Reunion with Diego

On a chance meeting halfway around the world after half a century

It is 1962 at the San Diego Zoo’s Children’s Zoo. My husband, David, is 6 years old, and he is riding Diego, a gigantic tortoise, who stretches his long, wrinkled neck and lumbers about the pen. He grabs tightly to Diego’s hard shell, scored and burnished. He wishes for a wild ride to somehow fulfill the promise of the red cowboy hat that sits up on his head, but the ride is slow and steady. Diego, with his hollow eyes and a weak chin, strikes a pose of indifference and plods on.

Childhood dissolves, time passes.

About a half-century later, another chance meeting occurs between the two.

It is 2006 in a different hemisphere. My husband and I are 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador on the tiny island of Isla Santa Cruz in the even tinier town of Puerto Ayora in the Gal&#;aacute;pagos Islands. We are visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, which displays tortoises in pens for visitors to see. We walk above them on boardwalks and watch their toothless mouths rip at lettuce leaves. They are as large as 6-feet long. Their geometrically stenciled shells spread 4 to 5 feet across and protect wrinkled torsos and legs that end in ferocious-looking nails. They are sullen and prehistoric.

Our guide stops in front of a large male tortoise and points.

“Diego here was taken from his native island to the San Diego Zoo, and children rode him for years until he was returned to the Gal&#;aacute;pagos.”

I turn to my husband when I hear the reference to San Diego. His face is frozen: He has heard it, too. To no one in particular and almost imperceptibly, he says: “I rode that turtle when I was little.” The word little comes out long, high and loud, an ode to his childhood. The tourists in the group, mainly Brits, turn toward David as he speaks. Now a little louder and with more composure, David utters, “I rode that turtle when I was little at the San Diego Zoo.” They smile a few bemused smiles.

I look again at David, who is engulfed in the bewildering wonder of encountering Diego again in a place halfway around the world, nearly a half-century later. The timing could not be more perfect. David has just turned 50. The week before, we had celebrated in Quito with cheap wine and good friends. We had joked about David hitting the “big five-O.” At the time, his childhood seemed far away. But now, Diego has brought it back.

Tortoises live as long as humans. Sometimes longer. At 50-plus, Diego is still going strong. We watch him mount a she-tortoise in the breeding pen. He is doing what he is supposed to be doing: courting and breeding. But, as with everything tortoise, the process is slow. We watch for a while and move on.

Before we exit, we pass an enclosure with rows of small plastic incubators. Hundreds of tiny tortoises, only a few inches long and a few years old, scramble around in a baby-tortoise nursery. Perhaps Diego’s children are here. Some will reach adulthood and outlive their father—and us, most assuredly. Childhood dissolves and time passes. The notion seems more natural and fitting than it ever has to me as we leave the grounds of the Charles Darwin Research Station. I have always wrestled with the pull and tug of life, the comings and goings, the endings. “Don’t fight it,” I tell myself. “This is how it works.”

David and I are silent as we walk hand in hand into the cobbled streets of Puerto Ayora on our way to the boat. David is basking in the marvel of reconnecting with Diego. I feel humbled and small, but expansive inside from my new revelation of the connectedness of all things—brought on by an old tortoise halfway around the world.