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What Boobies Have Taught Me About Milking the Most Out of Life

Last month I checked off a prodigious bucket-list item: I saw a blue-footed booby in his natural habitat. He was minding a chick so implausibly fluffy it looked like a Jim Henson creation.

The chicks’ feathers floated on the air like dandelion seeds. Carried by gentle breezes and clinging to rocks and vegetation, they could have been tens of thousands of spent wishes.

As a child, I’d seen a display of taxidermy birds behind glass at a natural history museum. Among them was a blue-footed booby, and I was absolutely smitten. He had bright-blue feet that looked rubbery and a tad too big, as though he were wearing galoshes. Being a kid, I didn’t read the interpretive signage and just assumed this stuffed specimen was that of an extinct bird—for if boobies existed, surely every zoo would have them.

I can’t remember when I found out blue-footed boobies hadn’t gone the way of the dodo. Nor can I recall when I first learned about the Galapagos Islands, where half of all breeding pairs of boobies make their home. I knew long before I could find them on the map that the Galapagos Islands are special on account of their large number of endemic species and for having hosted a young Charles Darwin, whose studies of Galapagos flora and fauna led to his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

A few years back, I started looking into visiting the Galapagos Islands (having learned by then where they actually are), but the logistics involving planes, ferries, park entrance fees, tour boats, island guides, travel tips such as scrubbing the soles of your shoes lest they be confiscated (dirt can introduce contaminants to the islands), and cobbling together about ten grand all made this bucket-list adventure highly unlikely. Then, I learned through a friend about a reasonably priced, all-inclusive group trip to the Galapagos Islands and immediately signed up—even though it was billed as a yoga retreat and I don’t have a bendy body.

Turns out, it was easier to warp my body into some of the yoga poses than to wrap my mind around the Galapagos. It’s a study in antonyms, at once embracing and forbidding; earthly and otherworldly; uniquely blessed and seemingly forsaken. It’s the only place on the planet where penguins coexist with cacti. It’s a place where all the creatures seem tame though most are actually profoundly indifferent to humans and astonishingly innocent of the harm we can cause. We saw a sprawling sea lion nursing her pup, a pair of exhibitionist penguins whose mating lasted longer than I would have expected, and a giant tortoise giving off vibes like a celebrity who’s grown weary of paparazzi but shows the camera his best side anyway. We could have touched these creatures, to a one, if doing so weren’t strictly forbidden.

No free-range tourists: All Galapagos guests must be accompanied by a certified naturalist guide, who ensures we stay a certain distance from the animals.

What makes a trip to Galapagos so bucket list worthy is that many of the plants and animals are endemic to the islands, meaning they exist there and nowhere else. As it happens, blue-footed boobies aren’t among them. They live off western coasts of Central and South America.

They live, too, in the shifting, shadowy landscape of my memory. It’s strange what you carry with you from a place, from an experience, from an encounter. From the past and the present. Much of my childhood is a blur but I remember vividly seeing that stuffed blue-footed booby and thinking nature had brought a cartoon to life. And in one of life’s full-circle symmetries, I know that my blue-footed booby sightings will be what sticks with me from my once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos trip.

Some fancy footwork. (Photo by my travel companion Maggie Crane, who wrote about our trip here.)

Memories fall away over the years like petals from a flower. You can’t keep them all. Already, I’ve forgotten which critters belong to which islands.

I think that perhaps we seekers ask too much of our travels. Galapagos is the sort of place, and certainly I was among the sort of people (yogis), where a spiritual awakening or an epiphany seems almost guaranteed. I had no such experience, just as I hadn’t when I hiked 116 miles of the Appalachian Trail—another pilgrimage people make in search of enlightenment, putting their lives on hold to make room. I finished my 12-day hike feeling like I hadn’t been favored by the universe. I’d not found my life’s purpose under a rock or around a bend. I hiked part of the AT and all I got were these rapidly fading memories.

I’ve since learned that each magical moment seeps in. Even the memories I lose access to continue to transform me, like water over stone, into my best self. It takes time.

What I’ve come to realize about myself as a work-in-progress is this: I learn about the world by wandering, but I learn about myself at home. The Galapagos adventure is still working its magic.

It is part of my evolution.

I reckon they sell more of these souvenir shirts to men.