Finding my feet: Dropping anchor in the Galápagos

“Yeah, but it’s not really sustainable though, is it?” 

This is a phrase which I’ve been getting used to hearing in my slightly over-active brain of late. Sitting on perfect mountaintops, marvelling at the wonder of South America in front of my eyes, but with the inescapable fact looming over my shoulder that I’m only there by dint of considerable savings, now dwinding at an alarming rate. Pondering how to make it last, and wondering what I’ll do when the savings are gone.

I too had these thoughts in my first couple of weeks here on the island, however having been handed a wad of US Dollars at the end of the month it finally struck me: I’m actually doing it. I’ve actually escaped. Far earlier than I thought it could ever happen, I have managed to escape the gravitational pull of a well-paid job in the UK and found an alternative life in a far corner of the world. One which pays me enough to live, and also just enough to save for a flight home every year.

This job represents nothing other than a massive stroke of luck. The fact that I saw the advertisement in Argentina, and the fact that the previous incumbent had to pull out at short notice meaning they needed someone fast both combined in a happy accident and I was only too happy to give it a go. It’s a voluntary job by name, and also by dint of the fact that my year’s visa is a “cultural exchange” one, but in reality it’s a perfectly sustainable proper job. 

I get paid a stipend of US$20 per day, and we get free accommodation in the huge and lovely house next to the school. I’m on an extendable 6 month Galápagos residency… No worries all round really. The residency means I get stupidly cheap flights back to the mainland if I need them, there’s island-wide completely free healthcare and I am 100% legit, no visa runs required until May 2017 if I’m still here. 

Prices of imported goods here (Basically everything that doesn’t originate from a cow, chicken, fish or from the ground) are on the whole sky-high, but actually most basic vegetables are pretty reasonable. Thinking about and cooking varied meals with the stuff available is a challenge- My diet has changed a lot since I’ve come here, but I’m feeling healthier and fitter than I have for many months- My travel trousers now only stay decent with the aid of a belt.

Good haul from the local markets

I live in the town of Puerto Ayora: A village by international standards but the largest ‘hub’ on the Galápagos, and therefore the town with the most life on the archipelago. PA has everything you need, really. Banks, shops, transport. Oh, and some dodgy nightspots. Tourist life centres around the pier, with trips available to all nearby inhabited islands, as well as cruises around the uninhabited ones.

In addition, near the pier you will find the open-air fish market, where the fishing boats pull in to sell their daily catch. Sea Bass, Tuna of all varieties and lots of other stuff I haven’t yet learnt the Spanish for rocks up here, although you need to get here early to get the best cuts.

 

Fishing boats moored up

El Jefe

The poor workers on the market are besieged from dawn until they close by a battery of seals, sealions, herons and other assorted sea birds vying for a share of the catch. Adds to an entertaining buying experience though when the lady is filleting the tuna with a large sealion nose centimetres away!

The fish is extremely well priced at the market, with a pound of incredibly fresh yellowfin tuna coming in at $3, enough for 3 or 4 decent meals at least. I haven’t tried the seabass yet but it’s a similar price. If you like fish, you won’t go hungry here.

Local life revolves around the Mercado Central and the various streets off Isla Baltra, the main road into the town. Here you can find shops selling pretty much everything you need, and local restaurants like my favourite one round the corner where a Menu Del Dia costs just $3 for main course, dessert and juice, with an extra $1 supplement for a soup starter.

Lovely spot of lunch

So, what was it like arriving here for the first time? Pretty nervewracking actually. This is my first ‘proper job’ teaching abroad and I really didn’t know what to expect. I’d bought the air ticket the day before, and after an expensive taxi ride at an ungodly hour I made it to Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport. By far the nicest South American airport I’ve been in, and a really pleasant surprise. Extremely weighty luggage checked in (Including a humongous box of books I had to bring over), and staff didn’t bat an eyelid. Despite it being a pain to wait for its arrival, I was very glad that the co-ordinator had sorted a temporary residency for me- This meant I got a larger luggage allowance, much cheaper ticket and also got to breeze past the queues for the Galápagos tourist permits!

The steep climb out of hilly Quito…

Landed on the rock…

Coming here, the planes don’t land on Santa Cruz itself, rather on the barren outcrop of Baltra to the North. This means that actually getting to the town of Puerto Ayora requires a bit of a multi-stage journey. First onto the airport shuttle bus, which disgorges cruise passengers at a nearby jetty and then takes the rest of us to the Itabaca Channel…

 …from whence you pay a dollar and take a ferry the short hop across to Santa Cruz island. Then there’s the choice between a taxi ($20) or a bus ($2) to Puerto Ayora itself. Regular readers will know the choice I made. Indira the co-ordinator here had given me good instructions to get to the school, namely that I should ask to be dropped at Banco Pichincha and then wait for her to meet me. Thankfully she did, and it was time to get settled in my new home and to meet my housemate.

Home… And school right next door!

It turned out that, having arrived on Friday ready to start teaching on Monday, there were a few hurdles to overcome first. Namely, finishing the school! So the next two days disappeared in a blur of activity, helping out with building jobs and tidying up the garden ready for the new students. Stuff that doesn’t really happen elsewhere like…

…Harvesting the school garden coconuts

And also receiving a large water truck delivery- Which had the added dual bonus of being a somewhat over-enthusiastic giant pressure washer to clean up the grounds! Nobody drinks the tap water here because it both tastes weird and is not safe enough to drink. Also, every house has a large tank and a pump for use during the day, water only comes through the pipes at night and in the early morning so you need reserves.

Once the big stuff was complete, like fitting doors and windows to the classes, then it was just the small matter of hooking up boards, filling the classrooms with furniture etc…

Family effort… All of Indira’s relatives got stuck in helping!

So then, time to relax before Monday. Or not! Each course needed a syllabus to be written and we still had the small matter of working out what was going to be taught in each lesson. Luckily my housemate Lisa from Canada has experience teaching children in several countries, so provided a bit of moral support. I would wager though that no experience in my professional life thus far has prepared me for, or been as scary as, walking into a classroom full of feral 9 year olds to try to teach them a little English.

There’s something about Galapagan children which just makes them hard work. Excess energy and a complete inability to sit in one place for more than about 30 seconds. Or to not scream/grab classmates/throw things. I thought I was being grumpy and imagining it, but my Canadian colleague who has taught kids in all sorts of other countries confirms it’s true. They really are especially bonkers. Turning around to see one of my students had randomly donned a full face motorcycle helmet was one such moment of utter bemusement.

Actually, after my first class it all started getting a little less scary pretty rapidly. Even the 12-17yo group, whom I was really worried we’re going to be a Vicky Pollard-esque nightmare turned out to be really nice and, with a little prompting, actually very communicative. Well, for the first half of the lesson anyway!

I currently teach 3 lessons of 90 minutes each day. We alternate the children’s classes to save our sanity. The adults are an absolute joy to teach, and are really motivated. It’s great fun putting into practice lessons learned on my CELTA teaching course, and finding out what does and doesn’t work.  Sometimes it’ll surprise you- Setting off a whole class to ‘mingle’ and practice new language is a risky tactic but sometimes it pays off!

They SPEAK!

Life in the Galápagos cannot be described as exciting on a day-to-day basis. It takes a big, big slowdown to be happy here, and most of my weekdays follow an extremely similar, but nonetheless extremely enjoyable, pattern. 

We teach classes in the evenings, starting at 3pm with 8-9yo children and finishing around 8.30-9pm with adults. This means that mornings are completely free, albeit with the slight sense of impending doom if we’ve drawn the short straw for the kids’ class that day. Teaching goes in 5-week modules, with a week off in between. As a holiday policy you really can’t fault it! I’m looking forward to my mum visiting in this holiday, and hopefully my next one will be spent on San Cristobal island doing my PADI course.

So, next instalment… Island life, and the attractions of Santa Cruz.

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