The Delicate Dynamics of a Galápagos Tour Group

Galápagos Travel Adventure Center: Travelers-in-Residence
by Zak Erving Nov 7, 2012
What do you do when the actions of your tour guide, your sole authority figure, are called into question?

“YOU JUST WENT from a very good tour guide to a very bad one,” Pete muttered angrily under his breath, out of earshot of Daniel, our guide to the Galápagos Islands, but loud enough for half the group to hear. A thick silence muscled its way between us, and most of us were too shocked or frustrated to respond one way or another.

Pete went on, this time loud enough for Daniel to hear: “I think you’re wrong. Is this what they taught you in your training? I think that this is completely wrong.” Pete was a farmer by trade, and had been around animals for the better part of his life. If anyone from our group could speak about this world, he was the likely ambassador — but now I wasn’t so sure. Even if he was right, his brashness made me want him to be wrong.

Twenty feet to the front of our group, a sea lion was giving birth. We had heard her barking a half-mile before reaching her, but it wasn’t until she was first sighted in the brush that we saw what was happening. Daniel immediately took charge: “No one crosses this line.” He drew an imaginary line in the air, meant to keep at bay the snap-happy group and its phosphorescent camera bulbs. “No flashes,” he reminded us sternly, in a voice now an octave lower. He suddenly had a paternal air about him, and we obeyed like children.

Quietly we clicked away, using library voices to express awe and aww and our incredible luck. A tiny tourist from the UK hunched over Daniel’s imaginary line like it was a fence and rested her elbows on it. I borrowed a telephoto lens from my new Aussie friends, because my fixed 30mm wasn’t doing the occasion much justice. Ahead, the sea lion carried on, indifferent to our presence. This only happens on the Discovery Channel! I remember thinking.

And then Pete’s comment came.

It shattered the moment. It presented a side we hadn’t considered, and now there was a new imaginary line — and most of us had crossed it. According to Pete, those of us standing with Daniel were now on the ‘bad tourist’ side, because we hadn’t given the animal its privacy and had interrupted Mother Nature with our overzealous hiking boots and a cloud of bug repellent. But I didn’t feel like a bad tourist. I’m no farmer, but growing up outside taught me enough about being in the wild to know when I’ve crossed the line with animals. None of my alarms sounded from our actions or Daniel’s precautions.

We trickled away from the laboring mother, still in silence, and continued our hike around the rocky coastline of Sombrero Chino. Daniel stopped intermittently to show us pahoehoe flows and explain how lava tubes helped form the island. To us, it seemed an effort to save face. Pete had sandbagged him in front of the whole group, attacking not only his professionalism, but the entire process one goes through to become a guide in the Galápagos. During Daniel’s demonstrations, we nodded enthusiastically and acted even more interested than usual to encourage him. The tiny UK tourist scrunched up into an even tinier human ball and tried to fit into one of the lava tubes.

The mood slowly lightened, but I was caught in a cloud of second guesses: Should we have even been there at all? Would another twenty feet have made a difference? Our scent didn’t get on the pup, so it’s OK, right? None of the other sea lions seemed to care about our presence, so why would this one? Is Pete right, or is he just imposing his own farm rules on a situation and setting he’s never seen?

I didn’t have answers. I have no farming or guide experience to speak of, and that place — a remote and often-barren archipelago at the end of the world — was completely otherworldly. Nothing about the situation gave me any gravity for instinct or protocol. But the stipulation of our tour was that we would have a guide, and he would carefully share with us the unusual alchemy of those islands. And our group — including the critics — seemed content enough to be a part of it.

Towards the end of the hike, Daniel had separated himself from the group and was way out in front. By the look of it, he felt that he was now the bane of our group, despite being the catalyst that had introduced us to so much wonder in the previous days. I walked briskly, sidestepping my friends through the brambles, and caught up with him.

“It was just his opinion, you know,” I said immediately, wanting to clear the air as quickly as possible. I’d been making an effort to speak Spanish with Daniel and the crew aboard the ship, but in times of urgency I switched back to English.

I wanted my message to be clear: You’re doing great. You’re the professional. We trust you.

By the time we returned to the beach, I had said my peace, and Daniel seemed a little less on his heels. To the side in the brush, the sea lion was still barking — but her labors were over, and resting at her side was a newborn pup, no more than an hour old. It was covered in sand, and it looked exhausted. After a short while, it barked back at its mother.

This time, Daniel didn’t draw an imaginary line in the air with his hand. We already knew where it was. [Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]

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