Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Logbook: On The Equator

Ontheequator2Early Monday morning we tied up at the dock in Manta, Equador. From the ship, the port has that unmistakable look of a fishing town. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of fishing boats of various sizes and styles drift at their moorings with a back drop of two story buildings arrayed in a semi-chaotic jumble. As usual, I was ready to go ashore, look around, get on-line, etc., so I was at the head of the line when the crew opened the hatch to disembark. Straight down the gangway and across the pier to the gate, I showed my papers to the armed guard and was promptly turned back. Apparently I was not “authorized” to walk along the quay to town, and no amount of my Spanglish nor showing of my credentials succeeded in convincing the guard otherwise. So, I turned around and went back to join the throng of passengers that was gathering to take a shuttle bus to the “town center.” I have put “town center” in quotes because, well, it was kind of a joke. The bus rolled right through what was obviously -- to me, at least -- the “center” of town around the docks and continued toward the edge of town where it stopped to drop us all off at a shopping mall. Not a “market” with interesting character, mind you, but a modern shopping mall full of retail shops just like you might find anywhere in the world. It wasn’t appealing to me -- nor, frankly, to any of my fellow passengers -- and there wasn’t even any internet connection.

So, I caught a bus back into the “center” and walked a couple of blocks to what was obviously the nicest hotel in town where I inquired about internet facilities. I was graciously directed to the hotel’s business center where I went on-line and got to work. After that, I went outside and had a delightful negotiation with a mother and daughter duo over the price of a Panama hat. You probably know that Panama hats are all made in Equador and they are perfect for the climate -- white to reflect the sun, wide-brimmed for shade and able to be rolled up and put in my pack when not in use. I then spent a little time wandering around the “center” but it was totally uninteresting. Manta may be the “tuna capitol of the world”, but that’s about all it has going for it. In due course, I walked to the gate of the quay, flagged down a shuttle bus returning from the mall, and got on for the short ride through the gate and back to the ship. Early in the evening we set sail and headed just about due west for the Galapagos Islands.

Yesterday was a day at sea, notable for a couple of things. First, we had picked up in Manta a fairly large contingent of Equadorian Park Naturalists and they spent the entire day overseeing preparations for our visit to the Islands. The passengers attended a mandatory lecture about preservation of the Islands’ ecosystem. (For which there are several pages of rules, that can be summed up as follows: “Don’t take anything ashore. Don’t bring anything back. Don’t touch anything. Don’t feed anything.”) The crew spent the day madly dashing about the ship fulfilling strict and stringent quarantine requirements such as covering all of the ship’s plants in plastic or stowing them in sealed rooms, clearing all the open fruit and food bowls from eating areas, setting traps for alien insects and the like. It was quite an ordeal, and I was very impressed with the crew’s diligence, positive attitude and restraint in not murdering the demanding naturalists who, from my perspective, spent much of their time eating plate after plate of food from the buffet line. I may not be taking it all in an appropriately positive light, but I got the sense that the “Galapagos Gestalt” is all a little bit overdone by people with patches on their khaki shirts. We’ll see.

Ontheequator1Anyway, the other highlight of our day at sea yesterday was the traditional “crossing the equator” ceremony. The performers from the ship’s theater company -- about whom I cannot say enough good things for their tireless enthusiasm, song-and-dance abilities and much appreciated youthful vitality -- really outdid themselves! King Neptune, Queen Neptuna, pirates and sirens held court as the “polywogs” on board crossed the equator for their first time and became “shellbacks” in the grand tradition of being assaulted with various left over foodstuffs from the galley. A good time was had by all!

This morning we arrived at San Cristobal Island and dropped anchor. Because of our large number of passengers -- Discovery is the largest ship to visit the Galapagos -- shore excursions are arranged in small groups and not everyone has one every day while we are here. I am in the latter category and had nothing scheduled, so I waited until all of the day’s groups had disembarked then hopped a tender to the dock for a little independent exploration. My first Galapagos experience was the need to carefully step around a group of sea lions that were snoozing on the dock at the foot of the landing ladder. They were completely oblivious to our existence and didn’t even twitch as a few dozen of us passed by! My second Galapagos experience was a five minute walk the length of the “town’s” main street -- past a redundant array of restaurants, tour purveyors, etc. -- and reaching a guarded gate beyond which I would need to be in the presence of a naturalist. Over 97% of the Islands are National Park territory, and any “unguided” forays are strictly prohibited. So, I turned around and started walking back through “town.” As I did, my third Galapagos experienced commenced in the form of a tropical downpour that had everyone scurrying for cover. The rain showed no signs of letting up, so I worked my way from awning to awning back to the tender dock and went back to the ship. I spent the rest of the day further tweaking my on-board internet access -- with some success! -- and otherwise enjoying some quiet time. Tomorrow I am scheduled to make the first of my two shore excursions and I shall endeavor to share what I can of the Galapagos Islands on The Voyage of Macgellan!

No comments: