Travel

The winter and the south

Baja California
Baja California

Sometimes when it got cold hereabouts, I'd head south.

***

I took a flight to Juarez on Boxing Day. It was one of those older jets, like a 727 or something. After the metal bird landed, I ended up on the commuter train to Chihuahua and stayed at an old hotel downtown. The cabbie laughed when he dropped me off.

The next morning some dude was working in the alley by a fire, boiling ears of corn and singing. I bought a hotdog wrapped in bacon from a street vendor who was set up near the hotel. His cart had a cartoon of a wiener dog kissing a pig drawn upon it.

Later, I found out there was a train to the coast called El Chepe. It stopped at another station, across the street from a prison made from chunks of heavy stone. The train went through the mountains. It was an engineering wonder.

It was cool alright, with a old fashioned observation car and porters wearing pressed blue uniforms. El Chepe had a dining car. I ordered fried chicken and spaghetti. Some of the other travelers split half way through the 15 hour trip. They left to visit the Tarahumara culture that still flourished in the Copper Canyon. El Chepe kept rolling.

On the other side of the mountains was a jagged and lush forest filled with fruit trees, bright birds, swirling streams. The town of Los Mochis was at the end of the line. Topolobampo, where Chinese merchant ships docked, was nearby.

The sailors wandered through town with red stars on their hats and cold cans of beer in their hands. I lost my glasses in the surf, but they drifted back up to the surface when the tide roared back. I stayed at a hotel called the Santa Ana in Los Mochis and ate scrambled eggs and corn tortillas in the restaurant next door.

***

Another time I drove a smashed up Datsun B210 to the Sea of Cortez. I started out on Stanford and Lead at about 7 am. I took the freeway to Las Cruces and crossed over in El Paso. From Juarez, I headed for the mountains on Highway 2.

Along the way there was a mining town called Cananea all lit up for Christmas while the copper smelter down the road fumed and roared along though the night as I passed. A military patrol stopped me in Benjamin Hill, a town named for a commander in the Mexican revolution. The troops spoke English, were armed with automatic weapons and wanted to make sure I enjoyed my stay.

I checked into the Holiday Inn Hermosillo about one in the morning and slept like a dead man until dawn. The joint had a decent breakfast buffet with atole and everything. I hung for a while and then headed for San Carlos.

There was a Pemex station about half way to the beach. After that the sea crept up and met the desert. That scene might be just like what Mars looked like a billion years ago. It could be Martian I thought, except for the half finished condos and occasional oyster shacks that dotted the horizon. A waiter in Guaymas told me my Spanish was decent; I had to eat lobster, too.

***

I rented a blue Dodge Neon in Chula Vista and decided to drive as far down the Pacific coast as a week would permit. Tijuana felt chaotic so I blew the place off after stopping at a pharmacy to pick up something to calm my gut. The pharmacist was friendly enough but curious about my weight. I ignored his inquiries and left with a two liters of Coca Cola.

I stopped in Ensenda and got a stamp for my passport. There was a cruise ship parked in the harbor with lots of big sea birds swooping around. Passengers in white cotton disembarked and waved as I drove through the center of town. I shifted the car into second, achieved escape velocity and zoomed south.

That night I stayed at a little ranch by the sea. It was off the main road—a crowded dusty asphalt thread lined with wooden shacks and cinderblock businesses. I got the name of the place from a Lonely Planet guide on Baja California. There were little huts made from stone and a lagoon with a couple of seals floating around.

The beaches were empty. I found a small dead whale on the shore one day. I wondered though a hotel that was painted yellow and orange with buildings meant to resemble Aztec temples. I finally ran into a bellhop. He looked past me but reached out to shake my hand when I asked about accommodations. They were closed for the winter he said and then offered me a cigarette.

There was another hotel further along the coast. My room was cavernous and luxuriously air conditioned with a 15 inch black and white teevee in the corner. The owners had a pet pig that walked around at night. The place was painted pink and blue. At the restaurant they served tasty enchiladas. A band played tourist favorites like "Jesusita en Chihuahua" while walking around the tables.

When the road got bad after a couple of days, I turned back. I stayed at a ridiculously baroque hotel in Ensenada, but got another hankering to drive on; I decided to cross the peninsula. There was a place called San Felipe on the other side. I got there just in time for New Year's Eve.

I sat around in a bar looking at all the other humans. I ate some flautas and washed them down with Tecate. The moon was nearly full. It was in the middle of the sky. The sea was really still, just ripples crossing its width, some boat shadows too—and the light from town looked like bright-colored stars drifting along a watery aether.