By Sarah Masker
In the past four months, I have been to three continents, six countries, and countless cities and towns. The Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador are by far the most amazing place I have ever been in my entire life. They’re the reason I want a sea lion for Christmas, why my hair will be lighter than my skin by the time I return to the States, and why I might reconsider one of those marriage proposals the Ecuadorians keep offering up. Even getting stung by a jellyfish while snorkeling in ice cold water can’t change my mind; at some point in my life, I will live in the Galapagos. That’s a promise.
I blame the sea lions for my intense infatuation. Sea lions are like puppies: you look at the pictures and ooh and ahh, but nothing can prepare you for the utter cuteness that will transform a composed individual into a baby-talking, obsessive fan with the urgent need to kiss those adorable little noses. Sea lions are lazy. They lie around on docks or commandeer someone’s boat in the marina for a little snooze in the sun, and even my paparazzi behavior didn’t seem to bother them. They just dozed on, dreaming sea lion dreams and making me wish I could snuggle up close.
Of course, the sea lions can’t take all the credit. Snorkeling in the Galapagos is awesome too, with one minor flaw: each time I jumped off the boat into the water, I just about died from the temperature. I scoffed at the silly Germans donning wet suits on the boat, but I soon figured out I was the fool in my turquoise bikini.
Yes, the Galapagos are right on the equator, but they’re also out in the middle of nowhere with countless currents bringing in freezing mid-November water. That means Sarita jumps in the ocean and starts gasping in shock, only to be told seconds later to start breathing through the narrow snorkeling tube. Piece of cake, pan comido. Oxygen, who needs that? Fortunately the boat captain, Armando, took pity on me and kept me company while we snorkeled; he pointed out a sea turtle that I definitely would have missed on my own, since it was gliding through my peripheral vision. I found out later the two of us were the only ones on the whole boat who had seen a sea turtle.
Armando also swam me right up to a school of small silvery fish, so I put my underwater camera to use and then expected to swim around the fish. Nope, Armando had a different idea. He put my hand on his shoulder and we swam right through the school, with all the little fish rushing like silver ribbons all around me. If it weren’t for the fact that I was underwater, I would have started laughing out of sheer delight.
Happiness isn’t the only thing that makes me laugh. I’m a weird girl; I laugh when I’m in pain. When I busted my knee in high school, both times I broke my toe, and then that time in the Galapagos when I got stung by a jellyfish…those were definitely the funniest things that have ever happened to me. Or at least that’s how it looks to other people. That’s probably why my mom didn’t take me seriously when, on my second snorkeling trip, I started laughing hysterically as we swam back to the boat. She thought I pulled a muscle, and it wasn’t until someone on the boat confirmed that yes, there are jellyfish in these waters that she took me seriously. Luckily it was mild and only hurt for about an hour, so eventually I was able to control my laughter. No one on that boat could understand what was so hilarious.
Getting stung wasn’t even the most interesting thing that happened to me on that snorkeling trip. I was just floating along, admiring some bright blue and yellow fish, when I saw a huge dark shape swimming up from my left side. I turned my head in a panic, wondering about those sharks we’d seen earlier and the horror stories my guide had told, but then I got the best surprise of my life: it was a sea lion, swimming straight towards me.
My surprise and disbelief turned to fear for a split second, as I wondered if she’d want me out of her territory. Nope, she just swam right by, and I was so surprised I could barely work my camera. I surfaced to see if she had gone up onto the rocks, and that’s when I saw the pup. Such a tiny little thing, so cute! Of course, I knew then that I had to keep my distance from the shore, to give Mommy Sea Lion and her baby some space. I was the only one in the group who had seen a sea lion in the water. Between that and the sea turtle the day before, I considered myself pretty lucky. And then that stupid jellyfish came along.
The Galapagos are quiet, peaceful, and exotic islands. Everyone was incredibly nice; they smiled a lot and said good night and good morning to complete strangers. I felt safe, and no one hollered at me when I walked around town in shorts and my bikini top. There were palm trees everywhere, every plant had some kind of bright flower decorating it, and little birds would join us at our table for meals. The water was cold, yes, but it was also incredibly blue, nearly turquoise.
I saw at least 15 sea lions every day, and even saw a baby of a lion nursing. The sand on the beaches is white, with black volcanic rocks dotting the coast and creating such an extreme contrast. The air is warm, the perfect temperature for shorts and a tank top, and the breeze is gentle and pleasant – not what I would have expected 500 miles off the mainland.
The clouds keep the sun at bay, but tanning or burning is inevitable; after two hours outside, pale old me, the girl my Ecuadorian aunt once referred to as “Casper,” had obvious tan lines. Fresh mango is sold on every street and restaurants serve any kind of seafood fresh from the ocean. In other words, the Galapagos Islands are heaven and I didn’t want to leave. I considered planting my feet and shaking my head like a stubborn child, but then I reminded myself I’m almost 21 and it would be embarrassing to cause a scene in the airport at that age.
So, that’s why I came back to Quito and was looking up flights to San Cristobal four hours later. I haven’t been to that island yet, but from Dec. 14-18, that’s where I’ll be, flirting it up with the sea lions, wearing my SPF 110 like a pro, and hopefully not encountering any more jellies. This is why I love traveling: every new place offers endless opportunities, but I found the Galapagos especially magical. If I can’t live there, the least Santa can do is bring me my very own sea lion on Dec. 25.