Monday, January 14, 2013

Live a life less ordinary: A Darwinian Love Affair

10 years ago I worked offshore in China. I was a Field Engineer in the oil industry, but after a short stint on the rigs I'd had my fill - enough to last me a lifetime. I resigned unceremoniously and hopped on a plane across the world - my destination Ecuador, South America. I had a few University friends running around on the Gringo trail. It was as good a place as any to start living again.

After a reckless few weeks backpacking off the beaten track with an old uni buddy, we flirted too close to danger and were held up at gunpoint on a quaint fishing village beach. Thankfully the biggest casualties were a pair of Sketchers and my Fossil watch - my buddy fared roughly the same. But heeding fair warning we headed back to the relative safety of Quito and Gringolandia, licking our wounds and thanking our lucky stars.

The mugging was a major bummer, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth for backpacking - and unfortunately my buddy also. Feeling like I was in 'checkmate' I wandered aimlessly down a street in Quito passing myriads of internet cafs and fabric vendors, digging fruitlessly in the bottom of my local woven bag for some matches for my Marlborough Light - wishing fate would step in and lend a helping hand, which of course it did.

A fellow traveler and smoker (a trustworthy stranger in these parts) sitting on a bollard on the pavement offered his lighter, and we got to chatting. He was Canadian, and I liked the way he sounded. I needed a friend and a new travel buddy with ideas. He had great ones, and in a few hours I was accompanying my new friend to a small tourist office to book ourselves on the very next flight and boat tour to the Galapagos Islands.

Buzzing with excitement we headed back to our respective hostels to pack for the next day, passing by a small restaurant bar called H.V.H along the way. Danny, the guy that ran the joint, was outside punting the place. A band was playing that night  - he indicated down the road to a small, (and oddly) suited-up dude, with blonde dreadlocks, who was hurrying away carrying a guitar that looked half his size - and the food deals were great, so I made a 'date' with the Canadian for that evening to celebrate our imminent cruise plans.

I remember my hair was braided. I remember I was the slimmest I'd ever been in my life. I remember I was wearing a pair of  well worn 'Jesus' sandals, handed down to me from a friend. Faded flared jeans sat low on my hips, and a brief yellow tank top showed off my tan. It's not hard to remember as those were almost the entire contents of my rucksack. I'd neglected to buy a bigger backpack, and so the only clothes I had, save for a denim skirt and bikini, were the ones on my back - my trainers had already been nicked!

Dan gigging in Quito, 2003
I don't remember many details about my new found travel companion. His name was Mark, and together we made fun of the kooky lead singer on stage. I remember everything about that kooky singer. The suited hippy had taken off his jacket, but was still wearing a necktie, and his long wayward blonde dreadlocks were sticking outwards from beneath a Santa Clause hat - it was the first day of June. He strummed slowly on his acoustic guitar watching the audience over a pair of wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses, as he slowly and deeply bastardized the intro to the upbeat Beatles classic 'Hard Day's Night'.

It was funny - but only to start with. And then it got really really good, and I was singing and dancing in my chair to the groovy little cover-band we'd happened across. My day had turned from hopeless to happy in a few short hours. We stayed until the band took a break. And that eccentric little hippy with the big voice came and sat right behind Mark and me. Our morning flight was early, so we hadn't planned on staying later, but lulled by the band's presence in the bar we hung out a little longer.

Dan and Jo, H.V.H. Quito, 2003
He asked who we were, and it was a little unnerving to return his intense gaze. He really paid attention. After some lighthearted discourse we soon discovered that the Musician/English Teacher (hence the suit) was also Galapagos bound the following morning - school was on a break. The coincidence didn't mean much that night. The Galapagos islands are pretty big, and many boats of all shapes and sizes set out on tours each day.

But it was fun for us all to have a common journey in our sights. The singer went back to singing, and Mark and I - after listening politely to a few more covers - left the little bar. I put a meager tip in the band's collection tin on our way out - and earned a thrilling 'Thank you Josie' in a quiet low timbre. A little disconcerted I avoided eye contact and smiled goodbye.

The next morning I think I arrived with Mark, but when I got to the boarding lounge I was alone. And the velvet toned "Josie" that welcomed me was unmistakable. In the light of day, the hippy singer was less mysterious, but just as intriguing. The suit had been dropped for a Guayabera shirt over a wife-beater, thai fisher pants and some funky strap sandals that I soon learned were Chacos.

'Dan' was good-naturedly beating himself up for having just dropped his new camera lens. It was a large professional looking camera - and not a digital. Lucky for me my new standard digital camera had survived the beach robbery. This enigmatic hippy had only recently permitted himself such an elaborate purchase after banning himself previously for committing the same blunder. His self discipline was a little alarming, and not so in line with his dreadlocks. I admit I was fascinated.

Mark's arrival put an end to further discovery, and he was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to have last night's singer in our midst once again. The flight was not seat allocated so Mark sat beside me and Dan sat behind Mark, who it turned out suffered acutely from fear of flying.

A mischievous side soon emerged from Dan, which was incredibly infectious - if a little obnoxious - and his merciless teasing of Mark was hard to resist. I was attracted by how easily he was to be around and the laughter in his eyes and lips. I didn't want to have to say goodbye when the plane touched down in the islands - not just yet.

I don't remember how he came to be in the seat beside me. But I remember him leaning over and showing me an oil related article. I thought I detected a hint of disapproval in his demeanor, and I knew then I liked him as I wanted to lie. I wanted to deny my treacherous oil background, and pledge allegiance to all hippies - in particularly this one. But I didn't lie. I told him where I'd come from, and what I'd done. He surprised me by showing intrigue. There was no hint of disapproval, just interest, and something more that made my heart beat a little faster.

When our plane landed he waited by our side. And when our pick-up truck arrived he tagged along with us in the bed of the truck, until we arrived at our unnervingly small boat. It wasn't a coincidence. The musician/hippy/photographer hadn't prebooked on a tour - he was hoping to score a last minute deal, and (as I learned much later) he already had his sights set on more than just our boat.

We all boarded, and Mark and I checked out our above deck shared quarters. I could hear Dan's voice belting out 'Hotel California' from below deck. The guy was more interesting than anyone I'd met in forever. I'd been blown away by the fluent Spanish that had come tumbling out of him when we climbed on board and introduced ourselves to the boat tour guide, and the subsequent banter and negotiations that followed between our guide and Dan thereafter. He was singing for a discounted ticket - on the premise he would provide live nightly entertainment.

Ship mates, Galapagos, 2003
(left to right: Jo, Mark, Nadav, Dan) 
'Please let him stay' was all I could think over and over. The world was looking more vibrant with this man in it and I didn't want a grey shadow to fall over the great Galapagos Islands. Inevitably we all got we wanted (accept for Mark) and from then on, Mark may as well have been chopped liver. I guiltily sensed he was feeling sidelined, but there hadn't ever been any promise of romance - even though we were sharing tight quarters on a most romantic voyage.

Jo, Galapagos 2003

Dan showed no mercy to Mark, who had never been a potential suitor in my eyes. But Dan never knew that. As far as he was concerned, he'd met a couple traveling together - and berthing together, but no honor code made him step back. Much like Darwin's 'Survival of the Fittest' developed on these Islands, all was fair in love and war. It didn't matter - although I don't know if I even realized it at the time - I was already smitten with our 'off the wall' cruise crasher.

The next few days were the most magical of my life, with each dawn offering a different once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had dolphins racing the nose of our boat - just beyond our reaching fingertips as we laid bellies flat on the front bow. We swam with sea lions, turtles and penguins (on my birthday) - and even over circling sharks! One day the sea before us erupted into a thousand flipping rays - somersaulting to rid themselves of some pesky parasite.

'eccentric hippy' Galapagos, 2003

The nights offered backpacker banter and relaxation, and romance was hard to resist. After the others had retired to their bunks, Dan and I would sit at the back of our boat, watching sea lions pop-up - cheekily hitching a ride inside the towed rowing boat if they dared. The fast moving black sea was hypnotic beneath us, with the shiny fluorescent plankton catching the moonlight. We shared our stories, hopes, fears and dreams. It didn't take many nights before I kissed him first...

The week passed by too quickly, and each day was filled with laughter and love - although it was way too early for either of us to label it so. He nick-named me his 'oil girl' and it thrilled me. He comforted me when I recoiled from the Tuna bludgeoning, and made me hot lemon tea when the cold water overcame me. He hated me smoking. I loved being around him and I felt protected in his arms. I missed him for even the briefest separation...

Dan, Galapagos, 2003

But I was liberated by such a short term romance. I already had my connecting flight booked out of Quito to Cuenca, in the South of Ecuador, so we knew our days were numbered. It didn't hurt - yet - but it made our time all the more special, and I didn't want to waste a second.

Our inevitable goodbye was easy (stiff British upper lip and all) and after a heartfelt hug I refused to look back. The timing of our encounter had been perfect, and I couldn't have wished for a better pick-me-up. I would not allow myself to want more - he hadn't offered it and I already had a plane to catch.

By the time I reached the Galapagos airport I was eager to be seated and on route to the next chapter of my worldly adventure, but the Travel Agents had messed up my flights. My connecting flight out of Quito looked to already be boarding before I had boarded my flight out of the Galapagos. The time difference had been overlooked and there wasn't another flight to Cuenca until Monday (it was Friday).

I didn't want to be hanging around in Quito all weekend. My holiday romance had stayed on in the Galapagos for an extra two days and wasn't returning until Sunday, so there wasn't anything left for me in Gringolandia. I was experiencing a severe comedown after such a wonderful week, and without a new adventure to distract me from my feelings, my withdrawal symptoms were starting to hit hard. I missed my dread lock hippie dude - a lot.

Again I wandered aimlessly through Quito's central tourist grid known as Gringolandia, Marlborough in hand - hoping for fate to throw me a bone. I soon found myself logged on in Papayanet, the cornerstone internet caf and tourist trap of Gringo-Land, ironically situated across the road from H.V.H, which was all of a sudden shrouded by a painfully magical memory.

I opened my Hotmail account and my spine started tingling at the topmost email. It was from 'him'I clicked on the message eagerly and slowly read the unpunctuated text. If my memory serves me correctly, it read something along the lines of:

hey guirl
heard you missed your flight...
howd you like to come hang out at mine for a couple days/weeks/months?
you could learn spanish, do some yoga, paint a little...    
just a thought                

So I waited nervously for what seemed like hours, on the corner of H.V.H and Papayanet, on a Sunday afternoon for my hippy hobo and his guitar case to show up. After a shy 'reunion' kiss we made our way together out of the safety of Gringolandia. Huddled side by side on a rickety bus belting techno-cumbia, I was unusually quiet - awed by the spontaneity and recklessness of my own actions, and scared to be once again off the beaten track as we headed to a very real district of Quito called La Vicentina Alta, where we would start the rest of our life ... together.

Dan and Jo, H.V.H, Quito, 2003 


  1. I met Mrs. Cranky through Match...interesting story...well it was interesting, now not so much!

    1. Everyone's got a story, how interesting it is, is definitely subjective. And now I'm intrigued about your Match story for sure....

  2. I love this story (That could be a rom-com!) So romantic :) Thanks for sharing..

    1. I've been told that before. All I need now is a screenplay writer to stumble across it and think the same thing! ;)

  3. Love this story! I'm curious about your 'eccentric hippy' picture. What is going on? It looks like he walking on air with flippers on.

  4. OMG, I loved that! What a fantastic story- I felt like I was reading a novel! You have lived an interesting life, lady! And holy sh*t- look at what a cutie you are!

    1. You certainly know how to make a girl feel top notch! You've got me dancing around the house like my flipper clad 'eccentric hippy' with that last sentence. However, my inherent honesty compels me to admit 'were' might be more accurate than 'are'. Ten years and three pregnancies may have obscured my cuteness (a tad).