Two parts sadface, three parts excitement, five parts intense trepidation…

It’s the approaching trip. The moment when I cast off the vestiges of my “new normal” life, strap my worldlies to my back and set off again. Leaving the house keys under the mat and walking to the airport bus. No bed for the night, that’s up to me to sort out, and it’ll probably be in a different country if I make it over the Colombian border before nightfall.

I’ve actually been here once before, on a smaller scale. Buenos Aires, early April. Meeting my landlady to get my deposit back, handing her the keys to my lovely Belgrano house and then catching the 126 into town to link up with the Uruguay ferry. Nothing left, just the meagre 12kgs on my back. Back then I’d only been in BA for 6 weeks, but it felt like longer. This is 6 month’s worth of roots, and the feeling of leaving home will be far more acute.

I haven’t bonded with Galapagos quite in the sense that I’d hoped for. When I unexpectedly landed the 6 month contract teaching here my first thoughts were that it’d while away the time for a few months and, crucially, stop the clock on my virtually depleted savings. Once I got here and saw the great house, general setup and sustainable income I really thought that I might have fluked my way into a dream new expatriate life, many years before I thought it possible.

But the truth is that you need longer than 6 months to even hope to integrate into the local community, and I’m minded to think that you need to have a severely lucky break to manage it at all. My housemate Keith has been here for nearly a year, albeit on San Cristobal. Within a few weeks on this island he had met a local guy, and a month later they’ve ended up moving in together. That’s quick work.

It’s hard to break into the local life. Understandable, definitely. The true locals, the ones who have been here all their lives, have established, set communities. Childhood romances and early marriages. The island dream, maybe, despite the high divorce rate and an allegedly staggering rate of infidelity. The truth is, islanders will always have a certain mindset, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that sometimes their worlds don’t extend beyond the coastline. Here on Galapagos, most of the people are simply transeuntes, much more in meaning than an immigration class: Transients, people who at some stage, sooner or later, will leave the island, and away from the islanders. Tourists tend to stay here no longer than a fortnight. If you’re a gringo, you’re probably leaving pretty soon. 

And, now, I am. Despite the slight isolation at times it’s a fantastic place to live, and with a couple of private classes my income here has actually grown to be more than adequate. I just needed to find a local wife and then I would have got permanent residency! All jokes aside, that does seem to be the manner in which every uprooted Westerner has stuck here. 

For now, I’m off. It was a tough decision but I wanted to be home for Christmas, and working the final term until the 9th December wouldn’t have made sense. Instead, I’m leaving at the end of this term which gives me a good 6 weeks travelling before heading back to the UK. I wanted to do it this way so I could feel that I’d truly ‘finished’ South America, and was ready to move onto the next chapter. 

Here’s my route, roughly…

The techy travel bit

Vastly unscientific drawing but essentially, if you drew a straight line from Quito to New York, that’s what I’d be doing. I land in Quito on the afternoon of the 31st Oct and then have 3 weeks to get up through Colombia to Cartagena. I’m really looking forward to seeing the Caribbean coast of Colombia, having heard so many great things about it, and in particular the historic gem Cartagena. I’ll definitely have an eagle eye out for any opportunities on the EFL teaching side up there.

From Cartagena I’ve got a JetBlue flight up to Fort Lauderdale. If JetBlue isn’t on your radar, it should be. Widely regarded as one of the better US budget airlines, I’ve found that they are also extremely useful for getting down to South America. These kind of combinations generally don’t tend to pop up on flight search apps, but once you get yourself to New York, Fort Lauderdale or Miami there are some seriously cheap deals on offer. 

For instance, Fort Lauderdale to Quito, Ecuador can be had for as little as $105 one way including a bag. That’s crazily cheap. The other part of the puzzle is getting to NY or Florida. Luckily some great point-to-point new budget airlines have popped up filling that gap. Book wisely and you can get to either NYC or FLL for as little as $200 direct from the UK, with people like Norwegian or (slightly indirect) TAP Portugal. So, straight away your £1200 peak season return to Quito can be halved or less for the sake of a change in FLL.

For me, CTG-FLL was $150. Then I’m staying overnight and catching a flight to Santa Clara in Cuba for only another $100. One bag included each way. Even with the plummeting exchange rate that’s crazily cheap.

In reality, now is the time for Cuba. There have never been such cheap flights. Since the US has opened up air corridors you can fly direct rather than strange zigzagging routes via intermediate Caribbean islands or direct, but ruinously expensive, Floridian charter flights. But it won’t last for ever…

A number of US airlines have been granted licences to operate from all over the US. There are dozens of new flights every day. Going rate one way is around $100 from Florida, and upwards of $150 from NY and other cities. But, with a quick scan of a few websites, these prices aren’t rising. The airlines aren’t selling all their seats. Far, far from it. I expect a big drop off in passenger numbers after the peak Winter season and consequently, a big reduction in flights. So, if you’re coming to the US anyway and fancy a bit of Cuba now is the time to do it.

I’ve got 10 days in Cuba, then I fly from Havana to Miami, with American Airlines, for the princely sum of $100. I may have to pay an extra $20 for a hold bag. No biggie.

From Miami, I’ve got 4 nights. I’m planning to hire a car, camp overnight in the Everglades and then head down the Florida Keys, ending up in Key West for 2 nights. I’ve done the tip of South America to the other end, so making it to the limit of the Continental US needs to be done too.

From Key West I’m back on American Airlines for a 5-hour flight to NY, via Miami. The Key West leg is only 45 mins but adds a considerable price premium since it’s not a hub. Therefore this part cost me $180. Still not a bad deal for the distance covered.

And then, 5 nights in New York. The Big Apple. Whilst I’m terrified of the cold having come from the equator, it’ll be a decent time in which to explore somewhere I’ve always fancied. 

The bargain of the entire trip is my flight back to Gatwick from New York. I booked this a while ago with WestJet, a Canadian budget airline. £180 all in. Only a short stopover in Toronto to contend with. You’ll struggle to beat this price, the current default option is Norwegian who admittedly fly direct however hold bags carry a heavy surcharge so the headline rates aren’t always as attractive as they seem, and you have to book waaaay farther in advance than I did.

Luckily I booked my flights before the worst of the USD/GBP meltdown however even still I think I’ve done well. Around £600 all in. Which to be fair isn’t much more than the cheapest “conventional” Quito-London flight via a horrible 24hr Mexican layover. Island hopping around the Caribbean and Florida then a week in NY for the same price as a multistop 24hr redeye? I’ll take that.

Finishing up with Galapagos

The last week of school was utter fucking chaos, as expected. Things didn’t really come to a head until Thursday and Friday. Thursday was exam day, and Friday was designated as the school karaoke competition. Both of these things naturally needed organising. Exams not so much of a problem… although this in itself caused somewhat of a breakdown in staff relations.

Photo op with my fellow teachers, the school administrator and Lolo the dog.

The thing about Galapagos, and probably Ecuador in general, is that everything happens at the last minute. Life’s pretty relaxed. But sometimes out of the blue people have meltdowns if said last minute tasks aren’t perfect. So, when the speaking task which I’d been asked to design last Friday, and which the students had to cram into an extremely packed schedule of revision for our exams and, er, their normal schoolwork, which for a lot of them is final exams.

When reviewing the results on Thursday, it turned out not to be exactly what my school administrator had wanted, so I got a monumental dressing down. 

A skill which I haven’t yet developed and probably need to is taking a bollocking with a bowed head, even when it’s patently not my fault. And, well, in this case it didn’t go well. “Yep, the task isn’t perfect but you did give me about 30 minutes to design it last week so, there you go” was not, I think, the correct answer.

Friday was chaos from the get-go. One of the real curses of living effectively on top of the school is the complete inability to escape from it. Sure enough, 8.30 am “GUUUUUUUUUYS! We need to go to the tax office”. Oh sweet Jesus. Having stumbled down from bed, my pre-coffee unimpressed face was clearly pretty strong and just Lisa ended up going. Leaving me to the marking. The PILES of marking. Beachtime today wasn’t going to be a thing.

The next task of the day was to go to the SRi (Social Security) office to close our tax accounts. The school administrator was going to come with us, but decided that since I spoke Spanish I’d be fine, and we could go on our own. There was talk of a tax refund, which seemed as good an incentive as any.

Luckily timing such a visit during siesta was a good plan, as it was empty when I arrived. Arrived to find that the gulf between “Good conversational Spanish” and “trying to explain a complex tax situation Spanish” is a big one. Thankfully the guy was friendly but didn’t understand the need to talk a bit slower to dumb gringos who are getting a rapid lesson in different Ecuadorian tax codes, verbs which I’ll never use again and the Machiavellian bureaucracy needed to achieve any of this nonsense.

Step one, it seemed, rather than simply closing the fricking account themselves, was to reset our online portal passwords which required a long form, naturally. And a copy of your passport. No, we can’t copy it, there’s a shop next door. Aaargh! As a favour to Lisa however I told the guy that “my colleague is coming in a moment. She speaks worse Spanish than me, but just needs to do the same thing” to which he replied what roughly translates as “oh for fuck’s sake!”

This, naturally, wasn’t the end of things. Frantic calls to Quito to work out what kind of tax we’d actually been paying, and whether we could claim it back. I had little faith of it working, and was proved right. Our second visit to the tax office established that, despite this being a scheme aimed at short-term non resident foreigners, you actually couldn’t pay it into a foreign account. You needed a local account. You could simply nominate a third party to receive it, simple…

Once you’d filled in a lengthy form, copied your passport AGAIN and then dragged the account holder to the office too. With a copy of their passport, naturally. Having gathered all necessary items we returned to the office in a mad panic before it closed, and were then, in a scene reminiscent of the finest Little Britain sketches, were informed that the computer had said no. Yes, it was possible in law but no, their system wouldn’t allow it.

Withdraw, quick, before you waste any more life… Straight into the melee of Karaoke organising. Not to mention two classes of feral children to be entertained.

The singing commences

After masterfully managing to juggle an exam with Lisa’s class and the arrival of my little darlings we then started to sort the singing. Despite clear, very clear instructions about 1 in 10 students had managed to bring the required download of their chosen songs, instead helpfully suggesting that we should go on YouTube to find them. With an effort worthy of Job I refrained from exploding something along the lines of YOU HAVE LIVED IN THIS PLACE ALL OF YOUR FRICKING LIFE HAVE YOU EVER KNOWN THE INTERNET TO BE ABLE TO DOWNLOAD A SHORT YOUTUBE VIDEO IN LESS THAN AN HOUR YOU FLAMING HALFWIT?

Still, we got there, beginning at 4.30 an exhausting night of karaoke which didn’t finish much before midnight, due to a complete dearth of pre-planning and a huge number of students wanting to win the prize of 10 weeks free lessons (Up to 300 bucks’ worth. Not to be sniffed at!)

To my utter surprise one of the loveliest members of my kid’s class, the normally quiet Kamila, announced she wanted to have a go and thrust a pen drive into my hand… A good effort. Thus followed some good, some bad and some bonkers performances from our younger classes. Including one lad who’s sweet but an utter nightmare to teach due to clearly pretty severe Asperger’s which his family just won’t deal with. He decided that now would be the time to sing some Enrique. In Spanish. Dressed as a pirate. That was after getting slightly over-excited and tripping over a cord, headplanting into the administrator’s lap. Eek

And then a brief respite. Our school administrator and hangers on were in full ORGANISING mode which became slightly painful after a while (No, put it there! Not there! Etc) so I snuck out with Keith and the dog to eat. The calm before the storm…

Yep, 4 full hours of karaoke and chaos. Not quite knowing who was next, and struggling manfully against technical difficulties. Running between projector, microphone and laptop trying to remember contestant names, taking it slightly seriously by making notes in suitably unintelligible cryptic English in case the contestants saw “Really INTERESTING performance!’ Etc.

One of the highlights of the night was my former student and friend Ximena putting on an amazing performance of a Fergie song having practiced it to the Nth degree including during every one of our Spanish/English practice mornings during the last 2 weeks. She’s definitely the teachers’ choice but sadly we have to put it to the Facebook vote a la “Ecuador tiene talento”.

I crawled into bed around 1am, a broken man. 

Bedlam

Departure countdown in earnest, and the importance of Facturas

Saturday brought a disappointingly early alarm in the form of the school administrator coming around to sort out the tax malarkey. Aaaargh! cried I, violently awoken from a welcome slumber. Try not to swear. Smile, it’ll come out in your voice. “Coming!” Spake I in a faintly unconvincing neutral tone.

Let me tell you about Facturas. Now, there’s loads of things to love about Ecuador but this utterly retarded system is not one. I’ve long wanted to write it down on paper, firstly to help myself understand whether I’ve understood it, and also to submit it to the harsh scrutiny of my tiny readership. Right, buckle up.

Everyone who does anything has to be registered for tax. So far, so sensible. However, once you have your tax registration form you then have to take it to a stationers store. After the filling in of many forms they will deign to print you a book of Facturas. So, every time you do anything for anyone work-wise, or indeed if you sell anything, or indeed if you fart towards another Ecuadorian, you need to give them a Factura. And then, whenever you buy anything from someone or contract any service, you have to get a Factura from them.

So you’ve got the entire population of this lovely corner of the world running around with receipt books and hoarding other people’s receipts. Because it’s really important to keep the receipts you get, since they bizarrely come off your tax bill for the year. And then it creates bonkers situations whereby our students get Facturas for their course fees but we have to give Facturas to the University for our professional services.

Lisa told me that the accountant whom she visited had a chaotic office full of these bloody little yellow slips. 

Surely there has to be a better way than everyone running around with fricking receipt books?

A final round of Galapachats

After farewells to students, some sad, some less so, we were nearly done. Final visits to all of the best sites on the island including Tortuga Bay and Las Grietas (I’ve now discovered the joy of swimming underwater and managed to get deep enough to pop my ears today which seemed like an achievement).

Early morning Tortuga-ing with the resident, much photographed pelican

And, well, chats. An impressively complex chat with the local supermarket owner about Conquistadors and the nature of sovereignty, a guy at the market about his coffee plantation and amusingly the guy at the National Park office about the merits of tortoise mating.

And then we were there. Sadly waving Lisa off and contemplating my departure in less than 24 hours. Flip, that went fast…

Off to Quito in the morning and then hoping to make it to the border before nightfall. This might be ambitious given that my flight gets in at 3pm and it’s a good 6hrs to get there, but we’ll give it a go. At least a night in a sketchy Ecuadorian frontier town will make for a decent blog post.

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