05 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 11: Scenes From a Park With 300 Iguanas

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Well hello there. 
Location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Those sinister eyes. Just look at them.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tourist who enters across a park filled with 300 iguanas will ignore the signs saying "DO NOT TOUCH THE ANIMALS."

Officially, the park in the center of Guayaquil is called Parque Seminario. Officially, the main attractions are the statue of Simon Bolivar; the well-maintained stone paths and manicured lawns of refined urban parks everywhere; the large historic gazebo that host concerts by a municipal police band (every afternoon, I'm told). Officially, you're not supposed to touch the iguanas.

Hahahahaha. Right. To all of that.

Pretty much everyone seems to call it "Iguana Park." They're everywhere. They're the real stars here. And they're what brings in all the gawkers--both locals and tourists.

You can't really tell from this photo, but this tree is FULL of iguanas.
You are strongly advised not to stand directly below it.

Our taxi driver, Christian, had wanted to take us to the local history museum, across the street from the park, but we were disappointed to learn it was closed.

Kind of disappointed. Soooort of.

Okay, honestly, not really.

I mean, dude: 300 iguanas.

Christian looked on as we snapped our photos. All day, during our extended drum hunt and our later quest for lunch--during which we rebuffed his suggestions of international chains and their slick local knockoffs, because we didn't particularly want pizza and burgers but something just a tad more authentic and traditional--he kept offering us that most desired of travel compliments: "You're not like most tourists." Our egos soared.

In the park, though, he's openly laughing at us as we pose. "Now you are real tourists!"

We know. It's true. We can't help it. Sometimes, you have to embrace the goofiness of travel, the tacky tourist moments.

In case I haven't mentioned it: 300 iguanas.

And the thing about 300 iguanas is that the scene sounds cool until you consider the up-close realities, like the fact that holy crap those things are freaky. It turns out that as with all animals, there's a certain distance at which an iguana suddenly goes from interesting to terrifying--you cross what one might call the "Oh, HELL NO! Threshold." This distance varies widely by animal.

A Sampling of Oh, HELL, NO! Thresholds
  • Tiger: 68 yards
  • Dragonfly: 8 inches
  • Giant squid: 2 miles
  • Goldfish: 0 Goldfish are harmless. Don't you dare ruin that for me by pointing out examples of ravenous, blood-sucking goldfish; I'll be over here with my fingers in my ears, LALALALA.
For iguanas, the distance is about two or three feet. From afar--even, like, ten feet away--they look regal and intriguing, always standing there, posing with their chins up, like a bald eagle or Christian Bale. At two to three feet, you start to feel your eyes get very wide and your sphincter loosens. You have sudden insights, like, Damn, those things look like dinosaurs. And I forget, was "Jurassic Park" a documentary? How fast, precisely, can they lunge? My buddy Ralph is standing next to me--if I push him in front of me, will they go after him instead? He's wearing zip-off nylon khaki pants, so he's basically asking for it, anyway.

Unfortunately, I had no nylon-khaki-wearing friend named Ralph along to protect me as I approached this scrum of iguanas:

Keep an eye on that cheeky critter directly under my butt.
This will become important very, very shortly.

As I started to squat--and just as the Oh, HELL, NO Threshold was kicking in--a woman in an official uniform yelled something at me.

I assumed she was shooing me away--but, no, she was offering to take the photo for me. I handed over my camera. "Kneel down," she commanded, in Spanish.

I knelt. Carefully.

"It's okay to touch them," the woman said, grinning.

Oh, hell, no. 

But she was waiting for me to lower my hand. And, really: I couldn't pass up the opportunity for officially-sanctioned--make that officially-mandated--iguana-petting. Very, very gentle iguana-petting. It had to be done.

As I was posing, I heard a voice behind me. "Dude, do NOT back up. And the second that photo's done, STAND THE HELL UP, nice and slow--there's one that's about to chomp on your butt."

I ignored the "nice and slow" part.

I later asked Chuck, the naturalist, if--you know, hypothetically, asking for friend--an iguana could've actually bitten off my finger.

"No," he said, face totally deadpan. "But it would make you wish it had."

So there’s a life lesson for you: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s not an iguana out to get you.

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