Typically, going with the flow is not something I’ve always been good at. If I’ve got an itinerary in front of me, I sometimes find it difficult when plans deviate. And yet, life doesn’t follow an itinerary, and life hardly ever goes to plan. Which is why today, when our tour guide told us we wouldn’t be climbing the Sierra Negra volcano – one of the largest craters in the archipelago – nor would we be visiting the Wall of Tears – a man-made monument that was built by prisoners in the 1940’s – I initially found it hard. So the personal mission I set for myself today was to lean into the unexpected, and to try and find comfort in things not going to plan.
We were now on Isabela Island, the largest of the archipelago, and I reflected on how unusual it was to be on the same boat yet waking up each day in a new location. We spent the morning in town — cycling along Isabela’s shores, taking in the sheer blueness of her waters, and spotting sea lions lying on the ground like dogs. I learned that, unlike the continent, most animals on these islands are late sleepers. Which means they’re absolute chillers, and I should clearly take a leaf out of their book.
We then walked through a mangrove Forest, mangroves being one of the most important plants for ecological functioning — they prevent erosion, purify water, trap pollutants, and protect against rising sea levels. In many parts of the world, including Ecuador, it’s illegal to cut them down. We then sat in a local bar drinking coconut juice before scouring the town looking for internet as my sister had a deadline for an online exam. I reckon the search for adequate Wi-Fi in the Galapagos islands was almost as hard as the search for a licensed taxi – we learned very quickly that sitting in the back of a pick-up truck was the only transport option available…
Next, we visited the Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding centre of Isabela, where infant and juvenile giant tortoises are protected until they are ready to be released and survive in the wild. We even saw rescue tortoises, with shells that had been burned by the latest lava eruptions.
Baby tortoises and rescue tortoises
And then the day unexpectedly just relaxed. We all went to the beach and I had some quality time with my little sister and the other boat members, playing in the sand and enjoying the waves. We all agreed that the last few days were the most disconnected from civilisation all of us had ever been, and that it’s so refreshing. The day ended with an abundance of happiness, laughter, fun, spontaneity, and peace. And I think it’s fair to say that I managed to embrace it all, even though it was off-schedule.
This is a beautiful, tender, and heart-breaking account of the author’s experience working in therapy with a little boy called Dibs. She writes of her play-therapy sessions with him over the course of a year, and how he unravelled as a person over the weeks and months they worked together. This is a great read for anyone interested in psychotherapy, play therapy, parenting, and child-development, and it highlights the importance of having a space to explore feelings, being safe enough to show one’s true self, and experiencing non-judgmental support. I also found that it demonstrates the importance of play, which is relevant to both children and adults alike.
‘The Gift of Therapy’ is a classic guidebook for new psychotherapists, but I personally would also recommend it to anyone both giving and receiving therapy, or thinking about becoming either a client or a therapist. Yalom covers many topics that might help those who don’t know what to expect from therapy understand it better, and for seasoned therapists, I’d say it’s definitely a book to read more than once. Beautifully written, in classic Yalom style, it is extremely informative and captures the essence of good therapy.
The night was interesting, to say the least. I got carried away talking to a lovely couple on the boat until very late, at which point navigation had started. I then made the rookie error of showering whilst the boat was in full swing…’swimming pool’ would probably be an accurate description of our room by the end of that.
It’s difficult to define the experience of being on a vessel for hours that doesn’t stand still – it feels like a rollercoaster, like the entire room is swaying and turning, like I’m being pushed upwards and compressed and thrown in all directions. To be fair, I’ve fallen out of my bed during night-time navigation too many times to count now. Our tour guide has instructed us to do some deep breathing exercises to combat sea-sickness, although he did say we have to believe in it for it to work, which is probably why it doesn’t work for me…
Santa Cruz Island is where we had navigated to during the night. Our first destination this morning was up in the highlands – we went to see the giant tortoises, surrounded by guavas and passionfruit on the vegetation floor around them. We learned that unlike many other animals on these islands, these tortoises have been so traumatised by humans hunting them in the past that their first instinct is to crawl back into their shells upon seeing us… “they have fear of Man imprinted in their DNA” is what we were told. Especially because they live up to around 200 years, the tortoises in front of us had personally witnessed their parents and grandparents being slaughtered in front of them…
On the way back, we walked through lava tunnels, getting lost on the way, spotted blue-footed boobies, and admired the scenic view of The Twin Craters – sinkholes that are around 30 metres deep – as well as the gorgeous leafy green highland forests.
Before lunch: snorkelling once again! I’m glad to report that, by the end, I was no longer scared. I swam with a turtle – it was interesting to have seen both turtles in the sea and tortoises on land in one day. Massive schools of fish swam past in a flurry, and dozens of starfish sat on the ocean floor. The turquoise waters were hypnotically clear.
The beautiful ocean
Good news awaited us when we returned: namely that we’d be navigating to Santiago Island over lunch!! Which meant that the ‘my-stomach-is-in-bits-and-everything-is-spinning’ was happening twice today! I decided to opt in for dazed and super-tired rather than sea-sick – the tablets have become my best friends. Once we arrived on the new island, we visited Sullivan Bay, beginning with a landing on a white coral sand beach, and then making our way over to a huge lava field. It was magical to hike over lava that flowed 140 years ago and to still see the twists and turns and bubbles created by the flow, as well the beginning signs of flora that was starting to grow on the fields. We did, however, get lost again, which is happening too many times to accurately record. But seeing and feeling the volcanic origin of Galápagos has opened my eyes to something that wasn’t totally obvious to me before I got here: that the geology of these islands is just as cool as the biology.
Lava for days
In the evening, we were called from our dinner tables to climb the deck of the boat, where we stargazed together with all the other boat members, the southern hemisphere stars lining the skies in completely different constellations than I had ever seen before. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be waking up on a different island once again…
Right. New discovery: Early warning signs of sea-sickness should very much be listened to.
Today started beautifully, with my head bent over the toilet. I don’t know why I very arrogantly assumed that sea-sickness wouldn’t apply to me. Last night’s journey to Genovesa island, which included crossing the equator, was very fast and very bumpy. We woke up many times just laughing out loud about how sick we felt; we were awakened frequently during the night by doors suddenly opening, possessions crashing to the floor, and, in my case, a suitcase that had fallen and turned upside down. We could hear the incredibly loud engine and the huge, cutting waves below us all through the evening. It was a strange contrast: feeling so horribly sick, yet seeing the most overwhelming natural beauty through my window in the morning, the blue-footed boobies flying just outside as though it were the most casual thing in the world…
The crew members offered me all the travel sickness tablets they owned (which wasn’t very many as they don’t get sick, obviously), and after my second encounter with my head bent over a toilet, I was well enough to explore Darwin Bay – the only sandy beach found in the caldera of Genovesa, which is the only Galapagos Island inhabited by red-footed boobies! We saw Galapagos mockingbirds, Galapagos doves, baby sea lions feeding, herons, Darwin finches, male frigatebirds protecting their babies, and Lava gulls: one of the rarest birds on the planet, with only 800 left. We also saw many swallow-tailed seagulls, all at different stages of life. They’re the only nocturnal seagulls in the world, and we learned that the males attract a mate by giving the female regurgitated squid as a present (!) The bigger the pile, the more likely he is to be accepted…
The most awkward bird
Before lunch, Juan-Carlos gave us another briefing about snorkelling gear – I think he thought we needed a refresher. The main focus of the talk was peeing in a wetsuit — I’m not entirely sure why. We then went kayaking inside the crater of the caldera, although at that point I was very dazed and drowsy because of the sickness tablets. Which was when I realised I should probably rethink my dream of becoming a Galapagos tour guide…
Next up: across Darwin Bay, we visited El Barranco (Prince Phillip’s steps) which were a set of steep stairs that led to a wide plateau. There, we saw Nazca boobies jumping off cliff edges (as they’re too heavy to take off from a standstill), mockingbirds fighting by throwing sand at one another, and fur sea lions, who almost became extinct at one point because of pirate hunting. Twigs seem to be of great significance for these animals: we witnessed a male Nazca booby giving twigs to a female in order to build their nest (she had high standards, rejecting all three twigs he brought her), and we saw a different pair of birds fighting and making up by using twig offerings. “Promises, promises”, a sceptical Juan-Carlos said. We also learned that the Nazca booby has recently evolved as such from the Masked booby species, which is a perfect example of what Juan-Carlos meant when he told us he’s actually seen evolution happen right in front of him. We then crossed a small Scalesia forest, which was when we saw two short-eared owls sitting amongst the dried lava bubbles. Lava last erupted on this island around 60 years ago, and there’s still a fiery smell in the air…it’s crazy to think that every single mountain and valley on these islands are of volcanic origin – we’re constantly walking over old explosions.
Our tour guide talks extensively about showing respect to nature, and all of us have felt our perspective shift a lot already. As he says, they belong here and we don’t, and that kind of attitude is sure to change the way we view animals back home as well.
Sunset on Genovesa
Other than that, we’ve been warned tonight. The navigation is apparently going to be even choppier than yesterday’s…
QUITO > GUAYAQUIL > GALÁPAGOS
As predicted, any remnants of yesterday’s day of rest have completely disintegrated. Pick up time today? 5:15am. And guess who forgot to set an alarm? Yep, my brothers.
Like when we passed through Quito to get to the Amazon, we had to pass through Guayaquil to reach Galápagos, but we’re not stopping in Guayaquil until later on. This time, our transit meant that we could simply stay on the plane for 40 minutes whilst those stopping at Guayaquil offloaded and those joining the plane for Galápagos embarked. The airport in Galápagos was an experience in itself. It’s the first ecological airport in the world, and we had to pass through an inspection point to make sure that we weren’t bringing any foreign plants or animals to the islands – this is an important way of protecting the endemic vegetation of Galápagos, as the introduction of new species destroys the native ecosystem. Even as we left the plane, we weren’t allowed to collect our suitcases until a dog had sniffed them first! I guess ‘fruit’ is now the new word we aren’t allowed to say…
In preparation for the boat we were going to be on, we collected sick-bags from the plane…little did I know how useful those would turn out to be. And as we landed, I felt a wave of overwhelming emotion. There’s only a specific number of people that are allowed on the islands at the same time, so the number of tourists is tracked and limited. It’s an incredible privilege to be one of those tourists right now.
Don’t say fruit!
At the airport, we met an iguana, as well as our tour guide – Juan-Carlos – who has lived in the Galápagos for 40 years. He’s told us he’s seen evolution happen in real-time, and that he fears nothing other than rats, cold water, and his ex-wife. We discovered that it’s actually illegal to be on these islands without a tour guide! He took us to our boat (home for the next seven days) via dinghy (transportation for the next seven days), and we checked into our cabins before receiving an introductory briefing and boat safety drill. The safety procedure was so detailed that I think it’s fair to say we now know exactly what to do if we hit an iceberg… we were also told that we have to hose our feet intensely every time we move from the dinghies to the boat because we’re not to accidentally transfer sand and microorganisms from one island to another, as there are species endemic to specific islands – I find that fascinating.
Then: learning time. We learned that the oldest island on the Galápagos is 11 million years old – our tour guide gave us a stunning perspective on this fact, explaining that if the world was created in 24 hours, Galápagos would have existed since the last 0.1 second of those 24 hours. Only 1.5% of the Galápagos is used for visitors, whilst the rest is protected. We learned about the miraculous creatures that established themselves here by travelling for miles from the mainland and adapting to the incredibly harsh environment. We learned that we should always try to keep a two-metre distance when watching the animals; experiments where microphones were put into unhatched eggs showed that the unborn creatures’ heartbeats were three times faster when people got too close. We were also surprised to learn that we would have Wi-Fi for exactly 15 minutes, and then we were heading off. Code for: no Wi-Fi for the next week. Which a) is really, genuinely wonderful, b) did, I admit, result in a bit of a panicked frenzy, and c) is the first time I’ve ever had no Wi-Fi for a week. I’ll be sure to document how that turns out. Oh, and my dad decided to paint his toenails yellow and white before the trip, which Juan-Carlos said were the same colour as a specific type of flower that attracts the Galápagos carpenter bee. Good luck to my dad, I guess.
After our first lunch on the rocky boat, we were back on the dinghies, headed out to Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island. The sand is white as a result of parrot fish ingesting white corral and excreting it. Which basically means that we were walking on fish shit. We saw crabs social distancing, not because of a pandemic but because they’re cannibalistic. Interestingly, the male crabs were more cautious than the females, because they’re smaller and so are in greater danger of getting eaten during mating. We saw frigatebirds with red gula sacks, which they inflate for eight hours in order to attract a mate, and we learned that frigatebirds are kleptoparasites: their efficiency results from stealing everything from other birds. It’s interesting to think that behaviours that we might label as morally wrong are considered ‘efficient’ in the wild. We saw low-flying pelicans, blue-footed boobies who plunged into the water to catch their prey, beautiful flamingos, and sea-turtle nests on the edges of the vegetation. We saw a rusted pontoon – a relic of the Second World War. We hiked through the area, and did some snorkelling in the gentle surf. To my delight, I discovered that I’m scared of snorkelling, and really not very gifted in the swimming department.
After a dinner mingling with the other boat members and our evening briefing about the next day’s activities, I decided to try and get a really early night – 9 pm was my attempt. However, I encountered a major problem: the boat rocks. A lot. Because there’s a lot of ocean between each island, we’ve got to cover long distances in order to hop from island to island…and the navigation happens at night. I didn’t really know what it meant when we were told that we were embarking on a 10-hour night-time navigation, but I found out fairly quickly…
In short, other than the early warning signs of sea-sickness, today was utter magic and I found myself feeling an immense surge of love for Mother Nature. No joke: I’ve considered the idea of reinventing myself as a Galápagos tour guide…I’ve walked around with a permanent smile on my face today. And I can’t describe it fully, other than saying that it was so beautiful, I could cry. As Juan-Carlos said: “there are some things you can’t capture with a photo – like the emotion behind the camera”.
So beautiful I could cry
This is one of those books that always stays on my mind – it highlights an alternative way of framing psychiatric diagnoses in a way that emphasises our personal narratives rather than the labels we are given. It is a controversial read that sits on the somewhat extreme end of anti-diagnostic schools of thought, but I enjoyed the alternative perspective and found myself agreeing and resonating with a lot of what was written. This would be a great read for those who have ever received a diagnosis, those who are suffering in any way and wish to make sense of their stories in an empowering way, or those working in the mental health field.
Today was the first full day we had completely off. And my goodness, we needed it.
I should explain that I’m Jewish, and whilst I’m personally not religiously observant, my family is, and they keep the Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest. They aim to observe it as traditionally as possible on our trip, so last night began with a Friday night dinner, and today, we’ve all been sloths. That being said, I’m trying not to sleep too much, as I’ve had a sneak-peek at tomorrow’s itinerary and I think it’s probably best if I make 4am as easy as possible by not getting accustomed to the luxury of anything past 7am….
With regards to our day of rest, I was so touched by how respectful the locals we’ve interacted with have been, helping us to honour “Sabato” and doing everything they can to understand it. As with every time we go to an unfamiliar place, before starting our travels, my family were discussing whether it would be dangerous for the male members of our family to walk around wearing their Kippot (skull caps), and my brother even asked whether he should take off his Star of David necklace. But so far, we’ve only had positive experiences with regards to our religious and cultural identity, which we’ve been grateful for.
Anyway, as I’m a week into my trip now, I thought I would reflect on some things I’ve learned so far:
1. Closing my suitcase will always be a seven-person job. In every location we’re in.
2. That being said, it’s becoming abundantly clear that we aren’t unpacking much at all.
3. As much as I complain, 5am is a really beautiful time of day.
4. It is so incredibly difficult to switch off from work back home. But it’s also incredibly difficult to actually do work efficiently from out here – I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt self-conscious about how not-with-it I’ve sounded in my emails!
5. Apropos emails: I’ve realised that not receiving emails is 100 times sweeter than usual when I’m on a break. And receiving emails is 100 times more stressful than usual when I’m on a break.
6. Having no Wi-Fi for the majority of the day is the best thing ever.
7. Jet-lag is tough, even when it doesn’t seem tough. When travelling, I think it is so important to be extra aware of the fact that thoughts can take on an anxiety-based structure more than usual, and to practice the art of releasing oneself from the grip of those thoughts. I’ve had times on this trip where I have had to tell myself that my thoughts aren’t to be taken seriously; they’re just ‘jet-lag thoughts’.
8. The high altitude in Quito is giving all of us really, really weird dreams.
9. The term ‘vegetariano’ doesn’t always mean vegetarian out here. We found out the hard way…an unexpected shrimp made a surprise appearance in one of our dishes. My family are trying to keep Kosher as much as they can on the trip, so they’ve settled for vegan and vegetarian options – the closest to Kosher that’s possible, given our itinerary. And I’ve been vegetarian for the last 12 years, so our dietary restrictions are pretty much the same here. Hence it was very interesting for us to discover that a vegetarian dish in Ecuador very often means that the main ingredients are vegetables, but may also contain meat or fish…
10. I feel so lucky and grateful to be on these travels, and with my family. This hit me properly today.
So there we go – I’m using the day to reflect, relax, catch up on emails and messages, start reading The Book of Hope by the legendary Jane Goodall, and do a bit of exercise. And trying to avoid thinking about how tiring tomorrow will be…
Location for the day = bed