She looked at me and then asked me whether I believed in God. I was shocked. I took a moment to take stock of the situation: an old Ecuadorian lady was asking me philosophical questions. I had just crawled through lava tubes and was returning the flashlights to her. And oh yes, I was on the Galapagos Islands. I was on my vacation.
I like to think that I had a different experience than other people on the Galapagos Islands. From what I saw, most people visit the Galapagos Islands with tour agencies. These agencies take care of everything for the visitors — providing guides, means of transportation and daily activities. People can choose anything from boat tours to hotel based excursions.
I chose neither option.
It is incredibly difficult to backpack around the Galapagos Islands. Unbelievably, I managed to do just that. And more importantly, I got to see a different side of the Galapagos Islands. Tourists come to see the diverse species of plants and animals. I saw people. I talked to people. Ecuadorians. I got the Ecuadorian experience of the Galapagos Islands. Even the people who I saw vacationing were Spanish speakers, preferring (like me) to choose their own paths and destinations to, from, and on the Islands. The tourist-foreigners were just as inaccessible to me as I was to them. I found myself in the lucky position of not having a tour agency in between me and the local people.
Originally I did not want to tell my host family that I would be going to the Galapagos Islands. In fact, I did not tell them. When I did tell them where I would be going on vacation, I described the places in mainland Ecuador where I would hopefully be visiting. I was afraid; I did not want my host family to alter their perception of me because I had the chance to visit the Galapagos Islands. I thought it would widen the gap between us.
The old Ecuadorian lady and I began our conversation about what else? Coffee. I explained that I had been living in Ecuador for the past few months and that I worked in a fair trade coffee organization. She apparently, as a little girl, grew up on a coffee farm and enjoyed reminiscing. She came to the Galapagos Islands as a school teacher and now was helping at her daughter’s tourism business, located in their backyard (the lava tubes). What surprised me was that her agnostic question was out of the blue. When I did answer her question, she attacked my response. She continued to have a conversation with herself, questioning and answering herself, about God. This was incredibly refreshing for me. Not many people who I know here question their background (Catholic), or if they do (like my host mother), they make up their minds and stick to it. Here was a person who was willing to change her mind, to evolve her beliefs even at as an older woman. (Please appreciate the context where this conversation and questioning took place: the Galapagos Islands, no less, where the theory of evolution first started to emerge in Darwin’s head.) This really impressed me. I hope that when I am old, I am not set and stagnant in my thinking but always revising my views of the world.
When I returned home, I told my host family that I went to the Galapagos Islands, among other places. I decided that it did not matter; my experience on the Galapagos Islands was not of the rich retired person, but of the young Spanish-speaking backpacker. It would be interesting to me to see what their reactions would be. My host sister did not believe me. She still does not believe me. It has now become a running joke in my host family that I “went” to the Galapagos Islands. Not only did their perception not change about me, but when I tried to change it, they could not comprehend it. For some reason, it made me glad that they could not picture me going.