Robotic Iguanas

O n a ledge in a cliff face, a small brown iguana raises his head and says to the chartreuse iguana perched above him, “So, you wanna piece of me or what?” Soon the iguanas, joined by some toucans and macaws, burst into song: “Right here in the jungle mon, that’s the life for me.” Lights strobe, the toucans flap their wings, and the iguanas bob their robotic heads. On cue, waiters and waitresses join in the singing, waving strips of brightly colored fabric. A toucan shouts, “Hasta la vista baby!” as our waiter leans over and asks, “Who had the shrimp?”

Coming here was my idea. I had returned to Salt Lake City from a summer of outdoor experiences while millions of my fellow humans tuned into “Survivor” and hundreds stood in line at the new Mayan theme restaurant in the suburbs. A combination of stifling late August temperatures, unhealthy levels of smoggy ozone, and thick smoke from dozens of wildfires raging in the West left me feeling lethargic and listless. I called a colleague. “Chris,” I said, “as people who teach environmental communication, we really ought to check out this restaurant with the Mayan jungle theme.” To my surprise, she didn’t hesitate.

Our table is on the third level of the restaurant next to a railing with a good view down to the “stage,” a cliff face about two stories high adorned with tropical plants made of plastic. A gentle waterfall pours from the cliff into a large aqua pool. The rocks are molded concrete and the pool reeks of chlorine. Under clear resin, our tabletop bears a colorful design of the Mayan alphabet and calendar. Down one level to the right is an area with carpeted steps and a large video screen playing cartoons — a sideshow for children not sufficiently captivated by robotic iguanas. High above in the middle of the cliff wall is an office window, light seeping from behind closed blinds.

The house lights — already dim — grow dimmer. On the lower cliff face, steam starts pouring from holes in the rock and two red eyes begin to glow, eventually illuminating a large fiery face in the stone. A deep voice booms, “I am Copac, behold the power…” The message is foreboding and a bit evil, something about heat from the center of the Earth. To break the tension, one of the toucans announces that it is about to get a lot hotter. The waiters and waitresses agree, chiming in with a chorus of, “Feeling hot, hot, hot!”

Chris and I laugh; we are seated under an air conditioning vent. By way of contrast, I tell Chris about a Guatemalan jungle I visited, and how even at 3 a.m. lying perfectly still, sweat would trickle from my face into my ears and hair. As the “hot, hot, hot!” number winds down a macaw asks for a cold towel. “I feel Mayan and I’m not even tryin’,” it squawks, instructing diners to order another drink.

The owner of the Mayan — a quirky Mormon guy with his own little Intermountain empire of car dealerships, an NBA team, mega movie-theater complexes, and the new theme restaurant — said in a newspaper interview that he took great pains to give his patrons an authentic experience. He sent his architects to Mexico and Central America to ensure that the restaurant could recreate the experience of visiting an ancient Mayan community. They returned with proposals for plastic banyan trees, thatched huts covering computerized cash registers, and chlorinated waterfalls. According to a recent lawsuit, what Salt Lake’s Mayan restaurant allegedly recreated was not an ancient Mayan community but a nearly identical Mayan theme restaurant in Denver.

The lights dim again. A disembodied female voice speaks soothingly about standing on sacred ground, hidden in the jungle. Two young men in loin cloths and tall, feathered headdresses emerge on an upper cliff ledge and bang on tall drums, the slap of their hands occasionally out of step with the drumbeat of the amplified soundtrack. An image of a young woman appears on the rock wall, a water goddess of sorts with bright red lipstick. Her name is Tecal. “The spirit of the jaguar calls and I awaken,” she says, urging us to return to a lost paradise, to the Earth, to celebrate, rejuvenate, and rebirth. As her speech crescendoes, lightning flashes, thunder booms, and the once-placid waterfall gushes noisily into the pool, spraying the plastic ferns but not the diners beyond. People stop their conversations and turn toward the water.

Chris and I compare notes on our food (her taco salad with iceberg lettuce is unexceptional and my shrimp are tough) and discuss the “flood.” She recalls how, in 1983, abundant mountain snowfall and an abrupt spring melt sent City Creek roaring through downtown, past department stores and pawn shops, a muddy torrent of debris and fish slapping against a channel of sandbags. Like many such floods, it was caused by a combination of weather events and failed human attempts to control and divert runoff. Both that flood and the Mayan one, I point out, demonstrate a similar human desire for (and belief in) control of natural elements that by their very nature are largely uncontrollable and highly unpredictable.

The warriors return, wearing only Speedos and asymmetrical facepaint. The crowd has been anticipating this, the most talked-about part of the show. From the highest point on the cliff, the young men alternate fancy dives into the pool, swim around the side of the cliff, and disappear to reappear at the top for another dive.

Shortly after the restaurant opened for business, the Salt Lake Tribune did a profile on a diver, who like all the divers was a member of a high school swim team in the valley. The diver they interviewed had emigrated from Guatemala when he was eight, and it was suggested that perhaps he had some Mayan blood in him. The story also mentioned that some restaurant patrons have asked whether the cliff divers are fake like the cliff they jump from and the lagoon they land in.

When I was a naturalist in Olympic National Park, I was frequently asked whether the deer wandering through the parking lot snarfing up Cheetos and sandwich crusts were real. Tourists also asked me what time it would rain in the coastal rainforest, as if there were a button we pressed, or as though, like Old Faithful, we could predict the rain. (Their interest was not so much in the natural patterns of a rainforest but in not getting wet.) Although the gulf between the real and artificial is vast, we have accomplished the illusion of no gulf at all, like silk flowers you must touch to determine whether chlorophyll lies within. We remake and remodel the natural world and its elements into more predictable and controllable versions, our own little theme-park paradise where flowers never fade on the vine and bubbling brooks never run dry.

There is more than humor or sadness in this degree of disconnect; there is danger. We grow increasingly ignorant of the natural original and risk not valuing it — or valuing its replacement more. When Salt Lake’s foothills are abloom in early spring with allium, balsamroot, vetch, and sego lilies, most residents are aware only of imported tulips and daffodils. Numerous western cities have gone so far as to codify the imports, making green grass and thirsty flowers not just a cultural imperative but a legal one.

“You wannanother margarita?” asks our waiter.

“Is that what the Mayans drank?” I ask in reply.

The skinny young man with spiky platinum hair stares blankly.

“No thank you,” I say.

He leaves a small, black notebook on the table and says he’ll take it when we are ready.

While paying up, I wonder if my fellow diners believe they are experiencing nature or just some wholesome family entertainment that comes with a mediocre meal. Can someone who knows only censored and stylized depictions of the natural world — Disneyland, PBS, The Nature Company — ever love and understand the wonderfully complex original? Can we care deeply about the jungle or the foothills or an untamed mountain creek if we’ve never truly known them? The love and compassion I have for the West is rooted in decades of discovery, from brushing against a thousand sagebrush to know its potent perfume and reading the summer sky for signs of late afternoon storms. Such experiences remind me that my control is minuscule, my volition matters little, and the capacity for wonder and entertainment is infinite.

Chris and I contemplate what the Mayan has to teach us. Jungles are colorful, comfortable, and sublime. Ancients gods and goddesses — some benevolent, some not — control the weather. Nature is predictable and friendly. Animals (with human voices) are merely there to amuse us. And you can buy pieces of the jungle in the gift shop to take home. In the end, the Mayan is not so much about nature as it is about a culture that prefers plastic picket fences over wood ones, robotic animals over wild ones, reality TV over real life.

The lights on stage grow bright and the birds start jabbering again. One introduces herself as Margarita Macaw; another, Pierre, wears a beret and says he is from Paris. Iguanas Marvin and Harry ask the macaws if they’ve seen their sunglasses. A bird informs us that “it’s always perfect weather” in the jungle. We leave a tip on the table; the entire show is beginning again.

A former reporter, park ranger, and environmental policy wonk, JULIA CORBETT is now an associate professor of environmental communication at the University of Utah. She says a good day consists of a hike, gardening, and writing amidst her admirers — a dog and cat who love her, though they have never read her work.