Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Accessible Galapagos Islands: Day 0

In February 2016, we took a trip to the Galapagos. For my mom. She's over 70, a fall risk, poor eyesight, can't swim, low stamina, recurrent brain cancer. She's also a trooper.

This blog series is for the disabled who want to visit the Galapagos. May you find insight and hope.

This post will have a lot of text/advice. Further posts will have more pics. =) All pics can be seen on Flickr.

Why the Galapagos?

As a biology major, I'd heard of the Galapagos but dismissed it. Galapagos = Darwin = evolution, and seeing slightly different kinds of birds didn't interest me. We have a zoo.

But in August 2015, I was chatting with a Dean of Sciences.
"Do you miss teaching?"
"No. But I do miss my field work in the Galapagos." 
"You can get a foot away from a wild bird, and they won't care."
 "Interesting…" (My mom likes birds, and she can't see very far…)
"Before I went, I knew that was true, intellectually. But the actual experience was mind-blowing."  
And a vision was born: Help my mom have close encounters with wild animals, in the Galapagos.

Top 3 accessible-Galapagos tips

  1. Spanish: Learn as much Spanish as you can. Bring along at least one fluent. More = better. Many guides are English fluent, but almost everyone is more comfortable speaking Spanish. Most of the working class don't speak English: taxi drivers, crew members, cooks, servers, housekeepers, etc. Our taxi driver was friendly and honest, but we couldn't ask him his cost for a whole day of driving, to come back in an hour, if he had a friend on a boat that might take the wheelchair, what he recommended for restaurants, etc. If you speak Spanish, you certainly won't get worse service or worse prices. Also, with Spanish you can read a lot more of the Galapagos-related websites (and email people).
  2. Charisma/persuasion/negotiation: Learn these well. There seem no legal roadblocks to having a wheelchair at a land visitor site. If a boat's captain wants it done, he'll find a way. Note that having at least one person who is Spanish fluent and persuasive is much better than two separate people. Of course, money still talks. Friendship/family also falls in this category.
  3. Positivity: The Galapagos is full of necessity = invention. Learn from it, harness it. Wheelchair not work? Try a walker. Or a cane, or two. A chair cane. Have someone carry the person on their back. Rig some poles so that two people can carry someone between them. Rig the wheelchair so one can push/pull it better. Combo: Carry someone for the harder transitions, fold up the wheelchair and use it for smoother parts. Try stuff and learn from mistakes.
Our trip was land-based from Santa Cruz Island. The intention was to take day trips with a wheelchair in tow, though that didn't happen. However, we lacked a lot of the above. No one in our group was Spanish fluent. Nor did we know a travel agent, boat captain, or crew member who really wanted to help my mom. I'm not the best negotiator, especially in an unknown language. We were on a mid-range budget ($3000 USD each, all expenses for 10 days + travel). 

We tried to be positive, and we had a friend who's a local guide. In the end, we still had the trip of a lifetime. However, more of the top 3 tips would've been worth it.

Our trip: Day 0

I researched a lot on the Internet. Just keep digging and asking. How might you narrow trip possibilities? Our example:

The trip was for Mom, but it would be a group. This would let us divide any workload, and also it'd be enjoyable for Mom to have more friends around.

Mom's disabilities meant we really wanted our wheelchair around, though she could walk a few feet with assistance. In the Galapagos, some overall travel options:
  1. High-end cruise (National Geographic). May be used to accommodating wheelchairs.
  2. Big cruise (100+ ppl). May have a "gentle walking" tour group because it's so big.
  3. Tiny cruise (16+ ppl). Rent entire boat, so can set pace of guides (within overall schedule).
  4. Land tour. There are accessible/wheelchair tours of the Galapagos, though limited.
  5. Do-it-yourself land tour. 
For 1) and 2), I read zero stories of anyone with a wheelchair on a cruise, and I couldn't confirm whether it was possible. I could've tried harder to find an official answer and contacted every cruise ship (not that many). However, we'd want the wheelchair not just onboard but also on each island. If not, Mom would be stuck on a boat (remember she can't swim and can't see far, either).

3) could work, but we had only 8 people, and we'd have to find an empty boat, and still make sure they'd bring the wheelchair to shore.

4) One tour I found was combined Ecuador-mainland/etc./Galapagos, and we wanted just the Galapagos. Also, only one in our group was disabled (Mom); I'd rather let the others go off when desired and bring back neat stories. The tour was also fairly expensive.

In the end, we chose 5). It was frankly much cheaper and flexible, and the others were riskier for us. We wouldn't be able to see many other islands. However, we could set our own pace. My mom, being a senior with poor vision, didn't need tons of exciting events each day. She could handle maybe one activity per day, then a nap. And she'd probably like to go slower than the rest of a group.

Ok, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) land tour. Really, more options:
  1. Have a travel agent/cy make a custom tour.
  2. Really Do-It-Yourself.
  3. Combo.
We chose 2), though we got travel insurance through an agent friend. 1) could have worked, especially for flights, but everyone online said it was cheaper to book actual tours once in the Galapagos. Also, I really wanted to try Airbnb, and most agents won't use that.

For flights, quick summary: Actual Galapagos flights are almost all the same, no matter the carrier. Leave Quito in the morning, quick stop in Guayaquil, land near Santa Cruz or on San Cristobal. Leaving the Galapagos is in the early afternoon. ~$450 USD round-trip. Practically, this means the fastest travel from the U.S. is to arrive in Quito in the evening, stay overnight, fly to the Galapagos in the morning. Latest return is to leave Galapagos in the afternoon, wait in Quito until midnight, then fly to the U.S. At Quito Airport, you can find a nearby hotel room, or go across the street to the airport center, as they have comfier chairs and a 24-hour convenience store downstairs

Flights, part 2: There are 4 inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana), 3 with airports (not Floreana), 2 with airports flying to/from the mainland (not Isabela). Visiting these islands is a lot cheaper and more flexible than day trips to uninhabited islands. View videos online to sense if the more-expensive day trips are worth it. Otherwise, some efficient options for the inhabited islands:
  1. Fly to Santa Cruz (really Baltra); stay. Fly out. 
  2. Fly to Santa Cruz; stay. Speedboat to San Cristobal; stay. Fly out.
  3. Reverse of 2).
  4. Fly to Santa Cruz; stay. Speedboat to Isabela; stay. Fly to San Cristobal; stay. Fly out.
  5. Reverse of 4). 
Note that flights to/from Isabela may have severe luggage restrictions. Also, speedboats are many, but they all run at the same times, so options are few. Plan ahead.

We did 1), and we loved where we stayed and there was plenty for Mom to do. In hindsight, any of the others would have been better, just to see another island/beach/environment. Certainly if we stayed longer, 4) or 5) would've been much better.

Squeeze in a short cruise: Visiting Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela would easily fill 14 days for my mom. But you can also explore the uninhabited islands on a quick 3- or 4-day cruise, to also test the accessibility. (Then share with others!) For example: Plan 8 days in Santa Cruz, with 3–4 days of that for a cruise. As soon as you land, visit every tour agency for itineraries and prices on short cruises, as well as accessibility options. That gives you up to 3 days to shop around. If you do this, you'll want a hostel/hotel/airbnb that you can extend/cancel easily. 

Housing: There are expensive hotels, and cheaper hotels/hostels. There's also Airbnb. I wanted something unique, so we went with Airbnb. Our final choice was driven by 3 things:
  1. We could see the stars from there.
  2. It fit 5+ people (actually 8). 
  3. The host, Jan, was a guide.
My mom really wanted to see the stars (or I wanted her to see them). There were many other nice things about the situation, but every place is like that. The downsides included price (a little more), distance (can't walk to restaurants/shops), commitment (multi-day stay required), no air conditioning. Things worked out, and we were very happy and grateful in the end.

However, an alternative would've been: Airbnb a place for the first night you arrive, or just arrive and visit 6 hotels/hostels in town. (All towns are small enough.) You can negotiate/pick better that way, unless you arrive at some crazy peak season. (El Nino scared everyone away for us. Now it's Zika.) Airbnb has some gems, more if you know Spanish.

Hire people: I mentioned our Airbnb host, Jan, was also a guide. Luckily, Jan was willing and able to guide us (for a fee) during our trip. This was invaluable, as again no one spoke Spanish. Jan is an expert naturalist, but we needed his Spanish-speaking skills perhaps as much. Plus his knowledge of the local culture and geography. Maybe you can hire your Airbnb host, or they have a friend/relative who can show you local restaurants or hideaways, or who can help you make connections with trusted travel agents, boats, guides, etc. If we spoke better Spanish, we could've also hired a taxi driver to drive us all over the island, show us less-touristy spots, etc.

At this point, we had a plan (DIY land-based tour), flights, insurance, housing, and a guide. We also had our Little-Wheelchair-That-Could: A folding Quickie from a garage sale, similar to the LX, made of aluminum/titanium. Our guide was a little concerned about what my mom could do, especially with the wheelchair. And we couldn't get traction on bringing the wheelchair on boats.

However, we also had 7 non-disabled people in our group to help. And we had a list of nature sites, fun activities, and restaurants in and around Santa Cruz.

But seriously, we should've learned more Spanish.

What more do you want to know? Subsequent posts will have more pics and describe what we did in the Galapagos. =)

Ending tip (#4): Wait. I'm guessing Galapagos creatures are more skittish today than 30 years ago, especially on inhabited islands. Regardless, the more you wait, the more nature will come to you. You can plan a little and wait in the path of, say, an incoming tortoise. But sometimes you just have to enjoy the scenery … and wait. Thankfully, that's an advantage for DIY tours, and perhaps even those in wheelchairs.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Days 12–17: London, and the End!

It's been nearly a year since we went on our European cruise, and I'm still blogging about it. That's too long. =) Sure, it was the trip of a lifetime! However, the "everyday" days are still important … sometimes more important. I want to catch up and give space to them.

So, let's begin our final post on the cruise! There will be only 20 photos for 6 days in London. You can see more photos here:

In my previous post, we had finished the "Romantic Danube" cruise in Budapest and were about to fly to London.

Day 12: Chocolate in the Budapest airport. I had this brand in Israel. Yummy! However, I took the photo especially because of the middle chocolate, called "Happy Cows"!

You see, in California the cheese industry airs commercials with the slogan, "Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California." The implication is that California cheese is better than, say, Wisconsin cheese, because California's weather is better. I won't enter that debate. However, I enjoyed those commercials.

In London, we stayed at a fancy hotel a block from the British Museum. Many museums in England are free to enter!

Day 13: Eating at the British Museum is amazing, because of the architecture. So much light! Here, Mom enjoys a sandwich in the Great Court.

Mom really enjoyed the museum's exhibit on Chinese ceramics. We returned multiple days, and she even bought a book.

At museums, I'm always amazed that many exhibits are barrier-free: Anyone could accidentally, or purposely, touch them! Of course, we're not supposed to touch them, but still, it's amazing the trust and respect the museum has for all people.

Here's a sarcophagus, over 2000 years old, covered in hieroglyphics. I was very tempted to touch, but I restrained myself.

The Rosetta Stone! Unlike the sarcophagus above, this is behind glass. =) The Rosetta Stone declares a royal decree, repeated across three languages. Without this stone, we might never have deciphered hieroglyphics. Thank goodness that someone had the foresight to make the Rosetta Stone. It's a testament to the power of information, and the power of being able to compare data side-by-side.   

A panorama of the downstairs area of our hotel room. Yes, a 2-floor hotel room! It was an upgrade, but yes, I'm afraid to ask how much it cost.

Mom was resting (in my bed). The lighting was good, so I took this shot.

Day 14: We returned to the British Museum. At left are stones used with a sling. Yes, like the story of David and Goliath! Now that I see the stones, it seems much more believable that David could beat a bear, a lion, and Goliath.

By the way, you know that saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" I used to say that as a kid, then stopped as I grew up. But only in recent years did I realize it's not true, at all. My version: "The more I trust, the more words hurt. But I will live on."

We visited the Chinese ceramics exhibit again. The museum had a wheelchair we could use. Mary's talking to a girl who was making at etching of one of the pieces. I think her name was Emily.

Fish and chips! One evening we got these to-go from a local restaurant. They were tasty but really oily. We also lacked proper utensils. =)

Day 15: Mom in our room. Can't have too many nice shots of one's mom!

Rob and his wife Val. Rob and I were college roommates in my 2nd year. They live in England now. We had breakfast. I'm grateful we could keep in touch. 

If I seem to be making a funny face, it's because we were playing with my camera's "Smile detector." When the detector is on, the camera takes photos only when it detects a smile. We learned here that the camera's not smart enough to wait until everyone smiles. =)

On display at the British Museum. What might the placard say? "Geoffrey Hom. Homo sapiens. Circa 2015, Sacramento, California. Often mistaken as younger due to Asian genes and student attire. Note greying hair on side of head. Future to be determined. Same pair of glasses for 15+ years. On display for a limited time only."

Ricardo and me. Ricardo and I were in the same lab in Minnesota, then at Genentech. Ricardo's doing more research in Cambridge and took the train to visit me.

Day 16: The Natural History Museum. This is "Dippy," a Diplodocus, in the entrance hall. In summer 2017, Dippy will be replaced by the skeleton of a blue whale. More info is here.

Carrie, Kate/George, and me. They live in England, but we know each other from the Game Developers Conference in California. Kate had to explain to me that "George" is also a female name in Britain. (See here.) When Kate was growing up, there was a popular children's book with a female George, and she really liked that character.

The museum had a really cool exhibit on butterflies and moths. Hundreds of them, with dozens of different species! But this poor moth. It's wings are damaged for some reason.

For some reason, I feel danger nearby. =) 

Okay, that is a live, giant moth. If it wanted, it could land on my face. But the volunteer said they're harmless…

Day 17: Time for Mom and I to go home! (Mary had more European adventures.)

This is in the airport, in a British Airways lounge. The sign reads, "Unfortunately, this machine is out of order at present; an engineer has been called. Thank you for your patience."

It's just a wine cooler! The British really are fancy.

Almost home! Mom looks happy.

Reflections on our 2015 Hom European Vacation

My sister planned this trip. At that time, Mom had undergone a year of surgery, chemo, and radiation for an aggressive brain tumor. Would the treatments work? How long would we have? Could she fly?

For some reason, Mom wanted to visit the Danube River and go on a cruise. Perhaps it was because of the song, "Blue Danube." Perhaps it was the brochures.

Have you ever wanted to help someone? A child? Spouse? Friend? Homeless person? We often think really hard about the best way to help. I have learned my first step: Just ask them what they want. It's simpler, easier, and respectful.

Mom wanted to go to the Danube. So we went.

Auntie Nancy didn't go to London with us, but she was a Godsend on the cruise.

The vacation was very expensive. In hindsight, I feel it could have been half the cost and we would've been just as happy. However, it was what it was, we learned a lot, and we now have a bar to measure against. If I had to choose between going and not going, I'm definitely glad we went.

Also, it's only money. By that, I mean God has the power to create and destroy money. Do you believe that? I've heard it from true stories, and I've seen it in my own life. I won't say God gave us the money to go on an expensive European vacation; I don't feel that. However, if God wants something, I do believe he can provide any needed resources, including money.

What resources are on my mind most these days? Health. Time. We rejoice with what we've been given. But we still pray.

May God provide for you, too.

Next time: We took another trip after Europe. I want to blog about it before we reach the "everyday."

Next stop, the Galapagos Islands!