Entry #071: Sunday, March 30, 2014 (San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands)

Hola from the Galapagos! Before you answer, yes, I have already seen a tortoise. (I've also seen a bunch of finches.) Now, my entries here are going to be a little odd, timing-wise. There is absolutely no internet connection at the place I'm staying/working at, so I can only get online in town, 10km away. Hence, there will be even less rhyme or reason to the posting schedule than normal. And also hence, the dates on these will be a little out of sync with when I post them. But I suppose if you read them even one day after I post them, it won't make a damn bit of difference, so why am I even going on about it? Let's talk about the Galapagos.

So, back in Guayaquil, I got up at about 7am to make sure I was all ready for the day. I got my stuff together, and then took out my phone. I had read online that the hotel, when asked to call a taxi, would call a private car instead (which didn't use a meter, and thus had a higher overall fare). To prepare for this, I had gotten the phone numbers for a few different radio taxis. However, when I tried to call them, my phone wouldn't let me, saying that my account/SIM card was invalid or suspended or some such nonsense, basically solidifying it as possibly the worst investment made on the trip. So, I went downstairs to ask the receptionist to call the number, but they were unable to as well, since landline phones can't call mobile numbers for some reason. In any case, they said they could call the private car company, and the trip to the airport would cost me $5, which is probably $2 or more than I'd be paying otherwise, but at the end of the day, we're literally talking $2, so I just decided to grin and bear it. To their credit, the hotel staff made sure to cook breakfast for me before I left, so I suppose I shouldn't judge.

My plane was set to leave at 9:30, and I was told that if I left at 8am, I'd be fine. The car arrived at 8:05, which I suppose is when the whole mess began. I don't think that hour-point-five could have gone...well, let me just give the play by play:
1. At 8:25, the car arrived at the airport. I paid, got inside, and stepped into the check-in line.
2. At 8:32, a saintly tour guide lady asked me if I was going to the Galapagos, and when I said I was, told me I needed to sign in with their registry service, and get my bags inspected, before I could check-in, else I'd just be wasting my time in this line (well, more-so). I thanked the lady sincerely, because there was no indication anywhere that you had to do this, and she helped me even though I was not in her tour group.
3. At 8:33, I got in the lengthy line for the Galapagos registry service.
4. At 9:05, I finally got to the front of the line, where I gave them my passport and a $10 fee. The lady entered the information into her computer, and then put a form into the printer...except that the printer wasn't working. She tried turning it on and off, but to no avail. She tried asking her compatriots, who tried unplugging and re-plugging all the different cables, but again without success. I suggested using the second printer in the office, but the cable just didn't reach. And then, suddenly, the printer worked, and I was given my partially-filled out entry form. I then had my bags scanned for organic materials, after which a plastic zip tie was laced through the zippers.
5. At 9:10, I got into the check-in line again, which was thankfully nearly empty at this point (pretty much there was one flight being dealt with - mine - and I think most people had checked in at this point). So I sped through, but when I got to the counter, the guy told me he couldn't give me the ticket, because I had paid Ecuadorian prices when I bought it. And now I'd have to go the sales counter to pay the difference. Now, I should note (and this is setting aside the absolute BS of foreigner pricing schemes), I had just gotten a ticket online, and I had done so using my American passport information. The fact that I was charged an incorrect price was their mistake, and they should have had to deal with the difference. However, I didn't really have the time to argue this, so I acquiesced.
6. At 9:15, I got to the sales counter, where I told them what was what, and they told me that I was going to have to pay an additional $167. (At this point, I wonder if it would have been cheaper for me to have made the purchase through the agency that I had rejected because I found my price.) Begrudgingly, I gave them my credit card, and eventually got a receipt in return.
7. At 9:20, I got back to the counter at check-in, where the guy entered in the new information, took my luggage, and gave me my boarding pass. I began rushing to my gate, and thankfully managed to make my way through a very lax security check-point.
8. At 9:26 - four minutes before my plane was scheduled to depart - I finally arrived at the gate, more than a bit exasperated. However, it turned out everything was alright after all, because they had delayed the flight, and were only now starting to board.

I did get one final scare in this whole ordeal when the representative from the check-in counter approached me when I was in the boarding line. I was concerned something else had gone on that would delay/prevent me from getting on the plane, but thankfully it was just that he needed to take the payment receipt from me. I boarded the plane before anything else could stop me, and was relieved to finally sit down and buckle the seat belt. All in all, while everything worked out in the end, I can definitely say that the whole experience was much too close for comfort. It's also a perfect demonstration of why I like getting to airports well before I need to. Better to chill out and read a book than constantly be looking at the clock and sweating figurative bullets. Anyway, there's nothing too special to talk about on the plane ride itself. It was a plane ride, maybe an hour and forty-five minutes long, and little of note happened. When your on-board entertainment is a C-Tier Quebecois hidden camera prank show, you know you're not trying to be a memorable flight experience. But whatever, before long, we landed on Isla San Cristobal.

At the airport terminal (which was a temporary terminal made up of walls that nearly fell down when any unsuspecting visitors happened to lean on them), I was one of the first people to get into the entry line (a benefit of being in the front of the plane, I suppose), and this proved quite useful, as the line got long, fast. The purpose of it was pretty straightforward: you'd given the person at the desk the fully filled-out form you were given at the other airport, for...the right to purchase a ticket to the Galapagos? Huh. Indeed, in addition to the $10 you needed to buy the form, you needed to pay an additional $100 just to come in. I could just imagine the ringing sounds of one of those ol' timey bookkeepers with the plastic visors clearing a line on their adding machines with every counter I stood at on this day. I can understand the reasoning - having costs associated with tourism will not only increase money coming into the local economy (which really needs it), but helps weed out some folks, thus mitigating unsustainable tourism. It's just my wallet that doesn't understand.

Anyway, after getting my luggage, I waited in front of the terminal for a while, not having found anyone holding a sign with my name on it. I stayed there for maybe ten minutes when a guy came out from a taxi, looked around, looked at his phone, looked around again, and then just stood there. We crossed glances at one point, in one of those "that-person-is-clearly-looking-for-someone-who-they-don't-recognize-maybe-it's-the-person-I'm-after" types of ways. So, we got a little bit closer, and the guy asked me my name. When I confirmed that I was, in fact, Andrew Schnorr, he smiled and greeted me. This was Carlos, the brother of Jose, the owner and facilitator of Hacienda Esperanza. We then got into a taxi, and after a short trip to a mini-mart in the town (to buy supplies for the Hacienda; Carlos specifically told me not to buy my own goods for some reason), we got into a different taxi and made our way the 10km or so to the Hacienda Esperanza.

I feel I should discuss the place a little bit, since I'm not sure if I've ever really described it to a greater depth than mentioning its name and noting that it is in the Galapagos. That is true, to be certain, but there's a bit more to it than that. So, I will be in the Hacienda Esperanza for two weeks, doing some volunteer work. This is a place that I found when researching volunteer work that can be done in South America (this was back during my Southeast Asia cycling trip, you may remember). I had started with, maybe, forty or so options, and then kept whittling it down until I reached about five, spanning a variety of locations and activities. The Hacienda Esperanza's offering is that you're on the Island of San Cristobal (the second most populated island in the Galapagos), and you are doing restoration work. The government of the Galapagos has granted a couple different pieces of land to the Hacienda, with the intention of it being restored and maintained. There seem to be four major elements to this work, at least insofar as the literature explains: First, the removal of invasive plant species, specifically blackberry (or mora) bushes and guava trees. Second, the reintroduction of native and endemic plant species. Third, the assistance towards the local famers of the area with their sustainable agriculture. And fourth and finally, the maintenance of pathways and such in the area for the locals to use. As an unwritten fifth job (which I think is more of just a fun perk), you get to feed the giant tortoises that are on the work grounds). The workers at the Hacienda also perform other tasks that the volunteers don't participate in, such as the hunting of goats (which eat the plants the tortoises survive on) with dogs, and probably some other stuff I haven't learned of yet. In any case, why did I choose this place as opposed to one of the other four possibilities? More than anything, I think it was just an excuse to get onto the Galapagos Islands. If I hadn't done this, chances are I probably wouldn't have been able to justify the prices to go onto the Galapagos, but this gives me a reason for coming here (though admittedly, my experience of the many islands will be limited to San Cristobal, as I won't be taking a week afterward to explore the other, possibly more frequented, spots). So that's that.

As for Hacienda itself, it's a very simple place. There's a tin roof, you can constantly hear the cycling of the electrical generator (not to mention see it in the lights in the evening), and despite the fact that it implies on their website that there's Internet access inside, it seemed pretty obvious to me that this was a dead zone. And lo, it was. Not only was there not any semblance of WiFi at the house, but there wasn't any phone signal whatsoever, so even if I had gotten a SIM card that had internet access, it would have been useless here. (I'm not sure if that made me feel better or worse about my SIM card purchase.) There's a number of animals here, including chicken, geese, dogs, a cat, and at least one horse and donkey. There were also, at the moment I arrived, four other volunteers. (Apparently, Esperanza was the happenin' hacienda. The other one on San Cristobal, Hacienda Tranquila, which I had also considered until I saw that they wanted an application fee, apparently only has one volunteer at the moment.) Only two of the volunteers were around when I arrived, though; the other two had gone out to a distant beach. The two that were there were a Canadian couple from Montreal. They were apparently in the middle of their own two week stint - in fact, from what I could gather, everyone does a two-week stint here - and seemed nice. They were just about to have lunch - chicken with spaghetti and rice - and then they'd be going to town, which they invited me to. I hadn't even gotten accustomed to the area yet, but I figured that I wouldn't have much time to explore town, so I figured I'd take whatever opportunity I could.

We got a taxi to the town, which cost $5, of which I donated $2. (This makes me well aware that I should resist all temptation to visit town by myself for whatever reason - I think the most likely would be laundry - because I'd have to tack on $10 to the cost of any of my activities.) Anyway, we walked down the coastline, where I saw my first batch of sea lions (lobos marinos, or "sea wolves", in Spanish), just yukking it up on the shore. We continued along until we got to this place called, for reasons I can't fathom, the Interpretation Center. Despite San Cristobal having half the population of Santa Cruz, the small town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is actually the capital city of the Galapagos, and this center is more-or-less the foremost museum on the history of the Galapagos, both ecologically and with relation to humans. The three of us spent about an hour walking through, and it was admittedly pretty interesting, particularly when covering the storied history of people trying to turn the Galapagos into a profitable venture locale (it never worked). Once we were finished with that, we headed to the nearby beach of Playa Mann, a fairly touristy beach well known for sea lions swimming with people (although that only happened in a couple instances this particular day). I hadn't brought a swimsuit or towel, having unpacked neither, so I just sat on the beach, speaking with the Canadians (their names were Ben and Sarah, for what it's worth). I also got an ice cream cone for a dollar; absolutely not worth the price on an absolute value, but probably still better than the shave ice Ben got which not only looked terrible, but according to him tasted abysmal (possibly due to the ice not being made from filtered water?).

We stayed at the beach for what seemed like maybe two hours, and then started walking back into town, passing more sea lions on the way. In fact, at one point, there was a sea lion in particular that we thought was pretty funny for being a diva with the camera, but the mood soured a bit when he basically tried his charms (if any) on three different unwilling females in succession. So an exhibitionist molester, basically. Ben was hungry, so we stopped in a pizza place, where he bought a massively overpriced personal pizza (though I've found high prices are somewhat of a thing in the Galapagos), and then we continued along to go to the nearby supermarket, which definitely had a better selection of goods than any of the mini-marts. I got myself a number of things: apples, a couple avocado-like things, cereal, crackers, cookies, and some non-fat milk (as the normal milk used is, like, 12% fat, and I don't even like 2%). I found it very convenient how everything had its price printed on the packaging. Not as nice, though, was the fact that the actual prices for everything were higher than the printed prices. Some of the amounts were trivial enough to pass off - my box of cereal cost $5.88 instead of $5.79 - but some were fairly flagrant. For example, I was originally going to get a few little packets of these M&M rip-offs, but instead of costing a somewhat believable $0.30 a pack, they were $0.50 a pack. That's a 66% hike, people! Needless to say, I shelved those, and still ended up paying over $20 for what was easily not $20 worth of stuff.

Afterward, we did a quick look around for an Internet cafe, but the one that the Canadians wanted to use was closed down, so we just decided to catch a taxi back to the Hacienda. We arrived around 7pm, and I met the other two people. One was a girl from Luxemburg, who was leaving the next day, and the other was from Sweden. I think the latter was a bit quiet, but the Luxemburg girl seemed like she didn't care for me all that much, which, alongside the fact that mostly everyone seemed tired, seemed to make for awkward conversation. This wasn't assisted at all by our dinner, which was only served to the three of us that were out (as the other two had had an early dinner). The only real discussion that occurred was going out to get drunk for the Luxemburg girl's last night. But before they'd be heading out, everyone decided to take naps. I used this time to unpack my stuff, get situation in my room, and figure out if I wanted to go. I didn't necessarily want to seem unsociable on my first day at the place, and I didn't have anything against this girl, but at the same time I didn't have any desire to go out and watch a bunch of, let's admit it, strangers get drunk in celebration of somebody I didn't know. Also, I was feeling a little tired. (I only gave the latter point as my reasoning.) So they all went out, whereas I took a shower (and marveled at the number and, occasionally, size of the spiders in the bathroom), went to my room, started doing a little bit of writing, but soon got tuckered out and went to bed.

All told, I didn't sleep too badly. It wasn't really that hot and my mattress was comfortable, so that was good. The only exception was mosquitos. I haven't seen any mosquitoes since arriving on the island, and I think I've only one bite in that time, but that bite was during the night, and it was on a really inconvenient place: my thumb. But worse than that, several times during the night, I was woken up by the high-pitched whining of a mosquito flying by my ears. And each time I'd slap the side of my head in a vain attempt to kill it. Eventually, I just put my sheet over my head, and that seemed to take care of the issue for the most part.

I ended up waking up at about 7am or 7:30, which is probably for the best, because I should get used to going to bed at 10pm and waking up at 5:30, both of which sound like god-awful propositions, and continued my writing, leaving my room door open to make clear that I was "working on my journal" (which I noted many times as being my project during my time here), without being a hermit. At about 9am, Jose came in and asked if I wanted some breakfast. Being the first person to accept the offer, I had the privilege of being the only person to get eggs for the day (whereas everyone else got strangely-cut cocktail weenies). As others started waking up, I found out that the earliest anyone left from the bar was at 2:15 in the morning, and some people left so late that there were no taxis coming back into the hacienda, so they had to sleep in town. And everyone, it seemed, was feeling a little hung over. I, meanwhile, felt just fine. However, it seemed like nobody had any real desire to go out and do things today, and the really high temperature didn't help.

I eventually made my way out to the hammocks, and saw some of the hacienda’s dogs, which had finally come back from their hunting trip (they were injured, probably from running too much). The hammocks were really nice, in a prime spot under a tree, where a combination of shade and breeze made the temperature downright pleasant. Anyway, I stayed out there for a while, and then went back in to do some more writing. (I can tell you now, it was a bit of a lax day.) At about 11am, a car came in, and I figured it was the couple that we were informed would be joining us. What I hadn't expected is that the couple would be three people. Actually, as it turned out, in addition to the Finnish couple who were planning on spending "at least one week" here, there was one fairly unexpected addition. In fact, it was unexpected for the addition himself. He was a guy named Bronn (probably not how you spell it, but that's what I'll go with) from the Netherlands, and he was on an eight-week big Ecuadorian tour all planned out by an agency. He was originally going to be volunteering in some other place, but was just told by his agency on Friday that the place couldn't accept his help anymore (something about them not allowing tourists to work), and so now he was going to be working at the Hacienda Esperanza. Additionally, he would have to cook his own food while he was here. I could see why he'd be a bit frustrated at the situation. He was also saying he'd be here either one or two weeks, depending on how things turned out.

As a side note, all this talk of variable one- or two-week stays made me realize that if I really wanted to, I could peace out after a week and just do some more touristy stuff in the Galapagos, maybe visit another island or something. It would likely add some price onto my current budget, but if that's what I want to do, it's my choice. I'll just play it by ear, though. The thing is, I definitely think I have travel senior-itis at this point, so even if I did do all that, I'm not sure if I'd get out of it what someone fresh off the boat would get. So we'll see. We'll see.

Anyway, we were just chatting for a while, until it was time to have lunch, which was actually fish that was caught the day prior. We then went about doing our own things. Some people reading, some people resting, Bronn cooking his meal, etc. I spent some time chatting with the Finnish folks, and then later went out to play with the dogs. It was at that point that Jose's young son came out and started talking to me. While he's a nice, albeit mischievous, child, I was a little bit worried that he might see me as the one, in the sense of having a go-to gringo. Apparently, all the kids in the neighborhood loved the Luxemburg girl, and while I can handle kids...to a degree...when I sign up to work with them (say, at an orphanage), it's not what I signed up for here, so I didn't really want him tagging around me the whole time, asking me questions in Spanish that I could only half-understand. In any case, I eventually went back in and spoke with Bronn, who was eating his meal. He seemed to be a fairly easy-going guy; I liked him. He seemed a little disappointed when I relayed the information given to me that there was nothing in the area that didn't require a two-hour walk or taxi ride to get to. But when he invited me on a walk while the sun was covered by clouds, I accepted.

After he was finished washing his dishes, I put on some sunscreen and we headed out. Almost immediately, the sun broke through the clouds, and the temperature increased by at least 10 degrees. We walked out of the hacienda, and initially made our way up to a viewpoint. It was a fairly nice view, all told, but I could guess by both the sporadic trees blocking points of the view and by the dilapidated observation building that it may have been better about ten or twenty years ago. We then walked back down and went onto the main road, where we continued for a while. I never recalled seeing anything interesting on the way between town and the Hacienda, so I suggested we make a turn onto a mysterious dirt road. As it turned out, the road just took us into a private property, so we turned and headed back to the Hacienda. Once I arrived, I got back to my writing, and continued that until one of the Finns (whose name I'm not writing because at the moment I cannot seem to keep it in my head; it's one of those weird ones) invited me to go out to the local sports area to watch a soccer game, which is apparently something the community does every Sunday. I figured I had no reason not to, so I went out with the Finns, Bronn, and Ben. The soccer field was at the intersection of where the driveway of the Hacienda and where the climb up to the viewpoint was, so pretty close. There were a couple beautiful horses hitched up, some kids playing on the ground, people eating and playing cards in the back, and a concrete soccer field, which seemed like a painful idea. It also had a volleyball net in the middle, which proved quite relevant, as they ended up playing not soccer, but "Ecua-Volley", or Ecuadorian Volleyball, the only difference from regular volleyball seeming to be that there were only three people per team, and everyone was Ecuadorian. It was fairly fun to watch, and Ben and I chatted while some of the others went up to the viewpoint. Eventually they came down and joined us. Ben told me about a book idea he was considering writing, which would basically be a fan-fiction side story in Middle Earth. We continued talking for a while, and somehow the conversation veered into funny politics, which I didn't mind too much, but then veered even further into conspiracy theory style stuff. At this point, I kinda turned off, but tried to be polite and chime in every now and then, if only to veer the conversation out of any topic that could begin with "If you look at the evidence..." I successfully managed to do this when the Finnish guy noted he was an anarchist, and I mentioned how I'm a meritocratic autocracist, and both systems require small societies, so how would you manage inter-society infrastructure, and that brought things more to a level where I could at least be invested.

We eventually walked back to the Hacienda to prepare for dinner, before which I did a little more writing. I then decided to do a little reading, which I figured I could do in the dining/living room, seeing as I didn't need to be in my own little space for that. (Also, no plug needed.) I continued reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and I guess the big mystery now will be if I finish it off before the end of this trip or not) until dinner time, when we had a particularly good meal of chicken and chili (and rice). The dinner conversation was much more robust this night than it was the night before, mainly because I think there were enough fresh faces that I didn't feel as though I were, say, intruding by speaking. Mostly everyone participated, though there was a bit of anecdotal back-and-forth between myself and the Finnish guy, who I am seemingly getting along with, even though we're opposite in many ways. Like, I've come up with a bit of a theory that every single traveler is an ass in his or her own unique way. Me, at this point, I'm the jaded traveler whose done too much to be impressed (that's my own assessment; ask someone else and my vice could be totally different). Him, he's vegan, in that...well, he's not a preachy vegan (like, he hasn't chastised us for our habits), but he is definitely a self-congratulatory vegan. Even though he doesn't explicitly say it, his vocabulary choices make it seem clear that he feels superior via all of his no animal product, anarchist, screw-the-system beliefs. He's also a bit "judgmental", which I put in quotes because it's not towards individuals, but towards concepts. Like, when I mentioned My Disgusting Quest™, he mentioned how he found the prevalence of McDonald's in different countries quote-unquote "pathetic", whereas I may detest actually eating at McDonald's, but I find their presence or absence in different countries to be neither sad nor great, but simply sociologically/anthropologically fascinating. So thank God neither of us appears to be argumentative, 'cause I wouldn't want to deal with that.

After dinner, I washed dishes, even though I had washed them the night before. It's not quite as satisfying washing dishes when there's no warm water, but I still don't mind it. Funnily enough, the Finnish guy was saying how he liked washing dishes, and the girls in the dining room next door were laughing at the fact that two men were arguing to wash dishes. In any case, the place pretty much shut down after that. I took a shower, then went to my room, wrote a bit more, and went to bed at the sickeningly early 10pm.

So that's where I am at right now. (Like I said in the beginning of this entry, timing is a little weird; I've actually done more since then, but I don't have time to both write about it and go to town to post it. So we'll go with what we got.)

Don't worry; we have plenty of time to talk about what my activities here are.

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