• 13 minute read •
The next day I joined a small group on a rickety panga—a cheerful green motorboat with four poles affixed to its hull and a shaded canopy. We traveled to Los Tuneles, an area with lava tunnels rising up from the water. It was formed from molten rock that traveled like brush fire, moving so quickly the exterior layers of lava cooled off, creating an outer shell, while the lava kept rolling inside. After the magma passed through, they became tunnels.
Long cacti shot out from the rocks, somewhat alien-like in nature, intertwined with the tunnels, Dali-esque. The group dispersed throughout the area, shooting photos of the terrain. After the initial excitement, we went back to the panga to drop off our bags and suit up. Not thinking a knapsack was necessary for snorkeling, I’d brought a light nylon sack instead. Throwing the camera in and tying a knot with the bag’s handles, I deposited it into the small dashboard cabinet next to the boat’s steer, rejoining the guide and walking a bit further to our snorkeling destination.
The tunnels were dark with thin strips of light crisscrossing among the shadows. Feeling more like a seasoned snorkeler, I checked my gear, confident that the wetsuit, life jacket, mask and fins were on correctly. I slipped into the water and welcomed its shock, less bracing than recent plunges— the tide was low and the surface, calm. Trying not to scrape the low ceilings of the tunnels, my group trailed one another and followed the guide’s direction.
A minute after swimming underwater, I spotted them— a group of reef sharks (eight to ten youngsters)—charcoal grey with white-dusted fin tips, all nestled together. They were hidden in the lava’s shadowy formations and sleeping. Most of them were small, about an arm-length’s span, and the only audible sound was their diving flippers, fluttering in the water.
I gulped. Their parents would be nearby.
The guide had mentioned tours to the area reduced by half after a visitor suffered a heart attack during a shark sighting. The theme song to Jaws crept into my consciousness. I fleetingly wondered whether the visitor had also been familiar with John William’s score. Had they allowed it to take over them, triggering a faulty heart? I tried to ignore its presence in my head, remembering going between noon and 4 p.m. was the safest time to swim since the sharks would be sleeping.
Just as I was mulling over this, an adult— roughly five feet long— floated by me… followed by another! By golly, these must be the parents! They were so close I could touch them. As quickly as this thought crossed my mind, I decided against it. Even sleeping, these things were swift!
My heart pounding with adrenaline, I carefully glided with the group out of the tunnels to our parked panga. Everyone started shouting excitedly, and as I followed their voices I spotted a giant sea turtle, surrounded by a school of sardines. I looked down at the turtle, marveling at his decorative carbuncles as he paddled elegantly in place using his thick flippers and long tail. This one was an elder statesman.
We made it back to the panga and readied for our return to Isabela’s pier. Once the boat settled into a rhythm, sea-foam began spraying into the air, misting our faces. Heads began bobbing to the rhythm of the motorboat, and we nodded off, one by one, into slumber. Tired from the swim, I closed my eyes.
It is Adrien’s lifelong love for soccer that has affected me the most—the beautiful game has brought much pleasure into my life.
He opened a store with his cousin where they were selling soccer goods, but it was before the Americans caught on. Soccer frenzy didn’t start until the Germans goalkeeping siege against Tim Howard and the American team in 2014, but by that time, it was a little too late for Adrien. He’d closed up shop.
We moved in together while I was in the middle of a creatively draining job at a fashion start-up in a former creamery on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. Adrien started to think about moving back to France, but I had no intention of leaving the states. He returned to Paris the day after my job’s Spring Show, as I was facing a battery of follow-up by press and buyers.
There was no future, but we tried to make it work. I made several trips to see him, entertaining the idea of living there. Jokingly referred to as international booty-calls, my reality was anything but that. During one of the trips, I arrived the same day Adrien’s employer fired him for “faute grave” without giving proper notice. I ended up trailing after him— from the airport, via the Metrorail— as we went from court to court, verifying his rights and filing the paperwork to contest the actions of the company.
I had just gotten back from Los Tunneles when my camera went missing. Whirling from the shark and turtle sightings, I’d neglected to check my bag before leaving the panga. It wasn’t until returning to the hostel that I realized it wasn’t there. It’s hard to say what had happened, perhaps it had fallen into the water when they pulled the bags out for collection…or maybe a marinero slipped it into his pocket. It wasn’t a good camera by any means, just a simple Sony point and shoot. There was no way it would work on the islands without a converter charger— good luck finding one, let alone the particular type it required. Nevertheless, it was a birthday gift from a friend, and at the very least, it held sentimental value and a month’s worth of photos I’d never be able to recover. Balls.
Retracing my steps that day, I went back to the tour operator, the pickup truck that had taken me to the pier and the panga. I reached out to the National Park guides and the Ecuadorian Coast guard. No one had seen it. At this point, the odds of recovering it before leaving the next day were slim, but, half-heartedly, I left my contact info behind.
It was starting to get dark, and I reached an open square nearby the local market where Nora, my host mother, had promised reasonable prices. Assessing the several stands still open, I decided on two card tables with stacked plastic chairs and a makeshift awning. Peering at the posted menu, I spied the word tostada. A mental image of fried tortillas with shredded pork, avocados and Salsa Verde caused me to swallow my hunger. Mouth watering, I placed my order with the proprietress, and sat down.
A few minutes later, two slices of toast with a piece of ham in the center and a cola landed in front of me. These were NOT the pillowy soft, fried tortillas I had envisioned. It took me a minute to adjust. Later on, I learned tostada essentially means toast in Latin America and is not, in fact, the same as the Mexican tostada found in America. Glumly, I remembered in a few hours I’d be older as well— Great. Another birthday and the wrong form of tostada!
Clack. Clack. Clack. My thoughts were interrupted by an old man slowing down on his rusty bike. After screeching to a halt, he parked his scrappy vehicle right next to my table.
“Hola, Senorita. Buenos dias. Como-estas?” He asked after ordering and sitting down next to me.
Welcoming this unexpected invitation to converse, I partook in a back and forth of shallow but friendly banter. In that moment, the human need to connect trumped my language inefficiencies.
A plate of what looked like stewed chicken leg over rice arrived for him, and we settled in comfortably, talking and eating.
Cebo Humberto Leon Garcia, a kindly looking grandfather, was dark and round with stick legs and crinkly, twinkle eyes beneath big, white eyebrows. We moved forward, using my premature Español and his better-than-average English skills to piece together the conversation. I relied heavily on Senor Garcia’s expressive gestures and occasional Spanglish.
Eventually I asked him what he did for work.
“I am a student.”
Not comprehending, I asked again.
“What do you mean? Surely you must have a job!”
He shook his head insistently. “I am a student.”
“But, how could you possibly be a student? You’re as old as my grandfather!”
Senor Garcia smiled. “Let me explain. I have worked many years, but when I think I know, this” he gestured around him, “tell me otherwise. So I am still learning.”
He asked why I was here. I told him I was looking for adventure and had decided to visit the islands.
“Ah, yes, this is good. Where have you been?”
I rattled off some of the places, but he swatted them away as if they were of no importance.
“But you don’t understand! The things I’ve seen so far have been amazing!”
“What you see is not real,” he said. “The places and even the animals have changed with people living around here. But, if you were to go further into the islands, and know where to look, you would truly be amazed! How long have you been on the islands?”
“Three weeks,” I said, with a bit of pride.
“What?” he gasped, in horror.
Mistaking it for encouragement, I kept going.
“I find there’s, aside from sea-lions and finches, not a terrible amount of wildlife. It’s a shame that the numbers in animals are not higher.”
He raised his hand to stop me from going further, choked up by my comment. He started to get more animated, speaking emphatically in disgust.
“This is not true! You simply do. Not. See. You think you know because that’s what you are able to see! Now, do you know where La Loberia is?
I racked my brain. “Ah, yes. It’s in San Cristobal Island, right next to the airport, where the sea lions mate?”
“Well, ever since the airport’s completion, the sea lions avoid areas that are close to the flight paths. They don’t like the noise from the planes, but that doesn’t mean less sea lions.”
He gestured for a writing implement. I dutifully pulled out a pen and notebook for Senor Garcia, and he promptly started drawing, sketching a map and highlighting sea-lion hubs. I made a mental note to check his accuracy upon my return to San Cristobal.
“If you know when to go, if you know high and low tide patterns along with the moon, you will come across creatures you could never see on the boats. You cannot see just to see nature. You need to listen. Have you ever been up inside an extinct volcano when the moon is full?”
“No, I have not.”
“Well, I have taken scientists there. If you know where to go, you will see a lake filled with turtles and the tops of their shells peeking out from the water. And, if you were quiet, you can cross from one side to the other side of the volcano just by walking on the shells! I bet you haven’t seen that!”
I had to admit his statement was true.
“This? This, you cannot know just by coming for a few days on the islands! That is not the way to see!”
“But, how could you take me? “ I protested. “After all, I am a tourist, and would not be allowed to go without special permits.”
He waved his hand dismissively.
“That is not a problem.” He handed the notebook back with the makeshift map. I looked down; he had scrawled his contact info. We stood up and shook hands. Grasping his bike, he straddled it and stood up straight.
“When you have more time, come back and I will show you the real Isabela!”
“But Senor Garcia, how much time would I need?”
“At least three months! But do it within five years, I will be retired afterwards in Floreana!”
And with that, he disappeared into the darkness.
• to be continued… •