Getting to used to life on an island 1000km from the Ecuador mainland where there are more sealions than people!
We were met at the airport by William, the Director of New Era Galapagos – the charity we are volunteering for. Classes don’t begin until May 2nd, and we have spent the last 2 weeks in the office sorting out the books, taking enrollments and writing tests for the new students. To say it’s disorganized would be a major understatement. There is only one computer that works, no phone line, no paper, no photocopier and at one point last week not even any electricity, but it´s certainly a great experience so far. The charity is flat broke so we will also have to find ways of raising more cash! The basic premise is to “empower the locals through education” and that includes English classes for all and Environmental education and activities for the children.
Well, you’ve heard of those people who give up civilization to go and live with some ancient tribe of cannibals in the jungle. We have semi given up civilization to live with 2 colonies smelly of sea lions! The Galapagos Islands have a population of 20,000 people and 50,000 sea lions. Having them as your neighbours involves a lot of compromises… who owns the beach – them or us? They take up all of the 2 beaches in town and us humans are relegated to the beach just outside town. Living with them also involves putting up with their uncouth habits, serious B.O. problem, constant fighting over women, noisy barking all day and night and thier extreme noseyness!
Several colonies live in the center of town and each has one fat male presiding over a harem of 30 or more women and their babies, the pups often play with the local children in the water. (Infact I think the sea lions might be better at teaching the kids than I will be!) On the other side of town the “Bachelor beach” is the home of the big, fat grumpy males who are apparently surplus to requirements of the women (great to put them all in one place!) and must wait until they can fight their way past the current ruling male. They have no fear of humans at all and will shuffle clumsily up to you to say hello or gracefully duck and dive around you in the water. Of course it’s not only sea lions who star on the island.
The birds hog a lot of limelight too. The size of them makes them seem almost pre-historic. Massive pelicans swoop and sit on the water, blue footed boobies dive bomb into the sea all over the place (the first time I saw this I thought it was a bird dropping dead out of the sky!) and high in the sky the frigate birds circle with their dinosaurian wing-span. The Galapagos Islands are volcanic and the black lava rocks, barren landscape and these birds sometimes make me think I am on a cross between the moon and the set of some sort of Jurassic Park film.
We went on a boat trip for a day last week and it was quite a surprise when we arrived at a beach with white sand, turquoise waters etc – just like any in the Maldives, except for the lolloping sea lions, oyster-catchers, marine iguanas and pelicans wandering around! Snorkelling at ‘Leon Dormido’ rock we saw loads of stingrays, eagle spotted rays and white tipped sharks swimming amongst the fish below us – quite amazing. As I that wasn’t enough for one day, we then stopped at another set of rocky islands and saw frigate birds nesting close up, and blue-footed boobies doing a mating dance a few feet away from us.
Wildlife watching here is not like anywhere we have ever been before. Rather than travelling for hours to catch a fleeting glimpse of that rare `x` creature, the birds and animals here are right on your doorstep (literally sometimes) and far from fleeing at the sight of a human they just seem to lap up the attention of clicking cameras!
Just as you think you are getting used to all this something else happens which just astounds you. Last night we were walking by a café on the sea front and noticed a 200kg male sea lion actually at the doorway of the café, looking like he was about to go in and order some food! Then, as we stood in the main square we noticed at least 100 sea lion mothers suckling their babies just below us on the beach – what a sight!
Life in this small town is laid back to the extremes. The community is small and everyone knows each other. Obviously tourism brings in the bucks, but as this is not the main island for arranging cruises there aren’t many actual tourists at all. This may explain why, if you don’t like fish, good food can be a problem! The local meat is often terrible and attempting to eat anything European in a restaurant always ends in disaster. The locals cuisine is basically rice and fish. The tiny shops open when they feel like it and are often indistinguishable from people’s front rooms. They all stock the same things: dusty bags of rice, tins of tuna, packets of biscuits, and tomato paste. The “supermarket” has the same but more of it! Consequently it’s a brand new cooking experience for me – you just can’t get the ingredients you need to make even the simplest of dishes! (They have never heard of most herbs or even tinned tomatoes!) Shopping for anything is always an adventure. Yesterday I was hunting down a sieve and a veg peeler, my Spanish completely failed me and I ended up having to draw pictures. The usual comic wild goose chase followed: “We don’t have them but go 2 blocks down and 1 right and there is a shop that does”. After the 5th time you realize it’s a lost cause…
The other volunteers have been great at showing us around and we already feel like part of the family. Meanwhile we decided we should acquaint ourselves with some of the local kids before having to teach them and helped out with the “Scout” group that William also runs. Little did we realize he was taking us to the beach and dropping us off – we were the only adults! 3 hours, a beach and 25 kids…. What to do! The language barrier was a huge problem but we managed to teach them Bulldog and Jason became everyone’s best friend when he bought out his goggles and had them queuing up for a go with them. It is amazing to think that these kids have never seen a swimming pool. At home I am sure parents would have been alarmed to think their 7 year old was splashing about and body boarding virtually unsupervised in really rocky waters, but not here.
The best job on San Cristobal is definitely being a policeman. 60 police for 5000 people and no one has ever heard of a crime being committed. Even by the admission of the town sheriff they have bugger all to do except sit around outside the police station smoking and chatting up teenage girls. They continued to do this, I noticed, last week even when the president of Ecuador was in the process of being ousted by congress and there were major riots in Quito. Stay tuned for the next episode. Will the kids from Jason’s English classes be wandering round saying “My name is Carlos, aye!” and will I be able to control a class of the little terrors at all?