Everyone tells you that going to the Galapagos is the “trip of a lifetime” and it is, just not in the way you might think.  It was not the animals we saw on the ashy volcanic islands nor the adventure of being at sea on the Pacific Ocean that provided the singular experience for me.  Rather, it was the “trip of a lifetime” because of the larger lessons I learned preparing for and experiencing the journey. What my family and I gained had little to do with giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies, and everything to do with ourselves.

As any parent knows, the prospect of a long trip to an unfamiliar place generates anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Contemplating the sheer number of connecting flights, hotel transitions and varying climates involved in the trip dizzied my orderly brain.  There were endless conversations with my husband about what new suitcases we needed, because I was under the impression (erroneously) that our luggage had to fit very specific limitations. Then there was the ongoing email debate amongst my extended family over whether we needed more than one pair of water shoes to prevent inadvertently carrying soil on our soles from one ecosystem to another. Also false.  Pressure was further ratcheted up by the prospect of getting everyone in my family to take their typhoid vaccines (4 doses every other day for 7 days). It became an entirely exhausting process due mostly to the fact that my two youngest children kept gagging on their pills and then expelling them across the room until I essentially shoved the pills down their throats. Not a popular move. And finally, seasickness, the one thing I should have been concerned about all along but wasn’t until clued in by a friend, demanded a last minute scramble to buy all of the sea-sickness bracelets and Dramamine in Duane Reade.  Life lesson number one: The things we spend the most time worrying about are normally the things that end up being the least important.

In our first day in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, my husband and I enthusiastically embraced the start to our adventure by showing our kids the opportunities afforded by a exploring a new place by foot.  Our good intentions slowly morphed into a miles-long death march of epic proportions in 100 degree weather. We sought and failed to find “Iguana Park,” where enormous iguanas hang out all day long, only the our first of many failures along the way.  While we braved hordes of last minute holiday shoppers shoving past us, the humidity was so intense that I sweated out the 18 Twix bars I had eaten on the flight down from New York. But the nadir to our our miserable parade along the seaside promenade was when we realized that we’d overshot our designated lunch spot by half a mile.   The harrowing walk back against oncoming Ecuadorian traffic along a treacherously narrow sidewalk did nothing to lift spirits as we neared our back-up lunch spot. We dragged our exhausted bodies toward the promised land, our restaurant, and unexpectedly stumbled upon the holy grail: Iguana Park! Massive iguanas roamed the thick grass and for the first time in hours, we all smiled, charmed by the enormous and bizarre creatures.   Life lesson number two: Going somewhere new is sweaty, unpredictable work, but just when you want to give up, you might find what you were looking for all along.

Once in the Galapagos, we would be roaming the Pacific Ocean on our ship to visit several volcanic islands, at times seeing animals from the shore and other times while in snorkeling in the water.  For four months in the lead up to our trip, my eight-year-old son told me repeatedly that under no circumstances would he be snorkeling. I assured him that no one would force him to snorkel and there would certainly be other options for him.  On the first day, while the rest of us lugged our snorkeling bags onto small rubber boats to meet the islands’ marine life, my youngest son proudly boarded the glass bottom boat with my husband to observe the fish from a safe distance. However, that very afternoon, likely due to the nausea-inducing qualities of said glass bottom boat, he declared himself ready to snorkel the next day.  His first foray into snorkeling was a disaster and involved him swallowing gallons of seawater and his utter frustration with the activity. His second attempt later that day, thanks to a better fitting mask, yielded more actual snorkeling and less ingesting of sea water. And in his third self-determined effort, armed with growing confidence, resulted in bona fide snorkeling, his chubby hands proudly pointing out the beautiful fish swimming just feet below us.  Life lesson number three: Sometimes our kids overcome their fears most successfully when we push them the least.

While my youngest child was gaining in character on our trip, my eldest child seem to be slowly unraveling before our eyes.  He was turning 16 while we were on the boat, but with a 6:30am wake up, a packed schedule of ecological sightseeing and only his family for company, the day was clearly not what he had envisioned for his birthday.  His teenage brain imagined his friends, thousands of miles away playing beer pong and hooking up, while he had only sea lions and blue footed boobies to add some pizzazz to the festivities. The most excitement on his big day would likely be his 5-year-old cousin’s fart jokes.  Needless to say, our lectures to him about how ungrateful he was to be complaining while touring the Galapagos Islands fell on deaf ears. The day seemed totally unsalvageable as his birthday dinner was drawing to a disappointing close, brightened only briefly by the neon yellow pineapple frosting on his cake, until the nine adult members of our family were left alone in the ship’s dining room with my son.  In a last ditch effort to reclaim the day from abject failure, I suggested the adults go around the table sharing stories from their own 16th birthdays. However, when we went around the table, one by one we each admitted that none of us actually remembered our 16th birthdays. My son perked up. “Really? None of you remember your 16th birthdays. I feel so much better that mine sucked.” Things were looking up.  Life lesson number four: Milestones are not actually as important as people make you believe.

During the course of the trip, every morning we would wake up to find ourselves staring at a new set of islands to which we had traveled during the night.  We lost sense of what day it was. There was very little Wi-fi, so our phones stayed in our rooms. We met penguins, sea lions, and blue-footed boobies, all of whom were completely unmoved by our presence.  We walked across islands composed of black, ropey lava that had not existed 100 years ago and we hiked up peaks that were layered with lava ash millions of years old. We learned that all of the islands we visited were slowly creeping towards the South American landmass and would one day end up underneath it, ceasing to exist at all. My worries about luggage size and water shoes became irrelevant.   I grew accustomed to my constant nausea. I stopped thinking about how ridiculous I looked in my sun hat. I had given myself over to the experience, bobbing on the ocean and shedding my concerns along the way. Life lesson number five:  The trip of a lifetime was ultimately found in recognizing how insignificant so much of my daily life actually is.


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