Ulloa's Discovery. The conquistador's discovery of the Boca Colorado.
The Mouth of The River-God. Our discovery of the Boca Colorado. The men in the dinghy. The red water. The confusion.
GooseFest 2010. In which friends arrive at the Goose, a party is had, Juan gropes the girls, and cocaine makes its second appearance.
Cousin Cocaine. A drug deal is made, Perro is introduced, and NAFTA's relationship with drug trade in Mexico is illuminated.
How Many Pounds Happiness? Vladimir's missive considered. News on The Enchanted Isles, and happiness gets a new definition.
The Port of the Wolves.Ulloa's visit to Gonzaga, our visit to Gonzaga, a gringo outpost is discovered, and more locals are met.
Shaman Litterbug. David and Raphael. Our voyage inland. Lessons about plants and lessons about culture.
The Calamari Abattoir. Esteban, Lorenzo, Mauricio, and Mario. Water, and squid.
The three ships of the Ulloa expedition passed the bay of what would become Puerto Peñasco on the 25th of September, 1539. There, on top of the hill named La Ballena, they were watched by a small group of people dressed in, what was then the fashion among all the locals, of fish skins. Tall, gaunt, and dusty these folks (who'd later be known as Yaqui Indians) carried long poles of agave. They wore small bags over their shoulders.
Ulloa's ships sailed (as did we) past Peñasco, followed the coast for two days, then arrived (as did we) at the mouth of the Colorado River, or Boca Colorado, on the 27th of September. It was an important and disappointing day for several reasons.
First, this day brought the unwelcomed confirmation that The Baja was not an island, but a peninsula. Many of the members of the crew had suspected it for weeks since the western edge of the sea can be seen for most of the voyage north, and when the mountains cannot be made out the occasional cloud which gathers over hills, marking islands or coastlines, can. So there was no great surprise when Ulloa finally found himself and crew in the reddish cul-de-sac of the northernmost point of The Sea.
There are a few small questions about what they were searching for. Cortez' charter, and specific requests, in funding the voyage were never found if they were ever written down. Of course, given the fact that these were conquistadors, and given the era of the voyage, such questions are weakly whispered in the face of the most probable. Gold had fueled the launch of the expedition, and gold would be expected on their return. But there was no money to be made on Cortez' investment. So far Ulloa's crew had found no Seven Cities of Gold, no El Dorado. The mythic second city of the Aztecs which had been rumored to be in the north remained hidden. What Ulloa and his crew had found so far was a scalded strip of sand punctured by a collapsing series of cliffs. They saw few people, they found no pirates, and the expedition did not discover naked negresses, living in a lush land of riches, as their conquistador literature had promised. There were no hippogriffs careening overhead in the lapis skies, no Gryphons to slay. There were no Malay trading vessels riding low and heavy with spices and silk. No, only hot winds, sand, and the blinding sun.
And the Boca Colorado.
What Ulloa did discover, however was something that would alter European history, and by it American history, as well. Their discovery indicated that there was no northern passage, at least not as had been suspected. It meant that trade with Asia could not follow this route which was part of what the local politics of the day were assuming. If Cortez could not find gold, perhaps he would be able to find something that would save the Spanish colonizers time. A Northern Passage would allow just that (let us shear away Canada and much of Washington with it, because this was part of what the map of the days were hopefully proposing).
Cortez' goal might have been just that. Because if a Northern Passage could have been found it would have saved the Spanish Crown years of passage-making, reducing the time the vessels took to resupply the colonies, armies, and trade routes that were being built in New Spain (and by extension, those that would be built in what is today California).
These politics didn't concern the members of the crews of the Santa Agueda, the Trinidad, and the Santo Tomas. They wanted conquest, gold, battle, and negresses. But finding themselves at the north of The Sea meant a southward passage backtracking their progress was in their immediate futures. This would take them back to the settlement that had been massacred by the Indians the year before. Back to La Paz, land of pestilence, dust, and death.
So we may imagine Ulloa and his captains, standing on the deck, covering their eyes from the sun. They were salty, following hard daily rations of water, and confused as to why there was a range of mountains in front of them when where there should have been open water. Where there was water it was red and surged in and out from the shore with nearly thirty-six feet of tidal change in a mere 12 hour period.
Ulloa writes in his logbook,
Four of five leagues [from Peñasco] we commenced to find the water white, like river water, and as we sailed through this water we saw land to the south-west, eight or nine leagues from us. Thinking that it was an island we sailed for it, to go and see what it was. The nearer we came to it the less depth we got, to such an extent that we found ourselves in four or five fathoms3 and the sea all reddish and turned to mud. Because the water was shallow where we were, and the water turbid, we anchored to find a way to draw nearer that land. We could not find it, nor get nearer than we were, which was more than two leagues away.
And Ulloa's notary, Preciado (via the Hakluyt translation), writes something similar about the mouth of the Boca Colorado,
And thus sayling wee alwayes found more shallow water, and the Sea thicke, blacke, and very muddie, and came at length into five fadome water ; and seeing this, wee determined to passe over to the land which wee found as little depth and lesse, whereupon we rode all night in five fadome water, and wee perceived the Sea to runne with so great a rage into the land, that it was a thing much to be marveilled at, and with like fury it returned backe againe with the ebbe ; during which time wee found 11 fadome water, and the flood and ebbe continued from sixe to sixe houres.
The day following the Captaine and Pilote went up to the shippes top, and sawe all the lande full of sand in a great round compasse, and joyning it selfe with the other shore, and it was so low, that whereas we were a leave from the same wee could not well discerne it, and it seemed that there was an inlet of the mouthes of certaine lakes, whereby the Sea went in and out. There were divers opinions amongst us, and some thought that that current entered into those lakes, and also that some great River there might be the cause thereof.
Thus they found themselves at a place where, today, there is discussion about digging a canal into the center of California to provide desalinized water to the massive population that lives there today. As if it has tides, the Colorado River is nearly dry by the time it arrives at the sea.
It must be time for changing tides.
The Mouth of The River-God Called Colorado
12:00. We pull anchor and sail out of the lagoon.
13:00. Install and configure the autopilot. It works but I don't trust it. We name it Mitzy.
16:00. The boat is in great shape, and the new genoa is tight and solid. There is no fear of it splitting apart, especially not in such ideal, easy winds as these. The shore is flat, with some mountains to be seen south-west. Certainly the same range that Ulloa saw.
20:00. After sailing some 25 miles up the coast we anchor, at sunset, at N31°28.723, W114°07.212.
22:00. We decide to sleep outside. The Milky Way looms above us, luminescent and shining like eyes. It is an arc from horizon to horizon. The ocean lays below us flat and dark and so smooth that it reflects each star, giving the impression that we are in the middle of an enormous ring of white dust. We set the blankets out on the front deck, have a beer, and make love as a small pod of dolphins circle the boat, snuffling as they circle us.
08:00. Fix huevos rancheros, coffee, check the charts, and pull the anchor.
10:00. Move along at a smooth 5-6 knots. The autopilot is a joy. I'm not comfortable calling it Mitzy, but we'll get used to one another.
13:00. Water is turning a milky white color, as Ulloa predicted. The land is made of low crags and broad sand. Same land as before. It's a scalded desert.
14:00. My map has little to do with reality. The map, the most modern found in map stores where sailors buy charts, declares, "From U.S. Navy surveys between 1873 and 1875 with addition to 1962. It has a "datum note" that reassures me, saying. "Position obtained from satellite navigation systems referred to in the World Geodetic System (WGS) can be plotted directly to this chart." So I suppose the map is good, but this northern-most section, where few people go, seems to have nothing to do with where we are. We shoot bearing after bearing, running corrections for annual variation, compass deviations, triplicate redundant bearings, and still something seems off. Even the birds are flying in strange circles.
15:00. Our navigation exercises are interrupted by a large panga with nine men on it coming in fast to starboard, directly up to the boat, at about 15-20 knots, and I find myself confirming that the machete, gaff hook, flare gun, molotov cocktails, and all other defenses are at-hand. Two or three guys in a boat is okay, but nine is an expedition and panga drivers won't burn motor fuel If they can avoid it. They're on a mission. One of them stands on the bow of the boat and they pull up close to the Goose. He might be able to jump the distance, so I veer away and yell, in my friendliest tone possible, "Que honda?!". I want them to know I know Spanish, and I want them to know I'm friendly, but I don't want them jumping onto my boat.
The young man on the bow of the panga is maybe 23. He replies in English, and asks where we're from. He is dressed in a white t-shirt, with pink and yellow disco designs, and has bright white shoes and shorts. He has gel in his hair. His style declares he is from the city. Behind Mr. Metro are more normal men from the Baja. They have the usual working shirt, working pants, stained t-shirts, sloping heads, fat faces, usual moustaches, dour slope to the shoulders. They have those strange Indian eyes that sometimes can be found here, with a quiet curiosity inside, something so still and inarticulate, but curious. There is an old man, with big cheekbones, he's skinny as a cigarette, and wears a cowboy hat, and a white moustache. There is also a boy, maybe 14, also skinny, but most of the group is fat, and strong, and dark, with dirty clothes and those Indian eyes. They are a poor, bored crew. Anyway, I am trying to steer The Goose and not hit their boat. There are no women with them.
Mr. Metro says something, but we're moving too fast, and I do not furl the sails or slow, but ask him to repeat. He yells, in English, WHERE YOU FROM and We yell PEÑASCO.
He tells us, again in English, that they've never seen a sailboat before and that they came to investigate. I smile and don't invite them aboard because I'm scared, and my wife is here, and it is my home. Nine is way too many for me to give a tour, much less a drubbing, and anyway I'm trying to navigate into reddish and thinning water with an undependable chart.
So they came to see a sailboat. What to do but look?
I force a smile and wave at the sails, like a TV gameshow host waves at cars and prizes. They spooked me and I'm not feeling chatty nor friendly. I'm following my conquistador.
The one driving the panga is twins with the one sitting in front of him. They are round as big blobs of brown butter and they have completely expressionless faces. Their eyes that are like holes drilled in their faces. Despite being fat they are strong and have big hands. They are hollow drums, these twins.
The depth sensor says 22 feet. I love the depth sensor.
Mr Metro shouts questions as I try to keep the boat out of leap's reach. Amélie is silent, which is rare. I don't look at her as I've got too much in my face.
The men in the boat stare up at the sails, their mouths open wide, eyes even wider. One of them pokes his neighbor in the ribs with his elbow, and points at the anchors, another looks at the solar panels, another looks at my wife, another looks at his hands.
I ask where their camp is, and two of them point and start to speak but Mr Metro continues to shout at me in English. He bars his companions from the conversation. Perhaps he is happy to use his English but his hospitality towards gringos has closed the door to his fellow Mexicans. Occasionally I try to interact with the others in the boat, say something in Spanish, such as Hola Quey, which is only something someone with some control of the language could say, but Mr Metro insists on English, and the others do not respond. This imposed language barrier makes for a stilted conversation, as it always doe and their motor doesn't help.
As they pull away they do not talk among one another, but all stare out the side of the panga, like a family looking out the window of a car. One of them waves good-bye. I wave and check the depth sensor.
16:00. We resume shooting bearings, trying to find out where we are. N31°41.58, W114°46.85.
The islands are not where they are supposed to be, and the ocean has changed colors, turned a dark red, and become a menstrual flow that drains from the crotch of The Sea.
Surely, all points on the planet are the ends of the earth, but there are distortions and warps that make some ends of the earth further afield than others. I have visited the Arctic Circle, on a New Years Eve, and even that felt normal compared to this. I have walked the sands of the Middle East, where oil fields have turned the earth black, and even those are not as far away from reality. Something is profoundly wrong here, as if gravity is grinding against itself. Something seems sick, as if the god that dwells in this river is poisoned.
The red water churns and spits, our bow plowing a strange line, and the sky spins a pale blue, as if the bloody spirit of the water has been sucked upwards, the opposite of rain, and the birds wheel in the air, crying confused. I check the depth sensor.
The wind is at our back, blowing us north and brings us deeper into the mouth of the Colorado River. We have to move slowly, control our speed, so we spill some wind out of the sails, slow down, reign the sails back in, cleat the lines, and when the sails stop popping we hear it. The sound of alien waves hiss on all sides. The boat moves quietly, as if afraid to disturb some sleeping presence.
We are entering the river. The line is indistinct and the water unfamiliar. We seem to be in some boiling lake of wine.
Slowly the land comes up beneath us, so we turn to starboard, then again it appears beneath us, so we turn to port, then again it arrives, and as we zigzag and run out of water the wind still at our backs, like a horizontal gravity, we are falling into the continent.
The wind continues to pull us forward. The water, now at its lowest tide, has a sluggish feel, as if we are not at the mouth of the Colorado river, but at the mouth of a god. That god is inhaling us, drawing us into a bleeding orifice that drips dead nutrients into the blue sea below. It is a mouth, or a vagina, that is sucking, or calling, doing something that cannot be defined in human terms, because this is a god, and not a human. It is a sick god that seems hungry for something, its orifice of guts and soft whispers the entryway to a turbulent and shallow nightmare.
There is no clear boundary between the land and the sea here. There is no line betwixt water and earth. The sea is blood red, the land is scabrous brown, and the two slosh and intermix, and waves lash back and forth in angry, short intervals. The water quivers, stretched to its maximum low tide.
We are in a eight feet of water with less than two feet under our keel. We see chocolate colored spits of land, about 50 yards away, to both port and starboard. We can't get any deeper without risk. If we high-ground the wind would push the Goose further into the mouth and the incoming tidal waves could damage the hull. There is no one in sight, and our nine bored visitors are miles away.
We mark our position, then flee. I turn on the motor (what joy to have a motor!) and pat the depth sensor on the head (what joy to have a depth sensor), and squeeze our way back out that sanguine mouth with about a foot and a half of water under the keel. I'm glad to have seen it, and I want to leave it. The god of the Colorado River is ill and, like a cancer patient, you can smell it.
Back in the 1950s, when the American West was being settled, there was this problem of not having enough water. The desert, the settlers decided, needed to be converted to farmland, and the best way to do that was with water. At the time the Salton Sea was an occasional and toxic lake that the Colorado River would feed. During low temperature years the Salton Sea would fill with water and the banks would then recede in the summer, and crack until the next melt year.
The Salton Sea, in Imperial and Riverside Counties of Southern California,is actually below sea level but the thin stream of water from the Colorado isn't enough to stand up to that big, tough sun, and soon it evaporates and dries. And then there are the people that drink the Salton Sea dry.
Several prospectors, engineers, and visionaries proposed that there be a channel dug from the Boca Colorado, where we visited, to the Salton Sea, and the proposal was that this would then irrigate the American West with water enough (desalinized, of course) to raise all the grass all our cattle would need. And all the wheat and tobacco, too, these proposals went. The project would provide much-needed water to the large populations now found in that area, currently named Los Angeles and Phoenix (among other civilizations).
Nowdays, in 2010, The Salton Sea Restoration Plan is the name of a project that, simply put, proposes the importation of Mexican water. A channel would be cut from the north of the Sea of Cortez to the Salton Sea, the lowest elevations of the Salton Sink.
Gary Jennings, the current visionary of the current version of the concept, calls it the "Sea to Sea Project." He says that he got the idea from watching Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" but the environmental impact is something that is far from established. Soil types, wind conditions, sediment makeup, surface stability, seafloor impact, wildlife impact, and weather impact have all yet to be, if possible, conclusively investigated. Not to mention turning much of Southern California into an inland irrigation system. But with only ten years to go before the digging would begin much discussion and bills are currently being written, signed, and passed. It may fly this time and it would be a water works project bigger than the Panama Canal.
For the last three years the Salton Sea Authority, the group leading the project's ambitious charters, has been hard at work establishing memorandums of understanding among public and private groups, primarily with governments in neighboring states.
Arizona, for example, seems to think this is a pretty fine idea. The state has already passed two bills outlining its responsibilities for the project. The first, SB 277, outlines funding the nine billion dollar plan. The second bill, SB 654, outlines responsibilities for environmental disasters, which they term "mitigation." SB 654 states that Arizona will pay for any costs that exceed the $133 million that would be set aside by the Arizona's Imperial Irrigation District, San Diego and Coachella counties (who also, of course, stand to benefit from this plan).
It would be a big change. Imagine not the deserts of Joshua Tree, but the farmlands of south Texas. The change in irrigation would change the farming. The change in farming would change the economy. And one of Mexico's few natural reserves, above the line between Peñasco and Felipe, would be affected as well. It would, effectually, create one of the largest agricultural booms and permanently change the face of North America, and The Sea.
02:00. Night sailing. The wind is a slow and steady 7-9 knots. The water murmers and mumbles and the wake behind The Goose is the only path to follow. I sit and watch it as we get further from the Boca Colorado and it occurs to me that we may be two of the last people to sail up there. If, as the panga fishermen said, sailboats are rarely seen there, huge factories will not want sailors poking around in 8 feet of water when they have massive turbines regulating waterflow like the Hoover Dam is today.
We must see the world while we still can. It seems to be going away.
Two boobies have hitched a ride on the solar panels. I generally like the boobies, but when they get on the solar panels they go into a kind of release mode. Boobies are able to carry an enormous amount of fish in their bowels, and they seem to save up for such opportunities, or perhaps the warm panels inspire them.
We cruise along at a comfortable 4-5 knots speed and while the boat is moving I throw a rope off the back and jump in, being pulled behind the boat and feeling more dolphin than man. Phosphorescence streams off of my feet in the black water, making tiny green sparks that fly behind me. With Amélie on-watch and the autopilot steering the boat it is now a pleasure craft again, a floating palace where we can play and frolic. I leave no blood on the decks now, I am not on the brink of falling into an ancient sea, I simply play and swim and we are on the down-hill coast. We are on the love part of the love-hate relationship that all sailors have with their boats.
We sail through the night, taking four-hour turns at the wheel. No boats are seen but we can see the lights of San Felipe ahead.
10:00. We dock at Marina Singlar. Rodrigo, who runs the marina, welcomes us. He is dressed in a clean white shirt and slacks, and I feel a bit of a salt rag in shorts and a sunburn. He is very polite, using all possible courtesies, and I have a bunch of questions for him, and I ask him if he has time to answer them, and I'm pleased at his typically Mexican response, though not terribly surprised, when he says, "I have all the time you need."
It's Mexico time.
14:00. I ask a taxi driver why Mexicans litter and he tells me it is because
15:00. Some weeks ago myself and some friends decided to have a party on the boat. We planned it for San Felipe, despite none of us so much as having ever visited the town. The plan is as undefined as our local knowledge.
17:00. Friends start arriving. With AJ's help we install the new stereo. With Carlos' help we attach the new grill. The Goose is at her best for the 'fest.
09:00. Today's party day. I have hoped to give some of our life away, maybe at least our friends can get some salt in their hair. About 20 people come, and I have no clue how we'll cram them all on the boat tonight. But it's only morning still, so we head out and buy some clams at Pasqual's, the nearby fish market. They're 5 pesos each. Next we go to the grocery store, a long room packed full of people and and meat that stinks of clorox. We buy it anyway. We gather up some groceries, beer, and a few more bottles of rum. I've saved my money for a few months for these luxuries and the effort makes them disproportionately fun. Their value is not in the money, but in the time it took to acquire them.
14:00. We shoe-horn everyone onto the Goose and head out to sea. The intimacy and stoic silence of the boat has been replaced by my laughing friends. Having people on my boat is like having people in my bed, without the condoms and strange dramas of group sex.
It's a fine crew and everyone has a chance to discover what a sailing machine is like. Vlad and Craig and Jeannette take turns at the wheel. They say that it is sensitive, that it steers like a car, that it steers nothing at all like a car and they each want to know how the wind is working and what speeds the boat will achieve. Jeannette does her best to steer, but the waves keep lee larching the boat and the dynamics made it hard for her to learn. The water is a greenish turquise, still milky from the Colorado River up north and as we bounce along I pause and remember that strange place that now, among friends, seems so far away.
Kim and Pedro both seem right at home, comfortable with the waves, Pedro, built like a brick, has been surfing in Mexico for years, living out of his van, so he's used to the sun and waves, and Kim is a natural athlete, with the balance and timing that makes getting around on a boat a little easier. The two of them swing easy around the cables and ropes and adapt quickly to the rocking. Vladimir, on the other hand, a big American with an explosion of black hair, starts yawning, falls silent, his hair goes limp, and the skin on his face becomes ochre, then a light jade. He does not throw up, from what I notice, and if he does it is done over the side and there's no conversation about it.
Compact little Michelle, however, has no such quease and she leaps about the boat, cigarette in hand, still dreaming of returning to her new life in Mongolia. She gets slap-happy and has laughter that sounds like the waves themselves. Liz, a lithe Japanese girl, plays swimsuit model on the bow. She is so small I keep wondering if she's fallen over. Craig takes some fine photos and seems to be in a dream-like state. He smiles at me twice and lets me know all is well with him. And poor Jeannette after steering gets sick, too, but manages to laugh about this. It is, as I said, a fine crew and our happy spirits seem to propel the boat as she slides between the waves, a serpent that slides through a garden of blue and white tulips.
15:00. The beach isn't at all protected, so the swell solidly enters the cove. Poor Vlad hits the water before the anchor does. He has fled the boat like a man fleeing torture, paddling for the only spot of shade within sight. We watch his little figure climb up onto the beach, and nestle into the shade. We anchor, then we all jump in the water, then we all get out, then in again, then out again, laughing light and stupid. We fix some drinks and struggle to hold them while the waves knock the boat about, making the notion of pretending to be civilized stupid. Some people fall, but no one is drunk. We cook burgers on the grill which is sputtering and not working right and making everyone yet hungrier so more people volunteer to help prepare more food, especially Rick, who is a big guy and seems to need a lot of food. The grill goes out and the hamburgers are raw. But the crew holds fast to the merry spirits.
On the beach a family with a 4x4 and a tent have been playing in the waves, but now they seem to be intently watching us, perhaps wondering what we are doing. I'm wondering the same thing. Our dream of burgers in a little cove is changing into a reality of steak tartar on rocking waves. I don't really care. I eat some of the clams someone hands me, wash it down with some rum and jump into the green water.
17:00. Vlad (who rejoins us before we leave the cove) sort of passes out on the front of the boat, Jeannette sort of passes out on the sofa, liz sort of passes out on the deck, Jeannette remains passed out on the sofa, and we ease back into the waves and motor back to the marina.
21:00. Party night. We build a little flotilla out of some wood palettes and tow the ridiculous contraption behind us into the middle of the marina where we smoke, drink, swim, and laugh. The seas are too windy for this land-lubbing crew, so we stayed inside. Vlad has left us but young Juan, a local that works down the street, has joined us. Juan is almost as handsome as he is ignorant about how to interact with women but this only becomes clear after we have left the dock. Some other people I don't know come along, gringos, from a nearby catamaran named Puttytat.
23:00 Juan and I tumble into the water to light afire the flotilla that is a short distance from the Goose. It's a little bonfire on the water, disappointingly small against the stars, but it burns yellow and happy, and it's a first draft of an idea I hope to try again on larger scale. As I float in the water, fire near my face, I hear the party sounds of clinking bottles and laughter and music. All seems right and the boat is packed with people. The high seas and fast winds of Tiburon are far behind me, and the water, surrounding me, seems to be waiting, and I feel something like fingers softly wrapping around my ankles and knees. It is only the currents in the water.
I swim to the Goose, climb out, and a friend hands me a drink.
01:00. Juan is groping the girls, Carlos is showing me how to properly drink and float in an inner-tube, AJ is smoking cigars. It's a fly time that's down smooth. Most of us are well drunk and we're making a mess. Most people yammer about work. After drying off I come downstairs into the loud music and find Jerry and Juan hoovering up the cocaine while listening to speed metal. It's glorious. The two of them are like intent happy boys with the toys of adults. I smile and pause and they don't notice me. Juan slaps Jerry on the back, leans forward to snuff up another line off the glass, then down goes Jerry, then up comes the headbanger music and they both do a riff of air guitar, together, like members of the same band, and I laugh with them.
09:00. The party continues and we spend the day drinking hair-of-the-dog sippers. Most of us are groggy and hung over and the cockpit stinks of cigarette butts (which noble Craig slept among). We move lizard-like, saturated with booze, dehydrated, and pleased.
14:00. We are getting sunburned and bored and AJ croaks, "Let's sail this mutherfucker," and the five people on the boat get off. They've had enough. AJ, Amélie and I take the Goose out into 15 knots of wind and smooth seas. It is one of the best sails I've had in years.
20:00. We eat delicious clams and as the sun sets Carlos, as if he were pulling out a gun, shows us several large round red balls with fuses on them. They are, he says, M-900s. So we sit on the beach and he nearly blows his fingers off with these goddam things, lighting them, then trying to run from them, then tripping and falling, and the explosion covering his back and hair with a spray of sand. They are, indeed, loud they blow dirt in all directions, and the security guards come to tell us to stop. Carlos replies, "But they're really great, aren't they?" and his glee is infectious, and the guards let him light off one more, which is enormously loud, and we all laugh, and then I pass out.
You may wonder how we came to have the cocaine on the boat the night of the party. This was probably a more interesting adventure than the party itself, and something that I hope will both entertain and inform a reader should he, himself, choose to conduct such research of so absurd a nature.
Approximately 28,000 people have died in the past four years as a result of drugs in Mexico. That's about twenty people per day.1 Drugs, as well as being one of the deadliest exports, are also one of Mexico's most profitable.
First, in the mid 1980s, the drug trade began to take some shape in the countryside where narcos would show up in town and, with a large sack of money, offer to buy a farm. Since most Mexicans are intensely honest people, rarely willing to break the law (like most people around the world), they would refuse to sell the farm. The narcotrafficantes then had what became a famous response, which was "Then I will buy the farm from your widow." They bought up more and more farms, increased their ability to produce more crops, and hired peasant farmers, sometimes the ones that had owned the farm, to do the work.
This went on for a number of years and gradually the Mexican drug industry stabilized, starting with marijuana and then graduating to poppies and coca.
Imagine, if you will, that you have a ranch. You are a subsistence rancher, and raise just enough to get by and sell pigs in town. You raise pigs on that ranch up until 1994, and then, because of an agreement called NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), you find that you are expected to compete with some guys in Kansas that are raising the same kind of factory pig at a much lower price since genetic engineering and steroid pigs grow faster. But you can't afford that fancy stuff so you switch to selling corn, which you were growing anyway. Though you might try corn, the same problem arrives. But then a ten-year drought comes and things get hard.
Your neighbor down the road, however, is making lots of money. He has as many acres of land as you have but he also has a nice house and a big pickup truck with tinted windows and so one day you go over and ask him how he does it. He is growing "The Crop That Pays," which he sells to his friend that he's known all his life, and his friend is essentially sharecropping for someone else that pays him. He offers you an introduction. Do you lose the farm or grow a little plot of grass on the south forty?
It is a simple equation. You work within the system and make no money, or you work outside of the system and make lots of money. This is how many of the ranches and farms in Mexico, over the last two decades, have conducted their business and stayed alive.
As for me, I like to support local businesses when I can.
Some weeks before arriving in San Felipe, in a town I choose not to remember, I met the son of one of the chiefs of Police. His name I also choose not to remember, but he was my local connection to the drug world which always, like the plumbing system under any city, carries the most important, visceral, and untouchable material a city may claim as its own. This man (I will name him Chingon2), was, despite being only 25 or so, boss of the entire city and he was beginning to wake up to his reality with a kind of surprise that only a young prince in charge of an invisible kingdom could claim. He was untouchable.
I met Chingon in a local grocery store where we were both buying cigarettes. He was a tall, stocky fellow with blue-black hair in a kind of military cut.
Mexican cigarettes are a horrible affair. Like coffee and other products, the country has "Export Quality," which is far better than the quality that the Mexicans will sell to themselves. Cigarettes, however, are an even lower quality. I'm convinced, for no reason other than my own frivolous hunches, that Mexican tobacco doesn't exist. They will grow pot, but not tobacco. They will raise chiles that will melt your jaw off of your face, and they will shoot each other over a piece of sand, but Mexicans have some bizarre aversion to raising tobacco. The tobacco smoked in Mexico must come from cigarette butts thrown into American gutters, then gathered up by illegal immigrants, packaged, and shipped to Mexico to be rolled, re-packed, and sold. They are such poor quality that rolling cow turd in toilet paper would probably make for a better cigarette, but having no easy means to import something fancy, like American Spirits, and being the lazy sailor that I am, I visit the filling station, where they usually have the widest selection, and buy what I can find there, usually Faro, or the Delicados. But I avoid Mexican Marlboros at all cost as these will surely give me a full blossom of lung cancer before I could finish the pack.
So there's Chingon in the store, and he was buying crappy cigarettes, too.
Anyone that smokes cigarettes is a drug user. It is probably a likely bet that someone who ignores all the black and white proclamations of life and death that are writ so legibly on the packages is also someone that has little regard for law and health, and therefor someone that is more likely to do illegal drugs, as well. Cigarettes are a gateway drug.
I asked Chingon for a light and we discussed the town and the fringes of Mexico and the gringos and the sea and other things until we found ourselves in a bar downing beers, and finally two of his friends found us, and one thing led to another until we were in a different bar and starting to laugh loud and slap things (mostly one anothers' backs, or the table) and this was a fine way to make a new friend, drugs or no. That night we parted, around 2AM, drunk in that fat, broad-sided way that beer delivers, and there was never any discussion of hard drugs, (though we did discuss beer a good deal, and I learned that Tecate rules the North, while Pacfico rules the south).
A week later Chingon visited me on the boat, as he wanted to see what it looked like inside. I showed him that I had a shower and a toilet and this was a big surprise. We then drove by his house, as since I had shown him mine he had to show me his, and he introduced me to his wife and I gave his son some marbles and a little plastic fish. We didn't talk for some time after that but we had established a rapport of trust, most certainly.
The following Friday I ran into Chingon a third time and we had some tacos together and I mentioned the party I was planning and he mentioned that he could be able to connect me with the "good people for good things." Well, nobody ever talks that weird unless it is a proposition. At least it was something close to that, but my Spanish fails me almost as often as my ears, and so rather than ask him to repeat himself, I thanked him and asked him for details. This seemed an offer not to be turned down, especially in one of several states where small amounts of drugs are relatively legal.
Drugs are generally named after animals in Mexico, and part of this is because so many of them are grown on farms and ranches in the Sierra Madre, a kind of cultural heritage. Gallo (rooster) is slang for a joint, Perico (parakeet) is the name for cocaine, and chivo (goat) is the name for heroin. Colas de Borrego, or sheep's tails, are marijuana buds. Chingon taught me some of these terms, and others.
Eventually, Chingon brought his friend Perro (or "dog") to visit. Security guards on the dock notwithstanding, I welcomed them aboard. Perro's movements were too jerky, and he chewed his teeth in that way that an amphetamine user will do, clinking the canines together, tightening the jaw, unclenching the hands just long enough to loosen up the sweat, and then clamping down again.
Perro was a devil that had come up to vacation in the cool climate of Mexico. He had a strange gait, an odd accent, spoke a few words of English, and was decorated with exactly the kind of tattoos that you would imagine a small-time narcotrafficant to wear. He came from a poor family in the Sierra Madre, had been imprisoned a few times, and was often heard claiming previous military service (Chingon would later tell me). Perro looked the part, and he had the job.
He pulled out a small leather pouch of a kit and in it he had a collection of little plastic bags of white powder, each about as big as a thimble. There was a syringe and a few triangular packets of paper, and some black cylinder which looked quite sinister. He plucked three of the smallest packets from his collection, set them on the table, and at that time there was a loud knock on the boat.
When cockroaches are in a bathroom, chewing on nasty stuff around the toilet, and the light is turned on, they scamper and flee, and they do it fast. But if you put three cockroaches in a jar and surprise them they just go in circles. We, being in the boat, had nowhere to go. There was only the door to the boat, so I stuck my head out figuring it would be a cop.
It was a a neighbor, a gringo on a boat, named Steve. I had met him the week before. He said he and his buddies were going to a restaurant and did I want to come and I told him some friends were over, figured as that left my mouth that he probably knew well what was up and that he wanted some drugs for himself, but I told him I'd take a raincheck, and as he walked away I quickly ducked inside with the suspicion that Perro was stealing something. He was not, but he was getting ready to do lines on the counter. I told him we didn't need to snort up all I was buying to prove it was of a good quality (his being ready to do so was proof enough for me).
Oddly, he immediately ran out of the boat as if he were fleeing a fire.
As Perro sprinted up the ramp past the curious security guard, Chingon and I looked at one another. We agreed that Perro was a businessman and not interested in being buddies with gringos, so since his job with me was done he was off to fry other little fish.
Chingon and I talked for a few minutes, he left, and that, dear reader, is how I came to possess a measly 3 grams of some of the worst cocaine I have ever tried.
These grams cost me about 500 pesos two very bad headaches.
How Many Pounds Happiness?
09:00. I receive an email from Vladimir. Despite, or perhaps because of, sea-sickness he had a grand time. Getting sick, he writes, caused him to slow down and discover soberness and silence and that was worth the trip. He sent a link to an article about owning less than 100 items and implied that it was the visceral simplicity of the experience that caused him to enjoy his time.
13:00. We leave with the high tide. We have a clear read on the depth of the water, an autopilot that coolly guides us along a bearing of 100° and a grill that allows us to cook some burgers while listening to the Rolling Stones. I shake my ass on the deck, happy as a little clam in the tide, as an afternoon of easy sailing has begun. The party continues.
I feel happy, and free. I think I've achieved the dream, but I don't know why or even what that dream really was. But I feel good anyway. Maybe it's because the trip up was so damn hard and now everything is working. Or maybe it's because my wife is back. Or maybe it's because there are no plans, at all, in front of us for months and months.
In any case I feel pretty good.
03:00. Night has come, it is my watch, and with it the discovery that chicharrones, coca-cola, and cigarettes are one of the worst combinations in the world. It has turned my mouth into an ashtray lined with fat and sugar. The only thing I could do to make this worse would be some of that horrible cocaine. I have discovered a limit to decadence and, glass of lime-water in hand, watch the milky-way overhead and wait for Amélie to take her shift. The autopilot has transformed me from sailor to baby-sitter.
04:30. I wake up. Amélie's is on watch. She tells me that she had just taken our coordinates and adjusted a sail. Then she returns to stand at the wheel. We're at N30°43, W114°23 and she hears something like a scream, a gutteral roar, just behind the boat.
She says, "You know when an animal is not happy. It was intentional. Kind of sad. Aggressive. And really.. it was really an animal. It was an aquatic monster. Not a fish, not a whale. Someone who is talking to you. Animals on the sea are generally pretty silent. And when you ahve someone in the dark that screams at you, barks like that, in the middle of the sea, well..."
She looks behind the boat, but it is just black water and there is no sound or sight.
I go back to sleep.
11:00. Pass Puertocito with dolphins to our starboard.
12:00. Immediately after my taking the wheel Amélie passes out on-deck without a pillow.
16:00. I pass out on-deck, also without a pillow.
17:00. We find something floating in the water. At first I think it is human feces, then styrofoam, then realize that it is pumice. We find some chunks that fell off the nearby cliff as big as my head. Floating rock. I wonder if a raft can be made but don't have a net.
18:00. We've crossed some kind of invisible geographic line because frigates now circle overhead. If the frigates rule the skies then this is Pacifico territory, but there are no tiendas to sell such for at least ten miles in any direction.
As the sun sets we can see a single light near the beach. Probably a panga fisherman.
20:00. We fix steaks on the grill as we listen to Chopin, drink down a few cold beers, stare at the stars, giggle at our good luck, and then sleep for 12 hours. We are anchored at N29°57.431, W114°24.854.
13:00. By currents of fate and winds of destiny we managed to not only find Heaven, and to anchor there, but to have it all to ourselves for four happy days. Heaven (which is not to be found on any earthly map or GPS) has, at its center, a valuable wad of real estate named Paradise. Paradise is on the other side of Maslov's pyramid, where simplicity is common, and where time is abundant. There, in the middle of Paradise, we discovered a series of islands named Islas Las Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands.
We were not the first to find them, nor was Ulloa. Chochimie Indians spent time here, as did Los Vagabundos (a group of hippie nomads that lived off of their boats, ragged subsistance dwellers that fished and squeezed fresh water from the salted sea). Now, today, it is mostly a fishing depot. But, as I have said, we found it as Paradise.
In the middle of Islas Las Encantadas is Isla San Luis, the biggest of the group. San Luis is the carcass of a volcano, a gaping mouth that, toothless, maws and bites at the sky after having just vomited pieces of obsidian and pumice all over its own face. Huge blocks of black obsidian are scattered above the beach, some of which Ulloa also noticed when he was here, and called them ".. that sort of stone of which they make knives in New Spain.." It was true. This is the stone that the Aztecs used to make swords sharp enough to sever a horse's head from its neck in one stroke. Many of these pieces of insidious looking obsidian have laid here since Ulloa anchored near this beach. They have sat in the sand as the daily sun's strobe beats in rhythm to the annual changes of temperature.
To be a piece of obsidian on a deserted island must be a kind of heaven, where time folds up like an accordion, like the pulse of electronic music. The music these rocks hear is not 4/4 time, the classical count, but 365/4 time, the natural beat. The sunrise is one beat of the drum, the four seasons a cycle, and each millenia a change of key. Time passes, and the rocks lose a few molecules a day. Occasionally people, like high-speed insects, pass among them.
19:00. For sunset celebration I dive off the boat into the warm water, swim to the beach, and step through the rough sand as the the sun-god, Tonatiuh, hides himself behind the California Sierras, north of The Baja. The cliffs on the other side of the bay start to drip black as the night rises. The voices of the little waves, full of floating pebbles, debate the changing times. The pumice, as it is thrown forward and back on the sand, makes a slight crackling noise, like Rice Crispies.
It's quiet for a moment, perhaps 20 seconds, a totally silent sunset.
One of the Laughing Gulls starts chuckling.
They're sitting on the beach in a little group.
Another chuckles in reply.
Then they all start a round of laughter, like bums in a bar.
That's all they do. Sit around and crack jokes all day.
The gulls, in fact all the birds, spend their days sitting on the beach, flying, eating, and shitting. And laughing. There is some preening, some screeching, occasional fights and sex and the consequent raising of babies. Their lives are simple and (as long as they are away from cities) sea birds are healthy, clean, and bright-eyed.
They have what they need to find what they want. They are simple, independent, and free. They are perfectly feathered.
This is what we have tried to do with The Goose - Simple, independent, free. Or at least the illusion of such.
Lynn and Larry Pardee, two spartan, famous, and experienced sailors cut from the most traditional cloth, once wrote, "If sailing is a sport, independence is the goal." Independence is certainly a goal. This must be achieved through minimizing what I own. I have tried to do it not by increasing how much I earn, but by decreasing how much I spend. We have no car, no house, few clothes, few luxuries. Not enough of what would make things easy, and at times we suffer for it.
Vlad's article12 proclaims that having only 100 things is a goal that can help bring about something like happiness. It's called the 100 Thing Challenge, a grass-roots movement in which seemingly normal people go Pardee-style spartan and reduce what they own to under 100 items. Wondering if I had accidentally fulfilled this criteria, by force of necessity, and, by not having much stuff, had my head filled with happiness, I count.
37 articles of clothing, 1 pair of sunglasses, 1 watch, 5 pairs of shoes, 1 computer, 2 hard drives, 1 pair of headphones, 1 wacom tablet, 1 printer, 8 sketchbooks, 2 dolls, a small filing cabinet (more of a plastic box, really), and about 20 books. I also have 1 canvas bag, 5 sets of dice for Dungeons & Dragons, 4 skulls I've found on the beach, and a coffee maker. That's about 92 items. I'm living trim. Not because of an excess of ideals, but because of a lack of space.
Here, anchored at San Luis, I certainly have no Internet. Surely Internet is something that we have, not as a physical thing, but as a responsibility. It is something that takes up our time rather than our space. I am slowly finding that I am happier without it, as I am without television or radio or telephone or most of the things that I have thought to be critical to modern living.
I am happy because life is simple.
19:30. It's sunset again, and I've again dove in the water, then joined Amélie on the deck of The Goose. The little waves crackle their electric song and the gulls are laughing again.
What makes this place paradise? There are no palm trees here (in fact there are no trees at all). It is a bald lump of pumice that juts up out of a hot and briny sea.
Why in the world feel so happy on a moonscape?
I have the curious suspicion that the gulls are laughing at us.
"Simple?!" one seems to squawk.
Another replies, "Blue Goose!?"
And the other gulls all start laughing.
When we first sailed south I thought, like the other cruisers in the marina, that we would be able to achieve that bird-like simplicity, freedom, and independence. To be able to fly anywhere, at any time, and to have all that was needed under wing. To live light as a feather.
Living on a boat, I thought, would be life in the air. Simplicity, freedom, independence.
Then I think about the boat, and what it is made of.
How stupid of me, to think my life is simple.
While I may have under 100 items for personal use, The Goose overcompensates.
Under the game table setee there are 3 rolls of 100' of spare cables, red, black and green, in three different gauge sizes and a fourth set of heavy-gauge for rewiring the entire battery bank. We will count this as nine cables. There is a hand pump, with spare valves, there is a small library of about 20 hoses and tubes, some for emergency repairs of existing lines, some for pumping out water in an emergency. On top of these are five bags, red, blue, yellow, green, and black.
In the red bag are caulking materials. 3M 4200, 3M 5200, admixtures of JB Fast-Weld, fiberglass and drier, some wood glue, neoprene glue, hypalon glue, rubber cement, and a small tube of some toxic concoction that claims it can hold any two substances together for ever and ever.
In the yellow bag is electrical equipment. We have four more spools of wire, some for 12 volt systems, some for the 110, a bottle of liquid electrical tape, and two sub-bags. One contains about 200 connectors of various sizes and colors for splicing wires or making connection butts. It has spare fuses, spare switches, and spare electrical tape so that if any connection, plug, fuse, or wire should go we can replace it. Many of these parts have matching spares in case they get used before we can replace them. the other sub-bag has more cable and connectors for that size. Maybe 100 of them.
In the black bag for tools we have a pipe wrench, cable cutters, crow-bar, hammer, c-clamps, and putty knife.
The blue bag is mechanical. It contains about ten or twelve oil and diesel filters, mostly, as well as some replacement parts for the motor. The blue bag also has three spare impellers and an impeller replacement tool.
The green bag is plumbing. Four T-joints, four elbows of different sizes, three spare bilge pumps for the forward, main, and aft bilges, surgical tubing, and plumbing tape - that white nylon stuff that you wrap around threads. Hose valves, end fittings, through-hull cylinders, a dozen through-hull wood plugs (these are kept at the top for speedy access), and various objects made of brass or stainless that will some day make their function clear when the time comes. There's about twenty of those.
Just aft of that is the tool cabinet, which we have tried to keep sparse. There are several battery-powered tools that I would love to own, but we do not, we have only normal screwdrivers, so my wrists stay strong instead. There is an extension cord, sensors for testing electrical voltage, a little box of tiny screwdrivers and vice-grips for computer parts, and two sets of hex-nut ratchets. There is a playing card that's been floating in this bag for years but nobody knows why. It may be good luck, so we don't move it.
Near this, and always loose for fast access, is The Grab Bag. This is a red bag. It is very important as it's intended to keep us alive for five days if we should decide to get out of the Goose on open water. The contents of this bag was a sober challenge to figure out. The entire thing is about as big as an infant of about 4 years of age, and it has on the side written, "EPIRB, VHF, WATER" which are the three things we need to take with us if we're to live to see the next weekend. It contains one signal mirror, one compass. one patch kit (for repairing the inflatable dinghy), a sharpening stone, a fishing trident, 100' of 1/8" rope, 10 feet 1/16" stainless steel seizing wire, a Swiss army knife with a can opener, an LED flashlight (with extra batteries), one flaregun (with extra flares), handheld red flares (in a waterproof ziplock sack), an orange smoke flair (also in a ziplock sack), an air-horn (for blowing with the mouth), a collapsible 10" radar reflector, three fishing lures , twelve assorted fish hooks, 100' of fishing line, a carefully considered collection of medical goodies, mostly for lacerations and punctures, sunblock cream,
3 sizes dacron sail thread, two needles, ibuprofen (ibuprofen's a de-coagulant), antiboitic (in both powder and gel form), Antiseptic (hydrogen peroxide is what we have), two collapsible splints, lipbalm , and 6 tampons (which, with a little imagination, are good for all kinds of things such as puncture wounds, filtering water, and kindling for starting fires). We also have in this bag nine a half dozen MREs (Meal, Ready-to-eat, a US military cuisine of the most fine sort) . That's enough calories to keep two people moving for at least a week, about 4200 calories, total, but we won't count those. We have an expandable 2-gallon rugged plastic container (that can double as a sea anchor), a pencil, a pad of paper, laminated photocopies of passports, US$50, a small container of underwater putty, a small role of water-resistant 1/2" wide duct tape, 2 bandanas, and a dacron cover for forward part of dinghy. That's the grab-bag.
Since that's all for emergencies we never see more of that stuff than the red bag that rolls around our boat when we're under way. To return to the real world we have the tools that we use almost daily.
The main toolbox contains an awl for ropes, three files, three sets of allen wrenches, three monkey wrenches, two steel toothbrushes, four screwdrivers, a dentists' mirror (for seeing into tight spots), four different pliers, some vice-grips, a hacksaw and several blades, two stanley knives, some mysterious pinchers with a locking mechanism I can't see the point to keeping (but keep anyway), some crimpers for cables, spare bits, and enough woodworking tools that we could take a large log and probably gouge a new boat out of it (but I've never used those, either). Below the main toolkit is a parts kit, and I will spare the list of spare parts, but it contains probably close to a thousand turnbuckles, bolts, screws, washers, bulbs, shackles, sailslides, little pieces of neoprene, strap-ties, spare vents and valves and all sorts of little things that many are still mysterious to me, but they came with the boat, and I like having as many options as possible when sailing, especially if they help hold things together. There is also in there another hammer, another saw, and a spare propane tank.
In what is called "The Garage" (really a spare bunk that we use for storage) we have three large plastic bins, or boxes, that we call "Coffres," or 'coffers' (the boat is a mix of French and English). These are divided into #1 (for spare food), #2 (for commonly used spare parts), and #3 (for uncommonly used spare parts). #1 is easier to get to than #2 is easier to get to than #3.
Coffre #1 is mostly bags of rice and beans, dried soups, canned vegetables, canned fruits. :Let us tally this ever-fresh and always-tasteless cupboard of culinary mysteries at 120 items. It is filled with things that can keep for years, require only a little water (even salty) to eat, and has gradually taken a prioritization based on collecting rices and beans of different flavors, plus some salsas. I just hope that some day we do not find ourselves in the middle of the Pacific with only Valentino salsa, rice and beans.
Coffre #2 has nothing to do with either food or logic. If it were a hardware shop it would be in a Borgesian maze, at the center, a General Store. It has a dozen various spare pulleys, some eight or nine shims, orange stain capsules (which disintegrate quickly and turn water yellow. We use them to test plumbing systems on rare occasions, but they are so small they have managed to keep their position in Coffre #2), sewing materials for the sails, spare ink cartridges for the printer, spare lighters for fire, a large rope with pulleys for going up the mast, a climbing harness to go with it, several large sheets of leather (some soft, which were purchased for much money in the states and I suspect may be young lamb, some solid which were purchased in Mexico, and I suspect may be the dried hides of an old angus killed by a car full of drunks). This coffre also has LED replacement bulbs, headlamp replacement bulbs, a dimmer (a standard on-the-wall electrical dimmer which I never got around to installing, but promise myself I will someday), two spare headlamps, two spare screwdrivers, some bubble wrap for protecting something or other, a spare coffee maker, and enough balls of string to start our own rope factory.
Coffre #3 is more industrial stuff. It is the equivalent of another hardware storage, in the basement, only accessed in times of need or to move things from one point to another, where they will also sit for perhaps months unused.. This has spare deck plates, nylon webbing, spare water bottles, a spare knotlog head (an electrical piece that we'll replace some day, when our current speedometer breaks, but I happened to find this one near a garbage bin, where someone had left it, brought it back to the boat, tested it, and it works and looks fine, so it's stayed with us), 5 aluminum emergency blankets, spare grill parts, 5 bottles of spare wood glue, kits to repair all of the toilet parts (the pump seals break, and if this happens, and you don't have the parts, you are not up Shit Creek, but rather your living room becomes Shit Creek), a book on celestial navigation, a sextant (which is at the top of the box as we occasionally use it for fun), several more rolls of duct tape, 2 painting frames (that have nothing to do with emergencies), 1 LED flashlight, some spare screen 9like you find in windows) for keeping hair and other sluff out of scuppers, a spare pump handle, 3 winch handles, a bag of little candles we have had for years and never touched nor had the courage to throw away, a spare zinc for electrical purposes (a sacrificial anode), 200 feet of hemp rope, 50 feet of nylon rope, a collection of various colored balloons, signal flares, smoke flares, a spare battery selector switch, 2 spools of fishing line (40#), and two spare blue fenders.
And, I am proud to say, each coffre has these inventories written on the inside of the lids. Because if there is one true thing that can be said about a boat it is that you must move two things to get to the one you want. Without lists of what is where you have to move four or five things to get to the one you want.
Next to the coffres is a large pull-out drawer. It has stationary, paper, pens, inks, envelopes, a pack of crayons, technical information on the parts of The Goose, and a box of Amélie's stuff that is blue and I have never bothered to look in. She keeps collections of shells and things in there, all of it holding some sentimental value, but not worth any money. We would count her blue box as one item but since it is personal I will leave it on the list altogether and leave both you, dear reader, and I to wonder together what she keeps there.
Also in the Garage we have a selection of spare lumber. There is teak, mahongany, pine, and some composite stuff that I found behind the Mazatlan Home Depot one Saturday afternoon. This large, flat piece is in case there is a large leak (though I have no clue how a hole as big as my torso might appear in the boat, we are ready for such a thing with plastic tarps, another nearby tube of 3M 5200, and this piece of wood, should it happen). That's about ten pieces of wood. There is a camera tripod that can also double as a support for a work-table, a Birimbau,1 a harmonica, a set of Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks (in case we are ever stranded on a desert island), spare computer cables (mostly USB adapters), a collection of maps rolled up in tubes, two fishing poles, and more fishing line, full fishing tackle of some 50 or 60 pieces (some lures, some hooks, some sinkers). Near these are nearly a dozen rechargeable batteries of AA, AAA and D size. There is a compass and three more headlamps. A small bag contains some 30 or 40 pieces of string, each different length and thickness. Let's count this as one item. A large bag contains another selection of slightly larger string. This is one more item.
Now let us turn aft a bit, and to the starboard-side lazarette. This is The Office, as I spend much time here and call it "work." It is a crawlspace next to the motor. It small, stinky, and might be oily if I were anything less than disgusted by motor oil. It contains an inflatable dinghy (and pump), which can be deployed in three minutes (3:04, actually), we have a bag full of tarps and other spare materials, a power cable for dock power, two coils of water hose, a spare footpump for getting water out of the boat in case all electrical systems fail, three wetsuits, the SSB radio transceiver, a fire extinguisher, the boat's water pump, the refrigerator compressor and fan, and a collection of oils, coolants, and other nasty carbeurants which I like to keep in this hole, far away from everyone else.
In the aft lazarette, tucked up in the transom of the boat, there is a spare headsail (which, as of today, is ripped in two), a spare storm gib, a spare mainsail (which is missing a single car, but otherwise quite useable, if not as strong as the mainsail we have up now), two sets of oars, 10 gallons of emergency water, 6 emergency life jackets that I use only to pass inspection and pad things, a strange plastic tube that may some day come in handy for reasons unforseen, and a collection of dust, hair, and small pieces of unidentifiable muck that collects in the lower-most corner where I can't reach.
Around the mast we have some 20 pieces of rope, which we use for flying the spinnaker or for spare headsail lines, or just work rope. There are about 30 books that are related to sailing which I would not own if I didn't own a boat, and there is also a bull's-horn for signaling other vessels, two Weems and Plath oil lamps, a flag, some eight pieces of foul-weather gear, an EPIRB,2 two VHF radios (one hand-held, one mast-mounted), three GPS devices, three fans (one for batteries, two for people), a toilet, a shower, a microwave, a stove, two refrigerators, and a large number of other things such as timber, lights, plumbing, wires, sails, cables and whatnot that we will file under the heading of "A Boat" so as to mark for the reader that thinks in our final tally we are being niggardly with our count which totals .
This is a short-list for any skipper interested in setting foot on the boards. These are only for a small boat, like our Goose, which is, beak to tailfeather, just under thirty eight feet.
Owning a boat is neither simple nor liberating. Boat buyer beware! Prepare yourself for enslavement, for dispensation of years of servitude, money, frustration, cuts, bruises, frustrations, complications, confusions, and heartbeats ofyour life that you will pump into that great hole in the water! It matters not which boat catches your eye! Prepare for a life of indentured captaintude!
Dreams of freedom and simplicity? This is illusion, or marketing.
If you buy something it owns you.
I have surely been owned by my boat.
A seagull from shore squawks,"Blue Goose!?"
Another replies, "Simple?!"
And they all laugh like old men on a porch.
A boat is a child of the sea, but with human parents, and this strange cross-breed requires, like many unnatural offspring, much attention. You become a slave to your boat. My wife and I spent the year in Mazatlan working nearly half-time on The Goose. Most of this time was spent properly breaking what was already malfunctioning. The intertwined electrical and mechanical systems, alone, were enough to require two years' of learning, four of practicing, and then eight to correct the errors I made in the first six. I've only begun the third cycle, so I'm projecting. But one thing is clear. A boat demands sacrifice. Like a baby, it grows and changes and seems to have its own ideas about when to do and not do and various things such as capsize or catch fire. You may not steer the boat's will. For surely, some spirit within our boat has kept her afloat at times when I could not imagine physics, alone, as a worthy explanation. But for each time this spirit appears and keeps us above water I must repair one hundred items on the boat. It is my offering to the spirit of The Goose. And perhaps it is a fair trade because I learn with each reparation, as if it were a confession of the most physical sort.
Perhaps the act of being enslaved creates the feeling of liberty. Because surely, living on the water means you have no road you can follow. So something must take the place because I must declare that I feel free, even though I seem not.
And perhaps it is this very thing that creates the sense of happiness. Perhaps it is being enslaved, and having no decisions to make, to only move ahead like a blind animal, to only have one path to take, and so to be psychologically freed. Perhaps the burden is not at all a lightening of the body, but a lightening of the mind.
After all, who are the more free? Slaves or kings?
The gulls continue to laugh, and we with them because here on Isla San Luis we are happy for reasons we don't understand.
13:00. My eyeballs are being fried like two little eggs by the sun, my trachea is getting dry-roasted by the wind, and droplets leap from my forehead like rats from a burning ship. I got sick of sitting in the boat decided to walk to the top of the volcano.
The volcano's mouth makes a huge semi-circle, with one quarter of it sunk down into the ocean. The orange face is angled such that the other three-quarters make for a round path which I follow. By the time I get high enough I can see in all directions, one of those rare 360 degree views that you hike for and rarely find becausee there is always some new hill to thwart you. The wind blows savage and fast up here, still hot, and frigates swing by, staring at me, curious to see what I might have that they can steal. Below the sun makes a path of light on the water and the uncountable shimmers of the incalculable waves dance like a parade of fairies on a cloth of velvet.
As I tiptoe my way around the mouth of the volcano I pause, turn left, and look behind me. I was there, on that ledge, to the north. The thin rim of the volcano's mouth makes a wide sweep and passes under my feet. I have only the thin ridge to walk on, steep slopes fall directly down on either side. It's not a tight rope, but close.
I turn, pivot right, south, to where I will be in a few minutes.
Then look back where I came from.
One place was my past. The other place is my future.
The past is gone. It is spent. We can't even remember it, at least not without some effort, and so what happens to us is left behind like a wave that passes under a boat. It is absorbed and disappears, and even if we can remember it, its gone. All our lives are forgotten, and only some are called back, and then only rarely, and with effort. The clothes that I once had are things I can fondly remember. I once had a nice hat, but it does not keep the sun off of me today. I once had a nice day, but I can only recall parts of it. It is passed.
The future, on the other hand, is even less valuable. Nothing may be extracted from it. It is only an IOU. Maybe it will come around, maybe I will see it, but there is no guarantee in writing (an absurd notion of itself). Some day I may own a fine shirt, and I can decide now to buy a silk shirt that is long-sleeved, with shiny buttons, and I can save and anticipate, but it does me no good now. I can work towards it, and that perspective is important, but the future will, at some point, stop.
Neither past nor present matter. One is forgotten, the other is unknown.
I look at my foot, and the question of Vlad's comes back again. What is valuable? Where do we find happiness? When? Why?
I push down my toe and the gravel crockles. I take a step along the edge of the volcano and hear the odd noise again, and put all my weight on my foot, concentrating only on each step as it happens. My foot grows large, like a giant's, like a buddha's, and the tiny pieces of gravel that have been sitting here since this volcano exploded, since well before Ulloa visited, are pushed into the ridge as my present moment is impressed deep into the earth below my leg.
I have the foot of the Buddha, and I push it into the earth.
And that moment is all I will ever have.
Our time is more important than our things. After all, perhaps it is because I own so few things that I have acquired so much time. The wind gusts. I feel happy, and free, and I laugh and throw my arms in the air, and raise my face to the sky and lose my balance.
I slide and stop my descent and stop laughing.
I almost fell into that fucking volcano.
A frigate slides by and stares at me. I climb back to my vantage.
I sit down at the highest tip of the volcano and the wind, like hands, pushes my shirt against my chest and breathes up under my chin, fills my nose with some of the freshest of airs to be breathed in North America. Yes, the sail up the Sea of Cortez knocked the wind out of me, and now that I have had a little time to catch my breath I inhale a different kind of wind.
I sit and concentrate on breathing in these new airs.
Despite owning something close to a thousand items, ten times over what is proclaimed, my life seems quite simple. It is a thing I am trying to sharpen, whittle down, reduce. I cannot say whether I have few or many items, but I can say that I have time to think. I have my present. I own a hundred minutes, each day.
A sailboat is a machine that moves slow and forces you to move slow. It moves only as fast as the water and wind will allow, and you, a slave to it, are lashed and bound and no words nor desires will move the wind faster. You may harness it, but you may not whip it. As with all old technologies, you have less control, and that means you have more time.
Consider moving 55 miles at 550 miles per hour. You are on a fast plane. Now consider 55 miles at 5 miles per hour. You are on a slow boat. The slower the speed the more space, and the more time. It is not just time to react to oncoming obstacles, but time to think, to to consider, ponder, wander, time to do nothing, time to learn, and time to experiment and play, which is surely a great luxury today. Perhaps it is the source of inspiration. That might be where Vlad's freedom came from. Being sick means you stop. Being in a boat means you stop. And when you're sick in a boat, and you are Vlad, then you really stop, and you really spend time on the beach, doing nothing. This is commonly called, among surfers and sailors, beach time. People pay thousands of dollars for beach time. When you stop you have time to consider, see, hear, smell, touch, and taste the pulse of the world.
A sailboat forces you to be alert. If you want to stay alive you must watch the sky. A cloud will change your course, you must watch the water, a little wind can take you far, you must smell the sea, and you must use all of your senses to stay as alert as you can, at all times. And this makes a man wealthy in time, because it magnifies all of the tiny points of Now.
No, what makes this place paradise isn't the fact that I have only 20 shirts and one new BBQ grill. Nor is it the fact that I have a big machine made of a thousand parts that I am utterly enslaved to, and must maintain daily. It is not paradise because of what I have not, nor because of what I have.
It is paradise because it is slow, because I have the time to concentrate on where I put my foot, because I can listen to the gulls, because I can concentrate on what the breeze is doing, on how to cook dinner, on when to sleep, and when to wake up. Or not, should I choose. It is paradise because I am forced to be alert, inconvenienced enough to be healthy, and enslaved to a spirit that protects me as I protect it.
The trip up The Sea was hard. Now the trip down is easy.
When I first sailed south I thought, like the other cruisers in the marina, that I would be able to achieve that same state of simplicity, freedom, and independence. To be like a bird, and light as a feather. To be able to fly anywheer and have all that was needed. Living on a boat, I thought, would be the way to achieve maximum simplicity, freedom, and independence. But owning the boat is actually the opposite. Despite that it provides happiness.
The Blue Goose is us. It is our body. As long as we have this great carapace my wife and I can float and fly. We have all we need to get what we want. We have our electrical and communication systems, bed sheets, pans, and a pot to piss in. The shelves, roof, and floor protect us from the intensely hostile marine environment, and as small as it is we are limited.
That limitation is the very source of our freedom and independence. After all, a boat needs anchors first and sails second.
As we left the bay of Isla San Luis the white wake that the Goose left floated out, hovered, and slowly disappeared as we moved away. We left behind us feathers of foam that floated and then dissipated in the restless surface of the sea, that eternal surface, that great reflection of the world, that magnificent and timeless mirror.
Then those feathers disappeared, and we continued south, following in the wake of Ulloa.
The Port of The Wolves
Once they had gotten about 100 miles south from the mouth of the Colorado River Ulloa and his crewmates saw, some 10 or 12 miles ahead of them a "smoke signal." They decided to investigate. The next day they sailed into San Luis Gonzaga, a little bay that is just south of Willard Point. Ulloa describes it as, "a very large bay which had a high sandy islet at the mouth."
The "smoke signal" as Ulloa notes, was actually sand that was falling from the island in the middle of the bay. The small land-slide on this volcanic and dry land created dust that, when blown into the air by the common updrafts, looked like smoke to the Spaniards on the ship. After resolving this mystery they anchored in the bay.
".. inside we found so many seals that were I to say there were a hundred thousand, I think I would not be exaggerating. For this reason we named it El Puerto de Los Lobos (The Port of the Wolves)."
According to Preciado's account of that day they decided to kill some seals. This turned out to be a problem however, since as soon as one seal was taken up onto a beach some large number of his fellows would come to his defense. The Spaniards found themselves attacked by seals with such ferocity that many of them received wounds to the hands or arms and the seal that they had initially thought to injure were turning the tooth on the Spaniards.
The final tally of the day was: Spaniards: 20, Seals: 0.
These were, after all, conquistadors.
The next day there was no wind, and so the fleet anchored in this bay for the night. The next morning they set up a small expedition of nine or ten men who paddled ashore. They found a group of Indians that were fishing in the bay that morning. The fishing party was composed of an old man, a young man, and several boys. The Indians had no fear of the Spaniards until the Spaniards got within about thirty paces. Here the Old Man put his hand to his face, as if shielding his eyes from the sun, said something. They ran. The Spaniards gave chase.
How the Spanish, presumably armed up to the nose in steel and leather, in that hot sun, ran up the hill after these Cochimie, who were buck naked, and how they managed to grab-hold of one of the Cochimie can only be explained by the fact that the one they grabbed was the Old Man. He struggled to get away but the Spaniards held him fast. They tried to speak with him with neither luck nor common language. Eventually, still holding him fast, they discovered a small hut that had been built about thirty paces up from the water's edge. Inside were hooks made from thorns and turtle shell, and fresh water which was kept in seal bladders. They returned to the beach. Here they found that the Indians also had a little raft, made of cactus stems tied together with a hemp rope, and little oars, only about as long as your arm. On this raft were some three dozen fish. The Spaniards took the fish and it was around this time that the old man began to weep.
Here, our accounts diverge. According to Preciado, Ulloa and the boys gave the old Indian some beads, a hat, and some steel fishing hooks. He smiled, they let him go and he ran up to his companions, showed them what he had, and with that the Spanish returned to their boats.
Other accounts make no mention of any of this and we may wonder why.
Most of the Spanish had learned that before a real conquest begins it's a good idea to bring the natives close and make good trading ties with them. Others of the Spanish learned that the court was who must be first persuaded. In either case, conquest follows commerce, and commerce follows persuasion.
These were, after all, conquistadors.
Ulloa writes, "We judged that these people were nomads, possessed of little intelligence," and with that they pulled sail, left Gonzaga Bay, turned to starboard, and continued south.
We also met some of the local fishermen at Gonzaga Bay, though we did not have to chase and capture them. We also saw their huts, we saw some of their fishing gear, and their boats, and we also pirated some food from them. In fact, we did far better than Ulloa. We got away with about a dozen potatoes, a large zip-loc of salad, steaks, and shrimp. And probably three or four dozen beer. But we only saw one or two seals.
It was two days ago. We were very low on fresh water.
We decided to duck under Willard's Point so that we could find some refills. The bay was smooth and undulating with the refracted waves that came in, and a bit shallow, so we traced the beach and did a few circles. We discovered a little town with a collection of buildings that all seemed brightly painted, newly fashioned, and un-Mexican. They were too new, too built of imported materials, too unnatural.
I stood staring at the buildings, not paying attention to the depth sensor. I was still not in the habit of that technology.
A man's voice cracked over the VHF radio, a man with an American accent that spoke English, hailed us on channel 16. I picked up the radio and we were immediately given anchoring information, tidal information, and told that, no, there was no water in town, but we were welcome to come up to the yellow house directly in front of the boat for a beer, if we wanted. Look, the radio said, we are waving.
I could see two men sitting on the porch. One was waving his arm. I could not tell if they were in rocking chairs.
We dropped anchor, allowing enough chain for the fourteen feet of tide, jumped in the dinghy, and rowed to shore. The dinghy was leaking but we didn't have far to go.
A gringo of about 65 came down first. He had a full set of hair and that curious facial structure that is often found in Southern California -- a compact Swedish look -- a beachboy style, for Mark surely, was a beach boy. He shook our hands and patted me on the shoulder and explained where was best to leave the dinghy that I was dragging up the beach. He proudly declared that he had lived here for nearly twenty years and this was said not as a braggary might preach, but in a kind of fact, as one might state one's age.
Next, a few steps up the beach, came Skip. Seven feet tall all white goatee and torso, he, too, seemed a model of hospitality and warmth. Hand out, smile open, eyes alert, Southern accent, forehead tilted forward he welcomed us up onto his porch where we sat down in chairs made of plastic straps and enjoyed the cool shade.
Skip went into his house and came back with four beers.
They were not rocking chairs, but they were just as comfortable.
The population of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga in 1980 was eighty-three. In 1990 it dropped to 15, then in 2000 it increased to twenty-one people. Now, in 2010, it appears to have about thirty or forty, and all of them, save for five, are gringos.
Much of this has to do with Mark. A structural firefighter, from Orange County, he had come to Gonzaga back when there was something of a land dispute. Papa Delgado had squatted some property while the original owner had been away. Papa Delgado did some development work on the land and built a house. He then sold it, then did it again, and again. Soon, a lawsuit had broken out and Papa Delgado claimed that the land belonged to him. The court agreed since, under Mexican law, if there is no one using property and someone else can show they've developed the land in the owner's absence, ownership changes hands. A second and third court case was opened, and the owner, who lived just up the beach, lost them. A fourth lawsuit occurred, the same result ensued, and now there is a little shack where the original owner has skulked to the far end of the beach, on an exposed spit of land, where his shack can be seen to this day.
In 1993 Mark had come down to buy some property and stumbled across this little cove. It was about 100 miles from a paved road then (today it is fifty miles) and he leased the land from the Delgado family for a term of 100 years. Each year Mark is given a little piece of paper with a renewal slip and there is no discussion beyond that. It is based on trust and reputation, because if Papa Delgado were to screw Mark out of his land, word would get around fast, and all the other gringos there would move out and Papa Delgado would be back in court, probably not meeting with the same success he's enjoyed before.
Mark, finding his little piece of paradise, began inviting friends down. His firefighter buddies liked the prospecting, his fishing pals enjoyed the bay, and his wife began to invite some of her friends to come down and join them. Within a decade there were 20 gringo families all busily building at the water's edge, most of them from Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, most of them friends. In a way, it was a very Mexican thing they were doing.
Reputation held the community together.
Nowdays there's a little general store, a gas station, and a security guard checkpoint up the road. All is calm in town and the only other Mexican that owns land, is a woman down the beach who was, according to rumor, a prostitute for some American fishermen back in the 1950s. These Americans (it seemed implied John Wayne might have been one of them3) gave this woman the money she needed to buy the beach, and at that point they then installed an airstrip and began to come down to party when they felt like it. They died, she kept the land, and now, an aging widow, her two sons and she run that end of town. So it goes in colonial outposts. I met her son, who runs the gas station, but I did not ask him if his mom was a prostitute.
The next day Amélie and I were invited back for shrimp and steaks. On the grill. After a trip to the store to buy some bottles of water in Skip's jeep, Mark cooked us all dinner and Ray came over to join us.
Ray, from Nevada, had lived in Gonzaga for about 15 years and he has seen "serious depletion" in fish, mostly in tuna (he curses and shakes his fist at the pangas on the beach across the bay). He estimates it to be about three-quarters of the population are gone, maybe more. Ray explains how he catches his bait, how to hook it through the nose, then how to attach that line to a weight with about eight feet of line so the poor fish (that has already had a near-death experience) may swim at the end of the line and attract a grouper which will come to eat it. He reaches into his pocket, produces his wallet, opens it in much the way many parents produce photographs of their kids, and shows me a photo of him standing next to a huge bloody grouper.
We end up in Mark's garage where I am given a tour of their solar equipment, boat, all-terrain vehicle, and most precious of all, the fishing gear.
They are made out of fiberglass, and wood, and plastic. I see no agave spears among these locals.
Late that night, fat from the generosity of our gringo hosts, Amélie and I paddle back to the Goose laden with salad, leftover steak, some potatoes and shrimp. Mark, Skip and Ray are all leaving in a day. They tell us they need to get rid of the food as they're returning to the states. If they had said the same about the beer I would have had questions, but as it was, they proved themselves to be the most hospitable, generous, and kindest gabardinos4 I have met in the Baja. What they are doing is, indeed, quite Mexican. They seem to have gone local.
I mentioned this to them, and they said that it is the way of things there, and that's why their living where they are, in Gonzaga Bay. They like the Mexican life. But with a colonial twist.
11:00 Pulled anchor at high tide.
16:00. Large pod of 15-20 dolphins hunting to starboard. Seem to be herding fish.
24:00. Set lights and hove-to for the night, just at the north of Isla de la Guardia.
06:00. Fixed coffee, swam, took some photos.
08:00. Pulled sails in 5-6 knots of wind. Easy, smooth morning.
14:00. Ran out of fresh water in both tanks. 40 liters of water left, plus the emergency 10 liters.
16:00. Lost our last lure. Something snapped the 40# line (not a tuna, too slow, probably grouper).
18:00. Anchored in Bahia de Los Angeles.
We've got about 200 pesos, or about US$15, left. This would not be a problem except for the fact that we need to buy groceries, and since there is no bank in town, we cannot get more money and maybe we need this for a bus.
I walk up to an old gringo and ask her, in English, if she knows of a bank. She's driving a truck that is almost as dusty and burned and dried from the sun as she. Ruth (she came from East Germany) has lived here for so long that she has permanently lost the buttery hue of the homeland. Snow Rabbit (her handle on VHF channel 68) tells us that the only place to get money is in Guerrero Negro. Guerrero Negro is a good three hours' drive from Bahia de Los Angeles. We ask her how we can catch a bus to Guerrero Negro. She looks both ways and, as if committing a crime that would make the devil shudder, whispers, "Climb in." I feel like we'll be taken to a ginger bread house and put in a big kettle, but we climb in anyway.
Thirty seconds later we pull up to a series of shacks. Trash is everywhere. People are exiting with large bags of produce. Onions, tomatoes, chicken.
The store, which is a collection of wood planks that let light in through the walls, is breeezy, yet shady, with dirt floors. It's quite comfortable and arranged inside.
Ruth introduces us to David, the owner of the store, small, skinny, smart eyes, big smile, strong hands, dark skin, moustache, who is going to Guerrero Negro on Saturday. I introduce myself and he delivers a two-handed shake, also clasping my wrist with his left hand, and looks me directly in the eye.
"Mucho gusto," ("pleased to meet you") never sounded so good.
04:05. We knock but no one answers the door. Amélie knocks and knocks, and I tell her (while rolling my eyes) that he's left and surely he won't be able to take us to Guerrero Negro. We got here 5 minutes late. It's our fault. He's a merchant, a real workin' man, and he's got his schedules to keep. Surely he's left, I say. He'll show up, she assures me. Now Amélie, being French, is also latin and so she thinks a little bit more like a Mexican than I do. I sit down and doze a bit while the minutes slide by.
04:40. Amélie wakes me up and points to a man watching us from the bushes. He has appeared from nowhere. This is a little disconcerting because, on the walk here, we were hassled a bit. The story is as follows.
We were walking in the traffic lane, at 03:50, to see car lights headed our direction. A car was coming, a good ways off. Amélie, with her sharp instinct, said that this car would follow us. We crossed to the other side of the street. The car passed us, did a U-Turn, and returned to follow us. We crossed back to the side of oncoming traffic. The car did another U-Turn and we again crossed. I generally try to be wronged thrice before I act. I assume that once is stupidity, twice is coincidence, and thrice is intention, so by the third time they came by us I picked up a rock about the size of a coffeepot, and walked towards the car. "Que Honda! Oi! Que Paso Qüey?" I yelled and so they drove away and I heard kids inside laughing, and then I had to laugh a little, too, as I used to do the same thing when I was a teenager. They didn't come back. But, still.
The man in the bushes hides himself again. Amélie keeps an eye on him but I'm more worried about my stomach as I feel like the bench I'm laying on is bending or something. I feel nauseous. I think I'm land sick.
04:45. I wake up as a car pulls into the driveway. A family of three small, plump Indians get out, baby under mom's arm, and we ask if David is around, and if they know him. Yes, they do know him, and, yes, he usually drives, at 5AM, to Guerrero Negro.
We shrug and go sit down again. I hate being on land now. It makes my feet burn and stomach churn. It's a dirty place, land. Plus there's trash all over the place and it smells like rotten vegetables and humans. My stomach starts turning again and I try to sleep but a fly lands on my nose and I accidentally slap myself in the face. I sit up and the man in the bushes is still there.
05:15. Why did David tell us to be here at 4am if he wants to leave after 5? I cannot understand this. Amélie explains that this is how things are, perhaps David thought he would wake up earlier, and I can't find any logic in it, other than if everyone is always late and you want them to be on time you tell them to be early. So I guess David meant 5 when he said 4 and I'm not happy about much of anything. Then the door opens and David walks out into the lightbulb-lit porch. He squints, rubs his eyes, shakes our hands, and before introductions are finished his wife squeaks. She's been hit by a scorpion. David, with apologies, goes back into the house. They start putting some weeds into boiling water. I ask if I can help. I'm inclined to run and get her gatorade.
The man in the bushes comes over and introduces himself. His name is Raphael. He's a big Indian who has a slight hump on his back and he, like David, has steady intelligent eyes. I apologize for my Spanish, which is still riddled with los problemas, and he smiles and replies in Spanish, telling me it's okay.
But I can't tell if Raphael lives in the bushes, or what he was doing there at 4AM. I guess he was waiting for David to wake up, too.
07:00. The jeep is bumping along and Raphael, who is driving, tells us about his family and his two dogs and how he and David have been driving back and forth from Guerrero Negro together, on this same road, for years now, to go get groceries for the entire village, bring them back, sell them, buy gas, go get more groceries. Every Wednesday and Saturday, he says.
David seems asleep.
Raphael and his wife have four kids. They live in between Guerrero Negro and Bahia de Los Angeles. As the highway curves left he tightens the corner, crossing into the opposite lane, provided he can see oncoming traffic, then he accelerates out of the turn, and drives in the middle of long stretches, which gives him more space in case a coyote runs out. It's easy to tell he grew up in the country. While driving he philosophizes about changes in Mexico, about changes in Guerrero Negro, and what he thinks of his neighbors, how his value is on family, and work, and money is important, yes, but it is not all their is to life, and he has a hard time understanding the United States and their fear of terrorism and Mexicans. He has no concerns no opinions about the sales of drugs in Mexico. It has nothing to do with his world.
He asks what we're doing here and we tell him about the boat and he asks if we have money and we tell him, no, that contrary to popular opinion most sailors are broke and live on a loose sail and a tight budget. He asks how we make money and Amélie tells him writing and I answer illustration and he asks what we're writing about and Amélie answers as she always does, and says medicinal plants.
David's arm comes up from the passenger seat and he gives the thumbs-up. Then his arm goes down and he is asleep again.
The sun starts to rise and it's already hot, so we drive with all four windows down.
In Guerrero Negro we go from one grocery store to another, bartering for tomatoes, cabbage, Cokes, apples, and chicharonne. The chicharonne are strips of pig skin that are soaked in a kind of pickle juice, and sold in a large semi-transparent white 5-gallon bucket, and bought at a party-supply store, named Miyu-Wa's Party Station which also sells pinatas. I ask why chicharonne are bought where you buy colored paper napkins and pinatas. David's explanation is that they are a salty snack. You can buy peanuts there, too, David explains. David goes back in to get some whistles.
Now David's getting napoli, a cactus used for cooking. Raphael and I stand around outside and wipe sweat off our faces. I tell him that I think Mexicans are crazy and that Mexico is a crazy country. He tells me that there is a characteristic that Indians, and especially Indians that live in the country sides, have, a kind of mystic power. It is the power of the Indian.
"The power of the Indian?" I ask.
"Yes." Raphael's eyes seem to narrow a bit and he smiles.
"It is to reflect back what someone wants to see themselves as. If you do that, you get what you want. So when gringos come to Mexico, and throw their weight around, and want to be the big gringo, they give the Indian a special kind of power."
I think he's talking about a kind of manipulation.
"But does that always work?" I ask.
"Sometimes not. You cannot be polite by yourself."
And that's when I get confused and realize this is a new idea for me.
Raphael goes on to explain to me that there are two sides to the Mexican psyche. One is the Indian power, the other is the macho method practiced by los chilangos, or the city slickers from Mexico City. When people try to exert their power over another a fight starts, and when the Indian method is used the other party often refuses to recognize it. Part of the problem with these two sides, Raphael explains, is that there is no moderator. So there is a deep tradition of exploitation that takes place within Mexico, by Mexicans, of Mexicans, and specifically the Indians that live in the country.
The fact that there is no other way to act is part of what prevents social mobility. Raphael's explanation is that Mexicans, and specifically Indians, are so blocked in their psychology, in their social position of poverty, that the only person that can make money in Mexico are foreigners. He lists Koreans, Lebanese, Japanese. People come to Mexico from the outside world and are able to take advantage of this psychology and make good money from Mexican labor. Raphael bemoans the hardships of starting a company, of the paperwork and administration and headaches piled high. And someone will always fuck with you.
"In Mexico anyone can be wealthy, but not if you're Mexican."
I think of Reuben, who I watched on the dock in Mazatlan, as the gringos would yell at him, and how calm he was, and how obedient he appeared. And I think of Montezuma who gave the Spanish all they wanted. And of the Indians that were enslaved by the coquistadors with the help of other Indians. And I think of Carlos Slim, Mexico's wealthiest man, who is Lebanese, and one of the wealthiest men in the world. And Mexico's future seems chained to its past, tied together, generation after generation, linked with this psychology has created the present moment that Raphael is pointing to.
David jumps back into the jeep with a packet of whistles, some party hats, and a big smile. Vamanos. Raphael starts the jeep up and we go to get the chicken and beef. We drive up to a regular grocery store, and David climbs out of the jeep. I follow. Raphael and Amélie sit in the hot sun and wait. Inside, up some stairs, David discusses the purchase with the grocery store manager. It takes about 5 minutes of bartering. It is not heated bartering, but an interaction that allows one man to find where the other is, and establish a rapport, and understand larger things such as market value and purchase process. The tone of the conversation sounds to me as if they are discussing the weather. It has no tones of saving or earning money. They laugh at one point over something I cannot hear. A price is established and so we leave the store and David asks Raphael to back the jeep up into a garage nearby.
Inside this garage there are four men working and two dogs skulk about the trash. There is a large walk-in refrigerator and boxes and crates and near the door are four flat boxes. They are sagging a bit, slightly wet, and covered with flies. Raphael picks one up and takes it to the car, and so I do the same, squinting to keep the swarm of flies out of my face, wishing I could somehow close my nostrils as I don't want these insects crawling up into my head, and I take the box and put it with the other, which is mercifully in a black plastic garbage bag. The plastic will keep the flies and stench inside. Raphael grabs the third box and I pick up the last. It's like carrying a crate full of smallpox.
Next come clear plastic bags full of huge tranches of reddish-brown and fat-white flesh that, also, is room temperature. They, too, are covered with flies, though not as many, and since they, too, are wet by the time we're done loading this into the car my hands are covered with a watery slime and I watch Raphael wipe his hands on his pants, and I do the same, and we all pile into the car with the bags of meat and boxes of chicken and swarms of flies and we keep the windows down and hit the highway.
16:00. Back into the open desert of central Baja. Cactus thrust up into the sky and strange Dr Seuss swirls of plants wend their way upward into the bright blue. It seems an underwater world, tenuous and thin. This land is prehistoric, completely unevolved, battened down, scorched by the sun, and deadly. The plants all look like they are made of thistles and dried twigs, utterly useless, utterly dry, utterly painful flora. It all spins by and I just want to return to the boat.
17:30. Raphael announces he has to stop at his house and we exit the highway. We drive up a little hill, on a crunchy dirt road, and arrive at a small room, really, with an outhouse nearby. There are plastic bags everywhere. It is not squalor, but it is close, and the wind picks up some sand and throws it at the windshield of the car. A plastic bag catches on the mirror but no one does anything. David is asleep again.
We watch in silence as Raphael walks around his place. Two small dogs are kept on short ropes under a tree. They jump and bark. Raphael brings them some water and then he disappears behind the house and a small cat runs across the road.
Out of the blue David says that Venus is having a big impact on everything in the Baja. We don't know what to make of this and ask him to explain and he says that women, mostly are affected, then Raphael gets back in the car and we're all silent again. I ask Raphael if his family are also his neighbors. He tells me he doesnt really know any of these people. We drive away in an explosion of dust.
18:00. David asks Raphael to pull over. As the car slows down David grabs a roll of toilet paper that is crammed into the glovebox. Five minutes later he comes back and declares he has a bit of a stomach bug, and as he mentions this he leans over and starts pulling some buds off of a small shrub.
"These are pretty good for stomach problems," he mumbles, and Amélie walks over to investigate. A conversation starts and 40 minutes later we are still standing near the jeep, wandering from bush to bush as David explains which roots or leaves or branches are good for everything from menstrual cycle cramps to fever to scorpion stings.
It turns out that David is diabetic and uses the local plants to regulate his diabetes (it also burns up a good deal of fat, he says, which is why he's so skinny). His grandmother taught him most of this and he shows us various ways to identify, unearth, and prepare some eight or nine different plants.
David points out a tall clasic fork of a Cardón cactus, and estimates that this one is about 150 years old. He shows how it is dry, because it is shrunk, and when it is full of water it expands, like an accordion. He points to a cluster of cactus, a Pitiya, and tells us that the flowers open for one night. They have good fruit on them, but another Pitiya is better. There's a stalk of Agave growing nearby and he shows how bats polinate them, and explains that there are still many ranchers that eat this plant as a staple. He sprinkles water on a bush and it explodes into scent, then he digs up a root that will be good for his wife's scorpion bite.
We get back in the car and roll along our way. David opens up a candy bar and throws the wrapper out the window.
I lean forward and ask him the same question I asked the taxi driver in San Felipe.
"Why do Mexicans throw their trash?" I expect David to get upset at the question, or at least defensive, but ask anyway. I'm stunned, what with him being so, well, in-tune with nature, and all.
He looks over his shoulder and smiles and says, "One day my friends and family and all the neighborhood kids gathered up all the plastic and trash in the neighborhood. We spent the whole week working on it and we drove the trash to the trash guys who then promptly burned it.The smoke floated out and it ended up in the same place anyway."
Then he sits up a bit and turns around in his seat and looks at me with a smile and says, "Different cultures do things differently."
20:00. The sun has set and we sit in plastic chairs out in front of the liquor store with Jorgelio, dapper as Clark Gable and loony as Charles Manson. He tells us that the stars are aligning in such a way as to put pressure on the Baja. Venus is pushing on one side, Mars is pushing on the other, and this will most likely cause more volcanos. There is a forecast for chasms suddenly appearing in the streets.
Jorgelio points to some cracks in the sidewalk where we sit, and he says, "You see, it starts small like this."
We quietly drink another beer, and look at the stars, and share a cigarette.
Yesterday we went to a "full-moon cruiser party." It was announced on the VHF radio that it would start at 18:20, since the afternoon net happens at 18:00, and that would allow 20 minutes for everyone to get in their dinghies and arrive at the beach with their potluck dish. We arrived at around 8:45 and saw Darryl and Rita from Overheated. They told us to hurry up and get some food or it'd be all gone.
The gringos had gathered to watch not only the full moon but also the International Space Station which passed overhead at 21:14 and was out of sight at 21:21 and which raised a dull groan of awe from the group, all of whom had paperplates in hand.
Irma who said that she had been having great interactions with the locals. She cited as an example a situation in which she ended up living in a hacienda, with a maid. She told the maid to only speak Spanish with her, and evidently they became good friends. What concerned me about this story was the fact that Irma did not recognize the power dynamics involved. I doubt the same of the maid. The Space Station passed overhead at the appointed minute.
The boat needs water. At this point we are down to under 20 liters and so we row to shore and help some panga fishermen push their panga into the water. Then I ask if someone can bring some 10 or 15 bottles of water out to the Goose for us.
Esteban, Mauricio and Lorenzo say they can help. I ask how much they need to do it. They shrug and say, nothing, just a tip. It's Mauricio's boat, maybe, or at least he's the captain, and Esteban and Lorenzo will use it to help us. They don't have anything better to do, they tell us, since they'll just be waiting around to go fishing when the sun sets.
The Calamari Abattoir.
10:00. Esteban and Lorenzo pull up alongside the Goose in their panga. Amélie and I jump in and we all ride back together, to go pick up the bottles of water which we'll then dump into the water tanks.
Esteban is small and muscular. Over the sound of the motor and spraying water he tells us that he is in the navy. He is on vacation for two weeks and came here to work nights as a calamadero, or calamari fisherman. He has two kids and lives in Santa Rosalia, just a bit south. Our water project takes two hours, and finally we are all four back on the Goose and we invite Lorenzo and Estaban in for a drink of water (I still, despite my best intentions, have the feeling I need to watch people when they enter my house. This is different for Americans or Mexicans. I do not have this thought when Americans enter the boat. But as my spanish improves this suspicion seems to be fading).
Esteban will return to Santa Rosalia in a week. We show him some of my illustrations and my book on Sri Lanka, and he asks what I'm writing now. I tell him that it is a book about conquistadors, and how gringos are a new kind of conquistador, and I ask him what he thinks about this.
"Are gringos like conquistadors?" I ask.
He pauses for a moment..
"Yes, it is true," he says. "We would like to visit more of the gringos that come here, but there is always a distance we cannot understand. There is a wall that is up."
Esteban tells me that Mexicans would like to be better friends with their northern neighbors. He would like to have a different relationship, and this leaves him with a "corazon amagura," or a sad heart.
An hour passes and we drink up more water (only the cold stuff that was left in the refrigerator) and pay them each 150 pesos for their efforts, and load them up with a couple of dry-bags (nylon sacks that keep water out, which are great for fishing), and some marbles and a couple of little dolls for their kids, and we part ways on the decks of our respective boats.
Just as they are beginning to pull away, we ask if we can go squid fishing with them, and they say they will ask Maurico, and see. I say we will work hard, and for free, and that we understand it is a question for the captain. They say they will see. We wave good-bye and tell Esteban we will look for him in Santa Rosalia, in a few weeks.
Squid (or calamari, as they are called in restaurants, and in Italy) can get as small as the fingernail on your little finger or as large as a semi-truck. Their cone-shaped head sheath two very human-like eyes, and hanging below are octopus-like tentacles. A parrot's beak lurks beneath the curtain of these tentacles, strong enough, sharp enough, and fast enough to give even a shark fisherman a healthy respect for the animal. They are prehistoric, coming from a world that is dark enough, cold enough, and deep enough that evolution itself seems to have malfunctioned.
When the water is warm, the Humboldt squid, or Onychoteuthis Banksi, a large squid that can reach two meters in length, weighing as much as a skinny teenager, school in large numbers off of the islands near Bahia de Los Angeles, one of Mexico's most famous fishing villages. They eat everything, like cats, decimating populations of fish, eating anything they can get their tentacles on, including one another. There are rumors that squid have attacked humans, and I can testify from first-hand experience that the tentacles are not simply soft suction cups, but that there are tiny claws which draw blood.
One thing about calamari, however. They do not attack humans nearly as often as humans attack them.
A little over one percent of Mexico's fishing industry, and all of Bahia de Los Angeles' economy, is based on calamari. At least this year.
Calamari are caught at night. The calamaderos use a cylinder that is about as long as a pen. The top half glows in the dark. The bottom half has several rows of nasty spikes that point up and out. At the tip is a weight. The squid see this glowing thing, attack it with their tentacles, and when they pull it in to their beakish mouth, their tentacles get stuck on the spikes and they are then hauled up and into the boat. That, at least, is the principle.
Last night we went out with some calamadero to learn more about the industry. I wanted to see it before it disappeared.
It was sunset and the panga was slamming across the waves, salt spray flying everywhere, the islands sliding past as we headed out to the large island in the middle of the sea, Isla de la Guardia.
Mauricio was the capitaino at the motor, pushing hard, and another calamadero was working with him, a man in his late twenties named Mario. Mario was a thick corn-fed boy from down south, a solid six feet tall, who grew up killing sharks. He came from a small town near Santa Rosalia where his father fished sharks, and before that his grandfather. He'd been at it for eight years and since so many of the sharks have been fished out, and since they eat calamari, the calamari population exploded, which means that Mario the tiburonero became Mario the calamadero.
The same thing happened to Mauricio. He was also a shark fisherman, and he changed job about a year ago. He prefered hunting sharks, but the squid payed better.
Mauricio was as hard and as sharp as an obsidian arrowhead. His big bony face was carved classic Indian - the hooked nose, the high cheekbones, the broad jaw, black hair in a pony tail - and as a fisherman that works hard, every night, often seven nights a week, for fifteen years, he looks as much like a Roman Gladiator as a Cochimie Indian. Dressed in a green slicker, the man was at ease on the water and steered the boat around waves and over swells at nearly fifty miles an hour, the motor screaming like a wounded kraken.
Both of them are proud of their work, proud to be fishermen, and proud to have us along to show us their world. They were total gentlemen, both tough enough to be gentle, confident enough to be kind.
We didn't talk as the water rushed under us. It was too loud. On either side of our panga were other pangas, all of us rushing east across the blurred golden sunset waters, an army of marauders invading the kingdom of the calamari. Bahia de Los Angeles disappeared quickly under the shadow of the mountains and soon we were in open ocean.
There are approximately 50,000 artisanal fishermen throughout the Sea of Cortez.1 Each night, with about two men per panga, they race out in approximately 25,000 individual pangas. Each panga brings back approximately one ton of fish, then, the following night, they do it again.
Most of the fish are caught by industrial fisheries, and shrimp fisheries, in particular. These industrial boats use seine nets that sweep across miles of the ocean floor, collecting everything in their path, scooping up fish populations and decimating entire ecosystems. The shrimpers then unload several hundred tons of struggling fish onto the deck, pick out a few kilograms of shrimp, and throw the carcasses of the dead fish back in the water. Why not keep the by-catch? Because they're rewarded with beers, when they get back to port, for burning less fuel. By-catch generally makes up more than 90% of what's taken by a Mexican shrimper.
It's a bit like trying to catch chicken in the barnyard, so with a couple of blimps you sweep up the entire farm, cows, dog, goats, barn, cornfield, trees, fences, and throw it all back to keep the ten chicken you caught.
Despite decreasing fish populations, the cost continues to drop as Mexico tries to compete with other fisheries around the world. In the last twenty years there has been between an 80% and 90% decrease in fish populations in The Sea of Cortez.2
This means that in about another decade the fish will be gone.
Mauricio, as captain of the vessel, gets about 1500 pesos, or around US$125, per night to go out at sunset and come back around 3AM, when the boat is full of squid. This then gets unloaded into a truck full of ice to be shipped to Korea, Japan, and China. He splits that money with Mario. Another man owns the boat, sells the fish, repairs the vessel, and that man is the one that is making the money. Last year, before the shark population dropped, calamari were selling for 5 pesos / kilo (or about twenty-five cents a pound). Then, when the shark population dropped and the calamari became easy to find, the price dropped to half that (about twelve cents a pound). But if a plate of calamari in a restaurant costs US$12, then there's some money being made from plate to panga. [IMG: PAINTING OF CALAMARI BOATS]
The stars were out when we arrived. Mario threw a blanket tied to a rope off the front of the panga (to serve as a kind of sea anchor), Mauricio flipped on a light that was tied to a pole (to see what we were doing), large planks were laid across the beam of the boat, and under that single white light bulb the killing began.
I threw in a hook, let out the line, and waited, watching Mauricio.
My line was immediately pulled. It was a solid tug, a clear presence, that came from about two hundred feet below the boat. I let it pull briefly, then gave a hard yank to set the hook and began hauling in the thick, seventy pound line up over the side of the boat, using the gunnel as an angle to reduce the weight on my arms. I'd lean back, pull, gather the line, lean back, pull, gather the line. In the darkness, leaning forward, I could see the line descending into the water, disturbing the phosphors that floated, and creating an aqua collection of pixie dust that pointed straight down into the black water. With one foot on the starboard side of the panga, I put my back into it. It was a heavy animal I had on the other end, and the line vibrated and twanged as the squid struggled against me. I could feel when it kicked, when it swam, the sense of panic it had, at times trying to cooperate by going with the hook, at times falling hard against it, desperate to tear free.
It took about five minutes, and sometimes I lost some line as the boat swung and bobbed in the dark waves, but the line gathered around my feet and I kept pulling. My arms started to ache a little, my fingers were not used to holding a thin line, but I kept dragging the thing up from its watery home. It was like trying to drag a German Shepherd up the side of an eight story building using dental floss.
As it came near the panga I looked into the water and saw a mad writhing mass of phosphorescent, squirming tentacles, the line now really twanging, the squid flipping through different glowing colors, and I reached down, grabbed the lure, pulled the tentacles out of the water, and was immediately sprayed in the face with a thick inky shower as the squid spat out a huge shower of water, made a strange groaning noise, spat out another liter or two, and then I hauled the thing over into the panga and onto a large plank of wood. A tentacle grabbed my elbow and opened up some skin, I yanked free, then stretched it out like a patient in some horror surgery ward. The boat rocked and I had to keep it from sliding back into the water.
It was almost as long as me. The tentacles waved under that stark bulb, and Mauricio appeared with his knife. One fast slice separated the tentacles, which he threw to the forward side of the boat, then a second slice opened up the body cavity lengthwise. He quickly scooped out the guts and threw them overboard, shoving the heavy shell of meat, the cleaned upper half, into another bin. Then he turned to the three calamari that he had brought up, himself, in the time I had struggled with my one. Slice, slice, scoop, push. Slice, slice, scoop, push. I stood in awe.
The boat was a floating abattoir.
Though the skin shifted colors and glowed in the dark, once the animal was killed all of this glorious color display stopped, and the meat under the skin was white, and thick, and smelled clean and good. There was no blood. Only slime that covered everything. My arm stung and some small blood appeared, then my line twanged tight again.
As the hours rolled by calamari after calamari was hauled in, laid out, sliced open, separated, then the hook was back in the water, another was laid on the table, water flying, groaning sounds and guts in the air, blades flashing, boat rocking, and us all smoking cigarettes under the half moon that now began to rise like Tlazolteotl, the Aztec god of guilt, cleansing, and pleasure. It was slaughter on the water.
By midnight I'd brought in perhaps twenty calamari, most of them about half my size, and as soon as I would haul them up to the boat Mauricio would cut and gut the thing, toss a handful of viscera into the water, then turn to yet another. The man worked at an incalculable speeds.
Then, at around 1AM, he stopped, pointed, and shouted, "Tiburon!". Mario leaned over, but didn't say anything. I could only to see a splash of water as squid guts were yanked from the surface and taken into the black below. Soon another shark appeared, which Mauricio pointed at, and then another which bounced off the boat directly at my feet, and I could feel the cartilage of the animal as it glanced away, and the water surely was full of them if, in that darkness, lit only on the surface, we could see three in as many seconds.
By 2AM Mauricio was nodding. We'd caught nearly a ton of calamari and he said the panga was almost full. I asked him when we were headed back and, cigarette sticking out of his thin lips he looked at me and said, "When we get sick of it... how about now?" and smiled.
We were covered in slime, ink, suction cups, pieces of gristle, slabs of tentacle, eyeballs littered the deck and it was all in a kind of murderous black and white, with that one bulb illuminating our grisly night-time reality.
Then Mauricio's smile faded, and he pointed, for the second time in the night.
A light floated about a mile away from us, no, two lights. It was an industrial fishing ship that was catching shrimp. Mauricio's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say any more.
The math of nature is not impossible to calculate. Shark numbers go down, calamari numbers go up. Calamari numbers go up, calamadero count does, too. Shark numbers go down, tiburonero numbers drop with them. But as we rolled up our lines, lit up the last cigarettes, and turned the boat towards Bahia de Los Angeles, I realized that the calamaderos, were just another one of the many of the residents of The Sea of Cortez. Like the animals they hunt the calamaderos are vibrant, strong, and proud each one fighting for their survival.
And they, like the animals they fish, may be extinct in the coming decade, as well.