Saturday, November 7, 2015

The first thing I did
after landing in Puerto Vallarta Airport for my friends' Mexican destination
wedding was check the weather on my phone.
After a busy, chilly week in
Brooklyn, I'd been looking forward to finding a hot flat rock to bask on
like one of the local iguanas, but the forecast predicted a 60% chance of
rain, and the air had that breezy lush pre-storm dewiness to it.
Wow, I
thought, coming all this way for a rainy wedding? What a damn shame.
This was about 16 hours before I was filling a trash bin with shower water,
strapping boogieboards to windows, and getting prayed for in hashtags by
Americans thousands of miles away.
Sayulita is a sunny resort village on Mexico's west coast, utterly
affordable to middle-classers looking to host weddings or group getaways; the
website boasts surfing, yoga, and jungle tours.
In the main square, golf carts
loaded with obnoxious gringos, including us, clatter over cobblestone
roads.
Stray dogs beg politely for table scraps, beetles the size of Fitbits
bump into your chest, locals roam around selling hammocks and friendship
bracelets, and a friendly man on a certain corner will ask you where you're
from and what you need.
The poverty is upsettingly concealed, likely for the
comfort of the tourists—there are trailers set back far from the roads,
shacks pushed deep into the jungled hills.
The blue-green surf is so warm
it's not even refreshing.
The whole place is basically a beer commercial.
That is, when it's not about to be annihilated by an angry god.
Hurricane
Patricia, which hit the west coast of Mexico, was the strongest hurricane
recorded in human history; a weaker storm in the Philippines killed at least
6,300 people back in 2013.
It erupted from a modest tropical storm to a
Category 5 juggernaut in just 24 hours.
(Hurricane Sandy was Category 2 when
it reached US soil; Katrina was Category 3.) Those were the mouth-drying
facts I woke up to on Friday, the morning after I arrived.
We were staying at
Rana Verde, a luxe villa on a steep terraced slope filled with huts, swimming
pools, palm trees, windowless skylights, and discreet makeout nooks.
I was
sleeping off a few pints of tequila when one of the other guests knocked and
brought the news.
"There's a mandatory evacuation," he said, "but the
buses are full.
We need to decide whether to take our chances here, or try to
get to a shelter." "Where?" "Dunno." "How?"
"Dunno." "Thanks, Chad," I said.
Doomed or not, I still wanted coffee.
I went to the kitchen, where people
were attempting to be democratic.
Despite the evacuation order, the transport
buses were full, and we only had two cars.
We also had doubts about the
condition of the roads, and the possibility that the shelters were also full,
plus the risk of getting split up, the inability to bring along most of our
supplies, and the fact that if we moved, people in the U.S.
might not be able
to track us down with the address we'd given them.
The villa's maids were
staying put and told us to do likewise, since the roads were jammed and being
stuck there during worst of Hurricane Patricia would be deadly.
On the other
hand, we were just a block away from the shore, and our hillside villa looked
like an advertisement for mudslides.
I was listening so hard I'd forgotten
to put the empty coffee pot under the percolator, and coffee had spilled out
all over the counter.
Meanwhile the bride and groom were in the next villa over, with the
bride's family.
Imagine planning and saving up for a wedding for years.
Now
imagine it ending in the strongest hurricane of all time.
The bride is a
ferocious planner, and had been anxiously tracking the weather for days; now
she was glued to her phone, learning every detail of the storm's convection,
the banding, the millibar count.
The groom, a more laidback sort of guy, was
dwelling on the possibility that he'd summoned everyone he loved most to
their death; he wept, then simply decided not to believe in the
hurricane.
"Am I the only one who thinks this is bullshit?" he said, and
left to buy provisions in town.
Neither of them were inclined to give orders.
With about two hours until
estimated landfall, we finally decided to hole up at the villa, leaving nobody
feeling good about the democratic process.
With the decision set, we prepared
as well as we knew how, which was not well.
For our group shelter we selected
a hut built deep into the hill, and fortified it with pillows, chairs, plates
and utensils, trashbags for improvised toilets, water cisterns, canned food,
soap, tortillas, hardboiled eggs, solar lamps, and cocktail-oriented fruits
(pineapples, citrus).
When my feet cramped up from walking over cobblestones
in flipflops, I scribbled down lists of names and phone numbers, drew crude
maps, and took notes for the article I hoped I would live to write.
A team was
dispatched to buy supplies in town, but because of the ATM closures and
general shortages, they returned with more beer than water.
The only peace of mind we had came when we contacted the US Embassy and the
State Department with our names and location.
Plus, I'm with thirty white
people, I thought, so there's no way they're getting left behind.
Lucky
me.
Also, as it turned out, one guest's father was the Deputy Director of
the US Air Force, and his confidence made him seem as though he could summon
SEAL Team 6 with a clap of his hands; he enjoyed updating us with satellite
gifs from the Pentagon, showing the enormous dimpled meringue headed our way.
We solemnly adapted to the facts of our new reality.
You could buy phone
cards at the OXXO store to use at payphones.
Dengue fever was
mosquito-borne.
Six drops of Clorox purify a gallon of water, and humans need
eight ounces a day.
Conflicting info, paranoid speculation, and wishful
misinformation began to spread.
People spoke of 200-foot waves and deadly tap
water and coconuts turned into ballistic missiles.
Everyone talked, nobody
listened.
"By the time it makes landfall north of Manzania it'll be a Category
Four," said the Air Force Director's son.
"Any storm that hits land,
especially mountains, loses a lot of force, but then we're still looking at
a 40% chance of hurricane force winds when it touches down at oh-three-hundred
Zulu—that's 3 AM…" "Hurricane force is only 60 mph.
I've walked
in it, it's not so bad.
You have to lean into it." "Like in the video
for 'Smooth Criminal.'" "Hahaha, you look so nervous right now."
"C'mon man, don't take a photo.
I don't want my cowardice on
Facebook." "I talked to the locals.
They don't seem too worried."
"The locals don't know shit! They're not watching fucking CNN!"
"Dude, Mexicans have CNN." "You know, in some hurricanes, what really
gets you is the snakes that get flushed out afterward." Once we'd
exhausted our expertise, which took about twenty seconds, we took to Facebook
to broadcast our location and crowdsource advice.
A gale-force surge of
virtual concern washed over us.
Along with the Facebook well-wishes
(stressful, though appreciated) came reams of armchair advice in Facebook
comment threads.
Nearly everyone demanded that we flee inland, not quite
appreciating the logistical obstacles and uncertainties involved.
My
brother-in-law linked me to the U.S.
State Department's dedicated Hurricane
Patricia bulletin; my sister contacted the U.S.
Embassy in Mexico, though
their line went chillingly unanswered.
(She also showed me an NPR article
about a different wedding party evacuated from Sayulita, and I felt absolutely
idiotic machismo at being in the party that stood its ground.) My friend
advised me over email to "Hide one of the pineapples from your friends"
and eat lots of protein to "help you fend them off if everyone turns against
each other." Many advised taping up the windows; another said that contrary
to popular belief, tape makes the glass break off in larger, more dangerous
pieces.
My mom texted, "Take a nap." We all wanted to stay current and
informed, but every compulsive phone-check brought more bad news and helpless
messages from home, new gifs from the Pentagon of the hurricane swirling from
outer space, revised trajectory predictions in ever-shifting, ever-approaching
forecast cones.
In several graphics, the center of the hurricane was a garish
purple, which alarmed me, because they don't even use purple for nuclear
fallout graphs or terror alerts.
In the afternoon, both the weather and mood got dark.
Some people later
admitted to stashing away eggs and knives.
"We knew this was coming," my
friend Sarah said, as we filled up cisterns for toilet-flushing
water.
"Climate change.
Human arrogance.
There's so much we could've
done, and—" I asked her if we could hold off on the big picture for a
bit.
I was in the middle of feeling strangulated with rage at our tourist
arrogance; the first-world distrust of Mexican social services; the fact that
in many ways we were better off as tourists than as citizens; that we'd
taken in a white neighbor but none of the locals in greater need; and finally,
my outfit, an ironic polo shirt with golf tees and white slacks.
I don't
want to die wearing this, I thought, not for the first time. At the
same time, either out of compassion or denial, some of us refused to surrender
the festive wedding vibe.
Someone had broken into the stash of penis straws
reserved for the bachelorette party, apparently unable to wait.
From portable
speakers we blared a playlist of every storm-themed song we could think of
("Rock You Like a Hurricane," "Dreams," "Riders on the Storm").
By
then we'd taken in a neighbor, Vicky, a chatty tanned fiftysomething from
Juneau, Alaska in white capri shorts who was housesitting a friend's place
alone, exhausted after moving all the furniture in the three-story house.
She
asked for a beer, and got very drunk very fast.
"So, anyone else been in a
natural disaster before?" she asked, to no reply.
When Kool and the Gang
started playing, she jazzed her hands in the air.
"Come ooooon you guys,
it's a wedding, you're so young! Why's everyone so gloomy?" It was
only 2:30 by the time we'd made every preparation we could imagine.
For the
next four hours we were all pretty confident we were dead.
The horizon,
separating the slate-gray ocean from the ash-gray sky, got hazier and hazier,
until it smudged away and the sky and sea became a single doomy gradient; the
black-throated magpie jays swarming the palm trees earlier were all
gone.
Aside from that, the weather was just drizzly.
We could see a few
strangers standing on the beach; camouflaged federales with ski-masks and
rifles cruised the streets in jeeps.
There remained the question of whether to
tape up the windows—we decided not to.
"Can we at least board them up?"
I asked.
Silence.
Then my friend pointed out that we had boogie boards.
So, in a
perfect symbol of the whole absurd mess, we boogie-boarded the windows.
Despite all the advice we'd gotten, nobody warned us about the
boredom.
First the hurricane was supposed to hit at one o'clock, then four,
then seven.
Pretty much everyone was drunk by 2 P.M., including the
grandparents.
Everyone with a smartphone was glued to it.
I don't know what
I was looking for on Tinder, but I didn't find it. Some of us played
Monopoly and Scrabble and Cards Against Humanity, others watched My Cousin
Vinnie and The Wedding Singer in their room, still others took Excedrin and
Xanax (eight of them).
After a dinner of fajitas and micheladas we headed next door to see how the
bride and groom were holding up.
The task of taping windows had clearly lost
its appeal, as the asterisks of tape dwindling to Xs and slashes.
The
bride's father, a 79-year-old retired longshoreman, had been evacuated, but
had promptly left the shelter when he was told he wouldn't be able to drink
his two six-packs there; a bridesmaid had thrown the bride's phone across
the room to keep her from constantly checking it.
The groom, still in denial,
had bought only beer on his supply run; he was occupying himself by cooking
forty quesadillas for nobody.
He looked upset, but not because of the
hurricane: "I called Chad fat, and his girlfriend told him.
Now he's angry
at me." A few of us took the opportunity to swim in the saltwater
infinity pool, overlooking the much larger saltwater body of water that might
murder us in a few hours.
I commented that the pool noodle was going to blow
away, to which a swimmer replied, "Au revoir, pool noodle!" but then
another tied it around his head like a bandana.
As it darkened, the horizon
went from hazy gray to a livid red slash in total blackness—it was a freak
sunset.
The groom's family also refused to budge from their house, directly on the
beach, about twenty yards from the water.
They were veterans, farmers,
Republicans—the oldest was in her late eighties.
"The owner was tellin'
us, Hey, the water could get up to the terrace," the groom's stepmother
said.
"Well, so, let it hit the terrace, then! We'll be fine!" The
hurricane was now set to hit at midnight.
We held vigil under the palapa at
Rana Verde, blaring dance music and drinking.
I came to positively despise an
unseen bird whose call sounded exactly like a security alarm.
A huge thrust of
wind heaved through; a guest froze in place holding a tequila bottle until it
died down.
"It's fine," he said, and poured a shot.
Water splattered off
the thatch and the wicker lamps were swinging around, making crazy zebra
stripes of light fly across the floor.
It was so humid that the potato chips
got wilted and chewy within an hour and I found later that all my sleeping
pill gelcaps had melted.
In the high wind, the only playable game was
dominoes; we used boarding passes as scorecards.
We waited for the power to go
off as our cue to head for the shelter, but it never did.
Nobody even noticed
when the storm passed by and we were still outdoors, enjoying our undeserved
luck.
Because you're reading this article, you know how it ends: the
Category 5 storm with 200 mph winds we'd prepared for arrived with a
Category Zero whimper.
No storm surges or blackouts, no vipers or dengue
fever, not even any large puddles.
What saved us was the relative tininess of
the storm's intense core (~35 miles) and the tiny southward swerve that sent
it away from us.
There were, astonishingly, no casualties in the entire
country, owing in part to geographic luck and part to the speed and
effectiveness of Mexico's emergency response.
In the morning all the gardenia blossoms had blown off their bushes, and the
palm tree swarmed by jays earlier was now parted like Andy Warhol's
hair.
The maids had everything cleaned before we woke up, and our gratitude
spilled out in the form of tips.
The hysteria faded as quickly as the
hurricane—downgraded to a tropical depression, then tropical joy.
We emptied
leftover rations of water into the pool, then drank the remaining six cases of
beer.
The weather turned perfect.
We threw a truly typical bachelor party,
involving a standoff outside a convenience store, a clingy dog, and a hideous
fedora that we called Lou Bega.
Yes, there were the usual self-congratulations for having gone through
something bizarre, for having pulled together in crisis, chest-bumped death,
made a lasting memory.
But the guests soon went back to caring about dumb
stuff: the slightly overspiced tilapia, sweaty green coconuts, rideshares to
the airport.
The newlyweds were kvelling.
"It's the most beautiful thing
that's ever happened in our lives," said the bride.
"Chemicals are being
released in my head that have never been released before," said the
groom.
Although people joked that the bride and groom had singlehandedly
stopped the hurricane dead with the force of their monogamy, the chaos of the
hurricane plagued the ceremony with littler omens: the officiant accidentally
skipped the ring exchange, the DJ's records skipped, a diamond popped out of
the bride's ring, the groom couldn't tie his bowtie, and the bouquet was
forgotten at the hotel.
But we were grateful for catastrophes of this size.
Tony Tulathimutte's debut novel Private Citizens will be released Feb.
2016
from HarperCollins / William Morrow. A lesson in disaster
preparedness.

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