As I head out of Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz, I feel the sun piercing my shoulders right through my sunscreen-infused shirt even though it is only 9 a.m. Passing more Palo Santo trees than snack stores, I realize I’d better buy water so I can make it the five kilometers to the Playa Brava (Angry Beach) and the nearby Playa Mansa (Gentle Beach) of what is known as Tortuga Bay. As I search for the paved path to those beaches, passers-by direct me to a ranger station on a hill. Swigging down the first of the two bottles of water I’ve just bought, I struggle up the 100+ stone steps to the station, along with a twenty-something American couple also groaning with fatigue. “And just last week, we climbed Machu Picchu!” the young woman exclaims, “This is like déjà vu.”
“Oh,” I say, “I thought it was just me.” As an arthritic senior citizen traveling alone for the first time, I am ambivalent about physical challenges. I don’t want more pain, but going out of my way to avoid it only takes up more emotional space than I am willing to allow. I don’t know whether to deny or succumb to my aging. Or more likely there’s a stance in between I just haven’t arrived at yet. It all happened so suddenly. Yesterday, I was walking, running, and swimming miles, hitting line drives, and smashing a little rubber ball against the wall with my racquetball racquet. Today with my bone-on-bone knees, I can’t chase or even lift my 5-year old granddaughter, and I dread the stairs, especially descending them.
I hadn’t planned to go to the Galapagos, especially by myself, but the academic writing-for-publication workshop I was scheduled to facilitate for an Ecuadorian research agency was suddenly cancelled. I was facing six free days in Ecuador, so instead of complaining about the agency’s disorganization and griping about the money they would never pay me, I booked a flight and a hotel on the island of Santa Cruz. At first, following the advice of my friends from Quito and my two sons, all of whom had gone Galapagos Island-hopping, I tried to find a short, inexpensive cruise, but so few days in advance, not much was available, and I feared overpaying only to be trapped on a mini Ship of Fools––although at least we’d all be captive travel companions to one another. I decided that instead I would book a day tour when I got to Santa Cruz, which by itself was full of appealing places to hike and swim, that is, if my arthritic knees could hold out.
As much as I wanted to avoid pain, I wanted to avoid loneliness, which I find equally debilitating––the second reason I had never traveled alone. Why not share new sights, sounds, and tastes with others rather than find myself longing for others to experience them with? And if problems arise—if the bus doesn’t come, if the ATM doesn’t work, if I get hurt–– I would have people with whom to brainstorm solutions or just to lean on. This trip would be both a physical and a psychological test for me in my state of double vulnerability. Could I stay healthy in body and mind? In the travel writing course I teach, we read from a collection called Going Alone, stories of brave and admirable women venturing out into the wilderness on their own for days and weeks on end. My students probably think I choose these stories because I identify with these adventurous travelers, but in fact, their experiences terrify me because I fear being on my own in new places and situations.
At the ranger station, we have to sign in and swear that we won’t swim at the Angry Beach, which is unguarded. This vow presents no problem; even when I was a strong and buff lifeguard in my teens and twenties, I would never swim at an unguarded ocean beach, even a docile one. Growing up on Long Island, I learned to respect the ocean. On the ranger’s wise recommendation, I buy more water—two liter-sized bottles––and add them to my backpack. The path to the beach is beautifully paved, and the exotic plants growing on both sides—Candelabra Cactus and Prickly Pear Cactus or Opuntia—are labeled. Such a tasteful, well-designed national park! And to the relief of my painful knees, the trail requires little uphill or downhill walking. Yet the path seems endless. Where is the beach? Surely I have walked almost 5K already. Despite gulping down my first liter of water, I am sweating under my sun hat, but instead of cooling off from the perspiration and feeling protected from the sun, my head is so heat-stroke hot, I can’t think straight. Should I drink the rest of my water? Return to town? I take some shade breaks under the shelters along the path, but my brain is still burning. I force myself to keep walking until finally I spy a sparkling aqua expanse in the distance.
It isn’t a mirage. I hobble down a flight of steps to greet the pounding, thunderous waves of the angry Playa Brava. But the beach is even hotter and more stifling than the path, and it is completely unsheltered from the cruel sun. Although there is a shack that rents kayaks, there is nowhere to buy more water, and I am running out. I have to find the gentle Playa Mansa so I can jump in and swim and cool off my head, but where is it? As I trudge slowly through the thick sand on the verge of delirium toward some mangroves at the end of Playa Brava, I ask the few people I pass, first in Spanish, then in English if they look confused, but no one knows or even seems to care. They also seem remarkably comfortable in the heat (because they are young?) when I’m about to collapse.
Eventually I come upon huge piles of lava rocks enclosing a little pool of water where a few tourists are swimming with dozens of marine iguanas and fish. An oasis! Is this the Gentle Beach? I can almost hear a long “sssss” when my nearly cooked body and head hit that cool, delicious water. I won’t die of heat prostration after all. An American couple, who doesn’t know where the Gentle Beach is either, lets me use their extra snorkeling gear, but my mask keeps filling with water, so I return it to them and swim free with the iguanas. They look like creepy creatures out of a science fiction movie, but they are harmless—just like the seals back in Puerto Ayora, who are as domesticated as dogs. I am blissfully floating on my back when I hear a male voice behind me, asking me in Spanish, “Will you be wanting to return to Santa Cruz? I have a water taxi.” I look up to see a tall, dark, dashing young man haloed by the sun—a cross between Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman. Has he come to rescue me? It is a bit soon to leave Tortuga Bay, especially now that I’m wet and comfortable, but I dread hiking back to Puerto Ayora in the midday sun with only 12 ounces of water. I’d never make it.
“Sure, thanks for the offer. When are you leaving?”
“In 45 minutes.”
“OK, it’s too hot for me to walk back to town. By the way, is this the Playa Mansa?”
“No, see that sand path through the mangroves?” he points. You take it to the Playa Mansa—it’s just two minutes away. That’s where my water taxi will leave from.”
“OK, see you in a little while,” I say to my handsome savior, as I head toward Playa Mansa on the other side of the mangroves and the huge pile of lava rocks. What a stark contrast to the Playa Brava! Not a ripple, let alone a killer wave, but the water is turbid compared to the clear iguana pool. The tourists there seem content to lie in the shade of some bushes, waiting for the water taxi to depart, but I stay floating in the cloudy water until it is time to get in the boat, fearing the huge horse flies on the beach. I am allergic to their vicious bites; once in New England, right before a neighborhood and childhood reunion, a horse fly bit me on the forehead, which swelled up so big that it came down over my eyes, Klingon-style. I had to tell my neighborhood playmates I hadn’t seen in over forty years that my adult appearance was normally more earthling-like.
The passengers returning to Santa Cruz in the water taxi are middle-aged Germans, an American couple my age, and two twenty-something American girls in bikinis who had arrived at Tortuga Bay in the taxi driven by my hero. “We’re in for a rough ride,” they say. “That guy drives headlong into the waves of Playa Brava. Be careful that you hang on tight to the boat so you don’t fall out.”
We react to this news by hugging our life jackets (which buckle, but don’t zip–– the zippers are broken) closer to our bodies and gripping the sides of the boat. Amongst a flurry of activity that includes revving up the motor to a deafening roar, Piloto has us quickly change seats to balance the boat. He orders me to move to the back by myself and sit in the middle as ballast, which means I have to stop talking to the American woman my age. I am suddenly aware that my first meaningful conversation in days has just ended (Was I lonely? Needy?), at the same time I fear our impending close encounters with the now even higher and more threatening waves of La Playa Brava.
Piloto doesn’t exactly head directly into the towering waves, but tries to find the lowest part of the wave to drive through. When forced to top a huge one, he cuts the engine to move through it more smoothly. He uses the water taxi like a surfboard on a roller coaster of surging waves, up and down, up and down. “Whoa, Whoa!” we moan, our intonation rising and falling with the rise and fall of the boat, our stomachs knotting with thrill and anxiety. Clutching our life jackets more tightly, we are getting drenched as Piloto carries on a shouting conversation with his buddy (the first mate?) who is helping him navigate. Especially impressive, or simply crazy, he sometimes stop steering, does an about face, and walks a few steps back to adjust the buoys in the rear of the boat to balance it. If the boat capsizes, I wonder how long I’d last bobbing on the high seas in a flimsy life jacket, as my swimming skills have surely atrophied along with my arm and leg muscles. But eventually we see the outline of Santa Cruz in the distance and the water starts to calm down. We drop the Germans off appropriately enough at the Playa de los Alemanes (Beach of the Germans) and the Americans off downtown. Piloto gallantly helps me off the boat, as I step carefully over a huge seal sunning himself on the dock.
Other hot hikes to exotic swimming spots on Santa Cruz are no less dramatic. One day I hike a lava rock-strewn path to Las Grietas (The Crevices), a saltwater swimming hole in a stunning, narrow canyon that I need to go down dozens of rickety steps to reach. Ouch! Negotiating my way between the ankle-busting rocks is tricky, but the hike isn’t as hot because I can cool my head off at Playa de los Alemanes on the way. After another torrid hike to Playa de la Estación––the beach near the Darwin research station with the giant tortoises––I decide not to swim because I am the only one at the beach and the water is not only rough but full of lava rocks. Instead, I sit on the shore in shallow water with my legs out in front of me, but when the tide comes in, the waves are suddenly stronger and dash me up against the sharp rocks. They scrape up my right arm so hard that it bleeds profusely, which means it’s less likely to get infected, I hope, as I staunch the blood with a hotel towel. But the lacerated skin and flesh look horrible, so on the hike back, I ask a park ranger, making sure to choose one about my age, how to treat it, something I would normally ask my husband about. The older ranger is compassionate and comforting, touching my wounds and telling me that first I need alcohol to disinfect it and then a special medicated cream, which in the Galapagos, where everything is shipped in and prohibitively expensive, will probably set me back about $50.
To save money, I decide not to follow his advice to buy the cream, and it seems to be slowly starts healing on its own, but still looks grotesque. Large and deep patches in shades of livid magenta and dark blue, it is my Red or rather Purple Badge of Courage––as if I was engaged in some rigorous adventure like surfing the Playa Brava like a daring twenty-something athlete or one of the heroic women from Going Alone. Later when I return to the Ecuadorian mainland to visit my son, my granddaughter, daughter-in-law, and her extended indigenous family in Amazonia, the Purple Badge of Courage will earn me a lot of attention and sympathy from them, including an offer to treat it with compresses of medicinal herbs, which I will decline because its vivid colors are starting to fade naturally.
On the day cruise to the islands of Seymour and Mosquera Islands to hike in the land of frigates, flamingos, land iguanas, and blue-footed boobies, it is not as oppressively hot because the day is overcast––the powerful sun is in and out. I have two goals—to snorkel without “mask fail,” and to connect with the other passengers in English and/or Spanish to assuage my loneliness. I swim off Mosquera with schools of colorful, tropical fish without my mask leaking or my fins getting in my way. And I switch back and forth between English and Spanish, first conversing to a Peruvian attorney (she tells me she is a “persecutor”), then with British, German, and French couples, some internationally mixed, and then with Ecuadorian Americans from the Bronx and New Jersey with whom I feel especially at home because their children have had the bicultural US experience my half-Ecuadorian granddaughter will have. I meet a kind British lady with a villa in Spain who is even older than I am and has even more trouble getting off and on the large and small boats than I do. Recently widowed, she is traveling all over the world by herself––an excellent role model for me. She gives me a bottle of water from her own stash when I ask the tour guide for one (somehow I thought water would be included in the substantial trip fee) and takes a picture of me with the blue-footed boobies, which she later emails me. She shows me that not only can a senior citizen woman traveling alone survive, but she can help others do so, too.
Feeling more empowered by these side trips, I successfully negotiate with the hotel manager in Spanish the price of my upgraded hotel room with windows, paying the much lower price of the sad, windowless, prison-like room I was assigned the first night. Unlike those brave women travelers in Going Alone, I didn’t summit a mountain alone in the deep snow or paddle a kayak alone for weeks through the Alaskan wilderness, but with minimal pain, injury, and loneliness. I have arranged and experienced my first sola travel event of sun and water, hiking and swimming. Flush with courage, I am thinking that maybe I should write a travel guide for senior citizens, particularly women, informing them of hikes, swims, and boat rides that might be more and less challenging for them. I could call it An Old Gringa’s Guide to Ecuador and the Galapagos. I might be able to help older people like me enjoy all that Ecuador has to offer without their suffering too much or getting hurt.
Carol Severino directs the Writing Center at the University of Iowa where she also teaches writing. She enjoys traveling and learning languages and writing about her experiences. Her creative work has appeared in Best Travel Essays 2012, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Hinchas de Poesia, Aji, Helen, and Writing on the Edge.