“…at the end of a corridor, a door opens and you see backward through time, and you feel the flow of time, and realize you are only part of a great nameless procession.”– John Huston
“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made it a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” – Charles Darwin
Mismaloya, just south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. 1963.
John Huston had lived quite a life by age fifty-eight. He’d co-written screenplays with Jean-Paul Sartre and Ray Bradbury, watched his best friend Humphrey Bogart die of lung cancer, won an Academy Award, and fist fought Errol Flynn for nearly two hours. But even a man who drank bottle for bottle with his friend Ernest Hemingway felt jittery about his current project, Night of the Iguana. The cast he brought to the tiny, stifling hot village outside of Puerto Vallarta to film Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed Broadway play would have made Hemingway himself pause.
Besides keeping an eye on flighty Williams, who would end up leaving the set frequently “to take care of my pet birds in New York,” Huston had to deal with legendary egos. Richard Burton had the lead of Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, but he had also brought along his new girlfriend, Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, still married to another man, was not in the movie. But her voluptuous curves and sly smile forced nuns in a nearby convent to break their vows of silence and condemn the whole enterprise. Combustible Ava Gardner would play Maxine Faulk, and her steamy past with Huston worried the director.
While his next movie, Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck, would only require death-defying stunts with an enormous rubber whale, the cast of The Iguana appeared capable of wrecking more than just boats. Huston wanted to set the right tone before filming started, so with the trademark grim humor that marked his art and ended four marriages, he gave gold-plated Derringer pistols to Burton, Taylor, Gardner, Kerr, Lyon and producer Ray Stark. In the chambers were five bullets, each engraved with the names of the other collaborators. Huston hoped the prank would “loosen things up” before shooting (of the film) began.
Galapagos Islands. 1835.
Darwin watched the blue-footed boobies.
The goofy birds would become one of the inspirations for his theory of evolution, which he started kicking around after his famous five-year voyage on The Beagle. Among many species, particularly his finches, Darwin studied the boobies on the Galapagos Islands. He eventually theorized that the boobies’ webbed feet, streamlined shape, and large tails were more useful on water than on land. In fact, they were originally named “bobos” (“clowns” in Spanish) because they walked so awkwardly. But their expert sea dives, at nearly one hundred miles per hour, to snag fish dazzled Darwin.
Although Darwin is remembered as a genius, he wasn’t in the best of places when he visited the Galapagos. He had recently dropped out of medical school, and he planned to join the clergy to allow time for what he loved best: observing, naming, and categorizing the wonders of nature. Darwin watched and recorded everything he saw on the Galapagos, including marine iguanas, penguins, land tortoises, and finches. But the blue-footed boobies, their electric feet dazzling in the tropical sun, were particularly enchanting.
Faster than the sluggish land tortoises and less afraid of humans than the iguanas, the boobies begged to be watched. They transformed before his eyes when they went from land to air to water. It took Darwin’s expansive mind to extend that quick transformation into not just minutes but millions of years, to separate the land-waddling booby from the flying booby from the diving booby. He grasped what had to happen to create all three in one, a theory as full of grace as the Holy Trinity. When Darwin recognized that the difference between change and adaptation was as essential as the difference between choice and necessity, his theory of evolution was born.
Daly City. Just South of San Francisco. 2014.
“I don’t think we’re hiking the John Muir Trail this year, either.”
My wife glumly watched a YouTube video of the Sierras on fire, where the four-year California drought had turned the pine needles into tinder. It was the second summer in a row we would have to ditch a late summer trip to the Sierras because of wildfires.
“This is the new normal,” I mumbled.
The daughter of travel agents, my wife already had a Travelocity window open to search for alternatives. I wandered back into our living room to reconsider our camping equipment. Mini-camp stove with spindly pop-up legs. Water purification pump, just in case the drought meant business. Most of it shiny and recently bought, just for this trip.
My wife gasped in delight. Unless Yahoo! News was reporting that God Himself had dropped a flood on the Sierras, I wasn’t sure what she was so happy about.
“Did you know there are blue-footed boobies just off the coast of Puerto Vallarta?”
My turn to gasp. My wife and I are amateur birdwatchers. Just the week before, we had watched a juvenile red-tailed hawk take out a white-crowned sparrow in our own backyard. The kill was so quick the sparrow simply disappeared. When we told neighbors about the natural phenomenon, they felt bad for the sparrow. We had to suppress our delight in creating a native plant ecosystem that had invited hunter and hunted right to our breakfast window. The plants had brought the insects; the insects had brought the sparrow; and the sparrow had brought the raptor. What was more natural than that?
My wife pointed to a YouTube video of a familiar, ridiculous, dancing bird.
“And off-season August tickets are dirt-cheap!”
Something else struck me. “I think John Huston retired near Puerto Vallarta.”
“He did,” my wife replied, her eyes still transfixed on the dancing boobies. “He shot Night of the Iguana there. He insisted on shooting all his films on location.”
The sparrow drew the raptor. Nature drew Darwin. Puerto Vallarta drew Huston. Our interest in all of them now drew us.
* * *
The first three days in Puerto Vallarta were: the day leading up to my bacteria-caused gastritis, the day of my bacteria-caused gastritis, and the day after my bacteria-caused gastritis. The fever and heavy medications wiped out most memory of that first day, other than a dazy, sweat-soaked-sheet-rolling worry over what had caused that initial gut cramp. The tostada and smoked marlin at the hole-in-the wall bar when we first jumped off the bus at the playa? The Pacifico and chile relleno later that afternoon? Lemonadas and papas fritas under a palapa on Los Muertos beach that evening? Ceviche? Crab Enchiladas? Chiliquilles? The accompanying fever was hard to measure because those dirt-cheap plane tickets to Puerto Vallarta came complete with an out-of-this-world humidity.
“I feel like I’m breathing in and out of a plastic bag,” my wife decided. We had ducked into an air-conditioned Oxo drug store for a break and another bottle of coconut water, which I guzzled. My wife was worried about me, but her palm on my forehead was as hot and sticky as everything else around us.
“How are we going to travel to the Marietas to see the boobies if you’re sick?”
I wasn’t prepared to have that discussion, so we didn’t. We continued our walk to the beach, thinking if we acclimated, everything would be OK. White-clad waiters greeted us at the beach with ice-cold towels to cool our sweat-drenched faces and necks. But my fever peaked when the umpteenth beach vendor waving marble bookends in my face became three separate people if I blinked hard.
The walk from the beach back to the Rivera Del Rio Hotel is hard to recall. But I do remember the outlandish furnishings of the boutique hotel, which my wife described as “Liberace meets Dali.” Funded by a flood of cash when the crew of Predator rented out an adjacent property, our Cortez Suite at the Rivera Del Rio featured an enormous bed with a mirror for a headboard, two bathrooms with bidets, and enough tiny colored tile to make a person on the brink of retching pray for retching. No doors, no shower curtains, mirrors everywhere and recessed lighting that offered odd shadows in the oddest places.
Our quest for boobies hit another snag when we turned on the gigantic TV and watched Hurricane Marie half-destroy the Santa Monica pier in southern California. Despite being hundreds of miles north of us, and despite the bay of Puerto Vallarta being one of the deepest (and thus most protective) in the world, the large swells headed our way would prevent pangas (small boats) from reaching the Marietas. No boobies.
“Out of the forest fire and into the hurricane,” my wife grumbled.
What followed was a dust-up that every couple who has traveled anywhere has had. You know the kind. It’s when the trip does not go as planned, and you regret the ensuing argument even in the act of having it. Even without the swells from the hurricane, my wife was not convinced I’d be able to make a trip to Marietas anyway, something I vehemently denied even as my nausea rose.
“I think it’s better if we just skip the boobies and you get your rest,” she crossed her arms and decided.
And that’s when my stomach really began to gurgle.
* * *
The waves from Marie still prevented pangas from approaching the Marietas the next morning, but I decided my puking session the night before had cleared the bug out. Self-diagnosis completed, we hopped on a bus to Mismaloya to see the ruins of the original Night of the Iguana movie set. It was also close to Las Caletas, the secluded peninsula where John Huston retired. Of all the places in the world he lived, including New York, Los Angeles, and a castle in Ireland, Huston chose this isolated Mexican inlet to spend the last years of his life. (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor also bought a house in Puerto Vallarta after their time together shooting The Iguana.) The fact is, John Huston didn’t just make a film in Puerto Vallarta; he made Puerto Vallarta. A large bronze statue in town glorified Huston, and just the mention of his name brought a knowing smile on the faces of locals.
We walked up the same stone steps that Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) scrambles down in The Iguana, the same steps that Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence (Richard Burton) is dragged back up to prevent him from killing himself. Lawrence exiled himself to Puerto Vallarta from his Episcopal parish in the states for having an inappropriate relationship with a young Sunday school teacher, and the heat and the booze and the guilt all come to a head in one crazed night.
At the top of the stairs we spotted the crumbling remains of a patio where my favorite scene of the movie took place. Lawrence is rolled into a hammock by two Mexican mariachi strongmen and watched over by Charlote Goodall (Sue Lyon) for his own safety. With his hands bound and his temper flaring, thunder booming like barrel kegs and lightning filling the sky as it only can in the Caribbean, he unleashes his personal demons on Goodall, asking how many times she’s had sex (Once in Nantucket, once in Hong Kong.) When Lawrence mocks her for her simplicity and naiveté in these matters, when he calls her encounters “dirty” because of his own shame, Goodall has the best reply.
“Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Lawrence. Unless it is unkind.”
And then she unties him.
A memorial to the film, the statue of an enormous iguana wrapped around a column, guarded the stairs. We sat by the statue for a bit. I felt the nausea return, so I ate the crackers and ginger ale we picked up at the Farmacia Guadalajara.
By the time we jounced our way back on the bus to Puerto Vallarta, I was in such bad shape that the sweet hotel manager, Diego, insisted on driving me three blocks to his personal physician. Dr. Hernandez Jimenez quickly diagnosed the gastritis and administered the first of three daily shots of ABX in “la pompa.” (All three doctor’s visits, drugs included, totaled $35.) I fell into a deep sleep that night, wondering if we’d ever get to see the blue-footed boobies.
* * *
One of John Huston’s favorite stories was his fishing trip with Ernest “Papa” Hemingway and Peter Viertal off the coast of Cuba. The trio, drunk and hungry, had pulled into Hemingway’s favorite cove for lunch. Hemingway spotted a “trophy-sized” iguana scampering up the embankment and took some quick potshots with his rifle, which he always seemed to have handy—drunk, sober, full-bellied, or hungry.
Papa insisted he had hit the lizard and further insisted that the two younger guests on his boat retrieve it. Huston and Viertal begrudgingly left ship, swam to shore, and pushed around palm leaves and jungle vines for the amount of time they felt would satisfy Hemingway. When they swam back empty-handed, Hemingway roared that a man had to do things himself if they were to be done at all. He swam ashore with his rifle over his head in case he came across more good game.
Hemingway disappeared into the bush. Huston and Viertal waited on the boat. Papa finally returned, dragging back an iguana that neither of his boat mates could swear was the original iguana. But when they looked at Hemingway, bloodied and beaten from his rash exploit, they couldn’t argue that the old man hadn’t accomplished what he had set out to do.
* * *
The lady at the tourism office by the cathedral said the chances of a panga getting out to Las Islas Marietas was “fifty/fifty.” When she twisted the palm of her hand, I didn’t know if she was emphasizing how things could go either way or how turbulent the waves could be. But it was our last chance for the boobies, my fever had almost completely broken, and fifty/fifty didn’t sound like such bad odds anymore.
We started off early the next morning. My stomach actually welcomed the café con canela and pan dulce for breakfast, so much so that we packed two bean and chicken tortas to-go from the corner loncheria for lunch. We boarded a bus at Puerto Vallarta’s Zona Romantica and hopped off at Walmart, as Diego had instructed. A hot and cramped bus ride from Walmart to Punta de Mita, where we squeezed ourselves off the packed bus and spotted the Marietas for the first time. The heavy humidity made the sky such a light blue that the white islands stayed unbelievable.
The heat started to get to both of us, and we swapped turns checking for fever on our foreheads. I announced that the whole world was on fire, not just us, and it somehow helped. I was actually lucid enough to ask my wife to use her Spanish to double-check with the grandmother and granddaughter from Aguas Calientes who haggled with the same panga captain for a ride to the islands. The captain had informed us they wanted their own boat, but it turned out he had said the same thing about us to them, trying to turn one fare into two. Once it was clear we all didn’t mind sharing a boat (and splitting the fare), it was smiles and pats on the back all around for the “misunderstanding.” We loaded up and headed out to the Marietas.
Marie had lost most of her strength overnight, so the small boat skipped like a stone over the modest waves, and the cool breeze reduced fevers both real and imagined. The captain announced that the recent storms spun off by Marie had a bright side, too.
“We usually smell the bird shit from the rocks by now. Marietas is all washed and nice!”
The captain cut the engine two-hundred yards from shore. Hectic Spanish orders were shouted, mostly to his first mate, a red-headed freckled- face boy who looked all of twelve. My wife picked up that our boat fare included a trip to Playa Escondida, a hidden beach within the Marietas. The beach had been “discovered” when the islands were used as targets during military bombing exercises in the early 1900’s, a practice that Jacques Cousteau helped end in the 1960’s.
We’re promised it is “muy bello,” but my booby-fever spoke and understood only one line of Spanish:
“Donde esta los bobos?”
The captain and the first-mate nodded their heads and pointed to the island, so we assumed we’d see the blue-footed boobies if we swam to the hidden beach.
With lifejackets tied around our waists, we were soon bobbing in swells that felt much larger than they looked from the boat. Our twelve-year-old escort pulled the seventy-something grandmother ahead of us towards the island. What looked like a rock wall soon became an archway that peeked above the waves from time to time. Relying more on hand gestures and Spanish than communication I understood, our guide got across that we had to time our swim and bob under the archway without being crushed by the waves.
My wife and I exchanged the same look we did when we saw our first mortgage payment, a mix of utter disbelief and “why did we decide to do this.” The feisty grandmother spotted our hesitation and grabbed the spotlight.
She bobbed under and through with such ease and pleasure, we were inspired to do the same. We rode the tide into a hidden beach, much like the cenotes I saw when I lived in Belize. I was sure my fever had returned when I pulled myself out of the water and was met by a Japanese film crew. The three-man, smiling crew was making a documentary on the Marietas and had one question for everyone who came ashore.
“Why do you come here?”
“Bobos,” I answered. “Bobos.”
It turned out that Playa Escondida was not the place for boobies. On the way out, delirious with booby fever, I miscounted the waves. A swell pressed me into the rock archway above, smacking my head and pinning me for a terrifying moment. The wave was a weak one, though, so I was dropped with only a slight bump on my head. But by the time I dog-paddled all the way back to the boat, I was exhausted and frustrated.
“Donde esta los bobos?”
The captain lit a cigarette and laughed.
“Si. Si. Muchos bobos.”
The twelve-year-old guide hid a smirk. I wondered which “clowns” they referred to.
We took a swing around the island. Frigate birds were everywhere, and we got an excited false alarm when we spotted yellow-footed and not blue-footed boobies. The captain pretended that was the end of it, just to rile us, but then flashed his practiced smile again, gunned the boat around a corner, and there they were, blue feet shining in the sun. There were so many and so well-placed that I suspected the captain had glued their blue-feet to the rocks himself.
I was obsessed with snapping pictures of the blue feet until my wife told me to check out their eyes and neck plumage. Yellow eyes, almost iridescent, and a mix of brown and white streaks in the feathers around the neck. The feet were clownish, no doubt, but the bird as a whole was regal.
It was not mating season, so the boobies did not dance like on YouTube. Their listlessness allowed us to approach very close by boat, almost within touching range. We were close enough to see their permanently closed nostrils, which Darwin used to explain evolution. He believed those nostrils were clear evidence that they once had working nostrils, but they closed over, perhaps when the boobies transitioned into the fearless skydivers of fish they are today. (The presence of an air sac to cushion the skull for diving was also seen as an evolutionary trait.)
We sat quietly and watched the boobies. They showed no interest in us and really didn’t do much to earn attention. I imagined their ancestors, millions of years ago, those first genuinely crazy boobies who decided to fly headfirst into the ocean in a desperate attempt to catch fish.
What made that first booby do it? Madder than Lawrence spinning in a hammock, as crazy as Hemingway stumbling through a jungle island for an iguana, the stubborn repetition of insane dives evolved the boobies into something that fit into the world. Over and over and over they dove, forcing their madness into sanity. Was that evolution?
* * *
A week later I was back home watching blue-footed boobies on YouTube. The video didn’t do justice to their scintillating yellow eyes or the delicate weave of their neck plumage. But the blue feet popped.
My blood felt sparkly with Mexican drugs; I still had three more days of a pill combination of Sinuberase and Espraden from Puerto Vallarta. A lingering fever made me even more scatter-brained than usual, so I easily wandered from the dancing boobies and into the Internet-At-Large.
Browsing the web with a light fever is like entering the desert when you’re thirsty. The Internet offered an answer to every question I still had about our trip. I learned that Huston’s trick of the Derringer pistols worked. Other than one of his crew members breaking bones when he fell through a weak roof, the shooting of The Iguana was one of the smoothest of Huston’s career. His experience with Iguana convinced him to retire in Mismaloya, where his Mexican caretaker became his final lover. His last years in the tropics were a kind of evolution, too. He shed some of his flinty skin and became a more wistful person.
The Internet also shared that Darwin’s copious notes on the boobies and other species on the Galapagos didn’t pay off until years later. The Theory of Evolution would bring him great fame but not necessarily happiness. Although Emma Darwin did her best to accept her husband’s relentless curiosity, his revolutionary ideas stressed out his loving but religious wife. She did her best to keep her faith in him.
“While you are acting conscientiously and sincerely…trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong,” she conceded.
As far as the boobies, I learned that the Audubon Society had just reported that the population of 20,000 boobies on the Galapagos had been cut in half in less than twenty years. Closer to home, Audubon reported that nearly fifty-percent of all North American birds would either be extinct or under “extreme duress” by 2080. The main culprit was global warming, a rising heat that was changing habitats rapidly. Turns out the theory of evolution only works if species have enough time to adapt. Not good news for the sparrows or the red-tailed hawks in our backyard.
Our new camping gear still littered our living room. I still had some vacation days left. But the bright image of Half-Dome burning in Yosemite also blazed across the Internet. The rock itself wasn’t burning, but the awesome light from the surrounding forests lit up the great stone like a torch. I wondered what secondary plans we would need to take next year.
I was so lost in the fire that I barely noticed my wife’s hand on my forehead.
“How do you feel?”
I felt hot. I didn’t know if it was me or the whole world.