One full month on the Galapagos. In a one year sabbatical I was going to spend a full 12th of it on these islands. I had this romantic idea of what that would be like: bathing with cute sea critters, gingerly stepping my way along paths overflowing with giant land tortoises, watching in awe as black marine iguanas cliff dive into the ocean and of course learning the tricks of the trade of running a luxury resort.
I had sent a message in response to a posting I'd found for a volunteer position at this luxury resort on Santa Cruz island. At first it seemed they wouldn't need me and told me that they had all the volunteers necessary until probably July. With that sad bit of insight I just figured that I would have to skip the Galapagos on this
trip and come back one day when I had money to burn. Just when I had given up hope I got a message back saying that, well, something had come up with the other volunteers and if I'd like to come I was more
than welcome. I dove into the offer without really understanding what I ment, and I booked a ticket to spend a month among the famous wildlife of the Galapagos.
It didn't go exactly as I had imagined it would. Really in retrospect, I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking; or if I even was for that matter. Mostly, I got wrapped up in the romantic idea of some magical place...and based on the experiences I'd had thus far, my expectations didn't seem all too unreasonable.
I flew into Baltra, was picked up by a man with my name written on a sign, who then proceeded to guide me through the rather convoluted process of leaving the airport. It broke down something like this: bus to boat to bus to car. Yes, even leaving the airport requires you to get on a boat here. The color of the water took my breath away: clear, vibrant turquoise...and it's warm. Holy cow, can this be real? I get to spend a month HERE?
Well, not exactly. It turns out the airport is far away from the town...but the luxury hotel where I was slated to work was far from both. It was in the highlands, or la parte alta, in local lingo. I wouldn't find this out until nearly a week later, but town is a full 45 min drive away...and that translates into a $15 taxi ride. Hitchhiking (what I was planning on doing to get around) was a non-option. There are practically no private cars, this whole place moves on the wheels of taxis.
When I arrived to Galapagos Safari Camp I was greeted by Katrien, the manager and my point of contact. She seemed a bit frazzled, but pleasant enough and told me sweetly that I would be staying in one of the tents and she hopes I enjoy the experience. As she was expecting the paying guests to return at any moment, she apologized for not being able to show me around but directed the driver to place my things in my tent. Lunch was available if I was interested and she offered me a smorgasbord of beverage options. Help yourself to whatever you want she told me. The same goes for breakfast...just take whatever you need. I took her word at face value and assumed that her open invitation was common practice. This job was an exchange, I work for food and accomodation, a similar concept to what I did in Puerto Natales. She didn't really have anything planned for me for that day. She just invited me to take a rest, freshen up and come back up to talk to her...whenever.
So for the first time in what felt like ages, I threw down my yoga mat and practiced in privacy. This month, I thought, will really be a month of recovery, meditation, moving forward and letting go. This month, I will have some of that space to really cultivate that part of me that yearns for spiritual growth. And looking out past the porch of my $500/night luxury tent, I smiled a smile from deep inside.
It was unfortunately a short-lived bliss, one that reminded me that outside beauty, luxury and general material opulence won't bring you a step closer to genuine peace, joy or gratitude. Swaddled in these seeming riches it was a matter of days before I was fighting a loneliness I had never really expected to face on this trip and
wondered in that heavy solitude, why exactly I ever started this stupid endeavor anyway. What am I doing here without the people I really love nearby? What am I wasting all this time and money for? What did I really expect to learn by running around South America? What, really am I trying to find? And for the first time in nearly 8 months, I actually considered calling it quits...I actually considered coming home early.
But my parents didn't raise a quitter. I remembered a lonely phone call made to my parents 6 years ago when I wanted to backpack my way around western Europe. Justin had just left me to go home and I was sitting alone, in Berlin without a plan or a companion, feeling scared, lost and overwhelmed...sick with fear. My mom got on the line and told me to come on home, my dad got on the line and told me that yes, of course I could come home, but that I'd never forgive myself. He reminded me that, I actually wanted just this, and this experience that I was going through, it will pass, that all that good I envisioned was waiting right there for me to acknowledge it. He was right and look fondly on the time that followed those sad dark days. I wouldn´t have traded it for the world. This sadness, this loneliness, this frustration, it will pass too.
I'd like to believe I've grown a bit since that summer after college. In some ways surely I have, but in my first few days here on the islands I felt like that homesick little girl calling mom and dad from a payphone in Berlin. I didn't like it here. I wanted to go home. I felt aliented, isolated, unwanted, somehow in the way...purposeless and usually hungry.
I didn't get a very warm welcome from the actual owners of the resort. They made it pretty clear those first few days that I wasn't really wanted, and they saw me presence there as a bit of a nusance...and me as a freeloader. I didn't have clear direction on what my work was supposed to be, I didn't have equipment to get it done, and aside from that my tent was inhabited by me, several VERY large spiders and a couple roaches...and the food I was supposed to be getting, well...I wasn't getting it. The internet connection was spotty at best, and it served to make me feel that much more alone. I couldn't even reach out to the ones that I was missing so dearly. I knew that I was on the Galapagos, I mean I bought a ticket here, I saw a big ass turtle on the way over, but it just didn't feel like it. It was hard to remember why exactly I thought I wanted to come. What was all the hype about anyway?
Time crawled on this island, every second moving forward with tremendous effort like the giant tortoise struggling to take a step. Minutes felt like days and days like weeks...and all of it without direction. By the third day I was already going stir crazy with island fever wondering how I would last a full month.
I was unclear on what exactly my role was supposed to be. I was under the impression that I would be working with the guests more in a role of service/hostess, but Katrien had other plans. She was hoping I could do some graphic design work for them. Fairly simple things really, but the details that would pull the image if the place together stronger. Stephanie, one of the owners wanted me to sort through thousands of pictures to select the best ones for marketing materials. Problem was I didn't really have a computer. These are things that require a computer. So really there was a lot of me sitting around twiddling my thumbs. And with lots of time to twiddle thumbs the human mind can go crazy.
I think I was starting to go crazy. But then I discovered it wasn't so bad, at least I'd have a friend to lose it with me. There was another girl here volunteering, but she actually was working with the guests. Natalie is a little rough around the edges at first, nice in a way that is hard to read, sharp and to the point, and confident in a way that could be mistaken for aggression. The first time I met her, she was tough to gauge, like a guard was up but impossible to grasp. I thought she didn't like me...I thought everyone here didn't like me.
Soon I discovered that we were not so different after all. Small, feisty things with lots of spunk and appetites for adventure. Natalie, it turns out, would become my friend, confidant and partner for yoga, sightseeing and tweenage-girl fun. With little effort her guard came down, genuine friendliness, warmth and generosity were what she was hiding. I was so glad to have her there, and in my moments of sadness, frustration and hunger, it was wonderful to have a friend.
Just like everything though, eventually you find a pattern, you find a rhythm, you find comfort in what was once unbearably uncomfortable. I was given plenty of time off to explore the island. I had access to a platform with a beautiful view of the island to lay out my mat and practice daily. I was given freedom to design fun little things for them and the equipment to pull it together. Eventually both owners warmed up to me a bit and saw the value in the work that I was producing...however there was always a shortage of food for the staff. After a while it became a bitter joke between Natalie and I, we were on the Galapagos Safari Camp diet...and my pants fit a bit looser than they had in quite some time.
Sure I still missed Justin and my family. Sure I wished that my experience there overall had been different, friendlier with more food...but I wasn't desperate to leave like the first days. Time started to move at a regular pace as I lost myself in work, yoga and nightly movies with Natalie. Before too long I was given extended time off to explore some of the other islands, and for once, it actually felt like I was on the Galapagos. When my island hopping finished, I was sad to go back to GSC dreading all the drama and stress that seemed to plague the place.
But wouldn't you know, it wasn't sooo bad. I actually felt welcomed back, like somehow I'd managed to get liked and missed. I only had a week to go before I would be flying back to the continent and a fair amount of work that I promised Katrien I would finish, but that wasn't it...this environment had changed. Even this strange, orginally unwelcoming place had become my temporary home and the hostile hosts had softened enough to be...well...not close family, but cousins at least. Natalie was there with open arms and a pile of movies, my one true friend here, my Galapagos sister.
I never had to call my parents with tears in my eyes, even though at first I longed to go home. I mulled over the idea of quitting and realized that if I left early, my dad was still right, after 6 years, I never would forgive myself. I stared that initial homesickness in the face and it stared right back...for 4 long days we battled and won. I said my quiet prayers for comfort, for solace, for peace...to recognize the incredible opportunity that I was still being given. I wanted this and I knew that a part of this journey would not be what I expected and could be lonely. I attempted to be grateful until it wasn't so hard to realize that, yes, I DO in fact have a lot to be grateful for. My life, my existence, my experience right now, is a lot like this island - something truly different, something spectacular, one small speck in a big old world.