(To read the entire story of our first Baja Adventure, please start at the BOTTOM, from Day One!)
My first impression of this world of the Sea of Cortez was a terrain of bare, red hills interrupting the sky. Blue sea, red hills, and they all looked the same. Not a very exciting place to be, really. The desert seemed dead, harsh, and forbidding. I was comparing it to the lush, majestic fiords of SouthEast Alaska, with its boreal rain forests, inviting waterfalls, towering mossy hemlocks, and the overpowering grandness of the animals and living glaciers.
But as I watch these bare red hills, these islands we pass day after day, I begin to see that they are not alike – not at all. Each meets the sea in its unique way, with an uncountable variety of texture and color – not just red, but green, purple, gray, orange, yellow, pink. The shapes and textures of the layers – craggy, smooth, broken, strong, banded, eroded, crumling, pinnacled. And how the blue of the sea changes color! From darkest, deepest midnight blue where the big whales can dive deep, to the turquoise green that laps the white sand beaches that are tucked into surprising nooks and crannies along the island shores. Truly one could spend many, many weeks exploring all the shelters, bays and harbors these islands offer.
The life here isn’t large and mighty like the crashing glaciers, great eagles and lumbering grizzlies of Alaska. Here, in Baja, is a languidness that is evident in the pace, the peaceful landscape and the gentle fishermen who go about their business with the fruits of the sea, quietly loving what they do. Here, the graceful frigate birds soar and swoop, blue-footed boobies glide on the soft winds, fun-loving mobulas leap and play, and the dolphins splash and somersault at the bow. Day after day the sea stretches on, the beaches beckon, and the sun sets ablaze in a soft western sky.
The days stay warm and tropically bright, and the breeze delightfully cool. Night after night the brilliant flame of sunset – blinding tangerine melting into lavender – silhouettes the cliffs and headlands. Mooring late one night, traveling to our anchorage after the sun had gone down and the stars were already out, we saw the phosphorescence of the bow wave against the dark water -- like someone had turned on a neon light below the surface. Where the waves broke, the curl glowed with a soft luminous green, and out beyond the bow leapt green sparkles in the water to match the brilliance of the million vivid stars glittering overhead.
Here I am. What I mean is: I am HERE. I puzzle that it takes so long to sink in – so many days of unconsciousness before I wake up and realize I. Am. Here.
We are off the boat, kayaking in to one of so many brilliant coral and shell beaches splayed at the foot of one of oh so many arroyos that cleave through the lumpy desert islands, creating small bahias and harbors sheltered from the seasonal northeast winds. Behind this short, white beach is a patch of red mangrove, rooting in a brackish pool. Two snowy egrets are wading at the far end.
Beyond the mangroves, the arroyo opens ahead of us, a narrow valley leading up to the low ridge of the island. We are walking through an old-growth Sonoran desert. Along the valley floor, the massive caldones (cacti of the saguaro family) are hundreds of years old, their giant arms make me think of a welcoming, sheltering grandfather. This red-rock valley is rich with flowering ochatillo, chollas, agave and rambling pickleweed. Higher on the exposed slopes we can see prickly-pear cactus.
There are the scattered remains of a black jack-rabbit, indigenous to this island, maybe prey of a small gray fox whose tracks we noticed earlier. And I see a very alive jack rabbit dart ahead of us up the slope, and a trio of vultures overhead. A small, delicate rock squirrel, like a finely chiseled chipmunk with one black stripe down its back, scampers across the rocks and stops to examine us before disappearing behind an outcrop.
Our half-mile long trail climbs gently among the cacti and rocks. Suddenly I emerge at the top, at the edge of the bluff, and the Sea of Cortez is crashing hundreds of feet below me; midnight blue water curling into brilliant white fists, slamming against the huge boulders along the water’s edge. Standing high on the headland, the powerful wind barreling down from the northeast nearly knocks me off my feet. I am facing the vigorous Sea of Cortez, sparkling blue on blue in the warm liquid air, with all of the life of the desert at my back, and I realize – I am Here. I am alive. And I am glad.
I am learning to feel very at home on this small, moving island, this boat, where the floor rolls and falls away, and one sways and absorbs the movement without even thinking about it.
I remember traveling by train back and forth to college, changing stations in Chicago, where I could board the aerodome and sit in the upper level, high above the traveling car, with vistas all around. At dusk, the porter would come through with gray wool blankets and I would scrunch my bag up for a pillow and curl up in my seat and look at the stars until I fell asleep. But always, the first hours aboard the train, maneuvering the aisles to the dining car and back, or to the restrooms, I would knock against the seats and falter back and forth trying to make my way from one end of the swaying car to the other.
It didn’t take me long, though, before I could travel the entire length of the train without needing to steady myself at all. I’m beginning to feel that way now, as one with the boat, the constant puttapah-puttapah-puttapah of the engine becomes my rhythm too. And when we turn out of the sheltered lee of an island and head into the smooth north breeze, I love to stand at the bow and take in the warm wind and sun; I become part of this sparkling blue world, and maybe I’ll see the spout of a whale misting up on the horizon.
So far, I’ve met three local fishermen, and dearly wish I were able to converse with them in their language. You’ve heard of Pablo at El Pardito, his tiny fishing village clinging to the side of the rock island, when he came out to get water.
One evening, several of us were beach-combing at sunset along the sandy shore of a narrow cove where we’d been forced to lay over for a day due to high winds. The cove was otherwise deserted, but out of nowhere we were approached by a sturdy, barefooted individual in shorts and a tee-shirt, walking up the beach toward us. Earlier, we had noticed a small fishing camp rigged further up around the bend, a white dory pulled up above the tide-line and a blue tarp held up with rope tied to a piece of driftwood – or maybe the boat’s oar – stuck in the sand. At any rate, Sarah, our naturalist-guide, knows enough Spanish to learn that he had been out fishing with his two compadres the day before, and had been forced into harbor by the strong winds, as had we. They were expecting to make their way out in the morning, as the winds were beginning to lay down with the fading sun. Sarah learned that they had enough water, and plenty of fish to eat, and introduced us as neighbors, lying at anchor in this quiet place. With a broad smile flashing his white teeth, he introduced himself as Antonio, and made a friendly effort to shake everyone’s hand and repeat our names with his heavy accent. “Soy Tony!” he declared with apparent pride to each of us in turn.
“Muy frio, muy frio,” he went on to tell Sarah, rubbing his upper arms and shivering in his tee shirt as the sun finally dipped down below the western hills. This is cold winter weather for him, who lives and fishes during the 120-degree summers in the gulf. “Tiene usted las mantas? Estamos muy frio…” “Si, si amigo!” Sarah replied, after understanding that he was asking if we had any extra sleeping bags they could borrow for the night. They had spent the previous night trying to stay warm by sharing one old flannel shirt between them. “Por quanto persones?” “Tres, tres, muchas gracias!” Tony responded. It was arranged that we would all return to the boat in our skiff, (it was dinner time!) and that Bill would return to deliver three wool blankets ashore; they would drop them off at the boat on their way out in the morning, before dawn. That was how I met Antonio.
We spent one long, lovely afternoon anchored at Puerto Gato, a colorful broad harbor on the eastern side of the Baja peninsula. Some of the guests went snorkeling along a coral reef, some exploring the caves and ancient tool middens of pre-historic Pericu people who had camped along this area thousands of years ago. Randy and I hiked the far cliff-edged beach, where the towering rock face was studded with geodes. Later in the day, the rest of the group went out kayaking – I elected to stay on the boat, and that’s when I met Manuel.
I had watched him approach from around the tip of the point, standing in the stern of his wooden panga with his hand on the tiller of the small 10 horsepower outboard motor. Bill said he was coming to deliver lobster for dinner, which had been bargained and paid for the week before. He was another tee-shirt clad fisherman, nimbly leaping across the thwarts in bare feet as his boat bobbed and dipped with each roll of the sea, deftly tossing Bill his bowline as he cut his throttle. After the line was secure and the panga alongside, Bill lowered a big, black bailing bucket on a rope. From under a tarp in the bottom of the boat, Manuel pulled out three monstrous, wriggling, spiny lobsters, blue and orange and speckled with brown, and piled them in the bucket. Tracie-the-chef drew them aboard, and disappeared into the galley to go to work.
Manuel followed up the ladder, clutching a small zippered bag. He looked at me hopefully, and held out his satchel. I could understand his words “Mi espousa” but nothing else. “Lo siento, yo no hablo espanol,” I was able to muster. He shrugged, and smiled. Bill had gone to the pilot house, Tracie was in the galley dealing with lobsters, Sarah was out kayaking with the guests and Randy was down in the engine room. I realized I was on my own with Manuel.
At the table, he opened his bag, and began to lay out colorfully crocheted and embroidered cloths, bright with flowers in greens, reds and yellows. He seemed most eager that I should buy some of the cloths his wife had embroidered. My mind went blank and I couldn’t drum up anything but “No, gracias. Muy bonito! No, gracias.” I wished that I were in need of more linens, or that I could think of someone who would enjoy them, but as much as I scrambled, nothing came to mind. He just kept nodding and smiling, not looking at me, really, but seeming sort of like a shy peddlar, with big earnest brown eyes in a wrinkled face. Bill said later, that he was 79 years old, and, besides fishing, had been peddling everything he could find, for most of his life.
Standing there on the aft deck in the glow of the lowering afternoon sun, I realized he had only his dirty tee shirt for covering, and was facing a bumpy, windy 30 minute ride home in the cooling dusk . Finally, I thought to offer him something to drink. “Gusta usted café?” I asked. “Si! Si!” he replied. “Con leche?” “Si!’ “azucar?” “Si!” “Uno? Dos?” “Dos!” he said with great enthusiasm, nodding and smiling the whole time. I fixed him a coffee with cream and 2 spoons of sugar, and he hugged the mug with both hands and sat down in one of the wicker chairs, his broad bare feet planted firm and far apart on the deck.
About this time the kayakers returned, and while Bill and Randy appeared from below to load the kayaks aboard, the guests were introduced to Manuel and gathered around to inspect the needlework laid out for sale on the table. Nobody bought anything, Manuel finished his coffee, he and Bill concluded their arrangement for more lobsters next week, and then he dropped back down into his panga, bobbing in the waves, and was off for home, a small fishing village several miles up the coast.
Meanwhile, after yet another glorious sunset, we gathered in the warm twilight around the gleaming mahogany table on the aft deck, sharing wine, laughter and stories of our various adventures of the day. We were served a fresh lobster bisque that was out of this world, followed by succulent lobster-stuffed rellenos, and finally, chocolate fondant with rum-soaked bananas.
I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s book, “The Log of the Sea of Cortez”, written in 1941 about a trip he took to Baja with his friend Ed Ricketts, in an old fishing trawler. I find it’s a book to read slowly, savoring. He says: