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BAHIA DE LOS ANGELES: BAY OF ANGELS
A complete chapter from C.M. Mayo's Miraculous Air
From Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California
In late September I was back on the Sea of Cortés with my sister Alice. Six hours down from the border, in the thick of the boojum forest, we'd cut east towards the Bahía de los Angeles, the Bay of Angels. More boojums, sandy flats, bald sun-sizzled sierra. At kilometer 53 we first saw the sea. "Oh my God," Alice said.We stopped the car to take a photograph.
Did it look anything like Alaska?
The Bahía de los Angeles was swimming with islands: tiny guano-bright hillocks, a massive volcanic cone, and one -- Angel de la Guardia (Guardian Angel) -- so vast it looked like a swath of mainland, strangely near. The town of Bahía de los Angeles, however, was a pitiful thing, far off in the distance, a clutch of cinderblocks like a splotch on the southern cup of the bay.
The road descended. A trio of vultures circled as we passed through the garbage dump. And then, hard against the barren shore, we came to the string of ramshackle houses and ramshackle RV parks.
Guillermos RV Park had a room behind the office. It was fairly clean, only three cockroaches (thumb-sized, belly-up) on the bathroom floor. But there was no water or light until 6 p.m. The deal was, water and light from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., and from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Twenty- five U.S. dollars, cash in advance.
Outside, by the water, lingered a smell, faint but rank, something not unlike raw sewage with limburger cheese. A pack of dogs lazed in the sand. Some tables were set up beneath a palapa. A group of Americans was getting trashed on margaritas.
So this was it, the famous, beloved by Baja Buffs, "Bay of L.A." Even back in 1940, Steinbeck found it too modern, with its airstrip and its one little airplane. When detective novelist Erle Stanley Gardner flew in with his entourage in the early 1960s, the Casa Díaz -- "this most interesting medium-priced resort" -- had already been in operation for a number of years catering to fly-in sportfishermen. Judging by the photographs in Gardner's books, Bahía de los Angeles had grown very little in the last thirty-odd years -- these few RV parks, mom and pop groceries, a liquor store, a scattering of houses (shacks most of them) thrown up on the hill. It had changed in less obvious ways, however. The fishing wasn't what it used to be. And now, with the Mexican government trying to fight the cocaine barons, closing airstrips all up and down the peninsula, fewer Americans were flying in. The airstrip was still open here, but there was no aviation fuel -- nor gasoline, for that matter. The last functioning Pemex station was in Cataviña, three hours north, and even there the supply was uncertain. (Alice and I were lucky: we'd only had to wait half an hour for the attendant to finish having his breakfast.)
It had been a long drive down from the U.S. border, nearly twelve hours. We'd come to a town that was poor and dusty and ugly, but: on the Bahía de los Angeles, one of the most stunningly beautiful bays in the world.
If only it weren't for that smell.
The right idea
Alice had the right idea: kick back, read, sip a margarita. But I had an agenda. There was a museum here -- here of all places -- and a sea turtle research station. I wanted to interview the woman who'd founded the museum -- she was an American named Carolina Shepard -- and I also wanted to interview the marine biologist who ran the turtle research station. There were no telephones (as far as I knew), no way to know whether they would see me or not, no way to know if they were even in town. I had two days, that was all; then Alice had to get back to work. I'd come so far. I felt rushed, which was all wrong for a place like this -- like wearing a tuxedo to a picnic, or trying to rollerblade through a supermarket. I speed-walked out of the parking lot, ni modo, no matter.
The Museo de Naturaleza y Cultura was across the street from Guillermos RV Park, up the hill behind a stark, shadeless plaza and the municipal offices. It was a modest, square cinderblock building with reproductions of the cave paintings decorating its walls. A gray whale skeleton was mounted on a platform out front; mining equipment from the abandoned mines in the nearby sierra, rusted buckets and shovels, were displayed in back. A cactus garden ringed the little building, each plant neatly labeled. The one by the door said: "Lophocereus schotti, Old Man, Garambullo, edible fruit, tea for ulcers, fish poison".
The museum was closed.
As I walked back down the dirt road to the municipal offices, the view of the bay was breathtaking. But again, the ugliness of the little town: parked in the dirt in front of the offices were two dust-encrusted police cars, both with their windshields smashed and tires punched flat. A policeman and another man stood by the door, huddled in a triangle of shade, watching me.
"Buenas tardes," I said, that magic incantation. Did they know where I might find Carolina Shepard?
The policeman introduced himself and shook my hand. Happy to help! He presented me to the other man, a fisherman with a deeply creased face, dark as pickled walnut wood. Carolina? Oh yes! He knew where Carolina lived; he would take me there. It was right up the hill, behind the museum. He began to walk, with strides so large I nearly had to jog to keep up. He wore big rubber wading boots that slapped loudly against his calves. As we passed the little museum, he flipped his hand as if to shoo a fly, and grinned sheepishly. "Yo no sé nada de esas cosas," I don't know anything about those things.
He left me at the gate to Carolina's garden -- a garden of cactuses. It was a simple, stuccoed house with a verandah. Through the screen window I could see a livingroom: chairs, a bookshelf with a row of encyclopedias. No one answered the bell. I left my card with a message. Then I walked back down the hill again, the bay a cobalt panorama before me.
Next, the sea turtle research station. I took the car, plowing up the long, bumpy dirt road to the north shore. Already the light had begun fading to sepia, shadows stretching long. I followed the signs -- a little turtle -- through an abandoned trailer park. The asphalt was cracked and rubbly, but the cactus and elephant trees that had been planted (how long ago?) were still thriving. At the end sat the turtle research station, a thatched-roof enclosure. Sea turtle carapaces were strung up all along its sides, huge leathery things rimed with salt and pocked with age.
The motor of a boat made a thin sound, far out on the water. A strong fishy smell wafted over me; the bay, I supposed, but then I realized it was coming from inside. As was the most curious noise: snuffly breaths like babies with a cold. I walked right in to find three cement tanks, their rims as high as my chest. Two were empty, but one, painted blue, was filled with turtles. There were about ten of them, some small as a handbag, several big as coffeetable tops. Each turtle had a green silver dollar-sized tag affixed to a flipper. They were swimming, around and around, bumping their noses against the sides of the tank. I watched them swimming, ceaselessly circling and bumping. They exhaled through their nostrils, a little phsch! ssth. The intervals between each breath were longer than a human's. They would put their heads back under after a breath and circle, bump, bump. Even in the dim, the water in their tank made crazy patterns of light, like shattered glass. I thought of Paulino Pérez's paintings, the light, like this, alive.
Then the turtles saw me. They crowded close, piling one on the other, slapping their flippers against each other, and raised their scaly heads, snuffled, blinked, frowned -- like dogs hoping for a treat.
"Cuidado las tortugas muerden," said a sign. "Caution the turtles bite."
I found Alice on the sand in front of Guillermos RV Park, fiddling with her shortwave radio. A light breeze had carried away that sewagy smell; the air held only a whiff of saltwater, fresh and cool. It was really very wonderful, the shush of the sea, the sand soft between our toes. The lighthouse on Isla Angel de la Guardia had begun to blink. It was an inky night with many stars.
There was a message for me, the waiter said when we sat down under the palapa outside Guillermos. Carolina Shepard had stopped by. That put me in a good mood; and so did dinner -- fried scallops in homemade flour tortillas, and flan for dessert, eggy rich and laced with vanilla, the best flan, we both agreed, ever.
But then we came down to earth. There was no light in our room. Alice, however, had come prepared: Chemsticks from her survival kit. She took one out of its wrapper, snapped its top, and voilà: phosphorescent green light.
"Lasts for hours," she said.
There was no water, either.
Kind of special and wonderful
At 7:45 a.m. the sun was a ball of fire, yellow-hot light streaming in through the window of the restaurant at Guillermos. I'd left Alice still sleeping (the Chemstick weakly glowing). I was gulping my coffee, shuffling through my collection of newspaper clippings, making notes -- I was still in my tuxedo, as it were, ready to rollerblade. But I didn't have to go anywhere. Suddenly, there before my table like an apparition, stood a slight, red-haired woman in a gauzy purple cotton sundress. She gave me a huge sunbeam of a smile. Carolina Shepard -- she held out a slender freckled hand -- Director of the Museo de Naturaleza y Cultura.
A museum: the audacity of it. In this tiny little town of 520 people? Where ever did she get the idea?
She laughed, pulled out a chair. "You know that old saying, one man's trash is another man's treasure? The first American couple to build a house here decided to go back to the U.S. after twenty years. The people who bought the house didn't want the junk they'd collected, so they hauled it all to the dump. I saw that they'd thrown out things they'd picked up from the mines. So I got to thinking, lots of things must be here. We tend to be souvenir happy. I began asking around."
The response was immediate and generous: local people brought in mining equipment, snakes and scorpions, family photographs. Indian artifacts turned up, and leather goods from the ranches. An American couple donated a professional collection of shells. "There are 600 species of shells in the Sea of Cortés, of which we have 500. It's a beautiful collection."
But if the museum was her idea, it was built, Carolina stressed, by the efforts of many different individuals and groups. Financing came largely from jewelry and T-shirt sales. The city donated the land. The town's soccer team dug the foundation; a group of marine biology students from Glendale College in California helped with the construction; students from the university in Ensenada assembled a juvenile gray whale skeleton that hangs from the ceiling. A tourist from Mexicali named Fabio and a woman visiting from Oregon did the cave painting murals. "People just volunteer out of nowhere. It's kind of special and wonderful."
But Carolina was no naive do-gooder. When the museum opened in 1988, she'd already been living in Bahía de los Angeles for nearly 20 years, married to a local Mexican. Plus, she'd studied marine biology at the University of California at Berkeley. The idea of a museum may have been audacious, but she knew what was needed and what was possible.
Still, there were challenges. The local people didn't know what a museum was; they'd never seen one before. "They thought it was something for tourists. It was a hurdle to make them feel the museum was a part of their community, their history, their Sea of Cortés. Little by little they're warming up."
I mentioned the fisherman who'd taken me to her house the day before. Clearly he was fond of her, yet the museum -- "Yo no sé nada de esas cosas" -- intimidated him. I was reminded of Todos Santos, I said, another town with an American community and a population of locals somewhat stunned, like deer frozen in the headlights, by change. The big change here, it seemed to me, was the increasing fragility of the Sea of Cortés. A museum's raison d'etre was education. Didn't that bring her into some conflict with the fishermen?
"We're generally very diplomatic. When you live in a small town you have to be. You know, you criticize and then when you need your car repaired, the parts just don't come -- or you run out of gas while you're out in your boat, who's going to help you? The local people have a very poor economy. It's problematic for institutions to tell people, 'you can't fish yellowtail, you can't fish turtles,' when they need shoes. That's what they do for a living. There are not many alternatives here, there's not much know-how.
"They key is to educate the children. The school teachers bring them to visit the museum. And, we're now in our sixth year of offering kid's classes in the summer. We do arts and crafts, which is kind of new for them because they don't get that at school. A U.S. dive shop donated snorkel equipment for thirty kids, and another donated wetsuits and fins. So we take the kids out. We try to get them interested in their surroundings. We go out in a boat, we look at birds, we pick up trash, we hike in the desert. We're trying to get kids to think: what things affect other things? But again, it's touchy. You can't tell them their fathers or brothers are wrong to catch, say, turtles. But we can make them more aware, teach them about the food chain. It's very basic, but it's new for here."
New, after all that had happened? I had a thick sheaf of clippings about the factory ships that used to come into the bay, and the bait boats that wiped out the anchovies and sardines back in the 1980s -- the entire food chain, from birds to porpoises, even whales had been affected. Overfishing had decimated all class of sharks and game fish, as well as clams, mussels, squid, octopus, and of course, turtles. So few were left, that in 1990, the Mexican government outlawed turtle fishing and trade in turtle products.
"Until now, the local people haven't realized what it is to deplete a species. It's like the U.S. was fifty years ago, this eternal optimism." Slowly, an awareness was "coming into their consciousness," as she put it, most notably last year when the sea cucumber population collapsed.
Four years ago, an Asian buyer had shown up. "They were bringing in a ton per boat per day, filled to gunnels with biomass. This went on for about three years, a big economic shot in the arm. Local people worked as divers, then people had to gut and cook them, then people had to cook for the people who were working. People buy things from the stores -- lots of trickle down. The sea cucumbers were shipped to Los Angeles; there they filled cargo containers to go to Japan. Now there's no product left. They wiped it out. We don't know about the life cycles of the sea cucumber, its maturity. We don't know how it would reproduce in captivity. And now it's gone."
Gone: like the "mile long schools of migrating totuaba," the "massive aggregations," "hordes," "throngs," and "pileups," the waters, as Ray Cannon wrote only three decades ago, "so full of life". Fishing, I ventured, was not the future.
"Seventy percent of the income in this town comes from tourism, which is mostly based on natural history. Less and less is sportfishing. We don't get the Cabo crowd; there's no jet-skis to rent, no nightlife. You either really like this place or you don't. It's rough. You have to come to see the birds or the whales or the desert. Hopefully we'll see more eco-tourism. And hopefully, the museum can help get young people to stop and think. Take care of your economic source. Otherwise it will slowly fade."
Again: that funky smell. The dogs lying in the sand. A boat roaring over the water. At mid- morning the air felt hot as a furnace. The light was a white glare. Alice and I plodded up the dirt road to the museum.
Entering the little cinderblock felt like a cool drink of water. We had to stand still for a moment, waiting for our eyes to adjust.
Hanging from the ceiling, like a fantastic mobile, was the 30 foot-long skeleton of a juvenile gray whale -- the one assembled by the students from Ensenada. We moved forward, past the shell collection. We reviewed a fossil collection, and dried crabs and pufferfish and seahorses. Then: a cabinet displaying Mexican money, bills and old coins. There was a satellite photograph of the bay; Indian arrowheads, a skull, and a pelican feather shawl, soft-looking like beaver fur. Partitions zigzagged through the center of the one big room, festooned with posters and photographs, wedged up against cabinets and shelving. Here were photographs of the cave paintings; there, a display of leatherwork from the ranchos. A shelf was stocked with chunks of onyx from El Mármol; from Las Flores and San Juan, rusted shovels and picks. And too -- not at all subtle -- photographs from the 1960s of the turtle fishermen "harvesting their abundant crop".
But what fascinated me in all this jumble were the photographs of local people. Here was Dick Daggett Jr. (1893-1969), a grizzled old man in a plaid shirt. I knew who he was -- "a rough and ready mechanical genius," as Erle Stanley Gardner called him. Son of a sailor and a bajacaliforniana, Dick Daggett Jr. was the town mechanic, in fact the only mechanic for miles. In the days before the Transpeninsular, he was the savior of many a stranded traveler. The story of how his father, Dick Daggett Sr., arrived in the 1880s has been told in nearly every book written about Baja California. An English sailor on a German ship bringing machinery to the mines, he'd had a fight with the captain, and when the ship anchored in Bahía, Daggett escaped and hid in a cave. After three days of searching for him the captain gave up and set sail; Dick Sr., soon to become "the Grand Padre of the Waist of the Peninsula," as Arthur North called him, remained to work the gold mines. And there, in a little plexiglass case, were Dick Sr.'s binoculars, one of the few possessions he had with him when he jumped ship. Donado por Ricardo Daggett.
Casa Díaz, "this most interesting medium-priced resort" as Erle Stanley Gardner dubbed it, was represented with a framed blow-up of an article about its owner, Antero Díaz. There were photographs of his wife, Doña Cruz Díaz, and of the airplane of "Capitán Muñoz" -- Gardner's gap-toothed bush pilot -- parked on the tarmac out front.
And the three Smith boys, Memo, Nene and Nelo, barefoot, their shirts hanging out. I recognized Nene from one of Gardner's books, a jug-eared kid in a tattered straw hat, "an alert, intelligent lad who... did a man's work".
I was very moved by what Carolina had done. She'd trawled through what looked like junk and netted treasures. And if so many people had helped her, it was because the museum mattered.
Even to Alice. I'd thought she was a bit bored by this homemade miscellany. But she was calling me to come look, "Look!" She had her finger on a photograph of Doña Cruz Díaz with an American man, mild-faced and middle-aged, in khaki pants and a shirt.
"That's Charles Lindbergh."
A complex situation
Things had a way of working out today. I'd gotten my interview with Carolina Shepard; now I was back at the sea turtle research station with its director, Antonio "Toño" Resendiz. Someone else had gotten to him first, however, a shaggy-haired American with a videocamera. He was divemaster from Sacramento, eight years in Cozumel, the American said, shaking my hand. He was discussing plans to bring down a bus load of school kids from California: "You make it through highschool drug free, you get to come here and experience Baja".
"Sounds good," I said.
"Yeah." He aimed the videocamera at the turtles. "See the turtles, see the whales, dolphins, sea lions, pelicans. Help with the research." He pushed the stop button. "And, it's real cheap!"
Toño and the divemaster went off; they had logistics to discuss. I waited, my elbows on the rim of the tank, watching the turtles. There was something mesmerizing about the turtles, their incessant circling, bumping, circling. I liked the way light played around in the tank, quivering threads and tangles. And the turtles' breathing, phsch! ssth. In spite of the fishy smell, and the sign -- Cuidado las tortugas muerden -- it was tempting to lean down, dip a wrist into that cool blue water.
"Three million dollars!" Toño Resendiz was walking back with the American, spitting with indignation. He was talking about the turtle research station in Oaxaca, on the mainland's Pacific coast. "It's all political," Toño was saying, "Salinas' show for NAFTA." Toño had a visceral, authoritative energy, a thick brooding brow, hair frosted silver at the temples. "Then came the devaluation, and the peso went from three to more than seven to the dollar. Imagine!"
He looked at the both of us, fiercely. "Before, it was three. Imagine!"
Unfortunately, I didn't have to.
For the interview we went to his house, upshore at the end of a sandy road, and we sat on the porch, which was strewn with his daughter's toys and a tricyle.
He was forty-two years old, Toño said, born in Mexico City. He'd studied marine biology at the university in Ensenada. When he was only twenty-four, he'd been given a 2,000 dollar government grant to study the turtles in the Sea of Cortés for PESCA. "The idea was, it's OK to fish turtles, but why not some order? A calendar? A turtle might live for a hundred years. But what is their life cycle? Their sexual maturity?"
Soon the government built the trailer park and gave him more money, enough for two assistants and a pickup truck. "My generation is the hippies, Clinton, Enrique Krauze. We had a lot of opportunities. This was the time of petrodollars, the boom."
I was familiar with Mexico's economic history. True, in 1976, President Echeverría -- "arriba y adelante México" -- had left the country in a mire of debt and inflation. But by the late 1970s, with the bonanza of newly discovered oil reserves, Mexico had become a major exporter. In 1976, oil exports generated 3.6 billion dollars; by 1981, they'd soared to nearly 20 billion. Dollars washed into Mexico like a Niagara, and President López Portillo spent them with an abandon that made Echeverría, by comparison, look pusillanimous. López Portillo's attempts to "administrar la abundancia" amounted to hosing money over the economy in a random spray: expressways, theaters, pipelines, hotels, hospitals, loans to Cuba, workers' vacation centers, junkets, gifts to the Sandinistas, skyscrapers, advertising, grants for research, for graduate study abroad, concert halls, TV shows, newspapers, airports, airplanes, archeological excavations, tortilla subsidies, movie production, museums, metro lines. Toño Resendiz's turtle research grants were just spare change, tossed off like a handful of pennies. It was a time of crass excess: politicians sported Rolexes, labor bosses hopped into private jets to roll the dice in Vegas. The wife of one prominent politician traveled with her baby grand piano (which on one occasion involved having to break the roof of the hotel open and lower it down into her penthouse vía helicopter). The son of Mexico City's mayor bought a million dollar mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut; López Portillo himself constructed a five mansion complex in plain view of Mexico City's expressway. Debt piled on top of debt, until by 1982, with oil prices falling and U.S. interest rates rising, the spigot began dribbling dry. In February, the peso plunged from 22 to 70 to the dollar. On Friday, August 13, with the peso hovering around 100, the Secretary of Finance flew to Washington, hat in hand. Mexico was bankrupt.
For Toño, everything collapsed. For the next two years he survived as a sportfishing guide. During this dark period, he met Dr. Grant Bartlett, a biochemist from San Diego. Until his death in 1990, Bartlett sponsored the turtle station's research, donating a pickup truck and the equipment and shed for the laboratory.
By the early 1990s, Mexico's debt had been renegotiated. With a sweeping series of reforms -- liberalization, deregulation, privatization and finally, NAFTA -- President Salinas had engineered what appeared to be a solid recovery. Dollars had begun flooding into Mexico, and once again, Toño had his government research grants. He still worked with PESCA; older and wiser now, he'd joined the local ejido, and was supplementing his income by renting out palapas to campers. He'd also learned, as he put it, "to present an image" for the turtle research station, garnering donations from as far afield as Germany and Japan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted use of their satellite. And so, to a degree, Toño was better able to cope with the crisis that exploded in December of 1994.
As Yogi Berra would say, it was déjà vu all over again: devaluation, economic depression, and the evidences of corruption crawling out of the woodwork like worms from a burning log.
"Salinas! All those guys with doctorates in economics! And Clinton, he invites them to Washington and he eats with them! White collar criminals, they're the most corrupt. They're the ones who traffic in drugs, in children. The jails are filled with poor people! Rich people go free, even in the United States -- look at O.J. Simpson."
Toño gazed out towards the water, his eyes hard and at the same time, far away. You could hear the water from here, shush, shush... A pair of pelicans skimmed by.
"I'm forty-two years old. If I died now it would be all right. I've done what I wanted in life."
It hadn't been easy. With reason, Paulino Pérez had given up on the sharks and turned to painting. But here was Toño Resendiz, after more than two decades, still studying the turtles. He'd weathered what he called the "surrealismo nacional". And not only that: Bahía de los Angeles was a world away from Mexico City's conveniences and culture. There was no gas, little water; the electricity flickered in from generators. The town's first and only telephone had just been installed -- in a closet-sized grocery store -- last year. "My friends in Mexico City and Ensenada, they think I'm crazy."
But there was opportunity here, and Toño's efforts had yielded a resounding success. The Sea of Cortés is an area where juvenile turtles feed and grow. His mandate was to gather biological, ecological and life history information, study behavior, sexual maturity, migration and captive caring techniques, and to contribute to an international DNA data base. Turtles were captured, studied, tagged, and released. So little was known. For example, where did the loggerhead turtles come from? Once grown, where did they go? The theory was, somewhere near Japan. It was one of Toño's turtles, a 213 pound loggerhead named Rosita, that provided the first hard evidence. Rosita was released off the peninsula's Pacific coast in July of 1994. Fourteen months later, she turned up off the shore of Kyushu, drowned in a Japanese fisherman's net. Noting her plastic tag, the fisherman alerted a local biologist who in turn, e-mailed a colleague, Wallace Nichols at the University of Arizona. Because Bahía de los Angeles didn't yet have a telephone, Nichols drove all the way down to break the news to Resendiz.
"He was bouncing off the walls," Nichols told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "This is the culmination of 10 years of work for him." Toño, beaming, had handed me a copy of the newspaper article. The theory was that Rosita had swum all the way to Japan on the equatorial current that swings south of Hawaii. As a juvenile, she would have made her way to Baja California on the current that arcs north of Hawaii and down the west coast of the peninsula. A map showed the route: two arcs like a double jump-rope spanning the 6,500 miles of open ocean.
No wonder the turtles were bumping their noses against the sides of the tank.
We walked over to the laboratory, the shed donated by Dr. Bartlett. Inside, the walls were decorated with posters of whales and turtles. A generator powered a laptop and printer. The station also measured seismic activity, Toño said, and tides and weather. He had an assistant, a school teacher named Félix who lived in a trailer by the water.
One thing had struck me, I said. He'd not mentioned anything about the precarious situation of the various sea turtle populations. Despite the ban, they were still being fished. World- wide, thousands drowned in the nets meant for tuna and shrimp. Their nests were raided, too: a single turtle egg -- prized as an aphrodisiac -- might sell for as much as two dollars in Mexico City. It was common knowledge that there weren't enough PESCA inspectors to police even a fraction of Mexico's waters, and it was also common knowledge that most were willing to look the other way for the equivalent of twenty dollars, or less. I understood his elation about Rosita. But it seemed so sad, I said, that she'd swum those thousands of miles only to die in a net.
Toño had zero patience with this kind of sentimentality. "Look," he said. "Illegal fishing is a problem of corruption, but it's also a problem of poverty. How are people going to live?" Turtles were meat, especially for poor fishermen.
A different issue was industrial shrimp and tuna fishing on the high seas, the fleets with factory ships, spotter helicopters, miles-long nets.
"You know what? A bluefin tuna might sell for 18,000 dollars. Really! I told that to some reporters and they didn't believe me. There are cases when a single tuna has sold for 62,000 dollars. All sorts of things die as bycatch -- turtles, dolphins, birds. But look at what somebody is getting: thousands of dollars! What do they care if ten turtles get caught in the net? It's a complex situation."
I could come back, he said, and watch him feed the turtles.
Shrimp tacos twice
For lunch Alice and I had shrimp tacos, and big, wide-mouthed icy glasses of limeade. The straws kept popping out, skittering off the table onto the sand.
"Wow!" It was the man at the next table, one of a group of Americans. Their four-wheel drive Ford truck with a gleaming stainless steel camper shell the size of a small house was parked out front. "Will ya look at that!" He raised his margarita, the same big, wide-mouthed glass. "Serious drinking there!"
"It's just limeade," Alice said.
"Oh right, ha ha!"
But their attention was already on their waiter. "What's yer name! Igor? Eeegor! ha ha!" And the rest of our lunch was punctuated with their calls to "Igor! Need some napkins here! Eeeegor! Salt!" We were on our coffee when one of them started singing,
Oh she thinks sheez got some class But baby, yer jist a horse's ass
The wind shifted and that smell, ranker than overripe limburger, wafted through the palapa.
"Whew!" said one of the Americans. "Who farted?"
The smell was worse, even a few yards down the beach. The air, away from the little square of shade under Guillermos' palapa, was grillingly hot. We'd walked over the dirt boat ramp to Casa Díaz next door because we were curious about Charles Lindbergh's visit. Alice, quite the Lindbergh expert, hadn't known about it.
Casa Díaz was a compound like a small town in itself. The rooms, in long shoebox-shaped buildings, framed a large open yard with a stone chapel, a mechanic shop, a Pemex station (out of business); and tucked along a verandah, a grocery store and the offices of the Secretary of Tourism. Behind loomed the sierra, baking in the afternoon sun.
Char-les ¿qué? No one knew anything about him in the grocery store. No one had seen the photo in the museum, either.
One of the cashiers, a gangly-legged boy, led us outside to an old man in a baseball cap who was resting, hands on his stomach, in the shade under the verandah.
Charles Lindbergh? The famous pilot? He would have visited here, Alice guessed, sometime in the late 1960s.
"Oh yes," the old man said, brightening. "I think we have a picture."
We followed him around the side of the grocery and into an enormous light-filled room, a rec room of sorts, with a shelf of paperback novels gathering dust in a corner. Everything was dusty, the floor, the broken down piano with its chipped keys, the stacks of misshapen cardboard boxes. On the walls hung faded family photos (I recognized the long-gone founders of the hotel, Antero and Doña Cruz Díaz, from the museum), and, oddly, a large framed oil painting of astronauts walking on the moon.
"There it is," the man said.
It was a blown-up black and white photograph about the same size as the astronauts painting, of a heavy-set jowly man posing in front of a small plane.
"That's not him," Alice said. It wasn't Erle Stanley Gardner or Capitán Muñoz, either.
Antero Díaz, Jr. might know, the man said. And at that very moment -- we could see through the window -- Antero Jr. was hauling his launch up the boat ramp.
We made our way, painfully, back across the griddle of the open yard.
Antero Jr.'s boat, gleaming white as a new refrigerator, was named the Chubasco; the same name embroidered his shiny white cap. He was cigarette-slim and very tan and he wore a gold chain with a gold pendant in the shape of the peninsula, which flashed brightly.
He remembered Lindbergh's visit, he said. Lindbergh didn't like to have his picture taken. That photo in the museum with his mother, Doña Cruz, was probably the only one. But no, he hadn't actually met Lindbergh. He was away at school in Ensenada at the time.
Carolina, Toño, this Lindbergh business. Alice had the right idea: she collapsed on the bed in our room. But we had only one more day before we had to leave; I hoped to go out on a skiff the next morning and see the islands. To arrange this, once more I trudged out into the glare.
Then, late in the afternoon, I drove up the hill, past all the little houses that clung to its steep slope as though by their fingernails. The sun had slipped behind the sierra and shadow, grayly soothing, bathed the little town and the shore far below. Angel de la Guardia still blushed a warm rosy-pink, even as the water lightened to a pale silvered sapphire.
It was twilight when I woke Alice up. We went for a walk along the beach. A black dog scurried behind us for a ways up shore, its tail between its legs.
On our way back we took a stroll through Guillermos RV Park. It wasn't at all like the trailer park in Todos Santos, the uniformly tall shaggy palapas, the neat, shaded patios. This was a patchwork jumble of construction, rickety plywood and thatch, cinderblock, a double-wide mobile home, a fussy little cactus garden rimmed with stones. One house looked like a barn. Along shore the spaces were spanned with constructions, shoulder-to-shoulder. Further back, the rows were sparser. Decks had been constructed on top of some trailers to provide a view. There was a Winnebago hooked up, and a pickup truck and a pup-tent strung, oddly, with Christmas lights. Most of the spaces for transients were empty; late September was the off-season. It was dark now, but in the dim flicker of a street lamp, we could make out the sign nailed to one structure: FOR SALE. Just beneath the sign, under a palapa, a man lolled on a cot in the flickering blue-gray light of a TV.
We had shrimp tacos again for dinner. I'd made Alice sad, telling her about the turtles, how they drowned in the shrimp nets. But not that sad.
"I considered a diet of Garden Burgers," she said, glopping on the guacamole. "For about two seconds."
We almost didn't notice that stink.
A vast, strange place
We woke while it was still dark, our room aglow with the eery green light of a Chemstick. Within minutes, we were dressed and outside, stumbling our way down to the beach. Dawn appeared in an instant, a peach-colored haze pushing up from behind the islands, still stone-dark, hulking shapes. We found our guide, Igor Galván, pushing our skiff down the boat ramp. It scraped over the sand and settled with a sploosh through the limpid surf. We waded into the chill, jelly-yellow water. The skiff rocked with our weight. And we were off, the noise of the motor buzzing through the stillness, obscene, like a saw.
Igor was the son of the owner of Guillermos RV Park. Tall and hefty as a college football player, Igor was a poker-faced, almond-eyed twenty-something-year-old with a mustache and a goatee. He wore plaid shorts and a gimme cap that said "J&B". He'd grimaced when I'd said we didn't want to fish. "Eco-tour," although Carolina had used it, seemed a tad highfalutin' a term for this place. We just wanted to "see things," was how I'd put it, "islands, birds, whales, you know."
The stink, limburger-sewage, was making us gag.
"Dead whale," Igor announced. The bloated rot-brown carcass lay on shore just above the waterline, covered with an army of birds, pecking. I grabbed my shirt and wadded it over my mouth and nose. Alice buried her face in her sleeve. I leaned over the gunwales and I thought I would but I didn't heave.
Igor swiveled the rudder and made a wide U turn on the water, arcing out towards the northeast. "Vamos ahora a La Ventana," he announced. We were off to Isla La Ventana, Window Island.
The sky had turned a fragile blue, and the clouds -- at first pearl gray, then corraline and orange -- looked bleached and luminous. The islands beyond were raw with sun, pale now as if they were made of nothing but sand. Was that a mist rising off the water near the horizon, or sun- glare? "The very air here is miraculous," wrote John Steinbeck, "and outlines of reality change with the moment." It was like traveling into a dream, a vast, strange place where anything might be possible. A gull swooped over the prow, yellow legs flat against its snow-white belly. Alice's hair snapped back in the breeze.
Far in the distance was a milling cloud of birds.
"Feeding frenzy," Igor said. As we approached the cloud of birds, the water appeared to be erupting in little bursts. Soon the cawing and squawking was a cacophony louder than the boat motor. Splash, splash, splash, it was a rain of birds falling from the cloud, terns and gulls and geese and pelicans, folding their wings and diving, straight like bombs. Dolphins porpoised through the melee, squealing lustily. The whole party, fish, birds, dolphins, roiled through the water at a fast clip. We watched them move on, towards Angel de la Guardia.
After about twenty minutes, we motored alongside La Ventana, a rocky island striped white with guano. A curious rock formation, a triangle with a hole in its center, gave the island its name. Starboard hulked the great mass of Isla Angel de la Guardia. In between that and these smaller islands was the Canal de Ballenas, Whale Channel.
There were more whales here in the winter, Igor said, including two or three killer whale pods. Dolphins stayed in the bay year-round, as did a seal colony on La Calavera, the Skull, a puff- shaped rock frosted like a cupcake with guano.
Within minutes, we were rounding La Calavera, close in along black wet rocks draped with seaweed. The seals, some 25 or 30 with many little pups, lay basking in the sun, massed like vacationers on a beach. The seals were a harem belonging to a huge bear-brown male, shiny-sleek and fat. He pushed himself up on his flippers and shook himself like a dog. Their barks sounded like a cross between a dog's and a duck's honk, and their little snouts were sharp and whiskered.
"The killer whales take the seals down and drown them," Igor said. "They like to play football with them."
Suddenly, Igor stood up in the boat and started barking. The whole colony rushed, squealing with terror, slapping their fat bodies over the rocks, plosh, plosh into the water. They stayed there, watching us, all the little heads bobbing up and down.
"You can swim with them if you want," Igor said. "No problem."
Igor had wanted to fish. To go out and just look at things, this wasn't his style. We were nearing Isla Coronado, a long squiggly-shaped island crowned with a massive volcanic cone, when another skiff puttered by. I recognized the fisherman who'd led me to Carolina Shepard's house. Catch anything? he asked by raising his chin. Nah, Igor made a thumbs down. The fisherman looked at me and Alice and laughed.
"Ha caído mucho," it's fallen a lot, Igor confessed when I asked about the fishing. The grouper were almost gone. "They took out tons." But now the commercial boats were relegated to the sea beyond the bay. "We don't let them in, we'll run them out. They can come in to get water and food, but that's it." Now a skiff -- what the locals called a panga -- might take 15-20 dolphinfish on a good day of sportfishing. And there were still lots of bass, sierra, and tuna. Divers could harvest lobster, octopus, clams and scallops -- although not so many sea cucumbers as before.
The economics were tough. "A panga costs 2,000 dollars. The motor will cost you 6,000. It costs 35 dollars to fill the gas tank. To cover your costs you have to work, both sportfishing and for your own account, for one full year, all day, every day." The going daily rate charged to sportfishermen and other tourists was 80 dollars. "And with sportfishing," Igor said, "sometimes you get to keep the fish as a tip."
And the tourists who wanted to see the animals?
"Every two or three weeks, we get some people, yeah."
Now we were going to see a very pretty beach, Igor said. We hugged the shore of Isla Coronado. At the far end of the island rose the cone of its volcano, nude and rubble-gray. Pelicans perched on the rocks along the water's edge in twos and threes and fours. They watched us with their bead-like yellow eyes, their bills tucked to their breasts like suspicious old ladies. We'd rounded the volcano and were heading south down the west side of the island. The shore was ruffly now with pickleweed. Above, on the crags, a stand of cardón cactus. The sun was warm and honey-yellow. We passed a kayaker.
"We get lots of kayakers." But this was the slow season, Igor said. High season was Christmas and Easter Week.
I hadn't gotten the impression, as in Los Cabos, that Bahía de los Angeles was booming. True, the tiny town relied heavily on tourism -- the RV parks were evidence of that. But none of them looked new. The one by the turtle research station had been abandoned. How did Igor see the future?
He'd thought a lot about that, he said. He'd written his undergraduate thesis at the Technological Institute in Ensenada on developing the area for tourism. Above all, Bahía lacked infrastructure. "To develop tourism, you need light 24 hours a day, water 24 hours a day, otherwise there's no refrigeration, no gardens." Two years earlier a water pipeline had broken, and for an entire year the town's water supply had had to be brought in by truck. Sewage was handled by septic tank; none was going into the bay -- not yet. The dump -- right on the road into town -- was an eyesore. There hadn't been any gasoline for more than a month and a half. The airport didn't have security.
"I was offered a job in the Secretary of Tourism when I graduated. But I couldn't do it." He shook his head vigorously. "Office jobs, they're for people with clean, soft little hands, right? Four walls, no way!" He was standing up now, angling our boat into a cove. The water was shallow here, pea-green and placid. This was where he belonged, Igor said: water, sun, sky.
"I went to Mexico City once. I got lost in the airport, I couldn't find my way out. Then I got on the wrong bus..." He rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't go back there if you tied me up and dragged me!"
Small freckled manta rays flitted over the sandy bottom. A school of fish, striped yellow and blue, burst past bright as a spray of flowers. The water was brindled with anchovies. The beach was a thin neck of sand: on this side, the pea-green cove and a view of Bahía de los Angeles; on the other, the sparkling turquoise Canal de Ballenas and Isla Angel de la Guardia, massive with mountains. A songbird chirped, a white butterfly fluttered in the pickleweed.
Igor took a luxuriously deep breath.
"The minute this town gets a stoplight, I'm outta here."
It seemed we were on the water for only a short time. The throbbing of the motor lulled me into a sort of trance, half asleep yet awake to my surroundings, the sun playing on the water, the weave and ripple of its surface, the flocks of terns and gulls, pelicans gliding, serene as kites. We saw the big bear-brown male sealion fishing -- a whiskered snout, then his tail, raggedy like a shrimp's, arcing above the surface. The islands, even the massive Angel de la Guardia, were empty of buildings, any sign of human life. And this, perhaps, was what gave this vast place its feeling of timelessness. The volcano might have erupted only yesterday. Indians might raft by; or perhaps, a white-sailed wooden ship. The explorer Francisco de Ulloa passed through these waters in 1539. Over the next two centuries, only three parties of explorers sailed through this bay -- beings from the sky, the Indians must have thought. In 1765, but two years before the Expulsion, the Jesuit missionary Wenceslaus Linck arrived. Some of his neophytes had reported fires on Isla Angel de la Guardia -- camp sites of unconverted natives no doubt, in need of eternal salvation. So Linck sailed there with a retinue of soldiers and neophytes. They found nothing, not even a footprint, no water, no animals but rattlesnakes.
Already it was afternoon when Igor aimed the boat back towards town. The light was harsh and it made the poor rickety buildings on shore look haggard. "WELCOME AMIGOS" was spray- painted on a rock. A Volkswagen bus was parked beneath a tilting palapa, the ground around it scorched. We passed Toño's turtle research station, then trailers, first a scattering, then denser, strewn beneath the majesty of the sierra in an ugly clutter. In front of Guillermos, Igor cut the motor. The silence was sudden, like a death.
What's real and what isn't
Guillermos RV Park may have been depressing, but the food was fantastic: fish tacos, fluffy and breaded, spiked with fresh lime and green chile sauce. Everywhere, it seemed, were these little surprises, twists and contradictions: a museum, a turtle that swam all the way to Japan, Mexican fishermen named Daggett and Smith. Igor Galván had been a surprise too, a waiter and a sportfishing guide who'd written a thesis, who wanted more infrastructure for touristic development, yet would take off -- "I'm out of here" -- at the sight of a first stoplight.
"It's a complex situation," Toño Resendiz had said about the turtles, but he might have been talking about the sea cucumbers, or touristic development, or for that matter, the role of the museum. "It's touchy," Carolina Shepard had said. Different groups wanted different things.
And one of the most different were the Americans living in the RV park. I thought of the man we'd seen lolling on his cot, watching TV. His house -- constructed on a concrete pad over the packed dirt of Guillermos -- was for sale. What was he asking? What was he offering?
What on Earth was he doing here?
"Sixteen thousand dollars," he said. His name was Bob Luigi. He was a big grizzled bull of a man with a tattoo just above his left elbow. "But I've put 26,000 dollars into it."
"Sounds expensive," I said.
"Depends on what you want. You want the air-conditioner? The microwaves -- I've got three microwave ovens -- the satellite dish? I mean, we can negotiate."
I explained that I wasn't serious about buying. I was writing about Bahía de los Angeles. Would he show me his place anyway? He nodded and swung open the front door.
"I've got a generator, air-conditioner, a fireplace, hot and cold water, and a septic tank, real deep, real good." We were in the kitchen, a narrow hallway-like space. "Two refrigerators, sink, stove." And too, there were the three microwave ovens. Insulation drooped from the rafters; the cramped space was lit with fluorescent rods that dangled from the ceiling. The main area, dim and stale-smelling, was crammed with three lumpy old sofas and two large beds.
"And here's your bathroom." He yanked the string to a bare lightbulb. "Really hot water." He flipped a switch on the wall for hydraulic water pressure and turned on the sink. "Feel that." I had to agree -- my hand turned bright red -- it was impressive.
The dining room was outside, a hand-hewn wooden table and chairs shaded by the palapa, packed in with the boat and the folding cot and the TV. He'd built the palapa so he could watch baseball games at night. He also watched TV in the morning. "I get the satellite feeds," he said, "so I watch Northern Exposure at 8 a.m. Mostly though, I watch CNN."
He was selling because he and his brother Tom were building a house nearby. They lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for half the year, the other half here in Bahía. Tom appeared: grizzled but slightly shorter and without a tattoo. He wore blue swimming trunks and black running shoes without socks.
What was it they liked about Bahía?
"Good air here," Tom said. "It's quiet and peaceful."
"We're all coming here for the same reason," Bob said. "To get away from the crazy people."
What did they do all day?
"I rest in the daytime," Bob said. "Then I sleep at night."
And besides that?
"Bake," Bob said. "I like to bake cookies and cakes."
"We have barbecues," Tom said.
Bob said, "I like to make pizza parties. We all watch football, 20, 30 people. We make a potluck, you know, somebody brings the buns, somebody else brings the toppings and the ketchup, we all chip in for the meat. Good people living here."
"Some people play chess," Tom said.
Bob said, "They get together, go fishing, play canasta, go over to each others' houses. All are couples but us. I had a wife, but I got rid of her. Traded her in. Gave her some money, she went away."
"And people go camping," Tom said.
"Here you have time," Bob said. "In the U.S. you buy stuff. Here, you make stuff. You don't have to do anything but live and die."
Didn't they get bored sometimes?
"No," Bob said. "It's a totally different way of doing things."
Tom said, "Your values change. Your attitudes change."
Bob said, "Before, you have to work. You never have enough money. Monday you're broke. I was in the bar and restaurant business before I retired. I had a lot of kids, maybe a dozen of them, delivering pizzas. That was ten years ago, and they were making 150 dollars a day. And every Monday they were broke. Kids are making the same money today and still, every Monday they're broke. In the U.S. you're born a consumer. You work and spend, work and spend, that's all they teach you. But here, you relax. You're not competing anymore."
Tom said, "You have peace of mind. You have a comfortable, healthy life."
"There are two doctors here," Bob said. "One is here year round, plus a clinic. They won't give you a transplant, but they're OK. There's a good hospital in Ensenada. Mexican insurance is good and cheap, and here the medicines are cheaper, although they don't always have the variety you need. I had a kidney transplant five years ago, and I've got diabetes. I spend about 3,000 dollars a month on medicines."
"You know what?" Tom said. "Car insurance is 135 dollars. No way could you get that in the U.S.! There they'd want 5,600 dollars."
Bob said, "The baby boomers, 80 percent of them will have to retire abroad. They can't afford to live in the U.S. They have no idea! They don't even know it yet."
So it was cheap to live here, I said.
They both shook their heads no. "Nothing's cheap here," Bob said. "Everything comes from Guerrero Negro or Ensenada. Materials are double here. People think Mexico is cheap, but only once you're set up. It depends on how you want to be. I've got a couch, TV, you name it, I got it."
"He's even got a work-out bike!" Tom interrupted.
"But you don't need all this. The key is to already own your trailer and your boat and your car. Then you just pay your rent, insurance, food and gas. You can live like a king on 500 - 600 dollars a month."
As for food, they kept their expenses down by doing their own cooking. Bob said, "We bring a lot of our groceries down with us from the border. And then every Thursday at about 9:30 the produce truck arrives. All the Americans, everyone is there. You get what you need for the week. He has a very good selection of what's in season. Last week he had lettuce, cabbage, carrots, limes, garlic, string beans, corn, eggs, grapes, oranges, good peaches, bell peppers, you name it! Full of variety, all good. For meat, there's a couple of places here that sell good meat from the U.S., top sirloins, New Yorks."
"You can also buy good meat in Guerrero Negro," Tom said.
"I only use olive oil," Bob said. "I eat really well. I use no fats or sugars."
It sounded like a nice life. But after all, they were in Mexico. How did they get along with the locals?
"I get along well with the Mexicans," Bob said. "Some of them are drunks, but they're outcasts and no one gets along with them anyway." The big problem in his view was the ejido, the cooperative comprised of about 200 people -- nearly half the population. "They're not educated, they're not smart. There's a very poor education system in this town. The government hasn't provided. My theory is that they want to keep people ignorant and poor so they can control them. The government wants to keep wages low. Do you know what the minimum wage for a day's work is? Thirty pesos!3
And you know how many hours a day's work that is? Ten, twelve hours! It's ridiculous. So anybody who owns a business makes a lot of money. Everybody else is exploited. Too many kids are born here and there aren't enough jobs. You can't blame them for going across the border. But then they get exploited in the U.S. -- it's not like people think."
"Maybe I'm wrong," Tom said, "but every town here has a military camp. Why? To suppress people. To protect who? We get stopped and checked five or six times coming down from the border. They're looking for guns."
"Mexico's scared of revolution," Bob said. "Like in Chiapas, all they want is food and schooling. That's all they want! Clean water, just basic survival."
"So many Pemex stations are closed," Tom said. "Why? To keep people from moving around."
"It's all about learning," Bob said. "You are what you eat. Why does the government subsidize so much junk? The government sells lard and sugar and flour, all cheap. And the corn oil they sell, maybe it's not even corn oil. I've tasted it, it's terrible! I think it's a conspiracy. There are too many young people, so the old people have to eat junk and die."
Tom said, "The super wealthy people own and run everything. They must educate the people."
But television had arrived in Bahía about six years ago, and with that, the tele-escuela, educational programs beamed into the schools by the Secretary of Education in Mexico City. Hadn't they noticed a change?
"The kids are getting smarter," Bob conceded. "There's a big difference, especially with the TV at school. On the other hand, the more TV they have, the more trouble they're going to have. They watch those commercials and they see all those nice cars and clothes. They don't know what's real and what isn't. People in this town think all Americans are rich. They don't understand that people have saved to retire. They think we've had all this -- the truck, the boat, the trailer -- all along."
"There's good and bad," Tom said.
Bad drivers, that was another problem in Mexico. "They do nutty stuff," Bob said, "like pass on curves. The truck drivers are half asleep. And you gotta watch out for the buses! They're nuts! They think they're pilots. I know one lady, she said, 'if I see a young guy is a driver, I step down. I do not get on the bus.' That's why I drive at night -- it's safer, there's no other drivers. I have really strong headlights and I can see real good."
He'd be driving back up to the United States soon, Bob said, because he had to have a heart bypass operation. It was going to be dangerous because of his diabetes. He would also have to have a vein in his leg replaced. "I'll be back here in January, I hope."
We were standing out on the dirt walkway between the trailer spaces. We'd shaken hands, but Bob didn't seem to want to let me go.
He pointed to the trailer across the way, which was boarded up. "His girlfriend got cancer two years ago. He hasn't been back here since." The house next door had a dust-covered truck parked under an awning. "That guy owned a trash collection business. He came down here every other weekend in his own plane. He was a real alcoholic. He crashed his plane and died about a year ago."
There were a lot of people who weren't coming back. Another was a photographer who'd been arrested for stalking an American woman who had a penchant for sunbathing in the nude. The Mexican marines marched him to jail, all his cameras hanging around his neck. "The whole town knew. He sold his trailer, he was so humiliated."
And how long had Bob's house been on the market?
"About three years." He crossed his arms over his chest. "I haven't tried very hard though."
On this last evening, I decided to take Toño Resendiz up on his invitation to watch him feed the turtles. Near sunset, I drove out to the turtle station with Alice. This was going to be fun, I'd convinced her. I told her how they'd piled up close to me, slapping one another with their flippers, heads high and hoping for a treat. A bagful of meat thrown into the tank? I envisioned a frenzied free-for-all. And indeed, it appeared we were in for something special, because when we arrived, several people were standing around the turtle tank. There was Toño's wife Betty and their little daughter, her legs dangling over the edge. Félix, the hefty, mustachioed laboratory assistant and school teacher, stood next to them. The principal of the school was there too, and his wife, and two women teachers, one from Mexicali, the other from Todos Santos.
Toño emptied a bag of fish offal into the water. The stuff floated. Psch! ssth. The turtles continued circling, bumping, circling. The fishy smell was strong, relieved only slightly by the faint breeze coming in from the bay.
The teachers, who seemed to have all the time in the world, wanted to know what we were doing in Bahía. In turn, I asked about their school. There were 210 children in Bahía, of which there were 127 in primary and 37 in secondary school. They were poor, the principal said. A work party of volunteers had just laid the floor for the new kindergarten, his wife said.
Did they bring the children to see the turtle research station?
"We try to get the kids involved," the teacher from Todos Santos said. She had long, raven black hair and a girlish, oval face.
Toño and his family had left; we were alone now with the teachers. The turtles pecked listlessly, tiny bites. The light was fading fast, and the water in the tank looked gray and flat. I wondered why the teachers were here; the turtle feeding was spectacularly uninteresting. It turned out they all lived near the turtle station, in trailers.
"Aquí tienes la comunidad intelectual de Bahía," said the principal. Here you have the intellectual community of Bahía.
"Menos Carolina," said his wife. Not counting Carolina.
The key is to educate the children, Carolina had said, and here, strung out around the turtle tank, were the educators themselves. I was curious about the tele-escuela, which was meant to supplement the scarce number of teachers in rural areas. Even Bob Luigi acknowledged an improvement. What did the teachers think?
"It's great!" the teacher from Todos Santos said. They all loved it. First, because the lesson plan was fixed in Mexico City.
"We guide the students," the principal said, gesturing with his hands.
"It opens the world to them," Félix said. "They hear about and see things they'd never know of otherwise. Before, I'd tell them and they wouldn't believe me! Now they see it on TV and they say, ah ha! It's especially good for technical subjects. Their world is much bigger now."
Carolina had said, We can make them more aware. What things affect other things?
I asked, "How about turtles?"
"Pues," said one teacher. Well. "For many of them, turtles are still food and money."
It was almost dark. We could still see the turtles swimming below, their flippers fat and slick. The teacher from Todos Santos gazed down at them longingly.
I wondered, had any of them tried turtle meat?
No one answered. I had embarrassed them. "But it wasn't illegal until 1990," I offered. I'd heard -- from many of my friends who'd tried it years ago -- that turtle was really very good.
"Blanda," said the teacher from Todos Santos, soft, and spongy, very greasy.
"I had turtle once in a sausage in a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali," Félix said.
"Sopa de aleta," turtle fin soup, said the teacher from Todos Santos.
But the light was fading fast. Within seconds, we were shrouded in murk. The turtles were only dim shapes, more smell and sound, the snuffly breathing, a lazy sloshing.
"Next week I think I'll bring my kindergartners here to see the turtles."
It was a pretty voice, but in the dark, I couldn't tell whose it was. It floated out, disembodied, like the voice of an angel.
A few weeks after my return to Mexico City, I received a letter from Alice. Apparently, Lindbergh had stopped at Bahía de los Angeles en route to Laguna San Ignacio, on the Pacific coast, to see the gray whales. This was in 1965, when Lindbergh was 67 years old and a director of the World Wildlife Fund. He was still world famous, although he was no longer caught in the cruel floodlights of celebrity. To his relief, in most public places, his white hair and middle-aged paunch let him pass unrecognized.
Alice had enclosed a copy of one of his articles, "The Wisdom of Wildness," which appeared in Life magazine about two years after that trip. It was a very personal essay. He talked about his childhood in Minnesota and the stories his father told him about the frontier. "Woods were full of deer, he said; the sky was often black with duck; every lake and river held its fish. Chipewa Indians built their tepees near his home." But by the time Lindbergh was born, the deer were hunted out, the forests had been felled for lumber and crop land; the ducks and fish had become scarce. The Chipewa had been shunted onto reservations.
He reflected on his career in aviation, and how he'd chosen it because it combined science and wilderness. He wrote about the things he'd seen from the air, the "great bends of the Mississippi Valley; sweeps of Western plains; Appalachian, Rocky and Sierra ridges, dividing a continent." He'd seen such beauty: caribou galloping over the tundra, herds of elephants in Africa, tropical jungles, Himalayan mountaintops, and "Pacific islands set gemlike in their reefs."
His own lifetime, he noted, had spanned the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk and manned-satellite orbiting. (A year and a half later, Apollo 11 would rocket to the moon.) He had devoted the best years of his life to aviation -- science, technology, progress. And yet, what had "progress" wrought? He could see it from the air: "Stumplands appeared where forests had been... Ditches graded marshlands; dust hazed prairies; highways and power lines kept scarring ground from horizons to horizons. I watched crossroads become villages; villages, towns; towns turn into cities; suburbs spill over hills." There were fewer and fewer wild animals, and these were too often shot and gaffed with impunity.
If he had his life to live over, he would have chosen a different career, one closer to nature than science. He wrote of walking in an Indonesian rain forest, a mystical experience in which "ages turn to seconds," and his sense of individuality meshed into the infinitely complex web of life all around him.
Science, he argued, needs to be combined with the wisdom of the wild. "In wildness," wrote Lindbergh, "...[t]he smell of the earth, the touch of leaves, sounds of animals calling, myriad qualities interweave to make one not only aware but aware of one's awareness. With stars above, a planet below, and no barrier between or after, intuition reaches out past limits of the mind..." As an African tribesman had told him, "God is in everything... He is in the rivers, the grasses, the bark of trees, the clouds and mountains. We sing songs to the mountains because God is in them."
When I put the article down, I had a sudden vision of Lindbergh flying over the bay. The noise of the engine was loud. The plane soared over a great bright emptiness.
by C.M. Mayo Copyright 2002 C.M. Mayo all rights reserved.
Originally published in Southwest Review.
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