Friday, 27 August 2010

Wild Life

Despite the bus misdirections (time of departure, final destination) given to me by my Ecuadorian volunteer co-ordinators, I arrived without mishap (unless you count a bag in the mud, but that’s standard) one drizzly night in Puerto Lopez, after the best part of twelve hours travelling. I was coming to volunteer for an organisation called Equilibrio Azul for four weeks, a marine conservation (dis)organisation whose website promised volunteers all sorts of exciting sea-bound activities with manta rays, sharks, turtles and the like. Crucially, it also advised:

We strongly recommend our volunteers to experiment SCUBA diving in Ecuador. For those who are already divers, our projects offer a big opportunity to expand their experience and knowledge while helping.

“Well hurrah,” I thought. “A chance to use all those diving skills I’d so enjoyed developing in Thailand and do something vaguely useful at the same time.”

My first challenge was to get through the lake of mud and water in front of the Equilibrio Azul house. Angelo (Italian marine biology graduate, hoping to start his PhD on coral soon) was there to greet me. He was coming to the end of four out of his six-months at Equilibrio. The other person in the house was Fabian, the biologist surveying the species of shark and manta ray pulled in by the local fishermen.


…I started writing this a couple of weeks ago and I’m now sitting on the plane to Spain, bemusing the man next to me with my predilection for contortionist plane-seat positions and wondering how much longer my increasingly decrepit battery will last.

It occurred to me some time ago (perhaps explaining the long gap between the start and finish of this entry) that if I give a blow-by-blow account of my weeks with Equilibrio, it will just end up as one long rant. It also occurred to me at various points along my adventures that there are few things more self-indulgently dull than travellers ranting about how difficult their experiences are. The descriptions of arduous and complicated bus journeys in apparently underprivileged corners of the world may be riveting to the persons who lived them, but I don’t find them inspiring reading. (And quite apart from anything else, my most frustrating encounters with public transport have all been in the UK, so I’m not sure it’s fair to complain too much about anyone else’s manner of moving people about.)

Not that Equilibrio Azul was a bus journey (that might have been easier to negotiate). Suffice to say, it was fantastically badly run and the person/s in charge of volunteers were uniformly unpleasant and incompetent. (The staff with no responsibility for volunteers were generally a bit nicer.) It reminded me of nothing so much as some of my more unpleasant times at boarding school and I found that I enjoyed such an experience even less the second time round, though probably handled it somewhat better. After my turtle-tagging briefing on my first morning, the volunteer-coordinator barely spoke to me again, certainly never pleasantly and rarely even politely, which considering we were all living in the same house, was quite a feat. “For an organisation that’s so reliant on volunteers”, said a nice young college student from Missoula Montana (should any of my friends from that particular town be reading), “you’d think they’d treat them better.”

The organisation’s attitude to its volunteers was beautifully encapsulated for me by a story recounted by Angelo. Angelo who is called on to do every shitty job the staff want doing and wouldn’t dream of attempting themselves. Angelo who is unendingly good-natured. Angelo, without whom, I’m pretty sure the whole organisation will grind to a halt when his term ends next month.

Here’s a moment of light relief with Angelo, after a beach rubbish pick-up at Playita. Thanks to Dan for indulging us in the snap:

One night, Angelo was in bed and heard a bit of a commotion in the house. The house being what it is, he didn’t think much of it and went back to sleep. In the morning, he discovered that everybody else in the house had evacuated it in the middle of the night, taking all passports and important documents with them. There had been some sort of tsunami panic after a distant earthquake. Luckily for Angelo, this was an entirely false alarm. But not one person, as they were gathering passports and so on, thought it might be worth waking Angelo up so he too could save himself from death by Pacific Ocean.

When it came to activities, my first week went rather well, with three excursions out on the little boat to catch turtles to tag, a couple of visits to the beach in the early morning to count the manta rays and hammerhead sharks (all juvenile, before they’d had any chance to reproduce) the local fisherman were dragging out of the sea, a very disgusting hour separating the dead bycatch into piles of different types of fish to count and identify (lots of bloody water involved in that one and a horrible smell), and a visit to one of the less accessible beaches on which Hawksbill turtles nest to exhume a spent nest (basically digging until you’ve got all the eggs out to work out how many hatched and why the others didn’t – a bit disgustingly gynaecological, despite the sand, but interesting). Here I am with my latexed hand down a nest, in full exhumation, surrounded by a pile of spent eggs.

Week two, we were sent to the Isla de la Plata, rather disparagingly known as “the poor man’s Galapagos” but much more interesting than that. More on that anon but for the moment, suffice to say I discovered in myself an unsuspected affinity with sea birds.

It’s just as well I made the most of those first two weeks as that was the end of any biological activity of any sort, marine or otherwise. The only volunteer who got to do any of the much-vaunted diving was Angelo, and considering it was only his third time in four and a half months, this was not a lot to shout about. The next two weeks, so half of my stay with Equilibrio, the three foreign volunteers (the Ecuadorian ones generally shared the staff’s happy knack of getting out of virtually all unpleasant work) got most of the filthiest jobs building a garden for a local school. This would have been fine, except we’d all volunteered specifically (and paid for the privilege) for marine biology related activity, and Dan, one of my fellow-volunteers, is a teacher at work and had no wish to spend his holidays back in school. He would have infinitely preferred to be out with some of the staff tagging manta rays, as would we all, and as we’d been led to believe this is what volunteering for Equilibrio Azul entailed.

Well, we live and we learn.

Now, gardening doesn’t sound dirty or unpleasant work, but then you didn’t see the state of the plot of land before we began. Nor did you see the very used motor oil (it had recently been in a boat engine) we were given to oil the wood for the fence (my delightful job as I’m not much good with a saw), nor how we then had to build the fence with the dirty oil still very wet (it not being designed to be absorbed by bamboo). We (the irritating gringo volunteers) had pointed out that the wall backing the garden really should be painted before anything else, only to be told that no, the school garden wall wasn’t being painted; it was the wall in the volunteer house we were supposed to paint later that week (thankfully, in the general disorganised lethargy, that handyman’s task never materialised). So once the extremely unpleasant job of building a fence from scratch out of long sticks of bamboo and filthy motor oil, and then putting it up in very unaccommodating ground was complete, we set about planting the garden with a class of endearingly enthusiastic ten year olds, who had cleared all the rubbish out of the plot of land first (quite a feat, as it literally kept emerging out of the earth).

Of course, as soon all the plants were happily ensconced in the earth, we were ordered to paint the wall.

Of course.

Now this wall was in such a bad state, that the touch of a paint brush caused it to crumble. But eventually it was done, and the newly-planted plants were covered in brick dust and paint.

Then we were told the children were to make a hand-print mural on the wall behind the plants. Which all looks quite nice, except in the general excitement, half the plants got trampled and now rather a lot of them are dead. And the one member of staff who showed up to help out a bit one morning thought it was a good idea to clean the paint brushes on the fence we’d spent a week building.

But the kids enjoyed themselves and have promised not to throw rubbish on the streets or in the sea. Who knows how long they’ll remember?…

So that’s enough of the narrative complaint. Instead here are ten memories of my colours of Ecuador:

1) A crazy, surreal day,
which started with a count of shark and ray species the fishermen pulled out of the sea in the morning, continued with a longish walk through brush and back for the turtle nest exhumation, and continued after lunch with a memorable turtle-tagging expedition on the little boat. This is the only time the volunteer-coordinator accompanied us out in the field, supposedly to show me and the new Ecuadorian volunteer how to tag turtles (which one of the resident biologists had already shown me a couple of times). The volunteer-coordinator spent the entire outbound journey canoodling with another member of staff (extremely hard to ignore when six people are balancing in a small boat on very choppy seas and two of the six are wrapped around each other on the floor in the centre of said boat). Once we’d all been out to look for turtles and I very proudly spotted the first one (here it is pre-tagging, Lucy-the-Hawksbill… Well, that’s what they said they’d call it; I don’t know that they ever did)…

… the volunteer co-ordinator showed no interest whatsoever in the proceedings, apparently too sea-sick to look. Which is strange for somebody who purports to be an out-in-the-field marine conservationist… So we made a detour to drop her and the Ecuadorian volunteer off at a beach so they no longer had to brave the choppy seas, and those four of us remaining (me the only woman, a fact more significant than I’d like in Ecuador) went out to catch and tag two more turtles, battling the setting sun, an uncomfortable swell and very chill wind. At one point, I’d finally got out of my cold wetsuit, dried and changed, only to be attacked by the onset of my first Ecuadorian tummy bug. The two other staff were diving at this point and it was just me and the captain on the boat. Well, a small boat leaves no option in such circumstances but to change back into swimming togs and jump into the sea for the tummy bug to do its worst. As I swam back to the boat half-hidden in the swell, it occurred to me that I take some quite surreal situations in my stride at times.

“Lucy la guerrera”, said one of the staff, after he’d asked me whether I wasn’t seasick.

“Si, un poco,” was my reply (amazing what a homeopathic remedy and a bit of concentration can do in such situations). That was the closest thing I ever got to a compliment at Equilibrio Azul, this bestowed after scribbling down all turtle measurements on the slate and taking turtle headshots as the little boat pitched precariously over inky seas in the fast-fading light.

I got back to the house after my twelve hour day to be told that the volunteer coordinator and friends were cooking for all. Did I want to join? Sure, I said.

In which case I needed to buy all the drinks. For eight people. The egalitarian maths of this rather eluded me but I paid my money in a tired daze and avoided all communal staff-coordinated-eating from then on.

But had all my Equilibrio Azul days been like that, I’d have got what I came for.

2) The sea was a new colour to me in Ecuador.
The Pacific under the overcast skies is a turquoise version of petrol, the variegated browns of the cliffs brooding over it around the turtle-swimming coast.

3) The Isla de la Plata,
so called (plata = silver) for three reasons: “el pirato ingles, Sir Francis Drake” is rumoured to have buried a never-discovered chest of silver on the island, the pre-Incan civilizations used the island for spiritual retreat (and human sacrifice), and it is full of sea-birds and so covered in (there’s no nicer way to put this without sounding stupidly euphemistic) birdshit – less offensive than it sounds as the island is a little desert and the whole lot is a fairly innocuous (silver) white powder.

The morning Angelo and I set off for the island, the Ecuadorian volunteer pulled out as she also had my tummy bug, a down-grading from the Dengue fever she’d originally claimed. (I, on the other hand, decided the tummy bug could do no worse on a desert island than at the Equilibrio Azul house.) In a summary phone-call from her six-day-weekend-party, the volunteer co-ordinator decided the new volunteer who had arrived at five thirty that morning should go in her place. It took me, Angelo and the nice college student from Missoula Montana to point out that after an overnight and sleepless bus journey and only a day and a half in the country, it might be an idea to give Dan a day to sleep and shop before sending him to an uninhabited island with no fresh water and no food except what we would bring. Oh yes, said the volunteer co-ordinator, he can go tomorrow.

Other than the park-rangers who rotate one week on, one week off, no one lives on the island. Tourist boats come in daily from around 10:30 and leave some time around 16:00, with a little snorkelling hop on their way back to the mainland. It was on these we hitched a lift there and back, and as the tourists are promised humpback whales, we got to see them too, jumping and singing.

Our work was three-fold: monitoring the tourists and their guides for the national park, monitoring the sea-birds and patrolling the beach at night for evidence of turtle-nesting.

The tourist monitoring was the most social but least interesting of the three and it never ceased to amaze me how great a proportion of the guides would flirt with me through the week, despite the fact I was only washing in the sea, had no mirror to hand but didn’t need one to tell me I was in dire need of leg-waxing. The attention was so undiscriminating as to be rather unflattering and my diplomacy (not to mention my gradually improving Spanish) was sorely tried on my last day when I was put in as an impromptu replacement for the park ranger, with responsibility for sending the groups on the various hiking trails with appropriate time intervals between each. I got a fair bit of the Ecuadorian equivalent of “Don’t you worry your pretty little head, darling, we know our job,” as they sauntered off regardless. At which point, I had no choice but to write on my sheet “NO ESPERA” (ungrammatical for “didn’t wait”) and point it out to the director of the national park who was visiting that day and very keen I should exert my authority on his behalf. At least he made a point of thanking me for the work, which is more than anyone else ever did.

4) The creatures of the isla.
Apparently, the Isla de la Plata is the only place in the world where you can find magnificent frigate birds, waved albatrosses, pajaros tropicales (I don’t know what those are in English), and blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies, all together. My first day, going off along one of the trails after the tourists had left, as instructed but with no map and no knowledge of the island, I got totally lost. (I felt less stupid about this when I later discovered that the path I should have taken to find my way back was the one marked “STOP”, i.e. “don’t come up here”.) The sun had finally come out (we had three and a half miraculously sunny days on the isla, unheard of at this time of year), so the first hour I was quite happy in the beauty of it all. By the end of the second hour, with no shade anywhere and no hat, no water left and no food for many hours now, I was beginning to worry, despite telling myself that the trails were all eventually circular, so I must find my way in the end, even if it meant 20km up and down some extremely steep hills. By the time I eventually came across Angelo sitting across my path, overlooking the sea, I nearly wept with relief.

I was in for a treat, however, as he was albatross-monitoring. And this huge bird, which looks so majestic in flight, really does look exactly like a cartoon on the ground. It’s too heavy to take off easily and so needs a long runway, exactly like a plane. Disney’s The Rescuers didn’t make anything up. All the bird needed was some goggles. Here it is, setting up for its second run-up (the first was too short):

I fell in love with the albatrosses that afternoon, and over the course of the week watched them at their courting dance, nesting and flying.

One very early morning, we were sent to count masked boobies. “Do the ones sitting down count as solteros?” I asked Angelo. Just as well I did, because it took my fellow-volunteer to explain to me that no, those ones aren’t single, they’re nesting, and furthermore, I was supposed to check what they were nesting on top of.

Hmmmm, so how does one convince a nesting mother to show one what she is so carefully guarding?...

My method was unorthodox but I proudly boast 100% success rate (which is more than the preferred staff method – a poke with a long stick – can do).

I asked.


With love.

“Please sweetheart, would you show me what you have under there?”

And she did. Every time. Though sometimes it required waiting a few minutes.

Here’s a masked booby showing me her blood-striped egg:

“San Francesco que habla con los animales”, joked Angelo, in his Spanish/Italian hybrid. But the day we were trying to work out what the albatross was sitting on top of, he was up for anything that might work. “Did you ask?” he wanted to know, as he came up behind me in the sharp brush the albatrosses like as nest-armour.

I did.

And she showed me.

Five times.

Which was just as well, because the thing she was hiding was so new we couldn’t distinguish it from her feet for the first three demonstrations, even with the binoculars. A brand new baby albatross.

“Ask her again,” said Dan, who was trying to get a picture.

“She’s already shown me five times. You ask,” I said, reluctant to push my luck with this new relationship. “But you have to do it with love.”

“Oh, with love!” he scoffed.

So of course, she didn’t show him.

Too many magic moments on the island to number… I frequently felt I was walking in a cartoon, with the whales thumping and jumping in the bays I overlooked from the cliffs, sitting, waiting for the tourists to appear. With the turtles popping their heads out of the water as I stood thigh-deep in the Pacific, washing the dust and sweat from my t-shirt. Avoiding the rats as I went to wash the pots with sand down by the seashore in the evening. The rats, an introduced infestation, that were everywhere at night. I didn’t squeak unless one virtually ran over me. As I said, I often wonder at what I took in my stride, as I walked out to brush my teeth or deal with the tummy bug.

It wasn’t turtle nesting season, so none of us saw any on our nightly patrols. The nature of these dark solo walks along the bay varied dramatically according to whether the full moon had risen, according to how many rats were out, according to how low or how high the tide was dancing.

Despite all the annoyances of human (dis)organisation and the lack of comfort, I loved the Isla de la Plata. I am beyond grateful that I got to see it when the tourists were gone and the birds held sway over their domain, that I spoke to the birds on lonely pathways and they whistled and squawked back at me, cocking their heads in characterful contemplation. I am beyond grateful for the sun that shone much of my time there, turning the Ecuadorian greys to a translucent palette of jewelled blues. Here is a link to my Facebook album of pictures, for anyone who would like to see more than these blue-footed boobies:

5) Dan and Angelo, my fellow volunteers.
Standing on the beach of Puerto Lopez, watching the fishermen heave in their dispiriting catch of young sharks and manta rays, ranting about Equilibrio Azul:

“I’ve made a point in my blog never to write anything I wouldn’t want anyone I’ve met to read,” I said, “but sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.”

“That’s not fair to spades,” said Dan mildly. “A spade is useful. It does some work.”

Angelo rarely complained directly about conditions at Equilibrio. His favoured mode of protest was a variation on the following monologue whenever we passed a building site, or any site of particularly unpleasant and dirty manual labour:

“Tomorrow we go there at seven in the morning. First we pay them. Then we work all day. We work without stopping to eat. We work for twelve hours. But first we must pay them. They don’t pay us. We pay them. And then we work.”

I leave you to imagine the Italian accent.

6) Flesh
After my time in uber-conservative Asia, it was rather welcome to see random couples holding hands or even snogging in the streets without causing so much as the bat of an eyelid. All over Ecuador, but most especially on the coast, women of all shapes and sizes (and a few men) sheathed themselves in minute quantities of ultra-tight lycra, legs and bellies and cleavages, and even the odd nipple, exploding out in lascivious abandon. In comparison, the Europeans and north Americans, in their mercilessly practical outdoorsy gear and sporty sandals, looked rather modest. These same gringos in Asia, dressed identically, looked like they might be auditioning for a strange new brothel.

Another source of ironic amusement was Puerto Lopez’s transvestite beauty parlour. Now Puerto Lopez consists of its fairly pleasant Malecon (seafront road), six other roads and a lot of mud. But it’s big enough to have its very own transvestite unisex beauty parlour, where relentlessly macho Puerto Lopezian men sit and have their hair cut by some extremely butch drag queens.

7) My last week in Ecuador,
visiting the mountains. Angelo joined me for this, and I was grateful for the company on long bus journeys and shared organisation. We started in Banos, a volcanic spa town, surrounded by waterfalls.

It wasn’t until our final morning there that the queue for the thermal baths was short enough for us to gain admittance. At 6:00am it was already busy, but well worth the wait to sit cooking in a volcano-heated pool watching the waterfall and then cooling down in the showers of water diverted from the icy fall I’d been admiring.

But perhaps the clearest memory of Banos is the strange squishy toilet seat in our hosteria:

8) Violently ill at Quilotoa.
“No it’s not mountain sickness.” I was getting impatient with the people who were trying to convince me of this. Violent cramps, uncontrollable vomiting and all the other nasty stuff that accompanies a bad tummy bug. The pain of the cramps echoed the pain of other distant mountains. In the Himalayas it was my hip that hurt so much it had me sobbing through the night and crippled for a week. I couldn’t help but wonder what the connection is for me with high mountains and pain.

The mini-bus had a flat tire. I stayed behind on the side of the Andean road, comatose in the bus, while the driver went to organise lunch and find a new tire (someone hadn’t replaced the spare), and the rest of the group hiked to the crater lake of Quilotoa (formed 800 years ago when the volcano blew its top and then gradually filled with water). I managed the odd trip to the very exposed field, under the impassive gaze of the Indios working in the one opposite. Yes, I take some very strange things in my stride. It occurred to me that I was probably better off there in the field, as the hosteria we were staying in had no water that day… I did eventually make it to the viewpoint to look over the lake underneath but I think I spent about eight hours that day in the bus, and was too ill to notice them passing.

In the Himalayas I’d had a strong sense of Shiva laughing with me in his mountain home, prodding me towards the amchi with her herbal pills and the staff of the Oriental who happily crushed them while regaling me with stories and hot water. Here, his Andean incarnation was taking care of the rather strong wind. By some fluke or divine providence, each time I was violently ill, the wind was blowing in the perfect direction to take it away from me. There was certainly no science on my part in this. It sounds like a small thing, but the thought of being covered in vomit (or worse) would have rendered a difficult day completely unbearable. And given the idiosyncratic nature of Hosteria PapaGayo’s laundry service, the evidence may have lingered for far too long.

So I continue to count my blessings where I find them.

9) The next day at Cotopaxi,
the highest active volcano in the world. Eating was painful, and so I wasn’t. Other than some unsurprising weakness, I seemed to be ok. The hike to 4810m was not easy. I wasn’t sure how much was the bug and how much was the altitude, but I was feeling rather strange. So I hung out at the refugio, dozing in the sun while most of the rest of the group hiked up another 200m to the glacier.

We were blessed with a gorgeous day. Here is Cotopaxi in all her glory:

The trek down was done on a mixture of feet, bus and bicycle. I am definitely more of a sea than a mountain girl, but it was very beautiful and stark and strange.

10) My last weekend in Ecuador in Otavalo.
Yes, I got that extra suitcase and filled it in the market of Otavalo. I like Otavalo. It’s very indigenous Indian (the South American version, should this confuse any of my Indian Indian friends) and for once many of them seem prosperous. The women wander about in their beautifully embroidered blouses and their woven sashes, the men with their long hair looking rather funky. People are frequently striking, dense black hair and dark slanting features.

The Saturday market is enormous.

“It’s very cold,” one trader told me, “because the volcano is moving…” Just as well I was flying out the next day.

The livestock market was a jumble of cows and pigs and dogs and guinea-pigs and puppies and chickens and kittens. I’ve probably forgotten a few. And a nice old lady who sold me one of the sashes she makes.

Otavalo is a nice mix of beautiful traditional crafts and surprisingly funky cheap cafes and bars. It may well be my favourite place in Ecuador.

So a good place to finish.

After nearly eleven months of wandering, I have completed my aerial circumnavigation of the Earth (I frequently think that if the world is indeed supposed to end in 2012, I am grateful to have seen a little more of it this year). East, east, east, always flying east... Last Sunday, I began my loop back to Europe watching another stunning full moon rising above pink clouds from the plane in Quito (ah yes, the story of my full moons)… I am now in Spain.

But the Spanish adventures are for next time.

Suffice to say that, in contrast to Montecristi (home of Panama hats – made only in Ecuador for complicated reasons), where every shopkeeper we met told me I was Spanish, nobody is making that mistake here.

My identity is as diffuse as it has ever been.
But whatever mine or yours, wishing you joy and sending you love.
Lucy x


  1. Beautifully written as always, and a pleasure to read. What an interesting time you had! x

  2. Lucy, such vivid descriptions and I feel for your illnesses. Good thing you have such a strong constitution. Those conversations with the masked booby were just so delightful! x