Friday, July 6, 2012

Family Reunion and the Islas Galapagos!

Hello Dear Readers!

We have just arrived in Cuenca (still Ecuador), after spending the majority of last week with our parents and dear friends in Quito and the Galapagos Islands. As promised, here are the guest posts from our dear friend, Barbara, my mother, Belinda, and Matt´s mother, Saralyn. Take it away, Barb...

Our adventure to visit the Shapiro Adventurers, Sarah and Matt, began at the early hour of 3:45AM in the quiet streets of Culver City. I woke up (and cursed my alarm), and my mother (Ollie) and I speed through the quiet streets to meet with the parents of Sarah and Matt Shapiro. All parties were excited to see the adventurers, since they had been gone such a terribly long time.

The highlight of the plane travel was Belinda´s hookup to the United Club, in Los Angeles. I even saw Hillary Swank there (I acted cool, don´t worry). There was also much hoarding of free candy bars. My count was 10 for the group.

After much excitement and anticipation, we landed in Quito to be met by Jorge (who referred to himself as George of the Jungle, probably because he thought us gringos would butcher Jorge too much!). Eventually we arrived at our colonial style hotel in Quito where our first sight was the beautiful Sarah Shapiro in very colorful pants and a stylish side buzz. There was much hugging, rejoicing, and crying (namely Saralyn).

After a short night´s sleep, we meet Jorge for a tour of historic Quito. Jorge was very patient and gave just the right amount of information so we were not bored. However, since it was Sunday there was not too much hustle and bustle of a city. My favortie part was the visit to the center of the Earth to see the equator line. The tour guides certainly know how to keep everyone engaged. We did lots of little science tricks to show the Coriolis effect and Matt Shapiro was the only egg master to get the egg to balance on a nail on the equator this time, but Sarah assured me she was egg master last time they were there.

Later on Sunday, the Dads (Mike and Allan) and my mom (Ollie) took naps and the rest of us braved the crafts market for some much needed shopping. I, of course, spent the most money and was the worst bargainer, but hey, I like shopping and since this is the seller´s livelihood, I wasn´t too worried. My highlight was the 2 alpaca scarves for $7 - so amazing!!

Another highlight of Quito was seeing a friend of the young Shapiros and myself, Don Andrey. Don Andrey is the premeire conductor of the symphonic band in Quito and a major celebrity. However to Sarah and I, we know him as that funny foreigner at UCLA. Seeing as Andrey was my favorite french horn player at UCLA, I brought him what he asked for.... his diploma, booze, and a leash for his new dog. Luckily Don Andrey gave me 45 minutes of his time (he was busy with booze, conducting and girls) and we got to catch up. It was really nice to see him, because despite his new celebrity status, he still makes you feel like you are the only one who matters and gives really good hugs.

We finished our time in Quito at a fancy resturant on top of a hill, Rumi Loma. The bus ride up there was a bit perilous, but we had a wonderful meal to celebrate our trip, seeing the young Shapiros and to wish Mike a happy birthday.

Okay, Mom, take over and tell us about the Galapagos!

July 2nd arrived very early in the morning for us. We had to get up and be ready to go at 5am for our 7:30am flight from Quito to the Galapagos Islands. After a short hop from Quito to Guayaquil we continued on to the Galapagos and boarded our ship, the Galapagos Legend in time for lunch. In the afternoon we went ashore on Santa Cruz Island to see our first giant tortoises. These enormous and slow moving reptiles can weigh between 500 - 700 pounds and can live up to 200 years. We wandered around a natural reserves and saw several of these incredible animals enjoying the warm island weather and munching on the lush grasses indigenous to these islands. The reserve had a display of one of the larger tortoise shells and Sarah climbed in and got to feel what it was like to live inside such a heavy coat of armor.

We then walked into a cave like structure which is actually a depression caused by lava which cooled into underground fissures.

The sunset in the evening was so beautiful, I couldn't resist taking pictures and I even entered one into the cruise's photo contest...(more on that later)!

July 3rd we made our first "wet landing" on Santiago Island. The Zodiacs took us as close as possible to the beach and then we jumped out into the water to get to shore. We saw our first sea lion, a relative of the California sea lions that we see up on the Central Coast, enjoying a nap on the beach. We saw our first birds of Galapagos including a red breasted, red footed, small pigeon like bird with the bluest eyes, pelicans, and the island's only bird predator, the Galapagos hawk. We also saw our first Sally Lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas which we would continue to see by the dozens throughout the trip. After hiking over the islands lava rock surface we returned to the beach to snorkel. We saw as great a variety of unique fish and plants underwater as we had seen on land, including a sea turtle. In the afternoon, we made a second wet landing to another volcanic beach. We were greeted by Galapagos penguins! Due to the varying currents in the Galapagos, both warm and cold, the penguins are able to survive at the equator! We saw more iguanas and crabs and went for a second snorkel. We had hoped to see some penguins swimming, but only saw one on a rock some 50 feet from shore. We did swim over some very unique fish, very long and thin and almost transparent. On our way back in to shore we swam right over a sting ray!

Life on the ship was very enjoyable. Thankfully, Saralyn brought enough sea-sickness ear patches to go around for those who needed it. Our waiter, Luis was very helpful and gave great service and our guide, Greg was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his islands and the unique ecosystem that exists there.

Great Job, Mom! Why don´t you wrap us up, Saralyn?

It was so wonderful to spend time with you in Quito and the Galapagos Islands, Sarah and Matt! I must say that, although our trip to Quito and the Galapagos Islands with you was spectacular, the best part was spending time with you both. You look wonderful and are totally relaxed and happy. You are accumulating a lifetime of adventures and we are so grateful to have been able to share some of those adventures with you.

The last day of our trip in the Galapagos was fabulous! On July 4th, after a delicious breakfast served by our wonderful waiter, Luis, we were off in the zodiacs for a dry landing at Dragon Hill on Santa Cruz Island. The search for animals was on once again! One of our first, major sightings of the day was two, gorgeous flamingoes feeding in a brackish lagoon. They were so delicate as they stretched their long necks into the water, looking for food. One of the amazing things about all the animals we saw is that they are not fearful of humans; they appear to be well aware that tourists will not disturb them. A totally peaceful world, indeed! Then, we climbed 372 wooden steps to a very high point on the island, where the views were spectacular. Santiago Island was formed from two volcanoes that "blew their stacks" over a million years ago. The shape of the island reminded me of Maui, with the isthmus in between the two land masses. The views were amazing, a combination of volcanic rock and greenery. It was breathtaking! As we walked back to the spot where the zodiacs would pick us up, we lingered to watch bright, orange, Sally Lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas on the volcanic rocks.

After a delightful lunch on the boat, the Galapagos Legend, we were back in the zodiacs to enjoy some deep water snorkeling. The wind had picked up so the water was a little choppy, but we had a great time observing the fish below. My favorite fish was large and a translucent gray in color, with a beautiful, vivid yellow tail. At one point, we saw a school with hundreds of them feeding from the rocks underwater. We were sad to return to the ships after a glorious experience in the water.

Next stop was North Seymour, a birdwatcher's paradise, and home to the blue footed booby, the frigate, and the swallowtail gull, not to mention, land iguanas (the dragons!). We saw several boobies courting, as well as the frigates, too. The island was alive with mating calls. The male blue footed booby seemed to do a little dance with his adorable blue, webbed feet, and both he and the female would chirp/call to each other as first one spread its wings and then the other. It was really fascinating! The male frigates have a huge, red pouch below their beaks that swell like a balloon when the frigate tries to impress its mate. These birds are simply glorious! We also saw several land iguanas; they are huge, not to mention, bold; they would walk toward us, at times, and came reallly close. They live in holes they've dug out, usually under a rock. As we made our way back to the zodiacs, the sea lions, close relatives to the California sea lions, were lolling on the beach and swimming in the water. They are amazing animals,and there were a few pups nursing, too! Bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs and small, black crabs were all along the lava rocks, along with more marine iguanas. This was by far, one of the best days of the trip because there was such geologic diversity and there were so many animals to see and their behaviors to watch. All in all, the day was beautiful!

Our last night aboard ship, the crew held a contest for the best three pictures shared by the passengers. Belinda got first prize for her beautiful sunset picture, and Matt won second place for his photo of one of the many varieties of birds we´d seen on our hikes. Belinda is now the proud recipient of a Galapagos Legend windbreaker and Matt, a Galapagos Legend shirt! Are Belinda and Matt good, or what? Needless to say, there was a lot of cheering from our group!

July 5th brought us to the end of our Galapagos cruise. We piled into the zodiacs one more time, to get to the terminal on Baltra Island, and began the series of three flights to Lima. Matt and Sarah joined us as far as our first stop, Guayaquil, where they disembarked to continue their journey. Do I have to paint a picture for you, or can you guess that it was a tearful good bye for me??? Sarah sat with Belinda on the plane, and I sat with Matt. Parting was such sweet sorrow when Sarah and Matt exited the plane!! Of course, Matt repeated many, many, many, many times, that we could stay on in Peru and meet them again, and spend an extra week or two, but, that was not to be at this point.

And so, I close by saying that we love you both, dearly; we wish you all the best for a continued, fascinating and awesome Latin American journey; and be safe. The time we spent with you both on this trip has been priceless. Thanks so much for the privilege of allowing me to be a guest blogger! Much love from Dad and me, and we look forward to, perhaps, meeting you again, at some point further along on your journey.

And with that, we give a huge thanks to a guest-bloggers! We had such a wonderful time with you, living high class aboard the cruise. Now that Matt has his fancy camera, we will have to find a way to get his amazing shots online for you all to see!

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