Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Not all spectacles across the Galápagos feature blue-footed boobies or magnificent frigate birds. Homo sapiens are the best example. Their underrated rituals reveal the hidden dynamics of the islands, framing how life has learned to co-exist.
The Galápagos sun sets opposite the turquoise shore. Magnificent frigate birds circle the sky as it transforms from orange to pink. And middle-aged men gather without their wives along large blue quadrilaterals near the pier of Puerto Ayora. An open agenda is unfolding. It is set against a graffiti-laden skate ramp, repurposed tonight into reclined seating. Medium-sized bills change hands as the haggling ritual of odds and wagers reaches its apex. After much fanfare, two teams of three brave warriors emerge and it’s GAME ON!
This is volei. But it’s not volleyball as you know it. For one, the concrete court stretches as far as ten giant tortoises sideways, and up to thirty from end to end. Meanwhile, the fluorescent net reaches shy of a modern apartment ceiling. Each team gets three discrete touches to return the ball after a clean serve. You’re allowed contact with the ball of almost any kind. But any two handed contact must be simultaneous (you can’t hit the ball with one hand and then the other, for example). You win points on serve. The first team to reach 11 points, with at least a two point margin, clinches the set. Two sets, and you’ve won the game. With three players stretched across their respective territories, athletic acuity is a must. Horizontal dives across the pavement are essential; no protective gear is allowed. You’d think only the best of the best would attempt such a sport. But pot-bellied players range from 30 to 60 years of age, dressed in casual sports attire, rarely coordinated. It’s a testament to never judging a book by its cover, something Galápagos creatures have long learned for survival.
Another important trait on the archipelago is knowing how to take advantage of every opportunity. Here, local food vendors strike to quench and satiate spectators. And there are plenty of options. Baked empanadas filled with cheese or chicken are a good way to start at $1 each, stored in aluminium-lined baskets for increased freshness. Help yourself to some coffee served from insulated vessels carried by children behind their mothers and fathers. Nuts come in convenient makeshift plastic bags hung like bananas off the shoulder of vested merchants. For those so inclined, cigarettes are available by the stick, lit by obliging vendors. They’re presented in neck-bearing trays ala hotdogs, get your hotdogs! And if you fancy dessert, homemade popsicle sticks and watermelon triangles are at your fingertips. There’s no reason why one can’t be full and entertained.
For the players, it’s survival of the fittest. Each player draws on their respective strengths to come out on top. There are the heavy hitters, the nimble folk, and the jumpers. Balancing team dynamics is essential. They’ve entered a pay-to-play winner-takes-all gamble, in which kitties eclipse $400USD. “That’s definitely a lot more than they can make in a week,” a seaman who identifies as Nelson Mandela tells me. In fact, the average wage in Ecuador is little over that much a month. The authorities bear no qualms, though. They enjoy the games as much as everyone else, guns protruding from their holsters, bulletproof vests on show. Referees hold the wagers of cash in their fingers as they score the game on handheld boards, moving pegs down allotted holes. Like peacocks, there’s nothing to hide. At these stakes, winning is exhilarating, while losing means contemplating how one is going to go home.
As the game intensifies, silly mistakes and close calls often lead to intense verbal exchanges. It’s all to the audible amusement of the crowd, who isn’t averse to jeering players on, delighted in the plight of others. Pale-skinned tourists are quick to capture the moments on their phones in collections of schadenfreude. Intra-team shenanigans can escalate, too. Players sometimes abandon their teammates altogether, doing what’s known as the infamous walk off. Once the crowd grows unfavourable and players start to lose their composure, only the fittest survive. Masculinities are on show, and pride is a curious tinder. These moments require the coolest of nominated (and paid) referees whose greatest challenge is to remain cool against the onslaughts of embattled players, especially when it’s clear they’ve made a questionable call.
Making friends across the sidelines is as core to the experience as watching the players have at it. We are but social creatures, and Galápagos residents lie to the right extreme of the bell curve. They’re keen to explain the game’s intricacies, and divulge the stories of their lives on the islands. As Nelson Mandela explains the rules to me in his proficient self-taught English, he acknowledges that he prefers watching fútbol. “These players, they’re usually the same pool of people every night. It’s fun and its interesting, but it can be a bit repetitive.” It makes sense that players keep coming back for more, especially if they’re in the red. A Santa Cruz native, Nelson tells me more than enough about his four children. Three now work in Guayaquil, while his youngest, aged thirteen, remains in school. We often pause our conversation to soak in the atmosphere, indulging in the abundant shenanigans. Having never seen the world outside of Ecuador, he surprises me with a conversation about the Australian Open, including his thoughts on who should have won.
On another night, I meet a lovely lady enjoying the evening with her parents. She’s particularly amused by the teammates bickering and scolding. It’s the seriousness of the players that takes her fancy; something about their unwavering devotion to a game. Or rather it’s the peculiar counterintuition of their failure to cooperate. She describes how she moved here with her family from Guayaquil at the age of fifteen, a “team” she couldn’t imagine having conflict with. Her parents are mute, and had decided to start a new, kinder life on the Galápagos. It’s a journey many residents associate with. She’s particularly interested in the endemic birds, helping me name some of a few wanderers around the court. They’ve come to scavenge the remains of empanadas and nuts. In the end, we bond over an amusing episode of player self-chastisement, and she leaves to take her parents home before it gets too dark.
When I first arrived on the Galápagos, I thought my experiences would consist primarily of encounters with wildlife. It was not an unfair naivety. David Attenborough spoke of the abilities of marine iguanas and the mating rituals of blue-footed boobies; Tilda Swinton of the archeological phenomenon and the origins of certain species. But volei speaks to the lives of locals who have found an equilibrium with their natural surroundings. I see a community choosing a life away from the hecticness of the city. A life that respects nature, but still knows how to have wholesome fun. A celebration of life.
So when you find yourself on the archipelago, do not discount the intricate ecosystem of a game of volei. Grab a beer (or your preferred beverage, like Coca-Cola), sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Photography by Frankey on his Google Pixel 3.