The Ecuador Equation

Riding on top of train“Bienvenidos,” the steward greets as I climb aboard the train. It’s the first step of my Ecuadorian adventure with my friend Susan, an adventure complete with train travel and an island cruise. Sounds as if it promises to be luxurious, doesn’t it?

But there are no such perks.

The final “all aboard” is shouted first in Spanish, then English, before pulling out of the station. Our dramatic rail adventure on the Expreso amid the Andes between Cuenca and the capital of Quito begins. I snuggle into my window seat and position myself for optimum viewing. For perhaps 100 yards we chug along a track so uneven, it would spell derailment for a higher-speed rail vehicle. Then we stop.

Vision Magazine The Ecuador EquationIn reverse, the train returns to the station platform. What is it, I wonder? Mechanical problems, explaining the rough outset? No, the explanation is caloric. A cart piled high with our box lunches was left behind.

Our second departure proves successful.

After an hour or so of observing the landscape from the safety and comfort of a glass window and padded seat, Susan and I opt for the X-treme version of the Expreso experience. We exit the train car at the next stop and climb an exterior ladder to the roof. A metal railing encircles its perimeter and wooden planks serve as seating.

Like guards from a watchtower we observe the Ecuadorian countryside – rows of bleached white Panama hats drying in the sun, children frantically waving as if to rock stars and animals shooed from the tracks by the blare of the whistle.

As the sole caretakers of our safety, Susan and I take turns being on duty. Potential culprits are tight tunnels, low-lying tree branches and power lines. And when spotted, we lie completely flat and perfectly still. It’s a bumpy, windy, potentially dangerous journey – complete with harried switchbacks – and it’s exhilarating.

But it’s only a preamble.

The cruise portion of the odyssey takes us 600 miles off the South American coast for an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit to earth’s most distinctive zoo – the Galapagos Islands. They’re named for their namesake tortoise and noted for their role in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

After a flight from the mainland to this famous archipelago, we board a 90-passenger cruiser, one of the largest vessels allowed to traverse the islands. “The tourists we seek are those who want to be Darwin,” says the purser upon our arrival. His desire unnerves me. I fear I’ll disappoint him because my knowledge of the cactus finch compared to the warbler finch is nonexistent.

But my fears are unfounded. Gratefully, I discover that my ignorance is shared by many fellow passengers. Although we’re united by a sense of adventure and a desire to commune with nature, most are self-described neophytes when it comes to the animal world.

Before setting foot on any island, we’re apprised of the laws of the land. Pen and pad in hand, we make notes: no feeding the animals, no food or drink may be taken onto the islands, nothing may be left on an island, only trash may be taken from an island. And never touch an animal. Why? They may like it. I learn that my reciprocation to a friendly gesture by an innocent animal might eternally alter its behavior.

On the isle of James, I observe this possibility firsthand. A sea lion pup wades up to Gary (a sociology professor) and playfully tugs his shoelaces. Careful to observe the edict, Gary remains seated on the surf’s edge with his arms outstretched, as if to say, “You can touch me but I can’t touch you.”

“Now you can swim with penguins,” I’m told on Bartholome. “Is it really possible?” I excitedly quiz Patty, our naturalist guide. “I cannot promise anything; sometimes they keep appointments with us, sometimes they don’t,” she deadpans. I swim around the tip of the island. An unidentified amphibious creature darts to my right, brushes against my leg and then encircles me. A penguin? I don’t know. I wasn’t swift enough to spot the “tease.” But I prefer to think I swam with penguins.

But the most comical moment is primate inspired. A female participant dresses in a skirt and heels for our first island visit. In contrast, Susan and I wear shorts, t-shirts and old tennis shoes. It’s a wet landing (arrival in knee-deep water) and we watch as the woman’s husband carries her through the water, over the slippery rocks and eventually onto shore!

Toward the end of our cruise, we have some beach time. Sitting on shore, I observe a massive bull sea lion patrolling his herd of females. Just right of this display, I see many of the cruise’s eligible bachelors surrounding a pink-bikini clad female perched on a beach towel. I turn to our naturalist guide and ask, “What is the biggest discovery you’ve made while here?”

“People are animals, too. They’re just in a different environment.”