amazing. But to me, the books are more important – a library without books is an empty space.

The challenge is getting books here. The great news is that the school is on the sightseeing list for tourists, so we have been asked to put together a list of books and other school items that tourists visiting the school can donate if they are so inclined. We may also be lucky to meet another family like the Madabushis. Once we have a collection, other issues like a catalog and check out system are on my list to address.

Book by book, the library project is progressing. I think my mom would be proud.


WANT TO HELP? DONATE TO THE LIBRARY PROJECT!

Many friends and family have asked how they can help with the library project. 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:

  • Please collect books that are interesting to children. 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. 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. While we are seeking to improve the students’ English skills, if you have appropriate level Spanish books, those are also welcome.
  • 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 the recent 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. 
  • 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.
  • Patience, please! The 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) https://www.facebook.com/tdberlanga or its website at http://www.scalesia.org/tomas-de-berlanga-school

Not as Easy as It Looks on TV

I have been back home on the island for almost two weeks and within days of my arrival had the rest of our shipment unpacked and our apartment feeling more like ours. Happily, the important breakable made it so I could celebrate!

But our visa/living permission journey was beginning yet again. In order to avoid an annual exile to Quito to get new work visas, we are now in the process of applying for professional visas that do not expire. We will still need to renew our Galapagos living permission on an annual basis, but if the renewal is done properly, we should not have to leave the island to do it. As part of the process for the new visa, we need an FBI background check. After some quick research I learned the process is straightforward – download a few forms, get your fingerprints taken, pay a few bucks and you are set. Our friend Ros was heading to the US and could mail the packet for us, so we were on a quest to get it done.

In Peru, we went to Interpol to be fingerprinted for our Peruvian visas. About 2 months after I received my visa, I received a notice from the FBI that stated it was not able to process my prints because they weren’t legible.  Apparently the fingerprinting was more form over substance in Peru as I already had my visa. But if Interpol couldn’t adequately fingerprint me, could I do it myself? I started researching the process – the FBI has a handy pamphlet of tips – and we asked around for places in town that might do it for us.

Armed with our ink pad and the forms, we hit the police station. The guy was confused – why did we want to be fingerprinted? In the end, he said that they didn’t use fingerprints on the island but maybe we could try on the mainland. Not an option. Our next lead was for the government offices: here all citizens, even babies, are fingerprinted for their id cards. We went to one office, waited in line and explained what we needed. Eventually the woman appeared with an ink pad for us to use but no one to help us actually take the fingerprints. Apparently they do digital fingerprints. We explained that we hoped the person who took the digital fingerprints could help us with the paper versions, but no such luck. She sent us to another office and we got the same story.

We were on our own. Matt was confident in his ability to take his own prints. I wasn’t so certain as a main component is to be relaxed throughout the process, not my strong suit. So I decided cocktails would relax me and Ros came over for moral support. We had a system: two practice prints before the final ink, ink up and then a practice ink to reduce the smudge and the real deal. It was stressful.

Ros tried her cat-calming tricks on me – the slow blink, but I think the booze worked better. The rules allow two do-overs, so Matt had to run out to get white stickers to give us another shot at a few messy ones.

Matt did an excellent job with a difficult subject. At the end of the day, I had a new appreciation for law enforcement – who knew taking prints was so hard – and some messy prints that I hope pass FBI muster. It takes 3-4 months for processing, so we won’t know if we failed until it is too late to redo them for our visas. As a backup, we are ordering our state criminal records, but we don’t think they will be adequate. If anyone knows a former law enforcement officer heading to the Galapagos Islands, please send them my way (and I am not kidding).

Out, out, damn spot – it took 2 days of scrubbing and swimming in the ocean for me to get rid of the ink stains!

Still Waiting

Matt teased me when I posted “The Wait is Over.” “Really,” he asked, “don’t you think it has just begun?”

Of course, he was right. What was I thinking? I should have known better after living in South America for this long. Nothing comes quickly.

First, it was the wait for our visas. The process is two-fold: we need visas to live in Ecuador and then we need permission to live on the Galapagos as temporary residents. When we were here for Matt’s interview in February, we sat down with a calendar and a school employee and outlined all the steps it would take to get our visas. The school wanted Matt to report to work on April 1 and thought it would be faster if we got our visas in the US. According to our conversation and the calendar, we would be able to go to Chicago sometime the last week of March for our visas. Then we could fly to Quito and wait a couple of days for our Galapagos residency. Perfect, we thought. Wrong, we should have known.

Based on these conversation, the expiration of my visa in Peru and Matt’s Peruvian school happy to have him exit sooner rather than later for cost reasons, we packed up and got out of Peru two weeks after we returned from Ecuador. It was no easy feat, but we got it done and the movers picked up our stuff the day before we flew to the US. Within 2 days of arriving in the US, Matt drove to Madison to get our documents apostilled (certified by the state) and we emailed them off to his new employer. And then we waited.

Oh, we had a good time: hit my family’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party and our friends’ baby shower, visited with family, hung out with friends, shopped for the summer clothes we would need on the island, ate and drank to our hearts’ content. But as the days passed and our visas were no closer to being processed, we abandoned hope that they would get done by the end of March and left for Quito.

We arrived in Quito on March 31 and the wait continued. What the heck was taking so long? To this day, we are not entirely sure why we had so many delays, but after 2 1/2 weeks we finally had them: our visas. Oh and did I mention that we would have to undergo this process annually?

Matt’s teachers had already reported to work and he had been trying to have meetings and guide them from Quito, but he was anxious to get on site before the students arrived on May 4. And I was anxious to move into our new home and get settled. Then we learned that the Galapagos permission needed to be refiled and would take at least another week and a half. Matt raised a fuss (not Matt’s style though it is mine) and we flew to the island on April 26.

But there was a catch. While the law had recently changed and Matt could enter the Galapagos as a “transeúnte” or “transient” and transform that permission to temporary residency, I had to enter as a tourist, which meant that I would have to leave the islands and reenter as a temporary resident. In addition, a tourist can only be on the islands for 90 days in a calendar year, so my time was limited. We flew to the islands with 2 large suitcase and 2 carryons as we had been advised to send our remaining three boxes by air freight, so we had dropped those off a few days before we left.

And then the waiting began. First, the 3 boxes didn’t arrive. For two weeks. Thankfully, I had the foresight to make sure we had a set of sheets and towels in the luggage we took with us. But we had no idea that it would take 2 weeks for the rest of our necessities (like more than 2 pairs of shorts and our snorkeling gear) to arrive. I called daily to check the status and was told that it is “poco complicado” or “a little complicated” because several of the cargo ships that serviced the island sank in the past  6 months, which means that transport space is limited. And our cargo kept getting bumped for more important cargo like food and medicine. One day it actually flew from Quito to Guayaquil (a port town on the mainland), was taken off the plane in Guayaquil and sent back to Quito. But one happy day, our 3 boxes arrived and we promptly went snorkeling.

But on the residency front and our shipment from Peru, nothing. Matt would politely ask about his residency and be given vague responses. Eventually Matt got tired of asking and demanded a specific answer and learned that his paperwork had never been started. What?? This was 5 weeks after we arrived on the island and my time was ticking. Similarly, our shipment was nowhere in sight. First it was delayed leaving Peru, then it was caught up in Guayaquil for 2 weeks and finally, it was stuck in Quito because it was, once again, “poco complicado.” 

Finally, 6 weeks after we arrived on the Galapagos, Matt’s residency was approved. Great, we thought and made my plans to leave the island for Quito so my residency application could be started. Within hours of booking my flight to Quito for Sunday, the movers contacted me to advise that the shipment would arrive, you guessed it, on Sunday.

So here I sit in Quito, in exile for an indeterminate amount of time while my residency is processed. I could be 3 days, it could be 2 weeks, no one really knows. The shipment did arrive at home yesterday, but 3 boxes, including our TV and iMac are missing. So the wait, on both fronts, continues.

They Arrived!

They Arrived!

Latest Adventure: Buying Furniture

Furniture shopping in Milwaukee was a pain due to the endless choices. When we were in the market for something, we could spend multiple days running around to furniture stores and department stores as we looked for the right piece and the best price. Matt and I are extremely decisive and hate shopping, so two weekends was about our limit. Furniture shopping on the Galapagos is the opposite: I ran around for the past month trying to find ANY furniture to buy. On Saturday, we committed to making it happen and finally were (mainly) successful.

Our apartment is a spacious one bedroom with an amazing patio that lends to the airy feel of the place.

It is above the doctor’s office/hyperbaric chamber (the doc who lives on site is our landlord), which is handy for telling people as street names aren’t often used here.

We rented it partially furnished; the main furnishings are included but few household items are. “Furnished” means some  patio furniture, a double bed (we thought it was going to be a king because that is what was in the apartment when we saw it, so I tri-fold the the king sheets we bought; one makes due on an island!), stove, refrigerator and microwave, kitchen table and chairs, and a sofa, wicker chaise and wicker chair. For a month we used action packers as our doorway table. In casual conversations with our landlord, I managed to finagle additional patio furniture and a computer desk (still working on a chair). But the living room furniture was abysmal. Matt referred to the sofa as an airport sofa, but it was actually less comfortable, disconcertingly grimy and unused.

As we have learned, it is best to bite the bullet and buy what we want to make life more comfortable sooner rather than later. We started asking around about furniture shops. “There’s one on Baltra past the bank,” Matt said one night. We headed over. “This?” It was a crowded shop with random items but there was a sofa and table and some dressers. “No, it can’t be this; she said it had a lot of good stuff. It must be closed.” After stalking the street for a few more days, I concluded that dingy shop was the place. I went in and asked if they had additional furniture or whether furniture could be ordered. The woman looked at me like I was crazy. Okay, I guess a furniture shop is anywhere that sells any random piece of furniture.

I continued to run down leads all over town, but never found what we wanted: a sofa, a cabinet for the doorway, some end tables. Or, I might see an okay sofa, but everything is sold as a set, so we couldn’t buy it unless we wanted the settee, two chairs and coffee table too. The coffee tables here are all small and out of proportion to the furniture. And they have glass tops. Matt still has the scar and PTSD from the exploding glass table in our Lima rental, so we were not interested those.

Exploding Table

Exploding Table

We did find one shop that had nice, handmade furniture, but it didn’t have the pieces we needed. We asked the woman whether we could have something specific made (at that time we thought we would have a cabinet made that would double as a doorway table and a bar for our glassware and limited booze supply). She seemed confused and kept pointing us to the items they had – a bookshelf or bedside table. Eventually she said we could bring in a drawing and dimensions, but we got the feeling that at the end of the day we would end up with either a bookshelf or bedside table. Ultimately we found this table at a different store and bought it on the spot.

Action Packer Replacement

Action Packer Replacement

The other option was to go to the “artisanal zone” and have furniture made. We asked questions: where is it, is there a person you recommend, do they have furniture ready to buy? The answers were vague and contradictory: someone would have a name, but we would never get it; someone else said they cater to the tourists but they have some furniture; another person would say the prices are expensive and it takes forever to get something made. We learned that we would need to have something made and then find an upholsterer to make the cushions for it.

Armed with this limited knowledge and the assurance that “any cabbie could take us there” we flagged down a cab late Saturday morning and asked to go to the artisanal area – where the carpenters are. The cabbie seemed to know what we meant and sure enough we headed out of town and turned down the road someone had pointed out to Matt. A few turns later, we stopped. “This guy does good work” our cabbie told us. We were parked on a dirt road in front of a gated lumberyard, complete with a chained, barking dog. What? Where are the shops, the wares, the storefronts? Our cabbie got out with us and called to the woman in the yard who sent out an older man. We chatted, explained that we wanted some furniture and then we all hopped back in the cab to head back to town where we understood the carpenter had a showroom. On the way back we drove through the rest of the “artisan area” – a cluster of probably 15-20 lumberyards and workshops scattered over a several block area, with no finished goods anywhere in sight.

Our cabbie (Angelo) and the carpenter (Rafael) chatted the entire way back to town. Matt and I sat in the back seat, ignored. Wondering what we had gotten ourselves into and sure that Rafael was Angelo’s uncle or other relation, we went with the flow. We ended up a few blocks from our house in front of a nondescript building. Rafael unlocked the gated and let us into the first level of a house where there were some lovely pieces of furniture. A few sofas, bedroom sets, tables etc. Matt and I had already decided on two chairs in addition to a sofa and we liked what Rafael had to offer. Next thing we knew, Angelo was helping us pick out our furniture, asking Rafael about finishes, explaining what we wanted etc. We  crossed a courtyard to the first floor of another house where there were some additional pieces. In the end we chose a sofa, two chairs, a coffee table (still small, but with a made-to-order wood top) and a small end table, which is a concept that does not appear to exist here.

More conversation ensued and we all hopped back into the cab to the upholsterer. We stopped here:

Upholsterer

Upholsterer

Rafael talked to a young guy, a kid really, and then we headed up an unfinished stairway to the work room, mindful of the edge the entire time. Rafael described the cushions we needed and asked what fabrics were available. There were some really hideous ones and a few that could work. To save time we wanted to choose something in stock and not wait for a cargo ship to bring some fabric. Once again, Angelo helped us choose our fabric. Where else does your cabbie pick out fabric with you? We selected one but I told them I didn’t think there was enough for all of the cushions (I’m no seamstress but it was pretty obvious even to me) and eventually the young guy conceded that was the case. More discussion and Angelo inquired whether they had a fabric that would coordinate. Go cabbie Angelo! We found one one from the limited options, placed our order and were assured it will be ready on Wednesday.

On the way to our house, we made arrangements with Angelo to pick us up at 5pm to go pick up the furniture (with the exception of the tables that Rafael needs to make for us). 5 came and went and no Angelo. I called him. ” I’m sorry, I’m busy now.” Okay, on to Plan B.  We walked over to Rafael’s store (thankfully Matt remembered where it is) where he and his wife were waiting. We apologized and explained that Angelo didn’t show up and Rafael says they can call someone for us to move the furniture. We talked more, established what we were taking and what he will make and then awkwardly kept waiting for the financial part of the transaction. Eventually we realized that they were politely waiting for us to do that part, because we had talked with Rafael about prices earlier, so we finally just said “okay, we want to pay do you want to pay here or in the other house” and got the deal done.

Rafael flagged down a cab for us and told the kid that he will be making two trips with our stuff. The kid looked reluctant, but helped load the furniture. Here is Matt taking the first load home.

Matt

Matt

All in all a successful day, even if the furniture looks somewhat like park benches until we get the cushions. Here is hoping they are ready on Wednesday. As an added bonus, our shipment from Peru is supposed to arrive this week, so we can finally get organized and settled.

Day Tripper, Yeah

 

True Love, Booby Love

True Love, Booby Love

Last Saturday we took our first day trip. The trip entailed a 35 minute bus ride across our island (Santa Cruz), a 40 minute boat ride to North Seymour island, a 1 1/2 hour guided walk around North Seymour, a boat ride (during which time we were served a delicious lunch) to a beach for snorkeling that is inaccessible by land on Santa Cruz, a boat ride back to port and a bus ride home. We were picked up at 7:30 am and dropped off around 3:30. While the price seemed steep at $168 per person, we compared notes with several of our fellow travelers and found it was an average price for the tour.

While Matt and I were most excited about the snorkeling part of the trip, the walk around North Seymour proved to be the highlight of the day. We disembarked the Alta Mar and headed out with our English speaking guide, Carlos. Our group had 2 Germans, 2 Norwegians, a Colombian and us. English was the common denominator and everyone was quite friendly and fluent. The other group were older Ecuadorians who stuck to themselves and were led by the Spanish-speaking guide.

Touring North Seymour

Touring North Seymour

First spotted animal: the Sally Lightfoot Crab. We didn’t find it too exciting as Santa Cruz is loaded with them.

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Sally Lightfoot Crab

The birds are the real stars of the show on North Seymour and we were not disappointed. Within a few steps we came upon these Swallow Tailed Gulls.

Carlos urged us along. Gulls are strictly supporting cast around here.

There they were: the Frigatebirds in all their glory.

Roadblock

Frigatebird Roadblock

The adult male Magnificent Frigatebird is essentially indistinguishable from the adult male Great Frigatebird unless you are close enough to see the sheen of the feathers. The Great Frigatebirds have a green sheen and the Magnificents a purple sheen. We saw Great Frigatebirds and the green sheen was gorgeous.

Green Sheen

Green Sheen

A few fun facts about Frigatebirds. They have the largest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird. Per Carlos, if they end up submerged in water, they drown because their wings get too heavy. They look impressive but are sneaky kleptoparasites, meaning they steal their food and nest materials from other birds. One way they steal food is to chase down a bird that recently caught something, shake it by its tail feathers until the bird pukes up its catch and then eat the catch. Lovely, right?

We were incredibly lucky to see the birds in all phases: eggs, babies, adolescents and adults. The birds live in colonies on sparse nests that look more like the birds just plunked themselves down rather than actually did any building. The single males scope out a territory where the posse then congregates and attempts to attract the females that fly overhead. The red throat pouch is their pickup move. It takes about 1/2 hour to inflate with air and then slowly the process of deflation occurs.

Couples are monogamous for the season and produce a single egg that is tended by both birds for a 6-8 week incubation period. Baby birds are allowed to stay in the nest for a year during which time their parents (although eventually just the mother) continue to feed them. As a result, usually a bird produces every other year. The adolescents have either white heads (Magnificents) or white heads with rust colored patches (Greats). The females of both species look essentially the same and are black with white breast and shoulders.

We also saw Blue Footed Boobies on the island. This couple was particularly sweet.

This one was incubating an egg in its nest, which basically is an indentation in the sand with one twig. No McMansions here.

Booby With Egg

Booby With Egg

In addition to the birds, North Seymour is home to many land iguanas. These guys look sleepy, but we saw one chase another out of its territory and they could sprint pretty fast! Interestingly, the iguanas on North Seymour were introduced from Baltra in the 30s. Subsequently, the iguanas became extinct on Baltra when it was used as a US military base. Because they are on nearby North Seymour, they can now be reintroduced to their original habitat on Baltra.

Finally, lest you think we live in paradise, we don’t.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

 

A World Apart and Yet So Similar

My family spent all of our summer vacations, and many Sundays in-between, at a cottage on Lower Nemahbin Lake. Only about 40 minutes away from our home in Milwaukee, or, when we moved, Watertown, it seemed like the middle of nowhere. Probably because it was the middle of nowhere to my mom, who was a city girl through and through and hated to drive on the freeway. Now it is considered “Lake Country” where professionals live and commute to Milwaukee, but back then it was the boondocks – farm fields, one grocery store in town and the lakes. The cottage added to the boondocks feel: no indoor plumbing save a cold-water kitchen sink added in the 70s, mismatched furniture, tired kitchenware, one “parents” bedroom downstairs and a cobwebby upstairs where we kids fought over the ancient 5 beds. But to me, it was paradise. (Saying Goodbye to My Childhood )

Fast forward 30 years to Puerto Ayora, my and Matt’s new home on Isla Santa Cruz on the Galapagos Islands. This truly is the middle of nowhere – 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador – but as the largest town on the islands, it is a curious combination of isolation and tourism. We have lived here slightly over 2 weeks and it is apparent that nothing prepared me better for life on the Galapagos than those summers at The Lake.

Glorious View from Our Balcony

Glorious View from Our Balcony

I’m sticky. All the time. The temperature hasn’t dropped below 80º or the humidity below 70%. At the moment it is 7:23 am and the temperature is 81.1º with 79% humidity. I sit, as usual, with a fine sheen of sweat and frizzed out hair. We do have a shower but it is an island, so you are supposed to try to conserve water. (Yes, I realize that seems backwards, but while there is plenty of salt water around, there isn’t a lot of fresh water). So I try to shower once a day although sometimes I break down and have to take another one. At The Lake there was no shower. My mom would heat up some water and give herself a sponge bath, but the rest of us would just go jump in the lake. Literally.

The plumbing is a bit…primitive. It looks nice – huge shower, double sink, jacuzzi tub, but the apartment has cold water. To be fair, our landlord asked if we wanted him to hook up the hot water (sun heated, I think, without the aid of solar panels) so we do have some hot water in the shower, but it has a mind of its own and with the heat, I prefer a cold shower anyhow. We were told to turn the water off as we soap up to conserve water and not flood the bathroom. We wash dishes, and everything else, with cold water. You can’t flush toilet paper; it goes in the bin in the bathroom. So the bathroom smells like an outhouse. A bonus of our apartment is that the toilet is in its own little compartment, so at least that is the only room that smells like an outhouse. I realize that years of mouth breathing in the outhouse at The Lake come in handy here as well, especially when I take out the trash.

Indoor Outhouse

Indoor Outhouse

I live in shorts, sandals and swimsuits. For the first time since I was 12, I walked down the road (to the beach) in a swimsuit. A modest one, mind you, shorts and a tummy-covering top, but even so, it felt like being a kid again. At night it doesn’t cool off, so there is no need for jeans or sweatshirts like in Wisconsin, but we are told that will change. I’m not convinced and love wearing casual summer attire all the time.

There are plenty of bugs, inside and out. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, so the windows and doors are always open – day and night. We do have screens, but that doesn’t stop the critters (or dirt) from getting inside. The day we arrived, I noticed that our kitchen counters had tons of microscopic ants and spiders everywhere. I was appalled. I obsessively killed them and bought Raid to assist in the genocide. Now I just smoosh them and keep eating. I store food in plastic bags and sometimes in the microwave because I haven’t seen an ant in there yet. Like The Lake, every night at dusk we are driven inside by the mosquitos. Instead of daddy longlegs, our mosquito eaters here are the geckos. I’ve learned to co-exist with them and they have become a part of our nightly entertainment as we cheer them on while they catch the bugs.

Everything is a bit grimy. The water is non-potable and has a sticky feel. We don’t have a washer or dryer so laundry either goes to the full service laundry (no self serve here) or I hand wash and hang dry. When you pay by the pound, your definitions of clean and hand-washable change. But something about the combination of the detergent I bought and the water leaves the hand wash smelling less than fresh, so I am considering in investing in a washing machine though I worry that the dryer at the laundry may be what is killing whatever is stinking up my wash. I sweep, clean the floors and wipe up the counters constantly, but it is a losing battle against the dirt. I remember at The Lake wiping down the plastic tablecloth covered table after dinner and noticing that it was still sticky. That’s what it feels like wiping down the counters here. And the geckos poop everywhere! It looks like bird poop. I am currently trying to figure out how to clean it off my ceiling without it falling all over me.

Poopy Gecko

Poopy Gecko

We have plenty, but not exactly everything we want. Much to my dad’s annoyance, my mom used to pack two cars to the gills (and I swear at times things were tied to the top) to go to The Lake for 2 weeks even though it was less than an hour from our house. Now I understand. Like my mom, I packed my own things. We have 29 boxes, about half of it kitchen/household wares, in transit from Peru. It has been two months since it left my old home and is currently on a cargo ship. I don’t really expect it to arrive to the island for at least another month, but it will feel like Christmas when it does. Our apartment is partially furnished, so we have the basics but the dishes are mismatched and chipped, the sheets don’t fit the bed and we have one small frying pan and two pots. Unlike my mom, who would never buy anything, I broke down and bought two utensils and some dish towels to tide us over.

Kitchenware

Kitchenware

It is the same with food. We can get plenty to eat, but not the variety we are accustomed to (even less than in Cajamarca). My mom used to bring food from Milwaukee – the brands of pasta and sauce she liked among other things- and turned up her nose at the limited selection at the local grocery store. On the other hand, I embrace going to the Saturday morning market (the earlier you arrive, the lower the prices!) and buying from the farmers, but also look forward to next April when we will be back in the US and can eat lamb or Mexican food or countless other ethnic foods that aren’t available here.

Entertainment is both limited and limitless. There are no movie theaters, concerts, plays, or golf courses. Our internet is sporadic. The town has a minuscule library that I have yet to find open. At The Lake, the black and white TV was only turned on for the late news and Johnny Carson (except when Nixon resigned). Days were spent outside: swimming, canoeing, going for walks, goofing off. At night or on rainy days, we played cards and board games or read a book. So it is here. We have a TV, even cable and a DVD player, but we don’t turn it on often. We can go swimming and snorkeling every single day, there are great walks to take to beaches and in the highlands, and we can stroll though town at night and watch the sharks feed alongside the pier or the sea lions sleep. We play cards and games and just relax. Life is slower here and it is fantastic. Some might find it boring or frustrating, but I find it a return to the best part of my childhood: waking up to the sound of the water on the shore.

Paradise

Paradise

Walk the Line: A Visit to the Equator

North and South of the Equator

North and South of the Equator

Who can resist the draw of standing on the equator? Matt and I couldn’t, so one Sunday we set off from Quito to go to Mitad del Mundo, “the Middle of the World.” We intended to take a cheap bus there, but for some reason, despite directions, couldn’t figure out where to catch the bus. So we settled for a $15 cab ride to drive us the 1/2 hour to the site. After some confusion (apparently the theme of our day) we realized that the building we, and a bunch of other people, were hanging around was just the Unasur (Union of South American Nations) building, and was not getting us closer to standing on the equator! We headed over to the ticket booth, which was inexplicable chaos. There were some people waiting, but nothing like a Milwaukee Summerfest crowd. The delay seemed to be because newcomers would conveniently not see the lines and just pop ahead of all of us waiting. Eventually, I had enough of this nonsense and skipped ahead of the skippees to the front of a line.

We were in at last. Our full tickets included the planetarium, and we were urged several times to go directly to the planetarium. We took a quick photo or two on the equator, rushed to the planetarium… and waited in line for about 40 minutes. The show was in Spanish, and while I understood a decent amount of it, a nap seemed more in order. Frankly, apart from the Little and Big Dippers, Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt (but not the whole guy) I can never see the constellations – it’s a bunch of dots and a lot of imagination to me!

We headed to the monument and went to the top to enjoy the views and the sight of the equatorial line running across the premises.

Now here is the rub: the monument is in the wrong spot and we were not actually at the equator! We knew that before entering the complex, but decided to check out the spectacle all the same. And a spectacle it was. The monument also houses a nice museum showcasing the indigenous cultures of Ecuador, and the grounds have tons of souvenir shops, restaurants, a couple other museums and even some entertainment, all devoted to the wrong spot on the map. I find it hilarious that although modern GPS proves the equator to be about 240 meters north of this line, this entire complex pretends that isn’t the case. Not a disclaimer anywhere that you aren’t on the real deal. Apparently the motto is “Why be right if people will pay anyhow?” And indeed, we did!

Walk the Line

Walk the Wrong Line

But then we walked down the road to the real equator, at the Intiñan museum. Privately owned (yes, the incorrect location is owned by the local government), the Intiñan museum was hokey but charming.

We were told to wait for an English tour, but a mountain storm was brewing so we tagged along on a Spanish tour, which we quickly ditched when we realized it was going to take us through little exhibits of the different regions of Ecuador. We just wanted to stand on the equator. And so we did.

Matt didn’t try, but I was determined to balance the egg!

All in all, a fun, silly time. Especially when you consider that the equator is a line and certainly there are other spots in the area on which one could cross it.

We tried for a picture proof, but because our phone GPS is not military grade, this was as close as we could get.

As close as we could get on our GPS

As close as we could get on our GPS

Art and the City

I admit that I had never heard of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most famous painter, before we arrived in Quito.

Self Sculpture

Self Sculpture

Born in poverty in 1919, Guayasamin devoted his artwork to portraying indigenous people, racial discrimination, injustice, violence and the plight of the poor. Powerful stuff. One of his famous quotes is “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a child that had no feet.” The Fundacion Guayasamin site contains the artist’s former home and studio (he died in 1999) with its breathtaking mountain views, a museum called La Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) that Guayasamin designed before his death and, as an added bonus, a small archeological site. It was amazing. An absolute must-see for anyone visiting Quito.

Mural

Mural

The exterior of La Capilla del Hombre is bunker-esque, but inside the space is perfect, just as the artist envisioned.

La Capilla de Hombre

La Capilla de Hombre

The Capilla del Hombre is a tribute to man, in particular the struggles and sufferings of Latin Americans. The museum has an eternal flame on the ground floor that represents a prayer for peace and human rights. Matt snuck some pictures.

Suffering

Suffering

While it was definitely our favorite museum, we also enjoyed other museums and artwork around the city.

Wheelie Art:

The National Museum of Quito is housed in a complex that includes theaters and a few other museums and has some cool outdoor art. Pictures are forbidden in the museum (this time Matt complied) but the works ranged from pre-Colombian pottery and the like to religious art from the Colonial era.

In the same complex is a modern art museum and we stopped in and enjoyed some work of Francisco Urquiza. I have no idea who he is but his paintings were really cool!

Another museum visit, to the Casa De Alabado, was also well worth it although we again have no pictures to share. It had pre-Colombian artwork of the indigenous cultures. Finally, we enjoyed the Museum of Contemporary Art. Housed high on a hill overlooking the city in an old military hospital, the museum has rotating exhibits. We saw three: a student photography exhibit, an Italian exhibit of art from the 1960s (psychedelic, baby!) and Art in Orbit, devoted to outer space. Art in Orbit included a room at the end, complete with bean bag chairs, where one could watch various sci-fi movies.

I loved the room of gowns by Italian designer Fausto Sarli. Che Bello!

The 60s art was dizzying with its play on dimensions. This piece was awesome and photographed pretty well. It was 2D but the pixie stick lines looked real!

2 Dimensional, but looks 3D!

2 Dimensional, but looks 3D!

And last, but not least, if you can’t make art, join it!

Photo Bomb

Photo Bomb