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Finding Saskatchewan in the Galapagos

“Why are you going to the Galapagos?” asked my sister in a somewhat exasperated voice, “you don’t even like nature.” Good point as scenery generally bores me after about five minutes. And when it comes to landscapes, I tend to see similarities, rather than differences. My travel checklist is to meet interesting people, try different food, find local markets and collect travel stories.

Still, I had to go to the Galapagos simply because it was there. I’d booked a ticket to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, so a side trip to the islands was mandatory.

Galapagos, the far-flung islands of Charles Darwin and “Origin of the Species” fame off the coast of Ecuador, has long been the playground of the rich. But, being on a budget, I bought my ticket, booked a one-day cruise and made a hostel reservation well in advance, as December is high season in the southern hemisphere.

As the plane landed at Baltra airport, I peered out the window and speculated it could have been a farmer’s hay field somewhere around Foam Lake. The airport is more like an outback airstrip you would find in, say, Stony Rapids. Everyone lines up to have their bags hand-searched for contraband. No, it isn’t cocaine or marijuana they are looking for, it is plants or animals that could disrupt the delicate eco-system of the islands. Remember that nobody in Australia or New Zealand thinks rabbits are cute.

Representatives waved name plaques for those booked on expensive cruises. For the rest of us, getting into Puerto Ayora – the ‘”capital” of the island – was more of an adventure. I hopped on the free shuttle to the boat dock, paid 50 cents to cross on the ferry and then boarded the bus to town for $1.80. A shared taxi was only $5, but I wanted to travel with the locals. Ecuador, by the way, uses American dollars as its official currency, so figuring out the conversion rates isn’t a problem.

Puerto Ayora is a rather dusty, run-down town that could use a paint job and some street repair. Sort of like the old part of Melville in the 1960s. I sniffed the salty air – shades of Manitou Beach – and enjoyed the intense cobalt blue water as compensation for the dreary architecture. Later I grabbed lunch at an outdoor cafĂ© that overlooked the harbour and people-watched. In true island style, nobody seemed to be in too much of hurry. Influenced by the slow pace, I exhaled and relaxed.

A white taxi-truck anywhere in town cost $1 so I flagged one as it passed by. Fredy took me to the hostel I’d booked and I rang the bell. No answer. So I knocked on the door. Still no response.

What to do, what to do? Fredy understood my dilemma and in my bumbling Spanish I explained I was on a budget. He asked if $25 was okay and I nodded. Then he took me to the hotel-with-no name where I met English-speaking Cecilia. The hotel was yet to have the final papers processed so she couldn’t advertise. The ensuite room with a balcony and white sheets was heavenly. Really, it could have been a room in an older two or three story hotel in Humboldt or Swift Current.

My concern was that the pick-up time for the cruise I’d booked was 06:00 and it was from the hostel. Fredy promised to collect me at 05:45 the next morning. And, true to his word, he was there right on time. Once all the passengers from the various hotels were accounted for, we headed down the road for the 45-minute trip to the dock. The flat landscape could have been somewhere around Regina. Then we got into the trees and rocks, however, and it was more like northern Saskatchewan, perhaps somewhere close to La Ronge.

We stepped precariously into the dingy that took us out to the yacht. A collection of young, old and middle-aged. And, as so often happens, I was the only solo traveller. Early on I struck up a conversation with Lauren and her mother, Elody from Johannesburg.

Once on board, we ate a cooked breakfast, eased ourselves into the dingy and were ferried to Bartolemo Island. There, we trekked up the boardwalk to the summit for the “classic” view of Galapagos. Yes, the view was “nice”, but observing the way people – strangers who met on board – were interacting with each other was more interesting. A middle-aged women with an old-fashioned name – Ethel or Myrtle or something like that – took an instant dislike to me, barely returned my greeting and shot me killer looks throughout the day. Perhaps she has an aversion to women with red hair.

On our second stop we walked across the island to see the penguins. Except they aren’t there at that time of year, so our only encounter with wildlife was a sea lion who flopped up on beach to take a nap. But, yes, it was a “nice” sandy strip with tumbleweeds rather like, say, Etter’s Beach in the 1970s.

After lunch some of us went snorkelling. Treading water beside me, Kaitlan looked up at the massive volcanic wall in front of us. The composition was slightly different, but it looked a lot like the cliffs along the Churchill River near Stanley Mission. She sighed, “You know, the scenery here is okay, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.” I smiled in agreement. It may have been half way around the world, but it seemed a lot like Saskatchewan, except for the weather, of course as it was about plus 25 in December. It was affirming to know I wasn’t the only person on the boat who didn’t get excited about landscapes.

And people who want to experience some of the scenery of the Galapagos can do it in Saskatchewan. And, if you live in North America, getting to central Canada is considerably less expensive than flying to Ecuador and then on to the islands.

The Galapagos Checklist:

Interesting people. Tick: Cecilia, Fredy, Lauren and Elody.

Different food. Tick: The fare on the yacht was recognizable, but watching the chef whip up meals in a space the size of a closet was entertaining.

Local markets. Tick: While waiting for the return flight – and they are always late – I found a kiosk at the airport that offers a free Galapagos passport stamp. There I bought a cute little shot glass that I regularly use.

Travel story. Tick. The day on the boat is one I’ve told a few times.