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…

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.



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.


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!