Amidst a desolate Calgary winter of sub-zero temperatures and the always-fun process of university applications, I boarded a 6 A.M. connecting flight to Houston with a sense of apathy one forms during four months of seeing little sun. And so I remained this way for quite some time in a blur of gate numbers and disembarkation cards. Airport to Airport. Plane to Plane. Then, in a half-conscious state, the wing dipped towards the ocean and my window unveiled a magnificent marine blue. Soon after followed orange rock and sparse vegetation. The Galapagos Islands. I had never been as satisfied arriving somewhere before. Even as I walked from the tarmac to the airport, the flora and fauna astounded me. Geckos crawled and strange insects buzzed.
Two boat rides and two bus rides later I had arrived at Santa Cruz, my final stop before my two hour boat ride to Isabella Island. The iguanas, limited English speakers, and adorable seals laid out on park benches were only a tease of what was to come. The next day would involve the most difficult process yet: not throwing up on the boat (a challenge four of my fellow passengers had failed within 20 minutes). After the nauseating journey, I was rewarded with the sight of seals laid out on buoys and docks. Finally I had reached Isabella Island. Within mere minutes of meeting the other volunteers and the supervisor I was driven to my host family’s house, a tucked away, 1-floor structure with a garden, a pond, and most importantly Chuvaca, the family dog. Karem, my incredibly sweet and accommodating host mom, kindly greeted me and, understandably so, let me nap for a few hours afterwards.
I was then awoken by Javier, my host dad, who, yelling across my room wall, asked me to help him with the coconuts. After attempting to grab falling coconuts out of a tree and being given a quick machete tutorial on how to open them, the trip, in memory, became a month long blur of beautiful, unbelievable, and unforgettable moments. Each weekday involved an up-close and always amusing interaction with the Giant Tortoises. These slow, lumbering senior citizens of the wild always provided us with a sense of purpose. There was a genuine beauty behind the tortoises. One only has to skim through a few online articles of their history to learn of their tragic past with our very own species. To not only observe but to support an initiative that strives to preserve this beautiful creature was one of the most fulfilling experiences I had ever taken part in. And if the tortoises don’t fulfill your desire to see animals, have no fear! Within the first week I had seen boobie birds, sharks, frigates, and orcas. The islands are quite unique in this way in that, due to the absence of any large, natural predators, all of the animals are quite docile and confident with humans (but, after hearing various local accounts of tourists bitten by seals, I would strongly suggest that you don’t take their tranquil behaviour as an invitation to pet the animals). And if the animals are the reason why you went, it’s the locals that will be the reason why you’ll want to stay. The sense of festivity, small-town atmosphere, expressiveness, and welcoming-nature of the Isabella inhabitants led me to a wealth of fun and intimate experiences with Ecuadorian culture. If one has already put a slight effort into learning Spanish I suggest diving right into the local culture for a chance at becoming fluent.
And with these two elements, humans and animals amidst a beautiful landscape of sunsets (and moonsets!), this is where, personally, I found the most beauty. I remember my host dad who, one night when I had notified him that there was a large spider in my room, excitedly told me that “there’s no inside or outside here. We live with nature and amongst it”. This is all this experience can truly ask for, a certain level of comfort with being surrounded by indifferent, beautiful, and humorously docile animals. Any home-brewed apathy one may bring along with them is replaced by a childlike fascination pretty quickly. I strongly suggest the experience of the Giant Tortoise Center in the Galapagos project.