Ecuador

Crossing the Ecuador border turned out to be the most exciting border yet. There we were, smoothly moving through exit stamps on the Colombian side, then patiently waiting in the easiest queue we'd yet experienced in Latin America, no touts pressuring us to change money, no sneaky characters spying our gear, nor children latching themselves onto us as our official guide through the border. Upon reaching the typically grumpy official sitting on the other side of the glass, I was stamped through as usual, and Matty handed his passport over.  We began a little conversation about how relaxed and pleasantly surprised we were at the ease of South American border crossings, when a curt voice cut through the glass panel between us.  "No puede ingresar."  “You can't come in, your passport is not valid.” "Umm Senor, it's August, I have until December...?" countered Matty brilliantly. "You need six months' validity. You'll have to go back to Colombia and apply for a new passport there." Said the rather indifferent official. “Oh, ummm… OK.” concluded Matty... brilliantly.     We stood there, watching our hopes of reaching Patagonia before winter fly away to find other, better-organized motorcyclists.  Riding to Bogota city in Colombia would take a week, then another 2 months of waiting for Australia to send another little book with a photo in it. BUT WAIT... We had just learned how to become pirates!  PIRATES WOULDN'T GO BACK TO BOGOTA!!!   _DSC1351-Edit-3   Onto our steeds we stealthily jumped, crossing fingers that there wouldn't be a checkpoint as we turned left instead of right, into Ecuador instead of Colombia – illegally.  Blasted at full throttle across the border, Matty without any sort of permission for either him, or his bike. It felt pretty wild and rather motorcycle-esque to stick your finger to the man, pull hard on the throttle and race through those first mountain curves, all the time imagining we were outrunning podgy officials with whistles who must be hollering and scrambling behind us.  Catch ya later suckers!   _DSC3439   Well, at least that’s what it felt like…   G0020574 (1) G0020608   We rode up into the hills, straight for Quito, a five hour ride away, and more responsibly in the direction of the friendly embassy of Old Mother England.  Straya doesn’t have an embassy in Quito. Took a few days to get things sorted, and then Matty had to ride back to the border and explain to the same official how he had miraculously managed to renew his passport in Ecuador, even though he wasn’t supposed to be in the country in the first place.  Understandably they found this a little confusing and took him into an interrogation room for a bit of interrogation. But it was never going to be a problem, because when all else fails in such situations, all you need to do is pretend you don’t understand a single word of Spanish, and that you have an IQ equivalent of a washed-up backpacker who has been holed up in Colombia for the last 3 years getting to know the local delicacies intimately.  (Note: Having long hair and a beard definitely lends itself best to the stereotype).  This tactic of tasteless gringo-ism, interspersed with regular and enthusiastic pronunciations of the word “Si” or ‘no entiendo’, as well as vigorous head nods, finished off with a classic, never-ending, stupid smile will always do the trick. And so they stamped him through. Either that or the officials just thought it was too much paper work. We finally headed to the coast, Matty with his shiny new emergency British passport, and me with my new and very proper Pommy lad on the bike next to me. We were looking forward to seeing Ecuador's coast; there’s a highway that runs pretty much the entire length of it.  You don't hear much about Ecuador, aside from the Galapagos, so it was interesting to not have any idea of what to expect.   _DSC0221   Unfortunately, the seasons were not in our favour in Mompiche in the north, and strong onshore trade winds and a complete lack of northwest swells were the story for most of our time there.  We stayed there for a week, hanging out with some great Argentinians, but never had that sweet-looking point any bigger than 2 ft. We rode the whole coast, stopping here and there in funky surf towns, mostly gazing out at uninspiring waves, wondering what it must look like in December.   _DSC9195   Stopped in Ayampe, a funky little village my brother had spent a couple months in a few years ago, to see what we could see about the heavy, tubing, beachy swell-magnet.  Serious off-season.  Most things were closed, the surf was reasonably solid but always messy and closing-out, but I had fun paddling around and duckdiving for the first time in ages.   _DSC9205-Edit   The sunsets were pretty all-time.. Matty did a little tap-tap tattoo on a nice friend we met from England, Charlie.  Inspired by the adventures of Tin Tin – good to share a beer or two too.   IMG_7399 IMG_7394   And we were introduced to an interesting guy from the states who had moved here lots of years ago. A rather eccentric fellow, he had spent a lot of time wandering the highway from Ayampe to Montañita, about 25 kms, collecting discarded bottles along the way.  He decided that he could build a house out of these bottles - because why not?  He cut them in half and glued them together, many filled with water and various food colourings to make them pretty.  It worked..   _DSC9222   The rest is just a matter of using cement to stack them on top of each other, making a beautiful house, all for about $11,000 with no prior building experience.  It was an inspiring thing to see, that you can just go and do something by starting small and learning as you go.  It’s a beautiful little casa, with 2 or 3 bedrooms, ensuite, great kitchen, and in the afternoons the mulitcoloured light equivalent of a cathedral.  I guess we must have taken more moving pictures instead of stills, so you’ll have to wait to see more about that. Although here’s a blurry one of us hanging out and learning about it all…   _DSC9225   Possibly the most famous spot in Ecuador, and next on our list was Montañita.  Although it's hard to tell if it is famous for partying or the wave..? Apparently if you stay in the town there is no actual hope of sleeping, the thumping music goes all night, everywhere, and there could very well be another reason that you're not sleeping...  anything goes…   _DSC9226   We headed there for a bit of a swell that unfortunately hit on the weekend, when everyone from the nearby cities flocks to the coast.  There was one crew of about fifteen 50 to 60 year old men, who had probably been weekend warriors their whole lives, and some of the first to surf the wave back in the golden days, hooting each other into waves, with some of the wackiest surf ettiquite we’ve seen, but all the same, just having a good ol' time.  60 year-old grommets.   _DSC9232   We stayed for a week, surfing every day in the funky funk.  We never made it out for drinks or whatever on the town – we really are a poor show most of the time, although it does allow you to get up for the early surf.   _DSC9287   Although it was a bit of a strange wave, we had it pretty good on the last few days, rather strange, but I guess doing it’s thang..   _DSC9270   We debated the decision for a few weeks, but the time had eventually come to splurge on a ticket for a big shiny bullet-shaped machine and fly ourselves, through the atmospheric atmosphere, to some weird, rocky, barren, volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific, known as the Galapagos. We really wanted to find some quality waves, as we hadn’t surfed in Colombia, with the only roads to the Pacific Ocean suffering from a surge in violent activities from varying factions. So we didn’t surf there. And most of the Ecuadorian coast we stumbled through was hit and miss. In short, we really wanted some waves!  But then it was completely the wrong season for the Galapagos and swell seemed almost non-existent on the forecasts.  We took our boards on the plane anyway, and somehow the check-in lady forgot to charge us for them, which was a nice surprise amongst the barrage of taxes and tickets and entry passes that tourists need to purchase to enter the Galapagos.  High five!   _DSC0039   On our first full day, we hiked about a kilometer from town, passing marine iguanas warming up on the sharp rocks, blowing snot-rockets of salt water out their nostrils, because their bodies have not yet fully evolved to process the salt they intake when they eat seaweed underwater (!?!)...       We decided on San Cristobal Island as our top choice for finding waves at that time of year.  Having booked nothing in advance, we luckily arrived the day before a little bump of swell.  Found a sweet little cottage-pad way up on the hill that had a nice little kitchen, and spent our entire 2 weeks there, free-diving, hiking, SCUBA diving, photographing and exploring.   _DSC9307   On our first full day, we hiked about a kilometer from town, passing marine iguanas warming up on the sharp rocks, blowing snot-rockets of salt water out their nostrils, because their bodies have not yet fully evolved to process the salt they intake when they eat seaweed underwater (!?!)...   _DSC0265   ..watching chunky sealions laze around on the same sharp rocks, without a care for the duo with surfboards walking closely past them...   _DSC0271   …and seeing waves explode on shallow outer reefs.  Anticipation levels were at an all time high; might we actually find fun waves on the Galapagos?!?! Hoping at each corner we turned that the seasonal trade winds would yield enough to the particular spot we were looking for.   _DSC0279   Scraping through the last thicket of dry, spiny, low shrubbery, we stumbled on a little beach made of bleached seashells, ground by the pounding surf and black volcanic rocks to the consistency of coarse pickling salt.  And then to our surprise and consequent hooting, we watched as hundreds of metres of perfect lefthanders wrapped themselves down a rocky point… and not another soul around (aside from the sea lions who had seemingly already had their share of waves for the day)…   _DSC9707   We ran the length of the bay and scrambled into our wetsuits, the cold Humboldt current flows from the Southern Ocean all the way here, bringing rich life-filled waters, but also chilly water temperatures (even though it’s on the equator) basically year-round.   _DSC9335   Out we went, the wind wasn’t perfect, but the faces were clean, and there were even a couple of head-dips to be had.  Really punchy, fast, and long - sometimes close to the rocks…   _DSC9787 _DSC9425_DSC9318   The water was the clearest I've ever seen in the ocean.  Below were hundreds of big colourful fish, playful sea lions, and sea turtles popping their little heads up everywhere.  On sunset, the backlit silhouetted circular bodies with four little flippers keeping them upright were visible, at least four through each wave that came through, delighting us with their seemingly ungainly yet capable, quick little movements.  It would appear that every time sea turtles enter our adventure chronicles the day is suddenly turned magical, and these ones did not disappoint.  To see all this life in 2 or 3 metres of crystalline ocean while sitting on a surfboard was pretty surreal.     We surfed all day, hiking back just before dark, after the sun had set, completely blown away by the day and what we’d stumbled across.   _DSC9323   The next couple of days were so much fun, a few locals joined us, we hiked out with a picnic lunch and just surfed all day, munching on snacks, and watching the booby birds, iguanas and seals do their thing on the beach. It was interesting to watch the seals, and their daily lifestyle.  They wouldlie around on the beach all day, then play for hours with each other, only to spend the rest of the afternoon surfing the waves, quite literally waiting out the back for a set wave, catching it before a surfer had the chance to, and riding it way past where we would have kick out in fear of the rocks.  So far, so gnar…. So raaahhh! They must only need to fish for a fraction of the day…     It made us think about the city lifestyles we had been surrounded by before the journey began, and how everything is reversed.   Where everyone works 70% of the time, sleeps for 20%, and enjoys free time for 10% if they’re lucky… I guess seals don’t have pockets to put all their expensive things in. This all may sound like airy-fairy hippy rubbish – but isn’t the point of travel to ponder the lifestyles of different cultures (or in this case seals), and to have the time for a little introspection, to question how you can improve your own life? We're not scared of work - it's much scarier to not live.
Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”  Dalai Lama
  _DSC9375 _DSC9811   After those few days, and for the remainder of the two weeks it went completely flat – unsurfable.  We couldn't quite get over our brilliant timing and luck of scoring, in the off-season, and it just meant the flat days left us with lots of time for free-diving!   _DSC9984   We were able to explore a few different spots.  The amount of animals in the ocean there is astounding.  Head above water, looking at the relatively barren, dry, rocky hillsides, covered with hardy shrubs and cacti that have evolved to survive with little water and almost no soil, whose ancestors blew over as seeds from the mainland and landed on newly formed volcanic rock mounds millions of years ago.  They, and the newly introduced species, brought with the human-folk, have various creative ways of making themselves known and ensuring posterity, such as these rather persistent burrs that Matty found while bushwhacking, trying to take a photo of a bird..   _DSC9965   Hope it was worth it mate, good onya. We both sacrificed over an hour, and Matty many, many leg hairs, pulling them out one by one.  Apparently Matty knew he was collecting them as he walked, but claims that the burrs in Australia don’t take much to pull out, and assumed these would be similar.  Unfortunately for him, we were not in Australia, and if ever you’ve had the pleasure of removing a sensitive bandaid/plaster from a friend or a wayward black hair from the middle of their back, then you probably understand how much fun this was for me.  One hour, and hundreds of instantly gratifying moments later, we were done.  Matty Looked like a lycra-clad cyclist – without the lycra. Here’s his photo of the booby birds – hope it was worth it, good onya mate.   _DSC9953   Diving down beneath the surface, a different blue world fills the scene, and exotic creatures glide past, unafraid and even curious. We played with two sealions for almost an hour one day, ‘fetch the sea-cucumber’ being the favourite game.  Matty's natural affinity with dogs (and any animal) made it seem totally normal to be playing fetch with their marine relatives. It was their idea, one of them went off into the reef and snuffled around in the sand until she came soaring back towards us with her prize…   ivegotit   She promptly dropped it right in front of our masks, never taking her eyes off it… Matty grabbed the sea cucmber, and instantaneously her body language changed.  Her gestures seemed to say: “THROW IT!”   cucumber   I’m not sure if it was because in the end, it is incredibly difficult to throw anything underwater, let alone a seacucumber.  But after 10 minutes of playing fetch (and I’m sure much to the relief of said sea-cucumber), the seal swam back to the reef for another, different one of her toys. Again bringing it straight back to us…   GOPR1036.MP4.Still001   But this time just teasing us, it became a game of tag, 2 seals and 2 humans, all frolicking and flipping.  They would dart straight at our masks, sometimes almost giving us a ‘seal kiss’ before swerving to the side in a trail of bubbles. It was exactly the same scenario we’d encountered through all of Latin America with the more playful street dogs we’d encountered - the only difference this time, that we were underwater.   ivegot it GOPR1036.MP4.Still002   Another day, we were cruising around a big bay, watching a little octopus ooze through holes in the rocks, changing from brown to purpley-blues and pinks and greens as he went.  At some point we saw big black fins break the surface of the water, about 100 metres away.  They definitely weren't dolphin fins... but how strange for there to be two surfacing at once... studying its movements for a quick moment, Matty said, 'it's a big ray!' snatched the go-pro, and took off like a submarine.  I was a bit hesitant, and let our new friend Loic use my mask and fins to check it out.   _DSC0003GOPR1266.MP4.Still001 G0011160   Luckily, big mama ray was still around when Loic came back, so I gathered all my courage and set off into the bay.  I reached Matty in about 15 metres of depth, and we set off following her leisurely pace, flapping her giant wings slowly and steadily in giant loops of the bay.  This easy pace happened to be faster by far than I could swim, and by the time we were in a decent viewing spot, my breath wasn't coming back quickly enough to dive for more than a few seconds.   GOPR1266.MP4.Still002   The exertion did some to take my mind off her giant-ness, but I wasn't as bold as Matty, who got right up close to her 5 metre frame.  Quite a sight to see, and even better to expose yourself to, just free-diving.  Whilst perusing a poster in a dive shop later, we pinned her down to being one of two species rarely seen at all, and when seen, it's usually out in the proper deep blue, with poor visibility.   G0031242   Matty went on a few SCUBA dives while we were there too.   _DSC0016 _DSC0026 _DSC0082 _DSC0116 _DSC0085 _DSC0113 Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 2.29.00 pm GOPR1338.MP4.Still001   Lots of sharks, rays, turtles and fish, fish, fish – but more video than photos. On the topic of tourism, and being responsible, we found the Galapagos to be an interesting microcosm of how things change over time according to their surroundings.  Well, actually that might’ve been Darwin.  But all the same learning a bit about the history of the islands was eye opening.  As internationally well-known as they are, and have been for almost two hundred years, they have had a surprising, recent past of environmental mismanagement and extreme degradation (but who hasn't amiright?).   _DSC0074   I suppose we had a romanticized view of these islands, famous for unique ecosystems and also that theory thingy that has formed the basis of our human understanding of life on earth.   _DSC0241 _DSC0223   The non-romanticized reality is an overpriced national park with a history of overfishing, extinction, and failed human settlement.  The human settlements that exist now are struggling with feral dog and cat populations decimating various species, including marine iguanas.   _DSC0077   One of my favourite stories (although sad) is that of the giant land tortoise. Beautiful creatures with a prehistoric air, their populations were almost decimated by two separate, yet related, events.  Due to the islands' location, on various shipping routes between continents, and as a fishing mecca, people (beginning with Spanish conquistadors, then pirates, trading vessels, fishermen, etc) would land in the Galapagos and take hundreds of tortoises on board their ships.   IMG_7420   The tortoises were stored upside-down in the ships' holds, so they couldn't move, due to their ability to stay alive for up to a year, without food or water. They were the perfect food source for sailors on long sea voyages.  That, and tortoise oil was the main fuel source for indoor lighting, until kerosene! These same sailors had the brilliant foresight to let goats free on the island, ensuring a hardy food-source for when they next stopped there.  The goats ate everything, the tortoises had no food left, and so along with the being stored upside down forever on ships for dinner, the population was almost wiped. But the goats are now a grand success story in the conservation world, due to a few skilled gunmen in helicopters, picking them off one-by-one.  Seriously. The tortoises are also slowly clawing their way back… There are interesting stories regarding the Californian and Japanese tuna fishing fleets, continuing (banned) fishing activities in the Galapagos, and even though the Ecuadorian government fines them regularly for breaking the law, the US and Japanese governments routinely pays for the fines, and calls them ‘industry subsidies’. Imagine Ecuador tried to implement a similar fishing strategy in US waters!!!  Donald Trump would find a prompt solution.. hahaha… Donald Trump… haha… aaaahhh.  ….what a dickhead… good for a laugh. There’s also the story of a local political prisoner who has been in jail for years on San Cristobal because he is opposing the president’s resort development.  We tried to interview him, but (understandably) he backed out at the last moment. Or we could talk about whaling... the tale of Moby Dick was inspired by the seas surrounding the Galapagos. Strangely, in most areas of the Galapagos surfing has been banned, but in those exact same locations there’s no catch limits for the fishing industry that visits daily? I don’t mean to be negative nelly here, and I’m not complaining at all.  We loved our time in the Galapagos, it’s definitely worth visiting and exploring, we just found it interesting that it’s not the untouched and protected ecological gem we’d expected it to be. Having said that…   _DSC0052   There is a slight push to focus on the sustainability of the islands, but the local consensus on what that means is unclear.  Were it the sustainability of unique species and diversity, I think that would mean getting rid of the humans on the islands.  But they are there, and all over the world, trying to feed themselves and their children, just like everyone, everywhere.   _DSC0064   The fact that sustainability is even a concept means that humans are here to think about it and deem it important, so we are necessarily involved in the constant process of finding better ways to interact with animals, plants, fungi, gods, cosmos, ourselves...  It's in our own best interest. This little offshore microcosm of change, the same place that Darwin developed ideas to flip science on its head, is going through such monumental, yet incremental, improvements and setbacks that perhaps it really is somewhere to study the future.   IMG_7519   As important as its changes for the past millions of years have been for understanding our place on this tiny planet, perhaps by attempting to work through its current issues, we can get an idea of what we might need to do, globally?   _DSC0245

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