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Archive for July, 2014

32. Galapagos- Santa Fe Bay 2

 

 

Galápagos and Archipelago – unpronounceable at first (as I am another-mother-tonguer); two weird words supposed to name something. Together they meant a place I was going to go to – apart they confused me. The isles formed a map-able chain in the Pacific Ocean and they left an unforgettable spot in my travel memory.

That I even toyed with the idea not to include a visit to the Archipelago of the Galápagos while visiting friends in Ecuador in retrospect was madness. But, as I am only human, there was the usual doubt when I said goodbye to the familiar faces at the airport. Was it a good idea to go the remote unknown alone? My friends were continuing their tour in and around Quito (they’d already been to Galápagos) to make it easier for them to collect me on my return from the mysterious islands.

The flight to the main island was about an hour and half. The small-plane-sounds made casual conversation with the friendly-flushed-round-faced nun next to me uncomfortable and most of the niceties got lost in translation. I resorted to exploring.

Being seated by the window, geographic surveying was the logical first area of exploration,. The volcanic bubbles that made up the Archipelago, looked unwelcoming from the sky. Their aridity could not possibly be life sustaining – my thoughts contradicting the booklet I found in the seat pocket of the light airplane. According to Darwin the older the island – volcanic erupted rock, the more sophisticated the life forms and the better the chances of survival. And if one was stuck (like the Darwin Finches), they adapted or died. Darwin found proof for Evolution on these islands by comparing the beaks of dreary finches. The sizes and shapes of their beaks changed between the different islands, perfectly adapting to feed on different sizes of seed. The older islands are further from the volcanic activity and are covered with weird and fascinating fauna and flora – with tortoises and lizards the best known.

 

21. Galapagos-Plazas - Land iguana

Galapagos Plazas – dragon on watch

 

92. Galapagos - Santa Cruz - Darwin Station - lone George whispering sweet nothings

Santa Cruz – Darwin Station – lone George making a pass

 

51. Galapagos- Espanola- Punta Suarez sea iguana

Espanola- Punta Suarez Sea Iguana or Mermaid?

 

 

 

 

Inflight information was soon exhausted and scanning the vast water became monotonous. Thinking seemed better than snoozing and as the religious group seated around and next to me prompted spiritual searching, the evergreen debate of Darwinism versus Creationism topped my list.

So, the spiritual question that superseded the geography – what logic of evolution moved a group of Catholic Nuns to visit? My fellow traveller met my inquisitive glance with another angelic smile as if to say – “all life is beautiful and sacred, and I can read your mind, therefore my contentment.” Religion, conviction and judgment had no place here. Beauty, weird or wonderful was for all. I guiltily turned to the window again to look down on the approaching island. The biggest one and the only one with development, I read, only way to enter and exit the islands, here via sea and air. Named – Isabela – meaning ‘Devoted to God’. Ok…. I beamed an enlightened grin back at Sister Superior next to me.

That was the last of my holy encounter. Babelistic chaos around the luggage collection area churned me away from the nuns and deposited me amongst a sock-and-sandal crowd. A severe and guttural language dispersed all serenity. Clipped words lashed in loud banter amongst the excited group from Holland. My presence went unnoticed. The maelstrom whirled in a general direction towards the port.

Island guides surrendered to the scramble and obviously knew the wave of tourists could go no further than the water’s edge. Here they would then collect their flocks to direct them to the allocated boats from where all visitations of the islands took place under strict supervision. Was my trip going to be subdued and holy or competitive in a loud way?

 

44. Galapagos- Espanola - Gardner Beach - snorkel and smooch

Sealion Den

 

 

Signs with codes linked to boat names were bannered above the guides’ heads for all to see. I located my code on a crumpled plane ticket in my pocket. I was with The Guatuanamerra. It was to be my home for the next 6 days and 5 nights, its guide surrounded by the jolly Dutch. Once we were together on the deck I was noticed – the only single female traveler. Fortunately I knew that everything was pre-arranged with the travel agent. A single accommodation was secured with a supplement paid.

 

As our guide, with his charming local accent, readied himself and us for the rules-and-regulation session I used the time to slip to the bathroom downstairs before the usual rush. On returning to the deck there was a stiff atmosphere and groups separated with a hushed anticipation. The guide walked over to me and asked in an unusual sympathetic tone after my name and booking arrangements. “No problem”, I had the paperwork ready and produced it with confidence. “Um, did you not get the latest correspondence from the booking company?”

 

There was to be a change in schedules and an amalgamation of groups as the chartered boats were half full. The travel company thought it best to combine half loads – economically more viable of course – my notification of these arrangements disappeared in the weeks traveling Ecuador prior to Galápagos. So did my single supplement along with the request for private accommodation. A bigger noise of displeasure arose amongst my Dutch fellow females. The loud objections made me feel uncomfortable and I felt myself leaning to the opposite scale of moan, to quietly accept and let it be. The confusion of the fusion of ferries and foreigners – it sounded like a song along with the wailing women. But in the end there was too much of a flabbergasted fuss, which I could not participate in.

 

70. Galapagos- Floreana- Punta Cormorant stingray spotting

House Mates

 

 

I took the modification of arrangements with relaxed contentment (thanks to my blessed nun experience). Our guide flashed his relief in a Colgate Commercial way. I won a best friend for the duration of the trip. It was a simple matter of teaming up with one of the three gentlemen that then faced me. See? Easy. Just choose a roomie on the one side and ignore the judging couple-crowd from the other side.

I looked at my new best friend, I could not choose, my eyes shouted at him. For three very different reasons – one was from France and oozed the part, the other was from Germany and sounded the part, and the third was from Jerusalem and looked the part. How could I just pick one without deserving the Dutch Judgment? Best-friend-guide fiddled with the last 2 cabin keys, avoiding eye contact. A single sentence from me stilled the keys and jolted his attention “No, YOU choose,” and turned my back on the three. I was prepared to share my cabin with what fate handed me – but still I crossed my fingers for France. I got Jesus.

 

74. Galapagos- Floreana- unlikely roomies

Omer and Self

 

 

It was better than sharing with any girl. There was space in the cupboard and enough time in front of the mirror and no clashing wafts of perfume. The cabin was designed for three people, the bathroom for half. There was a double bed all for me. Omer got the bunk. The boy asked permission before using the room, at any time of day. He sneaked to his space after dinner and left me with the Germans and the French for a nightcap on the deck. By the time I went to bed, he was fast asleep (or pretended to be) with earphones in and cabin neat, to withdraw like a mouse the next morning again.

Getting TO the Galápagos was a singular experience. Being IN the Galápagos turned out more thrilling than anticipated, as was being part of evolution. It demands a million words … at least now I know more about two words: Archipelago means a large body of water with many islands and Galápagos is Spanish for ‘tortoises’.

 

55. Galapagos- Espanola- Stairway to heaven via Punta Suarez

Watch your step, while being watched

 

 

 

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Submissive discussions on rich rugs

Iran

I don’t loose stuff. I cannot delete pictures – I hoard them.

For me to write about my past travels, I need memory recall with the help of photographs. My best searching skills could not produce my treasures of Iran. It was lost, but how? It prompted an immediate written piece, before losing all.

Five years ago, a rushed and hushed trip to Mashad left me more confused than informed. Over time, my questions about the visit have died a natural death. But recently answers have suddenly started to appear – news headlines are tweeting it out – it’s in the papers –  while rumors turn into gruesome terrorist reality.

IRAN

 The trip to Mashad (the second biggest pilgrim city after Mecca) was by invitation to a conference and opening of a modern world-class medical facility to be attended by world leaders in specialty fields. Because of my husband’s involvement, visas were obtained faster than usual and on the final leg to Mashad we had an in-flight protocol lecture; during which I seemed to miss a vital cue. On landing we were to be collected by unmarked vehicles on the runway. But as I stepped out onto the platform, I was shoved back into the plane.

I could not understand the angry shouts and gestures and my eyes fixed on my husband’s back, disappearing down the stairs, with the rest of the male passengers. In the process of halting me at the door of the plane, the rest of the exiting plane was congested. The air-hostess quickly came to my rescue. She wound my pashmina around my head. “Keep your head covered for the remainder of your stay,” she whispered urgently and then pushed me onto the stair’s platform again. This time the armed guard of Islam nodded approvingly and I was allowed to join the rest of the travelers at the bottom of the stairs.

 We were presented to a customs officer in a building, quite separate from the airport terminal. The inside of which had seen better days – there were reflections and scraps everywhere of a time ruled by money and power. Formalities took their usual time and then we were escorted to an anonymous, but once luxurious hotel. We were constantly assured everything was organized and we needn’t worry.

‘Not to worry’ was exactly my intention, but to achieve this I had to inform home we were fine. Even though international roaming is a permanent fixture in our family, and the internet relatively accessible in modern accommodation, all my attempts in the hotel failed. The staff was helpful, but blamed it on my equipment. ‘Most welcome to use office facilities/business center’: same outcome.

No Google, no G-mail, no Facebook, no SMS. My enquiries once again elicited friendly, courteous shoulder shrugging, and left me wondering: in what kind of advanced medical infrastructure was there no connection with the outside world, even for someone as little as me?

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Pashmina Dinner – blouse will be headgear soon.

As requested by the hostess on landing, my head stayed covered for the rest of our stay, regardless of the desert conditions, never below 30 degrees centigrade. In dealing with this head-wrapping adventure; my blouses replaced the thermal pashmina. A fascinating alternative to normal coping with ‘bad-hair-days’; not that I think the ladies in these countries have any idea what bad hair means.

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Water replaced Walker, covered head made me blend in…

Regardless the restrictions on headgear (according to Western standards) the fashion was quite modern. Jeans were worn by the younger generation, but with a dress-like long top that covered shoulders and hips.

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Modern jeans and designer sunglasses – protected by proper length dresses and covered hair…

We were only three ‘spouses’ that dared to explore outside the confines of the guarded hotel; and then only with the obligatory guide and driver as well as an armed guard, permanently seated in the back. Now I realize there was high risk of abduction of Westerners by the militia and terrorist groups from Afghanistan just on the other side of the mountain. Our exploration party consisted of a Swiss wife, her son, and me with an entourage of ‘obligatories’. We soon became aware there was no free browsing – neither cyber nor sidewalks . Certain areas were restricted; others were ignored. We were never left out of sight.

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Touristy in the streets, but under strict guard of guide, driver and official guar

Nonetheless, we were still exposed to a new culture: new food, different smells, unusual music and many colors. I am disappointed that I cannot ‘show and tell’ and share these moments. Did my photographs mysteriously disappear due to another high-tech intervention?

The usual efficiency during these international gatherings was blighted by a uniform vagueness about specifics. Nobody knew the exact venue or time of organized post-meeting functions and evening outing details were only confirmed once en route. The foyer was a buzz of confusion every night as the delegates milled around until they were summoned for ‘immediate departure’. Eventually the rumor this was done purposely surfaced, as a ‘surprise element for the visitors’. That it was done on purpose and as a calculated move to increase the security of the group came to light with information via World news now. It had nothing to do with the ‘surprise element in the entertainment’ of delegates.

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A surprise Tea in a cellar, somewhere below streetlevel.

The reasons for the communications ‘breakdown’ finally became clear five days later on the flight back, when we heard about the protests around allegations of irregularities regarding the newly elected president Ahmadinejad. To maintain order amongst the masses, the government had controlled the ethers and there was a total block on all cellphone and Internet communications across the entire Iran for a period of 2 weeks. There was also reporting on abduction of foreigners and attacks on international meetings by militias and terrorist groups from across the borders.

So that was our mysterious trip. I would love to go back to experience Iran in a less oblivious and personally ignorant state – to really see behind the scenes, now that I know some of the reasons. And to replace my trophies of moments – photographs. To recall and relay the splendid marble monuments to a fierce god – mosques in gold and incense; to display the luxury woven into an ancient craft that shines with passion – silk and wool carpets; to tell about an advanced civilization crippled by religious wars.

(ps – grateful for fellow traveller’s shared photos via email)

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Thanks to the Turins for photos. And adventure with me

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