It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post, and despite a chilled travelling pace, seeing as I am on my own and can wander as I please, I am now looking back and considering how much I have to update and share.
We’ll begin with me finally deciding to move on from my homestay family in Montañita. Mid-afternoon, after a quick goodbye prayer, Julio grabbed my large backpack, Melinda hurled rapid Spanish at David and Lucas, the two youngest of the children, who then meekly followed, and the group of us trudged up the street to the main road. They stood with me by the dusty roadside until my bus came, then I climbed aboard and rumbled off.
A WHALE of a Time (oh the wit)
I moved only one hour up the coast, to Puerto Lopez, the small fishing village which acts as the starting point for all whalewatching tours, which I had therefore briefly visited a couple of weeks earlier. Really, it is simply a few layers of rickety houses and cheap and colourful cafes and hostels edged onto a long wide curve of sandy beach, with blue fishing boats bobbing about in the bay, so one day of wandering and lazing about was sufficient to relax into the place. At one end of the beach a pier jutted out, and it was from here that I took the boat to Isla de la Plata, or Silver Island.
It is not strictly known for certain, but cloudy days seem to have some correlation with more activity amongst the humpback population. For whatever reason, during the couple of hours it took to cross the 40km to the island, we crossed over with two pods of very active whales, jumping magnificently out of the water and splashing their fins, time and time again. In the first group, a much smaller baby swam alongside, attempting, with commendable effort, to jump just like the adults. It is difficult to describe the experience of seeing the whales so close. I could see incredible detail: barnacles stuck to their throat or tails creating a hard, knobbly look; the patterning of black and white on their skin; even their small eyes amid wrinkly folds.
We reached Silver Island, and waded the last few metres ashore, shoes held aloft. It is dry season at the moment, so the vegetation covering the craggy lump of an island was fairly dry and sparse looking. We spent a couple of hours following a path which looped along high above the shoreline, allowing us close encounters with both blue-footed boobys and frigatebirds. Male frigatebirds have a red membrane for a throat, which they swell up to enormous sizes as a means of impressing the female frigate birds, who for the most part, from what we observed, sat there fairly unimpressed. But it must work a treat, because the colony was large and spread across many tree tops were nesting females and fluffy white chicks. We spent a while goggling at one particular male who seemed to have swollen his throat beyond control and was trying to work out how to handle the huge balloon around his neck without losing face, then we looped back to the shoreline and climbed aboard our small boat.
We stopped briefly slightly further along the island’s coast, to gawp at large marine turtles, and then have a short snorkel amid the colourful shoals of fish in the fairly chilly water, then we sped back towards the mainland.
The Way to the Heart
I continued my journey by heading north, connecting various local buses to reach the small port city of Bahía de Caráquez, which is built on the bulge of a peninsula jutting into the mouth of a wide, blue river at the point where it meets the Pacific Ocean. The weather there was beautifully sunny and clear, with a light, lazy, almost Mediterranean feel to the place; a small sandy beach curved around the clean white high rises and wide pavements, elderly men cycled around slightly faded and peeling rickshaw taxis, and yachts bobbed around in the river. A short way upstream, a lengthy, grey snake of a bridge spanned the width of the river, joining the city to those further north.
I spent a couple of days simply being lazy, wandering the pavements and beach along the water’s edge. Then I crossed the river with a water taxi and took an actual car taxi a short way upstream. I came to a small collection of thatched-roof buildings, a community of fishermen and their families who have started up an eco-initiative, running half-day tours to Isla Corazón, or Heart Island.
This island, which sits in the estuary of the river, is created exclusively of mangroves and is, indeed, beautifully heart-shaped. Seeing as I was on my own, I got a private tour. A small motor boat took David, my guide, and I across the water to the island’s edge, where we clambered aboard a small white canoe we had been dragging. David then rowed me through a natural, one-kilometre-long tunnel, made by the curving mangrove branches, which bisects the island and can only be travelled at high tide when the water is high enough to flow through and create a channel. He taught me about mangrove trees, which can only grow in conditions where salty and ‘sweet’ water meet, hence why estuaries are perfect, and pointed out the four types which make up the island: Black, White, Red and what translates as ‘Shell’ mangroves. I thought the trees were beautiful, especially the Red Mangrove, which has a spindly, tangle of roots to hold it suspended over the water, in which bright red crabs live.
We emerged from the other side of the island and slowly rowed along the section which creates the two bumps at the top of a heart shape, alongside a frigatebird colony which put Silver Island to shame. Hundreds upon hundreds of frigatebirds circled in the sky above us, with even more sat in the tops of mangrove trees, which were coloured white with guano. Groups of males, or rather, collections of red balloons with a few bird parts attached, created a cacophony of clicking sounds, another of their tactics to attract females.
The motor boat picked us up, and we circled the island, until we were close to the point of the heart, as such, where we disembarked and wandered around a boardwalk through the mangroves. David told me a bit about how the initiative came about and what they strived to do to protect the reserve, as we watched red crabs scuttling around the roots and into their holes in the mud and saw a number of large termite nests, or ‘palaces’ as David called them, constructed so that they sat in the mangrove branches.
The motor-boat took us the short distance back to the mainland, helpfully dragging a small fishing boat partway, which allowed me a gawp at the layer of shrimp and other marine life drifting around the bottom of the boat which made up the day’s catch. A taxi drove me across the long grey bridge spanning the entire river and back to Bahía.
In my Capacity as Galapagos Scout and Advisor
In the evening I caught an overnight bus to Quito, which helpfully arrived in the city early, at the brisk hour of 5am. I sat in the huge, shiny, glassy, airport-like terminal for two hours, huddled in all my layers, alpaca wool and otherwise, to guard against the chill the return to altitude brought with it. When it was light, I haggled with five taxi drivers and eventually found a man who offered me the real price straight up, who then drove me through the city to my hostel. My first impression of Quito was of a vast and tightly packed city, spread haphazardly in every nook and cranny created by the folds at the foothills of the mountains surrounding the city. It was chilly, but beautifully sunny, somewhat like England when winter has dragged on and suddenly, one day, you realise that spring has flooded in.
My several days in Quito contained an unusual assortment of activities and sights. Due to the fact that my family are shortly visiting, and will be arriving in Quito, I avoided all the obvious tourist attractions, and began by acting as a Galapagos scout and advisor for them. This required hours of research online, until my eyes were square and my brain buzzing, and I had compiled a list of the top travel agencies for Galapagos cruises. Of the fourteen I picked, only eleven seemed to have actual addresses with an office in Quito, and of these eleven, only five existed exactly where they said they did, and even then it was difficult work finding them due to the ridiculous numbering system that the city has. I spent on a long day trawling two specific areas of the city to try and find as many of these agencies as possible, and gather information. The stiff hip I got from all the walking (yes, that’s right, old before my time) was worth it just for the fact that I got to know the new town area of the city quite well, including a couple of small but beautiful parks and its public transport system. It was while I was riding on of the buses that two young boys got on with a small box of sweets and began singing. The elder one couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and his little brother was four at a push. However, when the little boy spotted me and my smile, he cracked such a beautifully radiant smile in return that I couldn’t help stretching mine to a grin. Once their hearty, if somewhat discordant, song was over, he headed straight over to me, peered up into my face and asked ‘¿Se llama gringo?’ Are you called gringo? which I confirmed, right away, to be true.
I briefly met up with Carolin, my Swiss friend who shared my homestay family in Montañita, for a breakfast in the city and a wander around a touristy area of the new town.
One evening, I went along on a food tour organised by my hostel. There wasn’t much on offer for vegetarians, but it allowed for an interesting walk around the old town at night, from beautifully lit up plazas to tiny food places, where chicken wings turned on spikes and women ladled out soup made from the womb of cows.
A landmark moment occurred on my last day in Quito: five and a half months into my journey I had my very first moment of homesickness. I skyped my mum for her birthday, and was placed on a spinning cheese wheel in the centre of the table, so that I could talk to various cousins, my aunt, grandma, parents and sister. I joined in with the rendition of Happy Birthday, and pretended to help blow out the candles on the cake from my position in the hostel common room several thousand miles away, and watched the opening of the cards and presents. I felt a touch deflated for a couple of minutes, until my mum cheerily told me I’d been privy to the best part of the day and to carry on enjoying myself.
So in this spirit, I caught a bus and then climbed for about half an hour past quite posh houses and high rises, asking for directions all the while, because of course my destination was not actually where its address led me to believe. I was rewarded for my efforts with a stunning view across the city and its colourful buildings packed tightly into the folds of the mountain, spreading so far that it was hazy at its furthest points. The panoramic was not my aim however; I had come in search of the Museo Fundación Guayasamín, a foundation in honour of the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. I toured his beautiful house, with its sumptuous single bedroom, huge glassy bathroom complete with cactus garden, library with walls adorned with native masks from across South America, and large painting studio. Next to his house was the large, grey Capilla del Hombre, or Chapel of Man. It was a lofty building, with a large dome and small flickering flame in the every centre, but it is not a religious chapel; it is dedicated to humanity, with unbelievably huge canvases of his work stretched across the walls depicting various agonies and aspects of the human experience.
Come the weekend and I was off on another overnight bus, headed back towards the coast. My eight hour journey was spread over seventeen hours due to stopovers and bus changes, but eventually I was back in the seaside village of Puerto Lopez. I met Cristina, the director of the Ecuadorian branch of the Pacific Whale Foundation, who drove me to my new home for the next few weeks. In a compound an unusual looking building sat, three storeys high with a round brick tower on either side. I have an apartment room to myself: kitchen area at one end, bed and chest-of-drawers at the other, plastic garden table in between. It’s nice to have my own space, though it comes with its own quirks; the wooden floor is dirty so I’ve arranged a stepping stone system of plastic bags from my bed to the bathroom so I don’t bring brown feet into my bed whenever I need the toilet in the night. My bathroom is to one side and circular, as it is in one of the tower sections. I was also amused the first evening when I realised that every single one of the eight windows has been covered in a mirror film, so that when my light is on and its dark outside, I cannot see a single thing through the glass but, helpfully, I am lit up for any passers-by who want a peer.
I began my volunteer fieldwork with the humpback whales on Monday. However, you need a bit of suspense, so that story will be left for next time and, for now, that’s all folks!