Thursday, October 23, 2003

Galapagos Islands Dive - Part 1

It’s 11 AM. We have spent the morning walking the soft sandy shores of Floreana Island watching the day old sea lion pups playing in the surf and snorkeling with marine turtles and schools of hundreds of Yellowtail Surgeonfish. I feel relaxed and up-beat even though a good night sleep has been hard to come by the last 4 nights as the boat pitches hard enough to lift us out of our bed at night.
I’m sitting at one of the three linoleum tables that make up the dinning room of the Guantanamera. As is always the case in South America, music is playing in the background. Washington, a 30 something wildlife guide and dive master, is going over our dive plan. Washington is perfectly cast for this role. His short thick jet black hair is always windblown and his loose fitting boat-collar shirt, baggy shorts and bear feet make him look every bit a sailor. His barrel chest and fit build mark him as a man who spends his days snorkeling, diving, and walking island beaches. And his dark skin and strong nose make him look typically Ecuadorian. Geoff, a Dutch girl I’ll call Holly, and I look on as Washington draws out a diagram of Devil’s Rock; which sits about a mile of the shore of Floreana. The dingy will drop us off on the South West side of the rock. We will swim against the current along a reef that drops off like a cliff. At the end of the reef we will swim with the current along the shallower North East side of Devil’s Rock. Twenty bars is our stopping point. The first person to get down to 20 pounds of air pressure is to signal Washington by raising two fingers (one for each ten bars) and we will all surface.
Instruction received, we are about to wrap-up the briefing and head for our equipment when Holly asks "Do you need to see my dive certificate?" Holly just got her PADI certification a few weeks ago and has interrupted Washington a few times by interjecting some of her new found knowledge. Geoff and I flinch. Officially everyone who dives off a tourism boat in the Galapagos is supposed to have at least their Open Water certification from PADI. I’ve never been certified. I took a short resort course in Mexico that was just a few hours, then I did a few dives, but that’s it. If you dive with a dive master, I reasoned, they control your rate of decent and ascent as well as how long you are down. All I have to do is to breath and not panic. This I can do. Washington has asked us how many dives we had each done, I said three. He pegged me right away as completely green, but he never asked about a PADI certifications. Geoff and I had predicted that no one would ask to see my dive certification. There are no rampant cases of lawsuits here. People are responsible for their own actions. If you choose to take the risk of diving without certification that is unofficially your business. Besides, people are much more comfortable with physical risk here. But although almost every rule in Ecuador is considered more of a guideline, there is still a different between bending a rule and breaking a rule. Bending the rule is letting me diving without asking for my certification. Breaking the rule is diving with me and knowing that I am uncertified. I’m worried that Holly is going to press the point. Washington knowingly dismisses the question by saying that he will ask for them later. I doubt strongly that he will.
Briefing terminated we move up to the open-air second deck to be fitted with wetsuits. The equipment is first rate. We are giving full body 2 piece 1/4" wetsuits, gloves and fins. We all look like women trying to get into pantyhose that are much, much to small. It takes about 20 minutes of tugging, walking like a penguin while tugging, and tugging some more before we return to the first deck to get our tanks. Washington hands me a BCD and an intimidating octopus of tubes and regulators, then he pushes an air tank in my direction. Shit! Now what. I need to keep up the charade, but I have no idea how to put this together. If Washington had any doubt about whether I am certified he is about to find out for sure. I’m not about the guess at how to put together what’s going to be my only source of oxygen. I try to quietly get Geoff’s attention for a little help, but Washington sees me. He walks over and assembles my equipment without making eye contact. Excellent! I guess that he doesn’t want to loose the $60 dollars he will earn for my dive.
I watch as we all struggle to the dingy. The wet suits are tight and we all have to put a little extra effort to move our arms and legs. We don’t have enough hands to bring the tanks, fins, and masks in one trip, but we try awkwardly anyhow. Its overcast, but the wetsuits are thick so we are all getting hot. We take turns absent mindedly tugging at the collar of our wetsuits.
My mind wanders on the way to the dive spot. "There is no reason to need a dive certificate if there is a dive master running the dive. It’s just a racket. It’s PADI’s way of guarantying business. There can’t really be anything to the certification course. I’ve gone on dives already without being certified. I know how to clear my mask and regulator if something goes wrong. What else is there to know? Breathe deeply and slowly and you will be fine. Ya, breathe slowly. Don’t screw this up for everyone else by being the newbie that wastes all her air in the first few minutes and forces everyone to surface early. Relax. Breathe and don’t panic - easy. Test your regulator. It sounds funny when I breathe in. Don’t be stupid. It’s fine. You’re just being antsy. Better check with Geoff, just in case. Geoff says it’s fine. It must be fine. But this thing is making a funny sound." Finally I’m rescued from my thoughts when Washington signals that it’s time to get into the water.
After struggling with my BCD to get the air out I start to descend. I feel the pores of my wetsuit slowly filling with sea water. It’s slightly cool and wonderfully refreshing. My suit moves easily against my skin now. I continue to descend. All feeling of weight and constriction are gone. My body softens as my muscles relax. I feel more agile than I ever could on land. The ocean has a sound that is much more quite than silence. Complete silence can make my ears ring. It’s a deprivation. But the ocean has a very distant sound. A perfect sound made up of the subtle noises made over millions miles by voiceless inhabitants. The water is the palest possible shade of green, saturated with miniscule particles to give it depth and a soft twinkling texture. The light is soft but clear. Not assaulting like the sun or depriving like the dark. This density of the particles converge on one point in my horizon to let me judge the distance from where I am to the absolute darkness ahead. There are no physical discomforts here. Just neutrality and my mind feels more focused and clear when I dive then when I am doing anything else.
I’ve descended to 60ft when we level off. The reef before me is almost an absolute cliff and continues passed me at a 20 degree angle into the darkness. The coral is white but is almost totally obscured with life: sea anemone, start fish, fans, and more plants than I could ever hope to identify. I look up and my vision is completely filled with the black silhouette of thousands of back light tropical fish, but I can’t see the surface. It’s a breath taking sight.
Washington makes his way along the reef. I follow closely. None of my other dives have been against the current, and this requires a lot more effort. I’m also a little too heavy. I added some air to my BCD, but I’m afraid of adding too much and floating up before I can get the air out again because I had some trouble with that at the beginning of the dive. The rhythmic sound from my regulator is constant and reminds me always to breathe deeply and slowly.
Washington grabs my arm and pulls me to a crevasse in the coral. At first I can’t see what’s inside because of the vines flowing back and forth across the opening like small green feather boas, so I think he is kidding himself when he motions for me to stick my hand inside. Then he brushes aside the vines and I see the three big clams on the coral wall. Their rough undulating white shells are about 1 1/2 feet across and are open to reveal their soft fleshy interior. Washington sticks his hand inside one of the clams and it closes. I do the same. I’m surprised at how tough the muscular flesh is.
Holly is on her way over to see the clams, but she stops short and motions for us to look

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Topping the Andes

Gavin is a New Zealander who came to Villcabamba 20 years ago; before there was a paved road from the provincial capital of Loja. Back then it took 5 hours to make the trip. When he first arrived, the village had just installed a generator that was turned on from 7PM to 10PM daily, unless there was a fiesta in which case it would stay on until 1AM. After traveling the world for 10 years, Gavin had found his home in this small village nestled in an Andean valley 1000m above sea level.
The trip from Loja only takes one hour now. The road improvement has drastically changed Villcabamba by bringing more tourists and foreign settlers—to mixed reviews by the locals. But it remains a small town with mostly dirt roads; more sophisticated cobblestones are reserved for the town’s four main roads that surround the plaza.
Gavin looks every day of his 50 years, but the spark in his eyes and easy smile allow him wear his age well. He uses all of his 6ft; carrying himself straight and tall; walking with comfortable long strides. He wears Jeans, a button-down, long-sleeve shirt and white cowboy hat—he’s a good guy. His strong jaw line and gray-black moustache make him look like McCloud from the old 1970s TV show.
Geoff and Gavin stuck up a conversation one day as we passed by Gavin’s office. Geoff took an immediate liking to the man’s slow drawl and quite, but outgoing demeanor. So much so that he put his powerful hatred of horses aside and suggested that we take the two-day horseback trip to the top of one of the Andean peak near the village.
The day starts at 9AM. We cross the small cobblestone street that our hotel is on to met Gavin at his office. The sign above his door reads “The Guy From New Zealand—Horse back rides into the Andes.” We are only one block from the main square at the center of town, but the road is deserted. Cars are rarely seen here, horses are still the prime choice of transportation for the mainly dirt roads and narrow paths that crisscross the valley and mountains around town.
Eight saddled horse are meandering unsupervised in the street in front of Gavin’s office. The horses are small, standing only 5 ft at the shoulder, but they look healthy and well feed, unlike many of the horses in town whose ribs show through their loose skin and go unshod.
Here we meet Aster and Nadine. Aster is a gentle, very soft spoken German girl in her late 20s with shocking black hair and a soft round face. Nadine is a 29-year-old tall woman of almost 6ft, but her movements are casual and lanky.
As is typical in Ecuador, our 9AM departure doesn’t actually arrive until 9:30AM. Gavin and our second guide Jose help us mount our horses. There are six of us, and none of us knows how to ride. We are a tangle of horses and people spread across the width of the street fumbling and flailing. Gavin comes over to help me. I will ride Mandango, a chestnut male standing about 4ft with a dark black mane that has been cut short and stands on end like a punk Mohawk. I’ve only mounted a couple horses in my life, so Gavin give me some pointers: stand to the left of the horse, grab the mane with my left hand, put my right hand on the opposite side of the saddle and push hard with my left foot in the stirrup. Sounds straightforward. I bounce up and down a little to get some momentum and count 1-2-3 in my head. I hoist myself up and promptly get myself wedged with my torso collapsed across the back of the horse, my fingers desperately gripping their hold, my butt stuck in Gavin’s face, and my right leg caught on the protruding saddlebag which is the source of my problems. It takes my a couple of seconds, but I finally get my leg free. If at first you don’t succeed… Adding a little extra “oomph” and a shove from Gavin, my second try lands my rump in the saddle. There are several other failed attempts like mine, but we finally all end up on our horse and Gavin leads us out of town. Our well-trained horse move into single file without prompting as we make our way down the four blocks that bring us to the outskirts of town.
Mandango has a smooth gate when walking, and I enjoy my elevated view of the town. I think to myself that horseback is a very pleasant way to travel. As we leave town Mandango quickens his pace and moves into a trot. With each of Mandango’s steps I am bounced squarely off the saddle only to come crashing back down again. Where is the user manual for this thing? Gavin didn’t say anything about how to do this. There has got to be a much better position that the butt bruising one that I am in. Why in the hell would anyone want to get around on one of these? This carries on for about 10 min before we got far enough out of town for Gavin to pick up the pace. The caravan of horses follows suit and Mandango begins to gallop. What a singularly magnificent experience. Each long striding step is smooth. Naturally I matched the rocking of my body to the rocking motion of the horse. I wasn’t riding the horse anymore. Mandango and I were ridding together. The speed, the power, the rhythm was completely exhilarating. This must truly be why people ride horses.
The rush was short lived. Soon we approached a narrow passage; Gavin slowed and Mandango changed to a trot. The next 20 minutes are spent alternating from painful trot to sublime gallop until we reach the Rio Uchima.
As the procession of horses crosses the water I think that from a distance we look like cowboys in a wild-west movie—close up we look like a bunch of gringos wearing hiking shoes, zip off nylon pants and ball caps trying not to fall off the horses wading through the water.
After the river we start our 1500m climb to the refuge where we will spend the night. Mandango is named after a local mountain because he loves to climb. The steeper the incline, the harder and faster he pulls. He rocks his head back and forth engaging his whole body to carry me up. He seems to enjoy the strain like a great athlete would.
As I climb I look at the expansive view. The path we are on is only eight inches wide, which doesn’t concern Mandango in the least but worries me when I stare down the steep bush covered slop to my right. Down the slop and across the valley I see miles and miles of the Andes never-ending peaks stacked one behind the other. The closer peaks end abruptly in a ravine that carries the Rio Uchima back to Villcabamba.
Each mountain is covered in short burnt-red and golden-brown shrubs drying under the blazing sun. The sparseness of the growth allows each small ravine, gully and cliff to stand out. It’s beautiful in the way the high desert in Oregon is.
For five hours we climb the mountain. The periodic flats are an opportunity for the horses to catch their breath. Each time we breach a flat I feel Mandango’s massive rib cage expand to its fullest between my legs as he takes a deep breath. He’s sweating from the strain. I wonder if it’s cruel to work him this hard, then he charges for the next hill. I pull on the reins to slow him down, but he resists. He wants to climb.
Almost to the top, Geoff is given another reason to hate horses. His skittish horse is poorly fitted with its saddle. When the horse is spooked by its own shadow it rears up and sends Geoff flying through the air and crashing to the ground. After mumbling several X-rated sentences he dusts himself off and focuses on the conditions of the camera that was tied to his waist. Man and camera are intact, so Geoff puts his misgivings aside, mounts his horse, and we continue up the mountain.
We reach the final flat area and I can see the A-frame of the refuge. Mandango knows he has arrived and he breaks into a full gallop—this after a 1500m climb. Once we arrive we unsaddle to horses and they immediately go to the meadow, flop on their backs and roll around for a good scratch.
The refuge is set on Gavin’s 80 acre farm. He purchased the farm 5 years ago. After much negotiation over several bottles of vodka, Gavin agreed to pay $3,500 USD for the farm as long as the seller threw in 3 cows, 2 horses, a donkey and a bull.
A little stiff and sore we all walk around to stretch our cramped legs and battered bottoms.
Our galley is a small A-Frame that sits about 100m from the summit. Threadbare hammocks hang outside a small secondary building made from gaping wooden planks. This is where we will sleep. The dark, windowless rooms are filled with plank beds covered by 1" of foam that have all turned coffee brown with age and use. A sprawling meadow opens out in front of the building. The grass has been chewed to its roots by the horses. From the picnic table in from of the A-Frame I can see past the meadow and down the valley all the way back to Villcabamba. This will also be my inspired view when using the three-sided outhouse 100ft away from the refuge.
We are treated with ruffles potato chips and guacamole sandwiches for lunch. Geoff is the oldest in our crew, but young or old we all ready for a siesta after lunch. Gavin is just getting started though. He rounds us up and we set out from the refuge for a hike through the Podocarpus National Park, which borders Gavin’s property. The land in the park was set aside and protected in 1982, just after the paved road arrived to Villcabamba.
It’s a short but steep 15-minute hike to Podocarpus. We quickly transition from the 2ft tall, dry brush at the back of the refuge to taller bushes and finally to the jungle. I am stunned by the sudden change. Fifteen minutes ago I was in a highland desert, now I am pushing my way through lush vines and dense ferns to make my way down the narrow trail. The parched brown dirt has given way to deep, black, rich, fertile soil. The trees climb to over 100ft and are covered with orchids and bromelia, moss and vines. Everywhere there are tropical plants that I’ve seen commonly grown in North American homes: arrowheads, purple ivy, ficus trees; many more than I can name. The most exotic are the 50ft tall fern trees. Gavin tries to make us believe that they are 800 years old, but he also showed us some poop that he said came from a puma, but looked more like K-9 leftovers to me. I’ll just chalk Gavin up to being a good storyteller. Several times Jose stops to explain the medicinal values of a bark, root or flower as the others move ahead with Gavin. Jose had to study two years before he could be certified as a park naturalist, so Geoff and I decide to hang back with him and his educated opinion.
The air has gone from arid and dusty to humid with the clean scent of an arboretum. When the paved road arrived to Villcabama the local economy was transformed. It was now possible to ship fruits and vegetables out of the valley. This is when the village took to slashing and burning the jungle to plant banana trees and later sugar cane. But most of the organic matter in the jungle is captive in the existing plant life. Cutting and burning it down leaves only a thin layer of topsoil that is completely exhausted within two planting seasons. Which is, of course, when the farmers move on to slash and burn the next parcel of land. Once they realized that it was impossible to grow crops in the jungle, they filled the dead brown fields with cattle and horses whose grazing make it completely impossible for the jungle to take root again. The brown and gold valley that I though was beautiful high desert is just a sad example of jungle depletion in South America. Sure, this is nothing new to anyone reading this posting. We all know “slash and burn”—bad, “preserve the jungle”—good. Some of us probably even donate the occasional President Jackson to the cause. But to see it made me as sad as to see poor children begging in the streets. For as far as I could see, in all directions, perched atop an Andean peek is a desert that used to be a jungle. A jungle that took 20 years to destroy and that would take 100 to reclaim—that is if you could get the cows out of there. I try to picture thick green peaks and valleys filled with birds, tree ferns, and pumas, but it is too far removed from what the area is today. We head back to the refuge to watch the sun set. I am glad when the darkness comes and I don’t have to look or think about it anymore.
The 8 of us spend the evening at the refuge drinking too many of Gavin’s “Sundowners” (vodka, passion fruit juice, and orange juice). We all trade tall tales from our travels and swap travel advice based on where we’ve been and where we are going.
The next day it’s an early breakfast and a four-hour descent back to Villcabamba. Gavin explains “a horse isn’t a horse if he can’t carry a man up a mountain, and a man isn’t a man if he rides a horse down a mountain”. So we dismount our horses for the steepest parts of our descent—which is a relief to me because it seems like such a struggle for Mandango.
By the time we get to town, we are thoroughly bruised and stiff. I am sure it will feel a lot worse tomorrow.