Archipelagos, sunburnt Danes, liquid dust, the weirdly awkward, mellocos, rattletrap cars, crater lakes, Midwestern cold, night vision,
blue-footed boobies & un-pink flamingos.
W e flew the domestic airline, complete with ice-less, fizz-less cola, warm and flat, to a tiny airport on one of the islands, built by the US during World War II. “Is it safe?” my father wanted to know, worrying about that little plane and the hijackers we’d heard so much about, or maybe faulty maintenance, but my mother assured him no plane full of wealthy foreigners was going anywhere untoward, and it was farther than any of us wanted to go by boat. The airport was one little shed with a double row of chairs attached back to back at the base. No bathroom. Not a scrap of shade, not a tree in sight, just a crowd of sweaty, tired tourists. It was March.
We waited for our guide and then took a rattletrap car across the island to the single town and our clean, bare, simple guesthouse. Our boat would take a group of eight, so we were half a pod, my parents and my brother and I. Everyone was happy, save for an elderly Dutch pair, a middle-aged man and his mother, who had planned to see the islands from the deck of a luxury cruise. Unable to get reservations, they had somehow ended up with us. Perhaps they were waitlisted, or replied to a poorly transcribed message. My mother, who half understood their Dutch based on her own mother’s German, said they had come to see evolution up close, but not too close. They muttered angrily all evening, then left early the next day. I imagined them stowing away on one of the fanciest ships, being discovered huddled in a lifeboat after dark, put ashore on a populated island, far from danger but also far from creature comforts. We were all glad to see them go. Two Danes with short, vowel-heavy names that were almost alike, as if they were a matched set, took their places. The Danes were pleased to find some English speakers and escape the hard-partying young men on their boat, our sister ship, the Jesús del Gran Poder. We followed it, or it followed us, around the islands. It was no grander than ours, despite the longer name. We sailed on the Yolita.
Flying fish leapt out of the water, blue-black and sparkling, and sailed ahead of us for yards, for miles, almost as if the boat had thrown them up before it.
It was our first—our only—cruise. We saw all the expected marvels, saw plants and creatures we had never heard of. And we saw things we thought we understood, but found we had to reimagine. We were on a seven-day tour: the four of us, the two Danes, an Irishman and an Israeli, as well as a three-person crew. The guide’s name was Diego; the cook was Guillermo. I never knew the captain’s name. The Irishman had an immensely large, expensive camera (it weighed as much as a four-year-old child) that he kept in an immensely large, heavy bag. He was always passing it up and down the ship’s ladder, worried someone might fumble it into the drink but unable to climb ladders with his hands full. My father told my brother and me not to touch it. Ever. His technical precision (he liked to talk about his lenses) was grating, but he repeated all the species names, all the island names, with a generous lilt I tried to imitate in private. He had a goal each morning, an animal he needed to capture on film to make his day complete; once he’d met his quota, he relaxed. He didn’t photograph sunsets or people or plants. He was there to see the tortoises, the iguanas, the finches.
We’d been warned never to sleep in the equatorial sun, knew sunbathing would probably kill us, but the Danes liked to nap between island stops, basting each other from time to time, whispering, smiling. The Israeli lived on a kibbutz. Each year, a certain number of people from the community were given money to travel; this year, it was his turn. He had four daughters, one of whom was proposed as a pen pal for my brother, though nothing came of that. He talked a lot about his home; my parents were fascinated. I was interested too, until it became clear they wanted us to go live there next. Enough was enough. We’d been in Ecuador most of a year by then; it felt like home, but I didn’t want to repeat the operation: new language, new landscape, new friends. To my mother, it sounded thrilling, but I was as loyally homebound as ever. I had split my sense of home, but I wasn’t ready to stray.
My brother was afraid he’d forgotten how to swim, living so long in the mountains, but it came right back to him. We swam with snorkels, following the fish, green and pink and blue and rainbowed, swimming in the coral and lava close to shore. We swam with the sea lions, bounding or twirling, and felt so graceful with our black rubber flippers, swift and sleek, until an animal really built to swim swooped by and left us in the liquid dust. The water was the most exquisite blue and so clear, you could see the bottom—or think you did—even where it was deep. People saw mantas in the water, though I always missed them. One morning, dolphins swam in front of the boat. Another day, they followed. Blue-footed boobies, pelicans everywhere, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, Galapagos doves. Flying fish leapt out of the water, blue-black and sparkling, and sailed ahead of us for yards, for miles, almost as if the boat had thrown them up before it. Some days were calm, other times waves lifted our prow into the sky and then we’d crash down into the trough between swells. At six in the evening, the sun turned from white to yellow over the sea.
“You can raise salmon on farms? Don’t they get away?” my brother asked.
It was a huge treat for all of us, a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it was no luxury cruise. Ours was a converted fishing boat, with limited privacy. There must have been cubbies to change in, curtains across the bunks, something to make it less of a youth-hostel dormitory. Or maybe not. We seldom went below except to sleep. The attractions were all above deck. There was shade enough, or nearly, to keep most of us from burning, even when the sun was hottest. The boat had a small steering cabin and a covered deck with a table where we ate our meals. In the afternoons, or when the boat was moving, we sat on the forward deck or leaned over the rails.
For lunch we ate lobster. The cook and the captain dove at night with flashlights. Lobster soup, lobster ceviche, with avocado salad, mellocos, popcorn on the side. Mellocos were a potato-like vegetable packed with an inner glob of slime, the okra of the tuber world. I hated them, but the rest of the menu made up for the hardship. We ate papaya for breakfast, and white-bread toast from easily stacked, square commercial loaves. The bread got moldy as the week wore on, and Guillermo would cut off more of the crust, and then more, and then he finally fried the bread that was left and served it with eggs. At the end of the trip, we traded my waterproof floating flashlight to him for two National Park uniform T-shirts. We promised not to wear the shirts before we left the country.
Sometimes the crew forgot we could speak Spanish; I’d overhear the end of a joke or a comment that surely wasn’t meant for me. Other times they told our family things they didn’t tell the others, things they maybe weren’t supposed to say to anyone, or things they could choose whether or not to share. Off-script, because Diego’s English, while very good, went only so far.
The archipelago was a tropical paradise of desert islands spotted with palo santo trees and lava flows. Sea turtles lipped up onto the edge of the rocks, eating green seaweed I remember as bright, bright, bright, almost blinding. We walked to a cluster of natural pools, deep pockets in the lava formation along the shore of one of the islands. The water swelled and rushed down, sucked back. We swam warily, half afraid of crashing onto the rocks, being dragged out to sea. That’s where we saw fur seals, their eyes deep purple, especially if you saw them underwater, violet, not at all shiny. Before I got into the water, while I was standing uncomfortably barefoot on the sharp lava, one of the small, cuddly looking seals bared its yellow fang-like teeth to growl.
We’d been warned never to sleep in the equatorial sun, knew sunbathing would probably kill us, but the Danes liked to nap between island stops, basting each other from time to time, whispering, smiling.
Un, dos, tres, ya! bump bump bump bump bump. And then again: Un, dos, tres, ya! bump bump bump bump bump. Un, dos, tres, ya! bump bump bump bump bump. It woke us every morning. They must have been pulling a cord or turning a—what? Five or six rounds of this, then the engine would start. A burst of diesel fumes and a quiet cheer from the crew and on to our next destination.
Each day brought another star attraction: the sea turtles, the tortoises, the albatross. And the flamingos, familiar and yet not, because it is different to see an animal in the wild. An eagle on a coin is not the same as an eagle in the air; a plastic flamingo in a suburban yard surely is not the same as a flamingo feeding in a lagoon.
And yet there was something the same, something recognizable in the live version. The postcards hadn’t lied.
I remember sneaking up on the flamingos, walking down into the crater lake, or maybe it was a bay; I’d have to look at a map to be sure. We walked down a steep, wide trail that hugged the inner wall of a small crater, down to the water where we could see the flamingos strut and bathe and feed, and we were very, very quiet, moving very, very slowly, because somehow in this paradise of rare and unexpected fauna, the flamingos were extra rare, or extra shy. Maybe it was that they were more easily frightened, because they flew to other places and so were unlike the sheltered, unsuspecting creatures that never left the islands. Maybe they were just a favorite of our guide. Either way, a sense of rarity stuck with me, an understanding that seeing a flamingo was a privilege, uncommon, marvelous. Years later, in Patagonia, I saw flamingos and was instantly aflutter, unexpectedly perplexed. I had thought—unthinking; I had assumed—flamingos were warm-weather denizens, exotic the way all tropical species are exotic when you grow up in the Midwestern cold. We had crushing humidity in the dog days of summer, but our birds flew south in the winter, save for the goldfinches clustered at a backyard thistle-seed tube. We looked for that first robin of spring.
We saw things we thought we understood, but found we had to reimagine.
“We don’t see them every year,” Diego told us. “But this year, we’re lucky.”
One lobe of the lagoon was solid pink with birds, as if they were lily pads, not moving creatures. Closer to us, we watched them sweeping back and forth, crossing and re-crossing their feeding ground and then pausing to rest. I tried standing on one foot, the way the birds did, but it was hard to keep my balance.
“Is that saltwater or fresh?” someone asked.
“Salt. But flamingos can feed in either. It just needs to be alkaline, and they need fresh water to drink.”
Flamingos are among the oldest bird species. Not usually migratory, but sometimes a colony will move due to pressures of climate or food. On the mainland, some flamingos hatch their young at high-altitude lakes; because those lakes can freeze, they’ll move to lower altitudes in winter. Changes in water level can make them migrate too, and when they do, it’s usually at night. The birds are born gray, they hatch gray.
“Ugly flaminglings? When do they turn pink?” we asked.
“Around two years.”
We looked for babies, but didn’t see any. “They probably blend in with the sand, over there on the shore,” someone said.
“We can’t get too close,” Diego reminded us. He’d taken the “protect and conserve” part of his park guard’s oath to heart.
Sea turtles lipped up onto the edge of the rocks, eating green seaweed I remember as bright, bright, bright, almost blinding.
“They eat carotenoids,” Diego said, “the same thing that’s in carrots. That’s what makes them pink. It’s a whole class of pigments.”
“Does that mean if I eat all my carrots, my skin will turn pink?” my brother asked.
“Your skin is already pink.”
“Not as pink as—”
“Hush,” my mother said.
“I thought carrots were just supposed to make us see in the dark. Can flamingos see in the dark?”
Diego thought about that. “I guess so, if they migrate at night. It stands to reason.”
“You are what you eat,” my father said.
“It’s not just their feathers that are affected—their legs and their faces, too,” Diego explained. “It’s what makes shrimp turn pink when you cook them.”
We were still talking about the flamingos when we got back to the boat. We weren’t tired of the blue-footed boobies or the marine iguanas or the occasional dolphins (I could never have tired of the dolphins), but it was the first time we’d seen flamingos outside of a zoo. They were clumsily, perfectly graceful in the way that only the weirdly awkward can be.
One lobe of the lagoon was solid pink with birds, as if they were lily pads, not moving creatures.
“A flamingo can live to be over eighty years old,” Diego said.
“Is that common?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How long do they usually live?”
“Some say twenty or thirty years; others claim closer to sixty. But I read about one that lived to eighty-three.”
“You know, farmed salmon get that stuff, too—whatever the zoos feed their flamingos,” the Irishman said.
“That’s why the fish is sometimes too pink,” Guillermo agreed.
“You can raise salmon on farms? Don’t they get away?” my brother asked.
“They keep them in big tanks, sort of floating mesh pens – the kinds that are hard to use fish tank test strips to test with. There’s more and more fish farming in some parts of the world,” the Irishman said.
We thought about that. Fish didn’t really fit with my idea of a farm.
“Do they really lose their pink? Does that ever happen?” my brother asked.
“And would they be gray again, or just a dull shade of pink, instead of a pretty one?” I wanted to know.
“It happens,” Diego said slowly.
The extra walk took shape without taking shape. There was no plan and then there was one.
The captain seldom left the boat. He wasn’t a certified guide, plus he had plenty to do, keeping the engine running and updating his charts and sending radio messages to tour company headquarters or whomever it was. But sometimes he joined in a conversation, and now he was listening too.
“How long would they take to change color?” I asked.
“Depends how fast they molt. It’s the new feathers that would lack the pigment. As the older, pinker ones fell out, you’d get a paler and paler bird,” Diego said.
“But all the way to gray? Or brown?”
Diego and Guillermo exchanged a look. The captain nodded to Diego, who nodded to him, and we all had a little snack and the boat moved around to the other side of the island.
We motored along for twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, then anchored again close to shore. I think it was the same island, though sometimes with the small ones, close together, it was hard to tell. There are more islands in the archipelago than people realize.
“Another little walk?” Diego offered. “Hay algo interesante.”
That graceful and yet peculiar flamingo progress across the lake, but all in a kind of mole brown/mouse gray, like an old sweater.
One of the Danes had been badly sunburnt the day before when she fell asleep on deck and no one thought to wake her. She was tall and blonde and bright red, wincing and tender if anyone brushed up against her skin, but she didn’t seem angry. Still, she and her boyfriend stayed on the boat. The rest of us trooped ashore. This time the captain went too, leaving Guillermo on board.
The extra walk took shape without taking shape. There was no plan and then there was one. Sleight of hand or sleight of word, Diego became the border collie cutting the herd. Soon it was just the four of us and our guide creeping over the ridge and into another shallow crater. It was just like the walk we’d taken hours before, except this crater was shallower, more vegetation around the rim, more hidden, and it was as if a different filter had been placed in front of our eyes, over the world, one of those polarizing or unpolarizing gadgets the Irishman was always talking about, because the flamingos weren’t pink any longer.
They were clearly flamingos. That was absolute, incontrovertible. They had the same walk, the same dip and droop and scoop, the same upside-down inverted head, filter eating in the shallow water. That graceful and yet peculiar flamingo progress across the lake, but all in a kind of mole brown/mouse gray, like an old sweater. They were just as elegant, just as impossible, just as amazing. Our family named them flamungos.
It was a mini-Galapagos, an isolation tank. They had found this lagoon, more or less hidden away, and whatever they were eating in there, for whatever reason, wasn’t keeping up the pink in their plumage. Almost the way the different finches specialized, the tortoises. Diego worried, though, that the water level might drop. Then they might move on and, in moving on, might cease to be.
There might be enough for a reunion somewhere, each of us, the initiated few, wearing a tall gray mask—more like a headdress—that would mimic the beak and throat of the bird. Something detachable, mobile, that would allow us to mime feeding across the dry lagoon of a hotel ballroom even as our human heads remained upright, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, for signs of distress, for evidence of other secrets, other news.
“What made them that way? What aren’t they eating?”
Diego shook his head. He didn’t know.
“But what if it’s us?” I wondered.
“What, we made them brown? We just got here,” my brother argued.
“Yeah, maybe. But all the people looking at them. What if it made them lose their appetite?”
“I don’t think it works that way,” Diego said.
He didn’t make us promise not to tell. Maybe that would have given the secret too much weight, made it all too real. Confirmed what we had seen, when otherwise we might doubt our memories and our eyes and our impressions, as in fact we did. When we were sworn to secrecy, later, it was about the T-shirts; that was government and legal and somebody’s job.
A sense of rarity stuck with me, an understanding that seeing a flamingo was a privilege, uncommon, marvelous.
The last morning, we ate lobster one more time and each of us said something formal and friendly. Addresses were exchanged, suggestions of pen pals, of visits and returns. We made the T-shirt-for-flashlight trade after lunch, out of sight of the rest of the passengers. Not furtively off in a corner, but discreet all the same. Of course, most welcome, most useful, fine device, many thanks, please, do not wear the shirts until you leave. And so back to the airport, to the airless waiting lounge, to the small plane and the islands receding behind us, surrounded by blue.
That was thirty years ago and more. The legitimate owners of those shirts have likely retired, the uniform has no doubt been updated, the old designs decommissioned. And the gray flamingos may have moved on, or pinked back up, or even died out, undetected, uncelebrated. I wonder how many other visitors saw them, how many are holding the secret. There might be enough for a reunion somewhere, each of us, the initiated few, wearing a tall gray mask—more like a headdress—that would mimic the beak and throat of the bird. Something detachable, mobile, that would allow us to mime feeding across the dry lagoon of a hotel ballroom even as our human heads remained upright, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, for signs of distress, for evidence of other secrets, other news.
I have not returned to the islands, but I have my costume for the flamungo gathering. I am ready for the one-footed dance.
Amalia Gladhart’s short fiction has appeared in Saranac Review, Cordella Magazine, Stonecrop, Necessary Fiction, Atticus Review, The Fantasist and elsewhere. Detours, a sequence of prose poems, was published by Burnside Review Press. Recipient of an NEA Translation Fellowship, she is the translator of two novels by Alicia Yánez Cossío (Ecuador), The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands, and of a novel by Angélica Gorodischer (Argentina), Trafalgar.
Lead image: Rafael Delboni