It's a (wo)man's world: Bucket-list trip to the Galapagos Islands springs a leak amid the giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies

We’d been warned about the Ecuadorian pickpockets, but not about the rocks. And ten days into the bucket-list trip we’d been dreaming of for months, my husband Doug and I were still giddy. The Amazon rainforest had been everything we’d expected—muggy, a little buggy, lush and exotic, day and night, and worth the trek for the bird and monkey sightings alone (though there was so much more!). Quito, Ecuador’s capital, had been a pleasant couple of days’ return to civilization—museums, chocolate tastings, and fine dining. Now we were in the Galapagos Islands! We were touring from a luxurious eight-stateroom catamaran. We’d left the bustling city unscathed, all our possessions intact. For three days we’d admired giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, and magnificent frigatebirds. We’d watched spectacular mating dances between waved albatrosses. We’d snorkeled with sea lions and turtles, swum amongst tropical fish in search of hammerhead sharks, and we had two more vacation days to go.

It was a dream come true. Until it was a nightmare.

We were on the uninhabited island of Espanola, hiking on volcanic rocks and listening to our naturalist guide as he spoke over the snorts of slithery marine iguanas. A light mist began to fall. We walked, watching our steps as much as the scenery, to the albatross airport, a cliff along the coastline where the dozens of albatrosses who were nesting nearby would soon teach their young to fly. The light rain continued, but we were undeterred.

We were hiking back toward the pier when my left foot slid down a slippery black rock. It wedged between two stones, and I tumbled. My body fell one direction, my left hand extending to mitigate impact while my foot was intractably stuck in the opposite direction. I went down. My foot flopped helplessly to the right.

What followed is best described as “be careful what you wish for.”

Our naturalist guide, oddly, said “Stay right there,” plucked off his trekking shoes and ran barefooted to the pier, to our waiting panga (or dinghy) which he raced to our anchored ship. My fourteen fellow passengers, two of whom (mercifully!) were doctors, waited with me. Six of the ship’s crewmen returned and hauled me onto a stretcher, into the panga, and then onto the floor in the lounge of our ship. An hour had passed.

The captain, kneeling over me, said the ship would turn around for San Cristobal, the nearest island with an emergency room. My foot and leg were ballooning. My fingers were throbbing. I handed Doug my wedding band. My pain, great as it was, was surpassed by my agony at the thought of disrupting the trip for others, but this captain wouldn’t listen to reason. Thank heavens.

Three and a half hours of full-speed motoring later, our ship anchored. Another panga and an ambulance waited. It was pitch dark except for the flickering red lights. Doug--with my wedding ring in his backpack and our hastily packed belongings crammed into two hulking duffel bags--and I were heading to a South American hospital. I don’t speak Spanish.

The place was tiny, maybe two corridors and some curtains. I begged for pain medicine, or I tried to. Someone wheeled me to x-ray. Then he left me beside a curtain and covered me with blankets. I was shivering.

Doug reappeared. “The break is more than they can repair at this facility,” he whispered. 

“Get. Me. Some pain medicine,” I said through clenched teeth. I’d have let a booby treat me by this point.

Finally a sweet-faced nurse who looked like a girl of twelve gave me an injection. In the stomach. It seemed unorthodox, but what did I care. I thought I’d finally have some relief. I was wrong.

I begged. “Mas medicinas, por favor.” I tugged at the curtain, shouting. “Hola???”

She came back and looked at me earnestly. I’d be getting no more pain medication. “You leg is broke,” she said, as if that settled it.

It was the longest night of my life, made worse by the fact that our cruise line had set up Doug in a nice nearby hotel. I lay awake, in pain, and unattended. At one point, a commotion erupted on the other side of the curtain, all raised voices and shuffling feet, the only words I could make out being “cervesa, solamente una cervesa.” It was Saturday night in the ER. I was alone, with broken limbs, in a South American hospital.

The next morning, nurses wrapped my foot and lower leg with bandages, and Doug arrived looking fresh and well fed. We were going home. He pushed me in a wheelchair to our cruise representative’s waiting car, and within minutes we arrived at the San Cristobal airport where I was briefly stranded again. The hospital had given me no crutches.

It was the beginning of another long, trying day. I had to be carried from the tarmac up the stairwell to our first plane. When we arrived at the Guayaquil airport, where we were directed to the international help desk to re-book new return flights, we must have been a disheveled, distracted-looking site: I was grimacing, with an obviously fresh injury, clothed in the same now-filthy hiking clothes I’d been wearing for two days. Doug’s nerves were frayed as he juggled managing me, making new flight arrangements, and keeping track of our baggage. A pickpocket saw an easy mark. Moments later, Doug’s backpack was gone. With it went my wedding ring, his car keys, his camera, and all the pictures he’d taken, among other valuables.

We reported the theft, eventually flew to Miami and then, at last, to New Orleans where our son Brett met us with a replacement car key. 48 hours after my accident, I was finally back in Hattiesburg and in the supremely capable hands of our friend Dr. Mike Patterson, an orthopedic surgeon with Southern Bone & Joint Specialists.

I’m glad I didn’t know the extent of my injuries during that long trip home. Doug spared me the full report until a few days after my ORIF-surgery. I suffered multiple leg fractures, and my foot was dislocated from my ankle. But one successful operation, 20-something staples, a dozen screws, and a shiny plate later, I’m on the mend. Will the experience tame my adventurous spirit? A bit, to be honest. Will I go to Galapagos again? Given the opportunity. But first, the gorillas in Rwanda await.

Becky Montague is a writer, avid traveler, and founding president of the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art. When she’s back on her feet, she’ll bring another sculpture and some more murals to Hattiesburg.

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