Galápagos – A beauty of its own ~ Una belleza de su propia

Ok I’ve delayed this way too long. I’m not even going to attempt writing about my ISP yet because while I’ve had enough time by now to process things and reflect on the experience as a whole — there needs to be a large block of time where I just sit down and type out that month-long experience in a way that you guys will understand the craziness, the depth, the confusion — everything that made that an enlightening experience. So I’m just going to skip over that and talk about my last week of the program and the trip I took afterwards to visit the famous Galápagos Islands. 🙂

First off, let me just say … I’m back in the States now despite all the forces acting upon me to stay in Ecuador (aka the craziness that went on the very last day)! I’ve been back for two weeks and I dare say, I’m still transitioning back into it a little (more on that later).

So yeah — the last week of the program we said our goodbyes, presented on our ISPs, got our grades back, and said goodbye — to our professors, to our host families (some of us), to our new friends, and to each other. Just three and a half months ago, we were eight women not sure of what Ecuador would offer us and still getting over the fact that we weren’t in Brazil. And this week, we were like family (as cheesy as that sounds) who experienced amazing things together, had great conversations, learned from, grew with, and supported one another and we were saying goodbye for, hopefully, not the last time.

Gonna miss these girls! From left to right: Paloma, Me, Leonore, Cassie, Anneli, Sara, Amanda, Marijke, and Lauren!

Gonna miss these girls! From left to right: Paloma, Me, Leonore, Cassie, Anneli, Sara, Amanda, Marijke, and Lauren.

On possibly the last day I ever, I had finished all my “work” that I still needed to turn in –> which included getting copies of my ISP printed up and the supplemental material that I was going to leave with my advisors, SIT, and the community where I worked (Hint: it was Campococha!) sent out. By then, more than half the group had already separated to either go home or go off to their next adventure — holding back tears, we said goodbye. Lauren and I spent the last day (or half of the day) getting breakfast, checking out a market in the plaza, and just refusing to say goodbye. Eventually, though we separated and Lauren went exploring the city a bit more on her own while I went back to my host family for the night (I really miss them!). When I went to my host family’s they were apparently celebrating my host dad’s birthday … in the past week I’ve walked in on 2  birthdays within this family. Packed up everything for going home and for Galápagos and prepared for the craziness that would start tomorrow — not only would I be travelling alone, but also I had only five days (really four) to experience everything that I could while over there, and it was the first week of Ramadan haha.

So I left the house by 4:45 AM to go to the old airport and a bus that would take me to the new airport since it was cheaper than taking a taxi — this was an hour-long ride with no traffic. Happy first day of Ramadan! I was actually kind of thirsty the whole time which was not fun but it wasn’t too hard to get through the first day — especially since Ecuador is blessed with a consistent/equal sunrise and sunset time year-round. My flight was only at 8:00 AM but since it was already summer, the lines for everything were huge!! I would be lying if I said it was easy to get to the Galápagos, but I also want to spare you the details about my frustrations with Ecuador’s tourism practices (I mean it is their right to do all these things and it’s not the first place I’ve seen to jack up their prices for tourists and give preferential treatment to citizens). But I got to the lovely island of Baltra at around 10:30 AM Galápagos time (the islands were 1 hour behind Ecuador mainland time and 2 hours behind the US East Coast). Right on the very first ride, I was able to see the beautiful Blue-footed Boobies and some awesome Brown Pelicans!

So many Blue-footed Boobies!

So many Blue-footed Boobies! We passed these guys just moving from the airport island, Baltra to the main island, Santa Cruz!

Eventually I made it to Puerto Ayora, which is the largest inhabited city in the whole Galápagos, and met up with an old friend of my host family’s Paulina — who helped get me settled and gave me a map of the main islands I can go to and all the things there were to doat each. I was so happy to have been received so warmly because one of my concerns about travelling alone was who to reach out to and where to start! I spent a lot of the afternoon in the hostal uploading pictures and getting freshened up before heading out to explore the main street on the coast. The hostal I stayed at was owned by a friendly man and recommended in this blog I read for its location and decent price. Then I decided to go out and walk about to the Charles Darwin Research Station and the tortoise reserve. Before that though, I asked a young woman to take a picture of me in my broken Spanish, and little did I expect that we would become travel buddies for the week as she was also a student who had finished studying abroad and was doing pretty much the same thing as I was — travelling solo, island-hopping the Galápagos …

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Vicki and I had some pretty fun adventures in the Galápagos.

After going to the Charles Darwin Research Station together, we met this guy who worked as a police on the island and offered to show us around with his friend the next day. He was probably hitting on my friend but he was also being super nice and offered to take us to nearly all the sites on the island. It was quite the adventure — we visited so many places in one day that I don’t think we would have been able to otherwise and we rode on motorcycles (and I’m still alive, thank God)! We went to Los Gemelos, which are these twin craters that contain Scalesia forest — one of the most important ecosystems and a big freshwater source for the island. Scalesia pedunculata are a species of trees in the Daisy family endemic to the Galápagos and they grow really densely — they way they grew in these craters was just amazing!

Absolutely amazing!

Absolutely amazing! Sorry if it looks tilted … probably there are better photos on my flickr.

Then we headed over to these tunnels called Los Tuneles de Bellavista (apparently the second largest lava tunnels in South America!) and went on a nice stroll through the dark tunnel, climbing age-old hardened igneous. It was amazing! Beautiful.

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In the lava tunnel. I may have just been on top of a bunch of rocks, but it was incredible.

When we finished our hike which took longer than our friends expected (because of all the photo stops we had to take haha), we drove over to our last stop before lunch: El Garraptero beach. This beautiful beach was a nice location to do kayaking/rafting and camping. It also had the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen on a beach — it wasn’t just sand and ocean. I took a small dip but did not swim too much because I was not sure whether swimming there was allowed — although to our friends it seemed to have been fine!

El Garraptero beach. Very tranquil, very peaceful.

El Garraptero beach. Very tranquil, very peaceful.

We departed at the port for the guys to get lunch and where I went to ask about tickets/trips to go to the island San Cristóbal. Later that afternoon, Vicki and I went to the muelle (the port) and took water-taxis over to a peninsula of the island that had these really cool fjords. This place was called Las Grietas — and the formation of the rocks were beautiful. I got to swim a bit in the inlet but did not have snorkeling equipment so unfortunately didn’t get too much of a good look at the fish I swam with. And I almost jumped off the cliffs of the fjord into the water because it looked really cool … but I wimped out and just climbed back down — which was honestly harder to do than probably just jumping into the water.But the night ended beautifully as we caught the water taxi back and booked our tickets for San Cristóbal the next morning.

Las Grietas -- the beautiful fjords of the Pacific.

Las Grietas — the beautiful fjords of the Pacific. Notice me about to jump from the side of that cliff … but noope, the adventerous in me got too scared X)

The amount of wildlife I saw on the first day was just unreal: land and marine iguanas just casually on the streets, Darwin finches and other birds, and the Giant Tortoises! I also saw some white-toothed sharks that night some type of night bird, too. And this day, we saw flamingos (which were not endemic to the islands, nor are they migratory, but they somehow ended up on two of the islands a few years ago and have not left since), the brightest crabs I’ve ever seen, and tons of beautiful flora. It was definitely a good two days and I couldn’t wait to do more!

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In San Cristóbal, we went to La Lobería, a beach where I saw many beautiful sea lions (but not the only beach on that island with sea lions!) and swam for a bit.Then we had heard about this lovely lake (the only freshwater lake on the whole island of San Cristóbal) that we could go to and wasn’t too far away by taxi — so we went there — to El Junco. The weather seemed really clear just 20 minutes before but then we were gettng there and everything started to get cloudy 😦 So unfortunately the view wasn’t too clear but I still managed to get some beautiful pictures and this one bird that kept dipping into the water so beautifully (I later found out it was a frigate bird!) — you have to see the video clips I got of that one bird 🙂

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The short hike up made me miss hiking and I really wanted to hike another hill in San Cristóbal, but it was too far away to go to and make it back to the port of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in time for our return boat to Santa Cruz. After the lagoon, we wanted to check out the other side of Puerto B. Moreno, so we asked the taxi driver to take us to the other end of the town (which was only 500 meters or so from the port where we embarked) and we went to another location but not all the way because we were a little worried about time and the hike was long and had a lot of rocky paths. It was still a nice view and we got to see a cool monument El León Dormido (The Sleeping Lion) way out in the distance.

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El Leon Dormido ... it kind of looks like a lion doesn't it?

El León Dormido … it kind of looks like a lion doesn’t it?

Walking back, we went into another beach where there were a lot more sea lions and a lot less people (actually we were the only two people there). It was amazing and you can never get tired of seeing these cute little creatures.

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Vicki and I had decided to split up to enjoy what we wanted in our last few minutes on the island so I wandered a little longer at each of the different beaches and marveled at the birds and sea lions. I stopped to take a picture of this place.

 

UNC-Chapel Hill sounds all the more appealing ... having a research center in the Galápagos!

UNC-Chapel Hill sounds all the more appealing … having a research center in the Galápagos?!

And then I almost got lost trying to find the port where we first got off which worried me because the boat should have been there by then and my phone was dying but things were ok because they were actually running late (no surprise there) and didn’t come for another half-hour. However, and this is probably one of the dumbest things I have ever done … when will I learn? … I dropped my camera into the saltwater. This is not the first time I will have dropped some technological gadget in the ocean believe it or not, I should not be trusted with these things. I don’t want to admit how this happened because I really should have known better — I was lucky to have at least recovered all the photos I had saved on my memory card up to that moment. But from then on, my photos either came from Vicki or my cell-phone (which is definitely not good picture quality). But I only had one more day anyway so at least this didn’t happen to me earlier in my trip الحمد لله‎ (Alhamdulilah which means “thank God!” in Arabic). On our return to San Cristóbal, it was in the afternoon so, we saw dolphins playing in the water! It was a beautiful surprise because I was halfway to falling asleep before one of the guys pointed it out to us. Also on our way back, we were almost to Santa Cruz that we could see it but, the engine broke down for a few minutes (cue: panicking) and I thought if this was going to be how I died, at least it was a pretty cool way to go. But everything was fine, we got back barely that late but we were too late to go to Tortuga Bay.

But anyway after the amazing day we had, I was really excited to spend one more day at Isabella Island — and then stay over for the night too. One good thing about staying the night was that I didn’t have to worry about the time all day and about getting back to the port at 2pm to catch the boat back. But I was cutting it pretty close by having my return to Santa Cruz be from another island the same day I was leaving to go back to Quito … and the same day I would supposedly be flying back to the States — so that carried a bit of stress but I tried not to think about it too much and just enjoy my time. Would it really be that bad if I just didn’t leave? Well, anyway I think in retrospect, I should have gone to Isabella island first in the afternoon (not on my last full day) and spent the night so I could spend the next morning hiking the nearby volcanoes there — they sounded really awesome! If I ever go back to the Galápagos that will be my plan because those volcanoes are amazing and I wish I got to hike one at least… But the town of Puerto Villamil is quite tiny and there wasn’t a whole lot to do if you were just there for the afternoon (because all their volcano tour trips were in the morning!). So I decided to rent some snorkeling gear (only a couple of bucks) and went snorkeling near the port — it was cool because I checked one more thing off my Galápagos to-do list and that was to swim with penguins!! Yes, I swam with the Galápagos Penguins and though a very short experience (they didn’t stay too long on our side of the beach), it was unbelievable. That cheered me up about not getting to go mountain-climbing. And then later in the afternoon, I rented a bike to go check out some places like the tortoise- breeding reserve and the spot where a lot of the flamingos hang out (this was the only other place besides Santa Cruz where they found flamingoes). Like I said before, I have not had the most experience riding bikes so that bike kicked my butt a little but it was definitely cheaper than taking a cab and it was a pretty nice ride seeing the town on bike. On the way back from these places, I witnessed such a beautiful sunset, it’s a shame I ruined my camera the day before.  I ended the night going out and there was a party on the beach/in the town center — that looked really cool but I was mostly concerned with getting food because cooking for myself while fasting here was not the best idea since I always bought really cheaply — but hey, I was barely eating anyway … my food cost was practically nothing!

My final morning in Isabela (and the Galápagos), I decided instead of spending money on a cab, that I would walk to the port where my boat was waiting ~5:45AM for us to embark for Santa Cruz. I was running a little with my luggage because i didn’t want to be late but thankfully I was picked up by some of the Isabela police and driven over the rest of the way. They probably felt bad seeing this girl walking with all her stuff and I honestly don’t know if I would have made it back to the port on time without those guys giving me a lift. I made it onto my boat and because I really wanted to do this, I asked if I could ride on the top deck (in open air) and it was the most fun ride ever. I was able to see all the sea birds better — including the Waved (aka Galápagos) Albatross!! It was the perfect last morning and I was going out in style! The ride went smoothly and we got back even earlier than I expected! I said my goodbyes and got a ride to the port where even though the taxi driver definitely ripped me off, he gave me a really good suggestion for something I can do in Baltra with all the time I had until my plane. I got back to Baltra early enough, checked my baggage and then took a short ride over to the Marina that belonged to the Ecuadorian Air Force or FAE, where there was apparently a little hotel and a nice beach with more beautiful sea birds (seagulls and pelicans) and more … sea lions! The bus driver was only able to drive me over because he was taking some people belonging to this one tour group to the port for them to load their cruise — but he couldn’t give me a ride back since that’s not normally what he does. He just said I could walk back and it wasn’t too long of a walk, provided I didn’t get lost. So I went to the beach and it was the best decision I could have made because I enjoyed Galápagos up to the very last moment I could, really. I swam with the sea lions and sun bathed, walked along the peaceful beach, and then hiked a nice short way to the airport through pure tropical desert.

For those of you confused about the places I went to, here's a nice map outlining the Galápagos archipelago.

For those of you confused about the places I went to, here’s a nice map outlining the Galápagos archipelago. Image credit goes to:  http://www.discovergalapagos.com/map.html

As I was walking back and taking it all in, I decided to make some phone calls to my friends who were still in Ecuador to say goodbye. And then I had to say goodbye to Galápagos and all the beautiful and weird moments I had here. By the time I made it back to Quito, it was about 5:30/6:00PM. I figured I had plenty of time to take a bus back home and avoid the ridiculously high prices of the taxi — so I bought a round-trip bus ticket, because after going home to pick up my luggage, I would be headed back to the airport for my midnight flight back to the States. Everything was going smoothly and I got home at exactly the time I expected… ate some dinner (thank goodness my host parents eat dinner late and it was time to break fast!) and was out by the time I expected to the airport. Everything was running on time … except for my plane back to the States — that was delayed like three hours. We didn’t leave until 3AM and I was just not in the best mood about that. Especially since I would miss my connection for 8AM to New Jersey, I had to take the next available connection which was at 8PM — a whole 12 hours away… The man in line behind me too couldn’t get on that flight as he was also going to New Jersey and he couldn’t even take the 8PM flight because I took the last seat –I felt so bad for him because he had to go back to the airport on Sunday and try again. I don’t know how much this impacted him but I really felt bad about taking the last seat and this just made me more angry about the flight being late. (I know now I shouldn’t have been so bratty about it — apparently the East Coast and Texas experienced these awful chains of bad storms) But fasting and travelling that long was beginning to wear me down so I had to break my fast on Friday July 4th. Happy Independence Day! I was also kind of upset I didn’t get to see the fireworks but when I finally got home — all these frustrations were washed away as I came home to familiar people and a somewhat familiar home.

Happy 4th! Unfortunately, I didn't get home in time to see fireworks but it was good to be back in the USA on Independence Day. Image from http://krqe.com/2014/07/01/fourth-of-july-2014/

Happy 4th! Unfortunately, I didn’t get home in time to see fireworks but it was good to be back in the USA on Independence Day. Image from http://krqe.com/2014/07/01/fourth-of-july-2014/

Now that I’ve been back for over two weeks, I think I’m starting to re-adjust to my life before going abroad but there were definitely a few things that I’ve had some difficulty getting used to. One was the incredibly high food prices in restaurants here compared to Ecuador. No more $3.00 lunches that might as well have served as both my lunch and dinner. Not as much walking everywhere and figuring out the bus/metro bus systems (I guess I could do this in the city). Not as much nature (at least not where I live) as I was used to in the Amazon. And no more meeting nice strangers and avoiding creepy ones (although I don’t know how much I’ll miss the second part…). The people I was going to miss most were definitely my host families, my professors, and my Ecuadorian friends, and of course the seven other lovely women without whom I’m not sure how I would have survived this journey. Finally, transitioning back to speaking English has also been a bit of a challenge for some reason — I’d find myself responding in Spanish at times or at least almost responding to people in Spanish. But one thing I didn’t expect for this study abroad to do was bring out my Egyptian identity and heritage more than I’ve ever done at Gettysburg or in Jersey. Maybe the fact that not a lot of Egyptians go to South America made this part of my identity stand out but I prefered sharing a lot of my Egyptian culture with my host families so much more than my American culture and I even honed the confidence to speak more Arabic to my family members back in Egypt (even though I couldn’t find a way to politely say “I can’t talk right now; I’ve got a lot of work to do and I’m really busy”!).

Well, in addition to other thoughts about the impacts we’re having on nations like Ecuador and their economy, their societies, and my consumer habits as well, I really just needed a place to discuss and share these ideas, these things I’ve learned. So I decided to enroll in a course this fall that perfectly would complement my experience abroad — the course is about Development in Latin America and it has both a Spanish-speaking focus and an Economics focus. After having studied abroad this semester, constantly being challenged about how I can give back and use this knowledge applied in my life in the US and the global perspective, this is the best way I think I can start and there is no way I would want to pass this chance up.

Thanks for reading along on my journey and hopefully one day I become a more consistent blogger. I’m looking forward to finishing out my senior year enjoying all that Gettysburg has left to offer but also “getting out” more because I found that when I do, I find myself in many more exciting situations. One thing is for sure, I have to come back to South America someday and see the friends I’ve made in Ecuador again. But until then, who knows where my next adventure will be?

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