Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trying not to tempt fish and faith.

When shopping around for Galpagos tours, the guide books and message boards are full of things to watch out for: get a written itinerary; make sure you have a Grade II guide; and of course, you get what you pay for, especially when it comes to food and accommodations. So far we felt like we’d gotten value for money – after we switched guides that is. However, others in the group weren’t as pleased when it came to the food. And by others, I mean the anti-social lads. While vegetarian Stacey didn’t complain about her food, the three lads were constantly asking for more. Not only did they prefer each other’s company to ours, they preferred to eat, a lot. Over breakfast, we forced the three to give us their names. They were Maier, Gilad and A… um… I’ve forgotten, so let’s call him Aaron. The three young guys from Israel were not impressed with the portions at any of either the restaurant from yesterday or today’s breakfast place and were quite vocal about it. Perhaps the growing boys still had growing boys appetites because the rest of us were quite satisfied with the amount of food. Oh well, you can’t please them all. Although it was early, we were running late. So we quickly ate and then Marlon helped us find an open shop where we could buy disposable waterproof cameras to document today’s fun in the water. But first it was time for fun on the land.

We all piled into a bunch of waiting pick up trucks loaded up with mountain bikes and headed up into the highlands. The trucks went up and up and soon we were in the clouds. Our first stop was supposed to be a crater lake but the clouds were so thick that we had to continue on. Somewhere just above the clouds at the top of what seemed like a mountain. We got out and were each kitted out with a mountain bike and a helmet.

“Now we go down the mountain,” Marlon let us know. But first we all tested out our bikes. Good thing because I had no brakes. Better to find that out now than while hurtling down the mountain going a bazillion miles per hour. There were a couple of bike mechanics in the trucks who quickly adjusted and tightened whatever it was that needed to be tightened and adjusted. And then we were off. The road was muddy and unpaved and for the first 45 minutes we went downhill – fast. Even my newly tightened brakes could only take the speed down from to terrifying to scary. I could feel the mud splashing all the way up my butt and back. This was not going to be pretty. Then the road narrowed and got rougher and hillier. Twice I had to get off the bike and walk up the hill. They weren’t huge but I wasn’t expecting them and hadn’t changed gears quick enough. I finally got the hang off it but had to walk one last time over the highest hill. At the top we gathered and Marlon let us know we only had another 20 minutes to go. It was all downhill and paved. We all pushed off excitedly. The road was awesome – there was no peddling and hardly any need for brakes so we all coasted down at breakneck speeds coming to a stop just outside another interpretation centre. Super cool and super fun. And we were all sad that it was over.

We posed for pictures with our dirty backsides, legs and bikes. Then headed into the centre where Marlon gave us a similar lesson in Darwinian evolution as the first guide had. However, this time we understood what was being said. The reason for the biology lesson was waiting just outside. The centre was also a tortoise refuge and soon we were in the midst of dozens of giant tortoises. We walked around and through the first group in awe of these giant cuties and then another group and another before we were taken to the hatchery (or is it nursery) where we saw hundreds of baby tortoises from the smallest to those almost ready to be released. Super cute. We all took at least a hundred photos of these guys. Like the sea lions on the beach, Marlon promised us more to come. And I was sure by day 6 we’d all be sick of them. But at that moment we couldn’t get enough.

Somehow Marlon convinced us to got our muddy butts back into the pick up trucks and we headed back to the crater lake. The clouds had cleared a bit so at least we could see 20 feet in front of us. So we hiked up the side of the old volcano for a view of the lake or at least an attempt to see the lake. We saw only clouds and fog but a little patience and a good gust of wind later for a brief moment we got a misty view of the lake in the old volcano. We could only see half but it was big and beautiful and reminded me of Apoyo in Nicaragua. And as soon as we all snapped a few shots the clouds came back and the view was gone. But that was okay because after that bike ride and the tortoises we were all starving – especially the boys, of course.

The vans took us back to Puerto Moreno to the same restaurant as the day before for the same meal. This time Joy, Stacey and Beat all joined us in adding the popcorn to the soup. I think they were coming around. And just like before, Stacey got fried rice while we got full meals. But she was a good sport and laughed it off. And of course, the boys tried to finagle more food out of the juice nazi, to no avail. Then it was onto the speed boat. Although we weren’t on a cruise, we would be spending a good deal of time out on the water. Not just to get to the other islands, but also to check out the wildlife in the water and perhaps to try and wash some of the biking mud off of us.

The boat took us out to the open sea and I was suddenly glad we hadn’t sailed to Cartagena from Panama because the open sea was rough. The waves were huge with huge swells helped out by the cold wind that was whipping across the water. Yet we were willingly going snorkeling at a place called Kicker Rock. It was a compressed pile of ash that jutted out of the ocean about five kilometers off shore. It was uninhabited except for the hundreds of thousands of birds that lived and crapped all over it, and the fishes “and other surprises” Marlon told us that lived in the waves that crashed up against it. The sea was even rougher closer to the rock. Actually, Kicker Rock was two huge triangular rocks jutting straight up from the water with a narrow channel that ran between them. Marlon pointed to the dark narrow channel as he handed out the snorkel gear. “This is where we go first. The boat will wait on the other side for us so follow me.” And with that he jumped in the choppy water before I could ask if there were any other options

Without the sun to warm it up, the water looked cold, dangerous and the opposite of inviting. However, we’d paid a lot of money for this action-packed tour so we forced ourselves to jump in. C-c-c-old!!! I, as usual, got the wonky snorkel which wouldn’t stay upright and out of the water. It tried to drown me as much as it was supposed to help me breathe and the big waves didn’t help much either. It wasn’t much fun and I decided to just swim through the channel without dawdling. Marlon led the way pointing out sea turtles, giant rays and hundreds of fish that the lads attempted to swim after. This didn’t make Marlon too happy (first rule of snorkel club: don’t hassle the wildlife) but it only got worse when he suddenly shouted SHARK. Sure enough about 5 metres away from us was a small shark swimming parallel to us. As the boys went diving after it, all I could think was get me out of here. Even after surviving my last shark encounter in Panama, I was still deathly afraid and this time the anxiety was made worse by the wonky snorkel. I couldn’t keep my face under water long enough to keep an eye on it. And had no idea if I was swimming away from or closer to the meat eating reef shark. As soon as that fully registered, panic kicked in. I tucked in the dangly bits of my swimsuit (no need to try and bait the shark with bits of me) and attempted to power swim my way through the channel and back on that boat. Just as I was about to pass Marlon, he gleefully pointed down below us, mistaking my proximity to him for keen interest. This time it wasn’t another shark he was pointing out but an entire school of sharks, at least 20 of them! Although they were about 20 metres down below their silhouettes were still big, Jaws big. I don’t think I’ve ever swum as fast as I did at that moment. Marlon tried to point out rays and turtles but I was no longer interested in anything and passed him as fast as my little legs could carry me finally get through the channel and made sure I was the first person back on the boat.

“You’re not afraid of sharks are you? Marlon tried to joke when we were back on the boat.
“Not afraid. Terrified,” I replied humourlessly.
“Don’t worry. There are no sharks at the next snorkel site,” he promised.

Adrian and the rest of the lads groaned with disappointment as the boat continued on to the next snorkel spot. I was wary of getting back in the water so soon. Marlon traded snorkels with me and told me it would be fine this time. And when we pulled up to the Los Lobos site closer to shore, I realized he wasn’t just blowing smoke. The water was sheltered and much calmer. It was also shallower and, most importantly, less shark-infested. Unfortunately it wasn’t warmer. But I soon forgot about the cold. There were fish and sea turtles everywhere as well as sea lions swimming and playing with all of us. They all moved so fast I could only hope I got pictures of them. It was definitely more my speed and I wished we had stopped here first, maybe then I wouldn’t have been so terrified of the sharks (maybe? Perhaps? Probably not). However, I didn’t spend too long in the water. This time it wasn’t sharks that got me out of the water, it was the water itself. After 5 months of the warm Caribbean, the chilly Humboldt Pacific current was too cold for me. And I wasn’t the only one; both Joy and Stacey had blue lips by the time they were back on board. And by the time we got back to shore, the cold wind had given even the fearless boys a case of hard-core goose bumps.

We stopped back at the hotel for a warm shower and dry clothes before heading out to dinner back at the same restaurant. And yes, once again Stacey had fried rice, although this time they added mushrooms. Unfortunately, she hated mushrooms and once she had picked them out was left with about two tablespoons of rice. But she was soon in good company, both Beat and I cut into our fish only to realize it was raw. We summoned over the cranky waiter and asked for it to be cooked. After 20 minutes we realized it wasn’t coming back. Poor Marlon had to go and request some food for us from the juice (and now fish) nazi. We eventually got our plates by which time the lads were already gone. We spotted them across the street in another cafĂ© scarfing down a pizza. Joy and Stacey left soon afterwards to find Stacey some food while Adrian, Beat and I stayed behind for a drink before heading to back to the hostel and to bed. We’d brought a bottle of rum with us in anticipation of social evenings but it was going untouched with all these early mornings. Tomorrow was yet another action-packed day. I just hoped it didn’t include any more sharks or else I’d be using that rum for Dutch courage rather than socializing.

No comments: