At this stage of life, thumbing across Europe, wandering alone in Geneva on 37 cents a day, and scouring Rome in search of the Sistine Chapel is no longer my idea of travel.
Now, at a reasonably healthy 66, I journey accompanied with enough money to avoid worry, with friends I know, and with guides, cars and boats that are dedicated to helping me make the best use of my time - in comfort.
In April, I took my ninth trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. The Islands, a province of Ecuador, are located 600 miles (966 km) off the west coast. I’ve been going there since 1980, first as a birder, then as author of a guidebook to the Islands. As a result of the book, my last five trips have been as a facilitator of small groups of friends or friends of friends who want to take a trip that they often refer to as “the dream of a lifetime.”
Of the five of us on this trip, most are retired or on our way there, and all professionals - a novelist, a professor, a senior librarian, a researcher/writer (that’s me), and a performance measurement specialist (whatever that is!).
The other four women have travelled the world. Unlike myself, who whisked past the Eiffel tower at midnight, giving it a glance as I tried to get to the hostel before it closed, one woman has lived in Barbados for a year, another in India for eight months, and you could probably put a pushpin on a world map on nearly every continent they’d visited over the years. Real adventurers!
But now in our early to mid-senior years, there was some unease as we emailed back and forth about what we wanted to see and what we needed to bring. There were questions before we left and more as we travelled. Most concentrated on our bodies - our aging bodies. For one, the worry was about altitude sickness. Another wondered quietly if her somewhat plump body would be able to withstand even moderate hikes at 14,000 feet (4267 m). For another, it was how her stomach would hold out, if the water was okay and whether she’d get sick from the different, but delicious, food at the rainforest lodge or even at our charming boutique hotel in downtown Quito.
Everyone, especially me, knows this is the time of life to be particularly careful about falls. The trip would involve walking in rivers of mud in the rainforest, in deep dust or narrow trails on steep volcanic slopes, and hiking across recent lava flows with their cut-glass surface. We would move at our own pace, but still, it could taxing! By no means a doctor, all I could offer was advice about my own experiences. And I continue to learn what does and doesn’t work.
I always make sure my groups visit the three distinct environments of mainland Ecuador, not only the Galapagos. On the mainland are the staggeringly beautiful highlands with their varied markets and historic haciendas. We had our own minivan and guide, but the route is flexible and sometimes we would find ourselves walking alongside the various Indian peoples guarding their sheep, llamas and alpacas – sometimes framed by puffing volcanoes. The natural environment is truly stunning: orchids by the road, extinct craters now filled with turquoise water, huge waterfalls, including one with an open-sided cave you can crawl along until you come out under the falls!
One morning at breakfast, one of our fab five was missing. She had become worried about her headache and nausea. The doctor came quickly, reassured her that it was altitude sickness, told her to take it easy and it would go away. Fifty-five dollars for the house call, it was well worth the peace of mind.
Next, we visited the rainforest, a 40-minute plane ride from Quito, which is 8,000 feet (2438 m) above sea level, up and over 21,000-foot (6401 m) mountains and a then a sharp descent to the Amazonas region. It takes a few frightened moments to realize that the grey mist in the plane isn’t smoke, but fog formed from the sudden change of temperature and humidity. In the rainforest, we stayed in well-equipped thatched cabins, and went for nature walks morning and afternoon. Each day there was a siesta, a great dinner and then we’d go out in the big canoes at night, while the guide held a searchlight out front. At dusk, the monkeys flipped from tree to tree alongside us and night birds quietly headed for their roosts. As dusk became night, the beam of the light caught the eyes of a caiman, a local crocodile, or picked out land animals coming to the lake for a drink.
Not one to always heed my own advice, while in the rainforest, I was limping badly from carrying luggage that was far too heavy. Large doses of an anti-inflammatory kept me going but I was awash with pain for the whole trip. Then came my misstep on the stairs leading up to our cabin. I just bashed into one step ahead of me, but the steps had steel retaining planks. The gash blew my chance to swim in the lake. The belief is that fresh blood attracts those toothy piranhas, or so the bartender said. And with blood trickling down into my shoes, who was I to argue with a bartender?
The last week of the trip was saved for the Galapagos. Living on a 12-passenger boat with a licensed guide on board, we toured from island to island, and viewed everything from penguins and sharks to blue-footed boobies. We also spent a day in the main town, Puerto Ayora.
Having learned the hard way about seasickness, I took my anti-nausea pills days ahead of our launch. And I felt fine, but I spent the entire night vomiting. Heavy seas and a pitching boat also played havoc with one of the others. Despite the first-night drama, it didn't happen to us again, and we came home with one more funny story to share.
Our first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we were shown how the endangered tortoises are rescued. The scientists start with harvested eggs that are incubated until hatched and then live with their cohort until approximately five years old, when they are returned to their home island. By that time, they are safe from predatory birds or any remaining cats or dogs and old enough to reproduce on their own.
Then there was the question of snorkelling or, more importantly, how we'd look in wetsuits. We decided looking chubby in a wetsuit means nothing when swimming with a sea lion, sharing the shallows with a marine iguana and, for a little while, are part of the sea.
Even with my fall and rough-water overnight “challenge,” my only real worry was that, in my role as facilitator, I might somehow offend someone. One day, I saw the group talking quietly to each other, clearly having picked a moment when I was at a distance. Then, to my further dismay, one of them came over and firmly told me they wanted to meet with me that night in one of their cabins. “Oh no,” I thought, “it's some kind of intervention.”
That evening, I entered the cabin and sat gingerly on a bed. “Marylee,” one woman said, “we want to thank you for taking us to this most wonderful place. We wouldn't have done it without you.” Then, they presented me with a gift. Astonished, my eyes teared up and my voice quivered as I thanked them.
Although I was the facilitator and an experienced visitor to all the places we went, I was proud of my friends. They’d prepared physically before we left home, read, talked and emailed about every part of the upcoming trip and poured over my photos from previous trips. They walked over blistering black lava flows and were paddled along winding forest Amazon tributaries, where snakes peered from above. They braved one night of nausea in a bad storm, and a pounding headache at 14,000 feet (4267 m). All the while, they learned from excellent guides in every environment - the rainforest, the Highlands, historic haciendas and traditional markets, and the vastly diverse Galapagos Island.
They gave as much to me as I did to them. And we did just fine!
JULY 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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