Archive for January, 2016


Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

The Galapagos Islands are a world of extremes. For any land animal to have survived here, it had to adapt to some seriously harsh climates, and do so only after having swam, drifted, or flown many hundreds of miles to arrive. The sea is teeming with life and it’s a fish eat fish world out there. Penguins swim effortlessly through the water to chase fish, giant manta rays scoop plankton by the pounds, and schools of shark populate every nook and cranny.

When we first arrived at the Galapagos, we were drenched in sweat and hard pressed to find a reasonably priced meal for a hungry family of five. We’d already paid $500 bucks just to step foot on the islands and $15 for the steamy 45 minute bus ride was just another indicator that we weren’t on the mainland anymore. By the time we arrived at our hotel, Semilla Verde, where we had certain expectations based on the price and those expectations were not met, we were wondering what in the world we were doing in the Galapagos.

Ah, sweet expectations there to disappoint again. Fortunately once I clarified what my expectations had been, the hotel quickly made some adjustments to accommodate us. However, this really seemed to anger the woman who ran the hotel (think giant house made into bed and breakfast). Through gritted teeth and forced smile she explained to me how I had been wrong in my expectations as she simultaneously changed things to please us. Now I’m one of those demanding, privileged and hard-to-please tourists. Guess I cannot escape myself no matter where I go. The air was heavy with heat and moisture and now all our hearts were heavy, too.

We quickly decided we needed to get out of there for some fun, and we visited Las Grietas, a giant crack that mixed sea water with rain water and offered a cool reprieve, though it was packed with people and populated by biting flies. The next day we had a good time at Tortuga Bay and acquired sun burns to prove it. After a couple days of being on the island, we started to look for a “last minute” cruise, notorious for good deals for the traveler with some flexibility. By very good fortune, we were able to get on a last minute cruise… literally the last 120 minutes possible…. as we found space on a first class yacht that was leaving the port in 2 hours.

The cruise itself will go down as one of the most memorable experiences of my family’s life. It was also a welcome reprieve to the heavy feeling hotel and the endless decisions that are made when traveling with emerging plans. Of course the food and the accommodations were spectacular in and of themselves.

However, the amenities will not be what we will remember. We will remember how we played. And it wasn’t the crew that reminded us. It was a sea lion.

It was off the coast of Rabida, with it’s red sand beach, that we encountered our first playful sea lion. It was a young one, as the mother had been with it prior to our arrival and she seemed to take the opportunity to let us entertain her cub while she got some other things done, because we didn’t see her again. A Galàpagoan play date.

The young sea lion swam circles around us, seeming to dare us to swim as deep and spin as gracefully as she. The children tried, plunging clumsily down 6 feet and floating to the surface to grab the much needed oxygen. The sea lion started to bite our flippers, gently grabbing the ends in her mouth and giving a tug. This incited squeals from Rubi, who was part startled and part delighted. We followed that sea lion for nearly an hour, seeing the different coral is showed us, and trying out our diving and spinning and upside-down swimming skills.

We returned to the boat exhilarated. That playful sea lion demonstrated to us what is meant by the commonly heard statement: “the wildlife are not afraid of humans on the Galapagos.”

It was off the coast of Santa Fe that another encounter with a playful sea lion reminded us of the power of this type of interaction. While snorkeling with a sea lion, Brady reached out to touch it (against his better judgement, as this is frowned upon in the Galapagos). The sea lion is an agile swimmer and dodged his attempt successfully in spite of the close proximity. It was 20 seconds later that the sea lion swooped up from under Brady in a spiral swimming motion, only to reach out her fin and touch Brady. “Ah-ha!”, she seemed to say. “I got you!”

Of course most humans love to interact with wildlife in this manner, and it is clear to us that these encounters were the highlights, even as we also saw blue-footed boobies diving into the water like bullets, sea turtles with their easy pace in the water, and sharks nonchalantly swimming past us with their distinctive swagger.

Yet, the power of play goes beyond that between a human and an animal. The power of play between humans is a phenomenon that can change one’s experience as well.

We were dining in a small restaurant very near our lovely hotel on Isabella where we would ultimately spend a week. The restaurant has black gravel floor and only a few tables. The woman waiting on us was juggling a fussy one-year-old by switching between carrying him and putting him in a playpen. Anyone who has raised children knows that the play pen works to contain a child, but never to entertain him. His fussiness escalated into yelling after being in the play pen, and though his pleas did not bother me, I empathized with the mom who was trying to work and I wanted to help. After all, those days are long gone for me and will likely only return if I ever have grandchildren.

I tentatively approached the playpen. My food had yet to arrive and the mom was in the kitchen cooking. What else did I have to do other than entertain this little boy? The play pen smelled sour, like spilled milk and soiled cloth. I approached the baby gingerly, knowing not to come on too strong to a little human who prefers his mother above all else. I showed him how my empty water bottle made sounds when I tapped it against the gatorade bottle in his pen. I picked up his stuffed animal and made it walk along the perimeter of the pen, making animal sounds, slowly moving to the child’s foot, where the stuffed animal bounced happily. The child began to grab for the empty water bottle and the stuffed animal. Victory! I’m in.

A silly game of peek-a-boo brought on smiles, and that near-laughter of a baby that makes adults act super silly in their attempt to get the prize. The boy picked up soggy crackers from the crevices of the damp blankets in the pen, and I made chomping and “yum-yum” sounds on his behalf. His interest in his gatorade bottle peaked and after seeking permission from his mom, “¿eso es para beber?”, I gave him a couple of swallows. Jack pot! That cold sugary drink hit his mouth and we were instant friends.

My food arrived and I returned to join my family and the atmosphere in the restaurant had shifted, at least for me and the boy. The mom was smiling and the boy was no longer crying. My family seemed relieved that the approach to the pack-and-play had been a success and not an embarrassing mom-flop.

The magic of the playful encounter was yet to show itself, though. At the end of the evening, as we left the restaurant, the boy blew me kisses with his mom’s aid, as she moved his hand from mouth to air with the word “besos, besos” in a sing-song tone. I blew kisses, too.

The next day we saw the family on the sand streets of Isabella, standing on the corner next to the shops that board up for most of the heat of the day. I said “¡mi amigo!” and the family smiled broadly and began encouraging “besos”. We blew kisses to one another in passing.

That evening when we returned to the restaurant (hey, why mess with it when you got something good…), we were welcomed enthusiastically by the woman who was working. Though she was not “the mom”, and “the boy” was not there, she seemed to know us as she beamed at us. After dinner, she even gave us free desert! Oreo ice creams all around. And dinner that night was substantially cheaper than the previous two nights had been.

That playful encounter between me and the child may or may not have been the catalyst to a lighter atmosphere in a dimly lit restaurant, or a smaller bill on a very expensive island. It certainly was fun, regardless of the outcome.

A few days ago as I was sitting on the patio of La Casita De La Playa, the hotel we will hate to leave this afternoon, I watched Frigates play with a piece of plastic. The way they swooped about in the air, tossing it from one to the other, reminded me of the Frigates I had seen flying behind our cruise yacht, fighting over a fish one had caught. But this was not a fish! This was clearly a piece of blue plastic. Surely they must know this was not a fish. Yet they approached the actions just as they did when it was a catch. Playing? They must be playing.

This morning as Brady and I took a morning jog along the sweltering hot 4 KM stretch of white sand beaches sprinkled with lava rock and iguanas, we saw a Pelican swoop down so low to the water that his wing touched the surface. I’ve seen Pelicans fly close to the water, then dive down in a clumsy plop and come up to swallow their catch whole. It’s entertaining to me, and a lot of effort for them. This was different. This pelican didn’t dive and didn’t appear to be looking around, he was simply flying along with another pelican, close to the water, close enough to just skim the surface of the shallow glassy ocean water with his feather. Playing? He must be playing.

The Galapagos have taught us a lot. We have learned how life has adapted in marvelous and shocking ways to this hostile land environment. We have learned how the islands are sinking back into the ocean even as volcanic activity creates new islands. We have learned not to trust taxi drivers with the purchase of boat tickets and how to find affordable food to eat in a town that gets monthly boat shipments from a mainland 100s of miles away. Perhaps the lingering lesson that we will carry forward with us is the power of play. Playfulness is connection. It’s laughter, it’s wonder, it’s spontaneity and it’s risk. It’s a force of life, as important as working and eating.


**** I’ll try to post a blog full of photos soon. It’s very hard just to get this text uploaded right now!

To Say Goodbye

Monday, January 4th, 2016

We’ve said good bye to a year and a town. 2015 is over and people around the world bid farewell to the old, and developed aspirations for the new. In Mindo, it’s part of the culture for folks to build paper matche effigies of themselves- or buy puppets of the Simpsons or Chuckie (evil doll with a knife), or build bodies from saw dust and place masks on them- then burn them at midnight. It represents the old life dying away, I think. Also, there is one hour where men dress up as women and dance in the town square. I can tell you my philosophies on what that means, but I’ll refrain.

I’m very pleased that we lived in Mindo for 5 weeks and were able to participate in such a fun and interesting new year celebration, and more profoundly, to live in a connected way with the community. I also look back deliciously, and with some bad taste, on what 2015 brought to me. I am happy to say goodbye to 2015 and goodbye to Mindo.

We have many complex experiences around saying goodbye. My long time friend, Amy, teases me about how abruptly I say goodbye when it’s time to get off the phone. We both know the conversation is over, so I simply say, “alright, bye, talk to you later” and hang up. Amy prefers to take leave in a lengthier fashion. She prefers: “Good to talk to you. Hope you have a good weekend. Take care. Let’s talk again soon. Thanks for calling. Good-bye for now. See you later.” But we know it’s over, I exclaim. Let’s just say good-bye, I assert. She insists that it’s too harsh that way, and that it’s best to ease into these kinds of things.

We certainly eased into our good-byes in Mindo. Once we decided not to stay for the entire month of January, we had more than a handful of conversations where we explained to our acquaintances and connections that we would be departing from Mindo 4 weeks earlier than we originally planned. Then, we had more donations that we had to distribute to families and the school. There were bus tickets to buy, things to pack (too many things) and a house to tidy as to leave in a proper state. Then again, there were explanations to offer. Why were we leaving earlier than anticipated? Because we want to travel more, we answered. This good-bye lingered, leaving me a bit antsy.

To say good bye to the old year, we may choose to simply flip the page on our calendars and struggle with remembering to write 2016 rather than 2015 when we sign the date. Or, we may write resolutions for the coming year, putting into mind and word what we hope to see in our lives. Perhaps we gather with friends, write letters then burn them, or spend lots-of time building a puppet version of ourselves to light aflame at midnight. Many folks my age or older are applauding themselves on Facebook for making it to midnight before falling asleep. Even more don’t even try that!

Goodbyes are complex because they mean we are leaving, or somebody is leaving us. How can I love you and still say goodbye? How can an employee respect her colleagues and still choose to leave? How can a mom want to be with her family and still want to be alone at times? How can a lover end the relationship? How can that person die on me, dammit?!

We have all heard that saying goodbye to the old is how we make room for the new. Okay, this makes sense. The old year must pass away for the new year to begin. The old habits must go away to make room for new (hopefully more growthful and healthful habits). The lover must leave so we can evolve, the mom must leave so she can rest and know herself. That beloved must die so that the life cycle may continue. We’ve heard these reasons.

We must say goodbye to our little wooden, open-air style home in Mindo so we can see more of Latin America. We only have 3 months of 1 of them was spent in this tiny town.

It occurs to me now, though, that to say good bye is more than making space for the new or allowing for change and growth.

To say goodbye is to honor the independence of the person, the relationship, the thing.
To take a thoughtful departure is to see what the other has to offer, to take it in, then to take leave. To depart is to acknowledge that the beings have once been united, that the connection was once solid and physical, and that it was real. To say good bye is to acknowledge that connection, then to end it.

We blow out the candle. We let the fire go out. The light is no longer needed, there is no longer any fuel. Only a person gone mad (or, granted, a very cold person) tries to revive a fire that smolders with only old coals and no more wood. Only a fool tries to use melted wax to light the wick. We see what once was, we hold it tenderly or with an iron fist, but it leaves us nonetheless, and we must release, we have no other sane option.



Me standing in front of a burning effigy on the main street of Mindo on New Years Eve


We may not understand fully why others leave us or why we choose to leave people and towns and jobs and lovers and friendships and situations. We have the reasons we tell others, and the reasons we tell ourselves in the privacy of our own minds. Sometimes the stories overlap and sometimes they contradict. Either way, the leave-taking is a ritual of acknowledgement. We must look at that which we will depart from and say, “I see you, and now we depart, and that is complicated and private and meaningful.”

Together, around the world, we said goodbye to 2015, the year that brought us all victories and defeats, joys and injuries, or simply the ho-dum of a stable and predictable life. We look at it in a reflective way, if we are to embark on the new year thoughtfully. In parallel, my family says goodbye to Mindo. Her relentless dank damp moisture. Her insects and street dogs and roosters. Her friendly people who rarely pass on the street without offering a greeting. Her rushing rivers and darting hummingbirds. Her unfinished dirt streets littered with dog poop and snails and dead frogs. Her sheer vertical luscious cliffs, adorned with clouds. We do this by looking at her and all she offered, thanking her for what she gave, holding to our private and public stories, engaging in all the leave-taking rituals until it’s almost awkward, then we walk away, with our faces toward the burning Ecuadorian sun and our hearts open to what may come next.