Authors: Jodi Picoult
The boy tells the driver something in Spanish, then turns to me. “I told him you’ll probably want to go back.”
He shrugs. “Because you look like someone who plays it safe.”
Something about that smarts. Just because there’s a small glitch doesn’t mean I can’t adapt. “Well, actually, you’re wrong. I’m staying.”
The backpacker’s brows rise. “For real? Shit,” he says, with grudging admiration.
“Well, what are you going to do?” I ask the kid.
“Go back,” he says. “I’ve already been in the Galápagos for a week.”
“I haven’t,” I reply, as if I need an excuse.
“Suit yourself,” he says.
Two minutes later, the girl and I get off the water taxi onto Isabela Island. The knot of anxious travelers parts and flows around us like a current as they hurry to board the small boat. I smile at the girl shyly, but she doesn’t respond. After a while I realize she isn’t by my side anymore. I glance back and see her sitting on a wooden bench near the pier, her duffel beside her, wiping tears off her face.
Just then, the water taxi pulls away from the dock.
Suddenly it hits me: in an effort to seem more chill than I actually am, I have just stranded myself on an island.
I have never really traveled on my own. When I was little I went on location with my father when he went to restore works of art—at museums in Los Angeles, Florence, Fontainebleau. When I was in college, my roommates and I spent spring break in the Bahamas. I spent one summer with friends, working in Canada. I’ve flown to Los Angeles and Seattle with Eva to schmooze potential clients and evaluate pieces of art for auction. With Finn, I’ve driven to Acadia National Park; I’ve flown to Miami for a long weekend, and I was his plus-one at a wedding in Colorado. I’ve met women who stubbornly insist on traveling by themselves to the most remote places, as if belligerent self-sufficiency is even more Instagrammable than foreign landmarks. But that’s not who I am. I like having someone share the same memories as me. I like knowing that when I turn to Finn and say,
Remember that time on Cadillac Mountain…
I do not even have to finish the sentence.
You are on an adventure,
I remind myself.
After all, my mother used to do this effortlessly, in places that were far less civilized.
When I look back at the pier again, the girl is gone.
I slide my carry-on tote onto my shoulder and walk away from the docks. The town’s small buildings are jumbled like a puzzle: brick walls with a thatched roof, a brightly painted pink stucco, a wooden breezeway with a
sign above it. They are all different; the only thing they have in common is that the doors are firmly shut.
La isla está cerrando
Land iguanas wriggle across the sand street, the only signs of life.
I pass a
and a store and several
. This is the only road; it stands to figure that if I stay on it, I will find my hotel.
I keep walking until I spot the boy I saw from the boat who has been catching the coconuts.
I say, smiling. I gesture up and down the road. “Casa del Cielo…?”
There is a light thud as the man who has been in the coconut tree drops down behind me. “Casa del Cielo,” he repeats.
“El hotel no está lejos, pero no están abiertos.”
I smile at him, all teeth.
I say, even though I have no clue what he said. I wonder what the hell I was thinking, coming to a country where I do not speak the language.
Oh. Right. I was thinking that I was coming with Finn, who
With a little polite wave, I continue in the direction he’s pointed. I have gone only a few hundred yards when I see a faded wooden sign, carved with the name of the hotel.
I reach the front door just as someone is exiting. She is an old woman, her face so creased with wrinkles that it looks like linen; her black eyes are bright. She calls back to someone still inside the building, who answers in Spanish. She is wearing a cotton dress with the logo of the hotel over the left breast. She smiles at me and disappears around the side of the building.
Immediately following her comes another woman—younger, with a rope of hair down her back. She is holding a set of keys, and starts locking the door behind her.
Which seems really strange, for a hotel.
” I say. “Is this Casa del Cielo?”
She cranes her neck, as if to look at the roof, and nods.
she says, and she looks at me. “Closed,” she adds.
I blink. Maybe this is a siesta kind of thing; maybe all businesses on the island close at (I glance at my watch)…4:30.
She gives the door a sharp tug and starts walking away. Panicked, I run after her, calling for her to wait. She turns, and I rummage in my tote until I find the printed confirmation from the hotel; proof of my two weeks, paid in advance.
She takes the piece of paper from me and scans it. When she speaks again, it is a river of Spanish, and I recognize only a single word:
“When will you be open again?” I ask.
Then she hunches her shoulders, the universal sign for
You are shit out of luck
She gets on a bike and pedals away, leaving me in front of a run-down hotel that has charged me in advance for a room they won’t give me, in a country where I don’t speak the language, on an island where I am stranded for two weeks with little more than a toothbrush.
I wander behind the hotel, which backs up to the ocean. The sky is bruised and tender. Marine iguanas scuttle out of my way as I sit down on an outcropping of lava and take out my phone to call Finn.
But there’s no signal.
I bury my face in my hands.
This is not how I travel. I have hotel reservations and guidebooks and airline mileage accounts. I triple-check to make sure I have my license and passport. I organize. The thought of wandering aimlessly through a town and rolling up to a hotel and asking if there are vacancies makes me sick to my stomach.
My mother had once been in Sri Lanka photographing water buffalo on a beach when a tsunami hit.
ran for the hills before any of us even realized what was coming. Flamingos moved to higher ground. Dogs refused to go outside. When everything else is running in one direction,
it’s usually for a reason
At the touch of a hand on my shoulder, I jump. The old woman who exited the hotel is now standing behind me. When she smiles, mostly toothless, her lips curl around her gums into her mouth.
she says, and when I don’t move, she reaches out a bony hand and pulls me to my feet.
She holds on to me as if I am a toddler, leading me further down the sandy street of Puerto Villamil. It is not wise, I know, to allow myself to be dragged somewhere by a stranger. But she hardly fits the profile of a serial killer; and I am out of options. Numbly, I follow her past the locked shops and closed restaurants and silent bars, which give way to small, neat dwellings. Some are fancier than others, hiding behind low stucco walls with gates. Others have bicycles rusting against them. Some have yards made of crushed seashells.
The woman turns toward one little house. It is square and made of concrete, painted pale yellow. It has a small porch made out of wood, and wrapped around the legs of its columns are vines thick with a riot of flowers. Instead of climbing the steps, though, she takes me around the back of the house, which slopes down toward the water. There is a courtyard with a metal café table and a rope hammock, some potted plants, and a break in the knee-high wall that leads directly onto the beach. The waves are spreading rumors down the shore.
When I turn around, the old woman has stepped through a sliding glass door and is waving me closer. I walk into a tiny apartment that looks both lived in and not. There is furniture: a worn, ugly brown plaid couch and a driftwood coffee table, scattered rag throw rugs. There is a rickety table big enough for two, with a blushing conch shell in the center holding down a stack of paper napkins. There’s a refrigerator and an oven and a stove. But there are no books on the shelves, no food in the open cupboards, no art on the walls.
“You,” she says, the English sharp on her tongue, “stay.”
I can’t help it, my eyes fill with tears. “Thank you,” I say. “I can pay you.
She shrugs, as if it is absolutely normal for a stranger to offer up a home for a displaced traveler, and money is beside the point. Then again, maybe on Isabela, it is. She smiles and pats her own chest. “Abuela,” she says.
I smile back at her. “Diana,” I reply.
The apartment is a little mystery. There is a twin mattress, and I hunt down sheets in a linen closet. Buried in the back beneath the towels are three T-shirts, soft and faded—one with a flag I do not recognize, another with a black cat, a third with the logo of a company over the breast. That same logo is on a box of oversize promotional postcards that I find in a box—easily several hundred of them.
surrounded by pictures of a volcano and a tortoise and a rocky beach and a beady-eyed blue-footed booby. In a pitted armoire in the bedroom I find a pair of flip-flops that are too big for me, and a mask and snorkel. In the bathroom, there is a half-empty tube of toothpaste in a drawer and a bottle of generic ibuprofen. The refrigerator has a few random condiments—mustard, Tabasco—but nothing I can eat.
It is that which drives me out of the relative comfort and safety of the apartment. When my stomach growls so loud I can’t ignore it anymore, I decide to go in search of food and a decent cellphone signal. I peel off the shirt I’ve been wearing for two days and change into the tee with the logo, knotting it at my waist. Then I exit the sliding glass door, and find myself standing at the edge of the world.
The ocean is flirting with the shore, rushing over it and then retreating. A movement draws my attention as a ragged outcropping of rock suddenly animates—not lava rock, as it turns out, but a tangle of marine iguanas that slide into the waves, diving down. I try to follow their trajectory but I lose sight of them when the water gets deep. I shade my eyes with my hand, and try to pick out another island on the horizon, but I can see only an indistinct blur where sea meets sky. I can totally understand how a captain might have charted that point, and believed he could sail over the edge.
I suddenly feel very, very far away from my real life.
It seems like I’m the only person on the beach, but then gradually I notice someone running far in the distance, and if I concentrate, I can hear the whoop of children playing somewhere. When I turn back to the house, upstairs, there is a silhouette of someone—Abuela, I assume—behind a pale curtain.
I could go up there, and mime hunger, and Abuela would likely sit me down and cook me a meal. But it feels rude, especially since she has already given me shelter. I also know, because I just walked through town, that all the businesses are shuttered. Maybe there’s a restaurant or a market in the opposite direction? So I channel my inner Elizabeth Gilbert/Amelia Earhart/Sally Ride and strike out into the unknown.
The only road out of town winds past cacti and tangled brush and brackish water. Flamingos blush, walking on water, the cursive loops of their necks forming secret messages as they dive for shrimp. At certain points the road narrows and is edged with black stones. At others, it is littered with fallen leaves. Everything is green and red and orange; it is like stepping into a Gauguin. My phone has only one bar the entire time.
Finn will freak out if he doesn’t hear from me. On some rational level he knows that there is limited Wi-Fi in the Galápagos. I literally told him on the phone, yesterday, before we were cut off. Plus, the guidebooks all mention it as a caveat and say your best bet is spotty service at your hotel…or suggest turning off your phone, and simply enjoying your vacation. To Finn and me, that sounded like heaven. But that was when we thought we would be
inside this bubble of solitude.
If it were the other way around—if
were the one who was stuck somewhere without cell service—I would be worried. I console myself with a pep talk: he knows I landed safely; it has been only a day; I will figure out a way to reach him tomorrow.
By the time I’ve walked for twenty minutes, it’s nearly sunset. The jaunty arms of the cacti re-form in the low light into strangers following me; when iguanas scissor in front of me I jump. I should turn around before it’s too dark for me to find my way back. I am about to resign myself to going to bed hungry when I see a little shed further up the road. I squint, but I can’t quite make out the sign.
By the time I can read it, I know that it’s not a restaurant or a convenience store.
CENTRO DE CRIANZA DE TORTUGAS GIGANTES
There is a translation in English—
GIANT TORTOISE BREEDING CENTER
—and just to be extra clear, a picture of a tortoise hatching from an egg.
There is no gate, so I wander into the open-air courtyard. The main building is closed up for the night (or longer?), but a horseshoe of enclosures surrounds me. Each pen is gated by a concrete wall that is a few feet high—certainly big enough for me to lean over, but too high for the tortoises to escape.
I approach one wall and find myself face-to-face with a prehistoric-looking tortoise. Its slitted eyes stare at me as it moves closer on padded feet and stretches its neck up from the hump of its shell. I look at its flat head and dinosaur skin, the black ridges of its toes, its Voldemort nose. It opens its mouth and sticks out a spear of tongue.
Delighted, I lean down on my elbows and watch it turn away, loping across the dusty ground toward another tortoise in the distance. With lumbering underwater movements, it crawls up the shell of the second tortoise, anchoring her so they can mate. The male I’ve been watching curves his neck toward his partner, tendons stretching. His thick arms look like they are covered in chain mail. He grunts, the only sound he’ll make in his life.