Friday, August 21, 2009

What’s scarier giant swells or eccentric Germans?

It was day 3 and our second early morning and already we were tired. But we pulled ourselves out of bed and joined the others for breakfast after packing up and checking out of the hotel. Today we were heading to our next island in our island hopping tour which made us all happy because it meant we had a couple of hours on the boat to nap. The sea however had other ideas. The waves we’d experienced on our short jaunt yesterday were nothing compared to the swells we hit today. They were between about 15 feet high. Now if those waves had just sent the boat up and down I would have been fine. But unfortunately, they also sent the boat rocking from side to side. This was terrifying. We had been given instructions to not move from our seats so as to not upset the balance and I think that made me paranoid despite it being a big powerful motoring yacht. Every couple of minutes a wave pushed the boat to one side and then another causing a bit more terror to rise in me. And this was supposed to be the good season for boating in the islands!

About an hour into the trip the terror was accompanied by a particular nauseous feeling. I’ve never been sea sick before but the violent motion was starting to get to me. To take my mind off of all the icky feelings, I started doing square and cube roots in my head. 2x2 is 4 x 2 is 8. 3x3 is 9 x 3 is 27 and on and on up to 12 to the power of three. It worked (mostly because I suck at math and actually have to concentrate on anything more than 2 digits) and I survived the entire 2.5 hour ride to Champion and Enderby Islands without throwing up or screaming in fear. Trust me - this was an accomplishment.

The two islands were uninhabited except of course for the abundant bird and sea life. Among the frigates, boobies (tee hee), and other birds I’ve forgotten there were also sea lions lounging on rocks as well as our first sighting of marine iguanas. Marine iguanas? You say. Yup this was our first really weird animal encounters. Unlike the land lizards these guys scavenged for food in the ocean, swimming underwater to munch on algae or seaweed. Now that was something I was really hoping to see but the ones we spotted were either in a food coma or on strike because they only hung out on the rocks just above the crashing waves, the same waves that were still rocking our boat as if it were a tiny dingy.

While we were checking out the iguanas, Marlon handed out the snorkel gear and told us it was time to go in. Willingly getting into the water was the last thing I wanted to do. But it was still more inviting than staying on the rocking boat. Plus there was a chance we’d see the marine iguanas in action so we jumped in. The area we swam to was sheltered but there was a strong current that pushed us along. But it was a worthwhile snorkel with plenty of fish and sea turtles to distract us as well as more playful sea lions who swam around and over us. Show offs. However, the marine iguanas stayed on the rocks. Oh well. And when were all sufficiently blue-lipped it was back on the boat to make landfall on Floreana Island (photo above).

Floreana is one of the four inhabited islands although with only 100 people living on it – it can barely be called inhabited. The guide from our first day had tried to tell us the history of the island involving murder and mystery and pirates but none of us really understood what she had said. Thankfully, Marlon was able to fill in the gaps. But that would have to wait until we visited marine iguanas up close and had lunch at the one restaurant on the island. The food was more of the same, soup and popcorn (Joy, Stacey and Beat were now converted), followed by rice, fish and a small salad. Then it was into the island’s Chiva that took us into the highlands.

Our first stop was another tortoise sanctuary where another species lived. Despite the numerous lessons we’d been given in the differences between the species, without seeing them side by side they just looked like tortoises. But they were still cute and we still took hundreds of shots. But the real attraction on Floreana were the caves and the history of them. Floreana had been a favourite hang out of pirates and they were the first to use the caves as a shelter. Some pirates had stayed on the islands and were joined over the years by a handful of Ecuadorians. But it was the settlers of the 20th century that made Floreana famous. The first were a German couple, the Ritters, who came to this remote place in search of some sort of Eden on earth. They were naturalists and hardcore ones at that – they lived only off what grew on the land and even removed their teeth so they wouldn’t suffer from tooth decay. Totally creepy. The Ritters lived peacefully (albeit weirdly) on the island until they were joined by the Wittmer family. The Wittmers had read about this paradise and thought it would be the perfect place to raise their sick son. What they hadn’t counted on was the eccentricity of the Ritters and the Ritters hadn’t counted on sharing their Eden with anyone else. You’d think with so almost no one else around they all would have made an effort to get along but instead they kept out of each others way with the Wittmers building a home for their family up in the old pirate caves. Marlon took us to them and explained how they used the eroded rock formations nearby to trap animals for food. The accommodations were very, very basic and it was hard to imagine someone choosing to live like this in the 19th Century. But Marlon claimed the Wittmers were very happy and even added a few more kids to their family.

But then story got really weird with the arrival of someone called the Baroness and her two lovers. She was a tyrant, stealing food from the families and using the Wittmers’ and Ritters’ limited drinking water to bathe in. There were rumors of sadist sexual rituals that increased with the arrival of another lover who tried to escape from the Baroness only to be “caught” and then shot while out hunting. He lived and eventually did escape the island but never shared his story. Next to attempt to escape was one of the original two lovers. He hitched a ride with a passing sailor but they were both presumed drowned when their boat was found broken up in the rocks. Now before you go blaming the Baroness for these deaths, she and the other lover soon disappeared and were never found. And the Ritters and Wittmers once again lived in peace. Then of course, the numbers started dwindling once again. Herr Ritter, the lifelong vegetarian died suddenly from eating spoiled chicken. His wife/partner then decided to cut her losses leaving the island to the Wittmers (and a handful of Ecuadorians). Apparently, the courts tried to arrest to the Wittmers or at least investigate them for their involvement in all the deaths and disappearances. But nothing was ever proved. And today the descendents of the Wittmers still live on the island operating the hotel the couple built a few years later. Odd for a family that just wanted to be alone. We never did meet any of the Wittmers and we didn’t eat at their hotel. Good thing too because I wouldn’t want to die of food poisoning.

With story time finished, we headed back to meet the Chiva. Stacey, Joy, Beat, Adrian and I walked ahead in search of the oranges we’d seen growing along the path. Unfortunately, they were bitter oranges. Adrian and I didn’t mind but the rest of the gang spit them out. The Chiva then pulled up and took us back down the mountain to the boat for our 1 hour ride to Isabela Island. The sea appeared to have gotten worse and this time the square roots didn’t work and I spent the entire hour clutching my life vest and hiding in Adrian’s shoulder until we pulled up to the dock. I was the first one off the boat and ran to the end happy to be on solid ground.

I immediately loved Isabela and not just because it meant I was no longer on the boat. The island was the largest but felt just as empty as Floreana. The sea front was a long sandy beach (with surfers and sun even) instead of the rocky shore of the other two islands we’d set foot on. It was chill and laidback with many of the locals walking barefoot through the sandy streets. The streets were named after local birds and animals and had the nicest signage I’d seen in ages. It was pretty without being twee and a big change from scraggly dusty San Cristobal. The change of scenery and the stiff drink Adrian made me from our medicinal rum helped improve my mood after the horrible boat ride. But that evening I wasn’t the only one feeling better – the new restaurant offered vegetarian options for Stacey and seconds and thirds for the boys when they asked. It was just what we needed after the creepy scary day. And for the record, the swells were hands down scarier than the eccentric Germans.

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