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 percent 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 U.S. 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.”
“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 mudslide insurance. 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 laid-back 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. 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 percent chance of hurricane force winds when it touches down at oh-three-hundred Zulu—that’s 3 a.m…”
“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.”
“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 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.