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Don Juan Part I

• 13 minute read •

Flying to Isabela

San Cristobal’s airport was beginning to open when the pick-up taxi pulled into the public driveway. As the driver left with payment, I turned toward the airport and spotted an open door near the front entrance. Gear in hand, I slipped into the waiting room and quietly plopped down on a faux black leather couch.

I had decided to spend my birthday exploring Isla Isabela for a few days before returning to New York. After looking at boat routes and realizing it’d take a whole extra day of travel, I opted to fly instead in celebration. I wasn’t about to spend my birthday draped over a hull.

Unlike the myriad of travel options in New York City, Emetebe was the lone agency flying people to and from Isabela. They had one tiny, multi-purpose room, and it served as a waiting area, office and the main counter for processing passengers. Smaller than the lanes and lanes of lines and security checkpoints in the States, it was like walking into a mom and pop store, except one that dealt with small flying engines. There were two employees and no metal detectors seen— that wouldn’t be enough in the States, but I suppose travelers here, with the occasional exception of a smuggler, fell into different profiles than say that of an airport like LAX.

One wall in the waiting area was composed of glass and magnifying the sun’s glare. As the temperature climbed, my attention shifted to the sound of car doors closing. A couple arrived with their children, which included a toddler— who, judging by her precarious steps, had just started walking— and a small boy, who couldn’t have been older than five. They were towing a guide, a slight, wiry man with a head of tight curls. Oddly, he wasn’t wearing the usual National Park uniform of neutral polo shirt and cargo pants or shorts.

The father was a tall white man with kind eyes, but his wife, the mother, seemed a mix of some sort. After studying her for a bit, and noticing her features were a touch exotic, I guessed her to be part Chinese. The family seemed calm and, compared to my several encounters with roving kids, was unusually quiet and well-behaved.

With quickness and efficiency, the handlers went through our luggage. Once the search for seeds and prohibited items finished, they beckoned us to follow them. The young family disappeared to the left. A few steps behind them, I made my way to the right.

The plane was small. With room for only six passengers in the back, the pilot’s seat was visible to everyone. If you squinted hard enough, it resembled the back of a taxi. The guide, who I had seen earlier with the family, climbed aboard my plane with four other people and sat in back with an older Ecuadorian couple and airline crew members who were on their way home.

As the pilot started flipping through a sequence of switches, the plane began revving up. We could see the attendant outside giving a thumbs-up sign. Acknowledging him with a nod, the pilot made a slight turn on the plane to face the runway. We started to zip down the pathway, increasing in speed until the plane lifted up for a second… and then dipped back down. My heart started to race as I reminded myself of flying RAF pilots with worse odds, their bullet-ridden planes in World War II, low on fuel through enemy fire. For a moment, it seemed the small plane had stopped.

Then, suddenly, it lifted into the air completely. We were off!

The airport disappeared into the sea, a twinkling expanse of blue that traveled as far as the eye could see. I could faintly make out a group of sea lions splashing in the faraway waves and schools of fish rippling across the surface trying to escape the swimming mammals behind them.

I opened up my guidebook, determined to focus on something other than the plane. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the guide watching me.

“Do you know where we are?” I said while pointing to a pull-out section from the book. He shrugged, gesturing for me to pass the map.

After a minute, he spoke.

“We are somewhere here, near Isla Santa Fé.”

“Ah.” Realizing it was an island I would never see again, I pulled my camera phone out of the knapsack. Pivoting my body to face the window, I waited patiently for the island to come into full view, taking an aerial photo through the glass.

“Thank you,” I said, as I set my camera down and introduced myself.

“Julio.” We shook hands awkwardly across the non-existent aisle. He was indeed traveling with the family.

I learned Julio’s English was good enough to enable him to become a private tour guide, which meant not having to count solely on working with the island’s tour operators. Being a private guide had its pros and cons— while he was able to pick his assignments and tailor make itineraries for his clientele, he also had to spend hours working with a network of agencies to book the proper boats, tours, hotels and more.

“Wow. That’s rough. When is the last time you saw your family?”

He smiled. There was a gleam in his eye. I couldn’t make out whether it was flirtatious or mischievous.

“Oh yes. But it’s OK. I have many families on these islands.” He leaned closer.

Uh oh. Flirtatious. Here we go, I thought.

He glanced away, looking at the sea through the window, and changed the subject.

“Where are you going to on Isabela?”

I admitted to my lack of familiarity when it came to the terrain and that I’d received several recommendations from my volunteer friends on places to check out. Figuring he would know the area well, I asked him where he’d endorse going.

“You should go to Playa del Amor.” I couldn’t help but smirk, knowing the translation for Amor.

I played dumb. “I’ve been to Tortuga Bay in Puerto Ayoras. Is it like that?”

“Playa del Amor is better. It is a beach for lovers. Very romantic there.”

“Oh, really?”

“Perhaps I could take you there.”

I demurred his offer politely.

“I don’t know how much time I would have to go.”

After a brief pause, the questions kept coming. He wasn’t taking the hint.

“So, you have a boyfriend?”

“No, I do not.”

“You should move to Galápagos, then! You can live here and get married to a Galapagan.”

I smiled, but didn’t say anything.

The clouds were disappearing, but the ride was getting bumpier as the plane lost altitude. Initially the size of a small dot, the landing strip grew, larger and larger as the plane drew closer, until the plane aligned with the runway. We braced for landing.

With a loud “clunk” the small plane hit the ground and decelerated, cruising down the strip. The smell of rubber hit the air. After a moment, the wheels rolled to a complete stop.

Getting to my feet, I grabbed my knapsack and shook hands with Julio to say goodbye.

“Maybe I could show you around while you’re here in Isabela.”

I smiled again and took off, leaving him behind.

It took several minutes to sort out which road to take to the hostel in Posada del Caminante, but I figured it out. Arriving twenty minutes later, I checked in with the owner, Carlos, a jovial man with exclamation points for hands. We walked through the courtyard shaded by trees toward my room; a dark and small unit with a mini fridge, bed and small bathroom. Dropping my bags near the bed, I headed into the bathroom to inspect the sink, toilet and shower head.  I turned the latter on. There was no hot water.

I laid down on the bed and took in the silence. Unbeknownst to me, Julio’s flirtatious advances were starting to dredge up old memories.

…………………………………………………………………………………..…………

The last time I spoke to Adrien was nearly ten years ago. We met in Jersey City while briefly working together at a coffee shop. I admired his industrious personality—he always managed to find moments to make me laugh. But, it wasn’t until a few years later when we reconnected that we started dating.

I found him heady and exotic. Different. I approached him the same way I approached life; he was something to accomplish, to fixate on, not unlike a list of things to do. Reckless with excitement from this dance, I focused on what I thought I should be doing whilst a bit oblivious to the real purpose of being in a relationship. Was I in love? I suppose if I had to ask this question, I was probably not.

Perhaps out of lust and a need for companionship, I adopted the mask of a woman in love, intoxicated by the idea of it.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

Ten years later, after an exchange with a random guide, I found myself thinking of him, on another island, in the middle of Isabela, lying on a bed of damp sheets. Regaining sense of the present, I noticed the clear air and breathed it in. Attached to the ceiling was a small T.V. with a dusty remote. As I flipped through the options, I was greeted by blurry waves of static and ten indistinguishable channels.

I took off again walking around for a while, happy to be on the road. Isabela is less developed than San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. Its streets— if you could call them that— are dirt paths swirling with dust. Most of the island does not have street lamps, but the malecon has several hotels with lights strung throughout their perimeters, illuminating the evenings.

I’d chosen to walk, however, during the hottest time of day. Both major streets, the two of them, eight blocks long each, were blurring together from the heat. Spotting a Los Coqueiros sign outside one of the small shops, I walked in, making a beeline toward the icebox.

This particular shop stocked the Ecuadorian ice cream fruit bars I had grown fond of— blackberry, naranjilla, banana, passion fruit, sour sop (a fruit found in the Central and Northern parts of South America), strawberry, mango, chocolate, vanilla and rum with raisins. After selecting the coconut, I paid the father and child manning the front counter.

The coconut bar was frosty white and refreshing. Taking care to avoid dripping, I sucked furiously while I walked. The small buildings became less clustered, melting away into the horizon. Eventually, there was nothing but dry brush and sand.

The path opened up in front of a clearing. I was at Poza de las Diablas; a small lagoon filled with brackish water. The air was quiet, the water still, and neither showed signs of life. Yellow leaves collected at the water’s edge, joining the intense pink of dead krill tinting the waters.

I walked over a man-made bridge hewn of wood and through the lagoon’s expanse. Leaning over the edge of the bridge, I peered into the water’s depths. This was the observation deck for flamingos, but none were around. Everything was quiet. Everything was hiding in the shade.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Adrien, a sports junkie, taught me how to watch baseball, a sport I found tedious until learned its strategy, offsetting the lulls in the game. Ironically, my understanding of New York was deepened through a foreigner’s appreciation of the Yankees.

I also remember cooking with him in my tiny apartment, patiently layering together a tartiflette—thin slices of potato with bacon, sour cream and onions—topped out in reblochon, and setting it into the oven. Not long after, the collected juices overflowed, setting off the fire alarms on our floor. We giggled while fanning the oven fumes without a care in the world.

That lightheartedness didn’t last. New York is a city of constant change—and most people decide after experiencing these ups and downs whether the city is for them. We were no different. Change inevitably found us.

Reblochon was outlawed in the States in 2004–as it’s traditionally aged for only 50 days, it fell short of the FDA’s 60 day requirement for legal sale in the US, disappearing from the shops in the city.

I’ve since tried remaking the tartiflette, substituting it with similar cheeses. It hasn’t tasted the same.

 

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