It was on the beautiful beach of Yelapa where I caused bad luck to crash down on me the moment I uttered the words to Christina. It was my first time in the Mexican town of Yelapa and we had just wrapped up a morning session of a writing workshop where we all—a group of eight women—had taken our turn to read what we had written during a session called “wild writing.” I was making my way back to our open-air rental to meet up with Steve where he had spent his morning, and I was walking carefully on the wet sand near the surf, as it was flatter, harder wet sand and easier to walk on than the loose, dry sand where my feet kept sinking and sliding. While it was certainly better to be on the wet sand, I was also trying to avoid the approaching waves as they stretched up to the shore when I heard Christina’s voice.
“I meant what I said back there,” she said. “You really should write a book about you and Steve and all your birding adventures. You have such a great story!”
Most of what I had been workshopping and writing was about Steve and birding, but those words were just random vignettes about how he pulled me into his world of birding. Frankly, I didn’t know how to weave it all together in a book and I haven’t even made any attempts at getting anything published. I’ve got a day job in an office and if I’m lucky, on some weekends I might be able to eek out a blog post about birding that is somewhat narrative with stories, which also include trip reports and lists. Each post or story is really a stand-alone scene. But that wasn’t what was really keeping me from gathering up these stories and stitching them all together into a book.
I said a modest, “Thank you” for the suggestion and compliment and then I finally said out loud why I didn’t think I could do it:
“You know how every story needs the crisis? We don’t have a crisis. We don’t have that deep ravine in a story arc—the one that takes a nose dive because of crisis. You know, like divorce, or heaven forbid, cancer.”
There. I had said it. My life with Steve, while interesting and exciting to me is excruciatingly boring to other people because we are happy and without crisis. Where’s the denouement in that? In a story or book why would anyone want to come along for the ride without anything at stake? What does one learn from a bunch of birding stories and adventures without a crisis?
Then I added, “I don’t want to wish for any of that.”
“No,” she assured me. “No you don’t. But I don’t think you need that.”
“I don’t know, ” I sighed. “I can’t think of how it would work.”
Someone else from our writing group caught up with us and had a question for Christina. I slowed down my pace and let them walk ahead of me. There wasn’t anything more I could add and I was glad the conversation ended because secretly I felt like I just jinxed Steve’s and my world on the Mexican beach of Yelapa.
Yelapa is a small beach town in the southern cove of Bahia de Banderas—the same bay where you’ll find Puerto Vallarta—and I never would have heard of Yelapa had it not been for this writing workshop. Christina and I met a couple years earlier at different writing conference in Corte Madera, California and she had organized several writing workshops in far flung places like Nepal and Morocco, but this was the first year she was doing one in Mexico. Because it wasn’t too far away, I jumped at the chance to get to it and I only had to persuade Steve with the promise of a few days for birding trips in and around Puerto Vallarta before the workshop began.
You get to Yelapa by a 40 minute water taxi from Puerto Vallarta. There are no cars and no ATMs and you find yourself accidentally calling it an island from time to time because the remoteness feels like it, but the locals are quick to correct you with an eye roll and a smile, saying, “No, not an island.” The region along the Bay of Banderas is where the Sierra Madre comes right up to the water, so Yelapa’s pathways and stairs are steep. You work hard to get anywhere, sometimes getting lost in the labyrinth of walkways, and the stairs and steep slopes of Yelapa would be reminders of my much neglected calves and glutes.
Most of Yelapa’s visitors are only there for the day, coming over on excursion boats or on water taxis, crammed in with other tourists. The visitors go straight to the beach where they lay out in the sun on plastic beach loungers, listening to the thumping club music as they tan in the sun and order drinks. Locals zig zag their way in between the beach loungers, peddling a case of jewelry, sarongs, and most famously, homemade slices of pie in big Tupperware containers.
The day visitors are generally found at one end of Yelapa’s bay while we stayed at the other end in the open-air accommodations at Garcia’s where I could set up my camera and tripod right in our kitchen and living room area. It’s here where I would hang out and watch birds parading by as I easily became trigger happy with my camera snapping away like paparazzi. The birds seemed to be in agreement with me and preferred to keep their distance from the tourists.
Each morning Magnificent Frigatebirds, seemed to be the early risers, circling above in the sky. Frigatebirds are known to be the jerks in the bird world because they’re thieves. They steal what they can from other birds in mid flight. They have no reason to do all the work while there are other birds who can do the work for them, so they steal. But in Yelapa these Frigatebirds don’t have as much competition so they easily fend for themselves in the mornings and get in on the sky’s morning shift, gliding and swooping around over the bay and the beach. Black Vultures take their time, hanging out in groups on the sand, fanning out their wings to dry out the morning dew from their feathers. Then after their morning rituals they’d spend the rest of their day circling the sky in search of thermals.
There was the lone Snowy Egret, always hunting for fish in the surf. Each time he lifted his feet out of the water I would get excited to see his golden slippers as though it was the first time I had ever seen them. The Snowy had a routine of canvassing the swells of foamy water that reached toward the sand. He cocked his head sideways and lifted each bright yellow foot and carefully placed it down, stealthily looking for something underneath the blanket of water. Then suddenly he would dart his black beak into the ripples of water, catching a small fish.
Every afternoon after our writing workshop I would return to Garcias Rentals and walk by the estuary and see at least 20 or so Yellow-crowned Night Herons. I would pass by a tethered boat where a gang of six reliaby appeared each day, hunched over like old men hanging out as if sharing the news of the day. It seemed unfair or greedy of me to see so many of them in one spot. I could be in any other place in the world and get excited to see just one of them and here I was in Yelapa and surrounded by so many.
I could trust the routines of the birds, walking, perching and flying on schedule like trains run by the Swiss.
Each morning I would walk in the sand toward a big palapa where we would gather at a table and write, then I’d return back to our open-air rental at Garcias to meet Steve where we’d spend the afternoon looking for birds, nap, take photos from our kitchen and living room and then I would write some more. Then we’d make our way through the serpentining pathways each night to meet up with the other workshop attendees for dinner, and each evening the church bells clang loud and old as the sun began to set while we ate fish tacos and coconut shrimp.
The birds stayed to their routine and so did I. Christina’s words of writing a book kept me up at night as I wondered how it would be possible to string anything together that would be of interest to anyone. The rhythmic pounding of the surf in the bay was constant at night and a reminder that predictability and reliability are good. Eventually I would put in my little orange foam ear plugs and fall asleep, satisfied with having an interesting problem of being happy and knowing that it was, perhaps, the best possible place to be.
This year, a year later, we returned to Yelapa. Christina had organized another workshop and there was a different instructor. We needed to return–I needed to return. I wanted to learn more with this new instructor, but mostly I needed to return because I needed to face the words I used during that first visit to Yelapa that jinxed our lives.
Six months earlier, during the summer between visits to Yelapa, Steve was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This is heavy news for anyone who is faced with this. But during the course of getting more information on the cancer through a CT scan, the doctors found another cancer—a different, completely unrelated one—growing on one of his kidneys. This is a faster, more aggressive cancer we were told, and the doctor would say, “You are so blessed that we found this when we did. The tumor is the size of your thumbnail, but usually we don’t find these until it’s the size of your fist and then, well, it’s very problematic at that point.”
I tried to manage in my head the idea of feeling “blessed” with feeling like this is the crappiest news. I eventually landed on the idea that yes, it could be worse. But still, two cancers within weeks.
Steve had the first surgery to have the kidney cancer removed and we were happy to hear that it hadn’t spread further into his kidney. The next month he had oral surgery for another problem that came up that summer and the following month Steve had his next surgery to have his prostate removed.
Steve’s summer was lousy. Aside from the pain and the multiple surgeries, once cancer walks through the door of your life, it lays down a heavy burden. Even when you’ve been assured that it’s all gone you spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, wondering when it’s going to sneak back in. How do the birds manage through life, I wondered. Do they look over their shoulder, knowing that at any moment their life could end in the jaws of a predator? How do they sing when they know their life can be cut short at any moment?
That’s the mental burden that accompanies the physical toll of cancer, but despite Steve’s weight loss and diminishing muscle as a result of his body going through hell in the last year, he was game to go back to Yelapa with me.
We started our trip much like we did the year before, in Puerto Vallarta with a birding trip, but this time to the Sierra Vallejo area in the nearby Mexican state of Nayarit and we birded from a van with a small group of other birders, taking it slow and easy. Steve and I then had a glorious four days at Rancho Primavera in El Tuito where all we had to do was simply sit on the back porch of our rented cabin and watch all the birds come to the feeders. It was peaceful, serene and full of quiet. We then moved to our third chapter of our trip and headed back to Yelapa.
We stayed at the same open air Garcias Rentals where we stayed the year before. The water was higher this year and the estuary that was contained last year was flowing into the bay. The water taxi had dropped us off at the shore where I was instructed to fling my right leg over the side of the boat at the bow and at the right time when the water receded, throw over my left leg and hope to be standing and then walk ashore through the surf. By some sort of miracle it worked. I was standing and made it ashore.
The walk to Garcias Rentals from the shore was more precarious. There was water everywhere in places it hadn’t been the year before. I had to walk across an unstable plank over a pond of water. I would then step onto the sand then had to step on other sandbags that were stacked to make like two steps up to the concrete platform where I would have to jump down about two feet to the concrete front patio of Garcias, with another sandbag on the ground to use as a step. All this with a backpack of camera gear. I’m usually unsteady in the best of circumstances, so this added burden on my shoulders made it all even more precarious. The sandbag was still too far for me to get to. My right ankle doesn’t bend and I have bad knees, so I sat down on the concrete and dangled my legs so my toes could reach the sandbag and then I steadied myself on the bag and got to the ground. Steve, the recovering patient was already ahead of me and did all of this with no problem, and here I was—the one who is supposed to be healthy—struggling the whole time.
“I think this year it’s going to be more of an adventure,” I said to Steve when I finally found him in the office of Garcias.
We got the same room we stayed in last year—a room called “Las Brisas.” It felt like home. The same throw pillows as last year. The same striped Mexican blankets, same yellow walls and Mexican tiles. The same round wooden dining table and chairs. The same hammock. The same surf that’s so loud you need earplugs at night in order to get to sleep. And the same birds. We immediately went over to the short wall of our kitchen and living room and leaned over, looking at the two bodies of water that met, making a mess of everything in getting to Garcias. A year certainly makes a difference, I thought to myself, knowing the cruel injustice of the metaphor.
I set up my tripod and camera and found the same Snowy Egret I came to know last year, walking the surf slowly, looking for his dinner. Crescendoing to a roar, the swell of the bay broke into a crash and then left a whisper of foam as the water slipped back into the bay and the egret scurried through the white blanket of bubbles looking for tiny fish. Over in the estuary, a trio of White Ibis slowly walked through the shallow water poking their long beaks in the water looking like old ladies walking with canes.
A Reddish Egret was fanning its wings over its head as it was canopy feeding and it would dance like a maniac, running left then right then left again to stir up the fish. Feeding for Reddish Egrets is not effortless. They put their whole bodies and spirits into it and they are determined. Their cousins, the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret are stately and patient when they feed and they stand very still and yet still are able to find food. I’m more like the Reddish Egret–always wanting to get things going so I could find what I need, even if it means acting like a crazed lunatic in front of others and perhaps stirring up a little too much attention toward myself. But I always get the job done.
Aside from the estuary meeting the bay, everything felt the same in Yelapa. Pie ladies still roamed the beaches selling pie out of plastic bowls, locals peddled silver jewelry, rope hammocks and beautiful sarongs. Tourists came over for the day and filled up the rows of white plastic lounges at the touristy section of the beach as the music thumped thumped thumped through speakers.
Each morning I made my way across the beach to the big palapa for our writing workshop. This year was different, though. This time Steve came with me. He wasn’t the only guy this year and he participated in the writing exercises as well. The walk also included walking through the estuary. With the tide in during the mornings, the water was too fast and deep in front of Garcias so we had to take a path up the hill and behind our building over to where the estuary was more shallow. With sandals in one hand and grasping Steve’s hand with my other hand, I walked through the estuary, right next to the ibis and egrets who paid no attention to us. As soon as we got to the other side I put my bare feet on the sand, and remembered that it was coarse, rough edged and difficult to walk on. It’s not the fine, sugary sand that your feet sink into. No, this young sand is made up of tiny shells and sharp rocks and it felt like getting a thousand paper cuts on my feet as I walked crookedly on the sand toward our writing class.
The week was different than my first week in Yelapa a year earlier. Not better. Not worse. Just different. I loved both workshops and adored the people and instructors I met on both trips, but I regret saying what I did to Christina that first year, as if not saying anything about crisis or ravines in storytelling would have changed what happened last summer with Steve’s health. If I could keep going back to Yelapa I would in order to perform some sort of exorcism to take away what I said.
I came back to Yelapa to face my words I uttered last year and found myself no closer to what I should do. I wrote much that week and not about what had been going on in our lives the past six months. I wrote and listened. I watched and wrote. I kept going at it like the birds that keep going at their lives all around us.
Steve goes in for another biopsy on Monday because the doctors found something else during a CT scan that was supposed to make sure that he’s in the all-clear. This time it’s in his lungs. I guess we’re not in the all-clear after all.
We’re still in the ravine and it’s also where I’ll leave this story right now.
The writing workshops in Yelapa are organized by Christina Ammon and Anna Elkins, and are one of several trips you’ll find through Deep Travel: The Art of Adventure.