Mistakes Were Made
I’ll start this story in La Paz in March 2011, though in truth that city has little to do with it. My then fiancée and I were on the tenth month of 13 on the road, backpackers who by that stage had grown feral without really knowing it. We had seen a done a lot by that point, but this particular journey still seemed exciting – we were leaving La Paz and heading to the Peruvian border. By nightfall, we’d be on the shores of the near-mythic Lake Titicaca.
We were making slow progress, as though our bus was as affected by the high altitude as its passengers. Still, we were setting into our travel routine, the sort of half-bored, highly practised habits that had seemed like a novelty at the start but now took place without much discussion or thought.
Rounding a plaza we’d visited a couple of days earlier, my iPod Touch latched onto a cafe’s wifi and snapped awake with an email from London. It was the travel editor at the Guardian. She would go on to become one of my favourite editors and something like a friend, but on that hot afternoon in La Paz, she was delivering bad news.
My recent pitch – a bit of nonsense to write about the Galapagos Islands’ first five-star dive school – could only be accepted on spec. The writing examples I’d sent, all produced under duress in Dubai for an in-flight magazine, simply hadn’t been good enough to warrant a full commission. I feigned nonchalance but wanted to vomit on the floor. “Without meaning to be offensive,” she wrote, being offensive. “It isn’t bad at all, but I’m just not sure your style is quite there yet for us.”
This, I suppose, was true. I have some of those hated PDFs somewhere deep within my email archive, but I can’t bring myself to read them these days, not even with nine years of distance. The features I wrote in the UAE ultimately existed to sell seats on airplanes, but they were often worsened by an editor who I suspected was sub-literate and was sure was incompetent. I’d write them, she’d maim them, then they’d be varnished onto the page, unchangeable and humiliating. By contrast, the Guardian had an annoyingly wise and judicious editor who saw my reports for the scribbled postcards they were.
But still, it wasn’t a complete no. I could go to the Galapagos, I could learn to dive, I could write about it – I just couldn’t say I was doing it for the Guardian or, well, pay for it. This was something of a conundrum, one I resolved to fix by doing it anyway and worrying about it later.
As it turned out, fate had another idea. The Great East Japan Earthquake earlier that month had torn the country apart, killed around 20,000 people and destroyed a nuclear power plant. It also sent a largely inconsequential wave across the Pacific, one just large enough to wipe out the unfinished jetty at the dive school and with it the Galapagos feature. Now, not only did I not have a commission, I didn’t even have a subject.
But the flights were booked, wheels were in motion, expectation was stratospheric and so we went, my fiancée and I, to the Galapagos. Even weirder: we paid for it.
That’s unusual for several reasons, but here we’ll focus on the fact that it liberated me from any pressure to sell a product or write anything beyond what actually happened. I know this because I kept blogs from our days on the islands, most of which are as unreadable and embarrassing as the example work I once sent to the Guardian. Somewhere in the middle of them though, in between the cliches and the profanity and the forced puns, there’s a decent story. The results were highly unvarnished, but I have edited them into what I hope is a cohesive tale here.
I’m sitting in Heathrow in 2020, about to fly to Madrid, then Quito. Two days from now, I’ll return to the Galapagos for the first time which, despite or because of what follows, is one of my favourite places in the world.
Within minutes of arriving, we suspect the hassle – the inflated flight prices, the cancellations, the rebookings, the national park fees, the supplementary camera kit – has all been worth it. Since it was developed by American forces during the Second World War, Baltra island’s main function has been to host the Galapagos’ main airport. From the bus, we could see the traffic hadn’t been enough to deter humongous pelicans from dive-bombing the agreeably turquoise water, coming up with fat mouthfuls every time.
Humans have only been here in an evolutionary heartbeat, meaning the wildlife is fairly relaxed around us and abundant in a way it will never be again in the Europe or North America. So, where in the real world a cat would be sunning itself on the pavement on the streets of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos, here’s it’s a marine iguana; where at home an unreasonable drunk would be harassing bar staff for another drink, here it’s a sea lion badgering fisherman for a piece of tuna.
To save money, we have travelled to the islands without a booking a cruise, the idea being that we can tough it out for a couple of days and wait for a company to panic about sailing empty, then offer us a deal at something like a quarter of their brochure price.
After a couple of days, this tactic works; we’ll spend eight days aboard a ship called the Angelique. According to the little info we could find, it’s the second worst boat sailing round here, but it’s not the Amigo – whatever we did, folk said, don’t sail with the Amigo. So, fine, we spend a bit more and go with the Angelique instead.
With a day to kill before the cruising starts, we decide to head to Turtle Bay, one of the few places in the Galapagos we can wander freely as it’s outside national park land. Inhibitive as that feels to us, it’s only right – you cannot, after all, trust people.
The bay is a couple of kilometres away, at the end of a route patrolled by lava lizards, Galapagos mockingbirds and other flying things that move too quickly for my eyes, never mind camera. The walk is long and our water supply is almost depleted before we’ve even reached the beach, but then it rolls out in front of us, sand the same colour and consistency as flour, animals in front and above, all moving around like they’re part of a well-rehearsed acrobatic troupe.
Yes, we say, yes the Galapagos is worth it.
The following day we board the Angelique and find the cabins are small but comfortable, and come complete with some impressively fierce air conditioning. There are 12 of us sailing in total, 10 who have travelled from Northern Europe, plus an Argentinian couple. None of us have paid the brochure price, so there’s a least no awkwardness there.
Despite the promising previews, the first landing at Bachas Beach is pretty much a disaster, the water churned by a recent storm so as to make snorkelling pointless. Meanwhile, the air is filled with sandflies, which are as tenacious midges with stings comparable to wasps.
Things don’t improve overnight, with the AC only seeming to have that one Arctic setting. I turn it off instead and so we spend the night sweating and angry.
The next morning’s landing on Genovesa consequently feels like a mercy. This little spot in the north east of the Galapagos has seabird colony so loud and reeking and beautiful we are reminded of Antarctica. But here there are more colours. And temperatures in double figures. And lizards. There are red-footed and Nazca boobies, endemic owls and petrels and, stars of the show, the frigate birds. We’d noticed their two-metre-wide silhouettes hanging over Puerto Ayora, but whereas they looked like eerily prehistoric, up close they are perhaps the most handsome birds on the islands.
Frigates are not true sea birds, instead they scavenge from the surface, or – more often – attack other birds in mid-air, hoping they’ll drop food or nesting material. The moment it has secured this booty, the frigate is typically set upon by a number of its kin. So begins a game of quidditch where, unusually, I don’t want all of the participants to die.
Extraordinary days pass like this: tiptoeing through bird colonies or past snoozing sealions, snorkelling with white-tip reef sharks and sea turtles. Out on deck, we watch manta rays breach clear from the water, then splash gracelessly back into the Pacific. That night, over the horizon we see moonbow and it’s hard to wonder if any of this can possibly be real.
Four days into the cruise and we are back in Puerto Ayora, partly so our guide can be relieved (and replaced with a moron) and partly so the passengers who have only paid for the shortened trip can leave. New faces arrive, including a group of garrulous Irish girls with skin that’s as white and flammable as sheets of A4.
That night, having been at sea for an entire four days, the crew decide to reward themselves with a night out. Despite being obviously being a gang of ruddy-faced rascals, no one really grudges them their shore leave.
Rather than join them, the majority of us stay on board, drink a little ourselves, talk about nothing important for hours, then stagger to bed. Overnight we’ll set sail for Floreana, the first of the southern islands. Through the drinking games, we agree that this is all very exciting.
But then, sometime around 3am, the air conditioning dies and the boat becomes unbearably hot again. People become agitated. Something is amiss.
In the morning, The Moron emerges to tell us nothing our eyes could not. The Angelique has gone nowhere overnight and the engine has died. There follow some awkward negotiations about what to do next, with his suggestions all appearing daft or unworkable or designed to somehow rip us off. In a tone that could accurately be described as mutinous, we manage to convince him of the wisdom of arranging a day trip to nearby Santa Fe and, to our surprise, he sources a speedboat for the task.
An hour-long bumpy crossing later and we’re getting ready to snorkel. The Moron isn’t that familiar with this particular bay, but there aren’t any other boats around, which is a first for us. He consults the skipper and tells us we can swim in three directions: right for marine iguanas, straight for reef fish and left for sharks. The majority of the group duly heads left.
We bob along, vaguely hopeful of laying eyes on the rare Galapagos shark and, to our surprise, see two turtles near the ocean floor. One is clearly junior to the other, which is odd as turtles are infamously neglectful parents.
We glance down for a few seconds, then up and see some of the members in our group arsing around on some jagged rocks by the shore. What the hell are they playing at? Actually, never mind them – let’s look at the turtles again. It feels like only 30 seconds or so, but when we look up the next time, we see that we have been sucked out 200m to open sea. The waves are high, the current incontestable. The people on the shore hadn’t been playing – they were trying to escape.
I make enough progress in the choppy water to help a couple of the Irish girls who have never been snorkelling before and are thankfully already wearing lifejackets. Understandably, they are finding this whole thing rather traumatic. The Moron leaves me to do his job for him while he tries to swim back to the boat, essentially around the current, to raise the alarm, but not before passing me his spear. Until this point, he had been floundering around the peninsula, unsuccessfully trying to spear-fish, which, we later find out, is illegal – especially in front of tourists.
We Celts bob around uselessly, and a Canadian couple eventually get shot out by the current to join us. I do what I can to keep people calm and about 20 minutes pass this way until someone mentions seeing a fin in the water. I tell them to put it back on their foot but no, they say, it’s the other type of fin.
This, to a shark nerd like me, is very exciting. The rest of the group is less enthused, but I tell them to stay together while I go to investigate. This isn’t as easy as it sounds – the water is the colour of slate, the sun has disappeared and visibility is only a few metres. I’m just about to turn back when I see that beautiful, ominous shape through the gloom, about two-and-a-half metres long, species unknown. I know a fair bit about sharks, about which ones are dangerous and which are not, but my heart rate still increases, I still find myself gripping the spear just a little tighter and worrying, just for a second, that I might be somehow bleeding.
I kick harder to get closer, then see the hideous head turn away. I turn and am surprised to see the boat has returned and is pulling everyone else out the water. I can barely shout over my adrenaline: “Hammerhead!”
I think I see another below and soon a Swedish guy from our group jumps in to come and have a look with me. The Moron is unhappy about this and orders us back to the boat. I grudgingly retreat, spear still in hand, getting ready for a bit more mutiny, but from the deck I see what The Moron had – there were about 20 sharks in the water, all swimming in a circle that had been shrinking around us.
The rest of the day is spent in the safety of the bay, swimming with sea lions that seem to want to play fetch with seaweed. Nearby the portly skipper jumps in the water and soon returns with an octopus, its dying tentacles trying to find purchase on his prodigious belly, him pulling the suckers off – pop-pop-pop – on the way to it being the best ceviche we’ll ever eat.
The day ends with news that the Angelique can’t be fixed. The engineer, drunk out of his mind, had let the generator overheat and eat itself. The repairs will take longer than we have left on the islands.
Another day-and-a-half is lost in negotiations and arguments with agents about what compensation we’ll get. Had the preceding four days not been so terrific, the whole business could easily have developed in genuine bitterness, but eventually each party is offered some kind of solution. With no extra money to spend we accept with weary sangfroid the inevitable news that the ship we’ll be moving to is the ignoble Amigo, a sea-dog with such a scurrilous reputation that many agencies refuse to work with it at all.
It’d be wrong to say that the transfer to the Amigo is exactly seamless. For a start, at our first meal I have to send back a knife on account of it being covered in the chef’s blood. At least I assumed it was the chef’s – that seemed the least terrible source.
A couple of hours after that, moments before we were going to raise anchor and finally get out of Puerto Ayora, a three-strong contingent of Aussies who we’d met on board leave in disgust. Having moved into their rooms to unpack, they pulled back the sheets to discover the beds covered in “big bugs.” They promptly disembarked for good, vowing to complain to the tourist commission and get full refunds.
Thankfully, those problems are contained to the rooms down in the belly of the ship. We ex-Angeliquers on upper decks endure no such hideousness.
After that early drama, if you look at it in the right light and accept that the food perhaps isn’t quite as good as it’d been on its predecessor, you could make a pretty strong case that the Amigo is actually an upgrade. A totally different size and shape of ship, it’s never the most handsome in the bay, but it works, which makes for a nice change. The new guide also speaks better English than The Moron and knows his subject matter to degree level, too.
And so, foibles aside, things go strangely smoothly. We snorkel, we visit the famous pirate post box where, being a narcissist, I send a card to my future self [it took three years to come back to me]. The flies are sometimes a pain but the sea lions are always a tonic. The rancour and occasional nastiness is really all contained in the human world.
Here, you can get as close as you like to the animals, watch them, talk to them, like some invisible time traveller sent back into prehistory. They just don’t care. For them, for now, we do little more than block the sun – and we’re probably not as annoying as the sandflies.