The most incredible travel experience...
Many Warm Greetings from Cuenca!
Indeed I have returned to Cuenca after an absolutely incredible week in the Galapagos Islands. As a result of having minimal communication mediums while on the Islands, I was unfortunately unable to update my blog. I ask in advance for you to bear with me as the following account of my experience will be lengthy but nonetheless chronologically detailed. When I last left you, I shared with you the first days of our spring break. The remainder of Monday was spent first on a speed boat that transported our group from the island of Santa Cruz to the island of Isabela, the largest island of the Galapagos. As you my recall, Santa Cruz and Isabela are the only two inhabited islands of the islands. Santa Cruz has a population if 14,000 and Isabela with about 1,000 residents. The 2-hour ride from Santa Cruz to Isabela at 60 MPH, although beautiful was rough and for some, induced motion sickness. We arrived on Isabela at 4:00 PM, packed into the backs of pick up trucks to our hostal, the Belleza Azul, owned by a Swiss woman who moved to the Galapagos after visiting in the early 1990’s. Dora was a wonderful host. Each student shared a cabin with two other students directly located on the beach. The remainder of the evening was spent walking along the beach, swinging in hammocks located near each cabin, and eating a wonderful home-cooked meal prepared by our host. One was able to see plenty of sea lions, pelicans, crabs, and iguanas from our cabins, not to mention stars for the first time since arriving in Ecuador! The following morning we rose early, jumped into the backs of pick up trucks to go to the Sierra Negra area of Isabela Island. Sierra Negra is a concave volcano that last erupted on October, 22 2005. It is this eruption that has caused what is now the second-largest crater in the world. On horse back, for an hour and a half, we traveled to this crater. It was almost surreal to arrive at the site of this crater, it was almost as though one just comes upon it and suddenly it feels as though you on the moon. We got off our horses and took a two hour hike in and around in this crater. Although the land itself is relatively absent of life it was uniquely beautiful and truly felt galactic…I had to step back and really question, “where am I?”, “am I really in the Galapagos?” The islands consists entirely of volcanic soil and due to global warming, the land mass of the islands is expanding each year. It is predicted that in approximately 25 years, 8-10 new islands will be created as the tide continually recedes. Additionally, the Islands also continue to make movement inland, so who know perhaps in 1 million years the Islands will no longer be such…
Following this hike (which ended up being very wet, it down poured the entire way back to our horses) we returned to our horses and rode back to the arrival site, returned to our hostel and spent the remainder of our day on the beach basking in the sun. We had, for the most part, really agreeable weather. I am the proud holder of a fully bronzed body…well slightly sun burned as well
I should share that we learned so much about the ecology of the Galapagos Islands…I experienced occasional guilt knowing that it is because of the activity of my species that is slowly causing the demise of the purity of the Galapagos. It is incredible how challenged one is to always remain HYPER-AWARE of their role of their respective eco-system and the cultural, environmental, linguistic, and consumeristic relativism that one must continually try to grasp especially while traveling and exploring their world. It has really been a challenge and has really tested what I once valued as my reality. A small example of such would be the learning of the eradication of cats and dogs on the Islands of the Galapagos. It is because of introduced species such as livestock, domesticated animals, and rodents that has threatened the species of many precious life forces isolated only to the Galapagos…such introduced species are largely of European descent. I don’t know what I am trying to fully articulate but ultimately and simply, I find myself often frustrated and saddened in my position as a privileged White, American, English-speaking female…I am inadvertently/advertently perpetuating and or least promoting so many behaviors that are causing the demise of so much life, sustainability, and environmental purity… these thoughts are of course not concentrated to my experience in the Galapagos…but nonetheless a meaningless a digression…anyway, returning to Wednesday of last week.
The morning sun of the Galapagos is undoubtedly the most intensely warm, this never stopped us from rising early and beginning our excursions so that we can make the most of each day. Wednesday morning we made a brief stop at a flamingo conservation area, we unfortunately only saw a few flamingos---very cool even still. We then went to an amphibian and reptile conservation area reserved for primarily marine and land iguanas and turtles. I have never had the pleasure of seeing such large in my life-really beautiful creatures! We also entered the confines of the Giant Turtle conservationary. The Galapagos was once home to 14 species of turtles however, that number has since dwindled to 11. The island of Isabela is especially rich with turtles however it is actually from the island of Pinta that the majority of the turtles of these conservationary originate. It was absolutely amazing, baby turtles as young as a few days old to seeing turtles as old 75 years old have created homes here. I learned so much about these really incredible creatures. Turtles can go for up to two years without consuming food and water, sex of turtles is not determined until 25 years of age, and most male turtles do not reach their sexual peek until the age of 70. Female turtles are significantly smaller than males and often sustain injuries during the reproductive process because males mount the female turtles in a way that can damage their lungs or even break their shells. Shells consist of keratin and it is actually common but not necessarily fatal for turtles to roll over onto to their backs. Depending upon their size, some turtles can take as long as 6 hours to flip back over on their bellies. Following this tour of this complex, we went to the site of “The Wall of Tears”. “The Wall of Tears” was constructed in the 1950’s by Ecuadorian prisoners convicted of, what was considered, the most severe crimes against the state. Before I explain further, the site of “The Wall of Tears” was initially a large prison complex constructed by the US government during WWII to harbor prisoners of war. Their goal in constructing this prison was to achieve complete isolation from the outside further preventing escape by the prisoners. Following WWII, the United States government abandoned Isabela Island and turned it over to the Ecuadorian government. The Ecuadorian government then utilized it to hold, as previously stated, individuals who were considered the worst criminals. These individuals were demanded to create a wall as a method of diversion. Although the prison compound no longer exists, the wall does. Although the wall itself is not anything spectacular, the history behind it is certainly interesting. We returned to our hostel for lunch and then took a few hours of our afternoon to snorkel. Thursday marked our dreaded return to Santa Cruz Island, dreaded only due to the boat ride that proved to be not-so-fun. Fortunately, I had the enjoyment of riding in the front outside of the actual seating quarters which at least made the 2 hour ride more interesting and certainly more aesthetically pleasing. We arrived back in Santa Cruz, really pumped for our afternoon. “Our”…referring to my friend Kelsey and I who were preparing for scuba diving! We went to the scuba shop to try on gear and were instructed to return to an hour later for our departure. If only we knew what lied ahead of us. To condense this story, the guides neglected to pack our wet suits and did not provide us with adequate air in our tanks. Although I attempted to dive, I only reached fifty feet because Kelsey lost her weight belt and had to re-surface. So ultimately although we did not reach the desired depth, I suppose I can say that I indeed dive in the Galapagos unfortunately just not with results I initially desired. Thursday we held a farewell cocktail to mark our departure on Friday. We did however, have one last activity Friday morning which touring the largest lava tunnel in the world. Lava tunnels are caused by layers of dried lava that form a hollow center. This particular hollow center which formed this tunnel was approximately 50 feet high and a mile and half long…and very, very dark. It was very cool to not merely see this natural phenomenon but actually walk through it, however difficult it was. We departed for Guayaquil around 1:00 PM and arrived at three.
The only unfortunate news to report is the illness of a good friend of mine, Jenn. Jenn began to feel ill immediately prior to boarding the plane for Guayaquil on Saturday. During the 2-hour flight Jenn vomited three times and proceeded to do following the flight. Upon arriving and checking into our hotel our program coordinators contacted a doctor and she was administered two shots, one to prevent further vomiting and the other to diminish the pain, both were only minimally helpful and her symptoms did not subside. Saturday morning arrived and she did not feel well enough to even get out of bed, she was flown back to Cuenca from Guayquil and was immediately admitted into the hospital with suspicion of meningitis. She was tested on Sunday for meningitis and test results did conclude that she had indeed contracted meningitis however; the strain of her meningitis was not going to be determined until late yesterday. In the event that it is viral our entire group would be asked to take medication to prevent from contracting it. It is very scary, especially because she is not allowed visitors. I am hopeful however, as our program coordinators and her doctors seem confident that she should begin her recovery process soon. While Jenn was left to fight off illness, the remainder of the group took a guided walking tour of Guayaquil. I find that the more time I spend in Guayaquil, the more I really enjoy it. Anyway, we spent time in various cities parks (all really lovely and well kept) and also took a walk along the River Guayaquil, visited the Botanical Gardens, toured an Ecuadorian Navy ship…all very cool elements of our tour. One especially notable incident that occurred while on our tour was a stop a city park home, like most grassy areas in Guayaquil, to a species of green land iguanas. Our guide compared their population to the population of squirrels in the Midwest. (Our guide in the Midwest of the US for sometime) The iguanas were friendlier than the squirrels with which we share our land. The guided instructed me to sit and I was given a piece of banana. Within seconds I was surrounded by these beautiful yet HUGE iguanas! I had iguanas perched on my lap. When I extended my hand however, to feed one, it accidentally bit down on not only the banana but also my left ring finger. Although iguanas do not have teeth, the edges of the mouths are serrated, causing my finger to bleed for a good 30 minutes…I finally asked to stop to grab a band aid…it was surprisingly really painful actually but nonetheless added to the adventure!
After the tour was complete our group departed however I, along with two other students from my group stayed behind to spend more time in Guayaquil which ended up being a great decision. We had a really nice lunch near the river, with a really neat view of the river walk, saw a movie at the IMAX theatre, and ended up eating at this really quaint little café that served us not only a great meal but also popped in the movie “The Departed” in English. It was an awesome movie…so random, but so neat.
We woke up the following early to catch a bus to the city of Villamil. Villamil is a pretty downtrodden, poor community but still was home to a really beautiful beach jam packed with locals. I swear there had to have been thousands of people concentrated to this relatively small beach. Because the warmest time of the day is morning it was perfect. We took the two-hour bus ride, got to Villamil around 9:30 and stayed until about noon and left to return to Guayaquil. It was great! I am developing a fondness for bus travel and its inexpensive nature; I really appreciate public transportation, especially while living in South America.
We returned to Guayaquil to get onto another bus that then took us to Cuenca. Although the bus ride was long and slightly uncomfortable, it is always a pleasure to travel and have time to just think, dream, and ponder. We arrived back into Cuenca around 8:30-9:00ish. It was really nice to see my family again. I realized that I missed them and I value Cuenca in a way that only comes after growing acclimated…after living in a location long enough to be able to recognize a community’s strengths and beauties, while also recognizing your less-than-satisfying observations. Cuenca is indeed my home at least for now and it was not until my return last night that I was able to embrace that.
Classes began today and I think I will most certainly enjoy them despite their intensity. I am taking three courses: Biology/Ecology/Environmental Science of the Andes, Latin American History, and Spanish Composition and Conversation. This weekend we are spending time in the Las Cajas National Forest just twenty minutes from Cuenca. I am looking forward to it as it will be a camping outing!
I apologize for the absurd length of this entry however, I hope you an understand that these accounts and disclosures are also for me and my reflections…I just hope you are able to gain a bit of knowledge, perhaps cultural sensitivity, and insight into living and studying abroad. Thank you.