I never thought I would travel with an organized group–I have gleefully pointed and smirked at tourist laden motor coaches stopping for a chance to buy “handmade” ceramics or, God help us, rugs.
I never considered it to be “real” travel ; instead, it was a safe, sanitized form of landmark observation and I wanted no part of it. So how did I end up on a bus, with a name tag, on my way to an ‘authentic’ local lunch?
I hadn’t totally gone over to the dark side. I was on a Lindblad Expeditions cruise of the Galapagos, and having a hell of time too. I didn’t choose Lindblad, they were chosen for me, and I couldn’t imagine a better way of seeing one of the planet’s last unspoiled zoological wonders.
We were nearing the end of a week-long trip that I already knew had changed my life. We were on Santa Cruz Island, home to most of the isolated archipelago’s 20,000 residents. We had spent the morning at the Charles Darwin Research Station and were on our way to observe migrating tortoises on a nearby farm. Before that, however, we (and by we I mean the entire ship) were having lunch at a restaurant/home where one of our hosts was Jacqueline de Roy. The de Roys were locally famous and had a fascinating story to tell.
Several of us had found a table and were chatting as we enjoyed a beautiful day when a middle aged gentleman with a slight accent came out of nowhere and asked if he could join us.
After a very awkward few minutes, this distinguished, yet casual, well-spoken man confessed to the fact that his mother was Jacqueline de Roy and he liked to stop by sometimes when Lindblad brought by a new group of guests.
As we would learn over the course of a delightfully simple and delicious meal, the family of the mysterious man, Gil de Roy, had all led incredible lives.
Gil’s parents originally came to the Galapagos in 1955, leaving Belgium, which was still devastated by war. His parents arrived with Gil’s sister, Tui de Roy, when she was just 2 years old. Tui is now a world-renowned photographer and travel writer. Gil told us, in brief, the story of his parents and his own life on the island.
While the Galapagos are a beautiful and infinitely cool place to call home, they are obviously cut off from the rest of the world. (Darwin, anyone?) Ecotourism and cruise ships laden with tourists are a recent phenomenon for the islands and Gil told us about growing up in a simple house with no electricity or running water with only the island’s first inhabitants to call friends. Only?!
Gil recanted stories of trying to keep an orphaned sea lion as a pet (collective ‘Awwww’) and of learning English from fishermen and ship captains, who would stop by the islands every few months.
Think about this for a moment. In the 1950s and even into the ‘60s, no one knew anything about the Galapagos and very few called it home. There were no TVs, few, if any, cars, no telephones, nothing. They would receive letters every few months from cargo ships and current events updates came in the form of sailor gossip.
Is this not the most amazing sounding life ever? Seriously, it’s as if Hemingway and Kerouac collaborated: ‘The Old Man and the Dharma Bums.’
Gil is much more though than the son of expats who traveled halfway around the world to find a more relaxed and peaceful way to live. He is also thoroughly Ecuadorian and takes great pride in that. We discussed politics and current events, gaining valuable insight into how the average Ecuadorian perceives world events. I was again (gently) reminded that the United States is not the beginning and the end of the world.
At the end of the meal, his mother, Jacqueline, sold some of her beautiful jewelry and I bought one of Tui de Roy’s fabulous photo essays of the Galapagos.
What began as a planned motor coach style diversion, ended up offering me a unique insight to a place that I simply was not expecting. I learned about the people who chose to make the Galapagos their home and that the spirit of the islands extends well beyond finches and Lonesome George.
Will I now go out of my way to join group tours? Perhaps not. No comparison can be made between the Galapagos cruise and 40 Americans heading to Pisa on Wednesday and Florence on Thursday, with stops available at a local textile factory.
What this adventure did accomplish was to open my eyes to the fact that these unique travel moments can happen anytime and anywhere, as long as you keep an open mind.