We landed in the sky-high capital of Ecuador at 2 am. Quito was dark and unusually quiet for a South American capital. Our taxi wove through the outskirts of the city as Felix slept in my arms in the backseat. Three months prior, James and I had looked on in amazement as the nurses showed us how to buckle him into our carseat—it had seemed to us then cruelly and unnecessarily tight. As his body now relaxed freely into me, I felt another pang of guilt. (The first had come with taking a sick baby traveling to begin with!)
The air was thin; we breathed it deeply, tentatively. Because of our delay in San Francisco, we had only a few days in Quito until the rest of the Stewart family arrived for our Christmas excursion to the Galapagos Islands. Quito was our transition from being quarantined in a San Francisco hotel into the momentum of travel.
In Quito, we got our sea legs as a family on the move: learning how to navigate stress, sleeplessness, and misunderstandings in the context of travel. We settled into that sense of homelessness and somehow “home, everywhere” that I love about traveling.
We wandered—shopping for a hat, meandering an open-air art market, and seeking out proper coffee, all the while adapting to traveling with a tiny sidekick. As we wheelied our stroller up crumbling sidewalks with no ramps in sight, Felix slept, miraculously, through taxi horns, broken mufflers, bottles smashing into dumpsters, and sidewalk DJs.
Small tasks occupied us as we killed time, like dipping into closet-sized pharmacies to look for Felix’s special formula and cough candies for my cold that just kept hanging on. We circled well-worn city parks, taking in the chatter of soccer games and the smell of street food.
Soon, the rest of the family arrived and we became tourists, visiting the old city, eating gelato, and looking for restaurants to accommodate 14 people.
At 3:30 am on December 23rd, we set off for the Galapagos. Felix continued to sleep: through the transfer from bed to stroller, in my arms on the shuttle bus to the airport, through check-in, security, and the entire first flight to Guayaquil, through which all Galapagos passengers are routed.
We arrived on the island of Baltra and deplaned directly onto the tarmac, the heat enveloping us. The barren landscape reminded me immediately of Kona, the only other volcanic archipelago where I’ve spent time (thanks to my work in the triathlon industry). We paid our national park fee, gathered our bags, and boarded buses for the small port where we were packed onto Zodiacs that would deliver us to our 100-person cruise ship. Suddenly, we had a new set of tasks as parents: protecting Felix from the intense sun, heat, and wind. (And making sure he didn’t get dropped in the ocean as he was passed from the Zodiac to the Legend—a scene that became a daily occurrence as we used the Zodiac for all our wildlife excursions.)
December 24th marked our first day at sea. I had spent Christmas Eve on board a ship once before–18 years ago when I volunteered on a humanitarian aid mission to West Africa. Nursing my son on a luxury cruise in the Galapagos was just a little different, and what felt like a lifetime between the two.
After a decadent lobster feast and a Santa shtick for the kids, I took Felix to our cabin to put him to bed. As we rocked gently in sync with the ocean, just the two of us and the stars faintly visible through the brass portholes, I felt the sting of those kinds of tears reserved for times when you’re caught between emotions. Was it homesickness?—it didn’t “feel” like Christmas, after all. The scent of pine and my grandmother’s wheat berries were thousands of miles away. And yet, I sang carols to my little baby, in whose face was trust, innocence, and a sense of an unknown future all at the same time, moored together as we were, tiny specks in the ocean like the islands themselves.
We spent the last few days of the year in the company of blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises (and their babies, my favorite), penguins, frigate birds, owls, and iguanas. Then the three of us disembarked—via Zodiac, of course, we were now pros!—to spend a few more days on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands. I will always remember the two-hour speedboat ride we took between those two islands, where Felix, to our amazement, slept through a ride that was so loud James and I couldn’t even hold a conversation, and so turbulent that the boat had started to resemble a sick ward by the end.
What do I want to say about the Galapagos? What do I want to remember?
Travel, like yoga, or writing, isn’t something you do. It’s a practice: in being patient and open, and in establishing a healthy relationship with your own expectations. If I’m honest with myself, I expected the islands to feel more “remote,” or “exotic,” perhaps some kind of Planet Earth reenactment. I expected to be astonished, when, I should know, astonishment is always a surprise.
I didn’t expect pour-over coffee bars (no complaints, mind you), and a rate of development that the islands simply cannot sustain. I am grateful to have visited, but I can’t help but wonder about the impact I left; maybe the most remote and inaccessible are the ones we need to protect most from our own footprint. The islands have struggled since their discovery, their fragile flora and fauna the fodder for utopian Norwegian emigration campaigns and the holding cells for convicts in the early 19th Century.
Once off the ship, we learned important lessons quickly. It only took one day of Felix getting too hot to discover that a morning excursion and a long siesta in the afternoon was the way to go. And when Felix fell off the bed one night, we quickly learned that our pillow fortresses weren’t a good enough barrier to his squirming. (Cue the mom-guilt…)
But we also did some things right. We swam with turtles and sea lions and watched surfers navigate some of the toughest breaks in the world. We found a swanky hotel with a two-for-one happy hour and a hole-in-the-wall where we ate homemade empanadas while Ecuadorian grandmas doted over Felix. We scooped up fresh ceviche with plantain chips, ordered lobster and tuna from night market vendors, and bought sweet ciruelas in bags at the beach, spitting out their pits as we walked.
Back in Quito, our transitional city, we took a cab into the city again. This time our driver stopped along the way to give loose change to men dressed in drag for the annual ritual of viudas de año nuevo, or widows of the old year. Through Google Translate, our driver explained the New Year’s Eve ritual to us. He also told us about his own children and instructed us that we should burp Felix after a feed.
And this is the way we ended the year, wandering towards 2019 with our home on our backs, like the giant Galopegos for which the islands were named. We were ready to take on the rest of what our trip had to offer, armed with siestas and checked expectations.